Un­cer­tain long­ing for lost youth

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

For­ever Young By Steven Car­roll Fourth Es­tate, 352pp, $29.99

AWorld of Other Peo­ple, Steven Car­roll’s sec­ond dar­ing and del­i­cate imag­in­ing of the life of TS Eliot (se­quel to The Lost Life, 2009), briefly se­cured him last year’s Prime Min­is­ter’s Literary Award for fic­tion. Moved to in­ter­vene in the prize that bears his ti­tle, Tony Ab­bott de­creed that Car­roll’s novel would share the $80,000 win­ner’s cheque with Richard Flana­gan’s The Nar­row Road to the Deep North.

Although he was $40,000 worse off, Car­roll was ev­i­dently un­daunted. Less than a year af­ter the con­tro­versy, his 10th novel (in a ca­reer that be­gan in 1992) has been pub­lished. For­ever Young is set at the end of 1977, although it ranges widely in its char­ac­ters’ rem­i­nis­cences. Gough Whitlam is valiantly but vainly lead­ing the La­bor Party to another elec­toral de­feat that will end with his re­tire­ment from pol­i­tics. Hopes al­ready blighted by the events of the 1975 elec­tion will re­ceive a fur­ther sour and ap­par­ently fi­nal set­back.

With a calm con­fi­dence in the sub­stance of what he has achieved be­fore, Car­roll’s novel is the fifth in­stal­ment in a se­ries about a small and frac­tured Mel­bourne fam­ily, whose mem­bers are as far from be­ing or­di­nary as those of all such fam­i­lies are. The tem­po­ral set­ting ranges from the late 1940s to 1977 (and be­yond, in some prolep­tic mo­ments).

The se­ries be­gan in 2001 with The Art of the En­gine Driver. The driver was Vic, mar­ried to Rita, a for­mer milliner who later works at Ge­orge’s, then Mel­bourne’s posh­est store.

Their only child is Michael, dis­ap­pointed in his youth­ful ca­reer as a crick­eter, guitar player in a band, teacher, univer­sity dropout. He was a ‘‘wise child’’ who grows to be self-re­liant and in some ways cold-hearted as now he ded­i­cates him­self to writ­ing.

The first book in what has been called the Glen­roy tril­ogy, be­cause it is set in the flat and, to out­siders, non­de­script north­ern sub­urbs of Mel­bourne, was suc­ceeded by The Gift of Speed (2004) and The Time We Have Taken (2007), which won the Miles Franklin Award.

Next was a pre­quel, Spirit of Progress (2011). This novel took us back to 1946, when an as­pir­ing artist called Sam (Car­roll’s ver­sion of Sid­ney Nolan, ap­pear­ing in the same year as Alex Miller’s Nolan fig­ure, Pat Don­lon, in Au­tumn Laing) painted Vic’s ec­cen­tric aunt who lived in a tent be­yond the then bounds of subur­bia.

The book be­gan in France in De­cem­ber 1977, with Michael, aged 33, com­menc­ing his literary ca­reer. That is where For­ever Young — in­stinct with and at the same time re­fash­ion­ing our sense of the ear­lier nov­els — con­cludes. This latest work is a five-han­der, fea­tur­ing Rita and Michael (Vic hav­ing long since trav­elled north), the young woman Mandy from whom Michael bru­tally sep­a­rates as part of the re­lin­quish­ment of his past life, Peter — lawyer turned con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal staffer whose care­ful cru­elty ru­ins two lives — and the ex­pa­tri­ate pain­ter Art, friend of the more fa­mous Sam and with him once a mem­ber of the An­gry Pen­guins, ‘‘the last ex­pres­sion of a truly re­gional modernism’’ (as Car­roll has a stuffy critic opine).

In the novel’s tight com­pass, lives are changed ir­re­vo­ca­bly. On im­pulse, Rita catches a tram to South Mel­bourne Beach in­stead of go­ing to work. All at once she de­cides to travel, although she has lived ‘‘in an arc of land no more than twenty miles across’’. From that de­ci­sion an un­ex­pected (and some­what im­prob­a­ble) new ca­reer will is­sue. Sit­ting alone, she sees a young woman strip to her un­der­wear and plunge into the cold wa­ter. Car­roll is as lit­tle both­ered by co­in­ci­dence as Dick­ens was, be­ing con­vinced that whether in fact or fic­tion, our des­tinies are en­twined. Michael never takes his girl­friends home, but the swim­mer is Mandy who, as she dries her­self, sees ‘‘a woman sit­ting on a bench look­ing out to sea with quiet long­ing’’.

Shortly af­ter (ob­served by Michael from his car), Mandy will leave an elec­tion wake with the book editor Trix, a woman we have en­coun­tered at the des­o­lat­ing fu­neral of her lover, Beth, a fad­ing Can­berra po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent.

There is more: the bril­liantly worked scene where, in a vil­lage out­side Florence, Rita re­veals her knowl­edge of the woman in the tent to Sam, who painted her, and Art.

As much as any­thing else, it is the re­silience of Car­roll’s char­ac­ters that drives them to make these un­ex­pected con­nec­tions. The one who does not want his life to change is Peter, although his ac­tions al­most bring about its rup­ture. His work­ing and schem­ing life in pol­i­tics is thinly sketched, as though the au­thor feels other spheres are wor­thier of his en­er­gies.

Car­roll much more fully imag­ines the paint­ings of the Mel­bourne of his youth to which Art ded­i­cates him­self in Italy; the cal­cu­la­tions of a younger artist to be in Michael as he pre­pares to leave his old life be­hind; the lib­er­at­ing trav­els that Rita un­der­takes in Europe, staid tour group com­pany notwith­stand­ing; the men­tal strength that Mandy brings to the re­cov­ery of her­self.

Car­roll’s voice is de­lib­er­ate, with some man­nered rep­e­ti­tions. Given the pe­riod is the hec­tic 1970s, the tone is sur­pris­ingly solemn. Then again, this is a med­i­ta­tion on loss that also en­gages per­sonal rather than po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism — the re­newal of life in both con­sid­ered and un­fore­seen ways. The ti­tle of this fine novel speaks am­biva­lently to a long­ing for lost youth, and to the de­sire to es­cape its sen­ti­men­tal claims.

Award-win­ning nov­el­ist Steven Car­roll

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