Books

Tegan Bennett Daylight
The Details

Novelist and short-story writer Tegan Bennett Daylight’s first nonfiction collection, The Details, is a book about paying attention: to words in books; to life’s patterns and paradoxes. The author credits her mother, a voracious reader, with teaching her to notice details: “When I read, I am still in conversation with her.” This reading lineage is passed down from Daylight to her own children.

Traversing love, depression, memory, motherhood and death in a series of essays that blend literary criticism with the personal, The Details is a book of conversations between writers and their readers, between mothers and their children, and between teachers and their students. For Daylight, fiction can illuminate otherwise-absent conversations that engage with the prosaic and commonplace, particularly the experiences and truths of women’s bodies and their everyday lives. She throws down the gauntlet early on with the essay “Vagina”, on the aftermath of childbirth on her body.

Daylight is a bowerbird, collecting detail through close readings of her most admired writers: Jane Austen, S. J. Perelman, George Saunders, Brian Dillon and others. She describes herself as feeling “as though I am the owner of a storehouse or a granary that floats in the air behind me. All those books, all of that detail, just waiting to be called on.” Daylight’s storehouse is rich; her passion for reading, electric. She writes lovingly of the value of teaching literature to non-readers, albeit in the shadow of the Australian university system, where the “logic of capitalism overrides everything”.

Daylight traces her evolution as a reader; she revisits books and emerges with new insights. We are invited to peer down the microscope as she dissects writing, excited to show us the discoveries that inform her practice. It is Helen Garner who taught Daylight her first conscious lessons about writing: cracking open the structure of the novel, creating the poetics of style and focusing the power of close observation. “Monkey Grip changed reading for me,” she writes.

For Daylight, literature is a catalyst for understanding ourselves and the world around us. The Details is a joyful and vital adventure alongside a sophisticated reader, and a timely reminder of the critical role of art in turbulent times.

Justine Hyde

Scribner, 208pp, $26.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2020 as "Tegan Bennett Daylight, The Details".

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Reviewer: Justine Hyde

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