It is always a delight to uncover a wonderful piece of debut fiction such as Iris Lavell’s Elsewhere in Success. This character-driven novel is about Harry and Louisa, two re-partnered baby boomers leading ordinary suburban lives in the suburb of Success in Western Australia. Louisa holds down a job in the public service that brings in the household’s money while the more free-wheeling Harry ‘runs’ a small business helping aspiring musicians. They walk their dog (Buster, featured adorably on the cover), garden and keep house. They could be you, your neighbour, the couple that you share the school run with.
But beneath this unprepossessing exterior are two people from whom the every-day extracts a super-human effort. Harry hasn’t quite outlived his teenage fecklessness and spends a good part of his time daydreaming about his ex-wife and the child he gave up for adoption. Louisa is a bereaved parent and a survivor of monstrous domestic violence. The passages where she reflects on her experience at the hands of her sadistic ex-husband, Victor, are acute and powerful. Lavell perfectly captures the bewilderment and fear of the abused partner, searching always for the ‘right’ way to behave that will make the violence stop:
Victor the lawmaker who created and recreated the rules so that she never knew what they were; who made sure that the ground was always moving with no shared meaning, no sense of predictability – unless it was the way her body invariably reacted against his; in pain; immobilised; and blocked off on every side as he enclosed her whole world.
Lavell walks a fine and difficult line with these characters. Louisa has a provoking passivity, even a morbid streak, while Harry is selfish and occasionally deluded. But Lavell keeps the reader – just! – in their corner. Her technique was to:
Overwrite and then pull back. I’d consider the characters to be fairly extreme, despite the quotidian setting…People are not always sensible or likeable, although there needs to be some saving grace in at least one of the characters for the reader to stick with the book.
The story is told in clean, uncluttered prose. It’s a quiet, unassuming approach without rhetorical flourish that works for this tale of what’s epic in the apparently anodyne. As a practicing psychologist, Lavell has a privileged access to the subterranean battles of ‘normal’ people, though she says that she had to ‘shake off’ her identity as a psychologist to write the book.
I tried not to write this novel as a psychologist…A psychologist needs to be very even-handed in working with people, caring and trustworthy…the writing I did as a psychologist was very dry and stilted, and taught me some bad habits from a literary point of view, and I had to unlearn these…unlike a psychologist, a novelist needs to take a position, even if that position is unfair…Otherwise it would be difficult to establish emotional engagement or investment in the process. In a way, I think a novel is best when it is unbalanced.
I’m a sucker for the ‘published against the odds’ narrative and Lavell fits that bill perfectly. So sure was she that the manuscript would never see print that she went to a workshop on dealing with rejection ‘in anticipation of my own failure.’
My feeling when I was in the process of writing the novel was that I would write it mainly as a way of learning the craft of working in this genre, and not worry too much if it wasn’t published…The next novel was going to be the more serious attempt at publication. I think this mindset gave me freedom to try things out more than I might if things had been more certain. The other important part of the process is that I had early manuscript assessments and Chris McLeod ended up mentoring me, and this made all the difference.
The agents Lavell approached weren’t interested in the manuscript and it’s to the credit of the Fremantle Press that they continue to read and publish fine unsolicited manuscripts such as this one.
S.A. Jones is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Western Australia and currently works as a regulatory analyst.