Phew. I found The Mint Lawn by Gillian Mears intense. And dense. I was expecting to become completely absorbed (as I did with Foal’s Bread) but instead, I got bogged down in heavy prose, the shifting timeline, and emotionally taxing characters.
The story is set in the fictional town of Jacaranda, on the north coast of New South Wales (I believe Jacaranda is based on the town of Grafton). Clementine, aged twenty-five and married to her high-school music teacher, Hugh, is still living in the place where she grew up, bound by memories and her inability to make sense of past events. Told from Clementine’s point-of-view, the story rotates around her sisters, her parents (Ventry and Cairo), her grandmother, Hugh and her lover.
But it is one of those memory stories that has accumulated colours and meanings more potent than the event itself.
Mears reveals the climax of the family’s story early in the book, and then zigzags back and forth in time, building the narrative from Clementine’s perspective as a child, a teenager and as an adult. There are no startling plot twists, this book is a character study and by the end, you understand the motivations and sadness of each person.
There is no question that Mears writes beautifully. Her descriptions are fulsome and arresting, from the simplest – ‘Around us the air is threadbare’ – to those that have particularly evocative details –
I dog-paddle into the middle. It’s like moving into a geometric dream. I paddle into angles and a blue sense of formality… I submerge again, remembering how Sky, Alex and I used to sit at the bottom of the pool for as long as we could: exchanging obscenities and hopes that couldn’t be heard.
But I did find The Mint Lawn demanding and unrelenting reading. There’s lots of references to bums, nipples and knobs. Lots about ants, eating sweets and ripening fruit. Lots of gauche music lesson memories. Lots of things were damp or moist – whether that be crotches, bathroom walls or old bedding. I’m sure I was supposed to infer some greater meaning in these repeated motifs but by the halfway point, I was feeling weary.
Only we noted the heaviness of her breasts under her wet gardening dress and the way Ventry held them from behind. Like they were a soft milk-giving fruit. Like they were soft fruit. This was in the early, prosperous, laughing days when Cairo could still love him best of all, or at least enough.
‘I’m like a little boy, darling.’ I open my eyes. ‘I look like a statue! Look.’ He puts my tea down and clasps his balls. ‘See how tight and round they’ve gone. Woke up with them like that. Winter must really be here.’
The characters, on their own, are fascinating. Clementine’s father, Ventry, is charming, and her mother, Cairo, intriguing.
She was our restless mother. She’s a glitter of unreliable memories. She’s my own personal mystery now who could laugh or cry her face crooked with emotion.
But it is in Hugh that Mears has created one of the most memorable and horrible characters that I have ever come across. His veiled cruelty, his pettiness, his bigotry, his stinginess and ultimately his nastiness know no limits. Clementine, once accommodating of his foibles (and they are particular – he subscribes to Majesty magazine, wears nightshirts and ‘…hops on board an exercise bike each morning. I hold open a Time Life Cities of the World volume. In this way, Hugh believes, we are eliminating the need ever to travel in countries where English is not spoken‘) becomes restless. Her restlessness translates in various ways, from rubbing grease into Hugh’s Princess Diana tea towel to taking a lover. Hugh made me feel physically ill – that’s terrific writing.
3.5/5 The memorable characters made it worth the slog but it was hard reading.
Christmas day is stinking hot. Alexandra’s peppermint creams, made to her deluxe recipe with slices of fresh mint, melt the moment she takes them from the fridge.