The World Without Us
I’ve been a fan of Mireille Juchau’s since her second novel, Burning In, which was shortlisted for a raft of prizes back in 2008. Her new book, The World Without Us, doesn’t have the same reader-friendly voice, though. It’s a difficult novel to enter. The first few chapters have a rush of characters and circumstances and flashes of the past, with clues and hints and little grounding or explanation. Juchau’s not interested in making it easy. Focus is required. It’s the kind of beginning that makes you hope for a payoff to make all that work worthwhile and, by page 30, I have to turn back to page one and start again.
In my second attempt, by page 10 I’m utterly entranced.
In The World Without Us, Stefan and Evangeline Müller live on their farm somewhere on the north coast of New South Wales with their two daughters, Tess, 13, and 12-year-old Meg. Their third, Pip, died in a local leukaemia cluster two years ago. Evangeline is an artist who spent her childhood in the neighbouring commune, The Hive, which was destroyed in a devastating fire that left her scarred and amnesiac. Stefan is an apiarist with a family tradition of caring for bees and their hives, doing his best in a time of Colony Collapse Disorder and the Bee Rapture. Since Pip died, Evangeline can no longer paint and Stefan drinks too much. Tess and Meg are grieving in separate ways: it’s been months since Tess spoke a word, and she’s preoccupied with the weather both inside and outside the house, and the differences between her and her sisters. Meg “cannot picture the real Pip any more. Only the pale shadow that passed through their house, always in pyjamas.” Outside the family, there’s Jim Parker, Tess’s teacher, who’s run away from everything in Sydney, and also Tom Tucker, a young depressed doomsday prepper obsessed with survival.
Even in the Müllers’ quiet alternative valley, things are changing. The World Without Us sits with James Bradley’s wonderful Clade and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour in the somewhat specialised genre of insect-focused climate fiction, although Juchau’s vision of the future is more local and insidious than Bradley’s and less didactic than Kingsolver’s. The Müllers’ farm is in overdraft and is worth more to a gas-mining company than as a food producer; a two-headed bass has been caught in the river. The townspeople worry about fracking and chemical runoff. Young protesters live suspended in trees, to protect them from chainsaws and graders. Then the bees begin to disappear.
It’s all very topical, but not average: Juchau’s prose is a thing of wonder. It’s the perfect mix of poetry and restraint. “Every family in this town, wormy with secrets”, so there’s more going on than usual in novels written with this kind of elegance. A lot more. The busy plot lines seem desperate and wrought at times, a rare flaw in this outstanding work. Whose bones has Stefan found in the wrecked car inside his property? Where are the bees? What is the truth behind the commune fire? What terrible event has Evangeline blocked from her memory? What exactly has Jim Parker left behind in Sydney? What secrets does Tom Tucker hold? I admire the attempt to create compelling narrative drive, but it all seemed obvious to me and, besides, I didn’t care a jot.
Instead, I was captivated by Juchau’s extraordinary insight and the magnificent way she expresses it. She’s very interested in contradictory truths that hide beneath the layers of things and the way that grief, particularly, can be unpicked into a wealth of other emotions. Early on, Parker sees Evangeline swimming naked in the dangerous river, beside a handmade memorial to her young daughter, and finds a fine line between grief and passion:
And then she turned, her chest completely bare, and, without flinching, caught his eye.
It’s you, she said.
Her tone was dull, as if she’d been expecting him, or maybe someone else. Or perhaps it was simply relief in her voice. She shifted a hip to one side, folded one arm across her body. It was then he noticed the waxy scars, roping her chest and back.
Has he ever met a woman so determinedly like a poem, like an elegy announcing its grief so overtly? He decides next time he’ll try to make her laugh.
Or here, where Tucker covers his deep sense of loss at the only home he’s ever known by focusing on practicalities following the downfall of the commune:
You had your survival skills … you could grow your own food, cannibalise a broken-down car on a roadside, make a solar oven from cardboard, foil and glue. But these were negligible abilities once you descended into town with your highwayman beard and your rennet-free cheeses to face the supermarket plenitude, the families divided and ruled by devices, the people gazing into monitor glow, backs turned to each other.
Bee colonies collapse, as do families and communes and towns and entire civilisations. All of Juchau’s characters are locked in cycles of mourning that seem to stupefy them into silence and apathy but, on another level, almost against their will and without their knowledge, they’re in fact healing. Parker grieves the untimely death of his mother by wearing her clothes. When he finds the tree that Evangeline has decorated with Pip’s medicines and belongings, he “… examined the white boxes nailed to the trunk. The faded labels, the cardboard pocked and holed by weather. Must have been there a while. He could just make out the girl’s name in black type. Pippy Müller. Evangeline’s youngest. A memorial then. On one of the red sandals, roped to the trunk, the small shadow of her sole.”
In The World Without Us, Juchau treats us to the shadows of many souls. She reminds us that life itself has a force that is difficult to suppress. LS
Bloomsbury, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2015 as "Mireille Juchau The World Without Us". Subscribe here.