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.

Hades by Candice Fox – a disturbing debut

When I first read Candice Fox’s debut novel Hades earlier this year, I couldn’t bring myself to review it. Its themes are so dark, I couldn’t get over the emotional impact it had on me enough to write about it.

Dark themes, drawn from a chaotic childhood. Fox grew up as part of a “shared” foster household where encounters with police and visits to prison were routine.

As an author, I’ve spent years trying to shut out the late-night knocking, the grisly stories half-heard around the kitchen corner, the screaming and the crying and the wild eyes, by writing myself into safe places, predictable places. But lately, all that darkness has been creeping back in.

Because, really, the best writers will tell you that you should write what you know. I’ve known how bad the world can be from the very beginning. (Read more here.)

Hades Candice FoxRereading the book months later I was able to detach. I knew already the terrain it covered and could concentrate on the author’s skill – in coming up with the plot, in characterising the villains as heroes and the heroes as both victims and perpetrators, and in setting the scene.

Hades is a hard book to classify, though its title gives some clue. “Hades” refers to one of the book’s characters, a “fixer” for Sydney’s underworld who takes in two orphaned children, Eden and Eric, and raises them to become police officers – and avengers of their murdered parents. But Hades the Fixer isn’t the central character; the book’s narrator Detective Frank Bennett is. The story switches from third person flashbacks showing Hades and the children, to Frank’s first-person narration, to the points of view of various victims of a serial killer. The hunt for the serial killer provides the chief narrative drive and opportunity for moral questioning of the story. In this context, “Hades” refers more to the place of torment and suffering that many of the book’s characters appear to occupy. The language of morality pervades the book, nudging it from crime into the realms of horror – without ever being supernatural. As Fox has named Stephen King as the person she’d most like to be trapped in a lift with, perhaps this horror element isn’t surprising.

As crime-horror, the novel poses a number of ethical and moral questions. What creates a killer – nature or nurture? When is taking another human being’s life justified – if ever? What happens to victims of crime? What moral stance would we take if faced with the prospect of imminent death versus the chance of survival? Does every human being deserve to live, no matter what?

With a page-turning plot and enviable style, Fox’s narrative forces the main character – and the reader – to confront these questions.

One of the admirable features of Fox’s writing is her way of accomplishing several narrative tasks at once. In the following example, where Frank the narrator observes his new colleagues, Fox manages to characterise the narrator, provide backstory, introduce secondary characters in an interesting way, set the mood and foreshadow major themes:

My mother had been a wildlife warrior, the kind who would stop and fish around in the pouches of kangaroo corpses for joeys and scrape half-squashed birds off the road to give them pleasant deaths or fix them. One morning she brought me home a box of baby owls to care for, three in all, abandoned by their mother. The men and women in the office made me think of those owls, the way they clustered into a corner of the shoebox when I’d opened it, the way their eyes howled black and empty with terror. (Kindle location 142)

Rereading Hades, I highlighted countless examples of fine writing, way too many to include here.

The overall impression created by the story is that good and evil aren’t separable. As Eric remarks to Frank about working for the police:

This job is about knowing each other, Frank. It’s about knowing each other’s secrets and ignoring them. We’re all good guys here. No one’s better than anyone else. We’re all dirty. We’ve all got something shadowing us.

It’s my hunch Fox thinks this is also true about human nature.

Hades is a very interesting read.

~

Hades by Candice Fox was published 1st January 2014 by Random House Books Australia (Bantam imprint) ISBN: 9780857981172. Review copy kindly supplied by the publishers via NetGalley.

This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge.

‘ 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.

What gets reviewed and why? AWW 2013 Wrap-up post

At the end of another year of the AWW challenge, I look down at the list of books I read and reviewed and wonder. How come I found the time to review these books and not those? 

