Julian Novitz Reviews Philip Salom

By | 6 December 2016

This becomes a source of concern for Big, who despite his bravado is often slow to take decisive action, and is deeply unsettled by the prospect of change. While he acknowledges the necessity of some future movement (as represented by the small ‘kitty’ of savings that he and Little have scrupulously built up), he would prefer it to be distant and ill-defined, and is generally happy with the respect and camaraderie he has found among their fellow residents. The boarding house and the narrow grid of streets that surround it offer Big a sense of stability and security after a previously chaotic existence. The possibility of losing them or moving beyond them provokes an almost irrational anxiety in Big and he fears spiralling out of control – as he briefly does, for a chapter or so, when Little spends a couple of nights in Adelaide. The possibility of change, of having something to actually wait for, reveals unexpected qualities in both characters. Big’s verbosity and protective instincts towards Little belies a fundamental indecisiveness, whereas Little, seemingly shy and deferential, proves capable of both determination and anger. The nature of their complex interdependence is both tested and explored throughout the events of the novel.

Angus and Jasmin’s relationship serves as more of a parallel narrative within Waiting, only occasionally overlapping with that of Big and Little. Whereas Big and Little begin the novel as a unit, Angus and Jasmin are both solitary and independent people – though they are drawn to each other, they spend much of the narrative ambivalently testing each other’s boundaries, waiting to see what the other party will do. The movements and exchanges between the characters are well realised, but feel familiar in some ways, territory that has already been covered, particularly when their relationship is represented as a meeting or clash between practical and theoretical outlooks on life. Though Angus and Jasmin receive equal attention in Waiting, their dynamic is less intriguing and more conventional than the one that exists between Big and Little. Angus is at his most interesting in the novel when he is involved in their plotline: tentatively reconnecting with Little, whom he has not really seen since childhood, and travelling to Adelaide to confront his mother over her actions. Jasmin, however, is almost entirely disconnected from this strand of the novel, and her sections feel less essential as a result. Because she seldom interacts with the other important characters (apart from Angus) her chapters tend to focus on academic life, the uncertainty of career-paths, the pressure to publish, the frustrations of teaching, the abundance of French theorists, all of which are fairly well-worn themes. Jasmin is certainly never presented unsympathetically or as a caricature, but the relationship between Big and Little feels like the real heart of Waiting, and Jasmin’s plotline could have benefited from being more closely interwoven with those of the other principal characters.

It should be mentioned that while much of Waiting is told from the perspectives of these four protagonists, Salom uses a floating third-person perspective to great effect in examining the personalities and voices of the novel’s minor characters. In particular, the other residents of the boarding house benefit from this approach, like the Sheriff, an occasionally violent older man who takes it upon himself to enforce the rules of the boarding house and protect it from interlopers; and Tom, a former paedophile turned born-again Christian. The occasional, often surprising shifts in perspective, are occasionally used for comic effect, but also reveal unexpected histories and moments of insight. Though much of Waiting is limited to just a few locations in a small inner-Melbourne area, these movements make the world of the novel feel rich, authentically lived-in and deeply explored.

Waiting may occasionally test the reader’s patience with its meticulous pace and lack of dramatic incident, but it’s a novel that is ultimately rewarding. We spend it waiting with these characters, exploring the uncertainties, joys, frustrations and occasional relief of being stuck somewhere between the big movements and moments of life. Some characters, like Jasmin, burn with impatience; others, like Big, find the state to be addictive and are content to lose themselves within it. Readers may find themselves swinging between these states as the narrative progresses, but the novel’s purposefully sedate approach allows a space for the careful accumulation of detail and the gradual development of relationships, which reveal quiet pleasures and sorrows, love and longing, ordinary beauties hidden in plain sight. As a result, the novel’s very abrupt conclusion feels almost brutal, but somehow truthful as well. Periods of waiting, whether long or short, will always come to an end, and the impact of the ending serves as a testament to Salom’s complex consideration of his theme. I had anticipated it, speculated upon it, even – once or twice – longed for it. But at the moment of its arrival, when I realised that I was on the final page, I found myself wanting to wait just a little longer, unprepared to let these lives and characters go.

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