In The Breeding Season, Amanda Niehaus borrows a fact from the natural world, that the male of some species die after doing their bit for procreation, and applies it to the human world.
But a comedy this novel is not; set in contemporary Australia, primarily Brisbane, it is an audacious and poetic exploration of grief and relationships between men and women.
Elise, a biologist specialising in the study of small animals such as antechinus and quolls, both feisty though endangered species, has suffered the death of a newborn child.
She and her partner Dan, a writer, have their work cut out for them, in terms of navigating the gut-wrenching, and potentially impossible, path to recovery, but also in terms of their increasingly strained relationship.
The reader first experiences the gravity of the situation from Dan: "The box made everything worse. Dan was set apart from his child by a winding drive out of the city, and a volume of dirt and turf and flowers. But it was the box he hated. The coffin that would never disintegrate, not in a hundred years, that would keep his boy apart from all the beautiful, terrible wildness in the world. He'd rather he was ashes. He would have liked to imagine William as a tree or a marsupial, atoms or cells bounding across the open spaces. But he didn't get to make that choice."
As well as processing his grief, Dan is tasked with writing the biography of his uncle, Berlin Warne, who is a narcissist of the art world.
A temptation soon comes Dan's way, in the form of Warne's muse, Hannah Wallace, who unearths his feelings and desires as well as his history.
The complexity of the novel is carried by Elise, a determined and resilient soul.
Despite the enormity of her loss, she allows herself to be intimately aware of her wounds, both physical and emotional, while continuing her work, which involves trapping mammals in various parts of Australia.
The links the novel makes between the natural and human worlds, if they are indeed separate, are precisely drawn: "...she knows that she has to consume this creature, as she had to consume her boy, her William, when they set him (no, his body) in her arms, and she held him (not him) with teeth and tongue and breasts and heart and skin and so much want it nearly killed her, a want that could only be filled by him, by his tiny body, but also what he was and might have been to her, been to them, became."
It is clear that Niehaus, a biologist herself as well as a science communicator and teacher of creative writing, set out to produce a novel that overlaps science with a love of language.
Her sentences are musical, and at times lean towards poetry: "A knife dipped in acid, and he buckles / can hardly breathe into the waves of tightness, gapes towards the air / but can't reach it."
Some may baulk at the subject matter, which is explored with brutal honesty, but the weight of the story is offset by the lushness of the language.
There are patches where minor scenes come across as a little dreamy, even abstract rather than fully resolved events in the characters' lives, but the narrative never sags.
As well as offering an exploration of the politics of human reproduction as we do it today - Niehaus is not shy when it comes to her descriptions of human sexuality - The Breeding Season is a resolutely feminist novel: "It's not fair, she thinks, the fear that women carry, are made to bear inside their bodies...
"Fear isn't a thing that Dan or any other man can fathom - not real fear anyway, middle-of-the-night dark-street fear - because control is in their blood, in their muscles and their jaws."
It could sit alongside The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood and have quite a conversation.
There can be no accident that Dan, an essentially good man, has as his project the biography of the unreconstructed Berlin Warne (whose surname cannot be an accident either).
That Elise's main tool of her trade is a trap was not lost on this reader.
The hope in The Breeding Season comes from the generosity of the conclusion, and due to a trick of the structure, in the prologue, which deserves multiple readings, as does the entire novel.
It is worth pointing out there are those in the Australian literary world who say the art of the novel is dead, that publishers are scared of producing novels of ideas, novels that provoke as much as entertain.
The Breeding Season proves those folk to be misinformed.
Ultimately The Breeding Season is a work of art, and like all works of art is sophisticated, multi-layered, and wise.
- Nigel Featherstone is the author of Bodies of Men.
- The Breeding Season, by Amanda Niehaus. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.