Book review: Mix Tape by Lisa Sanderson

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Life is messy.

We all know this deep down and yet time and again, we seek ways short and long term, consciously and subconciously to bring order where there palpably is none and where, if we’re honest, we know there can never be.

And yet we keep trying, shoving down and repressing trauma, loss, pain, wrong turns and a host of other happiness bubble-piercing negatives that beset us at every stage of our lives in the hope that the workarounds we have in place, tenuous at best if we really give them a good shake (which we never do), will actually tidy up and make bearable the inevitable monstrous messiness of life.

But as Alison/Ali Connor and Daniel/Dan Lawrence discover in Jane Sanderson’s gloriously-nuanced and deeply, quietly but powerfully emotional novel Mix Tape, you can only live with your paper-thin accommodations with life’s inherent chaos before they come bursting forth, taking all our assumptions of order and lives satisfactorily well-lived with them.

Each the great and enduring first love of the other, Ali and Dan ended not together as they’d assumed but far apart, emotionally and physically, with Ali married to Michael, the son of one of Adelaide, Australia’s great pioneering families and a celebrated author whose latest book is standing atop the bestseller lists like King Kong on a the fabled New York skyscraper, and Dan, a music writer in great demand who leads a happy but uneventful life with the prickly Katelin.

“Then Alison Connor had come along and he’d thought he [Dan] was born to make mix tapes for this girl, but she’d told him thanks, but in fact she preferred to listen to music differently to this; she liked only to play albums, beginning to end, because that’s what the artist intended. Dan was thinking about this now as he hurried home with Katelin from the pub, on this foul, wet night: thinking about how, all those years ago, he’d felt simultaneously crushed, impressed, aggravated, flabbergasted. ‘I know that’s what the artist intended,’ he’d said. ‘Obviously, I know that. But mix tapes are something else, aren’t they?'” (P. 50)

Neither is particularly unhappy but then neither are they desperately happy either.

But then how often do we stop and muse on our level of happiness? Life keeps barreling on, take us with it, and most of us are, like Ali and Dan, aware of some lurking sense of discontentment but really not inclined to do too much with it.

Day goes into day and we press on, assuming our regrets and sadnesses about the past cannot be addressed in any meaningful way and we have to learn to deal, in the band-aid approach to take to many things (not that we’d ever admit to our responses to life’s jagged debris being that insubstantial and easily dislodged), to live with the pain and sense things not quite being as they should be that seethes restlessly deep down.

One day though Dan is alerted, via a friend sending him her Twitter account to Ali’s existence over on the far side of the globe and all his house of cards assumptions about life begin to slowly tumble down, in a slow motion slide to inevitability that begins with him sending her via direct message a link to one particular song, “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

It’s a simple act but it immediately hurtles them both from Sheffield in the late 1970s, where Daniel is the doted on youngest son of a reasonably stable and happy middle class family and Alison is struggling to keep her head above water, dealing with an uncaring, alcoholic mother, her abusive boyfriend and a home life, blighted to hell, save for the oversight and protection of her doting six-years-older brother Peter.

Lisa Sanderson (image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Alison responds to Dan’s simple but powerful message with a song of her own, and so begins a dance of remembrance and longing that takes them back and forth between then and now, compressing the intervening years, and unfortunately the people such as Michael and Katelin (and their respective kids) to such an extent that the past becomes the present and demands to be the future in a way that begins damn near impossible to ignore.

Not that Alison and Dan don’t try; after all, despite coming from vastly different home situations which had a profound impact on how they handled their nascent romantic bonding back in the day (traumatically for both of them) and continues to influence how they respond now, they are all too aware of how delicately their embrace of the compromises necessary to survive and live through life’s chaotic twists and turns can be pulled apart.

In other words, pull one thread and the entire carefully-constructed tapestry of life comes screaming apart, bloodied loose ends, never cleaned up, whipping frenetically in the vortex inevitably stirred up when we dare to start dismantling, even in small and (we think) inconsequential ways, the carefully-layered elements of our lives.

Sanderson takes what might seem like a pulpy premise of sorts, the meeting of two lost loves who find each other after decades of separation – it is, in many ways, the kind of plot that would be at home in a cheap and trashy airport novel – and weaves a beautifully affecting story of two people who discover that their sense of happiness is reliant on all manner of stories they have told themselves, none of which are necessarily false but which have necessitated the repression of why they are intrinsically and what they wanted from life.

“How Dan came to be here didn’t cloud her mind, the risk he’d taken, the folly of turning up unannounced. No: there was no questioning the ins and outs, the whys and wherefores of an inexorable force, and after all, the world could be crossed in the course of a day and a night, and they had to see each other, of course they did; they had to be in the same city, in the same room, they had to talk and to touch, they simply couldn’t spend the years they each had left trading songs across cyberspace.” (P. 261)

Mix Tape is achingly and touchingly told, an intense story of repressed emotions and senses of self finally finding their voice that feel entirely authentic and realistic.

It acknowledges in ways that all of us can relate to that we make compromises again and again to get through life and that while they aren’t always bad, they may not be true to who we are or what we want.

Granted, few of us are in the position in which Dan and Ali find themselves and are forced to confront the big ticket decisions that throw their lives, happily but messily into turmoil, but we can all relate to that sense that given the chance we might do some things differently.

The power of Mix Tape lies in the way it addresses these kinds of crossroads moments, not as some kind of melodramatic movie-of-the-week but as real, heartfelt issues that materially impact what we thought we knew about the business of living life and how when that is thrown in doubt, listening to our heart becomes a real and vital thing and not some cute Hallmark-esque plot device.

Dan and Ali have to ask themselves throughout Mix Tape what it is they want from their lives, really want from their lives and what are they willing to sacrifice for that but more than that, they have to ask the kind of question many of us never has asked or flinch from if it crops up – is life able to done-over and do I have the courage to takeon that challenge?

It’s a powerful dilemma and one Sanderson executes on with rare and touching insight, a fine eye for characterisation that feel palpable and real and a sense of what it is to like to see the landscape of your life turned upside down and have to ride the resulting wave to wherever the next stage of living lies in wait.

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