Night thoughts: A Room Called Earth

First-time author Madeleine Ryan’s novel A Room Called Earth is a sensitive, humorous and lively exploration of neurodiversity, belonging, family and identity. Katinka Smit speaks with her.

In her debut novel, Madeleine Ryan has constructed a character believable and flawed, a study of human complexity. The story, spanning one night, is narrated by a young single woman firmly in touch with her own reality, and how it interrelates with the people and world around her in every moment and interaction.

The publicity announces the author’s neurodiversity as though indivisible from the story, and Ryan herself freely admits to a ‘dance’ between her own sensibilities and the character’s.

‘I brought my own structure of how I process people and experiences, how I reflect on memories, the order in which that happens, and the shape in which that happens,’ she says.

She acknowledges the natural storytelling qualities inherent in that diversity of perception, ‘which is very much about illuminating how we work – different sensitivities and patterns of behaviour – that neurodiverse people magnify’. She notes that the ‘obsessive attention to detail or heightened emotions’ often associated with neurodiversity can be a powerful way to examine things that ‘everyone is grappling with’.

Our heroine is acutely and accurately grappling with her particular place in history and life: as a woman, daughter, girlfriend, thinker, and physical, emotional and spiritual being – as an Australian. It’s a heady mix of self-awareness, skilfully narrated through the events of what could be a superficial story – an evening before, during and after a party in a fairly ‘white Australian’ cultural experience.

What makes this young woman’s experience (and this novel) so exceptional though, is not only her neurodiversity. What we are witnessing is a complex and traumatised psyche in hyper-healing mode.

Psychologists recognise that trauma affects sensitive people more intensely. Highly sensitive people hear, see and know what other people don’t, empathically feeling abuse and manipulation more deeply. Children who are like this need more love, recognition and support. Those who don’t receive it are more likely to feel the effects of trauma more intensely and for much longer.

Our unnamed protagonist has, we find out, suffered a sudden trauma too, compounding her childhood, yet it has offered her an obvious and necessary vehicle for healing. She obsesses with self-care through her inner and outer actions. She cannot let any dishonesty go unchallenged, in herself or others, even if it’s socially awkward and makes people uncomfortable. Her honesty is all-encompassing, at once physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, existential.

We traverse her mind, the micro and macro view. We follow her focus from objects, people or events happening around her to the thoughts they provoke, from flippant to irreverent to caustic, through the philosophical and deeply awed. Our heroine plucks and weaves separate threads together, her life a loom. In one scene, her thoughts slide from the books she is reading to the existential conundrum of being born in Australia on the blanket background of dispossession, genocide and the oldest continuing human civilisation on Earth, yet being nourished from this same land, then on to her untameable hair and how she is dressed to encounter the world out there, different from her world at home, which she possesses and creates in complete control.

‘I was just surrendering to being guided by her, to committing to the space created by her. As that opened up, I started to see where it might go, but it was really about following where she was going in each moment, where she was choosing to put her attention. And it does create its own logic and structure. It’s very true to how our minds work.’

Recurring motifs shape the protagonist’s mind. Triggered by events of the night and the people present, she loops back to ex-boyfriends, her father, her parents’ relationship. Relationship dynamics and conversations are lain out and examined, sewn into tidy conclusions.

Yet the patrilineal pull on her, her mother’s life in absentia, her own vulnerability as a woman, the lived result of colonialism, her too muchness, tell of a submerged reality that resists resolution. All are symbolic of patriarchal power and its ways of being that negate the feminine, and of the matriarchal, silenced but surfacing, nonetheless.

‘It’s an interesting thing culturally, the idea of the patriarchy being awake and the matriarchy being asleep or numbed out, and that’s represented in the figures that she has in her mind of her parents. The pull between the two and how to find a balance between the two natures – the forceful, dominant logic-oriented, and the receptive, harmonious and intuitive, her connection to the earth. Trying to find a way to harmonise those things within myself, in this culture, is so difficult, yet it is so important to be able to function without feeling like you’re going mad.’

Some readers may read her character as mad, and others will find her strange. Others still will recognise a state of mind: an incessant, at times brutal, honesty, a psychological vigilance that perhaps only the hypersensitive, the traumatised, or the neurodiverse may find familiar, comfortably or not. Ultimately, the character’s modus operandi is to be witnessed.

‘There’s something universal in that, how we prepare ourselves to be witnessed by others, how we want to be witnessed and interpreted.’

Ryan’s protagonist takes direct charge of this, leaving nothing to subconscious desire or chance. Rather, she reveals herself, petal by petal, to herself and to her world. Every unfurling is exacting in its timing and its purpose: to experience, and be experienced by, life. And to be loved, exactly as she is.

A Room Called Earth is published by Scribe.

Madeleine Ryan will appear on Friday 6 and Sunday 7 August at Byron Writers Festival 2021. Click here for tickets.

Byron Writers Festival