Book review: Crushing by Genevieve Novak

(courtesy IMP Awards)

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we often tend to define ourselves in terms of our connection to others.

In an ideal world, we would be who we are consistently and without change from one situation to another or one person to another, but a combination of societal pressure, expectation by others and to a great degree, past personal trauma means we tend to mould and stretch ourselves to fit the social environment to hand.

Nothing too damaging we might think; after all, everyone does it right?

Possibly but try telling that to protagonist of Genevieve Novak’s Crushing, Marnie, a Melbourne, Australia late-twentysomething who, fresh off the latest in a far too long line of break-ups of reasonably long-term (and long-term-ish) relationships, has finally arrived at the point where she’s decided she is far better off without a man in her life, people to whom she reshapes and reorients herself without thinking and who proved to be a fickle audience, discarding her time and again while she’s left wondering who the hell she is when they are not around?

It’s a huge existential crisis, and one much delayed by the convenience and pleasure (but was it really deep down?) of being someone’s perfect girlfriend, with the book’s back cover blurb amusingly but fittingly describing the cafe barista as “running late to her own identity crisis.

I grinned, lazy and numb. By the bottom of the second bottle [with Claudia], I felt like I was a whole new person. The new house, new friend and new life made the whole world look warmer and brighter. Wondrous, really, what a white wine buzz and thirty-some hours of enforced celibacy can do for your outlook.

I moved in a week later.

As Karen from TV’s Will and Grace might’ve have said were she witness to Marnie’s once-glowing but now tragic love life – “It’s funny because it’s true”.

But no one is laughing, least of all Marnie, who takes stock of the wreckage of her life, and with a real intention to make dramatic and necessary change where required, but who then, rather relatably realised, she has absolutely no idea who she is or what she likes when she is all by herself.

Which is a bit of a problem, and one ripe for a beguiling novelistic narrative, when you have decided that now, this day and hereafter, is when you’re finally going to stand on your own two rather shaky and uncertain feet.

Good luck with that, then.

Marnie is not without friends, family and advocates but the pool of her new mum sister Nicola, with whom she’s close but of whom she sometimes has a less than stellar appraisal (owing in part to Nicola’s own grim descriptions of the state of her domestic bliss or otherwise), sassy boss Kit, who’s reeling from the break up of his marriage to husband Andrew, and bestie Claudia, who has getting lost in relationship woes of her own, is vanishingly small and scarily shallow (her fault, not theirs; well, not completely) and Marnie doesn’t exactly prove to be the best guardian of these connections, anyway.

It may sound like Marnie is up against it in much of Crushing and you would be right, with Novak not sparing her many if any of the outrageous slings and arrows of misfortune that befall all of us in life, especially when we’re trying to figure who we are, what we want and how on earth to get it.

(courtesy official author site)

One of the things that’s so compelling about Crushing and which is a tribute to Novak’s skilled as a writer capable of drawing nuance and authentically gradated humanity into some pretty dark moments for Marnie, is that i doesn’t offer easy answers.

It would be all too easy to go down the route of many a charmingly inspired and highly enjoyable to read novel where people at the end of themselves go through some hell but reasonably quickly work out what needs to change, make it and live near to happily ever after.

We love the fairytale redeemability of those kinds of stories but appealingly, Crushing doesn’t go down that route; at least not straight away, and certainly not quickly with Marnie well and truly earning any kind of epiphanic happy ending that she might get by the end of the book.

This is life lived in the trenches with a character who does some pretty deplorable things but who is, ultimately, every bit as fallibly broken as the rest of us and who, mistakes made aplenty, simply wants to find a life lived on her terms with people who love her for her, and not the idea they have of her or who she should be.

He [ Kit] gave a bark of laughter. ‘ No, stupid. They don’t [have it al together]. Maybe if you’re really lucky, but most of us … you just pick something you don’t hate and do it until you don’t want to anymore. Life isn’t a storybook. There’s no arc. You just live and try to have a good time doing it.’

‘That’s pretty wise for a failure.’

‘Eh,’ Kit grunted. ‘Broken clocks.’

Set in Melbourne’s cafe culture and in its trendy suburbs, Crushing is the type of novel that feel wondrously good and grounded.

Marnie might have met dreamboat sweety Isaac with whom she establishes a friend and only friend rule, and they may unbelievable, witty chemistry but this cute guy from one big night out, barely post-the height of the COVID pandemic, has a girlfriend and seemingly no interest in Marnie beyond being a super close friend.

That’s fine with our sincere but struggling protagonist who is determined to fight the “lonelies”, find out to live life on her terms and to emerge again ready to date as a woman who know herself and who won’t twist and bend to fit the man before her.

But intention and execution don’t always meet neatly or easily in life, and it’s in the gaping chasm between the two that Crushing finds some of its most fertile and relatable ground, taking Marnie on a hardscrabble journey with no easy answers and where her many attempts to work out what she likes, from spin classes to painting tuition, don’t exactly the hoped-for results.

But that’s life isn’t it, and one of the relieving joys of Crushing is being reminded again and again that the answers we seek may not be the ones we need and that life has a way of surprising us with some wonderfully suitable good things but only after being through the messy, drunken, crying your eyes out mill a time or two.

Fallible but lovably and relatably so, Marnie is the perfect protagonist for Crushing, a novel full of vivacious, wittily, sparkling dialogue, characters who leap off the page in fully-formed, very human likability, and a story which doesn’t follow the easy route and which gets Marnie where she needs to go by routes and means that shock and surprise her but which might, despite initial appearances to the contrary, be exactly what she needs in the long-run as she seeks to forge an authentic life that actually means something.

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