Looking at my bookshelf, which is currently filled with Australian novels and short story collections, there are very few stories that do not explore grief and loss in some way. There are the overt explorations of grief: Virginia Lloyd and Carol Lefevre, Felicity Volk and Tim Winton. Then there are the more abstract explorations that challenge the conventional concepts of both grief and loss, seen in the work of writers like Debra Adelaide, Cate Kennedy, Richard Flanagan and Melissa Lucashenko.
When I was younger, I had a very rigid idea of what constituted loss, with what constituted grieving. An idea that was informed by the funerals I went to, the stories I heard, the things I watched and the books I read.
A loss was a person. A loss was a death.
Grief was the black afterward, hushed. Moving and comfort food. Photos hung above mantels. Then the grieving period ended and other emotions were allowed back in again. You weren’t meant to be sad after that, you weren’t meant to grieve.
When I was young, grief was a finite stretch of time after someone died, and then it was over. My idea of loss and grieving began to shift, began to shatter into different colours, as I got older and experienced grief that was complex and multifaceted. I spent my teenage years in a state of perpetual grief. Of mourning. At times consuming, but never existing on its own.
While I grieved, I was still mostly happy. Things thrilled me and frustrated me. I was peaceful and calm and joyful and tired and curious. Often, feeling anything other than sadness and stillness felt inappropriate. It felt selfish, almost shallow. It took years to recognise that the array of emotion experienced during mourning was not a sign of weakness, of betrayal or of shallowness, but a sign of how deep and complex our ability to feel actually is.
My debut novel, In the Quiet, is an exploration of this simple and often overlooked fact; grief—mourning—does not exist on its own.
When I started writing In the Quiet, I was not sure if the image that I was writing from, that of a little girl under a jacaranda tree, would twist back in on itself into the shape of a short story, or whether it would grow outward into something longer.
In the Quiet quickly fattened into a novel. Writing a novel lends itself to the exploration of grief, the way that sadness surges and recedes. A novel allows for immersion. It allows readers to be swallowed, to disappear into the narrative. Short stories, poems—even art and live music—allow for immersion, too. This is not what stands novels as a medium apart. A novel takes hours, days, weeks—sometimes months to read, and so it begins to fall into the rhythms of our own life. It colours what we see and how we feel in a way distinct from art forms where the immersion is remembered rather than continuing. It can often consume us until we are gasping for breath.
Because of this, novels exploring grief and loss allow us to test loss, to test mourning. To imagine ourselves into those places of pain and ceremony. We feel alongside the characters for such a long, long time. The pain, in some ways, becomes our own. That emptiness, when the covers are pressed closed at the end of the book. That sense, for a while, that no other book will do, that is often a symptom.
A lengthy memoir also allows for this long-term immersion, yet a memoir does not belong to us in the same way a novel does. We are too conscious of its realism for the connection to be the same. I engaged so strongly with the beautiful and aching loss in Virginia Lloyd’s The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement. Yet, it was someone else’s lived experience; someone else’s journey and it felt strange—uncomfortable—to project too much of myself.
As In the Quiet grew into a novel, I wanted to explore grief as I have seen it. I wanted to explore connection, joy and the reality of grief. That it comes in waves. That there are peaks and troughs. That grief and the rituals, ceremonials and stories that make it, paint themselves differently for every person, for every loss. Grief is wild and trembling and full.
So many of the Australian fiction books on my shelves seem to explore the fundamental reality that can be missing in other dialogues related to grief: that grief exists alongside every other emotion, not in the absence of them. That the reality of this juxtaposition is discomforting. Unsettling.
So many of these books normalise these moments. The pitch perfect ending of Lefevre’s Nights in the Asylum. The achingly beautiful transgenerational exploration in Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide and the strength and incredible resilience of Delia Bennet in The Household Guide to Dying. There needs to be more of this, because too often we are horrified when we laugh, when we feel our chests loosen. When we feel happy or free or entertained. As though grief is somehow a penance that must be borne, simply for surviving when someone that we love has not, or in other cases, simply for being when things have shifted around us, been altered, often, without us having any say. We expect ourselves to mourn completely, when this is not how humans work. We are complex. We are moving. And that motion—in all its whirling uncertainty—is something to be celebrated.
Eliza Henry-Jones is a writer based in the Dandenong Ranges outside of Melbourne. Her debut novel, In the Quiet, will be published in July 2015 through Fourth Estate as part of a three book deal with HarperCollins Australia. Her work has appeared widely in literary journals, including Southerly, Island, LiNQ and Award Winning Australian Writing. She works at a drug rehabilitation centre in Melbourne. http://www.elizahenryjones.com