Told in short, simply constructed sentences, the narrative builds beguiling complexity and sophistication from deceptive sparseness, like one of Flora’s culinary creations.
Reviewed by Hope Nesmith
By Marion Halligan
Allen & Unwin 335 pp
On a fictitious promontory on the shores of lake Burley Griffin, in the factual city of Canberra, stood an imagined restaurant called “The Point”. Marion Halligan sets a simple but deeply resonant story of obsession, daring, loss and redemption here.
More than just a fashionable restaurant, the Point is the Platonic paradigm of restaurantness, in whose kitchen chef Flora Mount creates her thoughtful fare. Food at The Point is not just tasty, and not just sustenance- it is not even merely fashionable. It is art, created by the brilliant, driven, obsessive Flora for those privileged enough through affluence or benevolence to dine at the Point. Flora herself burns like a fever, a pale, white-hot flame at the centre of this world. It seems that everyone craves intimacy with Flora, but she holds herself a little aloof from even those she loves, perhaps instinctively for fear of singing their wings with her intense heat.
If Flora herself is a fascinating, blinding flame, then the Point is the lantern within which she burns. The world is divided by its luminous outer windowed walls into the inner world of the rich (and those allowed in to serve them), and the outer world of those without power or privilege. Inside there is sublime food and the polite buzz of the elite networking. Outside there is homelessness, substance addiction, rape and murder. Characters move from one world to the next with startling ease in The Point from the inside to the outside, from the real to the imaginary, from the living to the dead.
Flora is attended by her lover Jerome, an ex-Franciscan friar who has reinvented himself as a successful software engineer. Jerome is firmly fixed on the inside of the circle of light- or is he? Outside The Point lives an anti-Jerome, the homeless-by-choice Clovis. Clovis, an erudite latter-day Lear has spent many years on the inside of the warm circle of light represented by The Point, but now lives the life of a homeless man, sleeping rough in a ferry shelter that has never been visited by a ferry. All but blinded by his refusal to wear spectacles, Clovis is accompanied at times by an anti-Flora character- his Cordelia, Gwynneth the methadone addict.
The worlds inside and outside The Point appear to be separate. Gwynneth peers into the restaurant from the outside, and wonders what it would be like to be part of the privileged group within. Kind Joe, the dishwasher with a vision, leaves food out for her, luring her in from the dark like a wary animal. Clovis knows what the world on the inside is like first hand, but says that he is happier on the outside with little to lose, having experienced first hand the mercurial nature of worldly happiness.
Suddenly the inner and outer worlds are brought together unexpectedly by violence. When Clovis saves Jerome’s life, Flora invites Clovis and Gwyneth to The Point for a meal as a gesture of thanks.
Flora’s food is as important in this book as any of the characters. In fact it is described as vividly as any of the humans, or any of the scenery:
Veal – miraculously young – milk fed. Not bled of course – with a sorrel sauce.
black pudding – so richly excessively savoury. Almost unbearable. There was some green gloop, a puree of – broccoli it turned out to be, and a paler one, Brussels sprouts.
There is rarely anything appetising about the descriptions food in this book, although no doubt the dishes being described would be delicious. To Flora, food is art. Even the substances being prepared are challenging- tripe, brains, and puree of Brussels sprouts are described in loving detail and consumed with delight by her patrons. The only food that would not require a leap of faith from an ordinary diner are the desserts served at the Point- and these are not created by Flora.
The characters in The Point form a neatly symmetrical set, disposed about Flora who reigns at the centre of their world. Inside and outside the magic circle, they represent the rising and the fallen. Flora is scarred by the memory of her dead baby Adrian – a large dark haired “noisy aggressive Roman of a baby”. Gwynneth carries the mental image of her son Brad, who she says is in foster care, with her like a talisman against chaos. Gwynneth self medicates with wine and methadone, Flora with wine and immersion in her work. Jerome’s former wife is the obese, windsurfing earth mother Anabel, who aborted her and Jerome’s child, and now provides exotic “veggies” for Flora’s kitchen, referring to them grotesquely as her “babies”. Jerome is at the apex of his career in some form of IT (Halligan is far more familiar with cooking and food than she is with the software industry, a fact betrayed by the presence of nonsense clichés such as computer virii that cause scary images to appear on screen whilst destroying the contents of hard drives), while Clovis is a refugee from a world where he had a successful career as a lawyer.
Even the screen of living willow that Flora commissions to be woven by professionals in front of her restaurant has its mirror in the one woven for fun by Gwynneth and Clovis somewhere else, away from the public eye. This living structure presents a fascinating image- woven from living rods of willow, it must be carefully tended or become a monster.
The gang of juvenile thugs which rampages back and forth in this story is more monstrous still- the children of the wealthy and powerful, they rely on their neglectful but wealthy and powerful parents to bail them out when the law crosses their path. Their cruelty is instrumental in bringing the outer world towards the inner- it is they who attack Jerome and kill his companion, only stopping when surprised by Clovis. They rape Gwynneth and attempt to destroy the willow screen with a baseball bat. They are mirrored in the children that Flora refuses to bring into the world.
While there is violence, corruption of innocence and evil in the world of The Point, there is also gentle redemption in this story, for some of the characters. Without presenting too many plot spoilers suffice it to say that not everything here is bleak winter, we are permitted to glimpse the seeds of spring.
Told in short, simply constructed sentences, the narrative builds beguiling complexity and sophistication from deceptive sparseness, like one of Flora’s culinary creations. Chapters written in a detached third person voice alternate with rather more florid diary entries from Jerome’s journal. The reader slowly develops an awareness that the story has already taken place, that this narrative exists somewhere outside of it. All that we read here is resolved now, set in stone. We are left to sift through the pieces of the story, searching for meaning in the events recounted as well as in crumbs of allusion and metaphor, liberally sprinkled by the author. Motifs of Icarus and Daedalus, of moths dancing about a fatally brilliant flame, of Lear and the fall of Troy and of modern day Faustian temptation are interwoven as tightly as rods of willow in a living screen. Although at times self-consciously learned, these thematic seasonings lend the simple story a richness and texture that is ultimately quite provocative and satisfying.