Books, Fiction, Reviews

Book review: Motel – a novella of love, desire and marriage by Craig McGregor

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Craig McGregor is the Walkley-winning journalist and author of over 20 books, mostly social commentary, but also fiction, pop culture, music and surfing. Also a revealing memoir, entitled Left Hand Drive. All of this has stood him in good stead in approaching his latest book, Motel. Some reviewers might choose to call it a ‘discontinuous narrative’ or even a ‘novella’, but it reads like a novel and whatever its form, it is essentially an engrossing love story, told from both sides of an enduring relationship.
Craig McGregor writes beautiful, evocative prose, sometimes interspersed with extracts of poetry or songs. Whether it is Kenneth Slessor, Les Murray, Dylan Thomas or Bob Dylan, these occasional short extracts are carefully chosen and add to the sense of cultural connection which makes reading McGregor such a pleasure.
Many of the chapters or sections have been published before, mostly in magazines, but unorthodox as that may be in publishing a novel, it works. On the matter of form, McGregor wrote in his memoir, Left Hand Drive:
It was through French filmmaking that I was won over to the idea that life is not a continuous linear narrative but a mix of the present and the past and the future, of flashbacks and flashforwards, of remembrances and relationships and bits and pieces of the conscious and unconsciousness mind and emotions felt and unfelt and half-recovered and revivified, all experienced contemporaneously, so that the ever-present is never just the present and that life from instant to instant is almost indecipherable jangle of that which we have experienced, and are experiencing, and will experience. And that one’s writing should strive to reflect that.
Hence says the author: ‘this deconstructed novella’.
And if this gives anyone pause, then it shouldn’t, as McGregor proves his point with every story or chapter – it’s the relationships and the descriptions of place, and the clever dialogue (clever, not clever clever) which makes you realise how much McGregor knows about life and love and relationships, and how willing and able he is to share that with us as he takes us on a very personal journey.
It’s not up to us to guess if the narrator is the author, or if the equally strong female character is his lover/wife/partner. But the sense of give and take, of togetherness and easy travelling is palpable.
As is his relationship with Nathan, a Bundjalung man with a wry sense of humour and an easy step on the land. Their interaction tells us a great deal about black and white relationships in the north of Australia.
‘One of these days’ says the narrator, ‘I’m going to write a history of the Bundjalung people’. ‘That figures’, says Nathan, ‘You can’t trust us mob to do it for ourselves’, and when the narrator says rather lamely, ‘Someone’s gotta do it’, Nathan retorts: ‘You write it, I’m living it’.
As we amble with the author through the coastal part of southern Queensland (I say ‘amble’ because of McGregor’s skill in giving us a deceptively relaxed reading experience, whilst at the same time Motel teems with ideas and wordplays, as well as a palpable respect for women as well as for his surfing mates and indigenous Australians.)
Always conscious of the unfolding love story in the background, we are seduced and sometimes challenged by McGregor’s view of life, and increasingly we join him in enjoying his approach to it.
Because of the way the book has been constructed, there is the occasional repetition and overlap. But overall this somewhat unconventional way of producing a novel has come together into a very satisfying whole. In Motel, McGregor has provided us with an enjoyable reading experience, and at the same time contributed significantly to our understanding of the human condition and to what it means to be Australian.
Motel by Craig McGregor is published by Arcadia.
You can buy the book here.

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