April 18, 2009

Disquiet by Julia Leigh

I have really, desperately wanted to read something good for the past while, good being loosely defined as anything ranging from very well executed pulp to the legitimately highbrow. Unfortunately, good in any shape or form has eluded me, so much so that I got tired of writing negative reviews, so I haven't reviewed the past couple of books that I've read. Then, yesterday, I came across Disquiet by Julia Leigh, an Australian author I'd never heard of, but whom Toni Morrison and J.M. Coetzee seem to think highly of. The volume was a slender novella just released in paperback, with a blurb that read "a haunting, mesmerizing tale of a family in extremis." Whether it was the blurb or the form that attracted me (almost no one writes or publishes single novellas anymore), I finished Disquiet in a two hour sitting, and it was very good.

Disquiet is about a woman, Olivia, who arrives at her mother's chateau on the run from an abusive marriage. She brings her children with her. Olivia's brother, Marcus, also arrives with his grieving wife, Sophie, after the birth of their stillborn daughter. What follows is a fragile unfolding.

The novella does this unfolding quietly, disquietingly, in fact. Leigh's prose is spare and elegant, with not a word wasted. She implies much more than she says and is all the more powerful for it. Her style is an elegant brushstroke through which Olivia's disconnection and despair become painfully clear through small actions and omissions. The other characters are drawn with equal, spartan care, while  Sophie's grief takes on grotesque proportions, contrasting directly to Olivia's painful flat-affect. In the end, both women undergo emotional crises at the hands of the other, forcing an end to their respective stagnations.

Disquiet is a very fast read, easy to savor and finish in a week-end, if not a day. As starved as I've been for good, and as good as Disquiet was, I wouldn't wish it into a novel - what made Disquiet so excellent was its brevity. All of its power and elegance are rooted in its form. To wish for more would be to spoil it. That said, having read it, I feel refreshed and content and almost relieved. Now I feel ready to continue the search for the next good thing.

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