- Kokomo, by Victoria Hannan. Hachette. $32.99.
In several recent debut novels, it seems to have been a thing to write gritty, graphic sex scenes as if this is somehow brave, edgy, adventurous and original. But when you describe a car journey to visit a friend, for example, you don't generally include details like how to depress the clutch and make a gear change. It isn't necessary and it doesn't enhance the story. The same applies to writing about sex. Sometimes less is more. We know how it works. We get it.
Victoria Hannan's debut novel, Kokomo, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, opens with a gritty sex scene. Fortunately, it is soon over, and only revisited briefly a few other times further on in the text. Far more interesting than this preliminary grab is the evolution of character, even though it takes quite some time to unfold.
Kokomo is the story of Mina, in her late 20s, living in London and working for an advertising firm. Her mother, Elaine, lives in Melbourne, and has not left the family home since her husband (Mina's father) died 12 years ago. When Mina receives a phone call from her best friend to tell her that Elaine has finally left the house for the first time, Mina feels compelled to go home to see if her mother is okay and try to work out why she has lived under self-imposed house-arrest for so long.
The first two thirds of the novel focuses on Mina's existential struggle to find her place in the world. It dwells on her obsession with social media as a diversion from the obvious gap between herself and her mother. It also explores her attempts to reconnect with old friends and old flames, most of whom have moved on, as friends tend to do when you shift away from your childhood home. It cycles through Mina's frustration at being unable to communicate with her mother - a familiar study of fraught mother-daughter relationships.
But it's worth hanging in there. When the narrative shifts to Elaine's point of view, things become much more interesting. The reader discovers that the novel is, in fact, about love, yearning, loss and regret. How the life we live is often different from the life we hoped for. Elaine is tenderly and sympathetically drawn, and has much more depth and complexity than Mina. As the novel progresses, the reason for its title becomes clearer. The Beach Boys' song "Kokomo" is about dreaming of escape and yearning for something different. This reflects Elaine's sad and self-repressed life.
Kokomo is a thoughtful novel of fractured family relationships and the unseen impact of family secrets. It's primarily a story about family, friendship, loss, honesty and the challenging journey of self-discovery.
- Karen Viggers is an bestselling author. Her latest novel is The Orchardist's Daughter.