Jane Messer is based in Sydney, teaching creative writing at Macquarie University, so it’s no wonder her fourth novel Hopscotch settles so nicely into the city and its suburbs, from Lane Cove to the Northern Beaches.
The familiarity of places, and small details such as finding Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion in the kitchen, help create an authentic Australiana-infused atmosphere that carries the story and the characters.
Hopscotch runs the risk, at first, of reading a bit like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Both centre on an ailing father, a mother in the position of carer, and three grown children struggling with their own lives.
But Hopscotch takes this structure and extends the story further than Franzen. Messer bravely takes the story to confronting places, particularly with son Mark, and sisters Liza and Jemma; losing a job, surviving a break-up, testing fertility, and exploring sexuality are classic themes that she makes contemporary with the context of our technological world and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.
Messer’s writing style is comfortable but eloquent. The book is an easy weekend read, but it is dotted with beautiful lines that showcase Messer’s talent with metaphor: ‘He was limp, his shoulders slumped. His worries hung half in, half out. He was a badly tucked shirt.’
While I enjoyed the book there were moments I found quite unbelievable. I was able to look past them, just as I was able to look past my dislike for Mark, the eldest son. While his storyline of failing marriage and job woes started out interesting, it grew less so as the book progressed.
I couldn’t connect with Mark as I did the female characters. I found myself cooking dinner one night and thinking, ‘I have to get back to Hopscotch, I need to be with Jemma through this!’ just as a real-life friend would. But Messer sets Mark up to be a generally unlikeable man from the very beginning, and in this she does well.
Hopscotch is an honest book, assimilating tried and true themes into an Australian landscape, with striking female characters in the familiar setting of 2008, pre-GFC Sydney. While it has its flaws, the writing and story outweigh them, making Hopscotch an enjoyable book for all readers.
Kyra Bandte is a writer, reader and editor from Wollongong. She currently works full-time as a content writer in Sydney while being on the editorial team for online literary publication Writer’s Edit. She’s a spinner of short stories and sometimes poetry, and is slowly bringing her first novel together. Find her on Twitter @KyraBandte.