- Love Objects, by Emily Maguire. Allen & Unwin, $32.99.
Have you ever been into a house that was cluttered? Where every bit of available space seemed to have something on it? Where there wasn't a spare inch of space anywhere? Well, imagine that kind of clutter on steroids, and you have the home of a hoarder - a place in which there's so much accumulated stuff that living in the house can become hazardous.
People with hoarding disorder exist. It's a recognised psychological/psychiatric condition, often a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. Pathological hoarders have trouble throwing out things that most people consider worthless. They often also hunt out and gather other people's discarded junk.
Hoarding disorder and its impacts on life and family are key themes explored by Emily Maguire in her new novel, Love Objects. Set in Sydney during the 2019/2020 summer of bushfires and choking smoke, the narrative follows the story of three main protagonists: Nic, a 42-year-old hoarder, her niece, Lena, an 18-year-old university student, and Lena's brother Will, who is trying to sort himself out after recently being released from prison.
Complex dynamics underlie all the family interactions and relationships. And this is what the novel is really about: the baggage we carry from the past, the impacts on our lives of those who claim to love us, and how the actions of our loved ones can shape us. It's also about what we do with the emotional gifts (good and bad) that our family members give us.
The novel makes us wonder how much of what we do is voluntary or pre-programmed. What are the recurring patterns in families? How do we cope with the hand that is dealt to us, especially when those we love end up getting hurt?
Maguire is the acclaimed author of An Isolated Incident which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin award in 2017. This new work, Love Objects, arose from her time as Writer In Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, established to link authors with the science of human health, lifestyle and behaviour. She uses fiction to convey the complex psychological anatomy of hoarding and the challenges of recognising and treating it.
Maguire achieves this with tenderness and empathy. Through Nic, she delves into the origins of the disorder, and how a hoarder rationalises her behaviour and creates emotional connections between objects and the past. "... from her bed Nic has been able to reach out and touch the top that she had worn the first time Tony kissed her."
Hoarding can get out of control without anyone knowing about it. Not even family. Past trauma can trigger it. And Nic's past certainly has its share of difficult and painful incidents.
Her hoarding, however, is not the only issue tackled in the novel. Both Lena and Will have problems of their own.
Maguire paints her characters convincingly. Her protagonists are flawed and they struggle to do the right thing. They behave badly and make mistakes. They try to escape instead of facing up to their problems. Sound familiar? Essentially, though, they are good people.
In her previous works, including her recent book, This is What a Feminist Looks Like (2019), Maguire has affirmed her feminist credentials. Women's issues also come up in Love Objects, through Lena who suffers an unexpected form of abuse from a privileged male university student.
The vulnerabilities of young women and the impacts of abuse are plausibly conveyed. Maguire makes the reader question important concepts, such as responsibility and consent in sex- factors highly relevant in today's political climate and society. (Think Scott Morrison and the recently revealed shenanigans at Parliament House).
She also touches on the excuses some men use: "I became the monster so the monster wouldn't hurt me."
Maguire's observation of detail is wonderful. Her ability to convey backstory adds depth and reality, and her understanding of humanity add layers of warmth.
Love Objects traverses difficult territory: poverty, fractured families, broken relationships, trauma, imprisonment and loss. However, Maguire tackles this material with kindness, so the journey never becomes exceedingly heavy. And, while the ending is a little too easy, it is satisfying and leaves room for hope.
Fundamentally, this is a nuanced and well-observed treatise of mental health, its sources, and far-reaching impacts. The material is handled expertly by the author.
Information is carefully threaded through the narrative without ever becoming didactic.
- Karen Viggers is an internationally best-selling author of contemporary fiction. Her latest novel is The Orchardist's Daughter.