The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty’s Husbands Secret MoriartyThe Husband’s Secret is a page-turner featuring believable characters, interesting moral issues and more. I read it over the Australia Day weekend and the timing seemed fitting somehow. It could easily be subtitled, ‘A portrait of suburban Australian lives’.

The characters in this novel are ordinary, everyday people who inhabit Sydney’s north shore. They’re people like me, or my sisters, my friends, our mothers and daughters. Catholic-raised, but not observant; juggling haphazard careers and family responsibilities; coping with the ups and downs of problematic marriages, teenaged children, competitiveness, grandchildren, imperfect husbands, as well as past traumas that rise up in the present with unexpected and unpredictable consequences.

There’s Cecilia, the wife of the husband with a secret. She’s a perfectionist, a candidate for a diagnosis of OCD; impossibly organised, generous and thoughtful; quite possibly unbearable as a friend or family member, but also vulnerable and a loving mother.

There’s Rachel, an administrator at Cecilia’s son’s primary school; an aging grandmother who has never quite got over the death of her teenaged daughter, and finds it hard to show love to her adult son.

Then there’s Tess who, until a week ago, would have described her marriage as happy…

These characters’ lives intersect in a narrative that made me both laugh and cry as I identified with the experiences, thoughts, failings, fantasies and bad behaviour of normal human beings under pressure.

Books like this show me how ordinary lives can be extraordinary and interesting. Moriarty seems to write easy-to-read prose effortlessly, adding a degree of emotional truth that surprises me for popular fiction. No wonder she was recently voted Australia’s second-most popular author in a recent online bookshop poll.

~
This review forms part of my contribution to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author challenge.

Author: Liane Moriarty
Title: The Husband’s Secret
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 2013
ISBN: 978140591665

I borrowed a copy from a friend.

Claiming Noah: debut psychological suspense by Amanda Ortlepp

Catriona and James are desperate for children, so embark on an IVF program. Four embryos are created, and by the third treatment Catriona is pregnant. They decide to adopt out the fourth embryo anonymously. (from publisher’s blurb)

Claiming Noah by Amanda OrtleppI must admit, when a copy of Amanda Ortlepp’s debut novel, Claiming Noah, arrived in the post, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. My reluctance wasn’t due to the subject matter. I devoured both of Dawn Barker’s books, Fractured and Let Her Go, which deal with similar difficult subjects, including post-natal psychosis and issues relating to a child’s true (or legal) parentage. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to traverse similar territory in another novel.

Nevertheless, amid all the excitement of releasing my own debut novel this week,* I persisted, and I’m happy to report Claiming Noah is worth the read.

In Claiming Noah, Ortlepp creates a very Solomon-esque story in a contemporary setting, and teases it out to a tense and satisfying conclusion. Her point-of-view characters are Catriona, the donor mum, and Diana, who adopts Catriona’s embryo; both are sympathetic characters who go through a very rough time and deserve better. They have problems with husbands, newborns and adjusting to dramatic changes in their life circumstances; both suffer tragedy and deception which cause them heartache and take them to the brink.

At times when reading I found myself pulled out of the story thinking, She wouldn’t do that. Why doesn’t she…? But it’s a credit to Ortlepp that she is able to bring her characters to life so well that I began think I knew them!

Claiming Noah is billed as a thriller, but I think it’s more mainstream than that: I wouldn’t put the “thrills” at much more than you’d find in suspense (which is fine by me). There’s nothing externally life-threatening in this story; the life challenges, when they come, stem from the characters’ inner worlds, and the impact of external events on their psychological and mental health, which is only ever really severely tested for Catriona.

I read the novel over a few days and it kept me engaged – rather than “hooked” – for that time. (Considering I also had a lot going on with my own release, that’s no mean feat.) The moral dilemmas the novel presents are interesting, even if the references to the Catholic church’s influence seem a little dated. The ethical issues the story raises deserve to be explored. And what better way to explore them than in entertaining fiction?

