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trent dalton : lola in the mirror

Author Trent Dalton speaking at a Dymocks Literary Lunch in 2023. Pic Ben Apfelbaum

Trent Dalton is as close to a Rock Star as an Australian writer ever gets. He’s a Walkley award winning journalist and his debut novel sold over a million copies – making it the fastest selling book in Australian history. Boy Swallow’s Universe was subsequently translated into 20 languages and turned into a T.V show by Netflix. 

Since then, Dalton has churned out a book every year or two, positioning himself as our generations Tim Winton. While their content has parallels – they both write about the Australian undercurrents which most of us never see – their style couldn’t be further apart. We love Winton for his long, lyrical prose about the Australian landscape and its characters. At its core, it is deeply romantic, nuanced work. Dalton’s books are modern, human, and urban. They’re poppy and commercial, they dictate more than describe, and they sell stories rather than telling them. 

His newest offering, LOLA IN THE MIRROR, is no exception. The story follows a girl who lives in her car on the banks of the Brisbane River. She’s got a mum on the run from a secret which haunts her, she’s got a job peddling heroin in the West End, and a burning desire to be a famous artist. In between fulfilling the tropes of the downtrodden, she longs for the lightness of a life filled with art and international acclaim: the white walls of the MET gallery in New York. It feels like a cliché, a good girl trapped in a bad circumstance, but maybe it’s just a classic with enduring resonance. Her story comes complete with a prince charming and a kiss in the rain; one which ultimately saves her from the intergenerational cycle of abuse which she, her mother, and the people around her are stuck in. 

Her neighbours are the aptly named residents of ‘Oz’; hard talking, hard drinking over a trash can fire, lovable types who will always be there to defend you from drug deals gone astray. Given Dalton’s characters are based on his time at a drop-in centre in Brisbane, you would expect them to have more nuance than they do. Despite his eccentric adjectives and unusual imagery, I never get the chance to actually know the characters any better than I do from watching the nightly current affair blast. In a style more akin to a soap opera than a novel, the characters do more than they think, and I am left wanting a greater insight into why.  

Presumably, this is Dalton’s intention. While he takes us to places in the city most of us only ever see on the news – late night milk bars, flooding underpasses and abandoned buildings – he doesn’t tell us much more about them than we could glean from a passing look. Dalton knows just how little we want to be genuinely challenged, and how deeply we want to be entertained. He is straddling a world where peoples attention span is less than 30 seconds and somehow, he is managing to hold it. Perhaps, it is by writing less of a novel and more of a collection of Instagram stories. 

In true millennial fashion, the narrator speaks in first person present, dissolving the space between the reader and the page. Initially it’s a confronting choice, one which assumes a false sense of intimacy and puts many readers off. It makes it a slog to get past the first few chapters. Yet once the story really gets going – once the Brisbane floods start and the stakes rise – it is as if we also go on the run with the protagonist. For this moment, Dalton deserves the highest praise. It is no easy thing to write about natural disasters, especially ones which are as fresh in our minds as the Brisbane floods. But Dalton comes in from the side. He uses it as a backdrop and a complication, to the protagonist’s life which ultimately marches on, as she is indelibly determined to survive. 

As Boy Swallows Universe was, Lola is a story about how children become adults. It’s about how we all start out pretty similar, with dreams and a desire for security, but become vastly different depending on what kind of mould our worlhhd offers up. In amongst the melodrama and the cliches, Dalton is articulating the reality of intergenerational inequality – in a country where the myth of meritocracy is still pervasive. He does it subtly enough, and in a shiny enough package, that people are actually digesting it. This makes it a success in my books, but if you’re in the mood for something nuanced, maybe keep browsing. 

Photos by Ben Apfelbaum


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