The front cover of this book proclaimed it ‘The Age Book Of The Year’ – in 2011; I’m catching up on a whole swag of AWWs I’ve never come across until I picked up this challenge. So, although I hadn’t heard of it, I opened it with considerable anticipation. That was back in January. I picked up and set down the book a number of times, only managing to get to page 90 or so by July, but I finally got it finished about a week ago. To be fair to the book, I had an intense first half to the year, closing my practice and moving interstate; reading about a woman whose life undergoes radical change in every dimension may not have been the wisest choice. I should note that after things settled a bit in my own life, I read the rest of it without much trouble.
The story is woven from several threads and organised into three sections; Ink, Blood and Water – these may reflect the themes of identity, change,and discovery
Ink – this section explores identity and belonging, that which is inscribed upon us or printed into us, as seen through the lens of 59 year old Marie King, a conservative, over-practised people pleaser, unwillingly single after a long and unsatisfactory marriage. She has to sell the house that represents everything defining her – marriage, children, garden. It also means deciding where she wants to be, which means thinking about who she is – and there’s the rub.
Blood – relates to a second major thread, that of change – how we know ourselves and how we react to losing the familiar. It is explored through the thread of the tattoo motif and the fate that befalls Marie.
Water – discovery, the third thread. What lies beyond the familiar, and what lies within or perhaps beyond our known self, as we negotiate that which life so relentlessly dishes up.
Marie lives on the North Shore of Sydney in a great big house with a great big – and beloved – garden. Her rotten, domineering husband has finally left her. In the settlement he got the business and whatever else, she got the house. She’s always been a drinker, but her new found freedom allows her to overindulge to the point of self-destructiveness and shameful behaviour. After one such incident where a drunken Marie, shopping with her friend Susan, disgraces herself in a shop, we get this perfect description of the cast iron rules of engagement in Marie’s social circles:
“Marie walked down the path beside Susan, trowel and pots in hand. She was debating with herself whether to apologise for vomiting in the homewares shop. When Susan had arranged to come and get plants, she hadn’t mentioned it, but plenty of things were never mentioned let alone apologised for.”
One night, drunk and feeling defiant in her newfound freedom, and with a neat reversal of the usual direction of envy, Marie decides she can get a tattoo if she wants to – and does. Thus begins a whole new adventure into questions of identity, belonging, societal mores and the like. She meets Rhys, the lesbian tattoo artist and perhaps most likeable character in the book (or maybe that was Brian, the ex-con). Of course, Marie’s kith and kin are scandalised, allowing plenty of opportunity to explore family dynamics, the individual versus culture and subculture. Marie is on her first date in decades, and her beau spies her tattoos:
‘I’m sorry Marie. I have trouble understanding why people do these things to themselves.’
‘I love my tattoos’
‘You’ve got more?’
Marie felt like a blemish on these tasteful furnishings. the mushroom walls, scrolls of Chinese calligraphy, Egyptian cotton sheets. The long wooden body beside her, legs crossed at the ankles. She felt humiliated, and in the slipstream of this humiliation began to grow a brittle defiance.
Davids voice came thin and small ‘Can I see them?’
Marie didn’t really want David to see the tattoos now his unease was so evident. She didn’t want to be judged or feared, but she had offered him her body and the tattoos were a part of that, so she didn’t feel able or even willing to take them away. David stared, reaching out to touch. As he moved, the sheet fell away. He tried to hide his erection.
‘Well,’ Marie quipped, ‘they can’t be that bad,’ thinking what a nice dick he had, angry with him now, angry with herself for thinking yet another compliment, … ”
Marie’s struggles with finding her own sense of agency, especially as her health destabilises, and it’s easy to feel sympathy for her as she struggles along. The rest of the cast is another matter. I couldn’t manage to like most of the characters for the first fifty percent or so of the book. Neither did I hate them. I just didn’t feel much at all, other than they were all terrifically self-centred. Also – the dilemma of poor old Marie having to sell the house, at enormous profit (to pay off her escalating debts), didn’t seem like such a terrible crisis – a fall from high society, yes, and I did understand this was supposed to be the loss of everything by which Marie identifies herself, but the air in the upper echelons of Sydney society seemed so thin and cold, it didn’t feel like a terrible calamity. In the passages where Marie contemplates the loss of her garden I had more sympathy – there are many such passages and the Sydney landscape in the grip of a hot, impossible summer, laying waste to the garden whilst every one fails to understand the ramifications because they are too busy complaining, is very well drawn. Marie’s life is being just as severely ‘burned’ and the spectre of death hovers.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the characters, there is a kind of alchemy in the book. By the end of it I had warmed to every character, despite the unpromising beginnings. Fiona McGregor has a sharp, keen eye for place and physical character and although I don’t know Sydney well at all, I’m willing to bet she has captured the feel of Mosman and Surrey Hills and their denizens perfectly. There is one incisive comment after another about society, the state of the environment, the city, the neuroses of ordinary everyday folk like thee and me. Having initially thought she didn’t like her own characters, I came to see she just doesn’t judge them. Rich or poor, sensitive or stupid, well behaved or atrociously behaved – she just lays it out before us and lets us discover our own prejudices in our reactions to them.
I loved the last section, and the ending – unsentimental as it is, it seems right on the money as a final comment on whether or not we are a product of what we come from, our place, be that physical, cultural, psychological – or not.
Indelible? Maybe. Maybe not.