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In a world of careless writing, Losing Julia is a joy to read. Whether it achieves its aim as a novel is more difficult to assess. Woven through its elegant expression is a sub-text of philosophy. This is an anatomy of loss of love, of friends, of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren; of health, of youth, of joy, of hope, of truth, of usefulness, of awareness, of mindfulness, of physical control, of innocence. Indeed it is meticulous in its attention to the details of all those losses, both traumatic and infinitesimal that comprise human experience.
Out of this complex analysis comes a reflection upon the causes of loss and human pain. The conclusion drawn at first is devastating. Man is the author of his own suffering, both victim and aggressor. He is capable of the vilest actions in the name of nationalism, or any other ism, and cannot change.
Julia epitomizes the way through this man-made hell. Not only will she listen to and accept anything you say but also she will accept and love even the unlovable in you. She is sanity against madness, kindness against cruelty, joy against suffering, pleasure against pain, light against dark, because of the depth of her capacity to love.
We read that
During our last night together in Paris Julia had asked me if I thought that love was the purpose of our lives and I had said yes, it has to be, because its the only thing stronger than our pain. (p.325)
The question posed by this book is Can you really lose Julia?
Even so, Losing Julia seems to insist that that great love is irretrievably lost in the narrators life. Logically, then, it would seem that all he has left is his pain.
However, as there is a melancholic philosophical subtext to the plot, so is there a third thread, neither based on the reality presented, nor on its theoretical framework. In order to grasp that the story line and the method of its telling must be examined.
Patrick Delaney was an adolescent when he enlisted for service in the First World War. Since he was an American he fought only in 1918 but the details of the action he endured are graphic. He writes of being unable to communicate the horror of it, over and over again. He mentions the times of terror interspersed with long periods of boredom. He puzzles about how intensely alive he feels. He forges friendships that last a lifetime or more appropriately, until death. Daniel is his closest friend, handsome where he is plain, confident where he is shy, apparently fearless where he is constantly fearful. Daniel has a lover, Julia, and it is the deep love both men have for this woman that is at the core of this book. Daniel dies a horrible death on the wire knowing Julia is pregnant and alone. Even prior to Daniels death, Patrick has fantasized about Julia, and later seeks her desperately although he does not know her surname. They accidentally meet at the geographic core of the book, the
small granite monument that bears the names of 152 American soldiers who died on that date (October 18) in 1918 that is situated in a clearing near a woods in eastern France (Dedication)
Unsettling is the time shifts between the battlefields, Patricks all to brief time with Julia and the present, where Patrick is trapped in an aging body waiting to die in a nursing home. He still fantasizes about the nurses in the same way he did about Julia, as he watches his friends around him gradually disappear. He is asked to address the local school about the reality of First World War a history subject - but he sees the specter of Daniel (not history to him) and breaks down. He also sees and talks to Julia who, it seems, vanishes when it pleases her.
What is to be made of all this? There are obvious parallels between war and the nursing home: friends keep dying and its a battle to keep alive yourself. There is indignity, lack of privacy and the sense of being in some crazy waiting room expecting to be called into unknown terrain.
There are also parallels between Losing Julia and the war. The pain of the unbearable, the pity of it, the waste of it. It seems that mankind will always have the capacity to inflict unspeakable horror on his fellows as it is irrefutably demonstrated that there never will be a war to end wars.
And as I stood watching the train approaching, I thought that maybe the real horror is not what happened at Dachau, but what didnt happen after Dachau. Certainly we know now once and for all that humanity can never be brought to its senses. The dragon lives. (p.152)
As if to emphasize the bestiality of warrior man, vivid quotations from the letters of servicemen, war poets and war manuals punctuate that text that is embedded in war.
The following quotation is typical of the use of this method to heighten immediacy.
Rapidity of fire. Men are trained to fire at the rate of about three shots per minute at effective ranges (600 to1200 yards) and five or six at close range (0 to 600yards), devoting the minimum of time to loading and the maximum to deliberate aiming
. Privates Manual, 1917 (p.135)
The writers insistence on accentuating the negative in human existence makes it very difficult to posit in this book an equal philosophical base in the belief that love conquers all: age, stupidity, death, mans inhumanity to man, loss, despair, and so on. Then we may hold to the fabric of our dreams.
There is no doubt that Jonathan Hull is a gifted writer. He uses language economically and evocatively. When his characters speak, their dialogue is unforced and sometimes amusing. But the narrative is unbalanced. I think the third strand I referred to earlier is the eternal beauty and indestructibility of human love and its expression, but Im not sure. Certainly the end of the book seems to point to a more optimistic interpretation of human existence. However, because of the unremitting focus on loss, pain, death, aging and mans inhumanity generally in the previous pages, this ending is not satisfying. Perhaps if the author had made the optimistic voice of Julia stronger, or had cast another character to give human-kindness, hope and joy another voice, Losing Julia would fulfill the promise of its language.
Fran Gillespie writes about herself:
I am a mental health consumer of forty years standing. My family is steeped in this experience as we have traced it through four generations I therefore have also a personal understanding of caring in this difficult area. In the last five years I have moved from hiding under the blankets to giving evidence to an enquiry into the human rights of the mentally ill in Australia to spearheading an understanding of the mental health consumer as a resource in our community in Hobart, Tasmania. With the support of likeminded people a system of paid consumer consultants arose from this activism. I am at present on leave from studying for a research Masters in Medicine that centres on an analysis of the development of mental health consumerism in Tasmania. I believe that it is necessary to set aside anger generated from personal experience in this area in order to achieve lasting solutions. Thus I also work as a consumer advocate.