Fractured families haunted by young ghosts
WHEN a child goes missing, the loss resonates for months, years even. For the families involved, the reverberations last a lifetime.
Two new Australian novels probe the fault lines that open up in families when faced with such a loss, each taking a different approach, yet each, in its own way, offering a persuasive insight into the way families cohere when faced with tragedy, and the ways they fall apart.
What distinguishes The Lost Child, the debut novel from Melbourne-based writer Suzanne McCourt, is the meticulous and vivid child’s-eye view through which one family’s breakdown is rendered.
Sylvie Meehan is five when we first meet her. She lives in a small fishing village near the Coorong, sharing a bed with her mother. Her father sleeps in the spare room and her brother, Dunc, a few years older than Sylvie, has a room to himself in which he hoards comic books and birds’ eggs.
Sylvie’s father, Mick, works on the fishing boats. Once he was a promising singer, a horse trainer, but being posted to Darwin during the war changed him. Now he sings only when he’s drunk, and the whip that tamed horses he now uses to discipline his children.
Nella, Sylvie’s mother, veers between truckling to her husband and defying him, charting a careful course around his moods to protect herself and her children. When she finally throws Mick out — his affair with “the Trollop” no longer bearable — she is both emboldened and devastated.
But it’s when Dunc goes missing — refusing to believe the worst of his father — that the family reaches its nadir.
There’s a watchful intensity to McCourt’s writing, a remarkable ability to discover within the most concrete details a rich and raw emotion: “I hide in my reading and writing and sums ... I hide in the stillness that flattens out the sea before the storm comes in.”
While we are immersed in the world view of the young Sylvie, and in the immediate aftermath of Dunc’s disappearance, The Lost Child is an assured work. But as the teenage Sylvie struggles to negotiate her uneasy relationship