KIRSTEN TRANTER Hold. Reviewed by Kylie Mason
Shelley and David have moved into a terrace in Sydney’s east. Shelley, who works from home as a book designer, spends a lot of time alone in the house she has invested her life savings in, while David travels for work. But the terrace does not feel entirely like home to her, and she believes her ambivalence is because she allowed David to take charge of the house’s renovation. Soon after moving in, Shelley discovers a hidden door in her built-in wardrobe that leads to an empty, unrenovated room: its walls are covered in peeling damask wallpaper and an antique chandelier hangs from the ceiling. For Shelley, the room feels like an escape from David’s tasteful renovation, a refuge, and refuge is something she craves. Because she is still grieving the death of her previous lover, Conrad, in a surfing accident three years earlier.
Soon, the mysterious room becomes the focus of Shelley’s life. To her, it feels like a living presence in the house, with its own moods and desires. She decides the room wants to be furnished and immediately happens upon the perfect red velvet chaise longue in a local antiques shop. Kieran, the man who sells her the sofa, has an uncanny resemblance to her lost lover, Conrad, and Shelley finds herself drawn to him. The room and the stranger offer her something her partner should be giving her, but David is increasingly absent, even when he’s home, and his teenage daughter, Janie, further complicates their relationship with her hostility.
In Hold, Kirsten Tranter returns to themes explored in her previous novels, The Legacy and A Common Loss: the effect of grief and loss on those left behind. Through Shelley’s passionless narrative, Tranter’s polished writing echoes the distance and numbness of unrelenting grief. Shelley’s feelings are pushed so far down she’s dislocated from the world, a separation reflected in her isolation from her partner and her openness to being seduced by both the mysterious room and the familiar-looking stranger. In them, Shelley sees the chance to regain something she’s lost.
But I could bring him back.
It was a wish I had made so many times. In the weeks immediately afterwards it hummed in my thoughts constantly like a mindless drone … The wish made a magic space around itself, a pocket of isolation from real time, real life. It didn’t feel like infidelity; it felt like stepping into a different life, stepping outside time, outside myself.
But even as Shelley tries to reclaim her past and the person she was with Conrad, the terrace and the secret room change her in ways she never expected, ways she’s not sure she likes. She becomes reserved and suspicious, wanting to keep the room – and Kieran – to herself, even as she frets about David’s increasing reluctance to talk to her face to face or answer his phone. Her teenage stepdaughter’s sullenness and secrecy add to Shelley’s unease.
If I walked into the surgery … I would travel further away from the person I had been when I first started going there, a first-year art student with talent and potential and no money. There would be no way of finding my way back to that person after that. I looked around me at the carefully renovated and decorated living space, the pile of art books piled so carefully on the coffee table, the linen-covered couches. I was far away from that person anyway, but I didn’t want to give up the connection in my own mind, the sense that I was something more than this, that I exceeded this new role, this new life.
Tranter strives to imbue Hold with an enigmatic sense of the unknown, and the puzzling room, the familiar stranger and the absent partner all go some way towards creating ambiguity and doubt. But the narrative’s lack of emotional depth, which is possibly a function of Shelley’s grief and detachment, undermines this goal. The graceful, accomplished yet mannered writing keeps the reader at arm’s length, making it difficult to connect with Shelley, her grief and her concerns about where she has found herself. Hold is an adept if quiet novel, a portrait of a woman struggling to cope with the effects of the fundamental, irreversible and inevitable changes life brings.
Kirsten Tranter Hold Fourth Estate 2016 PB 304pp $27.99
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney.
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