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Olivia arrives at her ancestral home. She brings with her two children, a broken heart, wounds from an abusive marriage and many, many regrets. This is her final attempt at putting right the wrongs in her life, by returning to the bosom of the great gothic mansion she once fled from, and to accept the familial fate of being buried amongst the inherited whispers and pregnant silences of those dark hallways. Unknown to Olivia, her brother Marcus and his wife Sophie also arrive with their newborn child… and a terrible tragedy that will test everyone…

Disquiet

“The earth is thriving… The child’s life is – done.
The child is no longer suffering.
She will remain in your thoughts.
I do not believe in any soul, God is not the mystery…”

Julia Leigh‘s stark but haunting story of a doomed dynasty explores the key elements of the traditional Gothic novel. The brooding presence of a mansion is the key setting where themes of life and death within families are studied in their extremities. The grief of a young mother who brings home her dead daughter is probably the most disturbing example of the quiet, inward delirium that Leigh takes to examining with each character. Her husbands’ blatant infidelity manages to tip the scales of bitterness and adds insult to injury after the long, tedious treatments she endured to become pregnant. The grandmother, silent and graceful is portrayed as the last stronghold that her wayward offspring have in terms of getting back to normality. She stands as the final tether that binds the younger generation to their past, and the death of the infant tests everyone’s resolve in moving forward.

The way families cope with death is as unique as a fingerprint. There might be time-honoured rituals and traditions when it comes to letting go of a loved one, making that transition easier, or there might not be; which is most often the case. Here, the family begin with their traditions, but are met with the moving yet irksome maternal instincts of Sophie. What unfolds is a series of strange rites that spiral more and more towards the unnatural, as finally Sophie yields to the reality of her decomposing baby, and allows the child to be buried.

While reading this short book, I often felt that Leigh was trying to make a statement about how people make the decision to let go of their past. Olivia’s disastrous marriage portrays a woman caught between wanting to put her past behind her, yet unable to because of her children. Their existence is an eternal proof and tie to the humiliation she has had to suffer. The life that came forth from her marriage is the real contract that tethers her to her past. Sophie on the other hand is suffering the opposite – her baby Alice is the one she somehow cannot bear to bury. Laying Alice to rest means laying her dreams to rest, dreams of reconciling with her cheating husband.

Although this is a fairly short novel of 117 pages, each character has been properly developed. The house itself is wonderfully constructed, and at moments reminds me of Stephen King’s The Shining, which probably owes to the topiaries and the family discord, though there is no inkling of a Jack Torrance in sight. Leigh’s muted prose casts an enigmatic spell. I felt haunted by the deep, raging emotions that were kept hidden by the various family members. Yet there were moments in the dialogue that woke me and cut me to the quick with its crystal clarity. ‘Disquiet’ is a very apt title for this book.

I give this 3/5 stars. Well worth a read.

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