I may not have read Sweet old world by Deborah Robertson if Random House Australia had not suggested it to me – but I’m rather glad I did. Why do I say this? Because it isn’t the sort of book I usually like to get my teeth into. It doesn’t play with form, or voice, or style. It is, instead (“hallelujah” some might say), a single voice, third person, chronological novel. In other words, it’s a traditionally told tale – but is well done.
Before I continue, though, I must mention a surprising synchronicity. I read today, in Random House’s publicity sheet, that in 2006 Robertson had won the Colin Roderick award (for her first novel Careless, 2006). Now, if I’d read that before writing this week’s Monday Musings, that name (and therefore award) would have passed me by. Some things are clearly meant to be! I should add that, with the same book, she also won the Nita Kibble Award, and was longlisted for the Orange Prize and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. She is a writer to watch.
So, onto the book. Sweet old world is about journalist and part-guesthouse owner, David Quinn. He’s 43 years old, single, childless, and lives on Inishmore Island, one of those beautiful but harsh Aran islands off Galway. David is your quintessential SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy), but I say that without any sense of satire. He is a genuinely nice guy who desperately wants to be a father, something he, as a man, feels unable to talk about “although he’s not exactly the silent type”.
At the start of the novel, the closest he is to achieving this goal is to be the involved uncle of his sister Orla’s three sons. They are not central to the plot though. A woman is. Early in the novel, after dining at his house, 17-year-old Ettie has an accident on her bicycle and ends up in hospital in a coma. Her mother, 38-year-old Tania, flies out from Western Australia (whence David had also originally come) to watch over her daughter … and you can guess the rest. Or can you? I’ll say no more on the plot, to avoid spoilers.
What is lovely about this book is Robertson’s ability to describe place and get to the heart of a character. I loved her description of Inishmore and Galway (which I have visited). There’s rain, and more rain, there’s the wild terrain, but there are also blue skies and mild, warming weather. David’s relationship with nature charts his emotions, but not in a heavy-handed way. The first section of the novel (there are no numbered chapters) ends with:
He pushes the door wide open … and steps out into the day of salt-scented sunshine.
Later in the novel, “he gives into the sun and the excitement inside him” but, in a down period, “rain blackens the island’s limestone”. Another time, the island makes him feel “subtly undermined”. Out of context, these seem too obvious, but within the text they effectively support the tone.
What also charts David’s emotions is his bad back. When things aren’t going well, he is laid (seriously) low. This bad back also plays a role in the plot. It brings Tania to him – and it reminds us, and him, that he is on the wrong side of 40 (particularly in terms of his fatherhood goals), and “that, one day, time would suddenly contract; tighten around him”. It’s an effective and believable motif.
Like most chronologically told stories there are flashbacks to fill out the picture. We hear about David’s past failed relationships and about his previous job as a journalist for Agricultural Times which saw him writing about the Animal Liberation Front. We discover that Orla may be right about David being “a truth-seeking missile for hurt”.
If there’s a weakness in the novel, it’s in the plot. I found it a little contrived, particularly regarding the crises in the relationship. While the story is told in third person, it’s limited to David’s point of view. If we are to believe him, and I think we are meant to, then his actions make sense. And yet Tania keeps falling over one issue – her uncertainty regarding his very brief and, from what the reader saw, innocent time with her daughter. I found Tania’s uncertainty understandable, somewhat, the first time, but less so thereafter. It all hinges on David’s credibility …
Technically, though, the plot is well-constructed, and teases us to second-guess where it’s going. Take, for example, this description of David’s nephews’ comic project which, sometimes
turns out to be the genuine item, that rare thing – a romantic comedy with injuries, tears and forgiveness, as well as real jokes.
Whether Sweet old world meets this description is something for you to discover. I will simply say that despite my initial statement, there is something fresh in this novel. I loved her descriptions, and the occasional flashes of whimsical humour. Robertson has created in David an interesting and psychologically-comprehensible character, and she has given real voice to men who long for children. There’s much to enjoy here.
Lisa at ANZLitLovers enjoyed it too, but also has some questions.
Sweet old world
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2012
(Review copy supplied by Random House Australia)