Mis­ery when baby love goes miss­ing


The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ash­ley Hay

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

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