Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters

First published in Newtown Review of Books

Torrey Peters has written a complex and deeply moving novel about the ties that bind us – ties that govern our choices about who we love, how we love, and the costs. Detransition, Babyfollows a trio: Reece, a trans woman; her ex, detransitioned Ames (formerly Amy); and Ames’s new partner, a cis heterosexual woman, Katrina, as they each struggle with the idea of parenthood.

The narrative moves between two time periods, chapters named for the years before or weeks after conception

Reece and Amy meet eight years before conception. Reece is trailing a history of (sometimes abusive) relationships with cis men and Amy, a ‘baby trans’, is overwhelmed by her new knowledge that she is ‘a girl in love with a girl’. The conception in question is Katrina’s – Ames has found that his ‘atrophied testicles’ are, after all, capable of impregnation.

The novel is among the first by an openly trans woman to be published by a big-five publishing company. Torrey Peters received some vicious criticism when it was longlisted for the UK’s 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, but the judges publicly affirmed her right to enter the prize.

The novel interrogates traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. Our world devalues femininity and its identifying behaviours, which are seen as submissive and weak, and are ridiculed when adopted by men. In her influential book, Whipping Girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity, first published in 2007, biologist and trans activist Julia Serano asserts that defining masculinity and femininity as a ‘non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires’ harms us all. The reclaiming of femininity makes trans activism a feminist movement. Detransition, Baby is a profoundly feminist book

This familiar story, the introduction of a baby into a relationship, is wrought here in a context that strips away contrivances. The politics of birthing and raising children, a cradle of feminist struggle, is finely rendered by Peters’s three characters. Reece wants a baby, Ames struggles with the idea of ‘fatherhood’, knowing that Amy is still a vital part of his identity, and Katrina is torn. Peters observes motherhood’s myriad contradictions: expanding in love while simultaneously exhausting and impoverishing women; its very private anguish and joy while also being a public service­­ – a duty on which all have an opinion; and its privilege, which is granted and withdrawn by public policy governing access to contraception, abortion, adoption, and reproductive technologies.

Katrina challenges Reece on some of her assumptions about who is considered a ‘deserving’ mother.

Think about black women, poor women, immigrant women. Think about forced sterilization, about the term “welfare queens” or “anchor babies”. All of that happened to enforce the idea that not all motherhoods are legitimate … I’m not criticizing your feelings, Reece … I’m telling you that I feel the same. Because everyone gets criticized about how they should or shouldn’t be mothering.

Motherhood may be presumptive for cis women, but when these women do not adhere to the procreative norms, they are ‘treated like silly whores, obsessed with themselves, lacking some basic capacity to love’. Julia Gillard is a case in point, labelled by her political enemies as unfit for leadership because she was ‘deliberately barren’.

Peters brings us up close to the reality of living outside gender norms. It is to live with exhaustion: constantly alert, ready to defend, or retreat. It is to live with shame. You are not worthy of love, from a partner, or a child; you are not worthy of a job; trans women are tricksters, untrustworthy. Reece applies ‘in stealth’ for a job in childcare. When she and Amy go to an adoption information evening, Reece says, ‘I feel naughty. Like we’re passing ourselves off as just a normal lez couple.’

It is also to live with sorrow, to be hardened by another death, another suicide, another funeral. In Australia, the LGBTIQ Health Alliance 2020 reports that 35 per cent of transgender people aged 18 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime.

But cis and trans women share much, including a fear of cis men. A violent assault is a trigger for Amy’s detransition and she begins this path with sorrow.

[Amy] had, of course, long come to understand that masculinity dulled her, that it dissociated her from herself. But honestly, that’s all she wanted at that point.

Patriarchy has no time for sentiment, ambivalence or uncertainty. The humouring of the male ego is so internalised in cis women that Reece is floored by a man’s off-colour joke about his penis, and the muted reaction from the audience of cis women who ‘laugh politely’.

