All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Staying by Jessie Cole

on May 16, 2018

Staying: A Memoir
Jessie Cole
Text Publishing
2018, 257p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

As children, Jessie Cole and her brother Jake ran wild, free to roam their rainforest home as they pleased. They had each other, parents who adored them, and two mysterious, beautiful, clever half-sisters, Billie and Zoe, who came to visit every holidays. But when Jessie was on the cusp of adolescence, tragedy struck, and her happy, loving family fell apart. This beautifully written, heartbreaking memoir asks what happens to those who are left behind when someone takes their own life. It’s about the importance of home, family and forgiveness—and finding peace in a place where we’ve suffered pain.

It feels like a very long time since I was introduced to Jessie Cole’s work and in some ways, it is. I first read something by her in 2012 and was blown away by the imagery in her writing. Her first two books, Darkness On The Edge of Town and Deeper Water are incredible but it’s been a little while so I was very pleased when I read that there was something new coming. Different to her other books, Staying is a memoir of her childhood.

Jessie and her younger brother Jake had quite a free-range upbringing on her parent’s property in northern New South Wales which was basically part rainforest. That forest was their playground and they spent their days exploring it, playing in the river and observing the range of wildlife that populated it. Clothing was optional and Jessie has fond memories of the social gatherings that went long into the night. During the school holidays, her father’s daughters from his first marriage would come to stay. They were older, more glamorous it seemed from their Sydney lives and the family of four would become a family of six.

This book reads somewhat like a fictional story, two children in this beautiful, ideal, hippy-ish sort of setting, running wild in the sunshine. If it wasn’t for that first few pages, which ominously warns the reader of the darkness to come, I’d imagine no one would suspect the turn this story would take.

This is a stunningly written piece of work. It’s such a vivid picture that it wasn’t hard for me to imagine the sort of property that Jessie and her family lived on. I grew up in an area just a little south of where Jessie did, with a similar landscape (although mine was less rural). But because of that, I can connect to this setting, I know the types of trees, the wildlife. The weather and the lack of any real winters but still with those crisp mornings where the grass crunches under your feet. And the beach is always never too far away, white sand and an unpredictable Pacific Ocean. The rain – at times, the seemingly endless rain. And even though quite frankly there are parts of the wildlife that scare me silly (mostly spiders, cockroaches, etc) you can’t help but want this sort of life. At least, the idyllic picture of it.

But this story is about much more than those early years. It’s about those that are left behind after a tragedy – a tragedy that had no warning, no reason, that was impossible to understand. It affected the entire Cole family deeply, in a myriad of ways that changed the entire dynamics of their family. This is an emotional story (I keep using story, but that’s not exactly the right word because this is actual true, this is all something that happened to someone in real life), it cannot help but be an emotional story because it’s about grief and loss and loneliness, heartwrenching events. But even though there is so much of that sadness, it doesn’t take over the book to the point where it becomes saturated or overwhelming. It is honest, open and raw and yes, there is great sadness. But it’s somewhat balanced out by love, strength, a quest for understanding. It’s a whole picture, ugliness, lack of answers and all. Nothing is sugar coated, not the grief, not the portrayal of what it does to some family members, not the examining by others of their own actions. I found one part really interesting after the second of the two tragic events – several of the characters have conversations with each other where they talk about interactions or moments just before or leading up to that second tragedy and each of them remember it differently, their own contributions dominating and not really having any memory of what others have contributed. It seems that guilt is a powerful force, raising its head and having them each pondering blame or contribution – their own, not that of others. We all think we could probably do something to prevent such tragedies in the aftermath. But the reality is different.

This is a powerful, beautiful story about life in all it’s ups and downs. The writing is so phenomenal – I’ve always struggled to describe Jessie Cole’s fictional writing in a way that does it justice and it seems that I’m having the same issue with the writing in her memoir. It has such depth and character, sympathy and reflection as well as capturing the highs of an innocent childhood and the grief of both suddenly and slowly losing people who mean the most. I feel like I ran the gauntlet of emotions just reading this but I was never not thinking about what it must have been like to experience it first hand. It’s so incredible that Jessie Cole has been able to write about this. It’s so sensitively handled, very personal of course but without judgement.

9/10

Book #89 of 2018

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