Why would a woman return, with her children, to a relationship she believes to be unsafe? And if that decision leads to catastrophe, is she to blame? Or is she the victim?
Questions of agency lie at the heart of Michael Sala’s second novel. His first, The Last Thread, won considerable critical acclaim when it was published in 2012, and The Restorer shares many of its characteristics – there is the Newcastle setting, the mother who is a nurse, the impact of the mother’s relationships on her children, and the assurance of the writing. In these respects The Restorer could be seen as the distilled essence of its predecessor.
But where The Last Thread ranged widely over continents and decades, and was told from the point of view of the son, The Restorer confines itself to Newcastle and the span of a year or so around 1989 – the year of the Newcastle earthquake and the murder of 14-year-old Leigh Leigh at Stockton Beach – and is told from the point of view of eight-year-old Daniel’s teenage sister, Freya, and his mother, Maryanne.
We know from the opening pages that this will be the story of a catastrophe – we are shown the flashing red and blue lights of emergency vehicles outside the family’s home, and then taken back to the moment when they first arrived at the derelict house near the beach in Newcastle. The father, Roy, is a builder, and the plan is to restore the house and the marriage – Roy and Maryanne have been separated for year, and this is to be their fresh start.
However, like the old mining tunnels that run beneath all the houses in the area, there are subterranean issues in the marriage that remain unresolved.
It is a testament to Sala’s skills that despite that early glimpse of the story’s outcome, the tension is maintained throughout. In this respect it’s a bit like watching a car crash – you know things are going to end badly but you cannot look away. When it comes, the conclusion is undeniably powerful.
But the novel is also a resonant character study of mother and daughter. Each keeps secrets from the other, and both keep secrets from Roy.
Freya would have much preferred that they had stayed in Sydney with her grandmother, and is repelled by the state of the house when they arrive. She acts out her unhappiness, skipping school, smoking pot, shoplifting and binge drinking at parties. Eventually a teacher tries to talk to her: “You need to take charge … we can’t always control what happens around us, but we get to choose what all of that makes us … You have more control than you think.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Richard, their concerned neighbour, and he tells Maryanne: “[Y]ou might be making choices, but they’re the kind of choices, I don’t know, a cow makes when it’s being herded into a corral.”
In her work as a nurse at the nearby hospital Maryanne is skilled, confident and respected. She stands up to the doctors if she believes one of her patients is in danger. Yet at home she seems struck by a kind of emotional exhaustion.
Why does Maryanne give Roy another chance? Even as they leave Sydney she feels her certainty slipping away. Does she really believe that this is best for her children, as she tells Freya? Is it because of her mother? Her father? Because she married too young and cannot now forge a path for herself without him? Or is it all some terrible folie à deux?
In telling the novel from Maryanne’s and Freya’s points of view, Roy’s motivations are largely unexamined. He remains an unsettling presence beyond the control of any of them, despite what Maryanne likes to think.
The landscape of Newcastle’s cliffs and beaches is strongly present in the book, as is violence towards women – one of Freya’s classmates is encircled and spat on by a group of boys, and, like the real-life Stockton murder, a girl in the year below Freya is killed at a party.
This is a sensitively rendered novel with a fine eye for emotional and physical detail. The questions it raises are as disturbing as they are compelling.
This review first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 19 May 2017.