Grief, like depression, is potentially difficult material for a novelist to handle. To feel real, the reader has to be close enough to feel the raw, howling pain. But the reader needs reprieve too, lest they be overcome by claustrophobia and repetition. It’s a balance of light and shade that Myfanwy Jones pulls off in her second novel, Leap.
The novel opens to twenty-something Joe interviewing a prospective flatmate. Joe lives with his friends Sanjay and Jack in a Melbourne share-house owned by Sanjay’s father. The house dynamic is charming and affable, providing plenty of comic relief to counter Joe’s sorrow and guilt over the death of his first love. Having briefly flirted with alcohol and self-destruction as a means of coping with his bereavement, Joe now gets by with a punishing regime of exercise, work and self-denial. He abstains from anything that might staunch his wounds, however temporarily, including alcohol, sex and romantic relationships. He refuses even to plan for the future, holding fast to a permanent stasis.
On the other side of the city exists a very different sort of household. While Joe and his housemates need pliers to start their stove and are always rolling joints or cigarettes, Elise and Adam lead a comfortable, middle-class existence complete with all mod-cons. Despite the couple’s life of order and plenty, Elise is compelled to visit the tigers at the Melbourne Zoo; drawn partly to their wildness, and partly by their connection to the daughter she lost in an accident some years before. Elise develops a fascination with ‘suicide by tiger’, googling zoo visitors who clamber over the barriers or leap from monorails to be ‘at one with the tiger’.
Joe and Elise’s stories play out in parallel narratives that slowly converge. Part of the pleasure of this book is in sleuthing out its points of convergence. Structurally, this book is a work of great skill, and one that rewards patient reading.
Initially, some plot and character elements seem underdone or tangential, and these are seemingly at odds with the dexterity Jones otherwise shows throughout. For example, there’s a character called simply ‘the nurse’ who seems lifted straight from the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ playbook. Beautiful and enigmatic, she immediately draws the emotionally unavailable Joe into a passionate affair that seems at odds with everything we know about him. But Jones knows exactly what she’s doing, and the clues are there to be deciphered (I found myself wondering if Jones was influenced by Ted Hughes’ ‘The Offers’). Similarly, the lengthy and seemingly peripheral descriptions of parkour, energy dispersal and injury management in fact serve a spiritual and psychological function.
I was well into reading Leap before I began to understand the structure and the relationship of the component parts to the whole. It is a work of great warmth and compassion, with much to say about ‘letting go’ and ‘moving on’, but it is neither trite nor clichéd. I cried upon finishing it, something I almost never do in response to a book. Then, like all the cleverest books, I went straight back to the start to ferret out all the clues and signs I’d missed on my first pass.