CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS The In-Between. Reviewed by Jessica Stewart
The new novel from the award-winning author of The Slap and Damascus is a story of starting over.
The In-Between is a story of two men, older and scarred by life, who know that they still have much to offer. They are looking to share the second half of their lives with one other. They are in-between.
Perry is recently returned to Australia from Europe, leaving behind a relationship with an older man. Now in his mid-50s, Perry is looking for stability. Ivan, a similar age, has also been deeply hurt by a relationship that fleeced him, emotionally and financially. He, too, is starting again. Perry and Ivan find each other on an app and, as the book opens, Perry is hovering between wardrobe choices before their first date. ‘That word itself strikes him as ridiculous, inappropriate for a man of his age. But if he were not to call it a date, then what the hell was it?’
Reading Christos Tsiolkas is a bodily experience. Smells, tastes, touch inhabit the pages. When a character makes the sign of the Cross, there is a pull to mimic the quick touches of thumb, index and middle fingers to the forehead and abdomen, right and left shoulders. Tsiolkas’s characters celebrate their bodies – they are a source of delight, to their owners and to lovers. And he writes good sex.
Known for his portrayal of gay men and their desires, lusts, and fantasies, it’s a joy to read Tsiolkas’s portrayal of female desire – a raw uninhibited carnality of searching fingers and tongues. While Perry and Ivan take centre stage, the book’s most erotic pages are reserved for two women, Léna, the daughter of Perry’s former lover, and Vera.
Vera is – and there is no other word for it, and it is absolutely right that the word is redolent with those Sapphic connotations – Amazonian. A spark ignites a rush of desire through Léna’s body. The dense black bush of Vera’s pubes, those long sturdy arms, and the magnificence of those heavy breasts and belly: her lover is magnificent.
As Perry and Ivan grow into their relationship, by turns each dissects a still-turbulent former love and the meaning they have attached to it. Self-knowledge and a mature sensibility is their reward. It is impossible not to relate to their joy in discarding youth’s fragility, embracing the contentment that comes with age. Ivan realises when he is sated with a young lover, when he desires sleep over his lover’s urgings for more, and:
[he] knows that there is no humiliation … it is galvanising … he feels the peace of attaining a mellowness which makes it easier to resist the commands of the body.
Tsiolkas explores the nature of commitment as the men navigate towards it. They agree that their love is to be reserved for each other with, perhaps, exceptions for anonymous sex. But even that is nuanced. With age comes understanding of what is ultimately important. Any strident judgement that deception is a moral failing is replaced with recognition that truth and lies are rarely simple. Commitment is also present in Perry’s former lover, Gerard, who has chosen his wife, children and now grandchildren over Perry, his long-time secret lover. We see Gerard’s struggle first-hand as Tsiolkas brings the reader into his point of view.
This notion of choice is intertwined with shame and what society considers acceptable behaviour, which itself is linked to class. Perry marvels at Ivan’s sense of self, and his ability to see through the posturing of Perry’s old friends, all educated and well-travelled, which Ivan is not. Perry confronts his own prejudices about what is important – the competitive elitism of keeping up with current affairs and identity politics – and he makes space for Ivan’s perspective. Tsiolkas is a master at illuminating the emotional seesawing that is a prelude to new understanding; sometimes tumbling back over what we had thought we had settled mere seconds earlier.
The In-Between is an homage to hope; amidst the sadness and horrors of the world, it is a reminder that hope, too, emerged from Pandora’s box. A love that is grounded in friendship and loyalty, in simply being present, can be found. Ivan is startled to realise in one scene that Perry has been listening to him ‘jabbering on about work’, contributing gently.
The in-between of the title is that place of belonging – and not – inhabited by migrant children. Perry is of Greek heritage, Ivan of Serbian. As always, Tsiolkas’s observations of our multicultural experience are cutting. ‘Australians are really timid and … angry,’ Ivan muses.
The final quarter of the novel is told through Léna’s perspective. The daughter of Perry’s former lover Gerard, Léna learns of their long liaison through letters and diaries. The in-between is also a tilt to those moments when we’re ready to move on but are not quite done with where we are. We are between. It is a state of suspended judgement, of space. Custodian of her father’s legacy, it is in Léna’s responses to Perry, to Ivan, to her mother, and to her lover that we see another message of Tsiolkas: grace.
Christos Tsiolkas The In-Between Allen and Unwin 2023 PB 400pp $32.99
Jessica Stewart is a freelance writer and editor. She can be found at www.yourseconddraft.com where she writes about editing, vagaries of the English language and books she’s loved.
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