Something else shared is class privilege, a theme woven throughout the novel. Wealth is a protection racket buying safety in housing, medical care, influence. Reece is enraged when she sees ‘Tranny’ plastered all over a wall as part of a book promotion.

Those rich trans bitches. These fucking assholes who transition with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to protect them from ever hearing someone say ‘tranny’ to them on the street, so that one day they can write tranny on the streets themselves, and congratulate themselves on being so punk. As if, in a climate of political dread, no one has ever written Jew, or faggot, or hung a noose, or painted a swastika where some poor target tried to pass a small life.

Detransition, Baby is all this, and also so funny, poking fun at our rituals, our clothes, our allegiances; it is a glorious journey about friendship and facing our truths. Torrey Peters has written a story about how to live.

Torrey Peters Detransition, Baby Profile Books 2021 HB 320pp $33.75

The Airways, Jennifer Mills

First published in Newtown Review of Books

Someone recently tweeted that if we gave male violence the same attention as Covid, men would have been under curfew for ever. Published in 2021, this prescient novel deals with both themes, taking the sickness inhabiting the world as an extended metaphor. Though the book’s few time-markers place it in separate periods in the millenium’s teens, the before times, both the virus and the impact of male predation are woven throughout as real and malevolent presences.

Adam has moved from Sydney to Beijing where he is working in some ill-defined marketing role helping ‘deliver bespoke global brand solutions’. The office is in a modern building designed with exposed bricks and pipes to lend it that start-up feel. He is brought down by a mystery illness and leaves work to go home, where he sickens rapidly. Mills draws out every sense. He hallucinates, his body sweats, itches, he is weak with nausea, diarrhoea. The symptoms shriek with recognition: he loses his sense of taste, he can’t breathe. He closed his eyes. The virus, infection, whatever is was, was moving around inside him, waiting for him to fall asleep. The passages where he continues to interact with his colleagues, people in the street, in shops, are overlaid with pandemic tension. Stop!

Alternating chapters mark an earlier timeline where Adam is sharing a house in Sydney with some other students, including Yun (who is studying virology). Adam is drawn to Yun but his interest is not reciprocated. These chapters are heavy with tension. A woman, a fellow student, has been murdered in a nearby street, and a vigil is held for her. 

The Airways opens not with this murder, but with a different violent death, a death which releases the anima who narrates half the book: the ‘they’ whom we follow, who journeys through cities, through new bodies, looking for the one it wants to inhabit. It is a slow stalking.

These chapters are named for sensation – Heat, Hunger – and also for emission, or transmission: Smoke, Steam, River. The airways are breath, life, and ‘they’ are seeking a new body, expelled from their own. As they move into new bodies, trying them out for size, making a home for a while, they learn, become more awake.

The transitions are becoming easier, even if control remains beyond them. They flip through bodies like pages, looking for lines they recognise, that leap of meaning.

Again, in Covid-times, it is impossible not to see a parallel with a virus adapting. Mutating. Cells have an intelligence in The Airways, behaving like sentient beings as they watch a division, ask what changes it brings, even argue with each other.

Adam’s girlfriend, Natasha, has left. He tells people she’s visiting her family for the weekend, but we gradually learn of an invasive video he has posted of her. This is not his only transgression. Adam has his own trauma, unexamined, but it is his ordinariness that jars. In a recurring pattern, he comes face to face with different people who try to move around him, but they collide, bump. He is a man who cannot, or will not, read the signs. He is awkward, carrying a clear sense of inadequacy, and entitlement: ‘He should have gone with them’ quickly becomes ‘They should have asked him to come.’

Male entitlement manifests in other scenes. An unnamed man leans over a counter:

… looks plainly at the tops of her breasts. Want in his groin … Sinking lower, trying to escape his skin and enter hers. When she reacts, frowning, sitting back, he gets a shot of pleasure.

This is a hugely original exploration of the banality of violence, its unremarkable perpetrators—and its hold on those violated, both living and dead. ‘So many people are like this,’ says Mills’ narrator, ‘carrying around their private violence, their body’s understanding with the world.’

