Can I start out by saying that I hope I never have to read two books about communes in the space of a few weeks again? Probably not, but I did. It’s just not my scene, man…
And while this hippy commune story – Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us – compares favourably to the last one I read, I need to stress that two coming-of-age-stories-set-in-communes-with-commune-destroying-fires-and-hippy-mothers-who-can’t-read-plus-a-side-of-paternity-issues on the one prize shortlist is just dumb. Where’s the diversity? Where’s the interest for people* who don’t like hippy commune stories that much?**
There are multiple plots in this story, some of which are heavily interwoven, others which are not. Most of the story is focused on the Müller family – they’re grief-stricken after the loss of their youngest daughter, Pip, to cancer.
“I don’t mean to hurt you, she says. But when I look at your face I see Pip. So I look away. He ought to be shocked. But he’s briefly relieved. It isn’t hate, or some other feeling between them then. It is at least love that averts her.”
In response to Pip’s death, mother Evangeline wanders the forest; father Stefan focuses on his apiary and alcohol; eldest daughter Tess stops speaking; and middle daughter, Meg, channels her worries into intricate drawings. But it is not just a story about grief – there’s the new school teacher struggling to settle in; the discovery of a car wreck and human remains on the Müller farm; disappearing bees; the town loner trying to make sense of his heritage; the town gossip stirring trouble; amnesia, issues of paternity, alcohol abuse, environmental vandalism and much, much more.
It was all a little exhausting… A shame because there were some truly lovely moments in Jachau’s writing.
“Tess sees the bare feet first, whizzing through the air. Then the chopstick shins and saggy knickers, the vulnerable dip where the spine meets elastic. It’s her sister Meg, practising handstands and cartwheels…”
“Her mascara was smudged, a stray pin abseiled from her hair.”
Likewise, if there had been less ‘busyness’, some of the analogies could have been extended – I’m quite sure there was more to be explored in relation to the organisation of bees (hive and commune comparisons and the need to work together); finding one’s voice; and the idea of being foreign (from the introduction of imported queen bees and displaced German-born Stefan and school teacher Jim, to the exploration activities undertaken by a mining company in the surrounding forest).
“…he headed for the lands to find what the Belgian writer*** had so loved in bees: passion for work, perseverance, devotion to the future.”
Further extending the theme of belonging or being foreign, a number of characters (three in total) were questioning their paternity, highlighting the issue of what makes a parent – biology or being present?
I feel like this book could have been so much better with a heavy edit (or perhaps Jachau could have saved some of the plot-lines for her next book?).
Lastly, I must mention the cover. It’s sublime.
3/5 (Just. More like a 2.7)
Will it win the Stella Prize? No.
**and why in God’s name has this situation been repeated for the Miles Franklin? Seriously, judges?
*** The Life of a Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck