Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2015

Forever Young, (Glenroy Novels) by Steven Carroll #BookReview

Forever YoungForever Young is the fifth in Steven Carroll’s ‘Glenroy’ novels, and I think it is a novel best read as part of the set.  It’s perhaps possible to read it without having read its predecessors, but IMO the characters of Michael and Rita need the back stories of the other novels to become truly ‘alive’.

Readers were introduced to the family of Michael, Rita and Vic in The Art of the Engine Driver (2001), a novel set in the 1950s in what was then outer suburban Melbourne, identified as Glenroy though this isn’t stated in the story.   Glenroy is one of those nondescript suburbs that we used to drive through on our way to the airport before they built the Tullamarine Freeway.  Those ‘outer’ suburban houses are now becoming gentrified ‘middle’ suburban,  because the urban fringe now extends out to 40km from the Melbourne CBD, and Melbourne’s population has risen from just over a million in the 1950s to over 4 million.   Carroll’s achievement in The Art of the Engine Driver was to bring the people of a nondescript suburb to life, so that readers invested in their subsequent stories in The Gift of Speed (2004) and The Time We Have Taken (2007), which won the Miles Franklin Award.

The prequel, Spirit of Progress (2011) (see my review) vividly rendered the sense of restless intellectuals and artists being ‘free’ captives during the war when overseas travel to escape the cultural vacuum was out of the question.  This prequel broadened the canvas because it introduced characters who were artists loosely based on well-known Australian artists of the period.  Sam makes a reappearance in Forever Young (set in 1977) and he surprised me by being the character I was most interested in.  Having left Australia to settle in Tuscany, Sam spends his quiet days painting the Melbourne that he remembers.  He has never returned, not even when his parents died, but a visit from a friend who brings the evocative scent of gum leaves with him draws him into a nostalgic meditation about the passage of time:

And so, no good at marriage, he lives alone.  And the affairs he’s had since then have come and gone like memorable dinners, fun while they lasted.  But lately, and it’s a feeling that’s gradually crept up on him, he’s beginning to think of himself as past all that, past the kind of love and desire that makes people do silly and desperate things – past all that, like watching a sport you once played but don’t any more.  All the same, a young woman, a Norwegian, a painter too, staying in the area, came to visit recently.  And at some point in their talk, for she had come to see his work and for the conversation,  because these hills and valleys can be lonely, he realised he was talking quickly.  Even a little theatrically. Almost a sort of performance.  And he realised he was trying to impress her.  And, at the same time, realised that the young woman was oblivious to this.  Soon after, she left.  All she saw, no doubt, was not so much an old man as an oldish one.  Thinning hair, grey goatee.  Someone who might once have looked like a young Toulouse-Lautrec, but didn’t any more.  We forget, he muses, for our bodies grow old while our minds stay young. Or, at least, we continue to think of ourselves as young.  And from time to time a young mind forgets itself and speaks from an old body.  (p. 141)

This theme of nostalgic revisiting the past permeates Forever Young.   All the characters of the previous novel have moved on and it’s now the waning years of the Whitlam era.  Michael has tossed in membership of his band and his girlfriend Mandy without a backward glance, but learns – as we all do – that it matters to him that she and others should think well of him.  Peter, Michael’s former flatmate, preys on the vulnerable twice too often and learns that retribution can come from beyond the grave.  Rita, Michael’s widowed mother, does what many new widows do – she takes off on long-denied travels and (perhaps not quite convincingly) finds a new career.

(It’s a minor quibble.  This career move is only unconvincing because Rita has no qualifications or experience to fit her for it.  It was possible to walk into jobs for which you were unqualified in the 1960s,  it was a time of full employment and employers would take on almost anyone.  And it was certainly true in the 70s when university was free under the Whitlam reforms and feminism had blossomed, that there were many middle-aged women reinventing themselves and starting new careers.  But with rising unemployment they didn’t just walk into jobs at whim.)

Forever Young is a quiet, meditative book.  What tension there is comes from Peter’s story, a story marred, IMO, by the re-use and overuse of the affectionately-bestowed monikers Pussy Cat and Bunny Rabbit from his days in a relationship with Louise.  These monikers do reinforce the sense of innocence that characterised those old days, but in a story about Peter’s newly acquired cynicism, his ambition and his misplaced use of power, their repeated usage jars.

Pussy Cat’s eyes now watch him as he leaves his study.  They accompany him to the door, then stare back with Pussy Cat resignation as he closes it.  He has not felt the eyes of his Pussy Cat upon him for a long time; it is the story-book world that has brought her back.  Her eyes stare at him with resignation – or is it – accusation? Both, perhaps.  And he’s asking himself if he will yet see forgiveness, even absolution in those eyes.  Just a prank, after all.  That was all it was ever meant to be.  (p. 65)

Peter isn’t the only one wanting to reinvent the past.  Carroll has a little dig at academics who do this for their own professional aggrandisement.  Sam, representing an artist of the Angry Penguins movement, ponders the difference between academic interpretation and reality:

It’s the same (to say their best was back there, and so on) he muses, watching the downpour, as imposing drama and design on days that didn’t seem to have any at the time.  A picture of things that those who weren’t there (and wish they were) impose upon a time and place that they’ve only ever read about. But to these people the question is of such importance that it almost demands to be answered in the affirmative: yes, they did do their best back then and back there.  In that way the place and the time achieve a level of significance that they, these academics and commentators, have discovered, more or less, and which justifies all the time they’ve spent, no doubt, on their studies.  The one necessitates the other.  The academics study a period in the country’s art, pronounce it vital, and the artists of that time achieve fame.  There’s something in it for everyone. (p.137)

Forever Young is littered with interesting observations like this, and it’s a book that takes time to read.  I enjoyed it, but while the novel is self-contained I think that my enjoyment perhaps derives more from a fondness of the characters from the earlier books than from this one’s intrinsic qualities.  I’d be interested to hear from others who haven’t read its predecessors …

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: Forever Young
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2015
ISBN: 9780732291228
Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $29.99

Buy a copy from Fishpond: Forever Young


Responses

  1. Very keen to try this at some point as I loved the others in the series. Mind you, that was a few years back, so I might have to revisit my reviews (or the books themselves) first…

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    • Yes, I remembered The Art of the Engine Driver vividly, and also The Gift of Speed, but the other one was a bit hazy.

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