- Losing Face, by George Haddad. UQP, $29.99.
Like any metropolis, Sydney is a place of many moving parts. There is the chaotic grandeur of the CBD, the old money that necklaces the harbour, the bare-skinned sensuality of the beaches, the affluent northern enclaves, and the red-brick-and-tile suburbs that sprawl in every other direction.
But, really, Sydney is a city of east and west; it is a divided city. It is a city that, as COVID-19 has revealed, operates like a pair of lungs, except one of the pair is favoured over the other.
Thankfully, in recent years, writers have begun to reveal Western Sydney in all its complexity. These include Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Peter Polites, both of whom are highly regarded for their unflinching gaze and steadfast refusal to be concerned about rattling the status quo; they have received prestigious awards for their work. Now we have George Haddad, who is currently a doctoral candidate and tutor at the University of Western Sydney. His novella, Populate or Perish, won the 2016 Viva La Novella competition.
In Losing Face, his debut novel, Haddad brings Western Sydney wondrously - and worryingly - to life. He does this through Joey, a rather directionless Lebanese-Australian young man, and Elaine, his grandmother, who, among other things is struggling with a gambling addiction. Joey has a younger brother, Alex, who is still at school, so he is left to navigate the suburban streets and the communities they support and contain.
Haddad is fearless in his descriptions of everyday places.
Here he is on a local shopping mall: "In the Abu Salim car park, Sudanese quarrelled with Egyptians about their parking prowess. Chubby Lebanese children chomped on sour plums as their mums loaded boxes of tomatoes and gallons of ghee into giant four-wheelers. The Syrian employees dragged the smoke of their cigarettes deep as they unpacked cartons of coffee off a battered truck...Going to Abu Salim meant you had to prepare yourself for a riot."
Apart from his family, of which he is deeply respectful, Joey has a rather disparate group of friends; they take selfies, take drugs, and do little else. He is looking for something, but what that is seems unattainable. Is Joey's life too weighed down by his past, by the trauma he has inherited, the trauma that resides in his bones? Or are the prejudices that exist in Sydney, that underpin and drive the entire nation, too devious for this good-natured young man to handle?
Haddad suggests both are the case.
Joey ends up meeting a man at a music festival, which adds a layer of intrigue to the novel. But it is when he becomes involved in a sexual assault that the narrative takes a truly horrendous turn. Joey's role in the assault is murky. He participates but his mind is elsewhere; he is both aware of the victim but passive in terms of removing himself from the situation.
And that is why we have - and need - novelists: they go beyond the polarisation of social media and the less nuanced news outlets to explore the hidden depths.
Contrasting the mess that Joey has made of his life, a mess that, to be fair, has also been made for him, is Elaine's narrative. Elaine is proud of her Lebanese heritage; she satisfies her hunger for something she cannot seem to find in Australia by working the pokies day in, day out.
Haddad explores Elaine's addiction with both insight and sensitivity: "She was two days off from her next payment, so if she could make something out of the twenty she had left it would be helpful. The car was coughing through its last drops of petrol because she had only been filling the tank up with five or ten dollars at a time. If she lost the twenty, she'd be stuck at home for two days, too afraid to drive and break down somewhere and be forced to come clean. Seeing Georgette had filled her own tank with hope. It had also filled it with sadness that she believed the bright lights of the machines would filter out."
Losing Face is a powerful piece of literary fiction, and that power comes from its laconic prose and the tenderness of its voice. Haddad excels at finding meaning in everyday details.
The novel is a study of contemporary Australian masculinity, but, refreshingly, it situates its analysis in a broader context - in no way is Haddad saying that men are having it tough so give them a break. In his gentle, almost quiet way, he suggests that the structures that hold Sydney together are also the structures that box everyone in, trapping them.
In Losing Face, Australia, in all its beauty and ugliness, is a character that looms large. Through Joey and Elaine, George Haddad yearns for a better future, one that might lift all Sydney folk - no matter who they are and where they live.
- Nigel Featherstone is the author of My Heart is a Little Wild Thing, published by Ultimo Press.