Fans of Dawn Barker’s work won’t be disappointed.

~

Author: Amanda Ortlepp
Title: Claiming Noah
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: March 2015
ISBN: 9781925030600

A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

This review forms part of my contribution to both the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge 2015.

 

* You can read about my debut romance, Snowy River Man, and enter a giveaway to win an ebook copy here.

Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett

golden boys hartnettThere are some books I know, if I don’t attempt to review them straightaway, I won’t end up reviewing them at all. It’s because the impact is so powerful, the language so beautiful, I grow afraid I won’t do them justice. Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett is one of those books.

I picked up this novel not knowing what audience it was written for – the only other book by Hartnett I’ve read is a children’s picture book. But this novel is no more suitable for children than Lord of the Flies. (Though I did read that when I was twelve.)

Golden Boys isn’t nearly as graphic and violent as Lord of the Flies, but its themes – including family violence, grooming, loneliness, isolation and dislocation – are pretty adult. So is the language. It’s rich, poetic, dense. And the pace is slow. Nothing much happens – and yet, everything happens; everything that is painfully ordinary, quotidian, that conveys the angsts and traumas of growing up and learning where one fits in the world.

The protagonists of Golden Boys are a group of kids in a working-class Australian suburb in the not-so-distant past. It is a time before the internet and Facebook, when children were allowed to roam the streets unsupervised, the era of the author’s own childhood, perhaps. It is also an era, seemingly, pre-multiculturalism and pre-contraception. Several of the children, Declan, Freya and Syd, belong to one household, a working class home with a drunken father, a harried mother, and too many younger siblings. Hartnett is precise in her description of the chaos that is the Kileys’ family life, with “the mess which finds its way through the house like the ratty hem of a juvenile junkyard”. When working-class Syd Kiley meets the neighbourhood newcomer and private-school educated Bastian Jensen, Hartnett deftly conveys their differences:

Syd and Bastian look at each other, and it’s like a Jack Russell being introduced to a budgerigar: in theory they could be friends, but in practice sooner or later there will be bright feathers on the floor.

But the conflict between the two families, the Kileys and the Jensens, isn’t due to class. The Jensens have moved into the neighbourhood to escape something, as Bastian’s older brother Colt becomes dimly aware. That “something”, barely acknowledged but frightening, provides one of the core tensions of the novel, and has to do with Colt’s father, Rex, a dentist. Rex has filled their new home with toys, bikes, skateboards, racing tracks; and their backyard will soon have a pool that all the neighbourhood children are invited to use. As Colt reflects:

His father spends money not merely on making his sons envied but in making them – and the world seems to tip the floor – enticing. His father buys bait.

It is how Colt responds to this growing awareness that leads to the climax and denouement on the novel. The ending is dramatic, though not externally earth-shattering, and conveys a sense of truth about the complexity of family loyalties and the burden of carried shame.

I was wondering, as I read the novel, whether it might be useful for HSC English teachers teaching the new “discovery” module. It deals with the theme of discovery in a number of ways: a new neighbourhood, how different classes live, as well as the discovery of growing up and taking responsibility. It’s also packed with language forms and features which students could explore. I read an ebook copy and kept interrupting my reading to highlight Hartnett’s skillful use of rhetorical devices, similes and metaphors. (A whole post could be devoted to such an analysis.)

Apart from its promise as an educational text, it is a worthwhile and moving book to read.

This is my first review for both the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge.

~

Author: Sonya Hartnett
Title: Golden Boys
Publisher: Penguin
Date: August 2014
ISBN: 9781926428611

Review copy kindly supplied to me by the publishers via Netgalley.

Happy Birthday Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson

henry handel richarson

Ethel Richardson by Rupert Bunny, 1920s nla.pic-an8136809

The Australian author, Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson – better known by her pen-name, Henry Handel Richardson – was born on this day, 3 January, in 1870.

