Review: Sophia Barneson Kirsten Tranter

Something Beyond The Natural: Hold by Kirsten Tranter

Kirsten Tranter’s third novel, Hold, begins in the imperative:

Picture a Sydney beach: not the broad oversized sweep of Bondi or Cronulla, or the long white-sanded strip of Manly, or the picturesque pockets of water around the harbour, netted in against the sharks. Imagine the intimate curve of Bronte, the strip of green beyond the sand reaching back into a dark tangle of trees and ferns and grass in the gully beyond the children’s playground.

Picture a Sydney beach as dangerous as it is beguiling. Within two pages this ‘intimate curve’, dotted with its usual weekday visitors, ‘parents and toddlers […] lap swimmers […] tourists and students’, will be marked by the death of a local surfer who has been caught in the inexorable pull of a rip tide.

Sharks are not a problem here, but the rip can be deadly. Signs warn against the currents, stealthy hidden things that can tow you out in a matter of quick minutes, like magic, and leave you so swim as hard as you can while you remain in place, held there like one of those terrible dreams where you run and run without getting and closer to where you need to go, or any further from the horror that pursues you.

The drowned man is Conrad, whose girlfriend Shelley is not at the beach but seated on a bus, wending her way into work in the city, oblivious. The beach opens Hold, and anchors it, but we will not visit it again after this initial tragedy except in Shelley’s nightmares, whether sleeping or waking, and in her paintings. Instead, the ensuing narrative takes place largely within the four walls of a terrace owned by Shelley and her new partner David, some three years after Conrad’s death. Its locus is an even smaller space – a single room – accessed by a barely visible door hidden within the upstairs cupboard.

Tranter, author of the Miles Franklin long-listed The Legacy (2010), a modern reimagining of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and A Common Loss (2012) – another, albeit very different, novel about grief – is an assured writer. Her prose is both absorbing and easy to read; polished and careful, but not dense. She displays fine control of pace in this quiet, elegant story, the rhythms of her sentences shifting with the muted, restless energy of her grieving protagonist. There is a strong sense of the tactile, and Shelley’s days come to life in those incidental observations and sensations which conjure a domestic world; the particular energy of a house in which one is alone. Much is left unsaid, as even the precipitating event – Conrad’s drowning – is implied rather than explicitly depicted, its effect more lingering than shocking. Likewise there is a measured quality to the unfolding narrative, whose sense of the uncanny emerges slowly and subtly.

In the period immediately following Conrad’s death Shelley retreats into a kind of depression, living by herself and devoting energy only to her art, painting and repainting the sea, trying to reach Conrad in it, perhaps even to disappear into it as he has. We learn about this obsessive period in retrospect; in the narrative present she is living with David, and part-time also with his daughter Janie, in Paddington. Alone one morning, Shelley finds the aforementioned room, accessed by a door at the back of her bedroom cupboard. The discovery of this room not only recalls the magical entrance to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, to which a brief reference is made, but also brings to mind the prominence of hidden rooms and enclosed domestic spaces in the canon of gothic fiction, standing in as they so often do for that which is repressed, threatening to be exposed. She surveys the small space, wallpapered in red damask, with dark wooden floorboards and a fireplace ‘surrounded by green glossy tiles’. Elsewhere David has stripped back the décor of the house’s previous incarnations to a modern, monochromatic minimialism, yet here in the hidden room is a rich, old-fashioned aesthetic, as if it had been left untouched for generations, a relic of the building’s Victorian origins. Shelley lays claim to the room immediately – ‘There was space for a bed, or a desk or possibly both’ – but when she shows it to David he is unable to open the door, which sticks in the frame and resists force.

Often alone in the house, nominally working from home, with David, who she soon realises has been unfaithful to her, frequently absent, Shelley is drawn more and more to the room. ‘That corner of the house seemed somehow hotter and brighter than the rest in my imagination, glowing and quietly magnetic.’ Here is a space in which she feels at home and which she can make her own.

