annotation by Nancy Conyers
Disquiet, like Kate Jennings’ Snake, is a short novella that illustrates that what the author leaves out is as important as what she chooses to leave in. Disquiet is only 121 pages and Leigh has chosen to tell her story through spare, yet vivid, details which allude to a plot and to a back story. It forces the reader to pay as close attention to what is off the page as to what is on the page, and to do more work than in reading a conventional, longer novel where the writer does the work for the reader by filling in the plot.
Disquiet is the story of an Australian woman, Olivia, referred to as ‘the woman,’ and her two children, ‘boy’ and ‘girl,’ who flee Olivia’s abusive husband for her childhood home, a chateau somewhere in France. When they arrive at the rambling chateau (which, itself, becomes a kind of character in Leigh’s book), Olivia’s mother is waiting for Olivia’s brother Marcus, and his wife Sophie, who are coming home from the hospital after Sophie has given birth to a stillborn baby(referred to as ‘the bundle.’)
In a few paragraphs, Leigh slips in small, razor sharp details that tell the larger story the reader is meant to figure out. Olivia, speaking to Marcus about her marriage, “declared, simply, ‘I am murdered’” to describe her years of abuse (20). Marcus, talking about Sophie trying to have a child, lets slip, in the middle of the conversation, “There was…another woman. There is…another woman,” then goes right on speaking about the fertility treatments Sophie is going through (20). Sophie will not give up the bundle and Leigh shows us Sophie’s mental state with this spare detail: “Sophie dipping her little finger into the soup and bringing it to the bundle, trying to feed it.” (23)
There is so much that is unspoken in Disquiet, but we, as readers, feel intensity from the way Leigh has chosen to portray her characters. We feel their profound despair and unhappiness and the traumatic, horrid events of their lives in a disturbing, disquieting way. This is a book that gnaws at us. The gorgeousness of Leigh’s prose, coupled with the controlled sparseness of her details, stay with you long after you put the book down.
Leigh took nine years to write Disquiet after her first book, The Hunter, was published. She began this book when she won a mentorship with Toni Morrison in 2002 from the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. When asked why she took so long to write the book, Leigh often paraphrases the poet Elizabeth Bishop who said that scientists and artist are alike in that they are prepared to waste effort. Leigh told me at the Shanghai Literary Festival that, to her, wasted effort is an exploration and that when she sets out to write something, it is an exploration and she can’t be guaranteed of a result.
Disquiet is the perfect example of why we should explore as writers and allow ourselves the beauty of wasted effort that leads to discovery.