Relationship dynamics out of this world
In Gravity Well, Melanie Joosten has traded the claustrophobic setting of her 2011 debut Berlin Syndrome for a kaleidoscopic structure, examining the simultaneous push-pull influence of intimate relationships on the individuals who inhabit them.
Though our families and partners can provide us with our sense of belonging, they can also stifle our attempts to develop as individuals, and this tension provides the backdrop for Joosten’s second novel.
Gravity Well opens with Lotte, an astronomer living in South America where she has been working on a research project identify- ing planets in other solar systems for their potential to host life. Lotte’s mother inspired her interest in astronomy, though her death from breast cancer is one of the reasons Lotte fled Australia, leaving behind her grieving father and her husband.
Lotte prides herself on her self-sufficiency and is defiant in pursuing her ambitions, whether or not the people in her life can be accommodated by her decisions. Before she left Australia she was tested for the offending breast cancer gene, but is ambivalent about whether to inform herself of the results.
In another narrative strand, Eve is on a bus on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, headed somewhere between Lorne and Apollo Bay. Whereas Lotte avoids the difficult aspects of her life by diverting her attention to her work, Eve’s grief is in danger of consuming her.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Eve is punishing herself for her role in some unspoken tragedy. Joosten offers hints to what this is. We know, for example, Eve was married and had a young daughter, Mina. That aspect of her life is tenderly evoked in Eve’s memories of caring for Mina. She remembers “letting her slide into the tights before setting her down again”.
Eve’s husband is older but his reassuring love offers the support she needs. In the novel’s present, Eve is separated from her husband and daughter and the book’s central mystery is why.
Lotte and Eve, friends since university, share a candour neither has found in her romantic relationships, but intervening events have caused estrangement between them. Lotte and Eve represent the two poles of human need: Lotte the impulse to shed ties to live on her own terms, Eve the willingness to make sacrifices to secure her place in the lives of others.
Gravity Well is masterfully constructed: about half way through Joosten delivers a setpiece revelation as Eve and Lotte’s stories col- lide. Thanks to Joosten’s three-dimensional narrative puzzle, unfolding the story along three different timelines, the true nature of a key relationship is concealed until this explosive revelation. As with her first novel, Joosten is more concerned with emotionally complex relationships than conventional ones.
Despite its relative brevity, Gravity Well navigates an impressive emotional landscape. Joosten is as convincing inhabiting the perspective of Lotte nursing her dying mother, “determined to be the daughter she no longer had the lifetime to be”, as Eve’s deprived childhood in which, if her father “tapped her lightly on the bum with his foot”, she “liked to think it was affection”. Without labouring their respective histories, Joosten sketches convincing psychologies for her characters.
Joosten is plainly gifted in her ability to use language to capture everyday occurrences. When Eve hears her husband laugh, the sound