Review by Lily Kuenzler
Emma Timpany, Travelling in the Dark, Fairlight Books
Emma Timpany’s novella, ’Travelling in the Dark’, is a homecoming, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say a home-finding. The story takes place over a journey, Timpany’s narrative closing as the characters’ destination is reached. Sarah left her native New Zealand a decade before the book opens: now she finds herself returned to the place that both built and broke her. As she drives deeper into the heart of her country and memories, chapters weave between the present – where Sarah gently prizes open places forgotten, viewing them afresh through the innocent eyes of her eight year old son – and the past, where we learn of Sarah’s bruised experience of a family and love that have left her fragile.
It is clear that Timpany is a practised short story writer. The main success of this work can be found in the observations that scatter the pages like the shells on the beaches she describes so deliciously . We understand Sarah’s feelings about returning home just as clearly through the fountain which “flows into itself” at Singapore airport, or the “Rothko red-brown” of a coastal dining room, as we do from more explicit emotional accounts. The care taken over describing the landscape is luxurious for any reader who, like me, has never been lucky enough to visit New Zealand and I imagine still more delicious for those, like Timpany, who hold the country dear. We drink wine that “smells of wet foliage” and walk beaches spread with “twisted ladders of violet-red seaweed”. Perhaps most lovely of all, is where descriptions of the landscape intertwine with those of Sarah’s memory. On a walk in the woods, Sarah’s son finds a treasure: “The outside of the nest is the grey-green of her father’s old gardening jumper.” Thus her son’s fresh discovery allows us to unearth mossy details of Sarah’s life before she ran away.
‘The child’, as he is referred to throughout – until his name is revealed in the final pages – is an eye-opening explorer to accompany both Sarah and reader through the book. A mother herself, who dedicates this book to her daughters, Timpany captures so well the phenomenon that a child carries with them their own world and interiority wherever they go: Timpany’s sentiment (although I wish I could claim thought for this pricklingly true observation). Although he prefers swimming pools to any natural lake, and lego above all else, as the narrative unfolds the boy comes to clamber over rocks and play with seashells with a revelry approaching that of his familiar toys. As: “The child climbs happily from boulder to boulder, clambering inside one that has broken open and pretending to burst forth, a chick hatching from an egg,” we see the magical regenerative effect that new generations can have on a family’s past trauma. As we learn more of Sarah’s history, a narrative of abuse unfolds. And yet, some reconciliation is found as she and her son visit the brightly coloured playgrounds and dive to the very same swimming-pool floors that decorated her early years of pain. It is through her love for him, that she is able to piece together some of the fragments of her own broken childhood, just as he takes beach flotsam and “ordered [it] into some sort of pattern, as if he were trying to make sense of the random gifts of the sea,”; so Sarah finds coherence in the fragments of her life.
At the core of the narrative is an unrequited love with Patrick. Although perhaps more interesting is her relationship with Kitty; her once “new friend” who takes the heart of her best friend and lifelong love. Kitty is a fascinating character: partly defined by the skittish thinness, tan and blonde hair of so many fictional love rivals. And yet, there is a subtlety to her depiction. We meet Kitty through the flash-back eyes of young Sarah, who views her in a way that is somewhat one-dimensional and which can ostensibly be boiled down to jealousy. However, as Sarah attempts to reconcile a guilt for the fracture of her relationship with Kitty, we see hints of a woman who was – at least in part – innocent. I especially appreciated the characterisation of Kitty’s eating disorder, so rarely shown with tact and justice, with details that stick in a reader’s throat through their choking yet off-kilter accuracy. For example, Kitty only eats baked potatoes for a week, the next oranges.
Another expert depiction of disorder is an aunt’s alcoholism. Aunt Veronica orders the then twelve year old Sarah and her sister martinis. The girls barely touch their drinks, but the aunt greedily grabs their olives, assuring the waiter that it’s not the same as drinking. She orders another round of martinis, just to suck up the contents of their cocktail sticks. It is an event later in this scene whose recountance several years later is the catalyst to Sarah’s mother throwing a chair at her, and her consequential leaving the country for a decade. Although we never explicitly know the reason for her mother’s outburst, a history of sordidness and affairs is heavily implied.
The novella closes as Sarah and her son pull up at Patrick’s house. Sarah’s relationship with Patrick in some ways lacks the subtlety of her other inter-character relationships. Nonetheless, it is with goodwill and hope that we wish Sarah into a future which – perhaps with Patrick, perhaps without – seems can be finally released from an unjust past into a loving and fulfilling future.
Lily Kuenzler is the Artistic Director of theatre company ‘Dead Cat Theatre Co. A passionate short story writer herself, she was longlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction award. She has been an interviewer and reviewer for Word Factory for over two years.