Reviewed: Shirley, Ronnie Scott, Hamish Hamilton
Ronnie Scott’s new novel, Shirley, is a smart melodrama about growing up in your thirties set against the existential dread of living through ecological collapse and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Readers are taken along as Scott’s unnamed protagonist dissociates through various significant events: the breakdown of her relationship, intimate gatherings in sharehouses and apartments, and the emotional turbulence that comes with her comfortable-yet-distant relationship with her mother. She is often bored or distantly amused by the people and events around her, and though she anticipates the imminent first lockdown in Melbourne with trepidation, ultimately finds it to be a ‘comfortable time’.
Scott expends much effort in the book to create a vivid sense of place, drawing a clear portrait of the city of Melbourne as the protagonist strolls back and forth along Hoddle Street, between her childhood home, the titular ‘Shirley’, and her own apartment in Collingwood. The novel is anchored in time by two major events that haunt the story: the dense smoke enveloping the city in the aftermath of the 2020 bushfires and the lead-up to the first lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scott captures well the stifling airlessness with which the smoke blanketed the city, and the confusion, fear, and sheer feeling of bizarreness that accompanied the early days of the pandemic. Through the hushed whispers that the protagonist overhears in her friends’ conversations, we hear echoes of the same thoughts many of us had then.
Against this backdrop, Shirley focuses on several of its protagonist’s relationships: those with herself, her boyfriend, and her mother. While the book doesn’t necessarily proffer a moral position, it shows the way in which our emotional childhood with our parents casts a long shadow into adulthood. The protagonist’s mother, a famous TV food personality, is distant both physically and emotionally. The protagonist continually reminds us of moments where her relationship with her mother is one completely on her mother’s terms—her mother never calls, but she returns calls when she wants to; when she visits, she only complains or talks about herself. Later, she sells the family home without warning.
Scott sets up the story such that the protagonist is a self-conscious reflection of her mother. She’s emotionally distant, feeling disconnected even in tender moments with her boyfriend, as she finds herself drifting away in her mind, listening out for key words that she’ll need to nod to. When the boyfriend confesses at a party that he’s increasingly finding himself attracted to men, and coming to understand and accept his sexuality, she allows her mind to go elsewhere, even while she is aware that her (in)attention has a direct bearing on the course of the relationship. Later, when they break up, it’s quiet—retreating into themselves while remaining affable with each other. Like her mother, the protagonist avoids loud confrontation, preferring a classy retreat, increasing the distance according to her (dis)comfort; her relationships with others often self-consciously withdraws into convenience, not always mutual.
Despite Shirley’s realism and melodrama, the book eschews clear categorisation. If anything, each character in Shirley could be seen as a different, elevated version of the protagonist. But progress, in this case, isn’t a moral category; the protagonist isn’t better or worse. Rather, the novel is a bildungsroman in the sense that we trace her becoming a new version of herself, one identifiably different from the one we are shown in her past. Yet the novel lacks the kind of certitude that characterises coming-of-age stories. It’s commendable how well Scott pulls this off. With his flawed and ambiguous protagonist, he manages to create a book that seeps into the reader, without providing easy answers about life’s pressing questions.