Nell Pierce’s debut novel, A place near Eden, won the 2022 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. It was my reading group’s last book of the year, and it engendered a lively discussion, partly because our response was mixed and partly because its setting on the south coast of New South Wales is well-known to us.
Part coming-of-age novel, part mystery, part family drama, A place near Eden is told first person in the voice of Tilly who is around 20 years old when she is telling her story to a mysterious “you” – at least, “you” is not revealed to the reader until around half-way through the novel, so I won’t reveal it now. I can reveal however, that Tilly is trying to tell her side of a story to this “you”, and slowly, what this story is comes out of the murky recesses of her memory.
My reading group’s practice is to start with each of us briefly sharing our first impressions before we settle into deeper discussion. My first impressions for A place near Eden were that I loved its exploration of how truth can be manipulated or twisted, of different versions and perspectives of the same experience, and of the difference between facts and truths, in personal lives, in law, in art, but that I found the tone a bit heavy-handed, with little respite. Respite in tone – as Shakespeare knew – is good. A place near Eden is a reflective novel in which Tilly reviews the events that had happened to her, trying to make sense of them, so its tone is peppered throughout with “perhaps”, “maybe”, “looking back”, “in retrospect”, “now”, “still” and so on. It was a little unremitting. However, A place near Eden is a first novel so can be forgiven some flaws.
As you will have guessed, the title has both literal and metaphorical meanings: it is set near Eden in southern New South Wales, and the characters may be “near” but they don’t achieve being “in” Eden (paradise). Their own flaws prevent it.
The story starts with a prologue which looks back to halcyon days in the life of Tilly, then 13 years old, and her foster brother Sem and friend Celeste who were 14, almost 15 years old. The dynamic is set between them, one in which the younger Tilly is seen by the other two as “just a kid”. There is a bit of an experience gap between them – as can happen at the time of early puberty. An incident happens at the local pool that sets us up for the tone of the book, though it’s not “the” incident on which the book centres. In this incident, a small child falls – or is knocked – and hurts his head. Who did it? Tilly blames Celeste, though she herself “might” have done it. Writing later, she says:
The more I think on things, one way or the other, the more real they seem. That I was afraid of getting in trouble. Or that I wanted to punish Celeste. That it was her fault, or mine. I can believe it either way.
Throughout the novel, which primarily takes place when Tilly and Celeste are around 19 to 21 years old, the story is told in this maybe-this-maybe-that sort of tone. It is, essentially, a story about finding one’s self, one’s identity. In this case, it’s Tilly’s, so we see it all through her eyes, as she struggles to keep up with the just-a-bit-older, just-a-bit more experienced, just-a-bit more confident Celeste. This sort of uneven friendship is difficult to maintain.
“it could play either way” (Tilly)
So we come to the critical incident. Tilly and Celeste have been living at a holiday shack near Eden, while Sem – who is in a relationship with Celeste – comes and goes at will. One night, however, he disappears, and Tilly, who was drunk at the time, is blamed for it. Did she cause it or didn’t she? This is what she is trying to comprehend and explain to “you”.
Tilly is a character who likes facts – her preferred reading is the encyclopaedia – but she is aware that there is often a gap between facts and the truth (which she describes as “something that hissed out”). She is aware that “even when people try to tell the truth about something as mundane as a tomato, they couldn’t help but betray other things about themselves”. So, what are we to believe from this self-consciously unreliable narrator, from this narrator who says to us “saying something with confidence … can make a story real” and that “maybe we all embroider the truth sometimes”? Late in the novel, when she writes about telling her story to her lawyer, she says “I could feel stories emerging in my mind, ways of presenting things that I knew would please her”. She admits to lying to both the police and the lawyer, but that doesn’t, in fact, mean she is guilty of what she is accused of.
Alongside Tilly telling her story is her description of the documentary film being made about the case by her erstwhile boyfriend, Peter, who tells the story from three angles – the lost, troubled boy (Sem); a revenge story (Tilly); the manipulator (Celeste). In each version, different pieces of information are omitted to construct a specific viewpoint about what happened. It’s a clever portrayal of the “art” of the documentary. Tilly sees how “controlled” it is, and admits that she had “thought in art there might be truth”. Not here … though she had seen “truth” in Celeste’s portraits.
The book’s tagline on the cover is, “who do you trust when you can’t trust yourself?” This personal story is part of it, and reminds me of the recent conversation I attended with Heather Rose. She commented that “life is a process of forgiveness for the choices we make in order to be ourselves”. This could easily describe Tilly’s situation, as she struggles to come to terms with what she did – or what she may have done – in that tortuous process of becoming herself.
However, Nell Pierce also has a bigger story to tell, I believe. Late in the novel, Tilly comes to realise that, like her Mum, she is “sceptical of these neat stories we tell about people”. By concluding her book without a neat resolution, Pierce suggests to us that we too should beware of “neat stories”, that we should take nothing at face value. Question everything, just as Tilly seems to do.
Lisa also found this an intriguing book.
A place near Eden
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2022