Reviewed by Rod McLary
Christos Tsiolkas is a powerful writer – his prose is often strong and confronting and he does not shy away from vivid descriptions of sexual desire. One needs only to consider Damascus in which the author unflinchingly sets out Saul’s lusts and society’s cruelty towards women and children; or his first novel Loaded in which the protagonist Ari a young gay Greek-Australian who seeks, while at the same time loathing, sexual encounters with men who debase their sexuality.
His latest novel is of a different kind all together. The protagonists are both gay men who have managed to survive – more or less – the turbulent years of adolescent and young adulthood exploration of their sexuality and falling in and out of relationships. Separately, after being deeply hurt by previous relationships, Perry and Ivan are now seeking the joy of falling in love again while fearful of being either humiliated or annihilated. Nevertheless, they somewhat hesitantly agree to meet for dinner after connecting online.
What follows is a tenderly crafted narrative about two middle-aged men negotiating a new relationship while avoiding the torpedoing by past hurts the promise of a future together. But inevitably, the past intrudes on the present and, separately and together, the men begin to address their unresolved residual issues. Perry was abruptly and hurtfully abandoned by his older lover Gerard when he [Gerard] discovered he was to be a grandfather. He said to Perry: You and I must end. There is nothing else to do ; while Ivan was more harshly ‘dumped’ by his lover Joe [a much younger man]: Jesus, don’t you get it? I’m fucking bored . Unlike Perry who reacts with resentment and bitterness, Ivan responds to Joe’s dismissal of him with sudden violence which culminated in Ivan breaking Joe’s jaw. Memory of the incident returns to Ivan with the stunning clarity of a silent nightmare .
On their journey to a loving relationship with the other, each of them is obliged to contend with family and friendship responsibilities which try to the limit their capacity to maintain their equilibrium. Ivan has an ex-wife and daughter – and now a granddaughter – and his involvement of Perry in that part of his life stands in stark contrast to Gerard’s haughty dismissal of him. In turn, Perry closes the door on his past relationship with Gerard by assisting Gerard’s daughter in disposing of his ashes. Ivan provides emotional support to Perry but allows him to take the final steps alone.
There is a lengthy section in the narrative where Ivan and Perry attend a dinner party with Cora and Yasmin – a lesbian couple – and a heterosexual couple Jed and Evelyn. As Christos Tsiolkas in his earlier novel The Slap dissected the identities and personal relationships in a multicultural society and exposed the tensions around family life, he exposes here the pretensions and ideological differences of six people firmly entrenched in middle class society. The scope of sexual preferences is no coincidence as it allows – at one point – for a gender divide which ‘replicates generations of segregation’  and allows for a ‘subtle rearrangement’ of the party. But in a startling revelation towards the end of the dinner party, Perry guesses that there is a sexual relationship between Cora and Evelyn outside their partnerships.
Through its telling of the backstories of Ivan and Perry, the narrative provides a glimpse of the shadowy gay world with its bars, gyms and male prostitution; and the inherent challenge of shifting alliances and relationships.
This is an immensely satisfying novel charting as it does the growing love between two middle-aged men with all the baggage and unresolved issues which are part of lives well-lived. The men’s negotiation – and sometimes re-negotiation – of relationships is authentically set out as together they work their way towards a mutually satisfying commitment to each other. But as always with the author, there is no shying away from the demands and physical aspects of sexual desire whether within or without a committed relationship. Authenticity is at the heart of The In-Between and it is skilfully realised.
As the author has said: this is a novel about how to find peace and sanctuary in a world where everything is noise and confusion.
By Christos Tsiolkas
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 978 176147 001 1