Book Review: Thicker than Water
UWA Press, 2014
** I was sent a copy for review by UWA Press**
With a title like Thicker than Water, could Richard Rossiter's novella been about anything other than family? The story follows Marie D'Anger, an almost thirty-year-old woman from the South West of Australia who has been living in London while she studies, in a kind of exile from a family which has become less than loving. At the opening of the novella, Marie is returning home to her family to help her mother look after her father, who has had a stroke. Her feelings about her father are lukewarm at best. Kenneth has a history of controlling and judgemental behaviour, and his response to Marie's decision to go to London in the first place was to tell her that if she chose to leave she was not welcome to come back. Yet she comes back anyway, driven by a second motive of escaping the ruins of a passionate relationship which has ended suddenly. In London, Marie has been seeing a man named Edy Baudin, who seems to constitute a part of her own body. Their relationship is the stuff of dizzy legend, of hearts beating and bodies responding, and passion measured (as Rossiter says in the book) by the 'length of the line of clothes leading to the bed.' Edy has ended the relationship, and struggling to understand, Marie returns to Australia.
This review may contain things some readers may deem as spoilers, so if you want to avoid those, stop reading now and go read the book instead. (Then come back and read the rest of this review...)
She is unable to forget Edy, and his ghost haunts her every move. Meanwhile a host of other ghosts haunt the rest of the D'Anger family, most notably Kenneth's mother Hetty, whom he largely felt was an absent figure in his life, or perhaps that she did not love him enough. The reason for her distance is revealed somewhat enigmatically later in the book, when Marie discovers that Kenneth has known all along about Hetty's friendship with Kenneth's father's sibling Henri. Hetty's constant searching for identity was largely due to her having to give up the relationship with Henri in order to be with the family she has with Frederic.
This pattern of dual loves continues through the family line, first with Kenneth, who meets a woman named Chrysanthe in a chapel in Greece and has a week long affair with her that can only ever be seen as perfect through the lens of hindsight because of its enforced brevity. He reveals this relationship to his wife, only to have her lament him telling her at all, when they were finally getting along so well. He also tells her that Chrysanthe wrote him a note after he returned to his family but that he never replied. Marie also has a splitting of her romantic selves, when she enters into a relationship with Miles, someone with whom she feels comfortable but knows is a place holder, to stop herself thinking about Edy. She suspects for Miles she is something similar. In each generation, the D'Anger character finds passionate and dutiful love, but never with the same person, and must give up the happiness of the passion before it sours, turning instead to the reliability and fulfilment that comes with starting a family.
The threads of these three relationships come together when Edy follows Marie to Australia, unable to give her up. She breaks things off with Miles, breaking the chain of safe, passionless relationships and choosing the bodily happiness of her intense attraction to Edy. But Edy is not warmly received by Kenneth, and as family mysteries begin to unravel, it soon becomes obvious that like the others, this intense relationship is doomed to be discarded, and Marie will live a half life, always searching to repeat it, like her father and grandmother.
What I love about Rossiter's prose is that when you read it, you feel very strongly that you are in the capable hands of a master of the craft. You can feel in every line that this is a writer who has read a lot, and read a lot of local and Australian work in particular. His plots are fairly pared back, although in the hands of a less skilled writer, this novella would have turned into a dramatic, plot driven commercial drama. Instead, the result is a beautiful, literary work that has the pace of gentle breath. The sentences wash over you like a breeze, and you can see, hear and smell the South West. His characters feel very Winton-esque at times, in particular the father, and yet they are too bizarre to be his as well. Their worlds are much wider than Winton's; the 'promiscuous' grandmother, the meditating, cheerful mother who seems happier after her husband has a stroke. There is also a strong sense of love in the female characters, a familiarity with their concerns that suggests Rossiter has gone to great lengths to try and write against his own gender believably, and I feel that particularly with Marie, he's done incredibly well. This is a novella, so the narrow scope of her interests works well, but I think if this had been a longer work, I would have liked to see her (as the protagonist) have more of a life outside of thinking about Edy and remembering her father's past injustices.
I thought this would be a quick read, but instead what I got was a lovely, insular weekend reading prose that helped me slow my heart rate and see the world around me in a different way. I'm sorry to say I guessed the secret, but as my friends and family know, guessing the twist ending of books has become something of a super power of mine.
I give this book four stars.