Road from Paris to par­adise

All Good Things

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alis­tair Jones Alis­tair Jones

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

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