Submitted by David Whish-Wilson on Tue, 06/09/2011 – 16:31

While I was over in Melbourne it was also terrific to hear that Fiona McGregor’s latest novel, Indelible Ink, has finally received the recognition it deserves. Indelible Ink was one of my favourite Australian novels of 2010, and it’s hard to fathom how it missed out on some of the other short-lists about the place. Either way, congrats to Fiona on taking out The Age Book of the Year Award – reviewed by myself earlier below (spoiler alert – I describe the ending somewhat, towards the end…)

Fiona McGregor’s Indelible Ink is one of my favourite novels of recent years. The novel largely shifts its focus between Mosman and Surry Hills, reflecting the orbit of the novel’s central character, Marie King, who is a woman in her late 50’s becoming increasingly dissatisfied with a life spent catering to the needs of others. One of the real achievements of this novel is that McGregor is able to invest initially unsympathetic characters with a deal of empathy. From the first chapter with its omniscient view of Marie and her three children; Hugh, Leon and Blanche, we are drawn into a world of wealth and privilege complicated by dissatisfaction and anxiety that yet never feels churlish – McGregor never judges her characters. Marie’s North Shore home is a haven of sorts, but in the larger picture and framed by her increasing peregrinations Marie comes to recognise ‘the cellular structure of society, like a hive, cheek by jowl the wealthy lawyer, the tattoo artist, the housing commission Aborigine.’ Marie is becoming increasingly unwell, and the plan is to sell her beloved house, which to Marie and her children means severing themselves from a sanctuary more emotional than material, particularly her son Hugh, for whom ‘Mum is the house…Everything he had first learnt about the world, his primary sensations and obstacle courses were in that house and to lose it was to lose the very foundations of his life.’ Indelible Ink is an intensely contemporary novel, exploring to great effect the current urban anxieties and feelings of helplessness associated with environmental decline and climate change in particular (indeed, in my opinion the novel is vastly superior to Franzen’s Freedom which explores similar terrain.) It is mid-summer, and the city is in drought. The hardness that we associate with the drought-stricken interior has entered the heart of the city, but the city’s inhabitants do not draw from it any sense of character, rather blame others in their helplessness. ‘Forty-six degrees. Each day hotter than the day before, the heat moving stealthily into every corner of the house.’ Trees are dying. The economy is suffering. Water has become a precious resource. But what power the characters of Indelible Ink have over this sense of terminal decline can only be expressed though minor adaptations and acts of consumer choice, although this of course does not satisfy their anxieties. When Marie remarks upon the beauty of her best friend Susan’s new car, a ‘fawn Peugeot convertible’, she is met with the following response – ‘It runs on biofuels. Or it’s supposed to. That’s why we got it. And two months later we find out that we’re responsible for food riots in Bangladesh or wherever. Fabulous, isn’t it.’ Marie has always been an avid consumer too, but she is able to articulate this consumption as a response to satisfying a deeper sense of guilt, the sense that her wealth, particularly as it relates to her ownership of a prime piece of real estate, is not ‘rightful’, such that ‘the sadness of losing it also contained relief.’ The real momentum of the novel consists in Marie’s gradual sloughing off of her attachments to the material, and the subsequent movement towards an interiority defined by her increasing distance from the disapproval of her wealthy peers and her children. The defining moment occurs when a drunken Marie enters a tattoo parlour on a whim, and marks herself with indelible ink. The transformation is immediate, although the reasons for her increasing attachment to the tattoos that subsequently adorn her body are made apparent only later in the novel. Initially, the experience is painful, but strangely pleasant, pathetic in its desperation, perhaps, but immediately empowering. By undergoing the rituals of marking her body Marie feels like she has finally ‘planted a flag in her own country.’ Physically unwell, anticipating the grief she will feel when her house is sold from beneath her, Marie returns time and again to the company of Rhys, her tattooist, who understands Marie’s need. ‘The heat brought the tattoos up like braille. The dips and swirls disappeared then rose up again, fresh enough to scale slightly, ancient enough that they seemed to have always been there. This language of welts was strangely familiar, as though the needles hadn’t so much inserted ink as stripped the veneer from an underlying design.’ Marie’s tattoos become increasingly elaborate, drawing her towards understandings lost in the passage of her life, wedded to a successful advertising man and a milieu characterised by boredom and avoidance of unpleasant truth. When Marie recalls witnessing the slaughter of animals as a child, the significance of her tattoos and the intimations of her physical decline become apparent: ‘[i]t wasn’t how a little girl was supposed to feel. Animals were being murdered, but their pain to Marie was subservient to a bigger force, beyond Win and herself: it was the force of human appetite stretching back though infinity.’ With the diagnosis of a terminal illness the novel changes key and the voices of the children come to predominate. They gather round Marie and their Mosman home, having ‘not seen each other this often since they were children.’ Their mother’s dying cuts through their self-absorption but the tone is unsentimental, calling forth the larger themes of regret and loss and love in a manner that characterises Marie’s final act as one of betrayal, certainly, but also as an act of clarity, of inevitable and courageous honesty.

McGregor, Fiona. Indelible Ink. Melbourne: Scribe, 2010.