I recently finished reading Natasha Lester’s ‘What is Left Over, After’ (Fremantle Press, 2010).
The story opens in Sydney, with 36-week pregnant Gaelle, a fashion photographer, about to have an emergency caesarian. It then skips ahead to a few months after the birth, and the reader sees Gaelle seeking out sexual partners, ruining her own dinner party, then unexpectedly pregnant again and seeking an abortion. Her husband Jason, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is immersed in his work and unsuspecting of Gaelle’s activities. He knows something is wrong but not how to help.
Gaelle ultimately flees her own thirtieth birthday party and boards a plane to Western Australia, where she escapes to a seaside resort at Busselton. She befriends an eleven-year-old girl, Selena, and begins to tell Selena the story of her childhood. The reader learns of Gaelle’s flighty and unstable mother, who took her daughter from the safety of her grandparents’ farm in France, to London, where she left Gaelle alone at night while she went ‘dancing’, and alone again during the day while she recovered.
‘When we arrived at the flats my mother was sitting on the landing in one of the chairs; it looked as though she had been poured into it, as though she was liquescent. I tiptoed over and kissed her cheek. She didn’t move. I didn’t expect her to. Her vision remained loose, as if looking into time.’ (p. 106)
The reader also sees the young photographer emerging:
‘Then I took my mother’s picture. I don’t know if it was because her eyes were closed and I could not see inside her but even as I took it I knew I wanted something more substantial. I wanted to lift her lids and see what lay at the bottom of her eyes.’ (p. 158)
The first part of this novel isn’t an easy read – we see a mother unraveling, making immature choices, having affairs on a benign husband — an unmothered woman unable to escape the patterns of her childhood. The reader suspects the reason for her unraveling, and it is a relief in a way when it is revealed towards the end of the book. The reader comes to understand and forgive Gaelle, and the book ends with hope and the beginnings of healing:
‘For the second time since I had met Jason I thought that it was time to stop running.’ (p. 211)
The characters in this novel have all been fully drawn — none are stereotypes. The other star of this novel is the prose. Beautiful phrases like: ‘and words that sat like clouds around our mouths’ (p. 32), ‘the air as weightless as hope’ (p. 137), ‘watching dusk draw silhouettes over the lawn’ (p. 138), ‘alabaster shards of moonlight splinter over her face’ (p. 160).
I love books like this, that are a bit confronting, that tackle the not-so-pretty side of human nature and motherhood. It’s not all cuddles and loveliness, and it can be especially hard as a mother not to repeat the patterns of one’s own childhood.
‘Watching them both, I know that Selena and the child will have no need to tell stories about their past when they are older because they have not given their childhoods away.’ (p. 69)
Selena, for her unconditional acceptance of Gaelle, and who helps her heal and see that perhaps she has value after all.
Towards the end, the touching scene with Jason and Gaelle in the hospital, holding their baby, Aurora:
‘… as if through absolute stillness, we might hear one tiny breath.’ (p. 222)
‘What is Left Over, After‘ by Natasha Lester, Fremantle Press (2010) $22.95
This is my 10th review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013.
Very much looking forward to reading both of Natasha’s books. Thanks for giving us the heads up Louise. It sounds like my kind of read too. Wasn’t Natasha’s talk on Sunday great too!
As a psychologist, I think you’d find this novel very interesting, Iris. Gaelle is such a realistic psychological study. Would love to hear your take on her …
Yes, Natasha’s talk on Sunday was great — concise and insightful, I thought. She’s a gifted public speaker — the right mix of confidence and kindness. Thanks for organising for her to visit the meeting.
Loved your review, so honest. I am apprehensive about reading the book. I can relate so much though to the comment, that it’s hard as a mother not to repeat the patterns of one’s own childhood. But I am sure I will give it a go. Rae xxx
Rae, it really is a beautiful book. I read it on a quick trip to Brisbane and sent my daughter a text message saying how much I loved her … it’s that kind of book. Made me uneasy and thankful at the same time. It’s lyrical, sophisticated and has the kind of narrative truth that makes one happy there are authors like Natasha around.
