Review: Bodies Of Light by Jennifer Down

In A Little Life Hanya Yanagihara’s protagonist Jude is incessantly apologising. He apologises when people hurt him, when he hurts himself, and, occasionally, when he has something to apologise for. It’s a trait that he shares with Holly, the narrator and protagonist of this novel. Neither are apologising for anything in particular; they are simply saying sorry for their existence because they’ve been told and shown over and over that their existence means nothing.

Bodies Of Light has quite a bit in common with A Little Life, to the extent that Down’s novel feels in conversation with it or at least loosely inspired. Both centre on characters that suffer unspeakable abuse and tragedy, over and over again. Both ask whether it is possible to survive such trauma. Both have interesting relationships to queerness. Both have a title that belies the darkness inside.

But Bodies Of Light is ultimately a more optimistic novel. Unlike A Little Life, which was in part inspired by the author viewing a fashion show and wondering if she could write a book that went from light to dark (I tell people about this so often it will probably go on my tombstone), Down’s novel doesn’t progress by the same cold logic. It is better for it.

It begins in 2019 with Holly in the Vermont town of Burlington. One day she finds a disturbing message from a stranger in her Facebook inbox, from a person who thinks she looks like someone else. We soon learn that he is correct, and that Holly has taken on several identities to escape her past lives.

The novel cuts back and forth between Holly’s present and her past, beginning when she is about four years old and living with her father and then uncle and aunt as Maggie Sullivan. These are warm memories, but they obscure horror: her mother dead; the sexual abuse she faces from her uncle. When she is six her father is gaoled and she is taken into state care for the first time, where she is abused again. Each section is titled for the address where Maggie stays. It’s an effective device, quite apart from the horrors contained within. One chapter with half a dozen addresses in the title made me want to stop reading (it’s actually one of the least awful sections). Until she is eighteen she spends time in various group homes, with foster parents, in emergency accommodation. At eighteen she is able to leave state care and live independently, falling in love and marrying, until tragedy strikes again, and again, and again.

Bodies Of Light is a survival novel; like a disaster movie it doesn’t need to do more or less than its characters simply getting by. What stops it become abjectly punishing is that Down plays it all straight, doesn’t search for meaning where there is none. Maggie/Holly doesn’t spend too much time wondering why such awful things have happened to her; she’s too busy trying to survive them. At one point she orders her records of state care to try and make sense of herself, and what she finds nearly breaks her. Her childhood continually threatens to upend her carefully constructed present. It’s this that makes the novel so propulsive, a page-turner really. She is matter-of-fact about cutting ties to people and to her previous lives, and about what she needs from others, whether it is an encouraging word or a marriage.

Holly’s first twenty years of life are set in and around the south east of Melbourne. Even among the violence it’s a wonderful portrait of this part of the world, all suburban streetscapes, hidden creeks and wintry coasts. It’s also a tribute to the good people: people who show her care and love in the darkest of moments.

Gay rating: 4/5 for a bisexual protagonist, queer characters and some queer sex.

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