In 1988 the Australian Dictionary of Biography published a piece on Richardson’s life by Dorothy Green, a version of which is now available online here. The piece is strangely dated in both language and values, with its references (emphasis?) on the achievements of the men in Richardson’s life and the defensive (dismissive?) references to speculation of ‘deviance’ in Richardson’s relationships with women. It does, however, mention the key events of her life, including her expatriate stays in Germany and England, her novels and her interest in music, so it still works as an introduction to the novelist.

Richardson died in 1945 and her novels, now out of copyright, have been made available free online as part of Project Gutenberg Australia.

Some have also been recorded and are available as Mp3s through Librivox.

Ethel would be 145 if she were still alive today.

Reblogged: Thank you for 2014! What’s new for 2015

AWW 2015 badge

AWW 2015 badge

Reblogged from the new Australian Women Writers website.

In 2014, the Australian Women Writers challenge attracted 1578 reviews of books by Australian women (and there may be more to come). That’s a fantastic achievement and I want to thank you all – readers, bloggers, writers and the AWW team volunteers.

As you probably know, the AWW challenge was established at the end of 2011 in response to discussions about gender bias in the reviewing of books by women. (If you’re new to the challenge, you can read more here.) Although I ran the challenge for the first year, it has always been a team effort, with the real work being done by the many book bloggers – mostly women and a few men – who for the past three years have been reading and reviewing books by Australian women. We have posted our reviews on blogs, Goodreads and other platforms; chatted about them on Twitter and Facebook; talked about the challenge at festivals; seen it mentioned on writers’ centre websites and in mainstream media; and we’ve encouraged others to join us – both as participants and as volunteers to help run the challenge websites. Behind the scenes, the AWW team has been posting regular round-ups of the reviews linked to the challenge, updating the database with images of book covers, and checking links entered in the “Link Your Review” form.

In my case, as well as contributing to the above tasks, I’ve tried to read posts by challenge participants, responding sometimes with a “like”, sometimes with a comment. Via Twitter, I’ve broadcast reviews of participants who tweet including “@auswomenwriters” or the challenge hashtag, and I’ve kept an eye on the AWW Facebook page. As much work as this involves, I know there are many reviews I haven’t read or responded to, and I feel I’ve done comparatively little to show challenge participants how much their efforts are appreciated. At least one person I know, an early member of the challenge, didn’t sign up this year after noticing their “likes” and “comments” on their reviews on Goodreads had dropped off.

This signals to me the importance of continuing to invite others to help build a community of readers, and show participants just how much their reviews are contributing to something bigger. This year saw the #readwomen2014 campaign on Twitter, a global movement with similar aims to the AWW challenge. It was a great success, but ongoing work is still needed. Both VIDA and the Stella Award published counts of reviews in literary journals during 2013. The counts demonstrate that the number of reviews of books by women continues to lag behind the number of reviews of books by men. We won’t know the count for 2014 until next year – and hopefully there’ll be an improvement. But whatever it is, we can be confident that we’re doing our bit to help raise the profile of this important issue.

Why is it important?

Let’s not even go down the track of discussing the gender pay gap, statistics on violence towards women, the decreasing number of female CEOs and parliamentary ministers, or how the lack of acknowledgement of women’s achievements generally may help to perpetuate entrenched injustices. Let’s focus on the writers. The AustLit account on Twitter recently noted that its database has entries for 38 500 individual Australian women writers. (There are probably more, but some women aren’t identified as they published using initials.) But how many of those have you heard of? How many have you read? This morning, I was trawling through Librivox and Project Gutenberg Australia for free audio and ebooks of out-of-copyright books by Australian women. Just a quick glance at the lists makes it obvious how few books there are by women in comparison to books by men. If we want the voices of Australian women of the twenty-first century to go down in history, the work starts now, with us. Without records, without evidence books by Australian women are being read and appreciated, historians of the future may think they weren’t good enough to be remembered, when clearly this isn’t true.

