Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us is a prize-winning novel* from Australia, which has just been published in the UK and has recently been long listed for the 2016 Stella Prize.
It’s a multi-layered story set in a rural community in northern New South Wales, where farms and forests exist side by side, the kind of place where people go to escape the Big Smoke and start their lives afresh. It could be described an environmental novel, or perhaps even a cli-fi one, because the effect of industry — specifically fracking and logging — on nature is a central theme, but above all it’s a beautifully constructed tale about family secrets, love, loss, parenthood and community.
Twin narratives — and a mystery
The main narrative focuses around the Müller family: Evangeline, an artist, and her German-born husband Stefan, both former residents at a local hippy commune known as “The Hive”, and their two daughters, Tess and Meg. A younger daughter, Pip, has recently died of leukaemia, and everyone in this fragile family is grappling with grief in different ways: Evangeline has taken to wandering the forest pushing an empty pram and skinny dipping in a local creek; Stefan, who has a fondness for alcohol, is obsessed with his colony of bees, which are all dying of some mysterious illness; and Meg has stopped speaking altogether, preferring to let her little sister do the talking for her.
A second storyline follows Jim, a school teacher, who has fled Sydney and the woman he once loved. He’s now living a frugal life in a cottage next to the Müller’s farm, trying his best to ignore the postcards that arrive from his ex-girlfriend reminding him of the troubled life he left behind. As Meg’s teacher, he helps her to find her voice through writing (extracts from Meg’s exercise journal are dotted throughout the narrative), but he also crosses a line by entering into an adulterous relationship with Meg’s mother, Evangeline.
Into this mix is the shocking discovery of an old car wreck and a human skeleton on the Müller’s farm, which adds some suspense to an otherwise finely nuanced novel.
There’s a timeless quality to Juchau’s prose, which is richly evocative and poetical, yet it’s also balanced by restraint and poise, making it effortless — and engaging — to read.
She has an extraordinary ability to demonstrate complex human emotions through her characters’ behaviour, too, so that you come to know, through a kind of osmosis, how everyone is feeling about certain situations, without the author having to spell everything out. There are times when you want to cry for the characters — Evangeline’s distress at the loss of her child, for instance — while at other times you fear for them — such as when 13-year-old Tess accepts a dare to go hitch-hiking.
The natural world is beautifully depicted, too, almost to the point of becoming a character in its own right. This is not the Australia that many readers from abroad will recognise: this is a proper rural community, in the forested hills north of Sydney, which attracts those looking for an alternative lifestyle and a sense of community. And yet the very thing that attracts them — the tall trees, the fresh air, the wildlife, the scenery — is under threat from mining companies and forestry operations. No surprise, then, that the dying bees which so perplex Stefan, are a metaphor for death of the natural world.
Rich, complex novel
Did I like this book? Very much so. It’s a rich, complex and wholly engaging story, the only bum note being the discovery of the body early on, which doesn’t feel particularly authentic. It’s merely there as a plot device to provide a “solution” to one of the secrets at the heart of this story.
But that’s a minor quibble, because this is a wonderfully vivid novel peopled by a cast of intriguing, well-drawn characters. I’d like to see it make the Stella Prize shortlist, which will be unveiled next week.
* The World Without Us won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in January.
This is my 13th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 9th for #AWW2016.
This book has been published in the UK and US.
17 thoughts on “‘The World Without Us’ by Mireille Juchau”
Sounds like a book I’d enjoy – thanks fir another great review. I don’t know how you do it – you always capture the essence of each movel in your reviews.
Thanks for your kind words, sharkell. This novel is quite sophisticated in the sense there’s a lot going on and yet the author pulls it off superbly. I think you’d enjoy it.
Good to see that you gave this the thumbs up. I hadn’t been overly attracted to it because I wondered if there was ‘too much going on’ – seems the author pulls it off.
It’s a complex story but it’s very polished and a delight to read. I really liked being part of this world for a bit. Funnily enough it kind of felt Canadian to me, rather than Australian…
As I usually love double narratives, I love the sound of this one Kim… immediately drawn in regarding Evangeline especially with the promise of the author’s ‘extraordinary ability to demonstrate complex human emotions through her characters’ behaviour’ … must check out the Stella List to.
Congratulations on the exciting new development with Waterstones too… fab group of bloggers😀
Thanks, Poppy. It’s one of those books I wasn’t sure I wanted to read from the blurb, but it absorbed me right from the start. A really great, complex read.
And thanks for good wishes about Waterstones’ gig.
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I’m just reading this now (p.113) and agree entirely about the discovery of the bones. Not actually a skeleton, Stefan is at pains to say, which distracted me into all kinds of conjecture, especially how they’re separate and how come no one found this car wreck (white) and the bones on their property for a whole year? I mean, I know the Aussie bush can be very dense, but this is not wilderness. No doubt all will be revealed…
Yep, you spotted it: the one clunker of a plot element that, to me, spoilt an otherwise exceptional novel.
It takes a little while to engage at the beginning…
I’d agree… It’s a bit of a slow burner, but worth it.