Reviewed by Julie Kearney
The World Without Us, Mireille Juchau’s third novel, takes place in an unidentified part of northern New South Wales, in and around a country town whose residents include ex-members of The Hive, a hippy commune which was destroyed by a mysterious fire. The setting suggests a fictive Nimbin. Decades after the euphoria of the Age of Aquarius in the early 70s, environmental degradation has become a pressing issue for the local community. The forests are being felled, lakes contain two-headed fish created by toxic run-off from mines, and children are dying of leukemia. These damaging changes to a world hitherto taken for granted are skilfully channelled by Juchau through the damaged emotional landscape of her characters’ lives.
Yes, it’s a novel about climate change, about agro-toxins and increased UV radiation and contaminated drinking water, but told as it were sideways, through a tale of the disintegration of human lives, in particular those of the Müller family. Not only are the Müllers’ bees under threat, their family life is being pulled apart by the disturbing behaviour of Evangeline, wife of Stefan and mother of Meg and Tess.
References and analogies abound. In the bee world the queens are dying; in the human world Evangeline is psychically wounded by the loss of her daughter, Pip. The daughters of the queen bee, wrote Maurice Maeterlinck in his 1901 monograph The Life of the Bee (quoted by Juchau at the start of the novel) ‘regard the queen above all as the organ of love, indispensable, certainly, and sacred, but in herself somewhat unconscious. . . ’ For Tess and Meg, Evangeline’s remaining daughters, their mother represents all these things. Their stories and those of Stefan, and of Tess’s new schoolteacher, Jim Parker, circle around Evangeline and her erratic behaviour. A seemingly demented woman, she daily wanders the fields and forests, pushing a pram and carrying a useless umbrella. Her grief becomes the central mystery of the narrative.
The Müller family’s psychological health is in disarray and the fact that their bees are unaccountably dying is only one part of their problem. At the heart of their pain is the youngest daughter, Pip, who has died of leukaemia after drinking water contaminated by fracking. In response to this tragedy Meg obsessively draws pictures of trees in fog and performs incantations to bring ‘all the extinct creatures back to life.’ 33. Her elder sister, er HHJTess, retreats into silence. Under Jim Parker’s guidance her class is exploring notions of ‘weather’ but as usual Tess makes no contribution.
‘We can’t exactly avoid the climate, can we? Mr Parker said. When it’s unpleasant, when it’s raw, dirty and clammy, how do we get through?
A cold tremor passed through her. She stared at her feet with her mouth slightly open, forgetting to breathe or swallow. She knew he wasn’t talking about the weather.’ (83)
Silence and multiple griefs lie at the heart of this complex layered narrative. There are so many wounded characters nursing secret heartaches that the novel would become depressing, were it not for the fact that most of these people are well-intentioned, and care for those around them. Yet they’re unable to help one another, as in the case of Stefan who loves his wife and wants to ease her wordless pain, but forfeits the right to do so because of his own drink-sodden, grief-fuelled behaviour. Instead he unwittingly cedes that role to another unhappy man, Jim Parker.
What is causing the death of the bees? Juchau does not stop at the ills of the environment. The World Without Us is a grab bag for every type of human and natural dysfunction you can think of. The past reveals itself as another enemy to human well-being. Stefan fears for his daughter Tess, who has been kept in ignorance of the fact that he isn’t her biological father, that she is the child of ex-commune leader, Jackson Hodgkins. Stefan looks at her and thinks: ‘You are mine and not mine. It’s never mattered to him. But does it matter to her, even if she doesn’t know it’ (127).
Tom Parker, with his permanent stammer and garbled environmental remedies which he records in his weekly Survival Report, is perhaps the saddest person in this story. Born in the commune and these days the sole support and carer of his ex-hippy mother who is sinking into dementia, he has grown up fatherless yet knowing that the Svengali-like Hodgkins, self-appointed King of The Hive, was responsible for his conception. Nowadays Tom is the school lollipop man, or as he prefers to call it, their crossing guard. In between these duties and patrolling the town streets to hand out his Survival Report, he struggles to care for his mother.
Sometimes, sponging her face after dinner, her eyes so trustingly fixed on his, he has a surge of pre-emptive grief. He will rub her face harder then, to remove the expression. (131–132)
For each of the characters intimacy has become a thing of the past, a loss they all share. Perhaps because of their inability to relate deeply we are never allowed to feel very close to any of them. You won’t find yourself comforted at the end of this novel. Juchau lays bare the pain in her characters’ hearts, but there will be no redemption because this is a gritty story that depends for its power on being told without sugar-coating.
The World Without Us belongs with Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour in the new genre of domesticated apocalyptic fiction, itself born of the pre-apocalyptic times in which we live. Juchau’s no less important contribution to this genre makes no concessions to easy sentiment, and demands of its readers a close and attentive read, Which, judging by the widespread critical acclaim it has received in Australia and overseas, many readers are prepared to make.