from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Between Water and the Night Sky’ by Simone Lazaroo

Lazaroo, Simone. Perth: Fremantle Press, 2023. RRP: $29.99, 248pp, ISBN: 9781760991845.

Shaeden Berry

Quietly moving and infused with deep emotion, Between Water and the Night Sky offers us a love story of a different kind—not one of a romance between two people, but one of the love a daughter holds for her mother. Author Simone Lazaroo has drawn on her own experiences of living in Singapore and migrating to Australia as a child. Her subsequent deep-rooted connection to both places lends itself to poetic prose and detailed descriptions that have the landscapes all but vibrating from the page in their vividity.

The story begins at an end—that is, the end of the life of Elspeth, the mother of our protagonist and narrator, Evangelina. In this moment of departure, Evangelina describes the sensation as ‘past, present and future collapse’ (9). This observation sets up the novel that will follow: a compelling examination of temporality.

The novel unfolds from there with a recounting of the lives of Evangelina’s parents. Francis, a migrant from Singapore, enters an Australia that rumbles with xenophobia and casts critical eyes across skin colour. Elspeth, of English-Scottish-French descent, escapes a Wheatbelt town with a terrible secret embedded so deeply in her psyche that even she, herself, cannot access it. The two meet at university and begin a relationship, one that will eventually lead to marriage, Elspeth’s migration to Singapore and the birth of Evangelina.

The relationship between mother and daughter is not without its difficulties—in particular those that come with the attempted merging of two vastly different cultures. This clash of worlds becomes an ongoing metaphor throughout the novel, and is subtly incorporated in seemingly innocuous and unrelated moments. For instance, when the family, after receiving an income boost, move to a more affluent suburb, Elspeth’s internal monologue adds layers to an exchange with the real estate agent: ‘“It’s a feature wall,” the real estate agent explained. “It’s very fashionable now to have exposed bright feature walls in living areas.” To contrast with the whiteness?’ (111). In entering an affluent and predominantly white neighbourhood, the family itself have become the ‘contrast’ to the ‘whiteness’. Similarly, food becomes a vehicle to express blended cultures: Lazaroo describes ‘Peter’s ice-cream drizzled with Marsala liquor’ (98), and ‘kofta curry with some sliced Wonder White bread’ (102).

Whilst the story begins with detailing the relationship between Elspeth and Francis, the second half of the novel focuses heavily on Elspeth’s rebuilding of self in her older age. It becomes clear that, in telling this story, Evangeline offers an ode to her mother’s strength and resilience. A love letter and a memorial wrapped together, the novel paints a picture of a complicated woman who managed to keep soft in a world that tried its hardest to rough up her edges.

Elspeth’s reinvention of herself in her later years is not the only identity that undergoes change and scrutiny through the novel. Identity, in fact, is an ongoing theme, especially the ways in which it is influenced by heritage. A childhood quirk of Evangeline’s that sees her parroting and mimicking the accents of the various cultures around her is easily read as relating to her mixed background:

‘Over the following year I ate the offerings […] our Chinese neighbours left for ghosts, and souvenired shiny pieces of glass from our Malay neighbours. And I began mimicking them all, my aunt’s, parents’ and our various neighbours’ speech’. (57)

Evangeline is a child of blended cultures, and that often leads to feeling too much for one, or not enough for another. Her ability to mimic accents is a signifier of the chameleon-like nature that children of migrants and mixed heritage adopt to move seamlessly between their different worlds.

The environment and the settings of the novel are almost secondary characters, imbued  with meaning and significance. The ocean is a recurring motif; the physical and literal manifestation of the distance between the two cultures and the blending of them. When a young Evangeline asks about the Indian Ocean, Francis’s view is simple: ‘It begins below Port Beach and ends just before Singapore’ (105). However, Elspeth’s answer is more philosophical: ‘Another way of looking at it might be that there is no end to most oceans. They just merge with other bodies of water’ (105). This indicates the black-and-white mentality of Francis regarding his union with Elspeth, and, in contrast, how Elspeth tries to bridge the gap between them both. Evangeline notes that, ‘Translating my father’s origins had been important to [Elspeth]. How carefully she’d tried to bridge his world and hers. With her cooking, her touch, her words’ (242).

Light and dark and the interplay between shadows also play an important role. Evangeline and her father share a love of photography, and there are descriptions of photographs taken that close multiple chapters detailing the shifts of shadows across their subjects’ faces. This becomes a metaphor for the darkened parts of our lives that we hide away even from ourselves. This is especially true in the photographs of Elspeth: ‘When I finally print my mother’s face […] I am shocked to see the harsh lines running from her outer nostrils […] I tell myself I’ll have to read the light and shadows on her face more carefully when I visit her’ (140).

Evangeline laments that she can never fully capture her parents in a single photo: ‘I printed the proof-sheet of my snapshots of them, watching their complexions become too light or too dark’ (137). From the outside looking through a camera lens, these two people cannot work together—an indication of the external pressures interracial couples often encounter, and which interfere with their relationship.

There is so much to discuss and to love in this book; every chapter, every scene, every character, every sentence is layered with complexity. It’s a heartbreaking love story, a story of a family, a story of a mother and a daughter, a story of migration—it’s all of these, and so much more, and all of it done with quiet reverence.

Shaeden Berry is a writer from Boorloo with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Murdoch University. She has written for Kill Your DarlingsRefinery29, MamaMia and Fashion Journal. Her short stories are featured in The Unexpected Party by Fremantle Press, and the upcoming Strange by MidnightSun Publishing.

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