Review: Amanda Niehauson Emily Maguire

Science (in) Fiction

I was already thinking of ‘stuff’ when I read Emily Maguire’s Love Objects – a novel centred around Nic, a 45-year old hoarder; her uni-age niece, Lena; and her nephew, Will. We recently moved the contents of our garage into storage to prepare for renovations, and found ourselves stacking boxes of things we don’t intend to keep into a large, rented locker. There just wasn’t enough time to go through them. Toys from my childhood, my husband’s, our daughter’s; unused greeting cards; received greeting cards; packing envelopes of all sizes; roach-nibbled books; tubs of pens and markers and pencils; drawings of who knows what; clothes and towels and DVDs and documents from when my in-laws died.

Love Objects begins with two great falls. Nic literally tumbles from a dressing table in her over-full home as she attempts to make use of a hook that is ‘tired of being alone and unused’. This precipitates her outing as a hoarder by Lena and a difficult extraction by paramedics. Lena’s fall is figurative – she is betrayed by a lover in a very public and humiliating way – but both women find themselves dealing with the devastating social and emotional consequences of exposure. The novel uses the lives and losses of Nic, Lena, and Will to examine what happens when power (actual or perceived) is rescinded. Each of the three loses agency in a critical aspect of their life, privacy or parenthood, and as they struggle to regain control, they alternately cause and alleviate pain in each other. Love Objects offers a very real and beautifully-rendered portrayal of complex family dynamics.

Maguire wrote her novel while in residency at Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre, a medical research institute focused on ‘the interconnectedness of our environment, food, and health’ as related to chronic disease. Each year since 2016, the Judy Harris Writer in Residence program has offered a creative writer immersive access to the research centre, including office space; the potential for conversation or collaboration with the Centre’s research, clinical, and academic staff; and $100,000. For those interested in medical science, it’s about as good as it gets.

In that context, this was going to be a review of Love Objects and a musing on ‘stuff’, and in a way, it still is. Except the stuff in question is not the clutter in my garage, or my parents’ impending downsizing, or the addictive overwhelm of Facebook Marketplace – but information. How do writers like Maguire integrate scientific details and ideas into their books so that the reader’s experience is smooth and unimpeded? And why is it important that they do?

Most of us accumulate things we don’t or no longer need, and rely on moving or renovating, visits from parents, or shows like Tidying Up with Marie Kondo to help us keep our lives (and stuff) in check. But compulsive hoarding is more than the failure to get rid of the things we accumulate; according to the American Psychological Association, it’s classified by (1) ‘difficulty letting go of material possessions’, (2) ‘excessive or compulsive acquisition of new items’, and/or (3) ‘disorganisation and the inability to prevent clutter’. Importantly, as researcher Randy Frost writes, hoarding causes ‘substantial distress or impairment in the ability to use living areas in the home for their intended purposes’.

Hoarding often expresses in childhood and grows stronger over time, but can also arise in response to stress or trauma. In Love Objects, Nic’s hoarding began when her sister moved to Queensland, taking Nic’s then-young niece and nephew with her. Nic had been an almost-mother to Lena and Will, but had no power or say in her sister’s decision to go. Losing Lena crushed Nic:

No such thing as custody rights to your sister’s kid. No matter how destroyed you are by her absence.

After her family moves north, Nic progressively fills her house with objects that seem to crowd – companionably, to Nic – into the spaces they left behind. In a moment of empathy as she is cleaning, adult Lena identifies the spare room as:

the room in which Nic kept her most meaningful junk. Some of it not even junk, to be fair. Boxes of cards and letters. Photos, in envelopes and loose, in albums and frames. Clothes not all shoved in bags, but some folded carefully and placed in boxes alongside other mementoes. One box held a folded dress which Lena immediately recognised as the outfit Nic wore to Dad’s funeral.