Of the 25 books read, I managed to review only nine. They were (in rough ordering of reading):

The books I read and didn’t review were:

  • Kirsten McDermott, Madigan Mine (horror [edited as per coments])
  • Rebecca James, Sweet Damage (mild horror, contemporary fiction)
  • Dianne Hester, Run to Me (psychological suspense)
  • Sara Foster, Shallow Breath (psychological suspense)
  • Lucy Tatman, Numinous Subjects: Engendering the Sacred in Western Culture, An Essay (nonfiction)
  • In Falling Snow, Mary Rose MacColl (historical/contemporary fiction)
  • The Mother’s Group, Fiona Higgins (contemporary fiction)
  • Dawn Barker, Fractured (psychological suspense)
  • Karen Davis, Sinister Intent (crime)
  • Jaye Ford, Blood Secret (crime/psychological suspense)
  • Tara June Winch, Swallow the Air (literary)
  • The Meaning of Grace, Deborah Foster (literary, general fiction)
  • Liane Moriarty, The Hypnotist’s Love Story (contemporary fiction)
  • Jessie Cole, Darkness on the Edge of Town (literary)
  • Alison Stuart, Secrets in Time (time-slip/historical and contemporary romance)
  • Candice Fox, Hades (crime)

The books I reviewed weren’t necessarily my favourites. So why did I choose those to review?

Part of the answer is time, the time I intended to devote to crafting my response. Sometimes the most moving and engaging books are the ones I find it most difficult to respond to quickly. They deserve more considered reflection, I tell myself; they need to marinate in my unconscious for a while in the hope that I’ll come up with a response that does them justice. Then hours, days, weeks, even months go by and the freshness of my response is lost. I end up feeling as if I should reread the book before writing about them. The problem is, there’s usually a new book calling from my growing “To Be Read” pile.

A good example of such a delay is my piece on Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl. I first drafted my response in July; I didn’t publish it until November. Those who have read it may guess why. I found the book confronting and disturbing, but very well written and deserving of attention. I have to be honest, though. If it weren’t for the fact that I wanted to publish a Q&A with Krauth for the AWW blog, I might not ever have finished writing my response. That happened to several other books on my “read-but-still-to-be-reviewed” list: I never got back to them.

Books I thought initially I would respond to in depth, but never got around to, include Dawn Barker’s Fractured, Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air, Jessie Cole’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and Mary Rose MacColl’s In Falling Snow. All these books deserve attention, and some have received it. Winch’s book is well known (it’s even on the HSC list). Barker’s book attracted many reviews for AWW throughout 2013 (and the author was interviewed for the AWW blog). In Falling Snow has attracted a handful of reviews, including Shannon, Belle and Natasha Lester in 2013, and Shelleyrae in 2012. Darkness on the Edge of Town has only attracted two reviews, by Lisa Walker and Shelleyrae, both in 2012. It hasn’t been reviewed at all in 2013, and I feel guilty that the missing review is mine. This book doesn’t deserve to be overlooked or forgotten.

Are there any books you read but didn’t review for the AWW challenge this year that you think deserve greater attention? (By the way, I hope you’ll join #aww2014. The sign-up page is now open.)

falling-snowdarkness-at-edge-townswallow-airfractured-barker

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.

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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.

The Eye of the Crocodile by Val Plumwood

eye-of-crocodile-plumwoodOne of the best things to come out of the Australian Women Writers challenge for me has been exposure to books that I might never have discovered on my own. Recently ANU E Press joined the challenge, tweeting links to (free) e-books by Australian women. Val Plumwood’s The Eye of the Crocodile, edited by Lorraine Shannon, is one such book.

Part memoir, part collection of philosophical and eco-feminist essays, The Eye of the Crocodile contains Plumwood’s last pieces of writing – she was working on the draft when she died in 2008. According to authors of the book’s introduction:

Val Plumwood was one [of] the great philosophers, activists, feminists, teachers, and everyday naturalists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries… Her stature as a thinker of power and influence was reflected in the fact that she was included in the 2001 book 50 Key Thinkers on the Environment [edited by Joy Palmer, David Cooper and Peter Blaze Corcoran]… She was not only an influential environmental thinker, whose book Feminism and the mastery of nature has become a classic of environmental philosophy; she was also a women who fearlessly lived life on her own deeply considered terms, often in opposition to prevailing norms. (1)

The first section, which gives the book its title, contains an account of Plumwood’s near-death experience when, during a trip to Kakadu in 1985, she became prey to a large crocodile which death rolled her three times before releasing her. The remaining sections bear out the impact of this experience on her life and thinking. The collection includes a discussion of the movie Babe and a moving account of her friendship with – and grief over the death of – a wild wombat named Birubi. The third, most philosophical, section contains essays on radical vegetarianism and “a food-based approach to death”.

