TRACES OF ABSENCE
Author: Susan Holoubek
Macmillan Australia RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
An emotional and gripping novel, Traces of Absence is the debut from Susan Holoubek … and boy, is it a stunner. It’s so much more than a story of a mother searching for her missing daughter; instead, it explores mother guilt, spiritual guilt, complex mother-daughter relationships against a simmering backdrop of violence, cultural expectations and corruption. Reading this book takes you into the heart of a mother’s quest, but it also takes you into your heart to examine your thoughts on the issues raised.
She would like to believe she had created such a legacy of love for her own children, but her belief faltered around that question. She could not find herself in Alicia’s description of motherhood. She could only find more traces of absence.
Sometimes the death of someone can bring the ones left behind closer together. Sometimes the opposite is the case. Dee, whose relationship with her daughter Corrie has always been strained, finds that when her husband dies suddenly the distance between her and Corrie is further than ever. When she suggests Corrie take a gap year in Argentina, it seems like the perfect solution. Perhaps some time apart will bridge the ever-widening gap in their relationship. When Corrie goes missing in Argentina, Dee faces every mother’s worst nightmare. Has she lost her child for ever? Boarding a plane, she launches a frantic search with the help of police and Australian embassy staff. When it appears that Corrie may be another statistic, Dee refuses to give up and returns to Buenos Aires each year to keep the search alive.
Four years after Corrie’s disappearance, Dee returns for what she accepts may be the last time, but a chance lead takes her on another path towards finding out what happened to Corrie. This time, the embassy is not involved and Dee is forced to rely on the help of friends and strangers to navigate a city by turns exciting and dangerous. The fear that Dee feels for her safety is overshadowed by her fear for her daughter and a deeper fear that she’s somehow responsible. Did she fail her daughter? Is she now failing her sons by leaving them behind to search for Corrie? And if she doesn’t find Corrie, is Dee ever allowed to feel happy again? Does she deserve the kindness and/or love of others?
The ballast of her life had blown away leaving her with a disorienting, but not entirely unpleasant, sense of weightlessness.
Dee’s journey to Argentina is symbolic of her emotional journey both as a mother and a woman. She is travelling great distance to bridge a great emotional distance between herself and her missing daughter, as well as reconcile with herself. In the same way, the violent and edgy background of Buenos Aires’ poorer neighbourhoods, brimming with anger and resentment, evokes the quality of the relationship between Dee and Corrie.
Dee’s life, by comparison, was a wearying blur of relentless endeavour in the quest for some elusive and undefined expression of perfection, a manic careering across many fronts to stave off multiple possibilities of humiliating failure.
Aside from the mother-guilt and parenting themes, redemption and grace are major theme. Holoubek addresses this beautifully using the Church as both a positive and negative role model. Dee, a lapsed Catholic, finds a new friend in Stephen, a gay priest; through Stephen the negative is highlighted as he deals with the Church’s expectation that he admit to being a “defective heterosexual” and undergo re-education or be stripped of his Holy Orders. It is also through Stephen, and the Sisters of Mercy who are of great help to Dee, that the positive is highlighted and the lessons of redemption and grace are beautifully shared. I love when Sister Catalina asks Dee matter-of-factly: ‘Who told you that you had to do things to earn love?’. That question stopped my reading for a moment as I absorbed its deeper, personal implications. And later, when Stephen, despite his own struggles, says that often people’s expectations of God as a being who wishes ill will on humanity can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies … loved how he could believe in a God of grace and redemption despite his own Church’s judgment of him. That’s the kind of God I want to believe in.
Wise, thoughtful and beautifully written, I loved Traces of Absence. It resonated with me on a number of levels and left me feeling that I’d read something really special. Even if you’re not a mother, if you struggle with guilt there’s a fantastic message in here about kindness towards others, but also towards yourself.
Available from good bookstores and Pan Macmillan Australia. This copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan.
Bookish treat: Alfajores, a sweet Argentinian biscuit, are mentioned a number of times through the novel – Dee suspects they never get through customs because the customs officers want them. They sound delish!