The AWW Challenge will continue in 2015, with the aim of continuing to promote and support books by Australian women. Until now, we’ve had two websites, one for the blog and one for the review lists (or three, if you count the AWW Challenge Goodreads page). The new site is a work in progress, but it will have a searchable database, making it easier for readers to find participants’ reviews. My hope is readers – librarians, teachers, bloggers, writers and researchers – will follow the links and show appreciation by “liking” or commenting on the reviews of the books they discover. This will help consolidate and grow the AWW reading community. I’d also encourage people to subscribe to the AWW blog via email (see side bar) and discuss their reading on social media using the challenge hashtag: #aww2015. If you have any other ideas how we can raise the profile of Australian women writers, or if you’d like to volunteer to help behind the scenes or contribute to the AWW blog, please let me know.

So, who’s in for 2015? You can sign up here.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 Wrap Up: My year of narrow reading

awwbadge_2014They say the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.

For a long time I’ve wanted to write psychological suspense. While pursuing my goal, I’ve read lots of novels in the genre, with the hope of learning how to create the same magic. Whether it’s called psychological suspense, thriller, or “domestic noir”, the stories are often about a woman in jeopardy, or women who are victimised who fight back. Sometimes they’re about men or women who are stretched to the limits of their endurance – even, at times, of their sanity. They are stories I can relate to.

It shouldn’t be any surprise, therefore, that when I look back over the novels I’ve read and reviewed this year for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I find most of the stories fit that category. I confess, though, I’m shocked at how narrow my reading has been.

1. Robyn Bowles, Rough Justice. (true crime)

2. Candice Fox, Hades. (detective/thriller)

3. Honey Brown, Through the Cracks. (suspense)

4. Dawn Barker, Let Her Go. (suspense)

5. Wendy James, The Lost Girls. (suspense)

6. Julie Proudfoot, The Neighbour. (suspense)

7. Anna George, What Came Before. (suspense)

8. Jaye Ford, Already Dead. (suspense)

9. Caroline Overington, Can You Keep A Secret. (suspense)

10. Gillian Mears, Foal’s Bread. (literary/historical fiction)

11. Kate Belle, Being Jade. (women’s fiction)

12. Johanna Fawkes, Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: the shadow of excellence. (nonfiction)

P M Newton’s excellent crime novel Beams Falling, is another one I read; it’s the sequel to her award-winning debut, The Old School. Instead of writing a review, however, I posted a Q & A with Newton on the AWW blog here.

I didn’t set out to be so narrow in my reading this year; it just happened that those were the books that appealed to me. When I look at my “to be read” pile of books by Australian women, there’s a great variety of genre, from literary fiction to memoir to historical fiction as well as nonfiction. The books in this photograph are only a fraction of the pile.

 

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What will I review for the AWW Challenge in 2015? I’m not sure. Recently, I’ve been borrowing books from the library and reading just for fun, and not all of them have been shelved in the crime/suspense/thriller section. Maybe I’ll start branching out again? (Otherwise, I should really change the name of my blog.)

By the way, for those of you who haven’t heard, my debut novel – a romance with suspense elements, Snowy River Man – will be published by Escape Publishing on 22 February 2015, under my pen-name, Lizzy Chandler. If you’d like a review copy, please let me know. I’d be thrilled if it could be reviewed as part of the AWW challenge for 2015.

Are you planning to join?

Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The shadow of excellence by Johanna Fawkes

This book builds on a lifetime of reading, writing, thinking, dreaming, failing, starting again, denying, confronting, shifting and teaching.

Public Relations Ethics FawkesIf anyone had told me at the beginning of the year that I’d end up reading for pleasure – make that, devouring – a Jungian book on public relations, I’d have said they were dreaming. That was before I met Blue Mountains resident, writer and academic, Johanna Fawkes.

In her book Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The shadow of excellence, Fawkes writes much how she speaks, with intelligence, intuition and poetic flair. As the opening lines quoted above suggest, she is no stranger to nuances of language. She revels in them. It’s a feature of her writing that betrays the fact that she is not only a Senior Lecturer in Public Relations at Charles Sturt University, she is also a prize-winning writer, having completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and won numerous awards for her short fiction.

