‘ A useful reminder that the system is fallible’ – Rough Justice: True Crime by Robin Bowles

rough-justiceThis is a challenging look at the criminal justice system. At a time when governments have responded to the fear of terrorism with extreme measures, it is a useful reminder that the system is fallible. Julian Burnside QC, quoted on the cover of Rough Justice

I picked up my copy of Rough Justice by Robin Bowles through a discount online bookstore over a year ago and it has been sitting on my shelves waiting for a moment when I had the time and inclination to pick it up. That moment came this week when I tripped and gashed my knee, forcing me to take time off. What better way to recover from an injury than to read. As I’m currently writing a novel which involves crime, the “true crime” genre appeals to me: I welcome any insights I can glean into the workings of police, investigative journalists, prosecutors and defence lawyers, as well as the courts, as background material for my fiction. Rough Justice provides plenty of such insights.

Bowles’ book is subtitled “Unanswered Questions from the Australian Courts” and it certainly raises more questions than it answers. It discusses eight cases, three in Victoria, one each in South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales. Some of the cases are well known, including that of Bradley Murdoch, convicted of murdering British backpacker Peter Falconio; and of Greg Domaszewicz, who, despite having been acquitted of murdering toddler Jaidyn Leskie, subsequently had a coronial finding against him. Other cases are less well known, at least to me. In each case, the defendants have protested their innocence. Several have been exonerated; others are still fighting for “justice” – or, at least, to clear their names.

But what is “justice”? That’s the real unanswered question this book poses.

Bowles looks at the processes behind these cases and reveals grave flaws in the judicial system. Her discussion identifies various points at which an innocent person can be unjustly convicted, including incompetence in how evidence is gathered or interpreted, possible police corruption and coercion of witnesses, bias created in the minds of both witnesses and potential jurors by the media, and flawed judicial proceedings. The problems, she suggests, come from our adversarial system which demands two sides play off against one another; the winner, she implies, is often the side with the deepest pockets. Thus wealth, privilege and class – or the lack of these – ensure not a “fair” trial, but what can be successfully argued in court, a recipe for creating an underclass who risk being incarcerated simply because they are too poor to mount a convincing defence.

Readers of reviews on my blog may know of my ambivalence to the fiction of Caroline Overington. Despite being riveted by Overington’s tales, I’m left with an uneasy feeling resulting from a forced encounter with moral ambiguity. I experience something similar when reading Bowles’ book. In her efforts to tell two (or more) sides of the story, Bowles, I feel, manipulates me; it’s as if I’m being drawn to form one opinion, only for the facts subsequently to be presented in an equally convincing, sometimes opposite way. It’s a clever ploy, as it reinforces the book’s theme and underlines the problems faced by police, investigators, jurors and judges in deciding what is “true”. Often, it appears to come down to, not what is true but what is “believable”, and that is restricted by the evidence known or presented at any one time.

I’m also made uneasy by the subtext about class, derived by way of language. In looking for information about these cases online, I came across a thread on a website where people (the “public”) were giving their opinions on the Jaidyn Leskie murder. One commentator mentioned how so many of these sensational cases involve communities where people have names that are spelled with “yn”, instead of (presumably upper-class) names like “Jeremy”. This (somewhat bizarre) comment made me think. Both Favel Parrett in Past the Shallows and Tara June Winch in Swallow the Air write about poor, uneducated protagonists; but both authors depict these protagonists’ worlds using language which is richly poetic. The authors’ beautiful prose has the effect of dignifying the poverty and tragedy of their characters’ lives. Both Bowles and Overington, by contrast, use plain language – a “journalistic” style – combined with, at times, the idioms consistent with the class, background and education of the people they write about; this plainness – and, at times, crudeness – does nothing to disguise the poverty of these people’s lives and values. As readers, we’re forced into an uncomfortable position. Are we meant to judge or empathise with these people? Do we stand above, or do we consider “them” to be our equals?

Bowles weighs down, in my view, on the side of empathy for the defendants, not because she demonstrates their innocence or virtue, but because she shows how these people – guilty or innocent – are equally screwed by the system. At the same time, she shows how they’re equally capable of screwing the system in return – and so is she. At one point, she describes how Denis Tanner, a man who was found by a coroner to have shot his sister-in-law, had an entirely separate charge of assault brought against him. Bowles writes:

At one point, he was charged with whacking a photojournalist in the testicles with his heavy briefcase as he left the coroner’s court. He was acquitted because a visit by the Magistrate’s Court to the scene of the alleged ‘crime’ showed that the police witness who said he saw the whole thing couldn’t have seen anything from his office because of a tree outside his window. They didn’t ask me, though. I saw everything! (161)

What did Bowles see? She doesn’t state. But “everything” could hardly be “nothing”. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, for Bowles, in this instance at least, seeming impartiality and actual complicity are one and the same thing. It could be a metaphor for the equally fraught nature of the Australian justice system. Perhaps it was intended to be.

~

Author: Robin Bowles
Title: Rough Justice: Unanswered Questions from the Australian Courts
Publisher: The Five Mile Press
Date: 2007
ISBN: 9781741786606

This review counts towards both the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 and the 2014 Aussie Author Challenge.

Are teenaged girls just like that? Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl and Lolita: a response

just-a-girl-krauthThis book should come with a warning.

Anyone who cares for – or has been – a sexually precocious adolescent girl, be prepared for an emotionally harrowing read.

just_a_girl tears into the fabric of contemporary culture. A Puberty Blues for the digital age, a Lolita with a webcam. It’s what happens when young girls are forced to grow up too fast Or never get the chance to grow up at all. (Source: back cover copy)

I haven’t read Puberty Blues, but I did read Lolita in my early twenties and hated it. I think anyone who, like me, experienced the trauma of being repeatedly ‘interfered with’ by a sexual predator from a very early age, and subsequently became sexually precocious, would cringe with painful identification at how vulnerable young girls can be when first exploring their sexuality.