Reading, rereading, and untangling The Airways’ strange pursuit is a deeply rewarding journey.

Jennifer Mills The Airways Picador 2021 PB 384pp $32.99

Like Mother, Cassandra Austin

On an ordinary summer’s day in 1969, in a small Australian town, a new mother finds her baby missing from her cot. In this gothic novel, Cassandra Austin draws out the isolation and claustrophobia of new motherhood — and the judgement heaped upon ‘bad mothers’.

My review of Cassandra Austin’s novel, Like Mother, is up now at Newtown Review of Books. An intriguing read.

Cassandra Austin Like Mother Hamish Hamilton 2021 PB 304pp $32.99

The Snow Leopard

Travel, exploration, philosophy, religion and science in one luminous work—Peter Matthiesen’s 1978 classic The Snow Leopard is unlike anything I’ve read before.

Matthiesen has joined an expedition to the Himalayas with a zoologist friend, G.S., to study the bharal, a sheep/goat which has proven elusive to classification—somewhat like this book. Meditation on old and new cultures and spirituality are interspersed with field reports on the bharal and his changing observations of his companions. The book’s title comes from the elusive creature he craves to glimpse during his sojourn in the mountains—a symbol of our constant searching.

As a story of exploration into the wilderness, tension is high: the reader does not know whether both men will return home until the closing pages, or whether the scientific research has been rewarded. The expedition’s course is never certain and the author never lets us forget their near-absolute isolation.

The language both soothes and stimulates. I would wander off into introspection only to be drawn up by some abruptly realised danger. When it is time to leave the monastery where they are based, the porters who arrive to escort him back bring letters from home but he puts these away, unopened. He knows he cannot move any faster in the event of bad news. ‘ (Matthiessen, 2010, p214).

Matthiesen’s acute sensitivity towards cultural difference would be one reason to read this book. Or for the science, calibrated to a lay audience, and dryly humorous. In his description of how the male bharal has evolved to protect their heads while ramming other males, he muses: ‘Why nature should devote so many centuries – thousands, probably – to the natural selection of these characteristics that favour head on collisions over brains is a good question….’ (Matthiesen, 2010, p.229).

And humour, often at his own expense, is frequent.

‘October 25 …. Parts of the ledge have fallen away, and the gaps are bridged by flimsy scaffoldings of saplings.  Certain sections are so narrow and precarious that more than once my legs refuse to move, and my heart beats so that I feel sick.  One horrid stretch, lacking the smallest handhold in the wall, round a windy point of cliff that is one hundred feet or more above the rocks at lake edge, and this I navigate on hands and knees…

The sherpas come, and…GS appears, moving as steadily as the rest; I am glad the cliff corner hid my ignominious advance on hands and knees.  Squeezing by, G.S. remarks, “This is first really interesting stretch of trail we’ve had so far.”  How easy it would be to push him over.’ (Matthiessen, 2010, pp141-142).

Matthiesen is an intriguing figure of vulnerability and toughness and left me hungry for more. Writing this piece now, I find myself wanting to read it again.

Matthiessen, Peter 2010, The Snow Leopard, Vintage, London.

 

The Chain, Adrian McKinty

Newtown Review of Books published my review of Adrian McKinty’s The Chain this week!

This is one hell of a ride. If you’re looking for a book to keep you up and turning the pages, this is for you. Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy series set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, has shown his versatility in producing a tight, intricate thriller which unfolds with escalating horror.

Rachel Klein is pulled into a waking nightmare when her child is kidnapped and will only be released when she has paid her ransom, kidnapped another child, and then demanded that child’s parents pay a ransom and in turn kidnap another child. As a sinister plot device, harnessing the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child is genius. It is also limitless, and Rachel has just become its next link.

