May has been ANZ Lit month over at Reading Matters. I’m sneaking in at the eleventh hour with a second review but if you click on the image above, it will take you to a whole host of reviews of Australian and New Zealand literature.
‘…a girl is just a woman with no experience’ – Martha
‘Nothing’s worth doing if it doesn’t run the risk of fucking up your entire life.’ – Martha’s mother.
Me and Mr Booker is narrated by Martha looking back on her late teens (she is sixteen when she first meets Mr Booker). Martha and her mother live in an Australian town she describes as a ‘no-man’s-land’ and her mum’s friend, Lorraine, describes as ‘a cemetery with lights’. Martha has larger problems than that though; her father, Victor is ‘poison’ and her mother is an emotional wreck.
Then there was the question of the way I looked, which I’d started to notice had an effect on people. I wasn’t pretty, I was too pale and sad-looking, so it wasn’t my face. But there was something in the way I appeared to people, and I’m really talking about the men married to my mother’s friends, that made them stare. It had to do with whatever I was waiting for.
Now Martha’s mother has finally thrown Victor out and can invite whoever likes to the house, she’s taken to inviting people for dinner on Saturday or lunch on Sunday and allowing them to bring others with them. This means, of course, that they’re always meeting new people; this is how they meet an English couple called the Bookers.
He was dressed all in white with a handkerchief tucked into the pocket of his suit. As he took it out to wipe the sweat from his face I noticed his hands, which had a kind of fineness even though they were so big, and his eyes, which were the colour of chocolate and dreamy as a baby’s.
‘This is my daughter,’ said my mother.
‘Charmed,’ said Mr Booker, staring at me the same way I was used to being stared at.
Initially the Bookers, as a pair, adopt Martha, taking her shopping for new clothes, taking her out for meals, letting her sleep over at their house. It’s not long though before Martha and Mr Booker are going to motels two or three times a week.
Everyone in Martha’s life – her parents, her brother, her mother’s friends – are struggling with their own demons, leaving Martha feeling old and often like a parent figure herself. Of course, in some ways this has a negative affect, pushing her to recklessness with Mr Booker – who should assume a parental role himself, if he is to have any role in Martha’s life at all – but fails.
Just as I was beginning to think there was a touch of Gatsby about the book – the parties, the mysteriousness of Mr Booker (he’s always Mr Booker and he barely reveals anything about himself), the occasional violence – Gatsby is explicitly referred to. There is a sense that Me and Mr Booker is the story of what could have happened to that sort of group if the party had gone on too long in the middle of nowhere, rather than moneyed New York.
I enjoyed the novel. What could have been a very bleak tale was rescued by Martha’s voice which is fresh and direct and the knowledge that Martha is relating her story from some time in the future, leaving us to assume that she is safe now.
Taylor has recently published My Beautiful Enemy which has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. On the strength of Me and Mr Booker, I’ll definitely be reading it.