Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 27, 2019

The Returns, by Philip Salom

Reading Philip Salom’s fiction is like an enchantment.  His characters are distinctive and yet familiar; they are every person you’ve ever met who doesn’t quite ‘fit in’, but you don’t care because you like them anyway.

If you loved the setting of the Miles Franklin shortlisted Waiting (and I certainly did) The Returns is set once again in inner-Melbourne.  There are shops and pubs within walking distance, and dogs share Royal Park with the joggers every morning.  The beggars know where the best stakeouts are, and the supermarket is one of the small independent ones. Trams clatter along the street, and there’s always the hum of the city in the background.  Best of all, because the houses have corrugated iron roofs, you can hear the rain falling.  Urban redevelopment does not seem to have strayed into Salom’s vividly depicted world; it is so resolutely single-storeyed that the room that’s a catalyst for the plot, has been built underneath the existing house.

The central characters are again misfits: Trevor is a bookseller with an aborted career as an artist, has a failing marriage and seems old before his time.  Apart from his disagreeable wife, he has no family, except possibly for the reappearance of a scoundrel father thought to be long since dead.  Elizabeth is a freelance editor with a needy mother in Ballarat and an adult daughter who flits in and out of her life.  She has a condition called prosopagnosia, (difficulty recognising faces), which impacts on her social relationships.  Both Trevor and the reader have to learn what this might mean:

Not for the first time he wonders what it feels like to see a current lover and not recognise them immediately.  It had always seemed to him a stranger’s face made the first exciting impression, which then became deeply familiar, admired, and that love with its profound fondness grew from this familiar.  She would have to adjust anew each time.  The proverbial gamut: she would rush through exciting, familiar, loved in fast forward every day. (P.251)

(Alzheimer’s disease is an entirely different, degenerative condition, but it also takes the familiar into the unknown and is distressing for everyone.  Imagine the anguish of not being able to recognise the faces that come into your room.  If someone you love has this cruel condition, long before memory goes, begin wearing the same clothes and scent every time you visit, and announce your name in a cheery greeting as soon as you enter the room.  A time will come when this strategy fails too, but it’s a kindness while it lasts.)

Elizabeth also has an eating disorder, and almost passes out the first time she encounters Trevor.

The second time they meet is when Elizabeth places an ad for a room to let in his shop window.  Trevor, who has been living with his estranged wife for some years, decides to take the room himself.  He moves into the underground bedroom (with ensuite) and sets up the backyard shed as a studio to resurrect his art.  But they share a compact kitchen and it turns out that Trevor is the kind of home cook that his ex-wife is going to sorely miss!

Just as the reader is lured into predicting that the stage is set for a romance, Salom introduces the parents, and my word, what proverbial ‘spanners in the works’ they are!  Trevor has enough trouble with ‘difficult’ people in his shop, without the man who turns up claiming to be his father.  The irony here is that it’s Elizabeth who has trouble recognising faces but has developed strategies for coping when relationships matter to her — but Trevor has no strategy for remembering what should have been one of the most important relationships in his life.  He does not know whether the man is a fraud or not. Elizabeth’s mother, OTOH, is a hoarder, and now that she’s becoming frail, the state of the house is a major concern.  Elizabeth is torn between duty and guilt, and resentful memories of how her mother simply abandoned her when she joined a sect. Is Trevor going to have to move out so that she can move in?

Salom is a poet with a wry sense of humour.  Elizabeth’s mother is named Mrs Sermon.  Here she is in hospital after a ‘turn’, stacked against the linen-service pillows like a bag stuffed with old clothes in a corner of her house.  She’s relieved not to have had a stroke, but not at all happy:

What use is astrology if it hasn’t warned her off this ward of smelly food and other people?  To her annoyance she has even seen some of her old astrological clients, one of whom is looking much healthier than he should.  The people that want to live past 90?…are the people who are 89.  Life has made a mistake and kept adding years to her life, dammit.  It is meant to be her life.  Except she can no longer decide if she wants more years or not. (p.258)

Both the central characters have memories to deal with:

On the weekends, Trevor drives to the boathouse. Whenever he begins rowing, his childhood returns.  Asd a kid he sometimes spent his school holidays on a farm that was, luckily, on his mother’s side of the family.  His father?  Away, as always, on his field trips.  After he had been shown how to manage the oars and keep the old rowing boat upright and moving more or less straight ahead, Trevor was free to untie the boat, get in, push off and row upriver, against the slow current.  This meant he could row with the current on the way home, just in case he was too tired.

His rowing now is filled with its own peace, and rhythm, and the sound of the hull passing through water, along with the past memory of his father, in a good mood, rowing upriver to fish.  Therefore Trevor, rowing on the gleaming water with two oars and two states of mind, is double-dipping. The pun makes him smile even if his father does not. (p.213)

Some of the humour is sly.  Trevor, waiting for the cops after a would-be break-in at the shop…

…inspects the books by his front, not bashed-in door display, noting the new title by a local author: Waiting.  Yes, quite.  He waits. (p.271)

I won’t be the only one to think of another fictional artist’s predilection for unauthorised outdoor art, just before Salom bounces in with the allusion:

As he works he uses his wide house-painting brushes to move litres of acrylic paint back and forth across the horizontal space of the wall.  Over this he sprays and sprays, walking from the pavement end to the top of the blind alley.  What a joy, he thinks, if only canvases were this big and he wasn’t some obvious dickhead trying to win the Archibald Prize by size alone, he could do this all day as well as all night.  He thinks of Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth. He sweeps spray and paint across the wall, walking sideways to expand his image across the wall’s size and scale, his face under the mask cheeky with smiling. (p.230)

I suspect that The Returns would make a wonderful film.  Just don’t let Hollywood anywhere near it.

PS That perfect artwork on the cover is by Josh Durham/Design by Committee.

Author: Philip Salom
Title: The Returns
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019, 336 pages
ISBN: 9781925760262
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available direct from Transit Lounge; from Fishpond The Returns; and from good bookshops everywhere.  For eBooks, visit Apple Books and Kobo.


Responses

  1. This sounds like a book I would enjoy but onto the TBR LIST🙄🙄🙄

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    • I’m sure you’d love it. There’s a gorgeous dog called Gordon in it too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never heard of this author, so thanks for bringing him to my attention – this sounds great, I love the flashes of wry humour.

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    • His previous book was published by a very small boutique publisher, so there probably hasn’t been much publicity beyond Australia even though he was shortlisted for our major book prize. But hopefully now, more people will know about him:)

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  3. I remember going to meet a new girlfriend at the airport once, terrified that I wouldn’t recognise her in the crowd (it worked out ok!). And I’ve lived in a Melbourne inner suburban house with a tin roof, near trams and an independent supermarket, North Fitzroy. I really should read this, or Waiting, or both.

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    • Waiting first, and then this one:)

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  4. I was enchanted by this wonderful title also Lisa. I missed Waiting, but of course it is now going straight on my wishlist. Agree, in the right hands (perhaps those responsible for Peter Temple’s Jack Irish adaptations?) it could make a highly entertaining/memorable movie.

    Philip was kind enough to shares with us his inspiration for this novel plus Transit Lounge have provided 2 ebook copies for worldwide giveaway, if any of your readers are eager to be charmed as we were by Trevor, Elizabeth and Gordon!

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  5. […] The Returns, by Philip Salom, see my review; […]

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