It is the near, very imaginable future. Temperatures in Australia have reached permanent extremes, fuelled in part by families such as the Cormacs. Developers willing to crush anything that blocks their path, they have the privilege to exist within air-conditioned SUVs and large properties sheltering pools that should have been drained years ago.
The Cormac name means something, particularly in Shorehaven – an easily imaginable regional area that will slowly become absorbed into a surrounding outer-metropolitan area. When Emma marries into the family through the wunderkind, Robert, she seemingly finds herself with abundance. Her family, however, is concerned at her diminishing identity and unraveling mental health.
Doyle takes the reader from “Before” to “After” chapter by chapter. A technique designed to build suspense and tension does so to an extent, but is let down by narrative inconsistencies – chapters from points of view other than the dominant Emma are not fully realised, there are characters who feel unresolved and the timeline is often jumbled beyond recognition.
Taking its name from the act of repetitive speech, common among children learning to speak but often a sign of mental illness, Echolalia is an examination of legacy. Doyle is at her greatest when vividly painting power dynamics wrestled through small acts of trauma, which act to build the repetition of privilege.
Seemingly every day Emma loses more of herself, fuelled by the anger of the Cormacs: “Don’t kid yourself, you’re only here to feed that baby. You’re a piece of equipment. And like any harvester or ditch witch, you’ll be written off if you keep fucking up.” Slowly, over the course of the book, we see her fall further and further until she snaps to a point of no return.
Micro-aggressions occur on a line-by-line level, bursting off the page in recognition. A conversation over the use of the air-conditioner – “wasn’t this luxury the very thing that was causing the heat?” Emma wonders – draws Patricia, the domineering mother-in-law, to use “her patient tone”, while Robert uses “his lighten-up tone”.
Violence is driven by gender, class, race, genocide, politics, substance abuse, the environment – all are given equal footing, all building to create an “animal panic” within Emma.
Doyle builds a world that is familiarly eerie, and a central protagonist equally complex yet restrained. Following on from her apocalyptic setting in her first novel, The Island Will Sink, Echolalia asks important and pressing questions.
While her latest work is flawed by inconsistency, there is enough here to show Doyle has the potential to become a great Australian novelist. In the years to come we may see Echolalia not only as the before, but an important step to the after.
Echolalia, by Briohny Doyle, is published by Penguin Random House.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.