Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2016

The Science of Appearances (2016), by Jacinta Halloran

the-science-of-appearancesThe Science of Appearances is Jacinta Halloran’s third novel, and although it’s less intense than its predecessors, I enjoyed it very much.

Dissection (2008, see my review) was Halloran’s debut: it tells the story of a doctor in personal and professional crisis when a malpractice suit is lodged against her.  Pilgrimage (2012, see my review) is also an exploration of self-doubt, tracing the psychological journey of a paediatrician with a secular-scientific view of the world who is suddenly confronted by her mother’s desire to make a pilgrimage to Romania, seeking a miracle cure for her terminal illness.  Both these novels focus on relationships in the lives of professional women and how they make things messy.  The Science of Appearances has a broader canvas and a sunnier tone despite some confronting episodes.  And this time the two central characters are non-identical twins, Dominic and Mary.


Yes, those are Catholic names, and there is a certain inevitability about the trigger for Mary to leave Kyneton, the conservative 1950s town.  After their father’s unexpected death, along with the loss of his salary, the family loses the grace-and-favour house that came with his teaching job.  The widow’s pension doesn’t go far and they live in straitened circumstances rather than the middle-class comfort they are used to.  Dominic has to abandon his academic ambitions and take up work in the post office twenty miles away in Romsey.  Mary, artistic rather than academic, cleans the house of her boyfriend Robbie Cameron, and fatefully, also the presbytery.

st-kilda-pier-kioskChance, luck, fate – call it what you will, it plays a large part in this novel, and what might otherwise be dismissed as convenient coincidence takes on a deeper meaning as the plot unfolds.  Fortune smiles on Dom: he gets back to school, and then into university, studying genetics at a most exciting time.  Although still conscious of duty, he begins to lighten up a bit in the more relaxed atmosphere of his boarding house, and he meets a lovely girl who brightens his days.  Mary, meanwhile, has fallen on her feet too: a kindly family takes her in and in exchange for working in the café at the iconic St Kilda Pier kiosk, she makes a home amid the raffish delights of St Kilda.  Although still underage she leads a Bohemian life, and finds a way to finance art lessons, maintaining relationships with more than one man into the bargain.  She hasn’t made contact with her family since she left because she fears being brought back to Kyneton.  (Which is, BTW, a delightful town nowadays and a nice place for a weekend getaway).

But Kyneton for Mary represents the shock of her mother’s betrayal, boredom and privation, and the loss of her freedom, her independence and her joie de vivre.

Best of all, though, is the porthole window.  When she stands close to it, she looks across water to the elbows of land on either side.  When she lies on the bed, the window reveals a circle of sky.  She imagines Robbie star-gazing beside her as evening turns to night, and longs for it to happen; for it to be the two of them and only them, perched like lovebirds in a nest.

She turns from the porthole window, thinking of Dom, at home with their mother.  They’ll be drawing the curtains in Beauchamp Street, while this room, her room, blushes pink with the sunset.  (p.105)

The scenes in St Kilda are brought vividly to life:

St Kilda.  There’s a wonderful wildness about the place. Sometimes it comes with the wind off the water, blowing in so much salt that Mary’s hair grows stiff.  The sand worms its way between her toes and into the furthest corners of her sheets.  It tickles her feet on the floor of her room, a little reminder of how lucky she is.

In the Catani Gardens the vagrants sit and tell stories of the glory days, when they worked as delivery boys to the toffs of Fitzroy Street, struggling from the drays with blocks of ice as big as a room, a dozen crates of champagne.  There was always a band in the bandstand and dancing at the Palais de Danse, and the whole damn place was decked out with lights.  (p.115)

The novel takes on a darker tone when discoveries in genetics flow into the eugenics debate.  In the postwar wake of Nazi policies, eugenics proponents are few but – coming from a university base – potentially powerful.  Dom can see the role of genetics in eliminating inherited diseases and this interest in eugenics puts his relationship at risk because his girlfriend lost most of her family in the Holocaust.  And he still hasn’t resolved his relationship with his mother, and he still hasn’t managed to find Mary.  He’s a very troubled man.

The novel captures the social world of 1950s very well, but it wears its research lightly.  A character ‘wins’ the conscription lottery, but it’s for service in Korea, not Vietnam.  Cars gradually become more common in Kyneton, but Halloran describes the punishing daily bike ride to Romsey as if she’s done it herself. And birth control, for any reason, is still out of reach for women.

The Science of Appearances is absorbing reading, and it raises all kinds of issues for thoughtful people to discuss.

Author: Jacinta Halloran
Title: The Science of Appearances
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2016
ISBN: 9781925321579
Review copy courtesy of Scribe.

Available from Fishpond: The Science of Appearances


  1. I remember St Kilda before it was gentrified, all the front verandahs boarded up for sleep-outs. I remember Catholic girls too, even in the sixties most of them had less ‘fun’ than Mary seems to have had. This is your second look at the fifties recently, if it was a Golden Age it was fools gold.


    • Did you see John Howard’s program about Robert Menzies? What a travesty of a program that was… an evaluation of the Menzies years was long overdue, but they should have got an independent person to do it.
      PS Sorry about the late reply: there is a glitch in my WP notifications, it keeps notifying me about the same ‘likes’ over and over again, and new comments aren’t showing up.


      • I commend your bravery for watching it. I’m sure I was over on Ch 11 watching something trashy.


        • Well, I didn’t last the whole series…


  2. […] too.  (See my review for that one too). When along came The Science of Appearances in 2016 (see my review), it was time to find out more about the author of these absorbing […]


  3. […] to get a feel for the place, and poring over old editions of the local newspaper.  I commented in my review that Halloran describes the punishing daily bike ride to Romsey as if she’s done it herself […]


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