February 2010

Arts & Letters

‘The Legacy’ by Kirsten Tranter

By Peter Craven

Kirsten Tranter, the daughter of famous poet John and formidable literary agent Lyn, has a literary background with bells on. Her first novel, The Legacy, shows her to be a novelist with a commanding talent – a tough plain-stylist who can people her fictional world with characters of great vivacity and vigour.

The Legacy will keep you reading later than you’d like because the articulation of the action is so seductive, you visualise Tranter’s characters so easily, and you care about their breakneck post-adolescent forays into purposiveness, as well as their angsty inabilities to do anything.

Julia works in a video shop in Kings Cross where she meets Ralph, a supersmart gay-ish chap who turns out to be sick, and Ingrid, a blonde innocent-abroad from Perth who is a brilliant classics student. Julia is more than a bit in love with Ralph, but he forms the deepest kind of love attachment to Ingrid – whom Julia also has a generalised longing for – and encourages his super-rich Kirribilli dad to leave a fortune to Ingrid so she can study in New York. Before we know where we are, Ingrid is not only studying at Columbia, she’s married to a slightly sinister New York art-world character called Gil Grey, who has a close tie with an older woman called Maeve and a teenage daughter called Fleur.

With names like these you don’t have to be an intertextual bloodhound to sniff out the conscious (and flaunted) connection with Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. September 11 hits the novel like a Titanic datum and the question of whether Ingrid (Tranter’s Isabel Archer figure) may be the object of very grim domestic abuse is raised. But has she chosen to walk away from this or did she fall with those towers?

One difficulty with the novel is that Ingrid is never really developed as a character, and narrator Julia – a glamorised Henrietta Stackpole – never quite knows what the quest for Ingrid (which takes her to New York) actually amounts to. So what we get is a crypto-mystery novel rather haphazardly linked to an allusive literary novel, which invokes parallels between James’s sinister Old Europe and the murky, myriad world of Manhattan. That said, the really disconnected antipodean at culture’s court is Julia and the real drama is in her wandering bildungsroman, not the quest for the lost girl.

The novel pulsates with the portent and momentum of revelations Tranter either foreshadows to the point of obviousness or keeps putting further and more far-fetchedly out of reach. This makes the book’s endless foreplay between its thriller elements and its loftily conceived moral dramas and soaring realism a bit of a tease. But The Legacy retains a lot of magic along with its roughness. Full of suave and stunning evocations of Sydney and Manhattan, this sparkling and spacious novel captures the smell and sap of young people half in love with everyone they’re vividly aware of, and groping to find themselves like the answer to an erotic enigma.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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