In my grandmother’s day, parents in Hong Kong waited a month before celebrating the birth of their baby. Infant mortality rates were high and families didn’t want to introduce their child to the world until they were certain of his or her survival. My grandma was not unusual in burying two of her eight children—one immediately after birth, and the other, aged two, from meningitis. Nowadays, thankfully, the death of a child is a relatively rare occurrence. But that doesn’t stop us from worrying about it. We put gates on stairs and cameras on cars and fences on pools in an attempt to protect ourselves from life’s greatest horror.
In 2018 I read two books that dealt with the death of children. I didn’t seek these stories out. If anything, since becoming a parent, I actively avoid such tales. But the first novel, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, had been sitting on my shelf for years—a long forgotten Christmas present from my bibliophile mother—and the other, The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo, was required reading ahead of a session I’d been asked to facilitate at the Brimbank Writers and Readers Festival.
Both authors take headlines the rest of us might skim over in a newspaper—the disappearance of a young girl, a group of teens involved in a drunk-driving accident—and run with them. They explore the emotional carnage in the wake of such tragedies and identify the fault lines in the families beforehand—weaknesses, which if not directly responsible for the trauma, help to explain the ensuing guilt that so tortures those left behind.
Perhaps the most profound effect my work as a general practitioner has had on me—for better or worse—has been an appreciation for the randomness of life. Human beings spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to explain things—to friends, to complete strangers and to themselves. We want our lives to mean something. What is the act of writing if not an attempt to make sense of the world? But the longer I spend with people who have faced loss and illness and tragedy, the harder it becomes to find a satisfying and unifying narrative. Sure, some fortunate ones experience justice and the joy of seeing their dreams fulfilled before they die, but many more depart without ever seeing the things they want to see or saying the words they so desperately want to say.
In Everything I Never Told You we never find out exactly what happened to Lydia—the daughter who disappears in the book. There is no posthumous note revealing Lydia’s state of mind in the hours before she died.
He can guess, but he won’t ever know, not really. What it was like, what she was thinking, everything she’d never told him. Whether she thought he’d failed her, or whether she wanted him to let her go. This, more than anything, makes him feel that she is gone.
Similarly, in The Bridge, Ashleigh—the teen killed in a car accident—remains an elusive figure to her grieving best friend, Jo.
She’d never know if Ash was going to drop her, if their friendship was a lie. When had the lying started? If she read all the journals from beginning to end, would she discover the truth?
As I reflect on these stories now, I wonder if this is where the real trauma lies—in the unanswered questions, in the silence, in all the negative spaces. The families in both novels interrogate the genesis of their respective tragedies. Was it somebody’s fault? Was it God’s will? Is there such a thing as destiny? Or was it simply the result of meaningless and random chance—bad luck, an unfortunate roll of the die?
Maybe it was fate. Was that a contradiction, to do away with God and give fate so much power? Paolina said it was. That for there to be fate there had to be something beyond the human, something or someone that planned life out. Could there be fate without orchestration? Was Ashleigh fated to die young?
I loved these books for their ambition in asking the important questions—arguably the only questions that matter —the questions that haunt us all.
There is another reason Everything I Never Told You struck such a chord with me. It was the first book in my thirty-five years of reading that put a mixed race family at the centre of the story. Like me, Lydia has a Chinese father and a Caucasian mother. Like my parents, Lydia’s mother and father met at a time when mixed race relationships were unusual. Like my mother, who studied medicine, Lydia’s mother is an academic in a world dominated by men. And like my mother, she had to take a long hiatus from her chosen career to look after her children. For me the resonances were deep, the effects were reverberating.
The Bridge is also a migrant story, partly set in the seventies. The book opens with Antonello, a recently arrived and newly married Italian rigger working on the West Gate Bridge. The story follows his battle with post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt in the aftermath of the bridge’s collapse. Having worked for almost a decade as a general practitioner in the western suburbs of Melbourne, and having treated elderly Greek and Maltese men with occupational injuries, this novel spoke to me too.
These books tell stories I know about people I have met. There are no good guys or bad guys. There are no noble deeds or evil acts. They inhabit the space that social media, and indeed most media, abandoned long ago—the murky waters of ambivalence, ambiguity and uncertainty.
Celeste Ng and Enza Gandolfo remind us that trauma and loss are inevitable. They follow characters who have experienced it firsthand and live in daily fear of it happening again. How, they ask, do human beings reconcile themselves with this knowledge? How do they go on living, pretending that everyday things like paying the mortgage and having a clean toilet are important? Do they brace themselves like my grandmother’s generation did—delaying emotional connections until they can be certain they won’t be in vain? Or do they live in constant denial of what the future holds for them?
The philosopher Alan Watts said that life is not a journey. In a world that celebrates objectives and outcomes, this concept is foreign to many of us. Instead, Watts compares life to the act of listening to music—one of the few times we stop focusing on where we’re going and truly luxuriate in the present. As a writer I prefer a more literary analogy. Skim readers aside, most of us don’t skip to the last page of a book—we derive pleasure from the act of reading. And while we know our beloved protagonist is about to experience enormous suffering, we forge on—sustained by the moments of love and laughter, and the beauty and magic of the telling.
And so, as I confront the existential crisis that is my fortieth birthday, I return to my bookshelf and look for more hidden treasures. Other forgotten gifts from loved ones which, while not answering the questions that plague me, will at least make me feel less alone in asking them, and will almost certainly provide an enriching diversion along the way.
Melanie Cheng is a writer and general practitioner based in Melbourne. Her debut short story collection, Australia Day, won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript and the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for fiction.