Un­shack­led mem­oir of IVF’s hope and de­spair

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

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.

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