Larissa Behrendt’s second novel, the award-winning Legacy (2009), explored the influence of the father. Her new book, After Story, turns her gaze to the matriarchy, which she examines through the fractured relationship of Jasmine, a successful city lawyer, and her grief-stricken mother, Della, as they tour literary sites in England.
Jasmine immerses herself in the lives of authors whose works she devoured during her childhood. Writers such as Jane Austen, the Brontës and Virginia Woolf showed her that there was life beyond Frog Hollow, the small country town she finally escaped. Della, on the other hand, uses alcohol to escape. Having never imagined a world outside Frog Hollow, she is captivated by English culture, wondering why “the British didn’t think they had everything they needed … and had to go and claim someone else’s”.
Della transcribes the literary tour guide’s facts into a notebook: “... the Plague, 1603, one in five people died … the Great Fire of 1666, few lives lost”. Each disaster evokes a parallel with her life and the stories told to her by Aunty Elaine, a much-loved community Elder. As her writing evolves into personal experience, a heartbreaking truth is revealed: a cathartic process that offers a measure of healing. When Jasmine reads her mother’s words, Aunty Elaine’s stories become the guiding light that unites Jasmine and her mother.
The antithesis of Aunty Elaine is Professor Flynn, a “windbag” academic who has joined the tour. Using his academic authority to slay anyone who challenges the ideology of the male-centric English literary canon, he highlights how the fairytale of Terra Nullius engineered colonisation and land theft. Eventually he says something that interests Della: “No other culture produced a Shakespeare.” Her response is to think: “No other culture produced an Aunty Elaine.”
But even this leads to acceptance. As Jasmine and Della prepare to return home, they remember their favourite parts of the tour as being “like picking stars in the sky because everything was good in a way … Even Professor Flynn.”
After Story delves into darkness to show us that truth-telling can set us free. The work courses through different genres and storytelling techniques, returning to ancient traditions of navigation to show that individuals shine more brightly when they’re united. It’s a pleasure to read and a wonderful opportunity to rethink what we have to offer the world around us.
University of Queensland Press, 360pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 24, 2021 as "After Story, Larissa Behrendt".
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