We Were Never Friends by Margaret Bearman

I approached this book curiously, thinking, ‘Why George Coates?’ The George Coates I know of was a distinguished war artist, who worked in London and Paris, where he met, and married, fellow art student Dora Meeson. He died in 1930 and spent bugger-all time in Canberra. Some pages later, after realising that the author had merely borrowed the name not the life, the story and themes coalesced.

Margaret Bearman’s book is a deft exploration of family dysfunction, family violence, notions of friendship, and perceptions of artistic genius (think Hannah Gadsby demolishing Picasso for his abuse of minors in Nanette). Set across two time periods, the story is framed through the eyes Coates’s daughter Charlotte (Lotti), as an adult surgeon, and as her younger adolescent self. Kyla, a mysterious waif-like classmate of Charlotte’s, is a physical and metaphorical thorn to the Coates family and all those around her. As an outcast among her peers, and damaged in myriad ways, Kyla’s association with the Coates family catalyses her tragic fate and the disintegration of Charlotte’s family.

Coinciding with a major posthumous retrospective of her father’s work, the adult Charlotte’s memories of the period resurface, leading her question her parents, her own lack of empathy and disregard for Kyla. The petty conniving and ambivalence of the adolescent Charlotte and her posse become tiresome, but this only serves to drive home notions of friendship, and of the sense of self-involvement and flippant disregard for others that adolescents (and, indeed, adults!) can possess. Despite the unsettling, eerie feel to this book, Bearman’s pacing is fairly even throughout. If dark unsettling books are your jam, and if you enjoyed Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, give this one a go!

Julia Jackson is the assistant shop manager at Readings Carlton.