Lotte is an astronomer who spends her nights peering into deep space rather than looking too closely at herself. When she returns to her hometown after years in South America, reeling from a devastating diagnosis, she finds that much has changed. Lotte’s father has remarried, and she feels like an outsider in the house she grew up in. She’s estranged from her former best friend, Eve, who is busy with her own life, and unsure of how to recover the closeness they once shared.
Melanie Joosten won the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist Award in 2011 for her first novel Berlin Syndrome which has recently been made into a film. Her second novel, Gravity Well is the story of two women wrapped around a tragedy that has impacted on both of their lives.
Lotte, an astronomer is planning to come home from Chile after five years working at a mountaintop observatory. She has been searching the skies for exoplanets, Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars but, for reasons that only later become clear, is now coming home to Australia. Nine months later, Eve is running away from her life. Hastily equipped with a tent and basic supplies she pitches up at a quiet caravan park on the southern coast of Victoria where she immerses herself in her grief. Something tragic has happened to Eve, but the details of that tragedy unfold only slowly as Eve herself comes to terms with her life.
Spinning backwards from these events is the long and rich history between Lotte and Eve. Lotte, the daughter of a woman who instilled in her a love of the stars but died from a cancer that she herself may have inherited. And Eve, her flatmate at university dealing with her own personal issues including, later, with a relationship with an older man and post-natal depression. Joosten describes their rich lives, with the dark clouds of that on-coming tragedy driving the narrative forward.
Lotte and her mother’s love of the stars and of astronomy finds its way into much of the imagery of the book with passages verging on the poetic. This about the images from the Hubble Telescope:
“The result of the Hubble’s persistent staring – the Deep Field – was spectacular. A spill of lollies across a black tablecloth, a slice of fairy bread; the pattern printed on a child’s pyjamas; a field of windflowers in full bloom. It was indescribable. Thousands of galaxies gambolled across the image, whirling dervishes of colour and heat.”
While the metaphors are sometimes obvious they never feel forced, adding instead a richness particularly to Lotte’s chapters.
“She remembers her mother once describing the complications of a family like the solar system: each person a planet, keeping their moons spinning close and influencing the paths of their companions.”
But there is always that tragedy coming, peppered with a few additional narrative surprises. Given Eve’s very obvious pain and plenty of foreshadowing of the tragedy there is an inevitability to events, a narrative gravity well of its own. A very short second person prologue comes back to bite as events unfold. But this does not prevent the Joosten’s description of those events and their aftermath being incredibly affecting.
This is a beautifully written, truthfully observed and engaging novel about families, friendship, love and loss. In Gravity Well, Joosten has delivered a novel that is both personal and powerful. As a second novel, this continues to confirm the Best Young Novelist title and marks Joosten out as another Australian author to watch.