lip lit: our magic hour
In a recent article for Eureka Street, Ellena Savage wrote that perhaps one of the purposes of reading is to help ‘connect with feelings that don’t have words, that only have images like swirling sandstone’. Jennifer Down’s debut novel, Our Magic Hour, is concerned with these feelings that don’t have words—the inexpressible emotions and sensations that can at times buoy us, at other times consume us.
At first glance the premise of the story seems simple: a group of twenty-somethings living in Melbourne struggle to comprehend the suicide of their close friend, Katy. But the complexity of the grieving process and the characters’ fraying relationships are so beautifully rendered that they give this novel a profound intelligence and depth.
This tragedy, which occurs in the first few pages, allows Down to examine her fascination with what she calls ‘the metamorphosis of grief’ through her characters. Audrey and Adam have known Katy the longest, since they were all thirteen. They have grown up together, shared love and pain, swapped secrets, evolved from teenagers to adults, become something like siblings to each other. But ten years later, with Katy gone, Audrey and Adam are left shaken and distraught, shattered by grief.
Adam experiences grief as a tidal wave of confusion and anger, but Audrey, the novel’s focal character, experiences a quieter form of anguish. Like a broken tap dripping softly but persistently, her grief gradually erodes her sense of self, her confidence at work, her relationship with her sweet boyfriend, Nick, and her will to keep moving through a world that doesn’t make sense anymore.
On top of this, Audrey must contend with a demanding family—an erratic mother, an irresponsible teenage brother, and the shadow of a violent father—as well as an emotionally draining job in child protection.
She is an engaging character, sympathetically crafted by Down without being airbrushed. Her scars and flaws are on show as she is slowly consumed by ‘noxious black grief’. But Audrey is a survivor—and has been one since before she was even born. ‘I was one of twins,’ she tells Nick one night out of the blue. ‘Natural selection or whatever. Some things are better adapted to their environments, and they outlive the things that aren’t. The others just disappear.’ From the disintegration of her relationship to her reckless behaviour, panic attacks, and flawed coping mechanisms, Our Magic Hour bears witness to Audrey’s raw grief, resilience and strength of character.
What makes Our Magic Hour such an impressive debut is Down’s pared-back prose and confident voice. The dialogue, while not always aligning with how people would normally speak, is poetic and careful, simmering with violent, gut-wrenching emotions. Down has perfectly captured the vulnerability of youth, and the particular experience of loss at that stage of life.
This is an incredibly intimate and tender novel about friendship, family and the transformative power of grief. In 2014 an early version was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, losing out in the end to Miles Allinson’s Fever of Animals. It would be interesting to see Our Magic Hour in its early stages, to see how it developed, because the final product is so well crafted and mature; it is easily one of the best Australian debuts I’ve read in a long time.
Text Publishing, 2016