The 2007 federal election evokes a particular sense memory in me - I remember the rush of excitement and the thrill in the air at the thought of a new Prime Minister, which for many predominantly left-leaning Canberrans was a strongly desired outcome.
T-shirts and bumper stickers proclaimed "Kevin 07" fair and wide, the political debate ran hot and strong through our media and just as the pollen from ANU's birch trees started to wane, the election was upon us.
Reading Jessica Stanley's debut novel, A Great Hope, took me all the way back to those days - and just like reality, the novel soon moves beyond the heady pre-election optimism to the swift decay of Australian politics in the years afterwards.
But A Great Hope is more than a political thriller - it's a murder mystery, family drama and coming of age story in one. We meet the Clare family and John, the patriarch, a union boss tipped to be a future politician.
His wife Grace is severe and tense, his children, Sophie and Toby struggling with their own coming of age and strained familial relations. And lurking in the background is his mistress, Tessa, a decade or more younger than John and with a rising career in PR and strategy herself.
When John is found dead, suddenly, the death is ruled a suicide. But why would the great man choose to kill himself, with no real explanation?
Through the perspectives of his children, wife and mistress, we gradually uncover more about who John was, and why (and how) he died.
This is a pacey and engaging book, that is gripping from the first pages. John is a sympathetic character, torn between his duties to his family and his career, his deep unhappiness finding solace in an affair despite his better judgement.
In the aftermath of his death, however, the complexities of his wife and children begin to unfurl. What starts as a narrative about a great man in politics is revealed to be a meditation on deeper themes of gender, motherhood, politics, ethics, and trying to find an identity as a young person in the shadow of your father's great career. While these themes might sound heavy, the writing is wry and funny, with the right balance of pathos and gravitas to stay entertaining without being superficial.
Stanley is a master of creating characters that are three-dimensional and difficult to characterise. I found myself constantly changing my opinion on the four key perspectives, of John's wife and children and his mistress. These are characters that are still evolving and full of surprises down to the last pages of the book.
Perhaps the only aspect of this novel that didn't quite ring true for me is the twist at the end, and the secondary narrative that supports it (which I won't spoil here). It felt like an unnecessary addition of intrigue where there were many more fleshed out and thorough plotlines that could have equally been used for the same purpose.
That said, this minor criticism shouldn't detract from the overall enjoyment of this novel, which I am already looking forward to re-reading.
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