My first taste of Australian author Julia Leigh’s work was with the novella Disquiet. It sounded wonderfully Gothic, and has been lauded by the likes of Toni Morrison, who calls its author a ‘sorceress’, and goes on to proclaim: ‘Her deft prose casts a spell of serene control while the earth quakes underfoot.’ Leigh has been compared to the likes of both Ian McEwan and J.M. Coetzee; indeed, Coetzee himself praises the film-like quality which almost every scene that Leigh creates has. Leigh was also included as one of the ‘twenty-one writers to watch in the twenty-first century’ on a list created by the Observer. The blurb of Disquiet, which was first published in 2008, describes it as ‘a haunting, mesmerising tale of a family in extremis’ – just the kind of story I love.
The protagonist of Disquiet is a woman named Olivia. At the outset of the novella, she arrives at her mother’s chateau in rural France, along with her two children, Andrew and Lucy. She has told nobody that she is coming, and is escaping an abusive marriage in Australia, where she and her children live. Also at the house, arriving just after Olivia, is her brother Marcus and his wife Sophie, who has just given birth to a stillborn baby girl, Alice. Sophie particularly is ‘struggling to overcome her devastation’, and has brought Alice with her, swaddled with a blanket, to stay in the house until she can bear to let go: ‘Sophie, in a new dress and neatly made up, had brought along the bundle and was cuddling it in the nook of her arm. She still wore her hospital ID bracelet as if at any minute something could go horribly wrong.’
From the outset, the family dynamics are odd, and offbeat. Nobody seems quite comfortable with anyone else. It is soon suggested that none of the family have met Andrew or Olivia before, but this element of the story is never fully explained, or even addressed. Although their names are divulged at the beginning of the book, they are referred to as ‘the woman’, ‘the boy’, and ‘the girl’ throughout, whereas all of the other characters are only addressed by their given names. Olivia’s husband is barely mentioned, but when he is, she calls him ‘the Murderer’, something which goes unexplained.
When we first meet Olivia, Leigh describes her thus: ‘The woman was dressed in a tweed pencil skirt, a grey silk blouse and her dark hair was pulled back into a loose chignon, the way her mother once used to wear it. Her right arm was broken and she’d rested it in a silk-scarf sling which co-ordinated unobtrusively with her blouse. By her feet, a suitcase. The children – the boy was nine, the girl was six and carrying her favourite doll – were saddled with backpacks and they each guarded a small suitcase of their own.’ Leigh’s descriptions continue in this manner, at once revealing and prudent, sparse and multilayered. When Olivia and the children reach the house, Leigh writes: ‘The stone stairs leading to the chateau were wide and shallow and worn like soap. The woman took hold of the doorknocker – it was a large bronze ring running through the nose of a great bronze bull – and weighed it in her hand. Knocked.’
In Disquiet, the French countryside is not glorified in any way; there is almost a sense of grittiness, of darkness to it. It is described as both ’empty’ and ‘ugly’, which I found an odd contrast to the descriptions given of the grounds of Olivia’s mother’s house, which are lush and green. There is a real sense of place revealed as the novella goes on; the house is old, cold, and imposing, rather like ‘Grandmother’ who inhabits it. I particularly enjoyed Leigh’s portrayal of the house’s interior, and the way in which it often leads to exposing her characters. When Olivia arrives and is shown upstairs, for example, Leigh writes: ‘Her room – was never her room. It was another guest room, similarly furnished. She drew the curtains and loosened her hair, freed her arm from its sling. She undressed, dropping all her clothes in a pile on the floor. Crawled onto the bed. Lay belly down, face on the pillow. There was a loop in time; she was already dead. And then she must have sensed the children standing in the doorway for – with great effort, turning her head and opening one eye – she saw reflected in the mirror that, yes, the children had been spying, how long she could not be sure, but they had no doubt seen their mother lying on the bed, the white plain of her back covered in rotten yellowed bruises.’
A lot within Disquiet remains unsaid, and there are very few neat conclusions. For me, this made for a far more interesting read than something which has been neatly tied up. I liked the sense of ambiguity which Leigh has included. The structure too, which tells the story in a series of short, interconnecting snatches of prose, worked well. There is a lot of sadness present in this novella, as is perhaps understandable given that the only action in the story revolves around baby Alice’s funeral, but there are some glimpses of tender moments too.
There is an unsettling feeling which builds as the novel progresses, and I found this effective. I love the power which shorter works can have, and Disquiet is certainly a novella which demonstrates both strength and control. Depth and dark humour can be found throughout, and for me, the reading experience was certainly a disquieting one.