Review: Poly by Paul Dalgarno

Poly opens mid scene, throws you right in it. Chris Flood, a 39-year-old father of two, wakes to an empty house. His kids, Sophie and Oliver, five and seven, are with their uncle. His wife Sarah is away at a party. He got a text from her after midnight: “kissed a French guy”. He’s happy for her, he tells himself, that’s what she wants, what he wants. Polyamory: the solution to their recently sexless marriage.

Chris, our narrator, is a sex-starved guy in arts management, perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “I was a small ‘l’ liberal,” he writes, “Well-versed in the theoretical underpinnings of ethical non-monogamy, impervious to otherwise universal manifestations of human frailty. Or I would have been had I done my research.” Sarah is a Rumi-quoting former dancer with a penchant for “interbred idioms” like “no point looking a gift card in the mouth”. They’ve been together for 15 years, married for ten. But about a year ago two deaths – Chris’s mum, Sarah’s former lover – triggered a marital crisis, leaving them both starved of intimacy. Their journey into ethical non-monogamy starts with Sarah seeking flings with a series of men. Chris soon starts his own adventure, falling in love with Biddy, a 30-something performer.

Around the same time, the couple befriend Zac, a 22-year-old from Montevideo, who becomes increasingly close to the family, and often steps in for babysitting duties while Chris and Sarah are off with their lovers. Zac’s core competency “was to be sitting next to me or on the other end of the phone when I was at my most unguarded”. But there’s something off about Zac. He teaches the kids odd phrases in Spanish, like “no one knows who I really am”. Is he really who he says he is?

You go into this book with all the nosey questions: how much amazing sex do they have? Do they get jealous? Is it really that great? Dalgarno sensibly gets all this out of the way early on. Yes, Chris has a lot of great sex. Yes, they get jealous. It turns out that polyamory is as complicated and draining as any other type of relationship. It’s mainly a question of scheduling. Mid-way through the novel Chris is utterly exhausted, suffering panic attacks, and craving time to himself. “It wasn’t even polyamory for me – I was in a double-monogamous bind,” he complains. One half of Poly is essentially a very funny, very anxiety-inducing novel about time management.

The other half is something more sinister, a psychological suburban thriller. There’s an invader lurking in their midst, but who is it? Is it the lovers Chris and Sarah invite into their lives? Is it someone closer to home? Or is it something else entirely, an ennui taking hold in the suburbs as the world goes to shit (“Greed and nihilism had won and soon enough there would be nothing left to forgive,” Chris thinks while watching a climate protest)? Poly builds to a number of startling and often moving revelations, proving that sometimes to make a polyamorous marriage work, you’ve got to break a few tea sets.

Poly is a riot, in the true sense. It’s an all out brawl against what society expects of relationships. Who says you can’t have it all? No one in this novel, except perhaps Sarah’s parents. Weirdly, I started thinking of BeyoncĂ©’s self-titled album, and her insistence that motherhood, marriage, feminism and a thrilling sex life are completely compatible. Except Chris makes it look really hard. It’s also an admirably complex depiction of masculinity. Chris and the men around him struggle with their mental health and grief. He basically stalks Sarah at times, reads her phone messages without her knowing, contemplates violence. This is a book unafraid to enter the grey areas of sex, marriage and parenthood, and even at times cross the line. There must be something in the water, because it’s the third book by Australian men I’ve read this year that complicates masculinity in new ways – I often thought of Wayne Marshall’s Shirl and Chris Flynn’s Mammoth while reading Poly.

Poly unfolds in a dizzying torrent of language. Chris is a twitchy narrator, constantly interrupting himself, stumbling, leaping from topic to topic at whiplash speed, barely speaking in full sentences. The results are raw and often hilarious. Here’s Chris riding to collect the kids the morning after Sarah’s first fling:

These days – just reaching out – even a tentative hand across the mattress in the dead of night – was too much. The shame of real and anticipated rejection was paralysing. She wasn’t interested, said she didn’t feel sexy. But if she could see that men still wanted her, found her desirable… Me, for example – I was a man!

I straddled my bike at the intersection, waiting for the lights, come on, sweating. My phone… had Sarah texted? No.

Green light. Driving the pedals, wind in my face, my wife released.

It’s bracing stuff. Poly is a take-no-prisoners sort of book. You just have to strap in for the ride.

Gay rating: 2/5 for some queer characters

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