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Posted on 1 May 2024 in Fiction |

MAX EASTON Paradise Estate. Reviewed by Paul Anderson

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The disparate residents of the sharehouse at the heart of Max Easton’s second novel reveal a microcosm of Australia’s housing crisis.

New Year’s Eve 2022 bookends this social novel set in Sydney, in which good nature and resilience are demonstrated in the face of what are precarious times for many millennials.

Helen and Sunny meet up in Camperdown Park that afternoon and make a toast to farewell their ‘year of drama’. The year was supposed to have been a fresh start after the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2021 and other privations – ‘breakups, car accidents, lost jobs, familial spats’ – instead, it’s been chokka with personal dramas and months of rain. They shared a mouldy rental house with four other tenants and here’s how one of those, Alice, feels about the year that was:

She closed her eyes, feeling hopeless, carted away by her boyfriend the plagiarist, away from her housemates that included an animal killer, a hoarder, a self-described spinster, and a wannabe concubine. What a disgraceful year to have lived, she thought, blaming Nathan [her boyfriend] for it all …

‘Paradise Estate’ is the mocking descriptor Sunny gives to their insalubrious sharehouse, which is undesirably situated in Hurlstone Park, ‘halfway down a side street off New Canterbury Road’ (the entire novel is set in Sydney’s inner west). The story is neatly set over the course of the year 2022, and is pervaded with anticlimaxes and let-downs for the characters. But it’s their assorted circumstances before the start of novel that may be the most dramatic. What exactly were the conditions precedent that forced these six adults in their thirties, strangers for the most part, into sharing a rented house in the first place?

Paradise Estate is Max Easton’s second novel, a sequel to his debut, The Magpie Wing (2021), which was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Easton inhabits some of the same (or similar) subcultures here – notably underground music scenes, leftist groups, and the fringes of professional rugby league – nevertheless, Paradise Estate can be read as a standalone. Its characters have come of age and are living independently, but it’s a pay cheque to pay cheque-type existence, and they’re wondering out loud, Where to from here? Helen is the only recurring central character: in a way this second book is her sequel. It helps to know how close she was to her brother, Walt, and that they played in bands together, but you will soon pick up on that anyway. Paradise Estate has a consistently level tone that manages to be both wry and serious-minded. The humour is sharp and cutting: many spades are called spades. And if you have read The Magpie Wing then you will instantly be in lock step with Easton’s copious style.

Paradise Estate is a character-rich novel entertainingly populated by the offbeat and the eccentric: unconventional, urban, working-class characters who have made it through to early middle age but for whom life has become marginal in an economic sense through no real fault of their own.

Rocco is the ‘animal killer’, although that’s harsh (it involves a stray cat). He’s a bustling Italian Australian and a big bloke, ‘tall and broad’, up and about. He’s does everything flat chat, like it’s a workout. He is the last to move in, replacing the troubled Dale, who’s kicked out early on. Rocco’s good for the house, a positive presence, and a tolerant voice. He’s complex and my interest was always piqued when the narrative returned to his story. He’s a tradie (a scaffolder) and a handy part-time rugby league player (a front rower) for the Mounties club. He’s flipped and flopped between Sydney and Italy over the last decade. His is a dark past (‘a series of bad break-ups’) but only because he mostly keeps it so from the others. He has fronted an anarchist band, I Pentiti, and lived in squats in Europe. He was based in Turin for a couple of years (2017–2019) where he played rugby league for Saluzzo, an experimental Italian club that played in a French league. Then he got stuck in Italy when the COVID-19 pandemic hit that country hard. One evening he confides to Helen:

‘It’s a fucking miracle I found a way back in [to rugby league] through Mounties. If I stay fit, stay out of trouble, and find a way up to NSW Cup instead of being out of sight in third grade … I feel like it’s likely. And if it works out, there’s every chance my last ever game of footy will be playing against the Kangaroos in England, against the best in the world. Then I think I’ll be happy to retire, because that would actually be significant. I would have been a part of something … and everyone wants that, right?’