Maybe you wouldn’t need to have a history of childhood sexual assault (CSA) to have that reaction to Nabokov’s classic; I don’t know. But the author’s ‘beautiful’ writing did nothing to compensate me for the trauma of reliving the horror, the reminder of how easily seduced one can be by an older man, if you have such a history; how needy, how lonely and lost; how at the mercy of others’ violence, sexual perversity and power plays. It was a confronting and, for me, very distressing read.

Apart from my own visceral reaction, another reason why I hated Lolita – and why I’ve never been able to bring myself to reread it or to explore Nabokov’s other books – was that, while I recognized Lolita’s behaviour, I didn’t think Nabokov had her motivation right. I didn’t believe in the child-woman ‘tease’, the girl who is attracted to and exercises her sexual power over much older men; I didn’t think she could spring out of nowhere. My unconscious assumption, I realize now, was shaped by my own history. I thought such behaviour had to stem from CSA; I couldn’t see how it could be a ‘dance’ played between the adult man-who-should-know-better and an adolescent girl who simply doesn’t realize the dangers of exercising her sexual power. (If I’m mis-remembering Lolita, forgive me. Maybe I’ve blanked out Lolita’s back story.) For me Nabokov’s way of viewing the interplay seemed to elide the experience of the girl, denying her victimhood: it was a story a man might have written out of ignorance, I thought, a man who couldn’t know the full story.

However, reading Kristin Krauth’s just_a_girl, I find myself questioning my assumptions. Here’s Layla, a teenaged character self-consciously acting like a 21st-century Lolita, written by a woman. A 14-year-old girl with no apparent history of early childhood CSA, Layla is right out there sexually with men twice her age and more, and getting herself into potentially life-threatening trouble as a result.

The risks Layla takes are, for me, horrifying.

The most horrifying aspect is, as Krauth suggests very convincingly, that any teenaged girl might find herself acting like a Lolita; girls who – like Layla – have suffered the trauma of a father’s abandonment or absence, a mother’s post-natal depression, personal feelings of isolation and social dislocation, the pain of ‘growing up’ – ordinary, if distressing, life circumstances and events. If Krauth is right, then so perhaps was Nabokov, something I’ve resisted believing for years. Maybe adolescent girls – especially in the internet age – face a much greater danger than I realized. The danger, it would appear, is in themselves, not because of what someone has done to them. That is the truly frightening premise of just-a-girl. It could be your daughter, niece or granddaughter. It might have been you at that age.

So have I had it wrong? Are some ordinary teenaged girls ‘just like that’?

Maybe I’m not giving Krauth enough credit for subtlety.

Krauth does, in fact, lay the seeds of a different understanding of Layla’s behaviour, one that fits better with my own intuition. It’s not just the girl’s history we need to take into account, Krauth suggests, but also that of the generations that have gone before her: her parents and what shaped their relationship, her mother’s childhood experience, and the abuses and suffering of previous family members. In this systemic context Layla’s vulnerability makes sense. Layla’s god-fearing mother is a reformed addict, whose first marriage was to a closeted gay man; she comes from a history of family abuse and, like Layla, is vulnerable to a sexual predator. Layla’s seeming obliviousness to her own trauma isn’t because it doesn’t exist; it’s because she is in denial and ‘acting out’, indulging in risk-taking behaviour as a defence mechanism. All this, to me, is psychologically convincing. In this reading (which I find more saddening than alarming), Krauth suggests that such dangerous precocity doesn’t, after all, spring out of nowhere, and the girl – however sexualised her behaviour – isn’t to blame for what happens to her, even though, on first reading, her recklessness would appear to be a contributing factor.

If you’re prepared to be confronted by a talented new voice in Australian fiction, read just_a_girl and let me know what you think.

For less personal accounts of Krauth’s debut novel see:

~

Title: just_a_girl
Author: Kirsten Krauth
UWA Publishing 2013
ISBN: 9781742584959

This response to the novel counts towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. Copy kindly supplied by the publisher. 

Satire or sensationalism? Caroline Overington’s No Place Like Home

No Place Like Home Cover ImageEver get the feeling that the book you’ve just finished reading and the one by the same title being lauded in reviews isn’t the same book?

That’s how I felt after finishing Caroline Overington’s latest, No Place Like Home.

Overington’s previous book, Sisters of Mercy (reviewed here), had me fuming, so I wasn’t surprised to find No Place Like Home equally provocative. What did surprise me, though, was how different from mine were other reviewers’ reactions to the novel. Where I’d felt angry, by contrast, the ending left more than one other reviewer feeling sad. Whereas I found the narrator shallow and deeply problematic ethically, another thought him “likeable and moderate in his thinking”. Where I saw the majority of the characters as caricatures, others found these figures believable. Where one reviewer regarded the novel to have been written with compassion, I saw, through the eyes of a deeply flawed narrator, a disgust and contempt for the flaws of other human beings.

Were we reading the same book?

No Place Like Home was published this month by Bantam Australia, an imprint of Random House. In her 30 second pitch for The Book Circle, Overington describes the book as “unashamedly a thriller”. Its premise is simple:

A young man walks into a shopping centre. He’s wearing a hoodie zipped up to his neck. He starts to run, security guards start to chase him, and he gets into a shop, where he’s locked in. The idea for the reader is: Who is he? How will he get out? And will the people stuck in the shop with him also get out alive?

The narrator is a former police chaplain who recounts the events of that day. No reason is given as to why this ex-priest elects to tell all – and to betray, as he does, the confidences of people whom he was paid to counsel after their ordeal. Seemingly to satisfy his own curiosity and exploit the sensationalism surrounding the day’s events, he exposes to public gaze the private foibles and flaws of those involved, their hypocrisies, narcissism and, at times, downright stupidity.

