It starts the way it ends: two strangers, one airport. But the bit in between?
That’s what counts.
Victorian Claire Varley is the author of The Bit In Between, probably aimed at ‘wanderlust’ advocates, but suitable for anyone who enjoys a take on modern romance fiction. Her debut novel, released this August, follows the lives of Oliver and Alison: two 20-somethings who, despite an unfortunate vomiting during their first encounter, quickly become infatuated with one another.
Varley’s first pages reel you in. Alison and Oliver’s meeting is recounted from both points of view, giving a hilarious contrast to the same event.
Alison has returned from China. She followed around her talentless, Adonis-like boyfriend, Ed, like an obedient Labrador. That is, until realising she was nothing more than his dispensable accessory, coining him the “handsome, sexy mistake”.
And when Oliver meets Alison, he, too, is nothing short of complex. Returning from a failed soul-searching trip, writhing in shame from alterations to his first published novel, Oliver is lost.
Varley captures perfectly the anticipation of new love, two lives combining, giddy over the possibilities lying ahead. She writes: “[t]hey slept in each other’s arms with the exhausted familiarity that comes once in every relationship after that first intimate moment.”
The pair flee to the Solomon Islands – Oliver, in search of inspiration for his second book, and Alison, because nothing is binding her to Australia, so why not? Varley’s writing is skilfully monotonous, agonising. We experience the duo’s daily grind. Oliver stares at a blank screen for hours on end and Alison wanders the streets of Honiara, filling her days with menial activities.
Gradually finding purpose in her new home, helping the locals shape up their resumes and skills, Alison is inspired. Oliver? Not so much.
Varley nails the excruciation of writer’s block, bringing out Oliver’s insecurities often concealed behind the title of ‘published author’. He is terrified that he is a failure as a writer, that Alison will soon come to this realisation and walk out on him forever.
But instead of making a change, Oliver infuriates, wallowing in self-pity, only leaving the house to get drunk with Rick, a stereotypical yet likeable expat. Oliver steals stories from Alison’s real world conversations, fleshing out characters that mirror real life, which lead to the story’s – and his – unexpected end.
As we meet other characters, however fleetingly, Varley shifts the spotlight on them. These ‘vignettes’ do something magical – they remind us this is not just a love story. With Oliver as mouthpiece, Varley writes, “the world was just a complex web created by the backstories of several billion intersecting lives.” With multiple paths destined to interconnect – those of the maid, the shopkeeper, the pilot – she asks us, ‘What has drawn us to this very moment in time?’
The Bit In Between is not just a tale filling in the gaps of a love story. It’s a refreshing, worthwhile read into how we choose to fill our days, and what those choices make of us.
Book cover, Pan Macmillan Australia
Author photograph, Renee Tsatsis, via Pan Macmillan Australia