‘Articulating Unspeakable Trauma: a Review of Josephine Rowe’s “A Loving, Faithful Animal”’, by Chloë Reeson


It’s New Year’s Eve 2014 and I’m watching the ABC’s broadcast of the Sydney fireworks with my parents. Julia Zemiro is hosting with Eddie Perfect. It’s so, so awful. No one has offered to spend it with me, but there’s one person in particular I’m angry with. I’m so angry it’s incredible. I’m sick and they’re not around and there’s no explanation and every time I try to talk to them about it, it fails because they don’t respond and my wheels spin. I have a counsellor and she tells me to buy a journal and write down what I want to say to this person. I write: I’m going through something and I want you to understand it because I want you to understand me, but I don’t know how to talk about it yet and you’re not asking questions. As the telecast finishes, Zemiro can be heard groaning, ‘Oh, thank god!’ I wish it were like that. I wish my pain were simple and expressible and ended with the calendar year.

It’s New Year’s Eve 1990 and Jack has disappeared again. Jack is a Vietnam veteran with apparent symptoms of PTSD. It’s not the first time this has happened—he has long been an abusive and absent father and husband—but something about this disappearance seems different. The exact cause is uncertain but it seems significant that it comes in the wake of some horrible violence by an unknown perpetrator towards his adopted stray dog. In Josephine Rowe’s debut novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal, Jack, Ru’s father, craves a return to innocence and yet the war’s seeping violence corrupts his family relentlessly. Ru, her mother Evelyn, her sister Lani, her uncle Les, and Jack himself: all have their own experiences of the persistent trauma that infects their family. Through various modes of narration, each character steps outside of themselves to look for answers. Where did this trauma begin? Is it Jack himself? Does it stem from the war? Was there something sour even before then? Where did things go wrong for this family?

Silence is near-impossible to articulate adequately in writing, which sucks because our human emotions, at their most raw, live in silence. Minimalist writing, when done well, can speak directly to that innately human, quiet disappointment with life: that grown realisation of ‘is this it?’ that settles in at some point during adulthood. Like the American minimalist writers who came before her, Rowe has identified the style’s ability to capture the toxic ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ atmosphere that often surrounds veterans’ experiences of the Vietnam War. Rowe’s debut novel is an Australian example of a minimalist text that reflects this strange empty response beautifully, leaving room for the reader to project their own multitude of heavy, unsatisfied emotions into the void.

Jack’s birthday is pulled out of the draft, and because his body is healthy and he can hold a gun, he is sent to fight in Vietnam. The day before my twenty-second birthday I found a lump in my breast that turned out to be aggressive breast cancer. The language surrounding cancer references war a lot: chemo is a nuclear bomb on your body, it’s an assault, we win or lose the battle with cancer. When all my hair fell out I wore a camo t-shirt and friends called it my G.I. Jane look. The chances of breast cancer happening at this age are really low. I saw a statistic once that claimed there were maybe six people ever diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of twenty-four in Australia. I thought of this constantly while reading A Loving, Faithful Animal. Why did my number come up? I can’t help but feel it was a kind of conscription.

Rowe has previously written short fiction, poetry, and a blend of the two. Both of Rowe’s previous fiction releases—Tarcutta Wake in 2012 and How a Moth Becomes a Boat in 2010—were impressionist works full of superbly rendered glimpses into lives which are all out at sea. They were defined by their inclusion of short-short vignettes which were somewhere between short story and prose poetry. A Loving, Faithful Animal isn’t much of a departure from this technique; it is a novel made out of short stories, broken down into neat sections, each showing a different character’s perspective. While this structure becomes somewhat predictable, Rowe’s prose is so rich and poetic that the order is welcome—it is a life raft guiding us through descriptions of a family’s immense pain. We can only sit with each memory for so long, but together perhaps they can provide some sort of closure.

I don’t know anyone touched by war. I texted my mother throughout reading this book. “Were our grandparents scared of the draft?” I asked. “Were our uncles? Was anyone?” “No” she said, “they were too old, but my uncle was conscripted.” “Did he go?” “No, it was quite funny. They had the big send off party and Aunty Jan waved him off on the train to Sydney. She sat around all day being sad, then he came home that night because he failed the medical!” All of my male relatives were either a little too young or a little too old. My entire family like Mr Magoo, blindly making our way through history, always a split second away from where disaster falls. Before I got sick, I used to ask my mother, “How come nothing bad happens to us?” My mother would say, “I don’t know, I think we’re just lucky.” I asked this question for years, and then we stopped having this conversation.