The young man at the centre of the “hostage crisis”, Ali Khan/Nudie, is an Australian citizen. As an immigrant and one-time refugee from Tanzania, he has been let down by his community, his rescuer, the Department of Immigration, his landlady, African community outreach workers, and now police hostage negotiators and bystanders. Few are exempt from the priest’s scathing criticism. There’s Marj, who took in Nudie only to reject him, an urban Greens-voting do-gooder; she was disappointed that “her refugee” wasn’t tall and black, someone “that she could parade around, showing how tolerant she was”, but instead was grey in skin colour, possibly Albino, an outcast from his own community. The priest opines:

I got the feeling that Marj got involved because she’s always got to be involved in something, and if it’s on the Left, it’s for her.”

There’s the bystander/victim held “hostage” by Nudie, the real estate agent from Melbourne, with his shallow, spendthrift wife, and attention-grabbing stripper girlfriend. There’s the African community worker who ran from Nudie, screaming about “evil”, instead of helping him. There’s the priest-narrator himself, lacking in self-awareness (“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I tend not to give mine”), standing in judgement over others while ignorantly referring to refugee boat arrivals as “illegal” and “queue-jumping”.

When I asked via Twitter who else was reading No Place Like Home, one tweep answered, “I would rather eat my hands than read another of her novels. Overblown, sensationalist tripe.”

That got me thinking.

I like reading Overington’s books, even while I suspect her politics and mine are vastly different. I like that her work provokes and outrages me, that she brings up issues of morality, ethics and social justice in her writing, and that she takes vicious stabs at “political correctness”. I don’t find her writing realistic, heartwarming or even insightful, but does it have to be? Perhaps there’s a different way of reading it.

Is No Place Like Home satire? Is that how it should be read?

As an undergraduate, I read Candide, the poems of Alexander Pope, Gulliver’s Travels, Huckleberry Finn, The Trial and 1984; more recently, I was provoked by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (reviewed here); all of these could be described as satire. It’s not my preferred genre and I can’t say I really have a handle on it, but I think Overington’s work might fit this category. Wikipedia says of the Roman poet Juvenal, one of the first proponents of satire: “In a tone and manner ranging from irony to apparent rage, Juvenal criticizes the actions and beliefs of many of his contemporaries, providing insight more into value systems and questions of morality and less into the realities of Roman life.” (source) Australian satirist David Foster has been described by Susan Lever in the following terms:

[H]is writing sets itself deliberately against the favourite beliefs of the educated readers who are most likely to read it. His work is opinionated, misanthropic… Foster is a novelist of ideas rather than character; readers cannot slip into sympathetic identification with his characters because they exist to express ideas rather than individual psychologies. (source)

It’s my view that Overington’s work can also be read in these terms and, as satire – a genre traditionally associated with male writers and deemed “unladylike” – it’s worth reading.

In British Women Writing Satirical Novels in the Romantic Period, Lisa M Wilson notes:

[R]eviewers of the period seem to have been as likely to praise or to condemn a satirical novel based on their opinion of the author’s politics as of the author’s gender.

I’d prefer not to do that.

No Place Like Home is compelling reading. The reader wants to know what happens next, and along the way Overington ranges over several of the most important questions facing Australia today. What kind of country do we want to be? What kind of generation do we want to be remembered as? A generation which has allowed dog-whistle politics to whip up feelings of invasion and xenophobia, instead of tolerance and compassion? People who fail to act to restrain greenhouse gas emissions, only to have our government’s policy of “stop the boats” overwhelmed by a tidal flood of global human migration when sea levels begin to flood low-lying countries? It’s exciting to see such issues being addressed in popular fiction.

One of the bonuses of reading and reviewing for the Australian Women Writers Challenge* has been discovering the diversity of political opinions among our talented contemporary women writers. I’m grateful for authors who can tackle big questions from all sides of politics – even if I don’t like the values they or their characters appear to espouse. Anger, the dominant emotion I see being conveyed and evoked by Overington’s writing, can be a powerful tool for change. Harnessed in a compelling narrative in simple-to-read language, it may reach a wide audience of people who don’t normally read. (“Not everyone knows what an inquest is,” says Overington’s priest-narrator, before going on to explain.) My hope is that this book will inspire its readers to think about the values they hold and why, not simply reinforce their prejudices. My fear is that some readers may not be able to distinguish between Overington and her ignorant narrator. Rather than criticise Overington’s work for its simplifications and the shallowness of its characters, however, I’d prefer to see it in terms of its strengths. No Place Like Home is thought-provoking and challenging, and a page-turning read.

* If you’re interested in finding out more about the Australian Women Writers Challenge, please read this recent article published by if:book Australia.

~

This review counts towards my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWW) and the Aussie Author Challenge

Author: Caroline Overington
Title: No Place Like Home
ISBN: 9781742758015
Published: 01/10/2013
Imprint: Bantam Australia
Review copy (ebook) kindly supplied by Random House Australia via Netgalley.

Thriller debut – I Am Pilgrim by Australian author Terry Hayes

I-am-pilgrim-hayesTerry Hayes’ debut novel, I Am Pilgrim, is a blockbuster spy thriller which shows all the author’s narrative skills as a seasoned screenwriter. Seemingly written with Hollywood in mind, it is highly visual, and has multiple twists and turns to keep even the most reluctant reader riveted to the page (or, in my case, the iPad) until long into the night.

A lengthy 704 pages, the story ranges over settings as diverse as New York, Saudi Arabia, the Hindu Kush and Turkey. It combines an identity-troubled protagonist, reminiscent of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, with comic-book-like action typical of a James Bond movie. (There are probably better contemporary examples, but this isn’t really my genre.)