Who runs this psychopathic business? The reader gradually finds out through McKinty’s agile shifting of perspective. For some chapters we are in Rachel’s point of view, living her collapsing world, but then we meet a pair of twins who, as children, delight in the manipulation of other kids. Who are they? We also enter the lives of the reluctant kidnappers and get into the headspace of Rachel’s daughter, the victim. Kylie’s voice is authentic.
She knows she shouldn’t have gotten into the vehicle. That’s how girls vanish …You don’t get in the vehicle, you turn around and you run, run, run.
But she doesn’t. She has a gun to her head.

While The Chain is a twisted adaptation of cyber extortion, its trade being children, the business model is not too far from the truth. I read this book, serendipitously, while covering a seminar on cyber-crime and Internet security. McKinty has done his research. The profile of The Chain’s criminal masterminds is accurate. Hackers are not hoodie-clad misfits living in their mothers’ basements. They are smart, tertiary educated, and use their cyber skills to solve more and more arcane intellectual challenges. The spyware, malware and intricate cyber breaches used to take over data systems is now so sophisticated that these extortionists set up helplines, hire translators and develop navigation tools to allow their victims to make the transaction as smoothly as possible. The corporate crowd attending the seminar I covered were advised to ‘park the criminality’ and see them as businesses.

McKinty prises open a conundrum: we have used information to defend ourselves, to minimise our vulnerabilities, but have we become hostage to it? Social media that broadcasts our every move has now been overtaken in its sheer scope by the Internet of Things: baby monitors over a cradle can tell you where a baby is, when she is sleeping, and how far away her parents might be; GPS trackers in kids’ shoes; doorbells that record every coming and going. McKinty’s commentary on the technology is timely. We have become accomplices to our own surveillance—we enter the Panopticon willingly.

And if one turns to crime—to rescue a child, to kidnap another, to buy narcotics—the information you need is there. When Rachel breaks into a house, Pete, her brother-in-law, asks how she learnt to break the lock. ‘Google,’ she replies. Of course. When searching for a child to kidnap, she turns to Facebook:
There are a breathtaking number of people whose profiles and posts are public and can be viewed by anyone. George Orwell was wrong, she thinks. In the future, it won’t be the state that keeps tabs on everyone … it will be the people … We are our own secret police.
As the reader becomes aware of the operation of the Chain, the secrecy, the reach of its tentacles, it is impossible not to think of Stasiland, Anna Funder’s powerful examination of East Germany’s secret police. At its height, it was thought that one person in four was in its fold reporting on their own community—family, friends, neighbours. Anybody can be watching. When Rachel sees a strange man look at her and then nod ‘grimly’, she thinks, ‘Is he another one of The Chain’s agents?’

Another time, Rachel is fiercely punched in the stomach, in public, by another stranger. A message from The Chain. The Chain is a perfect example of the gig economy, our outsourced culture where the victims themselves do all the work. Once corrupted by their own complicity, they cannot turn to authorities. The operation runs on fear and they are self-policing.

While The Chain multiplies, its corruption spreads like an oil slick. Doing evil makes us evil. Its insidious takeover of our ‘better nature’ is part of the its power. Rachel becomes aware of the contempt in her voice as she discusses the mother of the boy she is about to kidnap: ‘She remembers that Tacitus line about how you always hate those you have wronged.’

Rachel is on the road when she realises what she has to do to get her child back. She pulls ‘Into the slow lane, into the medium lane, into the fast lane.’ You will too, and don’t forget: the best kept secrets are those hidden in plain sight.

Adrian McKinty The Chain Hachette 2019 PB 368pp $32.99

Wedding Puzzle, Sallie Muirden

I recently reviewed Sallie Muirden’s gentle and thought-provoking book, Wedding Puzzle, for The Newtown Review of Books.

How does anyone ever manage to choose a partner for life? Given the imperfections of every choice, given that we are all complicated individuals with our own distinct bundles of neuroses, Muirden asks how anybody ever manages it at all.

