Book Review: Disquiet by Julia Leigh

Sunday Business Post, 1 June 2008

Australian author Julia Leigh’s rich novella centres upon the unsettling reunion of a fragmented family in the surroundings of a rambling French chateau.

After a 12-year estrangement from her family, Olivia unexpectedly returns to the family seat with her two young children, Andrew and Lucy. The otherwise statuesque woman’s appearance – ‘‘the straggled hair, the torn stockings, the broken arm’’ – hint at her flight from a violent marriage in Australia, and the long, treacherous journey back to a place once so familiar to her, but now partially closed, overgrown and forbidding.

Once inside, Olivia faces an awkward reunion with her mother, before introducing her to the grandchildren she’s never met. But the entrance hall of the chateau is festooned in balloons, as the household awaits another arrival, that of Olivia’s brother Marcus and his wife Sophie, returning from hospital after the birth of their first child.

However, as they emerge from their car, it is clear from their demeanour that something is very wrong; tragically, the baby has been stillborn. With the characters thus assembled, Disquiet unfolds in a series of subtle, harrowing and frightening events, right to its nail-biting climax.

While there are references to domestic violence, infidelity and alcoholism throughout, ultimately, the theme of the book is motherhood: Olivia’s struggle to love her children, whose crass behaviour and foul-mouthed utterances infer the disproportionate influence of their father; the grandmother’s stoic sense of loss at the dissolution of and irreparable damage to her relationship with Olivia; and, most tragic of all, Sophie’s inability to let go of and bury her baby, Alice.

The reader is guided on this disturbing journey by Leigh’s masterful narration, and its skilful balancing of the chateau’s surface opulence and grandeur, with a grim underbelly of neglect and gothic horror. At 121 pages, it is done with minimum description and beautiful understatement. Olivia and her children are named only through dialogue; otherwise, they are ‘‘the woman’’, ‘‘the boy’’ and ‘‘the girl’’.

Similarly, the baby is described as ‘‘the bundle’’, a lovingly swaddled object which only leaves its mother’s bosom when it is placed on a silk-lined shelf in the kitchen’s freezer.

Moreover, we are confronted with the strength and fragility of blood ties: the children’s determination to re-establish contact with the father they left behind; Olivia’s hazy willingness to offload her offspring to more deserving parents; and her climactic, selfless act of motherly love when faced with their mortality.

A multitude of underlying plotlines, personal dramas and secret histories bubble just beneath the surface, and Disquiet could easily have evolved into a weighty family saga; yet the things we don’t discover carry the same weight as those we do.

The novella form disciplines Leigh, in choosing which fragments of drama to show and which to imply, her prose purposefully sparse, to the point of barren; yet she evokes so much through simple, short sentences (‘‘Vile baptism’’; ‘‘Ghostly, milky with light’’) that the effect is beautiful, startling and entirely absorbing.

Disquiet is a triumph of poetic subtlety and control, a one-sitting delight from a wonderful storyteller.

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