Dive beneath Olga Lorenzo’s The Light on the Water

Olga Lorenzo recently launched her beautifully moving novel The Light On The Water at Readings Books in Melbourne, and gave a moving speech about three of the themes central to the novel: inclusivity, leadership, and family, which she writes about below:

(Photo courtesy: Tania Jovanovic)

As I write this, I have just read the first review of The Light on the Water, where the reviewer notes how much my protagonist, Anne Baxter, longs for a family. She has lost her child, she has lost her love. She has lost her family, not only in the sense of her child and her partner, but in the sense of belonging and being embraced within her greater society – she has been judged in the media, and excluded from society. She is reeling under these blows.

I often tell my students that all our writing is about connection – we read to connect with another human mind, and we are most touched, sometimes moved to tears, by moments of deep connection – those times when we are selfless, when we are kind, when we are whole. We humans, I say, are quintessentially social animals. We need each other.

For me, as for Anne, it starts with family – the first ring of humanity that embraces us, if we are lucky. It starts with mothers and fathers who are leaders, who have enough integrity and backbone to advocate for inclusivity and generosity and tolerance within the family, and to model these things so that their children can live out these ideals outside the family. Not everyone can do this, tragically.

Cover for The Light on The WaterIn my story, Anne suffers because of a lack of inclusivity and leadership. Exclusion fires up those primitive fears of how, as children, we would die without our parents. And I think we also have vestiges of ancient memories that tell us we need to stay with our kin, we need to gather together at night around the fire for the safety in numbers. To be driven out in ancient times, and even now in many places in the world, means certain death, and we retain some of that fear. In The Light on the Water, Anne is driven out, and she looks around desperately for help and support and leadership. We all do.

Yet, it is in those moments that it fails to happen, that us writers find our stories. That is my next novel, a story about a child swapped at birth, and the daughter who won’t accept love and isn’t able to give it. They say that us writers only have one book, and we write many versions of it. These stories about inclusivity, leadership and family for me are THE ONE book I will keep writing, telling different versions of the story that so compels me.

Those who HAVE experienced leadership within their families have been encouraged to leave selfishness behind and are strengthened in empathy and love, and hopefully equipped to tackle the many injustices, the many lapses in generosity that beset our greater family – our communities and society. I am talking here of the injustices committed against our asylum seekers, something I touch on in The Light on the Water. I am talking about inclusivity and acceptance of gay and non-gender binary people. I am talking about our indigenous people, and about our migrant populations, and all the ways that we discriminate and judge and exclude, and the shameful complicity when we don’t want to know.

I recently read a piece by David Brooks in The New York Times that captured perfectly for me the opposite of the desire to bury one’s head in the sand. Brooks writes about how writers and artists seek to live with integrity and passion.

He said that people who live with passion ‘start out with an especially intense desire to complete themselves’. He argues that we are the only animals who are naturally unfinished. ‘We have to bring ourselves to fulfilment, to integration and to coherence.’

‘Some people,’ Brooks says, ‘are seized by this task with a fierce longing. Maybe they are propelled by wounds that need urgent healing or by a fear of loneliness or fragmentation. Maybe they are driven by some glorious fantasy to make a mark on the world. They often have a fervent curiosity about their inner natures.’

Writers and artists, Brooks says, are also marked by ‘high levels of both vulnerability and courage… To be passionate is to put yourself in danger’.

‘Living with this danger requires a courage that takes two forms. First, people with passion have the courage to dig down and play with their issues. We all have certain core concerns and tender spots that preoccupy us through life. Writers and artists may change styles over the course of their careers, but most of them are turning over the same few preoccupations in different ways.’

This is what I am doing in The Light on the Water – turning over my same few preoccupations.

I hope that if The Light on the Water moves anyone the slightest bit, it moves them to ponder family, and how precious and necessary it is in its many forms and permutations. Secondly, leadership, and the shame we take to our graves when we fail to have the moral strength to stand up for each other. And finally inclusivity, the recognition that we are all related through our common humanity, we are all deserving of acceptance, of respect, of tolerance. We all need to be leaders, in all our walks of life, and advocates for each other.

