Reviewed by Ian Lipke
At nearly six hundred pages, this book takes some deft manoeuvring among coffee cups and desk detritus. This would not matter if the writing were more interesting. Allegedly a novel exploring prejudice and privilege, the book does indeed contain a tale based on these ideas, but the theme changes character and other themes surface to interrupt the flow of the narrative, with the result that the reader is suddenly unsure what the book is about. Serious messages are obscured by bickering and point scoring. What the title refers to is anybody’s guess.
The author employs a structured approach. The lives of three women focus our interest. Tara Hooper has, through a body sculpting program, made herself attractive to men but not to her husband. He cannot, or will not, give her the sex she craves. His business is under attack from teenagers with paint brushes. He is interested only in settling into contented middle age. However, once a coloured family from the Sudan move in next door, his innate, and unrecognized, racism surfaces. Tara treats the new neighbour, Fiza, as a second-class citizen on her first acquaintance. From this unpleasant platform comes a working out and reconciliation.
Just as the major issue of racism is approaching a suitable solution, the plot wanders away to deal with Tara and Jon’s marital problems. Jon is diagnosed with Young Parkinson’s. I don’t quite know why the diagnosis should not have simply been Parkinson’s. Of the one million Parkinson Disease sufferers in the U S A, only four percent have Young Parkinson’s, the name applied to sufferers under fifty years of age. The theme of racism is further distracted by conversation that Jon has erectile dysfunction.
We meet Helen Demetriou when she is homeless and sleeping in her car. She is accosted by a mob and then, in turn, an attendant who insists she move on. Because she was not contributing to the owner’s financial profit, she was without value. She becomes involved in a community garden scheme, is on hand when a group of teenagers attacks the garden. Her actions are rewarded with the job of caretaker and the use of the shelter. A dilapidated cottage becomes her home. Helen’s interactions with women of other races stand in marked contrast with those of Tara and her husband. Helen is warm and welcoming but won’t be steamrolled by a group of women who form a committee that oversees the community. Judith, the current chair, hates Helen for a reason buried somewhere in the text.
Before introducing Jade Innes, I should pull together the themes and major issues that have been dealt with so far. A focus on self-image, decisions based on the colour of the skin, automatic blame of black kids for a spate of vandalism, a misreading of the problem a partner is suffering, which view then leads to a wrong judgment, erectile dysfunction, Young PD nonsense, homelessness, unwantedness, and bickering in committee circles. Grafted on topic is the very likelihood that the mayor or maybe some of his councillors have been bought by evil men.
Then comes Jade. A young, unmarried mother whose child is a pre-toddler. Jade finds support among the women who care for a community garden. Her partner is a wastrel. Thus we watched played out the theme of abandonment in a poverty-stricken situation redeemed by the goodwill of strangers whose heritage is western and/or foreign.
While the author has attempted too much in this epic, while the dialogue cannot always be used to distinguish one character from another, and while stamina is required in huge amounts to make it to the end (especially if the reader is a man who dislikes being put down as some sort of lesser creature), I would not reject this book outright. The writer shows she has a modicum of talent that should be nurtured. I query the competence of the editorial staff who might have done a better job of reining her in.
by Fiona Lowe
$32.99; 576 pp