By Catherine Deveny
Black Inc., $29.95
WHAT constitutes happiness is constantly being redefined in the pages of novels. In Catherine Deveny's The Happiness Show, Lizzie Quealy is finding contentment hard to pin down.
Lizzie is a 38-year-old comedian who lives in Melbourne with her husband, Jim, and their two children. Lizzie is brash, uninhibited and, as if to confirm these traits, a redhead. Her husband is loving, apparently ''hung like a horse'' and more than happy to take care of the kids. When Lizzie is given the chance to make a show for the BBC, he embraces the opportunity to exit the rat race and ''sit back and be Denis Thatcher''.
On the other side of the world, Tom is similarly ensconced in the humdrum responsibilities of adulthood. A lawyer living in London, Tom is married to Felicity. Felicity first appears ''immaculate in cream linen'' and later lowers herself onto ''the new couch she'd bought at Harrods''. Their middle-class incarnation is perfected by their employment as housekeeper of an Iraqi asylum-seeker who had lost three generations of her family when ''Saddam Hussein was having a particularly bad day''.
What connects Tom and Lizzie is the romance they once had. The two met on a backpacking holiday on the Trans-Siberian Express in their 20s. Lizzie had flashed her breasts to save Tom's camera from certain theft; Tom had thought Lizzie to be a paragon of all that could be desirable about a woman: ''She was part Tank Girl, part Lara Croft and part Annie Get Your Gun. She was the heroine of her own novel.''
When coincidence leads Lizzie and Tom to meet again years later, their attraction is revived. The former lovers reminisce, conceal the importance of the encounter from their respective spouses and begin to email each other. The tension this creates, the back and forth of wanting but not having, fuels the bulk of the novel.
What is prominent in Deveny's first novel is sex. There's the sex Lizzie has with her husband, but mostly there's the yearning for the sex she once had with Tom. The subject turns up casually - ''The humidity felt so exotic and so sexy. She felt as if she were with an old lover'' - and more explicitly in the emailed and spoken exchanges between Tom and Lizzie. Whether one of them is wet, or hard, or ''moved together like a tide'' is more frequently addressed than it might have been. Deveny's desire to cultivate a brand of raciness for a female demographic is clear, but whether that is achieved is another matter. Sex and its surrounding territory is notoriously perilous material for a writer.
Deveny is often unconventional and controversial in her columns, public appearances and tweets, and this has prevailed in her fiction. It's particularly apparent in the relationship she depicts between Lizzie and her best friend, Jules. Their friendship pointedly veers away from customary notions of femininity. In theory, this is appealing, but the effort can go awry. When the ABC passes on Lizzie's pilot at the beginning of the novel, Jules comforts her by observing: ''C---s. I hope their kids get cancer. Got any Tim Tams?'' This is the brand of provocation Deveny has taught her audience to expect.
The Happiness Show aims to recast an old and well-loved plot about love, lust and longing in a deliberately modern light.
This debut novel succeeds in being unpredictable within these parameters, but the heavily colloquial and somewhat abrasive voice of its protagonist might be an acquired taste.