Book review: The Other Side of Beautiful by Kim Lock

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

ARC courtesy NetGalley – release date 7 July 2021 in Australia.

Trauma in life is inevitable.

None of us particularly want to admit to that since it means dismantling this cosy late twentieth century notion that it we do everything right we will lives as charmed as the happy-ever-after in a fairytale.

But life isn’t terribly accommodating to such fancifully self-serving philosophical notions, a hard, cold reality that comes crashing down upon Mercy Blain when a week of deeply traumatic events including the breakdown of her marriage to Eugene who runs off with his male barista lover sends her into hiding in her own home, a place she doesn’t leave, save for the occasional hesitant walk down the street, for two years.

That’s a lot of Greta Garbo time going on there, and in The Other Side of Beautiful by Kim Lock, we find out what it is drove Mercy there in the first place and how against her medical training which says you don’t give into anxiety, she has not only acquiesced but given her life wholesale over the idea that the world outside is scary, uncertain place and not worth setting foot in.

That is until her home burns down one night, leaving Mercy with nothing but her sausage dog Wasabi and the option of a temporary home with her not-quite-ex-husband Eugene who still cares for a great deal but whose boyfriend is none too keen to have her around.

In an impossible situation, where your sanctuary has been ripped out from under you in a fiery hell that almost claimed your life, what is a person to do?

“‘What’d you study?’

Mercy turned the warm stone over in her hand. Even before it had all come undone, his was a question she rarely answered—outside of work, to strangers—with honesty. It was too much of a conversation stopper; it inevitably introduced a divide between her and the other person. Telling people she’d studied medicine meant she became an authority figure, an immediate confidante. She would be treated to questions about ingrown toenails, or this itchy patch on their left buttock, or their cousin’s prostrate treatment—whether or not she practised in those things. The moment someone knew what Mercy did she became not a normal flawed person but someone infallible. Someone more than. Someone with the answers to life’s grievances. When the truth was she was just as messy and breakable as everyone else.” (P. 128)

Well, as it turns out, you buy a very old Daihatsu Hijet from an old man on your ex’s street and set off without any planning or premeditation and you drive to Darwin, hoping that somewhere along the way some sort of answer to what to do next will present itself.

To be honest, it’s doubtful Mercy even thinks that as the narrative, which is quirkily charming and heartbreakingly honest in equal measure, goes sedately along – Hijets are not known for her speed as the constant streams of road trains and passing Grey Nomads will attest – in ways that give Mercy’s slow journey towards healing the time needed to really find its feet.

The Other Side of Beautiful is a brilliant piece of lo-fi writing because while the idea of simply setting off on a just over 3000km jaunt seems wildly eccentric and fun, the reality is that for Mercy it’s a last-minute, unplanned trip into the very darkest of her fears and a deeply unsettling sense that there is nothing left for her in life besides hiding out on her home.

However, with some major issues looming over her, including one that she cannot ignore from her medical career days, and a home in ashes, Mercy has no choice but to head somewhere, anywhere, and The Other Side of Beautiful captures with moving honesty and a burbling sense of gathering hope what it’s like to reach the very end of yourself and find that maybe there’s more of that story to be told.

Kim Lock (image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

But not without grappling with a whole of inner demons, all of which come out in sizeable number whenever Mercy has to do anything.

Trips to the supermarket suddenly become terrifying treks into the demanding unknown, staying at caravan parks with gregariously inclusive Grey Nomads, a handsome Scottish man named Andrew and a journalist whose desire for clickbait above humanity played a role in ruining Mercy’s life become a lesson in re-socialising that is scary and intoxicatingly good all at once, and being out in the wide blue open are a nightmare that slowly but surely begins to lose much of the terror that kept Mercy within her now lost home.

What makes The Other Side of Beautiful such a realistic if reassuringly uplifting read is that at no time does Lock pretend that getting over trauma is some kind of walk in the park, or more accurately for this novel, a drive down the Stuart Highway.

She is resolutely truthful about how hard it is to leave the trauma behind and how anxiety constantly subsumes you in a miasma of paranoia and fear such that the facts on the ground simply don’t mean anything, lost to all kinds of dark thoughts and frightening possibilities that sound so real and loud that shutting them down begins to feel like mission impossible.

“Running her fingertips over the creased, dusty cardboard, she smiled.

… she climbed out of the Daihatsu Hijet. She closed the door, her hand lingering on the warm metal.

Home is wherever you ARE.

Mercy said ‘Thank you.’

Tucking the box of ashes under her arm, she turned and walked away.” (P. 298)

But in the midst of all this existential grappling, Lock also beautifully captures how funny and hopeful life can be when you finally reengage with it.

In Mercy’s case, that reengagement is a forced thing that she has no choice but to deal with on some level – though, of course, she ups he ante considerably by sending herself out into a world she barely knows and which is full of people she would never normally encounter – but reengagement it nonetheless is, and since life is nothing if not hilariously unpredictable, there’s also a great deal of laugh out loud and heart to the story because life, even at its darkest, still has its moments of weird levity, even if at the time you’re none too keen to participate in it.

The great pleasure of The Other Side of Beautiful, populated by quirky but realistic characters, a narrative which is both languorous and scarily fast (for Mercy, at least) and a rekindled sense that life is not all doom and hermitic gloom, is that Lock, writing with great compassion and insight, is able to blend fear and hope, terror and exciting possibility together in such a way that the kind of healing Mercy encounters feels entirely possible.

Few of us will likely ever buy a van on a whim, and even after finding a box of cremated remains, continue driving the entire way, south to north across an island continent, but the universality of what Mercy experiences rings true at every heartwarmingly funny and darkly serious point, imbuing The Other Side of Beautiful with a lovely sense of life as it is lived and the reassuring knowledge that no matter how oppressive the darkness of anxiety or depression may be, and Lock doesn’t pretend it’s anything but a titanic enemy, that perhaps life can surprise you and you can begin to start living, actually living, again.

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