There’s a trick Christos Tsiolkas does in his eighth novel, The In-Between. At several points in the action, as the central drama plays out in the foreground, the focus drifts away. Tsiolkas brings our attention instead to a passing youth on the street or the gaze of another commuter.
Despite these glances away, The In-Between is an intensely interior book with Tsiolkas’s trademark unflinching intimacy and access to the thoughts, fears, rages and lusts of his characters. It makes these other moments all the more acute when they occur. They offer us an external view of proceedings, giving us the distance to see our protagonists afresh: “[Rani] cursorily examines the two older men across the alley. They are both tall, the thinner dark one looking Lebanese or Greek. The other one is hard; even the flab of his belly appears solid. He seems Anglo, though there is something about the sharp angle of his cheeks and the prominent broad chin that suggest otherwise.”
The two older men in question, Perry and Ivan, are the focus of the novel, and as proceedings begin, they are readying for their first date. Having met on a dating app, both are nervous, both haunted by previous heartbreak and old mistakes. Perry and Ivan are not the young 20-somethings of Tsiolkas’s earliest books. They’re not even the young parents of The Slap, navigating the slide into middle age.
Perry, at 53, still grieves for a years-long relationship with patrician, unavailable, married Gerard. Ivan is 55, a grandfather, and tormented by the violent end of his own never-forgotten love affair with the younger Joe. Both endlessly prod their emotional bruises, worrying the ragged edges of wounds they can’t escape and that they fear define them. This is, in many ways, Tsiolkas’s most mature work, and it is a beauty. The entire narrative – and the characters, who are its engine and drive it forward – is suffused with the kind of regrets and damage that accrue over a lifetime.
After the autofictional detour of his previous novel 7½ – with its hints at the author’s frustration with much of contemporary politics and the challenge of how to integrate such concerns with the creation of meaningful art – The In-Between finds the various passions and curiosities of Tsiolkas at play to masterful effect: his pungent takes on European heritage in an Australian context, on class, on violence and its legacies, on personal dishonesties and moral fudging, on sex, bodies and desire.
It’s this last point for which perhaps Tsiolkas is most often remembered. His commitment to the erotic remains undiminished as the bodies grow older. While The Slap and Barracuda introduced Tsiolkas and his work to a wider, more commercial readership, for the book club set there has remained a sense of unease about sex in his work. A new Tsiolkas book is best approached with an appetite for the gritty and corporeal, for sour armpits and rough mouths, for bodies in all their greedy, thrusting wants and needs. I think squeamishness about this aspect of his work misses the point: because he refuses to look away, in the ugliness Tsiolkas finds what is beautiful and true.
The In-Between confirms what has long been the case: there are few writers better at capturing the quality of tenderness. Tsiolkas is tender towards his characters, for all their flaws and damage, and they in turn are tender with one another. Moments of anger or distress, of shame and conflict, repeatedly turn on a dime as people see one another, worry for one another and try to do better.
A centrepiece dinner party scene, with the couple anxious about Ivan meeting Perry’s old friends, is Tsiolkas at his very best. Here are characters being familiar, relatable, trying their best, but being a bit awful nonetheless. The ways in which they judge one another, the prejudices and personal beefs that come to bear on the conversation, create heaviness and dread. How can this social event work – how can any relationship work – when we bring so much baggage to the table? The generosity of Tsiolkas’s imagination, his open-armed appreciation of human beings, suggests that love happens not despite the ghosts and demons we each have to navigate, but because of them. This is at heart a joyous and optimistic book: it is set in a world where things are hard and people are broken but – with the lightest of touches – it is optimistic.
Which brings us back to that narrative trick: Tsiolkas’s roving attention and shifting perspective. The fifth and final section of the book – more than 100 pages – is almost entirely given over to this impulse. Instead of following Perry or Ivan directly, tackling any one of the many threads that might have us anxiously watching our two lovers for reassurance that they’re going to make it, the story picks up in an apartment block in Athens. It follows a new character, Léna, and her lover, Vera, as they wake and set about their day. It’s not long before we understand their connection to the main narrative and Perry and Ivan enter the frame once again, but they are no longer the protagonists of their own story. They’re a couple we know, who we’re watching and recognising from outside their relationship. We follow them for a bit longer before the camera pulls out yet again, taking in the wider shot before leaving Léna and Vera too and moving to another story: different lovers, other hurts, hopes, promises and regrets.
Allen & Unwin, 400pp, $32
Christos Tsiolkas is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "The In-Between".
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