Whenever you take a fiction workshop you are guaranteed that at some point someone will say about some story, “This isn’t the title.” Oftentimes, I want to punch that person in the neck because I am not one of those people who spends a lot of time pondering titles (incidentally, I am also one of those people who cannot remember the names of songs). But Disquiet the title of Julia Leigh’s novella is the kind of fucking brilliance that you can’t not think about it.
Actually, the packaging of this book from the title, to the cover, to the type is so perfect for the tone of this story that I want to clutch the book to my chest, pet its pack cover, and coo in its ear.
I cannot remember the last time I read prose that was so controlled and tight, it’s as though every single word was agonized over. Sure, sure all writers want you to believe that every single word is agonized over, but I think that might be some kind of bullshit. However, here it is not.
The story Leigh tells is so full of pain and suffering that if she didn’t have such tight control over her language the story could have easily tipped over into melodrama and self-indulgence.
This slim book opens with a woman returning to her mother’s estate in the French countryside a decade or so after running off with a man the family didn’t approve of. The woman, Olivia, has two children in tow, a broken arm, and a body full of bruises inflicted by the husband she left behind in Australia.
Olive and kids arrive on what appears to be a day of celebration, after struggling with infertility her brother Marcus and his wife, Sophie, are bringing their new daughter. Only a few pages into the book we see Marcus and Sophie arrive carrying a lifeless bundle of pink. The baby, Alice, was stillborn.
The book only gets creepier from there. You can’t put that much dysfunction and a dead baby in a French chateau and not expect things to get a little funky (literally, at some points). But oh, what a beautiful funk.
There are so many scenes in this book that are so exquisitely voyeuristic and painful, you’ll read them with your mouth hanging open and the sort of creepy feeling that you shouldn’t be watching this and yet, you totally can’t look away. Sort of like when you see a couple having a loud argument in public.
With only 128 pages inside the covers it’s hard to write about a lot of what goes on for fear of giving everything away. I do have to say, however, there is a scene involving a lake that draws on the whole baptism/renewal metaphor and it’s a little bit on the heavy-handed side of not so good. But everything else is so pitch perfect that it feels weird to complain about that one little thing.