The fact that the novel The Crying Room (Transit Lounge Publishing 2023) by Gretchen Shirm has cover endorsements from Helen Garner and Tegan Bennett Daylight gives you an indication of the quality of the prose and the skilled crafting of the writing. Luminously depicting the minutia of life through Shirm’s careful and sharp observation, the novel meanders through family dynamics and close relationships with an intimacy that is warm, deft, funny and moving.
Incorporating themes of loneliness, loss, ambition, family, responsibility, belonging and love, The Crying Room is the story of Bernie Rodgers and her husband who move to the coastal town of Ballina, putting even more physical distance between her and her adult daughters, one of whom, Susie, cares for her niece through complicated circumstances involving Susie’s sister. There is also the mystery of a missing plane.
I admire incredibly the author’s ability to write beautiful sentences, and to create evocative scenes, authentic dialogue and very moving and thought-provoking emotions. In this way, the book reminded me a little of novels such as Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth, Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, and Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au. My one criticism is that the narrative is perhaps so meandering and abstract, so disconnected, that I found myself constantly trying to remember who was related to who, and how, and to follow the threads of the story that are presented in fractured timelines and from changing perspectives. As usual, this comment is qualified by the caveat that the reading of a book is completely subjective, and a different reader might be entirely captivated by this approach. Even I, on a different day, might have been in the right frame of concentration so that this wasn’t an issue.
But while it is a novel presented in scenes, loosely connected, those scenes are beautifully structured and portrayed, and the book includes some ‘footnotes’ and other devices that make the reading of it slightly experimental and almost meta in that it is at times writing about writing.
Gretchen Shirm is a talented and brave writer, tackling issues and themes in an unusual way. She leaves a lot unsaid on the page; a lot of white space for readers to make their own assumptions, or to create their own story from the fragments she provides. A very interesting and lyrical novel.