Review: Julian Novitzon Daniel Davis Wood

Irreconcilable Losses

At the Edge of the Solid World (2020) by Daniel Davis Wood is a novel about grief. This in and of itself is not remarkable, literary fiction deals with grief quite frequently, drawing us into sympathetic alignment with grieving characters and narrators, encouraging us to experience their losses as our own. The commonality of grief provides a seemingly easy point of connection. What makes us laugh, the things that spark joy, satisfaction, and contentment, are often highly individual. The things that make us weep appear more universal, they cut across backgrounds and boundaries. Tragedy provides a worthier, more serious subject. We suffer with fictional characters, and – at least according to the old, dubious Aristotelian principle – somehow improve ourselves through the vicarious experience of their suffering. We become more thoughtful, sympathetic, or empathetic. We learn something, even if it is only to know or be reminded of what it is to suffer. At the Edge of the Solid World is a novel about grief that defies these expectations. It focuses on the solipsism of grief, the limits of our capacity to truly understand the traumas of others, and the problematic and exploitative elements of our attempts to do so.

At the Edge of the Solid World begins with its unnamed narrator rushing his wife to hospital for the birth of their first child. They are both expat Australians, teachers at an elite high school in Switzerland. After a seemingly uncomplicated birth, the new parents drift off to sleep in a hospital bed and wake to find that their baby daughter has died in the night. Upon examination their daughter is revealed to have had malformations in her circulatory system that fatally weakened her blood flow. No treatment could have saved her. She was doomed from her first breath, perhaps from the moment of conception. This sudden death becomes the subject and central problem of the novel. Both the narrator and his wife are devastated, but in different and possibly irreconcilable ways. As they quickly attempt to deal with the practical and emotional consequences of their daughter’s passing, they start to drift apart. The narrator reveals early in the novel that their marriage will not survive this loss and that the odds of its survival were never strong; he notes that research demonstrates partnerships do not easily endure this kind of tragedy. It turns out that grief does not reliably unite people. Rather it seems more likely to drive them apart.

In the first half of the novel, the narrator perceives his wife as withdrawing from him, retreating into the privacy of her mourning. She slips out of sight as the narrator struggles to cope with the expectations that surround his grief, its management, and its expression. He finds that he is enraged by a minor legal issue relating to the status of their deceased daughter; her lack of a formalised birth certificate means that her death cannot be registered. It is not that he is trapped in some unreasonable quagmire; the officials that he confronts about this are generally understanding and helpful. Rather what angers him is that this bureaucratic requirement exists at all, that he must submit forms and paperwork so that his loss can be categorised. He is similarly puzzled and angered by a notice from his school, informing him that he and his wife have reached the end of their allocated bereavement leave. How can the school place an arbitrary numeric value on grief? How can it be understood as being worth so many hours, so many days? Towards the end of a long visit from his parents and in-laws, the narrator becomes incensed by their suggestion that he and his wife might start to take better care of themselves and begin the process of healing. In each of these moments, he is confronting a paradox of grief. At one level it is deeply personal, intimate, and potentially boundless. At another, it can be ascribed a particular value, appraised as being greater or lesser than other varieties. He understands why he is being encouraged to manage his grief and why it must be constrained by social, cultural, and financial limitations, and balanced against other obligations: to his employer, to his family, to his wife. At the same time, he cannot help but feel that any attempt to delimit or resolve his grief constitutes a form of betrayal, perhaps to his late daughter, or perhaps to his interior self. From almost the beginning of the novel, he begins to slip into an isolated, protective contemplation of his experience of loss.

This withdrawal is signalled stylistically by the extent to which the reader is kept at a remove from seemingly critical moments in the novel. At the Edge of the Solid World is rich with descriptive detail, but it lacks conventional scenes where dialogue and conflict unfold in real time and draw the reader into the action. Instead, these moments are summarised, related by the narrator with sober, thoughtful detachment. He is not attempting to make us feel or share his pain, but rather to tell us about it as best he can. In this regard the novel avoids the conventional pretences of fiction, it withholds immersion by telling us much and showing us little, maintaining a barrier between the reader and the protagonist, underscoring the insular nature of his grief. There is little that the narrator fails to share, examining and re-examining important events and his own responses with exacting detail, but the expected intimacy of fiction is largely missing. The reader inhabits the narrator’s thoughts and reflections but is seldom allowed access to any felt sense of direct experience.

