Mourn­ing in con­trast­ing mi­lieus

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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