I really love being back in Melbourne. I did not doubt coming back to Australia, but I did have a moment of doubt coming back to Melbourne after I’d been in Adelaide for six weeks. Being home was wonderful, and here lay reality. But the longer I’m here the more settled I’m feeling and the more like myself I’m feeling. I’ve been staying with my friend Stella in Brunswick, where I spent time when I very first moved here in 2009, and where I lived for eighteen months when I moved back in 2011. Everything here is familiar, in the best possible way. There’s still so much I haven’t discovered — streets I haven’t ridden down, parks I haven’t been to, cafes and restaurants I’m yet to eat at — yet I can always find my way home, and I’m always around the corner from friends. It takes twenty minutes to cycle to work, but then I come home to this lovely little village with everything I need. Right now I’m applying for apartments and getting ready to settle in to my own place, and who knows where the brutal Melbourne rental market will take me, but I’ll always be thankful for this little pocket of the city for welcoming me back.
I am so enamoured with the area that when I began to read Our Magic Hour, where the main character lives in Charles St, I immediately thought of the street close to where I am right now here in Brunswick. Funnily enough when I was talking about the book with friends one had assumed it was Charles St Fitzroy, another thought of Charles St Abbotsford, and we each based our reading of the novel on our own visceral memories of the street. What I’m trying to say is that there’s something about this book that perfectly sums up not just my experience of living here, but that of so many of my friends. Our Magic Hour is about relationships and friendships and coming of age and grief, but in many ways the star of the show is Melbourne.
Jennifer Down writes about place beautifully, and in many ways Our Magic Hour is an ode to living in this city in your twenties. There are sticky-floored band rooms and rollies and pots and powder and bike rides and laying in the park on sunny afternoons and looking back on the city from up high. Melbourne leaps off the page, but Down is careful never to fall into whimsy. When I think of Melbourne I think of the smell of coffee roasting, the sound of trams dinging in the distance, of people clustering together to drink coffee or beer — now that I’ve been here on-and-off for seven years, I think of Melbourne as a social place. But Down doesn’t let us forget the downsides to this city — the claustrophobic grey skies, the constant damp, the never-ending sprawl of concrete — like when she describes the damp smell the plagues so many houses and apartments here:
Sometimes Audrey thought she was imagining the odour, when cooking smells covered it or when the afternoons were warm enough to leave the back door open. But when she got up in the morning it was there, clammy and foul.
Melbourne can also be a place of loneliness. Speaking with a group of colleagues during the week who had all moved here from smaller states, we all laughed knowingly when someone said ‘no one wants to talk to you your first year here’. Melbourne makes you work for it’s affection. It hides the best pubs and bars down dark, dodgy laneways. The winter drags on endlessly so that by the time my friends at home are posting Instagrams from the beach, I’m still taking an umbrella to work every day. And although this city is full of people who aren’t from here (we all also agreed that it took a long time to meet anyone who was actually from Melbourne), it can feel like this place is owned by cliques who make you feel like you’re not cool enough to be here. There are a lot of similarities to high school in finding your place in Melbourne, battling against the art crowds and the footy fans and the literary scene and the music lovers, trying to find people who also just love all of those things unpretentiously, who don’t want to be pigeonholed just like high school. Eventually you find your people, and like at school I’ve met people here who have become friends for life. But still so few of those friends grew up here. And I guess I couldn’t stop thinking of that as I read Our Magic Hour, that this group of friends who we follow through Audrey as they deal with the loss of a best friend, feel like a clique of suburban Melbournians that you know you’d never fully be able to belong to. So while I was carried through the story, I always felt a little bit removed from the characters. I have no problem reading unlikeable characters or not connecting with every character in a book, but in this case it became problematic because Down’s style of writing relies on us feeling like we’re drinking in the same pub, or we’re riding down the same streets, or we’re listening to the same bands. Our Magic Hour relies so heavily on place and relatability that if you feel at arm’s length to that, you’re always going to struggle to fully sink into the novel.
What did hit me about Down’s writing though was her ability to hit on the unsettlingness of raw grief, both in the initial shock of loss, but also in the way it then forces the griever to look at themselves differently and question who they are, where they are, how they got there. When I was eighteen, just out of high school, we lost a classmate to a tragic accident. It was shocking and raw and we were grief-stricken, but then with time it made us all reevaluate. It brought us back together at a time where we all could have easily drifted apart, and even now, fifteen years later, it remains an unspoken bond. This initial grief and disbelief that life continues unaffected in so many ways around you, is beautifully pin-pointed by Down. Dominic Amerena, in his review of Our Magic Hour for The Lifted Brow, articulates this perfectly:
This book has been and will be called things like “raw” and “intimate” and “real” and “shocking” and “sad” – and it’s certainly all of these. But it is also a subtle depiction of the pain of loss, of grief. Instead of histrionic tears and yelling, there’s hollowness—a banality even—in the way that Audrey processes her grief: scenes of passionless fucking, scenes where Audrey stands around, watching her friends have fun around her while she feels empty.
I went into Our Magic Hour with strong expectations after this book was being talked about by so many. There was a lot of hype around Down being so young, and again I’d refer to Amerena’s piece for background on the weird mix of awe and jealousy that surrounded this release. Ultimately I was never able to lose myself in Our Magic Hour, I always felt just a little too removed from the characters to take on their grief and anxieties and joy. But I still left the book feeling in admiration of what Down has achieved — a snapshot of a city so obsessed with it’s own image that it can be difficult to pin-point what makes it special without feeling like an overwrought marketing campaign, and a coming-of-age story that acknowledges the role that grief and loneliness play in us working out who we really are. But the impact of Our Magic Hour will in time be much bigger than just this book, as it’s sure to become the start of an incredibly promising career.
And so, as I settle into new routines and feel more and more comfortable in my surrounds, I find myself taking advantage of the cool autumn nights so that when I have a weeknight at home, I cook something simple and comforting, I chat with friends, I go to bed early and read. It’s a sign that life is calming down, that my mind is calming down. Lately when I’ve been home alone I’ve been making myself a comfort bowl like this for an easy weeknight dinner: mash, greens and an egg. Sometimes some cheese too, and whatever herbs need to be used up. Here the mash was a mix of potato and parsnip with some thyme mixed through, but really these bowls have been based on whatever root vegetables are reduced at the greengrocers on the way home from work. It’s uncomplicated and nourishing, it’s just as easy to make for four as it is for one and when you sit down to eat, it is impossible not to feel at home with your hands wrapped around a bowl like this for warmth. It’s perfect Melbourne food.
Lately as the question of why I choose to live here has been plaguing my mind, I often find myself saying that despite all the pretentiousness and the fact that Melbourne takes itself way too seriously, everything feels possible here. As I was reading Our Magic Hour the annual Melbourne International Comedy Festival was filling the streets and pubs and halls of the city. The show that everyone was talking about, and the show that ended up winning the two highest awards bestowed on artists by the festival each year, was Zoe Coombs Marr’s ‘Trigger Warning’, discussed brilliantly in RealTime by John Bailey. A show that shines a light on everything that’s problematic about the very art form it uses, goes and wins the highest prize of the festival that worships the art form. It says a lot about Coombs Marr’s ability as a writer and performer, but it also says a lot about the city that embraced it. Here’s hoping there are more opportunities to see this show around the country and throughout the year, because there is certainly an audience ready and waiting.