Adelaide author Carol Lefevre returns to the novel with a story so rich in scope and thematic range that it echoes the writer’s recent forays into intricate short story cycles. In exquisite and vivid prose, she crafts an ensemble of characters whose stories gradually resolve into a grand narrative of a fractured family and its struggle to reassemble itself.

Art, the complications of women’s lives and slipperiness of memory lie at the heart of this story. The novel begins in 1962 in a beachside café in Brighton, South Australia. Ten-year-old Fran and her two siblings, Tess and Theo, live with their mother, Stella, who ekes out a livelihood in the café, supporting her family after the death of her husband.

The family hovers above the poverty line, embedded in a working-class suburb where conservatism enervates and oppresses just as pervasively as summer heat. When bohemian artist Mardi sets up an art school nearby, the family’s life is shaken out of stasis. Mardi delivers art, romance and alcohol-soaked nights on the balcony into Stella’s world, and the couple swiftly find themselves the focus of social disapproval.

In a burst of energy, the family is swept up in Mardi and Stella’s plans to escape the stultifying glare of Brighton’s matrons with a move to the more open-minded neighbourhood of Byron Bay. On the road to their new life, they make an overnight stop in a place called Temperance. In their tent on the outskirts of this arid country town, Fran and her younger brother Theo experience something so inexplicable and deeply traumatising that it changes the trajectory of their lives.

The repercussions of this shocking night are traced with profound intuition as Stella and the children return home, struggling to resettle and make sense of their memories. As we follow Fran’s life, the narrative elegantly evolves from a coming-of-age story to a mystery to moving portrait of the way a place and a time can shape a life.

Both the title of the novel and its cover speak to key themes in the narrative. The word Temperance is potent in South Australian history due to the cultural role of the Women’s Temperance Movement in Adelaide. The policing of drinking in the 20th century was a powerfully repressive tool, imposing a strict behavioural code on the city’s women. Stella and Mardi’s open enjoyment of alcohol fuels the disapproval of Brighton’s conservative citizens and, when the family pause their journey in a town called Temperance, it is no surprise that this is the place where the narrative comes to a head.

The cover of Temperance features the 1932 painting Beach Scene by Clarice Beckett, and the image perfectly evokes the light and heat of 20th-century beachside summers in Adelaide. But the painting’s impressionist shimmer does far more than evoke visceral recollections of summer heat, it also conjures the mutable nature of memory.

The fluidity of memory plays a significant role in Temperance. Stella’s life unravels in the aftermath of that distressing night in the outback, yet Fran represses her memories, hoping to escape the psychological fallout through avoidance. Her brother, Theo, is equally unsettled yet finds he needs to revisit those memories and untangle the mystery if he is to move forward.

The superb quality of the writing shows Lefevre herself to be accessing a trove of memories in bringing Brighton to the page. This is a finely wrought portrait of a suburb; the early chapters, in particular, evoke not just the people and architecture of this beachside neighbourhood, but the scents, sounds and textures – the slippery clatter of the plastic straps at the café door, the silky grit of sand carried in from the beach, the constantly fluctuating sounds and shades of the sea.

With each perfectly crafted sentence, Lefevre’s finely observed and poetic details embed the reader in Temperance’s world so comprehensively that the act of reading this novel becomes a delicious, sensory immersion.

Temperance, by Carol Lefevre, is published by Wakefield Press.

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