The novella has been occupying my mind a lot lately, mostly because I am working on one myself. As a form of fiction that sits in an intermediary place between two others—the novel and the short story—a novella has the capacity to draw on the strengths of both and find its own kind of power.
Julienne van Loon achieves exactly that in Harmless.
The cast of characters is small, and all are people hovering beyond the edges of mainstream society. Rattuwat, an elderly Thai hotel worker, has arrived in Perth for the funeral of his only daughter, Sua. Dave, Sua’s partner, is in gaol for a half-hearted, unsuccessful armed robbery. Rattuwat is collected at the airport by Dave’s children: Ant, a young man heading in the same direction as his father, and eight-year-old Amanda, a child who has ‘no respect’. There is no sign of the grandchildren Sua had written to her parents about.
The action in the present takes place over a single day. Rattuwat and Amanda have set out to drive to Acacia Prison to visit Dave. The story begins when the car breaks down and the two of them, at Amanda’s insistence, attempt to walk to the prison. Rattuwat cannot handle the heat and the long walk; Amanda leaves him behind. Both get lost, and Dave’s allotted visiting time comes and goes.
Through this slender but compelling arc of events, Rattuwat, Amanda and Dave are put under great pressure. Each must come to terms with grief and loss; each must decide whether to give up or keep travelling.
But the present is only part of the story. Through brief glimpses of what has brought each character to this day’s events—memories, vignettes—van Loon pieces together a grim, bruising story of human vulnerability. These are novelistic techniques used in miniature, compressed to the every-word-counts imperative of the short story.
The narrative’s centre is the absent character, Sua, and it is her story that I found the most heartbreaking—perhaps because of the understated way the horror of her past is revealed. Perhaps, too, because in spite of this, she represents redemptive love, especially for Amanda.
Amanda is a beautifully realised character—difficult to warm to and at the same time impossible not to feel the greatest anxiety for. As I read, I kept remembering Rattuwat’s observation of the ‘impatient and rude’ child at Sua’s funeral:
… he couldn’t help noticing the constant stream of tears coming from the girl in the red dress. She keened and sniffled, wiping mucus all over the back of her hand. Watching her caused Rattuwat physical pain. In some way he had yet to fully understand, that little girl surely belonged to Sua.
Abandoned in different ways by her birth mother, her father and Sua, Amanda is truly lost. In a scene towards the end of the novella, she is transfixed at the sight of an injured kangaroo on the side of the road:
When the second fit began it went on and on, so that the shuddering became all there was to the world. It echoed Amanda’s shifting pulse. Shutting her eyes, blocking her ears, nothing helped. But she could not move away. She stood and stood.
It is a pivotal moment when the child’s unbearable, inexpressible helplessness is visible to her, embodied in the suffering kangaroo.
The novella’s ending is open, the fates of its characters unresolved. For Amanda, however, I sensed hope in her newly found anger, its suggestion that she will be helpless no more, and in the knowledge that she is ‘travelling with Sua in her heart’.
Ian McEwan (The New Yorker, 29 October 2012) has described the novella as ‘the perfect form of prose fiction’—‘long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter’. Harmless fully exploits this satisfying architecture, and delivers depth and weight that belie its 137 pages.
Harmless is Julienne van Loon’s third book, following on from the Vogel Award–winning novella Road Story in 2005 and the novel Beneath the Bloodwood Tree in 2008.
Harmless by Julienne van Loon (Fremantle Press, 2013)
This review counts towards my total for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.