Book Review

The Light on the Water by Olga Lorenzo

I came to The Light on the Water (Allen & Unwin 2016) by Olga Lorenzo because of the novel’s setting on Wilsons Promontory in Victoria. Not long before I’d gone on a 5-day solo hike through the region so knew something of the rigours of hiking in this area and the impenetrability and ruggedness of parts of the terrain. I was interested in Lorenzo’s recreation of place as much as I was the story line. I wasn’t disappointed with either.

The story begins with Anne imprisoned for the murder of Aida, her autistic six-year-old daughter. Anne and Aida had set out on an overnight bushwalk from Tidal River to Sealer’s Cove on the Prom. Anne loses Aida along the way and she never sees her daughter again. Lorenzo cleverly bridges popular fiction and literary fiction with her novel, addressing important themes through well-crafted and multidimensional characters, while embroiling them in a pacey and tightly plotted story.

People go missing in the Australian bush with disturbing frequency. According to Victoria’s Bush Search and Rescue’s 67-year history, of the 119 searches they’ve made throughout this period, they have been unsuccessful in finding eighteen of those who went missing. Paddy Hildebrand is such an example. He was the autistic nine-year-old brother of television and radio presenter Joe Hildebrand who went missing on a family hike at the Prom in 1987, also never to be seen again. Hildebrand writes about this experience in his memoir An Average Joe: my horribly normal life (HarperCollins 2014). The Light on the Water echoes some of Hildebrand’s real life experience, but for me Lorenzo’s story never strays far from my memories of the experiences of Lindy Chamberlain, accused or murdering her nine-week-old daughter Azaria, in 1980.

Not knowing what happened to your lost child is the stuff of nightmares for parents. So for a mother to find herself victim to suspicion, judgement, conspiracy theories and ultimately imprisonment for that disappearance must be the worst kind of hell. It’s to this situation that Lorenzo shines her brightest light.

In Anne, Lorenzo has created a credible and relatable character. Anne grieves deeply and painfully for Aida, but she is too consumed with guilt over her daughter’s loss and wants to appear strong for her other daughter Hannah, so is barely able to express her grief amongst those she loves let alone for her to do so publicly. For this she is judged, just as Lindy Chamberlain was judged. In this way The Light on the Water explores an interesting concept: at what point does an individual’s grief become public property and what role does the media play in promoting this expectation? There is no pulling back on the tide of trolls and post-truth criticism that the Internet has allowed. While Lindy Chamberlain was at least spared this, Lorenzo’s treatment of Anne shows no such favour.

Throughout the story Lorenzo weaves the often sensationalist and unreliable media coverage of Aida’s disappearance and how it impacts upon Anne’s everyday life. Anne quickly learns that the assumption of innocence over guilt is negated when accused of being a “kiddy killer”. She can no longer go to her mailbox or to a café without the risk of being recognised and harassed. Strangers assume they have the right to abuse her; friends abandon her; she isolates herself more and more. Anne’s closet companions become the fish she keeps in an aquarium in her home. However, even the behaviour of the fish is a stark reminder of the society she lives in – the tank is populated by the vulnerable, the bullies, the gentle, the deceitful, the aggressors.

Anne’s grief began before Aida went missing though. She is also grieving the loss of her marriage to Robert, a well-known QC, who is re-married to Sandra. Robert provides Anne with practical legal support but draws the line at emotional support. Anne is forced to negotiate the terrain of their new blended family alongside her grief. She must share Hannah with Robert and Sandra but she never quite trusts them to care for her daughter as she does. It leads Anne to take unacceptable risks for which she pays the price.

Ways of mothering and the connection of family feature strongly in The Light on the Water. Anne had an abusive and neglected childhood, but her own mothering instinct remains strong. This is demonstrated in the way she tries to protect those closest to her (Hannah, her troubled sister, Tessa, and Tessa’s spoilt and unlikable son, Reuban), but also strangers (an Iranian refugee and two girls victimised for their difference). Tessa is an unsupportive but needy character and at times I struggled to believe how she could be so self-serving when Anne faced such horrendous challenges. But this is possibly Lorenzo’s intent, to demonstrate that families fractured by childhood violence evolve into individuals that risk insularity and a lack of empathy for others.

Lorenzo also shines a light on the fine line between acceptable risk and over-protection when raising children. Anne wrestles with her own culpability in Aida’s disappearance. The enduring questions she asks herself: Is she a bad mother, as her own mother was? Is she a careless or foolish one? Thankfully, Lorenzo never allows Anne to wear the mask of victimhood. Instead, Anne is portrayed as a survivor. Despite the greatly changed landscape of her life after Aida’s disappearance, Anne describes it thus: “I have this moment…This golden moment. It’s all I have, all anyone ever has. The sweet, precious, fragile now.”

The Light on the Water is a heart-aching story but a fine example of what it takes to live in the now when faced with extreme adversity. Lorenzo has done justice to the important themes the story carries about post-truth criticism and mother-blame (and blame culture more generally). It’s a story that haunts long after it’s finished. Not knowing the fate of a lost child is a parent’s worst nightmare. The Light on the Water begs this question of its readers: How would I survive after such a loss? So while a work of fiction, it’s a story that intersects intimately with dilemmas of the real world and is all the more poignant for it.