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Book cover: two birds in flight.

Amanda Lohrey
The Conversion

Amanda Lohrey makes writing look effortless: every sentence is a pleasure to read. Her characters immediately come alive on the page. You feel you know them and suspect you are privy to some of their secrets.

Zoe North, the main character of Lohrey’s ninth novel, The Conversion, remembers the first time she and her husband, Nick Whitelaw, drove to a deconsecrated rural church with a “FOR SALE sign planted in front of a tall hedge”.

Zoe is a retired solicitor; Nick is a therapist who uses unconventional treatment methods. “He still had it, a man of sixty-three with a certain charisma,” Zoe reflects of her husband. “He was slim and fit, and his cropped grey curls gave him a Roman look, like one of those busts in a museum. After all these years she still took a secret pleasure in looking at him.”

The couple lost money in a financial crash, sold their Federation home and are looking to relocate to “one of those charming little towns” where they can afford to buy. “Breathless, she was breathless, and bleeding money,” Zoe recalls of the economic meltdown. “It was such an odd sensation; up until then she had thought she had blood in her veins but all along she had been stuffed with wet currency.”

The small late Victorian church they want to buy is near Crannock, a fictional former coalmining town that resembles Cessnock in the New South Wales Hunter Valley. Nick is keen to convert the one-time house of god into a “heavenly home”. Zoe is less enthusiastic about the “glorified barn” with its beautiful but problematic stained-glass windows.

The novel unfolds in two parts. Part 1, “The Windows”, covers the recent past. Zoe and Nick have two adult sons – Dominic, the “brilliant boy” who developed a heroin addiction, and Lachie, who is a schoolteacher. The pivotal moment of this section is the sudden death of Nick. We do not learn, at this point, how he died. We do know he was treating Sophie, a suicidal 28-year-old woman who made Zoe “sick in the pit of her stomach”.

Sophie regularly turned up at their home. When Zoe found her in their bedroom, “a low wail issuing from her open mouth”, she told Nick to “Deal with it!” He did and Zoe was “stunned at the familiar way in which he had manhandled the girl. She should have known then.”

Part 2, “The Conversion”, is set in the present. Zoe has bought the church, is living in it, planning the conversion of the title and exorcising ghosts – Nick’s and others – from her past. Readers of Lohrey’s previous novel, The Labyrinth, which won the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, will see similarities. A woman who has sons relocates to a small community and lives alone as she tries to recover from emotional trauma.

Lohrey is interested in how we occupy and change the domestic spaces in which we live, and in how the combined domestic spaces, our communities, occupy and change the natural world. As she walks through the church, Zoe thinks: “And might they not feel that they were always intruders, always bending something out of its natural shape.” It’s a reflection that touches on the conversion of the landscape, from coalmining to grazing to vineyards, and the colonial war on the local Indigenous people.

Lohrey brings wisdom and playfulness to the page. The passage where Zoe scours internet sites on successful church conversions could be a satirical episode of the television series Grand Designs: “It was easy to remove a crucifix but the rich figuration of the windows was something else.” She reads of altars being replaced with marital beds and laughs out loud in appreciation of a woman who “had converted a hulking Catholic confessional into a walk-in wardrobe”. There’s also dry humour in the juxtaposition of biblical references and the Australian landscape: the first thing the couple sees on approaching the church, Nick’s possible Eden, is a snake in the grass.

The Conversion is a beautifully written, quietly profound novel that explores purgatories of the past and present as its characters move between and meditate on structural and personal conversion. Zoe is at an emotional crossroads, or perhaps a road to Damascus.

Talking with a friend, she rebukes herself for sounding “just like Nick”. “In that moment she can hear his voice, deep and resonant, so clear, so close to her ear, and it’s as if some solid object, long tethered in her chest, is unmoored and she is cast adrift on a tide of abject yearning.”

At a dinner party hosted by a local woman, she chats to a man who is a keen sports fisherman. He talks about the thrill of being in the “fight chair” with a blue marlin and shows her a phone video of one on the lure. As Zoe watches “the great fish leaping up out of the surge, like an acrobat”, the man’s wife adds, “You don’t eat ’em. Too gamey. They toss ’em back.”

Zoe returns home, goes to bed and as she drifts into sleep, “the image of the great marlin soars in her mind’s eye, writhing on the line, spearing the air and fighting for its life with no intimation that it is soon to be released”. As I said, Lohrey makes writing look effortless – but of course, that is an illusion created by much hardworking intelligence. This is her gift, one that she shares with her readers. 

Text Publishing, 240pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "The Conversion ".

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