Reviewed by E. B. Heath
The world lives in small rooms.
More than once during the first seventy odd pages I wondered if I cared enough to continue. But then … characters gained traction, subject matter became both real and interesting, the narrative and dialogue authentic, empathy was building and I started to worry if the protagonist would be sent back to prison.
Sweeney takes centre stage. Readers take part in his counselling sessions with Asha Sen, a psychiatrist. Here readers might feel as if getting an introduction to brain trauma and therapeutic methods, albeit by stealth – a most interesting, plus useful, aspect of the novel. Sweeney has had a terrible childhood at the hands of a bullying father. After gaining a degree in literature, he spent a few years living in a commune, which led to drugs, which led to prison, to being bashed so incurring an acute brain injury. Trauma has been integrated into his life. Asha Sen has much to unravel, which includes his hobby.
Sweeney is obsessed with the form and function of bicycles, particularly form, admiring its symmetry as some might lust after the female body. And he just rides the beautiful ones away from where their owners had left them on the street. Readers might get the impression he is more raping, than riding, but definitely stealing.
Stealing a bicycle then riding away still intoxicates him, the pedals turning, the bike seeming to lift as the laws of the earth and the sky have coalesced and gravity is a time wave upwards and onwards and the past, the ratchet and chain, have vanished.
The author, Philip Salom, has been a prize-winning poet of many years, winning the prestigious Christopher Brennan Prize in 2003 for ‘poetry of sustained quality and distinction’. Sweeney and the Bicycles is his sixth novel. His poet’s eye is everywhere in this novel, maybe tiny shards of magical realism appear, but perhaps that’s my imagination taking flight.
Contemporary issues are woven into the narrative pertaining to technology, particularly facial recognition cameras and a government moving beyond the norms of democratic expectations. He even refers to Robodebt. Identity and psychological issues blend in with these themes: names given to people in different contexts, memories either alive or submerged, lived experiences, family and cultural divides, and the nature of secrets. Salom uses a diverse group of characters in conversation to express his ideas. The absence of quotation marks for speech gave these interactions a natural flow, without any loss in clarity, readers feel ‘there’.
Bruce Leach, husband to Asha Sen, is passionate about his career, the technology of facial recognition. Asha and Bruce debate ethical issues on the subject of biometrics expanding into AI. Whereas these conversations are really interesting, readers might wonder why they are married, polar opposites with no sign of chemistry or intimacy, often antagonistic.
A standout character, The Sheriff, is a tough uneducated thug familiar with the machinations of prison life, now running a half-way house. Salom writes him with clarity and empathy, giving readers a real sense of ‘knowing’. This happens subtly, Salom kind of creeps up and in on the reader. The plot unfolds in much the same way, gathering pace incrementally. But always giving the reader greater awareness of the issues at hand, even the process of writing. Sweeney scrawls out a memoir for therapeutic purposes; Rose is transcribing his handwriting:
When he reads what she has typed a stranger walks through him. His own intruder. … With a degree in Literature Sweeney should be aware of this slippage between self and voice, between consciousness and language …
Rose guides him: But it’s not even memoir unless there’s a narrative arc, a developing story of yourself. Later:
But writing? Its complex structures, its signification, its saying three things at once! And its baggage, the inevitable, unavoidable writer’s baggage, always reaching through.
I must conclude then that Philip Salom has some very interesting ‘baggage’, which here is dressed up as a captivating novel.
By Philip Salom