Michael Sala The Restorer

Why would a woman return, with her children, to a relationship she believes to be unsafe? And if that decision leads to catastrophe, is she to blame? Or is she the victim?

Questions of agency lie at the heart of Michael Sala’s second novel. His first, The Last Thread, won considerable critical acclaim when it was published in 2012, and The Restorer shares many of its characteristics – there is the Newcastle setting, the mother who is a nurse, the impact of the mother’s relationships on her children, and the assurance of the writing. In these respects The Restorer could be seen as the distilled essence of its predecessor.

But where The Last Thread ranged widely over continents and decades, and was told from the point of view of the son, The Restorer confines itself to Newcastle and the span of a year or so around 1989 – the year of the Newcastle earthquake and the murder of 14-year-old Leigh Leigh at Stockton Beach – and is told from the point of view of eight-year-old Daniel’s teenage sister, Freya, and his mother, Maryanne.

We know from the opening pages that this will be the story of a catastrophe – we are shown the flashing red and blue lights of emergency vehicles outside the family’s home, and then taken back to the moment when they first arrived at the derelict house near the beach in Newcastle. The father, Roy, is a builder, and the plan is to restore the house and the marriage – Roy and Maryanne have been separated for year, and this is to be their fresh start.

However, like the old mining tunnels that run beneath all the houses in the area, there are subterranean issues in the marriage that remain unresolved.

It is a testament to Sala’s skills that despite that early glimpse of the story’s outcome, the tension is maintained throughout. In this respect it’s a bit like watching a car crash – you know things are going to end badly but you cannot look away. When it comes, the conclusion is undeniably powerful.

But the novel is also a resonant character study of mother and daughter. Each keeps secrets from the other, and both keep secrets from Roy.

Freya would have much preferred that they had stayed in Sydney with her grandmother, and is repelled by the state of the house when they arrive. She acts out her unhappiness, skipping school, smoking pot, shoplifting and binge drinking at parties. Eventually a teacher tries to talk to her: “You need to take charge … we can’t always control what happens around us, but we get to choose what all of that makes us … You have more control than you think.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Richard, their concerned neighbour, and he tells Maryanne: “[Y]ou might be making choices, but they’re the kind of choices, I don’t know, a cow makes when it’s being herded into a corral.”

In her work as a nurse at the nearby hospital Maryanne is skilled, confident and respected. She stands up to the doctors if she believes one of her patients is in danger. Yet at home she seems struck by a kind of emotional exhaustion.

Why does Maryanne give Roy another chance? Even as they leave Sydney she feels her certainty slipping away. Does she really believe that this is best for her children, as she tells Freya? Is it because of her mother? Her father? Because she married too young and cannot now forge a path for herself without him? Or is it all some terrible folie à deux?

In telling the novel from Maryanne’s and Freya’s points of view, Roy’s motivations are largely unexamined. He remains an unsettling presence beyond the control of any of them, despite what Maryanne likes to think.

The landscape of Newcastle’s cliffs and beaches is strongly present in the book, as is violence towards women – one of Freya’s classmates is encircled and spat on by a group of boys, and, like the real-life Stockton murder, a girl in the year below Freya is killed at a party.

This is a sensitively rendered novel with a fine eye for emotional and physical detail. The questions it raises are as disturbing as they are compelling.

This review first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 19 May 2017.

Two recent biographies of Australian women

I love a good biography. During my career I have been fortunate to publish two award-winners: Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin and Nadia Wheatley’s The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift. Each was written by a trained historian, each involved a mountain of research, and each took over 20 years to write. They exemplify some of the difficulties of writing biography in Australia: to produce a work that is authoritative, carefully crafted and thoroughly researched takes a long time, and mostly publishers’ advances are modest and the writing has to be financed by other work.

The traditional biography unfolds in more or less chronological order as the biographer assembles facts about the subject and her times, weighing evidence, offering interpretations when they can, leaving open questions when they can’t.

Two recent books about Australian women upend this traditional model in different ways.

