Losing Face begins with a fable. In the desert in time immemorial women and the children they look after are pestered by a djinn while their menfolk are away. To get rid of the djinn, the women make a Faustian bargain. The djinn promises to leave them alone if she can have the boy children’s manhoods. The grateful women agree and the children appear unharmed, but when the boys get older they find that they “didn’t grow beards”, “they didn’t quite develop enough gusto to heard the animals or lift the heavy sacks”. It sounds like a curse, but over the course of Losing Face you may come to wonder otherwise in this deeply unsettling tale of masculinity and the harm it can do to others.
The novel skips forwards to the present-ish, following Joey as he slouches around Western Sydney. He’s 19 years old, finished high school, no idea what to do with himself and at least initially the novel feels like an amiable-if-anxious coming-of-age story, even if it lacks the sublime punch of that opening scene. But a third of the way through it becomes something rather different. Joey finds himself caught up with some rough old school friends in Western Sydney. They head off to buy drugs, pick up a young woman named Lisa, and head to a park where Joey and Lisa take some harder stuff. Then they head to an empty carpark where the boys assault her.
Joey’s complicity in what happened to Lisa is the question that drives the rest of the novel. He’s eventually charged and faces trial. His family struggle to deal with Joey’s wrongdoing. Joey struggles with his culpability, complicated by his first intuitions that he might be queer. It’s a vivid portrayal of toxic masculinity that attempts to disentangle the personal (Joey’s not the bad guy that racist stereotypes tell him he is) from the structural (men are born and raised into a system that privilege us, often violently) and leaves its most pressing questions unresolved. The ambiguity works for it, leaving a lingering discomfort that few other recent Australian novels have achieved.
Offsetting Joey’s perspective are interleaved chapters following his Tayta (grandmother) Elaine, who reminisces about her childhood in Lebanon and her life in Sydney while hopping from TAB to TAB and trying to keep a gambling addition hidden from her family. She provides the almost-resigned voice of the woman who has seen it all before but has her own foibles. When she hears about the assault on Lisa she is at first most concerned about what people will say about her family; losing face as it were.
Where’s Lisa in all this? The novel resists giving us her perspective. “It felt completely invasive and futile to wonder these things,” Elaine tells herself when she thinks about the girl. Later she wants to find Lisa on social media and tell her that Joey isn’t a bad guy. “You’re making this about Joey,” Joey’s brother Alex counsels, “You’re forgetting that she is the victim”. His father Simons warns that it’s “a dangerous thought” for Joey to worry about how Lisa is doing, “It makes the victim’s experience about you”. It is this choice to absent Lisa after the assault on her that gives Losing Face its lingering power.
Haddad is a fine writer, whether conjuring village life in Lebanon or suburban Western Sydney. He has a particular talent for getting inside the bodies of his protagonists, such as Joey’s woozy elation at a music festival:
The DJ pulled back the track entirely, exposing the mattress of human sounds momentarily … The lights went out for a few seconds. Time had been stretched to the end of its tether, just for him. Just for him to connect with whatever the hell it was that turned all the cogs and pushed all the levers inside him and everyone else.
A deceptively easy read but one that troubles long after the final sentence.
Gay rating: 3/5 for a queer protagonist and queer desire.