Review: Diana Reid's Love and Virtue is a thought-provoking and impressive debut

  • Love & Virtue, by Diana Reid. Ultimo Press, $32.99.

Many who have attended university will remember those first, transformative months where the adult world suddenly seems to open up. Amidst this potent combination of parental freedom, alcohol, late nights, new friendships, and new-found knowledge; it's easy to believe that you know everything. Until it all falls away, and you realise the world is far more complex than you ever imagined.

Michaela and Eve become friends at the start of their first year at university in Sydney. It's a friendship filled with different lived experiences and perspectives - Eve is 20, worldly, private school-educated and from a wealthy Sydney family. Michaela, by contrast, is 18, insecure, and was raised in Canberra by a single mother. Both young women attend the same prestigious residential college, but what this means to each of them is very different. Michaela and Eve bond over their shared sense of humour and criticism of the hypocrisies and questionable moralities of the students and structures around them. As time and events unfold, and the tenuous links of their relationship begin to fracture, uncomfortable truths - and questions - are laid bare.

Consent and feminism are key themes of the novel, quickly established within the first few pages. Rather than proselytising though, Diana Reid forces her characters to grapple with complexity, subjectivity and hypocrisy. University colleges are microcosms where social structures and issues - often intensified by alcohol and the pressure-cooker of residential living - mirror those of the broader world. Sometimes these issues and structures play out in casual conversations between friends, or in the theoretical confines of a lecture theatre. Other times they're writ larger - rape and consent violation, suspected suicide, and grotesque imbalances of power. Love & Virtue examines the stories its characters tell themselves in these situations and how they interpret, justify, dismiss, or condemn.

At its heart, Love & Virtue is a coming-of-age-story that traces Michaela's journey from self-conscious teenager to a young woman who better understands the complexities of relationships and the power dynamics that shape them. Beyond this though, Reid investigates the intersection of race, class, gender, privilege, and consent; and how feminism engages with these issues. Readers are invited to consider the conversations and situations that take place in the novel, and how they are reproduced in our own experience.

Love & Virtue is Diana Reid's first novel, and it's an impressive debut. Written with a clarity and confidence sometimes absent in first-time authors, it presents a humorous yet unflinching glimpse of early adulthood and how it shapes us. Reid expertly dissects some of our most pressing social issues and serves them back to us in this thought-provoking and engaging work.