Chloe Hooper sets up her memoir in quick strokes: two young sons, an older partner and something, suddenly, happening, rendering domestic life precious and strange. The father of her children is Don Watson (writer, historian and, famously, Keating speechwriter). The something: a common cancer and a rare mutation. Hooper, two novels and two critically acclaimed works of investigative nonfiction under her belt, turns her humane, forensic eye on her own family’s grief and private undoing. It feels like a novel, its characters engrossing, moving and funny – that these are real people seem a secondary, extraordinary feat.
Bedtime Story is dedicated to both boys but addressed mainly to the elder. Hooper pores through centuries of children’s books, hunting for stories that will help her speak to him “about the real dark”. She is not just looking for language to broach the subject of Watson’s illness, but to teach herself, somehow, to be less afraid.
Which isn’t the same project as seeking comfort, exactly. Traditional children’s stories, she writes, came from folktales “soaked in death”, and take little interest in soothing anyone. Life’s weird horror and joy is very much the point, and there’s a tangible, conspiratorial sense of relief from Hooper (her own fiction described generally as “gothic”) as she notes that even later, watered-down versions of these tales can rarely be entirely sanitised. The “fairytale model” takes on growing relevance in her own life: heroes, in “an enchanted forest or an oncology ward”, suddenly forced to play by arbitrary, perverse new rules.
Cancer treatment is expensive, even for those, like Watson and Hooper, with private health insurance. Access to potentially lifesaving medical trials is a gauntlet of timing, luck and money – the staunchly progressive Watson finds them “obscene”, “healthcare for rich people”; Hooper just wants him to get better; they can’t afford it anyway. As they negotiate hospital and the brutal waiting game of chemo, her voice glints with disquiet, humor and uncertain rage – she is conscious of how illness lays bare the systems our societies have in place to look after each other, and the gaps in those systems . She is just as conscious of the hypocrisies revealed as we each duck and weave around them, clutching at any advantage to guard those we hold dear. Bargain with the witch. Take the gold.
If children’s stories contain our myths, Hooper sees also that they hold our blind spots. Western children’s literature in particular is pitted with them: racist stereotypes, dispossession and loss whitewashed into a “deathless history” of terra nullius and pioneer bravery; anthropomorphised animals whose charming adventures erase the present threat of their own disappearance. Hooper, reaching for ways to talk to her children about “all that is being lost”, inevitably widens her lens to the climate crisis. There is something to be tied together here, about history and death and global heating – irreversible events, the narcotic dangers of nostalgia, the need to face facts. But there is no “teachable moment”, and Hooper’s attempt to cobble one up feels didactic and artificial. Because ultimately, she is wrestling with how we might master ourselves in the face of things we can’t control. There is no answer. And Bedtime Story, like the best moments of her other writing, is more notable for its capacity to hold opposing truths: children crave and deserve frankness; too much truth before bed and “no one can sleep”.
Escape is critical, sometimes. A story can be a garden between worlds, where for every vanished fairytale mother or beheaded brother is a miracle elixir, a Fisher King who – with the right words – might be saved. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion questions the delusions of happy endings: our vulnerability “to the persistent message that we can avert death”. But in children’s stories, Hooper says, “being a fantasist holds no shame”. She notices how many of her favorites are by writers themselves torn apart by grief, and suggests they hold more than just wishful thinking: in the worlds of CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Roald Dahl, even Eric Carle, she sees “a philosophical framework to deal with the dark ”.
Despite its broader themes, this book is an intensely intimate portrait of one household “cracked open”. For Watson’s family his diagnosis is a fairytale in reverse, in which “all the world’s riches will be rescinded at an unspecified but imminent moment”. Hooper’s observations are inlaid with fierce, personal poetry that calls to mind Sharon Olds (look up Rite of Passage, or Size and Sheer Will) – her child’s face is “a fine-boned instrument”, his soccer game “a ballet of chaos and will ”. She aches at his “peculiar vigilance” and “polite caution”, and as Watson (“all five feet nine inches of his stiff-necked, sun-reddened, impatient, funny, tender self”) sends the boys off to bed each night , delighting them with his own stories off the cuff. And she watches him watch them, “unable to turn away… allowing himself only briefly to show the gods what he best loves”. Humming under every line is the Scheherazade plea: time, more time.
Across the pages, illustrator Anna Walker’s quiet watercolors bloom and fade – ghostly trees, a dark river, a solitary gull – sometimes taking over altogether as words fail. At a certain point, death “defies language”, Hooper writes. And yet still we cling to sentences. One way to throw off a nightmare – the “annihilating shame” of the terrors we have not processed by daylight – is to describe it. Doctors are now trained in “narrative competence”. The right words might not save anyone, but they do help. And over and over, Hooper – like Didion, or Lewis, or Yiyun Li, or Helen McDonald or Claire-Louise Bennett – finds them in books. Bedtime Story is a song of “the bedazzlement, the secret drench” of reading.
“The right story,” she writes, “can also break a fever.”
Bedtime Story by Chloe Hooper is out now in Australia ($ 34.99, Simon & Schuster). Hooper is speaking at Sydney Writers festival which opens on Tuesday 17 May