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.

‘ 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.

What’s troubling about Sisters of Mercy – and why it’s worth reading

While reading Caroline Overington’s latest novel, Sisters of Mercy, I was reminded of Jonathan Swift’s famous 18th-century essay which depicted one solution to Ireland’s poverty: eating Catholic babies. I’m not sure I ever found the essay funny, and I’m not sure it was intended to be. But I remember reading that Swift was a very angry man. That’s the feeling I got from Sisters of Mercy.

Caroline Overington is either angry at a broken system or angry, full stop.

My guess from reading her novels is that Overington’s angry about welfare cheats, dole bludgers, gamblers, addicts, alcoholics, bleeding heart liberals, social workers and bureaucrats. She hates hypocrisy, political correctness and self-serving spin. She wants to tell it as it is, without bullshit, and part of her anger is directed at people who should get off their arses and work, bureaucrats who should take responsibility for their failures, governments who should stop enabling victim mentality and start implementing policies that force people to accept responsibility for their own lives, no matter what trauma, hardship, abuse and neglect they suffered in childhood. My suspicion is that she sees this as the only healthy, sane alternative to a welfare state that breeds resentment among hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types who pay taxes, and well-meaning but misguided policies which create life- and initiative-sapping dependency among victims.

Reading Sisters of Mercy I found myself getting angry, too, but not, I think, about the same things as Overington. Rather, I found myself angry at her portrayal of characters in the novel, especially the central female character, Sally Narelle Delaney, known as “Snow”, at the way Overington manipulated my sympathies and made me withdraw my compassion for an essentially damaged – and damaging – figure.

Snow, the central “character” of the story, is a trained nurse who finds herself in charge of a house full of handicapped children – or “handi-capable” as Overington’s PC characters are reported to say. So cold and detached from reality is Snow, she appears to have no conscience; more, she lacks the barest insight into the heinousness of her own behaviour. Her lack of empathy is psychopathic, and all the more chilling as she sees the people she houses, not as victims, but rather as a responsibility she takes seriously, people whom she looks after with the utmost care – if we are to believe the tale Snow tells of herself through her self-justifying letters to the journalist, Fawcett, the other main figure in the novel. I say “figure” rather than “character” because he is never more than a mouthpiece for Snow, a vehicle for her story to come to light. But is Snow any more of a character? Or is she more a vehicle for Overington’s scorn?

There are reasons to doubt Snow is a true character. This isn’t a flaw in the novel, but rather an indication of the complexity of the narrative structure: the letters to Fawcett are the only way we get to know Snow – a narrative device, incidentally, typical of Swift’s 18th-century period – and there’s evidence that the self-portrait can’t be trusted, since Fawcett catches her out in a lie. Snow – along with her motivations and the truth, perhaps, of her missing sister – remains essentially unknowable. Therefore the reader can’t really feel empathy for her, the lack of which quality leads to Snow’s gravest crimes.

So what is so troubling about Sisters of Mercy? It isn’t just that Snow herself is so unsympathetic. Recently I wrote that I’d like to see more portrayals of women behaving badly in fiction written by Australian women; and the portrait Overington sketches of Snow is certainly that. So what made me so uncomfortable?

It’s a question of tone.

Years ago, as an undergraduate, I was taught a definition of tone as “the attitude of the writer to her subject matter and the feeling conveyed to the reader”. That’s the trouble I had with Sisters of Mercy: I couldn’t work out whether Overington’s scathing portrayal was meant to be satirical – even blackly humorous – or taken seriously.

If Sisters of Mercy is satire, it holds up to ridicule the bureaucrats who enabled Snow and her partner to milk the system, and portrays Snow herself as a kind of nightmare embodiment of the consequences of all those well-meaning, politically correct, bureaucratic decisions. But from what position are we as readers invited to judge? I personally know little of how to avoid abuses of the welfare system or to deal with the problems of looking after the disabled, government funding, and the consequences of neglectful childhoods, trauma and abuse. So who am I – are we – to ridicule those who try to solve these problems?

I also found it difficult to know the limits of Overington’s attack.

In Sisters of Mercy, Overington portrays a character deliberately contrasting to Snow, her older sister, Agnes who was taken away from her parents as a baby during the Second World War and raised in an orphanage. Agnes is shown to have grown up to be more well-adjusted than Snow who, by contrast, was born into wedlock to flawed parents. It might be a stretch to say that this contrast suggests Overington is critical of the Government for its apology to the “Forgotten Generation” of English child migrants, and it would certainly be a stretch from there to imagine that she sees the Government’s apology to the Stolen Generations as a useless exercise in political correctness, but somehow, I am left feeling that this may be exactly what Overington thinks. And I’m left feeling angry because I don’t get a strong sense that she has any real solutions, only derision.

But I don’t mind being angry.

I’d rather be provoked into thought than lulled into a false sense of self-satisfaction. That’s why I’ll be recommending Sisters of Mercy to my book group. This novel will polarise opinion, but the topics it raises are worth arguing about.

In a week when the so-called Left of Australian politics established a policy to excise the Australian continent from the Australian migration zone, Australia needs satire – and we need angry, engaged people. We also need disturbing, challenging, disconcerting and uncomfortable novels written by women. We need diversity of opinion. Only by opening up these difficult subjects to scrutiny will we be able to acknowledge the truth of what our government policies are doing in our names, and perhaps avoid the national fictions that we’re advocating human rights when – as Overington might well maintain about the very different situation depicted in Sisters of Mercy – it’s about funding or, worse, pandering to the lowest common denominator of ignorant and self-serving public opinion.

~

Thanks to Random House for the review copy. This review counts as Book 10/12 of my Aussie Authors Challenge and is part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Challenge. It has already been reviewed by Shelleyrae at Bookdout, and Shelleyrae has an interview of Overington and a book give-away here (closes November 11, 2012).

Random House/Bantam 2012
ISBN: 9781742750446

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