But public relations? How can a book on public relations be made readable for a lay audience and still provide enough intellectual rigour to be useful as a text book? With enviable skill Fawkes manages to do both. I read the book from cover to cover in a little over a day and was fascinated. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a closet Jung fan. The idea of exploring questions regarding ethics and public relations by teasing out the “shadow” side of the profession appeals to me – if public relations can indeed be regarded as a “profession”, when much of it, from a lay point of view, appears to deal with the art of persuasion in service of a client, at the limit of which is propaganda.

Fawkes’ discussion weaves in and out of these thorny issues in a way that surprised and stimulated me. I found myself thinking back to a unit I studied when doing a Graduate Diploma of Counselling, and the debates that were raging at the time between Counselling and Psychology – the “territory” wars between the two disciplines, and the tensions between which practices might be considered an “art” and which a “science”, and the attendant professional – and remunerative – ramifications. Fawkes’ book invites such pondering, making it relevant to professions generally, not just public relations. Public relations, in some sense, is the case study for the broader ideas she wishes to bring to our attention.

An aspect of the book I especially enjoyed was the way Fawkes introduces her own experience – including her own personal challenges – into the discussion. It’s a technique consistent with the postmodern breadth of her vision, and one I find particularly engaging.

While reading Chapter 7, “Towards a Jungian Ethic”, I began applying some of the ideas to myself personally. What shadow parts of myself do I reject and why? How might engaging those parts be transformative? By doing so, might I be freer to solve problems and limitations confronting me? Engaging further with these ideas since finishing the book has become an exciting journey, promising to open up all sorts of possibilities. All from a book on PR. That’s quite an achievement!

Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The shadow of excellence will be launched at the St James Ethics Centre in December. Unfortunately, it isn’t the kind of book you’re likely to stumble across down at your favourite bookshop. It costs too much for that. But you can order it from your academic library. It deserves the widest audience it can get.

~

Author: Johanna Fawkes
Title: Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The Shadow of excellence
ISBN: 9780415630382
Publisher: Routledge Taylor & Francis Ltd, United Kingdom
Date: June 2014

This review form part of my Australian Women Writers challenge for 2014.
My thanks to the author for the loan of a review copy.

Being Jade by Kate Belle – a study of grief and love

imageNote: this review contains mild spoilers.

“People argue about death” is the opening line of Kate Belle’s novel Being Jade. It might just as well have been, “People argue about love”. For, although grief over a death sets the book’s narrative in motion, many of the questions it raises are about love or, more precisely, whether love and infidelity are compatible. Does fidelity in a relationship matter? Does it make a difference if the couple is married? The woman pregnant? If they have children? The length of time they’ve been together?

Being Jade begins with the first person point of view of Banjo, husband to Jade, father of Cassy and Lissy. Banjo has just been killed in a hit-and-run on a lonely stretch of road on the north coast of New South Wales. The novel explores the mystery of why he was walking there alone, who hit him and why the driver absconded. As Banjo comes to terms with his death, we see his grief over his loss of life, and particularly of his beloved wife Jade, a temperamental artist he fell in love with as a teenager, married at eighteen and lived with for nearly thirty years. Because of Banjo’s grief, the focus of the novel is on Jade, the object of his devotion, and the source of much of his suffering and of that of his children. We learn of Jade’s troubled childhood, her affairs, her serial abandonment of her children when they were small, her drinking and drug-taking; as well as her artwork which features her lovers in outrageously erotic – if not pornographic – detail.

The point of view of the novel alternates between Banjo and his younger daughter Lissy. Through Lissy, we watch as Jade falls into catatonic depression after the funeral. Is it, as Lissy wants to believe, a sign of the depth of her mother’s love and grief at the loss of her soulmate? Or is the truth, as her older sister Cassy suggests, that the depression stems from their mother’s guilt over her own destructive behaviour, a typical narcissistic self-dramatising of a woman who always needs to be the centre of attention?

