Kennedy is an experienced and much-admired writer of short stories but this is her first novel, and of course inevitably someone has asked her about what far too many people see as the 'advance' from the short story to the novel, as if, in moving from the former to the latter, one had succeeded in one's OWLs and was now tackling one's NEWTs. Kennedy's answer to this, as quoted in the detailed, engaging interview that the SMH's Susan Wyndham published last weekend, appearing also in her Undercover blog, is maybe the best riposte to this short-story v. novel thing that I've ever seen in the whole thirtysomething years I've been being annoyed by it:
"I heard someone once say, 'You must feel different now that you've moved to the big pool from the toddler pool,' " she says of her change of form. "I quite bridled at this because I don't think the short story is a toddler pool. In a way it is more like the beautiful diving pool - it's not the shallow pool, it's the smaller pool that takes a lot of practice to do the one entry perfectly."
'The beautiful diving pool' -- how Katherine Mansfield would have loved that. And Chekhov, Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Alice Munro and who-all else.
The novel is reviewed in the new issue of Australian Book Review by Jo Case, who kind of likes it but says it's hard to get carried away by the plot because you're too aware of the structure. I can't agree with this. What I kept thinking was that the structure was intensely cinematic and was carrying me around the circuits of feeling among the characters while at the same time moving them and the action forwards. Topspin, as it were.
There are three main characters: the dizty leftover hippie Sandy, 45, henna'd devotee of decaf and hand-turned coffee mugs, still bravely making jewellery and selling it at a market stall in between massages and earnest conversations; Sandy's former partner Rich, a restless, rootless middle-aged man with a ponytail, a string of dead-end jobs and a long-held but never-realised ambition to be a successful professional photographer; and their daughter Sophie, fifteen, sullen, watchful, clever, tagged 'emo goth', whose father scarpered when she was a baby and therefore knows her not at all.
Both Sandy and Rich, even now, live in the faded glory of the high point of their lives: participation in the Franklin River Blockade 25 years earlier, a story to which Sophie has been subjected over and over while, she thinks bitterly, other kids got the Three Bears. (There's a stern message here for Boomers endlessly reliving their illusory glory days, though frankly all the Boomers I know, including me, are all too aware that the glory days were actually not all that glorious and are firmly focused on the present: on our financial survival in interesting times, on the longueurs and woes of our young adult children and our aged parents, and on our own increasingly unreliable and wonky bodies as bits and parts of them play up and wear out one by inexorable one. Types like Rich and Sandy are by no means unknown, but they're not typical, either.)
Anyway, the plot gets into second gear on Sophie's fifteenth birthday, when Rich rings her to wish her a happy birthday and suggests that he take her on a Tasmanian wilderness hike and bonding exercise on Cradle Mountain. Off they go to catch their plane to Hobart: third gear. But then things start to go wrong. Vroom.
From this point the narrative alternates between scenes of Rich and Sophie on the hiker trail and scenes of Sandy first at Mandala Holistic Wellness Centre and then, very worried after Rich and Sophie turn out not to be on their scheduled return flight, back at her own house surrounded by well-meaning alternative-living friends who keep trying to give her back rubs, read her tarot cards and help her think positive thoughts. Running in tandem with these changes of scene and the increasing tension and suspense they generate is the increasing subtlety with which everyone has begun to see everyone else: all three have been seeing each other in the light of cliché and caricature, and Kennedy manages very expertly the small shifts by which the characters begin to see each other as human beings with unexpected or hitherto unnoticed strengths and complexities.
In some ways Kennedy is working the same territory as Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap: contemporary domestic realism focusing on parenting and on conflicting cultural values. But there's less cultural diversity, fewer characters, less sex, more social history, and a better plot.