The first and most significant piece of furniture that she places in the room, and which will become its centrepiece, is an unusual chaise longue in the same red as the damask wallpaper. She stumbles across this item at a nearby antiques store, which will itself subsequently take on a mysterious property akin to that possessed by the hidden room. It is closed each time Shelley passes it after buying the chaise longue. When she tells her best friend Tess about the store, Tess is surprised because she thought it had been closed for many years. On the day Shelley visits, she meets Kieran, a young salesman who bears a poignant resemblance to Conrad, and it is not long before the two begin a sexual relationship, conducted, more or less entirely, within the hidden room. Kieran appears to be the only person other than Shelley who may enter the room; indeed, at times it seems to demand his presence, perhaps less for his own sake than as a kind of cipher for Conrad, possessing as he does the dead man’s tall, slim form and characteristic gestures. And just as the room itself hovers somewhere on the boundary of the real within the narrative frame – accessible to Shelley yet seemingly unwilling to admit David – Kieran’s status as a character of the same fully-fleshed tangibility as David or Janie is likewise uncertain.

Hold is written in the first person, with a calculated narrowness of vision that is near-claustrophobic at times, with no external point of reference to aid us in deducing whether Shelley is in fact hallucinating, delusional, or is experiencing something in the realm of the supernatural. The world in which we find ourselves begins to blur around the edges, its parameters shifting and changing. Precisely how we are to understand the room and its relationship to Shelley’s consciousness is never clear, and becomes less clear with each new encounter between the world within and outside its walls. From outside the house, in the garden, it is near impossible to tell which window, almost always stuck closed, could possibly belong to the hidden room. How could the room not be part of the neighbour’s terrace, Shelley asks herself, given where it is placed between the walls? The extent to which she understands the room to be a kind of liminal space between the real and the unreal is changeable; some part of her suspects that it does not inhabit the same realm as the house which surrounds it, though she does not acknowledge this explicitly. She knows that she must prepare herself to enter the room, must approach the door in the right state of mind, or risk being unable to enter.

I waited days before trying the door again, letting my anxiety about it settle, trying to think only positive thoughts about the door opening smoothly, the window sash lifting with an easy whisper […]. Then I approached it one morning, calmly, but it refused to open.

Although the room, upon Shelley’s initial encounters with it, feels inviting, conscious, welcoming – almost seductive – it can just as easily come to feel unwelcoming and hostile, even threatening. During a storm it becomes impossibly, illogically flooded with water.

Water dripped down my face, from facing the window, and I tasted salt in my mouth.

It’s sweat, I thought, I must be sweating. But I knew that taste, it was the salt of the ocean, and I froze in place, the window finally shut. Wind rattled the window in its frame and the door slammed behind me. […] The boundary between the room and the house had never seemed so strange, so capricious and dangerous, a twilight zone. The water was cold on my feet and I thought of Conrad, in that nightmarish way I usually managed to push from my conscious mind, the way that came to me now just in dreams: thoughts of the water closing over his head, the constricted breath that wouldn’t come.

The next day, there is no trace of dampness. The water disappears and does not leak through to any other room in the house. Yet just as Shelley’s mounting desperation becomes panic, the sense of menace recedes and she’s back in the realm of the real: a room of timber and plaster, solid and knowable, with the taste of salty tears on her tongue.

If the room is simply a part of Shelley’s mind into which she retreats for some kind of succour or solitude, how do we explain her purchase of the chaise lounge, and its delivery to the house? Likewise, if we were to read Kieran as a double for Conrad, how might we explain his encounter with Janie, David’s daughter, in Shelley’s absence? What of the dishevelled neighbours, Alicia and Rob? They are both artists and their marriage is riven by discord and abuse, she painting and he sculpting distended, towering metal figures. They too seem chimerical in their detachment, their house a dilapidated mirror of Shelley and David’s, with walls and floors still possessing the out-dated decor which David has long since stripped back to the ‘bones’ and renovated.

It is difficult to judge the valence of any sight or sensation here, any observation of resemblance or of action. At times it seems as if we the reader were, like Shelley, simply imagining that there is anything beyond the natural in this narrative; then, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes suddenly, the timbre will shift, and small space of the hidden room will become ominous, something unknown and impossible. Shelley’s state of mind remains ambiguous to us even as we are contained entirely within the frame of her perception – which it is not clear we can trust. She is, after all, still mired in grief, behaving in a way that worries both David and Tess, who encourage her to direct her energies to something outside of herself, outside of the house. But, can a first person narrator be anything but unreliable? We as readers can depend only on Shelley’s understanding of her own mental state, and how she fits into the spaces and the relationships that surround her.

It might be possible to read Shelley’s hours spent in the hidden room, her excursions to the antique shop, her affair with Kieran, even her stilted conversations with Alicia, through the lens of mental illness; yet Tranter is careful not to render things so simply. While medication is mentioned, its presence in the novel is unobtrusive, and the atmosphere of disorientation, which characterises so much of the narrative is not easily attributable to a state of depression on Shelley’s part. A sense of something less straightforward, less easily explainable, persists.

