I’m slowly reading my way through the books short-listed for the 2016 Stella Prize.
‘Can you really hope to help or save anyone but yourself?’
‘The World Without Us’ is set in and around a busy town some hours north of Sydney. An alternative lifestyle commune was once located on the outskirts of this town. While the commune was destroyed by a fire some years earlier, many of the people have stayed in the area. The novel’s central characters are the Müller family: Stefan, originally from Germany, his wife Evangeline, and their daughters Tess and Meg. There was once another sister, Pip, but Pip died of leukaemia. Each member of the family is grieving her loss in their own way. Six months ago, Tess Müller stopped speaking. But Tess and her younger sister Meg are primarily concerned about where their mother, Evangeline goes to each day pushing an empty pram. Especially as Evangeline returns home dishevelled, muddy and wet. Their father Stefan, a beekeeper, has taken to drink and has other concerns. His bees are disappearing, and he doesn’t know why. A fragile family, marking time. Then Stefan makes a discovery on their farm. A car wreck, with its own secrets: the past is never very far away.
Making sense of this story, of the parts each of the characters has to play, of the past and of the present threats to the community posed by deforestation and mining takes concentration. The characters are only part of this story, the environment is important, as is the past. Consider Jim Parker, Tess’s teacher. Jim has tried to escape from his own problems in Sydney. As part of leaving Sydney in his past, he focusses on Evangeline as a mystery, as a puzzle to be solved. Jim knows that Evangeline was raised in the commune that was destroyed by fire: she bears the scars of that fire. Jim and Evangeline become close. Are they able to console each other? Can the Müller family survive? And what about the bees?
This was not an easy novel to read. I had to slow down my normal reading pace, both to appreciate the richness of Ms Juchau’s writing and to try to make sense of it. The central theme for me was of loss (life, lifestyle and nature) but there is also hope that the future could be different. If people want it to be, and make some changes. It isn’t only the bees whose communities can fail.
This is Ms Juchau’s third novel, and has been short-listed for the 2016 Stella Prize.