Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Although I was not born in the past thirty years, the daily lives of the three young women whose lives are so graphically depicted in Small Joys of Real Life were truly absorbing.
The novel tracks the progress of Eva’s pregnancy right up to when she is some days overdue. The father, she feels certain, was Pat with whom she had a fleeting relationship but he has recently committed suicide.
Eva has two close friends. Annie is quiet, intelligent, a stalwart friend, while, in striking contrast, Sarah is an alcoholic and her focus is drinking as much wine as possible. Nevertheless, she is kind and supportive. The friendship of the three is strong and enduring, and early on, Sarah and Eva share a flat.
The book is all about relationships; the fluctuations between the women, the various men who dip into the scene. Only James, Annie’s partner, is there for most of the book.
Pat, the father of the baby, had a good friend Travis, who hovers around in a more complex way. Loyalty to Pat draws him to be part of Eva’s life, but this is sporadic. There is an amusing scene when she desperately seeks him out at his house, thinks he’s at work, so lies down to rest as she is over 8 months pregnant by then. She hopes to give him a pleasant surprise! Eva is awakened by his coming into his bedroom with an unknown (to her) woman.
Eva’s pregnancy is the main subject of the book. Sections are divided from September to April that mark this and facts about pregnancy and birth are liberally scattered. During these eight months, the development of the baby is recounted and she pictures its increase in size in terms of food objects, often fruit. Earlier it is an olive, later a mango!
The pregnancy distances her from her previous life. She no longer works as an actress and now has a jaded attitude to some theatre. She makes perceptive comments. Musical performance is a ‘glittery, smiley distraction’. The rich and powerful, who mostly form an audience, should be worried – about climate change – not waste time going to a musical!
She has ample time to not only contemplate her body’s changes, but to observe and appreciate and occasionally judge, her two close friends. While she respects and admires Annie, her noticing Sarah’s frequent drinking is highlighted because she herself strictly abstains from any alcohol.
Sarah is symbolic of many young women who live for their continual heavy drinking and recovering from hangovers. It underlines the growing problem with excessive drinking of alcohol by women, which deeply concerns many parents and experts in society today.
I found the tone of Small Joys quite disturbing. It is the cynicism and angst that prevails rather than idealism, enthusiasm and the pleasures of living. Annie, when she received an important award, dismisses it as a ‘Resumé wank’! Sex and drinking dominate, particularly for Sarah and Eva.
Relationships are casual, even nonchalant, except for Annie and James; although she leaves him towards the book’s end on a rather flimsy basis.
Allee Richards has mastered the art of writing in the first person with her easy conversational style. She reveals the ‘small joys’ amount to Eva’s noticing an eggplant left on her doorstep by her kind neighbour and the kicking of her baby in uterus.
The book depicts a thought-provoking aspect of the lives of some young people living in Melbourne. The drinking culture has its damaging affect, yet it constructs a kind of community in pubs, bars and parties. Family is distant. Work endured not enjoyed. The bonds that bind the group are as powerful as in some families and heralds the growing determination of young women to live free and unfettered by male influence.
Their futures are left dangling.
Sadly, Eva thinks, on the final page, ‘none of us knows what will happen next.’
Small Joys of Real Life
by Allee Richards
ISBN 978 07336 4547 1