Saturday, June 3, 2017

Reading Notes: Hold (Kirsten Tranter)

This review is my second from the Miles Franklin Prize Longlist 2017. For my first review, of Steven Amsterdam's The Easy Way Out, see here.

I was interested in Kirsten Tranter's novel as soon as I read the precis, for one important reason: this book features a hidden / secret room device.

One of my most recurring dream tropes is that of the "found room". This is not an uncommon dream archetype, and has a range of possible meanings, but it's something that has permeated my dreaming life for many years.

In my dreams, I am usually in my own current house, or occasionally in the house I was brought up in. I discover a door in the wall of a familiar room - a door I have never noticed before. I go through and find an unexpected new room - sometimes it's tiny, airless and claustrophic, like a little boxroom, whereas sometimes it's a long low narrow room, like an enclosed sun-porch.

My reaction to finding the room varies, presumably depending on what Jungian symbolism my psyche is using to convey meaning at the time. These dreams are, however, always extremely vivid, and feel significant - they are less a jumble of sense impressions and more an assertion of truths absorbed subconsciously, trying to work their way up to the surface.

Although the hidden / found room in Tranter's novel is not a dream, it has a definite dreamlike quality to it, and its function in the story is both Jungian and (depending on your interpretation) Freudian. Hold is, at its heart, a story of life after loss, and coming to terms with grief; the found room occupies a central symbolic role in the journey of the protagonist to make some sense of, and begin to transition through, the past in which she is mired.

Hold is an intelligent, sensitive and only occasionally over-egged novel. The disparate elements are woven together skillfully to reinforce the overall affect, which is a combination of yearning, melancholy and detachment from life. That said, while Shelley, the book illustrator / designer protagonist, is detached, it is in a completely different way to The Easy Way Out's Evan. Shelley's emotional flatness is a response to, and is fuelled by, the opening event of the novel, which is the drowning death at Bronte Beach of her boyfriend Conrad.

The novel is slow to start - for me, it began to get really interesting only when Shelley and her new partner, the oily David (did NOT like him), have moved into their shared terrace house and Shelley has discovered a hidden room, accessible through a stiff door hidden in the wardrobe of the master bedroom, and started to connect the small, secret space with her own emotions. Three years after Conrad's death, Shelley is not over him, or her loss - Tranter does a very subtle and effective job of showing this, rather than telling - and the room becomes the locus of the part of her that is not past this experience and is holding on to Conrad, holding tightly and painfully, despite repartnering.

Where this book is most effective - and to be clear, I think it is, on the whole, very effective - is in the way it delicately connects the small, brooding room with Shelley's fixations around Conrad. The introduction of the character Kieran, with his striking physical resemblance to Conrad, could have felt contrived, but it's a testament to Tranter's skill that it doesn't - rather, it evokes a strangeness and lucid-dream quality that serves the novel's overall trajectory well. The weaving of the fracturing relationship with David, the almost other-wordly interactions with Kieran and the oddball artist neighbours Rob and Alicia, the subplots with stepdaughter Janie and old friend Tess, is done in sepia tones that adds enormously to the effect.

There are a few moments where Tranter does strain the friendship a little - the loop-closing with Tess is a bit forced, and the resolution to the neighbour plot sits a bit too pat for my taste. But the power of the closed room as a central device never wavers throughout the whole unfolding of the story. Quiet, dim, imbued with a breathing, waiting presence of its own, the room is a character in the story in its own right, and in many ways, the most important character of all to Shelley's eventual resolution.

The ending of the novel (this is not a spoiler, all the surprises are revealed long before this) has Shelley swimming in an ocean pool at a Sydney beach, the salt of it on her skin and in her eyes, and finally, her heart shaken free from the frozen limbo she's existed in since Conrad's death. It is a good ending, satisfying, fitting to the story. And it is a good novel; a very good novel, in fact. It well deserves to be on the Miles Franklin list, and I'd like to see it shortlist.

Score: 8/10
Would recommend for all adult readers

1 comment: