Journeys in search of the self
NOVELIST and short- story writer Joan London’s three previous books have all won important awards. London’s first novel, Gilgamesh , was published in 2001, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and won the 2002 The Age Book of the Year fiction prize. The Good Parents is better; it ought to win every prize going.
In many novels, one character stands out as being so well- realised you suspect that character is the author. With The Good Parents , you feel that about them all, male or female, young, middle- aged or elderly.
We spend the first 40 pages with the daughter, Maya, an 18- year- old country girl from Western Australia who we meet musing on a recent event: ‘‘ The best time was always afterwards, alone, in the Ladies’ Restroom.’’ It’s an oldfashioned bathroom in an old- fashioned building and she’s in an old- fashioned bind that doesn’t strike her as such.
Maya’s parents, Toni and Jacob, are about to visit from their home in rural Warton, to see how their carefully launched eldest is coping in Melbourne. By the time they arrive, Maya has disappeared and we don’t hear from her again until much later.
Toni and Jacob, both Perth- reared, are by now also out of their depth in a big city. As they endure week after uneasy week with Maya’s flatmate, the early lives of both are gradually unveiled as their daughter’s disappearance unravels their bond, forcing them on solitary, inward journeys, resuscitating forgotten yearnings, for asceticism and for new love.
From the first word, London is in control, unfolding the surprises tantalisingly, little by little. The parents of the title might be Jacob and Toni, with one child gone and one poised for flight, on whom the story turns. They might as easily be that fiction contemplated by each generation as they consider parenthood, callously determined to go about it in the opposite way from how their parents did.
Set in the millennium year 2000, The Good Parents is wise, true, funny, tragic, soaring in scope and unassuming in style. The writing can
The Good Parents
be so quietly lyrical you want to read very slowly, the suspense enough to make you want to race to the finish. The quality of observation, closefocus and long- range, is so sharp you’ll jab Postit notes on every page.
Every character, completely understood from the inside, is matchlessly right and irreplaceable. Even while we identify with each, gladly immersing ourselves in their individual voices, London is storing insights about Jacob or Toni, son Magnus or Maya, or Jacob’s sister Kitty, to be revealed by one of the others; only occasional flashes of self- knowledge dawn on the characters themselves, just as it should be. For example, Jacob thinks of himself: ‘‘ What a dag he was, in these saggy- bottomed pants, nattering, middle- aged. He lived in a dream and sometimes it cleared a little and words came to him about his life.’’
The human struggle to do good and be good in the world is at the heart of this novel, monumental efforts about to be annihilated by our limitations or the next unforeseen twist of fate.
Real evil does threaten sons and daughters, and London provides shrewdly chosen examples, but even the best parents can’t prevent it, and in any case they too are still growing up. London has that feel for the contours of whole lives — their gradual evolution, their ‘‘ blurring and thickening’’, yet always remaining susceptible to enormous changes at the last minute — that is the hallmark of a great writer.
She has got her eye in, as they say of painters. Shady Cy Fisher, who once mesmerised Toni just as nasty Maynard ( Maya’s boss) does Maya, is perfection. Minor characters such as Toni’s mother, Beryl, are achingly good.
Perhaps the best is Magnus, the clear- eyed adolescent, centring the narrative as he does his own home, intuitive, honest, full of empathy yet already fearlessly set on his chosen path towards his calling, providing site- specific music: ‘‘ People would order music for their houses and cars, or for things they were going through, like studying for exams or a love affair or feeling sad.’’
The landscape leaps into focus under this writer’s gaze: ‘‘ The sun glinted on the shot- silk surface of the sea as it shifted in invisible currents. The sky came right down into the bush, filled in all the gaps, and rose up, a wall of royal blue above the line of the olive green escarpment.’’ Australian mores likewise, past and present.
A lifetime’s close scrutiny has been made sense of and placed in this book. If London never writes another word, The Good Parents is more than enough. Cath Kenneally is an Adelaide writer and reviewer.
Lifetime of close scrutiny: Author Joan London