Review: Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light

Bodies of Light is a beautifully controlled account of a life devastated by systemic failure.

Winning the Miles Franklin Prize is about as good as it gets for Australian novelists. Not only is it our richest literary award, it’s also the most likely to open the door on a meaningful international readership. You’re joining a list of alumni that includes some of Australia’s most celebrated contemporary writers, after all: the acclaimed Indigenous novelist Alexis Wright, the Nobel Prize-picked Peter Carey, the somehow four-time winner Tim Winton (if anyone else just doesn’t get it, you’re not alone). Perhaps taking out the prize also turns up the critical heat on an author, since anything deemed an Important Australian Novel is going to be charged with some heavy cultural lifting. But Jennifer Down meets this standard again and again in her recently Miles Franklin-winning novel Bodies of Light (Text Publishing, 2021), a beautifully controlled account of a life devastated by systemic failure.

Bodies of Light follows Maggie, a survivor of Australia’s out-of-home care system who has spent most of her life trying to flee a childhood marked by sustained sexual abuse and an almost unfathomable degree of institutional negligence. We meet Maggie in media res: Vermont, 2018, where she is living as Holly after changing her identity under vague circumstances some years prior.  A Facebook message from a man noting her resemblance to a Maggie Sullivan who went missing from Victoria in 1998 is the set-up for Maggie’s retelling of her horrific childhood, whose cost she later keeps on paying, no matter how earnestly she tries to build a normal life. 

Stylistically, Bodies of Light reminds me of Emily Bitto’s Stella Prize-winning The Strays, another recent Australian novel in which an adult narrator reflects on the traumas that shaped her. Like Bitto’s, Down’s narrative is layered and sweeping, moving between present and past and unfolding across a number of locations within and outside Australia. In the first part of the novel this movement between places largely reflects the realities of a childhood spent in institutional care: Maggie goes from group home to foster family to emergency accommodation with a stoicism that is one of the more heartbreaking features of the novel, since it shows just how little she expects from the system designed to protect her, and how unsurprised she is when it lets her down again. But the adult Maggie moves equally fast through homes, cities and attachments, as if bound to repeat the patterns of her early life. She finishes school and makes it to uni, but leaves for reasons she can’t explain: “in the end it was easy to give up,” she recalls, since “none of this had ever been mine to want.” She forms some close relationships, including with a foster carer, Judith, with whom she lived in the only briefly stable years of her childhood, but every one of them crumbles. Maggie watches this all with more relief than disappointment, since each thing that falls apart in her life is “just another part of a sequence already in motion, the next scene in a play.” When she’s hospitalised for catatonia at 20 after reading her state records, there’s “something sickening but reassuring about it,” she explains, “as if I could have only ever ended up here.” 

This idea – that Maggie could “only ever have ended up” where she is – makes Bodies of Light difficult reading. Time is a closed loop for Maggie: she buys a car, goes to uni, starts a family, twice relocates and changes her name. But none of it matters; each attempt at escape only returns her to her past harder than before. Some readers might find the novel relentless in this way, even repetitive, since all narrative progression in its nearly 500 pages leads us back to where we started. There is also a kind of suddenness to Down’s temporality at times, as the terrible things that happen to Maggie are narrated with neither build-up nor any sense of surprise (this is particularly the case in the book’s last 100 pages, when Maggie falls hard and all of a sudden into addiction yet we suspect, given the echoes of her biological father’s history of addiction, that things might never have ended up any other way). But Down’s refusal to tell this story otherwise is exactly what makes this novel so incisive a critique of a broken system, and so truthful a portrait of how those it fails are left to suffer the costs more times over than we can count. 

Australia has always been big on the liberal fiction that we alone determine the course of our lives. Bodies of Light is a quiet, sad reminder of the many people for whom this isn’t and has never been true, and a call to recognise that we are only as good as our collective systems.