For a long time, hoarding was diagnostically linked with the obsession-compulsion spectrum, but several key differences brought about its differentiation from these disorders in 2013. One of these differences, Frost writes, is that ‘hoarding is frequently associated with positive emotions (during acquisition and reviewing of hoarded objects) and grief at attempts to discard objects.’ For people who hoard, objects represent a connection with the past and with other people’s lives. Nic relates many of her objects to her memories of their owners, the time or place of their collection, or her feelings about things; for others, she imagines stories of their unknown owners’ lives. When Lena begins clearing a pile of lost-pet flyers from Nic’s kitchen table, her aunt begs her not to:

‘What if I see one of the pets? I won’t know who to call!’ she says. ‘Lena, they’re out there. Lost. Alone. Probably hungry. How will I know who to call if I find them?’

Nic weaves stories between objects, placing items she’s collected from different places at different times together because she imagines their owners would have appreciated what she’s done. These are things, like her family, that belong together.

Nic constructs much of her self – her past, her hopes, her fears, her senses of connection and belonging, a web of human community – from the objects around her. So when she is discharged from hospital and discovers that Lena and Will have discarded many of her hoarded items, in fact a legal condition for her return home, she is devastated. As psychologists Gilbert Garza and Brittany Landrum write in a 2015 paper, this kind of loss represents ‘a threat to the perseveration of memories’ and ‘sense of self and worth’ akin to ‘bodily invasion or assault’.

‘Do you understand what’s happened here?’ Nic tells her nephew. ‘…Rape! It feels like I’ve been raped. The violation of it, Will! She’s just stripped away everything, violated me. There’s nothing left.’

In writing this essay, I learned about the psychology of hoarding via a few research papers, but Maguire was much more thorough in her collaboration with the Charles Perkins Centre. According to interviews she’s given since publication, she used the opportunity to connect with diverse research scientists working in areas she knew were relevant, but also those she’d meet spontaneously, which often prompted unexpected new ideas or directions; people with personal or lived experiences around hoarding; and frontline hospital workers. Saying that, Love Objects is not a book to list off the facts and figures of hoarding disorder, as I have done, but instead offers insight into hoarding from multiple perspectives: that of the person who hoards; diverse family members who vary in empathy and understanding around the disorder; medical personnel; and social workers.

Maguire’s research is carefully, deeply integrated into the storylines of Nic, Lena, and Will, so that the reader’s understanding of hoarding behaviour is experiential rather than prescriptive. We do not come in with HazMat suits on, but with raw skin and best intentions. Maguire adds further complexity by connecting the causes and consequences of Nic’s hoarding to the lived experiences of her niece and nephew. Will loses his step-children, which reflects Nic’s loss of her niece and nephew, the sense of powerlessness that triggered her hoarding behaviour; Lena is violated, which reflects Nic’s powerlessness as she watches her things discarded, and the disgust impressed upon both women for their behaviours.

Because Maguire’s research is woven into the characters, their stories, and the world they inhabit, readers of Love Objects are not likely to learn the medical science of hoarding. They will not come away with a list of diagnostic criteria or a treatment plan; they will not learn that 2.5 per cent of people in developed countries have some degree of hoarding disorder. But should that kind of knowledge be the point?

What is fiction, and what can it do that a research paper cannot? I think Andrew Craig addresses this question stunningly well in his essay ‘On Closure and the Novel’. Fiction, he writes, can ‘institute a state of emotional uncertainty, an engagement with that uncertainty, and resolution of that uncertainty.’ Craig was, as a writer and a man with terminal cancer, interested in the ways that novels set lives into the slippery scale of all-time, securing the before and the after people rarely feel in living. Writers impose conclusions upon their characters, and in doing so, show readers what a ‘complete’ life might look like. As Craig says in the piece: ‘So I seek to outrun death, but I also seek a sense of completeness if it comes.’