Being Jade is provocative. Among the questions it poses are, why does society continue to hold double standards for men and women? Why is it shocking when women embrace their sexuality and demand sexual freedom, when they leave their children in the care of the children’s father, when they have multiple partners? And why are representations of a vagina still so confronting?

While the figure of Jade provides the focus of the novel, the emotional and, for me, psychological core is about grief. Not only does it portray the grief experienced over a loss of life, but also the grief one feels when having to come to terms with someone’s otherness, their insistence on being themselves, no matter what harm they might cause to those they love. For this reason, I was uncertain of the ending. Towards the climax, we see deeper into Jade’s affairs, a twist enabled by Banjo’s ghostly status as he sees her memories. Here Banjo appears to accept a new “truth” of her behaviour, that – far from being monstrous – it was loving, even redeeming.

This is one of the areas where I found the novel problematic. (The other was Jade’s portrayal in terms of her Asian-ness, but that’s for another discussion.) Banjo’s – and, through him, the reader’s – revised understanding of Jade has a huge emotional payoff with the girls’ discovery of a particular painting. But it appears to reinscribe Jade in the whore/Madonna trope which the rest of the novel seems at pains to question (with the “Madonna” aspect being figurative – restorative of fallen men – rather than maternal).

Are there sufficient hints of Banjo’s fallibility as a narrator to throw this longed-for redemption of Jade into doubt? Perhaps. Enough to suggest that this view of Jade might be a wish fulfilment for Banjo and Lissy (as well as the reader and perhaps author). In this alternative reading, Banjo and Lissy could be seen as doing what they have always done: choosing to see their all-too-human wife/mother how they want her to be, not who she really might be. And who might she be? A beautiful, talented, self-absorbed and selfish bitch. And what’s wrong with that? Women can be bitches, right? We’re human. What makes this a harder version to accept is that the only points of view we see are from characters whose values are at least influenced by small-town expectations of acceptable roles and behaviour of women.

In the end, I can’t decide which view of Jade does greater justice to the story, the character and women in general. For me, Jade remains a cipher, like the Korean symbol that provides the signature mark of her artwork; a compelling character, rendered in at times beautiful prose, central to a story that kept me reading long into the night and had me wanting to talk about it afterwards. The sign of a good, thought-provoking book.

~

This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Authors Challenge. Being Jade has previously been reviewed for the AWW challenge by Monique, Shelleyrae, Sam, Carol, Rowena, Deborah and Jenn. Review copy kindly supplied by the publisher.

Author: Kate Belle
Title: Being Jade
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Date: June 2014
ISBN: 9781925030044

Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread

resized_9781742376295_224_297_FitSquareTrigger warning for survivors of childhood sexual assault.

There aren’t too many books I can honestly say have changed my life, but Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread is one of them.

I first came across this title in 2012 when participants of the Australian Women Writers Challenge posted their reviews. Eleven reviews appeared that year, the vast majority of which were laudatory. This was a special book, I realised. It could sneak inside your soul, break your heart, move even the most prosaic reviewer to poetry.

Opening the beautiful dust jacket with its glimpse of a galloping horse, I began to read, only soon to slam the book shut again. The initial pages are so horrifically distressing, and yet so beautifully told, I knew I’d need to be stronger to withstand the emotional onslaught.

A few weeks ago I tried again. This time, I persisted. I read about how in the early twentieth-century a young Aboriginal girl, Noah, finds herself in an intolerable situation, battles through as best she can, has children before she’s fully grown up, and marries a man who, like her, is a champion horse rider. I read of Noah’s strength as mother, farmer and farrier, as her husband Roly succumbs to a mysterious illness, the birth of her daughter Lainey who, like Noah herself, has the talent to become a champion rider. I read how the events of those first few pages haunt Noah through the years until she at last comes to terms with them.

