Monday 4 March 2024

The In-Between - Christos Tsiolkas (2023)


Rating: Excellent

The In-Between, the first book club book after a long break of five months, is the latest novel by Christos Tsiolkas, infamous author of such around the water cooler conversation starters as The Slap (2008) and Damascus (2019), (actually, not a around the water cooler for this one, more like around the pulpit). The In-Between follows too middle-age gay men, Ivan and Perry, as they first date and then embark on a relationship that causes both to have to come to terms with prior significant romantic disappointments. As usual for Tsiolkas the sex scenes are explicit and detailed, especially the initial one between the two main protagonists; Tsiolkas does not hold back, and this may be too much for some readers. There are several such sex scenes throughout the novel, and, after a while, they do come across as a tad performative and become slightly tedious. Far more interesting, however, is the psychological intensity of both men’s attempts to come to terms with their past and to move on into the kind of functional relationship they both really want. In the end it is insightful and tender writing, coming across as very believable and relatable to anyone who’s ever loved and lost and loved again, regardless of sexual orientation. Despite the eye-opening sex scenes and the focus on relationships, the main thematic thrust of The In-Between is really class, as explored in the extended dinner party scene (see below) and also in the stark cultural and societal difference between Perry and Ivan’s worlds. The other major theme is generational change, as explored in depictions of how older gay men had to live, in comparison to contemporary Australia, in which marriage between gay couples is legal and there exists an increased level of acceptance within the community. 

Around the middle of The In-Between Tsiolkas produces the best dinner-party scene I have ever read. Perry is university educated, has travelled widely, and works as a translator, whilst Ivan is a landscape gardener and has barely travelled. At the dinner party, with some of Perry’s old university friends, Ivan is subjected to a thinly veiled, class conscious, ‘friendly’ grilling about his background and worldview. It’s cringeworthy stuff, with the portrayal of Perry’s friends, who on the surface project left-wing acceptance, as judgemental and reactionary. Another interesting aspect to the novel is the device of using minor characters, often ones with no significant presence in the narrative, as a means to observe and comment on the main protagonists. It’s a clever way of thinking about the characters from a perspective outside that of the reader’s, and Tsiolkas uses it to great effect several times. After the brilliant dinner party scene the novel loses some of its focus and tension, in particular when the setting moves to Greece and focusses on another gay couple, however this is a minor quibble, as ultimately The In-Between ends poignantly and effectively with a scene that would touch even the most cynical among readers.

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