Kokomo by Victoria Hannan
The anguish of living with unfulfilled desire pulses through Victoria Hannan’s debut novel, Kokomo. Its characters, each in their own way, are trying to work out how to live when they cannot get what they need, or when the things they want have been taken from them.
Mina has been living in London, pursuing a promising if precarious career in the high-pressure world of advertising. She wants her workmate Jack – desperately, but probably unwisely. The opening pages record an extremely intimate scene that suggests she is about attain that need (NB: for the faint of heart, the opening two pages may prove challenging, but they don’t represent the tone of the rest of the novel, so please do read on), but their union is interrupted by a phone call from home, delivering the news that Mina’s agoraphobic mother Elaine has been seen outside her house for the first time since Mina’s father died suddenly twelve years ago. Mina immediately flies back to Melbourne, though her mother seems unmoved by her return.
Some things resemble the home she knew (like the steadfast Chengs, neighbours so close so as to almost be family), but after years living abroad escaping the pain of her mother’s and her own grief, she finds that so much has changed: some friends have new priorities, different lives. The ground has shifted. As news of goings on at work in London come to her via text and email, she realises that her life there has been compromised too. In the second half of the novel, the point of view shifts to Elaine, and surprising revelations suggest that mother and daughter share much emotional terrain.
At its best, the novel settles into the uncomfortable spaces of tension to be found in-between: between places and times; leaving and returning; generations and families; between what we have and what we need; what we settle for and what we really want. It’s also tribute to the tenderness of friendship. There are many striking passages, brilliantly executed scenes, and gorgeous uses of the written word in this book that made me think more than once, ‘Wow, this writer has really got it’, and it’s easy to see why Hannan won the coveted Unpublished Manuscript Award at 2019’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. This is an excellent debut.