What Is Left Over, After by Natasha Lester
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2010.
I always pack more books than I know I will read when I travel because you never know – what if I can’t find a bookshop in the first 24 hours? So on a recent trip to Brisbane, I took Natasha Lester’s book with me along with three others. I was gone for three days. I know.
I finished reading What Is Left Over, After in the four and a half hours it took to get to Brisbane from Perth, then re-read the parts I had marked, in the warm winter Queensland sunshine on Southbank.
The narrator is smart and sexy Gaelle, who works for a fashion magazine and is married to the handsome heart surgeon Jason with a beautiful house in Sydney. And this where any resemblance to a romance novel ends. When we first meet her she is about to have an emergency caesar. The story that unfolds always loops back to this key moment. We learn that Gaelle’s unreliable mother has plucked her from an idyllic French rural upbringing with stable, loving grandparents to share her erratic, slack twisted lifestyle. The two move first to London which ‘seemed overexposed, not because there was too much light, but because there was so little contrast in the city’s palette. Streets, flats, steps and footpaths formed a concrete topography…’ (p 78). Then they move to San Francisco where her mother ‘began to search so hard for the magical ‘it’ that the mornings emptied of her presence.’ (p 104).
By this stage I was feeling both anxious and compassionate for the adult Gaelle who appears to be fashionably nonchalant as she pours her story into the compliant ears of thirteen year old Selena in a beach side shack south of Perth, years after London, San Francisco and Sydney. I am drawn to narratives about mothers and daughters; they seem to follow me around in both my reading and writing life. Gaelle’s relationships with her grandparents, mother, best friend, husband and strangers as well as with her own infant daughter Aurora are described with sympathy and tenderness. But it is the teenager, Selena, with her thongs and her pony tails and her nail polish, bristling with angst and prescience, who will steer Gaelle towards realising the crippling delusion that holds her in its grip.
I loved too, the incidental glimpses into the world of fashion and photography and lust, the deft strokes that convey landscape – ‘after San Francisco’s languid yellow, Australia scalded me with its glare, with the spontaneity of its oceans, with the exuberance of its dirt.’ (p 135). And again, this gem on page 94; ‘even a woman abandoned by her mother as a child and raised by her grandmother in a brothel can become a little sparrow whose voice stretched across borders to a mother washing a child in a London bath.’ The tragic Lili, with her ‘smile back on, her hair freshly poured, and her cheeks as pink as poppies’ (p 85) is the kind of mother who made me twitch uneasily and text my daughter a message of love and warmth.
This is a perceptive, somewhat elusive book and one that declares ‘that the past did matter and that we did not have all the time in the world to wait for promises to be kept and for mistakes to be corrected.’ I loved it. And Natasha Lester certainly knows how to write a love scene or three!
This book counts towards my total for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.