It’s rare an author who can turn trauma into beauty. It requires immense skill and depth to navigate an authentic rendering of experience without indulging in the emotions you want your reader to connect to. To move them past the horror of description into further realisation beyond the visceral.
Jennifer Down’s third novel, Bodies of Light (2021, Text Publishing: $32.99), deftly achieves this grand ambition, using the trauma and pain of its main character Maggie Sullivan (Holly or Josie, if you’re currently finding yourself in different part of the book) to present a truly beautiful modern Australian novel – one that grabs hold of you the second you enter it, and absolutely will not let you go.
Down’s first book, Our Magic Hour, which looked at suicide in inner city Melbourne, and her second, Pulse Points, a collection of short stories, were as disparate as they were connected. They focused on the personal dramas and lives of their characters and their suffering, inviting introspection and reflections focused on growth and movement. Bodies of Light is a work similarly focused on the intersection of trauma, grief, and pain, and manages to bring the reader out the other side with not a sense of sadness, but of love, both for Maggie, but also for Down, for bringing this work to light.
Maggie is a character that is at times both easy to sympathise with and difficult to understand. She is the archetype of unreliable narrator, with her drug and alcohol use, blackouts, and trauma from the foster care system bearing a strong influence on the narrative affect. For those of us with trauma experiences, it is eerily reminiscent of our own memories: not being sure of what was real, or what has become surreal, embellished, and distorted. Memory and its burdens are an ever-present part of this story, as it moves between the present and the past, unravelling a mystery of police investigations, personal tragedy, and escapism.
This is not a recipe for a book that invites the reader to trust what is going on, and yet Down somehow manages to create a level of trust with the reader that there is accuracy to be found here. Her greatest skill in this novel is creating an environment and story which is not only compelling, but delightedly real, with characters of such depth and nuance that they feel taken from real life, plonked into this setting and let lose. The vivid and detailed descriptions of place and temporality are rendered so sharply authentic that the reader feels familiar in every disparate location. Where she has presented places I myself know intimately, you could not create better descriptions if you were Tourism Victoria.
This authenticity and depth attaches itself to Maggie as a character as we experience life through her eyes, a life distinctly one of pain, and loss, and longing, as she flees from place to place without attachments; Australia, New Zealand, the United States, failing many times to establish connections and find peace. To quote Taylor Swift’s Closure: “I’m fine with my spite and my tears, and my beers and my candles”. This is the spirit of this novel.
Yet we don’t find ourselves pitying Maggie. Yes, you will ache for the journey she undergoes, as she moves from sexually abused child to drug using teen to adult lost in the world and lost in her grief. But you will not pity her. She is so real, so brought to life by Down on the page that you will empathise with her, grieve with her, and face her fears with her. And when she finds resolution, you will too. You as the reader are not passive in this story but are instead brought along for the ride by Maggie and Down, almost an active participant in how this story is being told to you, being pulled from page to page by them both.
I finished this novel within 6 hours on a Monday evening. It’s not a short novel by any means – at over 400 pages it is Down’s longest book to date. As the old cliché goes, I found I couldn’t put it down. The hours slipped by unnoticed even as I wolfed down a reheated dinner without breaking my focus. Once you’re invested in this narrative it compels you to drop everything to finish, and despite the difficult circumstances of the novel you find yourself reluctant to leave the world it describes.
Jennifer Down is clearly one of Australia’s best young novelists, evidenced by her recent Victorian Prime Minister’s Literary Award nomination. Her previous two books were works of exceptional quality, complexity, and authenticity, and won many well-deserved accolades. Bodies of Light leaves them both in the dust. It is an epic and transformative novel, the journey through which changes you as the reader, and also your understandings of the world. She takes such intense trauma and pain that her character suffers and turns it into a lovely magnificence. There are highs and lows for Maggie throughout this book, and you will feel every one of them. But by the end, I hope, you will walk away like I did – with a sense of calm, resolve, and even dare I say joy. It was a privilege to have read this book; someone please wipe my mind so I can do it all over again.