by Briohny Doyle
Published June 2021
I closed the pages of Briohny Doyle’s Echolalia with a sigh of satisfaction at its beautiful construction and timeliness. The actions of her protagonist, Emma, seem a pertinent reaction to our zeitgeist: a world in which our flaccid government cannot mount a response to the recent IPCC report, which warns that ‘with further global warming, every region is projected to increasingly experience concurrent and multiple changes in climatic impact-drivers’. At the same time, I experienced a spell of disquiet at the way the novel mobilises disability to symbolise something that everyone, whether abled or disabled, should be able to recognise: the impact of our actions on the future.
The novel opens with a slender chapter describing ‘[j]ust a small thing. Dappled with dried bracken and dirt. One more item amidst the trash that appears where the water subsides’. He is, it transpires, human, with hands scrunched into fists that ‘grip sticks and leaves so tight they cut the soft flesh’. The lake by which this small body rests is bordered by the town’s best houses, although their drawcard has shrivelled to a ‘dried up paddock’. The place is plagued by a summer that holds it ‘under indefinite arrest’ and, as the novel progresses, it transpires that the loss of the little body and the endless, gritty heat are intertwined. By alternating between two time frames – the ‘After’ that opens the novel, and a ‘Before’ set in the early 2010s (rumours of the breakup of Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr circulate) some two decades prior – the reader is led, slowly and carefully, to understand how that small body arrived beside the lake.
The second chapter, located in ‘Before’, begins to assemble the conditions that lead to the tragedy: a salmon-coloured entertainer’s patio that looks out to the dry lake; the unending heat; and a mother running with a pram, surrounded by a phalanx of lycra-clad friends. The entertainer’s patio and the exercising mothers evoke the expectations placed upon Emma: to be a good host and lively mother, a desiring and desirable wife to Robert, and a pleasing daughter-in-law to Patricia. Emma, watching the women move along the path surrounding the lake, considers the lake as ‘a sundial tracking her own malaise’. The house from which she watches is like a prison, the air-conditioning so cold that she wears a cardigan, and the pool full despite the drought. When they are fined for wasting water, Emma, ashamed, passes the $200 infringement notice to her husband, but he is ‘adamant: no draining the pool. Patricia agreed. Even if they received a fine every week, it would be better than having to go to the public pool.’ The vignette is a stark reminder of how the rich will be able to buy their way out of the impact of climate change.
Emma, slight and quiet, was swept up by the expansive, good-humoured Robert like a wave. When he first met her, he mistook her listlessness for lightness, and Emma ‘presented no resistance because of her torpor’. After a romance and three children, Emma is dumped on a shore, and in the receding tide it becomes clear that Robert, although he tries to be solicitous, has limits to his empathy, and that his egocentrism is buttressed by family expectations. When Arthur, her second child, is diagnosed with Fragile X syndrome and presents some of the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder – delayed speech, sensitivity to sound and touch, difficulty with social cues, and echolalia – his father sees him as a stain on the family line. Robert had ‘wanted another son more than anything. But only a certain kind of son.’ On bad days, he feels tricked, ‘as though Emma had sold him a lie. He knew it wasn’t fair, but he couldn’t help it. He didn’t know what he’d wanted from her when they first met, but he knew suddenly that she hadn’t delivered.’ He and Patricia try to fatten Emma up, for ‘family made Robert strong, and he wanted a strong family’.
Parenthood is a key theme in a number of Australian climate fiction novels. James Bradley’s Clade opens with its scientist-protagonist in Antarctica awaiting his wife’s IVF results. His subsequent novel Ghost Species, along with Donna Mazza’s Fauna, explores the problematic ethics of raising children with Neanderthal genes, with the expectation that they are primed to survive an environmentally altered world. Alice Robinson’s The Glad Shout traces the journey of a mother and her daughter from a flooded refugee camp in Melbourne to safety in Tasmania, while Inga Simpson’s forthcoming The Last Woman in the World follows two women, one of them a mother, through bushfire and an unidentified, psychological menace. These novels dwell upon the lives of children and their parents’ attempts to sustain them in the face of hostility to difference, or threatening, extreme weather.
Adeline John-Putra’s recent study, Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel (2019) questions the legitimacy of appeals to posterity – of leaving the world in habitable condition for future generations. The ‘parental rhetoric of posterity is possibly one of the most prevalent tactics in contemporary environmentalist discourse’, she writes, yet it works to reinforce assumptions about heteronormativity and child bearing and rearing. John-Putra’s argument is that the climate change novel opens up a space to deal with concerns about parenthood, and allows readers ‘to think as well as to feel their way around the notion of responsibility to the future (and its attendant anxieties).’ Doyle’s novel bears this thesis out by probing the pressures placed upon Emma to carry on Robert’s family line with children who are not disabled or deficient.
Emma’s pregnancy with Robbie, her third child, makes her heavy and alienates her from her life. Her body ‘did not belong to her. The body, the house, the life. The glass panels of the patio grew an oil slick pattern. The grass dried up, leaving bald patches of bleached earth.’ The association between the drying grass and Emma’s dwindling emotional resources presages what is to come. Like the links made between the resource extraction of women’s bodies and labour, and the wealth of nature, neither of which, as Jane Gleeson-White has noted, are factored into economists’ balance sheets, Emma’s body and the environment are pushed to the brink.
When the child arrives, Robert recognises the blue-eyed boy as ‘unmistakeably his own,’ his attention skimming over Arthur towards his able-bodied son. Emma, besieged by depression, is unable to share her husband’s delight. After she has her third C-section, following the births of Clementine and Arthur, she ‘was sewn up and she slept. When her eyes opened, she was handed her baby. Another life cleft from her own. But she could not think of it as a miracle any more. It was a harvesting.’ Robbie is hungry like his father and ‘demanded her full attention, needed it, when it was in shorter supply than ever. A dwindling resource, just like her strength, memory, enthusiasm for anything.’ After a long night at Patricia’s birthday party, her mind addled by alcohol, drugs and postpartum psychosis, Emma, acting on auto-pilot and desperate for sleep, kills her son.
In the sections narrated in ‘After’, the reader is introduced to a series of women who are convicted of matricide. The pressures upon them are chronicled, but they are never given names, as though their identities expired when they killed their children. One of these women walks through a summer that is ‘fierce and record breaking as usual, turning everything yellow and brown again.’ She lives a frugal existence in ‘an outer suburb that would have been the undesirable end of the tram line before that line was stretched.’ Her memory is piecemeal, the truth ‘smudged like a heart drawn on a fogged up window.’ Only slowly does it become clear that this is Emma, piecing herself back together after the tragedy. There is no sign of her children, Clementine and Arthur, or her husband or in-laws. Only a counsellor, and parents and a sister who keep themselves at a distance.
Where Doyle’s first novel, The Island Will Sink, a meditation on ecological intervention via simulacra, was vast and slippery in its digressions, Echolalia has barely a hair out of place. Doyle holds off on revealing the particulars of Emma’s tragedy until the final few pages, forcing the reader to wait as the ‘Before’ sections finally meet with the ‘After’ sections. She tucks other secrets into the final few chapters, underscoring Patricia’s savagery and its aftermath. This technique of interleaving the past and present is masterful, building suspense as the reader strives to piece together how the two time frames fit.
Adeline Johns-Putra does not factor disabled children into her analysis of climate fiction novels. She does canvas the protagonist of Liz Jensen’s The Rapture (2009) who becomes disabled from a car accident and, tormented at being unable to bear children (though this is reversed by the novel’s close), forms a friendship with a young woman, who becomes a substitute daughter. However, no mention is made of the impact of climate change on disabled children. This is hardly surprising, as in general positive representations of people with disability in apocalyptic scenarios are rare. Editors Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench explain that apocalypse survival fiction frequently relies upon the notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’, so in their collection Defying Doomsday, they set out to show ‘that there were different ways to survive and different measurements of “fitness” and “worth” than are usually applied.’
Echolalia challenges these ideas of fitness and worth through Doyle’s representations of Arthur as a baby and young adult. When, following Arthur’s birth, Robert becomes distant, Emma ‘unwisely’ mentions it to Patricia.
The Cormac matriarch closed the dishwasher and looked Emma straight in the eye.
‘Give him a break,’ she’d said. ‘He’s grieving too.’
The assertion shocked Emma. A break from what? Grieving what?
Emma does not perceive her son’s disability as problematic. When, at eleven months, Arthur ‘hit himself four times in the forehead with a wooden block,’ Emma does not record the event for her ongoing discussions with Dr Mansfield, ‘beloved custodian of all Cormac health concerns.’ Instead she ‘picked up another block from his bedroom floor and hit herself four times with adult blows.’ This exchange demonstrates a welcome attempt to experience the world as a person with a disability does, rather than expecting them to conform to expectations of ‘normality’ or able-bodiedness.
Arthur’s mother is not around as he grows up, nor does she answer his many letters. As a young man, he moves to the United States to study at MIT. His research area: birds and magnetoception, the detection of magnetic fields by animals to help map or orient themselves. His love for his mother remains unstinting and uncomplicated. Although he barely knew her before she absented herself from his life, he says to his aunt Izzy, ‘I never thought she didn’t love me, even though, you know, Nan said it, and Clem did too. I just never had that question, or it didn’t seem relevant.’ I found this exchange poignant, its straightforward expression of love a reminder of the ways that people with autism spectrum disorder in my own life have expressed their emotion. Yet while it rang true, I remained perturbed by Arthur’s presence.
Emma was crushed by her family’s expectations that she be a healthy, happy mother. Her mother-in-law Pat refuses to countenance the understanding that the tragedy was prompted by stress and depression. Arthur, by contrast, remains clear-eyed about what has happened. He explains to Izzy:
‘You know, Nan says there’s no possible reason for what she did, but other mammals do it. Sloth bears, lions. It’s a question of resources. In times of scarcity, if the child is sick, or if the mother is sick and can’t nurse. This behaviour has been observed in fish, insects, and birds too’.
