Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Michael Sala
352pp, Paperback, 27 February 2017, ISBN: 9781925355024, $29.99
Michael Sala knows how to get right into the heart of dysfunctional family dynamics. In his latest novel, The Restorer, Sala presents a portrait of a family that is clearly in crisis from the moment we meet them. The tension is palpable, as the family arrives and is greeted by Richard, the friendly neighbour. Roy is the tough, hyper-masculine husband and father who gives Richard the chills. The year is 1989 and during the year, the Berlin Wall will be demolished, the Tiananmen Square massacre will take place, and the Newcastle Earthquake will happen, killing thirteen people and injuring more than one hundred and sixty. These are events that happen through the book, though they are subtly handled and don’t dominate, but instead provide an important backdrop to what is essentially the story of a family at the point of collapse.
Though the narrative primarily moves between the point of view of characters Maryanne and her fourteen year old daughter Freya, the outsider gaze of Richard’s point of view opens and closes the story, providing a frame that aligns with that of the reader’s. Maryanne and Freya present very different perspectives, each reflecting the other in the context of the new space they inhabit and the fear-laden world created by Roy and his machismo, which he tries, unsuccessfully to tamp down. We know very little of Roy’s backstory – his lack of self-awareness coupled with a pathological intensity is set against his desire to bring his family together and restore their former lives together. Maryanne remains physically attracted to him, even as he becomes increasingly unstable. Freya’s feelings are simpler. She has none of the maternal burden that her mother carries, though she is beset by the hormonal surge of puberty, and her own fear and helplessness as they move forward towards a fate she senses.
Sala’s deep knowledge of his home town Newcastle provides the perfect backdrop, with its combination of beauty and degradation. Sala weaves the setting very smoothly through the narrative, with the characters revealing themselves through their motion across the terrain:
They followed the road that ran down the coast alongside the beach and past the hospital, then made their way up through the park that rose in terraced layers above the sea and into the high, saltbush-covered cliffs beyond. There was a complex of tunnels beneath the cliffs, Josh said, some of them to do with coal mining, some with the war. He led her down a narrow, dipping path that skirted a sheer drop to the ocean below and ended at an opening carved straight into the cliff face. (179)
Newcastle East is the focal point, and Freya feels the prejudice at her new school when someone tells her not to walk around without shoes or she’ll step on a syringe from one of the many “druggies” who live there. Her father says that it’s the heart of the city: “an exposed heart, laid out on a long thin triangle of land jutting out to the sea”. The love-hate relationship with the city continues as Maryanne works at the Royal Newcastle Hospital which was once the main hospital for the city, or Freya and her family and friends walk around the breakwall, spend time at the beach, or respond to the murder of a young girl which is modeled on the 1989 murder of Leigh Leigh on Stockton Beach. As with Sala’s first novel The Last Thread, The Restorer is rich with verisimilitude – a truth pervading its pages that makes the events that take place both more awful, and more comprehensible.
The book’s title refers most directly to Roy, who is renovating a dilapidated East Newcastle house that the family moves into, but also hints at other things in need of restoration – the family, the city, the world as it breaks apart and comes together again through events like the breaking up of the Berlin Wall of the Newcastle Earthquake. Roy works carefully and meticulously, repairing the moldy, rat-infested, neglected house into a liveable and sellable state. As the house transforms through Roy’s talent and hard work, the novel’s tension builds as Roy’s underlying instability and anger start to appear dramatically through both progression and back-story. This makes for an intense, fast-paced read as the book builds to its climax in increments that are almost relentless. We know something is going to happen because we can feel it, along with Maryanne and Freya, in Roy’s body:
The whole car was shuddering and vibrating against the engine. The muscles in Dad’s face were tight, the colour gone from his cheeks, his lips. (237)
Against the breakneck plot, Sala’s writes exquisite poetic prose that attempts to slow the reader, providing a great deal of minute detail as it encourages the reader to pay attention:
Moths were fluttering around her through the haze, spiraling up through the darkness against the stars, more of them than she’d ever seen, and they were crawling along the railing of the balcony too and on the glass of the window beside it. (315)
Freya is particularly well characterised, and her coming-of-age story is authentic and powerful as she progresses down her own dangerous path, testing her boundaries. We experience her sensations, her perceptions, and her adolescent anger in a way that contrasts sharply with her father’s anger. The major world events like the earthquake provide time markers that progress the story but also link the inner life of the family and characters with the turbulence in the world. Freya’s brother Daniel cowers in the shadows of the story, and although he doesn’t have much physical presence, the precariousness of his life against his father’s power is something that is strongly related through the triangle of father, mother, and daughter. Maryanne’s own sense of self in relation to her overbearing mother and Freya’s sense of self in relation to Maryanne are handled with such richness that they give the story a great deal of depth, even as it pushes towards its inevitable outcome. The Restorer is a beautifully written and very powerful fiction that not only shines a light on the deep roots of domestic violence but also plays with the line of what remains in the face of such destruction. Sala’s story that will stay with the reader long after the book is finished.