Sweet, stealthy surreality in the real suburbs
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Sweet, stealthy surreality in the real suburbs

FICTION
By Iris Lavell
Fremantle Press, $24.99

''Fact explains nothing. On the contrary, it is fact that requires explanation,'' prizewinning American author Marilynne Robinson writes in her classic novel Housekeeping. I recalled the statement often while reading Iris Lavell's debut, Elsewhere in Success.

''Success'' is such a peculiar name for a suburb that, judging by the title alone, the story seems to start off with one foot in the surreal. But, for those who aren't familiar with Perth, it's an actual suburb, named after HMS Success.

Where is ''Elsewhere'', though? Is it part of the suburb, or existing in some parallel space? It's the way the real and surreal mix, the way they sometimes can't be separated, that threatens to become the protagonists' undoing.

Louisa's first husband used to beat her terribly and her son committed suicide. Harry's wife walked out on him and he lost his daughter. These things happened long before the novel's time. Now Harry and Louisa are trying to make a life together.

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One can state facts baldly, but, as Robinson wisely pointed out and Lavell demonstrates, understanding them is quite another matter. It is to Lavell's credit that, though she circles around the ''fact'' of suicide, she doesn't shy from exploring its meaning for those left behind. Yet there is no final answer, or form of expiation.

Lavell is a playwright and you can hear this in her dialogue. When Harry and Louisa are at the beach and Louisa has been feeling low, Harry comes out of the water shaking drops all over her and saying: ''This is the life.'' You feel how inappropriate the statement is, and yet, for Harry, at that moment, with his own ghosts haunting him, it is also true. Harry has lost a child, not through death but because his daughter was adopted by her stepfather, cutting him out completely. His feelings of loss are less intense than Louisa's, and his struggle to be supportive is often at odds with other aspects of his personality.

The novel progresses through unspectacular moments of connection and disconnection. Louisa's counselling sessions are woven into the narrative in a low-key way, and she sometimes comes away wondering if they help.

It would be easy to overlook the courage and integrity Lavell brings to every page and how each scene is worth rereading. Elsewhere in Success is a brave book, though it doesn't flaunt its courage. Readers looking for gaudy linguistic performances will be disappointed. Indeed, one of Harry's reflections could be taken to refer to the author's style. ''Everything is exaggerated these days, super-sized they call it, as if everything isn't already big enough.''

The metaphors are subtle and effective: my favourite is a statue of the Buddha. There is a symmetry to the statue's appearances, and readers don't need to be students of Buddhist teachings to understand either his importance, or Louisa's ability, finally, to let him go. The statue has a chip in his big toe, which begins to disappear almost magically once he's in their garden. ''Dirt was covering it and a petal from the rose had bandaged it.'' Harry and Louisa ''noted the event as a minor miracle and independently wondered about its significance''. In the end, the statue is smashed to pieces by what Louisa believes to be a meteor but is only a tennis ball.

Well-drawn minor characters include Buster the dog, whose company Harry often prefers to that of humans; and a circle of friends, one of whom almost entices Harry into bed. The scene in which this fails to happen is funny in its own quiet way.

Painting, for Louisa, and taking up the saxophone again, for Harry, provide opportunities for the expression of pent-up feelings. Dread might return, and fear, but the couple are learning to see past them.

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