Well, hold onto your hats because Poly (Ventura 2020) by Paul Dalgarno is certainly not for the faint-hearted. This is a book that really pushes the boundaries of what is considered ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ and is confronting in the way that the behaviour and motivations of the characters are portrayed. But that’s exactly what makes this book so interesting. It is (I think / I assume) a novel that depicts a lifestyle that is very different to what the majority of readers experience, and yet what Dalgarno does so well is not only to enlighten the uninformed reader about the practicalities and justifications for certain lifestyle decisions, but he also incorporates the more unusual aspects into the everyday and banal day-to-day grind of work and parenting and socialising, combining the two threads into a fascinating microscopic perspective of what it might be like to live a polyamorous life.
The narrative could be the basis of any story: Chris is a married father of two with a lovely wife, Sarah; their children are loved and nurtured. But here the story digresses. Chris and Sarah have endured a sexless relationship for many years. It’s not entirely clear why this is the case, but certainly it has something to do with the fact that Chris has demoralising self-esteem issues, and Sarah – who is artistic and confident, but feeling deadened by the drudge of domesticity – cannot seem to fuel the enthusiasm she once felt for sex with her husband. She wants to rediscover her sexuality; he wants to have some sex, any sex. And so they agree to try a new life of polyamory.
Sarah embraces the change. She enjoys frequent and often simultaneous flings with a range of handsome and interesting men, all with the blessing and encouragement of Chris. And although Chris is not so quick to throw himself into the challenge, he does – surprising even himself – fall in love with Biddy, a free-spirited musician who begins to mean as much to him as his love for Sarah. In this way, the novel reminded me a little of the French drama The Pier: what does it mean to love two women? How does it feel to know your lover shares her / his love with others? Where does loyalty lie? Are betrayal or jealousy valid emotions or do you give up the right to those when you embark on polyamory?
One of the things Dalgarno does particularly well in this book is to depict the all-consuming role of parenthood. Somehow, whenever I’ve imagined polyamorous relationships, they involve consenting adults, albeit of different ages, genders, races and class. Children don’t really fit into that picture. But this book changes all that. Chris and Sarah’s two children, Sophie and Oliver, are absolutely loved and cared for. There is never any doubt of that. Both Chris and Sarah are terrific parents and want only the best for their kids. And yet their new lifestyle – by necessity – comes with some tricky considerations. Late night trysts and sleepovers with other partners necessitates the juggling of childcare duties. Spending time with other partners of course takes away time from the immediate family; choices must be made about time management. This is where the book really gets quite hilarious as ridiculous situations present themselves as Chris and Sarah try to continue to parent well while still enjoying time with other people. Dalgarno’s writing is witty, raw, open and often terribly funny as the almost slapstick situations cause endless moral dilemmas and practical difficulties.
One solution is to invite into their lives Zac Batista, a Uruguayan child prodigy at only 22 years old, and a young man who almost seems too good to be true as he seamlessly steps into taking responsibility for the school drop-offs and pick-ups, and for extra babysitting when both parents are out seeing other people.
Inevitably, tensions grow and emotions are heightened as both Chris and Sarah deal with the increasing number of people they invite into their lives, either as friends or as lovers or both. This is new territory and the goal posts seem to be continually shifting. They are unsure about their own sexual status, even while they acknowledge that they still love each other deeply. But is love enough?
I found Poly to be an entirely wonderful exploration of how a poly life might actually function in reality, especially with children involved. Dalgarno has a discerning way of depicting intimate lives, and the innermost thoughts of his characters. The book showcases a diverse range of love, friendship, desire and belonging.
The plot line regarding Zac I found less convincing. I certainly understood both Chris and Sarah’s protective response to their children, and I did not doubt for a moment their reactions and protective behaviours. Without giving anything away though, I wasn’t convinced by the causal links that everyone followed regarding Zac’s past history and the allegations that emerge. This didn’t feel as authentic to me as the rest of the book, and I even wondered whether this plot line could have been completely excised – I think the remainder of the story is a strong and powerful navigation of sexual desire, intimacy, the practical details of managing a life with multiple lovers, and the challenges of negotiating not only the adults’ personal lives but also continuing consistent boundaries regarding the children involved.
But in any event, Zac provides a source of tension, interest and diversity, and no doubt some readers will find him an essential part of the story.
Poly is a graphic, intimate, poignant, funny, dark, generous and experimental novel about different lives, the choices we make and how they affect us. Sharp and compelling.