The Lost Girls by Wendy James: ‘Suburban Noir’

Lost Girls Wendy JamesIt’s 1978. A fourteen-year-old girl goes missing from a suburb on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. A few days later, her body is found in bushland in Palm Beach. She’s been strangled with her own scarf and there’s evidence of sexual activity.

Under suspicion are those last to see her alive, including the girl’s cousin Matt and his mates. Suspicion lingers, despite the police being unable to bring a case – until a second girl is found dead at Kings Cross some time later, killed in a near-identical fashion. The murders are attributed to an unknown “serial killer”, dubbed the “Sydney Strangler”, even though no other murdered girls are found.

The two dead girls, local “chick” Angie and country runaway Kelly, aren’t the only “lost girls” in Wendy James’ latest novel, The Lost Girls. There’s Jane, Angie’s younger cousin, and Kelly’s younger sister Kath and her mother. There’s also Angie’s mum Carol and her aunt Barbara. Each is “lost” in some way, coping – or not coping – with the impact of those violent deaths.

The Lost Girls explores this impact thirty years later, when a mysterious journalist, Erin Fury, appears. Ostensibly she’s doing research for a radio program, aiming to explore the impact of such deaths on the families of murdered women. Her first interview is with cousin Jane, now middle-aged and married to childhood sweetheart Rob, with a teenaged daughter. Jane, reassessing what she has done with her life, is eager to revisit the time when her beloved cousin was killed. It’s as if she might answer some pressing personal questions by reviewing that time through adult eyes.

Jane isn’t the only one Erin targets. She also interviews Jane’s brother, one-time suspect Matt; Jane and Matt’s policeman father Doug, now a nursing home resident suffering from dementia; their mother, Barbara; and Jane’s husband, Rob. Each has a take on past events and, as Erin inveigles herself into their lives, long-held, sometimes painful, secrets are revealed.

One aspect of The Lost Girls I particularly admire is its evocation of place and time. I grew up on the Northern Beaches around this time, and many of the specific details James gives – from the local milk bar with its pin-ball machine, to the type of lollies the characters buy – bring back vivid memories. Another aspect is James’ ear for dialogue. So many of the characters sound like people I know or have known. I also admire her skill as a storyteller, her ability to create suspense and her seemingly effortless transitions of time, point of view and tense.

Chiefly I’m interested in the way James uses a sensationalistic premise, that of serial killing, in order to explore facets of human nature. Unlike many contemporary crime and thriller writers, she doesn’t offer violence as entertainment; nor does she place it somewhere “out there”, beyond the experience of the reader. Rather, she shows how individuals respond to such traumatic events, and the effects of the choices they make as a consequence. Along the way, she suggests how such choices shape us as human beings; how we come to terms with suffering, loss, mistakes and betrayal; how we love or try to love, despite disappointment; and the meanings we make of our own and others’ lives.

Crime author Angela Savage has remarked that the reader of James’ novels doesn’t have to suspend disbelief. In general, I’d agree. However, initially while reading The Lost Girls, I found the journalist Erin’s character unconvincing, particularly in terms of motivation. She seemed more of a device than a psychologically realised character. Then I began to see her as one of the “lost girls” of the title and she made more sense to me. And it’s for that reason that I’d disagree with the criticism both Savage and Michelle McLaren make of the Epilogue, that it’s somehow a mis-step or unnecessary. For me it resolves the central motif of the story.

With The Lost Girls, James consolidates her place alongside Honey Brown and newcomer Dawn Barker among Australia’s foremost proponents of an emerging genre of psychological suspense, which some have dubbed “suburban noir”. I’m eager to find other Australian authors who might fit into this category. Do you know of any?

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher via Netgalley. The Lost Girls has attracted a lot of attention from AWW reviewers including: Shellyrae at Book’d Out, Carol at Reading Writing and Riesling, Bree at All the Books I Can Read, Jess at The Never Ending Bookshelf, and Bernadette at Fair Dinkum Crime.

Title: The Lost Girls
Author: Wendy James
Published:
26/02/2014
ISBN-13: 9781921901058; ISBN-10: 1921901055
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Publisher: Penguin Australia.

 

 

Let Her Go by Dawn Barker – powerful contemporary drama

Dawn Barker Let Her GoTwo sisters – step sisters – one, Nadia, is happily married with three children; the other, Zoe, has suffered a debilitating illness and a number of miscarriages, and finds herself infertile. Both have reasons for wanting to have a baby: Zoe, to complete her long-held desire to be a mother; Nadia, ostensibly, to help her deserving sister. After years of counselling and legal advice, they enter into a surrogacy agreement. They are adults. They care for each other. What could possibly go wrong?

