Seven and a Half by Christos Tsiolkas
It’s been too long since we last felt the excitement of a new Christos Tsiolkas novel. Exactly two years in fact since his award-wining epic Damascus was released in November 2019, and haven’t we faced our own series of biblical-scale disasters in that intervening time? Part of the thrill of a new Tsiolkas book is you never really know what to expect, and Seven and a Half pivots 180 degrees from the historical into the urgent immediacy of the present tense. Much like the Fellini film the title references, this is a work about creation and art: an intimate and personal (though no less ambitious) exploration of big themes – memory, family, faith, sex and love – filtered through one writer’s life.
We open on said writer struggling with his next book. He doesn’t know what it will be, but he doesn’t want to tackle ‘capital-P Politics’ and ‘capital-H History’. He decamps to the sparkling South Coast for two weeks, disconnecting from the treacherous web of social media to immerse himself in the gaudy, raucous energy of nature. Passages detailing his daily routine intertwine with sublime descriptions of the natural surroundings, which then erupt into vivid memories of his youth and the people who have shaped his life. These in turn start to inspire details in his book – a book about a former porn actor who receives a startling offer.
Tsiolkas said of this novel: ‘In a time of rage and confusion, I wanted to write about beauty.’ Tsiolkas’ beauty isn’t some anodyne thing. It’s sex and grime and the pungent musk of a man up close. But it’s also shrieks in the backseat of a Greek-Australian family’s car and the glowing murals of saints in an Orthodox church. Tsiolkas writes with heady sensuality, overlaying thick swathes of tastes, smells, sights and sounds onto the page. There’s also plenty here to provoke and agitate, and I anticipate many conversations will be had about some of the characters’ transgressions and declarations.
Above all, however, this is a vulnerable admission of how much of themselves writers put into their work, and I found myself grateful to have its exultant bloom of life by my side, as I stumbled, sense-starved, out of lockdown into the warm promise of spring.