This review is part of the AWW2017 Challenge
In the opening pages of Myfanwy Jones’ Leap, an unnamed young woman with cropped black hair – ‘ruffled and glossy – an animal’s pelt rippling to be touched’ – appears on Joe’s doorstep inquiring about a room to rent. She arrives while Joe’s roommates, Sanjay and Jack, are out, and in the closing days of autumn – an interstitial season – when ‘the air is like blood: it is hard to sense where the body ends and the atmosphere begins.’ Her appearance on the doorstep – the space between inside and out – disrupts Joe’s solitude, his contemplation, and even time itself. After a brief, uncanny conversation in which we discover she is a night-shift nurse, Joe offers her the room. Soon after they begin a secret affair, only ever meeting in the quiet of pre-dawn darkness; a fleeting twilight in which they exchange scented memories, soft promises, and whispered conversations of the broken bodies she has nursed that night.
Leap – described in its blurb as an urban fairytale – exists in a succession of these twilight worlds. Its universe is one of in-betweens and precarious stasis. Broken into three sections (Running, Climbing, and Jumping), the novel centres on the lives of two individuals – twenty-something Joe and middle-aged Elise – who are connected by the novel’s central absence: Joe’s lover and Elise’s daughter Jen who died three years earlier.
At the beginning of the novel Jen exists just outside of the reader’s reach, like a whispered vapour brushing the fingertips before it evaporates. Yet, over the course of the novel, the faint outlines of her character begin to emerge line by line until she appears, almost fully-formed, almost tangible, in front of us as an image of who she once was. We come to know her as the thing through which Joe and Elise remember her: as a photograph; intriguing, brilliantly layered and colourful, but nevertheless two-dimensional and always partially absent.
Leap captures this partial absence through Joe and Elise’s physical experience of grief: through their process of running, climbing, and jumping. For Joe this takes the form of non-stop menial work and intensive Parkour training; for Elise of visiting the tigers at the Melbourne Zoo each week, an activity that evolves into her producing elaborate paintings of the animals. Each holds their memory of Jen in different ways: Joe in what is left of her Facebook profile and in the fading memory of their physical intimacy; Elise in conversation and in the relations that Jen had with her father and with her godmother. As these mediated memories of Jen become more and more difficult to hold on to – as she fades for Joe and Elise even as she becomes more solid for the reader – Joe and Elise’s unceasing motion becomes increasingly intense and urgent.
This action plays out against the backdrop of Melbourne, and Leap is one of those rare novels in which its city becomes an important and well-defined character. It is Melbourne that both holds Joe and Elise apart – forcing them into a solitary journey of mourning on opposite sides of the city – and that draws them together in a shared ode to the memory of their loved one. It is Melbourne that provides them physical distraction from their pain, and burning reminders of past moments and experiences. It is Melbourne that holds them in the ever-immediate-past moment of memory, and that pushes them into the orbit of a plethora of other characters who help them to realise that a movement towards the future tense can only exist in an accepted relation to its past. And it is Melbourne – a city with a vibrant, pulsating inner life – that creates the very conditions of Leap‘s twilight-hued melancholic universe that enables Elise and Joe to press pause just long enough to say a proper goodbye.
It is difficult to write about death and grief – especially the death of a teenage girl and her parents’ and teenage lover’s grief – without falling into melodrama. Like most high-school romances, Joe and Jen’s was characterised by real, intense desire and feeling, and by difficult and at times immature handling of jealousy and hurt. The love for Jen that exists at the heart of this novel could easily have fallen into cliché and over-stressed emotion, but it does not. And that comes down to Jones’ deft handling of language.
Leap is a novel that aches quietly, that makes you feel pain before you understand what it is that you have lost. Jones holds her reader like a breath: keeping them suspended in a moment of confused anguish, and paused existence. And it is this experience – even more than her delightful cast of characters and genuinely moving tale of life, love, and grief – that makes Leap a pleasure to read. Ultimately, Leap – its title and final motion – is the exhalation that allows for the possibility of living in the wake of loss.