Days of Innocence and Wonder
Lucy Treloar’s third novel begins with two small girls playing together in a fenced kindergarten. They crush flowers into perfume and promise always to love each other. A man appears at the fence and, when he leaves, he takes one of the girls. The “outside-the-fence” girl turns and waves to the girl who remains, then skips ahead “into darkness”.
The novel’s narrator follows the second girl, the one who stayed behind. Till is now 23, living with her parents in Melbourne’s Brunswick during a Covid-19 lockdown. She exists in the long shadow of this moment when: “Nothing had happened to Till, but something happened all the same.”
What begins as an insightful and meticulously observed novel of aftermath shifts. Till lives with what happened, but whether it is over is unclear. She leaves behind her original name, renaming herself at six. She sings in the voice she imagines her friend, E, might have had. From the moment E, wearing a red coat and smiling, walks away with the man, Till has “no idea how to exist in this world”.
If you escape a murderer, you live knowing: “If a person wanted you dead, then you might end up dead.” The first-person voice narrating this is blunt and wary. The narrator views Till dispassionately and may or may not withhold facts: “I could tell you some things that happened, and maybe I will.” It is a voice positioned close enough to know a lot about Till. Their observations are shot with jagged flashes of harsh humour, such as this about the sartorial choices of Till’s mother, Zoe: “the uneven hem, the ravaged seams, the boiled finish, the dainty pleats. Artisanal ruin is expensive; people forget that.”
The source of this distinctive and unsettling voice becomes one of the novel’s mysteries. Its proximity to Till contrasts with her sense of being distanced from herself. When she sees a childhood photo she can’t be sure what she remembers, as she is “a stranger to herself”. And maybe words have to be unpeeled for the truth to emerge, something the narrator imagines when there are “words falling away from the truth like apple peel and they were getting closer to something”. The narrator throws in opinions, saying of a girl with a hole in her heart who was at school with Till and who torments her peers with her condition: “What a pill.” A “we” follows this, with a shuffle back from the admission and a doubling-down: “I shouldn’t say that. We knew we shouldn’t then too. Just because you’re dying doesn’t make you nice.”
This is a novel about Till, but it is also about voice, about who sees what and how one story takes place among – and affects – others. Till flees Melbourne, believing that she is being stalked, and settles in a town with its own unvoiced trauma and history. In particular, the narrator is clear about the smallness of any single personal story given the scale of “murder, disease and dispossession” inflicted on First Nations people. This, says the narrator, “is another story. It is the story is what I mean, but it is not Till’s story.”
Till is closely but not warmly observed by the narrator. There is a sense that the narration of a life can itself involve a form of stalking, even if we are speaking of ourselves. What is told, by whom, and what there are no words for shape not just a story but its aftermath, with all the new stories that may or may not be able to begin. The reassuring presence of a trustworthy or omniscient narrator is a feature of another kind of story, a safe one, along with principled police officers and kindergartens with unbreachable fences.
As with Treloar’s acclaimed previous novels, Wolfe Island and Salt Creek – each of which won and was shortlisted for many awards – the subject of Days of Innocence and Wonder is history in all its layers. Till carries with her a survivor’s flinching knowledge of the potent cocktail of entitlement and rage and of the idea that people “didn’t really want to know, and if they did find out they would regret possession of the knowledge”.
Starting a new life in a town where she is a stranger, Till comes to realise she cannot be invisible, nor can she escape the dangers that are present as much in intimacy as in memory and uncontainable violence. The words of Till’s therapist Annunciata recur as a refrain: “What allows life to proceed?” Yet life has shown itself to be unpredictable and risky.
Treloar’s shrewd and ethical novel maintains the delicate balance of depicting the long shadow of criminal violence on Till’s life, while trusting Till’s wisdom that her fears may not always be irrational or phantom. It holds these possibilities in balance, as it holds the mystery of the narrator’s vantage point and places stories of tenderness and resilience alongside the thrumming possibility of violence and cruelty. This tension insists on the proximity of safety and violation, kindness and cruelty. Trust can be ruptured but Treloar’s attention to the grain of repair and connection keeps in focus a tenderness as exquisite as the moment in which two children, creative and hopeful, dabbed with p erfume, imagine their shared future.
Picador, 336pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "Days of Innocence and Wonder".
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