Untangling the tentacles of grief
Leap By Myfanwy Jones Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $26.99 True to its title, there is an energetic push to Myfanwy Jones’s second novel Leap — the clear sense, even as it starts, that the narrative knows where it wants to land. “Last days of autumn,” Jones writes on the first page, “and the air is like blood: it is hard to sense where the body ends and the atmosphere begins.” This is typical of Leap’s language: a keen eye for poetic detail and attention to bodily sensation. Though there is a common loss at its core, the novel is less an examination of the territory of grief than of how to leave loss behind.
Now in his early 20s, Joe is still coming to terms with the death of his girlfriend Jen in their final year of school. Their relationship was precocious and intense. Joe remains stuck in an emotional holding pattern: he still feels responsible for having left Jen drunk and vulnerable at a party, soon after which she fell to her death. He lives in a share house owned by his best friend’s father and when a nurse who reminds him of Jen rents their spare room, he falls for her, although he knows she will resume travelling soon. Their relationship is a “strange formless thing that thrives on half-light; the way she comes and goes without warning or explanation”. The more Joe learns about her the more enigmatic she seems.
In the second narrative thread Elise is grieving the death of her daughter. Her marriage to Adam is “critically injured”; their union defined by a shared sadness that increasingly is not enough. At one moment Elise thinks she observes something youthful in Adam, but it is gone quickly and “it wasn’t, anyway, for her”. Elise, a freelance graphic designer, spends her spare time at the zoo watching the tigers, her lost daughter’s favourite animal. Just as the tigers pace impatiently, Elise is also waiting for a crucial development to push her past her sadness.
Jones’s characters are bracingly real and the key to her technique is to show them in action. In Joe’s case, he spends much of the novel in motion, practising parkour, the French discipline that sees him climb, leap and tumble through his urban landscape, mastering his own body as a way of managing his emotions. Jones captures movement in her language, eschewing personal pronouns, for example, to heighten the sense of urgency.
Elise meanwhile experiences grief in her body. She recalls the physical pain of labour, and when Adam leaves her she punches through a window. She finds the separation a shock and an awakening. She meets and drinks with friends, dates an old university friend and wonders “this is what we do in midlife, isn’t it? Sit around wondering how badly we screwed up.” She starts painting tigers and searching for stories about them online; the unpredictable creatures resonate metaphorically with her grief.
There is a strong sense that Joe is punishing himself for Jen’s death. He would like to apply to university to study but doesn’t, and remains distant from Lena, the young Ukrainian chef who works at his cafe, despite her assertive charm and the skateboard she rides to work. Joe describes her as having “an economy of movement, like her body is saving itself for bigger things”, but continually reminds himself that it’s OK to be friends with a girl. He is also involved in mentoring the troubled teen Deck, who he continues to meet after the program ends. On one level Joe is functioning; at another, he is putting the needs of others ahead of his own. At night, when he’s not out roaming the streets practising manoeuvres with the nurse, who also keeps odd hours, he’s immersed in a Facebook conversation with ‘‘Emily Dickinson’’, whose identity is unclear except that she also knew Jen.
Elise and Joe are willing to submit to the process of recovering rather than taking easy options that may offer short-term respite from their sadness. Leap is about how to escape the tentacles of grief or, more conventionally put, about “moving on”. But there is no convention in this novel; its insight and language are unusually robust and alive.
The final pages deliver an unexpected twist. Was that real, we wonder about a key plot element? As Jones’s characters forge beyond the novel’s vanishing point, we remain, knitting the threads back together, recalibrating what we have learned. It’s a risky manoeuvre but Jones’s novel lands, catlike, gracefully on its feet.
Myfanwy Jones delivers an unexpected twist