Cages abound in Lucy Neave’s sad, engrossing new novel Believe in Me. In some instances – such as birds that need rescuing – they’re lifesavers. In others, they’re psychic prisons that are horribly damaging to both bodies and minds. This is a story of mothers and daughters, each entrapped in her own way by her skin and her secrets and by the expectations of others, mortal and celestial.
The novel opens in Sydney in 2004 with a daughter’s declaration: “I would like to write down the portions of my mother’s story that I know, but I’m not sure exactly what happened to her in the year before I was born.” Why she feels compelled to do this is, at first, vague: “I need,” she writes, “to walk towards the future without always looking back.” She pieces together her mother’s life from fragments: scrapbooks, snatches of conversations, memories. It becomes clear that no history is straightforward, least of all that of our parents. They are so close to us that we look at them and our vision blurs.
The tale begins in 1974 in Poughkeepsie, in upstate New York. Sarah is 18 and has been forced by her God-fearing mother to accompany a preacher to Idaho; he is going blind and she is meant to assist him. Sarah is soft-hearted, mystical: she has rescued a fox and released it into the wild. She sees “the flash of a white-tipped tail” as a message: “Foxes will always be with you.” She thinks of the four horsemen of the apocalypse as luminous, even at night. The preacher reminds Sarah of her dead father.
What transpires is both all too familiar and terrible. He rapes her, denies responsibility and abandons her. A waitress calls her a whore; her only friend is injured in a car accident. Sarah is pregnant, broke, alone; oddly passive, yet given to flashes of independence. She never wavers in her fierce protection of her unborn child. Her unforgiving mother sends her to Australia to a nightmarish home for unwed mothers, but even the other side of the world is not far enough to assuage her sin. Her mother will not let her return to America unless she relinquishes her baby. She refuses, but her protests are dismissed.
Sarah escapes to Adelaide with the help of Dora, a midwife. She names her daughter Bethany, “after the town where Lazarus was brought back from the dead”. Bet describes Sarah’s religion as “a belief that order could be conjured from nothingness”, while she herself occupies “a position of radical doubt, believing in the void, emptiness – in life without a guiding deity”. By writing her mother’s story, she explains, she has “put my faith in words, sentences, paragraphs”. Her faith pays off. Her prose is precise, curt, hypnotic, as tough and as vivid as a bleached bone.
As the novel progresses, Bethany becomes Beth and then Bet: her name condenses as her tentative sense of self expands. While Sarah’s life is pummelled by the dictates of convention and moral certainty, Bet’s is restless with possible freedoms: she becomes an environmental protester and then a vet; she crops her hair and takes testosterone, uncomfortable with what she sees as the dictates of gender.
Men do not fare well in this tale. They are rapists and abusers, hypocrites, drunks, false. The only good one is the man Bet falls in love with, a mudflat ecologist who sleeps to the sound of birdsong and who writes to Bet that he had surgery to remove his breasts.
Animals fare better. They weave in and out of the narrative, injured or abandoned. Cruelty and deception might run rife in the human world, but animals, however savage, never lie. They are rescued by the women who, in more ways than one, need help themselves. At various times Sarah and Bet save a fox, a rosella, possums, a swallow; a mare dies; the imminent euthanasia of healthy puppies is a tragedy.
Sarah does not understand why the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill”, doesn’t apply to non-humans. Early on, she “realises that only animals have loved her. Or perhaps it was never love; perhaps it was that they sensed she would give them what they needed.” Bet writes of her mother: “The only love she’s capable of is for the weak, for animals, and for me.” Elsewhere she observes: “This was what Sarah had longed for, again and again, to set a bird or a kangaroo or a possum loose, to give it back to the world.”
The statement of the novel’s title is ambiguous. Despite the lack of a question mark, myriad questions hover. Why should we be believed if we don’t believe in ourselves? Where should we place our trust? If not in God then why not in humans, in all our confused and messy glory? By the book’s end, unknown depths have become a site of possibility instead of fear. The old rules have become meaningless in this beautiful new wilderness.
University of Queensland Press, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 25, 2021 as "Believe in Me, Lucy Neave".
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