a story about a novel

Once upon a time, I came across a collection of short stories titled Suck My Toes in a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne. I bought it, for the title, and the cover, which featured a pair of Blundstone boots, my favourite footwear for many years. I’d never heard of the author, Fiona McGregor, and if you’re UK-based, chances are you’ve never heard of her either. I read the collection of interlinked stories and loved it. I loved the writing, the sensibility, the characters who were often between places or lovers or their own sense of self. And although as far as my Australian identity is concerned I’m very much a Melbournite, and McGregor most certainly is a Sydney-sider, I responded strongly to her descriptions of that city, to the smells and sounds and weather woven through the stories, so that Sydney became one of the shifting, restless, flawed characters that I couldn’t help becoming fond of.

I loved the book so much I read it twice. Several years later the now defunct lit mag PROP asked me to write a piece about a favourite short story collection. I wrote about Suck My Toes and sent a copy of the article to McGregor’s publisher in Australia. At some point I bought her first novel, Au Pair, which was published before the short story collection. I have less vivid memories of reading this, though the subject matter – a young woman escaping overseas to forge her own identity – is close to my heart; and now that I’m a signed-up Francophile, the novel’s Parisian setting surely means it deserves a second reading. But the point of this story is that ever since I first encountered Fiona McGregor’s writing, hers is the name I look for whenever I’m in a bookshop in Melbourne. And usually I am disappointed.

Jump to a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs one afternoon in early December. I’m in Melbourne on the briefest of visits and for the saddest of reasons, but as I half-heartedly scan the shelves I light upon Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor. Published in 2010 by Scribe, and with a glowing endorsement from Christos Tsiolkas on the cover; second-hand, a bit scuffed, but new to me. I hug it to myself. I buy it. I wait until I am back home in London and then one night in bed I start reading this big novel about 59 year-old Marie King, recently divorced, living in the family home on Sydney’s north shore and rapidly falling apart. A novel about family, loss, greed and self discovery, as Marie begins to transform herself through the ink and friendship of tattoo artist Rhys. The novel gets under my skin. I’m reading late into the night and I’m too involved to make notes, to jot down those glittering sentences that conjour up Sydney, the house, Marie’s beloved garden; the prolonged hot dry summer that is the backdrop to the novel, and one of the sub-themes – the environment, climate change, the marks we make on the world. There’s a good sprinkling of social satire throughout the novel as well, but also a sense that Marie and her adult children are grappling with some of the issues facing Australian society today. I can see why Tsiolkas is a fan. And I don’t want the novel to end even though I’m racing towards the last pages and I know there’s no happy ending. But the book lives on, in memory, as people do. And from the author note I learn that there is at least one more Fiona McGregor work for me to seek out.

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