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December 5, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor

Published by Scribe Publications (click for link)

OK, I know I’m a bit behind the eight-ball on this one – it’s been out for months, long enough to win the 2011 The Age Book of the Year Award. But it’s worth a review, and worth a read.

If there’s one thing I take away from Indelible Ink, it’s this: there is certainly a definite something about Sydney-ites. Maybe it’s the throwaway cocaine references or the more worldly approach to homosexual activity, but Fiona McGregor does a brilliant job of moulding ephemera around a set of characters so effectively that I know this is Sydney, without actually knowing much about Sydney at all.

Fiona McGregor’s far-ranging fourth novel delves into the fragmented lives of several individuals in the King family. The reader trails predominantly behind Marie King, the family matriarch and recent divorcee. Interestingly, ex-husband and advertising millionaire Ross hovers like a ghost in the background, hardly ever appearing. McGregor seems much more interested in the more maligned, confused and misunderstood characters that make up this rather wobbly family set.

At 59, Marie King seems to have only just won her independence. She gets to keep the family home but battles first-world problems: recurrent alcoholism, mounting debt, an ignorance of real financial difficulty. She gets plastered and on a whim, decides to get a tattoo. From there, her passion for the ink and the unexpected relationship she forges with tattoo artist Rhys pulls her into a world she would never have entered otherwise.

While Marie goes about rediscovering herself, McGregor bounces between siblings: Clark, the sad-sack divorcee and wannabe academic with an overweight child; Blanche, an over-achieving, Type-A advertising executive with emotional issues; and Leon, the nomadic homosexual unable to reconcile himself to the fact he may never be the man his mother expected.

Aside from the fact I have had to highlight his sexuality here to give a better idea of characterisation, McGregor does not make an issue out of sexual preferences. In other words, Leon is not a fashion statement or politically correct addition to the story line. Like all the neurotic elements of McGregor’s characters, Leon’s sexuality is just one facet of his life, but one that has unexpected and emotionally resonant repercussions for the rest of his family.

Marie King is not really the most empathetic character you’re going to come across. McGregor doesn’t make much of an effort to change this. Marie is, after all, a rich divorcee who led a luxurious life during her marriage and looks set to retire in comfort, even as she fantasises about returning to study and the as-yet untested waters of part-time work. Yet despite this, Marie is appealing for her stubborn resistance to change and for her love of nature. Indeed, nature pervades every inch of this book, right down to the details of Marie’s tattoos. McGregor has clearly been careful with this: after all, nature is what makes this book come alive. It is what informs all other elements of the plot line and character development. Indelible Ink seems at times to be an ode to the joys of nature, the passage of time and the beauty of all elements of life, rather than any distinct character study. As Marie slips towards her eventual destiny (because no woman who starts learning about her true self can go unpunished), her children all draw closer, encroaching on each other’s personal lives and, perhaps, affecting positive change.

Indelible Ink is an unexpectedly ‘soft’ kind of adventure. There’s no winner-takes-all mentality to the plot line. It’s not hard-hitting in an emotionally wracking kind of sense, and it’s just as easy to dislike the supporting actors over Marie herself. They all have niggling weaknesses, and the at-sea nature of their issues can make them a little irritating, but what person isn’t annoying if you hang around them long enough? McGregor refuses to mire herself too long in the problems of one character, which is sometimes why her scene changes jolt the senses. After being handed the inner workings of one mind, we then restart the journey into another. But this is hardly a deal breaker. More than anything, it’s a choice of style, and you adjust quickly enough to the fact that time or nature waits for no one to feel better before it moves on.

Perhaps the element I like most of all about McGregor’s novel is its indistinctness. Unlike other authors, she resists a defined conclusion. The ending may be compelling, but definite it is not. Like nature, Fiona McGregor’s Indelible Ink just keeps going long after the pages have stopped turning.

For more reviews of Indelible Ink, check out:

The Monthly‘s review

ANZ Lit Lover’s review.


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