by Inga Simpson
Published by Hachette Australia
on July 29th 2014
Genres: Contemporary Women, Fiction, General, Mystery & Detective
Jen has returned to her childhood town in the subtropics of Eastern Australia. She teaches art and watched the birds and wildlife in her jungle home. As a child from the town goes missing, Jen is reminded of the loss of her father and her best friend when she was a child. Jen’s return to her nest reconnects her to this mystery of the past, and to meaning. Her relationship with her student, Henry, is both a friendship and a mentorship.
The languid pace of this book luxuriates in gorgeous description of the birds, the forest, the community, and art. Despite a pair of missing-child mysteries being central (ish), the feeling of Nest is quiet, contemplative, and engrossing: as connects with place, with land, and with life – through her art.
“Jen put a hand on the log on which she leaned. She was a timber child, grown from fallen trees and sawdust. Standing on stumps before she knew them for carcasses and gravestones. […] In Jen’s forest, only two original trees survived, bloodwoods metres thick, and towering above the other trees. Their timber wasn’t any good for building, riddled with veins of blood-like resin that oozed out when their trunks or limbs were cut or damaged. It was a shame all trees didn’t bleed: there might be a few more left standing.”
Jen’s close, attentive observation of nature and the everyday is intricate, but in a good way, like meandering through a Mandelbrot set.
“Not for the first time, she wondered if it wasn’t a mistake to try to pin the bird to the page, to confine it to paper with her meagre scratches and marks. The pleasure of living among them should be enough.
As if to emphasise the point, the family of fairy-wrens flitted and flirted their long tails at the baths, the cobalt blue and russet of the males no less astounding for the frequency with which she saw it. It made them vain, though. She preferred the plainer females with their red eye masks and more subtle touches of blue in their tail feathers. Their cheerful chatter lacked the self-consciousness of the males, the need to perform. And she knew all too well what it was to be the plainer of a pair.”
Jen also confronts her own ageing, sharing with us descriptions of her bodily experience of perimenopause.
“Her skin was dry and itchy, wanting to flake off like the bark of the spotted gums outside. Not that she was lucky enough to have a smooth new version of herself waiting underneath; she was stuck with the skin she had, stretching and wrinkling with each passing year.”
As Nest progresses, a series of ultimately minor but potentially serious incidents gives us a sense of ever-present mortality, of life on the edge. We are left contemplating the horror of child murder, and this is contextualised with the way killings are utterly ordinary amongst the birds and other animals that Jen watches – humans as another form of wildlife, perhaps, facing the same menaces.
“She had given the robins a false sense of security, thinking that they were safe in this clearing. But with the trees dropping leaves and branches flat out to survive the dry spell, the cover had thinned and butcherbirds snuck in to spy little birds from the high branches, swooping to strike.”
The pacing of the book is like a slow heartbeat, as it moves through weed-fighting, sketching, teaching, bird-watching, flood, regeneration work, family secrets, swimming… This is a beautifully-crafted book teeming with life, death, and the ephemerality and beauty of existence and peril.