Reviewed by Rod McLary
The rather intriguing title of Poly – the first work of fiction by Melbourne writer Paul Dalgarno – comes from the word ‘polyamory’. The word means ‘the practice of intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the informed consent of all partners involved. It has been described as consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy’.
Thus, the reader is thrust into this very modern novel of manners – sexual and relationship manners – involving Chris Flood and his wife Sarah. Chris and Sarah, after eight years of parenting their two children, rarely have sex. As Chris says: ‘I yearned, she spurned, but I loved her’ . Together they agree that Sarah will explore sexual relationships with other men with the intent of re-awakening her sexually which ‘would be good for her, but more importantly it would be good for [Chris]’ . While Sarah throws herself with some gusto into these new opportunities, Chris is left feeling somewhat bereft and perhaps a little over-interested in what Sarah’s new partners do with her.
Fortunately, Chris begins to fall in love with Biddy who is a performer at the Arts Centre and has connections who can supply drugs – caps, that is, not pills. Into this mix of drug-taking and polyamorous activity comes Zac Batista – the twenty-two-year-old son of a world-renowned lyricist and originally from Uruguay – who is ‘slim, attractive’ and works only for luxury brands. Whether his family origins and his employment history can withstand closer scrutiny is questionable and this is explored more fully later in the novel with an interesting and unexpected outcome.
In a very engaging way, the author weaves a tale of twenty-first century sexual relationships, family dynamics, parenting issues and dramas, and betrayal. It is to Paul Dalgarno’s credit that the pace does not flag and the reader can enjoy the story as the characters juggle their rather confused and overlapping lives. So much happens between Chris and Sarah, Chris and Biddy, Sarah and her men, and Zac and everyone else that the players need to maintain a shared calendar to ensure that Chris and Sarah’s young children continue to be taken to and picked up from school, cared for, fed and put to bed.
It is worth mentioning that the children – Oliver and Sophie – are important characters in their own right in the novel and not just appendages to the primary narrative. The author has drawn them quite skilfully and their behaviour and conversations have more than a touch of authenticity. The interaction between Chris in particular and his children is particularly well-drawn and draws attention to the contribution which caring fathers can make to the lives of their children. In a broader sense, Oliver and Sophie seem largely unaffected by the polyamorous activity around them and they are indeed fortunate that the adults with whom they share their lives are so caring towards them.
In keeping with the definition of ‘polyamory’, the primary characters actually seem to all care for each other and it is reassuring to know that their sexual behaviour can continue without rancour or jealousy. Love in all its manifestations is a strong theme in the novel and underpins much of what is said and done by Chris, Sarah and Biddy especially.
These themes of sex, drug-taking, and family are linked with the concepts of masculinity and trust to create a novel which explores contemporary relationships in a very charming and disarming way. While some readers may baulk at the novel’s re-imagination of morality and relationships, the manner in which the tale is told may well overcome any sensitivities. It is important too to return to the definition of ‘polyamory’ above in the first paragraph and particularly the words ‘consensual non-monogamy’.
Paul Dalgarno has written a fine debut novel with engaging characters and one which deserves to be widely read.
Paul Dalgarno was born in Scotland and was a senior features writer, columnist and deputy Weekend Features Editor with The Herald and Sunday Herald newspapers. In Melbourne, he was the Deputy Editor, Arts Editor and Science Editor of The Conversation website. His memoir – And You May Find Yourself – was published in 2015.
by Paul Dalgarno
ISBN 978 1 9207 2746 8