Here’s another one mysteriously missing from the Miles Franklin longlist. Did the judges read it? Andrea Goldsmith was short-listed for the Miles Franklin for The Prosperous Thief so her latest novel Reunion should have been on their radar. It fits the criteria (depicting Australian life in all its phases), indeed spectacularly so, in a truly contemporary story of Australians as citizens of the world coming back home to Melbourne and finding that globalisation has morphed it into a city unlike their memories of it. I am mystified by Reunion’s omission from the longlist; it’s a fine novel and certainly one more enduring than some of the judge’s more perverse choices.
Themes of betrayal, obsession, delusion and guilt underlie Reunion, which like Goldsmith’s other novels is a novel of ideas, driven by characters with rich personalities. Babyboomers all, four friends meet again for the first time as a group after many years abroad. Their university friendship has been sustained however by regular contact, and in the case of Ava and Jack, a twenty-year correspondence. Ava’s a successful novelist with writer’s block; Jack’s a B-grade backwater academic suddenly in demand because of Islamic terrorism. Helen is a molecular biologist worried about her work being used for bioterrorism, and Conrad (Connie) is a philosopher, a sort of Aussie Alain de Botton, with books and TV shows to his credit but in a moral maelstrom of his own making.
Ava’s husband Harry is the outsider: a noisome entrepreneurial type who’s founded NOGA, a Network of Global Australians and it is he who awarded the fellowships that have brought the foursome home. He’s bald and unsexy and he collects barbed wire and corkscrews. (If this seems unlikely, you haven’t seen ABC TV’s Collectors.) Most tiresome of all to his would-be rival Jack, Harry can no longer be dismissed as an inconsequential lightweight – he has power, and he knows how to use it. What’s worse is that Ava loves him.
Having nursed his obsession about Ava for half his life, Jack’s none too willing to acknowledge this, not even when he sees it for himself at the reunion dinner. Helen warns him off: ‘He’s her anchor’, she says, and ‘Ava might well choose the dance steps, but Harry chooses the ballroom and he always has’. (p89) Jack thinks that their long correspondence means he knows her better than anyone else does, but does he? Does anyone?
Goldsmith’s narrative twists and turns to bring us the perspectives of these characters – their past and their present, and their hopes and fears for the future. As you are drawn into this splendid book, you feel almost part of the rich conversations that flow amongst these characters. Wine and food accompany a dynamic intellectual life married with intense but timeless personal dilemmas. What moral responsibility does a scientist bear? Is there ever such a thing as ‘pure’ science? And what price ideals? Are they ‘mirages [which] provide direction and keep you moving’ or are they delusions which halt progress if the light changes and you see them for what they are? (p87) . What about Connie’s proposition that the nature of human thought is changing as young people engage with ephemeral media? I found Jack’s reflections on fundamentalism in religion and relationships fascinating, provoking ideas about tolerance of intolerance and whether aiming for perfection in anything is setting a bar too high.
Goldsmith seems to be suggesting that we could all do with a little spring-cleaning of our beliefs every now and again, to ward off rigidity of ideas and to foster creativity and imagination.
How wily are beliefs, the way they insinuate themselves so completely into your existence that you would no more question them than you would your heartbeat. You know they are there, you know they are essential, you pay them little mind. (p219)
Helen even thinks this might be the case with friendships – they can atrophy as much as beliefs and ideas can, but maybe it’s her heart that has atrophied? She’s the only one with a child, but he’s peripheral to her life because of her obsession with her career.
Which if any of these characters is the most likeable? They are all flawed characters muddling their way through uncharted waters. In the end, when friendship really matters, they don’t all behave with integrity, and Harry turns out to be the biggest surprise of all.
Yes, this is a book that’s perfect for book group discussions!
Goldsmith brings inner city Melbourne alive as few other writers ever have. There’s the beach at St Kilda on a cool and blustery day, and a summer heat wave followed by blissful rain that barrels in from Bass Strait and makes the temperature plummet within half an hour. There’s the cake shop in Acland St; the University, of course; and the cafes and delicatessens of Lygon Street – all captured in Goldsmith’s easy evocative style and graceful prose. Even Readings makes an entrance, and so does the Hill of Content, but it’s Ava’s schoolgirl discovery of the second-hand bookshop in Swanston St that had me entranced.
Wine lovers remember their first taste of good wine, orchid growers their first glimpse of an orchid, musicians the first time they heard Bach. Book lovers too have their firsts: the first book they read by themselves; their first trip to a library; the first book they bought with their own money; and for many, the discovery of second-hand bookshops. (p271)
I do so like Goldsmith’s imagery; she’s perceptive and clever:
Some people treat their mistakes and regrets like bruises, prodding them every now and again to keep them tender. (p280)
The book is full of arresting images like this, and the characters are unforgettable – the one not revealed till the end in particular!
What were those foolish MF judges thinking when they left it off the longlist?!
Author: Andrea Goldsmith
Publisher: Fourth Estate 2009
Source: Personal library, purchased from Kidna Books in Hampton $32.99