For me the beauty of this story isn’t in the plot. It isn’t even in the language – though that is exquisite. It’s in the effect it has had on me personally. One of the facets of certain kinds of childhood sexual assault that many people don’t understand is how survivors can respond. Often, the abuser has the child’s trust; sometimes, the abuser is just about the only person ever to have shown the child kindness; sometimes the child’s own nascent sexual feelings are stimulated by the sexual violation of their boundaries, so that they don’t even recognise the abuse as abuse. They respond to it as if it were love.

Mears has depicted the complexity of this childhood response with remarkable sensitivity. Her portrayal of Noah as a survivor is done with such understanding and compassion that I find myself not only in awe at her skill, but also immensely grateful. I finished this book with a remarkable sense of freedom. For years, I have been filled with rage at my abuser. Mears reminded me of the love I’d once felt, and the reasons for that love. For some strange reason, accepting this reality, opened up a space where, it seems, forgiveness may be possible. We are all capable of being abusers of one kind or another, Mears suggests; “hurt people hurt people”. It’s a remarkable gift for a writer to convey that reality with such a deep sense of compassion.

As its publisher’s page attests, Foal’s Bread has been nominated for and won an outstanding number of awards:

Short-listed, Adelaide Festival Award for Literature, Fiction, 2014
Winner, Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2012
Winner, ALS Gold Medal, 2012
Winner, 60th Annual Book Design Awards, Best Designed Literary Fiction, 2012
Winner, The Age Book of the Year Award Fiction, 2012
Winner, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2012
Winner, Colin Roderick Award, 2012
Short-listed, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, 2013
Short-listed, Indie Awards, Fiction prize, 2012
Short-listed, Barbara Jefferis Award, 2012
Short-listed, Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2012
Short-listed, Nita B. Kibble Award, 2012
Short-listed, Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year, 2012
Short-listed, West Australian Premier’s Book Award, 2012

Having finally read it, I now know why.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge.

Author: Gillian Mears
Title: Foal’s Bread
ISBN: 9781742376295
Australian Pub.: November 2011
Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Caroline Overington’s fiction and Can You Keep A Secret? A Response

imageCaroline Overington’s fiction polarizes. Some people, having read one of her books, swear off reading more. Others devour each one as it is published and eagerly await the next.

I’m trying to tease out why.

Overington chooses to write about topics which are highly emotive – melodramatic, even – topics which are often sensationalized in the news. Her books deal with murder within families, institutional neglect and abuse, and, most recently, in Can You Keep A Secret?, international adoption. All her books, including the latest, are page-turning, thought-provoking reads.

To illustrate these topics, Overington depicts characters from the working or welfare-dependent classes, ill-educated people, sometimes mentally disturbed; people on the fringes of society who, at best, behave badly, at worst, could be seen as downright evil. When reading about these characters and what they get up to, it can be hard, as a middle-class, educated reader, not to feel voyeuristic and judgemental – and highly manipulated by the author.

Some readers I know are uncomfortable at being put into such a position and stop reading. Others, like me, are fascinated and compelled to go on.

Reading Overington’s fiction reminds me of a time I spent watching the Jerry Springer show (which I had to do as part of research for a cultural studies unit I was teaching years ago). On the show, mostly black, working class guests behaved badly for a (mostly, it seemed) white, middle-class audience. As I watched the guests’ antics, I knew I was being emotionally manipulated, but I could see viewers’ fascination and why, for some, it might even become addictive. While such “bad” behaviour was going on, seemingly in front of my eyes, I could feel just that little bit superior, reassured that my own faults and failings – and there are many – aren’t quite as bad as my conscience would suggest. I could feel that much more satisfied that I was okay; at least, I wasn’t like them.

The pernicious element about Springer’s show was that it purported to be true, that the people used to create the show’s spectacles genuinely represent facets of society and actual human behaviour; and the viewing “eye” of the camera and Springer’s staging played no part in falsifying reality and in exploiting those guests for dramatic effect.

