Stray Love by Kyo Maclear

April 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

I first heard about Kyo Maclear’s second novel, Stray Love, from this review by Michelle Berry (which also quotes some of the book’s great lines).

Stray Love is the story of Marcel, a boy who has been abandoned by his mother and is being brought up by his foreign correspondent guardian, Oliver. When Oliver begins to travel extensively for work, Marcel moves in with their neighbour, Pippa, with whom Oliver has a confusingly intense relationship. Growing up in sixties England as the child of a white mother and a black father, neither of whom he even knows, Marcel feels conspicuous but also identity-less. Eventually, Pippa’s less than orthodox childcare methods are discovered, and Marcel finally joins Oliver in Vietnam, a place he feels comfortable despite the turmoil and violence around him.

Stray Love by Kyo Maclear

This story is intersected with Marcel’s later life, when his childhood friend and first love Kiyomi asks Marcel if he can look after her daughter Iris while she rushes to her mother’s hospital bedside. Marcel is surprised and somewhat put out—surely there is a friend in New York who would be more suited to the task—but quickly becomes fond of Iris. Iris is just what Marcel needs to disturb his complacency, asking awkward questions out of a real desire to know what motivates him. As the novel progresses we learn (and sometimes unlearn) many layers of truth, and Marcel gradually discovers more about his identity.

Stray Love is exceptionally well done. It’s gentle and quiet, written with kindness and compassion, except for the places that are loud or dangerous or angry, which are full of boldness and passion. It has a classical feel—slightly formal, vaguely reminiscent of Ishiguro in its careful pacing and attention to detail. It’s classical in another way too, in the way that classical music is so much more complex than pop music: this novel has melodies, counter-melodies, changes in dynamics. First one instrument plays the motif, then another picks it up and gives it a different voice. Among the many layers are repeats and developments and resolutions.

This novel is a story largely about identity, and about how far understanding one’s own identity helps one to belong (and vice versa). That is to say, it’s about people in search of a narrative. But it’s also a historical study of another narrative, one of social change, about the reasons why Iris is so much more comfortable in her own skin, and so much more confident, than Marcel ever was. Ambitious, sensitive and graceful, Stray Love is a book that stays quietly with you long after the book is closed.

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