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Saturday, November 26, 2022

From Spain to Sydney to Small-Town New Mexico, 3 Debuts Anchored by a Strong Sense of Place

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By Kavita Bedford
219 pp. Europa. Paper, $17.

The where of Bedford’s book — Sydney’s gentrifying neighborhood of Redfern — is as important as the who and the what. It’s where the unnamed 29-year-old narrator lives in a share house with three meandering roommates, all of them having “achieved none of the things that we should have by our age: no marriage, no property, no steady income, no babies and no assets.” These four second-generation Australian millennials maneuver through the city’s “island loneliness” with a sense of great precarity, semi-employed and hustling, unsure of what’s next. And yet, they do so with an acute awareness of their privilege and access to social mobility that isn’t afforded to everyone in the community around them.

Class tension propels much of the present-day narrative, where the narrator is grieving the death of her father and spends most of her time observing those around her. She interviews people for a series of articles about the suburbs, areas mainly inhabited by less affluent immigrant and Indigenous communities. She goes to trendy bar openings and beaches and parades and festivals with friends. She and her roommates debate buying toilet paper in bulk and hiring a housecleaner, while questioning the meaning of their pursuits. “I don’t even know what I’m working towards anymore,” one roommate says. “Is this the end game? Do we just keep on, heads down, making ourselves so tired to get somewhere like this, a wall that just feels empty?”

Some of the most moving moments are the narrator’s flashbacks into a past life, when her father was alive. She retreats into these memories to grieve, to assess how much or how little her life has been altered since they occurred. The Sydney of her past feels “like a friend, instead of this changing landscape with its new demands.” She was in many ways more innocent then.

The distance the narrator places between herself and the present story in the share house can, at times, render certain observations repetitive, and the tone monotonous. But Bedford is a talented writer with a wonderful eye for detail, and her crisp, measured sentences are genuinely impressive. After grief, alienation and loneliness suffuse the novel, the story earns its way toward a sense of hope.

By Kirstin Valdez Quade
419 pp. Norton. $26.95.

Quade’s masterly novel (following her 2015 debut story collection, “Night at the Fiestas”) revolves around one family living in the fictional Las Penas, a small, decaying town in northern New Mexico where “anything that needs doing can be done better elsewhere.” Unfolding over the course of a year, beginning and ending on Good Friday, the story follows the ailing matriarch Yolanda Padilla, her 33-year-old son, Amadeo, and his teenage daughter, Angel, who returns to their lives in the opening pages after more than a year of living with her mother. She’s eight months pregnant.

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