Wednesday, 27 September 2006

The Unexpected Elements of Love bookcover, VikingReview: The Unexpected Elements of Love, Kate Legge (2006)

Legge says in an ABC interview that the ‘larrikin’ boys are “overrepresented now in all the problem statistics” and that she also wanted to talk about what she calls the ‘Sandwich Generation’. But in addition to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Alzheimers, Legge has also included in her debut novel the strangeness of out-of-control weather.

The story is set in the near-future. Reminiscent of the odd little stories that Peter Carey published in the late nineteen seventies, The Unexpected Elements of Love treats the weather as a character. Like Harry, Janet’s son, the weather misbehaves. Torrential storms beat, enormous hail stones pound, and fierce winds lash the country. The Sydney suburb where the story takes place is located near the harbour shore and the evenings can quickly turn sticky and pungent. Harry fears the weather, and manifests his fear by anxiously chewing his collar when there’s rain.

Janet is a TV weather announcer and her best friend, the unwed, 40-something psychologist Dale, has a mother who suffers badly from arthritis and a sculptor father who begins to manifest signs of dementia. These two parents are treated honourably by Legge. They have interests, passions and crises in a way that doesn’t demean them. The frail elderly are fairly treated by this impressive author.

But the narrative flags slightly as Janet and Harry travel to Darwin to visit Janet’s tearaway sister, Carrie, and to do a story on the extreme weather events — immense lightning storms — that keep the tourists entertained in the Top End.

Apparently Peter Costello launched the book in late July. Costello would enjoy this book. Prime Minister John Howard would probably be put off by the leftie sentiments it traffics in, but Costello would enjoy the presence of all those children! After all, ‘one for mum, one for dad, and one for the country,’ is his mantra.

For my part, I purchased this book because it deals with Alzheimers. My father has been a bit scatty lately and I also borrowed from the university library a book titled Is it Dementia or just old age? by Dr John Stevens (2005).

Legge deals with the subject in greater depth and with more memorable insights. Her turn of phrase etches itself into your memory:

She worried that his absent-mindedness was like the first spray of loose stones announcing a landslide.

Dales’ parents, Roy and Beth, visit Canberra to discuss a government commission for a sculpture. They meet with the architects of the new building. While talking to them, Roy looks in his bag for some drawings but finds instead a scrapbook his host, an old friend, had given him the night before. Panicking, he heads out the door, suggesting he’ll be back in a few minutes. Fifteen minutes later, they begin to get worried:

  ‘What do you think’s happened to our artist?’
  ‘His bag’s still here,’ Joanna says. ‘You don’t suppose he’s had a heart attack?’
  They run through the possibilities, canvassing the prospect of Roy slumped in the toilet after suffering a stroke or bent double behind the wheel of his car. They wait forty-five minutes before raising the alarm.

After this crisis, Beth starts to realise the inevitable:

Like a child plucking daisy petals, Beth oscillates. He’ll hold together. He’ll fall apart. He’ll hold together. He’ll fall apart.

While the boys fall apart, the women hold everything together:

Roy could live another ten years, wearing a tread in the carpet around the dementia wing. He could spend his afternoons watching television repeats, trapped in the land of ga-ga. Beth knows that she can’t repel the imposter inhabiting his body or the plaque cannibalising his brain. Intellectual incontinence musn’t claim him, not if she can help it.

Beth has made contingency plans with the help of an unusual doctor. But Legge has other plans, and the story, delineated with quick, impressionistic strokes, accelerates to its denouement.

A great read. Recommended.

1 comment:

Jim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.