Sydney's inner city is very much its own place, yet also a stand in for gentrifying inner-city suburbs the world over. Here, four young housemates struggle to untangle their complicated relationships while a poignant story of loss, grieving, and recovery unfolds. The nameless narrator of this story has recently lost her father and now her existence is split in two: she conjures the past in which he was alive and yet lives in the present, where he is not. To others, she appears to have it all together, but the grief she still feels creates an insurmountable barrier between herself and others, between the life she had and the one she leads.
... an intimate portrait of an individual in an ever-changing city and a searching meditation on the madness of grief ... Bedford brilliantly maps the city and examines the narrator's 'dysfunctional relationship' with it. She also explores issues of race, identity and belonging through her heroine's journalistic assignments and encounters with immigrants and refugees. However, the novel is at its most powerful when it centers upon a world caving in and the aftershocks: what it is like to 'lose a parent and lose your base.'
Bedford is refreshingly committed to portraying writing not as a calling or craft but as work ... [Bedford] directs Friends and Dark Shapes not toward the broad social implications of freelance work or toward solidarity across the vast spectrum of the gig economy, but on the practical and ethical problems it poses for the narrator. Ultimately, the novel asks a question that is rarer than it should be in fiction, if infinitely common in life: not how should we handle our lives, but how should we handle our work? ... Within pages, we know this will not be a survival story. Instead, it occupies a hazier space, one in which need, choice, insecurity, and aspiration shift and blend ... At the novel’s end, [the narrator] is still freelancing; she’s discovered her desire to commit to a different life but has no idea what it will be. Her closing action is smaller, in the novel’s terms, than abandoning her self-employment: She moves into a new apartment. Bedford leaves her readers to hope that move will be the first of many.
Bedford handles all of this well, with a kind of Xanaxed energy. Her narrator roves ceaselessly, in rhythms that owe much to late 20th century American prose ... Yet Bedford’s ferris wheel of interviews, urban observation, reminiscence and sharehouse conversation can—over the course of more than 200 pages—start to feel repetitive. Sure, there is an initial rush of exhilaration when cracking the spine of any new Australian fiction that is not narrated by the survivor of a mining tragedy whose father suicides in the wood shed after a traumatic rabbit shooting incident—but only initial ... Sometimes the elliptical approach can seem like an unwillingness to draw out implication; a reluctance on the author’s part to probe her talent. Because Bedford is talented. But she plays it safe. Draining the blood and vigour from her prose, whether for fear of being 'too much,' or of taking the risk to flesh out her portraits, is an unfortunate compromise for any writer to have to make, even if intentional. Where Bedford shines is in detailing intimate human connection; those epiphanic shocks that cut through affectations of irony and disinterest ... Bedford subtly explores, too, the vulnerabilities and dangers, the uncertain desires, of being a young woman. Seeking 'pleasure with abandon'—or never being boring, as the Pet Shop Boys’ post-party mantra had it—is a queasy, bittersweet comedown that Bedford, filtering her Didionesque prose (and her protagonist’s Didionesque generational cataloguing) through a wider emotional lens, excels at.