Review: Black Dust Dancing, by Tracy Crisp
As I absorbed the heat-hazed ambivalence in the first chapter of Black Dust Dancing, I thought, “Bloody hell! I know Third Cat reads my blog, and I read hers, and we’ve met for coffee, but that’s all, so how on earth did she find out so much about me that she could use me as the basis for Caro?” Then after a few more pages, I realised that Caro isn’t me, and nor is she Third Cat, nor indeed any other particular woman except herself. But the problems she faces, the pressures, the drifting, the worries about her daughter, the puzzle about how on earth her life ended up this way, the marking time and marking time and trying to work out just what to do next – these are the problems of my life, and I think the problems for many other women of, or nearing, a certain age.
If that was all that Black Dust Dancing was about, then it would disappear up its own existential angst, and it would be one of those dull, unsatisfying, worthy books, or worse, chick-lit with an overlay of portentous Meaning Of Life. But it’s also about Heidi, a much younger woman, who is trying to grow up, and escape the small town she lives in, even though she doesn’t quite know that yet. I loved Heidi’s story, and the way it is pieced together in the book, until bit by bit we realise what her life must have been like, what the sense of loss must have done to her, and work out what she might need to do next, and hope that she is able to do it. When the final loss came, for her, I felt quite shattered, but unsurprised. If this had happened once before, then it could happen again.
The novel is a lovely meditation on women’s lives, on the choices they make, or don’t make, the way they take action or let things happen, the way that their plans can go awry, and what can be made of their lives after that. I would like to meet Caro one day, over a glass of wine, and compare notes about how things got to be this way, and talk about what each of us could do next. Heidi I liked, but she is younger, and perhaps we wouldn’t connect so well. I think I would like to meet her in 10 or 15 years time, to see what she has managed to do, and to hear about how she thinks her life has gone, and will go.
Underneath all these stories is a pot-boiler plot. At least, it could be a pot-boiler plot, but the author never lets it take over. What’s important in this book are the stories about the women living in a small Australian town, and they take centre stage. The town itself is not a character, and TC resists the temptation to let it be one. It’s just a small country town – nothing remarkable – with all the good things and all the bad of small country towns.
The novel ends convincingly, but not by authorial fiat. It’s simply the next thing that Caro and Heidi might each do, the next steps they might take. It’s not clear that things will work out for them, but then, it’s not clear that they won’t either. They are both making positive decisions, but there’s nothing like a trite, forced feel-good, everything-will-be-alright flavour to the final few chapters of the book.
There’s some good characterisations of minor players. I have clear visual images of Suzie the hairdresser, and Vicki the doctors’ receptionist, and Libby the mother-in-law, which I have not because Tracy wastes words in drawn-out descriptions, but because I have a sense of the sort of people they are, and then just a few words are enough to flesh out their physical realisation.
I love the restraint with which the book is written. There’s no sickly, heavy overlay of adjectives, no set-piece action scenes, nothing that makes me want to skip a page or two. The action comes in conversations and small movements, the little actions and pauses of everyday life. They all build together, piece by piece, into a satisfying story.
You should read this book.
Update: Other reviews
Still Life with Cat: In which Third Cat’s book is launched
Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony: Writing from the right side of the brain