‘What does journey even mean?’: Emily Perkins interrogates our obsession with wellbeing

Therese Thorne is the kind of woman who cooks steak “perfectly, because people pleasing can’t stop overnight”. The kind who says “whatever would make people feel better”, even if it is not what she believes.

The protagonist of Emily Perkins’ Lioness, she is instantly recognisable – and her story will engage readers who like to soak up a good psychological drama.

Formerly Teresa, she now manages her Therese Thorne homewares store in Wellington, New Zealand. It’s the sort of store that promotes “rituals involving candles and incense […] affirmations, cleanses, arranging your desk, changing the cushion covers”.

Review: Lioness – Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury)

From humble origins, she’s risen to a point where she and financier husband, property developer Trevor, have eyes on a central Sydney location. She toasts her gratitude to Trevor at a Christmas party – to which many of their friends do not show. “We are lucky,” Therese says. “Very, very lucky.”

Wrong, Therese. Very, very wrong.

The couple has just found out Trevor is implicated in a kickback scheme involving a councillor (a school chum of his) who had – allegedly – approved Trevor’s new hotel development over a social housing application. The party, now derailed, reminded me of the party scene from The Great Gatsby in its meaninglessness. (Who are the people who did come? Did they really care about the hosts, or did they just want to be close to money?)

Therese is not only lucky, she’s happy and successful – isn’t she? She views the world as if it is somehow to be trusted. She likes the good life: dinners on yachts with “crab and silver and linen”. She maintains a cordial relationship with Trevor’s ex-wife Judith, who left him for another woman (and whose face in an oil portrait catches alight and burns, providing the image for the rather disturbing book cover).

Therese professes to enjoy the company of Trevor’s adult children: holidays at the Sounds, charades, Christmas parties all in together (Therese as chef).

There’s Annabel and husband John in Singapore. (“John makes so much money. It’s oppressive.”) Rob, whose wife Maria asks Therese whether peeling potatoes for Christmas lunch is “a bit like we’re the help?”. Caroline and her forgettable husband Andy, who is just plain nasty (with a smile). And indulged, entitled Heathcote, “with his studied loucheness, as if the family money was acceptable as long as he wasted it”.

None of the children come to the party to support their father – whose money they are leeching.

Emily Perkins’ novel is a psychological drama with an ‘instantly recognisable’ narrator.
Ebony Lamb

Flaccid sex and a bohemian siren

I am a little dubious about novels that open with a sex scene, flaccid as it is – but soon realised its flaccidity is the point. Trevor is in his seventies and hides his Viagra; Therese is in her fifties and energetically manages her homewares empire.

Trevor may or may not be corrupt, but he is certainly bland. It comes as something of a shock to Therese to realise this, but not the reader. There is something of the unreliable narrator in Therese’s naivety, which at first seems implausible. Oh, Trevor’s a good provider and he’s loyal.

But Claire, who lives in a downstairs apartment in their block (and tells Therese on the first day they meet of her fantasy sex dream with Trevor) offers a window into a more liberated, more bohemian, more alluring world. While Trevor and Therese talk domestic logistics, each glued to their screens, Claire is a “conversational minefield” who is like a siren to Therese.

Therese knows only that Claire used to work on film sets, then in fundraising, and recently lost her job. Her children have grown up and the youngest recently left home.

Claire tells Therese the only reason she was on antidepressants for so long (“I can finally have orgasms again”) was because her family liked her better that way. She explains she has “swapped roles” with her (hardly seen) husband Mick: he’s taken on the traditional female tasks, like housework and emotional management, while she has the male role, so puts out the rubbish and fixes things. It has changed her life.

She claims to have renounced “late capitalism”, though admits her hypocrisy in this regard since she still enjoys its trappings. Later in the novel she gives away all her furniture, earning a reprimand from her sister Melissa. (“What’s so bad about sitting on a fucking couch?”)

