Julia Leigh, Power of unspoken words

Julia Leigh

Power of unspoken words

Overview

April 2010 - Julia Leigh, 2002-2003 Literature Protégée

Disquiet, Julia Leigh’s first novella, is one of the books that made its mark on the international literary scene in 2008. Greeted with critical acclaim in Australia, this second brilliant work by Toni Morrison’s protégée was published in France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. Chinese and Greek translations are pending.

The book tells the story of Olivia, who flees Australia and a violent husband to seek refuge with her two children in the family home she hasn’t seen in years. It won the 2009 Encore Award — presented since 1990 by Britain’s Society of Authors for a second novel — and was shortlisted for many other prizes worldwide. Chosen as one of the best books of the year by the Australian magazine, The Monthly, and by the Guardian, in the U.K., this dark and compelling tale has been described by prominent South African novelist J. M. Coetzee as a “powerful and disquieting novella”. Its strength lies in the fact that the author muzzles the characters, preventing them from expressing their pain.

With this new work, Leigh continues the success established by her first novel,The Hunter, which has been translated into six languages and awarded numerous prizes. Commenting on the invitations she received from book fairs this year, including the Shanghai International Literary Festival in March, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April and the 3e Assises internationales du roman – an international conference on the novel – in Lyon in May, she says: “What I like most about festivals are the heartening chance encounters with fellow writers.”

The Australian novelist has just completed her doctorate in the University of Adelaide’s English Department and is currently working on an original screenplay for Paramount/Plan B and on a screen adaptation with Brazilian director Walter Salles. She has been named one of 25 New Faces of Independent Cinema by Filmmaker Magazine (U.S.). Toni Morrison says of her: “Julia Leigh is a sorceress. Her deft prose casts a spell of serene control, while the earth quakes underfoot.”

Julia Leigh

Power of unspoken words

Excerpt from Disquiet

April 2010 - Julia Leigh, 2002-2003 Literature Protégée

Excerpt from Disquiet

They stood before the great gateway, all around an empty and open countryside, ugly countryside, flat mudploughed fields. On that morning the sky was balm, a pale and whitish blue. The woman was dressed in a tweed pencil skirt, a grey silk blouse and her dark hair was pulled back into a loose chignon, the way her mother once used to wear it. Her right arm was broken and she'd rested it in a silk-scarf sling which co-ordinated unobtrusively with her blouse. By her feet, a suitcase. The children - the boy was nine, the girl was six and carrying her favourite doll - were saddled with backpacks and they each guarded a small suitcase of their own. The woman stepped forward and went right up to the gate - iron-spiked, imposing - looking for the lock. Instead she found the surveillance system, a palmpad, and she rested her palm on this electronic pad for a long moment until she was defeated. Unfazed, she returned to collect her suitcase and, without a backward glance at the children, turned off the driveway onto the grassy verge.

After a while they decided to follow. First the boy, then the girl. They lumbered in single file alongside the stone wall that bordered the vast estate until the woman reached a spot which looked familiar; she had recognised an ancient oak over the bristling glass-topped wall. A sweet-smelling vine covered this section of the wall and, hooking the handle of her suitcase awkwardly over her cast, she trailed her left hand through the greenery, seeking out the stone behind it. Until she found - the door. She tore at the vine and when the children joined her they watched this motherly performance with the same impassive look on their faces that they usually had when they watched TV But the boy soon came to help and eventually they uncovered the small wooden entrance. She still had her key and - holding the slender precious thing in her left-hand mitt, the 'sinister hand'- she fitted it to the lock. At first she turned it in the wrong direction but then, click, they heard the tumbler fall. The door didn't open, would not open: she tried, it stayed shut. She pressed her full bodyweight against it, leant into it with her shoulder, but it refused to budge. She stood there for a long while with her forehead resting against the door, as if by dint of will it somehow, if only, would melt away and allow them to pass.

The boy had a go. He planted himself on the ground and kicked at the door. He kicked and kicked, first a hard low kick and then a one-two kung-fu kick. He took a few steps back and, like a high-jumper, standing on the balls of his feet, gathering concentration, he readied for a run-up: he launched himself against the door. At the point of impact there came a dull thud. He did this again; he made himself brutal. And again. Over and over, uncomplaining. He picked himself up, wincing, and walked back to his starting position, lifted his heels, ran at the door. But the door was oak and he was boy; his shirt was torn and bloodied. He snuck a glance at the woman and with a slow blink she encouraged him to continue. In the end he forced an opening.

