Book review: Olga Lorenzo: The Light on the Water

A little girl lost forever in the bush and her mother arrested for her disappearance is not a new story in Australia, but a soon-to-be released novel offers insight into the guilt and horror that makes this narrative so powerful.

Readers will be familiar children with being swallowed up by the wilderness and the harrowing lack of closure for those involved. Missing children and the notion of malevolent bush lands have long been themes in Australian art but also, at least the former, in real life: the most widely known story starred Lindy Chamberlain and her baby daughter Azaria.

Both because and despite this familiarity, Olga Lorenzo’s The Light on the Water is an aching, accomplished novel that manages to meditate on grief and guilt without becoming maudlin. It will be released in the last week of February.

It tells the story of Anne Baxter, who shortly after her divorce went hiking with her six-year old daughter Aida. She loses site of Aida, who is on the autism spectrum, and no trace of her is found when the novel begins.

Lorenzo sets her story two years after the disappearance as the police move to charge Baxter with Aida’s murder. Anne’s first-person narration is augmented by increasingly aggressive media coverage of Anne’s possible role in Aida’s disappearance as well as escalating antagonism from her neighbours.

One of the most interesting themes of the book is the exploration of having one’s most painful moments invaded by the press, and how this effectively forces a belligerent, country-wide chorus into a family’s grief. For example, at a dinner party, a conversation about pedophilia also causes Anne to almost yell at another member of the party.

“Anne’s mind spins. What the hell is going on here? Could Debbie possibly believe that Anne is to blame for Aida’s disappearance? Is she trying to telegraph sympathy for her as the perpetrator? Anne thinks of her own hounding, and how much worse it could get.”

While Anne has a strong voice and Lorenzo’s narrative is well paced and engrossing, the key weakness with the book is its protagonist, whose context, and therefore personality, remain frustratingly inchoate despite frequent hints of a rich backstory. A difficult mother, an obsession with having a family and an unclear divorce narrative are mentioned, but not quite satisfyingly tied together.

This is a shame. Lorenzo obviously invested a lot of effort and empathy in creating Anne, and manages to offer moving emotional insight without it becoming heavy-handed. One assumes the gaps in Anne’s character were intentional as most could be solved with a sentence or two in later chapters. A few other unresolved minor plot lines and lingering questions also slightly undercut the narrative’s power.

While Anne’s character lacks the clarity that typifies the rest of the novel, her narration is a rare combination of being efficient and evocative. Despite lags in the action and pacing, the novel is well structured. Lorenzo’s limpid prose is underscored by some wonderful writing, making the book lively and enjoyable.

The Light on the Water will be available from February 24. You can buy it here.

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