With more than ten years between The Light on the Water and her fictionalised memoir, the well-regarded The Rooms of My Mother’s House, no-one can accuse author Olga Lorenzo of churning out potboilers. The Light on the Water, self-conscious as a piece of literary fiction, moves slowly, with the focus on introspection and talking. Quite a lot of introspection and talking, in fact.
This is not to say that nothing happens in the book; when we first encounter the central character, Anne Baxter, she is waiting to be bailed from jail, following the disappearance of her young autistic daughter, Aida, on a walk at Wilson’s Promontory park.
We know the charges are wrong, of course; the second chapter explains how the girl wandered off and was swallowed by the Australian bush. If this gives plenty of reason for Anne to repeatedly question her fitness as a mother – the only role she has ever sought or felt comfortable in – it also robs the novel of dramatic tension.
The police suspect her of doing away with the child (this bit is actually a stretch of belief, as the evidence is scanty at best), and soon the mob and the media turns against her.
Anne’s ex-husband Robert, a powerful lawyer, provides assistance, and his once-reviled new wife turns into a valuable source of moral support. Anne’s rather spoiled daughter, Hannah, alternates between thinking the whole thing is about her or has nothing at all to do with her.
Anne searches for a way to negotiate the world and deal with her grief, with mixed results. Along the way, there is some beautiful writing in her convoluted recollections. But somewhere along the line a sense of meandering sets in. Some young people drift from Brighton Beach into Anne’s life; perhaps they are supposed to represent Anne’s need to be a nurturer, but the connection is vague.
An asylum seeker appears and then disappears, presumably back to whatever novel he wandered in from. There is also a lost bunny: you think it must represent something, but no, it is just a lost bunny.
As for Anne, she becomes increasingly ineffectual, washed around by the views of the others in her life, not exactly a helpless victim but lacking much sense of purpose of her own. Maybe that’s what becoming enmeshed in the legal system is like, but it doesn’t make for exciting literature.
She ends up back in jail, having broken her bail conditions to pull Hannah out of some minor but self-inflicted crisis. She is assaulted and ends up in a coma – and while she is asleep, the case is resolved. Just like that: offstage, second-hand. Some people might find this ending deeply unsatisfying.
If you are the sort of reader who is happy to go along with Anne’s meditations and reflections, then there is much to enjoy here. If you prefer to see wrongs clearly righted, mysteries resolved, and a cathartic climax, then you might be disappointed – but there is still much to like in Olga Lorenzo’s sense of language, place and character. For her, that is what the act of writing a novel is all about.
Derek Parker, Guest Author, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013