In light of ongoing investigation into the source of Covid-19, we might have expected to hear more over the last year or so about Lucy Neave’s first novel. Published in 2013, Who We Were told the story of Annabel and her husband as they moved from Australia to the USA following the Second World War, a move that allowed Annabel to pursue her long-held ambition to work in a laboratory. The laboratory’s location in a secret facility, and Annabel’s work there – infecting monkeys with ‘a virus from hell’, sent from the Congo in somewhat murky circumstances – serve as a reminder that cooperation across geopolitical divides, covert or otherwise, may be found in the most unexpected of places.

Who We Were, narrated by Annabel, centred on the close, often compressed relationship of its two main characters and the void that separated them regardless. Here in Neave’s second novel, the author tackles the essential unknowability of our parents and who they once were. Believe in Me tells the story of Sarah as recounted by her daughter Bet. The narrator, whose name we do not learn until page 104, begins her mother’s story in 1974 and, like the narrator of Neave’s previous novel, must also grapple with impressions and events she cannot fully understand.

Parents offer fertile ground for authors, but writing about them can present a challenge, raised here in the first paragraph:

I would like to write down the portions of my mother’s story that I know, but I’m not sure exactly what happened to her in the year before I was born. At times, the anecdotes she told about her life make sense. At others, I traverse a tightrope high above the ground and have to fill the empty air beneath so that I can move from one known place and time to another.

How to fill that (tautological) empty air is a problem all writers encounter to some degree, but life has a way of teaching most of us the impossibility of ever truly knowing another human being. Here Neave takes a multivalent approach that allows her to play with questions of authenticity and point of view:

To make her as true to life as possible, I’ll use her scrapbooks, which are filled with overlapping pictures and souvenirs and notes. I can also draw on memory. I’m living in Sydney, Australia, in 2004; and I need to walk towards the future without always looking back.

Safety net in place, the narrative can begin: ‘Three days before I am conceived, Sarah packs her suitcase.’

What follows is a tale extraordinary less for its general trajectory than for its microhistory of a young woman embarking on life in the 1970s, full of detail still too often absent from our collective memory and consciousness. Eighteen-year-old Sarah lives with her mother and brother in Poughkeepsie, a town in New York State. Her devout mother has arranged for her to accompany a married pastor, Isaiah, to Idaho to help him carry out ‘God’s work’. For Sarah, the trip takes a shattering turn when Isaiah, who is ostensibly going blind, lures her into his train compartment. He later exhorts her to ‘forget everything we might wish to remember.’ Three weeks later, Sarah realises she is pregnant.

Sarah is entirely dependent on Isaiah, who tries to pass her off as his daughter. She keeps house for a group of misfits, cleans the church hall, transcribes Isaiah’s sermons, and longs to return home, only to have Isaiah tell her there is no money to do so. When Isaiah learns of the pregnancy, he asks what she is going to do about it. Her letter to her mother is returned with a plane ticket, two twenty-dollar bills, and instructions ‘to save them all from her sin’.

The sending of Sarah to Australia is as much of a surprise for the reader as it is for her. She is met in Sydney by an elderly uncle and his wife who, intending to adopt her baby, take Sarah to an institution ‘for girls like you, who’ve made a terrible mistake’. But Sarah resists, hiding in a toilet cubicle after giving birth until a sympathetic midwife, Dora, takes her home. Sarah later moves to Dora’s mother’s house in Adelaide, eventually finding a place of her own, a job, and, for the first time in her life, a precarious independence.

Sarah understandably has difficulty negotiating life on her own. She moves frequently between workplaces, men, cities, and dwellings. Her naivety, and later, pragmatism, get her into sticky situations as she bargains for her and her daughter’s survival. Even the support of Dora, a lesbian deemed ‘always unlucky in love’, is never fully certain.

The one constant in Sarah’s life is religion, her steady piety echoing that of her Old Testament namesake. Sarah’s thoughts are steeped in the language of faith; readers of Marilynne Robinson will pick the American novelist’s importance for Neave long before the acknowledgements pages. Sarah names Bethany ‘after the town were Lazarus was brought back from the dead’ and tells Dora that she will pray for her ‘for the rest of my life’. (‘Don’t’, Dora replies.) Many of us nowadays approach religion as outsiders. What is so assured here is Neave’s appreciation of religion and its pivotal role in the lives of so many women. Sarah reminds herself of the sagacity of God’s will each time her belief in herself is devastated.

This attention to religion reflects Neave’s broader skill at capturing the lag in mores and imagined possibilities that increases with distance from major cities. Fiction set in the past is difficult to get right, although you wouldn’t know it from the vast number of historical novels published each year. Diction can be elusive, and it can also be a struggle to identify exactly which ideas and items familiar to us today were not always so. As with Neave’s first novel, Believe in Me demonstrates a confident grasp of dialogue and idiom, as well as a talent for recreating a time when haircuts were a home affair and letters more common than phone calls. There are a few minor oversights, and certain elements jar slightly – Sarah navigates her flight to Australia with an unlikely equanimity, and the refusal of Beth, now Bet (as she prefers to be known) to tie herself in knots over ‘gender identity issues’ or others’ reactions to her choices seems more characteristic of the 2020s than early 2000s – but Neave’s ability to time travel is part of what makes her writing so thought-provoking.