The narrative is ostensibly told in the first person and jumps forwards and backwards in time, as motivations and back stories are filled out. The premise, a terror threat which could bring down the United States, if not the entire Western World, is alarmist and frightening; and Hayes’ narrative manipulations make the scenario in all its permutations seem – almost – believable. With at times clunky foreshadowing, Hayes never lets the reader forget the magnitude of the imminent threat, and pointed references to genocide, such as the narrator’s quote from an Auschwitz survivor, attempt to give the story an epic quality:

There was one thing the experience had taught him. He said he’d learned that when millions of people, a whole political system, countless numbers of citizens who believed in God, said they were going to kill you – just listen to them.

As well as telling his own story, Hayes’ narrator retells events as if from the points of view of other pivotal characters, including the Muslim terrorist-antagonist. The built-in unreliability of the narrator, in my view, narrowly saves the story from being a crude exploitation of complex political, religious and ideological tensions between the West and radical Islam for entertainment purposes. Narrowly, I say, because the narrator’s unreliability is only hinted at, rather than fully drawn. It could be easy for some – many? most? – readers to accept on face value the narrator’s self-serving account of events, and to regard him as a hero, rather than the flawed, ethically and morally suspect anti-hero I would like to think Hayes intends him to be. (We might have to wait for another book featuring this narrator to judge what Hayes has in mind here.)

Who will enjoy this book? Anyone who likes morally ambiguous, page-turning thrillers. Who might hate it? People who don’t buy my unreliable narrator argument and who can’t bring themselves to switch off their critical facilities long enough to enjoy James Bond.

For me, I couldn’t put it down.

~

Author: Terry Hayes
Title: I Am Pilgrim
ISBN: 9780593064955
Published: Random House, 01/08/2013
Imprint: Bantam Press
Review copy kindly supplied by publisher.
This review counts towards my 2013 Aussie Author Challenge.

Blood Witness by Alex Hammond – Debut Aussie crime

hammond-blood-witness-male-authorDefence lawyer Will Harris is reluctantly drawn into a bizarre murder trial. A terminally ill man claims to have witnessed the brutal crime – in a vision. But the looming trial is more than just a media circus: it’s Will’s first big case since the tragic death of his fiancée.

With the pressure mounting, Will’s loyalties are split when his fiancée’s sister is charged with drug trafficking. The strain of balancing both cases takes its toll and Will finds himself torn between following the law and seeking justice.
(Source: Penguin website)

Although for the past couple of years I’ve concentrated on reading books by Australian women, my first love has always been crime. Male or female authors, Australian or international, it hasn’t mattered. I started with an early reading diet of Agatha Christie – my dad’s favourite – along with his beloved “true crime” pulps from the 1960s, with their deliciously lurid covers. As a teenager, I progressed on to Simenon and Arthur Conan Doyle, to Barbara Vine, PD James and Elizabeth George. In more recent years I developed a passion for Henning Mankell and other Swedish crime authors, as well as the novels of husband-and-wife writing team Nicci French. Before that I gravitated towards page-turning psychological thrillers from the US like those by Michael Palmer, and legal thrillers by John Grisham and Richard North Patterson. It’s into the latter category that Alex Hammond’s debut legal thriller fits, Blood Witness, as the publisher’s hook goes: ‘One man’s search for justice and redemption [which] plunges him into the violent world of Melbourne’s underbelly.’

Especially considering Hammond is a first-time author, the story doesn’t disappoint. The opening prologue, which sets up the protagonist Will’s character and motivation, is as exciting as anything I’ve read in a long time. It says much for Hammond’s story-telling skills and augurs well for his future writing. (Blood Witness is the start of a series.)

Apart from the engaging, anti-hero protagonist and insight into Melbourne’s social and criminal worlds, what particularly interests me about this book is the way Hammond weaves in an obscure legal precedent from Britain. Hammond uses the (fictional?) case of ‘R. v Lam’, which touches on the late nineteenth-century fascination with spiritualism, both to develop intriguing plot points and moments of suspense, and also to shed light on the workings of the Australian legal system. His insights, no doubt, draw on his own background as a lawyer.

Some readers might find parts of this story confronting, particularly Harris’ legal team’s defence of the indefensible, the sexual grooming of adolescents. However the book is not without touches of grim humour to relieve the tension. Some of the humour is generated by the protagonist’s relationship with his cat, Toby, whom he has neglected:

Silence from Toby was indicative of nothing. He could be content or plotting a furniture-oriented revenge.

Elsewhere, Hammond sends up the potential melodrama of his narrative by foregrounding it. This is his description of the dying psychic, Kovacs, whose unlikely testimony becomes pivotal to the defence’s case; Kovacs is being hauled by a pneumatic lift into the back of a van:

The driver turned on the mechanism and Kovacs slowly started to rise and rattle like a bad effect from a horror movie.

While the plot is page-turning and rarely flags, as it progresses it does stretch credulity. Still, Hammond’s ‘scientific’ explanation at the end, which makes sense of some of the wilder aspects of the narrative, should satisfy sceptical readers and justify their suspension of disbelief.

Likely to appeal to fans of Law & Order, Rumpole and Rake alike, Blood Witness is overall a very good read. I’m looking forward to Book 2 in the series.

~

Title: Blood Witness
Author: Alex Hammond
Publisher: Penguin Australia / Michael Joseph
Year: 2013
ISBN: 9781921901492
Review copy kindly supplied by the publisher.

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Ever since posting Margo Lanagan’s piece for the Australian Women Writers challenge, I’ve been looking forward to reading Kate Forsyth’s novel, Bitter Greens.

Forsyth isn’t a new author for me – year ago, I read and enjoyed the Witches of Eileanan series – but Bitter Greens is her first novel for adults. The novel ranges over two centuries, combines history and fairytale, and creates portraits of three different women: a real historical character, novelist Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the girl fabled as “Rapunzel”, and her imagined captor and “witch”, the Venetian courtesan “Selena Leonelli”. It’s more ambitious than any of Forsyth’s Fantasy series, especially in its self-reflexive quality. Central to the tale are themes concerning the art of narrative, and the genesis and profession of story-telling. This ambitious structure is both a strength and a weakness.

