Books

Review: What the Light Hides

1 April 2016

 

Arriving in the wake of her debut novel, The Vanishing Act, Mette Jakobsen’s second novel, What the Light Hides, is equal parts lovely, sensory, and frustrating. Delving into the minutiae of the characters’ psyches, the novel is slow at parts but its minimalistic dialogue and the rich texture of the characters’ lives makes for a worthy, if ultimately unfulfilling, read.

Jakobsen’s protagonist, David, is a mourning father finding it impossible to live with the ambiguity surrounding his son Ben’s disappearance, which occurs some time before the story begins. His wife, Vera, is also struggling with the loss, and the two of them have grown apart in grief – their Blue Mountains home and earthy existence providing a backdrop for their internal melancholy. As their former youth and romantic backstory unfolds through David’s flashbacks and memories, their once passionate love is contrasted with Vera’s present coldness. Jakobsen depicts a realistic adult relationship strained by mutual loss, and though told from the protagonist’s perspective, David’s acute self-awareness opens both he and Vera’s reactions to scrutiny. They are both rendered pitiful, and thus altogether relatable, a testament to Jakobsen’s grasp on reactions to grief and confusion.

The most evocative parts of Jakobsen’s novel are undoubtedly those detailing David’s woodworking process. Descriptions of detailed inlay, intricate joinery, textures and grains provide solace in the confusing, upsetting and cold space David and the story occupy. As a carpenter, David’s ability to control the wood – turning it into something beautiful and useful – underlines the lack of control he has in his plight to resolve the mystery surrounding his son. Jakobsen’s sensory sensibility shines.

Despite this, it is a frustrating tale. Much is left unanswered and the motivations of the characters are complex and difficult to ascertain. Dialogue is sharp and direct. Vera and David rarely mince words, and on the rare occasion they embellish or partake in description, it comes across as a desperate attempt at casual depth, spontaneous insight into life and the universe. The characters are rarely down to earth and frequently concerned with appearing interesting and unique. Perhaps this is an understandable upshot of a story centered around a family of artists and academics, all somewhat reserved and distant in nature. But while this commentary runs explicitly in David’s voiced wishes as to his son and mother’s general diffidence towards his mediocrity and contentedness with simplicity, it also runs implicitly through the novel’s ambition to be interpreted as strikingly insightful. While it is perhaps not subtle enough in this sense, it is beautifully evocative and undoubtedly Australian in its voice, and the characters are rich and multifaceted. Jakobsen’s novel washes over you, its nostalgic overtones making it ultimately worth the effort.

This book was provided by Text Publishing