The beginning of Michael Sala’s The Restorer is somewhat of a slow burn. It’s 1989 and a family – father Roy, mother Maryanne, teenage daughter Freya, and eight-year-old Daniel – move in to a rundown house in Newcastle, New South Wales, to renovate and start afresh. It’s clear, though, that something’s not quite right. The next-door neighbour’s offer of help is rudely rebuffed by Roy, the kids are guarded and Maryanne is strangely distant. We know already that things will go badly wrong.
The steady increase of tension from nothing-much to unputdownable is just one of many things Sala executes brilliantly, but The Restorer is more than just a technical success. It’s an insightful novel about domestic violence that doesn’t solely focus on the moments of physical force. For the family, living under continual threat changes everything about how they define themselves and the way they interact with others. Sala creates an atmosphere of simmering tension with an undercurrent of unpredictability that seeps in every exchange, and the characters are just wonderful without being in any way showy. It’s as if he can see through their skin. Teenage Freya is the highlight but they’re all terrific.
Newcastle itself is an important part of the story: on the surface, all beach and sunshine, with centuries of tunnels under the ground and shipwrecks under the sea. The house Roy has chosen is barely liveable at first but gradually and with much hard work, he succeeds in renovating it into a beautiful family home. It doesn’t last, because some things can’t be restored. Maryanne is a nurse, and is respected and forceful in her professional life – and yet. Sala is too empathetic a novelist for simple solutions, but there’s a tension between fatalism and control. Freya’s teacher makes the point about Shakespeare that “every play he ever wrote is really about the control people have over their own lives”. Maryanne knows Roy well – knows that “there was that fuse in him, smouldering” – but she can only remain herself. Can Freya change her fate?
Sala makes you want to scream at the characters, “No, don’t! Don’t do that!”, because he makes you care about them. He’s taken a story from the headlines and shown us how families end up there, in those horrible final moments, and he’s done it with sensitivity and intelligence and care. Sala is a brilliant writer and The Restorer is a frightening book because it’s so real and so possible. LS
Text, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 25, 2017 as "Michael Sala, The Restorer ". Subscribe here.