Slowly exploding violence on a domestic scale

A family reunites around new possibilities but sometimes things are not what they seem.
Book Info
The Restorer
Michael Sala
Text Publishing

Richard, the neighbour in the row of Newcastle terraces, sees it from day one: the fractive, failing relationship. Roy, wanting a place to keep his wife  after their reconciliation, has found an old terrace house with views of the ocean. So Maryanne, and children, Freya and Daniel, arrive with Roy to join him patching together a new life there. But from the beginning, a gnawing tension inhabits the building, throwing Maryanne's hopes for her kids' future up against the uncertainties of the past.

From the opening page, the title of this novel is self-evidently a lie. The restoration here consists in a determined papering and painting over of cracks, in a driven frenzy of scraping and scrubbing both at the structure and skin of the building and also at the scabs of past wounds.

The truth of their past history is laid down through disquieting hints in the precise dialogue that demonstrates Sala's sharp observations of the deceptions we practice to each other and ourselves, for the sake of peace and for our future hopes.

'Are you sorry yet?'

'No. Roy. Of course not. Why should I be sorry.'

'You hesitated.'

'I didn't.'

'I was joking. Don't be so sensitive.'

'I'm not sorry.'

'You don't even know what I'm talking about.'

'I do know.' she said. 'The house. Everything. This leap into the dark.'

'A leap into the dark. Is that how you see it?

'Don't you?

The perspective shifts between that of Freya (14) and her mother, Maryanne. The girl guesses at the casues of the tension she feels in the house, in the uneasy relationship between her mother and father. Over the year Freya finds an uneasy place in her class, in wider friendship groups. Sala renders with particular grace and skill the classroom and schoolground incidents and budding friendships and discovery of escapes fundamental to a teenager's developing identity. Similarly the social world of Maryanne, in her friendship with Richard, the neighbour, and in her work at the hospital, are authentically detailed and convincing in their humanity.

Beyond people, the character and power of the Newcastle topography - drawn with words of wind, ocean, landform, light, clouds and weather - as well as the built infrastructure of the city, is alive and vital in the story.

Roy, nervous and restive, and his son Daniel, provide the two pivots from which much of the tension emanates. With the story mostly related from the perepective of Maryanne and Freya this device underscores the murky, uneasy past of the family, and the futility of Maryanne's and Roy's hopes for the future. 

Sala's story of mundane domestic tension explodes in ways both already anticipated and powerfully surprising.  The narrative is real, compelling, sophisticated,and deeply human. Having read this work, I will certainly seek out Sala's debut novel, and watch with interest for new works from this gifted creator. Strongly recommended.

Reviewed by Pamela Greet