Words Are Not Enough: Loss, Grief and Incommunicability in Jennifer Down’s Short Stories ‘Aokigahara’ and ‘Pulse Points’


This essay argues that Jennifer Down’s two stories ‘Aokigahara’ and ‘Pulse Points’ point to the limits of referential language in conveying grief, loss and related emotional experiences. Referencing Denise Riley’s theories from The Words of Selves and Impersonal Passion, I use Down’s stories as demonstrative of the concept that word choices do in fact contain emotion and affect and can transmit emotional experiences between the characters, and via characters from author to reader. Nonetheless, very often the referential properties of language are troubled in this process, and Down demonstrates the way in which the writer might convey affect and emotion through the techniques of silence, withholding, miscommunications and also through the unfolding of the narrative itself. Down avoids simplistic notions of closure and mourning by suggesting that the difficulty her characters experience is identifying the appropriate linguistic conventions to describe their emotional states, perhaps because there are none that can fully contain them. However, in the unfolding of these stories, difficult emotions and affects can be gestured towards, even outlined. Through this paradox, emotion and affect can indeed be ‘held’ not just in language, but in story, and this is particularly so when it moves away from signifying emotions in symbolic terms and represents them in a narrative sequence through an embodied narrator.

Jennifer Down’s fiction across her two novels Bodies of Light (2021) Our Magic Hour (2016), and her collection of short stories Pulse Points (2017) is concerned with characters in the aftermath of extreme events. Down’s characters are often left isolated after the experience of a significant loss or traumatic event, and her fiction maps the difficulty faced by her characters in communicating with each other and in experiencing authentic interpersonal relationships in the wake of loss or trauma. In Our Magic Hour, the relationship between a triumvirate of friends shifts after the suicide of one of the group’s members. In Pulse Points, characters are represented in the wake of events such as the loss of parents; serious illness; sexual assault; and the many injustices of a working-class life. Bodies of Light depicts a woman whose life has been disrupted by complex childhood traumas, the ongoing effects of which…

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Published 30 September 2022 in Volume 37 No. 2. Subjects: Australian fiction, Australian short stories, Jennifer Down.

Cite as: Shirm, Gretchen. ‘Words Are Not Enough: Loss, Grief and Incommunicability in Jennifer Down’s Short Stories ‘Aokigahara’ and ‘Pulse Points’.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.b8deb51074.