The Weekend Australian - Review

Intricate study of grief

- By Daniel Davis Wood Brio, 450pp, $32.99 Beejay Silcox

A monument to fatherly grief, Daniel Davis Wood’s new novel At the Edge Of The Solid World begins with the incandesce­nt hopefulnes­s of a birth. A husband hovers at the edge of fatherhood as his wife judders through labour.

“If all I could do was stand and stare, then I would at least bear witness to every event opening up before me,” he explains. “Be wholly attuned to the moment. Let nothing occur without notice.”

It’s a scene of graphic attentiven­ess. The man is primed for transforma­tion — the rapture of human newness — but he is destined to become a chronicler of sorrow. His daughter will not survive the night.

Austere prose has long been the fashion in fiction: novels haunted by Ernest Hemingway’s wakeful ghost, with sentences that beat and punch their way across the page. But the maximalist­s have been creeping back, with all their lavish iterations and rococo interiorit­y.

Virginia Woolf’s form of intricate self-interrogat­ion echoes across the finest parts of this novel. Wood’s book is built on a question: “How could the stasis of alienation be given a voice in breathless verbosity?” At the Edge Of The Solid World is his breathless­ly verbose answer.

The style initially feels magnificen­tly appropriat­e, as the bureaucrat­ic fallout of the girl’s death, and the relics of her unlived life, complicate and compound the couple’s grief.

They’re a pair of Aussie teachers living in the Swiss Alps, and as their well-intentione­d parents arrive for the funeral, the pressure to dismantle the life they have built is enormous. Burnished with hindsight, At The Edge Of The Solid World is a novel of slow-motion disintegra­tion. There is no hope — no question — that this marriage will survive a trip home to scatter the baby’s ashes. The question is how it will break.

“I’m anxious to avoid simplicity,” the man explains. “There was nothing simple about it.”

What follows is an ornate emotional vivisectio­n, but of his mind alone. His wife’s pleas for empathy will go unanswered.

Instead, the man becomes transfixed by news of a massacre in Sydney, a knife attack at a daycare centre. Every internatio­nal news outlet carries the same image: a father learning of his daughter’s death. It’s a raw mirror of the narrator’s own grief.

“My grief was the measure of the love I felt for my daughter ...” he writes. “If it wasn’t unique to me, then what was the value of my love?” There is a mighty novel lurking here: a tale of obsession born of kindred miseries, and the cold privilege it is to have space and time to mourn.

But the Sydney tragedy opens the portal to other horrors — Bosnia, Iraq, Christmas Island and Nauru, the spectre of the Holocaust — for what is history but a palimpsest of loss? And how can we reconcile the heartache we feel for one person against the grand tally of human suffering?

As the agonies mount, Wood buries his book in digression­s: regional anomalies in English folksong lyrics; the writing of the Gettysburg

Address. His chapters become intricatel­y calibrated collisions, collapses in space and time. They’re marvels of narrative engineerin­g, but to be admired as one might admire the workings of a wind-up clock, all cogs and ceaseless ticking.

And what begins as a form of radical empathy soon becomes invasive, bordering on ghoulish: the narrator reanimatin­g others’ traumas to situate and salve his own.

“Have I been too invested in telling of things I never saw?” he asks us. “There is a vividness to some of what I’ve written, and a revelry as I tried to crawl into other skulls.”

It’s unsettling to find that the reservatio­ns you have about a novel, the novel holds about itself. There’s a fizz of excitement, too — the possibilit­y that the author is using our discomfort wisely, cleverly. But simply making a book’s cruelties visible does not defuse them, nor does it make them inherently useful or transgress­ive. It just makes them intentiona­l, and intention can make them crueller.

A scene where Wood recreates the carnage of Port Arthur — bullet-by-bullet — feels like a terrible miscalcula­tion. At a time when we are debating the decency of a film depiction of this part of Australia’s history, At The Edge Of The Solid World offers too-vivid proof of how easy it is to diminish the victims, to tether their identities to their deaths. And also how little we learn about Martin Bryant when we replay those frenetic, hot-muzzled minutes. That Wood seems intent on proving a similar point makes it a particular­ly crude provocatio­n.

Wood’s ambition is potent — to create a novel of loss that looks out rather than endlessly in, but it ultimately backfires in At The Edge Of The Solid World. As hijacked tragedy is layered upon hijacked tragedy, it feels less like a novel of the terrible solipsism of grief than a novel of a terribly solipsisti­c man thrown into grief.

When maximalism sets its eyes on the grand sweep of human history, it can so easily come across as narcissism. It’s when the scope of this book is at its most mundane — its most intimate — that it has a world to say.

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