‘Forever Young’ by Steven Carroll
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Forever Young is the fifth of Steven Carroll’s Glenroy novels, a series that traces the lives of three suburban Melburnians: Vic, Rita, and their son, Michael. Carroll’s next novel, which he has jokingly called the “sixth book in the trilogy”, will complete the burgeoning sequence. Six novels that explore particular characters as they engage with a deep personal understanding of place, time, history, thought and sensation add up to a considerable achievement: a novelistic plenitude. Carroll’s work has been highly acclaimed: he won the 2008 Miles Franklin Award for the third Glenroy novel, The Time We Have Taken, and shared the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2014 for A World of Other People, one of two other novels he has written that touch on the life of TS Eliot. Forever Young shows a writer at complete ease with a style that he has developed over a considerable period of time.
Forever Young is about the way that characters assimilate change. In 1977, political change takes the form of Labor’s electoral defeat and Gough Whitlam’s departure from politics. Whitlam, frequently described as a “mountain”, is suddenly not part of the landscape. Changes that are almost geological come to every life.
Michael, a self-absorbed 33-year-old, throws over his music and Mandy, a girl who loves him. He has decided to write a novel in France. He is realistic: it might not be a very good novel, but he’s obeying a deep compulsion. He comes to understand how callously he has behaved and how powerless he is to remedy his mistake. Similarly, his erstwhile friend Peter, a ministerial adviser to the Fraser government, realises that he is responsible for the destruction of two people’s lives, and cannot reverse his actions or atone for them.
More positively, Michael’s mother Rita, aware that she is part of that easily derided group of self-sacrificing suburban housewives, abandons her life of stale security to take a job as a travel guide. She must also let go of her deep psychological attachment to Michael’s father.
Whitlam is one emblem of change. Another is the simple action of the distraught Mandy, who plunges into the sea in the aftermath of her break-up with Michael. Rita witnesses this, and its spontaneity inspires her – she’s unaware of Mandy’s troubles. The reader more clearly sees the threat to Mandy’s safety. Some transitions can be fatal. The title, an echo of Bob Dylan, is ironic: nothing, as Bryan Ferry’s lyric tells us, lasts forever.
Forever Young has a deliberative style, as characters assess themselves and the world around them. This can seem slow, initially. But part of the pleasure of this novel lies in its thoughtfulness and depth, and for this deliberation is essential.
Brenda Walker is an Australian writer and a Winthrop Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her memoir, Reading by Moonlight, was published in 2010.