Kokomo by Victoria Hannan

I really, really wish Victoria Hannan hadn’t started Kokomo with a sex scene. The tone of the scene is not representative of the remaining 294 pages, which are insightful, subtle, and wonderfully atmospheric.

On the other hand, maybe that sex scene is exactly representative of the book – that all is not as it appears. The book takes it’s name from the Beach Boys song. Apt, because while we think Kokomo is a song about a tropical island paradise, it is in fact “…not even a real place … Well, it is, but it’s an industrial city in Indiana…” And like the song, the characters in Hannan’s novel appear one way, but their inner lives reveal something quite different – full of complexities, insecurities, desires.

Initially, the story is told from the perspective of Mina, who receives an urgent call from her best friend in Melbourne. Mina’s agoraphobic mother, Elaine, has left her house after twelve years (Mina has never known why Elaine shut herself away). Mina flies from London to Melbourne, leaving behind her career in advertising and a fledgling relationship. The reunion with her mother forces Mina to understand what had happened in the past, and what had shifted.

The second half of the novel is told from Elaine’s perspective, revealing the answers to many of Mina’s questions, and demonstrating the similarities in Elaine and Mina’s internal worlds.

Hannan explores the theme of duality with great skill, most obviously via the person we show the world versus our inner thoughts, and cleverly through an exploration of secrets and truths.

She had always thought of secrets as things that broke people apart, but maybe they were really what held them together.

Duality is also evident in the prose –

She felt the silence draw up around her like floodwater.

Isn’t that marvelous, to be able to capture rage, and silence, and power, and contradiction in ten words?

Where this book really succeeds, is in how recognisable the uncertainties, introspection, and tensions are – a pause in the conversation that is a beat too long; a work colleague quietly but determinedly undermining you; the poorly disguised dismay of a friend when you drop in unannounced – in fleeting scenes, Hannan creates a gripping emotional narrative. And it culminates with the question, how do we manage the gap between what we have and what we need or want?

In the almost light of dawn, [Elaine] would feel a low ache in her stomach, creeping, then lingering. She’d try to single out and identify the feelings, their root cause. Is this happiness? she’d ask herself, wondering if perhaps happiness was just the absence of any real discernible sadness …

Part of my enjoyment of Kokomo was because it is a thoroughly Melbourne novel. I don’t mean purely references to places and things – somehow Hannan has captured the essence of the suburbs.

The street that in late summer sizzled with the little red and pink fireworks of the flowering gums, but in early spring was a pastoral of damp leaves and dewy grass, trees bulked up with chocolatey gumnuts.

I have carefully avoided spoilers in reviewing Kokomo, but will finish with this quote for its universal truth –

While you might not be able to choose who you loved or explain why you loved them, you could choose how you loved them.

4/5 A pleasure.

Crispy whole barramundi, garlic greens and coconut rice,” he said. he stirred and tasted the sauce, threw in some sugar.
“I keep telling him he should go on next year’s Masterchef,” Valerie teased. “They always have one old guy on there.”


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