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Reasons to love a novel: issues and empathy

When I was writing the novel that eventually was published as The Sinkings (2008), I used to become anxious whenever anyone asked me that dreaded question What’s it about? It wasn’t that I was trying to keep it a secret, nor that I was lacking in focus. But I believe it can be creatively disastrous to talk too much about a work still in development; that it can have the effect of closing off what is, and should remain for some time, an open question. My novel was ‘about’ many things, and I didn’t have a neat one-sentence answer handy. (Come to think of it, I still need more than one sentence to describe The Sinkings!)

I remember, one time, mumbling, Oh, it’s about a convict. And, another time, mentioning intersex. In the latter case, the person I was talking to responded, Oh, so it’s an issues novel.

An issues novel. I don’t think I’d heard that term before, but I immediately understood what my friend meant. I’d read novels that position a medical condition or a current controversy or a matter of social justice front and centre, with everything else—characters, relationships, place, dramatic arc—almost incidental to that, there merely as a vehicle for the big ‘about’.

The Sinkings isn’t like that. But it does—among other things—explore the black, white and many greys of an ‘issue’, and that kind of exploration is one of the things that inspire me as a writer. And I realise, too, that it’s something I find compelling as a reader.

I love the capacity of fiction to spirit us, emotionally and intellectually, into the skin of other characters, to worry for the impossible situations writers have put them in, to feel their dilemmas for ourselves, to wonder: Why did this happen? What if I were that person, in that time, that place, that situation… would I have done that? What would I do?

The experience of falling into the universe of a book, and into the skin of the other, can help us to understand, to think, to feel, and when people do that they are far less likely to fear or to denigrate. In other words, it can engender empathy.

My reading in 2013 brought me to several impressive books that did exactly that. In this post I’m highlighting two of them.

In her hugely successful debut novel, Fractured, Dawn Barker gives a compassionate portrayal of a family pulled to pieces by a young woman’s severe postpartum mental illness. The beauty of the way Fractured is structured, moving forwards and backwards from a pivotal event, is that cause and effect are kept in suspension, layering the reader’s means of understanding the how and the why. Similarly, the narrative point of view is continually shifting, so that we see what is happening through the eyes of the young mother, Anna, her husband, Tony, her parents-in-law and her mother—a strategy that tends to keep the reader’s allegiances also shifting, making judgment impossible. This extract is from Anna’s point of view.

fractured coverAs soon as Anna sat down in the waiting room, Jack began to cry. Just give me a break, she wanted to shout. Just shut up for five minutes. I can’t do this. But, of course, she didn’t shout. She stood up and pushed the pram back and forward, back and forward. The lady sitting across from her was trying to catch her eye; Anna felt obliged to meet it.

‘Aww, he’s so little! How old is he?’ The woman leaned over to see into the pram.

‘He’s four weeks,’ she said with a slight smile, then turned away.

‘He’s so beautiful.’ Now the woman’s head was right inside the pram. ‘Hello, gorgeous boy. What’s the matter with you? Are you hungry?’

‘No, he’s not,’ she said. ‘He’s just crying. That’s what babies do.’

The stranger raised her eyebrows and went back to her magazine.

‘Sorry,’ Anna mumbled. Her face burned. She didn’t want to cry, not here, in front of everyone. She sat down and took a deep breath, but she couldn’t get enough air. Her lips and fingers tingled. That woman was staring at her, but her face was blurred around the edges and white flashes exploded in front of Anna’s eyes. Was the woman laughing at her? She gripped the arms of her chair with her numb fingers and hoped she was smiling.

—Dawn Barker, Fractured (Hachette, 2013)

Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl—also a debut—is one of the most confronting novels I’ve read in a while, plunging me into what is now an alien world, but which of course was once (a long time ago!) my world: that of an adolescent girl. Fourteen-year-old Layla is an impressively drawn character—intelligent, sexually precocious, terribly vulnerable. Her story is given nuance and context by those of two adult characters—her mother, Margot, who is struggling with lonely middle age, and an unrelated Japanese man, Tadashi, who has a disturbing sexual fetish. just_a_girl is a powerful, and often uncomfortable, look at contemporary culture, with Layla at the heart of it, as subject and object, as confirmation and contradiction. Living, for the duration of the novel, in Layla’s skin made me reflect that it has possibly always been so with teenage girls, and to feel compassion for both the girl beneath the armour and the armour itself.

Here is part of the opening passage:

justagirl_web_mainEdnThe guy formerly known as youamizz told me he’d be wearing a red Strokes t-shirt. I see him from the train as it pulls in at Newcastle. He’s not bad enough to make me run away. But he’s older than I thought. Old enough to be my … maybe. He looks average but also kinda sweet when he spots me. He’s got a pretty hot bod. His smile lights me up. I can feel him framing me. Sizing me up as I swing towards him. I’m in my poxy school uniform. As I always am when mum drops me off at the station heading to granny’s. Mum doesn’t handle change. She gets suspicious. I went to put on my jeans and boots in the train toilet. But I opened the door to the puddles and stench and just thought, fuck it. At least he already knows.

He takes my hand. Kisses me on the cheek. Laughs and we’re away. He’s just as funny in real life. I relax and sit on the wharf and he buys me hot chips. We check into a hotel down on the water at Honeysuckle. The concierge asks if he requires an extra trundle bed for me.

—Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (UWA Publishing, 2013)

Fractured was one of the most reviewed novels in the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lisa Hill has just posted an excellent review of just_a_girl.

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Reasons to love a novel: the wise child

I have just finished reading Chris Womersley’s 2010 novel Bereft, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award and in the same year won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Indie Award for Fiction. I was late in coming to this one, but I now join the horde of admirers of this brilliant novel that fits into what I’m beginning to think of as a small sub-genre of Australian literary fiction: Australian historical gothic. I would put Courtney Collins’s The Burial (my review here) into this cluster. At a pinch (because it’s a hybrid of historical and contemporary), The Sinkings might find a place there too.

There are so many things to love about Bereft, but perhaps the greatest of these, for me, is the mysterious orphan child, Sadie Fox, a character who takes on the archetypal role of helper, appearing almost by magic to aid the journey of the novel’s protagonist, Quinn Walker. Quinn, returning from the trenches of World War I as a ‘hero’ but in many ways barely more than a boy himself, is drawn back to the hometown from which he fled ten years earlier after the rape and murder of his young sister. But it is a dangerous return, as Quinn is believed to have committed this horrific crime. He hides in the surrounding hills, observing what is left of the home of his past, venturing down to visit his dying mother. Enter the child Sadie, also hiding from those in town who would do her harm—Sadie, whose practical knowledge and almost preternatural wisdom will be the difference between life and death for Quinn.

bereft_B finalcrop‘What happened to your face?’

Quinn blushed and kicked at the edges of the fire. ‘The war. I got injured.’

‘I always live up here. I live in these hills.’

Quinn doubted this boast, but nodded by way of answer. He had wandered these ranges as a boy and knew there was little here apart from boulders and bushes, the dark and disordered press of trees. No people lived up here now the miners had gone.

The girl licked her lips. ‘I have a house. A whole house, hidden away where no one can find it.’ She looked inordinately pleased to have told Quinn this and said nothing more for a few minutes, before standing to stretch and yawn. Now she was upright, Quinn could see she was a bony cat of a girl, all angles and joints. ‘But you never answered my question.’

‘What question?’

‘Why are you up here when your house is down there?’

‘How do you know where I used to live?’

Her smile was thin-lipped, as if what she prepared to reveal pained her. ‘I know all sorts of things.’

—Chris Womersley, Bereft (2010)

I suspect Sadie is going to be one of those characters who remain with me for a long time.

Thinking about Sadie and her role in Bereft brought to mind another novel with a ‘wise child’ character who, in a very different way, helps, guides, saves. Who recognises—and is it not recognition that sometimes saves us?

Selena, in Natasha Lester’s T.A.G. Hungerford Award winner, What Is Left Over, After, is a far more realist character than the otherworldly Sadie, but she is no less memorable for that. Loud, larger than life, disarmingly vulnerable, thirteen-year-old Selena foists her company onto the grieving, reclusive Gaelle, a young woman who has fled her home to a seaside town on the other side of Australia. Selena’s curiosity and blunt questions draw Gaelle, at first reluctantly, into a storytelling of mothers and motherhood, fabrication and truth.

whatisleftoverafterSelena stops just before we reach her house and turns to me, cheeks flushed, eyes bright against the dusk.

