It wouldn’t be too big a stretch of the imagination to say that many of us turn to books as a form of escapism. We love the feeling of slipping into another world, of having another person’s life – real or otherwise – gently wrapped around our own.
Such was my experience of reading Bodies of Light, Jennifer Down’s latest novel. This was my first encounter with her work, but readers may be familiar with her previous books, Pulse Points and Our Magic Hour. I was struck by the tenderness of it; Bodies of Light is a portrait of a life lived in full, where the moving, the mundane and the traumatic are treated with equal care and reverence.
Maggie Sullivan disappeared long ago. But when a photo of her inexplicably goes viral, she’s jolted back to a past she’s reluctant to revisit. Moving between the Maggie from the past, and the Maggie of the present – now living under the name ‘Holly’ – a picture of our nebulous heroine emerges.
Bodies of Light is split into three parts, with Part One largely made up of Maggie’s memories growing up in foster care across Melbourne in the 1970s. At first, these memories are scattered, a string of interconnected moments that are rich in detail; a fish-shaped clip on earring, apricots in a tub, a pilled duffel coat. These give way to traumatic, life-altering events, their harshness recalled with blinding clarity. Through Maggie, we’re exposed to the inhumanity of a welfare system that separates siblings from each other and allows abusive guardians to misuse their power. Down navigates this thorny territory with an expert hand, capturing what she calls ‘the inexpressible nature of a childhood splintered across rooms too many to recall,’ in heartbreaking detail.
Readers should rest assured that Down balances this darkness with many gems, however brief they may be. We learn the joys of dinking on the back of a bicycle, and a golden first kiss with a boy whose lips are as sweet as orange segments. Later, there is the sublime beauty of bioluminescent algae lighting up the local river, an explosion of neon blue. These are holy moments, precious in their scarcity.
Part Two sees Maggie moving through the world as an adult, which comes with its own unique set of hardships. She seems to be moving through predestined, troubled waters; there is a kind of sick comfort when the next awful thing happens, that we are no longer waiting for it. But here, there is also companionship; Maggie and her friends divulge intimacies between swigs of grog and tokes on hand rolled joints. Amongst the sadness, these reprieves are as crisp as a southerly breeze.
These horrors give way to Part Three, where Maggie disappears and builds a new life, under a new name. It’s less of a thrilling escape, and more of a deeply exhausting – but necessary – departure. This final instalment of Maggie’s story finds her in an interesting liminal space; between obliterating her past and creating her new self, she is both dead and alive, a vessel waiting to be filled up with a new, innocuous personality. Any grief at the loss of her previous self is quietly closed behind a door, where she doesn’t need to look at it. But despite the trauma and heartbreak that forms the backbone of Maggie’s story, the writing never feels tired, or even melodramatic, as it could have under a lesser writer’s hand.
Which brings me to Down’s excellent prose. I love the way she can capture something as intimate as the shape of person’s foot left inside their shoe, or the absolute peace of being indoors while there is torrential rain outside. Characters too are beautifully crafted, with even the most transitory figures given space to breathe. Her writing – and Bodies of Light as a whole – is something to be savoured; I urge you to reread paragraphs that strike you as you go along.
Bodies of Light is painfully human, a perfect blend of heartbreak and sublime beauty. Fans of Jennifer Down’s previous novels – as well as readers who like their books hefty and expansive, with a distinctive literary style – are sure to feel at home with her latest work.
Reviewed by Melina Bunting, The Book Bird’s guest book reviewer.