Big Little Lies author does it again in Nine Perfect Strangers

by Catherine Woulfe / 13 December, 2018
Liane Moriarty: grief, humour and thrills.

Liane Moriarty: grief, humour and thrills.

RelatedArticlesModule - Big Little Lies Liane Moriarty

The new book by Liane Moriarty, author of Big Little Lies, can induce cravings despite its health retreat setting.

I know what I’ll be reading all summer: Liane Moriarty’s back catalogue, all seven of them. Nine Perfect Strangers knocked me over. It’s scathingly funny, and sad, and so compelling that I read until 1am, even though I had strep throat and it was the kindy holidays and I had to get up at 6am.

The story: nine damaged and variously worn-down people arrive at an isolated Victorian mansion for a 10-day cleanse. They’re expecting green juices and yoga, a digital detox, some healing time out from the real world. And sure, it starts out like that. But things quickly get crazy, turning what promised to be an introspective, me-time sort of a stay into an intensely bonding experience for our nine strangers.

Quick roll call: we have a young couple who’ve lost themselves after winning the lottery; an ageing Aussie Rules star; a family locked in mourning; a middle-aged mum desperate to lose weight and a ludicrously handsome man whose husband badly wants kids.

The heart of the story is Frances, a sensible, self-deprecating port in a storm. She’s a romance writer who has just been scammed by her online boyfriend. She’s fixated on that humiliation, and on a single cruel review. She’s drinking too much. Here’s a taste of Moriarty’s humour: “She was on that slippery slope, hurtling towards drug and alcohol addiction! Exciting to know she could still change in significant ways.”

This is the kind of book that’s easy to read but must have been a nightmare to structure – we jump from viewpoint to viewpoint, not only among the nine strangers, but the evangelical owner of the retreat and her cowed staff. And, as the here-and-now action ramps up, each backstory is deftly unfolded.

In one particularly striking scene, Moriarty has the guests doing dawn tai chi in the rose garden. Visiting each member of the grieving family in turn, she reveals the nature of their loss and how it’s damaged each of them differently.

The effect is gentle, sensitive and heartbreaking, and pinned to the present with the tai chi teacher’s quiet instructions. “Carry the tiger over the mountain,” he says, as a father catalogues the immensity of his grief.

Moriarty knows grief well, I think. She’s knitted it all through this book, alongside the funny and the thrills. She shows how it stands some people still and how for others, it acts as a most urgent and driving motivation.

I’m looking forward to summer.

NINE PERFECT STRANGERS, by Liane Moriarty (Macmillan, $37.99)

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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