Bodies of Light
Text Publishing, $32.99 pb, 433 pp
Australian novelist and short story writer Jennifer Down has been rightly acclaimed, with an impressive list of awards to her name, including the Jolley Prize in 2014. Her new novel, Bodies of Light, is both much more ambitious in scope than her first and an altogether more harrowing read. Spanning the years from 1975 to 2018, and traversing many different locations in Australia, New Zealand, and America, the novel confronts us with child sexual abuse, a suicide attempt, a series of fractured relationships, allegations of infanticide, recurring social alienation, and a serious drug addiction. But it is also, and mercifully, a story of a woman’s remarkable resilience, the possibility of human kindness, and the necessity of hope. Bodies of Light thus has affinities with the feminist Bildungsroman popularised in the 1960s and 1970s; a genre that championed a belief in productive self-fashioning by women in the face of systemic misogynistic oppression.
The novel begins with this concept of reinvention as both a literal fact and a striking metaphor. Its central character, Maggie Sullivan, is ‘spooked’ when a man from her past asks if she knows the fate of a young woman to whom she bears a striking resemblance, and who disappeared some twenty years earlier. What follows is Maggie’s narration of her struggle to escape from and even transform her deeply troubled life. We learn that as an orphaned child of heroin addicts, she was shunted into often brutal residential homes, and how, as an adolescent, her desire for friendship and purpose was often painfully thwarted. Most grievous of all, perhaps, in her adult life, were false accusations of infanticide which impelled her to fake her death, flee the country and create an entirely new identity. In the process, this disturbing narrative of repeated suffering and flight raises urgent political and existential questions about female identity. Who am I? Who am I permitted to become, and where, if at all, am I permitted to belong? How can I endure when happiness eludes me; when it might even be undeserved?
Despite her profoundly damaged life, Maggie has a genuine capacity for empathy. As a young child in ‘care’, she is sensitive to the plight of other wards of the state, observing ‘the pictures and magazine pages tacked above their beds in flimsy affirmation of territory’. As an older child, she arranges secret meetings between a foster ‘sister’ and the girl’s mother, only to be punished for breaking the rules. She retains this concern for others throughout her adult life, keenly aware that cherished partners have been hurt by her refusal of intimate disclosure. It’s a complex portrait that makes Maggie’s kindness seem entirely credible, free of sentimentality or fatuous clichés about the ennobling effects of deprivation.
Bodies of Light can also be read in the contexts of global investigations into the institutionalised sexual abuse of children and highly publicised miscarriages of justice for women found guilty of multiple infanticide. In both contexts, Maggie – and by extension countless people in the real world – is powerless to assert her rights. Raped by different men as a child, she quickly learns that men in authority are regarded, and regard themselves, as ‘untouchable’. Later, numbed by depression after the deaths of her three babies, she is reduced to a mute object of suspicion. As Maggie’s father-in-law ominously observes: ‘You don’t feel things as much as other people, do you?’ This chilling moment recalls the widespread public perception of Lindy Chamberlain’s affectless presence at her trial as undeniable proof of her guilt. Later, transcripts of interviews reveal the mounting suspicions of police and their ignorance of Maggie’s past and her turbulent inner life.
Bodies of Light is also a psychologically astute blend of the pared-back language of abuse and repression, and resonant metaphors of despair, or, less frequently, serenity or joy. The novel also creates a vivid sense of physical place, as well as a detailed picture of different cultures and periods of history. Given its epic scope, however, and its use of many different locations and characters, it’s not surprising that the plot sometimes falters. Maggie’s intellectual aspirations as an adolescent, for example, tend to be stated rather than imaginatively realised. The multiple infanticides, though reflecting events in the real world, feel excessive in a plot already crowded with traumatic events. Maggie’s sudden move to America with a new boyfriend has the air of a narrative expedient to propel the plot. Towards the end of the novel, her descent into a humiliating drug addiction feels tacked on, as if rounding out a checklist of problems experienced by the outcast and vulnerable. This is not an issue of implausibility; rather, it’s to suggest that the sheer number of bleak experiences to which Maggie is subjected can result in a lack of subtlety.
Bodies of Light is at its most thought-provoking and emotionally engaging when it pauses in the rush of events to represent the intensity of Maggie’s psychological and bodily experiences. She is both the little girl who feels buried alive by her rapist, and the young woman who, taken by her lover into the darkness of a forest, is transported by the ‘incandescent’ moon and ‘the spine-like outline of ferns, the solemn roadside markers, everything newly consecrated with silvery quiet’. This longing for connection with the human and natural world will sustain Maggie throughout her life, culminating in a conclusion that feels entirely earned, as well as intelligently, tenderly restrained.