Push me pull me
Somebody to Love
by Steve Holden
University of Queensland Press, $24.95 pb, 174 pp, 9780702238574
Steve Holden’s début novel puts us inside the head of a transsexual mortician living in a small Tasmanian town. It could be a stifling and lonely place to be, but the nameless protagonist draws us persuasively into her world. As a mortician, her job is to disguise death, but as a storyteller she is able to illuminate it for our benefit.
The tale unravels during the busiest weekend in the history of the mortuary. As she prepares three bodies for burial, she reflects on her difficult life. Methodical and ordered in her work, it is her heart that is a mess. We feel for her. But the effect Holden has on the reader is that of an ambidextrous push-and-pull: his narrator keeps us at one arm’s length whilst drawing us closer with the other.
The mortician is obsessed with transitions – from life to death, from man to woman. Once she gets rid of her pesky priapic overhang, the narrator’s prose style seems to be clipped of all extraneousness. The language is stark and we are hooked to her persistent, insistent tone. At times the voice is so simultaneously alienating and mesmerising that we could almost mistake the book for Humbert Humbert Goes to Hobart.
The book is strewn with dead bodies, both human and animal. The shadows of her deceased parents, particularly that of her taxidermy-obsessed father, loom disturbingly over each incision and stitch. The pace – steady and measured throughout – slowed for me near the end, but perhaps that’s because I was so eager to race ahead to find out what would happen to this fascinating, messed-up person. At once sterile and intimate, Somebody to Love is an excellent, engrossing first novel.
CONTENTS: DECEMBER 2010–JANUARY 2011