Grief, healing and horses: The writing of Eliza Henry-Jones

It’s rare that a piece of writing moves me to tears, but I’ll readily admit that in the course of reading the novels of Australian author Eliza Henry-Jones, it’s been three-for-three. These books are powerful, moving, and incredibly human.

The experience began with Ache, Henry-Jones’ latest adult release. I read it travelling between Helensburgh and Town Hall Station, moving from trees to city. From the opening passages, this was clearly going to be an affecting read:

Since the fires on the mountain, her dreams have changed. They have developed a pattern, as though the fire changed the landscape of everything inside her.

The lyricism of the prose captures the most intense of emotions with the sparsest of words – an enviable feat. I veered from envy to awe at the poignancy of description in Ache, P is for Pearl and In the Quiet.

Ache, the first of Henry-Jones’ works I’d read, and her second published, is a tale of recovery – like the regeneration of a landscape after devastation by fire. It is the story of Annie, who escaped the throes of a bushfire on horseback with her daughter Pip in her arms. This iconic moment continues to haunt her as Annie and the rest of the town contend with the trauma of the destructive force that tore their lives apart.

Whether deliberate, or a projection of my own reading, Henry-Jones’ works entwine maternal figures with grief and devastation. In Ache, Annie struggles to comfort her daughter, who is deeply disturbed and suffers from recurring nightmares. Pip is a mercurial spirit, turning from discomfited and fearful to affectionate. The death of Annie’s grandmother, herself a maternal figure, also figures in this pattern of loss.

In the just-released P is for Pearl, seventeen-year-old Gwen is haunted by the loss of her mother. All the space around her gapes with this emptiness, and Gwen’s impending entry to the adult world is impeded by the unresolved trauma surrounding her mother’s death. Following a disturbing incident at the café in which she works, Gwen is catapulted back into a grief that had not been fully acknowledged, only hibernating.

It’s interesting to note that I generally struggle to read young adult novels, yet this wasn’t the case with Pearl. Perhaps because of the author’s skill with feeling, Gwen’s grief didn’t veer into angst. Henry-Jones is adept at creating meaning from the smallest components of life. These deft touches are present when Gwen describes the “tidal” nature of the town, of her difficulty removing a photograph of her mother because

“Mum existed only in small pockets, now. And it felt wrong to take her out of them.”

Gwen’s relationships grow the story, from her divisive distance from her father, her friendships, and her fledgling romance. All of these take shape under the haunting force of her mother, who Gwen begins to comprehend in a different light. Her transitional  emotional awareness corresponds with her tending to her neighbour’s horses,a healing process. In fact, I’d read much about horses being utilised in post-traumatic psychotherapy. Eliza Henry-Jones’ stripped back language is sharply effective when she describes Gwen’s interactions with these animals. They form a visual banner signifying hope and healing, despite their (at times) tragic mortality. None more so than in the author’s first published book: In the Quiet.

The narrator of In the Quiet recalls her first encounter with a horse in all its sensory force. Another character later muses that horses stand for “power, grace and beauty. For strength and freedom.” Perhaps this is why they figure as such memorable motifs in these novels. Companions to humans throughout history, these animals continue to enthrall and mesmerise us, even as we try to tame them. For me they remain enigmatic, beautiful creatures of liquid muscle, animals so powerful they could kill their rider by throwing their backs, and yet they are our partners.

In the Quiet was a devastating debut. The narrator, Cate, watches over her family, but she will never hold them again. She is dead, but isn’t able to recall how this occurred. Rather than a taut mystery about the ‘how’, this book is a study of the ‘after’, the unravelling of those left behind, as well as the one who left them.

All three novels feature a sense of waiting, poised from one state to the next. For Ache’s stoic Annie, returning to her old town from the city is a redemptive act, she is on the cusp of discovery. Her kinship with animals, and their healing, heals her and her family in turn. Gwen in Pearl assesses her future. She has one foot tentatively hovering over adulthood, but her past restricts her forward movement. In In the Quiet, Cate – watching over her husband and three children – is omniscient but not neutral. Her witnessing is fraught with her own grief. As she watches her sister buy a dress for her daughter, Cate does her best “not to notice the great hole that opens up in me as people step into the absence I’ve left behind.”

I’m waiting with bated breath to see what Eliza does next, painfully aware that I’ll probably cry again on the train.

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