Book review: Resistance, Jacinta Halloran

An exploration into human stamina and how it keeps things hidden as well as keeps people safe.

Jacinta Halloran’s fourth book is told from the perspective of Nina, a family therapist who has also recently experienced the loss of her brother. Nina works systemically and listens to her clients deeply; she’s accustomed to waiting and withholding, enabling them to fill out the silences she offers. She’s also this way with the people she meets incidentally in her life – Nina’s very presence invites others to share. 

Despite this, her new clients, the Agostinos, are resistant. Understandably, as they’ve been court-mandated to see her. After they went missing from their home, stole a car and wound up in the desert, they were all over the news. Nina, unaware of this coverage, endeavours to treat the striking details – blood on the children’s sheets, a hasty departure, a dead dog in a car boot – with a view untainted by the media. She looks to weigh these elements together with whatever else the Agostinos choose to relinquish. However, her new clients are unwilling to facilitate this; they do not want to participate in something they did not choose for themselves.

Lisa and Claude Agostino appear mutually supportive, principled and private. Their children, Poppy and Theo, wear an “old-fashioned” brand of politeness. Nina’s imperative is to determine whether the children are safe, and her questions are deliberate, pointed firmly in a particular direction. Where was the family heading and why? And what of the phone call that prompted their departure? The therapist is patient and attentive, but the Agostinos are evasive and protective. In the end, Nina is let in, but the answers she receives answer different kinds of questions.

Each family member accounts for the events that landed them in therapy in their own way. Poppy trusts that her parents are there for her and Theo. ‘It was as if she remembered the sensation of being airborne: the freedom and joy of being weightless without any of the fear because she knew, without the slightest doubt, that she would be caught again as she fell.’

But Nina isn’t let into everything. ‘There are things you don’t need to know,’ Poppy tells her, ‘and there are things we can’t tell you’. Claude regards the identity of the caller and the story surrounding this as ‘none of [Nina’s] business’. Each Agostino shares a unanimous conviction to not betray their story or themselves. In listening to them, Nina must respect their assertion of privacy. Some knowledge is too sacred, fledgling or threatened to be revealed to a relative stranger. 

Through all this, Halloran seems to challenge the notion that a reader gains a stronger capacity to empathise with characters as they learn more about them. If someone’s circumstances are unknown or mysterious to us, and their motivations are unclear, does this imply that ahead of accessing their stories we have less empathy? Do we have a right to access someone’s stories in pursuit of this understanding and, further to this, do we need to?

Nina’s ongoing visits to her own therapist, Erin, and interactions with colleagues, could offer a vehicle for the easy, immediate expression of Nina’s insights, through a back-and-forth dialogue on the page. But the approach that Halloran has taken is far more interesting. Instead, Nina and her therapist exchange monologues. More generally, the encounters we’re shown from her daily life never involve the generic trading of flimsy packets of information that constitute everyday conversation. Rather, Nina’s deep and active listening finds people compelled to fully share their stories. When the Agostinos offer theirs, we are brought into a similar state of reception. Through Nina’s eyes we are delivered insights into their actions, but never as summarised assessments or lengthy reflections from Nina herself.

Resistance is paced with a care for detail. Below the novel’s polyphony is a univocal sense of necessity and urgency. People share their stories for a range of reasons, but each character seems to express them from a place of need. 

The ending of Resistance is especially beautiful. The threads of the stories gather in support of Nina’s understanding of the Agostinos and, of course, of herself. The puzzle of what happened to the family is slowly assembled from both the procured and missing pieces, and the truth emerges – but not in the way that you may expect.

Read: Book review: The Heart is a Star, Megan Rogers

This excellent read will gently propel you into reflectiveness. It will make you question what you do and don’t have a right to know.

Resistance by Jacinta Halloran
Publisher: Text Publishing
ISBN: 9781922790118
Format: Paperback
Pages: 288pp
Publication date: 7 March 2023
RRP: $32.99

Megan Payne is a writer and dancer based on Wurundjeri Land. They study Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT University, and are an associate editor with The Suburban Review.