This book was actually published here in the UK at the very tail end of 2016 – I hope that won’t mean that it falls through the Christmas/New Year coverage cracks because it deserves attention. Our Magic Hour is Jennifer Down’s debut and comes from Australian publishers Text Publishing whose books I’ve learnt to look out for. Someone there has a sharp eye for talent as Down’s novel amply demonstrates. It follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend Katy kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability.
Audrey and Katy have been best friends since school, part of a tight-knit circle who prop each other up at parties, dry each others’ tears and share each others’ good and bad times. Audrey has always been the responsible one; a violent alcoholic father, remembered fondly by her bipolar mother, and a younger brother who seems in danger of going off the rails have made sure of that. When her dearest friend dies, it’s Audrey who looks out for everyone else, listening patiently to Adam’s distressed middle-of-the-night calls and visiting Katy’s parents, while her partner Nick tries to take care of her. Unnoticed by herself, Audrey slowly falls apart while trying to keep everyone else from doing the same. When the crisis finally comes, she decides to strike out on her own, leaving her job as a social worker in Melbourne and finding one in Sydney on a paediatric cancer ward. Audrey is determined to try to make a life for herself but it’s hard, lonely work with missteps along the way.
Written from Audrey’s point of view, Our Magic Hour is a masterclass in elegant understatement. There are no histrionics here: Audrey quietly descends into a black depression as Nick looks helplessly on. Down’s writing is so restrained that, like Audrey, we’re brought up short when details let slip alert us to her state of mind. Its quiet intimacy draws us into Audrey’s circle making the loneliness of her life in Sydney all the more wrenching but it can also be wonderfully vivid: the exuberant Adam has ‘lungfuls of stories to tell’; Emy is ‘just on the safe side of a really lavish vomit’ at her leaving party and Claire describes making scones as ‘just flour and milk and sugar and cream. You chuck it all in there, and beat it like it owes you money’. Our Magic Hour could very easily have been an overwhelmingly bleak novel but Down steers it neatly clear of that. It’s about the way in which friendship can help you through the darkest of times, about resilience and learning when to reach out, and it ends on a note of hope which brought me to tears. A very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely. I’m looking forward to seeing what Down comes up with next.