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After more than a decade away from publishing, Claire Thomas’s much anticipated second novel The Performance puts her squarely back in the limelight. By Ruby Hamad.

Novelist Claire Thomas

Claire Thomas.
Credit: Leah Jing McIntosh

In 2008, Australian author Claire Thomas published her acclaimed debut novel Fugitive Blue. Spanning five centuries, the narrative traces the fate of a Renaissance painting, the only legacy of an inexperienced artist doomed to obscurity.

The teenager clandestinely acquires ultramarine – a brilliant blue pigment made from lapis lazuli, and literally worth more than its weight in gold, that is usually reserved for the “grand masters”. This sets in motion a chain of events that reverberates through time and space. In brief, tenderly rendered vignettes, the artwork traverses across Europe before landing in the Melbourne lab of an art conservator who sees in its damage her own deteriorating relationship.

The veteran broadcaster Robyn Williams described Fugitive Blue as “one of the finest Australian novels [he’d] read in years”. In 2009, Thomas was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and won the Dobbie Literary Award for women’s fiction. And then – as far as publishing was concerned – she disappeared.

“I just didn’t think the world needed another book by an overeducated white woman,” she explains during our recent Zoom conversation. “I wasn’t interested in my own subject position enough to write it.

“Then I got to the point where I was like, well I am either never going to write again, or I have to interrogate that subject position, and think about it properly and write into the discomfort and the complicity.”

Thomas hasn’t been idle. She completed a PhD at Melbourne University, where she’s taught literary studies and creative writing for several years, and has three children. And now she’s back with her follow-up book, The Performance.

The stylistic similarities as well as differences between the novels are striking. The geographic and temporal scope in The Performance is much smaller – it takes place over the course of a single evening in a single location. It too features an artwork as its central motif: this time an unnamed, though easily recognisable, Samuel Beckett play staged on a scorching Melbourne evening. Three women – 22-year-old Summer, a theatre usher and university student; 42-year-old philanthropist Ivy; and tenured literary professor Margot, who is “about 70” and on the cusp of reluctant retirement – settle into the darkness, and into what Thomas calls the pseudo-intimacy presented by environments such as the theatre.

“I went to see [a play] and I noticed there was a guy in the theatre who was crying,” she says. “The performance was not inherently sad or anything; it was a sort of odd reaction. And that got me on this whole thing about the false intimacy of the theatre space and how very proximate people are [to you] but you have no idea – you are not really watching the same thing. And that is obviously life.”

Outside the theatre a bushfire rages, its flames licking the city’s outskirts as a thick smoke haze chokes its centre. But inside, the frigid airconditioning gives at least one of the characters goosebumps. Thomas uses this juxtaposition as a means of emphasising “both the kind of bubble these people are in and all the connotations of [this] bubble of privilege they are sitting in. Something [is] going on that is very significant that they are literally removed from.”

Although for many Australian readers it will no doubt evoke the monster bushfires of last year, the novel was largely written well before then. “I [already] wanted to address the climate emergency. I just couldn’t write a book without that hovering over it … it speaks to the inaction of people who are a bit removed from the crisis.”

On stage, a middle-aged woman is buried waist deep in parched, lifeless earth. It is not known how Winnie became ensconced in her mound but it’s clear that she will never get out of it. She is determined to make the most of it, for each day is a “happy one”. She achieves this by fussing with her belongings, which are all contained in a big black bag. As she removes and fiddles with items ranging from a parasol to a black gun, she chatters away to her husband Willie, who occasionally grunts in return.

Winnie’s daily recitals for Willie trigger recollections from each of the three women, with the narrative relayed almost entirely through their thoughts. Through their memories of successes, failures, loves and losses, the meaning of the novel’s title is revealed.

Thomas nods vigorously when I suggest the title isn’t merely a reference to the play. “The whole performative nature of everyone’s life and the different ways in which that manifests is the main thing I am interested in this book,” she says. “There are degrees of artifice, mask-wearing and different situations. So how they behave with their families might be different to how they behave in their work environment; all those sorts of quite basic ways of moving through the world.”

Thomas felt compelled to tackle three contemporary issues in The Performance. In addition to the climate crisis, there is an unrelenting focus on the inner lives of women. “It’s a complete women’s world, that is what I care about. I wrote it for women, I wrote it about women. I am not diminishing any of [the characters’] experiences because they may be unpalatable to a man. I am just trying to be honest about them as people.

“I think there was a more explicit kind of thing in Fugitive Blue where I was trying to push back on the ‘artistic master’ figure,” she says. “But now it is just my worldview, it’s my default and that’s human to me.” She still felt it important, however, not to let this focus overshadow the third issue. “I couldn’t leave it in the bubble so completely that questions of class and race and privilege were just not there. That is just not something that I wanted to write.” This – “the complicity and erasure of Indigenous culture in Australia” – plays out in the relationship between Summer and her mother. Summer’s race is not overtly stated, its secret kept even from Summer by a mother who embodies the almost sanctimonious racism of those who insist they don’t see race.

