The tender ache for days long forgotten
WHEN the manuscript of Kate ColeAdams’s debut novel was short- listed for the emerging writers prize in the 2006 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the judges described it as an intelligently structured novel that explored a character’s struggle with her uncertain and elusive memories.
The difficulty of reducing this novel to a synopsis is twofold. It unfairly privileges plot, which is not what you read this atmospheric and deeply felt novel for, and the uncertainty and elusiveness being explored works against the principle of nailing it in 10 words or less. A woman sleeps, wakes and walks’’ covers the plot but hardly does the novel justice.
This temporal, contemplative examination of loss and healing reveals its secrets with a reluctance bordering on the pathological and rewards slow and careful reading.
Jess Small, a copy editor with a medical publishing house, has woken from a coma to find herself in a strangely dislocated netherworld of fractured memories and unresolved emotions, mostly related to family. She is confined to a Victorian nursing home on the edge of the suburbs with a view of a scrubby walking track and small hill that offer the possibility of escape.
Until now, though, Jess has been stricken with a lassitude verging on paralysis that has prevented her from taking any steps towards rehabilitation. She prefers the company of her fellow strokes’’, drowners’’ and prangs’’ — the recently awoken who share her passive existence and the comforting routine of hospital meals and therapy sessions.
Irena Ivanovich fell from a horse five years ago and lies propped in her bed gazing at the fluorescent galaxy her husband has made for her on the ceiling. The Swimmer left his Randwick home one afternoon to top himself and washed up at Bondi instead. He lies on his back, his hands moving on his chest like kelp. Maud Flanagan is a stroke’’ and midnight smoker who refuses to sleep. Hugh is a damaged young tenor whose sobbing sounds like music.
Cole- Adams captures beautifully this twilight world that exists somewhere between sleep and wakefulness with language that is so languid, at times it seems lifted from a dream. Jess feels the blood blooming in her ears like wingbeats. She is surprised, after a psychiatric session, to have found a whole day curled inside her, gleaming and wet like a child. When she thinks about her coma, a feeling arises that she cannot name: an exquisite, tender ache that she can taste pooled in the back of her throat. This use of synaesthesia lends an organic, poetic quality to the prose that draws the reader into the dreamlike state that Jess is reluctant to leave.
She refuses visits from her daughter or from her husband, Michael, the limpid, asthmatic anaesthetist who won her over with the steady forward momentum of his sentences. The only visitor she accepts is Hil, the robust spinster aunt who reared her. In her working life, Jess found refuge in the safety of other people’s words, preferring to reveal their thoughts than to confront her own. Everything about her own writing was designed to conceal. Sentences and paragraphs corral ideas and at times there’s something of the same control about ColeAdams’s measured words.
It’s only when Jess takes the first tentative steps outside the nursing home and along the rough path that she starts to piece together the fragments of her life before the coma. But, even then, nothing is given up easily. There is a moving story of loss and abandonment within this novel, but it is so deeply concealed it demands a remarkable persistence to tease it to the surface. Slowly, though, the pieces start to fall quietly into place to celebrate the resilience and recuperation of a woman reclaiming control of her life. The result is deeply rewarding and there are moments of sheer beauty along the way. Liam Davison’s novels include Soundings and The White Woman.