Between the Covers
A Common Loss
A Common Loss is Australian author Kirsten Tranter's second novel. Her first, The Legacy, was an assured, fresh retelling of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady.
A Common Loss tells the story of five friends who meet at university and keep in touch over the next 10 years. Following the death of one of their number, Dylan, the friends re-group for their annual visit to Las Vegas.
The story starts with the narrator, Elliot, remembering a car accident the five had together. The driver, Cameron, swerves to avoid a deer and they crash. Cameron has been drinking, so Dylan claims to be the driver. As the years go by, whenever Elliot remembers the crash, it is Dylan who he sees at the wheel. This trick of the memory becomes a motif for the story.
Elliot, a professor of literature, sees himself as a bit of an outsider in the group. With Dylan, who Elliot idealised, removed, tensions rise and relationships buckle under strain. Elliot discovers that not all of his friends viewed Dylan the same way he did. Dylan's death sets events in train where each friend is forced to reveal long-hidden secrets.
The first part of the book is a little slow, as Elliott comes to terms with Dylan's death. Long passages of introspection set the scene; "I felt strangely paralysed in that way that you feel in dreams sometimes, wanting to move and yet unable to take a step. Was this another symptom of grief, I wondered, catalogued and tagged somewhere?"
However, once the friends gather in Vegas it gets on quite a roll. I enjoyed the observations on Vegas - how it all seemed like a stage set, changing rapidly from glitter and glitz to "desperation and emptiness".
"Backstage should be hidden with a curtain or a door from the audience, surely; it shouldn't be so - well, just so easy to see all the crap and falling-apart stuff out the back," Elliot observes.
Essentially a psychological suspense novel, the narrative drive comes from waiting to see how the friendships will react to pressure. Tranter's writing is clever and insightful. She digs deep into the undercurrents of friendship, guilt and shame. While the ending fizzled out to some extent, it was still an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
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