The narrator’s meditative, analytic mode of engagement leads him, almost inevitably, to the contemplation of other forms of grief. Almost as soon as he and his wife return to their home, he becomes fixated on a news story from Australia: a horrific knife attack on children in a day care centre that leaves several dead. In time, this obsession narrows to focus on two key figures from the attack. These are its perpetrator, Imran bin Musa, a refugee from Iraq, and the parent of one of the victims, Hassan Demirović, who was in transit from Europe when the attack occurred and has become a focus of media attention as he and his wife travel home to the terrible news of their daughter’s murder.

The narrator learns about bin Musa’s hardships, which may have prompted or motivated the attack: how he had lost his wife to human traffickers when fleeing the Middle East, endured a long stay in offshore detention, and then had his daughter taken from him by social services after finally arriving in Australia. He also follows the media frenzy that begins to grow around Demirović, following his public announcement of his intention to meet bin Musa in person and to forgive him. Many are appalled and incensed by this declaration, seeing at as inappropriate and inexplicable, and disrespectful to the memory of his daughter and the other victims.

The narrator himself finds it difficult comprehend Demirović’s feelings. Demirović’s willingness to place limits on his pain, to insist that his suffering doesn’t overwhelm or supersede fundamental principles, sits uneasily alongside the narrator’s refusal to manage or let go of his grief. Even though the narrator perceives Demirović’s position as admirable, it still feels as frustratingly alien to him as bin Musa’s murderous response to his own loss and suffering. The gulf between their experiences of grief, and the directions that it takes them in, is ultimately unbridgeable. Nonetheless, the narrator’s speculations continue to spiral outwards, as he encounters other narratives of loss and mourning. These range from the horrific experiences of a British soldier (who loses his face in Afghanistan and then, years later, his son to a premature illness at home), to the enduring scars of the Holocaust, to the obliteration of a town and its inhabitants during the Bosnian crisis.

What draws the narrator to these stories is never explicitly stated, but as they weave in and out of each other it feels like he is attempting to find a frame of reference for his own grief, searching for parallels and differences. The question that the narrator repeatedly wrestles with in At the Edge of the Solid World is whether he is capable of genuinely understanding the pain of others, despite his thoughtfulness. Does his grief provide a point of connection and insight into their lives, or do his attempts at imagination and empathy simply reflect his own experience, projecting his personal pain and preoccupations into the stories that he speculates on?

This is precisely what the narrator’s wife accuses him of, when she discovers his recounting of the death of their daughter and his ruminations on the losses of others. Having read the file that he has been compiling on his laptop (essentially the novel itself up until this point), she argues that his obsession with bin Musa and Demirović has been a retreat into the solipsism of his grief rather than an attempt to develop deeper connections. Furthermore, he has failed to express any understanding for the person who should be closest to him. She does not see herself in anything that he has written. His fictionalised account of their loss has, from her point of view, failed to express the truth of their situation, despite his supposedly dispassionate reflection and objectivity. His writing only captures his deeply subjective interiority, revealing his failure to understand her pain, or that of their family members, or that of bin Musa and Demirović.

At this point she insists on returning to Australia to scatter their daughter’s ashes as a necessary step towards the resolution of her grief. The narrator appreciates and accepts what she is saying, agreeing to the plan to return, even as he already knows that he will not, in the end, go through with her wish to scatter the ashes. While he can understand her position, there is still a barrier between them. He appreciates that her pain is as real and valid as his own, but he cannot capture it vividly through his narration. It remains muted, in a peripheral orbit around his own.

Wood’s other published works also query our capacity and motivation to genuinely understand the experiences and perspectives of others. His debut, the award-winning novella Blood and Bone (2014) explores these questions in the context of historical fiction. Blood and Bone tells the story of Rowan Scrymgeour, who attempts to establish an independent farming settlement in the Australian outback in the mid-nineteenth century. Scrymgeour’s character is defined by a striking lack of empathy, towards his wife, whom he brought to Australia under false pretences, his daughter, whom he regularly degrades and abuses, and even his nominal friend, a local constable whom he threatens with violence when he attempts to interfere with Scrymgeour’s growing community. Scrymgeour is so single-minded in his pursuit of his own individual freedom that he is only capable of viewing people as instruments, either aiding or obstructing his path. In the end, it is this lack of empathy that undoes him and his plans. His brutal murder of an Aboriginal child provokes an attack that dooms him and the settlement. Scrymgeour had assumed that the murder would serve as a warning to deter incursions onto ‘his’ land. He had not anticipated that the child was loved, that his absence would cause pain, and that his relatives would seek revenge.

