The most striking and satisfying feature of Chloe Hooper’s Bedtime Story is its beautiful prose. The writing is rich: rhythmic and atmospheric, with a sharp clarity to its depictions of domestic, family life and the ways in which the sudden interruption of illness and death illuminates the beauty and the fragility of this domain. Its emotional qualities too are finely wrought, its pervasive, quiet dread always offset by moments of great love and almost painful joy.
Bedtime Story is Hooper’s third book of nonfiction, but the first of her works that is explicitly personal. It’s an exciting departure, because this shift allows the lush and poetic qualities of Hooper’s writing to move to the forefront, finding greater freedom and wider range.
Lyricism has always been a distinctive feature of Hooper’s work, important especially to her works of reportage. Here it is often a means of grappling with the extremity and deep human tragedy of the events she is investigating – the 2004 death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island, or the trial of a man who lit two catastrophic fires on Black Saturday. It works by homing in on small details and minute decisions, reducing these unfathomably large events to simpler and more concrete units. The vivid re-creations that result serve as a vehicle for imaginative empathy.
All these impulses are also at work within Bedtime Story, but they are transformed by the intimacy of the book’s subject matter – that the extreme circumstances and the tragedy are the author’s own makes Hooper’s reckoning more immediate, the small details it is built from more surprising and poignant – and by its powerful, aching direct address.
Bedtime Story is addressed to Hooper’s eldest son – a gentle, imaginative boy who is about six years old when his father (“Don, as you call him”) is diagnosed with a rare strain of leukaemia. The strain is difficult to treat and poor in prognosis. Hooper is struggling, as the book opens, to find a way to explain this to both of her children, knowing that even adults struggle to comprehend mortality and illness and that her own confusion and grief will not be kept at bay. Her desires are conflicting – to prepare the children but also to protect them. This is, after all, the kind of information that, in stories at least, changes everything.
It’s stories that Hooper turns to for instruction – in this case, children’s literature and fairytales – in search of “grand and consoling answers”. Hooper is looking for a narrative that might help her shape the information she must deliver and serve as “a kind of inoculation” for the grief and pain to come. Children’s literature, she quickly realises, is full of death – in no small part because childhood mortality has, until this past century, always been a very present and frequent occurrence. So too that children’s stories so often work with or capture something of the uncertainty of childhood, what it means to be continually navigating the inexplicable events and rules of the world, which often feel as arbitrary as they are opaque.
Much of the emotional force of Bedtime Story comes from Hooper’s interweaving of this exploration – in author biographies, academic journals and the books themselves – with interactions where her son is clearly grappling with some of its big themes. Wishing aloud that he might be a cloud in order to “never have to die”, for example, or telling his younger brother, after visiting their father in hospital, that “he’ll always remember this night”, because “the point of life” is to collect such “adventures”. This tenderness, and the gentle surprise of the child’s naive, imaginative wisdom, continually ground Hooper’s theoretical thinking in her immediate world and make the importance of her task starkly clear. Hooper has a remarkable understanding of childhood, especially of how deeply it is felt and how much of its experiences and emotions permanently embed within us.
Alongside the immediate crisis of Don’s illness, what gradually emerges across Bedtime Story is Hooper’s slow, understated contemplation of her own mortality. It isn’t just a story for children that she finds in her reading, that is, but an “ancient narrative thread” about coming to terms with death that runs right across a life and is tied to so many aspects of our engagement with other people and with the world.
Because of this, perhaps, it is the future that haunts Bedtime Story, with a hazy half-presence always felt beneath the surface of the text. Preparation, like the kind of equipping of her sons Hooper is striving for, is always future-oriented. Most of what she aims to give them is the knowledge and narratives they might need as adults, so it is unsurprising that her hopes and fears about their futures are always present.
At times, this manifests in moments of extraordinary future projection, where Hooper imagines – and narrates to – her sons as adults, returning to their childhood home and remembering this time, so potent and perplexing and important. This, of course, she does knowing that such events she will not witness – they will occur in a world she no longer inhabits – and so she is writing, essentially, from beyond her own future grave, attempting still to nurture and protect her children from that place, wherever it may be.
Simon & Schuster, 256pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Bedtime Story, Chloe Hooper".
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