Book Review: Absence, by Joanna King

cv_absenceAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

I was reluctant to face the four of us being together, and for a long as two weeks. It felt too close to what had been destroyed eighteen years ago.

Four sisters are getting together in beautiful Cinque Terre at Rose’s instigation. It is to be a holiday of relaxing and discovering the delights off the tourist track in some modest Italian villages. When Rose does not appear for dinner one night, she sets in motion an unveiling of the past and a dissection of present relationships. Each sister’s personality is displayed by their reaction to the alarming news and, in turn, the dynamics of the sibling relationships are also revealed.

Initially fearing what may have befallen her sister, the narrator and youngest sister, is greatly relieved to finally hear from her, particularly as she had been the last one to talk to Rose. The reason for Rose’s absence brings an unpleasant history back to the fore. The parents’ divorce eighteen years ago is still keenly felt, if not acknowledged, by each sister and has shaped how their own relationships are played out. Over the course of a few days, following Rose’s disappearance and shocking news, the narrator is forced to look closely at her own current relationship with Adrian – a man she cannot claim as her own. A keen-eyed observer of her sisters’ lives, she closely examines her own expectations of love, and reaches a conclusion she feels necessary.

As the story unfolds, so too does some of the family’s history, particularly that of Rose and the narrator; these two are the closest and share a secret that goes a long way to offer an explanation for Rose’s actions.’Laugh, laugh. I didn’t join the mirth. Where they saw subservience, I saw Rose seeking shelter from the storm of herself.’

Joanna King’s wonderful prose is at times full of imagery:
Along the stretch of beach below, the waves hardly appeared to make an effort to shrug their shoulders before they subsided in tranquillity.

At other times, it is lyrical stream of consciousness:
Breathe the night.
Oh, yes.
It’s not often I’m this light.
It’s not often the past has so little hold. I possess the present. That’s all I can live.
That’s all that possesses me…
… Light brain, sly brain, light head, I hardly know what to do.

This makes for vivid and thought-provoking, if somewhat challenging, reading and it pulls you into the lives of these sisters, compelling you to immerse yourself in the intrigues and dynamics of the family, making you hope that they all find contentment and happiness.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

by Joanna King
Published by Black Swan (Penguin Random House NZ)
ISBN: 9781775538653