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.

Cover: February 2010

February 2010

From the front page

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews

Locking back down

Victoria’s woes are a warning for the whole country

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Weal of fortune

Rebuilding the economy means government investment, but not all public spending is equal

Image of Labor’s Kristy McBain and Anthony Albanese

A win’s a win

The Eden-Monaro result shows that Morrison’s popularity has not substantially changed voting patterns – and Labor has still not cut through

The man inside and the inside man

Crime, punishment and indemnities in western Sydney’s gang wars

In This Issue

Tony Abbott. © MystifyMe/Flickr

The whirling dervish

On Tony Abbott

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Supermarket sweep

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.


Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Strutting & fretting

More in Arts & Letters

Still from ‘Contempt’

The death of cool: Michel Piccoli, 1925–2020

Re-watching the films of the most successful screen actor of the 20th century

Image of Ziggy Ramo

The heat of a moment: Ziggy Ramo’s ‘Black Thoughts’

A debut hip-hop album that calls for a reckoning with Indigenous sovereignty and invites the listener to respond

Photograph of Malcolm Turnbull

Surrounded by pygmies: Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘A Bigger Picture’

The former PM’s memoir fails to reckon with his fatal belief that all Australians shared his vision

Still from ‘The Assistant’

Her too: ‘The Assistant’

Melbourne-born, New York–based filmmaker Kitty Green’s powerfully underplayed portrait of Hollywood’s abusive culture

More in Noted

‘Minor Detail’ by Adania Shibli

‘Minor Detail’ by Adania Shibli (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette)

The Palestinian author’s haunting novel about an atrocity committed by Israeli soldiers in 1949

‘The Rain Heron’ by Robbie Arnott

An unsettling near-future tale of soldiers hunting a mythic bird by “the Tasmanian Wordsworth”

Cover of ‘The Trials of Portnoy’

‘The Trials of Portnoy’ by Patrick Mullins

The finely detailed story of the legal fight in Australia against the censorship of Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’

Cover of ‘The End of October’

‘The End of October’ by Lawrence Wright

A ‘New Yorker’ journalist’s eerily prescient novel about public-health officials fighting a runaway pandemic

Read on

Image of Labor’s Kristy McBain and Anthony Albanese

A win’s a win

The Eden-Monaro result shows that Morrison’s popularity has not substantially changed voting patterns – and Labor has still not cut through

Image of Patrick Allington's ‘Rise & Shine’

Shelf pity: ‘Rise & Shine’

Patrick Allington’s fable of a world in which perpetual war is staged to fuel compassion is too straightforward for its ambitions

Image of then treasurer Scott Morrison handing Barnaby Joyce a lump of coal during Question Time, February 9, 2017.

Coal cursed

The fossil-fuel lobby could not have created the climate wars so easily without the preceding culture wars

Image of library shelves

Learning difficulties

The Coalition’s political agenda is a gross infringement on academic freedom