On a dark and stormy weekend

By David Hill

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Wayne Macauley can skewer a character with a phrase.
Wayne Macauley can skewer a character with a phrase.

I have to tell you that one of Macauley's earlier titles, The Cook, won Australia's "Most Underrated Book" Award. Now there's an ambivalent accolade.

So how do I rate the Melbourne author's fourth novel? Highly.

Seven friends elect to spend a winter weekend in a house above the sea. They'll turn off television, computers, mobile phones, other contacts to the outside world. They'll spend the time eating, drinking and making contact by telling one another stories.

They are middle-aged enough to know better. The narratives that are meant to bond them end up fracturing them. Some tales should stay untold.

As a storm crashes into the house, they start talking, passing the "story stick" (echoes of Lord Of The Flies) from speaker to speaker.

Their detailed, eloquently told narratives are mainly edgy, abrasive, darkly grotesque. There's the man who jumps from a balcony and kills his mistress, while his wife is indulging in a bit of bondage with a builder. There's the trussed-up farmer inside a dead cow; the indigenous squatters; the allergic teenage girl and the religious weirdo; the border official who sends a family back to death.

They're engrossing. They seldom end happily. They're sometimes more significant in the novel than developments among the non-magnificent seven who're telling them.

The friends turn them over, deconstruct them, consider them as metaphors of their own conditions. They react or recoil; they're jolted into admissions or denials that start to prise open their own relationships. A silent, accusing teenage daughter ratchets up the pressure, and finds time to offer her own anecdote of a long-legged girl floating down from the sky.

The seven are sensible, even sensitive adults. They acknowledge that "there's something a bit sad about us"; reassure one another that they're all "stumbling through this stuff, doing the best we can".

But as they drink more, disclose more, try to justify inadequacies and infidelities, try also to comprehend "Why aren't I happy?", they begin to bicker, accuse, fight. An accelerating slide into violence, like someone running faster and faster downhill to try and stop himself from falling over, sees the book avalanching towards wrecked relationships and ruined careers.

Style echoes situation. Macauley tells it all in springy, crackling sentences and conversations like street brawls. He can skewer a character with a phrase, often from his/her own mouth. The pace is headlong; the disintegration relentless. Startling, discomforting, and not likely to be underrated.

Demons
by Wayne Macauley
(Text Publishing $37)

- NZ Herald

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