As Nic lies trapped on her bedroom floor, unable to get up, she spots a cheap plastic crown that has rolled under the bed. Despite the desperation of her situation – the possible broken bones, the shattered lamp that is shredding her back, the fact that her bladder has emptied itself and she doesn’t know when someone might come looking for her – Nic’s concern is not for herself but for the forgotten object. She feels guilt at letting it become lost and recalls the memory the crown provides an anchor for – a childhood adventure with her mum, back in the ’80s, when they went to catch a glimpse of the visiting Princess Diana.
Emily Maguire’s novel tells the story of three people at crisis point. There’s Nic, whose home has slowly been taken over by the objects she can’t help but gather and cherish; Lena, her niece who is dealing with a very public betrayal; and Will, Nic’s nephew, who is newly unemployed and devastated by a break-up. They all suffer separately and silently, but when Nic’s hoarding causes her to be hospitalised, her niece and nephew converge on what used to be the family home to begin the process of cleaning it out.
Writing about mental illnesses such as hoarding – a word that isn’t used until at least a third of the way into Love Objects – is potentially fraught, but Maguire handles the topic deftly and with sensitivity. There is no judgement, and no oversimplification about why Nic started her collection. Instead, Maguire gently probes the family’s multigenerational trauma from different angles, exploring issues of class, wealth, gender dynamics and control beneath a deceptively simple plot.
At the core of the book lies the question of how we decide value, whether it be of an object, a person, a name, a reputation or a memory. We all draw lines in different places and Maguire shows readers how and why this happens.
For Nic, objects are tethers for stories: the separation between what they physically are and what they represent is non-existent. Will has seen the way society values him disintegrate ever since he spent four months in jail for a minor drug charge – he can no longer work in childcare as he dreamed, and finds it hard to find any employment due to the “blemish” on his record. Lena, who was until recently a happy, somewhat carefree university student, has seen a change in the way classmates look at her in the wake of a sex tape that was released against her will. In the eyes of the internet she is no longer a person – she’s an object broken down into parts to be ranked, mocked and scored out of 10.
Maguire neither condones nor condemns Nic’s overwhelming collection of objects. She delicately navigates the line between presenting the beauty that her character sees in the things around her and the physical danger they pose to her wellbeing. Will and Lena have value beyond being the “damaged goods” that society keeps telling them they are. All the while, they are clearing their aunt’s house of objects that have no value to anyone but her.
Nic is not an object of pity – she is a woman who is both strong and weak, who loves her family and is full of a fiery protectiveness for her niece and nephew. Readers experience the joy she feels when she rescues an object from the outside world, the care she takes in making sure it finds the exact right spot in her home.
This means that when Lena messages her brother mocking the kinds of things that their aunt has kept, it hits you like a slap in the face. We’ve seen inside Nic’s mind and followed the pathways that lead from object to emotion. The objects are stories of what has been and what might be. To Nic they are alive and have feelings of their own. A paint-spattered smock in a dress-up box tells a story of a child she’s never met who worries about disappointing her mother, whose fears and school experiences are, to Nic, woven into the fabric. A too-small slinky pink dress imagines a future where Nic has lost weight through the Paleo diet and will seduce the man she fancies at work.
We see Nic fret over the position of a Little Bo Peep toy; she worries that it is suffocating and moves it to a more comfortable spot where it can look out over the street. Later, as Nic’s niece is clearing the house, she lists the same toy dispassionately and gives it a price of $1.
This is Maguire’s sixth novel and she writes with clear skill and confidence. The only thing that could mildly jolt a reader out of her carefully rendered world is that the climate emergency – despite being important and relevant to the story – at times feels like a theme that is shoehorned into the narrative.
One of the most compelling elements of this accomplished book is Maguire’s ability to completely inhabit a character. Broken into four parts, Love Objects switches perspective between Nic, Lena and Will, allowing readers to see what drives each character, what tears them apart and keeps them moving forward. It also heightens the differences between their interiors and exteriors. Lena thinks of herself as slow, unintelligent and beats herself up for having to scrape up enough marks to go to university – while everyone who loves her thinks of her as sparkling and intelligent. Will sees himself as a failed man who will never live up to the kindness and integrity of his father, but his sister and aunt view him as almost entirely the opposite.
Ultimately, it seems, value is something we decide on. The overall message might seem obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful or beautifully rendered. Love Objects’ strength is mostly in the journey we take to get there.
Allen & Unwin, 400pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 27, 2021 as "Emily Maguire, Love Objects".
This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.
To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.
Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.
Select your digital subscription