Road from Paris to paradise
All Good Things
By Sarah Turnbull HarperCollins, 324pp, $29.99
YOU have to wonder if Sydney writer Sarah Turnbull faced something similar to pop music’s ‘‘ difficult second album’’ after her first book Almost French sold more than 250,000 copies. It was an impressive effort for a quirky personal travelogue, surely enough to unleash the usual tussle between an artist’s need to grow and business pressure to produce more of the same as quickly as possible.
Turnbull has waited a decade and changed publishers before continuing to share the details of her life in All Good Things. As the placid title suggests, she has moved on from the comic mishaps and withering social disasters that gave bounce and momentum to Almost French. But, as with second albums that do turn out OK, it’s the pleasure of hearing her voice again that carries the day, even if the material isn’t as snappy this time around.
Almost French ended happily with Turnbull marrying her French boyfriend Frederic, a lawyer she had met six years earlier as a traveller in Bucharest and subsequently followed to Paris. All Good Things picks up the story two years later and life seems pretty good. Once exasperating run-ins with fastidious Parisian snootiness are now mostly amusing and Turnbull finally may be making headway with an idea for a novel, set in a 19th-century Breton arts colony.
The couple has renovated and enlarged an inner-city apartment. The new space would be perfect for a nursery, which highlights an unfulfilled ambition gnawing at their otherwise enviable lives: Turnbull has been unable to fall pregnant. The pursuit of an IVF solution has become urgent, but the results have been dispiriting, taking a toll on their relationship.
Out of the blue, Frederic’s employer asks him to set up a branch of the firm in Tahiti, a French protectorate in the South Pacific, fabled as a paradise on sea. The pair have long been keen travellers and see it as a chance for renewal, or at least a circuit-breaker. With their trusty highland terrier Maddie and crateloads of Parisian possessions, they set up home on the craggy and fecund isle of Moorea, a short ferry ride from Frederic’s new office in the rather seedy Tahitian capital of Papeete.
Frederic’s work life adapts to local circumstances but Turnbull is left to her own devices. Moorea can be circumnavigated by car in less than an hour. Aside from admiring its languorous beauty and the heady fragrance of tiare flowers and vanilla, there’s not much to do apart from deciding whether to turn left or right on leaving the house.
Turnbull’s plans for a Europe-based novel soon dissipate. It’s all too far away. Her great solace is swimming in the lagoon off her back veranda. She fills her notebook with fine details of teeming aquatic life and lists the ever-changing colours revealed by shimmering tropical light.
As well-heeled members of the expatriate French community, Turnbull and Frederic inevitably are set apart from the local Polynesian underclass and can’t be universally welcome, though this is observed lightly. They begin to make friends, notably with the family of their islander landlord and with a French couple they join in learning to scuba-dive.
But Turnbull’s imagination seems more fired by the artistic response of past Tahitian visitors, such as Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, than her present reality. She travels to the Marquesas Islands with a writer’s curiosity but there’s a growing sense of marking time. Turnbull is succumbing to what the locals know as fiu, a kind of listless ennui.
The couple makes one last roll of the IVF dice, undergoing the procedure in Sydney. It’s Frederic’s first encounter with the casual lifestyle that put his wife at odds with Parisian society in Almost French, and Turnbull’s first trip home in 14 years. She begins to reconnect and imagines taking up residence again.
But first it’s back to Moorea to await the medical results and time for more water-based activities and warm gatherings with supportive friends. Readers who glanced at the dedication page when starting All Good Things will have guessed how the pregnancy quest turns out, but the book is more about the journey than the destination, with lots of great scenery and observations about creativity, life and love along the way.
Sarah Turnbull is inspired by past Tahitian visitors such as Paul Gauguin