Modern families are messy. Made up of contrary individuals pursuing their own independent interests and obsessions while also striving to meet familial obligations of love and responsibility, they may be “nuclear” but they’re rarely perfect.
The fractured clan at the centre of Adelaide writer Heather Taylor Johnson’s excellent debut novel Pursuing Love & Death certainly wouldn’t win “family of the year”. As with most things in life, however, it is the cracks and quirks that make them interesting.
The Smiths – dad Graham, his ex-wife Velma, daughter Luna, son Ginsberg and Graham’s brother Darren – are split between Victoria and South Australia, and are about to converge in Adelaide for Luna’s wedding.
Each is wrangling with their own dramas and demons, both practical and existential. Obituary writer Graham suffers from an illness that has left him obsessed with his own mortality, but finds some relief through “kitchen yoga” and a passion for creative cooking. Poet Velma, meanwhile, is still obsessed with Graham, even though their marriage ended years ago and she has a sexy young lover in Melbourne.
Gingsberg, who is gay yet married to a woman, agonises over introducing his love to his family, while Luna experiences last-minute angst about her impending nuptials to an older man.
Most tortured of all, however, is Darren, an obese loner and would-be writer with a swag of unfinished manuscripts. After reading A Confederacy of Dunces, he is inspired to embark on a novel he knows will be different – if only he has the courage and energy to complete it.
Taylor Johnson gives voice to each of her disparate characters through alternating chapters, cleverly weaving together their lives and revealing the back-stories that help explain who they are and why they are how they are.
It may sound a little intense – it’s not. There is plenty of comic relief – albeit often black – in the novel, and the pages fly by as the reader becomes absorbed in the characters and their pursuit of love (and death) in the lead-up to the explosive wedding day.
Taylor Johnson’s lyrical writing style adds a light touch to the prose, with her background as a poet shining through in the narrative and whimsical chapter titles such as Light at the end of the tunnel in Graham’s left inner ear; The train station lonely with purple paint and a man nearing crisis; and Like a baby he will wake to find himself alone. The numerous references to Adelaide venues and landmarks will also resonate with South Australian readers.
Pursuing Love & Death encourages readers to reflect on the nature of families; what tears them apart and pulls them together; the insecurities with which we all wrestle; how we balance love and selfishness, self-sacrifice and ego. Instead of striving for that illusive ideal of perfection, perhaps, like Graham, we should simply ask: are we “good enough”?
Heather Taylor Johnson, author of Pursuing Love & Death, is a regular reviewer for InDaily and other publications. She is also the author of three poetry books (Thirsting for Lemonade IP, 2013, being her latest), teaches creative writing at Flinders University and is the poetry editor for Transnational Literature. She lives near the Port with her family of five and a dog named Tom.
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