Is it possible to be too popular?
You wouldn’t normally think so since who doesn’t want to be universally loved and adored – surely there can be no downside? – but in The Hemsworth Effect by debut author James Weir, the who, and for that matter, the what, of Byron Bay is finding itself just a little but in demand for its own taste.
Or, more accurately, the taste of local Aimee Maguire who has lived in the most easterly town in Australia, surviving some significant personal tragedy to build up a life of full of bookshop-running, apartment living, rich, quirky friendship, and beach swimming which calms her down when gets too demanding or perplexing, all in the heart of downtown with her fiancé Tim, with whom she’s been since high school.
Aimee is swimming a lot of late by the way because life is getting perplexing to an alarming degree with property prices going sky high, tourists outnumbering the locals much of the time – good for the bookshop maybe but not so much for Aimee’s quality of life which is in danger of disappearing altogether along with the shop she rents, fiancé she has (he wants, and has got, a time-out) and the place she calls home with bay band member and food truck operator housemate Charlie – and life in all its goldfish bowl glory given over to a reality TV show, with which Aimee vows she will have nothing to do.
Until, of course, necessity or circumstances dictates that she does and then life, already suffering from proximity to too much geographical popularity, becomes even more challenging that it is already.
They all end up going back to wherever it is they came from.
This sentence tumbled out of Aimee’s mouth with the same rhythm and ease of an ancient mantra chanted by monks during meditation at dawn. It almost had become a mantra for Aimee. She’d found herself repeating it in her head every time she walked down the main street. Sometimes even muttering it, a little too loudly, when she saw obnoxious teenage weekenders littering. Or influencers blocking footpaths while taking photos. Or wealthy out-of-towners jamming up intersections with their bumper-to-bumper Range Rovers and Bentleys and Teslas. It was a reassuring reminder that, by the end of the summer holidays, most of the intruders would be gone. They all end up going back where they came from. Just beneath the jaded weariness, there was almost a sense of acceptance and surrender. Aimee had thought about screen-printing it in a T-shirt – a more cynical version of those annoying tank tops from Lorna Jane.
They all end up going back to wherever it is they came from.
The Hemsworth Effect is a deliciously clever novel.
It takes a hard, close look at the effect of popularity on a town, and really region-wide level, exploring how one urban centre’s enamoured embrace by the influencer, turmeric-latte sipping set can make life difficult in so many ways for those who have always called the place home.
Far from being some damning polemic against investment and change, The Hemsworth Effect is far more nuanced, accepting the presence of change on a massive level but noting with a wry grin and not a little damning knowingness, that all that stirring up of the established order is not always a good thing.
Unless, of course, like Aimee, you’ve become just a little too stuck in life.
Aimee’s journey is at the heart of this funny and incisively clever novel, which looks like societally-critical rom-com until it morphs into something altogether more personal and transformative, speaking of how change, though it might with a host of constituently unwelcome parts, can be the making of someone who has let grief and pain anchor her to a highly limiting degree, stymieing the ability of her life to go to the kinds of places she unwittingly needs for it to go.
The thing is, Aimee, who is beautiful, thoughtful and very funny – not that she’d accept any of that is true; well, not to the extent that others do – doesn’t think she has anywhere else to go, not just geographically but existentially, and it’s her sense of surety that life is just fine as it is that gets a long over due shaking up when not one but two reality TV show comes to town.
Hired by the show after a rant she unleashes accidentally on camera about change in Byron Bay goes viral – they love the “Karen” energy she brings to proceedings, not realising, nor caring to, that Aimee’s premature curmudgeonly approach to everything, something a person in their early thirties shouldn’t have normally, is the product of great loss in years past – Aimee, and her bestie, hairdresser Roberta aka Rob, and Aimee’s niece Freya who comes up from Sydney to find herself at the centre of the show’s bevy of beautiful influencers, find themselves wholly changed by the newness of just about everything in the beachside town.
While Aimee is busy rejecting the celebrification of Byron Bay – hence the title which captures everything that is wrong or just plain neutral but seismically change-inducing about the town – and all the change it brings, her life is busy changing anyway, something she fails to notice in her unwitting quest to keep things As They Are.
What’s most endearing about this furiously witty novel which bristles happily and with much verve and pithy insight about the human condition, the effect of pain and grief and the power of the known to leach the life out of us, and some truly snappy, fun dialogue, is that it is, at heart, a story about one person’s much-delayed move from being damagingly stuck in place to discovering that change, of the personal kind anyway (as opposed to redeveloping everything including heritage-listed dairy sheds) may not be so bad, after all.
‘Well’ Charlie said, his face contorting into a pained expression. ‘When Heath showed up and we moved tables to let you chat … I may have taken your phone and texted him [Jules] where we were.’ Just as Aimee shot him a look, he rushed to defend himself. ‘I think you’ve got it wrong! Ever since you told me that night at Music Club that you’d been hooking up with someone, I’d noticed a change in you.’
Aimee fobbed off the observation as if it was crazy. ‘There was no change,’ she made a face like she’d just tasted expired yoghurt.
For all its winning ability to intelligently skewer the pretensions of both the moneyed, tanned and linen-clothed set, and those who oppose anything that could upset their decades-old way of life, The Hemsworth Effect is at its best when it goes deep and with great empathy, and not a little sizzling good humour, into how grief-led stuckness can remake someone’s life to such an enervating degree that they forget how to live.
Aimee’s life looks full – business, besties and a (timed-out) fiancé all in place, not to mention a town she loves – even if it doesn’t always love her, especially when some unfortunate incidents during films put the cats very much among the societal pigeons – but in reality, it’s ground to a soul-sucking halt, and while she may not like many of the things that happen to her in The Hemsworth Effect, they are, in the end, the making of her.
Weir beautifully gets how grief can slow you down until you stop, and how you don’t even notice that’s happening, and it’s this compassionate insightfulness, woven through the reality TV show mania and sometimes hilarious, sometimes fury-inducing relational upheavals, that is the making of The Hemsworth Effect.
It’s a rich, funny, cleverly thoughtful and satirically-smart novel that knows that however stupid much of the superficiality of modern online-driven culture might be, that it can stir things up sufficiently that while towns may suffer and not be the better for it, people like Aimee might be, with The Hemsworth Effect emerging as an affecting treatise on how change can be the enemy but it can be for good too, taking us from where we are stuck to somewhere else entirely, both locationally and existentially, leaving us all the better for it, even if we don’t know it at the time.