While reading Lucy Neave’s second novel, Believe In Me, I was listening to Elliot Smith’s Waltz #2 (XO), a song touching on his inability to connect with his reticent mother. The chorus repeats: “I’m never going to know you now / but I’m going to love you anyhow.” It’s a melancholic refrain that offers a parallel to Neave’s narrative, concerned with the unruly bonds of persistent familial love and the extent to which we can ever truly understand another person.
Believe In Me starts in 1970s America, a familiar backdrop for Neave, who previously lived, worked, and studied there as a Fulbright scholar. (Her debut novel, Who We Were, is a cold war thriller set in the McCarthyist era.) We follow Sarah Francis, an 18-year-old from upstate New York, who is sent by her mother to accompany a missionary, Isaiah, to suburban Idaho. One night aboard the train, Isaiah rapes her, causing her to become pregnant.
Her mother, ashamed and disbelieving of her daughter, sends her into exile to Australia. Once there, she is sent to a home for unmarried women, whose administrators coerce her into giving up her baby for adoption. Sarah refuses, deciding to try to raise her child and cleave out a life for herself as a single mother in Adelaide.
We learn early that Sarah’s child, Bet, is the novel’s omniscient narrator: she attempts to climb inside her mother’s life, one of hardship and upheaval, to better understand them both. “If I can inhabit her consciousness, even a little,” Bet says, “it might help me see who I am.” The result is a fabric woven from Sarah’s scrapbooks, notes, and Bet’s own memories: a tale of unreliable perspective. Though occasionally a little jarring (the narration oscillates between first and third person), this conceit skilfully establishes the story on shifting sands: readers come to know Sarah intimately, her innermost thoughts and fears, yet Bet’s perspective shapes all, raising questions of veracity and revision.
Neave’s prose is spare, economic – an assured brevity (and dislocated eeriness) reminiscent of the short stories of Lydia Davis. She avoids festooning her sentences with unnecessary baubles. (“They get into the car. The vinyl seats smell damp. The sky is heavy with cloud and the air is dense.”) It’s plain writing of simple rhythm, undulating into a lilting, absorbing voice. Neave’s imagery is vibrant, too. The writing bears the indelible watermark of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which Neave credits as an influence: the parallels of Fingerbone and small-town Idaho; a similar preoccupation with light and water; fleeting observations of ephemeral, ordinary beauty.
After Bet’s birth, Sarah becomes increasingly pious, and the novel is flush with biblical quotations and allusions. Portents abound, such as Sarah’s references to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, a harbinger, presumably, of the four men – Isaiah, Walter, Simon and Rick – who throughout her life will strive to possess her. Her fervent piety imbues in her an acquiescence; she is frequently mistreated, yet rather than retaliate she chides herself: “Accept whatever comes from above, because it’s all from God.”
In a Robinson-esque manner, water takes on religious connotations. Sarah struggles to keep afloat, increasingly having visions of drowning, afraid that she’ll “be in the depths forever”. Neave is at her strongest here, subtly evoking Sarah’s domestic and spiritual entrapment.
Vision, the capacity to be seen and understood, recurs as a metaphor. It’s a thematic echo of Eudora Welty’s short novel The Optimist’s Daughter, a similar tale of a child untangling the life of a parent, and which Neave uses for Believe In Me’s epigraph. She utilises the imagery of optics to subtle, poignant effect. Windows proliferate – offering reflections, refractions – and when Sarah and Bet interact with others, they are often confronted with averted gazes, cast-down eyes. They are frequently unseen, and thus not truly known by another. Sarah’s rapist, Isaiah, even goes slowly blind, rendering her literally obscured: “Only once, the man’s gaze settled on her face. Even though he met her eyes, he wasn’t there.”
Another strong focus is identity, its strictures and pervasive influence. In one passage, Bet, who becomes a veterinarian, assists in the birth of an orphaned foal, dressing it in the freshly flayed skin of a stillborn to habituate it to a foster mother. The newborn is rejected, and Bet frustratedly removes the ersatz coat; late at night, however, she returns and finds the two nestled together.
This shedding of skins, of being loved for one’s true self, is an effective metaphor, albeit somewhat heavy-handed (Neave does have an occasional tendency to over-explain a certain nuance or irony, cushioning its impact). We gain insight into the characters’ desire to be truly seen and loved: Sarah mourns her “real” self, feeling “replaced by someone else”; and Bet, who similarly grapples with identity throughout, wishes to cease “pretending to be someone who didn’t exist, who had never existed”.
Believe In Me is a generational saga, articulating how understanding one’s past can be a salve for the present. In many ways, it is also a story concerned with love’s opaque hues. Sarah strains with love’s weight, the idea of losing Bet like “knives slicing the soft inside flesh of her throat”. The joys of familial ties are present, but they are relegated to the background – Neave instead draws the eye to their psychical, and physical, impact. Bonds that persist no matter how close we might be able to get to each other’s unknowable depths.
• Believe In Me by Lucy Neave is out now through UQP