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‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

By Amy Walters

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions

Jennifer Down’s second novel Bodies of Light (Text Publishing) sets out to excavate the kind of personal history that, until recently, Australia tried to forget. Billed as an “epic”, it follows the story of Maggie from her entry into foster care as a young child in the 1970s to the present, when, on the cusp of turning 50, her past catches up with her. Like many vulnerable children, the young Maggie experiences serial sexual abuse, and as a young adult becomes involved with men who treat her little better, until she marries Damien. But after their partnership unravels in the wake of immense grief, Maggie sheds her identity and takes flight, first to New Zealand then the United States. 

Down remains preoccupied by the themes of grief and trauma that loomed large in her widely acclaimed first novel Our Magic Hour, for which she was named a 2017 Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year (that honour was repeated in 2018 following the publication of her short story collection Pulse Points). In that novel, the friendship of three twenty-somethings – Adam, Audrey and Katy – is shattered when Katy commits suicide. Audrey is also reckoning with her own history of abuse; she was raised in a household marred by domestic violence, and has recently experienced the death of a child in her role as a social worker.

While reading Bodies of Light, my mind kept returning to a scene from Our Magic Hour, in which Audrey and her paramedic boyfriend Nick discuss their day at work:

“An eighty-two-year-old guy with dementia wanders into a closet and gets lost. Four days later staff find him, and Tim and I get the job of pumping him full of saline while he sobs for his wife. Who died ten years ago.”

Audrey opened one eye and rolled over to face him. “Ten-month-old baby who’s been sexually abused.”

“How do you know?”

“She has an STD.”

“Fuck.” He flicked off the light and drew her to him. “You win.”

This conversation encapsulates the current of competitive suffering that runs throughout Down’s two novels. While Down clearly wants to tackle the big subjects (what writer doesn’t?) it is difficult not to feel that she is straining for profundity. Subjecting a character to a litany of horrors does not automatically imbue a novel with literary value; in fact, this strategy can backfire by placing the reader in the position of voyeur rather than witness.

In Our Magic Hour, Audrey and Adam exhibit a high degree of emotional awareness. They speak insightfully about their grief even when they are in the depths of it, and consequently their dialogue is sometimes colonised by a stilted, quasi-therapeutic language. Such moments give an almost glamorous edge to the drama, creating the impression that suffering is an experience to be sought out, rather than a vicissitude to be endured involuntarily.

In Bodies of Light, Maggie is the vehicle through which Down seeks to interrogate suffering, and she is attentive to Australia’s recent failures when it comes to protecting women and children. Many of Maggie’s experiences are inspired by real-life events. The Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse sparks the narrative, which is told retrospectively after Maggie, living under a pseudonym, is contacted by an acquaintance who also grew up in foster care, and who thinks she would benefit from making a submission. The way Maggie is snubbed by her father-in-law for not performing her grief in a recognisable way is reminiscent of how the media was sceptical of Lindy Chamberlain’s public demeanour. A minor detail in the latter part of the novel also alludes to a recent development in the case of Kathleen Folbigg.

But rather than creating an aura of authenticity around Maggie’s dire circumstances, these allusions mostly serve to make Down’s research painstakingly evident. When Maggie spirals into opioid abuse while living in the US, her estranged husband helps her to overcome her addiction, but prevaricates on the treatment she receives, wondering out loud that she might have benefitted from medically assisted withdrawal. Several observers of the opioid epidemic have argued for that approach, including Beth Macy in her book Dopesick, but a fictional character musing about it offhandedly can be construed as authorial grandstanding. Some of Down’s research, however, does pay off. Maggie’s interactions with the bureaucracy and the police are finely tuned, devoid of either villainous caricatures or impossibly helpful saviours. And her receipt of her care records through a freedom of information request also rings true. (I have worked in this area myself.)

One of the ethical challenges presented by the #MeToo movement is how to create space for survivors to speak their truth. While Maggie’s story is plausible, the narrative’s unrelenting focus on her suffering becomes gratuitous. Several hard-hitting novels of recent times demonstrate that broadening the narrative perspective can deepen the impact of trauma narratives, rather than compromising them. Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 Women’s Prize–winning novel Hamnet is one such example. Like Down, O’Farrell set out to correct the historical record: she rescues Anne Hathaway from centuries of scholarly derision, and also recovers the life of Hamnet, the only son born to Hathaway and Shakespeare, and who is known best for dying at the age of eleven. While not shying away from the terrible grief of Hamnet’s parents, O’Farrell also widens her lens, spinning an intergenerational story to avoid overloading the reader with the suffering of a single character. In The Natural Way of Things, which was based on the notorious Hay Institution, Charlotte Wood had a cast of female characters and also included fabular elements, such as the human–rabbit metamorphosis and a white horse, complementing the novel’s realist underpinnings. Down tries to create a spectral atmosphere, which contributes to her larger point about the way our national story is shadowed by repressed histories such as Maggie’s. Lacking conventional records of her existence, such as photos of her upbringing, Maggie’s life has a ghostly feel, and this sense is intensified after she stages her own disappearance. This atmosphere, however, doesn’t always constructively complement the hardships inflicted upon Maggie.

The problem of the novel’s focus is compounded by Down’s desire to write an epic, which she interprets in a very literal sense: Bodies of Light is very long, very tragic, covers a long period of time and is set in many places. The sense of return that is characteristic of an epic is undermined by the novel’s ending, which closes with textbook ambiguity. Maggie’s time in New Zealand adds no depth to the narrative, serving only to lengthen her trail of broken relationships and to drive the plot forward by delivering a way for her to enter the United States. Why the US? Presumably because it is far away from Australia without being England, and is experiencing a well-publicised opioid epidemic, which becomes another stop along Maggie’s long road of suffering.

We need our literature to reckon with women’s histories, including histories of abuse, and we also need women’s writing to be taken seriously. But Down’s novel fails to realise its ambition. The dual questions of our collective responsibility, and of the intergenerational ramifications of experiences such as Maggie’s, remain unexplored. Ultimately, Bodies of Light represents an overcorrection to our culture’s default attitude of suspicion towards abused women. Despite Down’s attempt to construct something grand out of her protagonist’s experiences, it is the smaller details that create the most impact, such as when Maggie observes: “When I see teenage girls now, rashed with pimples and making themselves as small as possible, I feel such tenderness for them.”

Amy Walters

Amy Walters is a Canberra-based writer and reviewer. She runs the blog The Armchair Critic, and her reviews have appeared in Right Now, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin.

@CouchCritic18

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