Updated: Jun 10, 2021
”Time is a trickster; being nothing, it promises everything.”
This book is mellow. It took me ages to pinpoint that this is how I felt while reading it. A dear friend mentioned to me that it seemed to be taking me an inordinate amount of time to finish reading this. I pondered on that. But I couldn’t seem to read it any faster, as to me it’s not that kind of story. It simply cannot be rushed. It moves along at a sedate pace. Yep, the word “mellow” describes the style of writing and tempo of this book perfectly.
We meet Trevor and Elizabeth. Both are middle-aged, and life has perhaps not turned out quite as they’d envisaged. Both bear scars from unusual childhoods, with absent parents. And not so satisfying personal relationships. Circumstances lead their paths to each other. Is it serendipity that they should meet?
Nothing much happens in their daily lives. But hey, that’s life most of the time, for most of us, isn’t it? Trevor runs his own little bookshop. Elizabeth is a book editor who works from home. Trevor’s marriage to his (awful, snobbish) wife, Diana, is on the rocks. Diana wants Trevor to leave. Now. Elizabeth places an advert in Trevor’s shop window for a lodger, as she needs some extra funds (and truth be told, some company). Trev takes the plunge and makes the move to Elizabeth’s place, renting the room from her. Were the book gods planning this from above? Is this a match made in heaven?
Elizabeth suffers from prosopagnosia* and Trevor has quite a - how shall I say this - imposing physique. So she recognizes his “outline” even while she can’t recognize his face. This amused me no end. Elizabeth is a picky eater (a “food moralist”), whereas Trev cooks these amazing, slow cooked meals, drenched in spice and flavour. I just loved the play on the differences between them, the yin and the yang. Strangely, they complemented each other. It just works. The emotional power in the story is so delightfully strong, it takes you unawares.
Trev decides to try to rekindle his painting career, which he’d not pursued after leaving Art School twenty years earlier. With Elizabeth (and likewise Trevor), we don’t get too much of an inkling of what led them to their current career paths. Again, like life for so many of us. You just “fall into” something, for no particular reason.
The Melbourne setting is fabulous, utterly realistic. I felt like I could have walked down the very street that Trev walked each way on his way to and from his bookshop. And the descriptions of hail storms! Spot on. Just like the ones we get in Sydney. A gorgeous sunny day, then BOOM, your car has been ravaged by giant iceballs melting, the windscreen of your car shattered to a gazillion pieces.
I love how Philip Salom picks up on the intricacies and nuances of life in a big city. There’s a particularly poignant scene where he describes a hip, nouveau art gallery existing on one end of Flinders Street. Where people are made to feel inadequate for not “understanding” the art that is displayed there, let alone be able to afford it. Or - heaven forbid - ask to display their art work there (such as Trevor did) if they’re not one of the young crowd, utterly fabulous and newly graduated from Art School. As Trevor walks further along Flinders Street, there are poor, homeless people sitting outside of the train station, who cannot afford a cup of coffee. This dichotomy hit my heart just so. It is so well written.
”Art along Flinders Lane, poverty along Flinders St. For the homeless the irony is that they have nothing as free in this world as time, and time offers them nothing.”
The characters in this story are quirky. Both Trev and Liz are so beautifully flawed, especially Trev. I love him! I think I have a bit of a crush. There is a subtle, dark comedic edge to this story. So many of the situations I found to be very humorous, in an un-obvious way. The dinner party scene where Trev attends his ex-wife’s birthday party is particularly witty. Look out for it.
This book tells me that it’s never too late to dream. To reinvent yourself. Or to make new, wonderful friends.
I’m thrilled this has made it to the Miles Franklin shortlist, as it’s a quiet, under-rated gem. I hope it wins. I adored this. 4.5 🌟
As an aside, the cover of this book displays the flow and ideas of the story so beautifully. It’s quite amazing how it captures the tone so well. Trevor is an artist, and Elizabeth suffers from prosopagnosia*. They are both artistic souls; he works in a book shop, she is a book editor. To me, the cover is a gorgeous Rorschach** test, where we can see both of their faces, both individually, and together, merging into one…
Yes,yes, I have been gushing about this book quite a bit. But it’s just that good. It’s really hit a soft spot with me.
