Ill at ease in a gothic pile
LIKE the lonely hunter of her first novel, Julia Leigh has shown herself to be skilled, with well- honed instincts. Disquiet is the Sydney novelist’s follow- up to her lavishly praised and internationally honoured 1999 debut novel The Hunter . Most would- be novelists would kill for Leigh’s literary marksmanship, such precocious success being as doubtful as drawing a bead on a Tasmanian tiger.
Her amazing first novel, following a mentorship with Frank Moorhouse, won her the admiration of authors Don DeLillo and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, among others. In 2002 Leigh was awarded the opportunity to be mentored by Morrison in the US.
It has been a long time between shoots, though. This eagerly awaited second work is bound to attract a good deal of excitable scrutiny, nice and nasty. Obviously, great things are expected. Reading this ambitious and bizarre novella, you may feel great things have been achieved, but I think it unlikely; has the trail gone cold?
In Disquiet , Leigh has shifted from Tasmanian wilderness to French chateau, a more securely seductive but less extraordinary location. She has a go at gothic, adds a smear of nouveau roman , a frame or two from Last Year in Marienbad , and allows a glimpse of Ian McEwan.
The novel opens with a view of an unnamed woman and two small children, a boy and a girl, standing before a gateway in an ugly, flat, mudploughed countryside. They are in a bleak, unspecified place, trying to forge an entrance through a high brick wall. This is all very intriguing, though why flat and ploughed adds up to ugly is even more so. If flatness is really an aesthetic problem, perhaps Leigh should have taken that into account.
The behaviour of these figures in the landscape rocks between silent despondency and desperate activity. The children wait while their elegant but disabled mother ( her arm in a sling) has a go at a door in the wall, then the boy mashes himself beating it down. Finally, they get in. It slowly becomes clear that the woman is bringing her children back to the family pile, on the run from a failed and violent marriage in Australia.
There is a dream- like contrast between the prosaic, pancake landscape outside, and the manicured splendour inside the high wall. Promise is held out of a disturbing and surreal journey. Progress from here, however, is not so much monotonously level as miserably downhill.
After a while Leigh hands out some names for the participants in her tableau, but doesn’t want much use to be made of them. Common nouns maintain the distance and sense of suppressed significance of the opening scene. They can act in narrative to invite a generalising awareness: words such as grandmother and mother may suggest we pay fresh attention to the emotional pulses running through family relationships. That is what happens, for example, at the opening of Elizabeth Jolley’s The Orchard Thieves .
Leigh’s favourite finger pointing, verbally speaking, is ‘‘ the woman’’, in reference to her central character. Not much comes of this, however. It eventually seems a bit rude, as if after watching her for all this time we should have got beyond her sex.
The woman is situated at the crux of a tangle of family relationships, but doesn’t manifest emphatically motherly, grandaughterly or sisterly behaviours. She is all surface, curiously bruised but otherwise dull.
Maybe this is the point. Like the lake in the chateau grounds, her depths — due to some unrevealed crisis — are invisible, lightless, chill and best left unplumbed. The danger is, though, that without an emotional focus ( of the sort achieved with Leigh’s hunter, for example), the book will be unread.
Coincidentally, the woman’s brother has also returned home with his bereaved wife and their stillborn daughter. They are actually the ghastly core of the novella. Questions hover and haltingly reel you in.
When will the grief- stricken sister- in- law bury her grief and her baby? Her attachment to the corpse is evidently meant to be ghoulish and deranged, but that is the difficulty with contem- porary gothic: it is difficult to extricate aberrant states from medical territory and re- mystify them. Despite the weird moaning, cold breezes through empty nurseries and the rotting bundle in the freezer, I just felt sorry for her. There are other questions. What exactly happened to the poor, battered, frequently name- stripped woman? Will she get over it? Does the brother love the wife? Does the grandmother love the daughter? Does the mother love the children? Leigh leaves these questions to float in cloudy gothic waters rather than emerge as tumultuous, personal dilemmas. They are not suggestive of the uncanny, however, just inadequately developed.
We are invited to keep watching and wondering from a distance with minimal information, until genuine feeling is as hard to spot as a thylacine. Dead flat and affect- free, emotionally speaking, there is no more lift from the leaden horizontal than in her Gallic landscape. Which brings me to a couple of queries of my own.
Why France? Why the chateau? The setting achieves small conviction or significance here. Besides, other Australian authors have shown that castles are not a must- have for the gothic genre.
Leigh’s narrative parsimony could be a potent device, making for an appositely generous involvement on the reader’s part, a rapt attention. I think we are short- changed, however.
On the book’s jacket Morrison, that
high priestess whose harrowing of the hell of black female experience has raised her to preeminence, speaks of Leigh thus: ‘‘ Her deft prose casts a spell of serene control while the earth quakes underfoot.’’
The earth didn’t move for me. Leigh’s command of prose is not thrilling here; its compression is at times mesmeric, but often feels clunky ( the boy tries ‘‘ kung- fu’’ kicks, guests ‘‘ snuck’’ glances at the baby’s funeral, the housekeeper ‘‘ dashed’’ a plate to the floor, the photograph was ‘‘ gory’’, and so forth). It is clipped to within an inch of its life, like the topiary in the chateau grounds. The dialogue is insipid, even when angled to be shocking. Consequently, the ominous mood falters. Her cool handling verges on the pretentious. Better editing might have sorted out some of this.
At the end, in a final, uncharacteristically lyrical paroxysm, the woman achieves an unfathomable epiphany. She discovers her ( almostdrowned) son is ‘‘ ancient’’, ‘‘ implacable’’ and ‘‘ beautiful’’ but not ‘‘ mountain and lake’’. She makes a wish for him to ‘‘ hold’’. Hold what? Hold hands? Hold together? Disquiet may come across for you as stylish, poised or minimalist, but for me it simply does not hold together. Stella Clarke is a literary critic based in Melbourne. She has a PhD from Warwick University and has taught extensively in Australia and Britain.
Tips from the top: Julia Leigh, left, with mentor and Nobel prize- winner Toni Morrison