Book review: The In-Between, Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas' new novel is a tender and poignant tale about a later-life romance between two men.
The In-Between. image is a book cover showing two tiny figures on the horizon beneath the book's title, next to a head and chest shot of the author on the right, a smiling middle-aged man in a black buttoned up shirt, standing in front of foliage.

The In-Between by Christos Tsiolkas is a novel about finding love later in life. Perry, a Greek-Australian man in his mid-50s, has returned to Melbourne after many years of living and working in Rouen, France, as an academic.

Escaping the devastation of a very long but ill-fated relationship with a fellow classicist at university, he returned to Melbourne just before the COVID pandemic to support family, and work as a translator for a media production company. His return was soon followed by the prolonged isolation of the pandemic lockdowns. 

Ivan, who is in his late-50s and has a Serbian-Australian background, owns a landscaping business in Melbourne. He started working there right after high school, marrying his then girlfriend and raising a daughter together. He left his wife when he came to terms with his desire to live as a gay man, but maintained a very close and supportive relationship with his daughter. He is recovering from the devastating and financially ruinous breakup of a decade-long relationship with a younger man with whom he was deeply in love. 

The two men find themselves on a date after the pandemic lockdowns in Melbourne have ended. They get to know each other, fall in love and develop a relationship that must embrace lives fully lived, with all the inevitable baggage. 

Tsiolkas depicts the stresses and pressures of dealing with major changes and dating later in life, but then shepherds the reader through a journey of renewal and reconciliation that makes you marvel at the possibilities afforded by newfound love. He shows us how to gently unravel life’s previous entanglements and allow the cords of a new partnership to coalesce.

This is a novel that is deeply comforting. It brims with vitality and wisdom. It is a story of redemptive love told optimistically. The characters’ past relationships, a source of significant pain in their lives, become the substrate for redemption, rediscovery and rejuvenation in the present day. 

There is great magnanimity in how the characters approach each other and appreciate the fullness and richness as well as the hardship and complexity of their lives thus far, to finally come together as lovers, companions and partners, and chart a new path going forward. The gentleness that undergirds the love story is profoundly moving. 

Their journey even has a transcendental quality. There is a palpable drive towards salvation in the narrative, a subliminal spiritual reckoning urging these characters, with their past trauma, upwards and onwards, compelling them to thrive and flourish together, embracing the present and future. The spiritual drive that undergirds the work really comes to the fore at the end of the novel, with a long spectacular concluding scene set in Athens, Greece. 

There is a maturity in Tsiolkas’ authorial voice that does not treat the past as detritus to be left behind and discarded. His characters actively grapple with the past – dealing, however uneasily, with its intrusive pain and confronting it, acknowledging it, understanding it and, most importantly, taking its lessons and applying them in the present day. 

There is sagacity and strength in their resolve. There is tenderness and graciousness in their gentle and compassionate reckoning with the past. One of the most moving scenes in the book is Ivan’s farewell tryst with a young sex worker who has been a steady presence in his life in the several years since his breakup. The scene is suffused with a tenderness and poignancy that transcends the transactional nature of their years-long arrangement and spotlights the complex vulnerability and humanity at its core. 

At its heart, this is a romantic novel. But there is also an implied political critique and an undercurrent of political disenchantment in Tsiolkas’ writing. He takes today’s penchant for Manichean thinking and excoriates it so thoroughly that you can’t help but contemplate the misanthropy lurking underneath.

Although this is not a significant aspect of the novel, at crucial moments in the plot, he undermines an impulse to jump by default to condemnation and us-against-them thinking and shows the human frailty behind political polarisation. Tsiolkas takes the politics of everyday life and weaves it into the story to give the reader an opportunity to consider issues from different perspectives. 

For a literary giant like Tsiolkas, the accolades for his latest achievement will surely come, as will the critical comparisons to his past work. There is a temptation to draw an arc from Loaded to The In-Between. This highly accomplished and gifted writer will no doubt consider questions about age and the changing authorial perspective. 

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This work feels like a stand-alone accomplishment. It is also incredibly contemporary in its depiction of Melbourne. Not only does it encapsulate the unique feelings of post-pandemic relief, it also captures the evolving inner city and suburban landscape, as well as the texture, tenor and cadences of the changing multicultural society in this great city. 

This is a book that will resonate with many readers on many different levels. It was a great pleasure to read. 

The In-Between, Christos Tsiolkas
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9780645498585
Pages: 320pp
Publication Date: 31 October 2023
RRP: $32.99

Arjun Rajkhowa lives in Perth and enjoys writing about local arts and culture.