It’s kind of a national sport for early career1 writers to rag on the contemporary Australian lit scene. It can be easy to think that it’s a closed shop run by a nefarious cabal of editors and publishers, whose sole purpose in life is to prevent our writing from being published.
Obviously having your name on the front of a dust jacket is the end goal for a lot of young writers. But when we’re starting out we’re told to think of writing as a kind of apprenticeship. Clock-on at your desk, do a shift of 500-ish words, rinse, repeat, and at some point you will become a ‘proper’ writer. It can be a semi-Sisyphean, banging-your-head-against-a-wall-like process. We’re told to write for ourselves, to not look for validation from publishers and peers and prize committees. But writing in a vacuum is hard, and even if we don’t like to admit it, most writers want the same thing: to be told our writing is smart and sound and important.
One coping mechanism that I (and a bunch of my writerly buddies) have unfortunately developed is to enshrine a kind of outsider status by cutting down work that is already out there. We spit on the Cult of the Middlebrow, we moan about the “anti-artists”2 keeping our important work out of print. We gripe about slush piles and agents and editorial committees.
It’s a way for us to feel okay about our lack of success. Thinking of the road to publication as potholed and unpaved is a convenient alibi for the much more likely explanation: that maybe our work isn’t that good. Maybe we’re not dedicated enough, or simply not talented enough. Maybe the stuff that is being published is just better.
My fiercest vitriol has always been reserved for the prize-winning short stories in contests that I myself have entered. I’d steadily grown super scornful of those 3000-word slices of social realism that always seemed to win. You know the ones – those finely observed Raymond Carver-y accounts about couples’ crappy relationships, replete with dead dog metaphors and strained conversations in bed. Where was the experimental fiction, I asked myself, the challenging stuff that makes us re-think the way that words could and should fit together?
The 2014 Elizabeth Jolley Prize was won by a story called ‘Aokigahara’ written by someone named Jennifer Down. When I read it I was mortified at how non-terrible it was. Set in Tokyo, it tells the story of a woman travelling near to Mount Fuji to the forest where her brother killed himself. It was a kind of miniature masterpiece, a complex portrait of pain and history and dislocation. It was worldly and otherworldly and it made me sick with jealousy. To put it simply, it shat all over the piece3 that I had submitted for the prize.
Our Magic Hour, Down’s debut novel, is the kind of book that I would have sneered at a few years ago. The blurb on Text’s website described the book as: “a story of love, loss and discovery. Jennifer Down’s remarkable debut novel captures that moment when being young and invincible gives way to being open and vulnerable, when one terrible act changes a life forever.” That description alone would normally be enough for me to hate the book. Except that after my experience with ‘Aokigahara’ I knew that, at worst, Our Magic Hour would be a totally readable and very competently written piece of fiction. It is that – and thankfully it’s much more as well.
Katy, Adam and Audrey (the latter being the novel’s ghostly protagonist) have been friends since forever. Eight pages into the novel Katy kills herself. The act is only briefly alluded to: “It was a sunny morning. She drove to the Dandenongs, to the reservoir at Silvan…Katy parked in the picnic area. It was still early. When she opened the door she heard magpies.”
After this event, nothing particularly dramatic happens in Our Magic Hour. We simply follow Audrey as she begins to withdraw from the world. She stops attending parties, she pushes away her kind and sturdy-ish boyfriend. When their relationship eventually collapses, she moves to Sydney to work as a social worker in a hospital.
While the compact scenes of the novel are beautifully described, it is Down’s descriptions of her protagonist’s pain that make Our Magic Hour a frequently gripping read:
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.
Audrey herself is no stranger to pain – her entire existence has been steeped in it. Her family is a mess of addiction and abuse, and her job as a social worker is equally harrowing. But Our Magic Hour is far from the dreary kitchen sink melodrama that my summary suggests. Down has a fantastically light touch with dialogue, as shown in the scene where Audrey trades war stories with Nick, who works as an ambulance driver:
‘An eighty-two-year-old guy with dementia wanders into a closet and gets lost. Four days later staff find him, and Tim and I get the job of pumping him full of saline while he sobs for his wife. Who died ten years ago.’
Audrey opened one eye and rolled over to face him. ‘Ten-month-old baby who’s been sexually abused.’
‘How do you know?’
‘She has an STD.’
‘Fuck.’ He flicked off the light and drew her to him. ‘You win.’
This book has been and will be called things like “raw” and “intimate” and “real” and “shocking” and “sad” – and it’s certainly all of these. But it is also a subtle depiction of the pain of loss, of grief. Instead of histrionic tears and yelling, there’s hollowness—a banality even—in the way that Audrey processes her grief: scenes of passionless fucking, scenes where Audrey stands around, watching her friends have fun around her while she feels empty.
Much like the writing of classic writers of Melbourne Helen Garner and Christos Tsolkias, there’s a strong sense of place in Our Magic Hour. There are tram rides and sticky-floored band rooms; house parties with fairy lights and people sitting on milk crates. There’s MDMA and rollies, and trips to the beach. And Down’s descriptions of the city make for some of the most striking prose in the novel: “The city was spread below them, a neat grid of lights. Its golden veins stretched out to the suburbs. This is my favourite view of the city, she’d said at the Backwash, and Audrey had said Mine’s Ruckers Hill. This one.”
I don’t know why I love that line so much, but I do. Maybe it shows how deep Down’s connection to the city is, how her writer’s eye has 20/20 vision. I’ve lived in Melbourne on and off for the last seven years, and I’ve certainly never had a favourite view of the city. Melbourne has merely been a place for me to work and sleep and have fun. I’m living in Berlin now and my surroundings seem pretty similar. The same kind of beds and the same kind of bars. Nice views (weather dependent) of trees and rivers and buildings. Trite as it sounds, the sense of place in Down’s novel is so strong that Melbourne feels like a character itself, the scruffy little sister to Sydney’s austere beauty.
Formally, Our Magic Hour is not what we might call an ‘ambitious’ book. It’s not tricky or meta or avant. It doesn’t ask ‘big questions’ about what a novel can do. But in the age of autofiction, where novels reads like essays or tell-all memoirs, where the self is the only acceptable subject, Down’s supple social realism has a vitality and energy to it. In a weird way, her adherence to the old-school tenets of the novel (characterisation, setting, imagery) now feels refreshing; it seems new.
This is real writing about real people in a real place – even though it’s very obviously fiction. Though this pronouncement may sound premature, I’m sure that Down will be a fixture in the Australian lit scene for years to come. I’m still insanely jealous of her talent, but I’m also glad that I get to read her work, and that I’m able to imagine what she might come up with next.
Dom Amerena is a writer living between Melbourne and Berlin. His work has appeared in places like: The Age, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Meanjin, Vice, The Guardian, The Australian and Fireflies. You can find his work here.
1. Feel free to substitute early career for: emerging, unpublished, self-published, barely-published or received-a-personalised-rejection-from-that-journal-where-you-submitted-something.↩
2. I should note here that neither of the authors of these pieces – Giramondo publisher Ivor Indyk and novelist Luke Carman – are young/inexperienced writers. Rather, these are the kind of pieces which seem to set us off; they provide grist for our mill of gripes.↩
3. It was a DFW-y, show off-y thing, all surface and no depth, all skin and no guts. A workshop-friendly story which, in hindsight, was pretty much written to hear praise for my pretty prose.↩