Jesse Blackadder's new story of love and grief and a tragedy that had to be told

Jesse Blackadder had tried to write about her two-year-old sister drowning in the family swimming pool. She had, in fact, finished a manuscript and attracted the interest of a major publisher. The grief proved to be too raw - for Blackadder as well as her family - and the book was shelved.

But more than two decades, six books and a slew of literary prizes later, Blackadder experienced a striking moment of clarity. As she drove along a dark stretch of highway towards her Byron Bay home, she realised it was time to write about what happened.

"It was really a bolt from the blue. I got the shivers and thought 'that is going to be my next book'," Blackadder, 51, says. "I just had to surrender to the demands of the story."

Blackadder's new novel, Sixty Seconds, draws upon her experience of how a world can be turned upside down in moments. When she was 12, her younger sister Lucy drowned in the swimming pool in the backyard of their Sydney home.

The story is one that is tragically familiar in Australia, where the backyard swimming pool holds a particular place in the national mythology.

"I remember it feeling like it was the day my childhood finished and my adult life began," Blackadder says. "That was a very shocking experience for a 12-year-old, to suddenly understand that the world wasn't the safe place that I thought it was, and that something really terrible could happen. I feel like it formed the rest of my life."

Her family moved away from the home, and during her teens Blackadder questioned whether she would ever be free of the sorrow she felt following her sister's death.

The grief did eventually find a place in the tapestry of her life, and although Blackadder says the idea to write about the experience "pounded on the door" she was concerned about what she might be letting in.

"I was frightened," Blackadder says. "What if I went back into that painful experience and almost got swallowed back into it or something? Just the prospect of emotional pain and could I cope with it? Would it be OK to write about it without causing myself a lot of suffering, let alone anyone else? Just in terms of the writing, would it be safe?"

Sixty Seconds zooms in on the shockwaves that ripple through the Brennan family after two-year-old Toby drowns in the swimming pool of their new home in Murwillumbah. The narrative weaves between first, second and third person through the perspectives of Toby's teenage brother Jarrah and parents Finn and Bridget. They are trapped in separate towers of grief, guilt, doubt and blame. Life somehow manages both to carry on and grind to a halt.

"I really wanted that sense of how the same event can be perceived so differently by people who know and love each other," Blackadder says.

The personal becomes public, and political, when Finn is charged with manslaughter by criminal negligence over his son's death. Blackadder says she drew on a case in Armidale, when a pool owner was charged after his neighbour's child fell into his derelict pool and drowned. The case was thrown out of court, but Blackadder's novel probes the question of personal responsibility, the role of the state and the purpose of punishment after a tragic accident.

The novel required less strenuous research than her historical novels The Raven's Heart, about Mary Queen of Scots, and Chasing the Light, about the first woman to reach Antarctica in the 1930s. But the emotional toll was far greater, particularly when it came to writing the scenes that dealt directly with Toby's drowning.

The withdrawn novel, which she wrote in her 20s, is stashed in a cupboard. Blackadder remains grateful that it was never published.

"I really have seen in writing this book, that at that age and with that experience I had as a writer, I didn't have the maturity to truly absorb what had happened to me, and understand it and transform it into a work of fiction," she says.

A few years ago, on what would have been Blackadder's sister's 40th birthday, her family gathered at her headstone in the baby section of a Sydney cemetery. It was a moment, Blackadder says, of profound sadness but also one of beauty.

"I do feel some sense of completion around it," Blackadder says of the novel.

The story Jesse Blackadder's new story of love and grief and a tragedy that had to be told first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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