Reviewed: Resistance, Jacinta Halloran, Text
Nina is a family therapist with an ‘unerring ability to listen’. She applies this skill with her clients, although this fourth novel by Jacinta Halloran strongly implies that the burden of the professional listener is to metabolise the thoughts of others even outside of work, including talkative Uber drivers and strangers in doctors’ waiting rooms. Nina’s colleagues regale her with family anecdotes and half-baked psychosocial theories in the lunchroom. To her mother, who launches into monologues ‘without any of the usual pre-emptive niceties’, Nina’s ‘most valuable role’ is as ‘attentive listener’. Her supervising therapist Erin admits to ‘ear-bash[ing]’ Nina in their sessions. ‘Would I mind if she reflected a tad more,’ Erin asks, before launching into an extended reflection that continues for several pages. Sharing her thoughts aloud, she feels, ‘might lessen the tension in her spine’. ‘And it’s your fault,’ she says to Nina. ‘You’re such a good listener.’
Nina is so preternaturally skilled a listener that she can hear in the silences. Sometimes, from a faraway room in her consulting suites, she hears the cries of a baby. The Victorian-era building was formerly a receiving home for young women with unwanted pregnancies, run by an order of Carmelite nuns. ‘Like all family therapists,’ Nina reflects, ‘I believe in ghosts.’ When Resistance opens, she’s especially ‘porous’ to lingering historical pain as she herself is grieving the recent loss of her brother.
Into this novel peopled with oversharers come Nina’s latest clients, the Agostinos—parents Claude and Lisa, and their children Poppy and Theo. They live on their sustainable farm near a regional Victorian town called Marville. When Nina meets them, they have been court-ordered to family therapy after stealing a car and driving into the desert for mysterious reasons. Nina must decide whether the kids, who were abruptly removed from school for the enigmatic pilgrimage, are safe with their parents.
But the Agostinos aren’t talking—more often, rather, filling the consulting room with silences that ‘feel so excruciatingly long that you doubt either […] will utter another word for an hour’. They ‘didn’t explain’ the desert trip to the court because, as they tell Nina, they ‘didn’t agree’ they should be mandated to appear in court to begin with. Their resistance to both the therapy and to the state’s intervention in their private business hints at a family secret, and to their reason for the sudden drive inland.
The Agostinos’ story raises a larger concern about the haunting of contemporary life by Australia’s history of colonial violence—a collective ‘shame and despair’ that ‘infiltrat[es] generations’, and is carried by ‘both Indigenous and non-Indigenous’ people. The clients make this point explicitly to their therapist: ‘Given the work you do,’ Claude challenges Nina, ‘you must have asked yourself how much of what families bring to you has its roots in a collective shame.’
Resistance is being described as ‘in the tradition of’ Rachel Cusk’s celebrated Outline trilogy. Like Cusk’s protagonist Faye, Nina is an intermediary through which others’ stories are told, and she’s a central character who takes shape primarily through her engagement with them. As she relays the confidences other people tell her, quotation marks slip away from their dialogue and the text shifts from third to first person, signalling a movement into Nina’s consciousness. Through this structure the psychological concept of interrelationality is made novelistic: the idea that a person (and their psyche) materialises through their interaction with (the stories of) others becomes the design for a novel structured as a patchwork of yarns.
And yet, while casting the therapist as listener–mediator of stories gives Halloran’s novel a new angle on Cusk’s approach, the gamble here is that Nina’s own inner life recedes from view. We’re told she’s grieving the loss of her brother, and it’s implied that her parentified role in the relationship with her mother has positioned her as the steadfast confidante in most exchanges, professionally and otherwise. In their final session, Erin and Nina reach some satisfying conclusions about the need for the (white) therapist to acknowledge the ‘collective darkness’ in the room: to address legacies of the settler colony by adopting ‘a stance of curiosity and not-knowing’, by listening ‘before we spoke’ and forgetting ‘what we’d learned before’. But what of Nina the eternal witness? What has relentless listening to and reflecting on the suffering of others done to her? Resistance offers a bald resolution to the political and professional quandaries it raises, but Nina herself remains hazy. ‘You’re too serious for your own good’ is Erin’s ultimate assessment, which may also be said of this book.