Marshmallow by Victoria Hannan review – a tender evocation of the trauma of losing a child | Australian books

Following the unexpected death of her son, the English poet Denise Riley found herself dislodged from time. The sheer violence of the event had suspended her, like a fly in amber, in a persisting state of a-temporality. Wanting to give a voice to this arresting condition, she kept a diary – later published as Time Lived, Without Its Flow (2012) – in which she attempts to map this disorienting, grief-wreaked phenomenon. In one aside, she writes, “I work to earth my heart.”

This effort of earthing (of a return, if at all possible, from trauma) comes to mind when reading Victoria Hannan. The author’s popular debut, Kokomo – winner of the 2019 Victorian premier’s literary award for an unpublished manuscript – is a nuanced, tenderly comic tale about relationships, love and the strictures of loss. Marshmallow, Hannan’s second novel, is a return to familiar terrain, interrogating the variegated nature of grief and what the path to recovery – or at least a coexistence with pain – may look like.

At Marshmallow’s centre, like a black hole around which it orbits, is the accidental death at a birthday party of a two-year-old named Toby. Set in Melbourne a year after the tragedy, the story is told from the alternating perspectives of five close friends in their thirties: couple Claire and Al, schoolteacher Ev, and the child’s bereaved parents, Annie and Nathan. Over 24 hours, we accompany them as they contend with the past and their altered selves. No one is culpable for the death, but each is shackled to it and seeks escape – such as by drinking, seeking a job in a different city, or disappearing into endless games of Solitaire.

The realm of grief is bizarre, Hannan shows. Mired in “all the what-ifs” after Toby’s death, his parents have succumbed to a state less of mourning than of disassociation. Nathan can’t concentrate on anything, trapped as if behind “those plexiglass screens they have in prisons”. And, Annie, after watching a neighbour’s children play in a messy yard, tears apart their pristine garden one night in a frenzy, explaining: “I thought that maybe if our garden looked more like theirs, then maybe he wouldn’t have died.” This Didionesque magical thinking permeates the book – a mix of delicate tenderness and probing observation – with each character hallucinating meaning where none exists.

Without leaning on trauma as a plot contrivance, Hannan skilfully evokes this obscure phantasmagoria, that otherworldly plane of inconsolable loss. The author has spoken about the death of her mother prior to writing Marshmallow, and we sense its presence in her pursuit of grief’s gradations and its ineffable peculiarities. For this group of friends, parts of life once unremarkable are now rendered absurd: time has become “hollowed out as if with a melon baller”; language rendered limp and useless before the immense “absence of things”. Hannan also convincingly demonstrates how trauma, in all its hues, is as much physical as psychical, with anguish residing beneath skin like a “tender, purpling” bruise.

Despite its sombre tone, Hannan’s prose is never macabre or romanticising in its observations of loss. Albeit syrupy at times, it’s extremely readable – and Marshmallow’s emotional timbre is beautifully tuned (reader, you will cry). Yet, despite the novel’s poignant resonance, the uneven substance of its characters prevents this narrative from reaching the creative heights of her debut, Kokomo. These figures are easy to enjoy, yet across their five competing perspectives – varying explorations, presumably, of the five stages of grief – there’s a sense of dilution. Kokomo’s mother-daughter protagonists were distinct; the interior lives of Marshmallow’s characters are not as finely hewn.

The novel’s myriad vantage points also harbour observations of how trauma is experienced by those of differing privilege, with Nathan in particular coming from a bourgeois upbringing. However, this peripheral commentary feels untethered at the book’s close, denuded by not having resolved anywhere particularly impactful. Some may be expecting a similar interrogation of class as Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap (comparisons of which were hyped in the Marshmallow’s lead-up), but such readers will be left wanting. Ultimately, this doesn’t detract from Hannan’s story though; its acuity preserves its accomplishment as a guttural evocation of loss.

As in Kokomo, friendship is the undercurrent to Marshmallow: relationships being the buoys to which we cling, our chosen family with whom we entangle our messy lives. The novel stirringly embodies how the tenuous bridges we build between one another can be guides out of grief’s seemingly bottomless caverns – towards the possibility of a life returned of meaning, of a heart earthed. In one telling passage, Claire reflects on a holiday with Al in Croatia where they stood before the Temple of Augustus, its supporting columns destroyed in wartime but later reconstructed. Days later, she thinks back to the temple, admiring “all the things it was possible to survive”.

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