Several weeks out from the Brisbane Writers Festival (2017), I received a copy of Dutch-born, Michael Sala’s latest novel from his publisher, Text Publishing Company. Encased in a stark white postage packet embossed with the iconic, italic ‘t’ logo, I retrieved the book to be met with, Australian writer Hannah Kent words on the front cover “I would defy anyone to read this story and remain unmoved”. A most accurate prediction.
The Restorer is Sala’s second novel following his critically acclaimed debut novel, The Last Thread for which he was awarded the New South Wales Premier’s Award for New Writing and, regional winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize, 2013.
Compelling, it is a story that captures the dynamics of everyday individuals, bound by observed but unspoken, unacceptable personal violations. Confusion, anxiety and heartbreak outweighed by the tender hope that people have the capacity to change are central to this narrative about understanding a distressing, universal issue.
A year after leaving Roy, Maryanne reunites with her husband, agreeing to the possibility that a fresh start in coastal Newcastle is vital in reconciling their marriage breakdown. So too, Maryann believes, a necessary step for reconnecting seven year-old Daniel and new teen, Freya with their estranged father.
Throughout the family’s separation, all three have sought refuge in Maryanne’s mother’s (Alice) home throughout the family separation. Disanchoring from her grandmother is heavily felt by Freya. Silent in reciprocity, Alice pledges her unwavering presence by thrusting a copy of Greek Mythology into her granddaughter’s hands, moments before their departure. Inscribed in the book’s front cover is Alice’s telephone number.
Settling in just before the coastal town’s 1989 earthquake, the family unit navigates their way to resuming personal connection amidst renovating their derelict home. On both accounts, progress is slow, tumultuous yet functioning. Independently, Roy commences his new foreman position, Maryanne as a nurse at the local hospital and both children start at their new schools. Yet, subtle control and manipulation, forms the glue of their inter-dependence.
Seemingly, Sala’s pursuit of Freya’s high school experience does well in illuminating the complexities of human behaviour and responses we accord. Conveyed well is the dynamic of child-observer and poor role-modelling by adults, the long term implications of muted reaction and how experience behind closed doors transpires to behaviour in public spaces.
The raw dialogue of adolescents at Freya’s high school lunch tables and classroom corridors, sexual harassment at alcohol and drug-fuelled weekend parties and acts of delinquency by Freya and Josh (best friend), underline a familiar simmering tension apparent in the daily interactions between her parents. Always, violation witnessed. Seasonally, direct intervention is encouraged, offered nor accepted. Increasingly, resentment by all family members becomes visible.
Thematic with the seaside setting, the inclusion of reference to a sinking ship in Newcastle’s harbour seems a poignant metaphor for the hopeful anticipation yet underlying unpredictability that any new journey brings. The book’s title itself seems to lend and capture the witness-role all individuals need to move beyond from to assuming that of helper to bring about normalcy that restores respectful and acceptable behaviour at all times.
But as we see with empathic neighbour and Maryann’s confidant (Richard), best friend Josh and grandmother Alice, full disclosure and action between all those aboard the sinking ship and those reaching out to help is crucial for effective and timely assistance.
Reflecting his in-person demeanour, Michael Sala’s prose is clear, unforced and inspires reflection long after his words are imparted. Insightful, a rich depth of awareness and desire for sustained, authentic onnection with his readers about a crucial subject matter, is evident through this exemplary work of fiction.
Before and throughout our BWF17 presentation, Sala presented as warm, authentic and fully committed to using his writing to address society’s scourge of inter-generational violence and its’ effect on the individual and community.
Too often society asks questions with a swift delegation of answers without fully examining the truths in front of us. The Restorer is a powerful and important work of literature in contributing to the way in which societies may understand how to move forward.
The Restorer by Michael Sala, Text Publishing Company, 352 pages. February, 2017. ISBN: 9781 925 35502 4.
An edited version of this book review was first published in 2017 on the blog, PNG Attitude.