Shining a Light

Jennifer Down’s latest novel is light-years ahead of anything she’s attempted before.

I tend towards economy,” says Jennifer Down over the phone. “I was as surprised and dismayed as anyone when it just kept getting longer. My editor and I always like to joke that the perfect book is under 200 pages. It was a shock to everyone.”

The two-time Sydney Morning Herald  Young Novelist of the Year is reflecting on her latest novel Bodies of Light. Weighing in at just over 400 pages, it’s longer and more ambitious than anything Down has attempted before – her debut novel Our Magic Hour (2016) and her collection of short stories Pulse Points (2017) were markedly more contained – with a sense of authorial commitment that looks like a quantum leap forward in her writing career.

Bodies of Light tells the story of Maggie Sullivan, whose life we follow from the 1970s through to the present. She is institutionalised: her father is in jail; her mother overdoses when she is two.

Maggie is crafted to invite sympathy, reflecting: “I thought about what it must be like to have siblings, to see your likeness in someone else’s face, to share another’s memories.” Down asks the reader to take on this role, soliciting the kind of emotional investment and sympathetic readership that novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain lobbied for. After three of Maggie’s children die in mysterious circumstances, she flees the country, taking on a new identity overseas.

The origin of the novel was in a short story called ‘Newborn’ published in the now-defunct Australian Review of Fiction. “That was really about the moment when Maggie decides to leave,” Down says. “About a decade ago, I found this weird little pamphlet in a bookshop in LA called Vanishing Point: How to Disappear in America Without a Trace. Back then it was much easier to become a new person.”

At first, the novel was closer to a collection of linked short stories. “It was very fragmented. I love fragmentation – Jenny Offill, Claudia Rankine – but it didn’t seem sustainable over a long narrative. When I read stuff by Jamie Marina Lau, for instance, I’m always like, Holy shit, this is the coolest thing. But it’s not what comes naturally to me. The fragmentation was probably a function of me not knowing the character and the story so well – I was trying to write my way through it. I always say to students that the first time you write a story, it’s just you telling it to yourself. You have to be prepared to really sit with the character, whether at the day-to-day level or over a period of 40 or 50 years. It feels a little bit more like witnessing; a bit more respectful.”

Bodies of Light is anchored in a firm sense of place – from Mystic Court in Eumemmerring (next to Dandenong), to Frankston’s Karingal Hub and the University of Melbourne in Parkville, all the way to Aotearoa and Michigan.

“I was lucky that my mum grew up in Dandenong in the 70s,” she says. “Right at the start of the writing process, I was like, ‘Can I pick you up and we’ll go for a drive out in Dandy?’ And we kind of just trundled around Dandenong remembering Noble Park. That’s where I learned to drive – I know it like the back of my hand, but I don’t know what it was like in the 70s. I’m very lucky that Mum is a reader as well and she’s very attuned to small details. She was the perfect person to drive around with because she would come out with things that were perfect for the novel.”

Bodies of Light is also anchored by reference to history, taking in a swathe of events from the 70s to the present, including the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, Maggie and her childhood friends playing at being Lindy Chamberlain and baby Azaria, the Challenger explosion, and Cyndi Lauper in Vibes.

Down has a remarkable knack for capturing the texture of youth, its thirst for suburban transcendence. Her universe of fake IDs and smuggled Revlon is observed with all the breathless wonder of a Bruce Springsteen lyric; riding home with a boy one night, Maggie recalls how “a streetlight blinked on right as we passed beneath it and I felt like we were magic”.

The novel came to fruition while working full-time – Down is a copywriter at Aesop (“I’ve always been a working fiction writer, writing at four o’clock in the morning or 9pm or on weekends”) – and much of the three-and-a-half years writing it was spent researching.

“I tend to sit with ideas and questions and research for a really long time and then when I start writing it’s relatively quick – it comes out in a fairly clean way.” Down went into the testimony of those who experienced institutional or out-of-home care, sifting through parliamentary inquiries and Senate reports. She also drew inspiration from books on motherhood and non-traditional experiences of mothering: “I mean, everyone’s read A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk. I really loved that and Jenn Ashworth’s Notes Made While Falling, which deals with the physical and mental trauma of birth. As somebody who has never given birth and is not a parent, I really wanted to do justice to that, because motherhood is such a big part of the book.”

I asked Down what it took to inhabit and stick with the kind of witnessing that Maggie’s story requires.

“I wanted it to feel like a testimony. There is a risk we run when we write about trauma. I wanted to ask the question of how we invite people to look at someone’s suffering, in a way that feels like a first-person narrative rather than asking people to witness suffering for some sort of gratification. It’s lovely to imagine that it has that kind of realism to it.”

The sentiment is typical of Down’s modesty. Bodies of Light is an assured work; it sees her continuing to hone her craft and attempt something new in a way that is brave, thrilling and, ultimately, life-affirming.

By Declan Fry @_declanfry
Declan Fry is a writer and essayist. Born on Wongatha country in Kalgoorlie, he has written for the Guardian, Meanjin, Australian Book Review and other publications. 

First published in Ed#646