Jessie Cole has spent all her life enfolded by rainforest in the fertile Northern Rivers. Her home, a sprawling wooden house, is on a winding dead-end road, far from any town. In the '70s her parents had escaped Sydney, bought land, built the house and planted trees. As a child she was so connected to the natural world that the garden was a friendly, tender entity, it "reached out and caressed me as I passed".
Even now at 40 she goes to sleep at night with "the constant knock of nature on my door, an earthen rhythm of syncopated heartbeats".
It is a life lived in a state of purity, without commercial television, and only satellite internet. When she goes to the city, she says, she is very susceptible to advertising. "I haven't built up any resistance. I come back thinking I am unacceptable in every way possible because advertising is aimed at making you feel you're not all right the way you are."
When Cole was seven her elder half-sister Zoe came from Sydney to live. At 13 Zoe seemed a dazzling, glamorous creature to her isolated country sister and she had all the casual cruelty that a teenager can inflict on a younger, lesser mortal. In turn, their father, a psychiatrist, would put Zoe down at the dinner table.
Cole's new memoir, Staying, is partly written from the perspective of the watching child looking up at the people in her world.
Their father had not wanted Zoe to go travelling, he had a foreboding, and while in the Netherlands the 18-year-old took her own life. The family was engulfed by darkness. Her father descended into a manic madness, repeatedly admitted to psychiatric hospitals, self-medicating with alcohol and staging several alarming episodes.
"He was manic depressive" says Cole, "a very late onset diagnosis which is quite rare. A sort of a psychotic response to grieving." Six years after his daughter he too ended his life.
The beauty of the writing in Staying might seem like a talent flowering to its full potential after two novels, the pared-back Darkness at the Edge of Town and the more lyrical Deeper Water, both set in the rolling hills of her home. It wasn't until Darkness was published in 2012 that Cole "started to meet people from outside here and to really get a sense of how unusual my life has been".
In fact Staying was written before either of the novels at the suggestion of her therapist, the first person to recognise her talent.
"I think that each book has its own language. A lot of this book is the first draft which is much more poetic and lyrical than anything I wrote afterwards because I didn't know any of the rules of writing. It was a really lovely way to come to writing because I wasn't being judged for it. It was purely joyful because I wasn't doing it under a critical gaze."
But therapeutic writing is different from offering the sorrows of your life up for public scrutiny.
"I always used to think when I was writing the novels that the way I wanted people to feel was as if they were at the back of a pub and someone was whispering their life story in their ear. So to allow myself to be whispering all my secrets into somebody's ear, that part of it was so hard. It wasn't so much of a technique issue as a trust issue. Like 'if I am this open with you, will you still hear me?'"
In the gentle, insular world in which she lives, the two deaths were cataclysmic. She had her two sons very young, the first when she was 20, bringing them up on her own after she and her high-school boyfriend drifted apart. "It was that concept of regenerating something if you've lost a lot. I was very attached to that idea and I still feel very attached to it."
Her recovery was long and slow over years but having her children helped. "I wouldn't advise it as a coping mechanism for others but it really helped me. I couldn't be ruminating in that space constantly if I was required by my children to be present."
Although Staying navigates difficult terrain, it is far from a misery memoir. It is a calm, clear, even account of what happened from the transcending distance of time. Jessie Cole is surrounded by the beauty of the natural world; it holds her close, embraces her, it always has. And that shines through in her book.
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