The world of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan is re-created with a puzzling mixture of stylistic grace and slavish imitation, in a confident first novel by a young Australian writer.
That novel is also—as its epigraph and first sentence unmistakably announce—a detailed homage to Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, a classic portrayal of two marriages destroyed by adultery. “I am telling the story of my blindness and how I came to see,” observes Richard, the attorney (and methodical man par excellence) who narrates in retrospect the story of the ongoing friendship that bound him and his wife Phillippa (“Pup”—a would-be novelist) to Richard’s lifelong friend, “golden boy” Hugh Bowman, and Hugh’s beautiful, emotionally distant wife Helen. We know the eventual outcome of their summers spent together at (Australia’s) Palm Beach long before the full explanations spelled out at the conclusion—because Richard circles compulsively around various times in their shared and separate pasts, ruefully conceding the sexual indifference and moral weakness that allowed (perhaps encouraged) his wife and his best friend to betray their spouses. Knox has a gift for precise verbal discriminations and aphoristic statement (e.g., “ . . . secrecy can be as precious to some people as the air they breathe”), and Summerland’s many exquisite moments are often absorbing. But the best of such moments are lifted (adapted, if one wants to be generous) from Ford or Fitzgerald (there’s even a golf match during which a woman player cheats, as in The Great Gatsby), and the open acknowledgements the text makes to its sources do little to ameliorate the reader’s impression that he has encountered most of this previously. A pity, too, because both Pup and Helen are intensely imagined and credibly complex characters, deserving of a novel of their own.
A debut made up much less of observed and felt life than of absorbed fiction. Let’s see what Knox does when he writes his own book.