For me, that happened last year.
The death of my father in law was shocking and not shocking. Not shocking because he was 91 years old. Shocking because the cancer took him so swiftly.
Now, with a small degree of hindsight, the only thing I can say for certain about grief is that no two people ever experience it in the same way, and it is never in stasis. It moves and evolves. Sometimes, it leaves you alone. Other times, it hits you with no warning like a nesting, dive-bombing bird. It’s such a big experience, yet also an interior one and therefore extremely difficult to capture in words. But that’s exactly what Jennifer Down achieves in Our Magic Hour – a painfully exquisite examination of the aftermath of a shocking death.
25 year old Audrey is a child protection worker with a mentally ill mother, a wayward teenage brother, and a sister distracted by new motherhood. Life is challenging but manageable thanks to two best friends, Adam and Katy, who are more like family than Audrey’s actual relatives. With the love and understanding of her two besties, along with supportive boyfriend, Nick, Audrey somehow manages to anchor her difficult family. But then Katy unexpectedly takes her own life, and the resulting storm is brutal and Audrey’s capacity to be a stabilising force in the lives of those around her is seriously challenged.
Phew… That sounds really full-on and depressing, doesn’t it – and I haven’t even mentioned the abusive, alcoholic father yet. But, before you run away with your fingers in your ears shouting ‘la,la,la,la’ I urge you to give this book a chance. Jennifer Down is a beautiful writer. In her capable hands, the bleakness of the subject matter takes on a revelatory quality. For one so young, her wisdom is quite breathtaking.
I have tried writing sad stories before, but without much success, until an editor pointed out that emotive writing and the stimulation of emotion in the reader have an inverse relationship. The more emotive the writing, the more the reader pulls away.
Jennifer Down understands this better than anyone. Largely free of sentiment, her prose is spare and direct but there are moments of grace in it that generate startling power, like when she describes Katy as being ‘like a telescope folding into herself’ and her sadness as growing silently like salt crystals. It’s that sort of gut-wrenchingly lovely writing that makes it worth enduring the challenge of this book.
I love the reference to ‘magic’ in the title. In the book, it refers simply to a factory sign that Audrey passes on a semi-regular basis. But is also says something about the stage of life in which we meet Audrey, Adam and Katy.
Grief and death are transformative. As one of the characters (Katy’s dad, I think) comments – ‘You can never go back.’ Certainly, the intensity of grief lessens over time, but life itself is never quite the same again. The loss and sense of loss is permanent. In this sense the ‘magic hour’ refers to the period before Katy died – her death represents the loss of innocence and sense of immortality that gives childhood its optimistic quality.
In really plain terms, death makes you grow up. A friend of my mother’s recently told me she didn’t really feel like a grown up until both her parents had died – ‘And then, you know, you’re sort of the front line.’
For more information on Our Magic Hour, visit Text Publishing.