- After Story, by Larissa Behrendt. UQP, $32.99.
An often-overlooked rite of passage during maturity concerns the way we reconcile perception of our parents from a child's eye view with that of seeing them as fellow adults. In today's confused and crowded world, an awareness of our parents having once owned narratives in which we played no role can sharpen the focus of many things, such as compassion, empathy, and possible forgiveness.
Larissa Behrendt, who won the David Unaipon Award, and the regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book, with her 2002 novel, Home, has provided a powerfully redemptive parable with her new novel, After Story.
The story unfolds in alternating first-person narratives, from Della, an Indigenous woman with a small-town troubled past, and her adult daughter, Jasmine, who - having escaped to the city, shrugged off an irritating birth name, Jazzie, by deed poll, and graduated into a legal aid career - finds herself, almost by chance, unravelling a lifetime of family pain. It's a risky narrative structure, since the tone must reflect not only the mutual despair of a fractured relationship, but also the distance between the two voices.
Jasmine is a young, university-educated woman, keen to define her Indigenous identity, while her mother, Della, is a woman in early middle age, intelligent and observant, although poorly educated, and still carrying a burden of grief. Thankfully, Behrendt's fluently accomplished prose is up to the task, finding an authentic distinction between the parallel narratives.
Seeking respite from the aftermath of a difficult legal case, Jasmine has arranged a literary tour of England with one of her university friends. When the friend is unable to go, Jasmine offers the spare ticket to her mother, who accepts mainly because her bossy sister, Kiki, claims she could never cope. In fact, Della's life is a tangled web of racial prejudice, family tragedy and bitterly long held resentments, tempered, and occasionally assuaged, by the home-spun wisdom of Aunty Elaine, a local keeper of Indigenous stories.
Attempting to run away from an abusive father at the age of 15, Della had been rescued by Jimmy, her good-natured friend, whose family provided sanctuary. Della and Jimmy soon married, having three daughters, Brittany, Leigh-Anne and Jazzie, but Della's own childhood scars remained, haunting her into alcohol dependence, and alienating Jimmy's family. Following an open house night of drink and drugs, Della drags herself awake to discover her eldest daughter, seven-year-old Brittany, has disappeared. The community is cast into the spiralling darkness of accusations, lingering guilt, and widespread condemnation.
Years later, with Jimmy and Aunty Elaine both having died, and Jasmine long-since escaped to the city, Della's still-damaged life is moodily constrained by Kiki, and the remaining daughter, Leigh-Anne, now married, whip-smart but quick tempered, and staunchly unimpressed by Jasmine's academic success. Typically, she mocks Jasmine's offer to take Della on an overseas jaunt as being far too late, and evidence of misplaced pride.
So, mother and daughter set off, first time abroad for both, but Jasmine, whose childhood and university experiences were comforted by reading, is at least familiar with the books and authors the trip will explore. Anyone who has done a coach tour of England or Europe will quickly recognise the way strangers will bond into companionable - but sometimes quarrelsome - groups under the guidance of a congenial guide. There are of course the usual suspects, including a couple of self-indulgent spinster sisters from Boston, inclined to keep everyone waiting; a talkative (heard it all before) academic with a taciturn wife; a lesbian couple with sharp minds, whom Jasmine befriends, and Lionel, the tour guide, a one-time actor, and celebrity TV host.
Using the literary tour as scaffolding for the main theme of mother-daughter redemption is a wonderfully successful creative device. It allows Della's relatively unsophisticated eye to see the occasional gaucheries and idiosyncratic vanities of fellow tourists with surprising compassion, and measures Jasmine's empathy, as she begins to understand the depth of her mother's unresolved grief. Memories of Aunty Elaine's unwritten fables from the dreamtime cast shadows across the path of comparatively recent thoughts from English literature.
The hidden threads of Della and Jasmine's stories, including the terrible truth about Brittany, become somehow woven into the emotional and intellectual fabric of the tour, granting the healing possibilities of love and forgiveness. This beautifully fashioned novel stands testament to the proposition that good fiction can cut to the chase of complex social problems in ways that might leave an entire library of self-help non-fiction found wanting in its wake. Highly recommended.