In the days leading up to the end of the year, all I wanted was to settle down with a nice, summery book, to keep me company.
I looked at my pile of Book to the Future reading and decided not to read the book I’d chosen for 1927 until the New Year. I wasn’t in the mood for doom and gloom. I wanted something different: something empowering and positive and inspiring to end the year on a high note.
Gosh. I chose the wrong book…
It’s not that Fiona McGregor’s Indelible Ink is a bad book. It’s not. It’s amazing. It just wasn’t what I was expecting. The blurb sets it up as the story of a middle-aged woman finding herself – which it is. But, at the same time, it’s not. You’ll see.
by Fiona McGregor
Published in 2010
Marie King is a mother; a grandmother; a middle-aged divorcée. She’s also an avid gardener – and a closet alcoholic.
Now, at the age of fifty-nine, Marie finds that her life is hurtling out of control. With no husband to support her, she can no longer afford to live in her Mosman home, and she’s preparing to sell the house – and her beloved garden along with it. Yet even this decision is out of her hands, with Marie’s three children, all obsessed with real estate, each stepping in to offer their vocal opinions. Frequently.
Then, one night, after a drunken lunch with a friend, Marie finds herself in a tattooist’s parlour, having a red rose inked onto her skin forever.
Marie is addicted. Within the space of a week she has two more tattoos. While in pursuit of another, she meets Rhys, an inner-Sydney tattoo artist. Rhys’ tattoos aren’t your average fare. They’re beautifully coloured, individually-crafted masterpieces. At first, Rhys is sceptical of Marie. But eventually, the two women form a strange friendship, and Rhys begins to show Marie a whole new side of Sydney she never knew existed.
As Marie’s skin changes, she begins to change too. She becomes stronger. She stops drinking. Yet still, there’s a deep pain buried within her, a constant ache; a nausea so deep that nothing can take it away…
The thing with Indelible Ink is that, no matter how I try to describe the plot, it still sounds like the “inspirational story of a middle-aged woman finding herself” plot I described at the beginning of my review. Trust me. This is (thankfully) not Eat, Pray, Love. There’s no sentimentality about Indelible Ink. It’s absolutely fierce. Fiona McGregor shows her readers, her characters, and even her setting no mercy. There’s no gloss, no glitter – just grit. The third person narrative is raw, with our main characters presented in an unrelenting glare.
Ultimately, Indelible Ink is Marie’s story. But alongside her story, McGregor presents us with the lives of her three children, Blanche, Leon and Clark. Gradually, these three characters take over the narrative; they invade the story like the creeping vines in Marie’s garden.
This was a problem for me. Marie is a protagonist like no other. McGregor brings Marie to life with an amazing artistry. Marie, as a character, is nearly too strong for this narrative. She steals the show. I found that I wanted to know more about Marie and less about her children. Marie’s story was the story I was the most interested in – but gradually, sadly, she fades from view. It’s a poignant illustration of the harsh reality of Marie’s life – her time is over. It’s her kids’ turn now.
While Marie is losing her mind, her children have their own problems to deal with. We learn all about their careers, their relationships and their choices as the narrative moves forward – and how they react to their mother’s transformation.
If you’re the kind of reader who can’t stand to read about characters you don’t like – if, for instance, you didn’t like The Slap – Indelible Ink could pose a problem for you. McGregor’s characters aren’t all likable, all the time. I liked Marie, but someone else might think she was a whining, middle-class snob. And then, there are Marie’s children. I wasn’t crazy about them. But they do have their redeeming moments.
One thing I found a little annoying about the way McGregor switching between the third-person perspective of Marie and her children was that sometimes, it’s a little jarring. You’re left wondering who on earth you’re following now. Also, because Indelible Ink isn’t written in chapters (though there are three parts) it can get a little confusing when McGregor wants to show the passage of time. Where one writer might simply begin a new chapter, McGregor just leaves a gap and continues writing. It can be a little disorienting.
But enough with the negative stuff. One thing I absolutely loved about Indelible Ink is its setting. It’s kind of thrilling to read a book set in the city in which you live. A character is arrested five minutes away from where I used to work. Some of the streets McGregor mentions are streets I go to every day. This gives Indelible Ink a strange sense of familiarity for me. It makes it more real; as if I could run into Marie on the way home from work one night. Fiona McGregor does an amazing job bringing Sydney to life.
But, as a portrait of Sydney, Indelible Ink isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Marie’s nouveau-riche neighbours with their newly-erected McMansion, complete with the obligatory set of yappy dogs are one target of Marie’s scorn. Then, there’s Marie’s own children. They’re obsessed with real estate, making money, owning things. On a trip through King’s Cross, we’re witness to the city’s seedier side. We find out later, from Rhys, that the city is ruled by bikie gangs and the police. The drought seems endless. The seas are being overfished. The next generation care too much about their careers. In short, Everything Is Going Wrong.
Depressing? Oh yes. Fiona MacGregor paints an undeniably bleak picture of not only Sydney, but the state of the world today. The only reprieve, it seems, lies in self-expression.
There’s no happy ending in store for Marie. It’s a pity, because she’s one of the most amazing characters I’ve ever encountered.
Indelible Ink is a confronting read. As the title implies, it will leave a mark on you. Don’t pick it up expecting something light and fluffy, like I did, or it will tear a piece from your soul. This book is absolutely savage.
For me, at least, Indelible Ink is a novel about pain. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it hurts so much.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Yes. There’s something about Indelible Ink that feels important: like a vital piece of history. Like a time capsule. But make sure you’re ready first. Indelible Ink left me feeling absolutely devastated for days on end (much like The Slap). I’m glad I left it a while before writing my review, as my regard for this book has improved over time. This is one emotionally draining book…
In a word: