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Posted on 3 Oct 2023 in Fiction |

BRIOHNY DOYLE Why We Are Here. Reviewed by Sally Nimon

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Briohny Doyle’s third novel explores the impact of multiple losses in a single life, exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic.

‘What should survive and how? And how do you know when survival has transpired?’

This is the central question posed in Why We Are Here, the latest novel by Australian writer Briohny Doyle, author of The Island Will Sink (2016) and Echolalia (2021). It is a story of grief. BB, a middle-aged university lecturer and occasional novelist, faces in short order the sudden death of her partner, the more anticipated loss of her father, and the abrupt end of the lifestyle we all took for granted in the heady days before COVID-19. Once upon a time, BB was confident, loved and one half of a partnership, each day guided by a sense of direction and subconscious contentment. Now, as the story opens, we find her rambling and alone, living in a flat in a condemned building in a suburb full of people socio-economically distant from herself.

But it is also a story about communication, or, in this case, the lack of it. Characters meet, characters speak, but very few are listening. Even the most intimate acts become a prelude to greater isolation. When BB, who deals with her grief partly by taking long walks with her dog around the local golf course, meets a man she describes only as ‘the hot ranger’, one thing leads to another. In the aftermath she feels that:

I probably shouldn’t have fucked the hot ranger. A Pavlovian response, to drool even when your guts have been ripped out. Still, if he’d kept his cute mouth shut I could have framed the encounter as part of my healing journey. I might even have done it again. As it stands, I’ve created another barrier. To walk north across the coastline without crossing the rifle range requires a giant detour.

The narrator is only ever named BB; her lost partner is Him. Even her father is just ‘Dad’. It is as if any identity these characters might once have held, any individual agency, has been lost along with the freedoms of pre-lockdown life. Her lectures and tutorials are conducted via zoom, her students reduced to a ‘grid of squares’. Even cities themselves are stripped of their identity: Sydney becomes Silver City, Melbourne mutates into Highbourne. BB’s most meaningful conversations are those she has with Baby, her dog, regardless of whether they are real or imagined:

Listen, she telegraphs.

Wind, I reply.

No. Not wind.

The wind howls again. Baby is staring intently at one of the flash new townhouses that looks constructed from Duplo.

Not wind, she confirms. Dog.

We stand together in the street until I understand. Somewhere in Balboa Bay there’s a dog who sounds like the wind.

The stream-of-consciousness narrative, combined with a fluid timeline as BB’s thoughts move backwards and forwards over the events of her life, might be frustrating to readers looking for a clear linear narrative. But it is a fitting vehicle for BB’s own lack of structure, of purpose. At a macro level, each page and meandering thought builds to an overall sense of movement, a gradual but inevitable drift into the future whether she wants it to happen or not. ‘Umberto Eco believed that there were two kinds of novels,’ she tells us, ‘those about the whole world, and those about almost nothing … how do you know which you are writing?’

But what Doyle shows us in Why We Are Here is that these need not be mutually exclusive categories. The whole world will continue to turn even in the absence of grand events, but of course ‘nothing’ is itself an illusion. BB may feel as though her life is static, stuck in the limbo of grief, but this is far from the truth. We are witnesses to her onward journey as she continues to walk her dog, meet her neighbours, and encounter potential new partners (even if she ultimately dismisses them). And it will all be waiting for her, as soon as she decides she’s ready to engage.

And that, perhaps, is the only reason we need as to why we are here. 

Briohny Doyle Why We Are Here Vintage Books 2023 PB 288pp  $32.99

Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre.

You can buy Why We Are Here from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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