Sunday, April 10, 2016

A small and aching sense of hope: Josephine Rowe's A Loving, Faithful Animal

Some books revel in heaviness and brokenness, wallow in them like pigs in mud, as if the heaviness and the brokenness themselves are important on their own. For me as a reader, however, heaviness must have a purpose within a story. It must mean something. The brief and bruised sexual encounters, the hands raised in anger to inflict pain, the profanity hissed at the ones our characters are supposed to love and protect, the regrets and unpaid human debts – they all must mean something, even if the meaning is only to reveal their meaninglessness, the characters’ futile attempts to heal their own brokenness.

In A Loving, Faithful Animal, the brokenness has meaning. The book is a history of sorts, a history of cyclical, hereditary pain passed on from a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD to his wife, who releases her own pent-up grief in moments of unpredictable violence towards her eldest daughter, Lani. Lani copes with the pain by hardening herself against family connections, self-medicating with prescription drugs, alcohol, and boys. Ru, the youngest, watches it all from her protective loneliness while the innate hope she carries inside herself grows slowly weaker until it is all but extinguished. And from afar, Les, the girls’ uncle, hovers at the periphery of their lives like a flawed guardian angel. This is a family estranged, even – perhaps especially – when they are in proximity to one another.

There is no single protagonist to this story, no hero. Instead, the book’s chapters alternate between points of view, offering insights into each character’s perspective. It draws a history of systematic hurt and cyclical abuse, tracing the injuries to their root cause and exploring how pain breeds pain. One especially powerful chapter takes the reader into the fractured chaos of the mind of someone suffering from PTSD. The past clashes with the present, and the cerebral pain is tangible.

Through it all, the book expresses a deep and true Australian sensibility, one of huntsman spiders, salmon-clouded sunsets, humid Christmas afternoons, and a mythological wildcat which is the stuff of local lore. The writing is beautiful, literary without being pretentious. And at the book’s end, there is a whisper of new beginnings, a small and aching sense of hope -- if not healing, then the promise of a promise of healing. 
Still, somehow, the spilled salt thrown over your shoulder, even in restaurants. Still counting the magpies in the cypress branches, as though a higher Something has taken the trouble to arrange them out there, for you to tally and make sense of. Still your heart slipping whenever a sparrow finds its way into the house, whenever a forlorn ornament stows into January.
Josephine Rowe
UQP, 2016, 200 pages