Lokugé, Chandani. My Van Gogh. Arden, 2019. RRP $29.95. 368pp. ISBN: 9781925984170.
It’s not uncommon to see travel heralded as a means of recovery from trauma or loss; the very act of ‘finding’ oneself is often given as the reason for a trip that many will think of as life changing.
In My Van Gogh by Chandani Lokugé each character is dealing with their own personal loss or trauma, a fact that emerges as each embarks on their own journey—whether literal or metaphorical—within the narrative. Travel, in this novel, isn’t necessarily to another country, though there is some of that. It’s also travelling to the past, characters coming back to things that have haunted them and seeking closure within themselves. This is a book about looking for a more complete sense of self.
The majority of the narrative focus is given to university student Shannon, an anxious young man who fails to find peace and completeness in his current situation. He defers his course, travels across Australia to visit his father, then on to visit his brother in Paris in an attempt to gain some understanding of his place in the world. Once there, he travels again, this time to Nice and on hikes through France where he comes across another lost soul, Lilou, who is dealing with her own sense of loss.
When we are first introduced to Shannon we see that he has unconventional reactions to social situations and trauma, shown in the way he responds to both a party upstairs and a chilling accident in the street.
He was probably the only one uninvited in the block. He tried to root out this sadness, but it thrust further and deeper. He grew panicky, anticipating what would surely follow. He sought to escape. (1)
The strength of Lokugé’s writing lies in the way she writes Shannon’s mental illness in a way that it’s difficult not to feel what he’s feeling. The frustration he feels is teased out gently through language and the situations he finds himself in.
At one point, Shannon is witness to an accident, a traumatic event where a young girl is run over outside the coffee shop he is visiting. He steals her beanie, covered in blood and left lying on the road in the aftermath, but his thoughts are not rational. He doesn’t consider the implications of stealing evidence or possessing a hat covered in fresh blood. Instead he shows it to a juggler in the street.
He held out the beanie, trying to hide the trembling of his hands, the wounded fingertips. He realised how he must sound—cracking up. But the juggler was looking at him with concern. (11)
Trauma shared with another is portrayed as a kind of healing; a way for Shannon to offload his anxiety and stress at what he has just witnessed on a complete stranger. The juggler’s response ‘I come like water, like wind I go’ (11) is suitably ambiguous enough for Shannon to feel as if he’s made a genuine connection and that the juggler is offering him comfort.
It is this theme of connection that permeates My Van Gogh and the power that it has to heal is made obvious by the way the relationships develop between the characters. The question of belonging is something that weighs heavily in Shannon’s mind as a means of finding himself and being at one as an individual.
He thought how moored his father was to place. And of himself and Guy, freewheeling here, there and everywhere, belonging nowhere, not to a person or thing or place. He yearned to latch himself to something that mattered, someone. Somewhere. (37)
Lokugé uses Shannon’s observation of his father’s connection to his home to suggest that belonging defines identity. Similarly, Shannon’s travels abroad to see Guy and Guy’s place in Paris to show that travel and freedom is often the thing that brings us to a greater realisation of who we are as ourselves. It is in seeing the lives of those closest to him that Shannon can understand himself. Indeed, Julie’s observation of Guy after five years apart, him in Paris, shows just what it is to be settled in a new country and know it as home.
And Guy? He looked mature and confident. His personality seemed different, very French now, or it might have been the striped blue and white designer shirt that so beautifully fitted his slim tall frame, Julie thought. He’d been such a casual tee-shirt guy. ‘A larrikin from the Aussie outback,’ she once heard him laughing at himself, comfortable in who he was then. (153)
The outwards signs of his comfort in this new country (the shirt) represents something more to the people that know him. There’s an understanding in this novel that who we are is not necessarily who we were, that change will happen. Guy has matured and defined himself, he has found what Shannon and Julie have not yet discovered, a definitive sense of self.
My Van Gogh is beautiful in its contemplation of life; the inner self, the outer self and the place of both of these in the wider world. It’s poetic and meditative. The truth of this book is not in the things that are said, but those that aren’t. And the ending leaves it clear; where we go afterwards is up to the reader.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.