While less than a third the way in I was spell-bound, the beginning of the novel didn’t quite sweep me away as I’d hoped. After a page introducing the chief story-teller, Charlotte-Rose, as a child, the narrative jumps to show her as a grown woman. This rapid shift didn’t allow me to get to know Charlotte-Rose, to care about her and know what she wants out of life. I felt little sense of the tragic irony I guessed Forsyth was trying to create, the sense that here is a great character destined to fall. As the book progressed, however, I enjoyed Charlotte-Rose more and more. Forsyth portrays her as a headstrong, sexually active woman, with enough self-interest, stubbornness and resourcefulness to pursue her career in defiance of the mores and life-threatening risks of her time.

I felt more immediate empathy for the other point of view characters, Leonella – the witch – and Margherita – the Rapunzel figure. In these threads of the narrative, Forsyth demonstrates her skill as a Fantasy writer, with the storytelling every bit as enchanting as fairytales of old.

~

This post completes my Aussie Author 2012 challenge, and is part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. AWW reviews of Bitter Greens include the following:

Kate wrote a guest post for Bree here: Bree 1girl2manybooks.

ISBN-13: 9781741668452
North Sydney, Vintage Australia (Random House) 2012
Borrowed from Avalon Community Library

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton – the comfort of popular fiction and the lure of narcissism

The cover blurb of The Secret Keeper states:

1961: On a sweltering summer’s day, while her family picnics by the stream on their Suffolk farm, sixteen-year-old Laurel hides out in her childhood tree house dreaming of a boy called Billy, a move to London, and the bright future she can’t wait to seize. But before the idyllic afternoon is over, Laurel will have witnessed a shocking crime that changes everything.

2011: Now a much-loved actress, Laurel finds herself overwhelmed by shades of the past. Haunted by memories, and the mystery of what she saw that day, she returns to her family home and begins to piece together a secret history. A tale of three strangers from vastly different worlds – Dorothy, Vivien and Jimmy – who are brought together by chance in wartime London and whose lives become fiercely and fatefully entwined.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is an engaging story that’s easy to read. There were no surprises for me at the end. The clues to the story’s “twists” were laid carefully for any reader who knew this wasn’t going to end in disappointment. For much of the story the reader is led to expect the novel’s message will be about forgiveness and atonement, about “second chances”, spurred on by a mystery: one of the central characters, the present-day actress Laurel, seeks to know explain her mother Dorothy’s seemingly heinous behaviour when she was a teenager. But it doesn’t fully address the question of evil, unless evil can be equated with the consequences of magical thinking in childhood when the child doesn’t mature successfully.

That’s what interests me about the book, its psychological take on its characters.

In between reading, I also listened to two discussions on Radio National’s Counterpoint program. A quick aside: Counterpoint’s new presenter, Amanda Vanstone, the ex-Howard government Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, consistently used the universal “man” in her discussion, swapping to “humanity” only when she referred to an actual woman. To me, this suggests the depth of what women face with internalised gender bias: we’re not even aware it exists, let alone its ramifications, or possible impact on what, as girls and women, we might expect of ourselves; how we can mature to find security, safety, a sense of belonging and self-esteem without falling back on stereotypical notions of “a woman’s place”, or what makes a “good woman”. These themes are also important to The Secret Keeper.

The first discussion I listened to was with writer R Jay Magill Junior on sincerity. This touched on the question of what we like and admire about people – especially politicians – and how this may differ from their skills in leadership or ability to get a job done. It acknowledged the gap between what we want to think about ourselves and our heroes – that we’re essentially good people – and the political and social realities. Essentially, it presented the old dilemma: how can we have leaders who can make tough decisions when the solutions to problems aren’t always in accord with notions of decency, freedom, altruism and fairness; how can such leaders remain sympathetic in the eyes of an electorate? The result is spin, a seemingly necessary duplicity which caters to both expectations of the audience, the voters.

This might seem a long way from The Secret Keeper and the actions of three strangers in war-torn London, but it’s not: central to the novel is the question of narcissism – or pathological self-absorption – and how it arises as a defence mechanism as a result of trauma; and empathy, the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes and anticipate or intuit how they might feel in any given situation.

Such issues are also touched on in the second discussion I listened to, one with psychiatrist Dr George Henry on what makes a good person. Vanstone introduces the discussion by saying how quiet women are often judged as “good”, while “noisy” women – like her, she says – are judged to be “difficult”: “A forcefully spoken man is regarded as strong and a forcefully spoken woman is regarded as aggressive.” But what about the “quiet ones”? she asks. Are they always “good people”?

This dualism is depicted in The Secret Keeper. Servant girl Dorothy is vivacious, outgoing, always good for a laugh and a good time; she is also self-serving, duplicitous and self-deluded. Socialite Vivien is quiet, good-natured, and passive to the point of being a victim. Both are dreamers; both have suffered trauma and loss. The question the novel appears to pose is this: can Dorothy, a perpetrator, be redeemed and rewarded with happiness, family, sufficient wealth and peace of mind, despite her crimes? Crucially, can she, as she approaches the end of her life, be forgiven by her daughter?

It’s an interesting question, and one the novel never answers. Instead, by the wonderful sleight-of-hand that is fiction, we find ourselves in an alternative narrative, one of “Virtue, Patience and Courage Rewarded”. Essentially, we’re snatched away from considering a tough question about what humans are capable of, and what justice, forgiveness, atonement and redemption may really involve, and we’re given spin. Without further thought, the result for the reader could be the same, with our prejudices reinforced. People like “us” are okay; people like “them”, we don’t have to worry about: the allure and comfort of popular fiction.

