Last weekend at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival, I went to a session featuring debut authors, and became interested in this novel The Ties That Bind because of its subject matter. The chair, Nadine Davidoff, made the point that it traverses a number of themes with ideas bustling for attention but in a really good way. Davidoff is an editor who teaches at the University of Melbourne, and she’s been a commissioning editor at Random House and Black Inc., so she knows what she’s talking about. I think that book groups would enjoy discussing this title, and I also think that it would make an absorbing film.
The author, Lexi Landsman said that the book had its genesis in her own experiences. She had a colleague, she said, who was adopted but had no interest in meeting her sudden siblings. She had visited the Cumberland Resort in Marysville not long before the town was destroyed by bushfire, and had struggled to come to terms with how the landscape could be there one day, and then not. She also knew someone who had needed stem cell therapy and through the real life synchronicity of finding an American donor, had seen how the chance of finding someone on the other side of the world could change a life. And because she had been writing since she was a child, she found herself writing about these things and one day realised that she was writing a novel…
The story begins with Jade in the fictional Australian town of Somerset, suddenly caught in a firestorm when at the last minute she decides to stay and fight the looming fire. Her father and grandmother leave for safety, but Jade is so emotionally invested in the land that she refuses to go with them. Part of her reluctance to leave is tied up with her absent mother, who flits in and out of her life without explanation. Although Jade is hostile about this, she is afraid that if the house isn’t there, her mother won’t be able to find her ever again. But she wakes up in hospital to find that the entire town is gone.
In Miami USA, Courtney and her husband David are living the American dream. She runs a successful art gallery, he’s an ophthalmologist and they have a ten-year-old son called Matthew on the cusp of being selected for a premier soccer tram. But when he is diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia and needs a bone-marrow transplant, the chances of finding one are slim because Courtney is adopted. She had never had the slightest interest in tracing her birth family, but now she sets off on a quest to Australia to see if she can find her mother.
The novel is told in chapters that alternate between these two strands, building not to the anticipated conclusion but to discoveries that shatter both women.
Jade ran her hand down the bark of the willow tree, feeling it splinter her fingers. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. ‘But you had a child to care for? You had me. Wasn’t that enough?’ (p.318)
Courtney’s throat suddenly felt tight and scratched, as though she were swallowing glass. She couldn’t believe a person could be so cruel, so heartless. But more than that, she couldn’t believe that that person was her mother. (p.330)
While the catalyst for these events seems a bit bizarre, the initial premise is not. Motherhood doesn’t automatically invest a woman with unselfishness, and the author makes a convincing case that ‘the ties that bind’ may be biological but not necessarily emotional.
This is an absorbing novel with a strong narrative drive and an authentic tone. Although Landsman said that she read all of the Black Saturday Royal Commission testimonies (and that she never wants to write anything medical again!) it wears its extensive research lightly. It’s commercial fiction, but I think that readers of literary fiction will also enjoy it as light reading, as I did.
Author: Lexi Landsman
Title: The Ties That Bind
Publisher: Bantam (Penguin Random House) 2016
Source: Personal library, bought from Readings at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival, $32.99
Available from Fishpond: The Ties That Bind