Review: Marlo by Jay Carmichael

This short novel is a love story where the romance is for much of it necessarily elided. Set in 1950s Melbourne, it follows a young man, Christopher, as he moves to the city from the East Gippsland locality of Marlo to start a new life. In the city he almost immediately discovers the underground queer scene, following a man from a bar to the gardens:

I picked him, instinctively as that way. My way … A likeness. Perhaps in his dress. Perhaps in his manners. Perhaps a combination of both. I recoiled, as if catching sight of my own reflection.

To be seen and to see yourself: thrilling, terrifying, and particularly so when your relationships are criminalised. The man is Morgan, an Aboriginal man from New South Wales, and they begin a relationship that soon becomes domestic. Driving the narrative is the question of how visibly they will live with each other, which Christopher and Morgan wrestle with in different ways. Christopher rejects the queer community gathering openly in the city’s bars, wishing for “a private freedom”:

as long as I didn’t get caught alongside those people I’d remain the plains wanderer, that elusive bird that exists between myth and reality.

We get only glimpses of their budding intimacy; there’s no explicit sex; details around their meetings are curiously hazy. I found the writing resistant, opaque, mirroring the silences and shadows Christopher lives in. For Morgan, it’s his skin colour that is policed and surveilled, which he sees in fact as something of an advantage, another way to hide. “Everyone bothers over the looks … so they don’t think about anything else,” he tells Christopher.

Marlo’s epigraph is from the 1949 Crimes Act that outlawed sex and relationships between men. Christopher’s housemate Kings is a court reporter with a focus on indecency. When a man is rumoured to have engaged in sex with men, he is pilloried in the paper, his name, address and job revealed. Christopher is nonplussed by the cruelty. “I pointed out that the level of detail wasn’t published for the other crime report [Kings had] put his by-line on”. “Precisely,” replies Kings. Cops hang out at the gardens, pretending to be trade. Other men haunt the cruising areas to beat up people like Christopher. Carmichael effectively conjures the atmosphere of living under intense surveillance. Christopher has a small advantage, able to pass as straight at least some of the time, an advantage not afforded to the gender non-conforming Jacqui who he forms a tentative friendship with. Some folks won’t or can’t live invisibly. Despite the repression, Marlo is an affecting reminder that queer people are irrepressible, finding ways to form community and find each other whether in the shadows or out.

Gay rating: 5/5 for queer themes, characters and relationships.

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