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 book has been published in the UK and US.