Rich and Sandy are 40-something leftovers from the 1980s, still stuck in the victory of the Franklin River blockade that they look back to as the high point of their lives. They met on the campaign and shifted to a small hippy country town together but their relationship broke up while their daughter Sophie was very young. Sandy immersed herself in the companionship of her earth-mother friends, while Rich headed off around the world as a photojournalist. Neither has moved on at all from their dreams of the early eighties: Sandy’s dreamcatchers and pottery are now tatty, dated and twee, while Rich’s career in photojournalism finds him washed up in the dead-end of editing infotainment segments for morning television. The story opens as Rich re-establishes contact with his moody, anorexic, goth 15 year old daughter Sophie, and suggests a bushwalk to Cradle Mountain as a new start to their relationship.
Sandy is reluctant to let him back in to their lives; Sophie is curious and at first attracted by his footloose approach to life, especially compared with Sandy’s smothering neediness and flakiness. But Rich, in his own way, is just as stuck in the 1980s as Sandy is, just as blind to Sophie’s anorexia and just as flawed as a parent, whatever his initial attractiveness. When he encourages Sophie to go for a walk off the tourist trail, they get lost and Sophie loses her illusions about him.
These are very human characters, and Kennedy teeters of the verge of parody, especially with Sandy. She hones in on Sandy’s ineffectual, rather vacuous new-age, earthmother persona and Rich’s self-deception, cynicism and lack of commitment. Sophie is a sullen, sneering adolescent, cocooned in her technology and affected world-weariness. But there’s a recognizability about them all too, and an element of send-up that lacks the venom of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, to which this book has been compared.
This gently-skewering parody is acutely done, but after a while it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. But the second half of the book picks up pace and it becomes a real page-turner: I was literally sitting up in bed, wanting to finish it but despairing at how late it was becoming as I kept reading.
There are some fantastic interviews with the author: one on the Radio National Book Show and another at The Ember, and good blog posts by Lisa at ANZLitlovers and Kerryn Goldsworthy at Australian Literature Diary. I must admit that, particularly after reading the interviews, I found nuances and depths in the book that I hadn’t picked up on at first reading. I’m not sure why this is- I was aware of the references and paradoxes in the book, but almost needed to listen (or read) someone talking it over for them to coalesce for me. I’m not sure whether this reflects a weakness in the book, or in me as a reader, or whether this is the sort of book that is best shared with others and talked about as much as read.
This is a good book. I wonder if its references to MySpace and ipods will date it, but the observations of character and the wonderful descriptions of landscape will sustain it even when Sophie is just as dated and twee with her early-21st century technology as Sandy and Rich are with their 1980s idealism.