His insistence that humans are no different from our animal kin is refreshing, because it is the belief in human exceptionalism, and the refusal to understand that our lives depend on others, that is at the heart of the drying lake and the death of a child. And, as Arthur continues in this exchange with his aunt, it is stress that caused Emma’s predicament – not the stress that alerts humans to predators, but stress that ‘comes from subjugation. We know this from studying cortisol responses in socially low-ranking rhesus macaques.’
In the conversation between Arthur and Izzy, the sentences of which are broken because of Izzy’s constant interruptions, Doyle reveals the justification – as if one were needed – for the survival of disabled people:
‘My point is that for Nan it’s against the natural order, and that’s incorrect,’ he say. ‘And humans are . . . I sometimes wonder how people would feel if instead of Robbie she had –’
Arthur keeps looking over her shoulder but his expression does change slightly.
‘Is that why you’re here?’
‘It’s fair enough.’
‘Do you think so?’
‘Yeah but, you know, on a species level, it’s diversity that’s interesting and I’m just …’
‘Glad you were born?’ Izzy blurts again.
Even as Arthur recognises the rationale for his mother’s actions, and also recognises his aunt’s fears, he is still obviously affected enough by his disability to contemplate what his father and grandmother might have been thinking: that he should have died instead of Robbie, the robust son.
While I can see the rationale for Doyle’s depiction of Arthur and understand its good intentions, I kept wondering: why is Arthur called upon to make these observations, when they could also be articulated by a person without Fragile X? Why must Arthur’s purported exceptionalism make him a prop to explain his mother’s behaviour?
My disquiet was also prompted by the title of novel’s title, Echolalia, a term for a condition that affects some children with autism spectrum disorder, in which they repeat part or all of something they have heard, either from another person or an audio source such a television. The repetitions can be immediate or delayed. The word is also used at the end of the novel to christen a series of Clementine’s drawings at an exhibition. She chooses this word because ‘the drawings are repetitions. The repeated thing is the landscape but also the violence. Each image depicts a place from which something was taken, rendering the scenes partial and scarred’.
Doyle’s use of disability as a metaphor in these instances could be interpreted as what David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder refer to as ‘narrative prosthesis’, the notion that a disability is used in a text for symbolic capital (for example, the hackneyed ‘blind seer’), while at the same time denying the very real difficulties of living with a disability: discrimination, heightened stress, and fewer opportunities for education and employment. In an interview, Doyle notes that her book ‘is structured around the repetitions we unconsciously make, mimicry and learned behaviour, and about echoes in general, across time and generations.’ I was uneasy that a condition that can cause distress in social situations, and which is indicative of a person trying to learn a language that does not come easily to them, should be co-opted in the interests of literariness.
The same unease troubled me when I read Mills’ Dyschronia, Bradley’s Clade and Ghost Species and Mazza’s Fauna, for these novels draw upon the discourse of disability to suggest that humans who are disabled, or whose sensory characteristics differ from able-bodied people’s, hold a key to human survival. While to a degree this may be true – people with disabilities have already adapted to uncomfortable environments and might therefore show able-bodied people how to accommodate a changing world – the proliferation of such characters suggests that writers are using disabled people to provide commentary in a fictional world, rather than attending to the structures that exclude them in reality. While I think that the inclusion of disabled people in our literature is important – after all, we make up 18 per cent of Australia’s population – it does concern me when we are reduced to plot points.
The recursiveness of time is a feature of climate fiction, present in novels such as Mills’ Dyschronia, and it suggests that the Western world’s linear notions of time and progress, and their alignment with capitalism, are illusive. We make the same mistakes over and over again. Perhaps, like our fellow non-humans, we are simply doing as we are programmed, or perhaps there is a way out.
Although Clementine’s drawings signal repetition, the art gallery setting suggests (perhaps in a cliched, but valuable way) the power of transformation. Emma seems, if not at peace, then at least settled, holding Izzy’s daughter and refusing to be perturbed by Patricia’s rebuff in the room. She escapes into the humid evening, and when the skies open, she decides to walk home. She wants to ‘see the sluggish creek swell in the darkness. Wants to follow it all the way north to the small rooms that are hers, for now at least, where she can sit and listen to the patter on the roof and be safe to think over the day.’ After a lifetime of aridity, she is returned to her quiet self at last.
Despite my misgivings about the representation of disability in this novel, I admired Doyle’s bravery in tackling the myth of motherhood, and in acknowledging that not all women can survive it, particularly in a resource-starved world. When Emma and her daughter are finally united, Clementine comments to her mother, ‘You never came back.’ Emma, breathtaking in her honesty, replies, ‘I didn’t want to.’
On the last page, I watched Emma ‘[g]lad to slip out, unthinkable, into the pelting rain,’ and realised that it was not the meaty, lusty characters of Patricia and Robbie Cormack who had survived, but this small, slight woman, who had withstood the trauma of losing everything.
Dolichva, Tsana and Holly Kench. Defying Doomsday. Twelfth Planet Press, 2016.
Gleeson-White, Jane. ‘Erasure: Women, Economics and Language.’ Griffith Review, vol 73.
Johns-Putra, Adeline. Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel. Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis. University of Michigan Press, 2014.