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.

What Came Before by Anna George

‘My name is David James Forrester. I’m a solicitor. Tonight, at 6.10, I killed my wife. This is my statement.’

What Came Before Anna GeorgeThis is the dramatic opening of What Came Before, the brilliant psychological thriller debut by Melbourne writer Anna George. The rest of the novel reveals how the murder came to happen.

We see Forrester’s wife, Elle, before her death. She’s working in the film industry, having left a career in law. With one successful film behind her, she is busy directing another. This latest is about “limerance”, the early stages of romantic love.

Elle encounters Forrester, a high-powered lawyer she remembers from her legal days. She is immediately attracted. By what? His looks, the interest in art they share. Certainly not his sociability, as he proves indifferent to her friends. As they begin their relationship, she experiences an almost delusional infatuation – the “limerance” of her film’s title – which leads her to ignore warning signs that the relationship isn’t healthy.

Unknown to Elle, Forrester’s marriage has disintegrated, leaving him angry at his ex and missing his young step-daughter. He’s also a frustrated artist, a control freak and a very unhappy man.

Throughout the narrative, point of view switches from Forrester, as he dictates his “witness statement” and consults a retired QC for legal counsel, to Elle, as she lies in death – or the imagined transition that follows death. This dual narration, swapping tenses between past and present, makes for compelling reading as we are led inexorably to the inciting incident, Elle’s death.

One question often asked about women in abusive relationships is, “Why did they stay?” What Came Before answers this question. “Limerance” makes us idolise our partners, letting us see only what we want to see; tells us to forgive their failings, to look only at their good qualities; blinds us to the escalating “cycle of violence”. The longer we stay, the more we believe they are essentially “good”, that their character defects are a result of damage done in childhood, that we are connected to them in some essential way, the more dangerous the relationship becomes.

Anna George has drawn on her own experience* of “emotional abuse” to create the relationship between Forrester and Elle, and her experience shows. For me, though not for all reviewers, she manages to make Elle sympathetic, despite her irrational choices. George also conveys what it’s like to be the man who resorts to violence, his self-justifications, his belief that he was provoked. If I had one criticism of the characterisation of What Came Before, it’s of the moment when Forrester makes a transition from “emotional abuser” to “physical abuser”. For me, the transition appeared too abrupt. Thinking about his behaviour in terms of “narcissistic rage”, however, I can make more sense of it. Far from being egoistic, Narcissists lack the internal resilience that would allow a healthier psyche to take criticism, perceived rejection or opposition. In this light, George gets the psychology for Forrester right; the result is believable and frightening.

The publishers have described this novel as “literary”, and in the vein of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. What Came Before is clever, like Flynn’s novel, but the cleverness isn’t at the expense of its emotional truth. The characters come across as real, their motivations consistent, their delusions understandable. Does this make it “literary”? It’s a well-written psychological thriller which deserves to become a best-seller.

Anna George has been added to my already impressive list of “must read” Australian female crime and suspense authors. I can’t wait for her next book.

* Anna George mentioned this in an interview with Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling blog, here.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publishers via Netgalley. What Came Before has already been reviewed for the AWW challenge by:

Author: Anna George
Title: What Came Before
Published:25/06/2014
ISBN-13:9780670077731
ISBN-10:0670077739
Publisher:Penguin Aus
Imprint:Viking

  • Goodreads

  • Country Secrets – anthology

  • Snowy River Man – rural romance

  • By Her Side – romantic suspense

%d bloggers like this: