Small Joys of Real Life Review by Allee Richards – Millennium Tragedy Finds Joy Amid Catastrophe | Books
Tthere is so much hope in Eva’s first encounters with Pat. Shy smiles and introductions, a grip in the back of the Uber on the way to its place. They save their first kiss for the moment they land in bed and have deep conversations afterwards.
But a few weeks later, Eva was pregnant and Pat died, never knowing she was carrying her child.
It’s the little shards of good in what could be described as a modern, millennial tragedy that make Allee Richards’ debut novel Small Joys of Real Life the poignant work it is.
Shortlisted for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Unpublished Manuscript, the novel chronicles monthly events in Eva’s life (and by extension, that of her friends, Annie and Sarah) during her pregnancy. In between are some heartfelt conversations she’ll never have with her baby’s father: intimate revelations about how she felt supported following their one-night stand; a stay on what could have been; an indulgence in the fantasy that she could have prevented him from committing suicide.
It’s another tale based on the sense of millennial hopelessness and angst made famous by Sally Rooney (Normal People), Anna Hope (Wait), Dolly Alderton (Ghosts) and Frances Macken (You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around. Here), but with a quintessential Melburnian touch. Like the women in the aforementioned stories, Eva and her friends don’t have huge issues, they just struggle with the same kind of thinking that seems to be ingrained in the psyche of anyone born after 1983.
If Richards knows why this is the case, she doesn’t say it. We spend a lot of time peeling things inside Eva’s head, observing the well-built characters around her whose stories are told in an intimate way, but don’t distract from the main plot.
She writes in a neutral tone – never preaching – about bringing children into a world that fights climate change; on the gentrification of Melbourne’s once culturally diverse suburbs. There is an implicit, perhaps unconscious, resentment for the novel’s baby boomer couples; the effortless way in which they know each other’s needs, the fact that they own seaside holiday homes, complemented by thriving gardens bearing abundant fruit, the fact that they seem to be able to go on living while subsequent generations are constantly wavering.
Although intelligent and subtle in their assessment of modern life and dating, romantic relationships take a back seat to strong but imperfect female friendships. Richards skillfully navigates the intricacies of tightly knit groups: unspoken judgments; the push-pull we feel when our friends’ lives seem better or simpler than ours; annoyance of the opportunities to land in the towers. Perhaps the most commendable is its representation of female desire; historically under-represented in general, but fundamentally never represented in pregnant characters. Richards isn’t afraid of Eva’s questionable choices in the pursuit of sex, she doesn’t disinfect or glamourize the pregnancy (if anything, Eva seems to be experiencing all the symptoms you could possibly read in a book about. the pregnancy).
This may be a byproduct of Eva’s very palpable escape from loneliness, though Richards doesn’t make her a desperate victim. Instead, her story is one of underlying optimism, more evident when counting things she’d like to experience with her baby, like pram rides or making play dough. Simple moments, Eva calls them out, while lamenting that the space adults have to share such joys – because they’re not as great as career prospects or romantic relationships – is limited.
“We never talk about it,” she says, about things like a nice turn of phrase in the book she’s reading, the eggplant in the garden left on her doorstep by a new neighbor, the knocking. of her baby’s foot when she feels lonely.
Small Joys of Real Life is easy and enjoyable to read with surprising depth. There is unhappiness in this life, more than we may realize, but there are also promises and hope; not just in the new life that grows within us, but in our little moments of life, breathing joy even as we gaze at the barrel of certain and unforeseeable death.