In Robert Hillman’s Joyful, asexual widower Leon Joyce asks his late wife’s priest if Aboriginal people have a special way to overcome grief. No, he is told, “it fucks them over the same as you or me”. Leon understands what this means. He has been thoroughly fucked over, first by his beautiful and randy wife, Tess, and then by her death, so he retires to his dilapidated country property to plot ways to reclaim her memory.
Also reeling is Emmanuel Delli, political science professor and father of two dead children, who has been struck by a grief so visceral he begins to lose his mind, to the despair of his patient wife, paediatrician Daanya.
They’re not alone. Joyful has a long list of characters half-demented by either grief or love or lust, either in the present or the past: Tess’s lover’s girlfriend, a university researcher Leon meets, Leon’s mother (the 48-hour type of madness, but still), his deceased great-aunt Jennifer, and her lover’s girlfriend, Francine. The sufferings of this great-aunt, in journal form, appear quite late in the piece and I wish they hadn’t. It’s as if Hillman fears we’ll miss his point if he doesn’t make it over and over.
Contrived plotting is unnecessary in such a heartfelt and touching novel. We also don’t need the explanation of the source of Leon’s asexuality and obsession with dressing beautiful women in beautiful frocks, or the heavily expositional emails between Tess and her lover, Daniel (“Where’s this cafe you pick up my emails? Somewhere in Yackandandah?”), or the subplot about the historian researching great-aunt Jennifer and her utopian Christian society in the eponymous house up the Hume, “Joyful”.
Counting against all this busyness is Hillman’s gift for compelling characters, the elegance of his prose, and his genius with inventive, surprising dialogue (Bourke, the priest, to Leon: “You loved Tess in your dickless way, I’m sure.”).
Ultimately, Joyful is a compassionate book and not as bleak as the themes suggest. Delli’s madness is blackly comic and the unloveability of Tess made me hope that Leon would wake up and realise he’d dodged a bullet. “If your heart is broken,” Leon says, “is it over? Everything?” It’s not. There might be a fine line between love and insanity, and Hillman’s characters travel a dark road, but this is a story about redemption and negotiating a place of peace inside despair. LS
Text, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 3, 2014 as "Robert Hillman, Joyful". Subscribe here.