Fast forward seventeen years to a troubled teenager, Louise, who is getting busted for stealing drugs, self-harming, engaging in drunken sex and whose performance at school is deteriorating. She knows her – unnamed – parents are fighting, senses it has something to do with her, but has no idea of the trauma that followed her birth or the bitter custody dispute that tore her extended family apart.

In Let Her Go Dawn Barker – a psychiatrist by training – successfully juggles different points of view as well as jumps forward and backward in time. Throughout the novel, the reader has a sense that something really terrible could happen – or maybe has happened already – but the suspense isn’t gratuitous. It derives organically from the fraught emotional situations she forces her characters to confront. As I approached the novel’s climax, I was struck by the story’s similarity to the Judgement of Solomon, as if Barker had taken elements of this classic dilemma and brought it alive in a modern context. Both women have good claim to the child; how will the child’s best interest be served?

If Barker’s debut novel Fractured grabs the reader and forces her along a terrifying path, Let Her Go is more like a slow burn, but it’s no less powerful for that. For anyone who has yearned for a child and not been able to conceive or carry to term, the narrative is excruciatingly real at times, almost unbearable. Similarly, Barker captures the pressure on a marriage of women coping with hormones, fears and jealousies. Both Zoe and Nadia are portrayed at times in a poor (but very human) light. Zoe comes across occasionally as unreasonably demanding and judgemental towards her husband, a man with secrets who has never seemed as enthusiastic about the surrogacy and who fails to pull his weight. In portraying the deteriorating relationship, Barker uses irony to good effect: the reader is ahead of Zoe in sensing the effect of her behaviour on her husband, and waits in suspense for the explosion we fear will come. Nadia (understandably) seems at times to be selfishly blind to anyone’s needs but her own, and the reader is torn, sympathetic to her suffering, but alarmed at the lengths she is willing to go to get her way.

With both Let Her Go and Fractured, Barker joins a number of women writers in Australia who create compelling psychological suspense out of difficult moral and social issues, including Honey Brown, Wendy James and Caroline Overington. Each of these writers’ novels demonstrates that issues facing contemporary Australian women, in the hands of skilful storytellers, make for powerful drama. I can’t wait to read Barker’s next scenario.

~

This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via Netgalley.

It has been reviewed for the AWW challenge by Emily Paul.

Publisher: Hachette Australia
ISBN: 9780733632228
Published: July 2014

Through the Cracks by Honey Brown – don’t read the back cover

If I’ve enjoyed an author’s previous books, through the cracks brownI never read the back covers of their latest. So I knew very little about Honey Brown’s psychological suspense novel, Through the Cracks, before I picked it up. Later, I read through some reviews posted for the Australian Women Writers challenge and saw that several reviewers were dismayed and annoyed that the book’s back cover “blurb” gave away a lot of the story’s suspense. So, fair warning: don’t read the back cover.*

Told from the point of view of Adam Vander, a boy who has been kept locked away from the world by an abusive and controlling father, Through the Cracks traverses difficult territory. Adam has been victimised for so long, he exhibits all the hallmarks of “learned helplessness”: he has become so conditioned to abuse that he appears almost incapable of acting to stop it. Only as he hits puberty, and his father succumbs to health problems, does his sense of agency begin to assert itself. But how can he save himself when he knows nothing about the world, and the few people he encounters, apart from his father, don’t recognise him as someone who desperately needs help?

Brown’s tale of Adam’s escape is both compelling and distressing. Slowly the events that led to his predicament are revealed, and the full horror of what he has endured unfolds. Along the way, Brown touches on issues of race, class, sexuality and, most importantly, identity. Who are you when everything that makes you human has been stripped away?

One of the many elements of this powerful and emotionally wrenching novel that impressed me was its style. The sentences are often short and descriptive; the point of view character indulges in very little introspection and makes few inferences of other characters’ thoughts and feelings. It is as if one of the after effects of abuse is an almost complete lack of interiority. For me, this created an unnerving sense of Adam’s dissociation, his feeling of being utterly separate from the world, both emotionally and psychologically, even as he slowly rejoins it, just as formerly he was isolated physically.

With Through the Cracks, Brown cements her place as one of the foremost writers of psychological suspense in Australia.

~

This book was kindly supplied to me by the publishers through Netgalley. It forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. It has already attracted a lot of attention from AWW challenge reviewers, including:

~

Title: Through the Cracks
Author: Honey Brown
Published:23/04/2014
ISBN-13:9781921901546; ISBN-10:1921901543
Imprint:Michael Joseph; Publisher:Penguin Australia.

