Unshackled memoir of IVF’s hope and despair
Ava- beside questions motherhood.
This lean, focused work has the propulsion and rapidity of the titular avalanche. It follows the narrative slope of desire and shares with Leigh’s previous work qualities of intensity and haunting. Her first novel, The Hunter (1999), centres on tracking the thylacine after rumours of a sighting in the Tasmanian wilderness. Notably, reviewers remarked on its lack of the personal, critic Lisa Darnell praising that ‘‘rare … first-time novelist who can so confidently avoid the confessional’’.
The novel’s success led to Leigh’s mentorship by Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison, a 2011 film adaptation directed by Daniel Nettheim and the intense and atmospheric novella Disquiet (2008). She wrote and directed the polarising film Sleeping Beauty (2011), about university student Lucy, employed to drink narcotic-laced tea and sleep naked in the boudoir of an elegant country residence, where she is visited by elderly wealthy men. Through unsettling themes of objectification, consumerism and power runs a sharp wit. A New York Times review saw the film as a ‘‘pointed, deadpan surrealist sex farce’’.
There is little of the mythic and allegorical in Avalanche, though elements of farce and ideas of predation and vulnerability recur. It has its spectral presences too, of which medical trauma is one. Leigh mentions major surgery and two abortions in her 20s. One doctor, a young woman in an emergency ward on Horn Island in the Torres Strait, the only place Leigh can source the progesterone pessaries she has forgotten to pack on a work trip, sneers: ‘‘We treat sick people here.’’ Outside, a helicopter lands of balancing creativity and with patients from the outer islands. Leigh imagines ‘‘machete cuts, croc bites, broken limbs’’, and retreats with her prescription and a dose of shame.
Phobic about needles since childhood, Leigh observes that it may actually not be hysterical to have a dislike of ‘‘a needle piercing my vein and draining blood from my body’’. In contrast, she imagines nurses collectively (‘‘any nurse from the greater body of nurses’’) as a repository of kindness. She celebrates the grace of IVF nurses in particular, who ‘‘greet each patient with a gentle smile and no judgment’’.
Crucial to the issue of judgment is the question: Where does this stop? Even as she holds herself between ‘‘reprieve and delight’’, blazing with hope, then ‘‘bloated and labile’’, Leigh hears the rattish scuttling of self-criticism. Treatment is presented as a choice, despite being expensive and confusing: ‘‘Up to you. Pick your own misadventure.’’ Making these choices felt like ‘‘playing a game in which I didn’t know the rules, ‘Kindly Kafka’ ” .
‘‘After the avalanche,’’ writes Leigh in the final poetic pages, ‘‘the bare face of the mountain.’’ This is a memoir crafted in the bare aftermath of trauma. Resentment feels ‘‘repulsive, like putting on a soiled garment. Parading around in it.’’ Instead, critiquing avarice in the IVF industry and hoping to shift love from ‘‘I to you’’ and ‘‘I to we’’, Leigh gives voice to a largely silenced mourning, and to resilience. Leigh’s ‘‘I’’ articulates the suffering of a larger ‘‘we’’, creating from blunt testimony a tender and luminous work of consolation. is poetry editor at the University of Queensland Press.