April 2008

Arts & Letters

‘Disquiet’ by Julia Leigh

By Meg Mundell

‘Gothic' is a shady word. It has lent itself to everything from fonts and architecture to subcultures and fiction. It doesn't so much prescribe a genre as suggest a mood: gloomy, uneasy, brooding. This is the tenor of Disquiet, Julia Leigh's aptly titled new novella, a suspenseful tale with a finely judged melancholic charge.

Dazed and road-weary, a woman arrives with her two children at the gated mansion she once called home. But the gate is locked, and, as they soon discover, what lies beyond it offers little solace. Disaster hovers - or perhaps it has already struck, and this is its aftermath. The characters leave much unspoken, and only subtle touches indicate the present era: electronic security, a mobile phone, enigmatic mentions of blood and urine samples.

Sydney-based Leigh ­­- whose debut, The Hunter, was published to great acclaim nine years ago - does not waste words, nor is she a minimalist. Her prose is both spare in style and rich in detail. And these details play the darkest notes: a mother's stillness as her child smashes down a door; a lacework of bruises on a prone body; the wrong words from a young mouth; two piteous feeding scenes that depict grief in its most visceral form. These pictures are hard to shake.

Unlike some of her more realist contemporaries who also handle dark material, here Leigh doesn't employ brutal imagery for effect. There are no tortured animals, no rape scenes, no gore; the violence is implied, not spelt out, and therein lies its menace. The rare moments of tenderness are carefully meted out, as if to keep the reader hungry for them. This balance - between austerity and decadence, hope and decay - is finely gauged, ensuring that Disquiet remains sombre throughout, but not entirely bleak.

The novella's concluding scene does not quite match the dramatic intensity of its opening; if the sense of looming menace is not borne out, the note of hope could ring a little deeper. At times, too, the language is slightly uneven. But these are minor quibbles. Some books outstay their welcome, whereas this one slips away all too quickly. Thankfully, it casts a spell that lasts long after the final page.

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