I had a very hard time becoming accustomed to the tone of this book. The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville is one of my favorite books and I was quite surprised by some of the strange awkwardness of this one. I thought at one point the book must be a writing exercise of some sort, the assignment being to write ludicrous internal monologue to convey unrealistic characters and at the same time to use italics on almost every page. The italics denote a concept that tells the reader this is a concept.
I did keep reading and by the end I got over the characters' big ugly ears and unraveling tee shirt. And I find that I long to go back to the bush town of Karakarook with its bridge bent by a past flood, its corrugated iron rooftops, and the blistering heat. And there's the flirtatious Chinese butcher who has dripping in his display window. Yes, dripping is what you might think, fat for cooking made from unusable parts of the animal. I found it has made a comeback if you have confidence in the Meat Trade News Daily.
Felicity is perhaps the most ludicrous character. The wife of Hugh the bank manager, she takes up projects to exercise her "idea of perfection" and over the years these have included pottery, learning French, quilting, putting away her unused quilting fabrics in the proper categories, and having a child. But the best “interest” turned out to be herself. She spends hours using crèmes, lotions, and "the bruised oatmeal face-pack program." She figures out which facial expressions are the most likely to cause lines which eventually become wrinkles. This results in her decision to limit the number of smiles for Hugh to two a night and necessitaties a quick trip to the bathroom for a moment to smooth moisturizer around the corners of the mouth after each smile.
One of the main characters is Douglas Cheeseman, a bridge engineer with vertigo who has come from Sydney to tear down and replace the unsafe bridge. He's constantly second-guessing himself and has no confidence, as this passage from an early visit to the site with locals who will do the work shows:
He seemed a part of the circle of men, but he was not, not really. He sat on his share of the log they had rolled over near the fire and smiled uneasily when he was not dealing with the curried egg and lettuce. They talked among themselves, jerking out the words too quickly for him to catch, getting rid of them as if they were hot. They had no problems understanding each other, but to Douglas it was like a foreign language of which he could catch the odd phrase. That is piss-poor, he heard. My word.
Another visitor from Sydney is Harley Savage, in town to help set up a heritage museum. She, of the unraveling tee shirt, is equally uncertain of herself, and covers all the mirrors in the house where she's staying. People go by different rules in Karakarook, she observes:
You did not just pick out the best bits of life. You took the whole lot, the good and the bad. You forgave people for being who they were, and you hoped they would be able to forgive you. Now and again you were rewarded with the small pleasure of being able to laugh, not uproariously but genuinely, at a small witticism offered by someone who was usually a bore.
The awkward Harley and Douglas literally bump into each other more than once and, as the reader has guessed, things develop. And the town learns to love them both.