Last year, Australian novelist Andrea Goldsmith was in the spotlight for the most awful reason – the death of her famous partner. But she doesn’t address that until the end of her book, so it behoves me to do the same. Goldsmith’s new novel, Reunion, offers much to think about in its own right.
Reunion is a story about four middle-aged friends, and one gatecrasher, who meet up in Melbourne after years of having scattered themselves across the globe. The friends – Jack, Ava, Helen and Connie – met when they were students at university. Back then, Harry, who they considered a bumbling lightweight, had the gall to date and then wed Ava, the sweetheart of the group. Despite the friends’ ambivalence towards Harry, they are stuck with him. What’s more, Harry now heads the Network of Global Australians, a think-tank with funds enough to offer fellowships to all of his wife’s friends. And it’s Harry’s money that lures them home.
It seems they might need his help, too. While Ava has independently become a famous novelist, each of the others has hit a roadblock. Jack, who long ago wrote a successful book about Islam, spends his days pining for Ava, and until now her faraway location has allowed him to cultivate daydreams about their romantic life together. He does this so obsessively that little time is left for work. Helen, a talented molecular biologist, needs protection from the unsavoury individuals swarming around her as she nears her Einstein moment. And Connie, an aging celebrity philosopher, is being shafted by the next generation, both in and out of the bedroom. Harry steps up to better their lives, with ulterior motives, of course.
Predictably, the reunion summons more regret and nostalgia than simple joy. Such is the complexity that comes with age. But Goldsmith handles this revisiting of one’s past with humour and compassion, though at times the reader may want to reach into the book and give the characters an almighty shake.
Because of the novel’s concerns, I can’t imagine that anyone under thirty could empathise with these characters. Having said that, I would commend this novel to younger readers for two reasons. One, so that they know what lies ahead. And two, because Reunion is a surprisingly subversive novel.
Like the best of Iris Murdoch’s novels, Reunion creeps up on you after the fact. In this novel, we meet a man who sleeps with a neglected schoolgirl. We meet a woman who is without remorse for her repeated infidelities. And we meet a woman who puts her work before her friends, even when her best friend is dying.
On paper, you’d agree that’s a pretty reprehensible bunch and yet they are our main characters, and Goldsmith tells her story through them. More than that, she writes them as flawed but endearing, mostly likeable individuals. She doesn’t moralise, she doesn’t judge. Some of her characters come unstuck as the result of their behaviour but only temporarily, and never without the possibility of redemption. She even allows the Humbert Humbert character to become a saviour of sorts.
I suspect a young reader would be waiting for these appalling adults to get their comeuppance. But life is not that simple and nor should fiction be. It is Reunion’s tolerance that is subversive; the book carries a scent of the 1970s. The characters experience good and bad, but none of it is clear-cut punishment. The same people who cheat on one another, fool themselves, get drunk and prey on the young, turn out to be loyal, smart, and knowing. In true Seventies style, the only character who is close to unforgivable is Harry, whose driving motivation is power.
I did baulk at Goldsmith’s clumsy attempts to include a few young folk. Children are almost entirely absent from this novel, which is a glaring hole. For this many characters to have produced so few progeny is unlikely but perhaps the author knew they would present an unwieldy distraction.
The one offspring who is allowed space is 16-year-old Luke, who is unlike any teenager I’ve ever met. Luke uses words that would have him laughed out of the classroom. He’s grown up in the United States, but that doesn’t excuse sentences like ‘You’re far too hung up on ideals. Get rid of them or upgrade’ and ‘Of all of you, you two, Connie and Ava, who will have the enduring reputation?’ I don’t think so.
Despite that minor misgiving, and the irksome tokenistic references to Melbourne’s landmarks, Reunion is an interesting, commendable novel with breadth and wisdom that is enormously attractive.
It also wrestles with the topic of death. Goldsmith’s partner, acclaimed poet Dorothy Porter, died last year. While it’s tempting to see life showing up in art, Goldsmith makes it clear in her endnote that Reunion was finished before Porter became ill. Perhaps death always rears itself as a topic whenever you reunite older characters. Characters see that their friends have aged, that they’ve aged, that things don’t stay the same. It sounds sad, but it’s not. Because when people reunite there is always the possibility of looking forward as well as looking back, to try to make the very best of all the life that’s left.