On the bookshelf
By Ella Baxter
Two-Dollar Radio: 212 pages, $18
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Amelia Aurelia, the 28-year-old protagonist of Ella Baxter’s debut novel”new animalknows she can’t escape death. She spends her days working as a cosmetic undertaker at her family’s funeral home in Australia’s Northern Rivers region, conjuring up the living dead to comfort the bereaved. Amelia finds the bodies she works on “beyond beautiful, but only because they are so drained of care. Anything tense or unfriendly is gone. Like a mall in the middle of the night, they’ve lost all the chaos and commotion. She understands that we will all lose this chaos and banging sooner or later. “Life lies like a layer of muslin over a body: a breath of wind and you’re dead,” Amelia tells her neighbors at the local pub.
This sense of equanimity turns out to be a covering as fragile as this muslin, Amelia’s morbid wisdom an illusion of control over the impermanence of life. What follows is by turns a comedy of errors and a deep meditation on how to find mooring in the world when you’ve lost your anchor.
Going off, Amelia carries an air of expertise on the needs of the dead and the bereaved, which is more than you can say about her field in general. Baxter captures the suffocating trappings of the modern grief industry, which assumes the best container for grief is a fixed room in someone’s great-aunt’s living room.
Aurelia’s funeral home is better than that. Amelia’s mother, Josie, knows the painful need to maintain her blood sugar with the marzipan berries she molds weekly and sets up shop in the hall; they must lie down on the velvet sofa in the “mourning corner” closed by curtains; they need a box of tissues in each corner. Above all, they need to be close to their dead. While smudging foundation onto a young woman’s dead face, Amelia reflected, “I wish I could tell her…how important it is for her people to see her like this, how much they need see this picture of her in peace before they can feel peace themselves… I want to tell her that a woman can bear the weight of another woman, and my mother will find her mother and take her away from all of this .
But when that gust of wind comes unexpectedly for Amelia’s mother, she realizes how poorly her academic understanding of grief has prepared her. “I miss her and need her, and she’s me, or at least a part of me, and I haven’t fully absorbed her yet,” she thinks looking at Josie’s empty body in the hospital bed. “Whose daughter am I now? Where has she gone?”
Amelia tries to feel her mother’s presence in “dou[ing] the bungalow in its perfume” and to mold and eat a woman in marzipan, but these efforts bring “no comfort. No peace.” She feels drawn to the self-centered hysteria of her stepfather, the audacious intrusions of her brother’s group into the planning of the funeral, the tear-streaked hugs of her mother’s friend.
And she finds she can’t stand the prescriptions she used to recommend. She tries to move past her grief, getting as far away from her mother’s funeral as possible by camping with her biological father in faraway Tasmania.
In truth, Amelia’s serenity has always been fragile. Baxter takes its title from Shakespeare’s image of coupled bodies as the “beast with two backs” – the state Amelia sought through the dating app matches most nights in order to be “medicated by another body”. The warmth and vivacity of sex are an antidote to the “firm and cold” bodies that she prepares for screenings. When Josie dies, however, the compartmentalization of Amelia’s days and nights crumbles. In Tasmania, she takes sex as medicine to extremes, flailing absurdly in the local BDSM community, seeking oblivion.
Writing about kink can be whimsical or gritty, but Baxter imbues BDSM scenes with just the right amount of levity and self-awareness. Stripping down at a kink club the day before her mother’s funeral, Amelia applauded herself: “I’m really bringing energy tonight. I should tell people I’ve never done this before, never been naked on this scale before. They would probably be surprised at how well I handled it like a duck to water. Sure, she’s quickly disillusioned with his confidence, but she pushes ahead – all to avoid thinking about how her mother is now just a “shell”.
What unites death and sex is the way they force us to confront our bodies; by bringing them together here, Baxter has truly written a novel about the limits of the visceral and the need for the mind to sit with the hardest truths, the worst emotional pains, rather than trying to escape them. When Jack sits Amelia down and forces her to look at old photos of her mother—forces her to face her sadness—she realizes how little she understood about grief before.
“I have facts; I am full of facts,” she thinks. ” It’s deep. It is necessary. It’s human. No one tells you that dye is dripping into your life, slowly coloring everything. No one tells you how useless people can be or how hostile the world can seem. Nobody tells you the hours it takes to process all the feelings and memories.
Passages like these are some of the most candid and resonant I have read about what death does to the bereaved. The author has clearly dedicated herself to grappling with death in a way that more closely resembles Victorian mourning than the antiseptic conventions of Aurelia’s funeral home. As a textile artist, Baxter crafts intricate death shrouds stitched with interpretations of Hubble Space Telescope images of star birth in deep space. These shrouds, supposed to wrap the body at its extremity, are in a way the reverse of life’s “layer of muslin over a body”. Considering his concerns in the form of a novel, Baxter encapsulated the agony of loss and the need to face it to find the new person you will become.
Martin is writing a book about the American orphanage for Bold Type Books.