“..against your will it would make you think of just how much of your day comprised simply missing things. Just how much eluded you. Just how many kicks you were behind the play. Unravelled, you would entertain these thoughts. You would be sitting with a guide dog and a slipped guard. And ambivalence. Eleanor Rigby, the girl who kept Distance above all, would feel excluded.”Rhubarb is the book I never knew I wanted to read – all the makings of a favourite, here all along in a title I’d repeatedly overlooked. It’s a touching and sharply perceptive novel that interlaces two portraits of isolation, different in cause but alike in effect. Eleanor Rigby is blind, Ewan Dempsey is agoraphobic. Both are sequestered by their pasts, hobbled by the present, occupying tightly closed private worlds that collide in the lead up to Christmas of 1999. Rather than a story about loneliness, in the sense of a disconnect between social interaction and the desire for it, I think that here Silvey recognises that there’s a certain kind of solace in solitude, and that isolation can be, for some, a form of refuge. And it’s this cultivated aloneness that makes the eventual connection so poignant, so much more powerful, because the walls are breached in spite of their familiarity and comfort. This is not a story about “fixing” people or miraculously conquering deeply ingrained emotional pain, but the soft click of two people fitting together by virtue of understanding and mutual empathy, recognising something in other that speaks just to them. It explores the personal cost at which this sense of connection is bought – how much it takes to lay bare things long hidden away. Silvey constructs the story in vignette-like sections of Eleanor and Ewan’s lives, past and present, and the characters that reside on the periphery of their worlds. It’s a novel of finely detailed, interlocking parts and a wry observations of community. As in Jasper Jones, Silvey displays a skill for insightfully expressing the idiosyncrasies of Australian culture, and for crafting a rich setting. The dense heat of December is palpable, as is Eleanor’s physical discomfort as she navigates the streets of Fremantle in the company of her noble guide dog Warren. The quiet of Ewan’s cottage, broken only by a pair of randy possums and his beloved cello Lillian, is stifling. There is very much a sense of place in the novel, a distilled and concentrated atmosphere that gives the story intensity and draws the reader in. It’s an evocative, sensory book – beautifully textured with sound and touch and scent. There’s an artistry to the way Silvey uses language. He writes with almost a disregard for conventional writing rules, favouring words that run together and quirks of capitalisation, slipping between second and third person narration in a manner that feels fluid and comfortable. There’s no denying that there’s a floridness to the description and word choice, but it doesn’t feel cloying. Rather, the imagery lends this novel an almost whimsical edge, a softness to the occasionally dark and brutal elements of the story. It’s easy to see how the exuberance of Rhubarb developed into the slightly more measured prose of Jasper Jones. Both showcase Silvey’s unique style, but there’s something about the freeness and the flow of words in Rhubarb that I love. It’s a kind of literary abandon that pays off, feels organic and charming rather than contrived and awkward. Rhubarb balances humour and sadness with particular finesse, managing to tread a line between due respect for the characters and not taking itself too seriously. There are parts I found genuinely laugh-out-loud hilarious, partially due to the slightly dry, tongue in cheek delivery. On the other hand there are quietly devastating elements of this story, moments of grief and longing striking for their warts-and-all honesty. It’s an unconventional book, but a moving one, a story to be savoured. Finally, a thank you to the lovely Eleanor Rigby (yes, Eleanor Rigby) whose gentle prods towards this book are greatly appreciated. Without her recommendation, what would turn out to be one of my favourite books of the year might have gone undiscovered. * * * * *Recommended to me by the lovely Eleanor Rigby, not to be mistaken for the Eleanor Rigby in this book, who also has an Eleanor Rigby namesake. I feel very meta right now.