A review of The Leaves by Jacqueline Rule

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Leaves
By Jacqueline Rule
Spinifex Press
May 2024, ISBN: 9781922964021, Paperback, 176 pages, $26.95

Faith and Evelyn are neighbours and friends, both First Nations single mums looking after their young boys Luke and Mitch.  Both women were “blanket babies”, part of the stolen generation, hidden under a hospital blanket and taken away from their mothers. Both grew up in foster homes, not knowing their parents or that they were loved and part of a community denied to them. This information is conveyed delicately, in spite of its horror, in flashbacks through Faith’s labour. The bond between these women is strong, uniting them through their mutual trauma and the growing friendship between their sons.

The writing throughout The Leaves is condensed and poetic, with stream of consciousness elements that are intense and immediate, creating empathy as the reader experiences the difficult lives of these characters from the inside: 

The over-ripe fruited fallen leaves collect on the ground, sticking to her shoes. Luke’s legs are wrestling the air, between his fingers—-squashed figs, soil. Faith lies on the grass next to him, pebbles against her back. The fruit is crimson, yellow inside, with hundreds of florets, not as sweet as the sandpaper fig, but she prefers it. (3)

Faith, unlike Evelyn, doesn’t have her son’s father nearby to help, and struggles to cope with work hours and motherhood. Luke also struggles to fit into school. The writing moves smoothly between the multiple points of view, without ever becoming confusing.  Faith and Evelyn’s deep bond is an anchor point against a hostile world that becomes increasingly difficult to navigate, in spite of how hard both try to be good mothers and live a decent life. 

There is no leeway for the women. When Faith loses her job, she ends up selling most of her jewellery and even some furniture just to pay the rent and feed Luke. When she falls ill, partly due to the many sacrifices she makes — skipping meals and walking in the rain to save money — there is no safety net for her or her son Luke. It becomes clear that these characters have been set up to fail by a cascade of interventions that continues to undermine them. The novel’s transitions are handled with so much tenderness towards the protagonists that prose becomes poetry, using space, rhythm and breath to express loss:

—skipping ropes, a plastic crate,    beside the playground
at Luke’s school,
rackets, balls, hula hoops, tw nets full

The principal and Mrs B, walking in unison,
Evelyn a few steps behind, Luke, alone, (28)

Evelyn tries to adopt Luke and is rejected multiple times, in spite of the fact that is the most appropriate person to look after him. There is no alternative to Evelyn, only a dysfunctional foster care network, but prejudice is inherent in governmental policy: 

The Department turns down Evelyn’s application, the reasons are unclear. She passes all the background checks to foster, she answers their questions well in the interview. She doesn’t have a spare bedroom, that’s true, but she can’t afford to rent a three bed. The boys are like brothers, they’re used to sharing. 

She’s known him since he was born, she promised his mother. Their responses are short, sharp, the language is generic. Regrettably, she’s not a suitable person, they need to act in Luke’s best interests, for the long term. (43)

Jacqueline Rule makes good use of her legal experience in Luke’s tragic story, spotlighting just how broken the foster system he ends up cycling through is, and how brutal the legal detention system which traumatises rather than helps the young people caught in it. The Leaves is a fast read, engrossing and driven by Luke’s trajectory. Throughout the book, the writing remains sensual and immediate, using the changing foliage of the jacaranda tree to track the passing of time – a constant against the dissolution of Luke’s world:

Branches scratch the wall beside the train tracks, crossing over each other, moving, shrinking, cracking along the trunk, where aphids have dug holes into the bark, flaking wood into strips on the pavement, the wind whispering into the cracks of roofs, wrapping itself around stems and drying leaves. (69)

When things get especially dire, The Leaves slips into poetry, Luke’s world fracturing into sense and staggered breath. This use of poetry this way is deeply moving, conveying more than narrative, as Luke continues to draw us into the moment of his pain. His experience and its contrast with official accounts create a tension that illuminates how flawed a system that would deceptively remove a child from its parent and family network only to put them into a system designed to control and destroy them. While it may no longer be the case that children are stolen from their parents under blankets in hospitals, the system is still stacked against First Nations people, with communities over-policed and over-represented in prisons. In spite of its important and very relevant message, The Leaves is not polemical. Luke’s story has its own impetus and its theme is subtly handled. The Leaves is all the more powerful for its linguistic richness. Luke’s story is one that can’t easily be shaken off.