Meyer, Angela. Moon Sugar. Yarraville: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2022. RRP: $29.99, 256pp, ISBN 9780648414056.
Melbourne-based author Angela Meyer has worked in many facets of the publishing industry—as editor, blogger, reviewer, educator and writer, across novels, short stories and flash fiction. Moon Sugar, her second novel, is a sleek, speculative work which, in the guise of a manhunt-thriller, dips into many of the issues assailing regular contemporary folk—grief, loneliness, questions of identity, the complexities of family and friendships, and hope under siege.
In post-pandemic, wintry Melbourne, Mila is a jaded forty-year-old fitness coach grieving the end of a ten-year relationship and the possibilities of parenthood and companionship it had promised. Through an online sex app, ‘Sugar Meet Me’, she meets a young sex-worker, the charismatic Josh. Enticed by his joyful hunger for life and feeling desiccated by her lonely featureless routines, she grows fonder of him than she anticipates. When she learns of his purported suicide in Berlin, and with nothing holding her at home, she heads to Europe hoping to trace his last moments. Meanwhile, Josh’s close friend, his nerdy and anxious roommate Kyle, is on a similar mission. Through Facebook, Kyle and Mila connect and team up. Josh’s suicide doesn’t smell right to either of them, and both are sceptical that he’s actually gone.
The ‘moon sugar’ of the novel’s title is a souvenir from a 1960s space mission—a lichen with mind-expanding, shape-shifting potential, smuggled back to earth by an astronaut and propagated. Moon sugar, or Xanthoria, when triggered in an individual, confers powers of super-sensory perceptiveness, down to the quantum level (199). Sometime before the story begins, Mila and Josh, to earn some cash, were guinea pigs in a covert study of the substance—the pet project of an apparently benign billionaire, Lisa Edwards.
In Berlin, Mila inadvertently triggers the Xanthoria in her system. Some hours later she ‘peaks’:
She examines the blades of grass, each covered in tiny dewdrops and hooks and microscopic bugs, and holding light and water and colour of a spectrum she’s never seen before.
She reaches her fingers out to touch a pebble in the grass and it hums, as though with life. She pulls her hand back sharply.
Dare she look at the sky?
She telescopes the sun’s corona, can almost hear the crackling fire of its surface. The closer atmosphere, this blanket for life, is not blue but cloudy: light bouncing off billions of small particles.
An ant dies nearby and she smells the sharp moment of it. There is an inarticulable sense as it passes—of a life dissipating back into the greater texture.
Her brain sings in its knowledge.
Her heart pummels with fear. (108–9)
But the Melbourne project Mila and Josh worked with has a London-based rival, Cladion—think ritual chambers, candles and hooded robes (146)—with links to the same 1960s space mission. Cladion researches what it calls ‘the intersections between science and traditional occult alchemy’ (158), ostensibly with a humanitarian aim. But it doesn’t play nice. And with the Xanthoria in laboratories appearing to be dying, the race is on between the two rival outfits to unlock its secrets.
Against lush, sexually charged, European-city backdrops, the tussle for control of Xanthoria creates the framework for an edgy, streamlined plot. Meyer, inspired by novels she was working on in the publishing sector, had set out to write a crime-thriller. But less commonly for that style of story, she riskily, almost defiantly, deep-dives into what makes her main characters tick—their hopes, hang-ups and passions. And the result is an intriguing cross-genre narrative.
The quickening of Mila’s friendship with twenty-four-year-old Kyle is where the real texture of Moon Sugar lies, the relationship between these two troubled, imperfect, relatable people being nuanced and heart-warming. Meyer, in a post for Booklover Book Reviews, speaks of the moment in her writing when a ‘sideways element’ slides in and ‘explodes [the story] out’ (np). With Moon Sugar, this occurred during the darkness of a long-haul flight home to her very ill father—the sudden certainty that ‘something very big’ must happen with Mila. Mila, Meyer says in that post, was
dealing with her own griefs, one of those being for a life she thought she would have. […] I thought about her potential and her power, about her being able to be open again to the world after the ways she might have closed herself (or been closed) down. But, as I was realising in my own life, this opening happens often alongside friendship, and community. (np)
Kyle becomes the friend Mila needs.
Early in the novel, Mila is trying to find something satisfying to read. Meyer writes:
She thought she’d only want something plot-based and easy. But does she really just want to be propelled? Maybe even in crisis she has room for a story that wallows or expands or sits beautifully like a painting. Or that embraces open spaces and mysteries, rather than folding into neat shapes. Those kinds of narratives are a break, too. A break from a life that is already full propulsion—to work to feed to strive to buy to fill to be. To find. Perhaps what she needs right now is a narrative that sits somewhere in between. (37)
This proves to be a meta-commentary on Moon Sugar itself, it being a novel that blurs edges and explores liminalities in many contexts. Xanthoria warps the margins of perception and potential; sexual liaisons for Mila, Kyle and Josh are fluid and exploratory, with the platonic versus physical attraction between Mila and Kyle an absorbing dance; Mila is at the margins of fertility, her relationship break-up forcing her to reckon with a future unlikely to involve motherhood; and, permeating all, are the existential threats of the pandemic and climate change. Readers too are left in a half-light, musing whether, given human fallibility, the world would be better off with or without the incredible powers Xanthoria can bestow; and, as alluded to, the novel itself defies ‘folding into neat shapes’, bestriding ‘genre’ fiction—spec-fic, crime, thriller—and more ‘literary’ character-driven writing.
When Kyle first witnesses the powers Xanthoria has given Mila, Meyer gives a not-so-subtle boot to speculative fiction sceptics. Initially, Kyle reels in disbelief and wonders if he’s ‘flipped his lid’. He then reflects, though, on his annoyance with movies ‘when people take too long to believe in something supernatural’. This is real life, he decides, and there’s no need ‘for the stalling tension of the “oh my god, I can’t believe it” character dynamic’. He resolves to jump ‘straight to the “what do we do?” part’ (142). Meyer would undoubtedly prefer her novel not be clouded by spec-fic suspicion, nor does it deserve to be. Moon Sugar, with its beguiling meld of darkness, verve and optimism, is likely to reward most readers’ suspension of disbelief.
P, Joanne. ‘Moon Sugar: Angela Meyer discusses her inspiration’, Booklover Book Reviews, October 6 (2022). Sourced at: https://www.bookloverbookreviews.com/2022/10/moon-sugar-angela-meyer-discusses-her-inspiration.html.
Jen Banyard is the author of four novels for young readers (published by Fremantle Press) and numerous stories. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Western Australia.