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The In-Between by Christos Tsiolkas review – the power of love

The In-Between by Christos Tsiolkas review – the power of love

Perry is a 53-year-old translator; Ivan is a 55-year-old landscape gardener. One is of Greek heritage, one Serbian. They are both in recovery from previous lovers, yet tonight they find themselves preparing for an app-arranged date in the suburbs of Melbourne. Will they find the nerve to fall in love?

Christos Tsiolkas’s latest novel takes us on a journey that ranges not just across Melbourne but back into past landscapes of shame and forward into new territories of possibility. Its set pieces include a heart attack, a brilliantly quarrelsome dinner party, a night in a penthouse and a climactic visit to one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. All of them are vividly crafted. There’s also quite a lot of frank and medium-filthy sex.

So far, so Netflix. What lifts the book to another level is not just the sensual polish of the writing but the structuring of the narrative. As well as leaping across years, the authorial camera repeatedly shifts from tracking the developing affair between Perry and Ivan to following incidental witnesses to their story: people in the background, entirely ignorant of the drama being played out right next to them. These digressions into the lives of strangers are always unexpected, yet perfectly placed; cumulatively, they situate the book’s central intimacy within a provocatively unconcerned world, one rife with cultural complexity and as riddled with happiness as it is with tension.

Against this ever-shifting background, the title of the book acquires subtly interconnected meanings. As the gay sons of immigrants, Perry and Ivan live in between cultures; as gay men who have been entangled with heterosexuals, they live in between sexualities; as present-day, middle-aged gay Australians, they have to navigate a growing desire to fully commit to each other as a couple in a country that still lies halfway between its homophobic past and a future of potential freedom.

This is a warm and rewarding novel, spiked with the author’s trademark eruptions – the clumsy gesture, the unacceptable remark, the calculated attack. However, Tsiolkas saves the best of his writing for last. In the sixth and final move of his authorial viewpoint away from his leading characters, he tracks an elderly married couple down a backstreet in a small town outside Athens, where the novel has moved for its radiant final sequence. They bicker and fuss, then disappear.

Although this old couple have different names, their well-worn devotion clearly evokes the legendary figures of Philemon and Baucis, the humble pair whose love is so strong that in the eighth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses they are granted a wish to be eternally united. In Ovid, the lovers become a pair of conjoined trees. Tsiolkas evokes the reality of lifelong devotion with a cinematic fade to black; as darkness falls on this couple, it becomes impossible to be sure “where one ends and the other begins”. This trick somehow manages to combine classical mystery with echoes of the unforgettable ending of WG Sebald’s The Emigrants.

As with Sebald, this turns a specific moment in history into something monumental. The effect is genuinely magical, and seals the final movement of the narrative without resorting to anything as banal as the promise of a happy ever after for its main protagonists. Instead, it reminds us that the true in-between is one we all share, the space between living and dying. For all its socially conscious and contemporary twists and turns, this unashamedly emotional novel is working on a very deep level, striving to embody in its storytelling the assertion that, regardless of culture or sexuality, in the end – and in the beginning, and in between – only love matters. In this endeavour, it triumphantly succeeds.

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Source: theguardian.com