First of all the cover: this has to be one of the most stylish and eye-catching jackets of the year, signposting both the amorous subject matter but also a kind of sexily suave Mad Men Don Draper silhouette that suggests surface sleekness concealing enigmatic multiple identities.
The sophisticated packaging delivers on its promise – and then some. This is one of the big books of the year. You know that phrase that critics use about a writer at the peak of his powers? Well, this is the time to apply that to Knox, who has been one of our most significant writers mining aspects of contemporary masculinity for a while in novels like Summerland and The Life.
Here he applies his customary cool, detached and forensic tone to a story that is enigmatic, satirical and rich in layers and symbolism. It is disconcertingly strange at first, especially in its removed, rationally detached voice but don’t let that put you off. Get past the initial chill of the first fifty pages and you will find yourself increasingly seduced by the tale of John Wonder and his women.
The comparison with Don Draper goes beyond the packaging. Because the point is that both men are indeed enigmas who conceal their inner and private lives from themselves and from others, enabled by careers that allow them to move seamlessly between worlds.
Except what makes John Wonder so very different from Don Draper is that the outer casing of the man is not inherently attractive. He does not possess a handsome physique and nor is he charismatic when it comes to his personality. He is, according to one of his six collective narrator children, odourless and bland. Women feel safe around him because he is not predatory by nature. And indeed, unlike Draper’s glamorous world of advertising, Wonder’s is far more pedestrian and pedantic: he is a senior factoid who authenticates official statistics for publications of record. Hardly the sexiest of titles.
Happily married simultaneously, and able to juggle the demands of three sets of children (all called Adam and Evie, presumably to avoid confusion) he then decides to set himself a new challenge: to authenticate the world’s most beautiful woman. And that’s where he comes disastrously unstuck. When he finds her, his multiple lives unravel.
The scenario provides for plenty of comedy though it is not of the farcical ‘quick-now-hide in-the-cupboard’ kind (with the exception of a muddle involving a Hyundai car). It is more cerebral than that kind of romp. Knox hits his comic stride in his characterisation of Wife Number Two, a fiery type who can’t distinguish between the expressions ‘because’ and ‘that’s why’, (I can’t help but imagine Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara in this role).
Will Wonder’s serial infidelities see him damned, punished and abandoned? And what of the world’s most beautiful woman? What does she make of Wonder’s protracted infatuation and courtship? Can his children ever forgive his betrayal? The climax of the story has an inevitability about it, as all moral fables do, and a surprising warmth that Don Draper, whose adventures in parallel lives end later this year, might envy.
Caroline Baum has worked as founding editor of Good Reading magazine, features editor for Vogue, presenter of ABC TV’s popular bookshow, Between the Lines, and Foxtel’s Talking Books, and as an executive producer with ABC Radio National. She is currently Booktopia’s Editorial Director.
by Malcolm Knox
The compartments in our father’s life were not the separations he needed to build to preserve his sanity. They were his sanity. When he fell in love… when he fell to the abjection he deserved, the walls began dissolving. And once the walls came down between all three, or now four, of his lives, so did every other retaining wall – between past and present, present and future, self- and non-self, dream and wakefulness. The walls were his sanity. Love had driven him mad….
This is the story of John Wonder, a man with three families, each one kept secret from the other, each one containing two children, a boy and a girl, each called Adam and Evie. As he travels from family to family in different cities, he works as an Authenticator, verifying world records, confirming facts, setting things straight, while his own life is a teetering tower of breathtaking lies and betrayals…
About the Author
Malcolm Knox is the author of Summerland, A Private Man and Jamaica, which was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Award last year and won the Colin Roderick Award. He is also a Walkley- Award-winning journalist and author of many non-fiction titles. He came late to surfing, but is now an obsessively enthusiastic surfer, and writes about surfing and the surf with authority and great passion.