Verse nov­els nav­i­gate zones of long­ing and be­long­ing

The Sun­lit Zone

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Liam Dav­i­son

By Lisa Ja­cob­son 5 Is­lands Press, 163pp, $29.95 By Kirsten Henry UWAP, 187pp, $24.95

FOR a diver, the sun­lit zone is the lifeaf­firm­ing point of re­turn from the murky depths of ei­ther the twi­light zone or the zone of to­tal dark­ness.

For Lisa Ja­cob­son, it is also the meta­phoric touchstone for her qui­etly com­pelling verse novel and pro­vides the struc­tural frame­work of the nar­ra­tive that drives it. Only af­ter one has plumbed the depths and stared into the abyss can one fully ap­pre­ci­ate the daz­zling riches of a place that teems with life, though not nec­es­sar­ily life as we know it.

The Sun­lit Zone is full of sur­prises. Set in the near fu­ture with a nar­ra­tive arc span­ning 30-odd years from 2020 to the early 2050s, the story is by turns play­fully ethe­real and darkly dis­turb­ing, not least for the un­set­tling famili- ar­ity of the dam­aged world it presents as our pos­si­ble fu­ture.

North is a youngish re­searcher at a marine lab­o­ra­tory in Mel­bourne. While fa­mil­iar re­gional land­marks and a rich ver­nac­u­lar an­chor the story to the known, it’s the un­known and un­ex­pected mu­ta­tions of lan­guage, and of the nat­u­ral world, that en­thrall us.

The last apos­tle on the Ocean Road might have just carked it but Ja­cob­son’s ocean is stocked with un­fa­mil­iar feral in­ter­lop­ers and ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied repli­cas of en­dan­gered species. Car­bon coun­ters and wa­ter po­lice mon­i­tor us­age of scarce re­sources in a fraught but be­nignly Or­wellian cli­mate of fear that has mor­phed into pas­siv­ity and blithe ac­cep­tance. In a world of de­signer em­bryos and nano- tech­nolo­gies that po­si­tion the hy­brid or ar­ti­fi­cial as the new real, char­ac­ters live in a state of emo­tional numb­ness where em­pa­thy to­wards an­other be­ing is tem­pered by the knowl­edge that it is prob­a­bly a clone.

While much of Ja­cob­son’s tech­no­log­i­cal in­ven­tive­ness is the usual Bradbury-ish fur­nish­ing of spec­u­la­tive sci-fi put to play­fully po­etic pur­pose, it be­comes ap­par­ent that North’s numb­ness is born of a deep grief and long­ing. Her trauma lies in her past, which must be re­vis­ited if she is to move for­ward. This is a tried and proven nar­ra­tive de­vice that holds the reader with a well-paced plot. But it’s Ja­cob­son’s lyri­cal en­gage­ment with the Or­phic tradition, as much as her nar­ra­tive skills, that war­rants com­ment.

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