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Holier Than Thou

Holier Than Thou - Laura Buzo 4.5 starsPerhaps it’s stating the obvious but I think there’s a direct correlation between a reader’s engagement with Holier Than Thou and the reader’s own experiences of life in their early 20s. Maybe I felt an affinity for this book because I was 22 when my mother first – gently, cautiously – suggested to me that I consider looking for another job because my current one was making me bitter, angry and generally distrustful of people. (It was.) Maybe I felt it because, while I am a bridge-burner to the point of pyromania, I am also a deeply nostalgic person, hoarding scraps of my past and the memory of long uncontacted friends, pulling them out in secret to inspect and mourn over privately. Maybe I felt it because I saw in Holly something of the rigid defences I had built up around myself, and the tendency to bristle under any perceived threat to the exacting system of belief by which I measured and judged myself. Maybe it was the way I found myself inured in apathy and a general malaise that was no longer counteracted by a sense of worth and accomplishment (or admittedly a sort of bitter self-righteousness) in what I was doing with my life. Or perhaps it’s just because this novel makes me think of sticky pub carpet underfoot and sunburn and hot sand and long, idealistic conversations in which I naively gave away parts of myself to people I would eventually lose, intentionally or otherwise. It makes me think of a sense of abandon and recklessness I lost long ago, of an ability to throw myself - into situations, into ambitions, into rooms, behind ideals, at people. It makes me remember how all that gung-ho toughness I thought I had developed was actually barely even holding me together. That everything I kept compartmentalised inside was eventually going to reach critical mass and manifest in some messy and irrevocable fashion. That while I thought I had been keeping my chin up and soldiering on, I was actually absorbing all the emotional dross I had tried to ignore and eventually I would have to wring myself out and see what was left. What I’m trying to say, is that while I don’t indentify with every aspect of Holly herself, I identify with this book’s portrayal of grief and longing and disillusionment so much it hurts. My personal and critical readings of this book are too closely intertwined for me to separate them and speak about one without referencing the other. And of course, that’s not how every reader will respond to it. Perhaps they’ll see something self-indulgent, or at least self-inflicted, in the gradual unravelling of Holly’s life. But the concept of a person holding themselves hostage to their personal system of beliefs is one that I can identify with, and part of the reason this book resonates with me.Laura Buzo’s writing feels familiar and comfortable. While both Good Oil and Holier Than Thou are novels that spark something deeply nostalgic in me, there’s immediacy to her writing that prevent her stories and characters from stagnating with the passing of time. Rather, the way she writes brings back past events into sharp focus, all the awkwardness and yearning of adolescence and the blustering navigation of the 20s with startling clarity. Holier Than Thou loops backward and forward through Holly’s life, interweaving the past with the present to contextualise the eventual breakdown of her system of internal order. In a way, her past informs her present, and the regret and grief she harbours, constantly presses down, will eventually work its way out to infiltrate and alter the life she has carefully built for herself. Similarly, Holly’s relationships, both past, present and those that exist through both, in some way influence the path her life takes. And here is where Buzo really excels for me, in the authenticity of these characters and the richness of their interactions – not only in their banter and familiarity – but in the way they evolve. Buzo depicts the natural and forced changes in friendships, and the loss thereof, with a sort of biting poignancy. She captures the fact that not all relationships survive change intact, and that the ideals we hold about those we love will inevitably be challenged. In Holier Than Thou, Buzo articulately conveys the bereft sensation that accompanies this knowledge, and the longing and confusion of unresolved history. The deconstruction of Holly’s stoicism and her “holier-than-thou” mentality is a thorny area to navigate, yet I think Buzo wrote this with empathy and insight. Sometimes, I feel that when someone doesn’t give the desired or expected response to a given situation, its possible to deny them of their right to their feelings. While Holly’s manner of dealing with loss and change may seem less relatable to some, or her tendency to batten down the emotional hatches may not endear her to others, is she less entitled to express her grief? Further, the novel addresses the issue that change is not always as simple and clear cut as it may seem from the outside. That extricating oneself from a pattern of thought and years of suppressed emotion can be a painful and complicated process. Which brings me to this idea:While I agree with the theory and sentiment behind it, I don’t believe that this one size fits all solution works as smoothly for everyone. For some people it might be a matter of flipping a switch in their head. For others, it’s a horrible process of ripping out their internal fixtures and settings, sandbagging the gaping holes left behind.For me, that’s what this novel is about. Acknowledging that Holly’s journey can’t be reduced to a series of aesthetically pleasing circles and arrows. That there’s mess and jagged edges and no easy solutions – but there is something beautiful and powerful in recognising that fact. * * * * *Until I get around to writing an actual review, I thought I'd knock together a Holier Than Thou playlist, comprised of songs/artists mentioned in the book and some other stuff that I just thought fit. It's a bit out of order and I might have missed someone in there.. (*) denotes an artist or song referenced in the book. 1. Mace Spray - The Jezabels2. The Bucket - Kings of Leon*3. Rabbit Heart - Florence + The Machine*4. Evil - Interpol*5. Jona Vark - Gypsy & The Cat6. Run The Red Light - British India*7. Somebody That I Used To Know - Elliott Smith*8. Endless Summer - The Jezabels9. Jungle - Emma Louise10. These Days - Powderfinger11. Straight Lines - Silverchair12. The Submarine - Whitley13. Falling Away - Big Scary ("an ocean of disappointment" is my favourite song lyric of all time)14. Somersault - Decoder Ring15. Beast of Love - Cloud Control16. Seven Nation Army - The White Stripes*17. I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ - Scissor Sisters*18. Hearts A Mess - Gotye (For Trin!)19. I Thought You Were God - Clare Bowditch*20. Last Day On Earth - Kate Miller-Heidke21. Blood - The Middle East22. Into My Arms - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds*23. Big Jet Plane - Angus & Julia Stone24. Precious Things - Tori Amos*Bonus Fact - if my memory does not deceive me, The Jezabels is the band that Frankie & co are going to see in The Piper's Son