The Returns, Book Review: Philip Salom’s beguiling intimacy

The Returns is Philip Salom’s latest Miles Franklin shortlisted novel, in which his capacity to beguile with the commonplace is on full display. I had the pleasure of reading this title and welcoming Philip to Booklover Book Reviews to share the inspiration behind it.

The Returns Book Synopsis

The Returns Philip Salom - Review

Elizabeth posts a ‘room for rent’ notice in Trevor’s bookshop and is caught off-guard when Trevor answers the advertisement himself. She expected a young student, not a middle-aged bookseller whose marriage has fallen apart. But Trevor is attracted to Elizabeth’s house because of the empty shed in her backyard, the perfect space for him to revive the artistic career he abandoned years earlier. The face-blind, EH Holden-driving Elizabeth is a solitary and feisty book editor, and she accepts him, on probation …

Miles Franklin finalist Philip Salom has a gift for depicting the inner states of his characters with empathy and insight. In this poignant yet upbeat novel, the past keeps returning in the most unexpected ways. Elizabeth is at the beck and call of her ageing mother, and the associated memories of her childhood in a Rajneesh community. Trevor’s Polish father disappeared when Trevor was fifteen, and his mother died not knowing whether he was dead or alive. The authorities have declared him dead, but is he?

The Returns is a story about the eccentricities, failings and small triumphs that humans are capable of, a novel that pokes fun at literary and artistic pretensions while celebrating the expansiveness of art, kindness and friendship.

(Transit Lounge, July 2019)

Inspiration for The Returns

by Philip Salom

One morning I saw a woman raking the verge outside her house. That was the inspiration for The Returns! Or it was when I saw her performing this same action several more times. Such an ordinary thing to do, except I noticed there was more raking than material to rake. And that made me wonder about the mind of the person raking. I had decided to follow my novel Waiting with another set, like Waiting, in North Melbourne. That is where she lived. I ‘followed’ the woman inside and began her fictional life. The character would only be obvious (as her) if I was psychic and … I don’t think so. She is called Elizabeth. She is a book editor.

I am clearly attracted to physical realities as the basis of my writing. Place, setting, city or country (I have lived for many years in both), streets, roads, weather, but most of all people. Someone raking a verge. Once a person has struck me as a potential character I project a possible life into them, like a wasp! I have found that not knowing these models for my characters is more powerfully suggestive than knowing them; the imagination is more creative when only the external aspect of the initial person/character is there.

Once The Returns began I thought of a man who would soon live in Elizabeth’s house. For some reason (I may or may not confess why …) I have a motif in my work of the lodger (a lodger, or tenant, has been in each of my four novels). Trevor. He sells books, but he wants to be a visual artist again, as I once was. I am often asked if I want to return to painting so Trevor is possibly that self of myself. I heard this character, Trevor, by his body shape and realised he had a limp. I see a man every day who limps. I once thought I was developing a limp. Trevor’s wound from the past is visible.

Then I realised that Elizabeth would have prosopagnosia – Oliver Sacks had it – the neurological condition of face-blindness. I am very interested in these kinds of conditions. She cannot recognise anyone by their face. She cannot recognise her own mother, which annoys her self-centred mother a great deal. So the irony is Elizabeth’s only means of recognising Trevor is by his limp, the body.

Or by his voice. Or speech. This novel works through dialogue, is underpinned by a range of ideas and concepts, and it feels as much as it thinks. But it is character-driven more than plot-driven. The characters are the action – what they say and think and in the ways they interact. I write about ordinary concerns such as intimacy and aspiration, and also doubt, self-deception, and the way time plays tricks on us. Our frailties. If I write about our foolishness and weakness it is usually with an empathetic humour (or so readers tell me.) The Returns is also satire.

This book is also about parents. Elizabeth’s mother used to be a follower of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. I saw a lot of these Orange People in Fremantle … Communal mysticism and free-love does not automatically confer insight. Mrs Sermon (her ironic name) believed it did. She is now a hoarder, less of gurus than of household rubbish. She is noisy, she talks non-stop. Trevor’s father is very quiet – Officially Dead. After disappearing 30 years earlier he reappears. The noise begins.

I saw this woman and I named her Elizabeth and then the novel began.

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I found The Returns such a delightful read. Not delightful in a light and fluffy, sugar candy kind of way. It was delightful in its capacity to beguile with the commonplace.

This is my first experience of Philip Salom’s writing, but now have far greater appreciation for this comment 2017 Miles Franklin judges made about his enviable talent in respect to his shortlisted title Waiting:

‘Philip Salom … dissects the vulnerabilities of the human condition (loneliness, fear of intimacy, powerlessness, guilt), the power of the past to haunt us, the fear of the future to mire us, and the redemptive effects of love and acceptance.’

The best writers are keen observers of the human condition, and Salom is clearly that. But it is the way he translates what he and his characters observe onto the page that I found so engrossing. Trevor is ‘as orderly as a single conventional sentence’ (a sly nod to the author’s own predilection for unconventional sentence structure), and after feisty book editor Elizabeth faints on the doorstep of Trevor’s bookshop:

She looks like the English actress Sally Hawkins, star of the Oscar-winning movie, a fable of sorts. But Trevor is no actor and the poetry of an erratic personality un-nerves him. He grew up in a family with one: his father, a man who was never one thing if he could be two. Even so, Trevor starts to anticipate her return. As they say, eagerly. Because he also likes difference, and he is a curious man even though his first act after she has gone is to check his public liability plan.

Charming characters

It was hard not to be charmed by these characters brought to life by Salom’s insightful narrative peppered with dry wit. Yes, the prose would definitely be described as literary (note my reference to unconventional sentence structure above), but for my tastes never pretentious.

The characters themselves are artistic and literarily inclined, and so I found the rawness and honesty of their inner musings engrossing. And their clever sparring, highly credible amongst a pair of 45+ year-olds with such interests.

Salom’s kindness and compassion for his characters resonates without gushing. Each has been burnt by life, and carries scars visible and mental. Through the emotional journey frankly depicted, they slowly learn to let those that are worthy into their worlds on their own terms. They learn that life has in fact not passed them by, they had simply chosen to withdraw from it.

In The Return Philip Salom delivers an entertaining contemporary tale with a satisfying conclusion, but also a novel I was sad had to end.

PS: How striking and clever is the book cover art by Josh Durham?!

BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5

Get your copy of The Returns from:

Amazon Booktopia

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Romance, Literature

This review counts towards my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge 2019.

About the Author, Philip Salom

Philip Salom


Philip Salom lives in North Melbourne, Australia. In 2020 his novel The Returns was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. His novel Waiting was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2017 and the Prime Minister’s Award and the Victorian Premiers Prize. Toccata and Rain was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and the WA Premiers Prize for Fiction, and Playback won the WA Premiers Prize for Fiction. His poetry books have twice won: the Commonwealth Poetry Book Prize in London and the Western Australia Premiers Prize for Poetry. In 2003 he won the Christopher Brennan Award, Australia’s lifetime award for poets, acknowledging ‘poetry of sustained quality and distinction’. His fourteenth collection Alterworld is a trilogy of Sky Poems, The Well Mouth and Alterworld – three imagined worlds. His fifth novel aptly titled The Fifth Season will be released in November 2020.

* Receiving a copy for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions.

Worldwide eBook Giveaway

Thanks to Transit Lounge we have 2 ebook copies of The Returns to giveaway. Open worldwide, entries close midnight 15 August 2019. You can improve your chance of winning by:

The lucky winners will be randomly selected and announced on our Facebook Page.

SORRY, ENTRIES NOW CLOSED — See winner announcement.