Harmless by Julienne van Loon

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”.

harmless-van-loonI 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.

Title: Harmless by Julienne van Loon
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2013
ISBN: 9781922089045

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10 Comments

  1. Thank you for this sensitive review, Elizabeth. I have great respect for Julienne. She was my supervisor for the creative part of my Master of Creative Arts thesis, and I can truthfully say, she taught me how to construct a story and not take short cuts or indulge in floury descriptions. I enjoyed her first novella, found her second one interesting but less convincing; but I so admire the way she chooses edgy topics that cut into the underbelly of our cultural and social life, and present it without moralising, trying to redeem the characters, or selling them short in sentimentality. She has a very clear, unsentimental but compassionate vision, and is not at all obsessed with her own life story, which some edgy Australian women writers, like Elizabeth Jolley, were. A rare gift. I look forward to reading Harmless.

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    • Christina, what a gift to have such a talented teacher! This is the first of hers I’ve read, so I’ll look out for the others with interest. It’s interesting what you say about her not being obsessed with her own life story. I admire that, too (but can’t say I’m free from the obsession!). Thanks for taking the time to comment; it’s much appreciated.

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  2. Thank you Elizabeth for the review. I probably won’t read the book because although I’m interested in subtle but emotionally powerful prose I’m a terrible baby when it comes to bleak fiction. Yet I’m reading John Banville’s Shroud at the moment! Go figure!

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  3. Great review, Elizabeth, & I was especially interested in your comments regarding the cover and ‘unsentimentality’. I’m planning to read & review it (once I’ve got through the 2 piles on my desk!), esp as I seem to remember you having mentioned it positively before, although I can for the life of me remember where!

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  4. Thanks Elizabeth, I have had Juliet’s name on my list of to read authors for about a year but have not gotten around to it yet, this sounds a perfect place to start nd I shall badger my local store about stocking it (something I have been doing a lot of since AWW)

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  5. Just came from Emily’s Tea Leaves which highly recommended your site. I wanted to let you know I stopped by and enjoyed. Paulette

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