Friends and Dark Shapes
By Kavita Bedford
Europa Editions: May 4, 2021
192 pages, $17.00
Kavita Bedford has made an impressive debut with Friends and Dark Shapes, an episodic look at the lives of housemates who are “nearly thirty” in a gentrifying section of inner-city Sydney. The unnamed narrator is struggling to make sense of how her life has turned out so far and what she should do next under complicated economic and cultural circumstances. We follow her over the course of a year as she ekes out a living as a freelance writer, copes with grief over the death of her father, and tries to make friendships and relationships work.
I have long been fascinated by Australia, so the strong sense of place in Friends and Dark Shapes gave it an additional layer of richness. Sydney, like any metropolis, exerts its power on its residents, depending on where they live, what they do for a living, and how much money they have. The narrator and her roommates experience varying challenges. Sami, an Australian-Palestinian lawyer, is already disenchanted and concerned about whether he’ll ever be able to afford a house. Niki, an Australian-Cambodian, is a graphic artist and former model; and the house’s resident mellow dude, nicknamed Bowerbird, works in a guitar shop.
They too have difficulty seeing their future. Where can they afford to live? How does anyone manage to build a relationship in this social media-obsessed culture? Where are the good jobs in this gig economy? Even their neighborhood of Redfern, south of the Central Business District (Australians don’t use “downtown”), formerly the center of the Aboriginal community, is starting to see its share of young professionals and overpriced hipster shops. These smart, creative, good-hearted young people feel set adrift by a rapidly changing Australia.
“My housemates and I want to get on with our lives and build something more lasting. We are turning thirty and things don’t look like we imagined they would. We are tired. In conversations everyone uses the word ‘space.’”
“When the four of us get together, we all talk openly about our wants and even seem to have similar types of dreams. Travel, accumulating experiences, a home in a city with our friends and family, and how we want to chase the sun around this globe. But none of us ever talks directly about the means with which we can chase that sun.”
“I am getting by on my freelance work, but I know it is not a way of working that can last . . . Some nights I wake up with a feeling of dread about the future and money. Then I try to make promises to myself that the next day I will push my life into some kind of shape, but when I wake up, I am exhausted.”
Bedford also explores Australians’ views of its many non-white people through the experiences of the Australian-Indian narrator’s work on a series of profiles of people living in working class immigrant communities like Parramatta and Bankstown, which are said to be “undesirable.” Her editor likes her story about the Syrian immigrant owner of a “modest fashion” boutique, but he tells her “it needs reworking to focus on the refugee angle . . . more about Syria, and the conflict, and her pain.” In this way we see how the media imposes a monolithic view on various ethnic groups instead of allowing them to be individuals who are more than simply refugees or asylees. We see this too in the vivid characterizations of Niki and Sami, who are Australians who happen to have Cambodian and Palestinian heritage. It’s something but it’s not everything.
The issue comes up when the narrator encounters an opinionated Somalian immigrant girl at a bar one night. “I’m a black Muslim, and at the moment people don’t want to hear about that . . . You’re half-Indian, half-Anglo, no one has time for that unless it’s some cute Buzzfeed piece about being ethnically ambiguous and being hit on by everyone. It’s like they always choose one race to focus on when they feel swamped by Asians or Arabs, and for that moment in time everyone else disappears.”
The narrator admires her ability to articulate so many of the things “that my mind coils around. But in the past year, I have found my anger about things I once found important diminishing. I find her sense of incredulity and injustice about these things exhausting.”
Her feelings have changed in the past year because, as the book’s opening line reveals, her father has died. Despite the life-changing import of this statement, the narrator avoids discussing her grief, keeping it far in the background. I wondered when that would make its presence felt. The hospital therapist told her she would feel better in a year or so. But, the narrator explains, “The truth is in some ways, a year later, this part is almost harder. People rarely ask about it anymore. But grief still sits there alive and heavy in the belly.”
Bedford writes poignantly about trying to move on with your life in this situation.
“Grief catches me at unsuspecting moments and times. On this street. In that shop. In a turn of phrase . . . It dwells in the past, and as time moves forward, I find myself seeking refuge and solace, escaping into memories of growing up when the city felt familiar, like a friend, instead of this changing landscape with its new demands.”
The landscape of her life has changed, emotionally and physically, and she has come unmoored. So not only is she, like her housemates, trying to get her life sorted out, but she is also carrying the weight of her grief. After meeting with the hospital therapist months later, she realizes that she needs to find somewhere to put her “dark shapes.”
While I prefer novels with a strong narrative drive rather than episodic collages or linked stories, I found Friends and Dark Shapes an absorbing read. I wanted to know what would become of the narrator and her housemates. And Bedford’s astute observations about finding one’s place in multicultural but often racist Australia had me highlighting sentences and even whole paragraphs. Spending a year with the protagonist after her father’s death made for a thought-provoking and occasionally heart-rending read. I’m looking forward to her next book.