This story, dealing with failures of connection and the denial of shared humanity, is related through a framing narration that draws deliberate attention to the ways in which the author’s imaginative ownership of the narrative may be contested. Blood and Bone is premised on the conceit that Wood’s narrator is retelling Scrymgeour’s story as his distant descendent, having learnt how the true facts of his history contradict the memorialisation of Scrymgeour as a heroic pioneer or martyr of Australian settlement.

The narration describes the process of historical research alongside the story that it generates, and in doing so, he repeatedly reminds the reader of the distance between himself and his subjects. While his research into the period affords some capacity to recreate imaginatively the facts of their experience, Wood’s narrator acknowledges that his attempts to capture the internal thoughts, emotions, and motivations of nineteenth-century characters like Scrymgeour and his daughter are dubious, and that he is unavoidably perceiving them through the lens of contemporary values, knowledge, and language. Of course, this is true of all historical fiction to some degree, but the uncomfortably self-aware narration denies the reader the expected verisimilitude, constantly reminding us that what we are reading is an achingly incomplete reconstruction of the past.

Wood’s narrator calls particular attention to his inability to speak on or for the Aboriginal characters who appear briefly in the narrative. The limits of his knowledge and imagination as a white twenty-first-century author means that he cannot presume to depict their thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives, and he notes that this has the unfortunate consequence of leaving them essentially voiceless, confined to a shadowy presence on the margins of the story. As Wood argues in his article ‘Own the Filth: Writing into the Ethical Compromises of Fiction’ (2020) the process of writing fiction is murky and contestable. Writers inevitably choose between silencing and overlooking voices, or appropriating them to some degree, in ways that need to be deliberately acknowledged. In a blog post for Necessary Fiction, Wood states that Blood and Bone was written in resistance to the kind of Australian historical fiction that he had once admired, the works of David Malouf and Thomas Keneally, for example, which break down the barriers between readers and characters, drawing them fluidly and immersively into their depictions of the past. Wood argues for a different model of historical fiction, one that does not obscure the figure of the writer as researcher but integrates the process of historical research into the story itself, directly revealing the ways in which the writer constructs their narrative and acknowledging the gaps in understanding that their imagination cannot or should not fill.

Wood’s most recent novella Unspeakable (2021) also explores similar thematic territory, once again considering the limits of empathy and the compromised, often self-serving nature of fictional storytelling. Unspeakable is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, who has discovered that a formerly close friend has committed a violent sexual assault. The narrator becomes obsessed with the case, learning about his friend’s life in the years since they lost touch, the horrifying nature of the assault itself, and the subsequent investigation and trial. His former friend had been a literary scholar and aspirant academic, newly married with a pregnant wife, and the crime seems to be entirely out of keeping with his character and professed values.

The narrator tries to think his way into the story, first by connecting with his friend’s ex-wife, then later by imagining the position and narrative of the victim’s father. But eventually he moves from these figures to focus on the central parties – his former friend and the child who lived next door to him, the attacker and victim. This is where the narrator’s imagination, his understanding and empathy, fail him. He cannot make any claim to the victim’s trauma – he can recount the facts of her assault, but cannot attempt to depict her experience of it, or what it has been like to live with its memory. Similarly, despite all his probing at the margins of the narrative, his research and his interviews, he fails to arrive at any understanding of his friend’s true character.

Towards the end of the novella, he sees his former friend, who has served his time in prison and now works at a food stand in a mall. He follows him home and then proceeds to watch his apartment for hours, futilely wishing that it had not been him, a bystander and an entirely peripheral figure, but the victim herself, now an adult, who had seen her former attacker and tracked him down to challenge him. The narrator imagines a scene between the two of them, where the victim forces her assailant to acknowledge the horrific nature of his crime and the ongoing emotional and psychological damage it has caused. In this imagined dialogue the narrator’s former friend is made to confront the hidden, monstrous self that lurks beneath his mild appearance and take responsibility for the pain he has inflicted. The scene created by the narrator is powerfully cathartic, and for that reason he is almost immediately disgusted with himself for imagining it. He has succumbed to the self-assuredness of fiction, its tendency to manipulate events and histories to provide a sense of order, meaning and closure. The narrator leaves his former friend’s doorstep without provoking a confrontation, resigned to living with the limits of his knowledge and understanding.

Wood’s published work to date is united not just by its concern with trauma as a subject, but also by its repeated interrogation of the ways in which trauma – whether personal or that of another, contemporary or historical – can be used in fiction to construct narrative and meaning. To write about trauma often involves exploiting it in some way, imbuing it with meaning or thematic resonance, using it to explore or expose some commentary or observation about the world or the human condition. In this regard, Wood is deeply preoccupied with the ethics of fiction writing. He purposefully avoids naivety and the pretence of innocence, presenting a self-reflective awareness of the constructedness of fiction not as a form of postmodern playfulness, but as a moral necessity.

Wood has delved into the debates around literature and appropriation in ways that are illuminative of his approach. Recent controversies about the extent to which authors can explore voices, backgrounds and experiences that are not their own – such as the American Dirt case and Lionel Shriver’s attack on the very idea of cultural appropriation at the 2018 Perth Writers festival – have explicitly foregrounded the questions around empathy, imagination, and exploitation that concern Wood. Wood argues that all fiction necessarily involves appropriation and exploitation of some kind. He maintains that what is important is not the question of whether a writer has the ‘right’ to a voice or subject, but the ways in which they acknowledge the shaping influence of their own position. Furthermore, he notes that the debate around these issues tends to assume the primacy of first-person narratives, where the narrator and the focalising consciousness in the text are aligned, and the assumption or illusion of an authentic voice is most easily maintained. This tendency overlooks the possibilities and affordance of third-person narratives, which make the constructed, speculative nature of fiction more explicit in the text. In addition, he notes the ways in which first-person narration tends to render other characters, voices, and positions as secondary to that of the narrating consciousness. The distance of third-person, even a close third-person, allows more space to contest and challenge the primacy of the protagonist and the narrating consciousness itself.

It is interesting then, to observe that all of Wood’s published works to date all sit uneasily between first and third-person. In each narrative, the story is related by a first-person narrator – whose background and identity at least appears like Wood’s – but frequently moves into a kind of third-person narration: relating events that they were not present to witness and imagining the personalities and perspectives of the parties involved. This provides Wood with the opportunity to write diverse characters, histories, and perspectives, while also acknowledging the position he is writing from, framing these voices as invented rather than ‘true’ within the fiction itself. But the presence of the first-person narrator, however distant they may be at points, means that the subjects of their narration are inevitably made to serve their design in some way. No matter how imaginatively they are considered, they are never truly independent of the narrator and their stories circle back to reflect the narrator’s own feelings and preoccupations. Like Blood and Bone and Unspeakable, At the Edge of the Solid World probes the ways in which these fictional speculations can be exploitative, as the narrator absorbs the traumatic narratives of others, with the desire to determine what insight they can offer into his own pain and grief, how they can be assessed, compared and measured.

This trajectory is powerfully explored through an incident that occurred at the school where the narrator taught, and which he returns to in the days following his daughter’s death. When rebuking a group of Swiss students over their use of the term ‘slave’ as a joking insult, he attempts to convince them of the horrifying gravity of slavery in the United States by comparing it to the Holocaust. Further, he argues that the traumas of slavery could be understood as dwarfing those of the Holocaust, when its much longer history is considered. These comments are controversial with the students, many of whom had or have Holocaust victims in their family, and with the school itself, which was founded by Jewish-German refugees. As a senior teacher rebukes him ‘Ironic… that a teacher of history should deprecate the histories of a hundred students in the room without a hint of misgiving.’ In this instance the narrator, in his earlier life, is making the mistake of attempting to compare loss and suffering, to make sense of these experiences by working them into a hierarchy.

This is made clear when he meets with some of the students again to apologise and is drawn into a discussion that will re-emerge to haunt him, following the death of his daughter. One student notes that the narrator’s claim about the Holocaust is not just reductive and hurtful, but also impossible to prove. The student offers the example of his twice-great grandfather Joachim, who was a friend of Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who escaped to the United States with his Jewish wife and children, where became known as the architect of the atomic bomb. The student speculates that if he had lived, Joachim, a devoted pacifist, might have been able to convince Fermi to withhold his expertise, thus preventing, or at least delaying the weaponization of nuclear power and horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is no way to properly understand the entirety of what is lost with even one death, he seems to be trying to tell the narrator, no way to definitively prove that one kind of loss is greater or lesser than another. There are always resonances that cannot be fully measured.

