Craig Sherborne is an extraordinary Australian writer – one who burst onto the local literary scene with an impressive splash with his childhood memoir, Hoi Polloi, in 2005, followed by its adolescent-based sequel, Muck (2007). His many fans include J.M. Coetzee, Clive James and Hilary Mantel, while Australia’s most famous literary critic, Peter Craven, called him ‘one of nature’s writers’. His much-awaited debut novel, The Amateur Science of Love, continues to be as ‘gruesomely honest’ (Hilary Mantel) as his memoirs, and is written with the same irresistible blend of darkly poignant humour and moral courage. Helen Garner has already called Sherborne’s first foray into fiction a ‘fast-moving, sharply focused, fantasy-shattering little thunderclap of a book’. Now, Jon Bauer, award-winning author of Rocks in the Belly, adds his name to the long and distinguished roll-call of Sherborne admirers, as he interviews him and introduces us to The Amateur Science of Love.
Love, let’s face it, is the topic. Love is at the heart of generations of literature, film, oral tradition. If our love of love isn’t instilled through our mother’s milk, it’s promptly spoon-fed to us through fairytales. And we continue to happily devour it, ever after. Most commonly though, love stories are about a struggle against external forces: class, family divisions, war, issues of race or colour. The majority are merely extensions of the trajectory typical to fairytales.
How refreshing then to read a love story that’s generated by internal struggles. A story where the impediments to love are the characters themselves. A story that acknowledges the inherent human need to destroy intimacy, even as we long for and nurture it. Craig Sherborne has achieved all this with The Amateur Science of Love, both his first novel and his third book. With two extremely well-received memoirs – Muck and Hoi Polloi – behind him, his debut novel will be scrutinised, as well as welcomed, for standing at an interesting confluence between memoir and fiction. The two genres often have more in common than we think.
‘The path Tilda and Colin follow, the fate they endure, many aspects have come from my own life,’ says Sherborne. ‘The sort of fiction that has always interested me is where there is clearly an author’s lived experience driving the book. You can tell by the details. Real events have been joined up with imagined events, imagined people.’
Narrator Colin, a sheltered country boy from New Zealand, is almost a decade younger than the cosmopolitan Tilda, who he meets while working at a London backpacker’s hostel. She’s already been married, and has sworn herself off men in order to focus on her painting career. Colin is new to adulthood – less steering towards his own future than swerving away from the pressure to step into his father’s farming boots. No surprise, then, that he’s so easily swept up in Tilda’s tornado personality.
After an alternately charming and wrenching meander through the early days of falling in love, Sherborne transports the story to the wheatbelt of Australia, the lovers living off Tilda’s meagre savings and the few paintings she can sell, while Colin finds his way into agricultural journalism. From the start, their relationship is richly seeded with obvious incompatibilities, buried under the initial deluge of their love.
Sherborne’s prose is what you fall for first. The enlivened, playful language (echoed in short, clipped chapters) propels the reader easily through the enchanting sections, as well as sweetening the more tumultuous or bitter scenes, echoing the bittersweet tone of his much-loved memoirs:
‘Congressing’ was what Tilda preferred to call it. Sex was too impersonal a word for our activities. Making love was too ordinary, a term everybody used. Whereas congressing made us sound like a two-person nation. A parliament of us, all to ourselves.
As charming as fiction is, few readers can resist the lure of unpicking it to find out how it works, peeping through the venetian blinds of a writer’s sentences in search of the artist behind. This is especially true when the artist in question is a notable memoirist. ‘I think of fiction as imagining a different truth. One that is true for the novel being written,’ says Sherborne. ‘Lying, dishonesty and bad faith don’t apply. I certainly didn’t lie in my memoirs. They were my past world rebuilt on the page; portraiture using the paint of words and dramatic scenes.’ He confirms that those earlier books were ‘a great help’ when it came to writing his first novel, with many mastered techniques coming in handy: ‘the handling of first-person tone, rhythm, pace and structure, all that’. Sherborne, like his narrator, lived in the Victorian wheatbelt for a number of years and worked as a reporter for an agricultural newspaper. He’s not a fan of researched novels, saying ‘they come up second best to a novel that spills out of actual experience’.
Colin has more trouble telling the truth than his creator does. While not easily described as ‘likeable’, the flawed Colin feels roundly real, even as he hides from the truth – about the growing lump in Tilda’s breast and the viability of his relationship. Eventually, he begins to strain against the everydayness of their love, finding himself drawn to a sultry and less blandly-familiar woman from the community. ‘Here we have a man who in the end is 30 years old, has been tested, failed, but has enough self reflection to know his failure and not be ignorant,’ reflects Sherborne on his fictional alter-ego. ‘He wants to do better than that failure. He wants redemption. He has lived enough to have gleaned a bit of wisdom and know that he wants to embrace life and be happy. He’s a better man than I was at his age.’
Sherborne has not dispensed with truth then, rather embellished and altered it by folding it into fiction. But his is not the kind of storytelling that softens hard reality into the airbrushed hyperbole of romance. Colin and Tilda’s story is as suffused with love’s gritty realism as it is with its beguiling charm. There’s also the solidity of characters with good and bad sides, rather than good or bad characters. In this way, Sherborne’s protagonists are a convincing blend of light and shadow.
Over the years, as their relationship deepens and heady romance is replaced with everyday life, love exposes Tilda and Colin’s vulnerability, their deceit, spite and occasional heartlessness. All of it reinforces the idea that it is our blinkered search for our own happiness that makes us hurt one another, not inherent cruelty. Love, after all, is often mentioned in the same breath as blindness. ‘Tilda and Colin fall in love in that typically fierce and unprepared way we do. It blindsides them, and as their relationship develops, the blindsiding continues. Fate tests them. It probes deep into their very natures. How many of us would ever pass the serious test of fate on our natures? The more dependent on each other, the more unreliable to each other they become.’
The Amateur Science of Love is about how we destroy our own love, as well as how relationships are pushed and probed at from outside. It shows that the very equilibrium of loving someone over many years can unbalance love’s charm. Colin is gradually deterred by his very closeness to Tilda. The more familiar she is, the more real (flawed), so the less romantic his image of her becomes. Love is one of the few ways a person’s true self is expressed. Depending on the kind of person we are it may ennoble us, crush us, derange us, and redeem us. As Colin puts it, ‘Love is not simply sensations of the skin. More is demanded of you than sensations.’ That goes to the heart of the novel: falling in love is so viscerally experienced it is not even an experience, it is an act of nature – like its twin force, grief, which also comes into play over the years spanned by the novel, particularly as it gallops towards its inevitably dramatic climax.
Thankfully, this story is big enough to include the light and the dark, love and its twin, staying with Tilda and Colin long after the initial beguiling force of love has passed. This reminded me, as I read, that most stories – especially films – end with the wedding, as if that’s the summit of love, rather than just the first day of a marriage.
This may be Sherborne’s first work of fiction but unsurprisingly for a memoirist, it’s a work that rings pretty true. ‘There is surely a duty,’ he says, ‘if you are serious about your art, to show convincingly what it is to be a particular person in a particular time in particular circumstances.’
The Amateur Science of Love is enchanting without being saccharine, real without being brutal. Sherborne has delivered a narrative that expresses what we should mean when we talk about true love.
Jon Bauer is the author of Rocks in the Belly.