Poly is a charging force on the Australian literary scene; redefining ideas of a “happy family” in a more diverse, accepting, and less confined framework. I loved this book because it challenged my preconceived notions about what a traditional family and parental relationship should look like. It demanded that I not be so quick to judge the choices of our characters but rather trust their instincts. Ultimately, it gave me a story outside my realm of existence that allowed me to sympathize with someone’s situation that is different to mine. Poly makes me so happy and excited for the comfort that I’m sure this story will bring to many.
Chris Flood is a married father of two who unexpectedly finds himself in the world of polyamory when his wife Sarah is looking to rediscover her sexuality after years of domesticity drained it from her. In Poly Dalgarno explores contemporary relationships, love, and trying to stay true to oneself while appeasing the wishes of your life partner, while she is appeasing the wishes of a random DJ she just met.
At first glance we understand that Sarah is enjoying the perks of polyamory more actively than Chris, spending kid-free nights with other men. Initially, I found Sarah to be a bit selfish and negligent to the relationships she is already in. It is totally okay to expand your horizons but I got the sense that Sarah was spreading her energy too away from the family space. In Sarah’s defense, she always had streamlined focus on whatever she was devoting her attention to those moments. Whereas Chris seems to live vicariously through Sarah’s experiences and hopes to profit off the residual high Sarah gets when she is with these other men.
This book really challenged my perceptions of how I traditionally thought a parental relationship should function. As a person without children and who is closer to childhood than adulthood, I could say these characters aren’t good parents because of what they chose to prioritise. It would be easy for me to say, and frankly wrong. This novel is framed through the lens of the exploration of polyamory NOT parenting; it is to be expected that any parent in this situation, or any to be fair, would encounter struggles. Therefore, instead of thinking about what this new relationship scheme took away from the children it forced me to think about what it can GIVE to them—a broader appreciation of what love looks like, and how there is no one defined way to love. Polyamory, especially in this context, could be viewed as added positive influences in their lives in the form of added guardians/carers, as well as open lines of communication from a young age. At the end of the day, kids are adaptable and they shouldn’t act as a barrier to the parents exploring what interests them. Why do relationships have to be restrictive? Why does parenting have to follow a rule book?
Especially now. As this generation of adults forges their path in the road we are trying collectively to be more open, accepting and liberating as individuals, so why should those ideas stop when they fall under the umbrella of relationships and parenting?
From the groundwork set in this novel, and as a polyamory noob (I can’t even find one partner, let alone two), I gathered that it is up to the couple to define the rules of going outside of their relationship. Chris and Sarah didn’t have many except wearing protection and Sarah telling Chris what happens when she’s out “without holding back for the sake of my feelings.” These rules act as a tether for the two primary partners involved and clearly define the relationship as a consensual agreement. I found the balance of the conditions interesting, they seemed to favour Sarah at the expense of Chris’ feelings. However, when the shoe is on the other foot I don’t think Chris is expected to divulge all the details of his eventual relationship. This makes me wonder again about the way polyamory challenges the notions of a classic relationship. Because my first thought while reading the different dynamics that take place were: this isn’t fair, but now I wonder does it have to be fair? Is any relationship, despite the number of members, ever completely fair? I guess not. It is a give and take situation amongst two people, so why should it be any different between three or four?
Dalgarno explores the idea of trust in many different ways. Trust amongst partners, trust in yourself, trust in your actions and trust in friends. One of the main relationships that allows Chris and Sarah’s new lifestyle so much ease is their friendship to Zac. Zac is a 22--year-old who has come into their social circles and is now a prime figure within their family and a beloved friend of the children. Zac takes on a lot of the minor responsibilities Chris and Sarah face that act as a boundary to their new dynamic—his presence creates an added sense of ease to each of them. He is a sounding board and confidant to Sarah and a best friend and support system to Chris. In some ways, his role in their relationship is as, if not more, beneficial to their “happy family” status as any added sexual partner. They trust him wholeheartedly, why would they not? That is until Chris discovers that all of what Zac has told them, does not add up.
I think this inclusion of a questionable figure in this particular story is quite interesting. Because it was an active choice Dalgarno made to illustrate that generally speaking, society is very quick to judge the validity and success of a romantic relationship before a friendship. As I have previously discussed it is easy to make a snap judgement about something from the outside when actually harsh distrust, dishonesty and betrayal can come from from the friendships of those you thought were closest to you. The active choice to have the conflict in Poly be driven from outside the polyamorous relationship was really powerful because it highlights that polyamory is not the cause of a problem, but instead a problem solver, a support system. This jarring but clear insertion of drama, for lack of a better word, really illustrated to me that often as humans we are looking for faults in all the wrong places and accepting victories from the easiest spaces but in actuality if we just look without our vision being inpaired by misconceptions we will actually have a clear-as-day picture of realities painted for us.
Poly gave me a narrative I had never encountered before. It challenged my traditional views on a familial dynamic and relationship and allowed me to broaden and reconsider the way I think about things. While there is nothing in this book that strikes a chord with my life, as I said, I’m only technically just stepping through the door to adulthood, this book warms my heart because I know that many people are going to read this novel and think: I am not alone.
By Paul Dalgarno
352 pages. 2020.