Affairs of the heart

Summerland

Malcolm Knox <em>Picador, 256pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0330486780

Malcolm Knox's first novel has as its epigraph a quotation from The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford's classic tale of a man driven to suicide because of his utter ruthlessness in affairs of the heart. Set in Sydney, Summerland intentionally echoes The Good Soldier, especially in its use of an unreliable narrator. Richard is from solid, lower-middle-class stock, although his parents were sufficiently affluent to send him to public ("private" in Australia) school. There he met the dissolute Hugh, his lifelong friend and heir to the Mackie agribusiness. Through Hugh, Richard meets and eventually marries Pup - Philippa Greenup, a sophisticated Sephardic Jewess whose clan has retained a European sophistication - but not before Hugh has paired up with the woman who will become his wife, the beautiful Helen, whose family is middle class like Richard's, but rather gauche and nouveau riche. The two couples are rich, beautiful and careless in a Tom and Daisy Buchanan way. The connection with F Scott Fitzgerald is underlined - the four love to book a table under the name "Mr Gatsby and group".

Richard, like the narrator of The Good Soldier, has been cuckolded by someone he holds dear. He looks back over time, telling of the torrid affair between his wife and his best friend in snippets - incidents he recalls, and large parts that have been filled in for him by Helen. The narrative is sustained and controlled, and the end chilling. Hugh is a man without morals, Pup is wilful and cold. Helen is weak and determined to remain married to Hugh, seeking to deal with the affair by controlling it.

Richard is an ambivalent figure. The only person for whom he has any real feeling is Hugh - something akin to love, a weakness that prevents him from seeing what is going on under his very nose until it is too late. Pup, we are told by Richard, writes constantly, yearns to be published, and is filled with rage and despair when none of the 15 or so books she writes is accepted by a publisher. It is suggested to her by her vile cousin that she should simply plagiarise a great work - read it 40 times or so, and in each reading change something, but carefully, so as not to upset the delicate structure of the original. Pup has chosen The Good Soldier, and in the concluding pages of Summerland - an ending that mirrors the denouement of the Ford novel - Richard comes across Pup's plagiarised novel, and finds a final paragraph based on that of The Good Soldier. Whose novel are we reading, Richard's or Pup's? This meta-fictional structure, perhaps too imposed, too artificial to satisfy one's appetite for the "real", is also the novel's most interesting aspect.

In the context of Australian literature, Summerland stands out as an attempt to explore the lives of the upper classes. What is revealed beneath the gilded surface of this social group is not only infidelity and sexual deviance, but also the ease with which those with money break the law in order to increase and protect their assets. Written with confidence, in what Cyril Connolly called "mandarin" style, Summerland is a remarkably assured debut.

This article first appeared in So what tribe do you belong to?

2001-07-30