Imbi Neeme’s The Spill is an engaging novel set in Western Australia that meditates upon the connections between memory, trauma and the imagination. Sweeping across four decades, the novel focuses on the lives of two sisters, Nicole and Samantha: their differing relationships with their estranged parents, the secrets they keep and their conflicting memories in the wake of a childhood car accident. As they try to reconcile their views of the past, particularly their experiences of their mother’s alcoholism and death, the sisters grapple with their own failings, and their ways of mourning and memorialisation.
In The Spill, chronology is cleverly taken apart and then put back together in a non-linear fashion; further, the novel is narrated from multiple first- and third-person perspectives. This deliberate fracturing results in a nuanced understanding of the sisters’ attempts to make sense of the larger picture. The orchestration of time in accordance with the inner lives of characters calls to mind other, more radical, rearrangements of chronology in recent fiction, notably Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, Stephanie Bishop’s Man Out of Time and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
While the characters frequently draw attention to their class differences, we are left with no doubt about their attitude towards the norm of white settler colonialism. After year 12, Samantha and her future husband, Trent, traipse through Rottnest Island without thought to its gruesome history as a prison for Aboriginal people. In another chapter, Trent’s privileged ignorance about the history of colonisation is revealed through a pithy remark: “Spanish. Mexican. What’s the difference?” When Nicole misses a follow-up appointment after her miscarriage, the narrator tells us, “It felt easier not to know what the problem was.” This chasm between the lack of knowledge and the attainment of clarity is the emotional terrain of The Spill. Along the way, there are gritty ruminations on the dissociative experience of giving birth, the trauma of having an “incompetent cervix”, the failures that accompany motherhood, the guilt of choosing sides – one parent over another, one child over another. Imbi Neeme has crafted a clear-eyed, compassionate novel with crackling dialogue and endearing characters struggling to put together the fragments of a misremembered past.
Viking, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2020 as "Imbi Neeme, The Spill ".
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