This interest in the path between past and present is accompanied by an ongoing curiosity about the link between place and our sense of self, explored in Neave’s first novel in the narrator’s passage from Australia to the US and here, its inverse. Sarah’s memories of her childhood home in Poughkeepsie haunt her entire life, a backdrop to her frequent relocations. Believe in Me here continues a trend seen in novels such as Elise Valmorbida’s Mathilde Waltzing (1997), Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World (2015), Hannah Kent’s Devotion, and Emily Bitto’s Wild Abandon (both 2021), novels that deal with a move across the world and its fallout. Like several of these authors, Neave adds to our understanding of the particular constraints and possibilities of female emigration.

All this movement, however, fragments the narrative. The early scenes of Neave’s first novel, set in Melbourne and Lake George (near Canberra), exhibited a brio never quite recaptured in its US setting. Believe in Me navigates its geographical dislocations with more acuity, yet the reader’s investment is sometimes spurned as, with each new setting, new characters are introduced, then left behind. This is, of course, how life often plays out – episodically, with some places or encounters burning for a lifetime, others forgotten almost immediately, and others still recollected only when certain patterns lend them a latent meaning. But any one of these episodes, like any of the life-changing experiences Sarah and Bet traverse (rape, giving birth, adultery, coercive control, unease in assigned gender, to name just a few), could have been the basis of an entire novel.

There is also a broader struggle taking place between Sarah and Bet, and not only because Bet feels the story of her mother’s life ‘drowning out my own’. Bet’s entry into the narrative as an adult allows Neave to unpack the specific ways in which one life can shape another. We see how Bet has little time for the conventions that bound Sarah’s life, but exhibits both a yearning and hesitancy to put down roots of her own. We also watch Bet’s growing wariness of her mother who, she comes to realise, has fought back in the limited, even underhanded ways available to her. Despite the insights this intersection provides, Bet’s story comes to compete with Sarah’s, especially in those parts where the novel reads more like a memoir of Bet’s own life, slowing the narrative and taking it in yet another direction.

Choices around voice and perspective are also crafted to emphasise the ways in which the lives of mother and daughter intertwine, but these too can create a feeling of disjointedness. It is not always clear whether we are hearing Bet’s voice or Bet’s imagining of what Sarah is thinking, particularly in Part One. Intrusions by the narrator – ‘I would not act the way Sarah did, thirty years ago’ – and changes in point of view (on one occasion, mid-paragraph) are similarly disorienting. Bet’s admission of her inability to access Sarah’s thoughts meanwhile forms an awkward contrast to those passages where she all but assumes Sarah’s viewpoint.

Neave’s writing has become more expansive since the spare prose of Who We Were. Symbolism is rich, notably in the form of blindness and visions (with their associated biblical connotations), wedding rings, and most of all, animals (although repeated instances of animals being released, usually coinciding with significant life changes, stress the point unnecessarily). Like in her first novel, Neave makes use of her background in veterinary science as she shows Sarah and Bet caring for wounded or abandoned animals in a way they seem unable to care for each other.

Towards the book’s end, we are privy to Bet’s plan to reconstruct her mother’s story on index cards, the same method by which animals’ details are recorded in the veterinary clinics where she works. Her resolve to stick to ‘just the facts’ necessarily privileges dialogue, movement, and restrained supposition, even as that resolve is inevitably upended. Neave is again exploring here the intricacies of piecing together the life of another person, but the cumulative effect is to distance the reader from the main character.

The titles of Neave’s novels may do her work something of an injustice: Picoult-esque, faintly wistful, and untethered from locality or time, it is unsurprising that Google shows they have been used previously for romance novels. Their ambiguity, however, leaves ample room for interpretation. ‘Believe in me’ might refer to the God who prescribes Sarah’s life, but it is also a plea that could be uttered by almost any character in the book, often with disturbing overtones. We might also find within allusions that range from Sarah’s act of love in her determination to keep her child, to her fears for her daughter’s own self-belief: ‘Beth, the world doesn’t love us’, she warns. ‘You know that? It’ll want to stamp you out.’ Yet for all the ways in which Sarah and Bet’s stories document the late twentieth century’s assault on women – and the ways in which so little has changed – it ends on an optimistic note as Bet claims her place in that world nonetheless.

The book’s epigraph is from Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter (1969), a brief, heartrending novel about parent-child relationships and the tension between home and away: ‘…any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love.’ Given the many ways in which Sarah, her mother, and her daughter ultimately fail to understand each other, another line from Welty’s novella may have been equally apposite: ‘The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much’. Neave has scrutinised this dual mystery in all sorts of interesting ways, but, as with her first novel, the reader shares the narrator’s limited knowledge and associated frustrations. Perhaps, though, we might detect herein a new direction for literary fiction of the twenty-first century: modest in its acknowledgement of the unknowable, imagining as authentically as it can; a different way forward.

Published March 28, 2022
Part of Emerging Critics 2021: Essays by the 2021 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Gemma Betros, Sarah-Jane Burton, Dan Dixon, Ursula Robinson-Shaw, Isabella Trimboli. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2021 essays →
Gemma Betros Essays by Gemma Betros →