Review: Thuy Onon Allee Richards

Coming of Age on Impulse

The soft pastel-pink cover of Allee Richards’ debut novel features a helmetless young woman in a short green dress riding a pushbike, her dark hair blowing in the breeze. From her carefree demeanour and the title, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a self-help book full of hokey affirmations about finding beauty in ephemeral moments. Small Joys of Real Life is, however, more nuanced and complex than this first impression might suggest.

The narrator is Eva Macmillan, a 27-year-old Melburnian actor living in the inner-northern suburbs. There will be no change of narrator; we stay in her head the entire time, captive to all her confused, meandering thoughts. It begins with Eva addressing her lover Pat: ‘The first time I met you was unremarkable’. The second time was at a pub, The Tote in Collingwood: ‘the place was teeming with the smell of bodies and beer. We were stuffed from door to door, beanies and coats in hand.’

From such inauspicious beginnings, a seed grows: the couple hold hands on the way back to her house in an Uber, to be followed by the first kiss in bed and more conversation later. But just when it looks like the casual dalliance could turn into a relationship, Richards abruptly upends expectations. The story follows a different arc. Five weeks after their brief liaison (he didn’t want to see her again), Eva discovers that she is pregnant and Pat has committed suicide. He died not knowing she was carrying his child. Though she has misgivings, she decides to keep the baby. It is a decision that seems as impulsive as her one-night stand.

All this happens in the first eighteen pages of Small Joys of Real Life: the rest of the novel follows Eva over the course of her pregnancy, as she tries to reclaim some sense of equilibrium. Her mother sends her What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which describes each stage of foetal growth, and the novel is similarly divided into monthly instalments as Eva navigates the changes in her body and her unstable emotions. ‘I don’t know what the rules are for having a dead man’s baby,’ she confesses; her housemate unhelpfully points out that Eva can’t even keep her houseplants alive.

There are lovely and wry descriptions of pregnancy through the eyes of someone who is surprised and alarmed at each stage of development. ‘The baby’s heartbeat is like lying on a towel at the beach, ear to the sand, listening as someone walks past,’ Eva marvels, as she battles nausea and then develops a ravenous appetite. Later, as she becomes bigger and heavier, her body is described as being ‘marked like a map — cracked earth and waterways.’

Aside from her best friends and her mother, Eva refuses to tell others in her circle the story of her pregnancy for fear of judgement about her lack of employment and a partner. Eva is well aware that, as a result of a single act of unprotected sex, she has moved outside the usual boundaries of what’s acceptable. Richards charts the mores of inner-city people in their mid-to-late twenties with perspicacity; Small Joys of Real Life will resonate with readers in the midst of their quarter-century wrangling between freedom and responsibility, as well as those who remember doing so.

In many ways, this is a typical angsty coming-of-age novel that depicts a time of trying new things and meeting new people, thinking about the future in a purely abstract manner, being more beholden to the pleasures and demands of the present. Eva and her best mates, Annie and Sarah, and their loose group of friends and hangers-on may be single or coupled up, but no one is ready to settle down just yet. Everyone is far too capricious. There are parties to go to, drugs and alcohol to partake in, share houses to live in, jobs to take up and quit. Set in Redfern, Kavita Bedford’s recent novel Friends and Dark Shapes explored similar themes: being on the cusp of thirty, navigating insecure employment and housing, and the experience of loss.

Eva gradually realises that she has to become more prudent. After she reads the rules about nurturing and protecting a pregnant body in the What to Expect book, she resignedly figures that ‘if it’s fun you probably can’t do it.’ Then there’s the matter of money, or lack thereof. Even before she became pregnant, Eva had quit putting her hand up for any old acting job and refused to answer her agent’s calls.Now she is to bring a child into the world without any means of supporting herself, except for her finite savings. In the early stages of the novel, Eva is a bystander to her own life, still processing her pregnancy as though she were playing a role; she sees herself as a ‘vessel for someone’s else idea.’ It takes some time for her to adjust to her condition.

Her circumstances seem precarious, but the reader has no real concern for Eva’s monetary condition. Even if she doesn’t realise it, she is privileged: educated, white and middle-class. It is unlikely she will sink into penury. In fact, the novel captures the loving support that Eva receives from her best friends and her mother. She may be a single mum, but she is never alone. Annie and Sarah will be there at her birthing classes; her mother will even move interstate to be with her. Eva’s father was absent during most of her life, so there is a mirroring effect: she too will be raising her child without a fellow parent.

Richard’s handles the push-and-pull dynamic of female friendships beautifully. Eva seems to be flailing somewhere in the middle between Annie (responsible) and Sarah (reckless). At times, she is jealous of Annie’s life, which she sees as ‘objectively perfect: job; boyfriend with a job; never gets too drunk’. But she also pities Annie’s acquiescence: ‘Has she never felt the desire to veer from what is generally considered acceptable?’ Sarah, meanwhile, is at the other extreme: a party animal who delights in excess and who always seem to veer towards unacceptable behaviour. Yet even when individual actions are problematic there is understanding and forgiveness in this tight triangular bond.

In between the daily recapping of what she is doing to while away the time (watching reruns of Friends features frequently), Eva converses with Pat in the second person. The tone in these short sections is more intimate than the main narrative. Eva’s one-way dialogue is poignant and desperately sad. She never had a chance to know the father of her unborn child, but she is determined to learn more about him. With the help of a mutual friend, Travis, she trawls Facebook, trying to piece together a fuller picture of Pat, even though there is little private information to glean (in public he surfed, cycled and went to music festivals).

Eva’s longing is excruciating. She comes to the realisation that, if Pat were still alive, she would not be having his baby in the first place. She is pro-choice, so there is no moral quandary about the idea of an abortion. Her decision to keep the baby seems predicated on the notion of trying to hold onto Pat in some capacity, even though her feelings were unrequited. The book does not dwell on the reasons behind his suicide, leaving the reader as bewildered as Eva as to his motivations. Travis makes a maudlin album inspired by his friend and acknowledges the whole situation is meant to be messy and not make sense. Pat’s death remains inexplicable. Despite his absence, his presence is nonetheless palpable.

Despite or perhaps because of her grieving over Pat, Eva takes on a casual partner, Fergus, in a purely transactional sexual arrangement that seems, at first, to work for them both. In the last couple of years, ‘she’d entered into things under no illusion they would be anything but bad’. Twentysomething casual hookups are hardly startling in fiction, but it is refreshing and unusual to read about female desire in pregnancy.

Small Joys of Real Life is a quintessentially Melbourne book, with Richards’ characters not straying far from the city and the inner-north postcodes: from share houses to public swimming pools, pubs to bars. It’s an area that seems to provoke genuine fondness from authors, as Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen observes in her review for The Age. Like Jennifer Down in Our Magic Hour, Richards takes pleasure in describing the tightly circumscribed geography, naming specific streets and venues. Decades earlier, Helen Garner was similarly inspired by the inner-north to write Monkey Grip, a novel that also canvassed complex female experiences of motherhood, friendship and desire against the backdrop of sharehouses, drugs and music. However, the flavours of bohemia in this gritty pocket have dulled throughout the years. Eva notes the changes in her neighbourhood with some dismay and without irony. She fails to realise that she is part of the wave of gentrification. Northcote, once known for its ‘international grocers and delis and migrants’, has evolved into a shopping strip full of ‘cafes owned by people who don’t live there and expensive children’s clothing stores’.

There is a self-aware cheekiness on Richards’ part when she describes what it means to live as a young person in the social-media drenched world of the twenty-first century. Eva’s agent thinks she’s too famous to sell insurance, but not famous enough to sell face cream. When she isn’t overindulging in booze and drugs, Sarah works for ad agency that requires her to run an Instagram account for a houseplant. Later, Eva agrees to do a television ad for a bank because it is a well-paid one-line role. She is not embarrassed because, as she says, ‘Nobody I know watches free-to-air TV.’ A small independent theatre company she attends produces a play that ‘subverted the traditional coming-out narrative’. These little details trace the contours of contemporary life and its urban anomie within this social realist novel: smart, pensive, sardonic and also world-weary.

Climate change is also a theme of this novel. Eva is jaded about the arts in general: ‘Writing and acting might even be noble pursuits, distracting a doomed race. What I don’t like is pretending that what we’re doing has any grand meaning.’ She tries and fails to think about impending environmental disaster: ‘big banks invest money in burning coal, which will make the planet uninhabitable in my child’s life time.’

As a protagonist, Eva is not particularly likeable; she can be selfish and manipulative. But her honesty and vulnerability are raw. Small Joys of Real Life deals with the eternal issues of love and grief, constancy and change. With her sense of self unravelling, Eva’s internal monologue shifts through all her problems: ‘I have no job or job prospects and my romantic life is limited to a guy I don’t think I’m interested in.’ There is, however, hope: ‘All I have to share are my small joys — a pleasing turn of phrase in a book I’m reading, the eggplant my neighbour plucked from his veggie patch and left on my doorstop, the feeling of my baby kicking in a moment I was feeling lonely’. The book reminds us of the need to make space for these small moments in between dealing with the bigger issues of (impending) motherhood, career prospects or romantic relationships. To her credit, Richards eschews a neat ending. We don’t know how Eva will cope when the baby arrives. The last sentence underlines an existential truth: ‘None of us know what will happen next.’

Published October 25, 2021
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Thuy On

Thuy On is a Melbourne-based freelance arts journalist/critic. She’s written for a variety of...

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