Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2023
Cover design Alissa Dinallo
Cover images from Shutterstock
What a clever book this is! The story of a young woman’s affair with an older married man is told in the first person by Hera.
The naming of our heroine sets the deliciously ironic tone of this book – she is, after all, the Greek goddess of marriage, women and family.
Hera’s excruciating lack of awareness whilst she trumpets her sense of power in the affair will strike a chord of rueful recognition for many readers, not necessarily just the young. We are, it seems, never too old for folly when neediness and desire take hold.
As omniscient readers we are also struck by Hera’s assessment of herself as not so far from the schoolgirls on whose conversations she routinely eavesdrops – in this at least she is spot on. She is a wandering soul not yet sure of who she is or where she fits in to the social machine or even life in general.
The workings of the corporate machine are another target for the author’s wit. With an uncannily accurate portrayal of office hierarchies, personalities and power structures, the author dissects sexism, patriarchal systems, the drudgery of unsatisfying daily work and the cruelty this can so easily engender.
The treadmill is not limited to the young worker like Hera and Mei Ling, her office kindred spirit, as we see so clearly in Alison, her long serving office supervisor. Alison is metaphorically weighed down by her layers of clothing, as she is by the relentlessness of the system in which she labours, unknown and unknowable by her fellows.
Arthur is the object of Hera’s affections. He’s charming and attractive, and attentive just at the time when Hera needs him. For this she happily sacrifices the rest of her social and personal life – she waits in the hope of a few hours of his time between his family commitments.
He is not so much a wicked seducer as a man unable to act for fear of hurting the women in his life. As a result he hurts everyone and so does Hera. Hard to condemn, but reprehensible none the less in the end.
The other men in the story generally fair no better in our judgment with the stereotypical office male who sits in a slightly senior position to the young women on whom his eye falls. Hera, of course, sees this and is not interested, sufficiently savvy to avoid that pitfall. Besides she is saving herself (mostly) for Arthur!
The author entertains us with her sardonic observations of work culture and ‘the system’, including the meaningless buzz words required when applying for jobs. She also makes reference to films and music of the time, thus giving us both temporal setting and another sly readerly smile at the human need to thereby fix ourselves in a certain social milieu.
Clearly, we are driven to make ourselves seem more important, socially connected, knowledgeable and intelligent by citing popular cultural markers.
Beneath all of this emotional and social tumult there is Dad. Hera’s relationship with her Dad is her salvation (and ours as readers to be honest).
He is a thoroughly lovely man and a good dad in every way. He forgives everything and loves her as she is. In the end, despite everything she is aware she has done that is dreadful, Hera finds refuge in being with her Dad and in sharing the simplicity of just that and the knowledge of being truly loved. The contrast to the other needs no mention.
The appeal of this book is in our recognition that we are all capable of being Hera and may very well have been at some time. So much of the story and Hera’s state of mind is recognisable and identifiable.
Painful as it is to travel with her and stay in her state of mind, we know that it’s human to be flawed and to let our desires and need for love rule our good sense. The possibility of growing up is ever there and all we really need to come through it is a Dad equivalent.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Madeleine for such a delightful conversation about the issues raised in this book.