Love and Virtue
One of the most startling things about Love and Virtue, Diana Reid’s debut novel, is its unabashed and often brutal interest in class, something that passes unacknowledged in so much of our cultural and political discourse. This is almost inevitable, given that the novel is set mostly within a residential college at Sydney University – and Michaela, its protagonist, is one of only a handful of scholarship students, suddenly surrounded by privileged, privately educated young men and women who spend their holidays on ski trips in Europe and their semesters binge-drinking. Michaela lives on campus by necessity – the college scholarship gives her “money and a place to live”, and that these are things that everyone around her takes for granted is painfully obvious.
Michaela does not, though, position herself as an outsider. She’s young, alone in a new city, and far more unconfident and naive than she pretends or even admits to being. She is determined to fit in, and throws herself into this scene. And she enjoys it, most of the time, only ever mentioning her difference jokingly. She is implicated, that is, and deeply so – and the great strength of Reid’s novel is the complexity with which it examines the ideas of power, agency, violence and trust that are at its heart.
Much of this plays out in two contrasting sexual encounters: one drunken and barely remembered; the other with a much older man, Michaela’s lecturer. Both are problematic in terms of their power dynamic, the questions of consent they raise, the motives and the vulnerability of everyone involved. These issues are not new, of course, but the moral ambiguity that Reid is interested in is rarely explored with this level of nuance. It’s heightened by the fact that the greatest act of violence and betrayal is committed by a friend, another woman, whose actions rob Michaela of her own subjectivity.
Love and Virtue is an accomplished novel – by turns funny and furious, and full of the plangent longing and confusion of early adulthood. It is populated by often surprising characters who are mostly well rounded and never caricatured, despite the awful and privileged world they inhabit. At times, especially towards the ending, there’s an optimism that is a bit too wide-reaching to feel realistic, but it is a remarkable portrait of a poisonous social set and its rituals and dynamics, and of what it means to come of age alongside it.
Ultimo Press, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 9, 2021 as "Love and Virtue, Diana Reid".
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