Disquiet by Australian Writer Julia Leigh (set in France)


Disquiet by Julia Leigh is a creepy novella. It’s a disjointed, disconnected story about people who are disconnect from one another as well as themselves. It’s a story full of symbolism and foreshadowing (of a sort).

It’s one of those books that cause people to say Leigh is a “writer’s writer.” Toni Morrison, J.M. Coetzee, and Don DeLillo have blurbs on the book, so there you have it.

I came across Disquiet on my local library shelves while browsing for thin books to consider for Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-A-Thon. When I saw that Leigh is Australian it was a definite book to check out to read for the Australian Woman Writers Challenge (see #AAWW2014 if you’re on Twitter).

***spoilers ahead***

The story begins with Olivia returning to her mother’s house in rural France with her two children in tow, a boy and a girl, Andrew and Lucy. The boy bloodies himself following his mother’s instruction to kick down an old secret garden door to get onto the estate. Andrew repeatedly throws his body against the door, “he made himself brutal” for his mother.

Mother is obviously wealthy. She is not a warm French mother, but cold and distant. Olivia is fleeing from her abusive Australian husband whom she still loves, but he obviously crossed a line in her mind because after the last beating not only did he bruise her body, he broke her arm.

The estate has three house servants who take care of the family, one who’s been with them forever,
two who are young twin sisters. There are also gardeners who maintain the grounds. The house itself is a huge structure complete with secret passageways that are no longer in use and taken over by spider webs. It’s like a Gothic version of Downton Abbey set in contemporary France.

The same afternoon of Olivia’s homecoming, her brother and his wife, Marcus and Sophie, who live with Mother, are due home any minute with their first born. They’ve had a hard time conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy. Alas, they come home with a stillborn who they’ve named Alice. Sophie won’t let the infant go and resists burial for way too long claiming they want to get to know Alice. No one can convince her to bury the body—not her husband, not her mother-in-law, not the church, not the government. But she’s named after the traditional figure of Wisdom, Sophia, so there’s some rich, subtext to parse out here in the context of this uptight, dysfunctional family.

Meanwhile, Marcus is carrying on his affair with another woman over his cellphone and even has a bit of phone sex while Andrew watches from the boat house.

I kept expecting someone to die (in addition to Alice), someone to murder someone, someone to go off the deep end.

In the end, the character who resonated with me the most is the son, Andrew. He longs to get back to his father in Sydney and plots an escape, taking his sister along. It fails and he ends up saving his sister’s and his mother’s lives. His story seems a bit like Unhealthy Gender Stereotype Conditioning 101: rip a boy away from his abusive father, trap him in an atmosphere of smothering repression, don’t give him any means of communication with his dad, but then have him do your dirty work. He thinks his mother is beautiful now, but you can feel the day coming when he’ll turn on his mother in ways much bigger than average teenage independence. Perhaps he’ll become an abusive husband or the guy who masturbates on the cell phone in his mom’s backyard where he still lives with his emotionally disturbed wife. But maybe not. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll soon be off to boarding school, and perhaps that will save him from this loveless family.

It’s not a pretty world that Leigh creates, but if feels real. Disquiet is some great writing that keeps you guessing and wondering and filling in the gaps.

Julia Leigh
Penguin 2008
Source: library
Recommend to literary fiction readers who like stories about dysfunctional families.

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