Chloe Hooper puts her memories up in quick succession: two young sons, an older partner, and something that suddenly happens, making home life precious and strange. The father of her children is Don Watson (author, historian and, famously, Keating speechwriter). Something: a common cancer and a rare mutation. Hooper, two novels and two critically acclaimed works of exploratory literature under her belt, direct her humane, forensic eye to her own family’s grief and private downfall. It feels like a novel, its characters captivating, moving and funny – that they are real people, seems like a secondary, extraordinary achievement.
Bedtime Story is dedicated to both boys, but caters primarily to the oldest. Hooper goes through centuries of children’s books, in search of stories that will help her talk to him “about the real darkness”. She is not only looking for language to get into the subject of Watson’s disease, but to teach herself to somehow be less afraid.
Which is not the same project as seeking comfort, exactly. Traditional children’s stories, she writes, came from folk tales “soaked in death”, and are not much interested in reassuring anyone. The strange horror and joy of life is very much the point, and there is a tangible, conspiratorial sense of relief from Hooper (her own fiction generally described as “Gothic”), as she notes that even later watered-down versions of these tales can rarely be completely disinfected. The “fairy tale model” is gaining growing relevance in her own life: heroes, in “an enchanted forest or an oncology ward”, suddenly forced to play by arbitrary, perverted new rules.
Cancer treatment is expensive, even for those, like Watson and Hooper, with private health insurance. Access to potentially life-saving medical examinations is a spearhead of timing, luck, and money – the faithfully progressive Watson finds them “obscene,” “health care for rich people”; Hooper just wants him to get better; they can not afford it anyway. As they negotiate the hospital and the brutal waiting game with chemo, her voice glimmers with unrest, humor and insecure rage – she is aware of how illness exposes the systems our society has in place to take care of each other and the gaps in those systems. . She is just as aware of the hypocrisies that are revealed when we each duck and weave around them, seizing every advantage to protect those we care about. Negotiate with the witch. Take the gold.
If children’s stories contain our myths, Hooper also sees that they hold our blind spots. Western children’s literature in particular is replete with them: racist stereotypes, expulsions and losses whitewashed into a “deadly story” of terra nullius and pioneer bravery; man-made animals whose charming adventures erase the current threat of their own disappearance. Hooper, who reaches out for ways to talk to his children about “everything that is about to be lost,” inevitably expands his lens on the climate crisis. There’s something to be tied together here, about history and death and global warming – irreversible events, the narcotic dangers of nostalgia, the need to face the facts. But there is no “learning moment”, and Hooper’s attempt to merge one feels didactic and artificial. For in the end, she struggles with how we can master ourselves in the face of things we cannot control. There is no answer. And Bedtime Story, like the best moments of her second writing, is more notable for its ability to accommodate conflicting truths: children thirst for and deserve honesty; too much truth before bedtime and “no one can sleep”.
Escape is critical sometimes. A story can be a garden between worlds, where for every missing fairytale mother or beheaded brother there is a miracle elixir, a Fisher King, who – in the right words – may be saved. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion questions the delusions of happy endings: our vulnerability “to the persistent message that we can avert death”. But in children’s stories, Hooper says, “being a fan is no shame”. She notices how many of her favorites, as writers themselves, are torn apart by grief, and suggests that they contain more than just wishful thinking: in CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien’s, Roald Dahls, even Eric Carle’s worlds, she sees ” a philosophical framework for dealing with the dark ”.
Despite its broader themes, this book is an intensely intimate portrait of a household that is “turned up”. For Watson’s family, his diagnosis is a reverse adventure in which “all the riches of the world will be abolished at an unspecified but imminent time”. Hooper’s observations are interspersed with violent, personal poetry reminiscent of Sharon Olds (look up Rite of Passage, or Size and Sheer Will) – her child’s face is “a fine-legged instrument”, his football match “a ballet of chaos and will”. She resents his “peculiar vigilance” and “polite caution,” and when Watson (“all five feet nine inches of his stiff-necked, sun-red, impatient, funny, sore self”) sends the boys to bed every night, delighting them with his own stories outside the cuff. And she sees him watching them, “unable to turn away … allows himself only briefly to show the gods what he loves best”. Under each line, the Scheherazade request hums: time, more time.
Across the pages, illustrator Anna Walker’s quiet watercolors bloom and fade – ghostly trees, a dark river, a lone gull – sometimes take over completely when words fail. At some point, “death believes the language,” Hooper writes. And yet we cling to sentences. One way to throw off a nightmare – the “devastating shame” of the horrors we have not dealt with in daylight – is to describe it. Doctors are now trained in “narrative competence”. The right words may not save anyone, but they do help. And again and again, Hooper – like Didion, or Lewis, or Yiyun Li, or Helen McDonald or Claire-Louise Bennett – finds them in books. Bedtime Story is a song about reading “silence, the secret drone”.
“The real story,” as she writes, “can also break fever.”
Bedtime Story by Chloe Hooper is out now in Australia ($ 34.99, Simon & Schuster). Hooper speaks at the Sydney Writers Festival, which opens on Tuesday 17 May