Mourning in contrasting milieus
Two new Australian novels — both by debut authors — deal, each in its own way, with grief.
Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour concerns itself with Audrey, a young social worker who lives in inner-city Melbourne. Audrey’s field is child protection: the work is arduous, draining. One of the children on Audrey’s files has died. It’s not Audrey’s fault, but she nonetheless feels responsible.
Then there are the family issues weighing Audrey down. A manic-depressive mother who has never been consistently present for her; a father, now dead, who used to beat her; and a younger brother, Bernie, battling to stay off drugs long enough to get to class and complete his high school education.
Audrey has a tight-knit circle of friends — they party, they go to pubs and drink too much, they occasionally indulge in drugs. Her boyfriend Nick is a paramedic, and there’s an easy rhythm to the life they share: “They made love in the backyard while the tea and the toast went cold. The threadbare towels hung stiff on the clothesline. That was a morning hazy with heat.”
Audrey copes; she functions. Until the day her closest friend, Katy, commits suicide. Audrey is unable to fathom Katy’s decision, and her mourning is deep: “[Katy had] left no explanation, no notes, just an exhausting blackness that yielded no reason.”
It’s a sorrow Audrey is unable to articulate fully, even to Nick. She presses Adam, another of Katy’s closest friends, to get counselling to help him deal with Katy’s absence, but cannot take the same step herself.
For Audrey, Katy’s death is a tipping point, a last straw. It amplifies all the grief — from her work, from the unresolved issues of her childhood — that she already bears, and she crumbles beneath the weight of it. But it’s not an abrupt collapse, a sudden breakdown. Rather it’s a slow, almost imperceptible disintegration of her life, as she retreats from her work, her partner, her friends and her family. Down’s evocation of Audrey’s grief is astute, perceptive and always convincing. It also manages to be subtle, never resorting to easy histrionics or undue moments of catharsis. Audrey’s epiphany, when it comes, is muted, and it’s all the more authentic for being so.
What Down conveys with particular skill is the loss of affect that is a factor of depressive grief. Walking home with Nick one night, Audrey wants to “weep at their emotional economy”. Down brings the same economy to her writing. She comes at feelings obliquely, using sharply realised images that are crammed with emotion: “Audrey felt a pulse of irritation. The light coming through the window was hitting something shiny. It was white and blinding.”
Writing as crisp and controlled as this does have its downside. We’re kept at a distance from Audrey, and her mourning begins to pall. The risk Down takes in giving us such a credible depiction of the detachment that comes with grief is that readers will struggle to connect with Audrey. For all the virtue of Down’s measured approach, I found myself wanting Audrey to kick and scream a little more, and for the writing to cut loose occasionally, so that the deeper layers of Audrey’s anger were more exposed.
There’s a grainy texture to Down’s rendering of life in inner-city Melbourne, and the contrasting brightness and heat of the eastern suburbs of Sydney (where Audrey finds work after she takes leave from her job) are nicely realised. What’s especially effective is the way in which Down depicts Audrey’s relationship with Nick. She convinces us that these are two people who belong together, who work well together, who will be able to drag each other out of whatever spiritual hole they might fall into; then she makes us watch them fall apart. It’s compelling writing.
In Sarah Kanake’s Sing Fox to Me, grief is a noisier, more sprawling beast. Fourteen-yearold twins Samson and Jonah travel with their father, David, to their grandfather’s remote property in the Tasmanian wilderness. Their mother has left the family and David is unable to cope. As soon as the twins are settled into bed on their first night in the house, David abandons them.
The boys’ grandfather, Clancy, doesn’t know what to do with them: he’s not good with children. Clancy’s relationship with David has been plainly