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Not a rehearsal: ‘Small Joys of Real Life’

By Amy Walters

Allee Richards’ debut novel questions the line between authenticity and fakery in the life of a young woman

Small Joys of Real Life (Hachette), the debut novel by Melbourne-based writer Allee Richards, is a subtle reflection on the taken-for-granted structures and rhythms of day-to-day existence. After forays into what she hopes is a new relationship, Eva is rebuffed by Pat, who soon after commits suicide. Eva subsequently finds herself out of work and pregnant. Eschewing her penchant for melodrama (she was, until recently, an actor), she quietly goes about preparing for the birth and keeping a firm handle on her devastation at Pat’s death. Implicit in her restraint is the question of whether she is entitled to grieve, having never officially been in a relationship with him. The novel unfolds as an extended letter to Pat, a space where Eva can acknowledge the depth of her emotion while keeping it hidden from others.

Being unemployed, Eva is theoretically at liberty to enjoy what remains of a life unencumbered by motherhood. But cash-strapped and alone during daylight hours, she finds that all she has to share are her “small joys”: “a pleasing turn of phrase in a book I’m reading, the eggplant my neighbour plucked from his veggie patch and left on my doorstep, the feeling of my baby kicking in a moment I was feeling lonely. For some reason, we never talk about these things.”

Richards weaves in a critique of the hegemonic idea of the family unit that has a heterosexual couple at its heart. Preferring to keep the fate and identity of her baby’s father private, Eva attends antenatal classes with her friend Sarah, and they scoff over the pamphlets that assume a father will be present at the birth. Sarah becomes better acquainted with the information in the classic pregnancy companion What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which makes for some humorous and poignant scenes as she attempts to reassure an ambivalent Eva about the progress of her pregnancy.

Playing on Eva’s background in acting, many scenes are underpinned by an implicit questioning of the distinction between real life and theatre, authenticity and fakery. Although she has close friends and an active social life, Eva compulsively watches Friends on her laptop, comforted by the simulacra of relationships that it offers. She also compares pregnancy to a horror film: “First the thing possessing you tries to escape from your mouth. Then it pushes in every direction, expanding you from every angle. Then the finale, all that blood.” The unborn baby too, is often conceptualised by Eva as something else entirely: a seahorse, a beetle, an ear of corn. Amusingly, when she plays the role of a pregnant woman in a commercial, she is deemed to not look pregnant enough and is required to adopt a fake bump for the shoot.

It is the pregnancy, however, that forces Eva to confront reality. By the time she discovers she is expecting, she has already decided to leave acting, having begun to question its moral value after being encouraged to use her personal experiences as emotional triggers. “Was it really possible to replicate an actual life?” she wonders. “It always felt like we were acting just one thing, when in reality we were feeling everything all at once.” Eva looks forward to birth because she has “attached a symbolism to my being ripped open. I see it as something that will change me irrevocably, marking the fact that this part of my life is over.” When it transpires that she feels this way because she misinterpreted a throwaway line from Pat in a conversation they had about climate change, she is faced with the possibility that the pregnancy is, as Sarah tells her, “just a fucked-up thing that happened”. But ultimately, it is a kind of small joy, extraordinary and yet ordinary at the same time. This ambivalence is a strength of the book, as it resists the totalising narrative of motherhood as the be-all and end-all of a woman’s life.

Thematically and stylistically, Small Joys is reminiscent of what’s known as “millennial literature”, especially work by Irish authors Sally Rooney and Naoise Dolan, in which cultivated yet flattened prose evokes the monotony and sense of futility inherent in life under late capitalism. It is important, however, not to elevate such stories to the universal. The characters in Small Joys conform to an emerging trope that the critic Rebecca Liu calls the “archetypical Young Millennial Woman”, who is “pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive”. Further, despite often being described as “relatable”, she is “more beautiful, more intelligent, and more infuriatingly precocious than we are in real life”. This description certainly characterises Eva, who is a talented actress without being devoted to her craft, and who effortlessly obtained an agent and several roles straight out of drama school.

Liu goes on to suggest that this archetypal character is “often wealthy, but doesn’t think too much about it”, while her “life is fraught with so much drama, self-loathing and downwardly mobile financial precarity”. In addition, her friends are “incorrigible narcissists, and the men in her life are disappointing and terrible”. Eva is not well-off but she is fortunate to have a helpful mother and circle of friends she can rely on for both moral and financial support. Although Eva’s craving for melodrama is ultimately self-defeating, it is Sarah, with her incipient drinking problem, who is more self-destructive.

But Liu also asks: “Why are the very women who, in theory, hold the most social power so interested in divesting themselves of it?” Inexplicably, Eva and Sarah both neglect to negotiate the use of birth control with their lovers (Sarah has an abortion early on, before Eva discovers her own pregnancy), and Sarah gets herself fired by failing to honour her professional commitments. It would be ludicrous to expect characters to behave in rational or moral ways, but it should also be acknowledged that these women have a level of privilege that affords them space to fail.

Chekhov is commonly quoted as saying: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.” Small Joys of Real Life is a complex and layered illustration of how this maxim bears out for a slice of the community.

Amy Walters

Amy Walters is a Canberra-based writer and reviewer. She runs the blog The Armchair Critic, and her reviews have appeared in Right Now, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin.

@CouchCritic18

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