Amanda Lohrey’s 2008 novella ‘Vertigo’ is a beautiful reflection of a marriage in transition. Little over a hundred pages, the third person narrative gives us the perspective of both partners, Luke and Anna, as they negotiate a move from the city to the bush. We are introduced immediately to Luke, who ‘grew up on the edge of the city, in a neat suburban garden with a green lawn and a date palm, and in all that time he never developed the least interest in birds, not even, as a boy to throw stones at. But now, at the age of thirty four, he has taken to bird-watching’. Immediately we know that Luke and Anna have entered that sticky territory of ‘needing a change’, plagued with an increasing alarm at the expense of maintaining their lifestyle in inner city Sydney, and keeping up with the material acquisitions of their peers. Their lives, so different now from when they were students and twenty-something professionals, feel disappointing, not as they expected: ‘When she was in her twenties, Anna had thought of herself as bohemian, a free spirit who was serious about the right things and carefree about the rest, but now she was turning into some other woman, a woman on the edge of becoming anxiously acquisitive. Though scornful of the crass material ambitions of others, she was secretly ashamed of the shabbiness of her apartment, and fed up with cheap holidays’. Here, I think, Lohrey touches upon an increasingly common feeling among the ‘not quite young and the not quite old’, and she sends Luke and Anna on the alluring quest for the sea change. They drift around the coast and are eventually drawn to the remote coastal bush town of Garra Nalla, where they buy a house surrounded by gums, snakes and more birds than Luke can spot and record.
At first it is peaceful and idyllic. And then isolated life sets in. Anna is not so convinced by the change, as she maintains a hold of the outer world by obsessively watching CNN online, and feels a rising panic at the stillness and oppression of the drought gripping coastal NSW. Nature pierces their psyches in different ways: Luke is relaxed by the pace of life, the observance of details within the wildlife; Anna is whittled away by the wind, it irritates her, makes her feel restless and trapped. Lohrey writes of Anna’s impatience with Luke: ‘Luke always did have a way of blotting out distraction, of drawing the world in around him on his own terms, whereas she seems to bleed out into it, as if she is part of one giant membrane that holds land, sea and sky together. Some days she feels like a fly caught in an invisible web’.
Lohrey gradually weaves a third member into this family: ‘the boy’. He appears sometimes, to both Luke and Anna, and blends into the new surroundings dreamily: ‘At night she wills him to come and lie beside her on the wide, king-sized futon; she wants to stroke her palm along the golden sheen of his forehead, to study the way his dark eyelashes curl against his cheek’. Lohrey’s subtle, understated examination of grief and loss moved me, as did the climax of the novella which ties together the nature of transition and the forces of the natural world in our harsh Australian landscape. The overall feeling of hope at the close of the novella is reassuring and generous towards the two protagonists. Lohrey writes simply and elegantly: this is well worth a short read.
*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014