Walking unprepared into the homes of strangers. Arriving at savage car accidents. Confronting the raw emotion of loved ones and the gaze of curious onlookers. Rachael Mead captures these moments – and what it means for a person’s life when the uniform comes off at the end of a shift – in her debut novel, The Application of Pressure.
We first meet Tash and Joel as trainees in 1997, seeing their lives and careers pan out until 2020. They are an odd couple but they work well together. Tash is stereotypically feminine in her sympathetic approach, whereas Joel is more detached. Both take gap years of sorts to “level up” their skills or in an attempt to “fill a void”, but throughout their various challenges and travels Tash and Joel remain close.
This creates a love story of sorts, grounding the novel while the pair respond to scenes as varied as an overdose in a working meth lab complete with armed bikies, to a heartbreaking case of an elderly widow who they know will not be allowed to return to her house for the first time since marriage due to her previously undiscovered hoarding.
As Tash and Joel attend calls, Mead takes the reader across the suburbs of Adelaide. Gentrification and class divides are exposed with the same level of detail used in the author’s poetry, such as her 2013 chapbook seeded in the Adelaide Hills, The Sixth Creek. The Application of Pressure again pays homage to our city, one that is under-represented on the page.
Mead, in an Q&A interview with InDaily, wrote of her desire to expose the ability of paramedics to “see behind the scenes of other people’s lives”. Not only where they live, but how they live. It’s an approach that lends itself to the author’s unique background as an archeologist, environmentalist and poet. While The Application of Pressure is her first novel, Mead carefully and cleverly draws on her arsenal to create scenes that are equally evocative and empathetic, taking the reader to the book’s central question: “How do paramedics cope with daily exposure to trauma?”
Chapters are ordered chronologically by year of event – sometimes skipping ahead a few years – meaning the book can feel like a series of connected short stories rather than a continuous narrative. There are also four chapters presented from the standpoint of characters that encircle Tash and Joel. While these voices provide insight into the full extent of their jobs and the damage it can do to relationships, these extras-of-sorts are not given the room to build to stand alone, and as such distract from the careful crafting of the central pair.
At a time when paramedics are in the news campaigning to prevent the ramping crisis across South Australian healthcare, and the COVID pandemic continues to change medicine as generations of us know it, The Application of Pressure is an important addition to the conversation. Mead takes us behind the scenes without gaudy characterisation and with an intentional familiarity that cuts straight to the reader’s attention.
What motivates a person to continue working in one of society’s most empathetically exhausting and physically taxing jobs? A partner they know and trust.
The Application of Pressure, by Rachael Mead, is published by Affirm Press.
Kylie Maslen is a writer, critic and the author of Show Me Where It Hurts: Living with Invisible Illness. She lives in Adelaide on Kaurna Country.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.