I For Isobel by Amy Witting

I For Isobel WittingConfession: Amy Witting’s I For Isobel (1989) has been on my shelf for ages and is the first work of hers I’ve read.

The novel records a decade in the life of Isobel Callaghan, from unhappy nine to unfulfilled 19. Isobel is a loner, someone who struggles to discern the rules other people live by; she always feels offside, “like being a spy in a foreign country having to pass for a native” (116). As a child, she is treated with barely disguised contempt and hostility by her mother, who favours her sister Margaret; she is bullied at school for being bright; she is haunted by her religious education, her seeming inability to be “good”, as well as her real and imagined misdemeanours.

Orphaned at 16, she goes out in the world to earn her living, finding work as a typist and German translator. She resides first at a boarding house, before taking her own room. Her great love is books – and books by Dead White Males comprise the bulk of her reading: Trollope, Dickens, Byron and, later, Dostoevsky, Auden and Eliot.

Isobel loves words, words to describe the people she meets, the places she goes in mid-twentieth-century Sydney. Words connect her to others, to the students she befriends in a Glebe cafe, to Frank the communist outsider where she works; they are also what separates her. Words are weapons to hurt and be hurt, as well as a balm to cure her loneliness; an oppressor and a liberator. Her mind is a “word factory” which never ceases production.

Eyes open, back to the ceiling: ornate plaster, baskets of flowers linked by swags of ribbon, a stain in one corner, yellow, like… sunshine? butter? honey? paler than pumpkin, darker than pee. Dirty old daylight, if there was a word.

There are words. Words we have plenty of, nasty little buzzing insects that they are. Awake two minutes and the word factory is at it already. And you at the loom, zoom, zoom.

It was going to be a bad day. (128)

Isobel isn’t always likeable as a protagonist: she is too passive; she is a “vacuum” that words rush to fill, a listener, a spectator of life rather than a participant. Her behaviour isn’t always admirable, but it is understandable; she is the embodiment of the phrase, “hurt people hurt people”.

The loosely linked chapters of I For Isobel chronicle Isobel’s travails as she struggles to come to terms with her identity, with her dishonesty (she is a “born liar”), with the half-buried hurts from childhood and misunderstandings that keep her yearning and, for most of the book, unfulfilled. At one moment she glimpses her place as the inheritor of a long line of genes that stretch back into history; as she looks in the mirror, hating her face because it reminds her of her mother, she has an epiphany:

the face shaped and softened with the beginning of a laugh because she was thinking those features weren’t her mother’s; she had had the tenancy of them for fifty years but they had been on the go for generations; that nose had taken snuff, sniffed at pomanders, plague posies, smelling salts, rose hip, orris root – things she had never smelt and never would – as well as honeysuckle, gas leaks and lavender… (137).

The book reaches a gentle crescendo when Isobel returns to the suburb she grew up in and comes face to face with an old foe. The encounter reduces her – and me – to tears. Left sobbing for the sorrow of having grown up in a family that failed her, the only comfort she receives is from the rock against which she rests her cheek, “as rough as a cat’s tongue and unyielding”.

I For Isobel may be the first of Amy Witting’s books I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.

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This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. It’s also part of an effort I wish to make to read more Australian classics.

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Author: Amy Witting
Title: I For Isobel
Publisher: Penguin
Date and place: Ringwood, Vic. 1989
ISBN: 0 14 012624 4

Watching You by Michael Robotham

robotham watching youBefore picking up a copy of Watching You with a stack of other books at the library before Christmas, the only story I’d read by Michael Robotham was Bombproof. I remember having enjoyed Bombproof as a fast-paced, witty thriller, and I have intended to read more of Robotham’s work ever since.

It’s a measure of Robotham’s skill as a storyteller that I didn’t immediately pick this story as part of a series. As it turns out it’s Book 7 in the Joe O’Loughlin series. Joe is a clinical psychologist who has a history and faces health challenges, but the story doesn’t really belong to him. It belongs to one of his patients, Marnie, a woman with a traumatic childhood and a missing husband.

Marnie’s husband Daniel wasn’t the best of husbands. An Aussie journalist living in London and a victim of newspaper downsizing, he took up gambling and disappeared leaving a trail of debts. Nevertheless, Marnie refuses to believe he abandoned her. With no joy from the police investigation and growing evidence Daniel was hiding something from her, now she is being hounded by his creditors. Unable to access his bank accounts or life insurance money, she is forced into desperate acts to pay his debts and keep from being evicted from their home. She is also desperate for help for their sick child, four-year-old Elijah.

Marnie’s behaviour doesn’t impress Zoe, her teenaged daughter from her first marriage. Troubled and resentful of her mum, Zoe misses her step-dad; she can’t understand why their TV has been hocked, and why her mother is suddenly dressing up at night and being met by a chauffeur who takes her out. Zoe seeks solace online and, unknown to her mother, sets up  a Facebook page dedicated to trying to find her missing father. That isn’t the only thing she hides from Marnie.

To the world, Marnie is the epitome of the battler struggling against immense odds. To cope, she seeks help from her clinical psychologist, Joe O’Loughlin, but she isn’t entirely truthful to Joe. She doesn’t tell him, for example, that she has had mental health problems before. Nor does she mention that people who cross her have a habit of ended up being harmed. She does hint, however, that she has a feeling she is being watched.

Watching You is an interesting page-turner from a series which features some apparently already well-loved characters. It also reads well as a stand-alone novel. There were times when I felt I was reading more to assess Robotham’s skill as a storyteller, rather than being engaged in the story, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment. I’m looking forward to reading Robotham’s latest novel, Life or Death, which I’ve heard great things about.

~

So that I don’t entirely lose my focus on supporting books by Australian women this year, I’d like, when I can, to recommend books by Australian women similar to the ones I’m reviewing. My pick of a match for Michael Robotham – based on a very small sample of his work – is Jaye Ford. Ford writes fast-paced action thrillers with a psychological edge. But maybe readers who are more familiar with his work will other ideas?

~

Author: Michael Robotham
Title: Watching You
Publisher: Sphere/Hachette
Year: 2013

I borrowed a copy from the library.

 

This review is the second book I’ll count towards the 2015 Aussie Author challenge.

Hades by Candice Fox – a disturbing debut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hades is a very interesting read.

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

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

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