Max Easton’s 2021 novel, The Magpie Wing, was a striking debut. Tracing the lives of its characters across almost two decades, it brought a powerful class consciousness to its depiction of the social and physical landscape of Sydney’s west, while also capturing the dislocation and alienation of its protagonists.
It’s tempting to call Easton’s second novel, Paradise Estate, a sequel to The Magpie Wing, although it’s not quite. While it shares characters with that earlier book, it feels more like another piece in a larger project dedicated to mapping contemporary Australia and its discontents. When The Magpie Wing ended, the pandemic had descended on Sydney; as Paradise Estate opens, it is January 2022 and Helen and Sunny are trying to pull together enough people to fill a share house. The place they find – a rundown, damp, mould-infested house overlooked on three sides by tower blocks – might seem unprepossessing, but the rooms are quickly filled.
The novel follows the housemates – Helen, 37 and grieving multiple losses, punk archivist Sunny, sharp, brutally funny Beth, Dale, middle-class couple Nathan and Alice and, later, rugby league player and tradie Rocco – across the 12 months that follows, as they worry, quarrel and debate different ways of building community.
Paradise Estate gives Sydney’s inner west the same granular treatment The Magpie Wing gave the outer suburbs, methodically describing everything from the bleakly charmless development around Canterbury’s railway station to the access ramps of the Broadway shopping centre car park. At times this exactitude is exhilarating, but like much in the novel it is also difficult to escape the sense it is at least partly satirical, a close focus that captures something of the way the novel’s characters are enclosed and trapped by the circumstances of their lives.
It is these circumstances – the mingled irritations and radical possibilities of communal life, the difficulty of making meaningful lives out of meaningless jobs or building solidarity when most people have given up, the sense of directionlessness and failure that assails many of the characters – that give Paradise Estate its emotional heft. It’s also the source of much of its comedy. The book is often very funny, even if its humour is geared to a very particular audience: at one point Nathan is accused of using the lives of his housemates as fodder for a Verso Books submission and has to stop himself from saying it is “better suited to Pluto Press”.
But Easton’s aspirations are bigger than merely documenting a social moment. By teasing out the particularity of his characters’ lives, he captures not just the deadening effect of capitalism’s cooption and commodification of every aspect of our lives, but the joys and disappointments of trying to build a space from which to resist.
Giramondo, 288pp, $32.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "Paradise Estate".
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