Nine Days by Toni Jordan
There's a moment about 60 pages into this novel where your resistance - primed and provoked by the stickers plastered on the front cover "guaranteeing" you'll love it (or your money back, conditions apply) and that it's one of "50 books you can't put down", and stiffened by the author's reputation as an exponent of "rom-com" - just crumbles.
It might be the dialogue, it might be the introduction of a character (Jack) in whom you can finally believe, but after a creaky start, it gets its hooks into you.
Nine Days was apparently inspired by a photograph Toni Jordan found - it's on the book's cover - depicting a woman being hoisted from a crowded platform to the window of a troop train where a soldier is stooping to kiss her. There's a story there, she decided.
In fact, there are several stories, rippling out from that Kodak moment and down the generations of the Westaway family. The Westaways in 1939 are down-at-heel in Melbourne's cheaper reaches - Richmond, to be precise - with Jean trying to keep things together after the freak death of her husband in a drunken fall from a tram.
She's got her hands full: Francis, one of her adolescent twin boys, is a promising scholar but the other, Kip, has been expelled and now, with a reputation as a waster and a layabout, is working as a stablehand.
The boys' older sister Connie intercedes between Jean and Kip, while also casting about for her own life possibilities. As she lies awake at nights she's conscious that next door, Jack Husting, who has lately returned from the country to live with his parents, is restlessly seeking to find his place. It seems inevitable their paths will cross.
The narrative jumps back and forth in time, from the defining moment in 1939 to its downstream effects in the present, where Kip's own grown-up twins, Stanzie and Charlotte, grapple with their own lives and problems, which for Charlotte include her teenaged son, Alec. Along the way, all kinds of collisions, and crossings of destinies occur, and the difference between our lives in the 21st century and those of our ancestors only one or two generations removed is starkly illuminated.
Compare, for example, the choices available to the likes of Charlotte, and the consequences of making a foolish mistake, with the constraints and the dire consequences with which her aunt Connie was confronted. For it's Connie's tragedy back in 1939 that can't help but define the Westaways, as it keeps turning up like a bad penny, or the obverse of the lucky shilling the family hands down.
It's a shame that Jordan has been pigeon-holed as a writer of rom-com, or chick-lit, call it what you will. For this is a better book than those genres ever aspired to produce. It's not a million miles away from Kate Atkinson's Behind The Scenes At The Museum in the way it blends wit and cruelty, comedy and tragedy.
After the aforementioned creaky start, the characterisation is superb, perhaps most of all in the case of the sour matriarch Jean, but also in the obnoxiousness of Francis, and the New Age gormlessness of Charlotte. Most families have a photograph in their album featuring jug-eared naivete and khaki uniforms: if nothing else, those photos, and the stories in the frame behind them, should make us thankful for our own comfortable lives.
John McCrystal is a Wellington writer.