Di­vorce courts lit­tle in­ter­est

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Bron­wyn Rivers A Per­fect Life By Raf­faella Barker Head­line Re­view, 324pp, $ 23.00

RAF­FAELLA Barker is adamant her work does not fall into the cat­e­gory of chick lit. Per­haps she’s right. Chick lit gen­er­ally fol­lows the tra­vails of young women search­ing for a part­ner. This ex­am­ple of light fiction ex­am­ines the other end of a par­tic­u­lar ro­man­tic tra­jec­tory — the end of a mar­riage — so it might more ac­cu­rately be de­scribed as di­vorcee lit.

The novel charts the mar­riage break­down of An­gel and Nick, par­ents of four lively chil­dren, who live in a large coun­try house in Nor­folk.

The la­bel di­vorcee lit im­me­di­ately ex­poses one of the prob­lems with the novel: the clash be­tween the dark and se­ri­ous emo­tions of di­vorce and the job of light fiction, which is to en­ter­tain. Awk­ward lurches in tone be­tween com­edy and dis­tress are in­evitable.

An­other re­quire­ment of the light fiction genre is that its char­ac­ters be flawed but sym­pa­thetic. Shar­ing your hol­i­day with ir­ri­tat­ing peo­ple is no fun, even if they only in­habit your read­ing ma­te­rial. Un­for­tu­nately, time spent with An­gel and Nick will not have you smil­ing into your daiquiri. An­gel stresses her­self try­ing to meet ridicu­lously high stan­dards of moth­er­hood and house­keep­ing, al­lows her chil­dren to treat her with stag­ger­ing rude­ness, and man­ages to lose one of them while asleep on a pic­nic. Hav­ing re­cov­ered from al­co­holism, Nick bus­ies him­self hav­ing sex with as many other women as he can. Real- es­tate agents, fam­ily friends: none is safe from his ad­vances.

The two youngest chil­dren, Ruby and Foss, are clearly meant to be, as their mother keeps ex­claim­ing, ‘‘ adorable’’, but it’s like lis­ten­ing to a parental recita­tion of the cute things their child has said or done: rarely as in­ter­est­ing as mama be­lieves. Coral is a some­what stereo­typ­i­cal prickly teenager, spend­ing the sum­mer be­fore univer­sity drink­ing and smok­ing, run­ning off with her boyfriend and rag­ing at her mother. She’s an­gry be­cause An­gel and Nick haven’t men­tioned to the other chil­dren the small mat­ter of Nick not be­ing her fa­ther.

Teenager Jem is one of the few lik­able char­ac­ters; the novel is ame­lio­rated by the sec­tions told from his point of view, which ex­press his un­der­stand­able frus­tra­tion with his noisy home life and child­ish par­ents.

Chick lit of­ten al­lows read­ers to im­merse them­selves in an­other, more glam­orous- seem­ing life, say that of a sassy mag­a­zine ed­i­tor or a suc­cess­ful fash­ion stylist. The reader can ex­pe­ri­ence the glam­our vi­car­i­ously while feel­ing a lit­tle schaden­freude in the fact that nei­ther money nor suc­cess can buy you love.

The ironic ti­tle of this novel al­ludes to ex­actly this read­erly trans­ac­tion. Barker’s other suc­cess­ful nov­els demon­strate that there is a read­er­ship that en­joys a cer­tain English up­per- mid­dle- class mi­lieu, with its easy wealth, pre­co­cious chil­dren and pic­turesque do­mes­tic chaos. But there will be many who do not find the scene con­ge­nial.

Barker’s tal­ent lies in cap­tur­ing the rhythms of spo­ken English, par­tic­u­larly the idio­syn­cra­sies of the var­i­ous ages of child­hood and youth. But the prose is of­ten overblown and there is not much in the way of plot to keep us go­ing.

It is hard to avoid the con­clu­sion that the re­cently di­vorced Barker, mother of sev­eral chil­dren and res­i­dent of Nor­folk, has chan­nelled into this novel the stream of con­scious­ness she might oth­er­wise have un­bur­dened on to a coun­sel­lor. Chick lit might have a ther­a­peu­tic value for the reader, but with di­vorcee lit per­haps the magic only works for the writer. Bron­wyn Rivers is the au­thor of Women at Work in the Vic­to­rian Novel.

Il­lus­tra­tion: David Fol­lett

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