Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2022

A Place Near Eden, by Nell Pierce (2022 Vogel winner)

A Place Near Eden is one of those books so cunningly constructed that at the end you have no idea whether the narrator is a victim who has been wickedly manipulated or a sociopath leading the hapless reader down the garden path.

The ‘reader’ addressed in the novel is not you or me, it’s a child, one of the characters drawn into a web of untruths.  The narrator is building a legacy, one that will torment this child, regardless of what she chooses to believe.

Even the title is a tease: a place near Eden, near Paradise.  But not…

The story links three characters related by circumstance.  Foster-child Sem is the catalyst for the already-failing marriage of Tilly’s parents to break apart.  Celeste is the more confident friend who manages their adolescent world more successfully than the reserved and apparently submissive Tilly, who narrates the story. In the beginning she seems like one of those tiresome narcissistic YA types, endlessly ruminating about herself and her preoccupations.  But as the novel progresses, it emerges that manipulation is going on, but it isn’t clear who is doing it, and who the victim is.

This theme of destructive manipulative behaviour is further developed when Tilly deconstructs a doco made by an emerging film-maker friend called Peter.  Peter manipulates Tilly and the other participants in the drama into acquiescing to interviews, which he structures to maximise dramatic effects that self-incriminate the speaker.  He creates three different speculative versions of the situation, to manipulate the viewer into choosing their own version, thus believing that they have ‘solved’ the mystery for themselves.

In the first version, for example, Peter manipulates the sequence of events to portray a version in which Sem’s social circumstances meant that his tragedy was inevitable.  Tilly realises how disingenuous Peter could be:

Because it’s clear to me now that the re-enactment of Sem’s birth and childhood, the first interview with my mother, all that was to set the stage for a story that Peter didn’t believe was true, or at least wasn’t the whole truth. (p.177)

…there was an untruth is what was left out of this story.  Peter presented Sem’s life this first time in a neat order, each thing seeming to lead almost inevitably to the next, so that Peter could eventually arrive at a certain conclusion: that Sem was lost and seeking meaning. That his childhood had forced him into a place where he had no options and nowhere to go. […] Someone who was broken, who was always going to disappear.

There was no mention in this version of the story of Sem’s jobs, or that he loved to cook, and wrote poetry.  Peter didn’t account for the fact that lots of people get a bit lost, but still pull through.  Or how people who seem fine can be the ones in trouble. (p.178)

Peter’s doco goes on to manipulate events into revealing two possible culprits, Celeste and Tilly. A journo can always find someone to retell an event that portends guilt, because all of us occasionally do stupid, intemperate things, and there will always be someone well-suited to speculating about behaviour and motives, often for their own reasons that have nothing to do with the truth. Usually whether we regret them or not, these stupidities are just part of the flow of a life, but blown up out of all proportion by a crime doco, they manipulate public opinion.

#Digression: The way this story is told reminded me of an episode of Australian Story which should be re-titled ‘Journo solves Cold Case that No One Else Could’.  The current episode features a family fighting for justice, as they discover a flawed police investigation and devastating forensic oversights.)

The most stupid intemperate thing that Tilly does is to allow herself to get drunk again and again, so that in the end she does not know for sure what really happened. That is, she knows she cannot retrieve a memory of exactly what happened, and this has made her vulnerable not just to accusations, but also to her own fear that she is guilty.  She has tried everything, from writing the narrative that forms this story, to meditation, to talking to people and to hours of self-isolation, but there is no prospect of resolution. Because she blacked out and cannot remember.

Or, she says she can’t…

A Place Near Eden won the coveted 2022 Vogel Prize, a prize which has launched the careers of many notable Australian authors.

Author: Nell Pierece
Title: A Place near Eden
Cover design by Christabella Designs
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781761066177, pbl., p. 296 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

 


Responses

  1. Oh, I like the sound of this! Storytelling via omission / manipulation / bias is one of the things that intrigues me. What we reveal and what we don’t is such an important aspect of telling a story, whether it be in writing, on video or simply speaking it out loud. My current job, which is largely writing press releases and website copy, is a form of message control quite different to an earlier previous life as a journalist.

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    • I should also have said, it’s not only journalists who tell stories selectively, lawyers do the same in court cases, where you hear this but not that, and sometimes lawyers argue for days about whether something is inadmissible under the rules of evidence, and if there’s a possibility that the judge has erred, off it goes to a higher court to be argued about all over again.
      I guess the question is, what are the ethical rules about being selective? There’s not enough time ever to tell everything (and not just in the media and the courts, we’d bore our friends to death if we told everything). In journalism school, do they teach what principles should apply when choosing what to tell and what to leave out?

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      • Oh yes, that’s why I love a good courtroom drama… legal cases are simply narratives. I know you’re not a Helen Garner fan but that’s why I love her true crime books… she exposes all that and highlights how barristers are storytellers. Janet Malcolm also exposes this and shows the adversarial justice system favours great storytellers! As to what I learned in journalism school, I can only remember the inverted pyramid in which the most important facts go at the top of the story and the least important ones at the bottom. It’s really up to the journalists own judgment about what to put in and what to take out, and often this is based on time / space constraints, the arc of the story you want to tell and whether it’s a hard hitting news story or a colour piece.

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        • LOL I don’t think anyone is doing that pyramid thing now… so often I open an article in an online newspaper and have to wade through lots of gunk before it gets to the point. I know this is because they monitor how long people ‘engage’ with an article somehow, so the article stretches it out on purpose.

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  2. Will read this later as my reading group is doing this later in the year.

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    • Oooh, I predict a mixed response!

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      • We’ll see … hopefully as that’s always fun!

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        • Oh yes, it’s always more fun when people disagree, book groups where everyone choruses that it was a great book would be no fun at all.

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          • It sometimes works with complex books like The promise which we all liked, but yes, it can often fall flat.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. A great review Lisa. I do love an unreliable narrator and must look this one out.

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    • Thanks, Eleanor.
      I think it must be very difficult to plot so cunningly a story like this.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A multiplicity of unreliable narrators! Wonderful!!

    Liked by 1 person


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