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Posted on 10 Mar 2020 in Non-Fiction |

CHLOE HIGGINS The Girls. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

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How do we talk about grief? Chloe Higgins’s memoir reveals her response to the loss of her sisters, and the impact of that loss on her parents. 

On 31 July 2005, Chloe Higgins’s father, Maurice, was driving home from a weekend ski trip with his two youngest daughters when his car veered into oncoming traffic outside Canberra. Carlie, 14, and Lisa, nine, both died in the collision. Maurice ended up in intensive care.

Higgins was at home with her mother. She’d skipped the annual ski trip to study for exams.

From then on, 17-year-old Higgins and her parents refer to Carlie and Lisa as ‘the girls’:

… rather than risk mentioning their individual names. This way they are separate from us, an abstract thing on which we need not hang our pain.

In her debut memoir, which won the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, Higgins traces her destructive journey through grief, and how it has shaped her relationships with her parents. At its core, it is an exploration of a daughter and mother burdened by loss and divided by profound differences.

Written in present-tense vignettes, the narrative tumbles between an older Higgins, working through her past by writing and developing daily self-care routines, and back to partial memories from the day of the collision, through the funeral and inquest, to the years in which her grief mushroomed into mental illness, driving her to self-harm, drugs and prostitution.

What enables Higgins to gradually shift away from her self-destructive behaviour is her discovery of writing as healing. In this way, The Girls is a working-through of feelings Higgins otherwise struggles to express. One of her most revelatory moments comes as she says goodbye to a friend at the psychiatric ward:

A hunk of emotion is sitting in my throat … I am desperate for someone to see what is happening inside, but I don’t know how to communicate my feelings.

Even before her sisters’ deaths, Higgins wasn’t an emotionally expressive person. Afterwards, her emotional trauma forms a barrier between herself and the world. She tries to support her parents, takes her frustrations out on her boyfriend, and ends up hospitalised. In the psych ward, she behaves how she believes the nurses want her to behave. Only once does she break down, screaming until she is forcibly taken to a padded room. Later, she reflects on the experience:

If I had my time in the ward over, I would have made better use of the opportunity. I would have screamed and kicked and punched the padded walls and lain down on the floor and cried snot all over the softness every day. I would have shouted swear words at the nurses and called them names and told them how pissed off I was at the world … I would have performed my grief.

Grief, Higgins determines, isn’t an innate process. We each learn to grieve in our own ways. Hours after learning of the collision, she crumples into a ball, sobbing, and is surprised by her performance of what she thinks grief might be. ‘It isn’t a real sadness – that would be too painful.’ The next day, she is again surprised; she’d thought the previous evening would be the most difficult part.

As much as The Girls is about Higgins’s grieving process, it is also about her parents’. At 17, Higgins was beginning to forge an adult self, independent of her parents. Her sisters’ deaths interrupted this, bonding her to her parents, who were each grieving in their own ways.

Although her father was found not responsible for the collision, its cause was never definitively determined. Along with depression and PTSD, he struggles with guilt. Keeping a diary in the months after the collision, he writes:

I don’t know who caused the accident and I still can’t remember anything but I want the other fellow dead. Why should my girls die alone? Why didn’t I die too? Why didn’t I even get singed from the flame but the fellow who dragged me out of the car got burnt?

Her mother, Rhonda, takes a more pragmatic approach, able to move forward without forgetting. ‘That’s the way life is’, she comes to say. But her way of coping is often in intense opposition to her daughter’s:

She wants touch and companionship; I want space. She is desperate not to lose her last child; I am trying to break free of shouldering the weight of this.

Higgins is torn between her love for her mother and her inability to be the daughter her mother desires.

Once, after I’d spent months pushing her away, she said to me: ‘Tell me what I have to do, and I’ll do it.’ A block of nausea sat in my stomach for days.

Rhonda can be an unsympathetic character. She goes through her adult daughter’s things, reads her diary, and stalks her on social media. Her longing to have a close relationship with her one surviving child, however, is understandable. Her extroversion clashes with Higgins’s acute introversion, and neither mother nor daughter know how to bridge their differences.

Higgins’s story is inextricable from her parents’, and so she weaves in their voices. Along with excerpts of her father’s diary, she includes Facebook posts from her mother, reconstructing events from multiple viewpoints. After she told her parents of her intention to publish her memoir, she notes:

My parents were terrified of people finding out about my past, when what I was most nervous about was how intimate a portrayal of their private and grief-stricken lives the book had become.

Throughout the book, Higgins remains present, both as the subject and as the author. She traces the story alongside its construction, noting where her memory lapses, where others remember events differently, and where her editor poses unresolved questions. The jumbled chronology mimics the non-linear flow of memory. The language is plain and direct, which emphasises its honesty, but can also feel distancing, as though Higgins is describing someone else’s experiences rather than her own.

For much of the book, Carlie and Lisa are reduced to ‘the girls’, to the trauma their deaths represent rather than the children they were. It’s only at the end that Higgins, having learned how to negotiate her grief, is able to return to them, digging into memories to rediscover who Carlie and Lisa were, and who they might have been.

Chloe Higgins The Girls Picador 2019 PB 320pp $32.99

Ashley Kalagian Blunt is the author of My Name is Revenge. She will be discussing ‘The Dark Art of Memoir’ with Chloe Higgins, Vicki Laveau-Harvie and Adele Dumont at the State Library of NSW on Saturday 21 March 2020 from 2-3pm. For tickets and details: https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/events/dark-art-memoir

You can buy The Girls from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here, and from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.