I really enjoyed Peter Barry’s quirky debut novel, I Hate Martin Amis et al, but its successor is a little more conventional. I think it may really resonate with the mortgage-stress generation…
In contemporary Australia, it’s this generation which is often seduced into buying an over-large home with a massive mortgage, which means that they are therefore stuck with working such long hours that they have no time to enjoy the home or each other’s company. (Australians apparently have the largest homes in the world). Peter Barry has chosen to set his story of one such couple in the over-heated Sydney market just as the GFC begins to impact on the Australian economy. It’s a sorry tale indeed.
This marriage, however, would have run into trouble even if the couple had won Tatts and still had money to spare, and that muddies the thematic waters a bit. Kate and Hugh Drysdale seem to have nothing in common except a mutual failure to communicate, and neither of them are likeable characters. Kate is marooned alone in the house, a stay-at-home mum who dabbles in painting and has a chronically immature attitude to Hugh’s work. Coming from a wealthy background, she does not understand the pressure that Hugh feels about being solely responsible for the mortgage, and every time he has to stay back at work, he gets the ‘treatment’ when he finally makes his way home from the long commute.
Hugh is more sympathetically drawn. Flashbacks provide an explanation for his weak personality – he lets himself be bullied at work and at home. Coming from the wrong side of the tracks and marrying ‘up’ places him in a cleft stick: his country mansion is the realisation of his ambitions but it’s also the catalyst for marital failure. He cannot afford not to let work take precedence over family life and so he submits to unreasonable work demands, exacerbating the strain on his marriage. Although he’s a worrier by nature, Hugh fails to read the portents and thinks he’s safe from the downsizing that’s going on around him. When disaster strikes, there is nothing left to hold this couple together, but Hugh comes off worse because he has no family support. The inexorable downward spiral is quite harrowing to read.
In some ways We All Fall Down is like a 21st century version of Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars. Like Perlman, Barry wears his social politics on his sleeve, using his characters to make a passionate plea for a kinder society. This is Joe, Hugh’s Work-for-the-Dole compatriot, sharing his political philosophy as he pauses for a break :
‘Trouble is, the lefties are such a miserable bunch. Never satisfied, that lot, always something upsetting them. They’ve been that way since the eighties. Those were the days when kindness died, killed off by the likes of Reagan and Thatcher. The only kindness shown in society in the eighties and nineties was institutional kindness, paid kindness from those leftie, sandal-wearing do-gooders and professional carers. But it wasn’t until a few years later, when George W. Bush, that traitor Blair and our own nonentity of a Prime Minister, the despicable Howard, arrived on the scene, that it really became every man for himself. That’s when society was split into winners and losers. Competition was everything, for people and for companies. And it’s still like that today, Hugh, twenty years later. No different here to America or Britain, that’s the sad thing’. (p303)
The novel dishes the dirt on the shallowness of the advertising industry and it critiques workplaces which are managed by over-paid executives while the ones who actually do the work are always vulnerable to cost-cutting and downsizing. While Barry makes some attempt to offer a rationale for advertising, it’s not meant to be very convincing, and Hugh’s scruples about which industries he’s willing to promote are a none-too-subtle dig at agencies which accept such briefs. As for the depiction of workplace relations, this motif is a sometimes a little too strident, and Hugh’s boss Russell verges on caricature:
Russell was writing, or pretending to write, when Hugh entered his office. His ostentatious gold Mont Blanc fountain pen was certainly in his hand. It was more likely he was only pretending to write because Russell hardly ever put pen to paper. His pen was an affectation. The man was more of a texter, a tapper, or – his number one preference – a speaker. Russell could really only deal with phones, really only verbalise, in the crudest possible way, the basic emotions that welled up from somewhere deep beneath his bulky exterior. (p2443)
Russell and his fellow-executive Murray have no redeeming features at all, and this would have been a more engaging novel had they been conflicted about these tough business decisions rather than sanguine. Most people I know who’ve had no choice but to let staff go in an economic downturn have been anguished about it.
Despite these flaws, We All Fall Down is a novel which shines a light on a modern marriage under stress, and it presents the human face of economic downturn. It’s a salutary reminder that the everyday lives of ordinary people are more dependant on a strong economy than we realise, until it’s too late.
Author: Peter Barry
Title: We All Fall Down
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2012
Source: review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge