Jour­neys in search of the self

Cath Ken­neally

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - By Joan Lon­don, Vin­tage, 351pp, $ 32.95

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

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