Burning In by Mireille Juchau

“You ran away from Australia for what? You want to be a big star? You want to start again?”

Should I stay or should I go? It’s the question that every artist who lives outside the world’s cultural capitals faces at one point or another. Burning In, the remarkable second novel from up and coming Australian writer Mireille Juchau, takes what’s admittedly familiar territory, an aspiring antipodean artist moves overseas, and applies a psychological insight so penetrating the novel actually succeeds in illuminating the dilemma in some surprisingly fresh, and by equal turns disturbing, new ways.

Beginning with a taut farewell to her mother in a departures lounge at Sydney airport, it soon becomes obvious that Martine, a photographer in her late twenties, is being drawn to New York for reasons far more complex than her artistic career. Not only leaving her country behind, she’s also on the run from an ageing and lonely mother named Lotte, a Holocaust survivor, who over the years has become increasingly dependent on Martine. As she boards the plane, Martine guiltily savors the freedom that lies ahead. This guilt is just one many cleverly crafted mysteries, gothic at heart, forming the layers that underpin this deceptively simple story.

Seeing how Martine is revealed from the outset as something of an independent operator, it comes as a bit of a surprise when not long after her arrival in New York she shacks up with a guy she meets randomly in a park. Within the space of a week she’s become a voluntary prisoner of her new lover, Joe, having abandoned her own apartment, and her camera, for the no strings attached sex and strangely comfortable anonymity of a new love affair. And it’s here we start to get some sense of the complexities of the novel and Juchau’s skill in portraying contradictions in her characters that seem not only believable, but entirely necessary.

As the introspective title suggests, Burning In is a psychological novel and its deep concern for motivation, and the subconscious impulses and inclinations that drive our actions, is what differentiates it from more conventional tales of creative expatriation. When Martine becomes pregnant by her lover, Joe, and gives birth to a daughter, Ruby, the question of how a young woman can be both an artist and mother is brought sharply into focus. We discover the effects pregnancy has on Martine’s work, how “when the nausea passed and she returned to taking photos, her prints floated up, grainy, unfocussed, the edges of everything turned liquid”.

Of course these are only physical symptoms, but they illustrate the poetic quality of the writing. After the shocking disappearance of Martine’s daughter half way through the story Juchau’s command of this style of intensely psychological storytelling is tested. As Martine slips into a grief that threatens to consume her the momentum of the narrative does start to waver somewhat, however, Martine’s inner struggle is enough to sustain the story, and movement between New York and Sydney also helps to quicken the pace when it starts to lapse.

Mireille Juchau burst onto the Australian literary scene in 1999 when she was short-listed for one of the country’s most prestigious emerging writers’ prizes. Her first novel Machines for Feeling drew praise for being freshly imaginative and poetic and Burning In seems consistent with that work. Its themes, though, are in line with those shared by many young Australian artists and writers today. The themes are a feeling of homelessness in the world, which is made even more intense through the experience of travel. This anxiety over belonging and identity is surely a universal experience and can’t be claimed as being uniquely Australian. However the geographical isolation of the country does explain why the preoccupation persists, sometimes annoyingly, in so much of the work produced there.

Juchau appears to take all this in her stride and much of the humor of the story (it’s not all darkly serious) arises from Martine’s outsider observations of New York life. There’s also the backdrop of American popular culture which becomes more prominent in moments of crisis as Martine attempts to seek refuge in the familiar vestiges of consumerism, the shopping mall and late night television, only to find their lack of any real content mirroring her own inner emptiness. “In the travel agency window a sign asks, Dreaming of Escape?” If only.

RATING 7 / 10