‘ 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.

Whatever happened to Nicci French? Review of Waiting for Wednesday

waiting-for-wednesday-a-frieda-klein-novelAs avid fans of Nicci French novels will already know, ‘Nicci French’ is the pen-name of best-selling writing couple Nicci Gerrard and Simon French. What I didn’t know until I read it on their Goodreads page is that both Gerrard and French graduated with First Class Honours in English Literature from Oxford University.

It doesn’t surprise me.

I’ve been a fan of their psychological suspense novels for years, so much so that I set up a Facebook page to seek out other fans. I wanted to know who gravitated toward their work and why. Instinctively I thought they would be people like me, people who might enjoy what I liked to read and write. My own future readers, perhaps… if only I could learn to write as well as the Nicci French team.

So what is it about their novels I find so compelling?

One clue may lie in Nicci Gerrard’s professional background. Her first job was working with emotionally disturbed children in Sheffield, and an interest in mental health underpins much of the couple’s writing. In fact, I told a friend once that they seemed to create their characters by making their way through the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders. It was a joke, but it may not be so far from the truth. Each book, variously, has dealt with mental health issues, particularly the questionable human behaviour that results from severe trauma and abuse.

From the start, Nicci French stories have had multiple layers. Sometimes the books are ‘murder mysteries’; other times they are portrayals of characters, usually women in their thirties, who are pushed to extreme limits; often they are a combination of the two. In the early novels, point-of-view characters are likely to be victims of some kind – victims of life, of their own behaviours and mental states, as well as victims of crime – and these experiences test their grip on reality. Avid readers of these books identify with the main characters’ fear of losing control, their journeys in stepping across the line between sanity and insanity. The books enact and exploit that journey, and also play on one’s fear of other people’s reactions to such a loss of control. In Losing You, the seeming ‘madness’ of the main character stems from her grief over the disappearance of her daughter. In Catch Me When I Fall, the main character is progressively depicted as an almost text book example of someone with Bipolar Disorder. Even in the more ‘crime’ oriented books, mental health issues are paramount. The perpetrators who victimise the protagonists often exhibit classic personality disorders. In Secret Smile there is a sociopath who targets and traumatises a woman who rejected him. In Killing Me Softly is a chilling and memorable portrait of a psychopath, one who displays the compelling ‘Dark Triad’ of Narcissism, Antisocial Personality Disorder and Machiavellianism.

For people like me, there is a vicarious thrill in reading such stories. The interesting question to ask is why.

Recently Professor Richard Landy, Professor of Educational Theatre and Applied Psychology at New York University, featured on an ABC All In The Mind program, discussing ‘drama therapy’ and the therapeutic effects of art. According to Landy, it’s all about ‘mirror neurons’. When we see something on stage (or, for the purpose of this discussion, read about it in a book), our brains behave as if we are the person engaged in the behaviour we’re watching/reading. We literally become excited, recognising in the characters portrayed something ‘human’ and ‘true’, and we experience this as therapeutic.

But how could it be therapeutic to read about mental illness and violent crime, as we do in the Nicci French novels, conditions and events that would be deeply traumatising if experienced in real life?

Landy’s discussion of the ‘framing’ of the drama/story, I believe, is pertinent here. In real life, circumstances only too often are out of our control: we can be struck randomly by illness, by events, by crime. There’s no come back, no cathartic sense of justice or happy ending. In a book or play, it’s different. By engaging with the fictional world, according to Landy, we enter into an implied contract with the playwright/author. In psychological suspense novels like those the Nicci French team writes, I’d suggest, the contract implies that we’ll be taken through our journey safely and both ‘sanity’ and ‘justice’ will be restored in the end. This is the pay-off for the reader: the illusion of control. For many readers – perhaps especially those of us who have experienced trauma or an intense sense of loss of control in our own lives – that illusion is very comforting. It’s like, in a way, we get to re-play being traumatised, but to experience an alternative, more empowering, less victimising outcome. Yet, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Not all of the Nicci French point-of-view characters survive being victims – and this uncertainty appears to be part of the suspense or thrill. The sense of risk, of the danger that this time things may not work out, would seem to be central to the pleasure the books create.

The Nicci French team has been able successfully to exploit this desire for the illusion of control in their standalone psychological thrillers/suspense novels over a period of many years. In 2011, they changed tack, publishing Blue Monday, the first in a series which features a London-based psychotherapist, Frieda Klein, who teams up with detectives Malcolm Karlsson and Yvette Long to solve a crime. Since then, they have published two more in the series, Tuesday’s Gone and, most recently, Waiting For Wednesday. In starting this series, the couple has taken a risk. Instead of the creating a protagonist who embodies a victim suffering the vertigo of losing control, in Frieda Klein they have created a character far more cerebral.

Klein’s world view is one fans would be familiar with:

She believes that the world is a messy, uncontrollable place, but what we can control is what is inside our heads. This attitude is reflected in her own life, which is an austere one of refuge, personal integrity, and order. (Source: Goodreads series page)

As this quote suggests, the emphasis of the series would seem to be more on understanding and articulating this world view, rather than dramatising it. Consequently, it would seem the reader has been robbed of the pleasure of a vicarious sense of loss of control. In its place is something far less visceral, less exciting.

