Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


The chair and the book; late winter’s evening.

It was after nine. Dinner had been another winter favourite, a plate of spaghetti laced with sliced avocado, grilled red capsicum, chicken breast pieces braised in white wine and garlic, snow peas and home-made pesto; all tossed through nicely with a little cream and a lot of cracked pepper and showered with shaved parmesan.

So back to the comfortable chair. One of a pair I bought with a matching three-seater lounge (1930s self-patterned green flock, polished cherrywood timber framework) for $200 in an antique shop in the hollow of Buckley Street in 1978, and had completely rebuilt and reupholstered in 1995 - after the first round of children - for $1800 at John’s Upholstery in Glenlyon Road. (John is Melbourne’s best upholsterer. Moreover, you will pay one-third to one-half of the price you'll pay in the inner east antique-and-afghan-rug belt of Armadale and Malvern.)

I finished the glass of red and switched on 3MBS. It was the Tuesday night new music program called Contemporary Visions and it was another round of glass instruments being played in a half empty wheat silo while someone outside banged a 44-gallon drum, creating a faint bass echo. I picked up the book that I hadn't been able to put down until the aroma of braised chicken and pesto made me do it.

The plot was thickening nicely: a husband flies interstate to investigate the apparent disappearance of his sister-in-law from her estranged father’s house. Husband enters the house and is immediately knocked unconscious by someone or something hiding behind the front door. He wakes with life-threatening injuries next to his sister-in-law. Both are bound with wire, but manage to free each other just as his phone, thrown by his assailant into the kitchen tidy – but left switched on! - rings. He fishes it out and answers it. It is his wife.

Tell her to call the police! the reader shouts. He doesn’t ask her to call the police. He tells her he is busy and will have to call her back. And hangs up.

The hell I couldn’t put it down. I did more than that. I threw it across the room. I hope I didn't wake the children, I thought. Stupid book.

Hilary Norman’s novels are packed with such plot non sequiturs. Things people would never, ever do in real life. Or not do things they should. The above scenario is from Shimmer, Norman's latest.

I picked the book up again. The husband had been busy. He had taken a knife from the kitchen drawer and crept up the groaning stairs, having told the sister-in-law to wait by the front door. The front door? That was where he was knocked unconscious when he entered. Good luck, sister-in-law. I don’t like your chances. Now the husband is on the landing and there is a strange groaning coming from behind a closed door.

Why do I keep reading? Drawn back to it despite the irrational behaviour of her characters, I suppose.

Or maybe because of it. Norman is employing a curious literary device. When characters act contrarily they are reduced to a kind of child-like state, becoming impotent pawns in a horror tale. You fear for them even more, even though you want to slap their silly faces. When it works, this literary sleight-of-hand turns rational mystery into unimaginable horror; logical suspense into sheer terror. There are bodies everywhere in Norman’s novels. Under floors, in concrete, in cellars and sheds. All counterpointed by the genteel middle class conversational styles and the mild English manners that characterise her players. Well, most of them. The rest are murderous psychopaths.

I'm up to Hilary Norman novel number six. There are several more to go.

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