Books

Malcolm Knox
The Wonder Lover

Perhaps it is Malcolm Knox’s reputation as a sports journalist that leads to his chronic underrating as a novelist. The Life (2011) is a sprawling, messy, gutsy book with a brilliant voice and awkward plotting, as though the conventions of the novel form were a cross Knox was forced to bear in order to explore the things that truly interested him. 

In The Wonder Lover he abides by few novelistic expectations. It’s the story of John Wonder, a fact authenticator for the likes of Guinness World Records, who meticulously divides his globetrotting life between his three wives until a fourth woman intervenes. Wonder has six apportioned children – three Adams and three Eves – and the novel is told from their perspective. “We are his children,” they say, “and we know everything about him. He was our father and he knew everything about us.” The first person plural voice works a treat here: the children are all-seeing, a loving, accusatory Greek chorus. 

Wonder is “the kindest and sweetest father a child could hope for, but he sat at breakfast with a stillness and such silence that sometimes we couldn’t help wondering if we had done something wrong”. The families spend years unaware of each other’s existence. His wives “did not ask him to choose, even though they did not know what it was, other than his work, that he was choosing over them. That was the measure of their love: the woman with glasses, the dark-skinned woman, the scarred woman. The first love, the soul mate, the redeemer.”

“People’s one true marriage is to themselves,” the children tell us, and it’s Knox’s exploration of his characters’ motivations and psychological logic that is at the heart of The Wonder Lover. John Wonder is an unlikely bigamist. As a lover, he’s not very sexy. He’s short on charm and long on a kind of blankness that enables his partners to build the life they want around his psychic and physical absences. Perhaps love is not about connection, after all. 

This is a novel for thinking rather than for feeling. I found myself underlining sentences for the underlying truth of them. In general, these kinds of fables are shorter and tighter. Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus runs at almost 100 fewer pages and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is a slender thing by comparison. Bar a little flabbiness, though, The Wonder Lover is an original, energetic work of art.  LS

Allen & Unwin, 384pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2015 as "Malcolm Knox, The Wonder Lover". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: LS