In the time-honoured tradition of romantic comedy’s ‘meet-cute’, Elizabeth and Trevor first encounter each other in the opening paragraph of this novel — which is not really a romantic comedy at all, but uses some of its conventions adroitly — when she is on the footpath looking into the window of his North Melbourne bookshop and suddenly almost faints. He takes her into his shop and offers her a brandy or a herb tea, both of which she refuses before disappearing without more ado.
Why does she almost faint? It becomes clear as we gradually learn more about these two, before they have learned much more about each other, that Elizabeth’s colourful and chaotic childhood at the hands of her self-absorbed, eccentric mother has left her with a passion for order. This manifests in her profession as a freelance book editor, in her mania for neatness and cleanliness, and in the mildly obsessive attitude to her diet that has been responsible for the near-faint. Trevor’s response to her fragility is kind but cautious. Who are these people, and will they meet again?
Philip Salom was for the first few decades of his writing career best known as a poet, but this is now his fourth novel and like the earlier ones it shows what advantages a poet’s eye and ear can bring to the writing of fiction. Through these two articulate characters, as they slowly get to know each other, Salom explores ideas about identity, about art, and about human affinities.
Elizabeth has a room to let, and Trevor needs a place to live. Each is involved in an unsatisfactory relationship; Elizabeth has a married lover, and Trevor’s marriage is coming, undramatically, to the end of its run, which is why he needs a new home. As far as romance is concerned, each of these middle-aged people is focused elsewhere, which leaves them free to get to know each other as human beings without harbouring unanswered questions, much less Tinder-like expectations, about each other.
And each has one surviving parent, both now elderly and both creating new difficulties for their long-suffering offspring. Elizabeth’s mother and Trevor’s father are the most visible and tangible of ‘the returns’, the people and things that shape our lives and that we never seem to be quite rid of no matter how much we would like to be. The theme of ‘returning’ is a constant one through this novel, from minor characters such as the disturbed bookshop customer and the vexatious neighbour, to Elizabeth’s childhood memories and Trevor’s nerve damage from an ancient injury.
Salom uses these characters and ideas to ask questions about the nature of identity. What makes us who we are? Here it’s everything from physical presence to biographical detail. Elizabeth has a condition called prosopagnosia, or ‘face-blindness’, which means that she must identify people by the gestalt of their physical presence: size, shape, walk, voice, grace or lack of grace. Trevor is a bookseller but he is also a painter, a former public servant, a soon-to-be-ex-husband. And both characters have been shaped by their parents: Elizabeth by her narcissistic exhibitionist mother, and Trevor by his long-absent father, an elderly middle-European grifter and conman from central casting, a fake sentimentalist and kisser of women’s hands.
Salom is using the framework of the realist novel to explore ideas that might — at least some of them — lead to despair, but in the end the reader is left with the sense of a warm and generous writerly consciousness, ruminating about the human condition and its possibilities for happiness in spite of everything.