Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Denise Leith's What Remains

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

Denise Leith’s novel What Remains is first and foremost a love story. Its final chapters are a moving account of the realisation of a friendship that smoulders throughout the novel.

It is also a war story, set in many of the worst conflicts of the last twenty years. It begins and ends with Iraq: Bush Senior’s Gulf War and W’s shock and awe invasion and occupation. It takes us to the darkest corners of human behaviour in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Rwanda especially.

We are not spared the horror. The church in Nyarubuye will haunt the reader as it does journalist and narrator, Kate Price. Denise’s exploration of the nature of evil is very confronting. How can anyone machete or rape a child?

At the same time she examines the forces that attract correspondents and photojournalists to cover the barbarism we call war. For photographer Peter McDermott, “This is who I am. This is where it begins and ends for me.” Terms like Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome can never do justice to the prices they pay for this deadliest of careers. Her earlier Bearing Witness: The Lives of Correspondents and Photojournalists is a non-fiction analysis of this phenomenon.

I am reminded of Australian combat cameraman Neil Davis who received worldwide acclaim for his work in Vietnam and Cambodia during the Indochina war. It was a fatal addiction - he was killed in Bangkok in 1985 filming an attempted coup.

It is Denise’s first novel. Her lean, economical style is reminiscent of that other witness to war – Ernest Hemingway. You won’t find many adjectives or adverbs or transitional words. Although it sometimes lacks the polish of a practiced professional storyteller, its rawness creates much of its power. She concentrates on small details of people and places to create the big pictures of a world gone crazy. Photographs and pictorial memories are key elements. In addition, the first-person narrative is well suited to its emotional purposes – self examination and self discovery.

The novel is old-fashioned in several ways. It’s easy to read and often hard to put down. Denise creates intimacy through the subtle use of the senses rather than bedroom gymnastics. She doesn’t do hot sex scenes.

On the other hand, it is very modern. It begins and ends with email.

The climax is not unexpected. It is foreshadowed throughout the book. What remains? A day after reading, it is the people who wake each day in places the places and situations that most of us could not even imagine.

PS Yesterday we had the opportunity to hear and meet Denise Leith at a Beaumaris Books’ evening event at one of the local cafés Malt. Her thought-provoking talk helped to inform this review.

1 comment:

  1. How lucky you got a chnane to talk with the author. Thanks for sharing your AWW review

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out