Olga Lorenzo is a Cuban-Australian writer, author of The Rooms in My Mother’s House (1996) which was shortlisted for the IMPAC award amongst others. The Light on the Water is her first novel for 20 years.
It is a beautifully crafted book. Not easy reading, because of its subject matter, but it’s thoughtful and wise without being judgemental.
The Light on the Water is a meditation on the Azaria Chamberlain story. A child, Aida, goes missing in the bush, the search is fruitless, and before long the mother, Anne Forster, becomes the butt of innuendo, accusations and hostility from a public that in truth knows nothing about the situation. And the power of the media campaign is such that the police eventually charge this mother with murdering her own child. The case against her is so absurdly flimsy that it sounds ridiculous – no professional police force would have pursued it – and yet as we know from the Chamberlain case, that is exactly what happened here in Australia: Lindy Chamberlain was tried for murder and spent three years in prison.
Lorenzo’s novel explores a mother’s perspective, and what I admired most about the characterisation is that it never loses sight of the loss. When everything is falling to pieces around her and she faces going to prison, Anne Forster does not need to remind herself that nothing that could happen to her could ever be as terrible as losing her beloved Aida.
Sometimes, when I see kids behaving badly in shopping centres, I give the frazzled mother a sympathetic smile which comes from the kinship of motherhood. ‘They do grow up’, I say, and the relief on the mother’s face is instant. I can see her thinking, ‘Thank goodness, this one isn’t judging me for being a bad mother with a bratty kid, this one has been through it herself. And what she says is right, I will get through this.’ Sometimes we have a brief chat, sometimes it’s just a smile back. But that’s not what happened on the night I took a bus from Sale to Bairnsdale and a child jumped up and down and roared and shouted throughout the hour long journey. In the darkness of the bus I could not see anything except the child’s head bouncing up and down, but I confess to thinking very unsympathetic and intolerant thoughts. It was not until we got off the bus at Bairnsdale that I realised that the child was disabled, probably autistic, and I felt a sense of shame flood through me. That child was not going to ‘grow up’ and what was an hour of penance for me and the other passengers was that mother’s indefinite burden.
The same kind of judgemental response occurs in The Light on the Water. A witness sees Anna Forster dealing with an angry child on the side of the road on the way to Wilson’s Prom. The child is vomiting, the mother is trying to manhandle the child away from the dangers of the high-speed highway. In the split second it takes to whizz past in a car, that witness makes an intolerant judgement, not knowing that Aida in these circumstances is a child not capable of being reasonable or responding to patient inducements to behave for her own safety. By the time the reader comes across this part of the book Anne is established as a person who could not possibly have killed Aida. What we see in the text is Anne’s bewilderment at the judgements made about her.
It would help, of course, if Anne had a supportive family where she could feel a sense of belonging and safety. But she is a divorcee with a mother from hell, and she has a university age daughter doing what university age daughters do. I thought this was authentic: in the helping professions, there is often an assumption that families will behave well, but there’s plenty of families who don’t. Anne tries her best to sustain an unsatisfactory relationship with her sister Tessa, but she has given up on her abusive mother. OTOH she has more patience than I would have with that daughter!
What Anna does have is a couple of powerful friends, but they are defeated by the intensity of the media storm. Anne’s ex-husband is a barrister, and he has an impressive friend who helps out for mates’ rates, and she also has an ex-colleague from the broadsheet newspaper where she used to work. But the barrister fails to get bail and the journalist is helpless in the face of an editor who wants to meet the tabloids on their own ground. This is a case much like The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum where the media is also shown to destroy lives with impunity, but with the addition of toxic social media. This is the scourge of our times, and I am grateful that I rarely have to deal with it here on this blog. What it must be like in the case of a relentless campaign like the one depicted in this novel, I cannot imagine.
I think this book will strike a chord with many readers because there is today so much angst around ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parenting. At one stage (p.143) Anne says she hasn’t done anything wrong. At least not what they allege, because she is so conscious of her shortcomings as a parent. She blames herself for ‘losing’ Aida – which is what all of us would probably do too whether we were at fault or not – but it is society’s rush to judgement in blaming her that is so wrong. I remember overhearing judgements about Lindy Chamberlain, and thinking ‘how can you even have a opinion about it, when all you know is what you’ve read in the media?’ But that is what people do, with great cruelty, oblivious to the harm they are inflicting. Why do they feel that they must have an opinion about everything??
As you can see from the way I have meandered around some of my responses to this novel, it’s one which offers much to think about.
PS You can read more about Olga Lorenzo on the A&U blog.
Author: Olga Lorenzo
Title: The Light on the Water
Publisher: ALlen & Unwin, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin
Available from Fishpond: The Light on the Water