With the right kind of mindfulness, William Blake tells us, one can behold infinity in a grain of sand. – Janette Turner Hospital on Harmless
When a writer like Janette Turner Hospital pens a back-cover blurb for another Australian author, I pay attention. What is it about Julienne van Loon’s novella, Harmless, soon to be released by Fremantle Press, which has attracted such a gifted admirer? The snippet from Hospital quoted on the front of the book states: Harmless is “suffused with a tough and totally unsentimental compassion”.
I notice, too, review words like “unsentimental”; it seems to be used often when female literary authors are praised. Sentimentality implies emotional manipulation, and a lack of subtlety and nuance. The term has been used to dismiss the work of a plethora of “female authors”, especially those writing in genres such as romance. But what does “unsentimental” mean? I’m tempted to think it’s code for “writes like a man”, or “give this book a girlie-looking cover at your peril”. It’s praise, but is it gendered praise?
In van Loon’s case, unsentimental certainly doesn’t mean unemotional. Far from it. Nor does it mean she avoids topics commonly associated with so-called “women’s writing”, such as relationships, children and family; it even has a female protagonist. What it might mean is a kind of unflinching courage to face the darkest aspects of human frailty and vulnerability while avoiding pathos or despair.
Harmless is another one of those “devastating” books that has been my privilege to discover through the Australian Women Writers challenge. It tells the story of an eight-year-old girl whose Thai step-mother has just died, and who is on the way to visit her feckless father in prison, accompanied by the dead stepmother’s frail elderly father. This father, who speaks little English and who is fresh off the plane from Bangkok, has no idea where he is or what to do with this child who has unexpectedly been placed in his care; he believed his daughter to be happily married to a good man, and with children of her own.
The two get lost on the way to the prison; they abandon their car on the edge of scrubland and are separated as they wander off to find help. The landscape is desolate, like the lives van Loon portrays; their survival uncertain.
This novel is about people on the fringes of society, “losers” one might say. Issues of race and class are central, but understated. There’s no obvious moral compass given, no superior perspective the reader is invited to occupy from which to judge these people. Rather, the focus is on love, and lack of love, and what might constitute a family.
By the end, I felt wrung out, hurt by the author’s bleak picture of humanity and yet consoled, too.
Who will enjoy this novella? Anyone who relishes subtle and emotionally powerful prose; who is interested in a portrait of contemporary Australian life that doesn’t shy away from issues of social disadvantage; and who can bear the heartbreak.
This review counts towards my Australian Women Writers 2013 challenge. My thanks to the publishers for supplying a review copy.