Recently on Twitter was a discussion which spilled over from a convention on genre fiction held in Sydney; it was about whether the term “literary” is a separate genre. One of the key attributes of literary fiction, suggested one author, is a “realism” which is often equated with pessimism. The key to popular fiction, I heard some time ago, is “aspiration”: the world not as it is, but what we might hope it to be; not how others are, but how we would like them to be; not how we ourselves are, but what we’d like to believe ourselves to be.

There is a conundrum here that The Secret Keeper identifies. Aspirational thinking is symptomatic of the very narcissism and lack of empathy which results in tragic consequences in the novel. Could our craving for popular fiction be symptomatic of a similar kind of pathology? A denial about ourselves and our shortcomings, a recreation of the world as we would have it, not as it is?

Perhaps. But even popular fiction books like The Secret Keeper can be self-referential enough to shed light on this topic. It’s not all spin.

In The Secret Keeper Morton identifies the need for escape into fantasy as a need stemming from trauma and loss. It’s a self-protective mechanism, she shows, and it takes inner strength, courage and hope to break free from. In order to mature into a healthy, empathic adult, one needs conditions for such inner strength to thrive: friendship and love, safe shelter and nourishment, worthwhile employment, humour and imagination, and someone to believe in us, other- as well as self-esteem. When such needs aren’t met – or aren’t perceived as being met by the narcissistic individual – it’s hard to be virtuous.

It’s a gentle take on humanity and a page-turning read.

~

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for sending a copy. (What a pleasure to read a beautiful, hard-bound book with a ribbon bookmark.)

This review counts as 11/12 for my Aussie Author Challenge 2012 and as part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. The Secret Keeper has been reviewed for the challenge by Jon Page at Bite the Book and Shelleyrae at Book’d Out.

The Secret Keeper
Allen & Unwin 2012
ISBN: 9781742374376

What’s troubling about Sisters of Mercy – and why it’s worth reading

While reading Caroline Overington’s latest novel, Sisters of Mercy, I was reminded of Jonathan Swift’s famous 18th-century essay which depicted one solution to Ireland’s poverty: eating Catholic babies. I’m not sure I ever found the essay funny, and I’m not sure it was intended to be. But I remember reading that Swift was a very angry man. That’s the feeling I got from Sisters of Mercy.

Caroline Overington is either angry at a broken system or angry, full stop.

My guess from reading her novels is that Overington’s angry about welfare cheats, dole bludgers, gamblers, addicts, alcoholics, bleeding heart liberals, social workers and bureaucrats. She hates hypocrisy, political correctness and self-serving spin. She wants to tell it as it is, without bullshit, and part of her anger is directed at people who should get off their arses and work, bureaucrats who should take responsibility for their failures, governments who should stop enabling victim mentality and start implementing policies that force people to accept responsibility for their own lives, no matter what trauma, hardship, abuse and neglect they suffered in childhood. My suspicion is that she sees this as the only healthy, sane alternative to a welfare state that breeds resentment among hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types who pay taxes, and well-meaning but misguided policies which create life- and initiative-sapping dependency among victims.

Reading Sisters of Mercy I found myself getting angry, too, but not, I think, about the same things as Overington. Rather, I found myself angry at her portrayal of characters in the novel, especially the central female character, Sally Narelle Delaney, known as “Snow”, at the way Overington manipulated my sympathies and made me withdraw my compassion for an essentially damaged – and damaging – figure.

Snow, the central “character” of the story, is a trained nurse who finds herself in charge of a house full of handicapped children – or “handi-capable” as Overington’s PC characters are reported to say. So cold and detached from reality is Snow, she appears to have no conscience; more, she lacks the barest insight into the heinousness of her own behaviour. Her lack of empathy is psychopathic, and all the more chilling as she sees the people she houses, not as victims, but rather as a responsibility she takes seriously, people whom she looks after with the utmost care – if we are to believe the tale Snow tells of herself through her self-justifying letters to the journalist, Fawcett, the other main figure in the novel. I say “figure” rather than “character” because he is never more than a mouthpiece for Snow, a vehicle for her story to come to light. But is Snow any more of a character? Or is she more a vehicle for Overington’s scorn?

There are reasons to doubt Snow is a true character. This isn’t a flaw in the novel, but rather an indication of the complexity of the narrative structure: the letters to Fawcett are the only way we get to know Snow – a narrative device, incidentally, typical of Swift’s 18th-century period – and there’s evidence that the self-portrait can’t be trusted, since Fawcett catches her out in a lie. Snow – along with her motivations and the truth, perhaps, of her missing sister – remains essentially unknowable. Therefore the reader can’t really feel empathy for her, the lack of which quality leads to Snow’s gravest crimes.

So what is so troubling about Sisters of Mercy? It isn’t just that Snow herself is so unsympathetic. Recently I wrote that I’d like to see more portrayals of women behaving badly in fiction written by Australian women; and the portrait Overington sketches of Snow is certainly that. So what made me so uncomfortable?

It’s a question of tone.

Years ago, as an undergraduate, I was taught a definition of tone as “the attitude of the writer to her subject matter and the feeling conveyed to the reader”. That’s the trouble I had with Sisters of Mercy: I couldn’t work out whether Overington’s scathing portrayal was meant to be satirical – even blackly humorous – or taken seriously.

If Sisters of Mercy is satire, it holds up to ridicule the bureaucrats who enabled Snow and her partner to milk the system, and portrays Snow herself as a kind of nightmare embodiment of the consequences of all those well-meaning, politically correct, bureaucratic decisions. But from what position are we as readers invited to judge? I personally know little of how to avoid abuses of the welfare system or to deal with the problems of looking after the disabled, government funding, and the consequences of neglectful childhoods, trauma and abuse. So who am I – are we – to ridicule those who try to solve these problems?

I also found it difficult to know the limits of Overington’s attack.

