Chloe Hooper sets her memoirs together in quick strokes: two young sons, an older partner and something, suddenly, happens that makes domestic life precious and strange. The father of her children is Don Watson (writer, historian and, famously, Keating’s speechwriter). The something: a common cancer and a rare mutation. Hooper, two novels and two critically acclaimed investigative nonfiction works to his credit, turns his human and forensic gaze on the grief and private loss of his own family. It feels like a novel, its characters captivating, moving and funny – that they are real people seems a secondary and extraordinary achievement.
Bedtime Story is dedicated to the two boys but is aimed primarily at the eldest. Hooper sifts through centuries of children’s books, looking for stories that will help tell him about “real black.” She is not only looking for a language to broach the subject of Watson’s disease, but to teach herself, in a way, to be less afraid.
Which is not exactly the same project as the search for comfort. Traditional children’s tales, she writes, stem from folk tales “soaked in death,” and have little interest in appeasing anyone. Life’s weird horror and joy is really the point, and there’s 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 seldom be entirely sanitized. The “fairy tale model” takes on increasing importance in his own life: heroes, in “an enchanted forest or an oncology ward”, suddenly forced to play by arbitrary and perverse new rules.
Cancer treatment is expensive, even for those like Watson and Hooper who have private health insurance. Access to potentially life-saving medical trials is a glove of timing, luck and money – the staunchly progressive Watson calls them “obscene”, “health care for the rich”; Hooper just wants him to get better; they can’t afford it anyway. As they negotiate the hospital and the brutal wait for chemo, her voice shines with concern, humor and uncertain rage – she is aware of how illness lays bare the systems our societies have set up to care for each other, and the shortcomings of those systems. She is just as aware of exposed hypocrisies as we dodge them and we sneak around them, clinging to any advantage to protect those we hold dear. Negotiate with the witch. Take the gold.
If children’s stories hold our myths, Hooper also sees that they hold our blind spots. Western children’s literature in particular is the target: racist stereotypes, dispossession and loss whitewashed in a “history without death” of terra nullius and pioneering bravery; anthropomorphic animals whose charming adventures erase the current threat of their own demise. Hooper, looking for ways to tell his children about “all that is being lost,” inevitably broadens his focus to the climate crisis. There’s something to be tied up here, about history and death and global warming – the irreversible events, the narcotic dangers of nostalgia, the need to face the facts. But there is no “teachable moment,” and Hooper’s attempt to cobble together one feels didactic and contrived. Because ultimately she struggles with how we might control ourselves in the face of things we can’t control. There’s no answer. And Bedtime Story, like the highlights of his other writing, is most notable for its ability to contain conflicting truths: children crave and deserve frankness; too much truth before bed and “no one can sleep”.
Evasion is sometimes critical. A story can be a garden between worlds, where for every missing fairytale mother or beheaded brother lies a miracle elixir, a fisher king who – with the right words – could be saved. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion questions the illusions of happy endings: our vulnerability “to the persistent message that we can avoid death”. But in children’s stories, says Hooper, “there’s no shame in being a fantasy.” She notes how many of her favorites are written by writers themselves torn apart by grief, and suggests they contain more than just wishful thinking: in the worlds of CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Roald Dahl, even Eric Carle, she sees “a philosophical framework for dealing with the darkness”.
Despite its larger themes, this book is an intensely intimate portrait of a “split” household. For Watson’s family, his diagnosis is an upside-down fairy tale, in which “all the riches of the world will be undone at some undetermined but imminent time.” Hooper’s observations are embedded with fierce, personal poetry reminiscent of Sharon Olds (search for Rite of Passage, or Size and Sheer Will) – her child’s face is “a fine-boned instrument”, her football game “a ballet of chaos and sera”. She suffers from his “peculiar alertness” and “polite caution”, and like Watson (“all five foot nine inches of his stiff neck, reddened by the sun, impatient, funny and tender”) sends the boys to bed every night, delighting them with her own improvised stories. And she watches him watch them, “unable to turn away…only briefly allowing himself to show the gods what he loves most.” Humming beneath each line is Scheherazade’s plea: time, more time.
Throughout the pages, Illustrator Anna Walker’s tranquil watercolors blossom and fade – ghostly trees, a dark river, a lone seagull – sometimes taking over when words fail. At some point, death “defies language,” Hooper writes. And yet we still cling to sentences. One way to get rid of a nightmare – the “annihilating shame” of terrors we haven’t dealt with in the light of day – is to describe it. Doctors are now trained in “narrative competence”. The right words may not save anyone, but they 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 “the dazzling, secret soaking” of reading.
“The good story”, as she writes, “can also bring down the fever”.
Bedtime Story by Chloe Hooper is now available in Australia ($34.99, Simon & Schuster). Hooper speaks at the Sydney Writers Festival which opens on Tuesday May 17