Kokomo, Victoria Hannan’s much-anticipated debut novel, opens with an ode to a penis.
Mina, an early-30s Aussie advertising exec working in London, one night finds herself with Jack, a male colleague on whom she has a spellbinding, all-consuming crush. As he drunkenly whips out his penis, Mina views it as a thing of beauty: “so tall and pink, a soldier standing to attention, a ballerina in first position”; “a lighthouse alerting her … to the presence of safety”.
Jack, it turns out, is not a safe harbour. And Kokomo – despite the opening pages and the misleading front cover – is not really about sex. Instead, this is a book that focuses on female relationships: mostly between Mina and her mother, Elaine, an agoraphobe who has not left her house since Mina’s father suddenly passed away 12 years ago.
When Mina receives a call – in the middle of said appreciation of Jack’s penis – telling her that Elaine has been spotted outside, she flies to Melbourne to investigate. She finds her mother as infuriatingly closed off as ever: a woman who has abandoned her physically and emotionally. And while Mina is embraced by her best friend Kira’s warm, loving family, the buzz of lives lived only serves to contrast with the misery of her mother’s existence. At one point, Mina, desperate for her mother to talk to her, drops the television remote on the floor, causing the batteries to spill. Elaine, addicted to the company of the TV, gets on all fours to retrieve it. It’s a painful image.
Kokomo is often bracing and honest. “It’s not normal to be happy all the time,” Kira says, succinctly summing up the false promise of social media, of dashed relationships and career dreams. “It’s the greatest lie of the 21st century.”
But when the narrative viewpoint switches to Elaine’s halfway through, the novel falters. Elaine is deeply mentally unwell. Yet Hannan implausibly explains away her behaviour – deceit, unhealthy obsessions, stalking, emotional neglect of her only child – as a direct result of Love with a capital L, as if that makes it not simply understandable but okay.
Kokomo won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. It is true that Hannan has created a page-turner and does, on occasion, possess a flourish with language (an awkward conversation “felt like mashing uncooked potato”). But the final twist is far too convenient and silly: turning Kokomo from a robust, engrossing look at the challenges of its millennial heroine into an absurd, unconvincing soap opera.
Hachette, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2020 as "Victoria Hannan, Kokomo".
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