Recently I sat on a panel of publishers, writers, translators and booksellers charged with drawing up a list of Spanish books to promote as worthy of translation in this country. It’s hard to sell literature in translation to the British, and it’s also hard to choose between Spanish novels, nearly all of which seem to win armfuls of prizes as soon as they are published. Nevertheless some of these candidates sounded promising and many of us on the panel were enthused by interesting storylines and innovative writing styles. The publishers, keeping cooler heads, looked straight at the bottom line: if a novel was not at least 150 pages long, they said, there was no economic sense in publishing it, no matter how good the material. The bookseller agreed. He said that people won’t spend much money on short books.
Julia Leigh’s 121-page novella would have got short shrift from our sort of panel. Lucky, then, that it fell into the hands of Faber & Faber, whose poetry list shows them to be unafraid of slim volumes and who are wealthy besides, thanks to the estate of T S Eliot and many years of royalties from Cats.
Disquiet is not a collection of poetry, but neither is it your average novel. It is more like a series of poetic images composed as a novel. The story and characters matter less than the arrangement of words and conjured pictures. At the start we are shown a smart young woman, with her arm in a sling, breaking into the gardens of a French chateau with her children, a boy aged nine and a girl aged six, in tow. Later we learn that this woman has been badly beaten – almost murdered – by her partner in Australia and is now returning to the family home. She is only ever described as ‘the woman’ (though others refer to her as Olivia). Her mother, only ever known as ‘the Grandmother’, accepts her daughter home without any questions, even though they have not seen one another for ten years. The scene is set for odd events.
Grand houses make irresistible settings for fiction, especially when there are children to explore them and interpret them anew. In this case, the chateau comes complete with a team of gardeners clipping topiary into eccentric shapes and with peculiar staff in the kitchen: Ida, a telepathic cook, and the giggling twins who help her.
Balloons and flowers everywhere betoken a celebration. The Grandmother explains that she is awaiting the return of her son and daughter-in-law with their new baby, then – bingo – the couple arrive cradling their bundle. But there is a terrible twist: their baby – the result of years of fertility treatment – has actually died at birth. Its mother, Sophie, mad with grief, will not relinquish the corpse and carries it with her everywhere.
So far, so disquieting. Leigh’s material is as strange and provoking as avant-garde theatre. The characters are unlikely and the scenario unconscionable, but Leigh brings them together to create images that are new and memorable. She has a wonderful eye for detail. I liked the children thumping away at the piano, ‘thwang bang, a sonata for four elbows’, and the woman, listening to her brother’s agonised confession of adultery: ‘She had finished her tea but held the cup suspended in mid-air as if this helped her to listen.’ Even the experience of eating a kebab merits scrutiny.
Some of the poetic permutations come from the French characters making unwitting slips. A telephone caller is requested by one of the twins ‘not to derange lunch’, but lunch is already wildly deranged, what with Sophie trying to feed her dead baby soup and six-year-old Lucy making inappropriate remarks about vulvas. ‘Everyone is eaten’ laments the maid, when the woman and her children, jet-lagged, arrive too late for dinner. They don’t know, just then, that Sophie is keeping her dead baby in the freezer.
Ninety-five pages may be short for a novel, but I don’t think you would want Disquiet any longer. Leigh’s tone and pace are always the same. That gives the story a dreamlike languor and makes the process of reading it something like walking at an enforced stroll through dangerous and frightening territory. Sometimes you want to break into a sprint. Julia Leigh has written an extraordinary book – but I was relieved to reach the end of it.