It’s easy to see why Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light (Text Publishing, A$32.99) was chosen as the 2022 Miles Franklin Award winner.

The novel is a creative exploration of how childhood neglect and abuse can have profound ramifications in a person’s later, adult life. It also captures the quiet heroism of an everyday protagonist who survives, in her own distinctive way, a series of subsequent traumatic events that, to avoid spoilers, I won’t give away here.

The protagonist and narrator, Maggie, grows up in foster care around various outer suburbs of Melbourne. The descriptions of her childhood and teenage experiences are, at times, harrowing. Yet she endures and achieves a personal equilibrium in early adulthood.

It’s a stability that is, however, short-lived. Her ultimate response – necessary to her long-term emotional and even physical preservation – is one of dramatic reinvention.

For a young writer, still in her early thirties, Down is impressive in her ability to capture the commonplace attitudes, institutions, interactions and vocabulary of 1970s, ’80s and ’90s working-class Australia.

As someone who lived through these decades, I can confirm her depiction of our culture during this period is remarkably authentic. My only reservation is that the milieu Down describes is overwhelmingly Anglo-Australian, neglecting to reflect the diversity already evident here by the end of the twentieth century.

This is, however, a minor criticism. Bodies of Light is an absorbing read – a compelling portrayal of one woman’s experiences through the better part of a lifetime. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting.

By Peter-John Lewis


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