How could it have come to this? No signpost ever pointed here. The idea would have been laughable. Anne Baxter a former journalist with the city’s leading newspaper, once married to a senior barrister. A tuckshop volunteer at her children’s preschool, a fete organiser. A woman born to be a mother. Yet here she is, in a prison cell in Ravenhall, peering back along a winding road. Craning her head, trying to see which was the first in a series of ill-considered turns.
I love that Lorenzo can say so much about a character and why we might be interested in reading about her in so few words. Other writers would take a chapter or more to lay out all the facts and hints of things to come that we glean from that paragraph. The rest of the writing is just as good. Just as spare. Just as purposeful. I’ve tucked lots of snippets and sentences away in my “words I love” file.
Anne’s sin – or crime – or situation – is that her youngest daughter, Aida, has disappeared. Or was murdered by Anne depending on who you believe. While they were hiking Wilsons Promontory (a national park just outside Melbourne). Aida is autistic. Difficult to manage. Was that reason enough for her mother to kill her? Or does it explain how an eight year old can be here one minute, gone the next, with no human intervention?
Although there is a resolution of sorts on the subject of what happened to Aida I don’t think the book is about that. It’s about Anne. It is an exploration of her life. An exploration of that notion that Lorenzo has introduced early on – how did a ‘good’ life turn so horribly wrong? It jumps backwards and forwards to points before Aida’s disappearance as well as the period following. Despite the haphazard nature of this time shifting we’re never in any doubt whether it is ‘before’ – when life was normal-ish – or ‘after’ – when Anne is living a kind of half-life “jammed between grief and guilt“. And whenever we are Lorenzo doesn’t allow us to lose sight of the book’s central question: what led to Anne’s current situation and was there a single point at which a different choice could have produced an alternate outcome?
As a character study the book is outstanding, not least because Anne is not always sympathetic or likeable. I don’t mean there are times when I felt I had licence to be judgmental of her perceived poor mothering skills as some of the book’s minor characters are (her mothering skills are not, in my opinion, up for debate) but there are times when Anne – like all of us – behaves irrationally or says silly things. Or does something that had me screaming “nooooooooo” out loud in the way I do whenever someone in a horror movie runs up stairs to escape. But this is all good. Lorenzo has not tried to portray Anne as saint or sinner. Just an ordinary woman. Who’s had some rough times, some good luck, made some mistakes, and gone through what must be the worst experience any parent can do.
Overall only the hardest of hearts could fail to empathise with Anne’s circumstances. The depiction of her mental state – slowly unravelling as it would inevitably do in the circumstances – is truly haunting
Losing a child, she thinks as she pours a coffee, is a terrible plunging, like water falling from a great height. You find yourself falling and falling – endlessly plummeting. Screaming as you go down. And then, at some point, you stop screaming. It’s not that you’ve become used to any of it. The horror is still there, lurking behind any temporary respite. You keep falling, a terrifying tumbling. But at times you forget to scream.
And though they might pale into insignificance when stacked up against the loss of a child the other horrors she endures – imprisonment, humiliation by strangers and the erratic, almost sinister behaviour of her sister – are equally well depicted. Sometimes a little too well. As someone who’s had an inexplicable but lifelong morbid fear of being imprisoned I felt physically ill during one particular passage of the book and then lay awake all night pondering whether we should be putting anyone – even actual criminals let alone people awaiting bail as Anne is doing – through such indignities. That’s the downside of good writing I guess.
Lorenzo also explores the way people react to Anne’s situation. Some – liker her older daughter, ex husband and best friend – are kind and supportive. Even if they have doubts. But some – including many strangers – behave appallingly. Without knowing anything more than the scraps of half-truths and complete bullshit they’ve gleaned from media headlines they spit or curse or send death threats. Sadly this element of the novel is as believable as the rest and does not leave the reader with a rosy picture of humankind.
This isn’t a book for everyone. If you went looking for a fast-paced, action-heavy plot you would be disappointed. This is much more a character driven novel and though there is a story arc it is definitely not the primary element and at times fades into the background. I don’t think it’s crime fiction either, though two of the three fellow participants of the Australian Women Writers Challenge who have reviewed it have labelled it as such. In a recent discussion on ABC’s The Book Club Emily Maguire’s AN ISOLATED INCIDENT was criticised for not being the psychological thriller its publicity material claimed it to be, and to me THE LIGHT ON THE WATER lies even further afield. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it, merely that it doesn’t conform to any of the tropes of the genre and setting people up with expectations that it does won’t help it find the right audience. But although plot-driven crime fiction is generally my favourite kind of reading I thought THE LIGHT ON THE WATER brilliant. I can’t quite bring myself to say I enjoyed it – Anne’s story is so very, very sad – but I was utterly captivated by it. By her. And by Lorenzo’s mastery of the language.
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This is the tenth book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
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Publisher Allen & Unwin 
Length 352 pages
Format eBook (iBooks)
Book Series standalone