Emily Maguire combines a page-turner with a provocative reflection on violence against women.
Emily Maguire’s latest novel tells the story of the aftermath of the murder of a young woman, aged-care worker Bella Michaels, in the little town of Strathdee, somewhere off the Hume Highway in rural New South Wales. It is narrated alternately by Bella’s older sister Chris, and from the point of view of May, a Sydney journalist who comes to Strathdee to cover the case. The murder is particularly brutal (we aren’t given the details, but the ghost of Anita Cobby hovers just offstage) and there are no immediate suspects.
But what drives the story is not so much what happened to Bella, but what will happen to Chris.
This is far more than a page-turning crime drama, though it is also that. Maguire’s focus is on those left behind, the often unacknowledged victims of violent crimes, and roiling beneath it all is a bigger picture of accepted, commonplace and insidious attitudes to women. We do find out whodunnit in the end, but in this context it’s almost a footnote.
The novel holds a mirror up to the casual denigration of women. These are things every woman has experienced and is encouraged to ‘deal with’ and not make a fuss about: things like insulting language (being referred to as a ‘gash’, for example), threatening behaviour (such as being stalked), and dismissive assumptions (‘asking for it’, etc.).
When, just days after Bella’s death, May tells the local policeman that while out for a jog she’s been tailed for blocks by a strange man in a car, the policeman guesses who is responsible and tells her:
‘… he’s all piss and wind. If it happens again, tell him to bugger off, give him the finger, something like that and he’ll go on his way … He’s harmless …’
Do these attitudes explain a terrible crime like Bella’s murder? Towards the end of the novel May recalls being sent scary pictures by a boy in her class at school –pornographic drawings he’d done of her – and muses:
This had nothing to do with what happened to Bella and what happened to Bella had nothing to do with Tegan Miller [a Strathdee woman killed by her husband] and none of it had to do with the rich Sydney housewife left out to rot in the street which had nothing to do with the Nigerian girls stolen as sex slaves or the Indian woman eviscerated on a bus or the man grabbing women off the streets of Brunswick.
None of it connected, she knew, and yet, and yet, it felt like it.
Surely Emily Maguire chose the title of her novel with deliberate irony. These sorts of killings are often described as isolated incidents, meaning they are not the work of a serial killer. But they are not isolated; they are part of a pattern of violence against women that knows no barriers of class, education or geography.
However, the novel is not a crude anti-men polemic. It is a nuanced portrait of a group of flawed characters, male and female, responding to a tragedy.
Chris encapsulates the complexity at the heart of it: smart, vulnerable, angry, self-aware, she works as a barmaid in the truckies’ pub. She hears this kind of talk regularly, but ignores it and leans forward to show off her generous cleavage to encourage tips. She could get work at the smarter hotel in the middle of town, but she likes the truckies, feels comfortable where she is, even though the pay is lousy, and falls into casual prostitution for extra cash. (Something the police are salaciously keen to seize on as they investigate her sister’s death.)
When finally the persistent May gets to interview Chris, she remarks on Chris’s relationships with the men in the pub:
‘You obviously really like men … It’s so unusual and you don’t even realise it. You don’t realise how much most men dislike women. And knowing that, most women can’t relax around men the way you do. Can’t let ourselves show that we like them even if we really do.’
‘Ah. That’s a different thing, though. I like ’em fine, but I’m never relaxed, not fully. It’s like with dogs. All the joy in the world, but once you’ve seen a labrador rip the face off a kid, you can’t ever forget what they’re capable of.’
When she was a toddler, Chris saw just what a labrador could do when one attacked her cousin Kylie. As a teenager she also saw what men could do when her mother took up with an abusive boyfriend called Brett. As adults the younger Bella took a parental attitude towards Chris, but when Bella was little it was Chris who took her from the house to escape Brett’s violence.
Their fathers absent, their mother dead, the sisters only have each other and consequently have shared a special bond. Little wonder Chris’s grief is all-consuming.
May’s story provides much of the backdrop, as she interviews various locals and tries to paint a fuller picture of the town and what has happened. She also tussles with where to draw the line in reporting a crime like this. Is she exploiting a tragedy or performing a public service in pursuing the story? In pursuing Chris? How much is the public entitled to know? Chris has her own views:
I was making coffee when my phone rang. Unknown number, but I answered it anyway. I’d never do that now, but this was early days. I didn’t get that a bunch of strangers saw themselves as lead characters in a thrilling story which began with the discovery of a pretty dead girl, who happened to have been played by my sister. Feel free to take that personally, by the way.
Chris is a compelling character, utterly believable in her earthiness and honesty. Her grief is raw and unflinching and it’s impossible not to be moved by it. In contrast the dilemmas of May’s life, interesting as they are in their own way, inevitably pale. Yet May provides a necessary counterpoint to the intensity of Chris’s narrative. May seeks to understand what has happened and why; Chris’s task is to accept what has happened – that her sister is gone.
Within its gripping storytelling An Isolated Incident raises many disturbing questions about men and women and about attitudes to what can seem the inevitability of violence by one sex upon the other. But above all this is a powerful and provocative examination of grief, and in Chris Emily Maguire has created a character who resounds in the imagination.
Emily Maguire An Isolated Incident Picador 2016 PB 352pp $32.99
This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 7 June 2016.