Julia Leigh, Disquiet
Publisher: Penguin Books
December 2008, 121 pages, paperback, $13
the setting of Disquiet, an ancient château somewhere in France, is in many ways the centerpiece of Julia Leigh’s novella: a juxtaposition of old and new, stone stairs and flat screen TVs, vine-tangled walls and cell phones. While the Australian author’s first novel, The Hunter, portrayed a mercenary in search of a possibly-extinct Tasmanian tiger, Disquiet concerns itself less with gripping plot and more with the secrets of a fractured family, mirrored by the gothic château:
Each room was elegantly, if minimally, furnished. A pair of Qing dynasty glazed porcelain vases, kingfisher-blue. A silken Persian carpet. A giant plasma screen flat to one wall. And there were secret doors in the walls of the rooms, secret doors leading to secret servant passages, now spidered and empty.
Olivia, with her young children Andy and Lucy, returns to the château she left twelve years ago after a bitter argument with her mother over her intended husband. Battered, crestfallen, and having fallen on hard times, Olivia returns with a broken arm, little money, and two children to stay until she can get back on her feet. To the children, the château grounds are full of mystery. To Olivia, every stone is imbued with her embittered past.
Soon after Olivia arrives, a second, more tragic homecoming occurs. Olivia’s brother Marcus and his wife Sophie appear with a surprise bundle, their still-born daughter Alice. At the hospital, the baby was strangled by the umbilical cord, and Marcus and Sophie hope to keep the baby for a few days in order “to get to know her” before burial. In shock and grieving, Sophie’s care for her stillborn daughter becomes a confusing, often disturbing presence for the family–especially little Lucy–as Sophie attempts to feed her stillborn baby at the dining table:
But her concentration was broken when she noticed Sophie dipping her little finger into the soup and bring it to the bundle, trying to feed it. This mesmerized the girl; the others did their best to carry on as though nothing were wrong, the woman spooning her soup with her left hand, like a scientist taking an infinitesimal measure, and Grandmother sighing when at least Sophie wiped her finger on a serviette and reached for her glass of water.
Leigh often plays with and complicates traditional familial roles through Olivia’s two children. Six-year old Lucy carries a doll, Pinky, which she pampers, abuses, and eventually loses. After overhearing his uncle Marcus on the cell phone talking to another woman, nine-year old Andy creeps around the château, trying to make a long distance call, presumably to his father in Australia. Both children struggle to make sense of his absence.
Leigh’s prose is rich and startlingly beautiful, a blending of poetry rich and hauntingly abrupt. The château is rendered exquisitely, stone-by-stone, inhabited not only by the somber family but gardens and twin-sister servants. And there is a silent distance to the manner in which Leigh paints this grief-stricken family, even from the onset, that pervades the novella. Olivia, the main protagonist, is referred to most often, simply as “the woman.”
The stone stairs leading to the château were wide and shallow and worn like soap. The woman took hold of the doorknocker – it was a large bronze ring running through the nose of a great bronze bull – and weighted it in her hand. Knocked. They waited patiently, and their kind of patience was born more from exhaustion, from abandoning any expectation of easy gratification, than from gracious goodwill.
Moments of humor–mostly the children and their mischief-making–add a welcome playfulness to the otherwise Gothic novella. Even as Marcus and Sophie make plans for the burial, Andy makes crude puns towards his grandmother. In truth, this is not a story of easy gratification, but a careful unfolding of a family’s secrets through careful prose. These secrets unravel–Marcus’s affair, the grandfather’s sudden death, and the truth about Olivia’s husband, the impetus for her leaving twelve years ago. The story itself is not the issue; rather, readers will delight in Leigh’s ability to capture a family’s struggle and silent decay.