Book Review: What is Left Over After, by Natasha Lester
What is Left Over, After
by Natasha Lester
Fremantle Press 2010
Reviewed by Claire Williams
An Assured Debut
From the outset, this novel appears a little trashy. The synopsis outlines that the female protagonist, Gaelle, ‘flees her life with little more than her clothes, her camera, and her cosmetics.’ Then you open the first page and learn that the author, Natasha Lester, gave up her job as a marketing executive at Maybelline cosmetics to become a writer. That’s the second reference to cosmetics and you haven’t even begun the novel.
It begins, and it’s all about sex. It’s not gratuitous, but it doesn’t feel quite right. It’s too sudden, too explicit. It’s unsettling. Yet the writing is so superb, and the humour is so wry, you simply must keep reading, you must learn more about Galle. What has led this married woman to engage in this kind of careless behaviour, which is full of self-destruction and devoid of passion?
The trajectory is clear – Gaelle must get away from her life in Sydney in order to come to terms with her troubled past, so that she can enjoy her future. She leaves behind her surgeon husband and her job as a beauty editor at a magazine, and takes with her a stack of complicated, occasionally tragic memories (including a recently aborted pregnancy).
Her place of healing is our very own Siesta Park in Busselton. Here she hires a cottage and reluctantly becomes friends with Selena, a thirteen-year-old misfit who is desperate for some company. Gaelle slowly tells Selena the story of her troubled childhood. We learn that she was raised by an eccentric and unreliable mother, and this upbringing has created some lasting damage.
Once I got past my initial reservations, I delighted in this novel. Lester controls Gaelle’s restrained voice like an expert. A friend of mine who recently finished reading it told me she found the voice a bit monotonous, but I disagree. It felt like a summer holiday in Seista Park – unhurried and relaxed, never sluggish. The descriptions of local scenes in Busselton are gorgeous – Lester handles the heat, the ocean, the bugs, and all those summery things, with grace and elegance.
The breeze has died and the lawn is sweating which only adds to the steam in the air; I feel as if I could reach out and squeeze it like a sponge but it is like fog – always at the tips of my fingers and never in the palm of my hand. (pg 112)
Beyond the impressive descriptive phrases, this novel is an insightful and intensive look at mothers and daughters. Lester generates all kinds of tensions here, delving into some of the hidden facets of motherhood. What if your loving husband wants a baby but you’re not so sure? How do you cope with the loss of your child? What makes a good mother, and can we ever really answer that?
Lester won the 2008 T A G Hungerford Award for the unpublished manuscript of this novel, which is a testament to her talent. Watch Lester ripen into an Australian literary favourite.
Available in bookshops now for RRP $27.95. Buy it online here.