on 22 November 2009
Joan London is better known in her native Australia than in the UK, although her first novel Gilgamesh was published in the UK in 2003 and longlisted for The Orange Prize and the Dublin Impac Prize. In Australia, her two prize-winning collections of short stories have also been critically lauded.
The Good Parents, London's second novel published in the UK on 17 November 2009, has already won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction 2009 and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Australasia). Those readers who (not unreasonably) are wary of assuming that prize-winning books are necessarily the best can rest assured - The Good Parents is a startling perceptive family drama.
Maya de Jong is an eighteen year-old woman who has recently left provincial life in smalltown Warton for urban pleasures in Melbourne. She is given the name of a relative of a family acquaintance who finds her a job in an office. Maya soon embarks on an affair with her boss, Maynard Flynn, a man in his fifties. Maynard's wife is dying of cancer and, in the way of the young, Maya's empathy falsely bestows on him characteristics she would like him to have - sensitivity, wisdom, a capacity for love. When the inevitable occurs with his wife, Maya leaves town with Maynard and his shady business colleague.
Maya's parents Toni and Jacob arrive in Melbourne for a pre-arranged visit and are aghast to find their daughter is not there. They stay with Maya's housemate, the calm, creative and aloof Cecile, and begin to search for their daughter. But this time of trauma and helplessness gives them space to reflect back on their own lives, and they relive their pasts while also searching for what they want for the future.
The early sections on Maya's feelings for Maynard are astonishingly insightful. London nails precisely that feeling of surging infatuation, the way a young woman's burgeoning sexuality is linked with a touching and frightening mixture of naivety and dedication to the object of her love, however undeserving he may be. The mixture of queasiness, anticipation and almost unbearable excitement Maya feels when approaching the unsalubrious office in which their erotic encounters occur is nailed precisely; Maya's quivering excitement is almost palpable. And the tell-tale signs of Maynard's unsuitability, his sleaziness and letcherousness, made me recoil with horror, though the way Maya excuses his repeated gaffes and drooling comments is absolutely plausible - what very young woman hasn't constructed a completely falsely romantic persona around the object of her lust, ignoring the ominous signs of shallowness, insensitivity and purely physical interest. Here's a taster:
'...whenever she spoke about her past she knew he wasn't really listening. He went on making jokes about her strong shoulders and legs, from all that hay baling and cow milking...The only questions he ever asked her were about her social life in Melbourne. When she told him after the weekend that she'd walked in the Botanical Gardens, or gone for dim sum with her housemate Cecile, he seemed disbelieving, even disappointed, and quizzed her about clubs and bars and boys. She shook her head. Something froze in her when he asked her these sorts of questions.'
London is also adept at conveying the different meanings of sex to Maya and her worldy boss in a way that makes the reader's heart ache for the sweet Maya and the depth of her feelings for this creepy exploitative man:
'He winked and joked when he was happy and had sudden bouts of fondness for her...Although she was proud to have made him happy, she couldn't laugh at this with him. What had happened between them seemed too large, too radical for jokes. She smiled at him but she couldn't laugh... She didn't say that the way he made her feel aroused a longing in her to tell him about horses and her brother and her dog and the seasons and landscapes of the wheat-belt, all the things that fed into the river of loving that flowed through her.'
The characterisation is beautifully done. It is not only Maya and the slimy Maynard who spring into life: all the characters develop into rounded, believable people. Jacob, the ageing revolutionary, is chivalrous but weak; he looks back on his life and beyond his hippy ideals and anti-war protests there has always been an urge to be the chivalrous knight in shining armour. Toni is a fading beauty and was married to an enigmatic, mysterious Mafioso type, Cy Fisher; her attraction to unmacho Jacob was more about escaping Cy's control than inherent love for Jacob. The more peripheral characters are also artfully evoked - Cy, the smoothly cool gangster to whom Toni was married, is not drawn as a two-dimensional baddie as he could have been, but as a man with unflinching loyalties and silent depths. Cecile is complex and conflicted; adoped from Kuala Lumpur by white Australians, she has always felt an outsider and longs to connect with her biological family.
The way adversity and the threatened loss of a child can drive parents apart is artfully rendered; it's a truism that is often ignored in fiction. The fear that Jacob and Toni feel for their daughter's welfare and the barriers it erects between them are portrayed effortlessly. As with all major trauma, the event acts as a catalyst for other changes.
Other relationships are also cast under the spotlight and captured with astute eloquence: Kitty, Jacob's sister, has always felt pushed away by her brother - now she is summoned to look after Magnus, Toni and Jacob's other child. The satisfaction she feels when she is accepted and loved by her brother's son and neighbour is almost triumphant; a vindication with which anyone chronically belittled by a family member may associate.
If there is any shortcoming in this beautifully insightful novel it is only that the reader longs to know more about Maya's experience while away with Maynard, though in some ways the brevity of this section adds to its potency and understated threat.
The novel ends with unanswered questions flying in all directions, the fate and future of all the characters in limbo, but this only accentuates the power and plausibility of London's story. Life doesn't come with neat endings. This is a gem of a book exemplifying the fact that ordinary lives are every bit as gripping as extraordinary ones.