Verse novels navigate zones of longing and belonging
The Sunlit Zone
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.