We gave it an A
Reading Disquiet, the slender, elegant, and extraordinarily unsettling new novella by Australian writer Julia Leigh, is like looking through a series of slides in a child’s toy View-Master. But rather than Mickey Mouse and snowcapped Alpine peaks, we are treated to fleeting, indelible images of not-quite-horror, barely explained, one after the other.
An exhausted woman and her two children bang on the front door of a forbidding French country château. Click. They are greeted by a frosty elderly grandmother whose hand must be ceremoniously kissed. Click. The grandmother’s floors are littered with half-eaten raw chicken wings that she feeds to her cats. Click. And so on.
We eventually learn that the woman’s name is Olivia, that her body is covered with bruises, and that she has fled a brutish husband. (”I am murdered,” she says eerily.) But Leigh’s plot, such as it is, remains sketchy, subservient to the images, which only grow more and more disturbing as the tale unfolds. Olivia’s homecoming coincides with the arrival of her brother, Marcus, whose wife, Sophie, has just given birth to a stillborn daughter. They have brought with them the tiny corpse, which they store, swaddled in a torn-up pink satin ball gown, in the freezer at night. By day, Sophie carries her ”bundle” on family picnics and feeds it drops of soup.
The ghoulish oddity passes without authorial comment, and the characters all proceed decorously, as if there were nothing very strange about the presence of a grayish-blue infant’s corpse. In fact, the outrageous gothic elements of the narrative are less upsetting than the more modern sordidness on display, as when Olivia’s young son observes Marcus standing on the banks of a lake, talking on his cell phone and masturbating at the same time. The book doesn’t tell a story so much as it casts a dark spell. Reading Leigh’s malignant fantasy takes about an hour, but you will experience Disquiet for days. A