Berndt Sellheim – The Fatal Dance

Harper Collins, Australia, 2021
Cover Design gray318

Huntington’s Disease is the driver of this story, an inherited condition the randomness of which is a metaphor for the equally unequal and unjust fall of events in human lives.

Berndt Sellheim talks to Barbie about The Fatal Dance

Seen through the vastly different lenses of the four lead characters – Lori (who has inherited the Huntington’s gene), her sister Bea, Bea’s husband Redmond and Lori’s son Mada – the story invites us to consider the ripples of connection and love, responsibility and despair inherent in family life.

The notion of drowning is a motif that trails throughout the story, starting with the opening scene when Lori walks into the sea intending to end her life, only to be rescued by two young surfers. Then Redmond appears in all his awfulness, a venal self-obsessed man set on making his fortune in the big end of real estate and happy to party with big Chinese investors to get there. He soon gets out of his depth too.

Bea has taken on the motherhood of Mada, Lori being incapable at the best of times of fulfilling the role and unlikely to survive long enough to see it through. Her obvious guilt at being the sibling who didn’t inherit the Huntington’s gene, pushes her to saint-like devotion and tolerance, but she has a cracking point too – and it leads her to a term in prison where she must simply survive the horrors of each day till she’s done her time.

Mada, an idealist researcher, grapples with the opaque and often treacherous waters of academia in his quest to find a cure for Huntington’s. It’s personal of course, but bigger than that. It’s about science and its capacity to fix things or not. The dichotomy between nature and invention, chemistries of different ilks is a constant problem, as is Mada’s dilemma over whether to be tested for the gene – is it better to know or not?

This is a tale that allows us much insight into the ways the same story can be experienced by different players, no matter their closeness. The mad love of family is always present here, as is the madness of justice in a corporate world where money holds sway and small lives are swallowed.

There are scenes of the ridiculous, the risible, as there are in all our lives, and so often these are the times we feel most vulnerable, most alarmed and most desperate, most serious about ourselves.

Berndt Sellheim has demonstrated in this work a keen eye for illuminating both human foibles and the heights of human moral courage. Our capacity to identify with some members of his cast is often challenged, but we always recognise our own proximity to those nuances of good, evil, banality and honour.

This is a good read, a story that holds our attention, sometimes grabbing us by the scruff of our necks and sometimes allowing us the gentle lift from the seafloor, ‘the white and gold of nirvana’ (p.5).

Thank you to Harper Collins for my review copy, to DMCPR for facilitating my interview and to Berndt Sellheim for such a great conversation, well beyond books.