Read This: Disquiet by Julia Leigh
The buzz about Julia Leigh's novella, Disquiet ($13, Penguin), has been building for a couple of months, with rapturous reviews from critics and fellow authors alike (Toni Morrison and J.M. Coetzee both blurbed it). I picked the book up over the holidays and read it over a couple of hours. At just 120 pages, you don't want to put it down, mainly because it's so damn weird. Although set in modern day France, with mentions of cell phones and plasma televisions, there's something decidedly 19th century about the setting and motives. Leigh's prose is masterfully controlled and cinematic. This novella is a film waiting to be made, no script required. Just hand the actors and crew the book and off they go. It's a visual tour de force.
Olivia arrives at her mother's rural chateau with a broken arm and two young children in tow. She hasn't been home or in contact with her family in a decade, apparently living in Australia with an abusive husband. The next day, her older brother Marcus appears with his wife Sophie, who carries the corpse of their dead baby and refuses to bury it. He walks the grounds having cell phone sex with, perhaps, his lover. The grandmother is in a wheelchair, although she can walk, and leaves chicken bones scattered across the carpet of her grand bedroom.
So, what the hell is going on here? Leigh leaves much of that up to the reader's imagination. Olivia might have killed her husband, although she enigmatically tells Marcus one afternoon as they are sitting by the lake, "I am murdered." At some point I wondered if everyone in the book was dead, sort of like Nicole Kidman and her family in The Others. The character that stays with you is Sophie, who puts her dead daughter to sleep each night in the chateau freezer, then forces Marcus to suckle her breast milk. There's a chilling scene where Olivia's children almost drown while Sophie watches impassively from the bank. Several attempts at funerals are thwarted, including one where Sophie beats down the priest.
When I read the last page I kind of shuddered; not because anything shocking happens at the end, but because this story and the characters creep into you in the most disquieting way and you can't shake them off. I think that's exactly what Leigh intended.