Sub­tly re­alised por­trait of grief

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - He­len El­liott

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

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