I had ready many wonderful reviews of Indelible Ink and so I was pleased when it was chosen as the book for my August book club. I think that contemporary Australian literary fiction is rare, and good fiction of this kind is even rarer. I was even more excited (and slightly nervous) when I heard that the author herself would be attending.
Unfortunately, the book did not meet my expectations.
An authentic main character
The main character of Indelible Ink is a middle aged, recently divorced, upper class, mother of adult children (with grandchildren), named Marie King, who beings tattooing her entire body after getting single tattoo on a whim after an alcohol fuelled long lunch. She is drinking too much, spending too much money and contemplating selling her $6.5million harbour side mansion.
Marie King is a very authentic character. She has gone from a wife and mother, to a woman alone in her once family home, with no children to look after and nothing to occupy her time. She starts drinking too much, and after spending her money begins living the high life on credit cards, sometimes to the point where is doesn't have the money to pay for groceries. I can absolutely imagine many other women in her position out there in the world, struggling to come to terms with who they really are as an individual, without their children and partners around to define them.
The concept of the tattooed woman
Having said that, I found the concept of Marie, an upper class North Shore women, getting full bodies tattoos just a little too unbelievable. I think that the tattoo's themselves were supposed to be a metaphor for Marie taking control of her life and her body and coming to know her real self for the first time. On another level, the tattoos themselves appear to be a metaphor for Sydney itself; the way Sydney sprawls across the landscape, constantly growing and changing.
But when it came down it, I just couldn't accept the reality of a 50-something upper class North Shore woman tattooing her entire body. Not only can I not imagine the look of the person, I can't imagine a person like Marie wanting to be tattooed. Maybe colouring her hair a bright colour in a crazy moment but full body tattoos.....?
Marie's relationship with her children
Since the book has been published and is being increasingly reviewed, I have heard a lot of criticism of Marie's adult children and they way in which they treated their mother. I on the other hand absolutely empathised with them, and didn't find anything malicious in their behaviour. They found themselves in a predicament where their mother was doing nothing productive with her life; instead she was spending too much money on credit cards and drinking way too much and generally not taking an active role in her own life. What could Marie's children do about that? They can only encourage her so much before it becomes apparent that Marie has to take control of her own life. So in the meantime her children complain to each other and treat her with disdain. But how would we react differently in their situation? I think that this criticism of the children being unfeeling toward their mother doesn't really take into consideration personal agency and family dynamics. I actually felt that McGregor's depiction of Marie's relationship with her children was very realistic.
Fiona McGregor wrote Indelible Ink as a third person narrative, exploring the events from the perspective of Marie and her children. Sometimes though I did find the jumping between all the different perspectives a little distracting.
Sydney as a character in the story
McGregor's book certainly effectively evoked the feel of Sydney. The descriptions of the landscape and the people leave no doubt in your mind that it could anywhere but Sydney. I particularly identified with the volume of real estate discussion in the book. My experience of Sydney at the moment is that it is very much preoccupied with property and mortgages and interest rate rises. This was reflected really well in the discourse between the characters about the sale of Marie's property and the purchase of a new one.
There has also been a lot of discussion about class in relation to this book. I have heard it described as being an in depth look into middle class Sydneysiders. Certainly at my book club everyone discussed the book as an exploration of the lives of the middle class in Sydney. I don't know about you, but I don't too many middle class Sydneysiders who own $6.5 million harbour side properties in Mosman. If that isn't upper class, then what is?
Some final thoughts
Approximately half way through the book Marie receives news that will change the direction of her and her children's lives. When this event occurs, I really wanted to feel something for Marie and her new challenges, but by then I was already thoroughly uninterested in the story and I couldn't revive an interest.
I think that the barrier to enjoying this book lies in the characters. The characters were so normal, so everyday. Creating such realistically ordinary characters is in and of itself an achievement, but the ordinariness of the characters combined with the lack of any significant plot just left me wanting more.
I also didn't appreciate the end of the book. Despite hearing others say it was their favourite part of the book, I just found it too abrupt. None of the characters had any real closure (except perhaps Marie) and it felt as though the book stopped before the story has actually ended.
All in all, I felt that the story meandered between all the different characters without any real purpose. The characters were ordinary enough to be boring to read about. Whilst I found Marie to be a a very authentic character I think that to really enjoy the story you need to accept the idea of a 50-something upper class Mosman woman becoming addicted to full body tattooing, and I just couldn't do that.
What kind of read is this?
Contemporary Australian book, with an emphasis on conversation rather than description. An easy read, but it takes longer to read than you might expect.
Do I recommend this book?
Not really, not unless you have been caught up in the hype about it recently.
Do I recommend that you buy this book?
No, save your money for something a bit better.
Have you read this book? I would be interested to hear what you thought of it. I also wonder if anyone from Sydney agrees that there is a preoccupation with real estate at the moment and what, if anything, that might mean for the city?