Review: Thuy Onon Laura Elvery

Catalytic Threads

Ordinary matter is what we are made of – everything we can see or detect with telescopes or microscopes or our own eyes. Such a wide descriptive ambit makes it an apposite title for this second collection of fiction by Brisbane-based Laura Elvery, which ranges far and wide, across decades and geographical spaces, and occupies the nexus between arts and science, writing and innovation.

Inspired by the twenty times women have been awarded Nobel Prizes for science, Ordinary Matter adds lustre to Elvery’s growing reputation as a short fiction practitioner. Her new collection comprises twenty stories variously linked to each of these women laureates, beginning chronologically in 1903 when Marie Curie won the first of her two Nobels, to 2018 when Frances Arnold was awarded for Chemistry. All but two laureates (Australian Elizabeth Blackburn, and Chinese Tu Youyou) hail from Europe or North America.

A handful of these stories made their first appearance in literary magazines but the majority are new and written specially to fulfil the scheme. The stories view ambition, resilience, sacrifice and doubt through the lens of familial, romantic and societal demands. Elvery roams restlessly, setting her characters in locations as various as Paris, Stockholm and London, moving from a remote Queensland beach to the Grand Canyons.

Though each narrative is prefaced with the name of the winner and her award (for instance, ‘2004, Linda B Buck, Physiology or Medicine, Prize Motivation; for their discovery of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system’), Elvery does not presume prior knowledge of these trailblazers. Some of the fields they excelled in may be too esoteric for most readers to grasp, so, there is a notes section at the back of the book with a paragraph devoted to each prizewinner. Sure, the stories could and should be read alone and critically assessed on their own terms – but bear in mind Ordinary Matter is presented as a themed body of work. It’s organised by a certain ideological stance that binds the stories together.

The collection canvasses relationships in all permutations, particular those between mothers and daughters. For these scientists mostly working on ways to prolong or save lives, it’s notable how often death (via suicide, misadventure, natural causes, nuclear bomb) pervades these stories. Elvery puts micro matter (plutonium, biomolecules, chromosomes, ribosomes, telomeres) into the bigger world of women’s lives as they go about their daily business striving for harmony between responsibility and ambition and carving out their own place in the world.

Ordinary Matter varies widely in its locus of inspiration; the tales are a mix of fact and fiction and eschew straightforward literary ventriloquisms. Elvery is also playful in her structural set ups: there are stories that vault time and space, with some that reach to the past, while others telescope events, like ‘The bodies are buried’ with its compressed timeline that leapfrogs from 2015 to 2045. Another is broken into numbered sections. There are reminisces in old age and alternate narrators. Some tales are wound tightly with the name that prefaces it, others are linked only tangentially (a hitherto unexplored detail found in research, a fallout from the celebrated work decades later, or a childhood detail can be the catalytic thread from which a tale is spun). About half the time Elvery prefers an oblique, third person approach with its concomitant distancing effect.

The raison d’être of the book, the Nobel Prize, was initiated in 1901, when Alfred Nobel bequeathed his fortune to set up annual international awards in several categories to honour academic, cultural or scientific advances. There are all kinds of scientists in Ordinary Matter: physicists, biochemists, geneticists, botanists and biologists are among them. It’s instructive, and also pointedly troubling to grasp just how few women prizewinners there have been. From 1901-2018 (the chronological reach of Ordinary Matter) the breakdown of winners in science categories in terms of gender allocation are as follows: Chemistry (5 females, 176 males); Physics (3 Females, 207 Males); Physiology or Medicine (12 females, 204 males). How are these ratios to be interpreted? Are they a reliable indicator of intellectual rigour in sectors historically dominated by men – or have sociological conditions predetermined such a marked discrepancy? That only one non-white woman has won such a prize should also be noted.

A couple of stories in the collection do indeed thematise the feminist undercurrent of women striving against structural or institutional barriers and the implicit bias against their gender to succeed. In ‘Stockholm’ for instance, which is one of the few contributions that places the scientist in full view (although it is narrated in the third person), there’s explicit mention of the lack of opportunity and parity for women when it comes to laboratory culture. It’s about Rosalyn Yalow, heralded in 1977 for her work for the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones, which Elvery tells us in the notes, affects diabetes treatment, and the understanding of insulin, hepatitis and cancer. This pioneer was at one point the only woman in her faculty of four hundred and often found it hard to find work despite her qualifications. In the story, before she sets out to receive her award solo (her husband was a joint recipient but had died years earlier), Yalow is accosted by a physics student. She makes the usual recommendations to the young woman to work hard and to find a supportive partner but she keeps the following thoughts to herself:

Winning does not mean only joy will follow. Winning does not stop sadness. You have to be tougher than all that and forget the faceless men from your past who failed to have faith in you, who pointed out that you were indeed a woman, and not a good bet to join their program, their hospital, their team…

Yalow refrains from voicing all the frustrations that marred her career, choosing to reframe her experience as a matter of fortune’s bidding: ‘focus on all the luck you have received. Polish it like a coin.’

