Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2015

A Short History of Richard Kline, by Amanda Lohrey

A short History of Richard KlineAmanda Lohrey is a distinguished writer who hasn’t had as much attention as she deserves, which is perhaps one of the reasons she was awarded the Patrick White award in 2012.  (The award, set up by White using the proceeds of his Nobel Prize, is a cash award for a writer who has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition. )  I have previously reviewed her short story collection Reading Madame Bovary and her stunning novella Vertigo but a new novel has been a long time coming … her last one was The Philosopher’s Doll in 2004, longlisted in the Miles Franklin in 2005.

A Short History of Richard Kline is an ambitious exploration of discontent.  Written from the male perspective (alternating between first and third person), the novel traces Kline’s ‘history’ from adolescence through to middle age, focussing on his perennial angst.  In childhood his family is baffled by his moods, and he himself is at a loss to explain why he fails to enjoy the good times or to take joy in the moment as others do. 

Despite these moods, Richard is an outwardly successful person.  He has no difficulty finding work as an IT professional and he does some rewarding international travel until it suits him to come back to Australia.  He progresses from a succession of girlfriends to a nice wife called Zoe; and he loves his son, Luke.  They have a social life with friends and colleagues, and while their home life has some ups-and-downs, their relationship seems steady enough.  Like any other everyman, he also experiences some tragedy (as when his brother dies), but he has sufficient resilience to cope with it.

Reading this, one may well be thinking, well, what’s his problem?  It’s basically that he can’t understand why he gets bored in situations where other people are clearly exhilarated, and he is bothered by his inability to find meaning in life. 

A self-confessed sceptic, he is indifferent to the religion he was brought up in (Catholicism), and so he seeks answers in conventional medicine, trying treatment for depression and using meditation to stave off irrational bursts of ill-temper.  But nothing really works.  He’s not depressed, he’s just not really happy.  (And he expects to be, he thinks everyone else is and that there’s something wrong with himself.  Even if the reader doesn’t accept his belief that ‘happiness’, is normal, almost an entitlement, this is the premise in the novel.)

Up to this point, I was enjoying the story, because Richard is an interesting character, but I wavered when he discovers a guru.  He, um… feels a presence… and he, um… experiences some kind of spiritual blessing when he touches foreheads with her.  Now if you believe that there is a spiritual dimension to life and that there are special people who have some kind of spiritual presence, you will keep reading with enthusiasm.  You will respect his euphoria and his attempts to retain this spiritual element in his life.  If like me you regard all this as some kind of mumbo-jumbo, you are going to have to look for other reasons to keep reading.

For me, the reason to keep reading was the fascination with Lohrey’s way of juxtaposing Richard’s compulsion to solve his problem through the intercession of the guru with his common sense scepticism.

When at least I cruised into the fluorescent cavern of my garage I felt in my pocket for the small photo I had carried away with me, bought from the bookstall at the side of the hall earlier in the evening.  This was one of the few discordant moments of the night: the many images of her face for sale as if she were some kind of pop star. It reminded me of the dismal church iconography of my childhood, of all I had come to abhor. For a time I had gazed at the various shapes and sizes before I purchased the smallest photograph I could find, smaller than a postage stamp and clumsily encased in Perspex, handmade but tacky in the Indian way.  Perhaps, I thought, I could sit it discreetly in the top drawer of my desk.  (p. 150)

Richard is, to some extent, embarrassed about this new spiritual element in his identity.  He reads arguments for and against it, arguing about it sometimes, and remaining discreet about it at other times.  Lohrey doesn’t really explore how the wife, Zoe feels about it, nor the son (a character whose response might have been especially interesting to develop). Richard goes through moments of disillusion, elation, loneliness and despair, and he’s handicapped in his quest to find someone to understand him by his rather judgemental ideas about his fellow-devotees.  I couldn’t help but feel rather sorry for him, and wasn’t really convinced that he’d found happiness at all.  I was also rather puzzled by the ending…

Although this kind of quasi-religious experience is not my thing, I think Lohrey has made an interesting novel of this theme, depicting the ambivalence that a cynical forty-something might feel when an epiphany changes his world view.    I suspect that open-minded and respectful book groups might really enjoy this book (and there are book club notes at Black Inc.)  

See also this review at Arts Hub.

Author: Amanda Lohrey
Title: A Short History of Richard Kline
Publisher: Black Inc., 2015
ISBN: 9781863957182
Review copy courtesy of Black Inc. 


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa, I just finished reading the book and did enjoy it, especially Richard’s quandary on the meaning of his life. Many people ask this question, I think. I agree that Richard was far too cynical to connect with a ‘guru’. But maybe Martin opened Richard’s mind to realize that the meaning of his life is what he makes of it. Accept and experience life.

    • Yes, I agree, and that’s a philosophy that works whether you’re a believer or not. If you have a faith, you can believe that the life you have is what’s been predestined for you, and if you are a non-believer, it’s a case of accept life as it is because that’s all there is and you may as well make the best of it.

    • PS I am drafting a Meet an Aussie Author featuring Amanda Lohrey for later this week. Be prepared for some interesting insights!

  2. Good, that will be very interesting.

  3. […] This was why I found her latest long-awaited novel so intriguing: as you will know if you read my review, A Short History of Richard Kline is an exploration of a middle-aged man seeking meaning in his […]

  4. […] Lisa at ANZLitLovers has written a thoughtful review that I encourage you to read.  There’s another review by Deborah Stone at ArtsHub too […]

  5. […] A Short History of Richard Kline by Amanda Lohrey (Black Inc.) (See my review) […]

  6. […] – she is able to keep many of us reading after this revelation. Sometimes it’s touch and go: Lisa at ANZLitLovers […]

  7. […] Bread (1995); The Philosopher’s Doll (2004); Reading Madame Bovary (2011); and most recently A Short History of Richard Kline (2015).  But my favourite of them all is Vertigo from 2008. Very few writers have written about […]


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