The woman was first through the breach, snagging and ripping her stockings. The boy helped his sister across and then, piece by piece, passed the luggage over. He took a quick look around to make sure no-one had been watching and closed the door behind him.

-----------------------

Once inside they dragged their suitcases through lawn that grew thick and soft. In the distance a squad of four men, gardeners in uniform, were scooping leaves out of a stone-sculpted fountain. As the trio drew close one of these gardeners, a longtimer, struggled to his feet and waved in greeting. The woman returned his wave but did not deviate from her course. They followed the long line of yews clipped into fantastic shapes, into top hats and ice-cream cones and barbells. Another gardener, riding on a mower, swerved to give them berth. They avoided the rose garden and instead cut into the pebbled allee which was lined with elms whose twigs had not yet sprouted their leaves, so that it was apparent a tree actually grew, that a twig had worked its way out of a branch, that an elm did not arrive in the world elm-shaped. The girl declined to leave the lawn, would not put a foot onto the allee, until her brother opened her suitcase and from it removed the tiny exoskeleton of a pram. She settled her doll into the pram and, reassured, proceeded on, managing to push the pram and pull her suitcase at one and the same time.

The stone stairs leading to the chateau were wide and shallow and worn like soap. The woman took hold of the doorknocker - it was a large bronze ring running through the nose of a great bronze bull - and weighed it in her hand. Knocked. They waited patiently, and their kind of patience was born more from exhaustion, from abandoning any expectation of easy gratification, than from gracious goodwill. She reached out to ruffle the boy's hair, to give them both some courage. Knock-knock. An old woman answered. She was wearing her perennial uniform, a black dress and white apron, and her hair, grey now, was curled in a tidy bun. They stared at one another without speaking and between them passed an understanding of the unsung miracle of the door - one moment a person wasn't there, and the next moment ... there. Peering inside, the children spied the entrance hall; it was austere and immense, the wood-panelled walls were painted palest dove-grey. High ceilings lent it the authority of a church or a courthouse although this authority was undermined by brightly coloured helium balloons weighted down in vases and tied along the banisters of the grand central staircase.

'Hello Ida,' said the woman calmly. 'It's me.'

'Hello Olivia.'

'May I introduce the children?'

Each child gave a limp wave. Ida noted the boy's bloodied shoulder, his torn shirt and trousers, but held her tongue. She bent down and twinkled her fingers in greeting, ushered them inside.

Grandmother crowned the staircase. She was impeccably dressed in a matching boucle jacket and skirt, a faultless string of pearls. A sceptral silver-topped walking-stick rested by her side. Though small and frail, the impression she gave was one of dignified resignation.

'Hello Mother.'

'Hello Olivia.'

The woman climbed the marble stairs, and when she reached her mother she took her soft scaly hand and kissed it. A formal gesture, not one of reconciliation. And her mother, in turn, made an assessment - the straggled hair, the torn stockings, the broken arm. Tactful, she determined not to pass comment.

'I needed to come home,' said the woman. There was a long silence. 'Well, meet the children.'

She waved them up the stairs.

'This is Andrew, we call him Andy. Andy, this is your grandmother. Grand-mère. Grandmother.'

He said hello; she smiled.

'And this is Lucy. Lucyloo.'

'Hello Lucyloo,' said Grandmother.

The girl was too shy to reply. 'Will you be staying long?' A pause.

'Yes, I think so.'

'So, the day of days,' said Grandmother. She tapped one of the balloons with the end of her walking-stick. 'Your brother will be home soon. They are pregnant, you know. In the hospital. We expect them any minute. Everything here is ready, just for the first six months or so - when it's hardest. But, of course, there is plenty of room. Where would you like to sleep, Olivia?'

'Wherever is convenient.'

'Ida will see to it.' She looked to Ida for confirmation. 'Well, come now, are you tired?You must be tired. Such a long trip.' And then she added, 'Was it a long trip?'

`Very long,' replied the woman. 'Wasn't it, kids?'

The boy shrugged but the girl bobbed her head up and down without stopping.

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