This is the painful territory that Wood is dedicated to exploring – the impossibility of truly appreciating another’s loss on its own terms. Despite our best intentions, we often use the pain of others as a lens for understanding our own, and we attempt to assign it a meaning, a value, or a place in a particular hierarchy of suffering. Just as the narrator’s withdrawal from, and mischaracterisation of his wife demonstrates the limits of empathy, his attempts to connect with the narratives and experience of others reveals its exploitative and unsavoury dimensions.

When he and his wife finally return to Australia to scatter the ashes of their daughter, the narrator takes the opportunity to track down Demirović, who wearily suffers the narrator’s questions about his long lobbied-for meeting with bin Musa. During their meeting bin Musa had listened politely but silently as Demirović had talked of his daughter. However, when Demirović had asked him about the loss of his wife on his journey to Australia, bin Musa had refused to speak of her, bringing their meeting to an awkward conclusion. Much like the narrator, Demirović had been hoping to find a point of connection, suggesting that, despite the horrific crime perpetrated by bin Musa, their mutual knowledge and experience of grief might provide some common ground. Bin Musa deliberately withholds this, electing to keep his grief private, to not be understood. At one level, this seems like an act of profound scorn, when the parent of one of his victims has gone out of their way to extend forgiveness. At another, bin Musa’s behaviour can be seen as a refusal to allow his personal trauma to be used in understanding or providing closure for the trauma of another, even one that he himself has caused. Having lost his wife, his daughter, and now (very justifiably) his freedom, bin Musa elects in the end to keep the emotional knowledge of his experience to himself, to not allow it to be transformed.

That this moment, the cruel rejection of Demirović’s attempt at empathy, might feel understandable to the narrator – and the reader – speaks to the disorienting nature of the journey that has brought us to this point. The narrator’s father-in-law had previously cautioned him that he has ‘become comfortable with some strange bedfellows’ in his obsession with bin Musa and Demirović, and more broadly, in his attempts to understand his own grief and see how it is paralleled in the experience of others.

His deeply introspective explorations and reflections have revealed that attempts toward empathy and connection do not simply result in deep understanding and profound illumination, but also in the instrumental use of another’s suffering. Pain becomes understood as a causal factor, something that prompts action or develops character. Loss is transformed into something revelatory and instructional. In this work, and across much of his published fiction, Wood is wrestling not just with the question of how to understand trauma – both personal and historical – but also with one of the important assumed values of fiction-writing: that both writers and readers are able to meaningfully lay a claim to the pain of others, and that engagement with this pain can result in some greater value.

At the Edge of the Solid World is a deliberately frustrating novel, as in challenging the assumptions of fiction, it withholds many of its expected pleasures – dramatized action, satisfying narrative closure, the revelation of meaning – and in so doing tears away its common, but illusionary, assurances. We cannot live the lives of others, see things as they do, feel their pain. And this is a novel that explores the limits of language and storytelling, their insufficiency in capturing the felt experience of emotion or articulating the interiority of the self. It is highly innovative, but in an understated way, without any stylistic or structural devices that call attention to themselves. The conflicts, connections and observations that offer the prospect or expectation of a turning point or a major change tend to resolve themselves anticlimactically, fading into silence as the narrator and other characters reach the limits of their understanding and capacity to communicate. A slow, deliberate, quiet novel, it often feels claustrophobic, as we are trapped with a narrator who unable to ever escape himself, who always sees his own experience reflected at him in the tragedies, losses, and atrocities that he chooses to contemplate. At the Edge of the Solid World is, nonetheless, remarkably absorbing reading. The direct, conversational, and carefully analytic description of the narrator’s own grief and turmoil is compelling. While it demands a lot of the reader and the muted bleakness of its subject threatens to become overwhelming, it is easy to become caught up in the meticulous, demanding exactitude of the narrator as he struggles to come to grips with his grief and his inability to satisfyingly connect his experience to that of others. It is a novel that is difficult in all the best ways, one that is hard to put down and equally hard to pick back up again.

Works Cited

Daniel Davis Wood. Blood and Bone. (Brio Books, 2014).

Daniel Davis Wood. Research Notes: Blood and Bone. (Necessary Fiction, 2014)

Daniel Davis Wood. Own the Filth: Writing into the Ethical Compromises of Fiction. (Aero, 2020).