A review of Aphelion by Emily Ballou

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Emily Ballou
Available at Picador – Pan Macmillan Australia
ISBN: 9780330423120 , Softcover, 503pp, $32.95

There’s a dreamy richness underscoring Emily Ballou’s second novel AphelionThe book opens in 1939, with an 18-year old Esme waking to the sensual remains of last night’s dinner. Her future is still before her, her legs strong as she walks through the snow, full of anticipation and memory that is still tinged with possibility. By opening the book here, Ballou allows the reader to share Esme’s memories and feel the same sense of nostalgia as the novel progresses. That sense of excitement, of something good about to happen, also remains with the reader, though by the next chapter the downward pull of “Gravity” is strong. 2002 is, perhaps, the book’s aphelion — when the characters, at least at the start, are at their bleakest.

Esme, now 81, and Hortense, her 101 year old mother, are old and infirm, struggling against their limitations and coming to terms with an impending death. There is an aged mother-daughter dance between Esme and Hortense, as they both struggle with their infirmaries — competing on ailments, self-destructiveness and loss. Their past is drowned in Lake Eucumbene. Lucetta, their niece, is young and beautiful but she’s already a widow: lonely and lost. The family orbits around one another, like planets without a sun, cold and snappy, cut off from their past. Into this hotbed of family quarrel and meaningless activity comes Hazel, also a lost planet, but carrying Rhett, a young man who grew up in the town. Hazel is an American migrant, in search of a new life after leaving behind a bad love affair in Sydney. Rhett brings with him the sense of dislocation as he returns from a long time away in Greece. His mother has recently died, his brothers are dead, and his house has fallen into disrepair. Slipping into his past is like moving into a skin that no longer fits. All five characters are at their aphelion.

Then there’s 1957. The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric scheme is still in its early days and the city of old Adaminaby is being drowned. It’s a critical year for the family. Their home becomes submerged into Lake Eucumbene, and, like the rest of the town, they acquiesce, uneasily. Their old lives are under the water, waiting to pull them under too. Ballou handles the time shifts masterly, using Hazel in the present and her influence as historian to allow the other characters an easy motion backwards. 1957 is revealed as flashbacks in the eyes of Hortense as she recalls her husband Jack, and a momentary decision that changed the lives of her and her family. Esme too had her pulsation, briefly, until upstaged by her sisters. The relationship between the two eras in the past and the present is seamless, linked by Hazel as she pulls it all together in her montage of love. There is never a point when the narrative is unclear or the reader is lost or jarred moving between the time frames. It feels as though the past and present are one and the same — that the characters move in and out of time, as we all do in our memories, without the need to stop and situate the narrative. This is partly due to the well-constructed plot, but also due to Ballou’s exquisite linguistic ability. Her prose is startlingly beautiful, and not just the poetic metaphors, which are present throughout the book and always original, fresh and powerful: “The rain fell like a broken necklace, beads bouncing to the ground.” (404).

There are many instances throughout this novel where Ballou creates a snapshot which is so well rooted in characterization that the tiny release of truth becomes universal and the reader doesn’t just see what is going on, they recognize the emotion:

So this thirst tonight seems a new thing altogether: the body’s parchment on which fingers can write; and her shame, needing irrigation, a wet palmful of water, another embrace. And the low pounding of her forehead; a dull thudding of drums. Perhaps only exhaustion rivals thirst at this stage. She’s nauseous with lack of sleep and wants this night to be done so she can go back to her room, shower, check up on Mrs Nagy, boil nappies, bottle formula and put away the thirsty deepest part of herself that tonight has opened like a split lip, like a sudden rift in dry earth. (289)

The story of Lucetta, Rhett and Joe is as romantic as the characters’ names imply, but it isn’t soppy or cliché in any way. Lucetta and Rhett have a history, and are damaged. Their damage mirrors the damaged landscape. Their loneliness and fear is matched by the drought that has taken root in the land. The sun is a long way away. But the planets are always moving, in orbit. There are always symbols of hope. And there is always, even at the coldest point, a sensuality that provides its own meaning. As Rhett carves Lucetta’s name, he is carving meaning into his life:

At first it was just the feel of the knife in his hand over the worn stone he liked. It was the way he could alter it by force alone. The repetition of it. The chipping and scraping. The grey bits of stone. Getting obsessed about blowing out the dust and flicking the ants aside and moving his fingers through the grooves he made, testing their inner edges for smoothness, working the jaggedness away, hunched over in the sun for hours until his knees ached and his neck was hot against his palm. (437)

The landscape is lovingly, beautifully depicted, whether in memory or in present tense. It’s always rooted in character, so we never see it alone, but rather through the eyes of the character observing it. Rhett and Lucetta, for example, ride horses into the mountains:

They rode higher, into a wave of horizon and sky stretched with strings of white cloud until the lake was a luminous blue puddle in the shape of jeweled hand beneath them, and then it disappeared entirely, as if sucked down into the valley floor, which might have been the past, hidden from view by the eastern ridge that gradually formed as they rode, rising up between where they were and where they had been (362)

Thirty-five year old Hazel comes into this world as a stranger, but her objectivity allows her to see past her own pain. Everyone in the town has secrets and history. Hazel carefully reconstructs it. She brings the family together. She uncovers the drowned city and tamped memories and puts them together in an order that makes sense. She delivers Rhett to his home in a deeper sense than just dropping him off. She works out her own mother’s role and their relationship. She works out “the power of her own distance”. Though Aphelion is long in pages, it reads quickly, propelled by its deeply satisfying plot and exquisite language. Ballou has created a much more complex novel in Aphelion than in Father Lands, but it’s no more difficult to read as a result. The complexity of time, place and multiple view points is dealt with sensitively and with a sophistication that is always tempered by Ballou’s great love of character and language, and an undercurrent of enduring humour that’s never far beneath the surface.

Listen to my audio interview with Emily Ballou (who also reads from the book) at The Compulsive Reader Talks.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.