Months before the release of Melbourne author Jennifer Down’s third book, Bodies of Light, the local literary scene was baited with breathless assessments of the book’s impact. Those fortunate enough to get their hands on Down’s tome shared poignant missives from their experiences reading what had come to be known as ‘The Big, Sad Book’. My favourite review comes courtesy of Down’s younger sister, whose text message Down shared on Twitter back in July:
this book is fucking sad as’
Bodies of Light, which is Down’s second novel (her second book, Pulse Points, comprises fourteen piercing short stories), is indeed ‘fucking sad as’. It charts the course of a life bogged by trauma, and the struggle to live with dignity in spite of it. And those familiar with Down’s writing—in Pulse Points or her first, excellent novel, Our Magic Hour—may not be surprised to find the author wading into traumatic territory again.
But with Bodies of Light, which centres on Maggie, a woman brought up in Australia’s piecemeal foster and residential care system, Down appears to be testing the tensile strength of a human’s—and a human reader’s—resolve to endure whatever is thrown at them. The novel is as much a study of trauma itself as it is an investigation of how we manage to bear it.
If that sounds unappealing, well, that’s understandable. Diving into scrupulous accounts of repeated harrowing experiences is not everyone’s idea of a wholly satisfying fiction read. And yet, there is no other release in 2021 that I would recommend more passionately to almost every reader. Bodies of Light is so full of beauty and hope, not least because Down is an incredibly accomplished writer, who manages to plunge the reader into time and place with astonishing depth and assuredness. Though the trail of Maggie’s (then Josephine’s, then Holly’s) difficult life takes the reader from Melbourne to Phillip Island; then from a small, isolated New Zealand town to Midwestern USA, we never lose the sense that we are uncomfortably close to Maggie, experiencing life alongside her, wherever (or whoever) she is.
In fact, the scope of Bodies of Light is quite remarkable, the way the world unfolds before Maggie as she attempts to chart a life outside the claustrophobia of Melbourne ‘resi’ and out-of-home care. Down has never been an exceptionally florid writer, and her commitment to slight description rewards the reader in Bodies of Light, building gentle visions of Maggie’s temporary homes in Dandenong, Burwood, Jacana, Beaconsfield and elsewhere.
The warm and curious descriptions Down layers through the earlier chapters of the novel—the appearance of ‘a small mountain of lipstick-stained cigarette butts in the crystal ashtray on the back doorstep’, or the sounds made by ‘bellbirds and whipbirds, once a couple of black cockatoos’—make necessary buoys for the reader amid the sea of misery Maggie endures. Because for every charming observation Down includes, like the ‘soft, full lips’ of a teenage boyfriend ‘that made [Maggie] think of orange segments’, there’s the ‘new, terrible place’ Maggie arrives at when she endures the sexual abuses of her predatory residential carer, Terrence.
Maggie’s life is plagued by misfortune in the early chapters of Bodies of Light, and yet Down sews these events in among the most exquisitely mundane observations: the smell of tuna casserole in the humdrum suburban house of Maggie’s high school friend, or the sound of Maggie’s foster carer, Judith, watching TV game shows while Maggie completes her homework. Flicking back through the first part of the book, I’m drawn potently to the description of a bead curtain that Maggie’s care-mate, Jodie, hangs in her bedroom doorway. Maggie likes the beads—and they remind me of popular nineties kids’ decorating paraphernalia, plastic blow-up furniture, daisy wall decals etc.—until we learn their true purpose.
Jodie’s room had no door. Instead, a bead curtain partitioned her room from the hallway. The beads were brown wood and some kind of blue plastic, and at certain times of the day, the sun hit the blue beads and sprayed a pretty reflection across the walls.
I stood in the doorway, waiting for Jodie to put on her shoes so we could leave for school, and fiddled with the curtain. I rolled the strands against one another to feel the pleasant click of the plastic globes.
Stop it, Jodie snapped, jimmying heel into shoe.
Sor-ry, I said. I let the beads fall around me like sheets of rain, and stepped into her room. What’s up your bum?
I hate that noise.
Why don’t you take it down, then?
It’s so I know when he’s coming.
We are seldom allowed a respite from the trauma Maggie endures—even when she enters adulthood and begins to map out a life for herself outside the indignities of the care system.
Recently, I compared Bodies of Light to Hanya Yanagihara’s enormously popular and absorbing epic A Little Life. Down’s writing isn’t much like Yanagihara’s and the experience of reading Bodies of Light is quite different to what I remember of A Little Life. But something about the way both books are so invested in the subject of trauma—and the way it might sketch out a character’s life and predetermine a future—felt familiar across both titles.
