Books

Madeleine Ryan
A Room Called Earth

It’s the day before Christmas Eve in Melbourne. There’s a party. And the unnamed narrator of Madeleine Ryan’s debut novel, A Room Called Earth, is getting ready to go out and meet people.

Instead of keeping us at arm’s length, Ryan’s narrator allows us to loiter in her brain the entire time, with no feelings or thoughts off-limits. What unfolds is an act of radical generosity. It’s less an unfiltered stream of consciousness and more a continuous hum of deeply flawed, compassionate, curious, unpredictable thoughts that reveal a neurodivergent worldview.

The novel follows the narrator as she navigates several social interactions during the party, and decides to go home with someone. Another layer of vulnerability is peeled back as we start to think about what it means to be objectified and to be used for someone else’s pleasure. In a world where everyone is often encouraged to “talk around” uncomfortable things, this narrator challenges what’s socially acceptable and questions how she fits into a world that benefits from her not accepting herself.

In Ryan’s thoughtfully crafted universe, everything has the potential to offer subtext, a segue, or connection with our own lived experience. A Spice Girls CD; a compliment from another woman; a cat named Porkchop who’s very clear about his wants and needs; tote bag carrying ex-boyfriends; a post-party salad sandwich; peonies from the garden – they all thread back to something deeper: misogyny, colonisation, beauty standards, self-image, exploitation, self-acceptance, consent, privilege and maintaining a sense of mystery at the cost of outing yourself.

It’s possible that some readers won’t “get” A Room Called Earth or be willing to read until the end – there’s a seriousness, exactness and matter-of-factness in its tone that doesn’t mirror the thought patterns of mainstream fiction, or what’s historically been decided to be “important”. Instead, this story is unapologetically for anyone who has ever felt frustrated by standing out, or who struggles with “fitting in” or mastering what it means to “win” at life. By giving us 24 hours inside someone else’s head, this novel offers comfort to those who struggle with their difference, holding back on judgement about the things we haven’t yet figured out about ourselves. It’s ideal for readers who enjoyed Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, and anyone keen to explore what neurodiversity can sound like on the page.

Nathania Gilson

Scribe, 304pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 3, 2021 as "Madeleine Ryan, A Room Called Earth".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Reviewer: Nathania Gilson