The coupling together of “pieces” rather than a unified work means the writing styles of The Eye of the Crocodile are varied. Passages of beauty and emotional power sit alongside some heavy-weight philosophical pondering. Plumwood admired creative writers for their ability to convey new ideas to a wide audience, and in the memoir section it is clearly a mainstream audience which she hoped to reach. Had she lived, this section would, I imagine, have made up the bulk of the book, with some of its more florid stylistic touches toned down by editors. As a short, incomplete work, however, The Eye of the Crocodile still has much of value to offer the reader.

The collection begins with Plumwood’s reflections on the fateful canoeing trip she made to the remote area of Kakadu when she encountered the crocodile. Her account gives an indication both of her personality and her writing style:

I suppose I have always been the sort of person who ‘goes too far’. I certainly went much too far that torrential wet season day in February 1985 when I paddled my little red canoe to the point where the East Alligator River surges out of the Stone Country of the Arnhem Land Plateau. It was the wrong place to be on the first day of the monsoon, when Lightning Man throws the rainbow across the sky and heavy rains began to lash the land. (10)

After surviving the crocodile attack, injured and alone, Plumwood crawled for help and was found by a park ranger. Reflecting on her experience at various points throughout the essays, Plumwood reveals how, by facing her own mortality and insignificance, she was inspired to question the dualistic thinking that underpinned both her reaction to the event as well as much of Western philosophy. This thinking sees humanity as an exception to nature, above and beyond it, instead of a part of it. It sees humans as separate from animals because we have “souls” and can reason, and this enables us to commodify animals as a food source, taking little care of the lives of the creatures whose flesh we eat. At the same time, we respond with rage, disbelief and a desire for retribution when predator animals prey on us, threatening the illusion of our supremacy and safe autonomy. In this, we deny our part in the food chain or “foodiness”, as Plumwood calls it.

In between dipping into Plumwood’s collection, I also listened to the latest ABC RN podcast of All in the Mind:Animal Minds”. In this program, author Virginia Morell discusses a conversation she had with Jane Goodall over Goodall’s witnessing in the 1980s of the “deceptive” behaviour of a chimpanzee. What was clear in Morell’s account was that while Goodall attributed to the chimp a sense of “intention” – if not downright personality – she was also deeply wary of declaring such beliefs openly, for fear of being labelled “anthropomorphic” by a scientific community which, back in the 1980s, still thought of animals as little more than stimulus-response machines.

In her discussions of both the crocodile and her wild wombat “friend”, Plumwood seeks to avoid being anthropomorphic by depicting these wild animals as “radically other”, as seeming to share in aspects of human-like cognitive functioning, but also experiencing consciousness in their own terms, in their own environmental contexts and with their own needs as paramount. While Plumwood avoids sentimentalising animals, there are elements in her attitude to animals and the land that strike me as romantic, particularly in her evocation of Thoreau and in passages which borrow from motifs and themes of indigenous cultures. By contrast, there is little that is romantic in her critique of central tenets of Classical and modern philosophical thinking.

While Plumwood critiques Platonic idealist thinking and Christian monotheistic views of “heaven”, she also identifies similar dualistic thinking among those whose views, at first glance, would appear to be in radical opposition to the views of these other two groups: animal defence activists and material atheists. This is the area of her discussion which I found most compelling, and it helped me to clarify some of my own thoughts about how we can honour and respect animals, while at the same time deriving the nourishment we need for survival in an ecologically aware manner.

According to Plumwood, “Ontological Vegans” would deny humans the right to eat meat (often adopting a “holier-than-thou” attitude), by extending to (some) animals a separate, soul-like consciousness. In this, their stance is not dissimilar to the theists who claim humans are set apart from (other) animals: it is because of this “separateness” from lower-order life-forms that animal flesh becomes inviolable. (And the question becomes, at which animal/level of consciousness do we draw the line?) Embedded in this position, Plumwood claims, is the same Cartesian separation of mind/body that has led humanity to the utilitarian use of the environment which now threatens the planet.