Grantlee Kieza’s Mrs Kelly: The astonishing life of Ned Kelly’s mother, in fact spends more of its 500-odd pages on Ned, his associates, the extended Kelly/Quinn/Lloyd families – and what feels like every moment of the often incompetent police pursuit of Ned and his gang during the Kelly Outbreak – than it does on Ellen Kelly. There are even sketches of the unedifying life of Ned Kelly’s hangman. Told in a lively present tense, for all its racy readability it nevertheless is not a book with Ellen Kelly at its centre.

To add insult to injury, Mrs Kelly’s raven hair (mentioned several times in the text) is rendered chestnut on the cover.

Perhaps the author began his book intending to write about Ellen Kelly, but too late discovered there was not enough material for one, or that while all the action was happening, his subject was in gaol. Or perhaps he really wanted to write a book about the Kelly Gang all along, and calling it Mrs Kelly was simply a way to promote a familiar story with a fresh angle.

Kerry Davies’s book A Wife’s Heart is subtitled The untold story of Bertha and Henry Lawson, and it paints a sad picture of the breakdown of the marriage of one of Australia’s most famous poets. Unlike Ellen Kelly, who was illiterate, Bertha left a trove of letters as well as writing her own account of the marriage, My Henry Lawson. One of the pleasures of the book is the way it makes use of the letters, and the insights they offer into Bertha’s personality.

Bertha Bredt was raised in a radical family. The month before she married Henry in April 1896, her younger sister married Jack Lang, who would go on to become premier of New South Wales. At one point Bertha seems to have had some literary ambition of her own, as there is a reference to her sending a story to the Bulletin which isn’t published

Many of her letters to Henry vividly convey both her affection and concern for him, as well as her frustration with his inability to provide. Bertha suffered a mental breakdown when the family went to England; whether this was the result of loneliness, postnatal depression, the strain of poverty or all three is unclear.

 The Lawson marriage was plagued by financial difficulties – Henry may have had fame, but money was always a problem. And then there was his drinking. The book opens with an affidavit Bertha filed in the Matrimonial Causes Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in April 1903 accusing Henry of ‘cruelty towards me’, including that he ‘struck me in the face and about the body and blacked my eye and hit me with a bottle …’ This is followed by a letter from ‘Harry’ that begins ‘Girlie, Do try to forgive and forget.’

Henry Lawson had numerous spells in hospitals in an effort to stop drinking. Once the couple separated and his maintenance payments fell too far into arrears, he also had spells in Darlinghurst gaol, which he christened ‘Starvinghurst’.

However, the central theme of the book is single motherhood, and woven around Bertha’s experiences as a separated woman bringing up two children in the early 20th century are the author’s experiences of single parenthood in the 21st.

And for me this is where the book struggles. In the author’s account of her own experiences there is her supportive mother, there is paid employment, there are payments (albeit erratic) from her child’s father (who is not an alcoholic but an itinerant jazz musician), and she is living at a time when separation and single parenthood does not have the stigma that it did in Bertha’s day. This isn’t to say that single parenthood was easy for her – clearly it was not – but rather that the resonances one might expect from such a juxtaposition don’t seem to go much beyond the obvious: that marriage breakups are painful and raising a child/children alone is hard work.

Nevertheless, there is much fascinating material here. But I do wonder what is it about the Lawson women that invites authors to inject themselves into their stories. Brian Matthews’s biography of Bertha’s mother-in-law, Louisa Lawson, also features the biographer, who interrogates the anxieties of his lot as he attempts to piece together the life of his subject. When it was published in 1987, Louisa was acclaimed for revealing not only the life of Louisa Lawson but the art of biography itself.

Yet is it just a little unfair that these women, relegated to supporting roles in history – mother of the great man, wife of the great man – should have their lives examined not on their own terms but to illuminate their authors’ own concerns?

But then, don’t all biographies do that? All biographies pick and choose which episodes of a life to emphasise, which to elide, which to omit. We know the biographer chooses how the story is shaped. There are many ways to tell the story of a life. Perhaps in putting themselves into the work, these authors are exemplifying the obsession biography requires, and the result is more honest for it.