Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn reviews Why We Are Here by Briohny Doyle
by Briohny Doyle
Reviewed by ZOWIE DOUGLAS-KINGHORN
Clairaudience, says the Macquarie dictionary, is the alleged power of hearing voices of ‘spirits’, or sounds inaudible to normal ears. The protagonist of Why We Are Here is not a psychic, but she is an aspiring dog-whisperer, and her landscape is punctuated with muted strains of grief as she mourns the loss of her father and partner during the pandemic. In the absence of others, she ‘hears’ the voices of her loved ones. Her partner is deified in biblical pronouns, with ‘He’ and ‘His’ capitalised. ‘I never met Him then, but I love, love, love that child,’ she writes of her partner’s young self. Her father, also, has a distinct voice and character that weaves into BB’s narration. With her dog, a subtle inversion takes place. The name BB derives from the Spanish ‘Bebe’, which also means ‘baby’. BB’s voice is acerbic and tender, wryly observant, unmistakeably human. Baby the dog’s voice comes in staccato spurts of commands, evocative of the dialogue from The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay. The exception to this is a surprisingly affecting monologue by Baby at the conclusion of Why We Are Here. ‘I know that I was not always like this,’ the dog telegraphs.
The chorus of voices tell us that there’s no going back from what has changed, and we soon realise there is to be no clean break or end point to crisis, individual or collective. ‘We have all lost a lot and we are going to lose so much more,’ BB reflects. As the world goes into lockdown, the rituals that would accompany the process of mourning are attenuated, while the private business of grieving is prolonged and intensified by solitude. According to the Australian Funeral Directors Association, the pandemic has driven a dramatic shift in the way we mourn, with funeral directors reporting higher rates of cremation over burial and fewer public gatherings. At the same time, between 2021 and 2022, around 44 per cent of all funerals in Australia were live-streamed. The pandemic has changed everything from the way we work to the way we grieve. And yet despite its ongoing impact, the rate of infection no longer makes the news. It’s over, we’re told; we’re supposed to move on.
In her essay on aftermath for The Griffith Review, Doyle writes: ‘A voice-over might declare the time of after in which there is mourning but also simple happiness.’ At first, this seems to be what the move to Balboa Bay with Baby might represent for BB. A literal voice-over arrives from a loudspeaker at a nearby prison, reciting quotes from Simone Weil and Rainer Maria Rilke. Meanwhile, BB communes with dogs, consumes edibles, theorises with friends, has sexcapades with strangers, and sequesters herself in the faded glamour of the apartment. But it’s a short-term lease. BB is at sea in the midst of a pandemic and the bereavement of a parent and partner, and the block is primed for demolition, possibly subdivision into a grid of apartments.
Why We Are Here rails against uniformity, whether it be arbitrarily-drawn lockdown boundaries, golf courses, or the ‘grid of squares that used to be a university’ that is BB’s place of work. She cuts through the persistent ennui with wry humour. ‘The computer keeps the score,’ she writes, while noting her laptop has not been shut down for almost a year. Feedback with students, questions from her literary agent, news items including drug busts beside ‘a picture of titties’, the minutiae and ridiculousness of daily life brings a sense of levity to the novel’s ever-pressing conundrum: how to keep on going when the world has stopped. ‘I felt as though someone had put me in storage,’ BB reflects. Meanwhile, she explores bureaucracy’s attempts to contain bereavement, brushing up against the coldness of procedure. A friend’s call centre job results in a ‘canned’ direction for someone to call Lifeline, preceding an uncomfortable scene where a police officer takes BB’s statement about her partner. She examines the stilted formulas of catch-all crisis handling with humour: ‘In crisis? reads the sign at the really very good suicide spot by the ocean.’
Crisis is at the heart of Why We Are Here, where life as normal is no longer a possibility. Doyle’s wider body of work is concerned with turning points, from climate change to the changing rituals of adulthood, reading between the lines interrogating the unsaid in these collective experiences. In this novel, she looks at the impulse to cordon off intersecting emergencies. ‘Aftermath is a golf course laid over the site of a crisis,’ says the final passage, a scene which repeats the novel’s beginning, where BB is accosted for walking by the edge of the golf course. ‘The next few times, I defend myself with facts scavenged from the internet: the golf course is state land designated for public use. It’s stolen land on which we’re all trespassing.’ Here, the fictional inlet south of Silver City is evocative of Botany Bay, where the landing of Captain Cook and subsequently Governor Phillip was cataclysmic for the land’s owners. ‘The invasion had begun and the lives of the people from the Kamegal and Gwegal clans were never the same as violence and smallpox took its toll,’ writes scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson in the chapter ‘Bodies That Matter on the Beach’ in her book The White Possessive. ‘Despite the apparent promise of open access and use, public spaces are predicated upon the assumption of objectivity and rationality, which values but no longer explicitly marks or names whiteness or maleness.’
Such possessive logics are repeatedly challenged in Why We Are Here, which is concerned not only with the imploding spheres of public and private life, but also public and private land. In Doyle’s Meanjin essay ‘Money Shot: Golf and Public Land’, she writes: ‘A golf course reveals itself partially as a liminal space between the urban and the natural, the public and the private’, noting that almost half of Sydney’s 81 golf courses are on Crown land. An 18-hole course requires hundreds of millions of litres of water each year, and yet some privately owned golf clubs are a ‘green lung’, operating as nature reserves at the same time as playgrounds for the wealthy.
This tricky plurality persists in Why We Are Here, which navigates the shifting territory of the climate, biodiversity and health emergencies through a deeply funny, frank and multifaceted lens. At the heart of the novel is a dogged sense of commitment to hold on to what has been lost without the illusion of stasis. In an interview for The Garrett, Doyle says: ‘I had the voices of my father and my partner in my head all the time and I didn’t want to exorcise them. I wanted to keep them with me.’ These voices echo through Why We Are Here, creating a lyrical record of time.
ZOWIE DOUGLAS-KINGHORN lives in Tasmania. Her work has appeared recently in Overland, Island, Meanjin, The Age and others, and her essays and short stories have been awarded the Scribe Nonfiction Prize and the Ultimo Prize for Young Writers. She is the previous editor of Voiceworks.