Jacinta Halloran’s The Science of Appearances is an exquisitely drawn and emotionally powerful novel about a pair of twins in 1950s Melbourne.
In the years after World War 2, in a country town outside Melbourne, an Irish Catholic family is hit hard by the sudden death of their schoolteacher father. Twins Dominic and Mary Quinn react differently to the death, according to their distinct personalities – ‘like chalk and cheese’ says their mother. Dominic is dutiful and resilient while Mary rebels against the restraints placed on her by their emotionally reticent mother.
It’s a time when a widow’s pension can barely keep them and they’re forced to vacate their home, a house that was owned by their father’s school. While the clever one Dominic stays on at school, Mary, the arty one, must supplement the family’s tight income with cleaning jobs. A stint cleaning the sexually predatory priest’s house is the last straw. When her mother punishes Mary for refusing to return there, she runs off to Melbourne. Without the extra income, Dominic, despite his gifts, must leave school and take a menial job at the post office.
Once in Melbourne Mary navigates her way out of poverty and miserable drudgery at a hostel and soon finds herself in the Bohemian world of St Kilda and, provided she doesn’t get pregnant, the opportunity to escape her past. She refuses to have any contact with home, afraid of being forced back, despite the yearning to contact her twin. Dominic finds some luck in the form of a benefactor and makes it to Melbourne University where he studies botany and genetics. Each of the twins feels the pull towards a new horizon, away from rural Victoria and away from their mother, even as they keenly long for each other. But there lurks a secret from their family history that will soon be brought to the surface.
Jacinta Halloran skillfully evokes 1950s Melbourne and the intersection of two eras as Mary and Dominic navigate their way between the two – from the socially constricted, sexually repressed postwar era to a more permissive, pre-1960s time. Mary is absorbed by the heady world of jazz and art in St Kilda, while Dominic too is relieved to escape his country life, though less dramatically than Mary, and finds excitement in science, especially the groundbreaking study of eugenics, and his dawning sex life. Through his German-Jewish girlfriend, he too gains access to a more liberal world than he’s previously known. His further attraction to the field of genetics is ironic given his family history and the dreadful secret that awaits him. The Science of Appearances is a thought-provoking and original coming-of-age novel.