Towards the end of the year I am adopting a policy of random reading. I go through my shelves and to some of the many libraries I have access to and select large numbers of books that seem interesting. In this manner I have discovered Padgett Powell, the French writer Jean Echenoz, books about Australian birds and Zen travels and lately, a fantastic Australian novel, Indelible Ink, by Fiona McGregor. She won The Age Fiction and Book of the Year Award for it in 2011, and I can’t quite work out why her book has not received any of the big awards or even why I missed it at the time. Her work has been likened to that of Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap, although in my view she is a vastly superior writer, and she shares the same edgy content: homosexuality, drugs, the world of tattoos, but with more heart.
This book is described on the cover as ‘the richest and most complete evocation of Sydney since Patrick White,’ and the world of the rich Mosman dwellers with their $7 million cliff top houses is created in all its privilege:
Dense blue harbour pushed against a canopy of trees below. The flapping of sails from yachts going about was close enough to have come from next door.
Just as well created is the seedy world of Darlinghurst and Surry Hills:
Part of the road had been torn up and construction barriers lined each block. A group of English boys lurched down the footpath, shouting drunken songs. As the taxi paused at a red light, some Aborigines sauntered up from Wooloomooloo screaming with laughter, then stopped to stare directly through the window at her.
Fiona McGregor’s evocation of this huge, traffic-choked, drought-beset city is compelling. Her central character, Marie King, is a fifty-nine year old divorced woman who is struggling to survive; in debt and without a direction in life, Marie is at the mercy of her self-centered children. She is forced to sell their family home and with it the huge garden to which she has devoted so many hours of work. Marie left University to marry at nineteen, and she is just beginning to dream that she may be able to resume her studies and even, one day, have a job. Her three children have abrasive relationships with each other, but are united in their criticisms of their mother. Marie has been too accommodating towards their father, has ended up with a mean divorce settlement, and is given to drinking to an embarrassing degree. Here she is after a big lunch, in an up-market furniture store with her wealthy friend Susan:
She was again confused by similarities with furniture from the history of her home, as though her house had only ever been a retail outlet. The air became progressively still and muggy. Susan began to fan herself with a catalogue. The catalogue whirred louder and louder, inside Marie’s ears a giddy thrumming, then she was tripping over an electrical cord, grabbing on to a lamp, on her hands and knees, skirt up her thighs and Susan was saying, ‘Oh god, Marie, oh god,’ and the assistant was rushing towards them as Marie vomited her lunch of Pinot Grigio and scampi linguini across the floor.
And this is typical of Marie, visiting this store, buying a huge couch she can’t afford when she is about to move house, all because she is unable to stand up to her forceful friend, and then making a spectacle of herself.
Her children see her as an embarrassment and even more when, in an idle drunken moment, she gets her first tattoo, a rose on her shoulder. She is soon back to the first tattooist, getting a wreath around her ankle and that is when the children realise their mother is going way beyond the social norms they consider acceptable. I am as snobbish about tattoos as the next person, but as a way of marking yourself out from mainstream society they are unbeatable. Soon Marie is given the address of Rhys, a highly regarded and artistic tattooist.
There was a tramp of boots then a woman emerged from the back room. She was tall with dark shaggy hair and an angular face into which were sunk large dark, bloodshot eyes. Her high forehead and full top lip gave her an enquiring and opinionated air. Thick metal hoops hung from her lobes, she was of indeterminate age, and both hands were completely tattooed.
She has a long waiting list, but something about Marie’s urgency speaks to her and they embark on the adornment of Marie’s body. First the flames on the belly, then more radical images. Marie finds the pain extreme at times, but she can cope, and somehow finds herself able to give up alcohol.
Marie’s struggles with defining herself, trying to protect her garden in the violent heat, caring for her dying cat, preparing for the auction of her home, are entwined with the lives of her children, Clark, Blanche, and Leon, all of whom have their own angsts and issues to deal with. Life in Sydney provides a rich background for their lives, with the old harbourside wealth at odds with the new money intent on tearing down the old houses and destroying their gardens to make swimming pools. The violent swings between drought and sudden downpours, the traffic and the seamy underside of the inner city give a fascinating insight into a whole world, to say nothing of the exploration of a subject dear to the heart of every Australian, Real Estate. We experience Marie’s auction, hear the smooth talk of her auctioneer son in law Hugh, and live through the auction and its aftermath.
By this time Marie has received a disturbing diagnosis to which she and all her family react in their typical ways. Her tattooist Rhys continues their work but also proves to be a quiet and sensitive support.
This book has 452 pages and I couldn’t put it down. I don’t know whether that was partly because it explored a world I knew fairly well, or because it explored a world about which I knew nothing. But it was certainly because of the writing.
The garden at night filled with the sounds of crickets and one late willy-wagtail. Marie stepped across the lawn, lifted her nightie and squatted beneath the lemon tree. The moon slid from its veil, flooding her to the marrow, and everything around her lit up like a stage. She could see the crinkled furls of hibiscus, and high up in the angophora the lit cigarettes of a possum’s eyes.