Misery when baby love goes missing
LOLA’S ‘ SCREAMS PEEL THE SKIN FROM HER FLESH’
IN late 1939, in the early mess of World War II, Virginia Woolf read in the writings of Sigmund Freud that a ‘‘ violently disturbing conflict of love and hate is a common feeling; and is called ambivalence’’.
That word, ‘‘ violently’’: it transforms the idea of ambivalence from something wishywashy — a shrug — into a pendulum that swings from one extreme to another.
And this ambivalence drives the fast pace of Eleanor Limprecht’s powerful debut novel What Was Left, a work that will probably be discussed as much for the trigger of its action — a new mother, Rachel, walks away from her husband, Peter, and their baby, Lola — as for its literary strength.
Rachel’s ambivalence sees her ‘‘ split in two’’, longing for and dreading her life ‘‘ in equal measure’’.
But this book is not just about maternal flight. Rachel’s quest may be sparked by a crisis of new motherhood — the noise (Lola’s ‘‘ screams peel the skin from her flesh’’), the tiredness and the strange melange of instructions, rules, handbooks and judgments that seem to attend it these days — but her subsequent journey pushes on like a thriller.
There’s nothing subtle about the issues Sydneysider Rachel needs to unravel or the people she meets as she does. Apart from Lola, she has a father, Gunther, who disappeared when she was six, and a mother, Judy, whom she can only describe as cold.
Judy’s mother, Rose, made her own messy maternal transactions, which makes the family feel cumulatively damaged — not to mention thousands of kilometres away in the US.
Peter’s mother, similarly useless, appears once, speedy and self-interested. ‘‘ You know you can always ask me for anything,’’ she tells Rachel as she abandons her and Lola at a cafe to get to an appointment. I believed her as little as Rachel did.
God, I felt for her; where were her friends, her people? Who was bringing her readycooked meals? Holding Lola while she had a long shower? Taking her into the sunshine, beyond rooms that would only amplify crying and frustration? Telling her husband not to turn the telly on as soon as he came home?
Perhaps she had no choice but to face up to the psychological strands she had long held in abeyance — the hidden pasts; the dangerous silences — and the ways they now had an impact on Lola, whom she feared hurting and, perhaps, simply feared?
Limprecht’s story deftly arranges big themes — ambition, activism, infidelity and obsession — against a rush of backdrops as Rachel takes flight: India, Israel, Switzerland and beyond. There are flashes of love’s different versions, bound up with the damage we do to ourselves and to others.
And there are sharp observations: Rachel’s