A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josphine Rowe

a Loving Faithful Animal Josephine RoweI bought a copy of A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe at Megalong Books in Leura a couple of weeks ago after hearing the author interviewed on ABC radio. During the interview, Rowe read an extract conveying the repercussive horror experienced by one of her characters, Lani, after witnessing a rape during her teenage years. In the book, something seemingly innocuous triggers Lani to a flashback of the abuse, forcing her to hide until the nausea and horror subsides. Rowe’s prose was so crisp, the emotion so accurately evoked, that I instantly recognised that she had suffered what many adult survivors of childhood abuse have suffered, what some call “traumatic witness”. In the interview Rowe spoke of the trauma of having grown up with an abusive father who, in turn, had been traumatised by the Vietnam war; somehow Rowe not only survived, but also found the language, the imagery and form to transmute those horrors into powerful fiction.

A Loving, Faithful Animal is told sequentially from the points of view of Ru, her mother Evelyn, her father Jack, her sister Lani and her uncle Les, with Ru’s story, the only one told in the second person, bookending the novel. Each character has a distinctive voice, their narratives intersecting during a shared period, New Year’s Eve 1990, a time shadowed by the Iraq war and still haunted by Vietnam, the war Ru’s father brings daily into the family’s living room.

Your father. His head is a ghost trap. It’s all he can do to open his mouth without letting them all howl out. Even so, you can still see them, sliding around the dark behind his eyes like a Balinese puppet show. At night he’ll let his guard down. Too bad for everyone. Now he’s out here somewhere. Wasting his New Year’s Eve in a shabby, forgetful room… (p12)

In a time when domestic violence is high on the national agenda, Rowe gives an insight into the family dynamics of abuse, including a sympathetic – but not sentimental – portrait of the abuser and the abused, as well as the effects on the children and extended family. It’s not an easy read; there’s little in the way of comfort; but it has the compelling ring of truth.

~

Author: Josephine Rowe
Title: A Loving, Faithful Animal
Publisher: UQP, 2016
ISBN: 9780702253966

This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Halfway through reading Charlotte Wood’s new novel, The Natural Way of Things, I felt compelled to post about it on Facebook and Twitter.

Reading The Natural Way of Things

Such is the power of this book that after I finished it, immediately I searched for someone to discuss it with. I rang a friend who had been to the book launch on Monday night, hoping she might have read it already. She was only a few chapters in, but she told me a friend of hers, after finishing it, had rolled up in a ball on the floor and wept.

I wanted to weep while reading this book. I felt like there was a lifetime of tears – behind my rage – waiting to be shed. But I didn’t cry and I think I know why.

This brilliant, beautifully written, terrible fable of our times was inspired when Wood heard about a group of girls/women who had been rounded up and drugged, and carted off to a decommissioned prison at Hay in Western New South Wales in the 1960s. Instead of setting her story back then, as Wood told Susan Wyndham in a recent interview, she decided to create a near-future dystopia. To populate her story, Wood drew from every possible sex scandal she had come across in the media, stories of women who had been depicted as in some way having “asked for it”. Among the group of ten women Wood depicts, there are figures of diverse class, ethnicities, educational backgrounds and personalities, many of whom bear similarities to actual historical figures. Some of these become fully realised characters in their own right, given life via exquisite prose.

Two such characters, Verla and Yolanda, are given points of view in the narrative. Verla is the educated former mistress of a politician who denied having “relations” with her; Yolanda is a beauty from a working-class background whose boyfriend dumped her after she was gang raped by a group of footballers. Such is Wood’s mastery of narrative that it took me a while to realise Verla’s story is told in the present tense, Yolanda’s in the past – so seamless are the transitions.

Throughout the story, Wood’s descriptive power is stunning. She describes the violence wielded by the girls’ warden, Boncer, in ironic terms as having the ease and fluidity, if not the beauty, of ballet:

[S]he didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and the leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw.

A few paragraphs later, she extends the picture created with a vivid, terrible simile:

Turning his brown leather stick in his hands, its hard, lumpy stitched seams like a botched wound. Like a scar that would make worse ones. (25)

One of Wood’s techniques I particularly noted was her use of adjectives to add sound, texture, movement and atmosphere to her descriptions: “skittering footsteps”, “thickening bush”, “busy fingers” and “noisy silence” are a few examples chosen at random; while many others form powerful triplets, such as “slow, long-bodied wasps” and an ice-chest with a “hoary galvanised-metal face”.

Throughout the story Wood shows her mastery of figurative language, often drawing from domestic situations to create beautiful, fresh and deceptively simple images:

A flock of white cockatoos arrived, landing noisily down on the flat, the white line of them billowing and settling like a thrown bedsheet. (199)

A pleat of blue has opened up in the clouds. (249)

With such language, a terrible tale is wrought. The girls in the story suffer, endure, survive, collapse under pressure and revive – or not, each in their own way.

What the story didn’t do was something which from the outset I had unconsciously expected it would: depict from the inside the ultimate psychic degradation of abused women; that is, the learned helplessness and hopelessness of internalised misogyny, the self-hatred and self-abuse that leads to suicidal ideation and self-harm, that makes women believe they deserve whatever bad things happen to them. While girls with such attitudes are portrayed in the story, they remain somewhat at a distance, seen through the eyes of the point-of-view characters. Both Yolanda and Verla are far more empowered. Even the crisis Verla suffers towards the climax of the book isn’t one of self-worth or self-doubt; she and Yolanda are women whose sense of agency and ability to withstand is not seriously threatened – even as their physical survival isn’t assured. For me, there is a third, silent, untold narrative that haunts the book: the woman whose sense of self-worth doesn’t survive.

It’s that narrative, I think, that would have summoned my tears, but perhaps it’s just as well Wood didn’t write it. I might never have stopped crying.

I’d be stunned and disappointed if The Natural Way if Things isn’t shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and The Stella Prize.

~

Author: Charlotte Wood
Title: The Natural Order of things
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Date: October 2015
ISBN: 9781760111236

This review forms part of my contribution to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

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.

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