When musician Liz Phair sang her 1991 song, Fuck and Run, I couldn’t help wondering at the irony of her choral lament – “Fuck and run, fuck and run / even when I was 12” – lyrics that claimed something akin to agency in a situation that would ordinarily be considered exploitative. In doing so, it becomes a form of self-protection: I did it so you didn’t.
Bodies of Light, Jennifer Down’s second novel, is a meditation on what it means to experience this vulnerability. Its narrator, Maggie Sullivan, is institutionalised, caught up in a world of “foster families, group homes and resi units”, of “scheduled mealtimes bathtimes playtimes sleeptimes and joints laced with speed and grilles on windows”. Her father is a drug addict, jailed after injecting and killing one of his friends while Maggie is young; her mother is dead by the time she is two, OD’ing in a public toilet. At the age of 4 she is molested; at the age of 11, she is molested again.
Maggie’s voice has the verisimilitude of memoir. When she recalls “showers in the dark and lithium and coppers exploring my arsehole with a five-cent coin and sucking lolly snakes to get the taste of cock out of my mouth”, we credit her bitterly nonchalant sense of shock. Maggie is a person who has learned to be guarded and become adept at making herself as small as possible: “Picture me in that summer slick, newly fifteen and in search of a hollow to fall through.” By the age of 19 she has entered a psych ward (“clinical depression, catatonia, psychosis”); in her 20s, she experiences postnatal depression. We follow her into adulthood and late middle-age, witnessing incidents which will, quite literally, transform her life.
Maggie is crafted to invite sympathy: “I thought about what it must be like to have siblings, to see your likeness in someone else’s face, to share another’s memories.” Down asks the reader to take on this role, soliciting the kind of emotional investment that novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life or Douglas Stewart’s Shuggie Bain lobbied for. Here is Maggie, recalling her childhood and its predatory intrusions:
At home, I examined myself in the speckled full-length mirror on the back of my bedroom door. I hadn’t grown any taller, but my legs had a sinister, womanly outline where my thighs had filled out. There was new flesh on my belly and hips, the places where the elastic of my knickers left faint lines. I flattened my breasts beneath my palms, tried to redistribute their weight in the cups, tried to make them as small as possible. I twisted to survey my bum, my thighs, slightly dimpled. I wanted my girl-body back.
There is a wealth of lapidary detail in this passage. That single adjectival “speckled” rendering the mirror – tawdry, vaguely dirtied, suburban; a surface that will never frame anything wholly glamorous or transcendental – tangible in the mind’s-eye. Attaching “sinister” to the idea of a “womanly outline”, a manoeuvre both disquieted and disconcerting. Maggie’s faint lines and filled-out thighs and furtive attempts to render all of this “as small as possible”. The cumulative effect of the statistical, almost scientific language she uses to account for herself, mapping what has been damaged (note the adjectives: “redistribute”, “survey”; as if calculating the losses that youth and childhood have occasioned, the question of what might make a body whole again). How all of this builds to its poignant conclusion: the longing for a “girl-body” Maggie never had the chance to inhabit, and can never have back.
Occasionally Down overemphasises Maggie’s detached confusion of trauma and the mundane. Meeting a boy she fancies at the cinema, Maggie longs, we are told, “to sit beside him and watch him work like I used to watch Dad playing pool at the Southern Aurora or shooting up in the plastic kiddie pool”. This kind of naivety isn’t consistent with the character we are elsewhere asked to engage with, a woman who enrols in arts at the University of Melbourne and reads her way through the classics at a public library; a woman who is capable of observations about lolly snakes, which are plausible in their anger, their bitterness given verisimilitude by the context. Down asks the reader to believe that Maggie would see her boyfriend as akin to Dad shooting up in a kiddie pool, even if this reads as artless, unsophisticated and rawly ingenuous, qualities which Maggie, owing to her experience and canniness, simply is not. Down writes in Maggie’s voice, thinks Maggie’s thoughts, sees through her eyes; but this demands that the writer ventriloquise what would be true for their characters to say and feel and think; to withhold the stray boom mic of the intruding authorial voice.
Still, few writers can resist the pull of stylistic licence. Even allowing for the fact Maggie makes her way through Middlemarch, Beloved, and David Copperfield – arguably a narrative contrivance designed to allow Down her more expansive flights of lyricism – would Maggie really write something with the self-consciously literary rhythms and cadence of this: “our names tattooed in the foundations of a stranger’s bedroom [ …] So many rooms, or almost-rooms, blank and awful [ …] walls disgorging insulation [ …] we curled, warm-blooded, between picnic rug and polar-fleece blanket”. The reader perhaps may be forgiving; the frisson of that artful “tattooed” and “disgorging”, the “almost-rooms” and “warm-blooded”, are certainly beguiling. Yet some of these flourishes couldn’t possibly be Maggie’s voice: “I was hypnotised by the shapes of things, the spine-like outlines of ferns, the solemn roadside markers, everything newly consecrated with silvery quiet.”
Bodies of Light is a remarkably empathic book, a bildungsroman in the mode of Jane Eyre or Of Human Bondage. Its characters are credibly invested with hopes, convictions, dreams, and desires. Maggie shows us how, whether we “fuck and run”, or are “fucked and run from” – or can’t quite tell either way – we live, and go on living. Maggie’s is a life that the reader cannot deny; as she reflects toward the novel’s end, cocooned inside the sweater of another romantic partner she cannot trust she will know for long: “I pulled the neck up over my nose and then felt silly, because she was right next to me. I was always looking ahead to a time when I would miss this.”