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Cover of book: Bright Shining

Julia Baird
Bright Shining

Bright Shining: how grace changes everything begins with a challenge “to recall the last time you saw a public act of grace or an unexpected, extraordinary decency.” At a glance, “the world seems to have been drained of it”. Any conversation about grace, Julia Baird writes, tends to “mourn its absence”. Following her bestselling and celebrated Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark, this is Baird’s search for and study of grace.

Baird’s fourth book takes its title from “Amazing Grace”: “bright shining as the sun”. The hymn was written in 1772 by John Newton, a slave trader who was later himself enslaved, experienced a religious conversion and became an abolitionist. The verse containing the image of “bright shining” believers praising God eternally was added later. The song originates from – and maps – darkness and light, injury, violence and repair.

A vast lineage of artists have sung “Amazing Grace”, including Diana Ross, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Aretha Franklin. Johnny Cash sang it in prisons, saying: “For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free. It just frees the spirit and frees the person.”

Baird’s work finds similar patterns of damage and recuperation. Grace bounces like light through wide-ranging chapters, limning angles and anecdotes assembled to figure out where grace might reside today, especially in this country. There’s an urgency to the book, spun as it is from Baird’s experiences, from sexist bullying as a talented young woman in journalism, to parenthood, mourning a former partner, and chronic illness, pain and cancer. Baird’s assemblage of visitations by grace places science alongside faith and poetry. Blazing gashes of gonzo journalism with an accent on personal experience sit next to passages of witness and receptivity. It draws on Baird’s work as a historian (she has a PhD in the history of women in politics) and as a broadcaster and interlocutor.

The book collects shafts of light, something easier said than done. Many people practise grace unobtrusively. They donate blood year after year without particularly wanting anyone to know, relishing the anonymity of their gift. They are nurses like those who guided Baird through blood transfusions and recovery from surgery, or parents whose labour tends to be unacknowledged.

Often, as Baird emphasises with the chapter title “When the Shadows Fall Behind You”, grace coexists with darkness or emerges from it. In this respect and others, it can be mysterious. Among the words of poets and writers woven into the text is Mary Oliver’s comment that others can have words like “chance”, “luck”, “coincidence” or “serendipity”: “I’ll take ‘grace’.”

The fridge-magnet version of Oliver that flattens the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet into a commodity tends to foreground a line or two of acutely phrased good vibes, shearing them from the fabric of her far more complex life and poetry. She survived a brutal childhood and went on to transmute the lessons of doing so into spare, bright lines. She asked: “Can there be a subject of more interest to each of us than whether or not grace exists, and the soul?”

The fridge-magnet version of grace could be similarly treacly and easy, and Baird generally keeps away from this. Bright Shining is a treasury of instances when grace involves complexities of acknowledgement and forgiveness. Writing in the lead-up to the October referendum “to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”, Baird’s preface stresses “the importance of telling the truth about our history, which has been warped, denied and dismissed for too long, so that enduring harms can be reckoned with”.

Chapters about this country’s violent history centre on listening – to the intergenerational trauma of the Stolen Generations, and to Elders guiding conversations about healing – and on her friend and colleague, writer and broadcaster Stan Grant. Grant resigned from his role at the ABC after the vitriolic backlash to his reference, during commentary on the coronation of King Charles III, to First Nations people’s “scars … broken bones … too many damaged souls”. His inflammatory suggestion? “We need to heal.”

This frames the book’s consideration of forgiveness. Baird writes she “nearly drowned in forgiveness while researching this book”. She emphasises the dangers when forgiveness is used as a way to avoid acknowledging trauma, or is “weaponised by the families of abusers”. She arrives at the suggestion that “grace is about forgiving, but not necessarily about forgetting”. As a historian, she’s conscious of the shaping of history and “what we choose to remember”. As a prominent woman in the media, she mulls over questions of cancel culture and accepting complexity, drawing on her biography of Queen Victoria to elaborate.

Some chapters float away from the central theme. Perhaps instead of “An Ode to the Fire of Teenage Girls”, an ode to the daughter in focus might more cogently have made the case for releasing girls from stereotypes, allowing them to be people, like all people, varying in preferences, temperament and passions.

Although Baird looks to science to evidence the numinous – the weighing of souls and calculation of “moral elevation” – it remains evasive. Poet Carl Phillips advises poets to embrace mystery “not just to respect but to committedly embrace knowledge’s limits”. Maybe grace is glister and mystery, the coming back and going forward after pain, a continuous way. Like light – leaping, mobile and prismatic. 

Fourth Estate, 320pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "Bright Shining".

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