Rachel Matthews is the author of Siren (2017, see my review) and I featured her in Meet an Aussie Author back in 2017 because I was so impressed by the way her novel confronted the bleak truth about football culture and sexual assault. Her new novel Never Look Desperate is equally devastating in its portrayal of vulnerable people, but it has a lighter touch: it’s poignant, tender and hopeful, and its characters will steal your heart. This is the blurb:
Never Look Desperate is Sedaris meets Fleabag, a tragi-comedy romance set in Melbourne 2023. It features cremation bling, pineapple underwear, grief and vaccinated cruise ships. The central characters Bernard, Goldie and Minh are everything TED Talks tell you not to be.
The story tackles the absurdity of despair in a recovering world, the liberation from isolation and the wild frontier of middle-aged Tinder.
Bernard and Minh are middle-aged singles trying to negotiate new relationships when they’re carrying baggage from previous relationships. Goldie is older: she’s Bernard’s mother.
Bernard is kind-of literally carrying a torch for his wife Silvia: he wears a piece of cremation jewellery, like a locket but with her ashes inside.
He liked the smooth surface of the pendant. Silvia was ash inside metal, tucked underneath his clothing. Cremation jewellery, the brochure said. Bernard and Silvia had separated before the accident — and now when he felt sad, she was still around.
Except in intimate moments, when she was gently placed in a sock drawer.
‘Take it off in the shower or bath,’ the woman from Forever Designs had whispered. ‘Keep your loved one dry.’ (p.1)
#Digression: You didn’t know there was such a thing? Nor did I. But in the 19th century mourning brooches were common, and often they included portraits or a lock of hair. See some antique mourning brooches at Cartiers here.
Goldie, Bernard’s mother, is lonely too, and they don’t get on. Browsing a Facebook ad promoting antiseptic masks for immunocompromised travellers wanting safe hook-ups, Bernard remembers the moment when he heard the news about his father Marvin’s death.
Bernard closed his eyes. It was just under twelve months since the phone call from his quick-tongued mother Goldie. He’d been watching The Farmer Wants a Wife on catch-up in self-isolation, after a neighbour got the virus form their local Coles — a deli worker handing over sliced mortadella. As Goldie had said, ‘Your father died’, a wheat grower called Donald had been deliberating between a hairdresser and an bisexual wedding celebrant. (p.2)
Bernard is forty-nine. He longs to be touched. He couldn’t remember the feel of skin.
And he remembers his father telling him that Goldie had hidden his blood pressure tablets after announcing that she could cure him with linseed and omega-3. Her new boyfriend Franz is susceptible to quackery too. He doesn’t mind the tarot cards and he’s behind with his vaccine boosters after seeing a doctor on TikTok explaining the science behind the shots causing constipation. Goldie tests his patience because she is brittle and hasty, and although she recognises the cues that suggest Franz’s interest, she deflects them because she is afraid.
Minh is afraid of being hurt too. She’s fifty-four, super-fit and whip-smart, but carrying trauma from the boat journey as a child when her father was lost at sea. She hasn’t seen her mother and step-father for so long, she had forgotten the quiet sound of their judgement.
Minh dabbled in occasional short relationships. Each one sparked a new haircut. Her current style was a messy shoulder-length bob with a thick fringe. Her dark eyes were like chocolate almonds, a customer once told her at the Kino Cinema where she worked as a casual. When she was a young girl, her stepfather insisted she wear her hair in a tight bun for church. They attended the local Children of Job Chapel, an evangelical sect with origins in the UK. (p.17)
Minh’s mother is a Buddhist, but Linh did whatever her husband instructed. And that, he said, was what made her such a lady.
Minh tries out Nurse48 with gingery stubble and a Hawaiian shirt. He’s had a tough time during Covid.
‘Why do you do it?, she asked. ‘Your job, I mean.’
‘It’s the moments,’ he said quietly. ‘You hold a kid’s hand when they’re scared and another person’s had when they take their last breath.’ (p.20)
Possibly a nice-enough man, just one whose nervousness translates into his speech getting slurred, asking Minh where she was born, and crass comments about her breasts. No wonder Minh is savvy with the red flags. She goes home on the train, listening to a meditation on forgiveness…
And she checks her Bumble account, discovering four new men in her match queue, one of whom is Bernard (the only one who doesn’t mention liking Sunday markets):
She viewed Bernard’s photos. In one shot he wore a Darth Vader mask, another was a baby photo; there was a screenshot of a fluffy ginger cat and a vintage poster of the ’70s TV show Starsky & Hutch.
His profile read:
Let’s not play games. Unless it’s Cluedo.
I’m a decent person. I own my place and teeth.
If you like to be treated well and you know how to have fun, drop me a line.
PS I like Wagon Wheels, and I wash my hands. (p.23)
Bernard takes an hour to reply to their initial exchange. I’m guessing this is part of ‘never looking desperate’.
There was no such thing as Tinder when I was between husbands and I was most definitely not looking for a replacement for The Ex anyway when The Spouse and I crossed paths. Rachel Matthews’ insights into the 21st century dating scene in Never Look Desperate show us a poignant world of loneliness and courage which made my heart ache for the characters and their longing to connect with that special someone.
I can’t do better than to quote a reviewer called Yannick Thoraval at Goodreads, who wrote
Building and keeping relationships is one of the most difficult things we humans try to do, and Matthews explores this sometimes sad and giddy quest with equal measures of hope and surrender.
Never Look Desperate is astute social commentary. Highly recommended.
Author: Rachel Matthews
Title: Never Look Desperate
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2023
Cover art by Josh Durham, Design by Committee
ISBN: 9780645565393, pbl., 304 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge
Posted by: Lisa Hill