lip lit: the science of appearances
The Science of Appearances, the third novel from Melbourne author Jacinta Halloran, is the story of two thirteen-year-old non-identical twins and the very different ways they find themselves in the wake of their father’s sudden death. Set in rural Victoria, in a town called Kyneton, and then in Melbourne, in the wake of WWII, this novel deals with themes of grief, class divisions and the struggles of adolescence. The Science of Appearances sees us following these two very different siblings as they navigate a world of social constraint and scientific discovery while trying to find their place in the world away from home.
Mary and Dominic are described as being as different as night and day. Mary is flighty, artistic and passionate, where Dominic is quiet, serious and hard working. Where Dominic takes on the expected labour assigned to him as the man of the house once his father dies, Mary shuns a life of domesticity in order to pursue her artistic career. They both feel their father’s death keenly, but they live in a time where one does not talk about their emotions; they must simply move on with their lives. Mary’s distaste of the role that seems to be expected of her, and her strained relationship with her mother, pushes her into running away to Melbourne, where Dominic takes on his expected role with quiet complicity before a generous offer allows him to pursue his dream of studying botany at University.
While I found that many of the characters in this book fell heavily into gender stereotypes, it was ultimately gratifying to watch them become more complex and nuanced. Reading everything through a feminist lens can often make it difficult to really appreciate the characters an author is trying to build outside of their gender. It does not mean that we shouldn’t be critical, rather that it is important to separate our critiques from the development of the characters. Halloran creates a depth of character that allowed me to move past my initial reticence.
It’s always extremely pleasant to read a book that’s set in a place you are familiar with. While I haven’t been to the places described in the book, the Australian landscape is something I’m very well acquainted with and I just found it so easy to slip myself into the spaces that Halloran so beautifully describes. Probably the most striking thing for me in this book was the way that you are drawn into a space using all of the senses. A whole sensory world is built around you and really allows you to connect intimately with each character and their connection to the world around them.
Ultimately this book is about finding your place in the world. Dominic and Mary have very contrasting ways of dealing with their grief in the wake of their father’s death, and a very different idea of what it means to be a part of a family when one of your family members dies very suddenly. They each find themselves navigating a new and challenging world in Melbourne, away from everything and everyone they knew growing up. They create new worlds for themselves with new people and spaces, discovering what it is they truly value, and who they really want to be, even in the face of outside forces. While they are separated by space and the differences in their desires, they are still drawn to each other and find comfort in their bond in the face of new and startling information about where they come from.
I enjoyed this book immensely. Halloran is a wonderfully elegant and intimate writer who is enormously gifted in her creation of space and characters. It was a delight to be part of the lives and struggles of these two very different siblings, and watch them as they really came to understand and connect with one another and their new lives. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of Jacinta’s work.