Can you ever really know a person? Even the most forthright, authentic people have versions of themselves for different areas of their lives. Who can truly say they are the same person at work as they are with their family, friends, or in public? In The Earth Does Not Get Fat, Julia Prendergast paints a portrait of a broken woman using fractured storytelling that encompasses the perspectives of several characters on the life and illness of one woman, Annie. The result is a narrative that jumps back and forth both in time and perspective, but in doing so is able to holistically gather impressions of a single person’s experience of trauma and its effects.
Chelsea is sixteen years old and a full-time carer for her mother and grandfather. Her grandfather has dementia and is losing the ability to function independently. Chelsea must feed, bathe, and constantly comfort him in his confusion. On top of this, Chelsea’s mother Annie is suffering debilitating mental health problems. Annie has become non-verbal, rarely leaving her bed and cycling through bouts of heavy drinking and prescription drug abuse. Chelsea is highly independent and struggles to live both the life of a carer and a regular teenager. Attending school, having a social life and pursuing romance become increasingly difficult for Chelsea as her family grows sicker and, with no one to support her, she becomes incapable of balancing these two sides of her life.
The narrative jumps back and forth both in time and perspective, but is able to holistically gather impressions of trauma and its effects.
Chelsea’s inner monologue is dotted with affirmations to herself that she must continue on, just get through the day, just get her grandfather to bed happy and deal with the next challenge as it comes. To those on the outside, it looks as if Chelsea is a young person making poor decisions – acting out at school and intentionally alienating herself from her peers. But if they were to scratch the surface, their impression of Chelsea would change astronomically. However, her desire to keep her home life under wraps means that Chelsea often pushes help away.
Without a support structure, Chelsea’s life is one stressful incident after another, with little to no respite. The relentless nature of the care Chelsea must provide for her family is, at times, difficult to read. There is a sense that being a full-time carer has pushed Chelsea into a mindset that has more in common with someone beyond her years. Without the superficial details of school uniforms and unfinished homework, it can be easy to forget that Chelsea is only sixteen. However, it is hard to imagine a young person in Chelsea’s position not growing up fast under the weight of such responsibility. This is a sad situation, but one that many people (young people included) are going through each day.
It is hard to imagine a young person in Chelsea’s position not growing up fast under the weight of such responsibility.
As she shifts from Chelsea’s perspective on to those of other characters’, Prendergast reveals the reason Annie has descended into such a severe depressive state. Through Annie’s friend, Pelts, and eventually Annie herself, a long narrative of abuse and heartbreak becomes apparent. Annie has been subjected to cruelty, sexual assault and, most horribly, the death of her eldest child, and it is these things that have caused her to become the woman Chelsea must drag along the floor to bed each night. This makes for tough reading at times – Chelsea’s is a grim life, full of responsibilities she shouldn’t have to know at such a young age.
Some of the best moments of this book are those in which Chelsea accepts help. This help first comes in the form of an aged care nurse who approaches Chelsea on the street after witnessing her struggle with one of her grandfather’s episodes. After accepting this stranger’s act of kindness, Chelsea is able to redirect her energy from caring for her grandfather to finding help for her mother. She contacts Pelts, who brings Annie and Chelsea to his home and takes care of them. His is a very ordinary kind of care – he cooks dinner, runs baths, lights fires. But for Chelsea, something as simple as walking along the beach on her own is a luxury. Eventually, Pelts coaxes Annie out of the haze of grief she has been living in, and Chelsea finally learns the truth about what has broken her mother so grievously. The reality of Chelsea’s situation is that many people, young people and children included, live through this each day. While Chelsea is eventually able to find help for her mother and grandfather, it’s impossible to forget that this is something that really happens and getting help is not always so easy.
Even the most devastating losses cannot stop life from happening, and although we may lose the ones we love, there are still people left behind to lean on.
While reading this book, I felt it was a meditation on grief loss, and the consequences they bring. However, after mulling over the novel as a whole, I have changed my mind. This is a novel about healing. The title of the book comes from a proverb that says the earth will continue to consume bodies until the end of time, its hunger never to be satiated. This is a haunting phrase that conjures up quite a grim image. But you could choose to look at this proverb in a different way – the earth may continue to take people away from us, but it remains unchanged. Even the most devastating losses cannot stop life from happening, and although we may lose the ones we love, there are still people left behind to lean on.
Grief, trauma and misery are well-worn themes in literary fiction, especially Australian literary fiction. It can be exhausting to see these tales of small-town woe crop up again and again. While Annie’s is a miserable situation, Prendergast writes with a purpose. Seeing these traumatic incidents build up while Annie, much like Chelsea, hides the unpleasant facts of her life from the world shows the reader that human emotion is an iceberg – the things that make themselves apparent are only a tiny fraction of the whole. Books like The Earth Does Not Get Fat remind us that it is near impossible to know what is going on in another person’s life and that empathy is necessary to help those who may be suffering in a world that won’t stop for them.
The Earth Does Not Get Fat is available now at Readings.