Friday, 27 July 2018

Book review: The Way Things Should Be, Bridie Jabour (2018)

I had some reservations about this very fine domestic drama at the outset but I persisted and the emotions provoked by the novel’s excellent characterisations washed over me and took me along for a ride like a dumper at one of Australia’s roughly 10,000 surf beaches. But I have to admit that I felt old when the denouement arrived because I just wasn’t convinced by it.

It doesn’t really matter because so many ideas are explored in the narrative, especially in the relations between Claudia, who has arrived back in her home town somewhere in regional Australia near the coast to get married (to Dylan, her boyfriend), and her two sisters Poppy, who is the youngest and is gay and struggling to find her feet in the employment market for journalists and copywriters in the city, and Zoe, who is the eldest and who runs her own metropolitan business. Zoe is the stable one, Poppy the tearaway. In between all these mobile elements is Rachel, the mother of the three girls and Phinn, their brother.

Complicating the resulting ensemble is Mary, Rachel’s unmarried sister, who the children do not like, and George, the four young people’s father, who lives in his own house elsewhere in the town. You are given plenty of material to use to work through many issues, and Jabour does this thing in her storytelling where she’ll suddenly change the zoom on the lens you are looking at the characters through and take the focus away from the particular to the general, making universal statements that can apply to any family, or to any person. These interludes give your imagination time to relax (the drama is a bit rapid-fire at the beginning and you have to be a bit patient) and I think there were never too many of them.

While I have heard comparisons to Jane Austen, what I think this novel reminds me more of is the types of dramas that you get when family members are brought together suddenly for unusual events. In this vein, of course, you have the excellent ‘Muriel’s Weddding’ directed by P.J. Hogan and released in 1994. But even more than this I was reminded of Juzo Itami’s inestimable ‘The Funeral’ from 1984. In this second film, the members of a family are brought together by an unexpected event, the death of Shokichi Amamiya. His daughter Chizuko (played by Nobuko Miyamoto) and son-in-law Wabisuke Inoue (Tsutomu Yamazaki) have to organise and lead the funeral that takes place at the deceased’s house outside the city.

What happens with these works is that the dynamics of the family that have endured for ever tend to outweigh the importance of the signal event that brings people together, and so drive the interactions between the people in the scenes portrayed. This is certainly true of Jabour’s novel, where Poppy’s simmering resentment combusts under the stress of having to deal with all her siblings at the same time. Zoe, especially, tends to rub her up the wrong way.

The other story that is told here is that of Nora, Claudia’s best friend, who comes and stays in a cheap motel while the rest of the attendees are gathering (Dylan’s father and step-mother eventually turn up for the event as well). At the beginning of the novel, it seems as though Nora has broken up with her boyfriend Tom but later there’s another email that arrives from Tom that is kind of hard to parse and then it turns out that Nora gets upset so you wonder if you had been mistaken in your initial surmise all along. I wasn’t really on top of the intricacies of this thread in the novel, and by the end considered that it needed a bit more editing to clarify.

To sum up: while I think this is a very good novel that competently covers many interesting themes I would have preferred a different ending. The politics of certain social media platforms lie very much outside the orbit within which I normally live my life, however. Having said that I have to aver that I think Jane Austen would have chosen a different way to end things. Given what you know having read the book, the title in the end appears to be ironic, but then you can do Jabour’s zoom thing and telescope out to view the whole country as a dysfunctional family that, seen from without, offers outsiders a distinctly unedifying spectacle.

The book cover reminded me of those artworks where a number or letter is hidden within a matrix of dots that change colour subtly at certain coordinates to form an outline. People get challenged on Facebook to see if they can identify the number or letter hidden in the matrix. I’m not exactly sure how the cover keys in with the content but life is often a messy and confusing business and sometimes the people who end up getting hurt are not the ones you really need to fear. It can be hard to see the wood for the trees.

Jabour grew up in the NSW town of Grafton, went to uni on the Gold Coast, and has worked in Brisbane; she is currently on leave from the Guardian, which is based in Sydney. They say every journo has at least one book in them. Last month I reviewed the very good thriller, ‘The List’, by the ABC’s Michael Brissenden.

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