July 2010

Arts & Letters

‘Indelible Ink’ by Fiona McGregor

By Geordie Williamson
'Indelible Ink' by Fiona McGregor, Scribe Publications, 464pp; $32.95

On meeting Marie King, the heroine of Fiona McGregor’s fourth novel, I was reminded of Brett Whiteley’s painting of an ageing society hostess. His subject is impeccable at first glance – coiffed and glossy, as though time itself is being held back by dint of mascara and platinum streaks – but she is betrayed, on closer inspection, by a frazzle of fine lines and eyes signalling bewilderment as much as eagerness to please.

We first encounter Marie in her large and lovingly tended garden, high above the brilliant water of Mosman’s Sirius Cove – a glass in one hand and a myrtle seedling in the other. She is that Sydney archetype, the soused divorcee, mourning years wasted on Ross, a wealthy ad man who did not love her, although he was observant enough of upper-middle-class proprieties to delay his upgrade to a younger model until their children were adults.

Hardly a worthy object for sympathy, you might think. But in the settlement Marie stumped for the family home instead of cash. Shriven of the money that once funded a sociable life, Marie has retreated into melancholy communion with her garden and the memories it contains. “Society is all but rude, / To this delicious solitude” wrote Marvell of another garden in another time. We trust Marie because she learns this truth at the moment when mounting debt demands that she put hers up for sale.

After a long lunch in Sydney’s inner eastern suburbs, Marie finds herself in a tattoo parlour with a small flower indelibly printed on her back. The feeling of transgression, of liberation from the narrow world she has inhabited, thrills her; the pain is an exquisite reminder of a return to sovereignty over her flesh. In between jabs she imagines a new life, radically different to that which came before, “as though the needles hadn’t so much inserted ink as stripped the veneer from an underlying design”.

Over the following months she returns, again and again, to Rhys, a tattoo artist of uncommon ability and sympathetic spirit. Meanwhile her adult kids bicker and plot, so immured in their private dramas that they fail to read Marie’s actions as anything but a lapse of taste and, perhaps, sanity. It is only when Marie is diagnosed with cancer that their various solipsisms crack.

Beyond the domestic drama of Indelible Ink – its tough, yet tender, appreciation of family dynamics, its revelation of character as an endless war of contradictory impulses fought within a single, human frame – McGregor has set out to exhaustively catalogue Sydney in all its guises. It is an enterprise anthropological in reach, drawing on everything from history and the built environment to gay subculture and the economics of real estate. Even the melt and drift at its close feels like a nod to the city’s endless droning summers.

At 400-odd pages Indelible Ink is undoubtedly a long novel. But how else could it contain the richest and most complete evocation of Sydney since Patrick White’s The Vivisector?

Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is a writer, editor and critic.

@gamwilliamson

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