Way back in my youth when I started studying literature, I thought I had to get the “right” interpretation. It made reading a little scary, I must say. However, as I gained confidence, I discovered that there are as many responses to a novel as there are readers, something I was reminded of when I attended this week’s launch of Nigel Featherstone’s novella, I’m ready now. And here’s why…
The book was launched by Canberra journalist and biographer, Chris Wallace. She spoke eloquently about the book telling us that it’s about how you can make a change in your life no matter how old you are – whether you’re 30 as Gordon is in the book or 50 as his mother, Lynne, is. She said too that it promotes the idea of living an imaginative life. I thought, yes, she’s right, it does do these things. And then Nigel spoke, and he said that for him the book can be summed up in one word, liberation. And I thought, yes, I can see how it’s that. But I had framed it a little differently from my reading.
Before I give you my different-but-on-a-similar-track take, I’d better tell you something about the plot. It has a small cast of characters, which is pretty much what you’d expect in a novella. They are Gordon, a gay man turning 30 who lives in Glebe and works as a photographer; his old schoolfriend Shanie, who followed Gordon to Sydney; Levi, Gordon’s boyfriend of a year or so; and Gordon’s mother Lynne who, recently widowed, comes up from Hobart to stay with Gordon for a short while. Lynne has put the large family home on the market, and the auction will be held while she’s away. Meanwhile, Gordon is almost at the end of his Year of Living Ridiculously, which is a year of rather self-destructive high living that he designed, and is doggedly keeping to, for his 30th year. He plans to crown this year with something he calls The Ultimate. But then Mum, Lynne, arrives, and puts The Ultimate at risk. What Gordon doesn’t know is that his mother has a grand plan herself, now that she’s free. (Ha! Liberation you see.)
This sounds pretty simple, really, doesn’t it? However, there are complications. Lynne’s husband, Eddie, was not Gordon’s father. Gordon’s father, Patric Finn, walked out on him and his mum when he was around a year old, and neither has completely resolved the abandonment. It’s not that Eddie wasn’t a good husband and father, because he was, but he never fully understood Gordon, and for Lynne he was “a head kind of love, not a heart kind of love”.
What is lovely about Featherstone’s writing – as I also found in his Fall on me – is that he manages to build tension and mystery around his characters’ behaviour without undermining their realness or humanity, and without alienating us readers. We warm to them even while we wonder about the wisdom of their decisions and motivations. Featherstone also uses imagery and allusions lightly. Water, for example, can be a cliched symbol in stories of change and growth, but here it’s appropriate and not laboured. What more logical thing is there to do on a hot night in Sydney than to go for a dip in the sea?
Besides the characterisation, I also like the novella’s voice and structure. It’s told first person in the alternating voices of Lynne and Gordon, and is effectively paced, largely through varying the length of the chapters*. The book opens with a mere half-page chapter in Lynne’s voice, and then moves to mostly longer ones in the main part of the book. They shorten towards the end as the pace builds, keeping us involved and wondering what these two will finally decide to do and what role Shanie and Levi might play in it all.
Now though to how I would describe the novel – and for me it is about coming to terms with the past. Both Gordon and Lynne have not had unhappy lives but both have in some way been damaged by their abandonment. Almost half way through the novel, they both say something significant. Lynne, reflecting with real generosity on Patric’s unheralded departure, says
I think he wanted to be free, a free young man. There have been times – many times – when I’ve found myself actually admiring his audacity to grab life, to run with it, to run as far as he could.
She then tells us that her plan is to leave Australia to live in “a farmhouse on a hill in the beloved country [Ireland] of my mother”. In the next chapter, Gordon’s, we learn in a flashback why he commenced his Year of Living Ridiculously. It’s to discover “what it is that makes me feel most alive”. He wants to “to lean over the cliff, figuratively speaking … to live as vividly as possible” – but his chosen method is clearly not working. The idea, though, reminded me of Fall on me in which the son tells his dad that “safety doesn’t always equal life”. Both these novellas, in a way, explore what Wallace described as “living an imaginative life”.
They are both, too, about something Lynne says towards the end, which is that “life must move forward; anything else is sacrilege”, and yet, paradoxically, her wish for Gordon could be seen to be the opposite: she wants him to go back to find what “hurt him all those years ago”.
And so for me, the book is about “living imaginatively” and about liberation, but it is also about how the past can stall us if we don’t get it in the right perspective. Featherstone opens the book with two epigraphs, one being TS Eliot’s “Home is where one starts from”. I think that, in a way, says it all.
I’m ready now
Canberra: Blemish Books, 2012
(Review copy supplied by Blemish Books)
* for want of a better word for the numbered parts.