Skinjob by Bruce McCabe, sex dolls and gender issues

Bruce McCabe SkinjobThe Good: gender issues
The Bad: gender issues
The Ugly: gender issues (and I foresaw the twist at the end)

Setting: US in the near future

Recommended for: thriller and suspense fans,
people interested in human factors in technology
innovation and adoption

When I heard Bruce McCabe speak at the National Book Bloggers Forum about his debut novel, Skinjob, I was hooked. Not by the title. If I’d seen that title on the library shelves, I wouldn’t have picked it up without gloves. When I first saw it, it reminded me of “hand-job”. It still reminds me of hand-job, even though I’ve read the book and there’s nothing titillating in it. Exciting, yes. Adventurous, yes. It has all the elements Robert McKee writes about in Story: a ticking clock, a vulnerable hero, powerful antagonists, and an interesting (pretty “high”) concept.

The concept: what could happen when robotics advance to the extent that the “world’s oldest profession” can be performed by robots, “Skinjobs”? What if the powerful forces of the pornography/sex trade industry and the neo-conservative Christian right waged an epic battle to sway the hearts and minds of the American people? What if a lie-detecting FBI agent and a San Francisco PD (female) surveillance officer teamed up in a race against time to prevent the annihilation of thousands of innocent people?

Juicy stuff, right? It is. And McCabe does it well. Well enough to have gone from being a self-published author hand-selling to Berkelouw Books in Dee Why to attracting the attention of J K Rowling’s agent and scoring a contract with Random House.

What really interests me about the book, though, is its take on gender issues.

Some background.

At the book bloggers’ forum, I asked Bruce McCabe whether he read books by Australian women. No, he is more of a Michael Crichton, Frederick Forsyth and Stephen King guy. (All of whose books I have devoured.) Also Lee Childs. He did say that author Kathryn Fox had been very helpful to him though (she appears in the acknowledgements) and added, “I must read her books”.

It was with amusement and some consternation, therefore, that I came across a cameo appearance of a “Kathryn Fox” in McCabe’s novel.

The title of the novel, Skinjob, refers to an advanced form of sex doll. These life-like dolls have warm “skin”, a “heartbeat”, and can move in a “come hither” fashion. They can’t speak, but can make moaning and groaning noises. They don’t act other than to flirt or serve. They can also simulate realistic fear to threats and acts of violence (up to the point of actual physical harm). “Kathryn Fox” appears in the book as one of the manufacturer Dreamcom’s most successful dolls.

What is McCabe trying to say here?

One thing McCabe talked about at the forum was how there is no good and bad in human beings; we all have elements of both. The main character, Daniel Masden, isn’t perfect. Nor is the female  SFPD operative, Shahida Sanayei (Shari), whom Masden partners up with. Shari, in fact (spoiler alert) solves the enigma that is central to the plot and, therefore, effectively saves the day.

All good. But what if Skinjob became a movie – as it certainly could; it’s very filmic, action-packed and fast-paced, has lots of interesting “locations”, high-tech gadgetry and car chases – would it pass the Bechdel Test? That is, does it have “at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man”?

It wouldn’t. That’s right. A story in which gender issues are crucial, all bar one of the main character roles are male. Shari is introduced in the context of having lost her male lover in a bomb-blast at a skinjob “brothel” – or pleasure house – run by Dreamcom. Her role in the story is to help Masden track down those responsible for the blast; all the suspects are male. The SFPD major figures and FBI personnel are male; the Dreamcom owners and employees are male; the leaders of the right-wing church suspected of being behind the blast are male. The majority of the “females” who would appear in the movie would be robots. (Imagine doing that screen test.)

Remember Skinjob is set in the future. Even if one asserted that the industries depicted in the story are currently male dominated, there is plenty of scope in a future world for more than one woman to be depicted as having agency and moral complexity. Why not a female pastor? A female pleasure parlour owner? Sure, the men in these roles in Skinjob don’t come off well and are often revealed to be self-serving hypocrites, sex-addicts and narcissists. That shouldn’t be a restriction. As McCabe was at pains to point out, human beings are complex moral creatures; that includes women.

In Skinjob McCabe sets out to address some really interesting questions about gender, sex and power, the most interesting of which, for me, is the ethics of using automatons for sexual relief. But, while writing about it for entertainment, he risks reinscribing the very kind of objectification and invisibility of women which, arguably, the sex industry and fundamentalist churches of all kinds have historically been guilty of.

My conclusion?  It’s still a page-turning read.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the Aussie Author’s Challenge 2014

Review copy courtesy of the publishers at the National Book Bloggers Forum.
ISBN: 9780593074091
Published: 02/06/2014
Imprint: Bantam Press
Extent: 416 pages

 

ISBN: 9780593074091
Published: 02/06/2014
Imprint: Bantam Press
Extent: 416 pages

- See more at: http://www.randomhouse.com.au/books/bruce-mccabe/skinjob-9780593074091.aspx#sthash.KrlSSYff.dpuf

 

 

‘ 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, a series aimed at young adults – but Bitter Greens is the first adult novel of hers I’ve read. 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

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