Read as a figure for Shelley’s psyche, the denial and distortion of her grief over Conrad’s death, the room is simultaneously inviting and confining, both a retreat and a potential prison. She can withdraw into the room from the life of the house, indulge herself and her senses; yet she might also become trapped there, for if the room will on occasion deny her admittance, might it not also prevent her from leaving? Given the charged relationship between the architectural and the psychological in gothic fiction, we might think here of literary antecedents: Poe’s Madeleine Usher, entombed alive within the walls of her and Roderick’s dilapidated mansion; or the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, driven mad by confinement until she believes herself to have become part of the hideous pattern which surrounds her. The uncertain status of Shelley’s sanity, particularly when read through the lens of Tranter’s interest in James, brings to mind The Turn of the Screw, so many readings of which pivot upon the question: was its protagonist experiencing ghostly visitations or instead undergoing a psychotic breakdown?  While Tranter employs several gothic tropes in Hold – the secret room standing in for a fractured psyche; the doubling and mirroring of characters; the realist domestic space distorted by repressed grief and desire – their function is deliberately ambiguous. If this is a ghost story, then the ghost remains unseen. The novel is notable for the subtlety with which it conjures elements of the gothic yet stops short of the explicitly supernatural, treading a shifting, permeable line between the real and the impossible.

However we approach it, Hold is a novel about grief: the different forms it can take and the idiosyncratic ways in which we deal with it. Close to three years after her boyfriend’s death, there is much that Shelley has chosen not to confront. If she believes that David rescued her from the disordered state in which her obsessive painting took place, he did so only by removing her physically from the site of her seclusion. Her paintings of the sea were disposed of and together she and David moved into a supremely ordered, modern space all but devoid of character, until that is, the discovery of the hidden room. Perhaps the most intuitive reading of the novel, then, is one in which this room, with its unspoilt charm, comes to embody all that was left unresolved by Shelley’s abandonment of painting and her re-entry into the world. Grief demands space, refusing to be dismissed, disregarded, or put aside. There is little space for it in Shelley’s relationship with David, just as there is little space for her tastes in their white-walled modern terrace, whose strict minimalism can do nothing to defer the encroachment of internal disorder. The hidden room is in some sense the physical repository of her grief; the space where Conrad might continue to exist, whether imaginatively or corporeally, and where, for a time, the core of her emotional and indeed her sensual life takes place.

At the centre of the narrative, driving Shelley’s restlessness and underpinning the novel’s emotional logic, is Tranter’s insightful and nuanced depiction of grief, its peculiar feel and weight, and the way in which it shapes and reshapes itself over time.

It would always happen. It would always be him, for the time it took to see him and want to follow him, and be trapped in that place and unable to go to him, or for the moment until he turned into someone else, the time it took to remember that he was gone.

Hold is, after all, in some very real sense about Conrad, who is more real to Shelley than anyone else in her life and yet who is dead almost as soon as the novel begins.

Tranter’s writing is strongest when she is conjuring a sense of place and space, whether the distinctive colours and shapes of that Sydney beach; the sharp, chill grey of a New York winter in The Legacy; or the lurid neon phantasmagoria of Las Vegas in A Common Loss. Moments in time are held fast in her gaze, their details lent vividness and density by the careful choice of a word or phrase. The rhythms of Shelley’s mostly solitary days in Hold are interwoven with recurring motifs which surface and resurface throughout: the physically distant but ever-present ocean; the strange quality of the smooth, transparent rocks which Rob gives to her; the metal arm which leans over the fence into Shelley and David’s backyard from one of his ever-proliferating statues, encroaching, as if to touch her – or to seize her.

Tranter has written about grief before; her debut novel The Legacy is shaped by the disappearance of a central character, around whose absence its remaining protagonists circle. A Common Loss is about a fatal accident that leaves four college friends in mourning, albeit a process of mourning which is marred by increasingly disturbing revelations of the dead man’s duplicitous nature. Hold might seem, superficially, to be a simpler novel than its two predecessors; it has fewer moving parts, is shorter, with a much smaller frame of focus. Nonetheless, it is less substantial in length only, and feels somehow more mature, more assured, and more finely wrought than either The Legacy or A Common Loss: every sentence worked through; every word chosen carefully.