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.

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The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton – the comfort of popular fiction and the lure of narcissism

The cover blurb of The Secret Keeper states:

1961: On a sweltering summer’s day, while her family picnics by the stream on their Suffolk farm, sixteen-year-old Laurel hides out in her childhood tree house dreaming of a boy called Billy, a move to London, and the bright future she can’t wait to seize. But before the idyllic afternoon is over, Laurel will have witnessed a shocking crime that changes everything.

2011: Now a much-loved actress, Laurel finds herself overwhelmed by shades of the past. Haunted by memories, and the mystery of what she saw that day, she returns to her family home and begins to piece together a secret history. A tale of three strangers from vastly different worlds – Dorothy, Vivien and Jimmy – who are brought together by chance in wartime London and whose lives become fiercely and fatefully entwined.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is an engaging story that’s easy to read. There were no surprises for me at the end. The clues to the story’s “twists” were laid carefully for any reader who knew this wasn’t going to end in disappointment. For much of the story the reader is led to expect the novel’s message will be about forgiveness and atonement, about “second chances”, spurred on by a mystery: one of the central characters, the present-day actress Laurel, seeks to know explain her mother Dorothy’s seemingly heinous behaviour when she was a teenager. But it doesn’t fully address the question of evil, unless evil can be equated with the consequences of magical thinking in childhood when the child doesn’t mature successfully.

That’s what interests me about the book, its psychological take on its characters.

In between reading, I also listened to two discussions on Radio National’s Counterpoint program. A quick aside: Counterpoint’s new presenter, Amanda Vanstone, the ex-Howard government Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, consistently used the universal “man” in her discussion, swapping to “humanity” only when she referred to an actual woman. To me, this suggests the depth of what women face with internalised gender bias: we’re not even aware it exists, let alone its ramifications, or possible impact on what, as girls and women, we might expect of ourselves; how we can mature to find security, safety, a sense of belonging and self-esteem without falling back on stereotypical notions of “a woman’s place”, or what makes a “good woman”. These themes are also important to The Secret Keeper.

The first discussion I listened to was with writer R Jay Magill Junior on sincerity. This touched on the question of what we like and admire about people – especially politicians – and how this may differ from their skills in leadership or ability to get a job done. It acknowledged the gap between what we want to think about ourselves and our heroes – that we’re essentially good people – and the political and social realities. Essentially, it presented the old dilemma: how can we have leaders who can make tough decisions when the solutions to problems aren’t always in accord with notions of decency, freedom, altruism and fairness; how can such leaders remain sympathetic in the eyes of an electorate? The result is spin, a seemingly necessary duplicity which caters to both expectations of the audience, the voters.

This might seem a long way from The Secret Keeper and the actions of three strangers in war-torn London, but it’s not: central to the novel is the question of narcissism – or pathological self-absorption – and how it arises as a defence mechanism as a result of trauma; and empathy, the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes and anticipate or intuit how they might feel in any given situation.

Such issues are also touched on in the second discussion I listened to, one with psychiatrist Dr George Henry on what makes a good person. Vanstone introduces the discussion by saying how quiet women are often judged as “good”, while “noisy” women – like her, she says – are judged to be “difficult”: “A forcefully spoken man is regarded as strong and a forcefully spoken woman is regarded as aggressive.” But what about the “quiet ones”? she asks. Are they always “good people”?

This dualism is depicted in The Secret Keeper. Servant girl Dorothy is vivacious, outgoing, always good for a laugh and a good time; she is also self-serving, duplicitous and self-deluded. Socialite Vivien is quiet, good-natured, and passive to the point of being a victim. Both are dreamers; both have suffered trauma and loss. The question the novel appears to pose is this: can Dorothy, a perpetrator, be redeemed and rewarded with happiness, family, sufficient wealth and peace of mind, despite her crimes? Crucially, can she, as she approaches the end of her life, be forgiven by her daughter?

It’s an interesting question, and one the novel never answers. Instead, by the wonderful sleight-of-hand that is fiction, we find ourselves in an alternative narrative, one of “Virtue, Patience and Courage Rewarded”. Essentially, we’re snatched away from considering a tough question about what humans are capable of, and what justice, forgiveness, atonement and redemption may really involve, and we’re given spin. Without further thought, the result for the reader could be the same, with our prejudices reinforced. People like “us” are okay; people like “them”, we don’t have to worry about: the allure and comfort of popular fiction.

Recently on Twitter was a discussion which spilled over from a convention on genre fiction held in Sydney; it was about whether the term “literary” is a separate genre. One of the key attributes of literary fiction, suggested one author, is a “realism” which is often equated with pessimism. The key to popular fiction, I heard some time ago, is “aspiration”: the world not as it is, but what we might hope it to be; not how others are, but how we would like them to be; not how we ourselves are, but what we’d like to believe ourselves to be.

There is a conundrum here that The Secret Keeper identifies. Aspirational thinking is symptomatic of the very narcissism and lack of empathy which results in tragic consequences in the novel. Could our craving for popular fiction be symptomatic of a similar kind of pathology? A denial about ourselves and our shortcomings, a recreation of the world as we would have it, not as it is?

Perhaps. But even popular fiction books like The Secret Keeper can be self-referential enough to shed light on this topic. It’s not all spin.

In The Secret Keeper Morton identifies the need for escape into fantasy as a need stemming from trauma and loss. It’s a self-protective mechanism, she shows, and it takes inner strength, courage and hope to break free from. In order to mature into a healthy, empathic adult, one needs conditions for such inner strength to thrive: friendship and love, safe shelter and nourishment, worthwhile employment, humour and imagination, and someone to believe in us, other- as well as self-esteem. When such needs aren’t met – or aren’t perceived as being met by the narcissistic individual – it’s hard to be virtuous.

It’s a gentle take on humanity and a page-turning read.

~

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for sending a copy. (What a pleasure to read a beautiful, hard-bound book with a ribbon bookmark.)

This review counts as 11/12 for my Aussie Author Challenge 2012 and as part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. The Secret Keeper has been reviewed for the challenge by Jon Page at Bite the Book and Shelleyrae at Book’d Out.

The Secret Keeper
Allen & Unwin 2012
ISBN: 9781742374376

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