The best way to introduce the author Cory Taylor is to let her lead character speak to us:
Everything I am about to tell you happened because I was waiting for it, or something like it. I didn’t know what exactly, but I had some idea. This was a while ago, after I decided that a girl is just a woman with no experience. I know what Mr. Booker would say on the topic of experience. He would say what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts.
First of all there was the question of age. I was sixteen when I first met Mr. Booker, which can be young or old depending on the person. In my case it was old. I started to feel old when I was about ten, which was about the same time as my parents decided they had wasted their chances in life. I knew this because they told anyone who would listen, and this included me. I think disappointment was something I inherited from them both, along with their wavy hair and their table manners. In particular I think it was Victor who taught me at a young age how to lower my expectations.
These are the opening words of Martha, both the hero and the victim in Cory Taylor’s brilliant debut novel. The ‘debut novel’ label may mislead, for while this is her first novel, she is an accomplished screenwriter and author of short fiction, which manifests itself in the liquid smoothness of her first novel. Her writing is so seamless that the reader forgets there is a writer behind the young narrator. From the first page to the last, I assumed I was listening to Martha, a sixteen year old Australian girl struggling to find her way in the hazy transition from childhood to being an adult. Martha is wise far beyond her years, yes, but also a hurt and searching child forced into the world of not simply witnessing, but counseling and adjudicating the ongoing wars between her parents.
One reviewer said this book was darkly comic, and while it certainly is comic, I see little or no darkness in it. A struggle yes; an uncommonly difficult coming of age, yes. It is hard enough just to be a successful child of (more or less) separated parents, but to be thrust into the role of counselor to her mother, and forced somehow to stand guard between her mother and Victor, her father, and sometimes between Victor and her younger brother—too much. She never calls him father, only Victor. Refusing even in name to deny essential separation.
She might have turned to Eddie, her younger brother at least as ally, someone to talk to about the craziness of their father, but “It was like he thought talking was kind of wasted effort that he didn’t see the need for because it didn’t lead anywhere.”
In fact, she turns to Mr. Booker, a stylish Englishmen and his beautiful wife, Mr. and Mrs. Booker. They need her as much (or more) than she needs them. Although they live in a fog of alcohol and frustrated dreams themselves.
I’m not going to stress the sexual parts of this novel except to say that they are more comic than titillating. Although reviewers can’t help themselves from comparing the book to Lolita, and as perhaps a Lolita’s-eye-view of it all, it’s a silly comparison. The important and redeeming character in the book is Martha, who manages to escape not only from the sad, drunk Mr. Booker and his sad, lonely and isolated wife, but from Victor and even from her well meaning but ineffectual mother. Running to Sydney, perhaps with the help of one of her mother’s best friends, she regrets leaving her mother alone, and still not quite rid of Victor despite years of living more or less apart.
Her mother wants to accompany her to Sydney, but Martha replies that she can manage on her own.
She didn’t argue. She must have wanted to but I think she was scared that if she made it hard for me to get away from my father I would hold it against her for the rest of my life. My mother didn’t believe in confrontation. It wasn’t that she was weak, it was just that she didn’t see the point of it. She liked to tell me there were forces all around us that we couldn’t even see, and it was a question not so much of trusting them, but of accepting how helpless we were in the face of their power. Even so it must have been hard for her to watch me go; she probably thought she was losing me the same way she’s lost Eddie.
What counts most in this novel is not the sex, not even the tumult of the lives of the main characters, but the voice of the lead character. I, perhaps still naïve reader of fiction that I am, hear it as Cory Taylor’s voice. Looking back, yes, and with the wisdom that looking back affords, but expressing it always in the voice of that girl, of Martha. A strong and mostly lucid voice.
I read this book in a day or two because, cliché or not, I could not put it down. I loved it—the writing, the wit, the wisdom.