Rowe’s characters exist within an Australian-gothic domesticity filled with malaise and quiet disenchantment. The New Year’s Eve setting itself adds to this sense of place: Australia, a country defined by its liminality, always on the cusp of something. In her previous books as well as this one, she explores relationships in this setting and the vast distances that can exist within them. Distances that have emerged because of imperceptible drifts between people. Her characters seek sense in a senseless world. At a loss for how to articulate the significance of their world, they report tender descriptions of their surroundings, their ordinary but no less treasured belongings (the title describes equally, and at various times, both Ru’s bike and Jack’s dog, Daisy), subtly begging for the reader’s help to find the missing significance to it all. In A Loving, Faithful Animal avoiding talking about the real issue becomes its own language. Rowe’s book moves with the determined pace and slowing inertia of a pushbike reaching the crest of a hill.

A Loving, Faithful Animal is a book that reverberates with echoes of years of violence—the violence of war as well as domestic violence—but each individual character struggles to find a redeeming gentleness. Each character is looking for an answer or an escape: Evelyn reflects on the lost beauty of her youth; Lani sells her father’s temazepan at parties; Les, who shares only one parent with Jack, considers the strange world he doesn’t quite belong in. But Ru, the youngest character, and whose shoes we fill through second-person narration, seeks only a way to explain it all:

You will throw shadows on the bedroom wall, reaching up towards the high pressed-tin ceiling, trying to make yourself understood. And when it’s obvious that this will not be possible, that you do not have the words or even the shapes of words, you will let your hands fall back to the mattress. Birds shot from the sky. You will allow them to be held.

With each perspective Rowe gets closer and closer to articulating the unspeakable traumas that affect us all. She analyses the ripples they cause throughout a family, or community: the small waves that push us further and further away from the lives we feel we should have had, the lives we were expecting to have, until we look back at our other selves, our expected selves (often our happier selves), and that self is so far away that it is “all at the wrong end of a telescope. So small it could be covered with a hand.”

“I feel so far away”, I kept saying as I watched cancer affect my family, who didn’t know how to help me and couldn’t offer any answers as to why it had happened. I watch how it still affects them now, even though I am better, even though there is no sign of cancer left in my body. How shaky my mum’s emotions can sometimes be and how angry my eldest brother will get at the slightest stimulus. The anger and confusion plagues me as well. I approach it from all angles, looking for answers; I run back through memories, interrogating them for clues. Why me? Why did it happen? What can I do now so it never comes back? But there is no answer. Cancer is a mysterious disease, and cruelly intangible. Whenever I feel close to stability, the ground shifts and I am lost again; I have crossed the hill and am speeding down the other side.

A lot of the time life’s traumas feel like they don’t make sense, but if you’re lucky you can fashion some kind of closure for yourself that makes it possible to go on with life without the constant hum of a question. Other times things are so awful, and make so little sense, that the resulting questions will haunt you forever. Why has this happened to you and not someone else? Why couldn’t things be different? To watch others living their lives as normal is a special torture—those Mr Magoos who are infuriatingly blind to how lucky they are to be untouched by disaster. These people never let you forget, keeping what could have been always tantalisingly close.

Maybe it’s too far a stretch to relate breast cancer to conscription. Perhaps this is a product of gen-Y narcissism. Jack in A Loving, Faithful Animal is a middle-aged man, a Vietnam veteran in the 1990s, and I am an early-twenties gay female well into the millennium. Is it inappropriate to be making this story about me? It doesn’t feel inappropriate when reading this book. Rowe has constructed a non-judgemental environment to consider these thoughts, to make these links. It is a beautiful thing to read a novel and relate so strongly to a character who is so different from yourself. Rowe makes no distinctions between the scale of human disasters. The minimalist lens of her prose describes it all with the same sharp focus. Nothing is overdramatised, but there are small explosions of trauma in the background throughout this book, making up a kaleidoscope of disaster. People’s lives are being quietly but irrevocably altered. Assault, self-mutilation, drugs: these things appear in the prose and then are whisked away quickly before anyone can think of what to do about them. When Lani witnesses a rape through a drug-induced fog, she doesn’t act. She doesn’t make a decision not to act – she just doesn’t. The event glides past her, like some slick underwater creature, slippery enough that she can’t get a hold on it. And yet, years later, those brief moments—the bad glimpse through an open door that she does nothing to stop—will haunt her deeply.

How do you let go when the trauma is so real and the memory of the way things were before is such a fond one? How do you explain that difference? You live the life that is dealt to you, and while you will inevitably look back at the other one, the one you expected, nothing good will come of the comparison.

A few months after I had finished treatment I had a conversation with my brother and his girlfriend after our family’s weekly dinner. I couldn’t articulate how exactly, but it seemed to me that dinners had become a quieter, more sombre affair since I had been sick. “Our family used to be happy and now we’re all so sad,” I said. Thomas and Talia looked at me. “We’re still happy,” they said. “We were happy then and we’re happy again now. It’s easy to remember the difference as bigger than it is.”

Chloë Reeson is a writer and editor living in Brisbane. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Bumf, Yen, and Stilts. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the John Marsden Hachette Prize for Young Writers. She is also the fiction editor for online magazine Scum.