Reviewed: Briohny Doyle, Echolalia, Vintage
Set in a near future where 50-degree summers bully the horizon, Briohny Doyle’s second novel, Echolalia, sprawls among psychothriller, crime, speculative and literary fiction to make a highly original mark on the publishing landscape as she wrestles with and departs from the tropes of those genres. The Cormac family are the owners of a small property empire in the fictional town of Shorehaven, where a lake is slowly drying up. When Emma, an interior architecture trainee ‘of no social pedigree’ marries into the family, she gives birth to three children whom she struggles to care for next to her aloof husband and antagonistic in-laws. The increasing pressures around her culminate in psychological collapse and she commits infanticide. These schisms build up over 26 chapters, each one signposted by ‘Before’ and ‘After’; through this split structure, Doyle creates an unnerving dissonance in showing how past and present actions seal the fate of future generations in a rapidly changing climate.
It’s not so often that such environmentally charged fiction constitutes what is considered a ‘page-turner’, but Echolalia is something different—undercurrents of tension simmer beneath the cool exterior of Doyle’s prose as she eschews one hero’s journey in favour of a family unit’s unravelling. Each narrator’s culpabilities and regrets are juxtaposed with the impossibility of atonement. Much like the climate and extinction crises, there are no easy answers in Echolalia. It seeks to address the question posed in the novel’s blurb: What could drive a mother to do the unthinkable?
At first I struggled to connect with Doyle’s psychologically distant characters. This kind of initial restraint appears to be the author’s style, as seen in her debut novel, The Island Will Sink, where a sense of disconnection serves to enhance character arcs in later chapters. As I read, I felt a sick fascination for the toxic Cormac family, whose tendencies towards manipulation and detachment surface in disturbing ways—from the vacuity of the lead protagonist, Emma, who almost abandons her son Robbie in a shopping mall before drowning him in the lake; to the ruthless ambition of her husband Robert, who orchestrates an arson on a pub and evicts a low-income family in order to develop his inherited property empire; to his cousin Shane’s sexual exploitation of Balinese women; to the Cormac matriarch Pat, who treats Emma like a worthless husk with no value outside of being a baby machine. The characters are repugnant, but they provide a glimpse into a certain subset of people who occupy the upper middle-class stratum of regional Australia.
As the novel progresses, the psychological distance instilled in the reader becomes all the more jarring for the irruptions of tenderness between major characters, poignant moments that speckle the glimmering crime scene of the novel. In one example, Emma’s intellectually disabled toddler, Arthur, makes his first hand sign to say ‘thank you’ to her for playing Incy Wincy Spider. Only moments later is she discovered to have drowned her younger son in the town’s expiring lake. Later, during a visit from Emma’s sister Izzy, which ends in tears, Emma’s daughter Clem rushes to try to soothe her mother, an interaction that echoes in Izzy’s memory as ‘Her own urge to comfort. Her baby-sister bamboozlement at the tears and outbursts.’ These familial relationships are fraught with cracks and habitual dysfunctions that are plastered over with a veneer of forced normalcy.
As Echolalia zooms in on property developers, small-town matriarchs and industry barons of the mining and agricultural sectors, Doyle paints a fractured rural community without sentimentalism or heroics. Her characters’ myopic view of the town’s deteriorating conditions gives a fuller picture of the power structures at play where they live: even though the Cormac family are property magnates, ‘Clem was fed lines about how they were doing it tough. Her mother, a burst housing bubble, fires and flood and new regulations that were impossible to work with.’ By focusing on the power players of an entropic rural centre, Doyle takes climate fiction to the next level, exploring the intertwining violences of class, gender and settler-colonialism through a cast of unsympathetic characters. It is through this unforgiving image that we see the effects of environmental damage entangled with personal and political realities, where those who are most directly responsible for the climate crisis are largely shielded from its impacts.
Despite this nuanced analysis of environmental collapse, the novel never manages to achieve full complexity in its discussion and portrayal of refugees. Cahya, a refugee from Timor-Leste, is a shadowy figure whom Emma finds living in a humpy beside a golf course. We see her pursue him with a protective impulse, giving him clothing, books and food. But more is speculated about Cahya from Emma’s perspective than what he actually has to say for himself. Perhaps this is true to the ways of people like Emma, but the idea of her ownership over him (‘Did he still belong to someone, after he became a person no-one wanted to think about, or care for? So maybe Cahya is her kid as much as anyone else’s now, and if that’s true God help him.’) speaks to a (white) saviourism that is characterised as maternal instinct, which seems slightly circumspect as both Cahya and Linh, Emma’s friend, lack the emotional complexity of the novel’s Anglo characters. Linh is a brief sketch of a person, inseparable from her precarious position as the inheritor of a legally uninhabitable apartment building. I wanted more than the shallow interiority lent to these characters, who come across as underdeveloped despite featuring in the novel’s beginning and end.
