Cover of book: The Light on the  Water

Olga Lorenzo
The Light on the Water

Olga Lorenzo is a Cuban-born, Melbourne-based writer. Her debut novel, The Rooms in My Mother’s House, is the story of three generations of Cuban women living in a farmhouse outside Miami’s Little Havana. It was longlisted for several literary prizes, including the International Dublin Literary Award. 

Her first novel in 20 years, The Light on the Water is also a book about intergenerational relationships between women, but it is a resolutely Melbourne story, set in some of its most iconic suburbs as well as in one of Melburnians’ favourite places of recreation, Wilsons Promontory.

Anne Baxter is a middle-aged woman, recently divorced, living across from the beach in the well-heeled suburb of Brighton. Anne was once a journalist at The Age, like Lorenzo herself, and formerly married to charismatic barrister Robert. Anne has two children: Hannah, who is at university and living it up in Carlton share houses; and Aida, an autistic six-year-old. 

One night, not long after Anne and Robert have separated, Anne takes Aida on an overnight bushwalk at “the Prom”. Aida, easily spooked and not one to listen to her mother’s pleas to slow down, runs ahead of her mother and disappears. 

Most of the novel takes place two years after this night. Due to the high profile of the powerfully connected Robert, Aida’s disappearance has attracted media coverage, but save one particularly committed volunteer, the search for Aida has long since petered out, and the tide of public opinion towards Anne has long since shifted from sympathy to suspicion. When new evidence is presented that points towards her guilt, she is charged with her daughter’s murder. 

Set up as a kind of literary thriller – we are told all of this information in the first 20 pages or so – the mystery element of the novel progresses slowly from this point, as we spend our time with Anne, now out on bail and awaiting trial, in her frozen, still grief-stricken state. While we wait, Lorenzo crafts a subtle portrait of a woman trying to lead an ordinary life under extraordinary circumstances. 

Anne has time on her hands and doesn’t quite know what to do with it. While trying to avoid the press, various family members and prying acquaintances, she spends a lot of time reflecting on her failed marriage, her relationship with her daughters, her estranged mother, and her taciturn sister. Guilt in all its multiplicity overwhelms her. Did she want to be rid of her handful of a daughter? Even subconsciously? Why take an autistic child on an overnight walk? These questions swirl around her at all times: they are in the eyes of everyone she knows and many of those she doesn’t, and ultimately they are questions she asks herself.

The novel is written in the heightened register of an all-encompassing grief, but it raises by only a few notes the white noise of guilt, anxiety, and love that rings in the ears of all parents. This is the novel’s strength, and Lorenzo has a keen eye for the nuances of mother and daughter relationships, all the little betrayals and obfuscations, the fleeting moments of solidarity, the awkward expressions of love. Through this, she also manages to balance the difficult subject of a profound loss with some lighter moments, even some humour. 

One memorable scene has Anne surprise visit Hannah in her Carlton share house. After some initial unpleasantness during which Anne admonishes Hannah for leaving her door wide open for anyone to walk through, and then proceeds to start cleaning her kitchen, Robert and his new wife, Sandra, arrive and the four of them are obliged to make conversation. Instead of being another in a long series of painful encounters for Anne, it goes better than expected, and she finds herself sharing a laugh with Robert, for whom she still has great affection, and she sees in Sandra a more sympathetic character than she had imagined. Lorenzo has Anne glimpse a possible future in this strange new arrangement she has made for herself, as the one who initiated the break-up with Robert:

Maybe this could be a family, she thinks, and is surprised by the thought. 

She tries the feeling on for size. Thinking it a sentiment born of despair, born of all that’s come to pass in the last, lost years.

Still. A family. Of sorts.

This is where Lorenzo is at her best, delineating the peculiarities, the sometimes painful and sometimes surprisingly gratifying realities of imperfect intimate relationships, with daughters, ex-husbands, sisters and friends – the surprises of intimacy, what it tells us about other people and about ourselves. These scenes are vividly and authentically portrayed and for the most part beautifully written. This is also Lorenzo at her best as a storyteller, subverting the expectations of readers all too ready to hate Robert’s surely unlikeable new partner out of solidarity with Anne and out of sympathy for her plight.

 There is perhaps not enough of this in the book, however, and at times the story is less subtle and successful. One subplot involving a gossiping, adulterous Brighton housewife is not as funny as it is supposed to be because it plays too much to type; another, involving an asylum seeker, is sensitively handled but feels perhaps a little too contrived as a subplot designed to offer respite from the central narrative. More broadly, the novel feels very familiar, both in subject and narrative arc, with things a little too neatly wrapped up in the end. 

This is elegantly written fiction, but not work that in any way puts pressure on the conventions of the accomplished realist novel. Nevertheless, Lorenzo has created a compelling character in Anne, and a compelling cast of characters around her, all of whom are just difficult and complicated enough to keep the reader invested in their story.  SH

Allen & Unwin, 360pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 20, 2016 as "Olga Lorenzo, The Light on the Water".

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