In this oddly airless novella by Julia Leigh, a woman returns to her family home, a château in rural France. She left it twelve years ago in disgrace, determined to marry the man her family disapproved of, and now she has returned, bringing two children, a lot of heavy bruises, a broken arm, and a load of shame to her icy mother’s doorstep.
She’s not expected. The person who is eagerly expected tragically doesn’t come: Marcus and Sophie are supposed to bring home their baby girl from the hospital, but Alice is stillborn. Marcus and Sophie horrify Marcus’s mother by bringing the “bundle” home for a few days’ grace before the funeral, and over the next few days Sophie carries the baby from room to room and even out to a picnic as the disturbing tension builds.
The woman (named Olivia, but consistently called “the woman”) hammers a phone plug out of shape after an unwanted phone call. Marcus is having an affair. Olivia’s son, perhaps ten years old, is planning an escape across the lake. Her daughter keeps parroting ugly phrases, we assume learned from her “pig” of a father (“This milk tastes like your arse.”) The baby “sleeps” in the freezer at night, a glimpse of pink satin instead of ice cream. And Leigh’s writing is certainly technically accomplished. Her prose is measured and even, and she never lapses into melodrama, no matter how shocking the subject matter.
Still. I didn’t like it. The Gothic pieces are too distant and chilly to be properly Gothic, and too disturbing not to be. There are bits that are just… off, like the way Olivia jumps up from the table for ice cream in the middle of dinner… why? Just to get that glimpse of pink satin? Or this: Olivia, who has injured her right arm, learns to eat, wash, and carry out other daily activities with her left hand. Leigh writes,
Each gesture normally habitual, unnoticed, careless, was now new to her, not entirely new, but was seen in a new light, or was seen as if she had — for the first time in her life — lifted from the root of her being, taken a step aside. And there was an element of wonder in her movements.
I broke my right hand two weeks ago and I can tell you right now that there is no element of wonder in being unable to button your pants or open a jar or type or put on your seat belt. It is only annoying. Only.
This was a book that, for me, could have been great, and — because of clutter and a few weird missteps — just didn’t quite get there.