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Inside the safe she took out his recent will and tore it to small pieces and replaced it with the one they had both done on return from their honeymoon in Hayman Island, before all that angst with the trial separation, before he found out about her spending patterns, and long before he decided he would divide the money between the children.

‘After all, we both will have enough to live on,’ she remembered him saying in that pleading tone, as he looked with his doe eyes at a photo of the children. They thought they had him in their headlights, but now they will really have something to cry about, she thought, as she watched, mesmerized by the dance the shredded fragments performed while burning in the fireplace.

Today was a rough day. I woke up with a start in the middle of the night and did not really get to sleep again. Left to slouch across Sydney’s Bondi Junction this morning, much in the manner of a hipster zombie, let us say I was not in good form. I had an interview scheduled with an Australian musician at my magazine intern gig and had to brainstorm some further questions for an internet fandom-god. Frankly I am astonished that I still have two brain cells to rub together.

So it was with great relief that I had a light read to look forward to. Dr Joseph Reich has switched his eye-surgery practice for professional writing and I have to say I am very grateful. This was exactly what I needed to read today.

I Know Precious Little is a wry and witty novel, chock full of puns, that was apparently inspired by an early short story by Reich. The story is concerned with two women with some things in common, both having husbands with the same name – but possessing entirely opposite temperaments. Katherine is a demure suburban housewife, whereas Pree is a sharp-tongued harridan. The novel contrasts their perspectives on the indignities and frustrations of old age, each chapter presenting a different point of view, with several other characters stepping up to the plate to reveal more about the events described.

Death, physical infirmities and marital discord run through the lives of each of these characters – perhaps that sounds like a series of fiction truisms, but Reich invests so much incisive wit into his descriptions of these tired lives that reading this book passed the time as easily as a hot knife through butter. Pree is of course an absolute delight, a wicked and callous terror. Katherine on the other hand patiently tolerates such nonsense as entrenched book club politics.

This is a slyly humourous book that earns the reader’s affection through a clever line in observational comedy – enough that I was willing to forgive the age-old ‘Dr. Spock is a Vulcan’, quip! At times the tone feels like a combination of Philip Roth‘s upended epics of old age and the entertaining solipsism of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Strangely though the novel I was most reminded of was Tsiolkas’ The Slap. Reich also describes a tapestry of interwoven lives straining against one another, but thankfully without a trace of that other novel’s oppressive nihilism

I Know Precious Little manages to achieve that rare balance, being a quick read that has a lot to say about how people live their lives. Funny, entertaining and for a first-time novel, surprisingly quick on its feet.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

“You really don’t remember, do you?” Margaret asked, as he was leaving. She looked wistful. “I’ve always wondered if you don’t listen to begin with, or if you listen and then forget because whatever it is doesn’t interest you. I suppose it amounts to the same thing. You know your mind.” She said this without the chill Uncas might have expected. There was a kind of resigned wonder. As though she were used to it, but it still puzzled her after all these years.

I remember the first time I was invited to a faculty party. It was an odd experience. After four years of college on some level I still saw my professors as teachers. The near parental authority I had assigned to them they had no interest in though. They were looking at a class of undergraduates, most of whom went on to further study and seeing future peers, perhaps even rivals. It was a distinction that was entirely lost on me. I got my degree and then emigrated to Scotland looking for work. It was only in later years when I met some of those same professors at social functions that I realized the formal relationship I had imagined was just that – entirely imaginary.

Uncas Metcalf is the opposite of what I have described as a professor. An overly formal man who corrects everyone’s grammar before he can stop himself, even complete strangers, or mild acquaintances. Even his own children he views as curiously intransigent students, who have not taken his lessons to heart.

Of his three children he has a particularly troubled relationship with his daughter Fauna, who has moved back to the neighbourhood with her husband and family looking for work in the small college town of Sparta. Uncas has difficulty understanding what to him seem like wild mood swings and an unusual sense of humour. His wife Margaret and he enjoy quiet, inoffensive banter, conducting themselves through catchphrases and Jimmy Durante quotes that have grown old with them.

Then one day Uncas discovers his bicycle has been stolen. Putting it down to a local prank he tries to put the incident out of his mind, certain it will eventually reappear. Bewildered by the experience he wanders into a bagel shop and meets the daughter of a friend, Hanna. In his confusion he decides to buy a bag of bagels from his grandchildren. Then he receives a call that Margaret had an accident at a book sale and injured her leg.