In A Little Life, Yanagihara is ultimately concerned with how early and repeated traumas have blighted the orphan Jude, and how inescapable this trauma becomes for him as an adult. Although Jude finds success in his work and his friendships, and though he (eventually) connects deeply in a romantic relationship with the saintly Willem, Jude seems unable to live free of the hyper-vigilance and self-loathing that accompanies trauma survival. It doesn’t help that Yanagihara visits upon Jude every conceivable trauma known to humans: from child sexual abuse and horrific intimate partner violence to kidnapping, as well as his own vicious, methodical self-harm.
He had begun a new method of balancing the edge of the blade on his skin and then pressing down, as deep as he could, so that when he withdrew the razor—stuck like an ax head into a tree stump—there was half a second in which he could pull apart the two sides of flesh and see only a clean, white gouge, like a side of fatted bacon, before the blood began rushing in to pool within the cut.
I read A Little Life in stages, and between parted fingers clapped across my eyes, disbelieving. Whenever something new came along to harm Jude, I had to put the book down again, to take a rest and to wonder to myself, Why does all of this have to happen to this poor man, who is told as a boy, subject to paedophiles’ repeated abuses, ‘You were born for this’?
Yanagihara fought with her editor at Double Day over the scenes in the book where Jude experiences horrific abuse, which her editor suggested should be toned down to give the reader a break. But Yanagihara told The Guardian, ‘To me you get nowhere second guessing how much can a reader stand and how much can she not. […] I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything […]. I wanted everything to be turned up a little too high.’
The experience that everything is almost vulgar in how ‘too much’ it is might also be familiar if you have read other famously trauma-informed novels. Another that comes to mind is José Saramago’s allegorical novel Blindness, which is revoltingly difficult in places, as in a scene where a woman is raped until she dies, whereupon I shoved the book away and did not pick it up again for some time.
Bodies of Light is another difficult novel, that much is certain. And, as much as Yanagihara is concerned with how trauma informs a life, so too is Down as she unveils Maggie’s fight for a dignified existence.
However, as I reflected on the opera of trauma in A Little Life, I came to appreciate the deftness of Down’s work in Bodies of Light. There is something almost Saw-like in Yanagihara’s heaping of traumatic events on Jude; A Little Life becomes like a carnival of horrors, a strange experiment to discover which of these experiences will be the straw that finally breaks our tragic hero. In Yanagihara’s writing, there is a very deliberate choice to shy away from anchoring her story in time and place. There are no historical events, people, places or things that might suggest exactly where or when the lives of Jude and his three friends are being lived. We know they live in New York, for example, but it doesn’t often feel quite like the real New York, for Yanagihara avoids descriptions of the outside world beyond the odd, vague district or street name. Instead, they exist permanently, queasily in the unmarked ‘contemporary’. All of this acts to heighten the sense of unreality in A Little Life, to make it more theatrical in its ‘too much-ness’.
Down, on the other hand, goes to great pains to remind the reader that Maggie is very present in the world Down has drawn meticulously around her. The streets where Down moves Maggie, from resi house to resi house, are real streets; the videos rented from the shops could only have been rented at the time about which Down was writing. She writes with poignant clarity about Maggie’s experience of the downing of the World Trade Centre towers in 2001, watching on television with her horrified friends and family in cosy Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s crucial that Maggie really exists, and that the world she inhabits is unaccountably, viscerally real to the reader. Because Down is reminding us that what happens to Maggie—how she is chewed up by the care system and the vile predators that frequently inhabit it; how she is repeatedly denied the dignity of a quiet, unremarkable adult life—does really happen outside the fantasy of fiction.
Down wrote for Lit Hub about how she delved with scientific precision into first-hand accounts of resi and out-of-home care, how she read hundreds-page reports about cot deaths and infanticide during the development of Bodies of Light. The remarkable detail of the work allows readers to take on the trauma that Maggie endures and understand it, appreciate it, and process it more comprehensively. It is vital that we bear witness to Maggie’s suffering, and her fight for a life of dignity, because this makes it feel utterly authentic.
The care that Down takes to give us trauma that feels genuine—though sometimes uncomfortably so—means that Bodies of Light remains a grounded and satisfying read. By striving for authenticity and for hopefulness in its depiction of Maggie’s chequered existence, Down’s novel avoids the opera of trauma for titillation, instead serving what feels like fidelity, understanding and dignity.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a writer, editor, casual academic and bookseller, living and working on unceded Wurundjeri country. She tweets too much from @mdixonsmith.