In Echolalia, silences and disbelief convey resounding absences that speak to settler-colonial anxieties over land and ownership. Doyle’s writing evokes Gothic narratives superimposed on the landscape, a mode that Jeanine Leane notes in the Sydney Review of Books as ‘the introduced, ongoing and racialised mode of the gothic, where the “Australian bush” is cast as the enemy that “swallows” little white children and poses a threat to the sensibilities of settler women through its harshness and unreadable vastness’. This trope surfaces in an unexpected twist that is explained midway in the novel: Robbie’s murder, as the baby is literally engulfed by the lake.
Doyle is conscious of these colonial tropes, and her narrative underscores the relentless and brutalising logic of extraction that erases the memory of land: ‘The repeated thing is the landscape but also the violence. Each image depicts a place from which something was taken, rendering the scenes partial and scarred.’ This dislocation between people and place is exemplified in Clem, who develops an artistic interest in researching murderous women as a teenager, but who avoids the discovery of her ancestors’ role in the plunder of Aboriginal nations: ‘Later, when she learned who the country really belongs to, she didn’t ask any more questions about what her ancestors had done.’
As characters turn away from their surrounding realities and continue to perpetuate cruelties to each other and to the land (‘Don’t look away? There are things that will turn you to dust if you look at them too long’), the novel interrogates the tangled mosaic that constitutes family, and how those who display discrepancies are sacrificed as a result. These negative spaces act as hauntings throughout Echolalia. When Robert reminisces about a school prank where he sank a boatshed at his and Emma’s private school, the scene is described as ‘the thrill of the next morning when they saw the muddy space where the boatshed had always been. Emma smiled and giggled but her brain stuck on that detail. The empty ground. The void.’
In these moments Doyle leans on a sense of emotional vacuity when difficult subjects arise between characters, heightening the ominous dissonance between the novel’s detached tone and its devastating backdrop. Crises such as the town’s intensifying drought or the displacement of refugees due to climate change are met with expressions of denial passed as rugged individualism by the book’s characters. ‘Lefty horseshit,’ Robert’s father says when his son mentions the 50-degree summers projected for 2030. ‘We’ve always had droughts. We’ve always pulled through.’ It is easy to lean on didacticism when writing fiction about environmental collapse, but Echolalia presents an ongoing tragedy expressed through empty vessels.
In a show of how gender is connected to environmental destruction, childbearing bodies are likened to land through womb-like imagery: ‘A red-soaked room full of dead mammals impervious to pain, finally, as dawn breaks hard across this beautiful, used-up land.’ This corresponds to Emma, whose exhaustion is writ on her body as she undergoes physical deterioration and post-natal psychosis. When the Cormac family shames her for giving birth to a disabled child, she finds herself trapped between the overwhelming duty she holds towards her children and an inability to create a safe environment for them.
This tension is further encapsulated in the novel’s parental microcosms—as Izzy reflects on what motivated her to procreate despite the possibility of her child being born with autism, she muses: ‘If there’s any intimation of what our kids are in for it’s just a really hard time, but we have them anyway.’ In the foreboding world of Echolalia, legacies are carried over on bodies and land, as Doyle evokes the intergenerational dynamics that bring about climate change: colonisation and the destructive clearing of land (which includes the extraction of minerals and burning of fossil fuels) prepare the conditions for environmental catastrophe, setting up a rigged playing field for future generations who are born into a world racked by intensified heatwaves, droughts and bushfires.
Towards the end of the novel, a crowd of people gathers to protest Emma’s crime outside the courthouse where her hearing is held. There, a senator announces, ‘It’s the will of God for every child conceived to be born … We killed the son of God, God’s child, and we know that this is our highest moral turpitude in the eyes of God, the thing we must recompense for in our lives.’ But this recompense is impossible for Emma, whose odds have been stacked against her from the start.
Although the Cormacs do not explicitly cast her out of the family, Emma doesn’t attempt to rejoin her children, falling into addiction and homelessness following her court case. Emma and her children write (unforwarded and futile) letters to each other: ‘Dear Clem, I guess these letters end up in a bonfire, but I can’t stop writing them.’ Unaware that these letters won’t ever reach their intended recipient, the child’s and parent’s muted echoes bump hope against inevitability as Clem writes: ‘Dear Mum, How are you? I’m fine. Will you come down for Arthur’s birthday? Nan said probably not but I’d thought I’d write just in case.’
Echolalia is a story that won’t console, but it recognises how patterns of human behaviour endure, creating harmful inheritances that become impossible to repair. Doyle never shies away from this ugliness. As her fiction speaks to future generations, the words of the youngest surviving character, Clem, resonate from the centre of the novel: ‘You can’t feel another’s loss but you can attend to it. You can refuse to look away.’ •
Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn lives on unceded Dharug lands. Her work has appeared in Overland, The Big Issue, Island and others. She is on the editorial committee of Voiceworks and The Unconformity.