BRIOHNY DOYLE Echolalia. Reviewed by Amy Walters
In 2015, 35- year-old mother of seven Akon Guode drove her car into a lake in Melbourne’s outer west, resulting in the deaths of three of her children, the youngest of whom was 16 months old. The Victorian law reflects society’s bewilderment towards a mother who kills her child. Infanticide is deemed the product of a disordered mind rather than a malevolent one, and charges can only be brought in the case of the death of a child under two, by which time a mother is expected to have overcome post-natal depression and rediscovered her ‘natural’ protective instincts.
Covering the trial for The Monthly, Helen Garner reflected on the gradations of mercy within the charge of infanticide compared to that of murder. ‘I was troubled,’ Garner confided, ‘and I still am, by the finality of the word “mother”, this great thundering archetype with the power to stop the intellect in its tracks.’
This tragic case, and Garner’s discussion of it, floated back to me as I read Briohny Doyle’s second novel, Echolalia.
The book opens with an omniscient view of a baby’s body discarded, ‘a small thing, alone, in the reeds by the lake’. Then, jumping back to the ‘before’, we see Emma, a young mother of three, trying to find the energy to mind her three children alone all day. She holds the fort until dinnertime, when her husband, Robert, swoops in from his hard day ‘at work’ to break out his good cop routine and undermine everything she has accomplished.
She [Emma and Robert’s daughter Clem] had spots of bechamel on her wrists. Robert made a grumbly monster noise and licked them off as she squealed with joy.
‘What?’ he said to the look his wife gave him. ‘I’m doing the clean up and bath time at once.’
Emma has married into the Cormac family, a clan that runs itself like Cormac Developments, the corporation to which they have given their name. The family dominates the ironically named town of Shorehaven, remaining brutally focused on land acquisition and development amid increasingly sweltering summers and the drying up of the lake, the town’s signature attraction. Diagnosed with Fragile X syndrome, the Cormacs’ middle child and oldest son, Arthur, shows signs of echolalia: an uncomprehending mimicry of sounds or speech patterns made by others. As the genetic mutation resulting in this syndrome was carried by Emma, the wider Cormac family is resentful of what they perceive as the sullying of their lineage.
Emma is aware that she is reproducing the (male) workforce, and soon gives birth to another son, Robbie, to ‘compensate’ for the perceived deficiencies of her first. She is assured that this baby (named after his father, Robert) has not inherited the mutation, but comes to question exactly what she is perpetuating. There is something disturbing about the way baby Robbie suckles, ‘[demanding] her full attention’. Emma recognises in his rapaciousness something other than infantile hunger: ‘This baby wanted her to feel the extent of his need, the affront of her failure. He was an insulted, important man and she a slack and useless waitress.’
If echolalia is a senseless mimicry, Emma’s life could be said to unfold in an echolalic manner, shaped by her unconscious internalisation of society’s misogyny. At school she is subjected to rampant sexism, and one lunchtime stumbles across a group of boys engaging in questionable sex with a female student. Flashbacks to this scene over the ensuing years keep her in full awareness of potential threats to her bodily integrity. By the time her future husband meets her, she ‘[embodies] a perfect combination of home comfort, manners, and class’. Having realised society’s ideal of a ‘good woman’ by getting married, she now finds any residual sense of self falling away. She submits to her husband’s sexual demands to placate him. She goes through the repetitive daily motions of parenting. She bears the constant criticism of her mother-in-law Pat without reacting. She becomes more detached and robotic until eventually she is completely untethered.
In the trial of Akon Guode, expert evidence was given about the defendant’s mental state. She was a refugee whose husband had died fighting in Sudan’s civil war; upon arriving in Australia, various men considered themselves to be entitled to her body, but left her to raise her children alone. She had suffered unimaginable trauma and loss, but the demands of caring for her children meant she could not fully process her experiences, until one day she could no longer go on. Garner reports a hushed conversation about the case with her neighbour, a grandmother. ‘How many times have I been there?’ says the neighbour. ‘I have to know why she broke.’ This comment reveals the uncomfortable position infanticide occupies in our moral landscape, a crime that is relatable but simultaneously beyond understanding.
Doyle is concerned with tipping points; how we recognise them (or fail to), and what it will take for us to shift the status quo. Having completed a PhD on the post-apocalyptic imagination, Doyle is acutely aware of humanity being the architect of its own destruction, but also resists the idea of salvation through revelation. These influences are evident in Echolalia, which contains elements of both dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. The gender code that is subtly but emphatically enforced upon Emma is reminiscent of the total control exercised by the totalitarian government or corporation that traditionally characterises dystopian fiction. The narrative, however, is structured in post-apocalyptic terms, unfolding in segments titled ‘before’ or ‘after.’ In the ‘before,’ a woman’s life force is being sucked out of her daily. In the ‘after,’ baby Robbie’s body is discovered. A mother has broken; this is the cataclysm.
A sense of looming disaster is reinforced by the family’s surname, an allusion to the American writer Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy is famed for his 2009 Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Road, in which a father and son embark on a seemingly endless journey in a post-apocalyptic landscape, where almost every other human they meet is a cannibal or a thief, a threat to their survival. The mother is disposed of early in the piece, committing suicide to avoid suffering through whatever unnamed catastrophe has taken place. In an interview on The Garrett, Alice Robinson, author of The Glad Shout, an apocalyptic novel about motherhood, criticised McCarthy’s phallocentric view of humanity’s struggle for survival, which reinforces our broader culture’s devaluing of motherhood as a lesser form of labour.
‘[W]hen you have a child,’ Robinson asserts, ‘because of the way our culture’s structured, you’re suddenly shunted into a space where there aren’t very many men at all because they’re at work … And yet all of the kind of exciting adventure, survivalist kind of narratives seem to feature men in them at the heart … Women are heroic doing this quiet labour behind the scenes that no one cares about, the culture doesn’t care, but it’s profound.’
Echolalia is both in conversation with and a riposte to McCarthy’s cultural vision. It is a searing examination of the marriage between capitalism and patriarchy, in which the full horror of mothering in an uncaring, self-entitled society is on display. Capitalism cannibalises everything for its own purposes, to the point where an alternative way of living is unimaginable. Crisis is its default mode, and further catastrophe, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, only further embeds the rampant individualism at its core. The pleasurable consumption of Emma’s early married life – the ‘grown-up affairs with rosé and soft cheese’ – has given way to despair. From her ‘salmon-coloured entertainer’s patio’ she has an expensive view of the dry lake, but an unimpeded view of humanity’s destructiveness does not mean a solution to structural oppression readily presents itself. Rather, the deepening suffering of capitalism’s victims further ripens them for domination by Cormac Developments, just as the ongoing threat of sexual violence keeps women docile and compliant.
Briohny Doyle Echolalia Vintage 2021 PB 320pp $32.99
Amy Walters is a Canberra-based writer and reviewer. She runs the blog the Armchair Critic, and her reviews have also appeared in RightNow, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue, ArtsHub and Meanjin. Website: https://armchaircriticoz.wordpress.com/ Twitter: @CouchCritic18
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