Materialist atheists are also bound by this dualistic thinking. Those who see death as the “End of the Story”, she says, valorise individual, separate human consciousness as if it were the pinnacle of existence. Yet their so-called “bravery” in the face of a perceived nothingness after death is merely a factor of their deep sense of loss – if not nostalgia – for the “heavenism” of those who believe in an after-death eternal life for the spirit. Both Ontological Vegans and modernist-atheists fail to see the inter-connectedness of the human to ongoing life narratives, narratives which would allow human bodies, in death, to nourish and replenish the earth. Such non-dualistic thinking Plumwood refers to as “Ecological Animalism”.

Plumwood’s final piece, “Tasteless: Towards a food-based approach to death”, reveals how her non-dualistic view has been informed by her understanding of Australian indigenous cultures. In an Ecological Animalist framework, barriers between so-called materialist and more “spiritual” approaches to life are broken down:

By understanding life as circulation, as a gift from a community of ancestors, we can see death as recycling, a flowing on into an ecological and ancestral community of origins. In place of the Western war of life against death whose battleground has been variously the spirit-identified afterlife and the reduced, medicalised material life, the Indigenous imaginary sees death as part of life, partly through narrative, and partly because death is a return to the (highly narrativised) land that nurtures life. (92)

I learned today that Plumwood helped to launch feminist Susan Hawthorne’s book Wild Politics at Gleebooks in Sydney in 2002, and that she lived and died not so very far away, at Braidwood, on the Southern Highlands, between Sydney and Canberra. She was old enough to be my mother, having had a daughter (who later died) the same year as I was born. Yet, while I can name several Australian sportswomen of that era, I’d never heard of Plumwood or her ideas till now. An Australian woman named internationally as one of “fifty key thinkers on the environment”, yet so little recognised.

How and why is that so?

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Author: Val Plumwood
Title: The Eye of the Crocodile
Edited by Lorraine Shannon
ISBN 9781922144171 (Online)
Published November 2012
Citation url: http://epress.anu.edu.au?p=208511

Honey Brown’s Dark Horse

honey-brown-dark-horseYesterday Sydney was hit by a storm from the south east. Rain pounded on the tin roof, gutters overflowed, the temperature plummeted. In my inbox came an email from NetGalley stating that Penguin Australia had approved my request to review Honey Brown’s latest novel, Dark Horse, out this week. I’d read Brown’s Red Queen last year and have heard lots of good things about The Good Daughter, so I couldn’t resist downloading the ebook and peeking at the first page.

That was it for the rest of the day. I was hooked.

If you’re a fan of Jaye Ford’s Beyond Fear, Dawn Barker’s Fractured and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, you’re going to love Dark Horse. It’s quite a ride. I would have read it in one sitting, if I hadn’t had to sleep. I curled up in front of a glowing slow combustion stove and, while the weather went crazy outside, was swept into the drama. Brown has a style that I love: it’s immediate, the descriptions are fresh, the action is urgent. I could almost feel the Victorian alpine hills crowding in, felt every bump and jerk of the heroine’s ride up the mountain on her endurance-trained horse, held my breath at the enormity of what she faced going up, when she reached the summit and going down again. It’s that kind of book: suspenseful, urgent, adrenaline-pumping.

And it’s clever. I’m used to twists in suspense fiction and I can usually read the signs. This book proved no exception, except I realised I was being played. Every time I anticipated the narrative, there was an unexpected payoff; each time I thought something was unlikely or stretched credulity, it proved well motivated or explained.

It was the perfect read for a rainy day, better than a movie. (Far better than its trailer.)

Do I go away with things to think about? I’m not sure. It ranges over what, to me, is very interesting territory: the extremes of human emotions and behaviour; infidelity; depression/mental illness; the breakdown of relationships; childhood trauma and its effects on the family. It belongs to the “family drama with crime” genre that writers like Wendy James and Caroline Overington are so successfully carving a niche in. It’s edgy. It’s sexy, too. But I’m not sure the degree to which it touched me emotionally and intellectually, or simply thrilled me. (To explore this further would necessitate spoilers.)

What it did do is confirm for me that Australian women psychological suspense writers are right up there among the best in the genre. I’m also glad I have two more Honey Brown books, The Good Daughter and After the Darkness, tucked away for another rainy day.

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This review counts towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge. It has been reviewed elsewhere for the challenge by Simone at Great Aussie Reads and by Brenda in Goodreads.

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