The Fine Colour of Rust by P.A. O’Reilly

Paddy O’Reilly has been a staple on the short story circuit for a long while now, winning just about everything from The Age Short Story Award to Zoetrope: All Story in the US, a history anthologised in her impressive 2007 collection, The End of the World. The Fine Colour of Rust is her second novel, and her first foray into ‘literary commercial’ fiction (hence why she’s writing as P.A. rather than Paddy).

The Fine Colour of Rust covers much tried and true ground: Loretta Boskovic is a single mum struggling to raise her two children, Melissa and Jake, in a small, abandoned town on the edge ofAustralia’s rural frontier. At the same time, she’s stuck trying to push the community of Gunapan into action to save their school and perhaps also their resources, determined to rescue them in spite of themselves. Things are not helped by the arrival of her ex-husband, ‘child-bride’ in tow, and the decided lack of enthusiasm from her neighbours.

This is clearly well-travelled ground, yet in O’Reilly’s hands it is, surprisingly, transformed into an energetically crafted novel that is both smart and savvy. Loretta’s voice is a real force in this book, carrying the reader along throughout. She is, in equal measure, winningly flawed, dramatic and wry:daydreaming of dropping Melissa and Jake off at an orphanage so that she can run off with a man on a Harley and wearing a bra from the $2 shop that creaks and embarrasses her children, while at the same time negotiating the hardship of her life, and that of her kids, with wit and resilience.

The book is replete with deadpan humour and you get a sense that O’Reilly is really cutting loose with the dialogue here. It spars and parries and is whippet-quick. Indeed, some of the best moments are the simple passages of banter and bickering between the townsfolk, particularly the prickly butkind-hearted junk-yard owner, Norm Stevens, a wonderful character in his own right. The novel runs on a heightened sense of reality, in which everyone is a slightly embellished version of the people you feel you could know. Yet there are plenty of underhanded moments here too. One of the strongestthreads remains, for me, what occurs when Lorretta is confronted with the realities of bullying through Melissa and Jake. Here, we see the clarity of observation and the humaneness that are hallmarks of O’Reilly’s prose, and the very real tugs of pain and confusion that parenthood can bring.

Insofar as there exists a framework for ‘literary’ versus ‘commercial’ fiction, and all the crossover in-between, The Fine Colour of Rust is a novel that is as self-aware as it is tightly written, cleverand quick. This is a book that knows when to deliver on those conventions, and when to subvert them. It is a story that you can get swept up in yes, with moments of warmth and uplift, but that still has it in it to catch you off guard as well.

[[Jess_Au]] Jessica Au is from Readings St Kilda and is the author of