Olga Lorenzo: The Light On The Water.

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The Light On The Water deals with the terrible experience of a mother who loses her child – and is then accused of having murdered her. Anne Baxter takes her autistic 6-year-old Aida on an ill-advised hike into the wild and beautiful Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria, and loses her forever when Aida runs ahead of her. A mother’s care for her child is boundless, society tells us, and there’s no defence for human lapses and misjudgments. There are worse mothers than Anne in the book – her own abusive mother and her self-absorbed sister Tessa – but that’s no comfort. She will forever blame herself for the fact that, tired from carrying a heavy pack, worn out by the constant need to deal with Aida’s wild energy and stubborn rituals, telling herself that Aida would wait for her at the bridge a little ahead of them because she was afraid to cross it alone, she didn’t run after Aida. Should she also blame her ex-husband, Robert, who should have had Aida that weekend but had cancelled because he wasn’t ready to introduce his autistic daughter to the new woman in his life? Yes, technically, but Anne was the one who lost Aida. Blame, personal responsibility and guilt rampage through the book. We’re reminded too of the strangely double-paced way our lives move. We make decisions and are carried along by them, while at a slower pace our minds are processing their implications.  Thought lags well behind the momentum of action. This is what happens to Anne when she fails to think through the implications of taking Aida on a long and tiring walk, and it’s what’s happened to her marriage. She was the one who wanted to end it, and only too late she realizes what she’s lost, and begins to understand enough about herself to know why.

Olga Lorenzo has worked as a journalist, as has Anne Baxter, and the book takes on the journalistic culture in which truth and fiction blur in the pursuit of a good story. Anne is routinely abused by passers-by who’ve recognized her face from the media and by on-line trolls on the site she’s set up in the desperate hope that Aida might still be alive somewhere. Friends have melted away, and acquaintances avoid her. Where once she had choices about her life, now she’s defined by a public image she has no control over.

A harrowing story, but strangely enough the book doesn’t drag you down. Anne is an intelligent and courageous woman, and while Lorenzo creates a strongly realistic and detailed picture of the concrete details of everyday life – the suburban shops, the city buildings, the trips in the car, the parched gardens in a time of drought – always in the larger air of the book is the sea. Anne lives in a claustrophobic mental space, but her house overlooks the sea, and her goal with Aida was the beautiful Sealer’s Cove. It’s never laboured, but the larger view of human events and human time the sea gives us is always there. The light on the water reflects the changing light of the world, from dawn to dusk, in bright and stormy weather. It’s callous in its indifference to events, but consoling too in its constant return, no matter what.

One of the great pleasures of the book is the description of walking in Wilson’s Promontory which Lorenzo clearly knows and loves. There’s a striking authenticity about the book in general; it’s a theme that could easily descend into the maudlin or into platitudes about motherhood, but it never does. You can read Dorothy Johnston’s excellent review, which was what drew me to the book, here:

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/the-light-on-the-water-review-how-much-grief-can-a-mother-bear-20160303-gn9ae0.html

 

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20 thoughts on “Olga Lorenzo: The Light On The Water.

    1. It’s a different thing though, when an overburdened parent confesses to killing a child. The default position seems to be that if the parent doesn’t confess then she’s an evil schemer. Have you seen “Evil Angels” with Meryl Streep (doing a dreadful New Zealand accent) as Lindy Chamberlain?

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      1. No I haven’t seen it.
        I linked the story because I would think that suspicion would fall on Anne very quickly, which from the sounds of the review, it does. Good topic for a book.

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    1. Not so much cry as really feel the mother’s state of mind, and get really angry with the self-righteous people who make up their minds about her guilt on the basis of news stories. As Guy’s link shows, everyone’s got an opinion on these stories,often ill-informed and prejudiced. . Anne suffers something of the same fate as the famous Lindy Chamberlain years ago in Australia when she was convicted of killing her daughter who was in fact taken by a dingo. People made up their minds about Lindy C because she held herself together in public ,and because they belonged to an unusual religion.

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      1. There’s a lot to be said about ‘expected behaviour’ when anyone makes some sort of transgressive action that falls in the public eye. Take the authors, for example, to change the subject, who write scathing reviews of others’ work. They grovel and apologize, grasping at BS excuses, and we all know they don’t mean it. They’re just sorry they’ve been caught. They should say, oh fuck it, that’s what I felt like, but to do so challenges our notions of acceptable behaviour.
        There’s something about the penitent, we prefer to the hypocrite. For some reason.

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        1. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to have any trouble challenging our notions of acceptable behaviour.
          But you’re right, we do prefer the penitent to the hypocrite. I suppose it makes us feel that we’re in the right. And of course, the expected behaviour thing applies very very heavily to women, especially mothers. So it’s a rich subject for a book.

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          1. I can offer no explanations for Trump’s success….
            As for the penitent– I think it’s the christian thing. And yes how many women who are deemed ‘bad mothers’ are therefore presumed to be other bad things.

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                1. She says that there’s a prototypical pure motherly figure in our psyche that we expect everything from – more or less overtly in different societies. We aren’t really surprised if men are bad because we think of them more in terms of strength and boldness, but if women are bad it feels like a perversion of everything a woman should be and we think of them as “unnatural”. That’s the general idea.

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  1. Thanks for the mention, Gert. One of the things that has stayed with me about this book is how Anne, at her lowest points, reaches out to others who have been brought low as well. I agree with your point about ‘The Light on the Water’ being a harrowing story which doesn’t drag the reader down.

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  2. Fascinating discussion on good versus bad mothers! I once published an essay called ‘Literature needs bad women’, which was a bit of a mischievous title, yet I do think there’s some truth to it. Lady Macbeth and all those witches…Often it’s some kind of inversion of motherhood that makes them ‘bad’. But they do make for interesting reading.

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    1. I think all literature needs people of both sexes behaving badly.. Hell is always more interesting than Heaven and “the Devil has all the best lines”. But a truly evil woman packs a lot of punch!

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        1. Jim Thompson the “hardboiled crime writer” or Jim Thompson “an American businessman who helped revitalise the Thai silk industry in the 1950s and 1960s”?
          I didn’t realise you had such an interest in the Thai silk industry.

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