Alison’s Book Launch, A Perfect Marriage, at Paperchain Bookstore, 24 May 2018
Firstly – I’d like to acknowledge we are on the lands of the Ngunnawal Ngambri people.
Secondly – what an honour it is to launch this book. A PERFECT MARRIAGE.
And to be Alison’s friend.
SO why me with this privilege?– It’s humbling; I am not an expert in publishing and nor am I a well known activist on one of the key themes of the book - domestic violence.
However I am also a writer. A historian who believes in the power of good story telling. For social change.
And yes, I have written and collaborated on feminist history projects.
Sure, I have marched against rape in war, & sadly, had to chauffeur a woman who lived next door to me in Darwin to women’s refuges more than once. And I still sign petitions to try to take action about domestic violence.
I am sure that many of us have done such things.
26 women have died due to domestic violence in Australia this year already.
So what did Alison do about it?
She wrote a novel that has domestic violence at its core.
Is it depressing? Is it full of awful sadism or horrific?
Not at all. It is a bloody good read.
And it that sense, it reminds me of the kind of activism of a group like Midnight Oil. Rather than berating people about Land rights or about asbestos mining, they wrote jolly good songs about them. Ones people wanted to dance to and learn the words of.
That’s what Alison has done in this highly readable novel. One that people will want to read for enjoyment. Not to be hectored to or to gain a moral lesson. But to be intrigued by and to gain another layer of understanding, of insight into what it might be like for a middle class woman enmeshed in a marriage ruled by the terror of domestic violence.
So, isn’t Alison Booth just amazing? Hard hitting economist, feminist, leader in her field, innovator and novelist.
Somehow Alison had instant success in a trade that so many aspire to –so many pipedreams of novels unpublished, and I’ve met many academics with such artefacts.
In the book at hand, ‘A Perfect Marriage’, Alison offers a journey that will be enjoyed by many readers.
In the style of a true master –& it’s a shame ‘mistress’ has gained a totally different connotation - she regularly switches her subject matter, her settings and her themes.
And she doesn’t write disguised autobiography. In this, like her other novels, she’s an accomplished writer of mature fiction – one who invents worlds in which people inhabit - people you haven’t met before, people you soon get to know, and who afterwards, you don’t want to let go of.
Alison is not only versatile but highly productive – In the Jingera Trilogy (Stillwater Creek, The Indigo Sky, A Distant Land), set in a sleepy seaside community – in their respective decades, Alison first portrayed an ‘old Australia’, a non urban world.
In that trilogy, she follows the characters as they mature, grow and move around. In the plots, she touches on important social themes – the immigrant experience, what it means to carry the pain of Europe’s devastating wars, the difficulties and flowering of young boy with a speech impediment, the beauty of music, the impending danger posed by a paedophile, an Aboriginal girl who is one of the key character’s school friends, and whose life, once she is institutionalized, veers in a different, albeit not victimized, but empoweringly politicized direction.
The characters are intriguing, convincing and surprising. The landscape is sensory, it draws you in. But amidst the calm and the seemingly blue skies, the reader senses that an impending storm could break out at any minute.
Not the same technique used in a perfect marriage.
Ah a perfect marriage. Don’t we all wish we had one?
Well NO, not this particular one. Not anything like this one.
The title is of course deeply ironic, for from the very first night of their wedding, nothing could be further from the truth.
Key characters are Sally Lachlan, her daughter Charlie, husband Jeff, and new prospect, the intriguing Anthony.
Sally Lachlan is a perfectionist.
An accomplished scholar. A good mother. A good daughter to her aging parents.
She also wanted to have the perfect marriage.
And she tries, yes tries hard, to be a good wife.
SO without spoiling the read, I will tell you a little bit about the introductory sections and in my praise, I undertake to not give away any secrets.
We start with a corpse. This may somewhat usual - as the crime TV shows generally do start with the corpse, usually of a gorgeous young woman.
No This is a male corpse.
Handsome, still alluring in a way, with attractively tousled hair, even in death.
After this ‘you won’t be going to sleep yet’ move, the reader is then transported into a comfortingly familiar but hellishly awkward scene.
You’re on a plane. You have a spare seat beside you. A stranger heads up the aisle then sits next to you. Your lack of curiosity is followed by ever increasing curiosity.
Unusually for Alison’s novels, and her characters, both of these two – the potential new lover and the key protagonist, are academics. Very successful ones.
Experts in skin cells. They publish in a journal called Trends in Genetics. And here the humour explodes early – after all, it’s only page 8 and we have only just met them:
‘I watch Anthony watching me. I am at the mercy of my biochemistry now. Isn’t this what attraction is? I can almost feel the neurotransmitters making connections. Watch out, body: here come the monoamines. Watch out, body: dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin are on the loose.’
And they do cause havoc, or at least disturb the relative calm Sally has created in her life.
This novel moves back and forth in time, teasing you with detail, filling in context and character. There are clever little allusions that bring you back to previous episodes – ones I often missed upon first reading and appreciated second time around.
The emotional gear can change rapidly, but somehow there’s a sense of flow and a sense of continuously adding layers to the characterizations.
Of course, the craft of this book is best experienced in the reading, and in the way sentences evolve into paragraphs and into the next paragraph, driving the magic of this novel.
There are moments of real power that provide insights into human psychology. The story of the boat trip, as they approach danger, with everyone in the boat having a different attitude as to what to do. Sally urges caution. Others disagree. She screams out for her daughter.
This is a very moving sequence.
It is not speaking directly to the plot, but rather, it subtly establishes a mood of anticipation. And simultaneously it lurches you inside the protagonist’s mental space, thus effectively deepening her characterization.
In another sequence, when Sally has the night horrors, she decides to work on her conference paper.
Brief Moment of recognition: QUOTE ‘Work is panacea. Work is soothing.’
Spoken as only an academic writer can!?
There are some glorious descriptions of academic conference exchanges – not only of the guy promoting his own work at question time [– is he here? –in the audience?]
A portrayal of the hubbub afterwards of everyone speaking above each other, unrestrained, about what they really think of the preceding panel.
It’s interesting that the key character, the academic Sally Lachlan, is also a mother, a single mother.
It doesn’t take long for us to get inside her head and to implicitly trust her. The character has an honesty about her, an incrementally growing self-awareness amidst secrecy and a blocking out of part of her life.
With her oddly retreating – especially at moments of highly charged emotion - into academic speak, her daughter Charlie’s resentment implodes into a terrific dialogue moment:
‘My mother, the fucking scientist. You always have a pat answer for everything.’
Despite being well educated and a sensible character, what eventuates in the novel is quite beyond Sally’s control. Yet not? Does she grab the reins again? It’s quite a journey and I’m determined not to give away the plot.
Alison’s language is crisp, clear, seemingly simple. As are her plots.
But yes, you know there’ll be surprises. But not of a disheartening kind.
As I said, this is no Handmaid’s Tale. You’ll be able to sleep fine after reading it as bed time reading.
There’s a lightness of touch about the story telling, about the lives themselves.
There’s even a kind of protectiveness that the author, Alison, nurtures towards the reader. Which I noticed in Alison Booth’s Trilogy too.
In other words, reading this book won’t ruin your day. It won’t ruin several days.
There’s something so compelling about it, that you’ll want to read it in a day or two at the most.
Though I have to admit, that when first reading it I did wake up at 3am to finish it.
It’s absorbing. When I thought I’d better reread with more of a scholarly eye, you know, this didn’t really work as I was helplessly swept along yet again - hoping and worrying and barracking for the various characters.
Though I did notice more things about Alison’s craft and economy of words, natty descriptions, often cosy and familiar. Ever so softly, you are taken into the lives of these characters.
At important high points of the plot, Alison reaches deep and comes up with stunning metaphors that make you stop in your tracks.
The reviews of the book on Good Reads talk of her great writing style and above all, of reader’s enjoyment.
A concept we rarely talk about when doing academic reading or reviewing! But indeed, novel reading is meant to be leisure. It’s not meant to be an effort or an exercise in due diligence and rigor.
Nonetheless we seek truth in story telling --- We look for humanity, its pleasures and its scars as well as it festering scabs, the kind that no individual can truly leave behind. But we also seek hope. And here we get that too.
As the title hints, there is quite a bit of rumination about perfection throughout the book. And I do wonder whether the female friendship will be the more perfect marriage of kindred spirits.
To sum up, the novel becomes an emotional journey.
A sensible woman becomes unstuck.
Handsome men are her downfall. But you agree that she deserves a good life.
The problem is, the new chap on the scene seems just too perfect.
So, Alison, what happens next?
As it seems we won’t find out, I had better officially congratulate Alison on her inspiring achievement and I hereby officially Launch Alison Booth’s latest book – A Perfect Marriage…
Ann McGrath is at the Australian National University, where she is Kathleen Fitzpatrick ARC Australian Laureate Fellow and Distinguished Professor