Women have been reinventing themselves in the novel ever since Elizabeth Bennett but Marie King in Indelible Ink is something else again. Fiona McGregor’s fourth novel has been widely praised, but I read most of Indelible Ink with a sense of fascinated disdain for its central character. Rebellious adolescents are one thing – but a privileged middle-aged women rebelling against her awful children by getting drunk and being sick all over a sofa in a furniture store? Traipsing round Kings’ Cross to get herself plastered in tattoos? Whatever would Jane Austen have thought about that?
Maybe Austen would have understood. Lizzy Bennett’s preoccupation was all about negotiating her way through society’s expectations and constraints to find a life that would satisfy her sense of self-respect, integrity and individuality. Today’s middle-aged women in transition to a new stage in their lives feel the same imperative: it informs Enza Gandolfo’s recent novel Swimming and it’s the underlying issue in Indelible Ink.
The novel expands on the theme of women subverting expectations in Jenny Joseph’s poem ‘Warning’ :
WHEN I AM AN OLD WOMAN I SHALL WEAR PURPLE
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
(I can’t quote the whole poem because of copyright, but this link has no such scruples.)
Incredible Ink dissects with forensic intensity what happens when a woman sets out to do what is suggested in the last lines of the poem:
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
Marie King is almost sixty, and divorced. She has a large house in an expensive Sydney suburb but she can’t afford to maintain the property and she doesn’t like the encroachment of the nouveau-riche who don’t share her values. The friends with whom she spends her New Year’s Eve have a lifestyle she can no longer share, and she discomfits them when she admits it because she challenges their easy assumptions.
She’s alienated from her horrible solipsistic children too, and not just because they want her to sell the property. They tell her what to wear, they tell her to replace daggy furniture with something smarter and they tell her to stop spreading manure around her cherished garden because she should be trying to impress potential buyers who won’t like the smell. They want, in other words, to run her life.
It was Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective who most graphically depicted how the texture and appearance of skin is critical to identity. Sadly, defacing one’s own skin is a self-harming behaviour among the mentally ill. Marie doesn’t have a skin condition and she isn’t mentally ill but she changes her skin in a way that provokes reactions ranging from fascination to distaste to outright revulsion. Like girls self-harming, she inflicts on herself what is clearly a very painful procedure to assert herself in ways that brook no interference. Tattoos are indelible. It’s her way of saying that her kids and any potential lovers can’t efface her individuality any more than they can efface the tattoos – and she’s going to flaunt them, not cover them up … they’re not discreet anklets or a small rose on a shoulder!
The book has a rather fierce tone, savaging the empty materialism of the lifestyle that surrounds Marie. These characters hector each other about environmental and social issues while scornful allusions to designer labels and ‘branding’ litter the prose. Astute local readers will notice sniping over recent political issues – though these will probably mystify international readers (or readers in years to come; it’s a very contemporary novel). I do like the way this book is unashamedly Australian, for example, alluding without concessions to Norman Lindsay’s Magic Pudding  – but a puzzled reader can Google that. Exchanges like this, on the other hand, may make no sense at all overseas:
She handed the receptionist her Medicare card.
‘That’s ninety dollars, thanks, Mrs King.’
Marie was taken aback. ‘You don’t bulk bill?’
‘Not for three years.’ The receptionist smiled.
‘I’m sorry, I had no idea.’ Marie handed over her Visa card.
‘That’s good. It shows how long it is since you’ve been to the doctor. (p65)
This exchange reveals Maris’s carelessness in looking after her body (because women should have regular pap smears, breast screening etc) but its political significance is that the Federal Government rebate to doctors for medical consultations failed to keep pace with inflation so they stopped bulk billing, which (by the flourish of a Medicare card) had made going to the doctor free in Australia. The ninety dollar fee Marie is charged in Neutral Bay is 50% more than most doctors charge – an indication of the wealthy lifestyle that surrounds Marie without her being part of it. Will readers ‘get’ that five years from now? I don’t say this to criticise the novel for being contemporary, only to point out the risks for the author. )
McGregor isn’t exploring poverty: Marie being short of money is a relative issue in this novel. She stumbles out of the surgery into the excesses of Christmas shopping and draws attention because her shabby car doesn’t fit in her expensive suburb. When her house is sold she’ll be wealthy but won’t be able to live in the same area and meanwhile she’s cash-poor and has to drive out of her way to buy cheap petrol. She flogs off the remnants of the cellar so that she has the money for the tattoos. (Not, McGregor shows us, to pay the cleaning lady. Her son has to come to the rescue for that.)
The one thing she has never seriously considered is getting a job! She ponders it fleetingly (p191) but apart from the disadvantage of her age, she’s spent a whole lifetime being financially dependant. She doesn’t seem to have been involved in community work (which might have taught her some skills and given her a sense of meaning in her life); with her children now grown she’s useless and she’s really got nothing to do.
Marie’s not yet 60; she’s not of that generation of women who were denied opportunity for study or career – that psychology degree she never finished was begun when tertiary education was free in Australia and women flocked into the universities and went on to have great careers. There are people who have started new careers or begun new study at her age, but what she is confronting is that her way of life is outmoded and very risky for women: divorced after a lifetime of financial dependence she now has no money of her own. No income, no superannuation and she’s financially illiterate. She has only the house and some investments she doesn’t understand and has left untended since the divorce settlement.
(And is she taking professional advice about how best to manage her finances once she sells her house and has the million-dollar proceeds? No, she’s not. She was like a drunken teenager driving down a dark country road. (p190) This sort of stupidity doesn’t inspire much sympathy).
Kate Wilks in Swimming has to come to terms with her ambivalence about motherhood, menopause and her own infertility, but she has always had the satisfaction of a career, a meaningful female friendship and a hobby (long-distance swimming). She also (atypically, at late middle-age when men interested in older women are in short supply) has a sexy lover. Marie King has none of these things. Only her garden brings her any real pleasure, and she’s about to lose it.
McGregor strays close to Schadenfreude sometimes but about half way through the novel a plot twist takes the story in a different direction. Marie’s horrible children, ever mindful of their eventual inheritance and almost caricatures of Sydneyesque ‘types’ in their shallowness, are shocked not only by her tattoos but also her sudden dependence on them. There was rather more about these three than I wanted to read (it’s a long novel) but was sufficiently intrigued to keep going.
I read Fiona McGregor’s Au Pair (1993) some years ago and liked it. Short-listed for the Vogel and published by the prestigious McPhee Gribble imprint it was a sophisticated coming-of-age story in which Sioban escapes her tiresome life in Australia to become an au-pair but learns the hard way that the working holiday in France is not as easy as it seems. Similarly, Indelible Ink traces expectations gone awry with this difference: the optimism of youth is gone and there is a sense that Marie is trapped. She’s very different to the resilient and accomplished older women that I know and admire.
It’s raw, it’s grungy and there’s some confronting language: Sydneysiders may not like the critique of their city. I have a feeling that it will interest some age groups more than others, but it’s a novel that offers book groups plenty to talk about, and I suspect that it will be a best-seller once the word gets out.
Geordie Williamson wrote a brief review for The Monthly and described it as the ‘richest and most complete evocation of Sydney since Patrick White’s The Vivisector’. (The Monthly July 2010 p72). Jo Case reviewed it for the June ABR.
 I had trouble imagining a tattoo of the magic pudding! Click on the NSW Library images from the book here and see what you think. Then again, Peter Carey has a thing about the magic pudding, so maybe…
Author: Fiona McGregor
Title: Indelible Ink
Publisher: Scribe 2010
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe via the GoodReads GiveAway Program