One woman’s quest for joy – review by Susan Whyndham


When a book has the title Nothing Bad Ever Happens Here, you know that something bad is about to happen. Foreboding builds as the first chapters of Heather Rose’s memoir set up an idyllic life in 1960s Tasmania: “Childhood is kelp and sand, birds and sky, and boats pulled up with the tide … Roses of every scent and colour line our front boundary, as if our surname requires it.”

When she is 12, tragedy tears the Rose family apart. Her maternal grandfather and teenage brother, Byron, drown when their fishing dinghy overturns. “Grief turned us into wounded animals,” Rose writes. Her parents divorce and her once-sunny mother withdraws, permanently alienating her elder daughter.

Those losses have shaped Rose’s life and writing, though readers of her diverse novels for adults and children will only understand this now. No wonder the brilliant novel The Museum of Modern Love took its grieving, lonely characters to share silent eye contact with the artist Marina Abramović in her real-life performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Yet, as she writes here, the lyrical childhood was not illusory: nurtured by the Tasmanian environment, family and solitude, reading and writing – “all this lies at the heart of who I will become”.

From the beginning Rose is sensitive to both the natural and paranormal. On page one, she pictures herself at six gazing up at a eucalyptus tree and declaring: “I’m ready. Tell me what to do. Make use of me.” Before the boat accident, she dreams of drowning; afterwards, she has visions of her dead brother.

Rather than collapsing under grief, she begins a restless quest that left me feeling both admiring and perplexed. Superficial comparisons with the bestsellers Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert come to mind, and many other books whose troubled authors find both escape and themselves through travel.

Rose contracts malaria in Bali and seeks oblivion in heroin in Thailand, before settling into a long stay at a monastery. She’s an observant travel writer, evoking the vivid shock of Asian cities and the disciplined routine of meditation that swings from deprivation to bliss.

Back home she is diagnosed with the arthritic condition ankylosing spondylitis, which brings disabling flares of pain. But she refuses to be disabled. She has the first of three children, begins a career in advertising and starts to write fiction: “My writing is terrible.”

After a workshop in a sweat lodge, Rose is told she is “being called to a sun dance”. Knowing nothing about this Native American ceremony, she leaves for New Mexico. Thirty pages describing the sun dance are at the physical and transformative centre of the book. Until now, she has been a spiritual tourist on a sincere but naive search. Here she submits to painful rituals – “the sun dance chief pierces each of my arms four times, then he ties a feather into each wound” – and commits to return for four years.

Her commitment is instinctive rather than intellectual or religious, but it changes her, “honing a sense in me for the unseen, the surreal, the subtle and the intrinsic”. Some readers will find aspects of her exploration bizarre, her adoption of Indigenous practices discomfiting, her acceptance of strange phenomena unexplained. Her endurance can seem like self-punishment.

However, Rose presents her experiences of the “Great Mystery” from the inside, with as much clarity as words can convey. She asks more questions than she answers and does not prescribe her path for everyone. I trusted her as a guide through extreme states for which I have neither desire nor courage.

Nothing Bad Ever Happens Here is a memoir in essays, forming a chronological narrative of personal growth examined from different angles. There are chapters on the end of relationships with her children’s fathers, how she turned her self-healing outwards into anti-forestry activism, how she became an accomplished writer, and how she manages her arthritic pain. Her writing has a vibrant energy, which intensifies and then calms like the widening flow of a river. One of the loveliest if most conventional chapters follows a walk Rose did with her teenage son on the Overland Track in Tasmania’s Central Highlands. The walk is hard, Chris is cranky, but they find a rhythm together and he emerges as a thoughtful young man, immersed in nature.

By the end of her gracefully circular story, Rose has returned to the site of the drownings and learns without irony that “nothing bad ever happens here”. If her final list of advice to readers is simplistic, it is also hard-won. (“Love who you want to be.” “Choose joy.”) Many of us would do well to put aside scepticism and absorb some of her curiosity and gratitude.

November 10, 2022

By Susan Wyndham



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