Re­la­tion­ship dy­nam­ics out of this world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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