In seeking that sense of completeness, we learn continuously what it means to be human – namely, ‘better’ forms of ourselves. And one of the means by which we can do so is by reading fiction. Fiction acts as a model of the world, a simulation that enables readers to participate in events and lives they have not experienced firsthand. According to psychology-of-fiction expert Keith Oatley, when readers read, they simulate narratives in their minds, which improves their ability to take on others’ perspectives alongside their own (i.e. mentalise) and more deeply understand others’ feelings (i.e. empathise). Fictional and non-fictional storytelling probably evolved among our early human ancestors as a means to convey experiential information to those who were not there – e.g. this is how I hunted this animal successfully, this is where I found water. This communication improved cooperation among group members and thus group outcomes, including survival. Now, tens of thousands of years later, our human brains crave stories that show us ways of living like and unlike our own, that enable us to learn, feel, and grow.

So, returning to the book at hand, did Maguire set out to communicate science through her novel? In a way, it doesn’t matter. In Love Objects, Maguire has drawn from medical science, but distilled it through creativity and curiosity; used her knowledge and artistic sensibilities to choose characters, plot-lines, and settings that give readers a realistic, contextualised model of a complex, much-stigmatised behaviour. Fiction like this offers a different kind of knowledge – it holds information in multidimensional space; builds social, emotional, environmental, and historical networks around it; creates context and, in doing so, the potential for understanding.

Western narrative conventions suggest that the best and most satisfying stories are those in which the hero is called to action and struggles to achieve their aim, but in the end succeeds. Conflict is resolved. However, the world does not always work this way. In 2019, around 50 per cent of Australians were living with a chronic physical or mental health condition. What is ‘success’, then, when the illness does not go away? When there is no treatment, no cure? The world Nic, Lena, and Will inhabit is not one in which the pain can be fixed, bar Will’s very physical toothache. These are characters who, like we all do, continue to struggle with pain. The narrative arc of this book is not about slaying dragons, but about understanding who we are in the context of who we love and how they love us; how, with these people, we can adapt, survive, live better.

Fiction builds understanding by connecting disparate concepts in the living of ‘real’ human lives. Maguire, for example, reminds us that aspects of hoarding disorder are connected to fundamental human concerns such as the pain of betrayal, the desire for autonomy, and our need to feel deep connection with others. Love Objects connects a medical ‘disorder’ many of us would have seen in spectacular fashion on television (on Hoarders or Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, for example) with the nuanced emotions we all experience in our everyday human lives. Where these shows distance us from the people they focus on – i.e. ‘I’m bad but not that bad’ – great fiction brings us fully into the bodies and lives of others, which enables us to integrate new information and perspectives into the web of our own understanding.

Around 30,000 different scientific journals publish the ‘facts’ on a regular basis, but typically leave people to interpret the quality or real-world implications of this information on their own, or based on short, poorly-contextualised media bytes. Scientists can and should take some steps in setting context for their research questions, processes, and findings, but well-researched arts practices can lead in this space. Of course, fiction does not need to communicate science or history or politics to be valuable, but it typically does by default, because these are the frames through which we live and grow as individuals, communities, and as a species. By bringing attention to and connecting these ‘disparate’ aspects of our world, creative writers – including writers of fiction, memoir, biography, creative nonfiction, and poetry – can incite curiosity, change viewpoints, and enhance understanding.

This is why programs like the Charles Perkins Centre Writer in Residence program are so exciting – they bring the sciences and humanities onto common ground, but do not prescribe outcomes, only wait to see what emerges. In the case of Maguire’s Love Objects, and Charlotte Wood’s recent The Weekend, also written via a Charles Perkins Centre residency, we find books that contextualise public health issues within societal norms, but also that contextualise human lives within the physical, psychological, and existential pain we all face. These books show us what it is to suffer, to love, to hope, to fail – and, in reading them, we have the opportunity to connect more deeply with our shared humanity.