Therese energetically manages her own homewares empire.
Chelsea Shapouri /Unsplash, CC BY

Therese (who used to be Teresa, remember) is struck by Claire’s bold self-assurance, her emancipation. She admires how she has managed to achieve “the art of living in the world as it was”. It’s a turning point in her life; she realises she’s conflated “wellbeing” with “wealth”.

She is seduced into Claire’s “zone” of music, dance and trance on the recently constructed stage in Claire’s apartment. It’s a form of escape from her own reality. (“That was what I loved about the zone: the wanting went away.”) She becomes involved with the lives of Albanian refugees and transient young people who now live with Claire.

But the relationship is artfully, teasingly ambiguous; at one point Therese wonders whether Claire, who is direct to the point of blunt offence, is just not a very nice person. Claire asks why Therese is so “fucking polite”. Why are you so “shruggy?” Therese retaliates.

The pace accelerates when Therese invites Claire to spend a weekend at the family’s country residence, escaping the erupting fraud scandal at home. Trevor’s daughter Caroline makes an unscheduled arrival with a bevy of friends. It’s the perfect setting for a showdown of who has the greater right to the house, and serves to expose the toxicity of Therese’s relationship with her stepchildren.

Claire’s challenge to the values 30-year-old Caroline and her friends hold dear reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s satirical style (and made me laugh in the same way): “Sorry, said Claire, but what does journey even mean?” She derides self-care, practice, wildness, mentor and women who wear floppy hats with equal passion.

Perkins’ exploration of the relationship between Therese and Claire forms the substance of the novel, but Therese’s personal journey (haha!) of self-discovery is the real story. The reader senses she is about to break. “I wanted someone to tell me – Claire perhaps – if the pressure was coming from inside or outside.”

Read more:
Heather Rose writes with raw beauty about trauma and ‘hardcore spiritual work’ – so why does it leave me cold?

Becoming a lioness

Therese’s transition from “catalogue model blandness” to, well, a lioness, is the real page-turner. When she speaks or even thinks honestly, from the heart, it feels like relief – for the reader as much as for Therese.

She regards her beauty products with new eyes: “a rose quartz roller, a gua sha tool, toner, serum oil […] Who could be arsed?” She follows Claire’s lead in draping sheets over the mirrors in the house, so she needn’t see her own reflection.

As the reality of her true status within her family dawns, she catches herself thinking: “What would be lost if John were to die?” (following a near miss during a family seaside holiday). She later fantasises about taking a stick for each family member and charring them in the fire flames: “Heathcote, perhaps, or even Trevor.”

Her transformation from her own “little and light” life to baring her teeth and feeling her skin split is the inexorable, in-your-face pull of the novel.

Therese’s transition from catalogue model to lioness is page-turning.
Ria Truter/Unsplash, CC BY

Atalanta, mentioned a few times in the novel, was the mythical goddess of running; she was transformed into a lion as a punishment for making love with her husband Hippomenes in the shrine of the goddess Cybele.

Claire’s apartment is decorated with statues of stone lionesses. There is a lioness tattoo on the abdomen of the mother of Therese’s personal assistant, whose manifesto could be Therese’s:

I don’t care now what I say. I mean I do, but I used to, you know, stop myself all the time. For no reason, just scared to say what I thought in case I got slapped down. Now I just say it.

But the novel is about much more than self-discovery and epiphany. Never preachy, Perkins casts a probing eye on themes that speak to us all: how we become who we are, how we define ourselves, the values on which we base our lives.

She writes fiercely, lets the dialogue speak for itself and sprinkles the darkness with moments of biting, laugh-out-loud humour. She is not afraid to take on the uncomfortable, the off-limits. And after all, isn’t this the point of novels? They’re not just for our distraction (or salvation): they invite us to save ourselves from our own complacency.

Perkins exposes the hypocrisy (“You’re a parasite on our family,” Heathcote proclaims), the depravity and the privilege on which corruption festers.

After the disconcerting holiday encounter with her stepdaughter, Therese is overcome with the feeling she is a

burglar … or that the place itself was stolen. Whatever it was, the sense of not belonging was deep, queasy and intoxicating.

Lioness may be a queasy read – but it’s an intoxicating one.

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