Life & Style Weekend - - BOOK CLUB - WORDS: DENISE RAWARD

Oh, to be Kiki But­ton, the so­cialite, pri­vate de­tec­tive and spy living the fast life in Paris amid the artists, bo­hemi­ans and other flot­sam who find them­selves washed up in the city in the af­ter­math of the Great War.

Kiki is Kather­ine King But­ton, a sassy Aus­tralian nurse who still car­ries the hor­rors of the war and has vowed never to take or­ders again. Af­ter two years at home, she flees her well-heeled par­ents and their de­mands that she marry in search of bright lights and free­dom.

It is a lus­cious set up for Syd­ney author Tessa Lun­ney’s debut novel, April in Paris,

1921, the ti­tle setting the scene at the eve of Paris’s les annes folles era, “the crazy years” when Paris was re-es­tab­lish­ing it­self as the cen­tre for artists, par­ties and the post-war em­brac­ing of life. The book was Lun­ney’s “next project” af­ter com­plet­ing a creative arts doc­tor­ate that ex­plored si­lence in Aus­tralian war fic­tion.

“It’s a much lighter and brighter work – a lot more fun,” she says. “But it was very much in­formed by all the re­search I did.”

Lun­ney says the novel had a long ges­ta­tion pe­riod, over a decade, but the seed was planted af­ter she read Among the Bo­hemi­ans, an ac­count of the artis­tic life in Lon­don, much of it tak­ing place in the 1920s.

“It was an an­swer to a prayer. I was dream­ing how I might have been there.”

The more she re­searched, she re­alised it was Paris that was the real cen­tre of bo­hemian life in the post-ww1 years with its gather­ing artists, writ­ers, dis­placed aris­to­crats and war-scarred cit­i­zens.

This is where Kiki finds her­self as a so­ci­ety gos­sip columnist and a model/ca­sual lover of Pi­casso who en­lists her to find a miss­ing paint­ing of his wife. Her past catches up with her when her old wartime spy­mas­ter con­tacts her to seek out a dou­ble agent or risk the life of her adored Tom, Kiki’s one weak spot in her quest for ab­so­lute free­dom.

The war is al­ways an un­der­cur­rent in the novel and there are al­ready po­lit­i­cal stir­rings in­volv­ing the Ger­man brown shirts and the com­mu­nists. Kiki must nav­i­gate it all, us­ing par­ties, in­for­mants and her wily ways to solve the mys­ter­ies foisted upon her.

Lun­ney has done a won­der­ful job of cap­tur­ing the spirit of the times, par­tic­u­larly the ever-present but largely un­spo­ken trau­mas of the war as they con­tinue to haunt the wide cast of char­ac­ters, Kiki among them. It is per­haps ironic given her work on the si­lences in war fic­tion. “Yes, in a way it is another ver­sion of that,” she says.

But what is un­said gives an emo­tional depth to a novel that is oth­er­wise fab­u­lous fun, full of repartee, al­co­hol-fu­elled ren­dezvous and fast-living char­ac­ters.

But, wait, can it be a co­in­ci­dence that the inim­itable Kiki shares the same blonde bob and lib­eral streak as her cre­ator?

“My cousins say that Kiki is my al­ter-ego,” Lun­ney laughs. “Let’s just say Kiki is who I would want to be if I was in that time.

“She says all the lines I would want to say; she’s dar­ing when I would be sen­si­ble. It’s wish ful­fil­ment.”

Ah, as fic­tion should be. Lun­ney’s act­ing back­ground is no doubt an as­set in her char­ac­ter cre­ation. She wanted to be an ac­tor un­til she re­alised in her early twen­ties it wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen for her.

It’s only in ret­ro­spect that it’s be­come clear to her that she was al­ways a writer.

“When I had to do my final drama piece, I wrote my own in­stead of find­ing some­thing. I wrote univer­sity es­says, po­etry, I was a big reader as a kid and did jour­nal writ­ing.

“My act­ing prob­a­bly comes out in the re­search I do into char­ac­ters. There’s a strong re­search foun­da­tion to the book. I read a lot of his­tory and my hus­band is Rus­sian. There were so many Rus­sian aris­to­crats in Paris at that time who’d fled the rev­o­lu­tion in Rus­sia. Many of them left ev­ery­thing be­hind ex­cept their ti­tles.”

Kiki rubs shoul­ders, of­ten more, with the eclec­tic party set she mixes with but the stakes are high and there is in­trigue and men­ace un­til the very end. At times the cast of sup­port­ing char­ac­ters seems un­nec­es­sar­ily vast with their ap­pear­ances in­ter­mit­tent but, as it turns out, Lun­ney has a wider plan.

This will not be Kiki’s only ad­ven­ture. The stage is set for more Kiki But­ton mys­ter­ies in her Parisian playground in the ex­cit­ing, tur­bu­lent times be­tween the wars.

“I’ve be­gun the next ad­ven­ture,” Lun­ney says. “Many of the char­ac­ters are back. Kiki still has a long way to go.”

Kiki, and her many friends, will no doubt drink to that. Read­ers who en­joy mys­tery in a vi­brant his­tor­i­cal setting with a lib­eral dose of fun will as well. Sa­lut.

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