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All things considered: Emily Maguire’s ‘Love Objects’

By Bec Kavanagh
The Australian writer’s latest novel portrays hoarding with an acute understanding of the deeply human desire to connect

Emily Maguire has taken great care with the subjects of her latest novel, Love Objects, which explores themes of hoarding, class and family with insight and compassion.

Forty-five-year-old Nic knows that every object has a story, if you only take the time to see it. Each day she works at the local supermarket, then walks home, keeping her eyes peeled for treasure. She avoids the night shift so she doesn’t have to accept the creepy, persistent offers of the manager to drive her home. She avoids it because “if she didn’t walk home in the bright, clear light of afternoon she would miss so much”.

Nic’s house is full of treasures that have been lost or discarded by other people. Years’ worth of newspapers, toys, trinkets and ephemera line the walls, all carefully categorised. But when she falls over as she is looking for the right home for her latest find, Nic ends up unconscious on the floor for several days, and while she is recovering in hospital everything changes.

Maguire developed the novel during her tenure as the 2018–2019 writer-in-residence at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, which has a focus on chronic lifestyle diseases. The experience of the residency – working alongside researchers, educators and clinicians from the centre – has clearly impacted the novel, which shows a depth of understanding and empathy towards Nic and her family that goes way beyond mainstream representations of hoarders as abject individuals lacking self-control. Love Objects demonstrates the best relationship between storytelling and science, in which each informs the other to foster genuine understanding and connection.

Running parallel to the narrative of Nic’s illness and recovery is the story of her niece, Lena, who she has lunch with every week. Nic describes Lena as a “serious, fiery twenty-year-old so smart it amazes Nic that the girl would want to spend any time with a dullard like her at all”. When Lena discovers Nic’s hoarding, and takes it upon herself to clean the house, it is the ultimate breach of trust.

“A vice closes around her ribs. Pain like she’s never known. Not even when she fell. And there’s no air at all. Like the squeeze on her middle has pushed something thick and sticky into her throat. Nic slams her hand down on the call button. She can’t die and leave the social worker to wander around her home. Can’t die without knowing what has happened to Lena, why she’s abandoned her like this.”

The fractured bond between Nic and Lena, as each navigates their hurt and betrayal at the exposure of parts of their lives they’ve been unable to share, is the linchpin of the novel, and Maguire uses it to highlight the way that hoarding is misunderstood and oversimplified – the solution seen as a mere act of “tidying up”. There’s nothing tidy about Love Objects, which portrays families in all their messy glory.

Through Lena, whose story is secondary but no less compelling, Maguire explores themes of class, shame and feminism. Lena is the first in her family to go to university, and is desperate to prove that her lack of money doesn’t make her trash. But when Josh, an entitled male classmate, films the two of them having sex, and releases it online without Lena’s knowledge or approval, Lena finds herself at the centre of a sex scandal – her pleasure and her body are judged, her privacy is violated, and Lena is left feeling isolated and ashamed, while Josh is treated like a local hero. The way Lena is treated by Josh, by the anonymous online commenters, and by her tutors and university coordinators seems in some ways prescient, but in fact it just reflects the sad reality for the majority of women who have experienced a form of sexual violence. Here, again, Maguire’s research (she has published several nonfiction books on feminism and her award-winning 2017 novel, An Isolated Incident, explored the media’s obsession with “pretty dead girls”) is evident in her realistic, layered storytelling.

Emily Maguire shows a great deal of restraint in Love Objects, resisting the temptation to over-explain the themes of the novel, despite having an obvious wealth of knowledge to draw from. Instead, she focuses on the way these topics are experienced uniquely by Nic and Lena, capturing the truth of these experiences on a deeper level.

Professor Jane Bennett of John Hopkins University has spoken about the connections between hoarding and the artist’s eye, suggesting that rather than being social outcasts, hoarders are “people who are preternaturally attuned to things”. Maguire’s portrayal of Nic reflects this paradox where, on the one hand, Nic’s perspective on the world allows her to see beauty in the everyday so deeply it “hurts her heart” to think of how casually things are discarded, and on the other, her disordered behaviour conceals past grief and trauma that prevents her from connecting with others.

Love Objects speaks to the complex intersections between class, mental health, shame, age and the female body, and the way we navigate these topics within the intimate confines of family. Nic and Lena are fully realised – imperfect, complicated creations who are able to navigate the unintended consequences of their good intentions. Maguire’s latest novel is clear-eyed and hopeful – a case study in the deeply human desire to connect.

Bec Kavanagh

Bec Kavanagh is a writer, literary critic and academic. Her research explores representation of female bodies in literature, and she is the schools manager at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas.

@beckavanagh

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