Echolalia by Briohny Doyle

‘It would be easy not to notice him.’

There are two parts to this story, separated by a tragedy. Before the tragedy, Emma Cormac is struggling. She has married into a wealthy, privileged family, and lives in a palatial new home in outer suburban Australia. But she is undermined by her formidable mother-in-law, Pat Cormac, and is barely struggling with her three young children. Clem is four, a wilful child who mimics her grandmother. Arthur, who is almost three, has a genetic disorder. Emma is protective of him, but it is her perfect baby, Robbie, that the Cormac family sees as being their future. Robbie is a demanding baby, wanting more than Emma can give.

And just outside the window, the lake is evaporating, the birds are disappearing, and the Cormac family buys up land to develop into cheap housing. One night, Emma leaves baby Robbie alone by the lake. By the time he is found, it is too late to save him.

Afterwards, some years later, the summers are even hotter. The Cormac name no longer has the power it once held, and Arthur has made a name for himself overseas. Clem is now an artist, haunted by the past and obsessively revisiting it. And a nameless woman is released from state care. Hers is a life governed by the routine of a twelve-step program, lived one day at a time. How can she have any future when Robbie did not?

What a bleak story this is. The once mighty Cormac family fragmented, as though the death of baby Robbie robbed them of all ambition and the need to take any responsibility. Climate change continues and the natural environment suffers. And the nameless woman must live with all the consequences, not just the results of her own actions. How, where, and when will it end?

This novel haunts me. This is partly because of what happened to baby Robbie but also because there is no neat resolution. We are left, as is the world, in an uneasy suspense. Existence continues, but life is constrained.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith