Elke Power interviews Jennifer Down
Readings Monthly editor Elke Power talks with Jennifer Down about her debut novel, Our Magic Hour.
Those of us at Readings who have been fortunate enough to read Jennifer Down’s debut novel, Our Magic Hour, have struggled with fears that anything we say or write about this outstanding book will be dismissed as hyperbole. Admittedly, we are not the first to recognise Down’s talent. Down won the 2013 Overland Short Story Award in 2013, and is now a regular contributor to the publication. Her work has also been published in the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Saturday Paper and the Drum, and she is an alumna of The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, which The Readings Foundation supports.
Down worked on her novel for about five years without any real intention of submitting it for publication. Then, in 2014, she completed a residency with Maxine Beneba Clarke, who encouraged her to enter the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript that year. Beneba Clarke had won the award the year before for Foreign Soil, her short story collection. Our Magic Hour was shortlisted in 2014, and Down is certain her novel would not have been published without this recognition.
In Our Magic Hour, Down’s technical skill and flair is immediately apparent. Her rendering of a group of friends navigating the tumult of early adulthood is memorable and affecting. Yet what is most striking is Down’s insight into the spectrum of human emotional experience across multiple stages of life. While her central characters – Audrey, Katy, and Adam, who have been close friends since high school; Nick, Audrey’s partner; and their wider circle of friends – are in their twenties like the author, others in their shared and separate worlds, especially their families, are also beautifully drawn.
A number of themes are intricately woven into the novel, including grief; domestic violence; suicide; social and economic disadvantage; the vulnerability of children; and mental illness. When asked about the research and inspiration for her book, Down explains: ‘It’s in no way drawn from real events or people, but it’s very much of my world – I don’t think any of those themes are uncommon. My mum’s a social worker, my dad’s a counsellor, my sister’s a nurse; a lot of my friends are similarly employed, it’s all connected. I would have had to do far more research to write convincingly about someone who worked as a digital strategist or financial advisor.’
Ultimately, these themes hinge on some form of trauma. The novel explores societal and individual responses to trauma through the complexity of the characters’ friendships and familial relationships, and their professions – Audrey is a social worker who works with vulnerable children, Katy is a nurse, and Nick is a paramedic. Critically, the book examines the effects of trauma in the short- and long-term. Of her interest in the subject, Down says: ‘The ways we respond to trauma are so varied and complex. Everyone has different thresholds and pressure points. Writing is a way of making sense of my own. It lets you lay everything out and analyse it. There’s this beautiful Louise Bourgeois quote that I think about all the time – “My sculpture allows me to re-experience fear, to give it a physicality, so that I am able to hack away at it”. It’s like that. The trauma in Our Magic Hour is violent. There are also the cumulative effects of trauma. When you feel like the bad stuff is implacable, hit after hit – that’s exhausting. It leaves you no room to come up for air.’
Her characters may not know what to think or do with themselves following an unexpected loss early in the story, but Down certainly knows the myriad ways trauma can manifest, and how to plunge her readers into a world where grief has taken hold and the cultural frameworks for dealing with it have long since rusted. Grief, in Down’s hands, is instantly, gut-wrenchingly recognisable and yet, somehow, original:
‘Audrey was kneecapped at the coin laundry; in her fluorescent-lit cubicle at work; sitting on the rooftop at the Labour in Vain, surrounded by friends. Minutes before, she had been laughing so hard she thought she would vomit.’
Down is under no illusions about the physical aspects of grief, from the external, ‘He crumpled to the floor,’ to the internal, ‘It was too pretty a day for a belly full of dread.’ She captures common disparities between the experience and expression of grief with shocking precision:
‘And how are Mr and Mrs Shields?’ Sylvie asked. Audrey froze. They’re devastated, she wanted to say. They will come to dust. ‘Helen called last night,’ she said instead.
Yet Our Magic Hour is not crushing or overwhelming. Down’s aim is true but judicious, and refreshingly honest – there are no cheap tricks for tears here. There is, however, real joy and resilience to be found, even in the midst of the painful reconfiguring of identity that inevitably follows the loss of someone close.
Much of the warmth and humour in Our Magic Hour blooms from the deep bonds between friends, particularly between old friends. Down says that writing about long-term friendships wasn’t a conscious decision, rather, ‘When I started writing about the three friends at the centre of the story, I knew instantly that there was a very profound love between them and a great knowledge of one another, and so it made sense to write them as childhood friends. Long-standing friendships that survive childhood and adolescence are really interesting. You bear witness to a lot of change in one another, but there’s still that kernel of sameness, or of shared history, that ties you together.’
Memory itself is an obsession for Down, particularly, ‘its fallibility, its subjectivity, its weirdness. I didn’t set out to examine it at all, but it would be very hard for me to avoid it, I think, particularly with a novel like this that deals so much with the residue of childhood.’ Arguably, it would also have been difficult, if not unwise, to write about grief and nostalgia without a healthy fascination for memory.
Our Magic Hour is undoubtedly a book that will resonate with people in their twenties and thirties, but it is also an ageless reflection on friendship and loss that deserves a wide readership. To perceive this book as a straightforward bildungsroman would be to ignore the compelling trajectories of several key characters who have already, or never will, come of age.