'If one saw behind the faces into the hearts, one would die.'
A suburban couple have drifted into the shallows of middle-aged boredom. Their fourteen-year-old son is a stranger, meeting their attempts at love with hostile indifference. Surly at home, he is a dab hand at shoplifting and looks like sliding into delinquency.
Moving from Brisbane to a country convent and the Gold Coast, the novel is a brilliant, witty portrait of the surface of ordinary life. The Leverson family and their connections appear normal but desire and inner emotion are never quite so simple.
If Astley ( Vanishing Points ) is ever to gain her well-deserved audience in the U.S., maybe this funny, poignant, ultimately tragic novel will be her breakthrough. Focusing on a Brisbane family, the Leversons--passive Bernard, self-absorbed Iris, their rebellious teenage son Keith--the novel begins as social satire. Gradually, the roots of Keith's loutish behavior, his desperate need for a father's firm hand, are established. Oblivious to Keith's signals, Bernard feels disengaged from his family; ironically, he does become emotionally engaged by the despair of a priest questioning his vocation in an up-country town, where Bernard goes on his job as an itinerant music teacher/board examiner. The dialogue throughout is clever and brittle; Astley shows no mercy for cultural or social pretentiousness. But the hard sheen of a comedy of manners gradually gives way to a deeper, more empathetic tone as she examines the lives of a somewhat eccentric but always credible cast of characters: a psychologically unhinged nun; a sexually starved spinster; a neglected, submarginally intelligent slum kid whose life intersects with Keith's. The ease with which Astley integrates her characters' lives is breathtaking. As the reader develops sympathy for Keith and for his suffering parents, the narrative acquires the tension of a thriller, sliding inevitably into tragedy--and a kind of redemption, too. The lesson one learns here: how we ``unwittingly. . . inflict hurt we can never mend,'' is memorable.