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When All Around You Burns

Smoke In The Room

Author: Emily Maguire

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia

Three somewhat damaged people are thrown together in a low-rent inner-Sydney residential complex. Though an unlikely trio, their lives become entangled.

Katie, the landlady’s granddaughter, has a history of erratic behaviour bordering on the psychotic, initiating dangerous sexual adventures and being drunk and disorderly. She is on medication which she often refuses to take, for it is sex, rock ‘n’ roll, and self-mutilation which works for her at keeping the demons at bay.

Adam, a displaced American, is in shock, mourning for his young and now deceased, Australian-born wife. He is, at the start of the book, like Paul, the American, in Bertolucci’s film, “Last Tango in Paris”, so consumed by his own grief, that he can barely register the existence of anyone else. Katie, refusing to be ignored, however, persists in getting some sort of response from him. He becomes first her sexual conquest, and then, surprisingly, her friend, though he seems unaware of the fact that she actually becomes his salvation.

Graeme, a professional worker for social justice, has experienced so much of other people’s suffering – with no doubt a measure of his own – that he is experiencing a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Rather than treating himself with the care that he would show his many shell-shocked refugees, however, he is making some plans for a final departure from misery and defeat. It is only manic Katie who can see what he is intending to do. As not one of his colleagues seems to grasp the level of his despair, she is the only person who tries to prevent his last act. This recognition ultimately becomes a form of empowerment for her because she sees a mirror image of her own self-destructiveness in Graeme. And even though hugely disappointed by the way he resolves his pain, she is forced to see that a nihilistic extinguishing of the self is no answer. She becomes aware that her own self-loathing is a microcosm of his.

Despite her out-of-control sexual antics, Katie displays a kind of innocence to which both men respond: Adam, by worrying and fussing over her, Graeme in a more practical manner, based on what he does for a living. The interaction of the three main players keeps the reader seriously involved and brings tenderness and poignancy to the narrative.

Graeme pulled himself up on one elbow and inched forward. He placed his palm on the back of her stubbly head and her shoulders heaved. He lay down behind her and rubbed her back the way he’d seen mothers rub the backs of crying infants, with long, firm strokes from the shoulder blades to the tailbone and back again. She gradually quietened. When her body was still and her breathing slow, he let his hands drop. A minute passed and then another one. ‘I better let you sleep,’ she said, finally, slipping out of bed. She bent and kissed his forehead and then padded lightly out of the room.

It is difficult at the best of times to exist in harmony with random people with whom you have not chosen to share your living space; this trio of people could have been a disastrous combination, an unholy trinity. Yet it is the profound neediness of each one of these characters that brings out the best in each of the other two, thus creating the possibility of redemption for all.

Though a relatively young writer, Emily Maguire has produced a realistic, gritty, big-city story without side-stepping the difficult issues such as mental illness and suicide. Because of these elements and the setting for her tale, Smoke in the Room might at a first, careless glance seem to be merely a ‘grunge’ novel. But it is much better than this. ‘Grunge’ implies the grime without the meaning: a scurry of cockroaches, dried vomit caking bare floorboards, old mouse droppings, dirty underpants dangling from a door knob. The flats in Sydney’s Broadway, wherein Maguire sets her tale, are not as bad as this (though they are pretty sordid) but more importantly, the characters are not without hope and direction – however circuitous the path taken. Their lives prompt the existential question: What is it to be human?

Graeme explains to Katie what foster care is like.

‘..Some of the foster families were perfectly nice, but some weren’t. Someof the kids had been treated cruelly, had dreadful things happen to them, orin front of them. Sometimes they acted these things out. It’s not unusual, victims becoming perpetrators. Brutality breeding brutality.’
‘Like in that prison in Iraq. The soldiers went all terrorist on the terrorists…Naked pyramids and growly dogs. Thumbs up and smiles.
Electrocuted if you fall.’
‘Abu Ghraib.’
‘Yeah. Man, those pictures scared me. I couldn’t get them out of my head, but then I thought, Jesus, Katie, this is not about you. Like there’s this war and all this death and pain and I was safe in bed feeling sorry for myself because the photos upset me. Self-absorbed or what?’
He sensed she was becoming agitated again. ‘That’s normal,’ he said, speaking low and slow. ‘When something like Abu Ghraib, the war, wars…when something like that happens there’s more than enough pain and fear to go round. We all get our share. There’s no shame in feeling horrified, even if the horror is for yourself. Better that than apathy.’

Maguire’s narrative is compelling, her flawed characters engaging. Having come close to winning several prestigious literary prizes for her other novels, The Gospel According to Luke (2006) and Taming the Beast (2004), it should only be a matter of time before this one gets the attention it deserves.

Published inBook Reviews

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