Kavita Bedford's accomplished debut novel is narrated by a woman who is nameless but by no means faceless. Over the course of a year and a quarter, the 29-year-old candidly recounts key developments in her life in Sydney. She opens up her world and tells of her activities with friends and partners, her solo recreational pursuits, and her efforts to achieve professional stability. But she also lays bare her soul and tries to articulate the pain she still feels a year after losing her father. What emerges is both an intimate portrait of an individual in an ever-changing city and a searching meditation on the madness of grief.
Like her creator, the protagonist is an Australian-Indian writer, albeit one who ekes out a living as a freelance journalist. She lives in Redfern, a gentrified suburb full of pop-up bars, growers' markets and hipster cafes. She shares her home with three housemates: Niki, a former teen model from a Cambodian family, works in graphics but has to juggle contracts to make ends meet; Sami wants to quit his job in law but risks upsetting his Palestinian parents; and newest lodger Bowerbird plays the guitar, loves Afghan hounds and hoards blue junk.
The narrator hangs out with these friends and others, enjoying warehouse parties, art exhibition openings and the beach — "this micro-city on the sand." When not writing or pitching stories, her work involves wandering around Sydney with her photographer friend Paul, she on the lookout for projects, he for subjects.
But then just when she least expects it she is assailed by memories of her father and a fresh stab of heartache. Her sorrow becomes so intense that her boyfriend cuts his losses and moves on. A man explains to her that he swapped America for Australia after the death of his brother: "Maybe in Sydney the ghosts won't follow me so much." But the narrator continues to be haunted. How much longer will the past intrude and impede her road to recovery?
"Friends and Dark Shapes" covers a lot of ground. It illuminates the hopes, dreams and frustrations of a group of 20-somethings desperate to prove themselves but stymied by obstacles. At one point Niki realizes she will never be able to afford to settle down in the city she grew up in: "Surely there should be special rates given to people who have experienced falling in love and heartbreak and birth and death in one place? Isn't that true ownership anyway?"
Bedford brilliantly maps the city and examines the narrator's "dysfunctional relationship" with it. She also explores issues of race, identity and belonging through her heroine's journalistic assignments and encounters with immigrants and refugees. However, the novel is at its most powerful when it centers upon a world caving in and the aftershocks: what it is like to "lose a parent and lose your base."
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Kavita Bedford.
Publisher: Europa Editions, 224 pages, $17.