The Metcalf family has to reorganise itself to provide proper care and attention to Margaret during her convalescence. She, however, insists that things should proceed as normal, even planning the annual family Christmas party. Uncas on a whim employs Hanna and her close friend Alex, whom he out of propriety insists on calling Alexandra, to care for his wife during the day. In Alex he finds a kindred soul of sorts. Both of them seem to regret a life not lived to the full, disappointed in romance and lacking confidence.

Then Uncas’s bicycle reappears in a children’s playground. Alex accompanies him to collect it, only to discover a threatening note attached. Someone from his past stole his bike to get his attention. Uncas becomes increasingly alarmed as he realizes he is being followed. His pursuer knows him very well. Uncas unfortunately knows no one having long ago retreated from the society of humans into his study of botany. His relationships with his family and colleagues are based on habit, ritual. Alex is the first person to actually cause him to speak his mind. He fears it is already too late after a lifetime of saying nothing.

The playfulness of Uncas and Margaret hides an emptiness in their marriage that unbeknownst to him, his children are aware of. Why else would Fauna place a more sinister spin on her mother’s nickname for him – “Lord Reticent Taciturn”. What is admirable about Osborne’s book is its quiet assurance, the slow building of tension within small town Sparta, the intrigues and jealousies of college society that appear so dry later in life.

The comical moral rectitude of Uncas, that spans from how one conducts their personal life to correct grammar disguises a life not lived, an embittered perspective on life masked with a genteel smile. Set in the 80s, Uncas for example has a really hard time with the slang word ‘sucked’.

Sad, bittersweet and tender, a very nice surprise. It was not what I was expecting.

When Ernest leans forward, his breath is warm and sticky on Barbara’s neck. She can feel her hairs stiffen in response, and a queer vibration passes down her spine, as though a part of that knotted bone had become, momentarily, gelatinous.

It has been a lousy day. Originally I intended to review Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, a book I have kept on the back-burner for months now. Unfortunately our family dog fell ill, so it’s been a day filled with trips back and forth from vet surgeries and drives out to a pet hospital.

We’re a bit weary now. So I chose a slimmer volume to review for today’s entry. Tomorrow I will return to Mantel’s larger novel and give it its due.

Inventing the Abbots and Other Stories contains several shorts, each a commentary on contemporary sexual mores. The title story is the first within the collection, concerning a family of three daughters and the passions they inspire in two brothers.

The younger sibling, Doug, is our narrator and he describes how his brother Jacey falls in and out of love with each of the Abbot sisters. The titular family rule the social set of the small town of Haley. An invitation to one of their many birthday or coming out parties is considered an entry to the social upper crust.

The title is arrived at courtesy of Jacey and Doug’s mother, a war widow who recognizes that her eldest son’s affairs are evidence of a need for affection and security which she cannot provide. Doug’s incredulous narration reveals how innocently he viewed each of the social gatherings he attended at the Abbots, little realizing how little regard they had for his own family. Jacey’s attraction to the daughters seems born out of some compulsion relating to his feelings of resentment due to being ‘from the wrong side of the tracks’.

By choosing to tell the story from the Doug’s point of view, Miller disguises the real purpose of her tale. For the three girls within the Abbot house-hold are described as objects, signs of social status and a lifestyle that they find themselves trapped within. They are afforded no independence from the wishes of their family, from the high regard with which they are held by the community at large and so the romantic interest that Jacey shows in them is in fact entirely removed from their selves.

My favourite story within the collection is Appropriate Affect where an elderly grandmother seizes the opportunity of a stay in hospital to let her husband and family know exactly what she thinks of them. It’s a brilliant little satire on the lies families tell themselves to maintain their orderly worlds. Slides examines the dilemma of naked photos outlasting a relationship, a somewhat familiar problem in today’s world of youtube, facebook and camera phones.

Each story concerns issues of sexuality. Each description of a failing marriage, or relationships strained by infidelity and deception, is infused with a delicate sense of poignancy.

This is a series of well-told tales of love and lust that recognize the frailties of the human heart. Perfectly poised and delicate.

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