Not so with Overington, right? After all, she writes fiction.

Well, it’s complicated.

In an interview with Sarah Tabitha, Overington writes:

In fiction, I have found a freedom to write what really goes on in society: I can say what I’ve seen when I’ve walked into houses where children have been neglected; I can discuss what it might be like to be a child whose brother was murdered by the parents, having to grow up with a mother in jail, and so forth. My readers are clever: they know it’s all true. (Source)

Freed from the constraints of libel, Overington sees herself as being able to portray in fiction a clearer representation of human behaviour than she can as a journalist.

That’s what I find disturbing – and thought provoking – about her work. If how she depicts humans is “true”, what does that say about humanity? Are we really so self-seeking, grasping, venal and deluded as many of her characters appear to be? Is it the novelist’s job to expose such behaviour? Satirists from Voltaire, Swift and Twain onwards would no doubt say it is, and that’s how I choose to see Overington’s writing: as satirical.

Overington, as a journalist, has interviewed many people in distress, both victims and perpetrators of horrific crimes. She has had insights into experiences few of us could imagine – except if you’ve lived through them, or things similar. Coming at behaviour from the outside, as a viewer, it’s easier to get an overview, to simplify into neat packages of good and evil, sane and insane. It’s different when you’re part of the story. If you were to identify fully with one of the people Overington writes about, it might be harder to parcel off the moral worth of other humans’ actions without more ambiguity, subtlety and complexity; harder, one might say, to throw the first stone.

This distinction may well reflect the difference between satirical writing and more literary writing. The satirical writer, like the sensationalist, opts for surface effect, making it easier to hold others up to ridicule; while the literary writer works hard to take us into the minds and hearts of those whom, because of their behaviour and experiences, we might otherwise objectify and reject. The satirical writer distances us from others; the literary writer reminds us of our common humanity.

Right from the start, the style of Overington’s Can You Keep A Secret? creates distance.

In the opening section of the novel, Overington uses an omniscient narrator to introduce the main characters: Caitlin, the working class girl from Townsville, and Colby, the stockbroker tourist from New York. As the story progresses the narrative focuses on Caitlin and her desire, by whatever means, to live the American dream and be a “mom”, but it’s not via the kind of deep, third-person subjective point of view that appears in much contemporary Australian fiction; rather, Overington creates distance by relying on dialogue and action to “show” Caitlin’s story: we are never fully invited into her head or to identify with her concerns. For those who feel bogged down by characters’ introspection, this stylistic levity is refreshing; it also better enables the reader to form a judgemental view of the main character and her behaviour.

Even when the narrative switches to first person in the middle section of the story, Caitlin’s “blog” where she writes of her dream of adopting a child, we experience, along with her blog readers, only the illusion of intimacy: we know, from the prior narrative, Caitlin has kept important details from her readers, so we can’t trust what she tells us about herself and her experiences. Again, this makes it easier to judge her in the end.

Overington’s style interests me, as does her boldness in writing the “truth” as she sees it. She is unafraid to polarise, to offend, to invite judgement of behaviour she sees as wrong. She has found a way of doing this, of critiquing aspects of society and human behaviour, while telling a page-turning story. With so many things wrong about the world, so much to complain about, such conviction and moral certainty is enviable. Maybe more Australian women writers could follow suit and be more satirical? Except, instead of depicting in a negative light the behaviour of society’s most vulnerable and weak, such writers – perhaps even Overington herself – might target those whose venality has a far greater negative impact: the corrupt elites and privileged classes who wield the most power.

Do you agree Overington’s writing is satirical? Are there any other Australian women authors whose work could be seen in this light?

~

Author: Caroline Overington
Title: Can You Keep A Secret?
Publication date: 01/09/2014
ISBN: 9780857983572
Publisher: Random House Australia; imprint: Bantam
A review copy was kindly supplied by the publisher.

This response forms a part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. Other books by Overington I’ve reviewed included No Place Like Home and Sisters of Mercy.

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