Megan Cheong reviews Kokomo by Victoria Hannan
by Victoria Hannan
Reviewed by MEGAN CHEONG
In lockdown, distance regained some of its former authority. For six of the last twelve months, many Melburnians have lived, worked and didn’t work within a five kilometre radius of their home. My parents live 22 kilometres away, and though there isn’t a great tradition of hugging in my family, I spent much of lockdown longing to see my two-year-old wrap his arms around his grandfather’s neck.
I think it was this particular longing which made me feel, acutely, the distance between Mina and Elaine in Victoria Hannan’s Kokomo.
‘I guess you know why I’m here,’ she’d said the day before as she’d pulled out a wooden chair to sit opposite Elaine at the table.
‘Why don’t you tell me,’ Elaine said, her voice taut.
‘Mum…’ Mina studied Elaine’s face, her long thin nose, her cool blue eyes; she looked older, tired, just as sad. She wanted to hug her mother, but instead she reached over and put her hand on Elaine’s hand. Her skin felt cold like paper. They sat there for a minute, their hands touching. ‘Are you –’ Mina started, but Elaine stood.
It has been seven years since Mina left to work in London, and 12 years since Elaine last stepped out the front door of the family home. When Elaine is seen out on the street, Mina is called and immediately flies back to Melbourne full of questions that Elaine seems to have no intention of answering.
Across the road, the Chengs offer a different model of family life. Both Kira and her mother, Valerie, wrap their arms around Mina when they first see her after her long absence. Their house smells like ‘fabric softener on just-washed sheets’ (10) and glows golden, ‘warm light beaming from all the windows’ (33). The contrast between Elaine’s cool reception and Valerie’s garrulous welcome is so stark that I am briefly worried about the dimensionality of the characters. I am tired of reading mothers whose lives seem to begin and end with motherhood, mothers like a stain on the intricate tapestry of the protagonist’s past. Then, gazing at a family portrait of the Chengs in matching red velvet outfits, Mina is struck by a feeling, a ‘want’ that ‘growl[s] and stir[s] deep down inside her’ (11), a surge of unmistakably sexual desire that interrupts my mounting indignation about the prevalence of flat literary mothers.
This kind of uninhibited swerve characterises the acuity of Hannan’s depiction of Mina’s psyche as a tortuous network of lacunae and hunger. Though it is a rare pleasure to read a novel set in Melbourne, and so to be able to fill out the details of the brown brick porches and the birdsong, Kokomo is deeply rooted in the psychological, presenting readers with a highly filtered version of reality. As Mina circles in and around her childhood home, her thoughts range from Melbourne to London, past to present, love to sex, cycling endlessly back to Jack, her co-worker and the object of the desire that permeates the novel. She tugs compulsively at the screen of her phone, waiting for a message, some kind of contact, some sign of reciprocal feeling:
She looked at the message to Jack again. Delivered. Ignored. She knew his phone was never out of reach, that he slept with it under his pillow, that he looked at it when he woke up, in meetings, constantly. He must’ve seen her message. He must’ve. This was the longest they’d gone without talking since they started working together just over a year ago. She reread the message. Maybe it was too cold.
I’m too cold, she thought. I’m a bitch. I should’ve said something cute, something sexy. It should’ve been a small x, two? One big, one small. I’ve fucked it all up.
The swarm of assumptions and images that rush in to fill Jack’s silence and the way in which Mina obsesses over the orthography of her message is uncomfortably familiar. In the moments between Mina and her phone, Hannan captures the work we put into constructing ourselves with embarrassing clarity, yet something beyond flirtation is at stake here. For Hannan, the social media age is one of distance and longing. The distance between who we are and the person we carefully curate in text messages and posts only adds to the distance between me and you. In Kokomo, social media is a form of surveillance, everyone watching each other without ever reaching out, the ‘double tap…an easy substitute for friendship’ (64).
The distance between what is real and what is imagined is situated at the focal point of the novel. As well as struggling to rediscover the self that was swallowed up by the tragedies of her past, Mina works hard to reach Elaine, the Elaine buried under years of motherhood. And far from neglecting the character of the mother, Hannan makes a poignant centrepiece of Elaine’s life in a way that reminds me of all the stories and all the living stored up in every one of us. All of it within reach if you just reach out.
MEGAN CHEONG lives and works on Wurundjeri land. She is currently working as an editor and completing her Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Her work can be found in Overland and Farrago.