Gravity Well is about Lotte and Eve, two intelligent women who start out as friends and whose relationship, over time, develops into something harsher, deeper and odder, as they both swerve between a number of diverging plans and desires. It’s only the second novel by Melanie Joosten, whose Berlin Syndrome was recently adapted into a film, but it achieves a textured and realistic quality that for some writers takes a lifetime.
Lifetimes are also its subject matter, splayed against the scope of the cosmos, because Lotte is an astronomer, like her mother, Helen, and Eve is a successful sound artist, both professions that cause people to think spatially – seeing past, present and future in terms of distance and pattern.
Both see the world through the lens of their jobs; in this way, it’s a bit like The Path of Minor Planets by Andrew Sean Greer, another story about the friendships of professional people disguised as a book about astronomy.
It’s also a little like Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus in its commitment to viewing terrestrial labours as matters of universal consequence. In its quiet way, it shuttles, over years, between Canberra, Bendigo and Chile. The consequences of actions seem sometimes like fate, as if events are really collisions. And while it shares with Hazzard its thick layering of concrete, everyday detail, it’s more invested in choice, almost using fate as a useful supplier of contrast.
Early in the story, it’s clear that Eve and Lotte are advancing towards some form of tragedy, which when it occurs both gut-punches the reader and makes perfect sense of both characters. We sense that they are both recovering from some form of shared, major trauma, and while we’re looking for details, the author strikes us with another of the novel’s secrets, something well-concealed that’s not placed as a twist but that turns the story on its head.
For these reasons, Gravity Well is easy to praise and difficult to summarise. And yet more than the plot, it’s hard to describe its quality of stillness and patience. It makes it seem easy to come up with a secret, and perhaps even easy to hide it. The real work, it suggests, is to get to know people – in the language of novels, the characters. It’s really about what people are made of: their ambitions and their limits. CR
Scribe, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 17, 2017 as "Melanie Joosten, Gravity Well". Subscribe here.