NADINE J COHEN Everyone and Everything. Reviewed by Jessica Stewart
Encompassing grief, trauma and recovery, Nadine J Cohen’s debut novel is also very funny, navigating its dark themes with wit and compassion.
‘Immersed in water as the sun announces its arrival, I feel weightless. I feel free. It’s how I imagine other people feel all the time.’
Yael is a young woman who is in recovery of some sort when Everyone and Everything opens; she is spoken about, managed, passive. Nadine Cohen’s first novel illuminates the half-life of someone living with depression, a shuttered world, yearning yet immobilised.
The ‘thing’ that brought her here is gradually revealed, but Everyone and Everything is not about one moment, or one episode. It is a story of surviving accumulated trauma. For Yael, that includes six million ghosts. Her family are Holocaust survivors, ‘irrevocably damaged’, and she and her sister Liora have also lost both parents, much too young, within a few years. With a narcissistic ex, a toxic boss and still more inexplicable deaths of loved ones, it is a slow breaking. Grief doesn’t give you time off and has to be accommodated around the minutiae of the everyday. She and Liora joke wanly about writing a guide to Sydney hospitals – where to find the best coffee, the free parking.
Yael’s retreat, missing deadlines, surviving on carrots and muesli, not answering emails, reminded me of Rosie Waterland, the Australian writer and media commentator who has written frankly about living with anxiety and depression. Like Yael, she, too, shrank her interactions to the minimum bearable to creep through the days. Loosening her hold on the world seemed natural, logical, another wave.
Yael spends the year after ‘the thing’ building new rituals. Since childhood, she has fought with, competed with, and grieved with her sister, Liora, but it is now, in this year of vulnerability, that she learns more about her. Liora had always been ‘the good girl’ but Yael had never understood the price of this mantle. Older sisters and first-borns everywhere will nod. Liora’s exasperated exhaustion, yet always turning up for Yael, is what family looks like. This is what it’s like to be on the other end of that phone call from Emergency. ‘Okay, you’re a burden right now. But you won’t always be.’
Sydney in all its beauty and crassness is here, and so is the community Yael finds at the Women’s Baths, where she goes almost daily, content to sit on the grass, or the rocks, listening and talking or reading. In this constancy, familiarity, Everyone and Everything tells us that healing cannot be rushed and we need to stop pretending away sadness. When we sit with it, listen, are present, the better we can manage it. Cohen navigates dark themes deftly with pages of brilliant dialogue.
The work to be able to see clearly again is also the work of a lifetime.
Anxiety gives zero fucks about when and where it presents itself. In the morning. In the night. On the toilet. At the movies. It might be funny if it wasn’t the worst. Sometimes it’s sudden, sometimes it’s slow. Sometimes lengthy, sometimes quick. Sometimes shaky, sometimes still. Sometimes low-key, sometimes epic. It’s like a fucking Dr Seuss book.
When Yael is able to look up again, she finds things to smile about: a woman at the baths who ‘looks like the love child of Jane Fonda and a leather couch’, a kid with giant headphones dancing outside the school gates. For Yael, healing is in ritual and friendship, love of family; and in her ongoing, trusted relationship with her therapist. She finds it in the Hebrew words of the prayer, Shabbat. When Yael is faced with yet another death near the end of this period of retreat, she is stronger.
This funny, warm novel is an immensely readable contribution to stories from the frontline. Like Rosie Waterland, Cohen is also very funny. When asked about a trigger for a recent depressive episode, Yael says, ‘No, same as the others. It arrived without warning and then wouldn’t leave. Like the Kardashians.’
And tweezing a nipple hair will never be the same again.
Nadine J Cohen Everyone and Everything Pantera Press 2023 PB 320pp $32.99
Jessica Stewart is a freelance writer and editor. She can be found at www.yourseconddraft.com where she writes about editing, vagaries of the English language and books she’s loved.
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