Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 9, 2016

The World Without Us, by Mireille Juchau #BookReview

The World Without UsLonglisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, The World Without Us begins slowly with a network of scenes that eventually form a structure in a way that a beehive does.  It takes a little while to connect the characters and their relationships, so the reader needs a bit of patience in order for the story to cohere…

Just as a hive depends on its Queen and will swarm wherever she leads it, so the central character of this novel is Evangeline, whose family is adrift ever since she lost her way when her daughter Pip died two years ago.

(Yes, it is another story about grief and loss, there’s a lot of this about in Australian literary fiction at the moment, and the Miles Franklin judges have acknowledged that it’s a common theme in their choices:

“The impact of grief and loss – complex families, unstable relationships, accidents, European war crimes, suicide, – and how the experience of these issues deeply determine the narrative and direction of lives”.

(That’s as quoted in the SMH, I defy anyone to locate judges’ comments on the new MF website!)

The story begins with conflicting images of Evangeline: a strong, arresting-looking woman confidently stripping off to swim in the river, she’s not embarrassed to be joined by a neighbour, the new teacher in town who’s called Jim.  But as he soon realises, there is a powerful undercurrent drawing her towards the falls, and she seems to be drifting towards oblivion.  When he pulls her back to safety, he sees her private memorial, a sort of installation composed of Pip’s medication boxes and mementoes strung from a tree.  In withdrawing with her own grief in this intensely private way, Evangeline has abandoned her other two daughters Tess and Meg and her apiarist husband Stefan, leaving them to flounder around on their own.

Tess, the older of the two, has retreated into silence: her elective mutism has solidified over the past six months, and it takes all her teacher’s ingenuity to find ways to help her pass assessment without speaking.  Indeed Tess recognises that she can only keep it up by depending on others to interpret for her, so it is their habit as much as hers.  Her younger sister Meg does drawing as a release, and it is her perspective that is dominant in the novel, giving it a slightly YA feel because of her immature attitudes about some things.  Meg is the worrier in the family, worrying about her Mother disappearing each day with the old pram, about her father’s drinking and of course about Tess.  She’s also unsettled by her father’s discovery of a crashed van and some human bones on the property, and by the environmental concerns that have erupted in the town because of the new fracking industry.  Like canaries in a coal mine, the bees are portents of a world gone awry: they are abandoning their hives, imperilling not just a honey industry but also the pollination of agriculture.

Evangeline had a hippie childhood in the old Hive Commune which burned down in mysterious circumstances not long ago.  Other remnants of the hippie community form a vanguard against the fracking while others are supporters of the money and jobs it generates.  Part of Evangeline’s distress is her suspicion that Pip’s leukaemia was caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals or radiation, but as the novel progresses it dawns on her that perhaps by choosing not to have a technological death for Pip, she made it harder on her other daughters at home.  She has lost her trust in charismatic leaders, in daft poultices and herbal remedies, but also in conventional medicine.  She’s not painting any more either.  Her lack of education begins to catch up with her as well.

But it is not just grief which is derailing this family.  There are secrets and lies that arise from some characters’ rather cavalier attitudes towards human relationships, and in that staple of Australian rural novels, there is a gossipy woman who delights in hinting at what she knows.  The revelations when they come are too easily resolved for the characters, as anyone familiar with identity, adultery and paternity issues would know.  A broken sense of trust is not something repaired with a symbolic set-scene within a few concluding pages of a novel.  I felt that with the multiple plot-lines and griefs all over the place, Stefan’s grief as a father was given too little space.

He ranks his problems. His wife, her suffering.  The farm, how to make it prosper.  The letter from the gas-mining company, with all its inducements, its dodgy corporate vibe among the bee books on his desk.  Tess’s silence, which he’s almost used to. When the cows have Bovine Ephemeral Fever their ears droop, their eyes water, their snouts are strung with viscid mucous. They’re almost comically morose. But three days in the fever breaks, the lameness passes.  It’s not the same, Evangeline once pointed out, with humans.  He thanked her politely , then drained the Côtes-du-Rhône.  (p. 22)

But this is not the half of Stefan’s losses, yet in this chapter introducing Stefan he is preoccupied by many things and the reader gets no real sense that Pip’s death has rocked his world, but rather that he is disorientated by his family’s reaction to it.

The cold needling shower.  The breakfast bespoked for migraine. And Stefan picturing everyone gone, draining the short black to the grit before his thoughts hovered on Pip, his youngest, his little house bee.  Pip, who’d looked most like his mother, Gretchen.  He’d not been able to bury one, because the other was so ill.  Both had died in the same month, in different hemispheres.  Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Stroke.  He was not a believer, but would sometimes dream of them in some alternate atmosphere, helping each other blow balloons.  When they loosened their grip those balloons drifted off, carrying their mingled breath.  In these dreams his mother and daughter exhaled, but kept quiet, which turned his thoughts to his eldest, Tess, silent for how long? (p. 19)

He goes on to lose other things as well as his little daughter, but the novel focusses much more on the females of the family.

