Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Philip Salom
ISBN: 978-1-925760-26-2, Trade PB 336 pp, 25 July 2019
Philip Salom has a wonderful eye for the quirky character. His novels celebrate human uniqueness: Big and Little and Angus and Jasmin from Waiting, Alan Fish and MA Carter from the Keepers trilogy, and Simon from Toccata and Rain are all the kinds of people who are both somehow familiar, and decidedly different. His latest novel, The Returns, is no exception. The book opens with Elizabeth fainting outside of Trevor’s bookshop. Elizabeth is a slim, lonely publishing editor who finds her job “ferally invigorating”. Elizabeth suffers from a condition called prosopagnosia or face blindness. She is able to recognise people from their affects, or their bodies, rather than faces. She is struggling with her aging, narcissistic mother, a grown-up daughter that flits in and out of her life with casual abandon, a menacing neighbour threatening to sue her for the fence he’s destroyed, and a growing eating disorder. Trevor is carrying too much weight, including the weight of his recently failed marriage, and his lapsed artistic career. The gentle clash of these two opposite ’types’ creates a dialectic that drives the narrative forward and opens healing possibilities for both of the protagonists. Trevor’s artistry is not limited to painting, though it is clear that he has talent, in spite of his rejection by Flinders Street galleries. He is also a good cook, and his prowess in the kitchen is exactly what Elizabeth needs. Salom has a flair for food writing that would make MFK Fisher envious:
He makes her his Sichuan variation on Hainanese chicken rice. To a pot of water he adds sliced and bruised ginger, garlic, a cinnamon stick and a handful of star anise. Lovely little star anise, he always thinks, so geometrical he is reluctant to use the neatest ones – but what else are they for, craftwork?). Finally he adds soya light sauce, rice wine, spring onions, a shake of so of five-spice powder. And several dried chillies. He loves these drid chillies even more than star anise, less perfect in form but far more sensuous: the depth of their reddish colours, the full curve of the seed case. Rubies. (143)
Though this is a serious novel about love, memory, trauma, and relationships–classic tropes of literary fiction that Salom explores with psychological acuity–the work is consistently funny, poking fun at pretensions of all kinds, especially literary. There is one scene at a ‘literary event’, where Elizabeth makes wry observations of the catty speeches by the participants, and the unethical hijinks of a famous ageing author. Elizabeth’s boyfriend is only shortlisted, but when Trevor tells her that he hasn’t sold any of the winner’s books, she makes a note for her boyfriend, because ‘Schadenfreude is the one bit of German all writers understand. And can’t get enough of’. There is even a moment when Salom refers to himself:
Slow cops..if they even bother to come, given they didn’t last time, though suburban jewels are known to be worth more than great books. Generally considered. He gets up and inspects the books by his front, not bashed-in door display, nothing the new title by a local author: Waiting. Yes, quite. He waits. (271)
Elizabeth’s dog Gordon is a Golden Setter with a limp, who sometimes steals the show. Gordon bonds immediately with Trevor, and becomes part of the connection between Elizabeth and Trevor. Gordon is not the only dog in the book, and Salom writes about them in a way that only a dog lover could:
The lolloping, the little-legged, the flat-out racing dogs of any and every breed extending their thirty minutes off the leash by speed and sudden changes of direction. He seems a comic threesome in black coats of scratchy Chihuahua, dachshund and barrel-bodied Lab and knows the woman loves them the way someone loves their karaoke voice when all around are grimacing. (241)
The artistic trajectories of Trevor and Elizabeth are similar to the extent that both create coherence out of other people’s raw material: they are shapers. In Trevor’s case this is the collage technique he has developed, using faces, magazines, a range of mediums redacted and coordinated to the point where the original text is lost and becomes something new. For Elizabeth, her editing work is an art in itself:
Words, phrases, punctuation, Tenses. Most cliched of all, and yet visceral as a paper cut, is the editorial cut. Cut! cut! cut! Immediacy is not a t the expense of ideas or descriptions, it makes them. (124)
Both Elizabeth and Trevor struggle with a past that is threatening to catch up with them. Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs Sermon, was an irresponsible parent, who left her daughter to become a Rashneeshi, a cult known for its founder’s many Rolls Royces and the ‘free-loving’ orgies that took place, often in front of the children who lived there. Now infirm, Mrs Sermon has developed into a needy, talkative (“talkbot”) hoarder whose junk is overwhelming. In Trevor’s case, his father – a Polish geologist/miner who disappeared from his life when Trevor was fifteen–has suddenly reappeared, in need of cash.
Though The Returns pivots around the relationship between Trevor and Elizabeth, it’s also beautifully steeped in place. The streets of Melbourne are vividly alive in this work, its changeable weather on full display as the characters walk or drive through it. The descriptions of the natural world around the city occur as flashes of beauty, from Royal Park where Trevor walks Gordon to the steel carriages tram, the graffitied buildings or the flora and fauna:
The slow-moving water. The peace. The banks curve back and around ike any river left to its natural development. Above him the magpies carol and sometimes cry, small cranes lift above the water and lodge, shakily, in the higher branches. Ducks smooth past, these neck-and-beak birds defining the word “glide”, besides the twitchy zigzagging waterhens, black-feathered and red-beaked and the dabchicks and other species he isn’t sure of and- because it has been a warm spring and summer – the endless bush flies. (213-214)
The Returns moves quickly, driven along by the growing intimacy between Trevor and Elizabeth, and the way in which their lives are transforming. Salom goes deep into the minds of his characters, moving seamlessly between them and allowing their natural wittiness and insights to bubble up throughout the text. The writing is consistently rich and beautiful with the tight lyricism of poetry, even when it becomes deliciously bawdy. The Returns reads easily but has the transformative power of the most dense of novels. This is a novel to read once for the fun of it, and again for its sheer literary sumptuousness. It may seem, at first glance, like a simple story about two lost souls who heal one another through friendship, but like all of Salom’s work, The Returns is a perfectly written, powerful exploration of friendship, dignity, and love.