For the small group of dedicated fans who belong to my Facebook page, the reaction has been one of disappointment. As recently as yesterday, one fan who is looking forward to hearing the couple at the upcoming Edinburgh International Book Festival, expressed her preference for the earlier books and said she hopes to be able to ask the authors whether they planned to write any more standalone thrillers. A chorus of responses followed: these fans, it seems, prefer those earlier books.

But what of Waiting for Wednesday, the most recent book in the series?

This hook is from the publisher’s website:

Ruth Lennox, beloved mother of three, is found by her daughter in a pool of her own blood. Who would want to murder an ordinary housewife? And why? (source: Penguin Australia)

The  book starts out like a detective story, even police procedural. But the difference is that this mystery is woven in with Frieda Klein’s story, a story which has more resemblances to the earlier novels than the first two in the series. In this novel, Frieda Klein, a woman who loves order above all things, inhabits a chaotic, messy world, a world partly created by her semi-out-of-control friends and family, partly by her own actions. Once again she is a sleuth, but this time she is without the sanction of the police force. While her obsession to solve a crime appears to be a kind of self-therapy, or possibly merely a diversion as she fails to deal with the trauma she experienced in the previous novel, her sleuthing is seen by others as dangerous, even borderline psychotic. She has become, like the protagonists of earlier Nicci French novels, a woman living on the edge.

Whether, for this story, the authors have changed tack in response to feedback from disappointed fans, or whether this was always going to be their trajectory for Klein is unclear. The result is that Klein’s world once again traverses familiar territory: loss of control, risk-taking, the appearance of madness, with justice and order – of a kind – triumphing in the end.

The strategy may or may not be enough to convince dedicated fans, but the book certainly hasn’t disappointed other readers who have reviewed it so far (including two Aussie book bloggers, Shelleyrae and Bree).

For me?

Reading Waiting For Wednesday I barricaded myself in against wet, winter weather, resenting interruptions and staying up late, marveling at the couple’s virtuosity in keeping my attention gripped. I recognised the ‘truth’ of various characters’ behaviour, including their fascination with drama:

She had that excited calm that some people get in an emergency. Karlsson had seen it before. Disasters attracted people. Relatives, friends, neighbours gathered to help or give sympathy or just to be part of it in some way, to warm themselves in the terrible glow. (2% through ebook [no page numbers given])

I found the insights into mental health issues fascinating:

When they reached Tottenham Court Road, they stood for a moment and watched the buses and cars careering past them. ‘You know,’ said Frieda, ‘that if you move from the countryside to a big city like London, you increase your chance of developing schizophrenia by five or six times.’ (85%)

And I enjoyed the patches of poetry that the writing team – all-too-rarely, for me – occasionally indulge in:

The path broadened out into a wide track. The river was slow and brown. If she lay down here, would she ever get up? …would she cry at last? Or sleep? To sleep was to let go. Let go of the dead, let go of the ghosts, let go of the self.

Cranes. Great thistles. A deserted allotment with crazy little sheds toppling at the edge of the river. A fox, mangy, with a thin, grubby tail. Swift as a shadow into the shadows. (98%)

Whatever happened to Nicci French? They tried something different and it works, for me.

~

Author: Nicci French
Title: Waiting for Wednesday
ISBN: 9780718156978
Genre: Thriller/suspense

Ebook review copy kindly supplied through Netgalley by the publisher.

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?

~

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.

~

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.

On Art and Motherhood: or, this is not a romance – The Steele Diaries by Wendy James

wendy-james-steele-diariesThe Steele Diaries, Wendy James’ second novel, originally published in 2008, has recently been re-released as an ebook by Momentum. It’s a novel I’ve looked forward to reading since I discovered a paperback copy on my local library’s discard table. I’d enjoyed James’ The Mistake when I read it as part of the AWW challenge last year and I was hoping for another compulsive read.

This novel didn’t disappoint, but it was different from what I’d anticipated. The Steele Diaries takes a more considered approach than The Mistake, and it wasn’t till halfway through that I felt compelled to keep on turning pages. Loosely, it covers the same territory: family drama – or “Suburban Noir” – with the possibility of crime. In The Steele Diaries, the story unfolds at a gentler pace and has a more literary feel than The Mistake. In the end, however, it packs a similar punch and is arguably even more thought-provoking.

According to James, who was interviewed by Kirsten Krauth last year, the novel was inspired by “stories of various artists’ and writers’ lives — in particular Joy Hester, Sunday Reed, Sylvia Plath, Vanessa Bell, [and] Angelica Garnett — and their differing experiences of motherhood and childhood”. There’s no glossy, sentimentalising of motherhood here; rather, the depiction of the fraught nature of disappointed dreams and imperfect relationships makes for, at times, uncomfortable and confronting reading.

