Reviewed: The Albatross, Nina Wan, Pan Macmillan
A woman drives to a public golf course. She is not quite sure what compels her to go there, yet there she is, in her non-golf-appropriate clothing, at a golf course. A teenage caddie asks her what she is doing there, if she even knows where she is: ‘We don’t see a lot of people like you around here. They’re usually, I guess, a bit older, and male.’
This is Primrose Li, a 36-year-old Chinese Australian woman, whose marriage to the terminally ill Adrian is teetering on the brink of collapse. Her high school sweetheart, Peter Loy, has just moved in across the road; half a lifetime later, she still harbours lingering feelings. Things in her life are strange and hazy, and so she begins to play golf. It seems to provide a distraction.
Upward social mobility and the complexities of class are central to this odd, meandering novel, which unfolds in a disaffected fashion. Whistles, the golf course where Primrose chooses to play at, is a derelict suburban establishment that stands at odds with the class status of the game. In part, it acts as a mirror of sorts to Primrose herself—despite having climbed the social ranks, she still feels a nagging sense of otherness.
This is easy enough to understand in relation to whiteness. A weekend away for Peter’s birthday, organised by his wife Louisa and attended by people who are white and well-off, is dotted with signifiers of wealth and status—ornate artworks, floral table displays, caviar, gluten-free wasabi shrimp and salmon mousse—which sit alongside the superficiality of their relationships. It’s particularly evident in Primrose’s relationship with Louisa which replicates the language of friendship but lacks the intimacy. Over the years, Primrose has become desensitised to the impersonal nature of these interactions, submitting to them even if she is quietly resentful.
But the nuances of class become more complicated and insidious when race comes into play. Peter’s family, fifth-generation Chinese Australians, represents ‘what life could be after a hundred years in this country’; Primrose’s father, who migrated with her mother from China, had told her, as a child, that people like Peter’s family were why they had come to Australia. As an adult, Primrose remembers her friend (and Peter’s sister) Erin doubting her and Peter’s relationship in its infancy:
‘It was not that we were impossible, she’d say. It was just that our differences outnumbered our similarities. Sure, we had some things in common—a faint connection in our ancestry, some resemblance in the provenance; perhaps we were like birds drawn to the same migration route. But scratch beneath the surface, and look at the divergence in more pragmatic terms—level of wealth and means, friendship circles, social mobility et cetera. His family was old enough to be considered old money. I still had the whiff of being fresh off the boat.’
This aspiration to move up in the class system is embedded early on in The Albatross. As a teenager working in her parents’ cafe, Primrose feels the sting of judgment when her schoolmates come into her workplace. Over time, she learns to conceal her complicated inner monologue and turmoil. Having become a well-to-do wife and mother, she has ‘made it’ and therefore she must be satisfied; she has succeeded in embodying the model minority.
In both the novel’s past and present timelines, Primrose becomes involved in uncomfortable conversations—which Adrian calls ‘vacuous social discourse’—about politics and race with Peter’s friends. It culminates in a particularly tense conversation during Peter’s birthday dinner. In both timelines, the reader is privy to Primrose’s discomfort, but she continues to simply observe.
There’s a tangible distance between Primrose and almost everyone in her life: her parents, her husband, his lecherous brother Terence, even her own child Bebe. She reacts to, rather than acts on, the things happening in her life in an almost dissociative way, even—or especially—when those things are terrible. The reader has the most insight into her feelings and motivations, but a remove remains. Stylistically this is an interesting choice, but there is some frustration at times for the reader at the character’s seemingly immovable passivity.
Strangely, the person Primrose might form the closest bond with is Harriet, an older white woman at Whistles who inadvertently becomes her golfing mentor. Golf becomes a salve and an escape: a surprising way for her to make her way back to, or at least begin to move towards, a more authentic version of herself. Her relationship with Harriet, while impersonal, deepens as the latter inculcates in Primrose a love of the game.
The Albatross is an esoteric novel that feels at first impenetrable, as many elements are obscured; Primrose’s emotional detachment is a barrier the reader must break through. As more significant events occur, to which the character can no longer be aloof, the heart of the story becomes clearer: it is about a woman who wants to be understood, to be loved, and to play golf.