2020 Miles Franklin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘The Returns’ by Philip Salom

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transit Lounge; 336 pages; 2019.

Philip Salom’s The Returns is about two middle-aged people in inner-city Melbourne who become housemates and develop an unlikely friendship. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It has everything I could wish for in a literary novel. Eccentric, middle-aged characters with unusual backstories. Geat dialogue and wry, understated jokes. A bookshop setting. A character who is an editor. Another who is a would-be artist. Lots of mentions of food and cooking. References to things — books, films and places — that I know well.

And yet something about this novel just did not gel for me. I struggled to connect with the story.

New beginnings

The Returns revolves around two people whose lives have not panned out the way they might have expected. Both have successfully reinvented themselves after career setbacks, but neither is truly happy.

Elizabeth is a freelance book editor who divides her time between her work in Melbourne and looking after her aged mother in Ballarat. She has an adult daughter she very rarely sees. Most of her spare time is spent obsessing over her diet and what she puts in her mouth. She has prosopagnosia, which means she is  incapable of remembering and recognising people by their faces.

Trevor is a bookshop owner with a penchant for cooking who once longed to be an artist. He survived a nasty car accident and now walks with a limp. His marriage has run its natural course but he is still living with his wife, albeit in separate bedrooms. He is effectively stuck in a rut, going to work every day, dealing with difficult customers, then coming home to cook dinner for his ex-wife.

The pair meet when Elizabeth collapses near Trevor’s bookshop. Her unhealthy obsession with healthy eating means her blood sugar is dangerously low. Trevor rescues her, and later she returns to ask him to put an advertisement in his shop window. She has a spare room in her house she wants to rent out.

Trevor recognises this as an opportunity to move out of the marital home and start afresh. The added bonus is that Elizabeth has a shed in her back garden which would be perfect to use as an art studio, giving him the chance to rekindle his thwarted artistic career. And so Trevor becomes Elizabeth’s lodger.

Getting to know each other

Not much happens plotwise in The Returns. Much of it revolves around two characters getting to know one another, the uneasy tension giving way to trust and friendship. Salom takes his time to flesh this out, using wry humour, well-versed conversations and detailed set pieces to show how each character becomes acquainted with the other.

Their individual perspectives are told in alternate “chunks”, for want of a better word (there are no chapters in this novel), so that the reader gets to know both characters incredibly well.

On the face of it, it would seem neither has much in common. But they are both “the offspring of Narcissists”, as Trevor puts it. His Polish-born father went missing when Trevor was a child and despite been declared legally dead has recently reappeared on the scene making unreasonable demands, while Elizabeth’s mother belonged to the Rajneesh movement, otherwise known as the Orange People, and failed to protect her teenage daughter from the sexual deviants within its midst. Both Trevor and Elizabeth, it would seem, are still grappling with the psychological wounds of their upbringings.

Similarly, they both have an obsession with food — Trevor for cooking it, Elizabeth with being Over The Top about its provenance and nutritional content — and the power of art and literature to transform and giving meaning to their lives.

I particularly loved the little asides about literature, such as this one:

Trevor is standing beside a man who is a big fan of Irish fiction and especially of Dermot Healy and the new star Eimear McBride. ‘A man of good taste,’ says Trevor. They have been discussing linguistic tangles and how and when or if they are appropriate in the novel and how this book by McBride was thrown aside by umpteen publishers, umpteen meaning for nine years, before it was finally taken, sold and immediately made her famous. A very French outcome for an Irish book.

And yet, for all the richly detailed prose and the total immersion in two character’s slowly intertwined lives, I struggled to fully connect with The Returns. Perhaps it was just too slow-moving for me and lacked sufficient drama to make me want to keep turning the pages. Or maybe it was the right book but the wrong time?

Lisa at ANZ LitLovers liked this much more than me.

This my 6th book for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

2020 Miles Franklin

The 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist

If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that the Miles Franklin Literary Award was on my mind at the start of the month.

Imagine my surprise today to discover the longlist had been unexpectedly dropped via the Miles Franklin Instagram account. (See here.) Of course, I then visited Lisa Hill’s blog to check whether she had any additional news (and to see how many books she had read) and read the official announcement on Perpetual’s website.

There are 10 books on the list and I’ve read three. I have a handful more on my TBR. I’m not sure I will read all the books on the longlist, but will wait for the shortlist to be announced on 17 June and try to read everything on that.

The winner of the $60,0000 prize will be announced on 16 July 2020.

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The White Girl by Tony Birch
“Odette Brown has lived her whole life on the fringes of a small country town. After her daughter disappeared and left her with her granddaughter Sissy to raise on her own, Odette has managed to stay under the radar of the welfare authorities who are removing fair-skinned Aboriginal children from their families.”

Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng
“Since her sister died, Meg has been on her own. She doesn’t mind, not really—not with Atticus, her African grey parrot, to keep her company—but after her house is broken into by a knife-wielding intruder, she decides it might be good to have some company after all. Andy’s father has lost his job, and his parents’ savings are barely enough to cover his tuition. If he wants to graduate, he’ll have to give up his student flat and find a homeshare. Living with an elderly Australian woman is harder than he’d expected, though, and soon he’s struggling with more than his studies.”

