All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Echolalia by Briohny Doyle

Briohny Doyle
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}: Set in a fictional regional city beset by drought, Echolalia follows a family in the advent and aftermath of unspeakable tragedy, the narrative moving fluidly between the ‘Before’ and ‘After’. When we first meet Emma Cormac, she’s a young mother barely coping with her three children under five; Emma in the After is a broken women with no familial ties, struggling through a twelve step program.

Before, Barbara Cormac is as much CEO as matriarch, the relentless pursuer of financial and social success for her family; After, she is reduced to the keeper of what was, and what could have been. Before, Clementine is a wilful four year old; After, a fragile young artist returning obsessively to the same dark subject. In the Before, Arthur is a not-yet verbal, difficult child. In the After, he is finding his neuro-atypical way at MIT. And in the Before, Robbie is a baby, the longed for male heir and hope for the Cormac legacy. He hasn’t survived into the After. 

As the central mystery at the heart of the novel-what happened to baby Robbie?-unfurls, Echolalia swings readers to align and realign ourselves with different characters, provoking tough moral questions of culpability and forgiveness. It explores, with clear eyes but unwavering empathy, what might drive a mother to do the unthinkable.

Doyle touches on environmental anxieties, the refugee crisis, class-consciousness, and inter-generational rifts. Echolalia is a portrait of a woman, a family, and a country in crisis. It is a deeply moving and memorable story and Briohny Doyle is a real talent.

This is a hard book to review.

It’s one of those books where I didn’t love it, but I didn’t dislike it either. It had a lot of really positive points – the writing was really good. And a lot of the relationships were written really well. But there were also some things that I really struggled with and made me feel a real disconnect from the story.

Emma and Robert seem like they have it all. Robert is the prize son of the richest family in town, the heir, the golden child. He and Emma met at university and although she’s from the same area, she’s not from the same social circle or background. They marry and get to starting a family and building a huge family home that overlooks what was a beautiful lake – the drought however, has reduced it to a dustbowl. For a while, everything is idyllic. They welcome daughter Clem and then that’s followed by a son – however all is not well as their son is non-verbal and shows some worrying traits. After they get a diagnosis that squarely places the blame on Emma, it’s another quick pregnancy, which results in the healthy son and heir to continue the Cormac dynasty.

Where I think the book excels, is the portrayal of Emma in the before, as she clearly struggles through parenting 3 children, one of whom is non-verbal and requires certain concessions, one of whom is still a baby under 12 months and is still incredibly needy and the last of which, is a 4yo girl who is beginning to parrot Emma’s mother-in-law, the formidable Pat.

Pat is a very capable woman, who definitely likes her social status and likes to project the image of this very perfect family who has everything. Emma not being able to cope is definitely not in her vision for her son and nor is a child that is anything less than perfect. Pat’s snide mutters that the middle child Arthur not “be coddled” and just understand the fact that he has to learn and deal with things is a very outdated view on a child that has a medical diagnosis and clearly has some challenges that need to be dealt with. He is still non verbal at almost three and Emma has tried to teach him sign language. He also cannot abide noise of any kind and will scream incessantly if there’s anything loud and Emma has transformed his room so that he cannot hurt himself on anything. Robert, Emma’s husband, sees this as entirely unnecessary and although I sort of got the feeling he wasn’t trying to be a bad husband or father, he clearly doesn’t want to understand or concede to Arthur’s differences and he’s a distant dad in the way of 1960s types of parenting roles. In fact if this book didn’t mention a mobile phone screen and drop a brand name or two, I actually would’ve thought this was set in the past, so traditional is the Cormac family. It’s got huge “dad works 9-5 and does little parenting while mum stays at home, pops out babies and keeps the house” vibes.

I also really liked the way that Doyle portrayed the relationship between Pat and Emma. Pat is “helpful” – turning up most days, feeding the children, trying to feed Emma, who is still breastfeeding the third baby, a demanding child. Pat is this busy matriarch who has risen really high in social status and is definitely pretty determined to keep it. She doesn’t seem to like or approve of anything that might threaten that and her attitude towards Emma is definitely not one of sympathy. More like one of “pull yourself together and snap out of it” clearly missing that Emma isn’t able to do that and she has some real deep issues going on. Pat is either “tough love” or just scathing and maybe she thinks she’s helping, trying to shock Emma into functioning again but honestly, Emma gives off some real signs that she’s in a situation she can’t just snap out of and no one really seems to recognise it or want to. Or they think she’s like this deliberately for some reason, Robert’s internal thoughts get less and less supportive the more the book moves on. It’s clear this is not what he signed up for. No one really seems to sense where things are going until it’s way, way too late and then there’s only disgust and horror and anger, no attempts at understanding. And that’s not completely outside the realms of reality, because women who do what Emma do are not large in number but they do seem to attract the most amount of hatred.

However the back and forth didn’t really work for me, I didn’t find it seamless or smooth and a lot of the time it felt jarring and confusing, I already knew what happened, the book tells you before you even begin it, but I just wanted to know how it happened and the why and the circumstances and it was drawn out for the longest time. The After segments fell quite flat for me, they weren’t as compelling as those in the Before and I disliked the jump back and forwards in time. It’s actually a technique I often enjoy in literature but it can be difficult to achieve in a way that feels organic and not just like it’s an attempt to dribble out information and in this book, it felt lacking in some way. Disjointed and not whole.

Things I felt were done really well, others I felt just didn’t work for me personally. But overall, an interesting and strong story that just lost its way a fraction towards the end.


Book #92 of 2021

Echolalia is book #40 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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