*prosopagnosia is a neurological condition where someone is unable to recognize (even familiar) people via their facial features.
** TheRorschach test is a psychological technique where the participants' perceptions of pictures made out of “inkblots” are then analyzed. It can apparently be used to examine a person’s personality characteristics and emotional functioning. It is named after its creator, Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach. Fascinating!
The two protagonists of this novel meet in unusual circumstances. Elizabeth has, I suppose you would call it a fainting spell, and Trevor catches her and invites her into his shop to recuperate. Elizabeth is a book editor, in fact she was inspecting Trevor’s window display, as she often does, when she felt faint.
Inside the shop their conversation is anything but flowing. Assumptions are made and the two seem to rub each other the wrong way. Elisabeth seems to find herself contradicting everything Trevor says regardless of topic. She leaves quickly saying she will come back that afternoon, and Trevor, strangely considering the way she has spoken to him, finds himself looking forward to it, but she does not return.
Elizabeth used to be a full-time publishing editor but now in later life has cut back to part-time and works from home. She travels weekly to see her Mum and is surprised when her Mum asks her to help “arrange a dignified end” with Dr Nitschke, when the time comes. Working part-time now gives Elizabeth time to think, to dwell, to ponder, and she finds she cannot get her mother’s euthanasia request out of her head.
Elizabeth feeling a change in her life is needed decides to do two things, join the local choir and take in a lodger.
Trevor also felt he needed a change in his life, so he left his government job and with the money he inherited from his father’s estate, a father who disappeared and was declared dead after thirty years, set up a little bookshop. Trevor loves books, always has. He is an introvert, and happy in his own company. When his accountant asks him why he quit his job as a public servant with a firm salary, Trevor answers, “It was change or die.”
Trevor is still in a failed marriage with Diana, estranged, yet still living under the same roof. Diana wants him to move out and when one day Elizabeth returns to his shop and asks if she can place an advertisement in his window about a room to rent, it feels like fate has stepped in and played the serendipity card.
This novel, in a nutshell is about these two characters. Both Trevor and Elizabeth just living their lives. It takes their meeting and eventual living arrangements to perhaps bring realisation to them both that they may be existing rather than living. Going through the paces, but not stopping to smell the roses. Both do not feel fulfilled, but it takes their friendship to blossom for them to see this, and perhaps just how much they may need each other even platonically.
Both characters grew up missing a vital parent figure. Trevor physically lost his father who disappeared, while Elizabeth spiritually lost her mother to the Rajneesh orange sex cult. The loss of these figures in an integral part of their lives cannot be discounted.
Trevor’s true passion is painting, and he has a talent for it, so he decides to return to painting and give it another try. Another try? Yes, Salom gives the reader very little to go on initially, giving the reader information on their backgrounds piecemeal. What was Trevor’s job? What happened to his father? How did he get the limp? Limp? Yes he has a limp. All these questions assail the reader right from the start, but Salom holds the answers back. The book is divided into three parts and the reader is still missing vital information in this third and final part. However, it all comes together beautifully.
There is a definite dark comic edge to the narrative and some wicked characters that will leave a smile on your face. Characters like the creepy madman who wants Trevor to order a copy of Sin City, the DVD. He manages to make you laugh, while still maintaining this creepy persona.
Or Elizabeth’s lovely neighbor who tears down her fence, throws all the pickets and rubbish on her side of the fence and simply expects a happy resolution between the two of them in working out the cost of a new fence. Charming!
This is an extremely well written novel whose narrative and strength lies with the two main characters and their lives, problems, and the healing power of a growing friendship. 4.5 Stars.
Nat and I have both given this 4.5 Stars which gives THE RETURNS a total of 9 out of 10, which I think may make it the leader for this year. A couple of other points that we agree upon are that the main character is based, maybe loosly, but still based, on the author himself and that we would both like to see it win the Miles Franklin Award.