Reviews / November 2011 (Issue 15)


Consumed by Life: Laura Solomon's Instant Messages and G. S. Johnston's Consumption: A Novel

by Eva Leung


Laura Solomon, Instant Messages, Proverse Hong Kong, 2010. 154 pgs.
G. S. Johnston, Consumption: A Novel, Kindle Editions, 2011. 197 pgs.

At the opening of Laura Soloman's Instant Messages, joint winner of the inaugural International Proverse Prize (2009), the Best family, living in London, is falling apart. Theresa, the mother and breadwinner, is leaving her husband and twin daughters for her lesbian lover, Sue. Alan Best, the father, has been "temporarily unemployed" for ten years and has written a number of novels which earn him frequent rejection letters from agents. Melanie, one of the twins, regularly smokes and drinks herself unconscious, shoplifts and cuts her arms. Olivia, the other twin and fifteen-year-old narrator of the novel, is a computer nerd who is constantly bullied by a gang of boys. Her only friend is Green Frog, her stuffed animal. Fortunately, Laura Solomon's witty pen transforms these desolate circumstances into a darkly humorous page-turner.

Olivia has taken up fighting the "domestic wars," and strives to set things right by hiding the horrible truth of her bullying, mediating between her separated parents and taking care of her self-destructive twin sister. Through Olivia's lively narration, Solomon addresses many serious social issues, particularly the neglected problem of childhood bullying. In the eyes of her peers, Olivia might be an unsociable freak, but Solomon has created a courageous and sensitive heroine, who, despite her fear, fights her tormentors in her own silent way:

I am drinking my morning coffee, when I look out through the kitchen window. There is a sign on the front lawn, painted in bright red lettering. It says, "OLIVIA IS DEAD MEAT." I walk outside in my pyjamas and pull the sign out of the lawn, stash it in the back of the wardrobe. Thank God nobody else is awake yet, I don't want to worry Dad by letting him know what's going on. He's got enough on his plate. I feel sick, can't finish my coffee or eat my muesli. I want to stay at home all day, but GF says, Come on Livvy, we need to show them that we're not frightened. On the way to the bus I am as nervous as hell; a car toots its horn and I nearly jump out of my skin.

Solomon doesn't portray Olivia as an invincible warrior woman, but presents her as an ordinary, if not slightly troubled, teenager who is victimised and frightened by her circumstances. However, by showing Olivia ably confronting her problems as the novel progresses, Solomon suggests that standing up for oneself is a better alternative than having one's life traumatised.

Solomon excels at characterisation and effectively conveys multiple meanings. One such example is her creation of the character Green Frog. On the simplest level, the use of a talking stuffed toy adds a comic element to the story. Nicknamed GF by Olivia, Green Frog also represents the Girl Friends that Olivia does not have, and thus reinforces her social isolation. On another level, however, Green Frog also acts as Olivia's more positive and outspoken other self, and GF is able to say things that Olivia cannot. When she hears Sue bossing her mum around and referring to her as "T" instead of "Theresa," Olivia is obviously annoyed but unable to vent her frustration, except through Green Frog:

"T, would you be a darling and bring in the washing," mimics GF. "T, would you sweep up those dead leaves on the path outside. T, would you mind dreadfully mopping up that mess I just made."

Things become more complicated when the head-over-heels-in-love Melanie breaks up with her boyfriend Claude; when Theresa leaves Sue and starts dating Thomas, a boy roughly her daughters' age, and when their father Alan brings his new girlfriend Judy home. Through these complications, Solomon explores the adverse consequences that a failed marriage has on a family, particularly on the children. At one extreme there is Olivia, who clings to Green Frog and keeps herself to herself; at the other extreme there is Melanie, whose self-harming and criminal acts are a way for her to vent her frustration and seek attention from her parents. The ring she shoplifts at one point may symbolise a latent desire for her parents to reunite. For Solomon, however, the girls' suffering may ultimately be the result of parental neglect, and indeed both Theresa and Alan seem too absent to be effective parents. For example, it takes about half a year for them to realise Melanie has been smoking, and they remain oblivious to the bullying Olivia suffers.

By writing this story in random acronyms, frequent italics and bolded words, Solomon vividly captures the voice of a teenaged narrator obsessed with computers and makes her novel come to life. Olivia's voice is also successfully brought out in the novel's use, as the title suggests, of instant messages. There are no chapters within the book because all of its sections are chunks of "instant messages" written from Olivia Best to readers. Yet Solomon not only uses this device to suggest her heroine's technologically savvy existence and desire for self-expression, but also to send her own important messages about social issues, teenage concerns and family problems, messages she wants delivered this "instant."

***

In G S Johnston's Consumption: A Novel, now available as an e-book from Kindle Editions, the heroine Sara Sexton takes a different approach to dealing with her problems than those employed by Olivia Best. Breaking up with her Greek boyfriend Stavros, Sexton flees to Hong Kong to reconnect and seek refuge with her long time friend, Martin Blake. From here the story unfolds, in six symbolically entitled parts, as readers follow Sara from 1995 to 2008 as she jets between Hong Kong and Sydney.

As the title Consumption suggests, Johnston explores themes of consumerism and how our material possessions define us. To this end, Johnston juxtaposes his two protagonists, Sara, a girl seeking a simpler way of life, and Martin, a high-profile Australian interior designer who enjoys the glamorous lifestyle of an expatriate in Hong Kong. Sara slowly realises that in his new life in the city Martin is "designing" a new identity through material possessions and financial success; he owns apartments in different parts of the world, runs an interior design company with thirty employees, owns a collection of the Australian artist Donald Friend's works and even has a friend called Gucci. It disturbs Sara that Martin, with whom she has shared an intimate and remote past and a damaged childhood, has changed so much after a separation of only two years. And so their friendship is threatening to fall apart.

As the story unravels, Sara becomes increasingly frustrated, realising that she is not as well-informed about Martin's past as she thought she was. As she was orphaned at an early age, Martin is in some sense Sara's only family, but the bond between them is not strong enough for him to reveal what lies behind the mask he shows everyone else. Johnston skilfully presents the intricacies of their friendship with all its frustrations, misunderstandings and jealousies.

In Consumption, Johnston has managed to shed the coloured lens through which foreigners usually view Hong Kong. He presents the city as the dazzling place that it is, but also captures its complexities and reveals how Hong Kong's international and multicultural nature can come to both accommodate and confine Martin. In this passage, for example, it is truly delightful to find Johnston depicting the vitality of the city:

The office block was just another reasonably tall building on Queens Road, a shrub in the jungle, no great fuss or superstructure about it. As with everything in Hong Kong, there was a hive of people, voices sing-songing, bodies zig-zagging across the foyer floor. Everything in Hong Kong was at war with itself.

Elsewhere, he portrays the old Kai Tak Airport with nostalgic accuracy, rendering it "as a low-roofed warren of stretched corridors, pale yellow light, thousands and thousands of cross-rushing people."

Yet such apt descriptions, which if overused could slow the pace of the novel, are carefully balanced by Johnston's masterful use of dialogue and plotting, which effectively advance the story, develop characters and relationships and build the tension up to the climax in "Part 5: See Through." While this all makes the novel an accessible read, Consumption should not be rushed through. There are many literary references to catch, and a lot of Johnston's little details carry meaning. At the beginning of the novel, for example, Sara gets off the plane with her left ear blocked, a detail which suggests that her perceptions of the world around her—Martin in particular—are skewed.

All of this made Consumption: A Novel a true triumph. I look forward to seeing it published as printed book, so a wider audience can have access to it.

 
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