A Common LossI’m in two minds about A Common Loss, which is probably the worst position to be in when I’m trying to get my opinion across, at least somewhat, coherently.

The plot is vaguely reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. College friends, chilling secrets. If you want to read A Common Loss because of the surface similarity – don’t. You’ll just be disappointed. There are five college friends – Dylan, Elliot (our narrator), Cameron, Brian and Tallis – who each year reunite for a trip to Las Vegas. Over the years they’ve grown apart, Cameron and Brian don’t even speak to each other anymore, but they still go to Vegas every year. This year’s trip is different. It’s the first since Dylan’s tragic death. He was the charismatic one, the mediator, the fixer. But Dylan was also manipulative, collecting and cataloguing his four friends’ darkest secrets. And now someone is using those secrets to blackmail them.

There’s plenty to admire in Sydney-based Kirsten Tranter’s second novel, the rest I didn’t hate, just didn’t love. A Common Loss is an interesting exploration of grief and the complexities of adult friendships (and the dark side of them). It falls into the psychological drama category; it’s not quite a thriller. It’s this quality that could tip it into boring but, while it is intellectual and contemplative, it held my attention. For a lot of the novel the balance between drama and thriller was handled quite well. There were chunks where I couldn’t put it down because I felt that something big was coming, it was building to a revelation, but at times the tension flagged.

As a main character, Elliot generally worked well. He’s a bit timid, introverted and unsure but he’s intelligent. I thought his feelings about his college friends, his choice of work, how he handles relationships, were insightful and relatable. He’s the observer of the group, detached from the infighting. It makes sense for him to be our guide to the group’s dynamic. Sometimes he’s too contemplative though, over-thinking everything.

Tranter is a fairly astute chronicler of human behaviour, and much of what she had to say resonated with me, while some things missed the mark. Elliot sort of, almost, has romances with two women – Natasha, a work colleague, and Cynthia, Brian’s girlfriend who accompanies them on their trip. The interaction between Elliot and Cynthia could easily have been overplayed but it was well judged. Same goes with the scenes with Natasha and him. Both women are strong, and not prone to overanalysing, perfect foils for Elliot. The romantic tension is palpable but isn’t overdone, and it so easily could have gone into cringe territory.

I thought Elliot’s female relationships were handled better than the male friendships. You can’t avoid seeing the gay undertones that accompany their intimacy. And given that it’s openly acknowledged that the other characters thought Dylan and Elliot were having a sexual relationship simply because of their closeness (and that’s not the only combination of partners suspected) I guess that must have been what Kirsten Tranter was aiming for. It’s a real pity, I would’ve liked her to take a less obvious path in her portrayal of male closeness.

I liked the Las Vegas setting a lot. Its slick, trashiness was a character in itself. Cynthia’s graduate work looking at fake versus authentic in culture is interesting but it’s a bit of a blunt way to push the idea that the tacky glitz of Vegas hiding its seedy, dirty underbelly is the perfect metaphor for the larger story – charismatic, showy Dylan was the perfect friend but beneath that sheen he dealt in blackmail and grubby secrets.

Every now and then the plot felt secondary to Tranter’s thematic exploration. It seems to me like they should have just gone to the police. All four of them had secrets that would be damaging to their reputation (lost jobs, wives and girlfriends that might never forgive them) but wouldn’t get them arrested. Being blackmailed is obviously a stressful and problematic situation but I couldn’t shake the feeling that sometimes the group were being overly dramatic.

Then there’s the car crash that happened when they were in college. Yes, undoubtedly a traumatic event at the time, but no one had more than a cut and some whiplash. To continue to be haunted by the memory, to have nightmares about it, a decade later seems silly. This car crash is mentioned over and over, imbued with gratuitous meaning.

In college Elliot tries to write an essay on Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Now I’m as baffled by poetry as most people, and apparently so was Elliot. He’s struggling to write the essay, spending a week as a hermit reading book after book about Tennyson and related topics to no avail. Elliot’s clearly a smart, and generally level-headed, guy; he goes on to become a professor at a prestigious college (English drama being his specialty). To have such a freak out about one undergraduate essay seems melodramatic (speaking as someone who’s written several literature essays that I was underprepared for). What transpires becomes the basis for the secret that Dylan could hold over him, so it’s relevant to the plot, but it didn’t quite feel believable.

Colin, the blackmailer, was excellently strange, a disturbing mix of courteous and psychotic. The scenes with him were fascinating. He has a way of talking to the group like he really admires them and they’re just doing him a favour:

I’m talking about opportunities. College, and beyond. Tallis, you could really help me with opportunities in the business sector. And Brian – I have some great ideas for scripts. For films. I’d really like to get your feedback.

Colin threatens them all with ruin, yet he needs them to like him, he wants them to be tied to him. But then the end fizzled. They dealt with Colin in a fairly uninspiring way. And ultimately nothing had really changed. In the closing moments Tallis says to Elliot, ‘Flash place, this. Nice enough. What do you think about staying here next year?’, as if the whole blackmail thing had never happened. So the lack of change was thematically purposeful, but I almost never like endings like that. I felt the same way after watching the ending of the movie Up in the Air – deflated.