Book Review: For Emma and Elvis by Charles Hall
For Emma and Elvis is the second novel from Australian author and musician, Charles Hall. In the summer of 1977, Michael Byrne returns to London after a trip to Spain with his wife Emma and her young son, Declan. They are greeted by the news that Elvis Presley is dead. But when Michael goes to the local newsagent to read the paper, he discovers some even more shocking news which will have personal ramifications for his and Emma's life together. Emma's ex-husband- and Declan's father- Paul Hegarty, has been injured while working on a story in Tanzania. Though Michael wants nothing more than to erase Paul from their lives, he has no choice but to tell Emma what has happened.
From there, the book jumps back in time to 1968, Australia, when Emma and Michael first met. Michael, a dogsbody for a local music agency, has a talent for photography, and is an all about nice guy. His best mate, Johnny, is full of surprises. The two of them strike up a friendship with two young women at a show for local artists, The Green Roots, when it is raided by the police. Michael ends up driving the girls home- or at least attempting to, as Johnny has forgotten to put petrol in Michael's Kombi the last time he borrowed it. But the meeting is a fateful one, for soon Lucy and Johnny are an item, and Emma has moved in with Michael, promising that there shall be no funny business between them. Famous last words.
The book that follows is full of love and loss, pining, jealousy, politics, music, and photography. Michael's love for Emma survives a decade of long absences. No matter what else is happening in his life, Emma is always a constant, and everything always comes back to the fact of her.
The book is written in Michael's voice and adopts a very casual, conversational style. At first, the first person present tense style is a little jarring, particularly as the book moves back in time, but I was quickly absorbed into the book and pulled along by the narrative. A particular highlight of the novel was the setting; Hall deftly builds a realistic seeming sense of Australia in the 1960s and 1970s as Mike and Johnny tour around in the Kombi Van trying to forget the women they love (and failing). For Emma and Elvis is frequently funny, too, such as when Johnny hides a set of keys belonging to some of their dropkick employers on the wheat bins inside a loaf of bread to stop them coming after the boys. A few things that stuck out to me were just how often Johnny said some variation of 'stone the crows' (there may just be a drinking game in that) and a seeming obsession with the makes and models of certain cars. For some readers, this probably added to the sense of place and time, but to me it did seem somewhat unnecessary. That being said, I was absorbed quickly into this book and ended up reading it across a single day.
I particularly liked the complexity of the heroine Emma, who was a well-drawn complex human being. There is a clear delineation in her character from the darkness in her past to her behaviour later on in the book, and though she at times does some very unlikeable things, you always feel sympathy for her and want her and Michael to be okay. Often this type of heroine veers into manic pixie dream girl territory, but Hall manages to make his Emma a real person- though I still don't understand what she ever saw in Paul!
This book is kind of an Australian High Fidelity in a lot of ways, and would appeal to readers who enjoyed Barry Divola's Driving Stevie Fracasso.
Thanks to Charles Hall for sending me a copy of the book to review! You can buy a copy of the book here.
**Please note that this book has trigger warnings for sexual assault, rape and domestic violence.