Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 5, 2017

Waiting, by Philip Salom

Well, I said so in the Sensational Snippet from this book that I posted a couple of days ago: I think that Philip Salom’s novel Waiting should win this year’s Miles Franklin award.  It was also short-listed for the Victorian Premier’s Award in Fiction, and I think it should have won that too.

Waiting is a richly rewarding story, with characterisation and plot that made me see the world differently.  Salom has an astute poetic sensibility that makes his sharp observations politically deft and often very amusing, but it’s his empathetic portrayal of misfits that stole my heart.

Four characters test the meaning of love in modern Melbourne.  Jasmin is an academic with an inside mind who works abstractedly in a fixed firmament of alliterative and tautological shifts.  Her field is semiotics, (which most of us have never heard of).  She finds herself becoming fond of Angus, who likewise knows nothing about semiotics.  He is a man who works with his hands and doesn’t fit in with her intellectual circle, but he is ruggedly sexy, and she always knew she fancied that…

He is a man who looks like a man used to look like.  Shoulders lumpy from real work and arms muscular and hairy and scuffed, to be honest, not decorated with neat little muscles and waxed skin.   […] Angus is a landscape designer, and his sandy skin is believably of the earth, and he stands upright in his outside body and his outside mind.  (p.9)

A world away from academic elites and an economy with work for landscape designers is a chaotic microcosm – a rooming house for people with ‘barriers’ to participation in the everyday world.   This hostel is home to Big and Little.  Little is small and shy and battered by life, but newly optimistic because she anticipates receiving an inheritance from her mother who might die soon.  Big is a beefy cross dresser devoted to the welfare of Little, but well aware that the world looks at him askance.

There are times one simply has to face oddities in oneself. One must accept that people do not always feel relaxed or generous.  Or talkative.  Some of us are destined to be disliked without good cause, destined to be laughed at forever, left out of the fun, taken as fools, considered lesser or smellier, and without good cause.  Looks, perhaps, appearances, certainly expectations of safety – the world is made up of timid people, after all, people who are fearful of the cuckoo in the nest.  Big is a cuckoo.  No God could have invented him but then no God presides over this misaligned place.  (p. 198)

(An author not afraid to use the impersonal pronoun when it’s needed.  Be still, my beating heart!)

Big and Little are a dignified if weird couple.

Little walks on a tilt forwards and up to the shops, she is a skier leaning through the wind and the cold, like the pain in her kidneys.  Her kidneys are not funny, her kidneys are as dark and unhappy as a cruel poem, all present tense and no story and cold as snow.  They are loopy, her own name for the Lupus that assails their shape.  Lupus erythematosus.

Little is just that – diminutive, somewhat withered – but Big thinks she has a nice round bottom and has been known to say as much, in private, of course.  Beside her, inseparable, he stamps in his big-legged big-calved way and from a distance someone might look at them and see two women, a small woman and a big woman… or a very large man in a faded dress.  Sometimes he wears skirts but mostly he wears dresses.  His man-boobs are bigger than Little’s, they are more than considerable, they are alarming, and he dresses them tightly outlined.  He is a 60 year old show-off.  (pp.1-2)

While Angus disrupts Jasmin’s social circle and her ideas about herself, the hostel is disrupted by an inevitable breach of its rules.  Julia with her fading Pretty Girl smile disrupts the fragile ambience of the hostel by bringing in Ray – a silent man made of muscles with tatts as quickly seen as a shudder is felt.  He doesn’t belong in this unusual family, a family which offers more to Little than the madness of her own awful relations. 

Any house has its status quo and their hostel is no different, in ways vulnerable to strangeness as much as strangers.

Just one nutcase can blow it all down.  They don’t talk about this.  But every new voice in the corridor could be the end of it.  Might walk in behind that voice and turn out to be an utter bastard.  It’s not a house full of irritating students.  Innocents.  Nearly everyone here has been hurt and maybe hurt a great deal and that brings a serious look to their faces… (p.246)

Julia, with a black eye too obvious to ignore, fails to reassure Little, and Salom hints with economy at a world of pain that most of us have never imagined from the safety of our comfortable suburbs:

Violence always alarms her.  Even after years in this rooming house, and what she has seen and became accustomed to in earlier houses, and more of it than she ever imagined.  (p.247).

