Books

Jennifer Down
Bodies of Light

“At night I lay in bed and counted the bodies I’d left behind … I pictured them all laid out in a paddock like human dominos. I had no way of knowing what happened to any of them.”

So speaks the narrator of Jennifer Down’s novel Bodies of Light. She uses different names through the story, but I’ll refer to her as Maggie to keep it simple. At this point it is 1988. She is 15 and living in youth accommodation in Melbourne.

Maggie is an unmoored teen, one of the bodies of the title. The bodies she has left behind include her “drug-fucked parents”, subsequent foster carers and welfare workers and the friends she has made in desperate circumstances: abused children sticking together.

Bodies of Light is an ambitious novel that explores the psychological fallout of a life that has gone wrong from the start. It considers the challenging question of how much those who are hurt can cause harm, to themselves and others.

Melbourne-based Down is one of Australia’s most promising young writers which, fortunately for us, is a large group. Her 2016 debut novel, Our Magic Hour, centred on three high school friends, was followed by a short fiction collection, Pulse Points. Each was shortlisted for prizes, with Pulse Points winning at the 2018 Queensland Literary Awards.

In an early memory, from when she is 11 or 12, Maggie thinks of her foster father. “The day when he unzipped his pants … and showed me his muscle I knew I’d arrived at a new, terrible place.” There are many other bodies to bear the weight as Maggie moves into adulthood, has relationships, marries, has children and shifts between Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

The novel opens in 2018, when Maggie is in her mid-40s and living in Vermont. She receives a message on Facebook that rattles her. “I became a new person a long time ago, and by the time I got that message, I didn’t think anyone was looking for who I used to be.” She panics but, with the help of Southern Comfort, ends up sending a reply. With that keyboard click, she begins to disinter a past she intended to keep buried. “This was where I fucked up.”

From here, she tells her story as the adult Maggie looking back on her past self, dissecting and judging herself and others. We can’t know whether everything she says is true. She is a survivor who thinks “most people would do the selfish thing if it meant surviving”.

There are three bodies that matter most. I won’t provide details and I recommend readers avoid reading the back-page blurb, which reveals something it’s far better to suspect rather than know until 200 pages in, when a novel that jags between time and place becomes a page-turner.

Up to this point, as Maggie moves through foster homes, welfare institutions, schools, the hands of abusive adults and the loose hope of fragile young friendships, the feeling builds that something is not quite right with her.

We tell ourselves that this unease is understandable. She doesn’t know love. She does know rape. “Four was the number of days afterwards that it hurt to pee,” she remembers. Four was also her age. Two decades later, “I was not yet 25, and had spent half my life in rooms I hadn’t chosen and couldn’t leave.”

Her own words, and the conversations she remembers, make us feel for her and doubt her. This is a character who evokes natural sympathy. She has suffered physical and mental trauma. At the same time, she provokes suspicion. Is everything she says true or is she, like most of us, up to recasting parts of her history?

She recalls being “waterlogged with information” in mums-to-be classes but notes there was “no information about what happened if you didn’t love your baby”. Thinking of a man she married, the father of that baby, she says, “I didn’t want him to know that I was a monster.” As the story develops, she is not the only person to suggest that possibility. She thinks back to that husband, Damien, stating, not asking: “You don’t feel things as much as other people, do you.”

The novel can feel long, but I understand why: Maggie has to find the floor plan of her life day by day, piece by piece, trauma by trauma and then redraw it to her own design. “I wasn’t solving a mystery,” she says of her decision to request her childhood records, “I was building one.”

The story Maggie tells us is bleak but not without hope. Now and then, light can break between bodies. One of her foster parents, the “Bennie & Hedges” smoking Judith, offers something close to beautiful, for a while.

This character is one of the author’s triumphs, a remarkably drawn portrayal that reminds me, in the sense of being authentic and drawn from life, of the crew of women on the council estate in Douglas Stuart’s 2020 Booker Prize winner Shuggie Bain, a novel with which this one has some similarities.

Down combines raw emotion with polished writing. That can be tricky; there’s a risk one will sap the other. That does not happen here. The final part of the novel opens with a line from the American poet James Richardson that perhaps tallies with what Maggie comes to understand about herself: “I don’t know what’s meant by Know thyself, which seems to ask a window to look at a window.”

Stephen Romei

Text, 448pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 9, 2021 as "Bodies of Light, Jennifer Down".

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Reviewer: Stephen Romei