Books

Amanda Niehaus
The Breeding Season

We spend most of our lives doing whatever we can to keep our bodies separate from our minds, but the world doesn’t have to work too hard to remind us they’re inextricable, the implication being that some day we will die. This tension is the rich theme of Amanda Niehaus’s first novel, which follows a straight Brisbane couple in the months following a miscarriage.

What’s interesting, given this context of grief, is how much desire powers the story; The Breeding Season is full of sex and sexuality, animals and bodies. The plot and backstory are packed with deaths, illnesses, lost and revived romantic feelings, and even late in the book a paternity mystery, as if the point is the co-presence of all these experiences. The writing itself is often delicate and inward, but the book feels dark and roiling. It’s never predictable and always interesting.

Dan, a writer, and Elise, an early-career academic, both have jobs that drive the story deeper into its themes. Elise spends some of the book trapping antechinuses – small marsupials – to study their mating patterns, and has a specialty in reproduction. “During the mating season,” we learn, “the male antechinuses will seek out females for mating, will grip and plug them for twelve hours at a time. This will happen again and again, until the males die. Do the females run, or bite, or choose?” Niehaus’s observations can be disturbing and gorgeous.

Dan and Elise are a nice couple, and the stakes sometimes feel stacked in favour of likeability; the reader doesn’t root for people who pose challenges to these characters. But it’s also a busy story, with plenty of room for delicious turnabouts.

Dan has been contracted to ghostwrite the memoir of his uncle, a shock-factor artist whose career-defining works include depictions of a 15-year-old girl’s genitals. He explores this in a writing class, interrupting the typical business of creative exercises and writing prompts by leading a discussion of his uncle’s art: “I’ll be honest with you,” he says, “I don’t like the man much. But his art makes me uncomfortable, and I like being challenged in that kind of way.” Later, when Dan is in the middle of an uncomfortable medical procedure, the doctor reveals she was in his class that day. She chats about her work-in-progress while performing a biopsy on a sensitive area. “This part of the body is so highly vascularised,” she says. “I love body prompts.”

Ronnie Scott

Allen & Unwin, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "Amanda Niehaus, The Breeding Season".

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Reviewer: Ronnie Scott