By Chloe HigginsNon-fiction Picador Australia
In 2005, Chloe Higgins was seventeen years old. She and her mother, Rhonda, stayed home so that she could revise for her exams while her two younger sisters Carlie and Lisa went skiing with their father. On the way back from their trip, their car veered off the highway, flipped on its side and burst into flames. Both her sisters were killed. Their father walked away from the accident with only minor injuries.
This book is about what happened next.
In a memoir of breathtaking power, Chloe Higgins describes the heartbreaking aftermath of that one terrible day. It is a story of grieving, and learning to leave grief behind, for anyone who has ever loved, and lost.
The Girls distinguishes itself from other writing on trauma by its restraint, structure and literary sensibility. It is creative work, not just catharsis; one that leaves space for readers to breathe.
The titular girls are Chloe Higgins’ two younger sisters, who died in a car accident in which their father was driving. How can one tell the story of such acute loss without overworking it by default?
Higgins does so by constantly negotiating her memories with others, and mimicking grief by time-shifting the narrative. She also breaks the fourth wall, adopting a meta approach that reveals writing-as-processing.
The book is full of gripping contradictions: the craving for and retreat from intimacy; the impulse for survival that expresses in self-destructive ways; and the implosion from loss that keeps us from noticing the distance that shrapnel flew. Higgins builds up to this final theme with devastating effect.
The Girls is fluidly written, engaging, and demonstrates how the act of articulating – or trying to articulate – the unimaginable can tether us and then set us free.
At the Thai restaurant near our psychologist’s office, my father and I share one main and one entrée. Outside, people continue their Sydney lives, the summer heat thick in their armpits. A mother is leading two children along, bags of vegetables on her wrists. Perhaps they are on their way home from tutoring. It is December 2016. I am twenty-eight years old, and I am learning what grief looks like.
My father is losing faith in our psychologist. Or perhaps it is the practice of psychology he is losing faith in. When we began our appointments, he was impressed. She didn’t say the sentence that would have made him stand and leave mid-session: I’ve never met anyone who’s been through something so terrible. My appointment was before his and I’d almost wanted to tell her: whatever you do, don’t say it. But she didn’t, so he concluded that perhaps she was all right after all.
Now, two or three sessions later, while sharing our post- therapy Thai, it feels like we are back to square one. When I ask him if she’s helping him with the guilt, he says, ‘There’s a difference between people who don’t want to let go of guilt and people who can’t let go of guilt.’
I don’t understand the distinction, or which category he thinks he falls into, but I nod and keep listening. A few years ago, someone wanted to put Dad in touch with a man who’d lost a daughter in a car accident. They thought it might help him to speak to someone suffering a similar kind of grief.
Dad declined. ‘No. There’s no point talking to him. He only lost one daughter, and he wasn’t driving. It’s not the same thing.’
A few weeks later I again travel up from where I live, in Wollongong, to see my parents. Wollongong is an hour’s drive south of their western Sydney home; we have our privacy and yet are close enough to visit each other at will.
I tell Mum I want to go skiing again with Dad. We’re standing in the kitchen.
She shakes her head. ‘He won’t go. Don’t bring it up.’
He doesn’t dance anymore either. He used to dance while singing ‘Don’t Cry Daddy’ and Lisa would tell him he sounded exactly like Elvis. Now he won’t even dance at weddings.
‘He doesn’t think he deserves to have fun,’ my mother explains.
A year or two ago, he danced one song with me. It was a father–daughter number at a schoolfriend’s wedding and I had to physically drag him to the floor. I was surprised he allowed me to. We danced, he cried, I tried not to, and then he returned to his table at the end of the song and never let me do it again.
There are things we cannot say:
I love you.
Please stop telling yourself that you killed your daughters.
My parents and I are on a drive to Mudgee, my mother’s home town. Three hours north-west of Sydney, the place is known for colonial buildings, tourism and countryside wineries. I have brought a friend and during the drive she begins telling a story, a long joke that relies on an in-depth set-up. She starts describing the characters, gives them both names. The first she calls James, the second Lisa. The car goes quiet. She looks at me and realises it’s too late to back- pedal. I watch her eyes asking me: Would it be awkward if I said no, wait, I didn’t mean Lisa, I got confused?
My dead sister’s name hangs in the air, filling up the cabin of the four-wheel drive, sucking the breath out of my father’s chest. My friend stops talking. My mother reaches forward in the passenger seat, turns the radio on, and starts singing along, out of tune, to a song by the Beach Boys.
I’m sitting behind her; my father is in the driver’s seat. I can see the profile of his face: the sunspot below his eye that’s been darkening each year; the red drinker’s tinge of his nose, even though he never consumes alcohol; the skin starting to hang beneath his chin as his own father’s does. I watch him do that thing he does with his lip when he’s trying not to cry.
This is what grief looks like: trying not to weep when someone uses the wrong name in a joke.
My father’s favourite entrée at the Thai restaurant is satay chicken skewers.
We have been having back-to-back monthly therapy sessions and dinner dates for almost half a year. I have been hopeful. He has lasted this long without finding fault. His pattern seems to involve seeking help, becoming upbeat for two or three months, then dismissing whatever new practice or practitioner he is trying. Each time I find something that helps me I push it towards him, as I did with this psychologist. He orders a serving of the skewers and starts explaining how the levels of certain gases in the girls’ blood suggests something about the timing of their deaths. But he loses me somewhere around the part where one of the girls – Lisa – had carbon monoxide in her blood and the other – Carlie – didn’t.
‘I don’t understand,’ I say. This is new information to me and I’m curious what’s brought it to his mind. For years after the accident, my father tried to have the vials of bodily fluids that had been extracted from the girls examined and re-examined, as if there was a chance each new attempt might return some previously unknown piece of informa- tion. His requests were declined.
‘It means Carlie was already dead when we hit the other car,’ he says. This happens again and again: Dad latching on to some new, often contradictory, piece of information that
he thinks might be the thing to bring him answers. There are so many theories, so many unanswered questions that we will never know the truth of what happened.
‘And Lisa wasn’t?’
‘And Lisa wasn’t,’ he answers.
I try to keep my question in my head, but it comes out. ‘I thought they were both already gone before the fire started?’
‘No,’ he says.
I don’t want to think about what this means. Lisa was alive when the car burst into flames? I think about the tiny, white, gift-wrapped packages of their bodies, small in the centre of their open caskets. There was so little of them left that their remains were scooped up and held together with bandages and white sheets.
The satay chicken skewers arrive.
(Who scooped them up? Was there anything inside those bandages?)
‘But there was only a small amount of carbon monoxide in her blood,’ Dad says. He hasn’t touched his food.
At the table next to us, a lady stands and advises her friends loudly, ‘I am filled to my eyeballs with urine.’
My father stares, unblinking, at the food in front of him. Tiny pools of water have accumulated above each of his lower eyelids. The short grey stubble along his jaw is too thin to conceal his slight double chin.
‘Okay,’ I say.
‘So she was alive for less than a minute after we hit the other car.’
I stare at a poster of a woman sunbathing on a beach in Phuket behind him. ‘Okay.’
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