Saturday, October 15, 2011

Book Review: "Black Cow" by Magdalena Ball

Friend and colleague Magdalena Ball sent me an (electronic) advance reading copy of her new novel Black Cow. Maggie is a contributor to the Boychik Lit blog (helping provide sensible sexual balance), and she is the founder and editor of the Compulsive Reader book review site. I previously reviewed her debut novel Sleep Before Evening, a painful coming-of-age story about a nice, bright girl (Marianne) from the Long Island suburbs who gets lost in the New York subculture of drugs and rock 'n roll. In Black Cow, the female protagonist (Freya) is all grown up, pushing middle age, settled down with her mildly dysfunctional family in Double Bay, one of the trendier suburbs of Sydney, Australia. Freya is married to the charismatic but now underperforming James. They are both busy striving to be capitalist overachievers after having long ago abandoned their youthful hippie ideals. Freya is a harried residential real estate agent. James is CEO of a nameless firm that seems to be engaged in nothing in particular. As a result of the global Great Recession malaise, Freya's house hunters aren't buying and James's shareholders are blaming him for, well, everything. Their teenage children Cameron and Dylan, once sweet and precocious, have turned cynical and introverted. No one is getting any satisfaction.

Freya's family reminds me of Katie's in Nick Hornby's  How to be Good, and it's almost the stereotype of middle class home life these days, the nuclear family of reality TV and sitcoms alike. It's somewhat depressing to realize that life is so much the same from Bloomsbury to Darien to Santa Monica to Double Bay. Ho hum. What to do?

Freya and James decide, after a long sequence of mishaps and arguments, to sell out, move the family to rural Tasmania, and take up organic farming and cattle ranching.

In so many novels, perhaps because of the authors' strong desires that blockbuster movies get made from them, some horrific, extraordinary event suddenly disrupts the mundane flow, triggering a hell-bent plot. An example would be Ian McEwan's Saturday, in which the daily middle-class routine of London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is upset when a terrorist breaks into his home.

Although Black Cow is full of the aforesaid mishaps and arguments, it lacks that exceptional, catastrophic inciting incident that would transform it into a horror story or a family adventure movie. Assuredly, shit happens. But you may find Freya's dilemmas no worse or more dramatic than you experienced in your own dysfunctional family last week. This lack, in my opinion, is to the book's great credit. Black Cow is to be commended for its realism and its honesty. It's not a thrill ride, not an entertainment to divert us momentarily from the challenges of daily living, but a meditation on how life should be lived, on what we value and what we don't.

Having at least two meanings, the title suggests a theme.  The first is a confection made from root beer and ice cream. It's the treat Freya used to offer Cameron and Dylan when they were younger, the one sure-fire way of bringing a smile, a trick that no longer works. The term also refers to the Tasmanian Wagyu, a breed of black cattle prized for its marbled beef.

Those two meanings book-end the story.

So, does chucking it all and moving to the country resolve the family's unhappy issues? Remember, I praised Maggie for her unflinching realism.

All this said, they could well make a movie out of Black Cow, and I'd buy a ticket.

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