There’s grief-lit aplenty at the moment. Honestly, you can’t scan a bookshelf without YA novels about parents or best friends dying; memoirs about cancer battles; suicide stories; and generally just loss, loss and more loss. But if you only read one bit of grief-lit this year, make it Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down.
Audrey, Katy and Adam have been friends since high school—a shared history of inside jokes, sneaky cigarettes, ‘D&Ms’ and looking out for each other –
Katy’s family ate dinner together every single night. Her parents umpired at weekend netball matches, took orange quarters for the girls in their pleated skirts. Audrey’s parents destroyed each other.
Now in their twenties, they juggle the pressures of adulthood – relationships, work, their families. When Katy takes her own life (within the first few pages), Audrey and Adam are left to deal with their grief. The story explores the ripple-effect of Katy’s death rather than the reasons why she took her own life.
What Down does so well in this story is show that grief is very different for each person, and that even then, it’s unpredictable – it’s savage, quiet, raw, all-pervasive, seemingly never-ending, there one minute and gone the next.
When the grief came, it was primitive and crippling. Audrey was kneecapped at the coin laundry; in her fluorescent-lit cubicle at work; sitting on the rooftop at the Labour in Vain, surrounded by friends. Minutes before, she’d been laughing so hard she thought she would vomit. Walking through the university after a conference, her head full of early intervention programs until suddenly it wasn’t….Tim Buckley on the radio and Audrey was unravelling.
Down’s writing is spare, the emotion captured in small details – ‘soft-serve summers’ and ‘alluvial deposits of anxiety’. And it’s these details that embroider every scene, creating an undercurrent of sadness that rips at Adam but in contrast, slowly pulls Audrey down.
This is also a story about families and the legacy of domestic violence and mental illness. Audrey’s troubled childhood contrasts with that of her boyfriend, Nick’s –
She envied his modest, happy childhood. She envied him his younger brother, who captained sports teams and did his homework and got clumsy-lucky with girls; his father, who had a Monty Python quote for every occasion.
Although not addressed directly, the question of why Katy had been deeply troubled and yet Audrey, who grew up in a violent household, was ‘okay’, is implied. As readers, we understand that it is not as simple as ’cause-and-effect’, so the backstory for each character provides context for their grief and allows Down to add depth to the story.
Lastly, Our Magic Hour is one of the best stories about Melbourne* that I’ve read. References to Ruckers Hill, the Dan O’Connell, the gridlock on Punt Road, and being day-drunk in Edinburgh Gardens, were exquisite. Equally, Audrey’s move to Sydney and the brief but evocative descriptions of beachside suburbs and the weather generated a subtle but important change of pace.
4/5 Gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, beautifully written.
Claire made scones like it was nothing: “It’s just flour and milk and sugar and cream. You chuck it in there, and beat it like it owes you money.”
As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (August 6): Belfast 10°-17° and Melbourne 7°-12°.
*The title of the book was inspired by signage that sits above buildings by the Yarra. I have often wondered about the Our Magic Hour…