Monday, April 5, 2010

Review: "The Legacy"

"The Legacy" Kirsten Tranter
Fourth Estate
Length: 438pages

My journeys through Australian literature are on par with the success of Burke and Wills expedition up the centre of Australia. They always start with excessive amounts of enthusiasm, big claims that I can conquer the literary landscape and unearth new sources of inspiration. I belittle those who don’t step off the well-trodden tourists pathways of literary landmarks of Carey and Winton, beseeching them that they should support the cherished underdog. However I always fall by the wayside, stumbling dizzy and dehydrated into a ditch, distracted by disillusions of my own great intentions without actually properly planning to follow through on them.

I’m making amends and moving beyond the stock standard swag of Australian authors that grace the bestsellers list, I’m heading into Australia’s uncharted territory and this time I’m doing it with the aid of Gleebooks - who are less likely to spit at me than a camel.

Gleebooks in Sydney’s suburb of Glebe has a long established book club featuring Australian literature. This month’s book was “The Legacy” by first time novelist Kirsten Tranter.

I arrive early, keen to make a good impression. The blue plastic chairs are soon filled with a brigade of baby boomers, swigging down glasses of white wine and cheekily chortling through false teeth. Despite their older age, everyone avoids the front row with shy schoolgirl graces, not wanting to be picked out by the flame haired mediator or worse by special guest Kirsten Tranter. I wonder how having the author at a book club will effect the meeting, self-censorship is sure to be rife as I overhear a few ladies moaning about how they struggled to get past the first hundred pages. Once the mediator warmly welcomes us, the ladies hush up and predictably pretend that their homework has been completed.

It’s clear that Tranter remembers her school days well, with “The Legacy” revolving around the lives of three students studying at Sydney Uni.

Typically you attend high school within your postcode and inherit strong opinions about the social nuances of people occupying the other points of the compass. Tranter unimaginatively uses these long established stereotypes to contextualize her characters Ralph and Julia. Lay-about Ralph hails from North Sydney - nuclear family intact and pockets overflowing with cash. Narrator Julia, deserted daughter of a hippie Mother, lives alone Sydney’s inner west juggling jobs and loose change.

Then bam you hit University. Your world opens up. The ability to drive dissolves the boundaries of distance and you actually meet people from the other side of the bridge.

Ralph and Julia become firm friends. Ralph’s beautiful half-cousin Ingrid soon joins the fold, subtly altering dynamics. However the trio are inseparable, whiling away their hours boozing at Ralph’s harbor-side mansion, watching videos at Julia’s job at a video shop or playing endless games of Cluedo in typical arts students style at the uni bar. Conversations are interspaced with “witty” [insert: poncy] remarks about Shakespeare or Casablanca and the next piss up they’re going to attend.

Tranter explores the theme of haves and have nots. This isn’t just mediation on money, it delves beyond the pocket and into the pants, as the trio’s complicated friendship is singed with affairs of the heart, with each not able to have the one they want.

Ingrid goes on to marry the much older American Art dealer Gil Grey – father of child art prodigy Fleur – signaling the end of the friendship. It is when Ingrid goes unaccounted for after the September 11 attacks that Ralph resumes contact with Julia, convincing her to go to New York to learn more about the life Ingrid’s New York life before her untimely death. It is there [many, many pages later] that Julia discovers that Ingrid’s life may not have been as super fantastic as they all thought.

The cover totes it as an “unputdownable mystery” - in reality the book lacks any mysterious intent until the final quarter of the book. The achingly slow pace of the book is dictated by the introspective yearnings of Julia. Wallowing in self-pity and low self-esteem, Julia continually compares her self worth the seemingly flawless Ingrid - hardly suspenseful stuff. I preserved waiting for the storyline to form. The self absorbed characters sapping me of my will to read – like Bruke and Wills – I should have turned back when the going got tough. But I kept soldiering on, sure that there would be a flourishing spring of poetic phrasing up over the next ridge or a sprout of intrigue as I rounded the bend. No such luck. Tranter tries to string tension through the story with staccato style sentences. Tranter references Raymond Chandler as an inspiration for creating “hard-boiled” atmosphere– unfortunately using pared back sentences and short, sharp phrases when there is no mystery to speak of leaves the reader cold. Julia’s narration comes off bland and one dimensional, the reader feels no empathy for any of the characters therefore making it difficult to muster up any interest in their activities. Furthermore readers are unable to understand Julia’s motives and actions. At one point Julia learns that she has been sleeping with a married man, there is no consequence or suggestion to how she feels about this. It’s as if she’s a robot. Though apparently this is just normal behavior for youngin’s of today -

“But all young women are the same! They never think about anyone, they just affairs as they please.” My breath catches in my throat. I’m shocked. I quickly assume that I’ve misunderstood the intent of the bespeckled, graying lady outburst. But no, she reiterates her comments with extra gusto once she realizes that she has the attention of the group. Clearly she feels jipped that her fellow typing pool compatriots cavorted with smooth Don Draper types in office romances, while the only action she got was winding up the typewriter.

At the time I wanted to throw a book at her – I still do – by the ebb and flow of time has lent me some retrospect. I’m now glad that she said that, not that her comments have any merit, but because it spiced up an otherwise drab book.

What I took away from this book wasn’t any particular insight (though I finished it a few days ago it has sunk into the damp recesses of my mind) but that all books warrant discussion. I flippantly decided that I didn’t like the book, I went to the meeting determined that I would not be swayed away from my opinion. After a solid hour of discussion I now know for certain that I don’t like the book – however there is a possibly that you may enjoy it – as there were people at the meeting who genuinely considered the book to be the bees knees. I’m almost certain that they weren’t sucking up to the author. So to be fair – I would recommend the book to you if you enjoy introspective mediations on ones self worth set to a backdrop of Sydney and New York.

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