Kokomo is Victoria Hannan’s debut novel set in Melbourne, Australia. Mina lives in London and is urgently called home after years abroad when her best friend tells Mina that her agoraphobic mother, Elaine, has left the house for the first time in twelve years. This book touches on a lot of things; grief, friendship, maternalism, love & sex. It packs a fiercely powerful punch that you’ll feel simmering in your chest well past the moment you turn the last page.
I began Kokomo with little to no expectations. I had seen many rave reviews online as proofs swept the Australian bookstagram community. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to forge an emotional connection like I had seen many other readers do, but wow, was I wrong. I don’t know why I was concerned about potentially disliking this book, our protagonist Mina is a young single woman who has a tumultuous relationship with men, and feels emotionally invested in so many pockets of her life, and despite her efforts she faces regular disappointment and lack of resolution—hmm, that sounds familiar. Not only were we given mundane yet complex characters but this was all tied up with the bow of mystery: why has Elaine now left the house?
Love is a huge theme in this novel; romantic, platonic, and familial bonds are the foundation of the tension and stakes that the story is built upon. In a romantic love sense, I really enjoyed the way Mina and Elaine mirrored one another in completely contradictory ways. In the realms of their romantic relationships their positions completely differ, Elaine is deeply committed and Mina is uncommitted and yet they are both questioning the validity of the love they possess. In the first chapter we see Mina grappling with the idea that she loves Jack, her colleague and creative counterpart. It quickly becomes clear that Jack is the absolute worst. I think everyone can relate to being filled with hope that the person you want not only wants you back but is truly the person you see them as. I’m sure we have all, in our time, come to learn that this is rarely the case. Mina’s desperation for love is so painfully clear to everyone but herself. Similarly, Elaine is searching for love but not in the obvious place. Mina and Elaine are ignoring the truth of their situations, wanting to accept something for the sake of forging the idealized lives they see for themselves. Love is a maddening influence, filling people with hope, and making them do things that aren’t always in their own best interest. While the situations for both Elaine and Mina were quite different I really enjoyed the way this theme illustrated how similar they are to one another.
Throughout Kokomo I was trying to find a bad person; someone to blame for the way things were. Sometimes I thought it was Elaine, since she has a parental responsibility to Mina. Sometimes I thought it was Mina, if she could be so self destructive to love and help a man that clearly doesn’t love her back, then maybe she likes making things tough for herself. But as I read more and more novels of this nature I have quickly realized that there is no bad guy. People do shitty things, or people do self-preservational things that are seen by others as shitty, and sometimes things are just fucking shitty. No one gets to pick the hand they are dealt and we must play the cards how we deem them fit. When I read stories about family I impose a set of standards about these characters which I have never, and would never pose upon myself. How can I live my life independent from the interests and wishes of my family and expect others (albeit fictional people, but still) to be so fiercely loyal to one another? Yes, I guess there is a level of obligation that a parent has to a child, but I mean, Mina was twenty and quite independent when Elaine spiraled into agoraphobia. It’s heartbreaking and by no means ideal, but it isn’t like Elaine neglected a completely incompetent child. Similarly, no one could have expected Mina to keep her life rooted to her mother and a monotonous life, she didn’t leave someone incapable of taking care of themselves behind. Both of these women had to do what they felt was best for themselves. While a familial obligation exists, as unfortunate as it is, this can time out and people need to decide if they are going to live their lives for those around them or for themselves. Ultimately there is a deeper conversation about whether this choice is a positive one, but the freedom to choose in the first place is important. Beautifully, Hannan shows us that everyone should have the freedom to choose how they want to exist but she also spectacularly highlights that these choices aren’t negative and could be a crest in a longer path of love.
I think it is extremely commendable that Hannan can capture two distinct voices and filter them through the same situation. It didn’t feel repetitive but rather a fresh and exciting new take on what we already know. I didn’t anticipate Elaine’s perspective at all, as I said I went in with completely no expectations or prior research. I thought the whole novel was going to be from Mina’s perspective, as she maintains as much knowledge as the reader, which positions us well to the unfolding of the mystery. But when our point of view changed, I honestly gasped because I did not expect the story to take such a simply obvious turn. I don’t want you to think this change in perspective is a cop out, but I found it to be a really meaningful way of handing the baton over essentially and giving our secondary character the space to explain. I have always been told that a writer must “show, not tell” different parts of their story. While this sentiment rings true in empathetic and emotional elements of Kokomo, we are basically told why Elaine decided to go outside. I know this sounds a bit dramatic, they are just fictional people, but I think Hannan’s choice to tell us the story of “why” directly from the character that dictates the “why” really speaks to a nature of understanding we should more widely respect not only in books, but in life. This book could have very easily turned into a cesspool of anger, resentment, and fury but it didn’t. It was a slow burn that enlightened us to a person’s truth. I think the takeaway one could absorb when it comes to Kokomo is patience and acceptance. It is okay to independently feel a certain way, and want to do certain things, we see this very clearly from both Mina and Elaine, but the resolution really highlights how life doesn’t always need to be lived in dramatics but rather in an articulate understanding way.
Kokomo is really something special. It is the type of book you could binge in one sitting or break up over a few—accompanied by both wine or tea. It will force you to sympathize and understand the questionable actions of those around us and encourage you to realize that a lot of the time, there is no bad person but a bad situation that everyone needs to independently heal from. Kokomo highlights how no matter how independent or solitary we exist, we are never truly alone and there are always people who love you, despite how they may, or may not, show it. This book will make you feel like you need a nice big hug, but after that I would recommend a jig to the completely iconic song that I didn’t even know was called “Kokomo.”
By Victoria Hannan
299 pages. 2020.