Beth Shaw, who has spent her life so far trying to avoid decisions in love, preferring to be passively chosen than to choose herself, must answer this in Wedding Puzzle. The book opens with her driving to her childhood home in a pretty seaside town, on her way to her own wedding. The town’s mock Tudor hotel is where she and Jordan, her fiancé, had impulsively decided to marry a few months earlier. But the night before the wedding, she has received an anonymous letter telling her something shocking about the man she is about to marry.

Sallie Muirden Wedding Puzzle Transit Lounge 2019 304pp $29.99

Read the full review here.

Dying in the first person, Nike Sulway

First published in the Newtown Review of Books (18 July 2017), my review of Nike Sulway’s luminous novel, Dying in the first person.

This is a powerful and extraordinarily beautiful story of family, love and sacrifice. Sulway has created a world we enter slowly, uncovering the past and its hurts in small steps. It draws the reader into a place of mystery and wonder as Samuel is brought face to face with an emissary, Ana, who brings news of his long-estranged twin brother.

We learn of Morgan’s death in the canal near their home in Amsterdam in the opening lines —‘A woman came across the field, carrying the body of my brother, who had drowned.’ Ana’s first contact is through letters, then telephone calls. Samuel and his mother, Solange, have had no first-hand contact with Morgan for many years but on accompanying Morgan’s body back to be buried, Ana stays, allowing herself to rest, to be loved. In Sulway’s depiction of her growing relationships with Samuel and Solange, there is a longing and vulnerability that all readers will recognise.

Sulway explores ideas of sacrifice and the accompanying notions of obligation, commitment and entitlement; these are part of loving somebody. Her characters’ offerings to those they love are almost biblical in their scope—life, freedom, memory and voice—but we can see echoes of them in our own lives. We all make huge, yet unrecognised, sacrifices every day, for love.

It is through the book’s gradual unfolding that we learn of Morgan’s life, his self-imposed isolation from his family and why and how he died. Ana’s complicated relationship with Morgan is teased out. Ultimately, she has wanted to save him: ‘I believed I could rescue him, restore him to himself, simply by being patient and kind.’ Sulway’s examination of Morgan’s mental state reminded me of Jeffrey Euginides in his 2011 book The Marriage Plot where Madeleine, who wants to save Leonard, is told: ‘But you can only save yourself.’ Sulway is acutely aware of our limitations in treating emotional pain.

The book’s central theme is the power of language. Sulway portrays its role, through narrative, in recording truth, or lack of truth, which then, in turn, allows us to see reality and change and grow. As children, the boys develop a secret language, sophisticated and complex. As adults, Morgan writes books in this language and becomes famous; the language has taken on a life of its own, studied by linguists, the focus of international conference. His books are translated by Samuel who is conflicted about his role in appropriating words not his own. Who owns these stories?

As boys, they had developed an entire world in this secret language—the island of Nahum—inhabited by men only. Sulway’s examination of the roles of men and women, their strictures and freedoms, is light and deft. She never hammers home a message, leaving nuance and murkiness to allow us to reach our own conclusions. While her attachment to her women characters is evident—Solange, in particular, her talents, intellect, resourcefulness, independence—she tells her story through men and their agency. Women’s stories and powers, the influence of a mother in shaping her children, is always present but in the background.

One spring morning,’ my brother would intone, holding his tiny craft aloft in this wide, pale hands, ‘the father leaves his son sleeping and goes to the sea. He does not know, when he steps onto the deck, whether he will return, whether it will be a good day, or a bad day, but he goes down to the sea, because that is what men do.

And at the end, we are left with Ana’s sacrifice, her selflessness as she, too, goes into the storm.

Sulway’s writing is beautiful and evocative. She forces her readers to slow their pace, to absorb every detail through her recreation of scenes in real time precision: the trappings and formalities of a funeral, the basting of a turkey.

In the kitchen, our mother laid out her ingredients, as well as her needles, skewers, scissors and string, her long-handled, flat-faced spoons and glass bowls. She had taken out her recipe form its hiding place, where it lay folded all year, cheek-to-cheek with a page clipped from the newspaper in 1949, which had detailed instructions on how to truss a turkey. Once everything was in place, she opened a bottle of dry Semillon, poured herself a shallow, golden glassful and began.


