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The Canberra Times
The Canberra Times
Miriam Webber

Moon Sugar grapples with a post-COVID world, with a magical touch

Moon Sugar by Angela Meyer. Transit Lounge. 243pp. $29.99.

Masses of pages have, and will be, written in attempts to come to terms with the disruption wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, but Angela Meyer's latest novel brings a touch of magic to this excavation.

The story opens in Melbourne, as it is just stretching back to life, seen through the eyes of 40-year-old personal trainer Mila.

Childless, single and uneasy with her increasingly strained relationship with her parents, Mila's escape is Josh, a sex worker she meets on a website for older women seeking to connect with younger men.

Attractive, kind and comfortable in his body and sexuality, Josh teaches Mila to want again, shows her that her desires can be met.

Kyle too, 24-years-old, divorced and sinking into isolation, finds buoyancy in his housemate Josh.

It is Josh's abrupt disappearance in Berlin, where he is presumed to have died by suicide, that pulls Mila and Kyle together, sending them hurtling down a path of self-discovery.

Moon Sugar is quick to assert that it is not a true crime novel, there is an element of the mystical interwoven in its pages.

Mentions of an "experiment" Josh and Mila were involved in together keep the reader guessing at what layers are left to peel back.

Meyer is conservative about spelling out the omnipresence of COVID-19, but it is the impression of the power of connection with the world around us and those who inhabit it, that reminds us of the damage that has been done.

In this context it is easy to connect with protagonists who are disappointed, who feel they have missed out, and heartening to be reminded that it is not too late to carve out a path.

Splashes of international travel, from Berlin to London and Budapest, also invigorate the story.

Meyer's fixation on connection extends beyond present day to the weight of meaning attached to what has transpired before us.

This presents itself in strands of a David Bowie song which shock back to a country divided or the steaming waters of Budapest's baths, which stir up a sense of reverence.

These flashes of what it is to travel, to feel rooted into history from the very spot you stand, are satisfying, but Meyer's attempt to recognise Australia's own violent history of colonialism feels shakier.

Though well-intentioned this encounter with the history of First Nations people is tucked quickly into the novel rather than laced through, and feels stilted.

As Mila and Kyle's hunt for Josh unfolds, as more of the mystical is revealed, and obscure players with powerful agendas are introduced, Meyer does hold back in some places from leaning into the drama of her own tale.

The elements are there, but where there could be a sense of urgency and danger, there is sometimes a restraint which keeps the reader back from racing forward with the story.

Overall though, some shaky moments do not derail a story which offers its readers a valuable perspective on reconnecting with our fears and our desires, in an format which feels unlike other accounts of the period.

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