Julia Leigh's second
work is a beautiful, gothic tale and
an intimate examination of
psychological pain. The novella
opens with Olivia's return to her
childhood home after a twelve-year
absence. Her two children trail
behind her. A sense of foreboding
and displacement takes root in the
first scene when Olivia tries to
open the gate to her mother's
chateau via the electronic keypad.
The gate will not open. Undeterred,
she and the children veer off the
path to the lawn, and Olivia tries
to enter the chateau's grounds
through, presumably, her "secret"
childhood entrance. This is closed
to her, too, until her son, Andy,
bloodies his shoulder in his effort
to force the door. As they walk
across the lawns to the main house,
the gardeners cut large hedges into
playful shapes barbells, ice cream
cones but the whimsical characters
of the plants seem odd in this cold,
closed world. Soon, Olivia's brother
Marcus returns home with his
disconsolate, depressed wife Sophie
and their stillborn child Alice.
Olivia and Marcus's mother
resignedly watches over all them. It
becomes clear that these characters
are plagued with deep sadness,
regret, and disquietude. Even the
children Andy and Lucy wrestle
with their own pain, as Lucy strives
to understand the disorientation of
her new life in this chilly house,
and Andy plots to return home to his
At the center of this dismal group is Olivia, a woman who has fled from an abusive husband only to find herself unmoored from the bearings of her life. She pronounces to her brother that she "is murdered" and even offers her children to him, desiring perhaps to unfetter her life so she can leave it. Her body is covered with yellow bruises and her broken arm is in a sling. It becomes obvious that the future of her life will depend on her own choices and ability to cope, none of the adults her brother, mother, Sophie, or the housekeeper Ida will consciously help her.
This is not a warm family; secrets, resentments, and deep fissures exist here with the morning tea. There will be no late night therapeutic discussions, no sage advice about how to handle the vicissitudes of life. There are moments when various characters attempt to reach out to others, but the dysfunction is too deep, the ceremony too ingrained for there to be real connection. Ultimately, Olivia's children, particularly Andy, provide the catalyst for her recovery. Contrasted to Sophie, slowly dying inside as she nurses her dead child, Olivia is brought back to life by the flesh-and-blood Andy, the child that refuses to give up on her, though she would give up on him.
This transformation is powerful, and though some critics have argued that Disquiet is light on plot, Olivia's evolution is absorbing and complex. Leigh is an artist working at the top of her game, and the success of this novella lies in her ability to shave as much fat from her narrative as possible, while maintaining deep, profound significance. Similar to a Rembrandt sketch, this novella breathes full-bodied life through only a few deft, precise strokes. Like a poem, each word carries a heavy load. Leigh is a remarkable, stunning writer and Disquiet is a must-read.
This review is from the November 12, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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