Fiction – paperback; Night Parrot Press; 183 pages; 2021.
Book groups are going to have a field day with this novel published by Night Parrot Press, a relatively new indie based here in Perth that focuses on “experimental forms and genres outside the mainstream”. (More about them here.)
Ros Thomas’ How to Shame the Devil caught me in its grip from the start. I laughed and tittered my way through the first 100 or so pages. Indeed, it gave me a warm glow. It felt upbeat, almost joyous, the kind of story you want to press into people’s hands with a “here, read this” message. (I actually did this, prematurely it turns out, on my Instagram account.)
But then something happens and the book takes on a distinctively different feel. Darker. More confronting. And I wasn’t sure I liked it very much anymore. It made me feel icky. And I didn’t believe the central character’s reaction was authentic.
So how do I write this review without giving away key plot spoilers? I also realise that if I mention the issue at the heart of this novel not only will it spoil the plot, it may also be triggering for some readers.
So forgive me if this all sounds a bit vague. I’m just going to try to give a general flavour of the story, which is largely set in a nursing home in the Perth suburb of Shenton Park.
Nursing home resident
The protagonist, Arthur Lambkin, is 78 and has Parkinson’s, though he seems quite capable and manages his condition with medication. He claims he didn’t want to burden his two daughters with his care, hence he moved into Ashton Grange, a salmon-pink care home located just a stone’s throw from the local hospital.
Art’s main interest is penning witty letters to the daily newspaper, his “connection to the world”. It’s like a competitive hobby for him, complete with rivals — Roy Windleburn of City Beach, Bob Herriot from Palymra and John Ferranti from Scarborough — who also write letters. He keeps an unofficial scorecard and gets upset when they get more letters published than he does. The letters, it has to be said, are hilarious:
To the editor
As a lifelong vegetarian, I am heartily sick of vegans and the amount of attention being paid to them. Veganism has become a cult populated by food obsessives who spend their non-grazing hours denigrating omnivores for their choices. Possibly because their food tastes like dirt. I suggest they take a long hard look at the water they drink. That’s a fish’s home, you savages.
A ladies’ man
He also has an eye for the ladies, which sounds charming, to begin with, but there are little asides and comments which make you wonder if he is as innocent as he makes out.
This dichotomy is fleshed out via flashbacks that take us to Art’s childhood, early adulthood and his courtship of Hazel Hopkins, a nurse, who later becomes his wife and the mother of their two daughters.
From the outset, the marriage seems incompatible because they have different ideas about sex. Art wants it; Hazel doesn’t. Art also rails against Hazel’s desire to seek conformity, stability and routine.
Art thought conformity was deadening. He’d wanted a frenzy of living: to throw each day to the wind and see what landed. He wanted his wife to be recklessly in love with him. He wanted to be admired, to feel invincible, to share the tonic of wildness. He wanted danger and excitement and the chance to sacrifice himself for love.
He makes up for a dull home life by focusing on his career. He leaves his job as a hospital orderly, where he met Hazel, and becomes a hugely successful used car salesman at Motorama, which he transforms into “Perth’s number one Holden dealership”. Later, in the heyday of commercial radio, he takes a role as an advertising salesman for Sky FM, earning big bucks and making a name for himself.
A man’s world
Reading between the lines of How to Shame the Devil, the author cleverly highlights the misogyny at work and play during Art’s lifetime.
My major issue with this novel — again, without going into specifics — is that it’s written by a woman from a man’s (imagined) perspective and it doesn’t ring true (to me). I had a hard time swallowing Art’s ability to recall events from decades earlier and the ways in which he redeems himself. Other readers, I’m sure, will disagree. And this is why I reckon it would make a great title for book groups to discuss — and argue over.
I’m itching for other people to read it, so I can talk about it with them.
I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. The author grew up in Perth and has worked in national and international current affairs for more than 20 years. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.