Belinda Cranston’s debut novel The Changing Room is the story of a young Australian woman searching for herself while travelling through Egypt and the Middle East in 1997.

Rachel Mahoney is a 23-year-old from Sydney. We are first introduced to her in the prologue through the eyes of a taxi driver in Jerusalem, where she is hurrying to a sacred place and acting very strangely. The first chapter then rewinds to several months earlier, when she is living in London with an older couple, having left Sydney several weeks earlier to go travelling on the other side of the world. From London, Rachel travels to Egypt with her friend Nikki, then they continue on to Israel where they stay on a kibbutz – a communal living farm where everyone contributes to the community.

After a few days on the kibbutz, Nikki goes back to London, but Rachel stays behind.

This is a story of someone trying to come of age, searching for meaning and markers of purpose in ancient lands with long and complicated histories. Rachel is quite introverted and bookish and still healing from her father’s sudden death when she was young. She does not know exactly what she wants or how to find it, just that she is looking for a version of herself that she recognises and connects with more than her current self.

As a child, Rachel loved Mr Benn, a British cartoon about a man who goes into a magical costume shop and, every episode, as he tries on a different costume, he becomes a new character with a different life. This theme arises throughout the story, with Rachel stopping at different waystations on her journey, but never quite connecting with the “costume” that she has put on there.

There is a feeling of apprehension through the story – Rachel is very young and vulnerable, travelling often alone through various countries and making many poor decisions. Yet, despite how often she finds herself in questionable circumstances, she is always helped by strangers, who give her places to stay, rescue her from cults and otherwise keep her in one piece.

This is not a traditional Bildungsroman; Rachel is on her own version of a coming-of-age journey, one that is sometimes strange and fantastical. There is a touch of magic realism as well, with her often dreaming vividly of things that then come to pass in some way, and meeting strange people who give her cryptic messages.

In these moments it is difficult to determine what is really happening and what is just happening in Rachel’s mind – but then if even they are only happening in her mind, they are still real to her. 

This is a story that lingers long after the last page, leaving the reader wondering what exactly happened to the protagonist and if she chose the right path, or chose a path at all. Despite travelling for weeks through several countries, she is somewhat passive, which could be frustrating, but Cranston has captured the palpable uncertainty that comes with being in your early 20s and trying to understand yourself and what’s most important to you, while not being a decisive person of action who moves through the world deliberately.

This review was first published on ArtsHub.

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