Some of the competing voices work better than others.  Stefan’s German words and phrases seem a bit forced at times, reinforcing his otherness, when really, Australians even in rural areas are well used to people of other ethnic origins by now.  Worse, in a novel where the prose needs to compensate for an over-elaborate plot , the overuse of obscure acronyms breaks up the flow of the writing while the reader tries to work out what they are.  WIRES is, I know, something to do with Wildlife Rescue, but what is a NVDA protest? Non-Violent what? And what on earth does the acronym mean in taped-up, resurfaced bathrooms with their heady VOCs?? Is it some kind of air-freshener?  (#Don’tLaugh At one stage I got so used to being puzzled that I momentarily tried to work out what IKEA stood for).

The sub-plot, featuring Jim’s escape from a toxic girlfriend in Sydney, seems mainly about developing a foil for Stefan’s definition of masculinity but it’s a bit of a mixed message.  The Sydney relationship was never convincing to start with, and Jim’s cluckiness about wanting a family without wanting that girlfriend isn’t very convincing either when he launches almost immediately into a relationship that threatens to break up Evangeline’s family (not to mention his professional relationship with Tess).  Jim is also grieving for his dead mother, and (reminiscent of Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker) indulges in a bit of quirky-character-in-a-rural-town secret cross-dressing – but sometimes I got the feeling that he was in the story so that there was an educated person around who could quote bits of poetry, (though he does play another role which I won’t mention since it’s a spoiler).

Overall, I felt that this was a novel bulked up by its symbols, its poetic fancies and its wayward plot and sub-plots. Kim at Reading Matters liked it much more than I did. And obviously the Miles Franklin judges did too!

Update, about an hour later: My blogging friend Tony Messenger from Messenger’s Booker has reminded me that it won the Victorian Premier’s Prize as well, so I am well out of step…

Author: Mireille Juchau
Title: The World Without Us
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2015
ISBN: 9781408866511
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The World Without Us and good bookshops everywhere.


Responses

  1. I am with you, Lisa on this novel.. I just didn’t get it, too obscure.

    • That makes me feel better! I had this feeling of over-writing with one of Michelle de Kretser’s books, The Lost Dog. I love de Kretser’s writing, have done since her debut, and thought Questions of Travel was brilliant – but The Lost Dog seemed to be dragged around by its symbolism and some heavy-handed vocab-twisting. At the time I put it down to being mentored by Gail Jones, very highly thought of in OzLit but yet to write anything I’ve liked.
      Well, ‘socked feet’ kept turning up in this novel too, and lo! guess who’s in the thank-you list at the back of the book, eh?

  2. I feel like the grief thing is overdone in CanLit too. And novels where children die… they’re either really good, or I just feel emotionally manipulated… this sounds like one of those, where you can see what they’re trying to do.

    • Yes, I wonder why authors feel that grief is such a pervasive issue right now? Of course we want books to deal with emotion, but for me, I want it to be part of the life depicted (if it’s relevant) not the organising principle of the story. And why are we so focussed on dysfunctional grief? I mean, grief is a normal part of life, everyone I know has lost loved ones lately, but no mother I have ever known has abandoned the needs of her other kids the way this one has.

  3. I really enjoyed this book. It was such a reflection of modern Australian life for me, a bit like a female writer’s approach to The Slap.
    The bee imagery was also a nice thread.
    I like novels where everything falls into place by the end, you see the significance of earlier things then.

    • Hello Anne, thanks for your comment:) Like The Slap? I hadn’t thought of it like that…

  4. I think I’ll put it on the wait and see list. I don’t like being manipulated in books, and I’m a bit sick of bee-symbolism too. I think the best thing about reviews is that I get to keep up with literature without actually reading all the books.

    • Well, it wouldn’t be on my shortlist. My shortlist would be The Hands, Coming Rain, Black Rock White City and Salt Creek – and wouldn’t I be in trouble with the gender police!

  5. I had so many similar feelings about this book – there was just a bit too much going on. A shame because there were some lovely moments and some analogies that could have been extended. I was possibly extra-critical of this book because I couldn’t help but compare it to the other hippie-commune book on the Stella Prize shortlist (and wonder just how many hippie-commune books do we need on one shortlist?!).

    • Hello Kate, thanks for your comment:)
      I think you’re right, this is a book with potential that needed better editing maybe.
      I haven’t read Hope Farm, but I don’t mind the hippie-commune thread per se – after all, it’s just a different view of rural & regional Australia in its way, and LOL its emergence was probably inevitable with all those authors converging on Byron Bay once a year. But I don’t want to see it lapse into simple binaries of the ‘normal folks’ v the hippies with a token quirky town character as a bonus, it needs to be worked into stories that are just as compelling as the novels I’ve read about other kinds of rural life.

  6. […] Mireille Juchau, The World Without Us , see my review […]


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