I’ll be honest: I picked up this book because I loved the cover. I knew nothing else about it.
Turns out it’s very good.
Juchau is one of those Australian literary novelists who attracts critical acclaim and awards nods but, I suspect, not a lot of readers.
This novel – her third – will hopefully change that.
At its core, it’s the story of a family – the Mullers, led by stoic German immigrant turned beekeeper Stefan and the broken, burnt Evangeline – that’s falling apart, riven by the tragic loss of a daughter and secrets that are at first only hinted at but gradually revealed.
But this is more than just another family drama: The World Without Us is grander in scope, dropping the Mullers into an almost biblical milieu, rich in symbolism. There’s the cultish commune called The Hive, a place that long ago succumbed to fire but still casts a dark shadow over their NSW mountain town; the nearby fracking mine that’s turning their once idyllic Eden sour and the survivalist warning of imminent ecological catastrophe; and the plague that’s killing the town’s bees. Late in the novel there’s even a flood, when the Repentance River swells and breaks its banks.
If all this seems a little heavy-handed, never fear: Juchau handles it masterfully, with cool and elegant prose that borders on poetry.
It’s a chilly novel, as emotionally remote as many of the characters, but atmospheric and effective.
Next: a classic from one of my favourite female authors.