In many ways, this is a book about the complexity of human relationships and the little that children ever really know of their parents’ lives.

Sulway, Nike, Dying in the first person, Transit Lounge Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, ebook and paperback (304 pages), RRP $29.99

Sunshine, Kim Kelly

The lives of three men and a women, returned from the front after World War I, intersect in a new offering from Kim Kelly – an historical novella set in the fictional hamlet of Sunshine in far north-western New South Wales, ‘out the back of Bourke’.

Snow, Grace and Art are each looking for something real in their lives to fill the holes left by war. Snow blames himself for the death of a dear friends, Art’s trauma left him hospitalised and shamed by a nervous paralysis, and Grace, a ‘surgical nurse and do-it-yourself butcher’ has seen too much.  A fresh start is offered by the Australian Government’s Solider Settlement scheme—a well-meaning though ill-considered plan to give returned soldiers parcels of land on which to farm.  Many divisions were worthless, unable to yield a decent crop and the scheme was eventually abandoned. Kelly’s gentle examination of a nascent modern Australia reminds us also of its founding on theft through the Scheme’s dispossession of the Indigenous population. These intertwined stories about citrus crops along the Darling River illustrate some of its hopes and successes.

After serving Australia in a foreign war, Aboriginal horseman Jack Bell returns to a nation which has broken his family and removed his livelihood. On five shillings a day, signing up was a leap into riches, and respect, impossible at home. He muses, ‘No such distinction as black of white but yes sir and no sir, get on with the friggen job. Why did it have to take the insanity of war to make things so equal and reasonable as that? Stupid friggen question.’ Now, the Government wants him ‘looked after’ on a mission. Bucking at that, he returns to the land of his birth and finds it divided and apportioned to other returned soldiers. White soldiers.

Snow McGlynn receives such an allocation. He has retreated within himself, wants no company, and needs to throw himself into his farm to forget the pain of war and loss. Snow muses early on, ‘He didn’t have anything against blacks, not really, but they always made a mess and had their hand out … ‘  Through his developing relationship with Jack, Kelly opens our eyes to Australia’s rank hypocrisy as Snow becomes alive to Jack’s knowledge of and connection with the land, and the racism underpinning Snow’s own good fortune. Both returned soldiers—one rewarded, the other stripped of his dignity and self-determination.

Art Lovelee has been hospitalised with a  phantom paralysis. Shamed and infantilised, the prevailing medical view was to ignore their symptoms and jolly them along, like children. Through Art, Kelly quietly reminds us that the ‘deranged’ have forever been feared, their illness taboo. ReadingSunshinebrought back Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy(Penguin 1996) which powerfully evokes soldiers’ trauma in the First World War and Kelly includes in her epigraph a verse from Siegfried Sassoon, the wartime poet who features so strongly in Barker’s work.

Art finds himself in the care of Grace who coaxes him back to health, then follows him to Australia. She has her own demons. She remembers too well the screams of the boy whose eyes she had to wash of poison gas from ‘the green cloud, from the devil’s very breath that swept across Flanders Fields.’ She remembers the amputees and the men carrying metal bullets in their bodies.

Kelly’s writing is clear and joyous. While she writes of dispossession and death, her message is hopeful. There is beauty all around—Grace, transplanted from cold, damp England to a parched and hot land looks to the future. Bending down to pick up a scrap she thinks has come from her washing, she sees it is a daisy,

… a little blue daisy, sitting in a sparse and thirsty-looking clump of grass. She crouched down to peer at it: a baby-blue wheel, so stark, so fabulous, here upon the rich red timeless soil: and such a surprise: she reminded herself all joy was surprising, never coming as dreamed or planned.

