A review of Names for Nothingness by Georgia Blain

Nothing is simple, and as Blain herself says, Names for Nothingness raises more questions than it solves. Caitlin’s life is sad, but she finds a kind of peace, even if the reader disapproves of her choice, which seems little more than a living death, pointless and empty. Sharn and Liam’s loss is also inevitable. It has already occurred by the time the novel opens.

Reviewed by Magdalena ball

Names for Nothingness
by Georgia Blain
Picador
April, 2004, $A30, softcover, ISBN: 033036488X

“Every year this happens, seemingly overnight, a loss that is both sudden and inevitable…” (3) Georgia Blain’s fourth novel, Names for Nothingness, is a novel of loss both sudden and inevitable. The novel focuses primarily on the relationships between Sharn, her partner Liam, and Sharn’s daughter Caitlin. Just shy of her eighteenth birthday, Caitlin drops out of high school and joins the Satya Deva “cult”, renouncing her family, her education, and most of all, her own self – her body, her desires and her responsibilities. Sharn’s desperation, Liam’s involvement, and the myriad of emotions surrounding these relationships – filial and maternal guilt, the nature of “giving” and how we express, and provide love and support provide the forward motion of the novel.

Although Satya Deva’s cult is portrayed in as negative a light as it is possible, with plenty of hints about its disreputable nature, Blain refrains from any kind of moralistic tone, and there is an important reality in Caitlin’s own movement towards the cult. It isn’t just Fraser, the good looking recruit who draws her in, as other of her schoolmates are shown rejecting him as attractive but loopy and unappealing. Caitlin is already a misfit – a person who doesn’t feel that life is working for her. We know that the book Fraser gives Caitlin rings true with her, and that her detachment from life is already the cornerstone of her character. Caitlin’s reaction to her daughter’s need for involvement, for physical engagement, makes it clear that her emotional damage predates the cult:

‘I don’t want what other people want.’ She picked at a loose thread on the hem of her uniform. ‘I can’t sit and talk about how I’d like to be a lawyer or a doctor or a journalist, or how I want to be married with children, or own a house, or any of those thing.’ She looked down at the floor. ‘It doesn’t make sense to me.’ She pulled at the tread. The hem came undone. ‘I can’t even pretend.’ (49)

And the cult isn’t where the interest or focus in this book lies. The reader is drawn to Sharn’s guilt, to her desire for change, and the way in which her feelings differ from her actions, which seem to occur in spite of her needs and wants. Sharn feels herself to be a failure, and there are indications of how her early selfishness, and sharp tongue have made her daughter feel unwanted:

She had never been good at any of it, at being with Caitlin or Liam, or even herself. Caitlin learnt very young not to need her. To survive she had to be self-sufficient. In that shack by the river, Sharn let her cry. Sometimes she sat outside wanting only to get away from her. When she came back in, she did not talk to her or comfort her or hold her. She kept her clean. She kept her fed. And she could do no more.(92-3)

Liam is the opposite. He takes Caitlin as she is, loving her fully and instantly, but he also allows her the space to make her own choices and is then surprised by the negativity which results or how he will need to take action to live the life he believes in. He forces himself to see the world as beautiful, and to see the beauty in those around him. For Liam, the real action takes place in nature, in the moments between words: “He looks up at the sky, and in that moment the breeze stirs above them, fanning out the leaves of the traveller palms, the sound like the slow rush of the wheels on the track when a train departs from the station, pulling out from the platform.” (243)

The narrative voice in Names for Nothingness moves between each of the three main characters, Sharn, Liam, and Caitlin, in a way that allows their individual feelings to be the primary focus. We learn about the past through the separate and often disparate memories, from Sharn’s guilt ridden pain , and her longing to be someone other than who she is, to Liam’s attempts to bring back a past through films which captured life in a way that may not ever have been true. The struggle between the past and the present leaves the future uncertain and open.

Nothing is simple, and as Blain herself says, Names for Nothingness raises more questions than it solves. Caitlin’s life is sad, but she finds a kind of peace, even if the reader disapproves of her choice, which seems little more than a living death, pointless and empty. Sharn and Liam’s loss is also inevitable. It has already occurred by the time the novel opens. We also know that everything has changed by the end of the novel, and that something new, maybe something positive will emerge in the new space between Essie, Caitlin‘s daughter, Liam and Sharn, even if that positive thing is very different from what the characters have been driving towards. Names for Nothingness is full of sadness and loss, but it is also delicate, and beautifully written, with a gentle understanding of the frailties of human nature.

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