New Year’s Reading Resolution #3
After being unceremoniously dumped, Mark Heron drops out of middle-class suburbia and into the low-rent life. Struggling to find a tenable place within his limited means, he arrives at the house known to residents as Heartbreak Lodge. Despite its rather ominous-sounding location on the corner of Hardgrave Road and Vulture Street, Mark moves in. While life continues on without him, he gets to know the occupants of Heartbreak Lodge’s other apartments. Like him, they all exist outside of the nine-to-five, busily social world that the rest of the city thrives on. Steve keeps trying - and failing - to finish even a single painting. Dave floats through life buoyed up by optimism and weighed down by junk. Agnes - raised by her grandparents, working in aged care - already possesses the wardrobe and lifestyle of an old woman. And Speedy knits water, which is, as he explains to Mark, the fine art of doing nothing - but doing it well. It is this trick of making something out of a nothing life that Mark must learn as the world of Heartbreak Lodge is tipped upside down forever.
Despite its having narrowly missed out on the Premier’s Literary Award in 2001, I approached this book with some trepidation, I think because I’ve learnt to view anything involving the Premier with a fair degree of suspicion. Now I wish I’d read it sooner. I was hooked on page 2, when Mark reflected that, contrary to the agent’s assurances, the flat he was inspecting had been restored with as much homage to the original as Michael Jackson’s face. And I stayed hooked: though their lives are mediocre, the characters are never dull or trivial; they manage to be eccentric without being comedic oddballs; and their bits of philosophy on modern city life woven all through the book flow naturally without sounding forced or unnatural. In spite of the sadness of all of their lives, there is a constant undercurrent of hope. I couldn’t pick the book up without wishing it was my own rather than the library’s.
Adding to the charm of the story and characters was the experience of reading a book set in a city I know. For once, when a location was mentioned I could place it at once on a mental map, sometimes even conjure a visual image. When I travel to and from uni I use the train station on Vulture Street, one suburb over from Heartbreak Lodge. The bridge Mark watches being built is the one I walk over nearly every day. And I can see the Kangaroo Point cliffs from my favourite lunch spot.
This is one of those books that is going to linger in my memory for a long time to come.