Culture Street

By Sophia Whitfield

Selected as one of the most anticipated debuts of 2012, Nichole Bernier has a good deal riding on her debut novel, The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D.

Set in the summer after the September 11 attacks, Bernier explores the loss of a loved one and the impact it has on family and friends.

Elizabeth has recently died in a plane crash and her dear friend Kate is looking forward to a much needed two month restorative holiday with her husband and two children. Just before she leaves she is told that Elizabeth, in her will, left her a trunk full of her private journals appointing Kate as their caretaker. Elizabeth's lawyer gives Kate the only key to this treasure chest of unopened journals.

Kate and Elizabeth met through a newcomers’ playgroup they had both been assigned to. A gathering of eight new mothers. Both of them had maintained successful careers before the birth of their babies, yet now they spoke about immunizations and paediatricians or using cloths for wipes instead of disposable store bought ones.

Kate had thought that their relationship was a good one. They supported each other by helping out with babysitting when the need arose. Both their husbands travelled for work so they fell into an easy compatible friendship while their husbands toured the globe.

As Kate embarks on the task of reading Elizabeth’s journals, which begin with her childhood, she is shocked by how little she knew about her friend. The family loss she suffered as a young girl that still haunts her in adulthood. The friction in her marriage. It becomes obvious to Kate that Elizabeth was putting up a facade of strength when underneath things had been falling apart. Rocked by the discovery, Kate begins to imagine  unexpected events in Elizabeth’s life before she has even finished the final journal.

The journals consume Kate on her family holiday. She becomes obsessed by them as she mounts the ladder to the attic each night, after kissing her children goodnight, to read the next instalment in Elizabeth’s life. Both Kate’s husband, Chris, and Elizabeth’s husband, Dave, begin to resent the journals. Chris watches on as his wife becomes preoccupied by her dear friend’s unexpected life, while Dave resents the fact that Kate has been charged with the safekeeping of journals he feels belong to his family.

Bernier has used the journals as a centrepiece for her story. In an age when blogs are taking over, leaving little room for private reflection, Bernier has shown the power of a private journal, unseen by prying eyes until the writer’s death. It throws Elizabeth’s family into turmoil, but ultimately provides her family and friends with a more rounded picture of the person she was and the people she loved.

Bernier begs the question: how well do we really know each other? How much should we reveal to others and how much should we hide? Elizabeth and Kate shared the highs and lows of motherhood, but only on a superficial level.

Through Elizabeth and Kate, Bernier carefully explores the sometimes fraught environments of playgroup and mother’s group where everyone is falsely cheerful and no one admits to drowning in the overwhelming exhaustion and fear that goes hand in hand with being a first time mother.

This is a novel that will keep you gripped from start to finish. Just as Kate becomes compelled to read the next journal, so the reader is on edge, desperate for the next instalment in Elizabeth’s life. The book builds to the final crescendo when we discover the reason for Elizabeth being on the plane.

Bernier raises questions about the nature of our relationships in an age where more value is placed on the number of friends we acquire rather than the depth of our friendships. A powerful reflection on motherhood, marriage and friendship.

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