‘The Book of Emmett’ by Deborah Forster

2009, 304 p.

This book opens with a funeral.  It is a stinking hot day and four adult children mill with their mother outside one of those drab suburban funeral parlours that just seem to have always been there in small strip shopping centres, easily ignored until you actually attend a funeral there. These children are clearly ambivalent about their father and as the book unfolds, you learn why.

The first chapters of this book are striking.  Forster writes about the 1960s Menzies years and working-class Footscray so clearly that you feel as if you have been there.  She captures the tensions of an unhappy family and I could feel myself becoming taut and anxious too, almost cowering as I read.  She writes in the present tense, a technique that even though I am using it right now, often makes me feel on edge.  In this case, it worked well to heighten even further the brittleness of the story she is telling.

But what about the bigger picture?  She does pointillism so well, but I’m not sure that she carried it across into the broader arch of the story.   Even though this book is fiction (and, rather disconcertingly ‘vaguely autobiographical’, according to the author), in some ways it felt like a non-fictional biography of a family.  One of the arts of biography is to develop a narrative that keeps moving, even though the day-to-day events in themselves are not momentous.  This book covers a span of probably forty years, but it unspools slowly without any obvious shape to the telling.

The book is presented as sixty fairly short chapters – sometimes only a couple of pages each.   On occasions these already short chapters were further divided into scenes, separated by an asterisk.  I felt while I was reading it as if I were being offered a series of anecdotes and that the broader narrative was only inching along slowly.  There is a shaping to the long-term story, but I found it rather dissatisfying, as  it petered into a sullen powerlessness and acquiescence, rather than giving me the dramatic act of revenge I craved.  I felt this at the structural level, as well as at the intellectual level.  How do you break out of a cycle of pain, pain and more pain? Is forgiveness a form of surrender rather than an act of will?  Can family dysfunction come to an end through any one definitive act, or is it inevitable that it goes on and on, shifting shape, but slowly poisoning everyone?

This book rather reminded me of Sarah Watts’ movie My Year Without Sex.  It’s not just the western-suburbs setting that they have in common: they also share a slow, intimate gaze on domestic family life , albeit dealing with two very different families.  The movie, however, had the month-by-month structure to draw it together. Although this book had a structure too, (starting with the funeral then rewind and play through until we reach the funeral again), I felt as if it was stuck in the one miserable place, and it was not a place that I wanted to be.

So- Miles Franklin material?  Not yet, and not with this book although I’d give it the nod for the short-list on the strength of its evocation of time and place and acute ear for voice.  So far, I’d put my money on Lovesong, although I’m now reading The Bath Fugues and it’s shaping up as a worthy contender.  Watch this space- only ten more sleeps!

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One response to “‘The Book of Emmett’ by Deborah Forster

  1. It’s not an easy one to pick this year, Janine. I think that The Bath Fugues and Lovesong are the best of this shortlist, with The Book of Emmett coming up as a very promising third place, but given that the judges included three others that I wouldn’t even have longlisted, I don’t have much faith in their judgement.
    As you say, not long to wait now…

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