Jacinta Halloran explores mother-daughter and sister-sister bonds.PILGRIMAGEBy Jacinta HalloranScribe, $29.95
THE story of Demeter and Persephone is traumatic. In the days of eternal spring, Demeter is the goddess responsible for Earth’s bounty. When Hades, god of the underworld, whisks away her innocent and ravishing daughter Persephone to inhabit his underworld, Demeter is so stricken she forgets all her duties to Earth. No rain, no sun, just the bitterness of grief blankets the Earth and humankind is threatened.
Eventually, Demeter and Hades come to a treaty under which Persephone spends eight months above Earth with her mother and the other four in the underworld with Hades, whom she has grown to love. But Demeter’s love is so unbounded that in the absent months she mourns and winter descends until Persephone returns and Demeter in her happiness can again attend to Earth.
This first mother-daughter tale is one of those elemental stories that adhere to your heart, and Jacinta Halloran’s second novel holds its emotional impulse in the Demeter-Persephone myth.
Two sisters take their pious Catholic mother on a short pilgrimage to Romania because – echoes of the ancient Greeks – she believes if she visits a certain church of miracles she will be cured of her motor neurone disease.
Neither Celeste, the 49-year-old paediatrician, nor her much-younger sister, Nathalie, believes their mother will be cured, but they leave their ordinary, complicated lives and prepare to take an arduous journey to somewhere they would prefer not to be. Their journey is for both love and duty.
The tiny pilgrimage into the Carpathian Mountains is a dissection of mother-daughter, sister-sister relationships, an old subject with renewed popularity. (Deborah Forster’s latest novel, The Meaning of Grace, is exactly the same territory.) For many, writing is about making sense of the world and there is an emerging field of writers – mainly women – who find themselves halfway through life with parents needing them at one end and children or grandchildren needing them at the other. Mass longevity is a new phenomenon demanding discussion.
Neither Celeste nor Nathalie has children. Nathalie is childless by choice. She has difficulties finding a good relationship, although she still has time to find a good man.
Celeste’s childlessness has been the grief of her life but, like the sensible woman she is, she manages this grief by investing her love in the children of her friends.
The focus of Halloran’s story is Celeste as she, like Persephone eating the bitter-sweet pomegranate seeds of experience, contemplates who she might be.
Outraged by her mother’s simple Catholicism, judgmental of her sister’s frivolous habits, nervous about her own marriage and carping with her money and her emotions, Celeste is an unappealing character. And this is a central problem with this well-intentioned novel. Except for her comically unsuitable name, there is not much to like and-or care about Celeste.
Halloran tries to balance the sisters in the manner of Dorothea Brooke and her sister Celia in Middlemarch – read the opening chapters for a masterclass in making the complex appear effortless – but Celeste has none of Dorothea’s winning gravity and generous mind, and Nathalie remains a Byron Bay gadfly. Worse, the mother, a woman whose life has been dominated by Catholic priests, appears as a device to illuminate aspects of Celeste’s ungripping interior journey. These clunky inward monologues create the shapelessness of the novel.
Romania, the fascinating and poetic country that seems to be enjoying a fashion of sorts in literary circles, should have provided at least travel colour but it fails to kindle. Those interested in the poetic possibilities of Romania might read the recent Painter of Silence by an English writer, Georgina Harding.
I laboured over this earnest book yearning for just one glimpse of the poetry and flair that make an ordinary book better than it should be. It gives me no pleasure to report that I didn’t find it.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on 苏州美甲学校.