Themes of love, lust, loss, grief, family conflict and duty can all be found in Perth-based author Tess Woods’ new novel Beautiful Messy Love (HarperCollinsPublishers), but it’s the broader social themes that set it apart from other contemporary women’s fiction, and will ensure it generates plenty of debate and discussion.
The novel’s exploration of serious contemporary issues – including the plight of asylum seekers, the impacts of depression, dwindling privacy in the digital age, the challenges of cross-cultural relationships, ignorance about religious difference, and the threat of terrorism – adds depth and breadth to the narrative, without overwhelming the dual love stories at its heart.
Woods’ deft and delicate handling of these contentious subjects confirms she is a deep-thinking, compassionate and fearless writer with the skills and finesse to incorporate lofty ideas in her storytelling, without preaching or proselytising.
While these themes challenge her readers, Woods has also challenged herself, by writing the novel from four alternating perspectives – those of the two men and two women whose lives and loves become irresistibly entwined as the story progresses.
Nick Harding is an elite Australian Rules footballer prone to shallow, short-term encounters with women he barely knows, and struggling to come to terms with a niggling injury that recurs during the first match of the new season.
After a night of overindulgence, Nick ventures into a local café, where he is immediately captivated by the beautiful, enigmatic Egyptian woman who serves him.
Anwar “Anna” Hayati is a refugee, raised by a Christian mother and a Muslim father, and determined to pursue her ambition to study law. Her reciprocal attraction to Nick presents all sorts of complications in the strict Muslim community that has given political and spiritual asylum to Anna and her mother.
Anna’s days are filled working in the café and her uncle’s restaurant, looking after her severely depressed, grieving mother, and visiting the cancer-stricken young asylum seeker in their care, and she is determined that her relationship has time to develop slowly.
Nick’s sister Lily, a fifth-year medicine student facing a personal crossroad, struggles to control her emotions when she encounters the critically ill boy on her first oncology round at a busy specialist hospital.
Among her other patients is Jenny, a terminally ill young woman, who urges Lily to contact her husband, Toby, after she has passed away.
Reeling from her boyfriend’s shock decision to end their relationship, Lily is drawn to Toby, who is facing his own troubles – obliged to follow in his father’s footsteps in the family building company, yet longing to pursue a career as a photographer, and bereft by the loss of his first love.
Toby and Lily begin a passionate affair with the potential to evolve into an enduring love, if only she can overcome her crisis of confidence and he can overcome his grief and follow his dream.
While the protagonists of Tess Woods’ 2016 novel Love at First Flight were hard to like and their actions left much to be desired, the four key characters in Beautiful Messy Love are flawed yet immensely likeable, and their complicated relationships bear an authenticity certain to satisfy readers attracted by the romantic elements of the story, as well as those looking for more.
Secondary characters are also well crafted, with Anna’s Tante Rosa – possibly inspired by some of the author’s Egyptian relatives – providing a moral compass, and some welcome levity amid the drama. There’s also a rumour that several sexually charged cameo roles may be named after some of Tess Woods’ writing friends.
Beautiful Messy Love is charming, enthralling and thought-provoking, and it looks set to cement Tess Woods’ place among the most sought-after writers of contemporary Australian fiction. — MAUREEN EPPEN
Beautiful Messy Love, by Tess Woods, is published by HarperCollinsPublishers, rrp $29.99. eBook also available. My copy was provided by Tess Woods and HarperCollinsPublishers in exchange for an honest review.