‘Take a photo of me now, Gaelle,’ she says, and takes off again, riding around in a circle, arms lifted off the handlebars, grinning.

And even though it’s a pose of the worst kind, I pull the camera out of my backpack, move closer to her and use the difference between what I see in the viewing lens and what the film will see in the taking lens to misalign her head and shoulders. I want the error. The detachment. The vanished body.

After the flash fades, Selena turns her bike towards home. Then she stops. ‘Do you have kids, Gaelle?’

‘Yes. One. She’s just a baby.’

‘I thought you did.’ She cycles away, waving.

‘Why?’ I start to ask, but stop. She moves too quickly on her bike; she cannot hear me now. The words come out anyway, in a whisper. ‘Why did you think that?’ She could tell that I was a mother. Why is she the only one who can?

—Natasha Lester, What Is Left Over, After (2010)

Coincidentally, a novel I am currently editing, for a Western Australian publisher and author, has among its cast of characters a wise child who is breaking my heart. I look forward to being able to tell you about that one in 2014.

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Reasons to love a novel: beginnings

I love the feeling of entry into a novel, the sense of being drawn into a world, a life, a relationship, a story. If a writer succeeds in doing this in the first few paragraphs, then I am usually hooked for the duration; I am already reading with goodwill—wanting to like, or love, the story the writer has promised me.

There are many ways this can be achieved, and the fine examples below use different narrative techniques. But I’m struck by how often a good beginning seems to contain within it a sliver of the whole, a glimpse of all that is to come, sometimes even a shadow of the ending in these first few lines. Of course, you don’t fully realise this until you have finished the novel, and that realisation brings yet another pleasure—and a deep satisfaction—to the reading experience.

Another reason to love a novel.

9781921361920_THELASTSKY_NEWEDITIONMy husband told me a story about buildings before we came here. In the central district the old Hongkong and Shanghai Bank looms proudly above the other buildings, full of British bankers and rich Americans. When the People’s Bank of China built their rival headquarters several blocks away they designed the top of the tower to look like a knife’s edge thrusting towards the British bank. It was no accident, Joseph laughed. In Hong Kong nothing was left to simmer under the surface.

It must have been during those first December days that he told me the story, before he got caught up in the suspended time of the interior. Perhaps on one of the days we walked together up a mountain path and saw the vista of islands rising up from the China Sea, curving smoothly out of the green glassiness like the contours of a body, the mist of early morning a canopy against the blue of the sky. We looked at one another, each about to say something, our double gasp of awe fading in the air.

It was these luminous moments, rescued from days of waiting and silence, that I was trying to hold on to.

—Alice Nelson, The Last Sky (Fremantle Press, 2008)

howtobeagoodwife coverToday, somehow, I am a smoker.

I did not know this about myself. As far as I remember, I have never smoked before.

It feels unnatural, ill-fitting, for a woman of my age: a wife, a mother with a grown-up son, to sit in the middle of the day with a cigarette between her fingers. Hector hates smoking. He always coughs sharply when we walk behind someone smoking on the street, and I imagine his vocal cords rubbing together, moist and pink like chicken flesh.

—Emma Chapman, How to Be a Good Wife (Picador, 2013)

9781741666632A whisper: sssshh. The thinnest vehicle of breath.

This is a story that can only be told in a whisper.

There is a hush to difficult forms of knowing, an abashment, a sorrow, an inclination towards silence. My throat is misshapen with all it now carries. My heart is a sour, indolent fruit. I think the muzzle of time has made me thus, has deformed my mouth, my voice, my wanting to say. At first there was just this single image: her dress, the particular blue of hydrangeas, spattered with the purple of my father’s blood. She rose up from the floor into this lucid figure, unseemly, but oh! vivacious with gore. I remember I clung to her, that we were alert and knowing. There might have been a snake in the house, for all our watchful attention.

‘Don’t tell them,’ she said. That was all: don’t tell them.

—Gail Jones, Sorry (Vintage, 2007)

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