Another tale that considers grappling for credibility in less than ideal working conditions is ‘Growth’. It’s written in the first person by an English PhD student, who reflects that her own studies are comparatively useless and non-life changing compared to Rita Levi-Montalcini, who won a Nobel in 1986 and whose life she learns about through a book and a documentary. Levi-Montalcini pursued medicine and neurobiology, but only considered the sciences after her governess died of cancer. Here was someone who subverted the status quo and who instead of learning needlepoint or writing poetry like her peers, set up her bedroom as a laboratory so she could experiment on fertilised chicken eggs.

The discrimination Levi-Montalcini faced as a Jewish woman in Mussolini’s Italy is only casually mentioned, so too the patronising, paternal(listic) roadblocks she faced in order to achieve any standing commensurate with her skills:

Not being employable at her university, not being safe, barely being visible, having to convince her father that no she did not want to be a wife and mother, that yes he should trust her enough with her vision for the future.

In ‘Night Blindness,’ there’s a similar pushing against racism and sexism. We learn about Gerty Cori, who studied metabolism and the effects of glucose on the body and along with her husband, was recognised for the Nobel in 1947. Here, she’s on her way to join him America in 1922, fleeing the rising tide of European anti-Semitism. She was the only woman and the only Jew in her anatomy class. But she’s looking ahead to better times. A professor at the institute in Buffalo, New York had posted photographs of meadows and mountains to compensate for the ones she’d be leaving behind in Vienna and Prague and Cori is hopeful of her future in her adopted home.

In many stories, Elvery favours an approach that fuses fact and fiction. ‘You run towards love’, for instance, the opening story, is ostensibly about Marie Curie, who was co-granted the prize with her husband Pierre for their research into radiation in 1903 – but unless you read the notes you might be puzzled about the origin of the story. The bridge between historical fact and fanciful fiction seems shaky. Or does it? It’s a tale where numbers play an important role: it’s set a century after Curie’s award, and focuses on two old lovers, who last shared a kiss thirty years ago. They are on the train to Paris, which, as it happens, is experiencing a heatwave. It’s the hottest summer for over five decades and there are rivers bloated with dead fish. It takes a while before the link to radiation, the legacy of carbon emissions from nuclear reactors, becomes clear. Like a scrim, an overlay of past events is placed over present events.

The second Marie Curie story, ‘Grand Canyon’, places the scientist and her young adult daughters on a tour in America but Elvery’s telling of it is also indirect; the tale is narrated by a security guard in charge of keeping them away from the adoring public even as he schemes about his romantic chances with Eve, the younger, 16-year-old Curie. Unbeknownst to the oblivious Eve, 24-year-old Frank is lusting after her, and there are overtones of Lolita in the way he fetishises her youth and beauty (which he compares favourably against the ‘wonky-looking, pale, pinched nose’ of her sister Irene), ‘Her name itself is a low and fruitful moan, punctuated by a bite of the lips. Vvvv.’ As a study of the male gaze and hidden desires it succeeds well enough but of Curie senior herself the story fails to offer any insight, except perhaps to remind the reader that regardless of their achievements and rich inner lives, women will always be assessed on their exteriors, at least when they are young and nubile.

Those unfamiliar with the Elvery’s work should be made aware that her endings rarely offer a clean summation of themes or morals with tidy closures. They’re more often like a pause for breath before the next happenstance. But that reckoning often never comes, for example in the ending to ‘Grand Canyon’ which stops abruptly when Frank rushes in to help Madame Curie when she takes a fall. At times the reader is left frustrated, wanting more when further information is cannily – or wilfully – withheld. But this device of deferring or witholding catharis is also powerful insofar as it creates suspense. The narrative unknowingness leaves open myriad possibilities, sparking an imaginative reflex in the reader that wouldn’t be there had Elvery tied up all the loose ends.

