Ill at ease in a gothic pile

Stella Clarke

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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