Bloomsbury. 2023. 288 pp.
ISBN 978 1 5266 6067 1.
Therese and Claire live in the same old four-story former sewing factory once wholly owned by Therese's husband's family, but they have very different lives. Therese and her husband, Trevor, live in a spacious, luxuriously-fitted-out apartment occupying the whole of the top floor. Claire rents a smaller one on the third floor, opposite one owned by Trevor's youngest son, Heathcote. Claire's apartment, as glimpsed by Therese as she climbs the stairs, "gave off the chaotic vibe of working parents with a teenage child." The extensive ground floor is home to Therese's "flagship store," the Therese Thorne House:
It was gorgeous—steel-framed windows, cabinetry from recycled wood, lighting that could be angled to pick out a particular item. We filled it with pretty things. The furniture was for sale, too, but sometimes people would simply come and sit on it to rest.
Therese's own background is modest, but after "twenty-five years of work," and marriage into Trevor's empire-building family, she now has boutiques in Auckland, Christchurch, and Tauranga in New Zealand, and she is scouting for a property in Sydney to fulfill her ambitions and let Trevor "retire to sail and play golf in the sun." Therese, who before she met Trevor was plain Teresa (Trevor had told her "Therese" sounded "more aspirational" for her business) is happy to defer to Trevor's decisions.
Claire, however, fascinates Therese. She has just lost jobs working on a film set with her husband, Mick, and then in fundraising. Now, she tells Therese, she and Mick have role-swapped: "We've swapped who's responsible for what sort of things in the relationship." She has become the decision-maker. Mick looks after their social lives, "and he always gets it wrong."
Therese also discovers Claire is "a conversational minefield" and is remarkably open about things that would normally be taboo subjects—like "Face-work," and a sex dream about Therese's husband.
"Maybe it's because I've gone off my antidepressants. I can finally have orgasms again. Sorry, I keep forgetting how to talk normally."
She gave me an amused look—as if life was absurd and we should just enjoy it.
Mick, however, is moving to Auckland to work there for a year, and their daughter, Alex, is going with him. Claire is going to be on her own. She thinks it will be good for their marriage, or it will "help kill it."
Therese can't imagine life without Trevor. She has no children, but Trevor, who is 20 years older than her and divorced, has four children and several grandchildren. They have been married for nearly 30 years, but Therese, who is closer in age to his children than to Trevor, often feels she is "cosplaying an older person" when she is with them. She entertains his family, helps with their children, cooks for them when they all holiday together in one of the family properties, makes lots of "behind-the-scenes effort," but as becomes clear in Lioness, she is never really accepted by them.
Two things change the dynamics of Therese's life. First, in the middle of preparing for an elaborate Christmas party for people important to Trevor's property development work, his family, and neighbors, she reads a newspaper headline and discovers a Council enquiry into Trevor's latest big hotel-development has been launched, halting construction. There is some suggestion a "kickback" had been offered to gain planning permission, and social housing projects would suffer. Trevor denies any wrongdoing, but it means huge expense for him until work can start again.
The second change occurs after Therese returns from a stressful family gathering in the fine 1890s homestead at the Sounds originally built by Trevor's ex-wife's ancestors, and which she and Trevor were allowed to go to "by her grace." Everyone by then knows about Trevor's hotel-development problems and is worried about the financial implications. There is bickering, hostility towards Therese, and a near drowning. Then she and Trevor return home to...
A turd. That's what was at home. The apartment door was closed but unlocked... and there was a brown mass in the middle of the rug I had brought back from a walking trip in Nepal. At first I thought it was a dead animal, perhaps a rat. Then I saw the flies on it. Then I smelt it.
The flat was not burgled, and there seems to be no explanation for this, but Therese goes to ask Claire if anything unusual has happened in the building.
There is loud music playing inside Claire's apartment, and "people whooping over the top of it," so she pushes open the door. The first thing she sees is "two fake stone lions." Claire is on the floor, hammer in hand, wooden boards laid out in a rectangle. She, and her two unexpected Albanian house guests are constructing a stage for a party Claire is giving, to which she invites Therese and Trevor.
At the party, Claire, exotically dressed, makes an announcement from the stage:
"I wanted to do this," she waved a gesture down her body at the tight sequined dress, waved a hand over her painted face, her hair, the table, the flowers and candles, "one last time... the short version is, this is goodbye to an old self. This self," gesturing again. "I'm just me," she said. "But I'm not that me any more."
Next day, puzzled by all this, Therese calls in on Claire again and is persuaded to join her in dancing on the stage to "stadium rock" music with a "banging chorus":
What the fuck I thought as my body slowly followed hers and started moving in time to the song. Of course I was self-conscious, but it would have been harder to resist moving, like being the weirdo at the sauna for keeping your clothes on. Soon enough my body fits inside the cheesy song and dancing to it was effortless. God, it was a relief to just move—I could feel the thoughts melting off me... "stage" was the wrong word for what held us, I realized—it was more like a zone. That word filled me now along with the music and the only other room was for the words why not?
The "zone" calls Therese back again and again. She sees Claire strip the flat, get rid of her old self, and become obsessive and slightly manic. Eventually, in a botched weekend away, fueled by alcohol and cannabis oil, Claire harangues friends and strangers about "natural births," "Motherhood as a fetish," "Accessory husbands," "journeys (Journey. Journey. We're just scared... It's completely debased. I mean do I want just to be a good little meditator?", and "monetizing your feelings of shitness." Finally, having alienated a number of people and sent one woman running from the room, she turns to Therese:
The stern eye.
"You're nothing next to a man, you're not even real in this world."
I put my palms up. "I'm just going to check on Sally."
Fern said, "Have we got any more weed?"
Therese does begin to question her life and her choices, especially as Trevor's legal problems begin to affect her own business and she discovers there are things he has organized for his family about which she has not been told. But she is aware, as Claire's sister Melissa says, "Not everyone can do a so-called 'role switch.' Some people can't just 'opt out.'" Melissa, who is raising two boys on her own, "doesn't have time for it." Melissa believes Claire is having a breakdown.
Lioness is full of insight into the muddled emotions often plaguing mixed families, but Emily Perkins also captures the pleasant intimacy of family gatherings and the benefits of being financially well-off. Therese is not young, she is intelligent and able, and she loves Trevor and sees nothing wrong in doing all she can to make his life comfortable and to help him with his various business enterprises. Nor has she been unhappy with her chosen role in life. Her friendship with Claire does give her a glimpse of an alternative, but she is astute enough to think carefully about her own choices.
Claire eventually joins her husband and daughter in New Zealand, but she is still as zany as ever. In the last phone call Therese describes for us, Claire tells her she is reading "show notes" for a second film series about the goddess Atalanta:
And get this, they've got her hunting down wild creatures, going after the Golden Fleece, all that. Choosing her husband in a rigged race. But they're missing what happens next, when the couple have sex in a temple and get turned into lions as punishment. Don't you think that's the best bit?
"I do," I said. "I just can't see it as a punishment."
I had changed before, I thought as I kept walking; I could do it again.
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