Un­tan­gling the ten­ta­cles of grief

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Gretchen Shirm

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

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