Let Her Go by Dawn Barker – powerful contemporary drama

Dawn Barker Let Her GoTwo sisters – step sisters – one, Nadia, is happily married with three children; the other, Zoe, has suffered a debilitating illness and a number of miscarriages, and finds herself infertile. Both have reasons for wanting to have a baby: Zoe, to complete her long-held desire to be a mother; Nadia, ostensibly, to help her deserving sister. After years of counselling and legal advice, they enter into a surrogacy agreement. They are adults. They care for each other. What could possibly go wrong?

Fast forward seventeen years to a troubled teenager, Louise, who is getting busted for stealing drugs, self-harming, engaging in drunken sex and whose performance at school is deteriorating. She knows her – unnamed – parents are fighting, senses it has something to do with her, but has no idea of the trauma that followed her birth or the bitter custody dispute that tore her extended family apart.

In Let Her Go Dawn Barker – a psychiatrist by training – successfully juggles different points of view as well as jumps forward and backward in time. Throughout the novel, the reader has a sense that something really terrible could happen – or maybe has happened already – but the suspense isn’t gratuitous. It derives organically from the fraught emotional situations she forces her characters to confront. As I approached the novel’s climax, I was struck by the story’s similarity to the Judgement of Solomon, as if Barker had taken elements of this classic dilemma and brought it alive in a modern context. Both women have good claim to the child; how will the child’s best interest be served?

If Barker’s debut novel Fractured grabs the reader and forces her along a terrifying path, Let Her Go is more like a slow burn, but it’s no less powerful for that. For anyone who has yearned for a child and not been able to conceive or carry to term, the narrative is excruciatingly real at times, almost unbearable. Similarly, Barker captures the pressure on a marriage of women coping with hormones, fears and jealousies. Both Zoe and Nadia are portrayed at times in a poor (but very human) light. Zoe comes across occasionally as unreasonably demanding and judgemental towards her husband, a man with secrets who has never seemed as enthusiastic about the surrogacy and who fails to pull his weight. In portraying the deteriorating relationship, Barker uses irony to good effect: the reader is ahead of Zoe in sensing the effect of her behaviour on her husband, and waits in suspense for the explosion we fear will come. Nadia (understandably) seems at times to be selfishly blind to anyone’s needs but her own, and the reader is torn, sympathetic to her suffering, but alarmed at the lengths she is willing to go to get her way.

With both Let Her Go and Fractured, Barker joins a number of women writers in Australia who create compelling psychological suspense out of difficult moral and social issues, including Honey Brown, Wendy James and Caroline Overington. Each of these writers’ novels demonstrates that issues facing contemporary Australian women, in the hands of skilful storytellers, make for powerful drama. I can’t wait to read Barker’s next scenario.

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This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via Netgalley.

It has been reviewed for the AWW challenge by Emily Paul.

Publisher: Hachette Australia
ISBN: 9780733632228
Published: July 2014

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:

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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.

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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.
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