Deborah Robertson’s first novel, Careless, (2006) burst onto the Australian literary scene with a swag of award nominations and terrific reviews both here and internationally. It’s a superb book, one that held my attention throughout and which richly deserved its place on the Miles Franklin shortlist. (It might well have won it if it had not been up against the ground-breaking Carpentaria by Alexis Wright).
Sweet Old World has a similar theme: what is love, and why does it have to be so hard to find? But while the complex issues in Careless were centred on an eight-year-old innocent called Pearl who was trying to make sense of the impact of random violence on her messed-up mother, Sweet Old World is a less tangled story. The main character is an adult: David is an expat Aussie journalist living on the island of Inishmore, near Galway Bay in Ireland, looking for love because he’s grown tired of the shallow relationships he’s had so far. And it’s not enough to be an affectionate uncle to his sister’s three children, he wants a child of his own.
The trouble is, he’s heading for middle-age, and it’s harder in middle-age. And when he falls for a woman whose 17-year-old daughter he might, or might not have, been interested in, there are trust issues that need to be resolved.
Somewhere, I’ve read that many cases of sexual abuse occur when a woman takes a new partner and he becomes attracted to her teenage daughter. It is thought that there is some kind of biological inhibitor that prevents most fathers from being attracted to their own children, but this inhibitor isn’t present in a step-father. This may be why we hear so many cases of adolescent girls fleeing the family home, the situation often made all the more fraught because the mother – in love with her new partner – is in denial. Obviously, any woman who knows about this phenomenon would be very wary of a new partner who shows any sign of being overly fond of a daughter.
Well, Ireland’s on the verge of its economic crisis but the tourists are still coming and that’s how David meets up with Ettie, only seventeen years old, sweet and naïve. She’s from Australia, but travelling alone, wanting some freedom. A mischance means she ends up having dinner with David alone in his cottage instead of with another couple. That night, on her way back afterwards, she takes a fall on her way home from David’s place, and is found still unconscious in the morning. Maybe she had ditched her epilepsy meds but may be it was something else that made her end up in hospital in a coma that lasts for a long time…
Anyway while her mother, Tania, is making her way over from Perth to be with her, David takes on the role of the absent parent by Ettie’s bedside. so much so that some people think he’s her father. And he doesn’t, for plausible reasons, enlighten them.
Tania arrives, and while Ettie slumbers on, a relationship emerges, going through phases of anxiety and doubt, gentle affection, passion, misunderstanding and confusion. There was a bit too much of all this for me; some judicious pruning by about a quarter might have stopped my attention from flagging. But other readers of a more romantic bent than me might well love it all, who can say? Robertson writes very well, and allusions to popular culture which passed me by might have more resonance with forty-something readers.
The ambiguities multiply because Robertson shows us only David’s perspective. It’s the only one we know. He does – only occasionally – behave in odd ways which arouse uneasy suspicion, but he always has a plausible explanation. The problem is, are these explanations true? In some ways the reader is in the same uncertain position as his would-be new lover, but we also know some of what he thinks and doesn’t share with her. His innocence is more convincing to the reader than it is to her, because we are privy to his inner thoughts. His innocence is consistent with what I subsequently read in an online interview with Robertson about the genesis of this novel.
But, I’m uneasy. In showing us Tania’s suspicions, and David’s responses, Robertson has laid an ambiguous trail. By the novel’s end, I had not resolved these ambiguities…there’s a mislaid contact lens that’s preying on my mind…
What adds to the ambiguity is that the characterisation of David is not quite convincing. Robertson has created David as a bit of a fantasy-man, as if she doesn’t quite want us to believe in him. He is the kind of ‘in-touch-with-his-emotions’ bloke many a woman would like to know. He’s been a bit of a lad, hard-drinking, occasional drugs, at ease with vulgar language as part of his daily vocabulary and flitting from one woman to another, but now his middle-aged back is aching and he’s trying to be a caring-and-sharing sort of fellow. He yearns for a child just like any woman whose biological clock is ticking, he cooks capably, he’s renovated his little cottage tastefully and he gets involved in ideologically sound media stories to Make the World a Better Place. He doesn’t even have a car ( but fancies a Renault Megane). If he once had the arrogance of an alpha male, it’s gone now and he’s plagued with self-doubt about his own marketability.
David’s introspection seems a bit heavy-handed, and his sensitivity doesn’t quite gel. He holds off on The Big Seduction because he understands that Tania is preoccupied with Ettie’s condition. He resists looking at her ‘martini-glass-shaped’ breasts at inappropriate times. He runs out of the house when his friends announce that they’re going to have a child because he’s so sensitive he can’t deal with it.
Is this what Robertson intended, to make readers wonder about David, or are we meant to believe that the accumulation of odd little events are innocent juxtapositions and we should empathise with him when Tania’s suspicions intrude on their relationship?
I really don’t know, and I like not quite knowing. Indeed, I can already see battle-lines drawn up in book groups between the Romantics in defence of David and the Bravehearts in defence of Ettie!
Author: Deborah Robertson
Title: Sweet Old World
Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
Source: Proof copy courtesy of Random House.
Sweet Old World