BOOK REVIEW / Like canasta or waltzing: Dark places - Kate Grenville: Picador, pounds 14.99
When Albion describes a roomful of laughing women, you can be certain that he has missed the joke and that you'll find it between the lines. He rails against the 'freemasonry of femaleness' as his unreliability becomes increasingly readable. If Grenville had decided to present this novel through additional points of view it might have made life easier for her, but readers would have been denied many of the sharp ironies and much of the unsettling tension. Albion Gidley Singer is a monster who unmasks himself.
Before learning to be appalled by Albion, the reader must first wince, with something like sympathy, through his coming of age: the enraged sister noisily coveting his luck at learning Greek and algebra, the soppy mother cosseting him with fairy cakes until the chilly father marches him off to the tailor, the Club and the family stationery business. Apparently it was acceptable for Australian gentility to be 'in trade', though the Gidleys seem rather defensive on this score.
'I was realistic enough to know that social ease was never going to come naturally to me,' says Albion stiffly, 'but I was sure that being a man was something that could simply be learned like canasta or waltzing.' He rehearses jokes and perfects attitudes before the mirror. He studies romantic novels and gleans that wit is not required but that interesting silences implying 'depth' attract the female, so he keeps quiet and implies.
It all seems more amusing than cynical or sinister until Albion marries the biddable Norah, thwarts all but the most domestic of her creative urges, gets bored, sometimes violent, then deems her a ninny and takes up with regular prostitutes. He is, however, secretly impressed by Norah's warrior-like fortitude in giving birth, though their progeny make a mockery of his concept of gender, the son John a mewling wimp, the daughter Lilian a vast undainty lump. Albion recognises himself in her raw competitiveness, but the very words he uses to describe her girth and ungainliness - 'She never looked quite so much like a side of beef' - get progressively crueller, pointing to the growing and twisted obsession which will have hideous consequences.
Albion's daughter was the subject of Grenville's 1985 novel Lilian's Story (reissued by Picador this month, pounds 5.99), which Patrick White, who did not hand out praise lightly, declared 'a dazzling fiction'. Readers should not expect the new novel to be a precisely overlapping prequel. Some facts have altered in the intervening nine years, and although each book is completely self-contained, the two are best read according to the characters' chronology: the father first indicting himself in Dark Places, followed by the daughter crazily redeeming herself in Lilian's Story.
What is so impressive in both novels is the force Grenville marshals to reveal character: the pellucid confession, the dialogue's stinging wit, the eloquence of descriptive detail. The books share one cataclysmic wrong - of father against daughter - but Grenville's skill is to open out from this heinous act commentaries on Victorian and Edwardian decorum, on the modern feminist perspective, on sexuality in any age and the self-deceptions that serve it.
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