Up until now, award winning Australian author Chris Womersley’s novels have been stand alones. And the same could be said about his latest novel The Diplomat. But it is a sequel of sorts – to his 2013 novel Cairo. Or if not a sequel then at least a companion piece or spiritual successor. And given it has been nine years since that outing, no familiarity of that novel is needed to fully appreciate this follow up.
It is 1991 and Edward Degraves has come back to Australia from England and recognises that “[a]ll I had to do now was survive the rest of my life”. But that is not a simple task, Degraves is fresh out of detox after a long period of addiction, mourning the death of his wife Gertrude from an overdose, kicked out of the UK and short of cash. He has washed back up in Melbourne with a desperate plan. He has managed to smuggle some heroin back into the country and plans to sell it and live off the proceeds. But nothing is that easy, and before Degraves can get to that he has to confront the consequences of his life choices and the ghosts of his past.
The Diplomat is essentially a character study. Degraves a former drug addict and art forger, lives both in the present but also the past, remembering his involvement in the theft and forgery of a Picasso (the subject of Cairo) but also his life with Gertrude in England where they made a living by inventing a European artist and then selling his supposed lost works (painted by Gertrude) to Russian oligarchs. Along the way he also has to deal with his father, old acquaintances, Gertrude’s parents and her sister and try and come to terms with a life that has been dominated and then almost completely consumed by drugs.
But Womersley also brings a particular milieu of early 1990s Melbourne to life. In particular the, streets and pubs and hotels that Degraves drifts in an out of, including the eponymous Diplomat Hotel. While it does not seem that long ago, Womersely presents the world of The Diplomat as being very distinct to the Melbourne of 2022.
Womersley has never been afraid to deal with the darkness in people, with the rough and the smooth, and this is no exception. And he also explored some sark places, including issues of drug addiction, in his recent short story collection A Lovely and Terrible Thing. The Diplomat is a finely honed, melancholic and compassionate glimpse into a life in earlier times may have looked exciting from the outside but was always headed for tragedy. It is not an easy journey but there can be few better guides to this world than Chris Womersley.