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Reviews for The Light On The Water:

What grabs you first about this literary family drama is the simple elegance of author Olga Lorenzo’s descriptions and then the absorbing, painful credulity of the sequence of events. Anne Baxter is not quite everywoman, but she is increasingly familiar as the story unfolds. There is certainly something of us all in Anne’s hopes, fears and insecurities which gives Lorenzo’s plot its edge. This is a powerful study of family and relationship dynamics which keeps us spellbound to the end.
– Australian Women’s Weekly

The Light on the Water will be perfect for book groups  – it explores many current issues and yet it is a page-turner. Olga Lorenzo captures human nature at its best and worst. Another highlight of the book is the beautiful imagery – both of Anne’s local beach area, and the description of the walking and camping areas at Wilson’s Prom. Family life is detailed convincingly, as are the highs and lows of having a ‘special needs’ child. I was captivated by this novel and read it in one sitting. It’s a book I will be recommending frequently this year.
Readings Books

Lorenzo crafts a subtle portrait of a woman trying to lead an ordinary life under extraordinary circumstances. The novel is written in the heightened register of an all-encompassing grief, but it raises by only a few notes the white noise of guilt, anxiety, and love that rings in the ears of all parents. This is the novel’s strength, and Lorenzo has a keen eye for the nuances of mother and daughter relationships, all the little betrayals and obfuscations, the fleeting moments of solidarity, the awkward expressions of love. Through this, she also manages to balance the difficult subject of a profound loss with some lighter moments, even some humour.
The Saturday Paper

In almost forensic detail, Lorenzo unpacks Anne’s rapidly unravelling existence, her grief, guilt and fears, and explores a society that is quick to judge Anne guilty until proven innocent. Family relationships are strained and support and friendships are found in the unlikeliest of places. Not a fastpaced novel by any means, The Light on the Water is a simmering and assured meditation on the darker undercurrents of human behaviour, family and society. Lorenzo is a skilled literary writer who will appeal to readers who enjoy writers such as Joan London and Helen Garner.
Books + Publishing

Olga Lorenzo’s The Light on the Water is an aching, accomplished novel that manages to meditate on grief and guilt without becoming maudlin.  Lorenzo’s limpid prose is underscored by some wonderful writing, making the book lively and enjoyable.
The Daily Review

The Light on the Water is economically written, given its ambitious themes: no scene, no paragraph is superfluous. Readers should not expect light relief from this long-awaited book. And yet, for a story that sets an individual’s moral conscience against society’s judgments and condemnations, and for all that Anne experiences moments of despair and fury, The Light on the Water has a surprising lightness to it, like the light touch of a cello when playing the most sorrowful of songs.
 – Sydney Morning Herald

Bravely plunging into the complex depths of modern family life, the much-awarded Lorenzo has written a lean and focused story that keeps the reader in a constant state of tension. The Light on the Water poses questions about trial by media and a society too quick to judge. It’s a powerful, confronting novel that pulls no punches.
– Qantas Magazine

On many levels this is a tough book to read. It’s a psychologically astute portrayal, but it can also make the reader deeply uncomfortable. Counteracting the toughness of this emotional response is the pleasure derived from the novel’s use of language. Lorenzo is a teacher of creative writing and it shows. There is also a philosophical thread in the novel, an insistence that, no matter what, suffering can be endured and will be overcome. Despite the toughness of the reading experience, despite the harshness and horror of much of what is portrayed, Lorenzo leaves the reader with a sense that everything will be okay.
 – Elizabeth Lhuede

Evocative, intense, emotional and at times painful to read. A wonderful exploration of grief, blame, judgements, the meaning of motherhood, of family, identity, marriage, responsibility, relationships, power and survival and love. Such power in the written words – your heart will be pierced by their thorns.
 – Reading, Writing & Riesling

This is a thought provoking read, often brutal, and the crumble of domestic life is portrayed without filter. It is often uncomfortable, especially when the words turn to family and relationships, the influence of media and the messiness of grief.
Melissa Sargent

Read an extract of The Light On The Water below, while you’ll also find reading group notes on our website.

Olga Lorenzo – The Light on the Water (Extract) by Allen & Unwin

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