I recently finished reading Natasha Lester’s ‘What is Left Over, After’ (Fremantle Press, 2010).
The story opens in Sydney, with 36-week pregnant Gaelle, a fashion photographer, about to have an emergency caesarian. It then skips ahead to a few months after the birth, and the reader sees Gaelle seeking out sexual partners, ruining her own dinner party, then unexpectedly pregnant again and seeking an abortion. Her husband Jason, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is immersed in his work and unsuspecting of Gaelle’s activities. He knows something is wrong but not how to help.
Gaelle ultimately flees her own thirtieth birthday party and boards a plane to Western Australia, where she escapes to a seaside resort at Busselton. She befriends an eleven-year-old girl, Selena, and begins to tell Selena the story of her childhood. The reader learns of Gaelle’s flighty and unstable mother, who took her daughter from the safety of her grandparents’ farm in France, to London, where she left Gaelle alone at night while she went ‘dancing’, and alone again during the day while she recovered.
‘When we arrived at the flats my mother was sitting on the landing in one of the chairs; it looked as though she had been poured into it, as though she was liquescent. I tiptoed over and kissed her cheek. She didn’t move. I didn’t expect her to. Her vision remained loose, as if looking into time.’ (p. 106)
The reader also sees the young photographer emerging:
‘Then I took my mother’s picture. I don’t know if it was because her eyes were closed and I could not see inside her but even as I took it I knew I wanted something more substantial. I wanted to lift her lids and see what lay at the bottom of her eyes.’ (p. 158)
The first part of this novel isn’t an easy read – we see a mother unraveling, making immature choices, having affairs on a benign husband — an unmothered woman unable to escape the patterns of her childhood. The reader suspects the reason for her unraveling, and it is a relief in a way when it is revealed towards the end of the book. The reader comes to understand and forgive Gaelle, and the book ends with hope and the beginnings of healing:
‘For the second time since I had met Jason I thought that it was time to stop running.’ (p. 211)
The characters in this novel have all been fully drawn — none are stereotypes. The other star of this novel is the prose. Beautiful phrases like: ‘and words that sat like clouds around our mouths’ (p. 32), ‘the air as weightless as hope’ (p. 137), ‘watching dusk draw silhouettes over the lawn’ (p. 138), ‘alabaster shards of moonlight splinter over her face’ (p. 160).
I love books like this, that are a bit confronting, that tackle the not-so-pretty side of human nature and motherhood. It’s not all cuddles and loveliness, and it can be especially hard as a mother not to repeat the patterns of one’s own childhood.
‘Watching them both, I know that Selena and the child will have no need to tell stories about their past when they are older because they have not given their childhoods away.’ (p. 69)
Selena, for her unconditional acceptance of Gaelle, and who helps her heal and see that perhaps she has value after all.
Towards the end, the touching scene with Jason and Gaelle in the hospital, holding their baby, Aurora:
‘… as if through absolute stillness, we might hear one tiny breath.’ (p. 222)