Prendergast, Julia. The Earth Does Not Get Fat. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2018. RRP $24.99. 176pp. ISBN: 9781742589572
Julia Prendergast’s debut novel, The Earth Does Not Get Fat, is a refreshingly honest yet dark tale of family relationships, love, and how far you would go to protect those you care about.
The Earth Does Not Get Fat may be Julia Prendergast’s first novel, but few debut novelists can claim as many accolades for previous work as she can. Many of her short stories have been published, with some even being longlisted and shortlisted for both national and international prizes or awards such as Australian Book Review’s Elizabeth Jolley Prize and the Josephine Ulrick Prize, as well as the UK’s International Short Story Competition and the US’s Glimmer Train International Short Story Competition.
Early praise for the novel—which was published earlier this year—is also promising, with Jem Poster calling The Earth Does Not Get Fat “an impressive debut” and Australian Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe saying that Prendergast is “a real writer who writes about real life”.
The story follows Chelsea, a teenager whose life is far from average. While others her age attend school, worry about their slipping grades and whether they will get into the university of their dreams, Chelsea has bigger priorities.
She stopped going to school on a regular basis a long time ago, weighed down by the burden of caring for a mother crippled by mental illness and a grandfather with late-stage dementia. She could ask for help but doing so might mean that everything she has ever known will be taken away from her. For now, she’s all alone. Until a parcel arrives from a mysterious stranger arrives, offering her the lifeline and link to her past she has been waiting for.
At its heart, The Earth Does Not Get Fat is a story of familial love and the unbreakable bonds that form between family members, no matter the ups and downs life throws at us. Prendergast sucks us in with a tragic portrait of what an average day in Chelsea’s life entails, such as the following description of her mother—the very first thing we read about in the novel’s opening chapter.
Sometimes, Mum’s already sinking when I get home from school. She takes more pills, washes them down with a few slugs of gin on ice, just a dash of tonic, and finally, she’s out, flat out, on the couch … Getting her to bed is the hardest part because I can’t carry her on my own. She doesn’t weigh much, but it’s awkward … Sometimes her head bangs on the floor because I can’t hold it properly. Sometimes, she opens one eye, just for a second. Still she can’t see me for the grey (1).
And just a few pages later in Chapter Two, we get a glimpse of her grandfather—with whom Chelsea and her mother have lived since she was little.
I’m up at five am because Grandad thinks it’s dinnertime. He’s sundowning and it’s not even daylight. I’m cooking pasta and heating up Bolognese sauce by five-thirty. I have extra meals plated and the dishes done by six-fifteen. By eight-fifteen, Grandad is asleep on the couch and I decide to head into school for a few hours, see what I’ve missed, see if it’s still within my reach. (8)
With such difficult themes, one would be forgiven for thinking this novel is a difficult read. At times, that is true. You would have to have a heart made of stone not to feel something realising that the above instances are simply what Chelsea calls a normal day.
The Earth Does Not Get Fat is a little shorter than most novels, coming in at a little under 200 pages. But as evidenced from the above examples, Prendergast’s work packs a punch. Each chapter is prefaced by a quote defining the themes or topic covered in that chapter (for instance, the aforementioned Chapter Two is called ‘Sundowning’ – and is prefaced by a definition of what that term means. It’s an unusual approach, but one that somehow works and allows the reader a hint of what to expect from each section of the novel.
Prendergast’s writing style itself is honest and raw, devoid of flowery descriptions. Instead, she allows the story to almost tell itself, such is the brevity of her words. Nevertheless, the scenes she crafts are vivid, the characters lifelike and real.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Chelsea and her family are rather disadvantaged – particularly as Chelsea is the main carer for both her mother and grandfather. Even though I have read other novels which touch upon the difficulties faced by society’s disadvantaged population, this is probably the truest and most believable representation that I have read in recent times.
Another poignant example of this occurs in the second half of the book, when Chelsea puts her trust in a relative stranger in the hope that he can help her mother find her way back to her family, and out of her all-consuming depression.
While these obstacles Chelsea faces may seem a little extreme to those who have never been faced with such things, the reality is that there are many Australians who deal with these issues in everyday life. And rather than only including them as a side-note to the story, Prendergast has brought them to the forefront, dealing with them sensitively, but not sugar-coating Chelsea’s dark reality. It makes for a confronting yet compelling read.
When all is said and done, The Earth Does Not Get Fat is a great novel. It takes a great writer to say so much in such a short space of time and yet, Prendergast has achieved this so well that it leaves the reader wanting more, but satisfied with what they have received. If this is an indication of what’s yet to come, Prendergast has a bright future in the Australian literary world.
Jackie Smith is a freelance journalist, editor and proof-reader and marketing graduate based in Brisbane. Her work has been published through a variety of local and national media outlets. Follow her via her blog, Jackie Smith Writes, or Twitter (@jasmith_89) for regular updates.