Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down

Review (The Age)

After her best friend Katy’s death, Audrey’s characteristic self-possession begins to unravel and ‘When the grief came, it was primitive and crippling.’

Jennifer Down’s impressive first novel – shortlisted for the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript – takes place during the yearlong aftermath of Katy’s suicide.

A kind of twenty-something Bildungsroman, Audrey’s journey charts her progression from emotional paralysis to psychological free-fall and, finally, to a less self-punishing equanimity.

As Audrey travels throughout the city, her observations of the landscape are now, since Katy’s death, redolent with significance.

‘She watched the smeary droplets on the windscreen. The car inched into the freeway. The rainbow signs above the factories read OUR MAGIC HOUR. Audrey felt sick.’

Audrey lives with her boyfriend Nick in inner city Melbourne. They listen to bands in pubs and hang out at messy-boozy parties. Have sex. Talk work. Audrey is a child protection worker, Nick a paramedic. Before the capsizing impact of Katy’s suicide, their relationship looks an easy-loving and companionable one.

There are some striking breathlessly written montages of Audrey’s family – her late abusive father, her mentally ill mother, her troubled adolescent bother, all provide added texture and depth while the novel ‘s fluidity of prose and rhythm keep the narrative afloat as it moves elegantly between the lyrical: ‘It was getting so the warmth dropped out of the days quicker, and the sun was thin.’ To the colloquial: ‘I’m fucked,’ Emy announced cheerfully. She kicked off her knickers. ‘I’m just the safe side of a really lavish vomit.’

The book does however pull a few punches. As to why Katy killed herself, we never really know. The extent of Audrey’s mother’s mental illness, we are never really sure. Audrey’s brother Nick seems to go from drug dependent screw up to motivated arts student no problem. And the apparent awfulness of Audrey and Nick’s break up remains cloudy.

But Down’s writing about grief is insightful. ‘She felt such a complete and terrible sorrow that she curled into bed before dusk and tried to find a new space between waking and dreaming.’

Grief, past and present, is the story’s engine and it does run out of puff about two thirds in. But when it feels like something more needs to happen, it picks up speed again and the vividness of it prose and authenticity of its central character get it all moving.

Down’s clear and confident voice can play originally with language: ‘soft-serve summers’ and ‘clumsy grief’ and scenes with Audrey’s French mother with her idiosyncratic turns of phrase evoke the bi-lingual soundscape of childhood: Audrey recalls of her parents: ‘They’d be talking their bastard talk, lightning French and English. ‘… the kind of love that Audrey had no words for in either language.’

When Nick asks, one night in bed, what Audrey’s reading, she replies: ‘They’re stories about very small things.’

Down’s novel is a story about very small things, that all add up to very big things about, grief and friendship, family and illness, love and death. ‘…the smell of him on her hands, his legs heavy between hers, the sepulchral bed, the turned earth of the sheets.’

An eloquent debut.