Books

Daniel Davis Wood
At the Edge of the Solid World

At the Edge of the Solid World begins with the death of a child and then gets much, much darker. As such, it’s not a book for everyone. But it’s a significant literary achievement, nonetheless.

In the Swiss Alps, a teacher and his Australian-born wife spiral into all-consuming grief after their baby dies. In his anguish, the narrator fixates on an unconnected tragedy in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, where a former refugee who has lost custody of his daughter has killed multiple children in a daycare centre. The father of one of the Sydney victims had survived the Bosnian War and yet can publicly forgive his child’s murderer; his story, too, obsesses the narrator.

The couple stumble through the necessary arrangements to take their daughter’s ashes back to Sydney, with the quotidian requirements of travel almost unbearable for both of them. Grief, says the narrator, makes you “despise the body you’re in because it dishonours your despair and forces you to survive”.

As his relationship with his wife disintegrates, he broods on the so-called Child Ballads, a collection of European folk songs compiled by Francis Child in the 19th century. The lyrics of these songs, with titles such as “The Unquiet Grave”, warn of the “thin places”, where the fabric between worlds wears away, allowing the fey folk to steal babies and plunge men and women “into a realm not for mortals, a realm from which there is no clear escape”.

For the narrator, who sometimes glimpses ghost children, this is grief: an intensely physical encounter with a universe gone somehow awry.

He imagines Child transcribing multiple variants of vanishing songs as a tribute to a daughter who died of typhus aged five. In the ballads, the same characters return and recur, with different names and different faces, acting out their losses in slightly different narratives. The narrator sees this repetition all around him: he uncovers stories of dead children and bereaved fathers as he muses on the Holocaust, the American Civil War, Hiroshima, the Port Arthur massacre and other historical traumas.

We’re told from the onset that there will be no redemption; we know that, in Sydney, the narrator will ruin what remains of his life. “Giving myself up to my worst impulses,” he says, “was a way of honouring the magnitude of what I’d lost.”

If you’re looking for a summer beach read, At the Edge of the Solid World is not that book. Rather, it’s a powerful and deeply intelligent novel that probes the extremes of human experience, a text about which you’ll be thinking for a long time to come. 

Jeff Sparrow

Brio, 450pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2020 as "Daniel Davis Wood, At the Edge of the Solid World".

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Reviewer: Jeff Sparrow