NIKITA BYRNES | REPEAT OFFENDERS
Diana Reid’s follow-up to her now notorious Love & Virtue (2021) is Seeing Other People, and is set to be published in four days. Reid’s debut novel was named the Australian Book Industry Awards (‘ABIA’) book of the year, and because of it, the Sydney Morning Herald named Reid one of Australia’s best young novelists. Love & Virtue won many other words, including the Bookseller’s Choice Fiction Book of the Year Award and the MUD Literary Prize. It suffices to say that all of this glamour surrounding Reid’s first novel meant that – in a Sally-Rooney-esque situation – the Sydney-based writer had high hopes to live up to with her newest book, and she certainly exceeded expectations.
Seeing Other People doesn’t deal with death or horror in the same way Reid’s debut novel does, but it does focus on the trauma of COVID-induced lockdowns and dealing with how work is measured and valued to different people and to society at large. In the way of much contemporary literary fiction, love and moral dilemmas sit at the core of this story, entangled around questions of how and why we value the arts, what we do with our money, and how we navigate complex family relationships.
The synopsis reads:
After two years of lockdowns, there’s change in the air. Eleanor has just broken up with her boyfriend, Charlie’s career as an actress is starting up again. They’re finally ready to pursue their dreams – relationships, career, family – if only they can work out what it is they really want.
When principles and desires clash, Eleanor and Charlie are forced to ask: where is the line between self-love and selfishness? In all their confusion, mistakes will be made and lies will be told as they reckon with the limits of their own self-awareness.
Like the characters in Seeing Other People, Reid herself has moved on from the rush of power plays and politics that she focused on in Love & Virtue, having graduated with a B Arts (First Class Hons Philosophy) / B Laws in 2020. Her characters are in their mid-to-late twenties. Again, like Sally Rooney, the focus of Reid’s writing seems to grow as she does. However, I want to be clear that I am hesitant about these comparisons to the Normal People (2018) and Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021) author, because even though one might call Reid the “Sydney Rooney”, Reid’s utilisation of form is nowhere near as controversial as Rooney’s. Nevertheless, Reid’s representation of sexuality may be polarising for its fluidity and flexibility – but this made it all the more appealing to me. If anything, it reflects the values and mores of a younger generation.
What I really admired about this book was that it doesn’t try too hard to reach a Gen-Z audience, because the author is authentically part of a young generation that grew up online. “Soft boy” references and text-message integrations throughout the novel make the atmosphere and the characters feel accurate, genuine, and realistic. Just as much as this book should be promoted as a dizzyingly hot summer novel, it should also be directed towards university students, so they can see what the world is like outside of the institution, as it reflects on those for whom university was both a cage and a weapon of freedom.
Reid writes with a casual poeticism that is inviting without her writing style pushing the reader away from the story. One such example is where she describes characters engaged in reluctant conversation, standing against a fence. “They were standing in italics,” she writes. What beautiful imagery! It’s these kinds of lines that made me clutch this book close to my chest every few pages. These casual slips of metaphor add a careless lyricism to Reid’s style that is captivating in and of itself – this aesthetic is the cool girl of writing styles that draws you in even if you don’t want it to.
The atmosphere of a dry, sweaty, sizzling summer has just as much personality as each of the multifaceted back-storied characters. It is the perfect setting for a story where passions run strong and tensions run high. It made me miss the smell and taste of sea-salt, the feeling of hands dry with sweat, and summer storms that don’t last more than a few hours before the sun comes back out (which we’re unlikely to see this year, in true La Niña fashion).
I will admit that occasionally I felt that the dialogue could be clearer about who was speaking; because this book is so women-centric, it is hard to define who is saying what without constantly repeating the characters’ names. In a way, though, this added to the question of whether identity is interchangeable between individuals in relationships, and this really felt true of these characters (who I came to love and cherish as if they were my own friends) that they sometimes borrowed phrases from each other, or identified themselves so much with another character that they lost sight of themselves. The intersection of this with the third-person narrative perspective made even clearer the invisible and indestructible ties between these characters.
The colour-palette of the cover – the bright cobalt blue with the simple body silhouettes lying on beach towels – is incredibly reminiscent of many recent covers of literary fiction novels that echo the cover of Sally Rooney’s Normal People (the couple in the sardine tin!). I’m sure this book will be lining the shelves of bookstores in “Booktok” and “Summer Reads” sections well into the new year.
Thank you to Ultimo Press for #gifting Grapeshot this review copy!
(Publisher: Ultimo Press | Publication Date: 05 October 2022)