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: