A newly widowed Tasmanian woman travels to Sydney to start a new life and begins her journey in the in-between space of her gay son’s stark one-bedroom flat in the inner city. This is the premise of Nigel Featherstone’s beautifully crafted novella I’m Ready Now, a book that examines the impact of ageing on a grieving rich widow, and a lost gay man approaching what he can only perceive as a hopeless middle age. The son and mother avoid important issues and escape each other’s too careful attention, but in the book’s alternating chapters (narrated in the first person) each takes turns to wonder why there is so much silence at the heart of this most central of life’s relationships.
I am always remarking on how little Sydney appears as a character in Australian writing – or at least the writing that I read – but this is remedied wonderfully in this concise and charming text. From Glebe Point Road delis to long lunches in inexplicably expensive Blue Mountains restaurants, so many of the rites of passage of Sydney life are written about in the book. Intriguingly, the ghost of Hobart is also present, as a lost but constantly alluring memory for both mother and son, the ancestral seat but also a place of sadness and separation.
Gordon, a lonely and emotionally anorexic gay man preparing for the advent of his 30th birthday, has decided to pursue a year of total pleasure. Throwing himself into the charms of drugs and sex, he is not prepared for the arrival of his mother, who has decided to start her life afresh. His search for the pinnacle of pleasure before it is too late is balanced by his distant mother’s own quest for some kind of life purpose, which she thinks might be found through jettisoning personal possessions. Gordon seeks complete emotional abandon while his mother is looking for a source of life’s meaning. Ultimately, both may just be searching for the same thing: escape. Lynne, the mother, recalls the words of Gordon’s own father, a beautiful and creative young man: ‘We deserve magic,’ he had said, before running away forever.
Featherstone writes with sensitivity and a terrific eye for what it is that makes love – or at least sustained sexual connection – so very thrilling. In a wonderful moment Gordon and his most cherished lover, Levi, swap clothing, each excited by seeing the other dressed in something so intimate. It is a peculiar but strangely redolent ritual, one which causes a frisson of recognition in this reader. ‘I can’t think of anything more of a turn-on than seeing someone you love wearing your own clothes,’ muses Gordon, stumbling upon a common but mostly unremarked phenomenon. It called to mind a similar scene in Peter A Jackson’s The Intrinsic Quality of Skin, in which the Thai and Australian lovers exchange clothes and are each momentarily struck by the significance of the act.
There is an overwhelming sadness about I’m Ready Now, a melancholy induced by pointless afternoons spent watching movies the characters know they will not enjoy, or noting the distinct but futile sexual charge between a mother and her son’s best friend as they stand too close together in the wind at the Gap discussing the hopelessness of the man they share.
I’m Ready Now is a distinctively and recognisably Sydney tale, capturing a moment in queer life and identity that is mirrored by a more conventional narrative about motherhood, loss and Australian identity. Gordon’s own murky world is mirrored in the surrounds of North Sydney pool, where he does compulsive laps and almost revels in the harshly chlorinated water where:
Every lap or so a clump of human hair floats halfway between me and the bottom of the pool. A Band-Aid looking like a shrunken body. Pieces of tissue. But I like this breathing – I can feel my life.
Ultimately it is a book about ‘feeling life’ – feeling one’s way around its unpleasant limits and reaching the end of its strangely narrow circuits. Thoughtful and frequently wistful, it serves as a guide to Sydney’s sadder streets and as a map of those moments of emotional maturity where you realise that it isn’t all going to work out.
Walter Mason is a writer, spiritual tourist and a lifelong dilettante. He is the author of the memoir Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam (Allen & Unwin, 2010), and you can visit his blog here.
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