As in her first collection of stories Trick of the Light (2018), often there is a breach in the fabric of time that changes the course of nature, where characters are nudged out of their normal orbit and left flailing. An accident or intervention of an unexpected event, perhaps, that propels a new reality. In ‘Something Close to Gold’, a woman who’d given up fertility treatment comes across an abandoned baby on a beach and through the strange vagaries of the ‘Department of Reunification and Wilderness Finds’ is allowed to adopt the foundling with her husband. Whimsically based on Irene Jolio-Curie, Marie Curie’s eldest daughter, who jointly won with her husband Frederick for work on chemical experimentation, the tale pivots on magical changes. A series of failed pregnancies is described as ‘cells dividing and dividing, that alchemy in a quiet and unknown space’ and later, sudden parenthood is thus described, ‘It was alchemy too, how we had gone from one thing to another.’ Whether or not the tale is about entitled motherhood and baby hunger, it’s still written sympathetically from the woman’s point of view.

The best of Elvery’s stories are those that are surprising and inventive, like ‘Corn Queen’, a delightful tale told in the first person by a teenage girl (which, in terms of narrators, remains Elvery’s particular strength). She’s in the midst of stage fright at having to don a papier-mache kernel-shaped bonnet and be crowned Corn Queen, as her mother did years before in the annual corn parade in a small country town. Luckily, her twin brother decides to take her place. The tale draws on Barbara McClintock’s research on genetics and somehow manages to cleverly combine genetically modified corn crops and gender modification by way of cross-dressing.

Similarly, in terms of sheer wonder, ‘Little Fly’, based on Tu YouYou’s malaria research, is also beautifully constructed. It’s written from the perspective of a baby and her first encounter with a mosquito (according to the World Health Organization, mentions Elvery in her notes, ‘children under five make up around sixty per cent of all deaths’). Unlike some of the more dour and serious-toned stories in Ordinary Matter, there’s a lightness to this one that’s irresistible. The mosquito is swatted away by a boy who works at the hotel where the baby and her family are staying and thus heralds a kind of epiphany: ‘He has sent something small out of her life and she is reset.’

Sometimes there are clues in the stories that speak to their wider significance. In ‘Hyperobject’ that references Maria Goppert Mayer’s research on nuclear shell structure in 1963, a woman accepts secret secretarial work in an organisation that she’ll only find out later was involved in the making of atomic bombs to be deployed against Japan, bringing about the end of WWII. The cuteness of a lonely hearts page in the local paper called ‘Atom Seeks Eve’, is later offset by the offhand comment, ‘How strange, then that those women still felt something like triumph go through their bodies when they saw the destruction they had created’.

The longest story is set in postwar Hobart and reserved for Australia’s only woman prizewinner in any Nobel field, Elizabeth Blackburn. The title, ‘Wingspan’, offers metaphorical references in a number of ways: the uncle of a nearly 14 year-old girl about to take his first flight, and the child herself on the cusp of maturity and thinking of turning to art, like her mother’s friend instead of science, her previous obsession. It’s about the expanse of creativity and even as it brims with hope and horizons to conquer, as with many of Elvery’s stories, the background remains foreboding and unsettling (the uncle’s illness, the friend’s unrecognised lesbianism in this conservative landscape).

Elvery’s prose is fairly straightforward on a line-by-line basis but every now and then there is a flourish, a poetic turn of phrase, with startling metaphors and similes: ‘We watched each other as the joy poured over us like steam’, ‘a diptych in the garden, leaning into each other like saints’, ‘pale and meaty and looks put together like a shish kebab’, ‘The evening held the heat from the day like a bell jar , ‘He shrunk his worries down to the size of a single pea while hers flourished through her body like tumours.’ These gentle trips in the language tend to occur when the stories themselves are musing over a particularly sensitive topic (like birth or death), as though Elvery wanted readers to pay a bit more attention to the events before them.

Though deftly written the stories in Trick of the Light felt tonally similar, as though it were the author telling each of the stories herself (whether in first or third person). Ordinary Matter is more expansive in its reach, with the deployment of more diverse voices, though sometimes the method by which Elvery connects the scientist to the story feels convoluted or obtuse.

Elvery has won several awards for her close observation of the short story form (Josephine Ulrick Prize for Literature, Margaret River Short Story Competition, Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize and the Fair Australia Prize for Fiction). Though the majority of stories in this collection are cleverly wrought and compelling, the quality is not even, and there are a small number of lacklustre efforts that are, well, ordinary and not befitting the extraordinary lives that inspired them. It’s instructive to note that 97 per cent of the winners of Nobel Prizes for science have been men. Why then, did these women persist with the unrelenting demands of testing and experimentation in fields and social-cultural environments often hostile to their endeavours? When asked by a student who was agog at Yalow injecting herself with radioactive tagged insulin to test it out, the physicist coolly responds, ‘it isn’t that unusual. You find if you continued with your studies, you’ll have a desire to make things work, no matter what.’

Published November 13, 2020
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Thuy On

Thuy On is a Melbourne-based freelance arts journalist/critic. She’s written for a variety of...

Essays by Thuy On →