Reviewed: Paradise Estate, Max Easton, Giramondo
Paradise Estate, Max Easton’s second novel, is in many ways a book about disintegration. The ironically-named titular location, a Sydney sharehouse that draws together the book’s central characters, is dilapidated to a hazardous degree: between mould, pestilence, fire and flooding, it almost exhibits a will to self-destruct. It is also home to a cast of individuals dealing with the fallout of various implosions—breakup, injury, pandemic-induced lifestyle changes; they find company and community in one another even if that can be tenuous. Here, Easton seems to ask: how might one create meaning and pursue a better life in a world where so much appears intent on breaking down or disappearing altogether?
Each of the main characters, all in their thirties and not quite where they wish to be, embodies a different response to this question. Helen, who brings the sharehouse together at the novel’s start, is grieving her brother Walt’s death. She struggles to feel enthused about fostering new connections and memories. Sunny, a former lover of Walt’s, channels their energy into archiving Sydney’s underground music. Beth numbs her disenchantment and anxieties through online communities. Rocco questions his belonging, both in a physical sense—Italy or Australia?—and in the context of what will anchor his life should his ailing rugby career dissolve. Alice throws herself into her job, enduring by barely acknowledging her unhappiness in her long-term relationship with Nathan, wherein she is often subjugated and despondent. Nathan, meanwhile, writes reams of hyper-specific essays in a bid to have an impact on society, yet in one of Paradise Estate’s greatest ironies, the more he writes, the less he seems to achieve: his essays are largely plagiarised and ill-calibrated.
Easton’s novel captures a sense of bleakness and uncertainty that is common in contemporary Australian fiction (Pulse Points by Jennifer Down and The Fogging by Luke Horton come to mind), about city-dwelling adults who feel out of step with social expectations and disillusioned by their economic and personal realities. With its frequent references to recent significant events—whether the election of the Albanese government or Queen Elizabeth’s death—the world it depicts feels intensely real. While the book’s specificity may date it, it also derives value from serving as a well-crafted time capsule of a particularly unstable time in contemporary Australia.
But Paradise Estate is also a clever satire, underlining its characters’ weaknesses and skewering their aspirations, delusions, and politics. Helen, Sunny, Beth, Rocco and Nathan are verbose in discussing protest, hope, and their purportedly radical beliefs, yet are not immune to hypocrisy or insularity, mostly falling short in pursuit of their ideals. Easton’s portrayal is skilful: characters are flawed and intensely human in their convictions and in how they repeatedly try, even though their efforts seem so often to come to nought. This is an author who can blend witty observation with compassion, and occasionally through comic effect.
This quality in Easton’s writing elevates Paradise Estate above similar counterparts. Many contemporary novels now tend to capture millennial malaise or even the tragicomedy underpinning characters’ fraught, unstable lives. But few manage to do so while also maintaining a sense of multifaceted complexity in their characters, which often evoke pity and admiration by turns. On occasion, Easton even allows them to transcend their preoccupations to create moments of unfiltered joy. Helen, for instance, develops throughout the novel and is eventually able to revisit an old New Year’s Eve tradition—without Walt, but with Sunny instead—thereby crafting new memories. She is gradually able to remember Walt with peace rather than anger. Changes like these are understated and moving when they occur. Indeed, as the characters discover while attempting to create a home together, sometimes it’s the details that matter.
That said, the experience of reading Paradise Estate was not always enjoyable for me. It offers no reprieve from the harrowing realities of the housing crisis and economic insecurity, hardly offering an escape from the anxieties around attaining prosperity and cultivating meaning in an apathetic world that is increasingly self-serving. Its nowness is sometimes claustrophobic in its accuracy, creating a nightmarish effect. Its humour is both entertaining and saddening—it reminded me of one of my own housemates wryly contextualising our cleaning schedule as being ‘in the pursuit of household nirvana’. But it is precisely this ability to induce discomfort that signifies its value as social commentary while also being a historical archive of sorts. As a depiction of current reality, it is masterful.
Not much is left standing by the end of Paradise Estate. Like its protagonists, however, one never loses hope that there might be something positive around the corner, even if small. Sometimes it is when everything breaks down that a new, different, yet also worthwhile state of being comes into existence.