Book review: Idiopathy

By Brandon Robshaw

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Writer Sam Byers.
Writer Sam Byers.

Many contemporary male novelists, particularly comic ones, are incapable of depicting an unsympathetic female character. Perhaps afraid of being thought sexist, they load all the vices on to the guys, making them shallow, selfish, mean, emotionally stunted, etc, while the women are angels of sweet reason.

Sam Byers isn't going down that road. His brilliantly drawn protagonist, Katherine, is bitter, sarcastic, spiteful, bad-tempered, argumentative and rubbish at emotional commitment.

At the same time she is witty, funny, painfully intelligent and self-aware. The novel crackles with life whenever the viewpoint is with her. But it also crackles with life when the viewpoint is with one of the other two protagonists. There's Daniel, Katherine's ex, comfortably settled with a sweet girlfriend and a good if slightly controversial job (PR man for a company researching GM crops), anxious to please, riven with doubt, almost-but-not-quite-a-match for Katherine in their ceaseless sparring matches; and there's Nathan, an old friend and drug-supplier who emerges from rehab after some serious self-harming.

Against the background of an emerging bovine plague, Katherine's relationship with the sex-addict Keith, and Nathan's mum's new career as a misery memoirist (Mother Courage: One Woman's Battle Against Maternal Blame), these three reconverge.

But enough with the plot. The writing is so great you could read the pages in random order and still enjoy it. The dialogue is as sharp and keen as a series of fencing matches, but much funnier.

Anyone who's ever been involved in an argument with their partner about what the Real Problem is will find themselves wincing and laughing simultaneously.

The skewering of contemporary mores is a joy - Byers pokes fun at 30-something couples, office life, environmental protesters, and the therapy industry (there's a cameo from a television doctor who has written a book called Smile Yourself Thin). A brilliant three-hander.

But Katherine steals the show.

Idiopathy by Sam Byers (Fourth Estate $24.99).

- Independent

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