The aftermath of abuse – of alcohol, from the hands of men. The aftermath lasts decades, lasts a lifetime, is slow, is boring. It changes lives, it changes life. It never ends, it colours everything – you must stay vigilant. It is the life of Greta, of Peggy, of Margaret … just some of the women. All who are living in the aftermath recognise one another; they all cope in different ways. They support each other, keep each other out of danger, tell each other they are lucky to still be fighting, help each other try to make sense of their lives.
But their lives don’t make sense anymore. I can’t say how all the women are connected – their lives are the result of trauma when things fall apart, of the occasional moments of feeling safe, when things fall back together. 1994, 2006, 2018 – Greta, Peggy, Margaret, they age, survive, tell each other it is worth it: “She’d thought she was living a life – she’d tried to tell herself that – but really it was nothing.”
The important thing for the women is routine: going to AA meetings, learning to take care of themselves – to cook, to clean, to keep busy. Greta and Peggy get volunteer work in an op shop, they get work in a call-centre. Working from home is ideal for Margaret, moderating Internet sites, doing some programming. A Tamagotchi appears and provides some anxious company.
The women have a flair for IT work, but their lives and their backgrounds mean they have problems with getting jobs, with getting social welfare, with getting credit cards from banks. They are always on the outside, always trying to fit in – learning language and responses that will make the least impression. When they are young, they are heartbreakingly naïve. You feel sorry for them but don’t want to leave their presence.
As they age, they manage better, go to a different city. But evenness has its downsides; when things come together, the clarity makes them lonely, bone-achingly lonely. They have Diane, their long-term AA support person, who always manages to calm them down. But their social circle is very small, the possibility of returning to alcohol is a constant. Over time there is just Heidi and Dell, and Heidi goes to extreme lengths to look different, not look like a woman living in the aftermath, “They hugged each other and Heidi poked her finger gently into Margaret’s forehead. ‘Don’t let them live rent-free in your head’.”
Nothing to see is hypnotic, it gestures to so many things. It is about anyone who is living a marginalised life, whose group is seen as homogenous, who are not seen as individuals. It is about lives defined by alcohol or abuse, those who are non-binary and don’t fit the social norm, those ‘on the spectrum’ who find life online more calming than life-in-person … And it is about a person’s relationship with themselves during the long post-trauma journey.
The novel is a tense read, even though the lives it describes are predictable. The women must constantly be on guard against alcohol, against any man who walks behind them in the dark. Their lives are boring but exhausting – and their IT skills puts them in a distant virtual, manipulative, and dangerous universe. The transitions in the women’s lives are brilliantly written – both mundane and spectacular.
Despite the sombre themes and sad lives, there are moments of beauty in the book. Greta and Peggy talking small delights in the world. Their enjoying playing world-building games together. Their wondering if they are living in a simulation – it would explain so much: “The simulation was flawless, but the narrative was full of causal fallacies and cliché.” And wondering, if it is a simulation, who are the non-player characters?
Nothing to see is sad, engaging, original, and has some of the most compelling characters I have every read. Superb!