The Golden Hour by Claire Belberg
Stone Table Books. Melbourne, 2017. RRP $17.95
30 Nov 2017
Three people, one room, no windows and the question: why are we here?
In her debut novel, The Golden Hour, Claire Belberg juxtaposes the clinical bareness of a waiting room and people stripped of their possessions – no phone, no handbag – against the complex psychology her characters: Eliza the beauty, Naomi the brains and 17-year-old student James Elkind. It is through James’ world, a shy boy who plays computer games and prefers to use the randomness of dice-throw to make life decisions, that Belberg leads the reader to try to figure out the mystery and a way out, if it exists.
I felt the disorientation of the characters, not knowing if it were a dream, an experiment, a prison or something even more sinister. Their frustration of the characters became mine when the action was necessarily limited to pacing, throwing of chairs and a boot, dialogue and repeated returns to James’ memory for clues to his true self and perhaps a key to escape. As a reader, I strained to know if their dilemma had a reality to it. Only after I speed-read to the end was the undisciplined reader in me able to reread the book slowly, this time appreciating the existential gems sprinkled through the novel like a breadcrumb trail to a thoughtful resolution.
The gems here lie in the restrained descriptions – as if my eyes could feel sharpness at the edges of all I could see, the sound of cloth whispering as we moved – and the pithy philosophical treatises trotted out by the characters. Eliza: ‘I belong to no one but myself.’ Naomi: ‘We’ve done our best and it proved to be nothing at all.’ James: ‘Waiting, but for what and how long?’; ‘I refuse to impress the unnamed critic who sits on my shoulder as I play’; ‘We were all just a bit of gas and fury and then it was over.’
Belberg uses colour to allude to the state of her characters and not even having a dice to throw (his pockets are empty), James becomes more attuned to his emotions. He sees more vivid colours, and he remembers the very old and the very young in his life. His memory returns, ‘like I’d finally removed that seed stuck between my teeth’, and he starts making headway into the whole existentialist dilemma, and so do I.
This is a book I recommend to anyone who has asked the question: why am I here? And if you pause in any waiting room long enough to think about it, is there a more important question to consider?