Felic­ity Plun­kett

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In a prefa­tory note, Ju­lia Leigh writes that Avalanche of­fers a space of “ten­der shared alone­ness’’ to ‘‘any­one who has des­per­ately longed for a child’’. With its ur­gent eth­i­cal drive to record an ex­pe­ri­ence of­ten ren­dered un­speak­able by what Amer­i­can fem­i­nist and poet Adri­enne Rich calls ‘‘an in­ad­e­quate or ly­ing lan­guage’’, it un­wraps an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of vi­o­lent and ten­der mo­ments to cap­ture strong feel­ings be­fore they can be ‘‘blan­keted by time’’.

In its en­mesh­ment of the ex­quis­ite and the blunt, the mem­oir, writ­ten soon after Leigh’s de­ci­sion to stop in vitro fer­til­i­sa­tion treat­ment, finds re­flec­tive gen­tle­ness and fury. It be­gins bru­tally with Leigh in­ject­ing her­self ‘‘with an ar­ti­fi­cial hor­mone pro­duced in a line of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied Chi­nese ham­ster ovary cells’’ and ends with a vi­sion of ten­der­ness. Leigh vis­its her sis­ter and nieces on her 45th birth­day. The three-year-old presents her with a con­tainer filled with pink jig­saw pieces. She calls it ‘‘a box of ba­bies’’. Leigh and her niece play ‘‘with the jig­saw ba­bies for a long time and I do not flinch … I was suf­fused with a burn­ing ten­der love for that as­ton­ish­ing girl.’’

‘‘What I try to hold on to now,’’ Leigh writes, is ‘‘a com­mit­ment to love widely and in­tensely. Ten­derly … To un­shackle my love from the great love I wanted to give my own child.’’ Sub­ti­tled A Love Story, Avalanche is also a story of loss. It is a loss in which Leigh feels com­plicit rather than in­no­cent, and one shared, of­ten in iso­la­tion, by those whose longed-for child has never been con­ceived, or has been mis­car­ried or lost to still­birth. The pain Leigh de­scribes is pro­vi­sional, fluc­tu­ant and sup­pressed, for ‘‘how could I grieve sin­cerely know­ing that there was still a chance I might soon be im­mensely happy? Half-grief, fore­stalled grief, was a kind of hell.’’

Like Joan Did­ion in The Year of Mag­i­cal Think­ing, the mem­oir she wrote fol­low­ing the death of her hus­band, John Gre­gory Dunne, and the en­su­ing can­tos for her daugh­ter that make up Blue Nights, Leigh’s in­stincts re­main, of course, a writer’s. The clar­ity and aware­ness of Avalanche re­call Did­ion’s sug­ges­tion that times of trou­ble pro­pel the writer to ‘‘read, learn, work it up, go to the lit­er­a­ture’’.

Un­shack­ling is part of the po­et­ics of lanche. While the work’s in­ten­sity and com­pul­sion de­rive from the nar­ra­tive line of at­tempts to con­ceive through IVF, Leigh keeps her eye on a wider story of med­i­cal ethics, con­sumerism, power and pow­er­less­ness; of re­la­tion­ships be­tween par­ents and of telling — test­ing the for­mal lim­its of mem­oir in the at­tempt, in Rich’s words, to ‘‘speak the un­speak­able’’.

The longed-for child be­gins as the idea of ‘‘our child’’, one Leigh hopes to wel­come into her re­la­tion­ship with Paul, the man she falls in love with at 19, re­mains friends with, then mar­ries at 37. The ‘‘bone-deep sense of recog­ni­tion’’ be­tween them un­der­pins a love that feels ‘‘in­evitable’’. Leigh de­picts their glo­ri­ous re­u­nion, its ‘‘feral pe­riod’’ of ‘‘love-f..king’’ and ex­chang­ing ‘‘lovers’ cur­rency’’ of affini­ties and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.

But she is as hon­est about his ear­lier re­fusal of monogamy, her re­sult­ing dis­quiet and the ‘‘in­ner eel’’ that takes ‘‘the guise of rea­son­able cau­tion but re­ally was a small, wrig­gling mis­trust’’. She takes the risk of evok­ing mo­ments of her own rage and self­ish­ness, the pain of ‘‘two peo­ple in love and at odds’’ and the ‘‘syn­co­pated, ter­ri­ble-ten­der’’ pulse of their founder­ing mar­riage.

The imag­ined child who be­gins within the lovers’ ‘‘cor­re­spon­dence, nes­tled in among words of fear and hope and prom­ise’’, out­lives the re­la­tion­ship and the cou­ple’s treat­ment at an IVF clinic. Chart­ing the en­su­ing years of blood tests, nee­dles and pro­ce­dures, cy­cle after cy­cle, Leigh cap­tures the crush and tum­ble of hope, loss, ex­haus­tion and per­se­ver­ance; the kind and cal­lous faces of med­i­cal prac­tice, friends’ and strangers’ sup­port and dis­ap­proval.

There is an over­ar­ch­ing con­cern with moth­er­ing, from her mother’s state­ment that Leigh should not be­come a mother to the ugly ‘‘mummy-schaden­freude’’ of real and dreamed con­ver­sa­tions. ‘‘For­get about ba­bies,’’ ad­vises a smug mother of four: ‘‘The baby boat has sailed.’’ How to be a sin­gle mother — ‘‘the fi­nan­cial pres­sures, the squeeze of time, the sole re­spon­si­bil­ity’’ — is a ques­tion rumbling along Avalanche By Ju­lia Leigh Pen­guin Ran­dom House, 133pp, $24.99

Ju­lia Leigh

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