By Mireille JuchauFiction Bloomsbury
The World Without Us
It has been six months since Tess Müller stopped speaking. Her silence is baffling to her parents, teachers and sister Meg, but the more urgent mystery for both girls is where their mother goes each day, pushing an empty pram and returning home muddy and disheveled. Their father struggling with his own losses, tends to his apiary and tries to understand why his bees are disappearing. But after he discovers human remains on their farm, old secrets emerge to threaten the fragile family. The World Without Us is a beautifully told story of secrets and survival, family and community, loss and renewal.
Mireille Juchau’s masterful The World Without Us is a triumph on every level. At the centre of the novel is the Müller family, who live on their farm in northern New South Wales. Evangeline and Stefan are former residents of a local commune that was destroyed by fire; their daughters, Tess and Meg, are struggling to define themselves and their place in both their community and the farms and forests around them. They are all deeply wounded by grief. Juchau is a intelligent novelist who writes with deep empathetic but lacerating intensity. She cares about story and also about the emotional connection she builds with her readers and her sentences carry a weight and subtext beyond their poetry. The world that she has created here is a complex and layered one, where the smallest actions reveal the hearts of her characters, and mirror the hearts of all of us.
Jim was halfway down the lane when he saw the bee. It was steering haphazardly but following the line of the road. Probably from the Müllers’ apiary. The same ones, he guessed, that haloed the tangled mounds of lavender outside his cabin. Apis mellifera. And in the stretched seconds of the bee’s approach he was struck by this transit of pollen and nectar, from his small garden, across and down the lane to the Müllers’ hives and the bright, lofty home with those ethereal daughters and the candlelight by which he’d dined one evening and, after, admired the framed pictures by the middle girl, Meg, and some abstract oils by Evangeline, who’d painted so keenly, Stefan Müller had told him, for five years after the commune. She’d had amnesia, he said, after the fire. Painting helped reassemble the past. The girls had led Jim out to their mother’s studio. See this, Meg said, plucking a fine paintbrush from a jar, Mama made it from my baby hair. And this one’s from Pip’s. And then she’d gone silent and the sisters left the room while he stayed another moment to gulp down details, half starved of such rituals – he’d forsaken his own painting since Sylvie and the pregnancy. Evangeline’s canvases were draped in white sheets. Whether they were being protected or hidden, he could not say. He’d peered beneath the fabric covering the largest work. Go on, feel free, Stefan had said, coming up behind and startling him. Have a good look, friend, I don’t mind. But lifting the sheets on the wife’s paintings, while the husband stood by with an incomprehensible expression, was just too weird so Jim had walked out to where Tess and Meg were hanging from the massive Moreton Bay, and switched into teacher mode asking them something anatomical about bees. The woman’s paintings, with their anchorless forms – horses, trees, hills, water – were technically flawed, but the flattened perspective, the naive style and the tension produced from her rapid, small brushstrokes were compelling. They had a peculiar, elusive effect. Recalling these took him back to the mountain – to what she’d said about time being abstract – this was in her paintings, disparate events layered and revised.
Stefan was a thoughtful, enthusiastic man. Jim had liked him immediately. Over dinner he described a family history with bees and showed photos of his grandfather’s traditional German hives. Brightly painted, and beautifully kept, these wooden huts looked like doll’s houses, as if by being part of the family the bees required a similar standard of accommodation. They were carnica bees, Stefan said. Gentle and dovelike. Really? Jim had laughed, he’d never considered any bee appealing. Ah come on, Stefan had chided, don’t you think of teddy bears when you see their fuzzy little bodies?
Despite their losses, the Müllers’ home was captivating, like certain lived-in houses Jim had visited as a boy. The kind of home where you lose count of how many rooms and how they lead on to each other. It was bright, cluttered and unkempt, but still essentially clean. In his childhood home everything had been slotted carefully away. In the mornings the emptied, coffee-scented expanses of hall and lounge, his mother and father at each end of the bespoke table, turning and turning their pages. In his home, bare surfaces had so reigned that objects acquired a slightly shameful aspect, intensified by how they were secluded behind nifty sliding cupboards. The eye was tricked into thinking there was nothing, when there was plenty. It had bred in him a lifelong unease about possessions and what they could mean.
As Jim neared the cabin he saw someone in his garden with a large canvas bag. For one panicked moment he thought: Sylvie. Medium height, dark-haired, slight. In the diffuse dusk he couldn’t make out her features. But then she bent and yanked a clump of something from his yard. Well, Sylvie would never garden.
He heard a loud droning. That bee again. Hurtling directly towards his head.
He’d been too sheepish to tell the Müller family after dinner that night, as he’d retrieved his bike from the back of their house and the sisters came running to stack his arms with jars of gold leather- wood. How could he have said, after Stefan had offered, next time we’ll give you a tour of the hives. James Matthew Parker, thirty-two, object of heated town speculation, teacher at the River School, tall, motherless climate pilgrim from Sydney, out of touch with his high-flying father, ignoring calls and messages from Sylvie, deliberately unwired and incommunicado in his leaky rental cabin, perpetually hungry for something and only just realising how lonely. How could he say, I am fatally allergic to bees?
He saw the stranger raise an arm at his approach. He saw the Müllers’ undulating fields and, beyond the mountains, an adamantine sky. As he registered the approaching bee he remembered: he hadn’t renewed his epinephrine since moving here, even though, he’d realised after signing the lease, he was just metres from a fair- sized apiary. Honig Farm, for God’s sake. There were so few bees left in the city, he’d just stopped carrying the EpiPen around.
He thought of Sylvie, naked on the bed with her legs crossed, towards the end of their five years together, smoking furiously and diagnosing, You’re still just a boy, though he felt he’d grown away from her. At that particular moment, he’d been a father. Then, as the bee made contact, he threw himself on to the verge and closed his eyes.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist