Andrea Goldsmith, Reunion
I wanted to love Andrea Goldsmith’s Reunion. And I expected to, as I remember enjoying the last book of hers that I read. But, somehow, I found it a bit of chore to read, though it did pick up towards the end. I think I understand why it was not listed for the 2010 Miles Franklin Award.
Friendships become swaddled in invisible protective layers and nothing short of a cataclysmic blow can break through to the inevitable stress points beneath.
The plot is fairly straightforward. Four university friends (three students, borderline baby-boomers and now in their mid-40s, and a lecturer, now around 60) find themselves all living in Melbourne again after some 2o years apart. All four had met in Melbourne, had moved together to England to continue studies and work, but had then gone their separate ways. At the beginning of the novel Jack, an academic and Islamic expert, is single and still in love with Ava; Ava, a novelist, is married to the unpopular Harry; Helen, a scientist, is a single parent; and Connie/Conrad, a philosophy lecturer, is on his third marriage but still philandering. Harry, who met them in England, is on the outer, but it is he who has engineered the reunion under the auspices of an organisation he has created, NOGA (Network of Global Australians).
The novel, then, is about this time of reunion: it explores who they are now, and the state of their relationships with each other. Sounds like the sort of thing that would interest me – Melbourne setting, characters with whom I would expect some level of identification, themes exploring love and friendship, and a writer whom I’ve enjoyed before. None of these, I should add, are essential for my reading enjoyment – I also like books set in exotic places and about very different characters – but familiarity often appeals too (doesn’t it?).
And yet, for me the book fell a little flat. It just didn’t feel quite original enough – in either ideas or language. It felt a little same-old-same-old. That said*, I found the characters interesting and convincing, although only one, Jack, changed in any significant way as the novel progressed. The narrative mode is multiple 3rd person subjective, with Jack’s perspective starting and ending it. It is told, chronologically, but with flashbacks to fill in the past. All this is well controlled and keeps the story moving nicely.
Goldsmith ranges across a lot of themes – love and friendship (of course); truth and fiction; secrets and memory; passion and obsession; modern communications; revenge and forgiveness; and science, ethics and politics. It is probably here that the novel palled most for me because many of these themes seem to go nowhere. Take the truth and fiction one. Those of you who read my blog know that I enjoy seeing this issue explored, but in this novel it’s raised, often with a nice level of irony, but is not really developed. For Ava, the novel writer, “there was no better vehicle for truth” than fiction, whereas for the scientist, Helen, “Ava’s work is only fiction – none of it is true”. Well, I thought, Goldsmith will unpack the ironies contained in these, but she doesn’t really. Perhaps that’s OK, perhaps it’s enough for us to notice them, but I wanted more.
At other times, the themes seem more like the author’s soapbox than ideas fully integrated into the story, albeit that the characters are her mouthpieces. Here, for example, is Jack expressing a rather stereotyped view of modern communication:
Whenever Jack looked back to his university experience and compared it with today’s university student life, so much seemed to have changed – even friendship itself. Without computers and mobile phones, face-to-face communication ruled the day.
The implication is that modern friendships are somehow less meaningful, but what does he really know and, further, what does the novel show us about it? Nothing really. Similarly, Helen rages about political interference in science, but the issue, while valid enough, seems a little fabricated in the context of the novel.
There are some funny set pieces, such as the young television make-up artist trying to hide Connie’s aging neck. Goldsmith does irony well – something I, as a Jane Austen aficionado, rather enjoy – and she peppers the novel with a lot of effective literary allusions – to Waugh, Wharton, James, and others. Moreover, there are some lovely descriptions, such as this one on Ava’s discomfort during her first weeks in England: “It was like being stranded on a sheet of clear glass with nothing but blackness underneath”. I’m not sure why I like this, but I do.
I’ve struggled to write this review, really, because there are things to like about this book. I decided to do a quick review of reviews out there and what I mostly found were positive reviews that each had some little reservation: “despite that minor misgiving”, “a rich and at times frustrating novel”, “despite a few stylistic glitches”, and “the novel was marred but not spoiled for me by …”. None though explored these reservations in any depth.
And so, rather than labour any more, I will close with the words of Helen’s teenage son, Luke. He says, in that simple, direct way that the young can do:
The truth can hurt. But that doesn’t make it less right.
The final irony is that Harry is hurt by a truth – but the truth he is hurt by and the real truth of the matter are two quite different things. And that, in the end, made the novel an interesting if not totally engaging read.
For a more positive perspective on this novel, check out Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.
London: Fourth Estate, 2009
*See my previous post on words to avoid!