“It’s bullshit, obviously,” says Thomas. “The notion that that’s a viable way of moving through the world is incredibly privileged. Her mother, I mean she is quite a nice hippie. She took her to rallies.” At the same time, she denies her own daughter her full personhood. “I wanted [Summer’s identity] to be ambiguous and I wanted it to be part of what I was trying to write about Australia now.”

Thomas is also concerned with impermanence, a characteristic she ascribes to her own motherhood. “There are these people you are with and you are hyper aware, in a way you are not with any other relationship, that they are going to be a different person soon,” she says. “There is this strange distortion of time and understanding I experienced and still do. That kind of almost longing for something even while you are doing it – I feel like that is an absolute quality of motherhood. And that comes with an understanding of the inevitability of growth.”

This understanding permeates Thomas’s work. The “fugitive” in Fugitive Blue refers to a pigment that is particularly susceptible to change with long-term exposure to the elements. In The Performance, these changes are demonstrated through the differing reactions the three women have to the play. “The longer you live,” Thomas tells me, “the more you realise that things change within you.”

The novel was completed before the pandemic struck, creating an unusual blend of urgency and nostalgia. Some of the “false intimacies” of the theatre, for instance, such as sitting so close to complete strangers – “you can feel their hairs and smell them and listen to their annoying kind of personal quirks” – no longer apply to our socially distanced reality. What is perhaps surprisingly applicable is how well the events and themes of the novel appear to correspond with a play that was first performed in 1961.

“The [Beckett] play itself, at its most foundational level, is about a woman fussing over the minutiae of the everyday to cope with this utterly horrific predicament that she is literally stuck in,” Thomas explains. “I think that there is a lot [in the play] about that kind of diversionary way of thinking that you need to some extent just to function. So there was a lot of bouncing off that. There is an element of that within these three characters and the different levels they’ve managed to process the world. There is the character of Summer who just gets overwhelmed by not successfully distracting herself from the shit that’s real. And then other people around her can’t handle that truth to various degrees.”

That Winnie sometimes appears to be talking about climate change, for example, evokes very different internal responses in the women. Lines such as “Did I ever know a temperate time? Shall I myself not melt perhaps in the end, or burn?” send Summer – anxious, fragmented and utterly unable to distract herself from the horror – reeling: “The play was written 60 years ago and I am just being paranoid. I am just hearing her words that way.” The more proactive Ivy reminds herself that “the world is a swarm of need” that she cannot save: “I made my choices … Children’s health. Indigenous rights. Visual art. Theatre. That’s my bit.” Meanwhile, Margot, ever the pragmatic intellectual, tries to talk herself out of thinking about it: “Not the bloody state of the planet. I will not listen … I cannot listen.”

I ask Thomas whether these reactions upend a traditional understanding of life’s trajectory – that we are meant to get less self-centred with age and are duty bound to leave the world in a better state for our children than that in which we found it. “I don’t know if I would agree necessarily that Summer is less self-centred,” Thomas counters. “Margot is an intellectual professional. She thinks for her vocation so she’s got this capacity to sort of compartmentalise her own life – or she thinks she does. With Summer, yes, there is a rawness to her. And she’s got pain, personal pain and then broader pain. You could read it as the broader anxieties she has really come down to her personal sense of instability and growing up in a type of inauthenticity.”

Thomas does admit that, as a long-time sessional university employee, writing Margot was a leap of sympathy for her. “I don’t necessarily sympathise with a tenured professor but the original impetus was to not judge, so I wanted to get into her. She is very successful, so she knows how to operate in the world and, compared to the other two women, has had a more stable trajectory. Ivy has had to remake herself over and over and Summer is still getting there, so what she is experiencing in the course of this play, it’s more heightened because of that.”

She can use her academic knowledge to stunning effect. The passages in Fugitive Blue that detail the changing approaches to art restoration over the centuries are among the most enthralling. And despite its centrality to her novel, Thomas chose not to name the play for creative reasons. “I’m not sure you think of the play’s title when you are watching it,” she says. “It just didn’t naturally come up in any of their thoughts. I also wanted it to be a bit decontextualised.” But perhaps they were personal as well: “I’ve never loved the name so perhaps subconsciously I avoided its inclusion.”

That the notoriously protective Beckett estate gave her permission to reproduce lines from his play is a testament not only to her intimate understanding of Beckett’s work, but to her ability to extract ideas from one text in order to create another, without diminishing or altering the original.

This kind of skill is why The Performance will be published in Britain and North America as well as in Australia, with German, French and Spanish translations lined up. Hachette will also re-release Fugitive Blue in March.

Given her avoidance of the limelight since her debut, I wonder how Thomas feels about the likely prospect of sudden, intense international attention. She laughs. “I think I am ready now.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2021 as "Performance art".

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Ruby Hamad is a writer and PhD candidate at UNSW.