Yet – a word of caution: simply because a thing is fiction doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be true. Fiction is often thought of as unconfined by fact, driven by emotion or action, a means of testing the boundaries of ideas – and I do not dispute this at all. But as researchers Markus Appel and Tobias Richter have shown, readers remember the incorrect facts they learn through fiction just as well as the correct ones, and integrate them into their beliefs. Even when readers know they are reading fiction, it can be hard for them to later dissociate the information they’ve acquired. Science writer Hannah Waters says it well in a 2011 Scientific American article, referring to the intentionally-fictional historical events recounted in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children:

The real reason for my discomfort was that these are exactly the kinds of facts that I would ponder over, or retell at parties without remembering the source. I can see it: ‘I can’t remember where I read it, but I definitely read it somewhere,’ I would say.

So, do fiction writers need to be accurate? Should readers be reading fiction for fact? I guess my point here is that the latter happens whether or not we intend it – and in our modern media climate, which is heavy on information and light on context, writing without consideration of the facts limits what fiction can do. ‘But fiction is a kind of truth!’ you say. ‘It doesn’t matter to the core of the narrative if I tell you a bird migrates from here to there to mate (but doesn’t really).’ And I totally agree with you that fiction takes us to the social and emotional heart of our world. But humans are pretty confused as a species right now, about who we are, how our world is changing beyond the scope and scale of our own lives, and about what is true and what is not. As writers of fiction, we must take responsibility for the facts we convey – we must choose our words wisely, knowing that what we write is meaningful to readers, may slip so easily into their world views.

As for what Love Objects has given me? Pretty soon, my husband and I will need to go through the items we’ve packed into storage. We didn’t have the space for it all before, and after our renovation we want to make everything count. We need to pare back. But there’s something about all this stuff that acts like ballast against the passage of time – reminding us that we were there, we were that person, we had parents up the coast and a toddler and plans for things that didn’t always work out. We are definitely not alone.

Works Cited

Appel, Markus, and Tobias Richter. ‘Persuasive Effects of Fictional Narratives Increase Over Time.’ Media Psychology, no. 10, Taylor & Francis, Dec. 2007, pp. 113–134.

Bowden, Tracy, and Amy Donaldson. ‘Nearly 50 per Cent of Australians Now Have a Chronic Disease – Many of Them Preventable – ABC News.’ ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), ABC News, 30 June 2019,

Craig, Andrew. ‘Closure and the Novel.’ Sydney Review of Books, Oct. 2019.

Frost, Randy O., et al. ‘Diagnosis and Assessment of Hoarding Disorder.’ Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, no. 1, Annual Reviews, Apr. 2012, pp. 219–42. Crossref, doi:10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032511-143116.

Frost, Randy O., and Rachel C. Gross. ‘The Hoarding of Possessions.’ Behaviour Research and Therapy, no. 4, Elsevier BV, May 1993, pp. 367–81.

Frost, Randy O., and Tamara L. Hartl. ‘A Cognitive-Behavioral Model of Compulsive Hoarding.’ Behaviour Research and Therapy, no. 4, Elsevier BV, Apr. 1996, pp. 341–50.

Garza, Gilbert, and Brittany Landrum. ‘Meanings of Compulsive Hoarding: An Archival Project-Ive Life-World Approach.’ Qualitative Research in Psychology, no. 2, Informa UK Limited, Jan. 2015, pp. 138–61.

Oatley, Keith. ‘On Truth and Fiction.’ Cognitive Literary Science, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 259–78.

Tolin, David F., et al. ‘Course of Compulsive Hoarding and Its Relationship to Life Events.’ Depression and Anxiety, no. 9, Wiley, Aug. 2010, pp. 829–38.

Von Hippel, William. The Social Leap. HarperCollins, 2018.

Waters, Hannah. ‘Inaccuracies in Fiction: When Is Reshaping Fact Appropriate?’ Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, Oct. 2011, Accessed 17 Aug. 2021.

Weir, Kirsten. ‘Treating People with Hoarding Disorder.’ American Psychological Association, Apr. 2020.