Kim Kelly Sunshine Jazz Monkey Publications 2019 PB 222pp $20.53

First published by the Newtown Review of Books  on 5 March 2019

The Museum of Modern Love, reviewed in Newtown Review of Books

I was late to this party. I’d heard about this novel, and when I finally found time for fiction this year, I lost myself in it immediately. Heather Rose has written a masterpiece of introspection. The reader pauses to look up from the page and reflect, to remember a passage over the course of the day and stop for a moment, or longer, to ask us why? What would I do?

Wrapping her stories around the work of a living artist—Rose sought, and was granted approval—is a gift. To read is to learn, and the book is set around the life and work of the performance artist Marina Abramović, specifically her performance ‘The Artist is Present’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010. Over 75 days, she sat in a simple wooden chair. When a visitor took the seat opposite, she would lift her head, open her eyes as a veil lifting, and sit in that stance for as long as her counterpart stayed. ‘Is it a staring competition?’ ask visitors to the Museum.

What is art? A question surely as old as art itself. Abramović suggests that art is life. And just as the artists invited those who sat with her to participatein the art, Heather Rose asks us to turn inwards. We are not observers. We are participants who need to reconcile with life. The Museum of Modern Loveasks us, How do we learn to see what is before us?

Rose invites the reader into the life of Arky Levin, a famous NY composer. Arky’s perspective guides us though the exhibition and he forms a companionable, though disinterested bond with Jane Miller, a tourist and fellow gallery visitor. They are both distracted, lost andcontemplating uncertainty.  Jane’s husband has died, too young; her grief, one year on, still palpable. Jane ‘has always liked certainty. It was one of the pleasure of being a teacher…’ She wants more time: time with her husband, time for her own life.

Levin is flailing. His wife, suffering an inherited degenerative condition has removed herself from his life,  admitting herself to fulltime care in an institution.  ‘She had been certainty. When everything fell apart, she would be there. It was partly why he always felt so angry when she got sick. He didn’t like that the whole world wobbled when that happened, and he felt small. Small and alone.’

There were questions that terrified his sense of order. His deepest sense of how life should be lived. Ought to be lived. But should and ought were words for certainty. What words belonged to uncertainty?

Abramović, their mirror, faces uncertainty each time she takes up her position in the performance, opening the door to new knowledge. The intensity of their Museum experience forces both Jane and Levin to focus their gaze, to see what cannot be avoided. And finally, Levin understands, ‘with vivid clarity that the best ideas come from a place with a sign on the door saying I don’t know…’

In a further twist on the role of observer and the observed, occasionally Rose draws back and follows the participants going about their day through different narrators, hovering on the edges. One is perhaps the muse, or a higher consciousness. ‘I drew Levin’s attention to the day outside … For all he wasn’t listening to my musical suggestions, he was amendable to an interruption…I watched him. There is nothing more beautiful than watching an artist at work….’  Yet another is from Marina’s past who shows us how a childhood of physical and emotional deprivation in times of war shaped her performance art. We are reminded of the power that the dead have over us.

Other characters, students and commentators seamlessly integrate the artist’s background and body of work into the story taking the reader on a journey through her life. And Rose has held a mirror to us, the reader, through the very ordinariness of those who sit opposite. A young man slumping, ‘[Jane] wanted to tell him to sit up straight’, ‘a young woman with a tiny pair of shoulders and long lank hair…she appeared to be bowed under the weight of a short and exhausting life….’, those frail, and others defiant.

This is also a New York story. For those who love the city, from the residents’ style and beauty —‘three-day growth on his perfect jawline’—to the  food—onion bagels get more than one mention, to the buildings, streets and avenues, every page is a delight. Levin knows that New York’s light obliterates a darkness, a void that is both the universe and his own sense of aloneness. For Jane, the visitor, it is a temporary haven.

Rose has written a powerful story of lives interrupted and of seeking, and finding and learning. The Museum of Modern Love is about both understanding our choices and finding the strength to make them.

First published in The Newtown Review of Books.

The Museum of  Modern Love, Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin 2016 RRP $27.99)