In playwright Bishop’s debut novel, teenage Lila’s unexpected, stillborn baby acts as a catalyst in helping a small Australian community heal long-festering emotional wounds.
With the weird grace of a Jane Campion film, this novel balances the potential tear-jerker quality of its story with richly drawn characters. Titular girl Lila handles the birth of her stillborn, premature baby with a surprising aplomb, ducking her teenage brother Jason as he heads out to school and her travel-agent mother Meredith as she rushes off to her unfulfilling job. While Lila fends off a visit by her possessive boyfriend, Dean, with text messages, Meredith internally rehashes the epic failure of her marriage to cad Cliff while flirting with her middle-age co-worker Charles. Meanwhile, Lila’s depressed neighbor Doris is drawn out of her decadeslong funk and into the oddly appropriate role of savior/mentor. Will Meredith allow herself to experience love, as opposed to hanging on to the illusion of glamorized lust? Will the residents of the poverty-stricken Pandora Crescent overcome their failures and begin leading new lives? Although peppered with the occasional cliché— “weak at the knees,” “The wheels of justice,” “her little eyes as round as saucers,” etc.—this novel has a taut, surprising narrative. Bishop has a knack for weaving what could be ponderous back stories into the main thrust of the narrative, thereby rewarding readers instead of punishing them with unnecessary detail. Additionally, while the characters occasionally exhibit somewhat outlandish flourishes, Bishop complements these traits with an unerring sense of human frailty: “Lila could not remember Meredith ever crying again. If she had, it was behind her own closed bedroom door and not in front of her children.” The icky emotional territory of the novel is leavened with compassion and a wry sense of humor, while carefully chosen rural and urban features, from wind storms to the forced intimacy of unimaginative tract housing, subtly move the story forward. Essentially, Bishop plumbs the flawed depths of human regret without relying on manipulative theatrics.
Despite occasionally clunky prose, a tight narrative that adeptly balances raw emotional trauma with compassion and inventive staging.