Review: Aphelion by Emily Ballou

aphelion.jpg    Emily Ballou
Pan Macmillan, 493 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

Phew!! Who knew that so much heaving, seething, emotional turmoil and sexual tension could be boiling away in three old houses next to each other on the shores of peaceful Lake Eucumbene!

Set in the historic town of Adaminaby, a place drowned by The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, the action of this novel takes place against the magnificent backdrop of the High Country. The title, Aphelion, is a term used in astronomy referring to the point in the orbit of a planet when it is the furthest from the sun, the darkest point.

Hazel is an American woman running from a failed relationship. She is coming to the town to curate an exhibition on the history of the area. On the way she picks up a hitchhiker, handsome loner Rhett, who is returning after years abroad to sort out his mother's house after her death. He offers to put her up at his place.

The two of them storm into the lives of the four women who live next door: four generations of the same family, trapped together by the circumstances of their lives. These six people seem held in a dream on the shores of the lake in isolation from the rest of the world, all in a state of aphelion. Rhett and Hazel act as the catalysts to start everyone dealing with their emotional paralysis.

The four women are great-grandmother Hortense, her daughter Esme, granddaughter Byrne and great-granddaughter Lucetta. All have very complex, angst-ridden back-stories.

I have had a very mixed reaction to Emily Ballou's novel. Her descriptive writing, evoking the beauty of the area, the physicality of the characters and the great rendering of the historical detail in the stories of the older women are very fine, and the reason why I read the book to the end. Miss Ballou is a very talented writer capable of transporting the reader to another place and time, whether it be magnificent, rugged scenery or an old farmhouse kitchen.

Her characters are well drawn, however the plot lines and the exchanges between the characters, especially the Windle women, are ultimately irritating and boring. There are too many intense people in the same place, at the same pitch. In fact there are enough for two novels! Everyone is constantly working out his or her deepest, innermost thoughts and problems and every aspect of the mother-child relationship is scrutinised. One minute we are mystical, another suicidal. Then there are the sex scenes. Now, I'm sure if you put six intelligent people of mixed ages and sexes (some from the same family) in a room and you could read their thoughts all at once it would probably be a bit like Aphelion, but would we want to stay in the room with them? There is a feeling of trying too hard. A simpler version of the plot would have gone so much further, allied with Ms. Ballou's undoubted writing talent, to bring the place, the story and the history more alive, to feel genuine emotion for these people instead of a vague feeling of "get on with it".

I did enjoy many aspects of this book. It just needs to be a little more balanced, with a greater perspective on the concept of the story as a whole, a little more ease. With such a gifted writer I'm sure this will come in future work.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 15, 2008 12:26 PM.

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