Subtly realised portrait of grief
What an appetite we have for grief. Memorials and tributes devise a pornography of grief all over the web, and the grief memoir as art has become both respectable and expected — Julian Barnes, Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion have all capitulated. Perhaps they can instruct us how to behave when faced with something too terrible to confront, when emoting is clearly not enough? Kirsten Tranter’s austere novel drops into this tumultuous scene and proceeds to examine grief in noiseless, sidelong ways.
The Prologue is an exacting and familiar painting: Sydney, the beach in early March, cafes, the sun dissolving in the haze of blue, toddlers posing with their mothers, ageing men and women in folding chairs. A timeless moment, Seurat in Sydney.
Shelley has just slammed the door on Conrad. She’s spontaneous and in love and regrets the slam even as she walks away. They were snippy with one another in the rush of the morning. They’ve just been talking about their future together, about committing.
But this tale opens with an ending. Conrad dies in the surf and chapter one opens almost three years later with Shelley in a new relationship with a charismatic university lecturer, David, settling into their just-renovated house in inner Sydney. Living with them some of the time is David’s teenage daughter, Janie, an average, enraged adolescent. Yet the world can turn on such an adolescent’s behaviour.
Hold is Tranter’s third novel and, like the previous two, it is situated within an intense literary sensibility. Shelley is putting away the dry-cleaning in her walk-in wardrobe when she comes across a secret door behind the racks. Ping! CS Lewis? Charlotte Bronte? Bluebeard? Or 100 childhood books where a secret door guaranteed hours of enthralment? But adult enthralment is necessarily more serious than the imaginary and generally benign states of childhood. Shelley knows all about those childhood books, and is perfectly aware that she is stand- ing in a freshly renovated and painted terrace in Sydney. She can hear traffic.
The door was obviously some long-ago connection between her house and the adjoining terrace. But when she pushes it, the door springs open and she finds herself in a small, wallpapered room. Hello Charlotte Gilman Perkins. It should have been claustrophobic, but it isn’t. Something in me relaxed when I walked in, as though the odd proportions of the room were somehow a perfect fit with my body. It was like a strange mix of crossing into a space that was unfamiliar and yet known in some deep, forgotten way. Shelley mentions the room to David but for him the door refuses to budge. And he doesn’t seem all that interested. It isn’t as if she wants to keep it from him but, within the practical business of their days, telling David about the room and its effect on her slides away. David and Shelley are ghosts in each other’s lives.
In a second-hand shop she sees a red velvet sofa that is somewhere between a “psychiatrist’s couch and a piece of bordello furniture”. She also sees that the slender young man working there, the one who puts it on hold for her, is her dead lover’s double. He delivers it and places it in the secret room, the only other soul invited in. He returns with a small table and a lamp. He mends some broken bits from the light. The details are critical.
Who knows what’s real in Shelley’s world? She is keen to know whether the room is accessible from the terrace next door but that house is half-derelict and the artists who live there are elusive. They keep filling their back garden with awkward metal sculptures that seem to grow limbs that clamber over the fence. What is evident to the reader but not to Shelley is that David is awful, adolescents are not adults, and best friends are sometimes dangerous.
This is an accomplished psychological portrait of a woman traumatised, then immobilised by grief. Shelley has been rendered motionless and emotionless by the shock of her lover’s death, and Tranter skilfully brushes through almost invisible layers to find what lies beneath.
The novel unfolds in a series of paintings, each an interior showing Shelley in a different situation, each referring to and reflecting on what is now and what has gone before. Nothing is forced or hurried as Shelley begins to stir into life and the static shimmer of Seurat progresses to a Bonnard interior. The window is open and the curtains billow out. This emotionally refined and contained novel is light years from the blare of any grief memoir.
is a Melbourne writer and journalist.
Kirsten Tranter’s novels are situated within an intense literary sensibility