Saturday, 29 September 2018

Book review: Staying, Jessie Cole (2018)

This memoir chronicles the life of a girl who experiences the trauma of suicide, not once but twice. When she is 12 her half-sister Zoe kills herself while on an extended trip to Europe. Zoe is in Holland at the time and her body is buried there. Consumed by grief, Jessie’s father becomes delusional and six years later puts an end to his own life. The twin disasters have lasting impacts on Jessie’s life.

She comes to writing after having two children of her own, although their father is by this time living elsewhere. It is her therapist who suggests publishing. By this time Jessie had tried university but had dropped out with her course of study incomplete and had returned to her mother’s house to live. There, she raises two boys, Milla and Luca, the offspring of her relationship with Gabe, who she had met soon after starting high school.

Jessie is still in her mid-twenties when she discovers an aptitude for making stories and she embraces it with enthusiasm as a way to come to terms with herself and with a painful past. There is something therapeutic about it for her, just as there is something therapeutic about the bush surrounding the house in northern New South Wales that she shares with her mother and her sons. The book’s title points at the likelihood that some sort of resolution has been found.

What results from all the hours Jessie has spent in a vigil kept with the ghosts of her past is a narrative that is haunting yet reassuring and somehow very ordinary. Here there are important lessons to learn about grief and sanity, and about the keeping of secrets, but you won’t find much that reaches the transcendent. Jessie’s talent or vision don’t extend to the sublime, it is grounded and realistic and stable. Which is as it should be, in a way. What this competent work of non-fiction can give you is insights into how trauma can change people, and about their special needs, needs that even their friends might never venture to satisfy.

On the other hand, the book reminds you that grief is a universal experience, or at least it is very nearly so. Most people will have in their past something that will cause them to behave sometimes in unpredictable ways. So we should always be kind to one another. As the saying goes: you never know what the person you are walking past on the street is living through.

There is no mention in the book of the possibility that Zoe had experienced delusions deriving from the use of cannabis, but this is certainly a likely explanation for what happened to her. Jessie’s father also undoubtedly used cannabis during his life. People who use cannabis are three times more likely to develop schizophrenia then people who do not use it.

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