Rocco has his heart set on representing Italy in the Rugby League World Cup in October (the 2021 competition that was postponed to 2022).

Sunny is the ‘hoarder’ who lives in the shed out the back. They’re bright and forever ‘good energy’. Sunny’s quit their PhD program at UTS and is on the dole currently. They’re way too busy anyway with their many creative projects. Sunny’s a zine maker, the spearhead in their punk band, HDPE, and a self-styled community archivist. In 2021, for example:

Sunny embarked on a large project to alleviate the repetition of their [PhD] research. Sensing an opportunity during the temporary end of live musical performance, Sunny announced that they were creating an archive to collate unreleased Sydney DIY recordings of ‘the first twenty-one years of the new millennium’. They sold the concept as a way of reflecting on what had been lost to both the lockdown and the attention economy, setting up a digital portal for artists to submit their artwork and audio files. They took hundreds of submissions and filed them by band name, with metadata fields for information like band members (sorted by alias) and genre (formalising meme derived categorisations from ‘dolewave’ to the egg-punk/chain punk continuum).

Sunny and their band succeed in playing a number of risky, improvised outdoor gigs – necessarily short, smash-and-grab sets, under potential threat of arrest. All these lively if slightly complicated scenes grabbed me. The last requires an ‘occupation’ of the Gladstone Hotel in Dulwich Hill – an overnight lock-in contrived by Sunny in order to play on the pub’s top-floor balcony first thing the next morning (the morning after the NRL Grand Final).

Helen is the ‘self-described spinster’. She’s traumatised by her past, almost agoraphobic about not running into people, and has chronic neck pain. She works a dead-end job as a part-time cinema manager but, more importantly, she’s just been chucked by Suze, her girlfriend of eight years. They were cohabiting, in Suze’s apartment in St Peters; consequently, Helen, now in her late thirties, must find somewhere new to live. This gets us to the sharehouse and the start of the novel: Helen needs housemates to make the rent affordable.

Beth is ‘the wannabe concubine’. She’s the youngest and the mouthiest. Beth broke her leg in a bad car accident in 2021, which forced her back to living with her parents, and is only now returning to barwork after a lengthy spell. She’s a student artist (‘who battled to major as a sculptor at SCA’), and a sex worker: Beth ‘cams’ as a side hustle, her webcam and microphone gear permanently set up in her bedroom.

Alice and Nathan are the couple that take the main bedroom. Alice is a research chemist (a crystallographer) and a fragile soul. Nathan is ‘a casual tutor in a history department’ and an ardent socialist activist. He spends most of the time hiding out somewhere called The Centre, ‘a socialist research hub based in Rockdale’. Alice and Nathan are in a tired, ten-year-old relationship that is grinding to an end. They appear to be middle-class refugees, slumming it somewhat here. In the novel they represent a ‘them’ to the ‘us’ of the rugby league clique (Helen, Sunny and Rocco) but they all overlap in their political allegiances. There are dynamic shifts and splinters throughout and the sharehouse is never a predictable binary.

One year, six characters – that’s a lot of novel – and it’s one stuffed to the brim. Nathan proposed that the sharehouse be run as a commune, but their year of communal living is to end in all manner of personal disappointments and frustrated, never-ending projects.

Paradise Estate is a very particular slice of life as well as an on-point state-of-the-nation novel. Generational inequality and housing affordability are such that a multitude of people in the workforce now may never own a home, especially if they happen to live in big cities like Sydney. There are no systemic solutions in Paradise Estate to Australia’s housing mess – for that, you could read Alan Kohler’s recent clear-eyed Quarterly Essay, ‘The Great Divide’. However, the novel certainly does possess a plausible fighting spirit, a punkish do-it-yourself ethos. It’s possible to live vicariously through characters as well-rounded and indomitable as Rocco and Sunny and to go energetically with them on their myriad pursuits.

Max Easton Paradise Estate Giramondo Publishing Company 2023 PB 288pp $32.95

Paul Anderson is a freelance editor. He is the co-editor of The Power of a Football, a collection of Reclink footy stories, published in 2022 by WestWords Limited.

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

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