Review | Monday 27 February 2012
There are novels that win you over in an instant and novels that creep up on you. Surely and insistently, Deborah Robertson’s Sweet Old World is the latter.
Writer and expat David Quinn has come to live near his sister and her children on the remote island of Inishmore, Ireland. A bachelor who is beginning to feel the onset of age, he longs deeply for a child of his own, yet fears that this opportunity may have passed him by. Enter Ettie – a young tourist from Perth – who may be the one to give him that chance, though not without complications. There is more to it than that of course, much more, but to say it here would be to ruin a brilliantly crafted narrative.
Robertson is brave enough not to rely on gendered clichés in her exploration of parenthood and family and the book is stronger for it. David’s need is both visceral and moving: ‘he wonders who is making love, who is soothing a restless child. He hasn’t done enough of either in his life, and tonight he feels like the lack could kill him … It is the greatest of all its inequalities, the world’s distribution of love.’ Yet David not a wholly likeable character either. Internally at least, he pursues his compulsion towards fatherhood like a kind of lust, a desire that adds a desperate volume to sex, and to the new relationships he encounters.
Through this, we are made painfully aware of the hopes and perils of striving for the life you want – of what can drive two people together and the turn of screw; the smallest moments that can break a relationship apart. The prose is lean and muscled and the ending near-perfect in its restraint. Written with equal measures of grace and regret, Sweet Old World is a novel that is both knowing and true.
Jessica Au is from Readings St Kilda and is the author of Cargo.