There’s a dreamy richness underscoring Emily Ballou’s second novel Aphelion. The book opens in 1939, with an 18-year old Esme waking to the sensual remains of last night’s dinner. Her future is still before her, her legs strong as she walks through the snow, full of anticipation and memory that is still tinged with possibility. By opening the book here, Ballou allows the reader to share Esme’s memories and feel the same sense of nostalgia as the novel progresses. That sense of excitement, of something good about to happen, also remains with the reader, though by the next chapter the downward pull of “Gravity” is strong. 2002 is, perhaps, the book’s aphelion -- when the characters, at least at the start, are at their bleakest.
Esme, now 81, and Hortense, her 101 year old mother, are old and infirm, struggling against their limitations and coming to terms with an impending death. There is an aged mother-daughter dance between Esme and Hortense, as they both struggle with their infirmaries — competing on ailments, self-destructiveness and loss. Their past is drowned in Lake Eucumbene. Lucetta, their niece, is young and beautiful but she’s already a widow: lonely and lost. The family orbits around one another, like planets without a sun, cold and snappy, cut off from their past. Into this hotbed of family quarrel and meaningless activity comes Hazel, also a lost planet, but carrying Rhett, a young man who grew up in the town. Hazel is an American migrant, in search of a new life after leaving behind a bad love affair in Sydney. Rhett brings with him the sense of dislocation as he returns from a long time away in Greece. His mother has recently died, his brothers are dead, and his house has fallen into disrepair. Slipping into his past is like moving into a skin that no longer fits. All five characters are at their aphelion.
Then there’s 1957. The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric scheme is still in its early days and the city of old Adaminaby is being drowned. It’s a critical year for the family. Their home becomes submerged into Lake Eucumbene, and, like the rest of the town, they acquiesce, uneasily. Their old lives are under the water, waiting to pull them under too. Ballou handles the time shifts masterly, using Hazel in the present and her influence as historian to allow the other characters an easy motion backwards. 1957 is revealed as flashbacks in the eyes of Hortense as she recalls her husband Jack, and a momentary decision that changed the lives of her and her family. Esme too had her pulsation, briefly, until upstaged by her sisters. The relationship between the two eras in the past and the present is seamless, linked by Hazel as she pulls it all together in her montage of love. There is never a point when the narrative is unclear or the reader is lost or jarred moving between the time frames. It feels as though the past and present are one and the same -- that the characters move in and out of time, as we all do in our memories, without the need to stop and situate the narrative. This is partly due to the well-constructed plot, but also due to Ballou’s exquisite linguistic ability. Her prose is startlingly beautiful, and not just the poetic metaphors, which are present throughout the book and always original, fresh and powerful: “The rain fell like a broken necklace, beads bouncing to the ground.” (404).