On paper, Somebody to Love was My Kind of Book. I love reading about relationships and reality, about the everyday, but with something a little different to lift it. I loved The Lonely Polygamist because it was about relationships—one man and his four wives, which, of course, is a normal life for some people. And Somebody to Love was about a transsexual mortician in Tasmania; as I’m quietly a bit morbid, the mortician aspect appealed to me, as did the fact that I’d be reading about sex and gender issues that a lot of us could stand to know more about. And when I got my hands on a copy, I swooned at the cover: it’s a beautiful-looking book.
Our heroine, the mortician, is in her family’s funeral home, preparing three bodies for burial: the Esterhazen girl, the Kremmer boy, and Mr Phillips, a man who entrances her even in death. As she readies these cadavers for their final rest, she reflects on the life she’s led. From the family that taught her the trade to her journey to changing her body to reflect how she is, every cut and touch of makeup is the product of the years before her.
It really is an exercise in language. And like James Joyce’s similarly verbose Ulysses, it’s not really my bag. It’s a bit hypocritical for me to say so when the fiction I write is just as tangential and plotless as they come, which means I count a lot on my use of language, but I am possibly biased and clearly see myself as some kind of Fabulous Exception to the Rule. The mortician thinks in the kind of distinguished language that, if conversing in real life, would immediately put me on edge and feel I was being condescended to. One does not use the word “I” if “one” can be used to refer to oneself instead; indeed, the word indeed turns up at the start of a sentence so often I considered getting out a highlighter and counting, except I was worried my highlighter would run out of neon. Sure, the main character doesn’t have to be someone immediately likeable to be an interesting person to follow—like in A Confederacy of Dunces—but in this case, I found it far too frustrating. She is an unreliable narrator—seemingly paranoid of other people’s reactions to her, but without supplying enough information to know if she has a basis for it or not. Like so:
‘I see,’ she said, turning quickly, her eyes glinting, I believe, with malice. Mrs K, it is a known fact, is a vicious woman, sudden to anger, ready to wound, and in that moment she meant, undoubtedly, ‘I have your measure, I will punish you for this.’
(I do, however, feel I have met a kindred spirit in someone who like the comma as much as I do.)
In some cases, things were not explained enough; other subjects were banged on about repeatedly. It’s also something I wouldn’t recommend for anyone with a prudish constitution (necrophilia by page two—a new record!) and if you’ve recently experienced a bereavement, the graphic explanations will not make you feel better, though the care that the mortician puts into it is at least mildly comforting.
It is, in an understated but visceral way, one of the most violent and dark books I have read. Beauty is stripped to dark, and everyone within the book’s pages has their secrets—the funeral industry included. Some of the violence will happen with such smoothness, clouded by gorgeous words, that you will barely notice it happening. It has some beautiful moments of realised horror, delicately atmospheric and engaging. Every word, item and action is in its place. Some turns of phrase struck me as a bit odd, like the following:
There is, at the top end of the cemetery, a fence of trees laced with a passionfruit vine. It was a most welcome place to shelter on account of the warm afternoon, curtained by the fringe of fruit that hung grimly like testicles, hard and green, against the sunburned iron heat.
Now I understand her own male genitals were a source of concern for her, but testicles are not hard and green. If so, see your doctor. Just some advice from your friendly neighbourhood bookseller.
Frankly, the elegant language made it a difficult undertaking, and I had to reread sentences to try and understand what was happening; sometimes I just gave up and moved on. The plot jumped back and forth in time and often I had no idea where I was or at what point in the chronology of the story. It was kind of like when you’re stuck on a train next to the window, surrounded by a stack of third-year uni students who are loudly retelling the story of the Nihilist Party they threw on the weekend and trying their best to impress each other with their Word-of-the-Day-Calendar knowledge, but are all slightly too drunk to remember the order of events clearly.
There are a lot of books out there that have given me a similar reaction that have gone on to win ridiculously well-paying prizes and the accolades of millions. I’m the first to admit that just because I didn’t like something it doesn’t mean it’s not worthy, or that it won’t make your Top Ten Desert Island Reads. But this is not in mine.
In summary: Below Expectations. The past two books I’ve read by Tasmanian authors have been linguistically challenging for me (the other being Anna Dusk’s Inhuman) and I am now wary of crossing Bass Strait in case all the signs are in fancytalk or covered in werewolf blood.