Review: Our Magic Hour

22 March 2016

Jennifer Down’s debut novel Our Magic Hour follows the aftermath of a tragedy in a group of young adults. Aubrey is a reserved protagonist who struggles to communicate her feelings, even to the reader. In the absence of Aubrey’s voice, Down is able to etch out themes of grief, friendship, love and the loss of youth through graceful prose. Set in Melbourne, this story follows an unusual arc for its genre – not quite coming of age, not quite discovery.

The protagonist, Aubrey, has been friends with the boisterous Adam and troubled Katy since high school, and lives with her boyfriend Nick, who is a paramedic. Her friends are adjusting to adulthood, settling into jobs and their lives, but still full of the lingering exhilaration that pervaded their youth.

Aubrey’s family life is tense – with an aloof French mother, a deceased abusive father, a selfish younger brother and a sister who distances herself – Aubrey runs between them all, ensuring they are happy.

But then Katy, Aubrey’s best friend, kills herself.

What follows is not the typical post-suicide story. There is no exploration of Katy’s life, no investigation into her motives. This story is about the void. This is not Looking for Alaska. It’s more Looking for What’s Next. Our Magic Hour unflinchingly delivers the creeping loneliness that does not break a person at first, but does so in time. It gradually surrounds Aubrey and the reader.

As the novel progresses we learn very little about Katy, though we can make a few guesses about her character. Instead we learn more about Aubrey as she tries to help everyone – the children at her child protection job, her friends as they struggle with loss, her family as they try to tear themselves apart. We learn about Aubrey through what she doesn’t say. We learn about her past.

Down brings an almost terrifying realism to her characters – they seem like the people you could have met in school, could have made friends with. In this way, through the reactions of her friends, we feel the brunt of Katy’s loss.

Our Magic Hour also deals very maturely with Aubrey’s family. In reflecting on her father, Aubrey is not sure whether she will ever have uncomplicated feelings about him. He was the man who read to her, bought her things, sang to her, loved her mother – but he is also the man who hit her mother, sister and herself. She is never able to convey this ambiguity to her friends and boyfriend, highlighting the struggle, confusion and often isolation of domestic abuse.

Down has a reserved but beautiful prose that subtly implies feelings, without rising beyond the youthful Melbourne life it describes. However, the biggest drawback of the novel is that it dwells too often in the humdrum and everyday: drinks, sleeping, going to work. Certainly these are important elements to touch on, but this was almost always the reason I put the book down.

In its maturity and elegance, Our Magic Hour is a surprising and captivating debut novel. I have no doubt that Down will produce more quality writing in the future.

Book provided by Text Publishing

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