Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Jay Carmichael, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘Marlo’ by Jay Carmichael

Fiction – paperback; Scribe Publications; 160 pages; 2022.

If we believe that one of literature’s aims is to give voice to the voiceless, to tell the tales of those unable to write it themselves, then Jay Carmichael’s novella Marlo has hit the bullseye.

This short, sharp, powerful story is set in Melbourne in the 1950s at a time when homosexuality was punishable by law and seen as a medical condition (and therefore “curable”) rather than as an identity.

Carmichael explains in his Author’s Note that “there’s a gap in what we today can know and understand about how life was lived as a male homosexual under societal scrutiny and persecution during mid-century Australia”.

To fill that gap he has imagined what it was like to live in fear of being branded a “sexual pervert”, of being outcast from family and friends, of being beaten up by strange men, of police entrapment, and “of arrest, exposure, infamy, and disgrace”.

Anonymous city life

The story is told in the first person by Christopher, a young gay man, who has fled his small repressive town in rural Gippsland — the Marlo of the title — to try living in the city where no one knows his name — or his preference for men.

But Chris is shy, quiet, not particularly sociable and far from worldly-wise. He moves in with Kings, an old school friend, who has no idea of Chris’ sexual orientation, winding him up about “birds” and “sheilas”, and begins working as a car mechanic.

When he meets Morgan, a young Aboriginal man, in the Botanic Gardens, a renowned gay beat, he befriends him and escorts him home on the train. An exchange of correspondence occurs over a few weeks and the pair fall in love.

Finding his place in the world

Meanwhile, Chris is introduced to a homosexual cafe, hidden away in downtown Melbourne, where he struggles to find his tribe — “these aren’t my people” — and continues to feel out of place and out of step with the rest of the world.

For Morgan, an Indigenous gay man, the struggle is even more difficult. Originally from NSW, he must carry ID papers with him, to prove he’s exempt from the Aborigines Protection Act, because he has a white father and can move freely about. He calls this a “dog tag” and is embarrassed by it, never more so than when he courts Christopher at the zoo and the pair are accosted by a policeman who orders them to leave but not without first checking Morgan’s papers.

The zoo visit was meant to be so raucous, with children chasing pelicans and mothers chasing children and fathers sweating by the snakes, that Morgan and I would be invisible. Our invisibility would have allowed us to wander, to find common ground. But common people […] disliked two men like us walking across their ground; even worse, when one of us was even less like them.

Quiet dignity

Marlo is written in beautiful, restrained prose and conveys a mood of poise and quiet dignity. The text is accompanied by striking black and white photographs, many of them courtesy of the Australian Queer Archives, which evoke a certain mood and capture time and place so magnificently.

I really enjoyed this evocative novella. In reclaiming a previously untold history, the author has created a bittersweet story that is as much about growing up and navigating a complex world as it is about living an authentic life under constant fear of exposure.

For other takes on this book, please see Lisa’s review at Anzlitlovers, and Brona’s review at This Reading Life.

The title will be released in the UK  in paperback on February 9, 2023; a Kindle edition is currently available in the UK and US.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott: a thinly veiled memoir based on the author’s first-hand experience struggling to keep his homosexuality secret while growing up in Sydney in the 1930s-40s.

‘Gents’ by Warwick Collins: an unusual tale about three West Indian janitors working in a central London toilet block that is frequented by cottagers. It explores many big themes, including homophobia, racism and religion.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. And because it’s by an Australian writer, it also qualifies for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth