An aspiring novelist moves through a circle of friends, lovers, and acquaintances, all navigating fraught relationships with each other and with their homelands.
There is a moment in de Kretser’s (Springtime, 2016, etc.) novel when she describes the works a character translates as “obscure European...novels that offered no clear message nor any flashing signs as to how they were to be understood, novels whose authors were neither photogenic nor young—sometimes they were even Swiss.” This tongue-in-cheek assessment—one of so many delightfully caustic observations throughout—could be applied to this novel, too. The book is divided into largely stand-alone sections, each of which focuses on a different pair of characters. There is the aforementioned translator, Australian native Céleste, and her married female lover in Paris; budding academic Cassie and her partner, Ash, a Sri Lankan/Scottish scholar in Sydney; Sri Lankan–born Christabel and her girlhood friend, Bunty, who brings her to Australia. Budding writer Pippa is the thread holding all these sections together, making prominent appearances or Hitchcock-ian cameos in the others' lives. These characters give de Kretser, herself a native of Sri Lanka who lives in Sydney, a chance to explore the complexity of societies in the long throes of mistreatment of their ethnic minorities, whether those are Aboriginal people, Indians, Sri Lankans in Australia, or Algerians in Paris. The book’s white characters fancy themselves progressive but move through the world with cringing naiveté: Pippa includes a statement in her automatic email signature that reads, in part, “I pay my respects to Elders, past, present and future. Sent from my iPad.” But if all these sound like dense, heavy ideas (and they are), there is also much pleasure to be found in de Kretser’s lovely prose, whose every sentence fiercely shines.
A thought-provoking novel of both beauty and brains.