In Sisters of Mercy, Overington portrays a character deliberately contrasting to Snow, her older sister, Agnes who was taken away from her parents as a baby during the Second World War and raised in an orphanage. Agnes is shown to have grown up to be more well-adjusted than Snow who, by contrast, was born into wedlock to flawed parents. It might be a stretch to say that this contrast suggests Overington is critical of the Government for its apology to the “Forgotten Generation” of English child migrants, and it would certainly be a stretch from there to imagine that she sees the Government’s apology to the Stolen Generations as a useless exercise in political correctness, but somehow, I am left feeling that this may be exactly what Overington thinks. And I’m left feeling angry because I don’t get a strong sense that she has any real solutions, only derision.

But I don’t mind being angry.

I’d rather be provoked into thought than lulled into a false sense of self-satisfaction. That’s why I’ll be recommending Sisters of Mercy to my book group. This novel will polarise opinion, but the topics it raises are worth arguing about.

In a week when the so-called Left of Australian politics established a policy to excise the Australian continent from the Australian migration zone, Australia needs satire – and we need angry, engaged people. We also need disturbing, challenging, disconcerting and uncomfortable novels written by women. We need diversity of opinion. Only by opening up these difficult subjects to scrutiny will we be able to acknowledge the truth of what our government policies are doing in our names, and perhaps avoid the national fictions that we’re advocating human rights when – as Overington might well maintain about the very different situation depicted in Sisters of Mercy – it’s about funding or, worse, pandering to the lowest common denominator of ignorant and self-serving public opinion.

~

Thanks to Random House for the review copy. This review counts as Book 10/12 of my Aussie Authors Challenge and is part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Challenge. It has already been reviewed by Shelleyrae at Bookdout, and Shelleyrae has an interview of Overington and a book give-away here (closes November 11, 2012).

Random House/Bantam 2012
ISBN: 9781742750446

Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt

A couple of weeks ago, small Western Australia publisher Margaret River Press sent me a review copy of their first fiction offering, Finding Jasper. It’s by debut novelist Lynne Leonhardt, was successfully submitted for a doctorate in creative writing, and earned Leonhardt the Dean’s Prize.

According to the cover blurb:

It is 1956, and twelve-year old Ginny has arrived at the family farm, ‘Grasswood’, in the southwest Western Australia.  She has been left in the care of her lively, idiosyncratic aunt, Attie, while her mother, an English war bride, returns home for a holiday.  Ginny is the youngest of three generations of very different women, whose lives are profoundly affected by the absence of Jasper: son, brother, husband, father.  A fixed point in all their lives is the landscape, layered with beauty and fear, challenge and consolation, isolation and freedom.

The novel is beautifully written.

I read it almost in one sitting and promptly rang up my mum to see if she wanted to borrow it. Then I emailed an elderly poet and memoirist in WA to ask her if she would like to review it for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. As I hit “send”, I thought of another friend I think would enjoy it, a writer of historical fiction. It’s that kind of book: it deserves to find readers and I’m happy to recommend it and pass it around.

Yet, as I was reading Finding Jasper, several other texts kept clamouring for attention at the back of my mind. Sometimes these texts echoed the content, sometimes they were in counterpoint, until it seemed I wasn’t just reading one book, but several. Each sang together in a rich, complex, intricate piece – a fugue, if you will.

The musical metaphor is apt, as music is central to Finding Jasper.

The main character, Virginia – or “Gin”, plays the piano initially and wants to be a professional musician. During the Second World War, Virginia’s mother worked in the British army as a Morse Code specialist; Leonhardt makes the point of telling the reader that the opening bars for Beethoven’s 5th – the famous, “da-da-da-daah” – is the Morse signal for “V”, and came to stand for “Victory”. In the lead up to the novel’s most emotionally charged moments, Virginia plays a sombre Bach prelude as an act of defiance toward her neglectful, card-playing mother. The aftermath is devastating.

Music haunts Finding Jasper, by turns sad, angry, evocative, challenging and hip.

Of the various texts that echoed as I read Finding Jasper, three are recent releases by Australian women. The first is Emily Maguire’s Fishing For Tigers: it, too, more tangentially, deals with the impact of war on the lives of Australians (reviewed here). The second is Liz Byrski’s novel, In the Company of Strangers – another book I was happy to pass on to my mum. Like Finding Jasper, it’s set in WA’s south-west, and touches on the lives of English immigrants after the Second World War. The third is Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens (review forthcoming). All four novels depict women who don’t conform to gender-typical roles, some of whom behave “badly”.

I want to see more women like this, I’ve decided. Flawed women. Women whose poor choices and less-than-desirable mothering is explained by their personalities and their histories, histories of trauma, abuse and dislocation. These kind of women feel real to me.

Already the characters of Finding Jasper are haunting my memory.

~

Thanks to Margaret River Press for the review copy. It counts as book 9/12 for the Aussie Authors Challenge and is part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers challenge.

Finding Jasper
ISBN-13: 978-0-9872180-5-6
Published: 2012

War, history and Fishing for Tigers by Emily Maguire: An Australian book for this time

Warning: this is going to be another of those part-review, part ramble posts, but for some books – some powerful books, especially – that’s the only kind I can manage.

One of my earliest memories is of a dream I had when I was four or five. My brothers and sisters and I – the youngest of the group – were huddled in our lounge room, listening to a story told by a man who read from a giant nursery tale book. He was dressed like a pilgrim with a tall black hat, and he sat beside a magnificent white goose.

In the dream, instead of listening to the story, I was distracted by a flake of paint that fell from the wall behind the storyteller. Before long a crack appeared in the plaster and grew steadily wider, until I could see through the wall to the other side. Beyond was a man wearing jungle fatigues and a helmet; he was jabbing at the barrier with a bayonet attached to a rifle, widening the crack with each thrust. Behind him other men stole through trees to the muffled rat-a-tat of gunfire.

