‘Invented Lives’ by Andrea Goldsmith: a book review by Geoffrey Zygier

April 5, 2019 by Geoffrey Zygier
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The Western world today is a place where victimhood is a badge of honour, one where people compete in public arenas to be among the elite of those who suffer.

Thankfully there are still some like two elderly men who pray at my synagogue. Both survived dreadful circumstances, one Hitler’s death camps, the other the daily rigours of life under Stalin. Whenever we chat after the service, I am always left marvelling at their apparent equanimity and how they achieved it. Seemingly they have packed away their horrors in some private place.

How does a person survive being severed from one’s home, his or her family and friends, the familiar? Even consciously choosing to separate from what one knows, is inevitably unsettling and, in extreme cases, crippling. For so many of us then, better the safety of the usual, no matter how toxic, than the uncertainty of the new. But for those of us who break such shackles, how liberating and intoxicating this act can be.

These thoughts were prompted when reading Andrea Goldsmith’s fine eighth novel, Invented Lives, to be published in early April. In an interview some years ago, Goldsmith stated that her novels “… begin with an idea, all of them. And it will be an idea that’s been on my mind for quite some time.” In this case, it is the theme of exile (be it from place, from one’s emotions and natural instincts, or from other people, and how individuals respond to this state) that informs her latest work.

Andrea Goldsmith is a member of a small minority group (a fifth-generation Australian Jew through three of her grandparents), as well as someone who has suffered the grief caused by loss of loved ones. Hence it is perhaps unsurprising that the subject of separation would be of interest to her. However, she has stated it was the Australian Government’s resumption in November 2012 of processing asylum-seekers offshore that triggered Invented Lives.

Goldsmith thus could have tackled the issue of exile by placing her story in a more contemporary context, as some other writers have done (e.g. Jock Serong’s recent On The Java Ridge). After all, the dire situation of asylum seekers has been a particular source of public interest during the last decade. However, Goldsmith’s approach is more nuanced and tangential (and thus I believe more thought-provoking) by being set in an earlier era.

Invented Lives commences in the mid-1980s as rapid political and social change is occurring around the world. In the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev’s accession to the presidency provides a window of opportunity for 24-year-old Galina Kogan to leave this totalitarian ‘workers’ paradise’. While emigration means she can never return, it is the death of her beloved mother and Russia’s deep-seated antisemitism (which has plagued the Kogan family for generations) – the latter vividly brought to life through the author’s skilful and evocative use of flashbacks – that provide the final impetus for her departure. Prompted by a chance meeting, it is Australia that becomes her destination.

Andrea Goldsmith

I think Goldsmith’s 1980s starting point and her choice of the leading character’s ethnicity is inspired. It reminds the reader that exile is not a new condition, but one that is timeless and undefined. Exile can and does happen to anyone. But particularly for Goldsmith as a post-Holocaust Jew with deep roots in Australia, living in a time of increased worldwide anti-Jewish sentiment and activity, the uncertainty of Jewish life in the Russian Galutmay have had particular resonance and implications for her latest work.

For the most part, the narrative of Invented Lives moves gently. On the surface, Galina’s adaptation to easy-going Melbourne is a successful work in progress. Her interior life, however, proceeds quite differently. Understanding the culture of a new society, particularly one that is so much freer, is daunting and exhausting. Is it possible to let go of the past? Can she really become Australian or has she made an irrevocable mistake? Her journey is made easier through a warm relationship with Leonard and Sylvie Morrow and their son Andrew, members of a family who take her under their wings. Like Galina, their external lives appear stable, blessed as they are with prosperity, ability and caring natures. But they also have vital issues to resolve and secrets to keep which threaten their fortunate lives.

It is here that Goldsmith’s writing skills come further into play. Yes, exile creates concrete problems to some of which there can be practical solutions. And while Goldsmith offers several of these, in large part it is the ineffable that she employs to support her protagonists in their difficulties. Loving (in varying degrees and of different types) and caring are fundamental, as are good values and traits, in particular kindness, understanding of the other and resoluteness. The characters are also cultured people, conversant with art and literature of substance. In addition to loving and being loved, therefore, their sensibilities provide bedrock, solace and direction in their lives.

I liked Invented Lives a lot. It continually held my attention in a way that made me reflect on both my life and the contemporary world. Goldsmith’s writing is extremely assured. The logic of her narrative is impeccable, moving the reader back and forth in a seamless manner. Her characters are authentic (their speech and thoughts are so articulate, perhaps a testament to Goldsmith’s earlier career as a speech pathologist) and her settings very evocative of era and place. Indeed this novel brings home how much has changed in the last three decades, particularly the pace of life and the passing of the analogue age. And Victorian readers will surely reminisce about what a lovely city Melbourne was (and remains).

While the author has the good literary sense to leave their situations unresolved, the reader is left assured that Goldsmith’s characters have grown in the course of Invented Lives, leaving them better placed to deal with the vicissitudes of life. (Hopefully, they may even learn to lighten up a little). While exile may be an inescapable part of the human condition, I finished this thoughtful novel persuaded that we all have the strength to deal with the sadness it so often brings and thus can enjoy the exhilaration that comes from constructive change.

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