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