Paths cross when it turns out that Angus is Little’s cousin, one of her Adelaide relations no less.  He has come to Melbourne to escape something, a spoiler not to be revealed here, but it’s a perspicacious thread which reminds us that we cannot outsource our own safety.  Angus is dispatched by his mendacious mother to persuade Little to forego her inheritance, and it doesn’t take him long to find her.  Adding to Big and Little’s troubles is a council decree that the hostel’s common room is to be subdivided into two extra rooms, bringing Jasmin’s expertise and contacts into play.  I am very tempted to quote the hilarious sequence when the man from the works department finds that the residents are not the low bunch of the feeble and the stupid that he had expected, but this review would never end if I quoted all its wonderful scenes…

But just because I can’t resist sharing it, here is another excerpt about The Sheriff who featured in my Sensational Snippet.  On the day Big and Little borrow a car to go on a wishful-thinking house-hunting expedition, The Sheriff does the driving.  After all, he has had experience:

… sure thing, he used to be a driver.  And that means, get-there, turn off the key, go inside, hurt the man, get back in and get-away fast without even nodding to the suit in the back seat, the neck and wrist with gold and rings, and the mobile phone murmurings to some bigger boss man of the job done.

[…]

They drive in erratic shoves of speed as The Sheriff re-acquaints himself with the artistry of steering, and changing gears, and accelerating or not.  Stopping at red lights is straightforward but Big and Little notice his indifference to stop signs.  Big tells him that these hexagonal things in red require the car to be stationary before… but The Sheriff is not wasting time stopping for no good reason, he is used to getaways, and sign or no sign the car hurtles ahead whenever the road is clear.  Life is short.

At the first house, he stands outside smoking while they go inside.  Just like in the old days, if there was dress-up business among the bosses, the suits, not the knuckles.  And he doing the movie role thing, standing out there keeping guard.  The driver.  The man.  This is good.  (p.243-4)

You don’t have to have watched gangster movies to love this!

My only sour note about this book is that the standard of proof reading is poor.  If it does win the MF as I think it should, it will be the only winner in my collection to be defaced by marginalia – my spelling corrections on far too many pages.  More importantly, the novel will become an ambassador for Australian fiction internationally, so they’d better fix up the reprints before sending it out to the world in its present embarrassing state.

Author: Philip Salom
Title: Waiting
Publisher:
 Puncher and Wattman, 2016,
ISBN 9781922186836, p.168.
Source: Personal library.

Available from Fishpond: Waiting.


Responses

  1. […] 2/6/17 See a Sensational Snippet here, the review is coming soon.  Update 5/6/17: Here’s my review, and yes, this is the one I think should […]

  2. […] Waiting (Philip Salom, Puncher & Wattmann) See my review […]

  3. […] Waiting (Philip Salom, Puncher & Wattmann), Update: 5/6/17, this would have been my pick for the winner, see my review […]

  4. What a wonderful review. It sounds like a superb Australian novel. You might even have fallen a little bit in love with it, I think, and, on the basis of what you’ve quoted, I don’t blame you!

    • Yes, you’re right, I think I have! I lent my copy to a friend today, and it was quite a wrench to hand it over!

  5. I keep reading what semiotics is, then forgetting again – something about signs according to Wikipedia – I’ll probably retain that about until I hit post. And I don’t understand why in these prosperous times that things we once took for granted like proof reading, tutorials of 10-15 people at uni, tram conductors, and on and on, can no longer be afforded. Remember when you used to be able to buy railway tickets at a railway station, what a radical idea that was. Remember when newspapers could afford journalists, and not only journalists but subeditors. Those were the days.

    • Me too, about semiotics. I looked it up when I came across it in the book, and again when I drafted this post – and I’ve forgotten what it means already. I mean, yes, signs. but exactly what about signs and why you would bother studying them, no.
      The thing that bothers me about shabby proof reading in books is that books go through multiple readers before they press publish. For none of them to have noticed the more egregious mistakes (e.g. to/too; discrete/discreet, repeated and missing words) can only mean carelessness IMO.
      If you or I made a mistake on our blogs, it’s because we are the only ones doing the proof-reading and as writers/readers our eyes see what we expect to see, not what’s actually there. (Kevin from Canada suggested reading backwards line-by-line to overcome this, but even doing that sometimes I miss things, more so since my eyes are causing me so much trouble). But professional publishers have a different level of responsibility and they have access to professional proof-readers too.

  6. Excellent review Lisa, you’ve sold me. It sounds like exactly the sort of novel I love. Beautiful writing, funny but with empathy and heart. And smart. Smart with heart. Hope you’re well.

    • Actually, I’m struggling a bit with a wonky shoulder which is hopefully going to sort itself out with the magic of cortisone on Monday, but I am looking forward to seeing you at the WLF this weekend:)
      But I won’t be buying any books because I won’t be able to carry them!


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