Okay you have sold me, just downloaded the book, it’s going to be a very ready Christmas xx
Good — I’m glad we’ve convinced you to buy it! You’ll enjoy it, and being West Australian, you’ll recognise a few landmarks — I loved the ‘Simmo’s’ reference!
Rashida, you’ve answered Rae so eloquently — thanks. You’re right — there’s an honesty about the way this story is told that is gutsy and refreshing — much like Gaelle herself.
I’m sorry if I’ve scared you off, Rae. The part that is at the very beginning has you wondering why this woman is behaving so bizarrely, but you know there must be a reason. You keep reading because you want to find out, and by the end of the book, you completely understand and feel a kind of maternal love for her.
Thanks Louise. Selena was a bit of a gift from the writing muse or whoever hands out wonderful and unexpected ideas. She just appeared on the page one day and then kept on popping up whenever I wrote a section set in Siesta Park, very insistently, much the same as she does in Gaelle’s life in the book. Now she’s one of my favourite characters and I can’t imagine the book without her. Reading your review was also great for reminding myself of parts of the book, sentences especially, that I had forgotten, but also love. Thank you!
Selena is a great character and, like I say, not a stereotype, but a well-drawn, true-to-life, eleven-year-old girl. I’m glad she appeared and kept returning!
I should have said in the review that this was your first novel, but I forgot. It doesn’t read like a first novel, but rather one written by a mature writer. I can’t wait to read your second, and your third …
A truly well considered review. You’re a pro, Louise! I think that one of the great strengths of Natasha as an author is her ability to create fascinating and humane characters that are from the upper class i.e. they’re professionals with money. Typically, in literature the well-off are either demonised or portrayed badly. Through Natasha’s masterful writing and her understanding of how trauma can damage a person, the reader is presented with a complex, troubled character, Gaelle, who just happens to come from the upper-class. We tend to think that money fixes everything, clearly – What is Left, Over – demonstrates is that it doesn’t. Well done, Natasha!
You’re right, Marlish, in that Natasha has made the reader able to care for this flawed and troubled character. I think it’s because she’s given us a believable character — Gaelle is doing all these things that make you wince and want to shake her, but all along you know she is a good person and must be behaving like this for a reason. You want to mother her yourself, take her in your arms and say, ‘Here, cry on my shoulder, you poor girl. You’re a good person. Stop hating yourself.’
Gaelle’s other redeeming character trait is her honesty — at least you know that she’s telling the truth!
P.S. And as I myself have done! i.e. demonised the wealthy, quite recently in Sea Dog Hotel!
I’m nearly half-way through and loving all of the characters. Haven’t noticed any demonisation as yet …
I too loved this book Louise and loved the prose, as you point out. Troubled mothers and daughters are my weakness too, so loved that about this book. Great review as always, xx And that’s a lot of love 🙂
I love a story with a flawed protagonist. Gaelle is drawn so realistically and from a point of understanding, so that I, as the reader, felt I understood her.
Thank you so much everyone for all your lovely comments about my book. I feel like a very special person right now! It’s this kind of support and feedback that keeps me going as a writer throughout the tough times. Merry Christmas everyone!
Merry Christmas to you to Natasha xxx Rae
It’s a well-written, touching story, Natasha. As I’ve said in another comment, it’s refreshingly honest and told with courage, not to mention your beautiful phrases. With writing like yours, I’m sure you’ll hit the jackpot, and soon!
Merry Christmas to you, too!
Great review, Louise. It is now on my tablet to read soon, as well
Great, Maureen! I’m sure you’ll enjoy the beautiful prose as well as the story.
Thanks Louise. Have purchased “What is Left Over, After” on my kindle for my after-Xmas reading pleasure… although… can’t wait to read it!
I think you’ll enjoy it, Jacquie — it’s quite a ‘thinking woman’s’ book.
You, and anyone else reading this, could do the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge in 2014. There are various levels and if there’s not one to suit — just do it your own way. It’s a great way to read and promote us Aussie women writers. 🙂