TEXT review

A verse novel packed with poignancy

review by Elizabeth Claire Alberts



Lisa Jacobson
The Sunlit Zone
Five Islands Press, Melbourne 2012
ISBN 9780734047465
Pb 165pp AUD29.95


Contemporary verse novels tend to explore powerful emotional events, and Lisa Jacobson’s The Sunlit Zone is no exception. This is a story of love and loss, grief and healing, trauma and transformation. It is the story of North, a woman who flounders in sadness like someone drowning in the deepest part of the ocean. In order to heal her wounds, she must find a way to surface into the sunlit zone.

In her article, ‘Vetting the Verse Novel’, Patty Campbell argues that the narrative structures of most verse novels differ from prose novels. ‘Characteristically,’ Campbell writes, ‘the action centers on an emotional event, and the rest of the novel deals with the character’s feelings before and after’ (Campbell 2004: 614). Campbell is specifically referring to young adult verse novels, and The Sunlit Zone is written for an adult readership. However, Jacobson’s text shares this attribute with its young adult counterpart.

North, a thirty-something marine biologist living in Australia in a speculative future, narrates The Sunlit Zone. The major emotional event is the disappearance of North’s twin sister, Finn, who gets swept into the ocean while in North’s care. The story is set in the year 2050, but every even-numbered chapter dips back to the past as North confronts her memories surrounding Finn’s presumed drowning. The second chapter, for instance, recounts North and Finn’s birth (more imagining than remembering on North’s part). North is born a healthy child, but Finn is delivered in a ‘furry caul’ with a ‘thread wound tight’ around her neck (21), and evolves into a strange hybrid creature – part girl, part sea-being with gills and barnacles, and a predilection for water. The analeptic chapters ascend from 2020 to 2039, recounting the sisters’ childhood, adolescence, and then North’s college years after Finn vanishes. The flashbacks provide striking comparisons to North’s adult life, which is tinged with loneliness. North spends much of her time working at the lab, although she occasionally visits her friends and her ageing parents.

The Sunlit Zone is packed with emotion, but the book doesn’t lapse into sentimentalism, and the narrative never lags. Jacobson uses evocative images to create suspense and a sense of foreboding. The second chapter ends with a startling discovery about Finn, which would make most readers eager to flip the page:

as Finn wriggled, Mum took her feet,
caught her fingernail on a flap of skin
and found between my sister’s toes
thin webs, shell-pink and delicate. (29)

The Sunlit Zone depicts many life experiences to which readers will surely relate: childbirth, first love, break-ups, the death of a parent, and a myriad of awkward coming-of-age moments. What resonated with me the most, however, was the environmental message. In North’s world, the natural world is in dire straits. A tensile wall holds back the rising sea. Weather has become increasingly erratic, causing Queenslanders to flee ‘fearing more tsunamis’ (17). A ‘desalination plant casts a green / light on a continent of gleaming sand’ (13). Technology and consumerism have spiraled out of control. The oceans are filled with GM replicas of extinct species. There are designer babies, designer dogs, and ‘skinfones’ embedded in everyone’s wrists. At times, Jacobson’s constant references to these futuristic phenomena seem more ornamental than necessary to the story, but they vivify this strange new world, making an enthralling read.

I sit amidst the rubble on my desk:
heat sweets, God Junk, a lone earring,
lilac pebbles from a resort beach.
Words glimmer on my lobal screen
I can’t quite, almost, read.
I refocus until the text solidifies,
notations made in my brain scrawl. (11-12)

Jacobson’s verse novel is ‘speculative’ by virtue of its futuristic setting and fantastical story elements. Nevertheless, the environmental concerns faced in the storyworld – concerns about climate change; invasive species; energy use; conservation; marine pollution; genetic engineering – will resonate with readers today.

The themes of The Sunlit Zone seem to penetrate more deeply because it is written in poetry. Jacobson writes in a flowing, accessible free verse that appears deceptively simple, but her careful selection and placement of words maximises meaning. In the following excerpt, the multiple meanings evoked by the word ‘imprints’ are reinforced by words like ‘drawn,’ ‘scan’ and ‘photograph.’ The land crab/ocean crab simile acts as a powerful comparison to the newborn twin girls in this scene, but also symbolises the differences that will eventually separate the two sisters.

At dawn she’d drive to the hospital
while Richard was asleep, drawn
back to us by imprints more precise
than any scan or photograph.
She saw us twinned but different,
as the land crab differs from its ocean
cousin. (22)

The expanse of white page that follows each line break, and the space that separates each numbered poetic section within every chapter, seem like a deliberate gesture, providing a place for the reader to momentarily pause and reflect upon the narrative and the poetic language.

It is hard to fault Jacobson’s verse novel. Not only has she produced a text packed full of poignant poetry, she has also created a compelling narrative that speaks to the heart. The Sunlit Zone is Jacobson’s first novel-in-verse, which she wrote as part of her PhD thesis at LaTrobe University. I’m sure many readers would agree with me when I say that I hope she writes many more.


Works cited




Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University where she also tutors and lectures in creative writing. Her creative writing thesis is on young adult verse novels.


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Vol 17 No 1 April 2013
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo