Review: Deception by Michael Meehan

deception.jpg Michael Meehan
Allen & Unwin
284 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

Deception, Michael Meehan's third novel, is an interesting exploration of familial secrecy, and in particular how the curiosity of youth can uncover skeletons long since buried and forgotten, disrupting and perhaps destroying ancestral ties. The title refers to a place name, but an undercurrent of the novel is deception as a simple noun, the state of being deceived. Unfortunately, some readers may consider that the real deception in the novel is that being perpetrated on them.

According to his publisher's website, Michael Meehan's debut novel, The Salt of Broken Tears, won the 2000 Christina Stead Award for Fiction. This is a novel "The Age" apparently considered "a masterwork". It would be interesting to compare that work with this one, because this novel has the potential I believe to frustrate some readers, and delight others.

Meehan's protagonist, Nicholas, is a young law student who finds himself in the unfamiliar streets of Paris in the late 1960s. For those readers who detest John Grisham-like legal thrillers, Nicholas' status as a law student plays little part in the story. Rather, this is a story of a young man trying to uncover the skeletons in his family tree, and learning as much about himself in the process.

The language used in the novel, particularly the dialogue spoken by the protagonist's French relatives, comes across as quite flowery and overdone. This may be because the characters are actually supposed to be speaking French, and the dialogue in the novel may actually be a direct translation, but as a literary device it is peculiar at best, and offputting at worst. Similarly, the author's descriptions and metaphors, at times brilliantly vivid, can also be ostentatious and overly clever. For the most part, Meehan avoids unnecessary effulgence, but this is unfortunately not a trap he stays away from altogether.

Notwithstanding dialogue problems, Meehan's characters are wonderfully written. Julia, Nicholas' partner-in-crime, has a focused determination to uncover the family history to the sacrifice of everything else. Lucien is a former academic Nicholas meets on the streets of Paris, who while extremely knowledgeable on apparently all things has quite a severe personal hygiene problem. As a result of said problem, Lucien has been barred from virtually every library or museum in Paris, quite an achievement. Nevertheless, and somewhat paradoxically, Lucien is probably the most sympathetic character in the novel.

It is Nicholas' aunts that provide the real frustrations, both to Nicholas and the reader. They all speak in the same way, the overly flowery language referred to earlier. There are four of them, and they seem to be peculiar, demented, unwilling to provide any of the information Nicholas' is seeking about his family, or all three. It is not a coincidence that the novel is at its most interesting when Nicholas is conversing with Julia or Lucien, or even Monsieur Jalabert, the family lawyer. Jalabert is a wonderfully vivid character, who at times provides Nicholas with useful information and at other seems completely disinterested in the whole business.

It would be unfair to describe Deception as a bad novel -- Meehan is clearly a very talented writer, and at times the novel demands the reader's attention and threatens to not let go. At other times, however, it does exactly that. Perhaps that is the real deception.


I liked The Salt of Broken Tears.
This one sounds bizarre enough to be interesting... *chuckle* I wonder why it is that our writers travel to Paris (rather than anywhere else) to do a novel? Marion Halligan (The Golden Dress); Claire Thomas (Fugitive Blue) & this one. Is there a scholarship that funds it LOL?

And don't forget Candle Life by Venero Armanno and Dreams of Speaking by Gail Jones.

Actually there is a writers' residence in Paris which can be obtained by application for a grant from the Australia Council. Not sure if all or any of these writers utilised it. But I could hazard a guess.

From the Australia Council's website:

"Keesing Studio, Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, France
The Literature Board administers the Keesing Studio at the request of the late Nancy Keesing, an Australian author, poet and social historian, who generously leased the Studio for 75 years for use by Australian writers. The Keesing Studio is part of the Cité Internationale des Arts, an arts complex of around 200 studios located on the right bank of the Seine opposite the Ile St Louis, in an area known as Le Marais.

The fully furnished studio is approximately 40 square metres and consists of one large room off the foyer with a partitioned sleeping area and a small kitchen and bathroom. Successful applicants must commit themselves to staying for the full six months and are required to sign an undertaking that they will abide by the general rules of the Cité. Residents are required to pay a bond of €350 (approx. AUD$640). While primarily a working space for one person, the studio is suitable for a couple and Cité regulations do allow one young child to be in residence with parent/s. The fee for partners is €95 per month (approx. AUD$175). The fee for children between 4-12 years is €53 per month (approx. AUD$97). There is no charge for children under 4 years. Please note that previous residents have commented on the difficulty of managing small children in the confined space of the studio. If there is more than one person residing at the studio, the advantages of companionship should be weighed against the restrictions of space."

I love the way you have to read between the lines here. I'm quite sure the fees for partners and children didn't always apply and I suspect they are an indirect form of discouragement. There really is not space for more than one person, at least not over six months, and if one of those people wants to spend the six months working, which is the whole point of the studio.

But I suppose you could always sit in the studio and write a novel about how a writer's partner and small child find themselves banished from the apartment by the Artist Spouse and Parent for eight hours a day, daily walking the cold streets of Paris, looking for toilettes and bananes and whatever the French is for playgrounds. But you could only write that novel if you didn't want a happy ending.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on August 12, 2009 1:56 PM.

Reprint: Book Censorship: Attack by Authors: Australian Methods Denounced was the previous entry in this blog.

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