Paul Burman’s work defies genre distinctions. His latest novel, The Grease Monkey’s Tale is part thriller, part romance, and part mystery. The plot is high tension and fast paced, but it isn’t a story driven by the plot. Instead, it’s a character driven journey – a story of lost and found that poses more questions than answers. Nic is the protagonist of the title – a mechanic whose flash car and fancy home is underscored by tragedy. He has somehow come to terms with the loss of his family when a beautiful mysterious woman calling herself Siobhan McConnell appears at his workshop with a Porsche in need of repair and a dinner invitation at the ready. If there’s one overriding theme running through this novel, it’s that “truth is a matter of perspective.” Nic’s perspective begins changing as soon as he meets Siobhan. His story begins to shift as he becomes naively and inadvertently involved in a strange and dangerous business set in a small Australian town in the middle of nowhere.
As with Burman’s first novel, The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore, there’s an abstract, dreamlike thread running through the novel. In the case of The Grease Monkey’s Tale the thread is provided by the stories or fairytales that Nic’s father told him. At Siobhan’s urging, Nic is writing down those stories — imbibing them with a powerful mythology that he uses to guide his own life which is becoming increasingly slippery. Nic’s honesty and integrity remains a constant through his story. His point of view is the one that the reader aligns with, so we discover clues along with him. He talks to his dead father, mother and sister, using their advice and stories as a guide through the maze he finds himself in. “Look forwards, move forwards, never back” is the most pervasive bit of wisdom, and Nic continues to reach for it as his world becomes increasingly uncertain.
Throughout the novel, Burman’s poetic capability creates rich imagery that is subtly connected to both the plot and character development. This is a book of contrasts – life and death; right and wrong; desire and barrenness; city and country, and the way in which Nic vacillates between these dichotomies, are part of the dramatic tension that takes hold of the book from about a third of the way in. The longing is present in each setting description or piece of action:
If only he could’ve stayed among the tinted glass, matt chrome and neo-Gothic stonework of skyscrapers and apartment blocks, amid the flash impetuousness of fast traffic, the milling crods of fashion-modelled office workers and tourists, within breath of exotic parks and manicured gardens…wide pavements cluttered with busy tables, the scrape of chairs, bright umbrellas and black-clad waiters juggling plates, trays, menus…(115)
As with any thriller, the reader is partly propelled by that natural desire to find out what the true story is, and the novel moves super-quickly once Nic begins to discover the truth. But there really is no truth at the end of it and most of the questions remain open ones – for the reader to decide. This might be a point of dissatisfaction in a genre novel, but in The Grease Monkey’s Tale, it’s a wonderful twist. This book isn’t a romance or thriller at all. As the title suggests in its playful pun, it’s a tale, full of slightly cryptic suggestions, hints, and perspectives. There’s no easy solution or happy ending. Instead there are motifs and stories that lead to other stories and characters that are built upon other characters.
The ultimate journey here isn’t to a clean truth – there’s no such thing in The Grease Monkey’s Tale. Instead we end up with the strong sense that everything is story – that life itself between the pages or beyond the book is just another story: “the sound of riverbed pebbles chattering and grinding against the hushing of fast water. Hypnotic.” The Grease Monkey’s Tale manages to be both lightheartedly charming, and powerful all at the same time. It’s a beautifully written psychological novel, full of suspense, trickery, rich imagery, and strong character transformation.