The drama revolves around three women: Ruth, a middle-aged doctor who has recently lost her father; Zelda, Ruth’s mother, an illustrator of children’s books; and Annie, acclaimed artist, Zelda’s mother. It weaves first person narratives from Ruth and Zelda – Zelda’s section being quite literally a “diary” – with a brief account of a time in Annie’s life, as imagined by Zelda.

While depicting the complex and painful relationships between these mothers and daughters, the story dramatises the pressures which childbearing places on a woman’s creativity, sense of autonomy and mental health. It draws on themes familiar to folk and “fairy” tales, the terror of abandonment and the hinted possibility of a mother’s indifference to her child, an indifference which borders on brutality. Such unsafe – even grotesque – preoccupations are reflected in the Art described in the novel, both in Annie’s paintings and Zelda’s wood-block illustrations, as well as in the narrative. Readers are positioned as eavesdroppers or voyeurs on these women’s private lives, a narrative strategy which creates a self-reflexive meditation on Art as a vehicle for telling unpalatable truths, particularly about women’s “failures” to live up to their own and others’ expectations. In portraying these failures, the story both stretches and tests our capacity to respond with sympathy.

Steele-Diaries_ebookGiven the weight of the book’s themes, you’d have to wonder about the covers, both the original – with its face of a beautiful, carefully coiffed woman floating over an Outback scene – and the more recent offering from Momentum, with coy lovers kissing under an umbrella. Both are seriously misleading.

James had something interesting to say to Krauth about book covers and marketing mistakes:

So many novels by women — especially those writing about domestic life — are given covers that don’t quite match the content. My first two novels — one about an infanticide, the other about art and motherhood — were marketed as romances. This misrepresentation certainly doesn’t help establish a readership.

Whatever genre you might call The Steele Diaries, it’s not a romance. Momentum book designers, what were you thinking?

~

This review counts towards Australian Literature Month hosted Kim at Reading Matters (who will donate 50p to the Australian Literacy Foundation for every review of an Australian book during April) as well as Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

ozmonth3

Reinventing Rose by Kandy Shepherd – or The Love-Rat Ritual

KandyShepherd_ReinventingRose[3]When I first read Reinventing Rose it was in manuscript form and I knew it by a different title, The Love-Rat Ritual. It’s this early title I love. It wasn’t right for the US market, though: apparently US readers don’t know what a “love rat” is; so it had to go.

Honestly? I didn’t know what a love rat was, either, before I read the book, but this story set me straight. It features quite a few love rats, old, young, gay, straight, male, female. They are human beings who, in their search to find The One – a man or woman with whom they might just possibly create a happy life – sometimes behave badly. Most of us, the story hints, have been love rats at one time or another. Love is tricky, but worth searching for.

With the characteristic humour which fans of Shepherd’s previous award-winning and best-selling novels have come to love, Reinventing Rose tells the tale of a newly divorced school teacher from Bookerville, California. After having met her internet lover Scott offline for outrageously good sex, Rose buys a ticket and flies to Sydney to hook up once more with her handsome Aussie hunk. It’s the start of the US summer school holidays and she’s giving her adventurous side full rein. On arrival, however, she discovers Scott’s not only married, but also his wife has a baby. He’s a love rat of the first order, and only too happy to get rid of Rose before she even leaves the airport.

Scott’s betrayal isn’t the only unwelcome discovery Rose makes as we follow her adventures “down under”. Her struggles to reinvent herself as a stranger in a strange land, however, are made a whole lot easier – and funnier! – by her outgoing Aussie flatmates, botoxed beauty editor Carla and artist-cum-trust-fund heiress Sasha, as well as their fiercely independent neighbour and friend, international model Kelly. These girls – women – are drawn with flair and deserve to star in books of their own.

The humour that propels this story wouldn’t have been possible without Shepherd’s inside knowledge of Sydney’s magazine scene. At the back of the book, Shepherd writes:

One of the things I most enjoyed during my years in women’s magazines was working with reader makeovers. There was something thrilling about helping transform women (and sometimes men) of all ages with the right hair, makeup and fashion advice. Often the makeover gave such a confidence boost it led to positive change in both relationships and career.

Here Shepherd emphasises the transformative powers of the makeover, and this is certainly an important element of the story. What strikes me more, however, are the makeover’s comic absurdities which Shepherd depicts with compassionate good humour, along with the seemingly never-ending obsession these women have in their attempts to look beautiful, to fit in, to attract the right kind of mate.

The story has a deeper side, too, as Rose struggles to come to terms with what she learns about her dead father, that her parents’ “happy ever after” was at the cost of him hiding his sexuality. Rose grows in self-awareness as she reconciles herself with and finally accepts what initially she perceives to be his betrayal.

Technically, Reinventing Rose is a well-written novel; told in first-person present tense, it has an engaging, at times laugh-out-loud style that Shepherd’s skill makes appear effortless. Who will enjoy it? Fans of chick lit and humorous romance, and anyone who enjoys fun, feel-good fiction.

~

This book contributes towards my Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge. My thanks to the author for giving me a copy.

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