When the hole was finally big enough to draw the others’ attention and it became clear the soldier intended to break through the wall, panic set in. The storyteller grabbed my older sister, climbed onto the goose and flew off into a golden sunset, while the rest of us ran into the bedroom and hid under a bed. Lying there, next to my brother, my pulse booming in my ears, I tried not to breathe. A steady thump, thump, thump brought the soldier closer until his boots came into view, arm’s reach away.

This dream – nightmare – came to me in the mid-sixties, when my eldest brother was a few short years away from the ballot that might have sent him to Vietnam. Our family was no stranger to war; my father had been on a ship headed for New Guinea in 1945 when that war ended; his father had been in France during the First World War; but it hadn’t touched me personally, or not in a way I could understand then. We had no television, just an old “radiogram” which we kids would gather round to listen to Kindergarten On the Air. Nevertheless, war – the Vietnam war, in particular – entered via some crack into my world, creating an impression of horror that still remains vivid. Yet until reading Emily Maguire’s Fishing For Tigers, I hadn’t ever really considered how that war had helped to shape my hopes and fears, let alone its role in Australia’s history, or what it might mean for a storyteller in the twenty-first century.

Reading Fishing For Tigers challenged my illusion of distance from Vietnam in a number of powerful ways.

The novel tells the story of an Australian woman in her mid thirties who has made Hanoi her home. Mischa, an editor whose work includes stories about strong women in Vietnam’s mythology and history, is an escapee from an abusive (incidentally, American) husband. Her expat friend, Matthew, has an 18 year-old Australian-Vietnamese son, Cal, who comes to visit. Soon Mischa, starved for intimacy and a sense of belonging, is having an affair with Cal.

The tale is about lust and betrayal, belonging and the meaning of home and family. It’s about expats living in Vietnam, of dislocation and clashing cultures. It’s about trauma and abuse creating the conditions for more trauma and abuse. It’s also, obliquely, about war and its place in history, how it changes lives and nations. Finally, it’s about the stories we tell ourselves, and allow to be told about us. Emotionally, I found it disturbing, the depiction of the older women/younger man relationship being only one of its unsettling scenarios. It was particularly challenging and provocative to read about a woman with whom I identified but couldn’t wholly sympathise with, who behaves badly and refuses to conform to gender stereotypes (and who has been judged harshly by some GoodReads reviewers for that reason).

Most powerfully, however, the novel created for me a crack in the wall of my safe, cultural certainties. It gave me a glimpse of how because of the Vietnam war, because of the atrocities, trauma and dislocation suffered not only by those killed, but also by their survivors, and their children and grandchildren, including the refugees who came to Australia as “boat people” in the 1970s; because of our nation’s barely acknowledged involvement of the part we played in creating the horrors that led to these people’s flight and the ongoing trauma in the lives of those they left behind; because of all this, Australia is what it is today.

It’s in this sense that Fishing For Tigers is a book for this time.

On Sunday night, over a million people watched Underground, the biopic of the early life of the now notorious hacker and activist, Julian Assange. Back in April, Radio National’s Big Ideas Paul Barclay interviewed Andrew Fowler, author of The Most Dangerous Man in the World: A Biography of Julian Assange. The title of Fowler’s book is a reference to whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, whom Henry Kissinger described as the “most dangerous man in America”, after Ellsberg released top secret Pentagon papers relating to the Vietnam war. When prompted, Ellsberg passed the dubious mantle of being “The Most Dangerous Man” on to Assange.

Today, Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London; US Army whistleblower Bradley Manning is enduring his 869th day of solitary confinement; Australian troops are engaged in a war in Afghanistan. Unmanned drones, sent by President Obama, wage silent war on civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. In the past few days, broadcaster Alan Jones has labelled as “terrorism” the protests of people who have objected to his misogynist references to our Prime Minister after our petitioning of sponsors resulted in his station 2GB’s pulling of all advertising from Jones’ radio program – this from a man whose conviction of inciting racial hatred in the lead up to the Cronulla anti-immigration riots of 2005 was this week upheld. Meanwhile, the 2010 release of footage titled Collateral Murder by Assange’s Wikileaks, which documents the deaths in 2007 of two Reuters journalists, remains one of the most chilling texts of our time.

Do most Australians even realise our nation is at war? When politicians and others create panic about the “boat people” “invading” our shores, do we have any idea the extent to which our nation has helped to create the conditions of war and trauma that these people are fleeing?

Speaking for myself, I know that we’re at war in the same sense that I know our earth is moving ever towards catastrophic global climate change. I know it, but I act – for the most part – as if it isn’t true, as if it has no real impact on me. It’s not until a novelist like Emily Maguire takes a seemingly provocative, sexy story about a cross-cultural encounter of a childless Australian woman and a boy almost half her age, and works it up to a climax which includes a visit to a Vietnamese war museum that I really get it. I get how important it is, to me, to us, to the nation and the world, to our future; to the whistleblowers; to the men, women and children risking everything and sometimes drowning in rough seas within arm’s reach of our shores.

By creating a crack in the wall to show the horror of war and its aftermath, Fishing for Tigers helps me understand that what happens “over there” – whether it be Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Syria or Mali – happens here, to us all. We are responsible for the unmanned drones that kill innocent civilians, the legacy of Agent Orange that caused such deformities, the plight of drug-addicted and alcohol-dependent veterans, the displacement of refugees. This is our story, as much as it is Vietnam’s history, even if it’s tales of romance and heroism, innocence and safety, moral righteousness and “national security”, that we’d prefer to hear.

~

Note: Fishing for Tigers has been reviewed for the Australian Women Writers challenge by Angela Literary Minded, Bree All the Books I can Read, and Janine Shambolic Living. I’m counting it as Book 6 toward my Aussie Authors Challenge.

Thanks to PanMacmillan for providing a review copy.

Fishing for Tigers: Picador
ISBN-13: 9781742610832
September 2012

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,474 other followers

%d bloggers like this: