Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2021
What a very cheering novel this is, albeit dealing predominantly with the issue of grief after the loss of a long-time dearly beloved spouse. Jacquie Byron has captured that universal but at the same time highly individual response to unbearable loss with affection and humour in the character of Franny Calderwood.
Franny loses her husband Frank when he is run down on his way to the shops on his bicycle. Despite the determined efforts of those who love her, she shuts herself off from the quite sociable world she has known and enjoyed and turns to alcohol for solace as she communes with her dead husband, her sole living companions her dogs Whisky and Soda.
Into this self-enforced isolation comes inexorable change in the form of young neighbours, a woman who has left an abusive relationship, and her two children – teenager Dee and her little brother Josh. There’s no overnight conversion here but a gradual and mutual fulfilling of varying needs.
Josh is an artistic child who finds a fellow in Franny through his love of painting and drawing. Dee is an archetypal mouthy surly teenage girl, no less sad because she’s been removed from her friendship circle, but just as unable as Franny to articulate the neediness. She finds a connection with Franny through fashion, and experimental experiences with alcohol, an area of expertise for Franny. Franny’s days have become a waiting game for cocktail hour and she’s pretty much lost control of the notion of a social drink.
A string of domestic and personal calamities continues to enforce and cement the bonds between neighbours, and both Franny and the Salernos find they have something to learn from the other and something to offer. In the end, like Franny’s relatives, everyone just needs to be loved and to show love for one another.
Forgiveness is a major theme in this book and there’s a lot to forgive on all scores. There’s a forceful awareness that forgiveness is a major component of love and it is through pain that the lessons are learnt.
If this all sounds a bit on the weighty side, please be assured that the story is not. It’s full of very funny lines and situations. Franny is possessed of an acerbic wit and a keen capacity to observe her fellows. She’s not averse to speaking her mind, no matter how insulting and hurtful her comments can be.
The author makes full use of the many absurdities that contemporary life throws up. She’s an astute and witty writer able to reel in her readers on multiple levels at a time. Our funny bones are frequently tickled, our sense of nostalgia is nudged (who cannot for instance recall teenage angst?), our sympathies are powerfully aroused for Franny in her overwhelming grief, our capacity to identify, especially if we are of certain age, with the inevitable issues of ageing are gently prodded.
This is a skilfully woven story which carries us along at a tilt that accurately mirrors Franny’s ups and downs. We’re with her, hoping she can haul herself out of the doldrums, just as we may occasionally gasp at her outrageousness. She’s someone we’d be happy to invite into our lives – for cocktails, for a stroll round an art gallery or on that yet to be had trip to Scotland.
I very much look forward to the next book from this debut novelist who has so cleverly entertained us whilst giving us much to think about with Happy Hour.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy, to DMCPR for facilitating my interview with Jacquie, and to Jacquie for such a relaxed and frank conversation.