Human life is fragile and precarious. No one knows this more than Ruth, the preoccupied parent at the centre of Jessica Westhead’s startling and powerfully affecting new novel. Well, perhaps one other person does, as Ruth discovers during 48 hours spent at a cottage with the family of her lifelong best friend, Stef.
Though she is the author of one previous novel, Westhead is best known for her short fiction. The stories in the collections And Also Sharks and Things Not to Do marry clever, quirky humour with moody, unsettling observations. With Worry, the author takes a decidedly dark turn, magnifying cultural anxieties about motherhood, female friendship, and sexual violence to generate a story with enough disturbing and chilling moments to rival the best of Stephen King.
The hypervigilant Ruth can rarely be seen without a hefty, survivalist knapsack in tow, containing remedies for any possible misfortune that might befall her beloved three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Fern. By stark contrast, her friend Stef regularly insults, neglects, and ignores her own young twins, Isabelle and Amelia. Ruth still carries significant resentment toward her childhood friend, who received preferential treatment from Ruth’s parents, in part to compensate for the indifference of Stef’s own parents. Tensions come to a head in the close quarters of Stef’s cottage, where Ruth meets Marvin, a strange neighbour who seems inordinately interested in the three young girls.
Keeping Fern safe is at the core of Ruth’s identity. Motherhood obsesses her because it has also traumatized her: prior to Fern’s arrival, Ruth experienced a heart-wrenching series of miscarriages and a stillbirth. During a bonfire, childless Marvin and child-fixated Ruth share a sorrowful, fateful conversation about parenting that forms part of Worry’s potent climax.
Westhead is a concise wordsmith; Worry is a quick and engrossing read, without excessive stylistic flourish but allowing sufficient exploration of Ruth’s interiority, which will resonate for anyone with an anxiety disorder (and, of course, any parent). There are a couple of minor distractions, including a handful of disorienting shifts in point of view and excessive tidiness in the book’s final pages. But overall, the novel is elegantly structured; in particular, an account of Ruth’s attempts at child-bearing is interlaced throughout for maximum dramatic effect.
The author is particularly skilful at integrating sequences from Ruth and Stef’s childhood into the narrative, deftly shifting back and forth in time without warning, leveraging subtle clues to situate the reader chronologically. The flashbacks – often focused on the pleasures and dangers of youth sexuality – enrich the story with depth and nuance, providing insight into why the women turned into such different types of mother.
But Westhead’s prowess at character is not restricted to the parents. In a move that proves charming rather than cloying, she saves some of the novel’s simplest yet wisest observations for Fern, who is able to deconstruct her mother’s psychological malaise as if it were child’s play. From the mouths of babes, indeed.