In the moments before a plane takes off there’s a pause, where it sits at the end of the runway. This is my favourite part of any flight. It’s better than the clouds or the glimpses of ocean or city below. That runway pause is a deep breath full of hope and heartbreak, where you learn a lot about yourself and your fellow travellers. It’s the moment before the impossible thing happens. Jennifer Down’s second book, Pulse Points, inhabits a similar space. Many of its stories live in the moments before epiphany or cataclysm – the telling moments. With a knack for the old advice to enter a scene late and leave it early, what’s offered in this collection are flashes of incredible truth which suggest that the most important moments in life aren’t necessarily the loud ones.
As demonstrated in her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, Down explores expressions of grief with great skill. In Pulse Points, grief shows up again and again, but it never quite looks the same in any given story. ‘Vox Clamantis’ sees Johnny grieving his dying mother as he races to her bedside from across the country, ‘with the pain in his lungs, bellowing out smoke from the grief’. ‘Aokigahara’ frames a sister’s grief after her brother’s suicide as some liquid thing, ‘rising in weak spasms’, making itself known in dreams of ‘flooded fields … water-damaged crops’. Every story in Pulse Points contains this creeping sense of loss in some way – in facing death; in separating from an old sense of self either by choice or force; in surviving.
Home and displacement feature strongly – so often characters are arriving or leaving home, or finding new places to call their homes. (’I want to go home’/’I tried to work out where I was’/’Love was a small-town adventure’). Where Our Magic Hour dove deep on Melbourne’s secret places and the secrets of the places we all know well, Pulse Points is successfully cosmopolitan. Its settings span the globe, without drawing attention to the fact. Sometimes these varied locations don’t make themselves known immediately, or even at all.
Highly attuned to nuance and detail, these stories accumulate a deep sense of discomfort – it’s both specific and not, both locatable and nowhere in particular. Pulse Points feels cinematic in this sense. Cinematic, too, is Down’s economy of language – while there’s plenty of poetry throughout (‘I heard the whale song of an ambulance fade sourly into the streets’), this is not a flowery book. Every moment is given the words it requires – no more, no less. The discomfort also grows from a pervasive sense of familiarity – in each story some element sings, and I suspect that those elements are different for each reader. I haven’t grieved a brother, but I have been the ‘well-behaved’ child alongside a ‘troubled’ teen boy. I was thankfully never caught in the predatory behaviour of ‘Dogs’, but I grew up aware of the sickening prowl of Friday nights in a small town. I haven’t coached a partner through recovery, but I have felt the terrifying impulse to throw away solid and hard-won relationships.
In certain stories (’Dogs’, ‘Coarsegold’, ‘Eternal Father’) – to return to the plane metaphor – the reader witnesses their fears made real. The wings snap off; the aircraft spirals towards the earth. Breaking the tension, these stories delve into the mess and horror of what people can do to one another. Occasionally I needed to take a break from the heft of these particular stories, which is a testament to their insight and sense of reality. They’re heavy because the world is heavy for so many, but at a time when despair seems unavoidable, I’d caution anyone picking this book up to go gently. Despite being a young writer (the author bio begins: ‘Jennifer Down was born in 1990’ – yes, you heard me), Down’s stories view the world from a place of maturity and clear vision.
This review of Jennifer Down’s short story collection Pulse Points is late – the book was released by Text at the end of July this year. It’s now October. Now that I’ve read it, I’m sorry to have arrived so late – this collection is deeply affecting. Having deservedly gained an adoring audience through Our Magic Hour, Down’s follow-up achieves something equally impressive, though quite different, to that first book. Its stories vary widely, but also share themes around grief, holding on (or letting go), and the beating parts of what it means to be human – the pulse points.