When my mind returns to Jessie Cole’s grief memoir Staying, her third book after the novels Darkness on the Edge of Town and Deeper Water, my thoughts flood with a lush green. It returns often, to the secluded Eden in northern New South Wales where Jessie and her baby brother, Jake, are born. Built by hippie parents searching for a different life, their haphazard house doesn’t intrude on the surrounding forest but evolves symbiotically, limbs tenderly entwined. “We all grew together, from nothing much to something,” writes Cole.
The forest is a corporeal thing, thrumming and pulsing with life. Creatures that would cause other children consternation are playmates. When Jessie and Jake are in the bath, her father brings in an otherworldly orb: “With a delicate tug he pulled this small sphere apart and thousands of tiny spiders fell, sprinkling down upon us. Minuscule, they spread across the water … their legs braced against the sway of our careful movements.”
That Cole can convey all the forest’s wildness and wonder in that singular image gives some sense of how devastating it is to witness her family traumas, limned with gentle yet frank lyricism. Page one reveals her father will die by suicide, but it wounds nonetheless. The forest remains indifferent to the hurts that wrench its human inhabitants apart.
With a painfully fractured familial narrative, Cole charts her story through the landscape and its memories. Her attunement to its minute fluctuations compares with the most observant nature writers, such as Annie Dillard or Henry David Thoreau: “The smallest of shifts and the land was new … The whole world had to be relearned from scratch.” The forest regenerates after yearly floods, but Cole refuses herself easy clichés about growth after loss.
Family members are observed just as intimately: the spell cast by half-sisters, Billie and Zoe, when they arrive each holidays, figures of desire and resentment; her ethereal mother who floats in her loose sarongs; her psychiatrist father slipping into sorrow, “wild and savage and lost”; Jake’s silence. Cole is just as ready to interrogate her own childish gaze, which tragedy forces her to abandon prematurely.
When Australia’s cultural narratives insist an artist must leave home to succeed, Cole shows one forged by staying put. She still inhabits her fallen Eden today. It’s surprising that, in the midst of such sorrow, what resounds is a sensation of fecundity. But perhaps it’s not, from a writer of such talent and grace. TM
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 5, 2018 as "Jessie Cole, Staying". Subscribe here.