Islands by Peggy Frew
“Helen and John are too preoccupied with making a mess of their marriage to notice the quiet ways in which their daughters are suffering. Junie grows up brittle and defensive, Anna difficult and rebellious. When fifteen-year-old Anna fails to come home one night, her mother’s not too worried; Anna’s taken off before but always returned. Helen waits three days to report her disappearance. But this time Anna doesn’t come back …”

No One by John Hughes
“In the ghost hours of a Monday morning a man feels a dull thud against the side of his car near the entrance to Redfern Station. He doesn’t stop immediately. By the time he returns to the scene, the road is empty, but there is a dent in the car, high up on the passenger door, and what looks like blood. Only a man could have made such a dent, he thinks. For some reason he looks up, though he knows no one is there. Has he hit someone, and if so, where is the victim? So begins a story that takes us to the heart of contemporary Australia’s festering relationship to its indigenous past. A story about guilt for acts which precede us, crimes we are not sure we have committed, crimes gone on so long they now seem criminal- less.”

Act of Grace by Anna Krien
“Iraqi aspiring pianist Nasim falls from favour with Saddam Hussein and his psychopathic son, triggering a perilous search for safety. In Australia, decades later, Gerry is in fear of his tyrannical father, Toohey, who has returned from the Iraq War bearing the physical and psychological scars of conflict. Meanwhile, Robbie is dealing with her own father’s dementia when the past enters the present. These characters’ worlds intertwine in a brilliant narrative of guilt and reckoning, trauma and survival. Crossing the frontiers of war, protest and reconciliation, Act of Grace is a meditation on inheritance: the damage that one generation passes on to the next, and the potential for transformation.”

A Season on Earth by Gerald Murnane
“Lost to the world for more than four decades, A Season on Earth is the essential link between two acknowledged masterpieces by Gerald Murnane: the lyrical account of boyhood in his debut novel, Tamarisk Row, and the revolutionary prose of The Plains. A Season on Earth is Murnane’s second novel as it was intended to be, bringing together all of its four sections – the first two of which were published as A Lifetime on Clouds in 1976 and the last two of which have never been in print. A hilarious tale of a lustful teenager in 1950s Melbourne, A Lifetime on Clouds has been considered an outlier in Murnane’s fiction. That is because, as Murnane writes in his foreword, it is ‘only half a book and Adrian Sherd only half a character.’ Here, at last, is sixteen-year-old Adrian’s journey in full, from fantasies about orgies with American film stars and idealised visions of suburban marital bliss to his struggles as a Catholic novice, and finally a burgeoning sense of the boundless imaginative possibilities to be found in literature and landscapes. Adrian Sherd is one of the great comic creations in Australian writing, and A Season on Earth is a revelatory portrait of the artist as a young man.”

The Returns by Philip Salom
“Elizabeth posts a ‘room for rent’ notice in Trevor’s bookshop and is caught off-guard when Trevor answers the advertisement himself. She expected a young student, not a middle-aged bookseller whose marriage has fallen apart. But Trevor is attracted to Elizabeth’s house because of the empty shed in her backyard, the perfect space for him to revive the artistic career he abandoned years earlier. The face-blind, EH Holden-driving Elizabeth is a solitary and feisty book editor, and she accepts him, on probation … In this poignant yet upbeat novel, the past keeps returning in the most unexpected ways. Elizabeth is at the beck and call of her ageing mother, and the associated memories of her childhood in a Rajneesh community. Trevor’s Polish father disappeared when Trevor was fifteen, and his mother died not knowing whether he was dead or alive. The authorities have declared him dead, but is he?”

Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany
“In the late 1970s, in the forgotten outer suburbs, a girl has her hands in the engine of a Holden. A sinister new man has joined the family. He works as a mechanic and operates an unlicensed repair shop at the back of their block. The family is under threat. The girl reads the Holden workshop manual for guidance. She resists the man with silence, then with sabotage. She fights him at the place where she believes his heart lives – in the engine of the car.”

The Yield by Tara June Winch
“Knowing that he will soon die, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi takes pen to paper. His life has been spent on the banks of the Murrumby River at Prosperous House, on Massacre Plains. Albert is determined to pass on the language of his people and everything that was ever remembered. He finds the words on the wind. August Gondiwindi has been living on the other side of the world for ten years when she learns of her grandfather’s death. She returns home for his burial, wracked with grief and burdened with all she tried to leave behind. Her homecoming is bittersweet as she confronts the love of her kin and news that Prosperous is to be repossessed by a mining company. Determined to make amends she endeavours to save their land – a quest that leads her to the voice of her grandfather and into the past, the stories of her people, the secrets of the river.”

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
“Four older women have a lifelong friendship of the best kind: loving, practical, frank and steadfast. But when Sylvie dies, the ground shifts dangerously for the remaining three. Can they survive together without her? They are Jude, a once-famous restaurateur, Wendy, an acclaimed public intellectual, and Adele, a renowned actress now mostly out of work. Struggling to recall exactly why they’ve remained close all these years, the grieving women gather for Christmas at Sylvie’s old beach house – not for festivities, but to clean the place out before it is sold. Without Sylvie to maintain the group’s delicate equilibrium, frustrations build and painful memories press in. Fraying tempers, an elderly dog, unwelcome guests and too much wine collide in a storm that brings long-buried hurts to the surface – and threatens to sweep away their friendship for good.”

I reckon this is a really interesting list — there are only two new names to me (John Hughes and Philip Salom) — with a mix of men and women and diverse subject matter. I’m looking forward to reading the books already on my TBR. Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?