The Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award has been a fairly accurate bellwether of quality. Previous winners have included Graham Simison for The Rosie Project (2012) Jane Harper for The Dry (2015) and Christian White for The Nowhere Child (2017). Even the short lists are impressive and have included Mark Brandi’s Wimmera and JM Green’s Good Money. So going into Victoria Hannan’s blistering and often raw debut Kokomo knowing that it won the 2019 Award is already a good start.
The startling opening chapter gives an indication of what readers might be in for. Mina, on the verge of sleeping with her work colleague Jack, feels she finally knows what love is. But despite having this revelation, she pauses to answer her phone and before she knows it she is flying back to Melbourne from London. She returns home to fulfil a promise that she would come when her mother finally left her house. Her mother Elaine had shut herself away after the death of her husband Bill, refusing to leave the house, and after years of trying to change the situation Mina had given up and fled to London. But now Mina is back, swept up by her old friend and neighbour Kira, sleeping in her old bed, making mistakes and trying to make sense of her mother and her own life.
And then about halfway through, the narrative pivots to Elaine. Readers start to see many of the same flashback scenes that Mina recalled – including her father’s funeral and the days after – through Elaine’s eyes, giving them all another layer of meaning.
Hannan delves deeply into the characters of Mina and Elaine and the events that shaped them. AS mother and daughter they have, in a sense, also shaped each other and carry the echoes of Elaine’s own parents in their actions. And through this, Hannan keeps coming back to the main question of this book. What is love? How is the best way to express it? What do you do when you have to keep that love secret? How do those secrets shape our connections? And what if those connections are better for secrets kept rather than shared?
Kokomo is sometimes uncomfortable as it reveals nuggets of truth and deals with a messy reality. But it is, from the first page, fully engaging. There is a mystery at the heart of the book that unfolds slowly, seen from the both the outside and the inside. But this is not a plot device designed to keep the pages turning, but rather a function of these characters – who they are and what they mean to each other – that takes time to fully resolve because real life, and love are not that simple.