Jennifer Down has been named by The Sydney Morning Herald recently as one of the best young novelists of 2017. Her debut novel charts the aftermath of a young woman’s suicide, and was named after an installation art piece by Ugo Rondinone: a rainbow of text spelling out ‘Our Magic Hour’ arching above the industrial backdrop off Melbourne’s Punt Road. Down’s second book, a collection of short stories called Pulse Points, is due in August this year. Read on for Emma Harvey’s review of Our Magic Hour.
The subject matter of Our Magic Hour is weighty and its author is a young and relatively unfamiliar face on the Australian literary scene. But Jennifer Down approaches her debut novel, about the aftermath of a suicide, with great dexterity and emotion.
The story opens on a group of 20-somethings sharing beers on the balcony, bustling about the kitchen and exchanging cheerful insults. The main trio – Katy, Adam and Audrey – have been friends for years. The warmth of this scene, however, quickly dissipates in the following pages when Katy commits suicide. The remainder of the book follows Audrey as, over the next year, she attempts to process and deal with the loss. With a bipolar mother and a barely sober brother to care for, Audrey suffocates slowly and silently. Working in the field of child protection, a baby she has been observing dies and, while it wasn’t her fault, Audrey internalises the responsibility.
the characters’ grief is ugly and bewildering.”
Meanwhile, Adam’s decline is steep and intense. As he becomes increasingly frenzied and self-destructive, Audrey encourages him to seek professional help, despite neglecting to do so for herself. Her boyfriend, Nick, is sturdy and kind, and their relationship has a domestic rhythm and tenderness. But as Audrey becomes less like herself, the relationship disintegrates, and she moves to Sydney to take up a position as a social worker in a hospital.
The depictions of places in the story are among its main achievements. The shape of the buildings, the lights and smells, orientate the narrative and form a backdrop for the characterisation. Melbourne is melancholy and gritty; Sydney, glaring and colourful.
Down’s prose is sharp and intimate, the characters flawed and achingly familiar. For a book about mourning, it’s not overly sentimental or indulgent. Instead, the characters’ grief is ugly and bewildering. Our Magic Houri s a compelling, authentic portrayal of loss, dislocation and the unsteadiness of young adult life.