Felicity Volk. Lightning. Picador, 2013. ISBN: 9781743289099.
I loved Lightning. Those three of you who have been following this blog closely will have realised that I am enchanted by thoughtful, dreaming, poetic prose, and stories that explore inner selves as much as outer worlds. My favourites so far have been books like Jan Borrie’s Verge, Alex Miller’s The Sitters, Dorothy Johnson’s The House at Number 10, and Joanne Horniman’s About a Girl. They all have a lilting, floating feel to them, and Lightning is also there with them. Wistful and at times whimsical, Lightning is about grief and the need to belong. To belong to others, to belong to places, and to belong to traditions and histories.
Persia’s friend Salome describes her as a “letter-goer”. As opposed to a “holder-onner”:
‘You know, if you stayed in one place long enough to have the phone put on, you wouldn’t have to run your friendships on loose change.’ She had intended it affectionately.
And Persia does find it hard to put down roots of her own, despite her careful nurturing of the gardens, and especially the daphne, she plants at each place she comes briefly to rest. It’s natural, then, that Persia would plan a home birth, with no one beyond a midwife beside her. Natural also, that this coming child would be the one she expects will ground her, and will belong to her entirely. “With you I’ll be a holder-onner”, Persia whispers.
When Persia goes into labour on 18 January 2003, Canberra is in the midst of its greatest crisis, and Persia must manage alone.
Angry winds blew ash across the city; the air was sooty and hot. I am not going to give birth on such a day, Persia thought as she looked through her bedroom window to where the Brindabella Range sulked under a wilting sky.
In the terrible aftermath, grief-stricken and still alone, she starts to follow a vague plan to go to her child’s father, perhaps to share her grief with him. Along the way she meets Ahmed, a refugee who has griefs and secrets of his own. Together they travel through a landscape that is not theirs, but through it find ways to tell eachother stories that both heal and reveal. Somewhere along the way Persia forms a new plan, to travel to the place where she does have roots – Hermannsburg and the home of her Afghan cameleer ancestor.
Lake George is an early marker on Persia’s route:
an expanse of landscape she found stirring, first for its physical beauty and later… its metaphysical. The steep escarpment of scraggy snow gums opposite the lake, along which the highway stretched, became a topographical milestone in Persia’s journeying…
When Persia first arrives in Canberra, it is a city of strangers, and she has little intention of changing that. “Instead of acquiring a social circle, Persia joined the local photographic society”. So, when she finds herself adrift in Grafton, Persia realises that there is nothing for her in Canberra:
Home. Disfigured by grief it was a foreign, unwelcoming destination. Loss makes you look at a place differently, thought Persia. The architecture of it resembled an Escher print. All staircases going rightly in the wrong directions, mostly to basements beneath idyllic parks…
Ahmed’s loss is older, and more familiar to him. He understands more clearly where Persia is heading, perhaps, than Persia does:
He’d thought of Ruth and Naomi… Old Testament Ruth and Naomi. The Moabite and the Israelite. The widowed daughter-in-law leaving her own tribe behind to accompany the widowed mother-in-law back to her land. How home is a person, not bricks and mortar; not tribe, nor custom, nor bloodline, but a person. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God