Book cover: A car with it’s lights on under dark clouds.

Chris Womersley
Ordinary Gods and Monsters

Remember the Shakespeare you had to read in high school? Did you love it or hate it, or sit somewhere in between? Personally speaking, I’m Macbeth and a heart emoji. I suspect when the teenage Chris Womersley read Romeo and Juliet, he underscored Mercutio’s exasperated cry, “A plague o’ both your houses!”

His most ambitious novel to date, the weird and wonderful City of Crows (2017), opens with plague in 17th-century France. In Bereft (2010), set post-World War I, it’s Spanish flu. In the linked Melbourne-based novels Cairo (2013) and The Diplomat (2022), the pox of choice is drugs and booze. The title of his new novel, Ordinary Gods and Monsters, suggests another detour into darkness. The opening chapters do nothing to dispel that thought.

The narrator, Nick Wheatley, is 17. An intelligent, self-doubting young man on the cusp of adulthood, he has finished high school and is awaiting his HSC result. His neighbour, dark-haired Marion Perry, is the same age. They have been best friends all their lives. She has had boyfriends – “of course” – but he has remained steadfast, “the pale suitor perched forever beneath her window”.

Unlike Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets, there is no division between the Wheatley and Perry houses, or at least not on the surface. Nick’s parents are divorcing and he’s not sure why. Then Marion’s father, Bill Perry, is jogging one night in suburban Melbourne when he is killed in a hit-and-run. “It could have been a summer’s evening,’’ Nick thinks, “but of course it wasn’t. It was the end of some things and the beginning of so many others.”

The first “other” is supernatural. On the day of Mr Perry’s funeral, Nick, on Marion’s insistence, visits the local drug dealer, Becky, to score something for the wake.

“She sat low on the couch opposite me. The Dark Side of the Moon was groaning away in the background. It had probably been playing on her stereo nonstop since its release.” Becky’s “bit of a psycho” boyfriend, Stretch, in his early 20s, is not there but later becomes an important character. “He had a few different demeanours, all of which were scary to a greater or lesser degree.”

Nick has a free hit from a bong and buys some weed. Becky pulls out a ouija board. An impromptu seance seems to conjure the spirit of Mr Perry, who spells out one word: M-O-R-R-I-S. Does this mean the car that ran him down was a Morris?

Later at the wake, Nick meets a stranger, who drunkenly slings him a business card. “Edmund Morris. Morris Industries.” From this spring interconnected questions that propel Nick and Marion headlong into the adult world.

Who/what is Morris? Will Nick and Marion find out who killed her father? Will Nick and Marion fall in love? What was going on, beneath the surface, between their households? What did Nick’s father mean when he said, ‘‘Your mother, eh. And Bill bloody Perry’’?

“Death had arrived and caught us totally unprepared,’’ Nick thinks. “What lay beyond – the world at large – was more or less unknown to me.”

Womersley is a gifted dramatic writer – this novel is a page-turner – who never loses sight of comic possibilities. The world he describes – 1980s suburban Melbourne, where the author grew up, with Bob Hawke as prime minister and Back to the Future in the cinemas – contains the ordinary gods and monsters of the title. As Nick and Marion flee through the streets they know so well, he reflects: “the area, usually so benign, suddenly became strange and sinister.”

Nick’s tentative steps into adulthood could take him into the one Womersley novel I’ve not mentioned, his award-winning 2007 crime drama, The Low Road. It’s tempting to think of Ordinary Gods and Monsters as a prequel, with the author returning to a time before it all began. I can imagine Nick choosing the wrong path and becoming Lee, The Low Road’s petty criminal protagonist.

Nick’s older brother has left home. His 20-year-old sister, Alison, lives at home and has mental health issues. Here’s Nick recalling a family counselling session. “Aside from my mum, no one really tried – or even seemed to possess a language for their emotional life. Alison gobbled up all the smarties piled in a bowl on the coffee table, my dad sat stony-faced, my brother squirmed and picked at his fingernails. The idea of sitting around talking about our feelings with a stranger – or anyone else for that matter – did not come naturally to us … I felt ashamed and embarrassed, as if we were some pitiful sporting team summoned to account for our dreadful on-field performances.”

This beautiful and touching passage goes to the emotional intent – one of hope rather than hopelessness – of this novel by one of Australia’s most innovative and interesting writers of fiction. Ordinary Gods and Monsters is perhaps Womersley’s most straightforward novel so far. The result has darkness, yes, but much tenderness, generosity and belief in the value of family – even if the family is fractured.

Picador, 320pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "Ordinary Gods and Monsters".

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