To kick off this year of Australian women writers, we open with Fiona McGregor’s much-talked-about Indelible Ink. This novel serves up a living, breathing slice of Sydney as it is right now. If you don’t know Sydney, you will know it by the end of this novel! And if you do know Sydney, you’ll recognise how photo-realistic McGregor’s depictions are. She gets it so right – the humidity of a Sydney summer, that faint rotting tropical smell always in the air, the dramatic difference between leafy, harbour shore homes, rundown (but increasingly gentrified) Aboriginal Redfern and seedy Kings Cross, the cool incense-y insides of St Mary’s Cathedral and the bats of Hyde Park next door… McGregor really knows her place and it shows.
She makes clear what she is mapping here:
The cellular structure of society, like a hive, cheek by jowl the wealthy lawyer, the tattoo artist, the housing commission Aborigine.
This is the reality of Sydney: wealthy and poor, exclusive and public, outsider and mainstream, all crowded upon each other, overlapping and more than occasionally coming into conflict.
Her characters seem to grow organically out of this hot humid setting, not least of all Marie, the novel’s protagonist, a middle-aged recently-divorced ‘North Shore lady’ – except she’s not… We sense from the outset that Marie is much more interesting than that: there’s something untamed inside her, that’s timed to burst out at any moment to horrify her matronly friends. Sure enough, Marie’s new direction starts with a spur-of-the-moment decision to get a single rose tattoo…
All this occurs during Sydney’s recent drought – a drought which causes much consternation for North Shore matrons as they worry for their water-hungry gardens (the North Shore of Sydney = Toorak in Melbourne = Upper East Side in New York, etc..). McGregor’s vibrant botanical descriptions are a large part of the narrative’s delights. I only wish, not having much gardening knowledge myself, that there were some sort of application whereby I could just hover my finger over a plant name to make a picture and description pop up! (Maybe on the next generation of e-readers?)
The drought seems to also foreshadow an ongoing environmental crisis for Sydney’s usually tropically-lush slopes:
The indigenous people said that Sydney had six seasons but now it felt like neither six nor four, but one: summer.
Human beings in this setting appear less the rational creatures they’re supposed to be and more just another form of natural life, struggling in the harsh conditions. This interweaving of two forms of life is made concrete in the repeated application of tattooed images that unfold their tendrils and ‘grow’ slowly all over Marie’s body. First discreetly, then boldly, the tattoos take over but it seems less a covering than a revealing, as Marie’s true self emerges and her false friends fall away… One of the lovely subtleties of this story is the surprise element in which of her old friends stay faithful to Marie and which reject her as she radicalises herself.
As this novel unfurls towards its genuinely moving climax, it just gets better and better… what starts out as a gently gossipy newly divorced matron saga (done well, but done before) turns into a creative and fresh treatment of the sunset of a woman’s life. McGregor somehow manages to be tough-minded and tender at the same time: sentiment is balanced with a strong realism and acceptance of the body’s deterioration and decay. As this highly particular and localised drama draws to a close, Marie emerges as an Everywoman, demonstrating the shared fragility of plant and human life.
Verdict: A moving and picture-perfect account of facing middle age in contemporary Sydney.
Watch out for: Contemporary references abound! From soaring real estate prices to recent television shows (remember The Chaser’s shenanigans in Sydney?) to famous Australian television ads, prepare for many jolts of recognition!