Uncertain longing for lost youth
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