When Things are Alive They Hum
by Hannah Bent
(Ultimo Press, $33)
"A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves," author Toni Morrison once said, "a special kind of double." The clever juxtapositions and wordplay in this quote sprang to mind as I read Australian author Hannah Bent's first novel, When Things are Alive They Hum. For here is a rich exploration of what it means for two women bound by biology to struggle for independence from one other.
In this, the book isn't just a carefully crafted character story (times two) of its heroines' lives, but a well-written combination of poetic prose and lyrical narration.
Marlowe and Harper are Bent's sibling protagonists. We find them in their 20s. One lives in Hong Kong with their father and grandmother, while the other is a post-graduate entomology student in the UK. Nothing necessarily extraordinary about this; except that, in childhood, they lost their mother and Marlowe's attempts to live away from whānau have long been impacted by her sister's Down Syndrome or, as her family call it, Up Syndrome.
Part of Bent's success in When Things are Alive They Hum is to redefine the traditional quest narrative through the lens of disability. Think Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Except in Bent's book, the conflict the sisters face isn't a neuro-diverse battle with the world. Instead, their challenge is surgical and bureaucratic, and all the more authentic and heart-wrenching for that. It comes in the guise of a medical establishment that views disability as a worthy cause for inaction and neglect. Fighting this most intransigent system, the sisters' quest is to retain the very things which already connect and divide them: life and each other. It's a clever and contemporary twist on an archetypal form.
Such realism is deepened by the sisters' shared narration and Bent's skill in executing this. With two distinct women offering their sides of the same story, the trick to success is convincingly realising both voices. In When Things are Alive They Hum, the author achieves this by layering the Harper and Marlowe voices in different ways. The former's soliloquies, for instance, are honest and digressive, while Marlowe's are guarded and freighted with the guilt of wanting her freedom.
Along the way, Bent also chooses her details wisely. Marlowe's PhD study researches the conservation of a rare species of butterfly. Of her lover Olly, she aches to keep him covert from a family who aches to meet him. Meanwhile Harper's relationship with Louis is longstanding and tenderly symbolised by the beaded necklace his debility thwarts him from completing.
Bent has made no secret of the fact that When Things are Alive They Hum is heavily autobiographical. But it's one thing to live a life, another to skillfully translate it into prose. It's Bent's writerly craft that lasts in the memory long after the novel's final page. That and in Harper, the creation of a powerful character able to transcend labels like "disability".
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- Reviewed by Siobhan Harvey