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Posted on 6 Aug 2020 in Fiction |

LUKE HORTON The Fogging. Reviewed by Amy Walters

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Luke Horton’s tense debut novel asks uncomfortable questions about intimate relationships.

In hindsight, the end of a relationship can take on an air of inevitability. But is it possible to pinpoint the exact moment when it irrevocably breaks down? Or is the end always abrupt because of the fog that precedes it – the slow accretion of betrayals and sacrifices over many years that finally coagulate to a tipping point?

Luke Horton’s The Fogging tackles this question. It centres on an academic couple, Clara and Tom, who are taking a long-planned trip to Indonesia. While they cannot afford the holiday in financial terms, one gets the sense that, for the sake of their relationship, they cannot afford not to go. Until the departure:

 … the trip had hovered over them like some awful thing neither of them could quite face, rather than something they were looking forward to – which it had been for a few days when they booked it.

On the plane, Tom has a panic attack that Clara is oblivious to. This points to deeper fissures in their relationship: Clara is adventurous, Tom is more staid – though perhaps this is due to his chronic anxiety, which makes him feel persistently clammy and alert to signs of panic, of his own body betraying him.

When Clara and Tom arrive at their accommodation in Sanur, they feel as though they are in paradise. Of course, paradise has a dark side, and it is immediately clear from the distant volcano, tsunami evacuation signs and the hidden room in their villa, accessible via a door that deceptively resembles a cupboard, that it is only a matter of time before the internal pressures of their relationship begin to crack the façade. Something malignant is destined to make itself known.

Into this cauldron walk Madeleine and Jeremy, a French–Australian couple, and their young son Ollie. The women form an instant friendship, and, after some initial awkwardness and resentment, Tom warms to Jeremy, who is upfront about his own mental health struggles after the birth of Ollie.

Some of the publicity for The Fogging casts mental health as a key preoccupation of the novel. Though not incorrect, this is a reductive characterisation; while it is clear Tom is in the grips of an out-of-control anxiety disorder, there is also an existential dimension to his persistent panic. He is strangely unmoved by concrete threats, such as the pesticides used at the hotel, yet is overwhelmed by basic social interactions. The possible culprits for his worry will ring in the ears of any millennial reader: uncertain life aspirations, insecure employment, precarious living arrangements and disingenuous friendships and professional relationships.

It is the gulf between appearances and reality that lies at the heart of this gothic-inspired story. While Clara and Tom try to present their best selves to their new friends, Madeleine is caustically direct, not hesitating to point out Jeremy’s flaws or the unglamorous realities of motherhood. Tom finds himself reflecting on his broader friendships, including with Emily, a PhD student who is also friends with Clara. Emily ‘was very beautiful and very warm’, but also ‘in much demand’ because ‘it reflected well on you to be seen with someone that beautiful’.

Tom also recalls the dynamics of his family, who continually ‘collapsed under the pressure of social occasions’, his relatives never able to fully satisfy the expectations that they feel are implicitly imposed upon them. In Bali, it is easy to see that money transforms relationships into commodities, but Tom is also aware that ‘likeability’ has colonised other aspects of his daily life. A university tutor, he feels ambivalent about his consistently good student survey results because he knows he is a ‘pushover’; his increasing awareness of this, and his almost-overpowering desire to be liked, become claustrophobic. When so much dissembling is going on, it is not hard to see why Tom agonises over most social interactions, and even his interactions with Clara, with whom he has been in an on-off relationship for fourteen years.

The novel also questions whether the internal tensions of a relationship can be reconciled. Such tensions include passion versus habituation, glamour versus reliability. Though Tom’s relationship with Clara seemed ‘so natural, so inevitable’ at the time, he now wonders whether this meant there was ‘some essential thing that was missing’. Clara is not, by any stretch of the imagination, glamorous; Tom’s depictions of her physical appearance are often unflattering, but he understands that she is steadfast and reliable, ‘the one [people] wanted in an emergency’.

Shortly after their arrival at the resort, Tom notices a ‘couple of very tanned women a few lounges over who looked like they’d had work done’ and his mind takes an unsavoury detour:

… [t]his made Tom think of porn, and he fantasised for a moment about what he might do with a woman like that – a woman that he didn’t love.

While this is a discomfiting example of the male gaze, Tom’s thoughts also raise the larger question of whether desire and domesticity are compatible. Possibly not, if celebrities – whose relationships serve as archetypes for the glamour of romance – are anything to go by.

In one humorous but unsettling scene, the two couples are taking Ollie to a turtle sanctuary and wander past the villa where Mick Jagger famously married Jerry Hall in 1993. Though he could imagine ‘Rod Stewart dropping in for drinks’, Tom notes that:

… [the] place had an uncanny quality, a feeling that was accentuated by how little there was to actually see… The green lawn so green, so soft, so eerily empty.

Tom is perhaps seeking an environment in which he can thrive, though exactly what would constitute such a place is unclear. He is an architecture graduate and Clara is an urban design student. They both happen to be re-reading Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a seminal text that highlights a link between domestic spaces and the imagination. The house in Melbourne that Tom and Clara rent is falling apart, and they struggle to keep it clean for long. While cleanliness can be a marker of middleclass paternalism, for Tom and Clara the grottiness of their house suggests that their cohabitation has created something of a burden for them both.

Tom had hoped the light in Bali would change him, but instead finds the heat a trigger for his anxiety. The holiday environment becomes oppressive, which is conveyed through some obvious, but fitting, pathetic fallacy. After visiting a textile factory, which makes Tom cognisant of his complicity in exploitation, ‘[i]t was suddenly dark… the first big drops hit the ground’.

The story is told in the third person, but is an extended glimpse into Tom’s interior life. This effectively conveys the core feature of chronic anxiety – the feeling of being outside oneself – and allows for introspection without becoming too overwhelming for the reader. A lot of the description is quite flat and tells rather than shows. Pondering on Clara’s maturing looks, for example, Tom muses that they ‘reflect her character, so that she embodied it more fully and seemed more authentically herself’. But there are also moments when Horton’s descriptions shock with their accuracy. For example, after hearing Madeleine describe childbirth, Clara observes that ‘the only way the human race survives, reproduces itself, can bear to go on, is through some kind of wilful forgetting.’

The titular episode of the fogging – a periodic chemical fumigation of the hotel – takes a long time to happen, and when it eventually does, it feels a bit anti-climactic. However, this also turns out to be a clever authorial sleight of hand. Is Tom’s inability to help Clara when she gets caught in the chemical fog the reason their relationship fails, or is that a smokescreen for deeper problems?

The Fogging is a tense, thought-provoking and atmospheric debut from an exciting new voice.

Luke Horton The Fogging Scribe Publications 2020 PB 240pp $29.99

You can read an extract from The Fogging in the Newtown Review of Books here.

Amy Walters is a Canberra-based writer and reviewer. She runs the blog the Armchair Critic, and her reviews have also appeared in RightNow, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue and ArtsHub. Website:  Twitter: @CouchCritic18

You can buy The Fogging from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.