Myfanwy Jones / Allen & Unwin
It’s been three years since Jen, Joe’s end-of-high school girlfriend, died in a shocking, sudden moment. Joe is still caught in the limbo of grief and guilt that’s at the tail end of the train wreck his life became afterwards: he’s living in a share house at the back of a laundromat in an inner-Melbourne suburb with a couple of solid friends, Sanjay and Jack, and working dead-end kitchen jobs where he befriends Lena. When a nurse answers an ad to rent the empty lean-to room at the back of the house, Joe brings her in and they become strange, secret lovers. While he has an insulating blanket of friends and family about him, the thing that truly keeps him on track is parkour, the art of urban running, climbing and jumping that he practices obsessively, traversing heights and depths that become increasingly challenging and dangerous. He eyes with a life-and-death ambition the leap from a railway bridge to a pillar. Meanwhile Jen’s mother Elise, elsewhere in the city, spends her own secret hour every week sitting in wonder at the tiger enclosure at the zoo, enchanted by the unsentimental, predatory grace of the animal. While she takes away its image as a way back into her long-lost impulse to be a more pure artist, the edifice of her marriage to Jen’s father, Adam, for so long afflicted by their daughter’s death and their blindness to one another, is collapsing into rubble. The novel’s energy is about moving its characters, Joe in particular, from a state of disequilibrium to equilibrium. It casts this as an essential current in human selfhood, an optimistic movement toward the kind of balance necessary to make the kind of life-or-death parkour leap that Joe knows he needs to make. The metaphor of the leap runs more-or-less obviously from the title straight through to the centre of the novel and is what gives the novel its energy – a verb and noun. Movement and being united in object. The writing style reflects this in its insistence not only on the ongoing present tense, but also in its clipped, subjectless sentences. “Sharp right toward the playground, clearing the rail with a speed vault. Swinging glibly along the monkey bars then bounding up the yellow slide pausing for less than a decimal point.” While this subjectlessness is more than apt for the parts of the narrative that centre on Joe, in an attempt to reflect the edginess central to the verb-noun tension, the balance is somewhat lost, particularly early on in the novel in the Elise sections. In them, and even in the moments when Joe is not in parkour mode, the style comes across as almost forced, as if wanting to unnecessarily convince the reader that it is being performed in the moment, or even that it is writing for performance. At some point, in a novel like this, with its narrative arc that moves toward reconstitution, the prose style needs to fall away into the background so that characters and story can do the bulk of the work. Happily Jones is a skilled-enough writer to allow this to happen. The novel eventually settles into a more natural rhythm, finding a balance between its literary and oral tendencies. Once Jones is done trying to impress, she really impresses. When Joe and his nurse-lover have their most seemingly candid encounter, it is genuinely moving, beautiful. The pathos of Joe’s recognition of the nurse is gentle and natural. Joe needs nursing and the nurse nurses him. Even though Jones seems to have been unable to resist laying bare too-transparently the absolute nature of their relationship by the novel’s end, their momentary and profound tenderness is perfectly crafted. So too with the relationship between Elise and Adam. The irresistible optimism that is laid bare by the stripping back of sentimentality is what rescues them: “And now when she thinks at about the sadness at the heart of their marriage, all the wan little gestures – pyjamas warmed by the iron, the bread, the footy, the cursory kisses – she thinks they were indicative not of disease but of an enormous feat of survival.” This is a novel in which things have fallen to pieces and we are invited to watch the currents and eddies that those pieces meander through, as they drift toward being reassembled. That it is obvious that it will take a leap of metaphorical and literal proportions to complete the things that are incomplete, is beside the point. It’s the patient, sometimes imperceptible shifts in the novel’s characters, as they are moved by unconscious optimism, that are a pleasure to discover.