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.

Peter Doyle Crooks Like Us

Peter Doyle seeks to unlock the stories behind this extraordinary collection of police mug shots from the early 20th century.

Around 1910 the New South Wales Police began photographing some of the people who passed through Sydney’s Central and other inner-city police stations.

Peter Doyle has collected around 200 of the pictures here, and they present a remarkable and diverse slice of Sydney life. Doyle calls the photographs ‘informal mug shots’ and they are certainly a far cry from the expressionless police photographs we know today.

Some subjects are natty dressers, others are in their shirtsleeves, some appear to have no criminal record at all. Their expressions range from hard-eyed defiance to cool confidence, from resignation to the verge of tears. …

You can read the complete review in the Newtown Review of Books here. It originally appeared on 24 January 2017.

 

Sarah Hall & Peter Hobbs (eds) Sex and Death Stories

This anthology could have developed in many different ways – sex and death are the daily fodder of the tabloids, after all …  The settings range from Petina Gappah’s African ladies’ hair salon to Hobbs’ bleakly futurist fake nuclear reactor. What they all have in common is their intimacy; they describe deeply private moments that their protagonists may never be able to explain to themselves, let alone share.

This review was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 January 2017. You can read the full review here.

My top books of 2016

The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood

This year was Charlotte Wood’s year, with The Natural Way of Things winning not only the Stella Prize but also sharing the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction. It’s a book of considerable power, beautifully written, and has made a significant contribution to the ongoing discussions about misogyny this year. I hesitated to pick it up when it first came out (which is why it is on my list this year rather than last year, when it was first published) – the subject of women being unjustly imprisoned seemed just too depressing, and I was not entirely convinced by the set-up (how have they come to be imprisoned? By whom?) But within pages I was hooked and found it not only a compelling page-turner but rich in its delineation of character and vivid in its evocation of the landscape. Make no mistake, this is challenging material, but Charlotte Wood has crafted it into a novel that burns brightly and its energy is difficult to resist.

An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire

An Isolated Incident also deals with issues of misogyny and violence towards women. It subverts the usual tropes of crime fiction by refusing to dwell on the details of the victim’s death (and it’s true, what you imagine is always worse), and instead keeps its gaze firmly on those trying to cope in the wake of the crime. Chris, the victim’s sister, is a compelling mix of feistiness and grief and her voice is pitch perfect. I wrote a more detailed response to the novel here.

The Long View, Elizabeth Jane Howard

Earlier this year I read Hilary Mantel’s article in the Guardian about Elizabeth Jane Howard, and sought out The Long View (first published in 1956). It is considered by many to be Howard’s finest novel, and it is not difficult to see why it is so admired. Technically it is superbly controlled, as the narrative proceeds backwards through the life of an unhappily married woman, and it is simultaneously sharp-eyed, compassionate and thought-provoking. Its world-view is very much of its time, but not uncritically so. The protagonist, Antonia, is expected to do little more than marry well, and despite her father being an academic, her education has equipped her for little else. Yet in its delicate unpeeling of a relationship, and what it leaves unsaid, it is timeless.

The Dyehouse, Mena  Calthorpe

1956 is also the year in which Australian Mena Calthorpe set her novel of inner-city factory life, The Dyehouse, which was first published in 1961. This has recently been reissued in the Text Classics series and has a handy introduction by Fiona Macfarlane that sets out some of the background of Mena Calthorpe’s life. Calthorpe had worked in factories herself, and brings liveliness and compassion to her stories of the workers in the dyehouse, from Hughie, who has given the dyehouse his working life and can mix dyes like a magician, to Patty the innocent young office girl who believes the boss when he says he’ll marry her. The manager, Renshaw, manipulative and mendacious, is himself beholden to the managers in the city. There is romance, corporate and individual bastardry, an unplanned pregnancy and a premature death. While the author has put a disclaimer at the front to say that the Macdonaldtown of the book bears no relation to any actual place, it’s clear that it’s set in what is now called Erskineville, next door to Newtown, once home to many factories. Told through the eyes of the different characters, the novel breathes life into each of them so that we care what happens to them.

The Midnight Watch, David Dyer

Finally, David Dyer’s fresh account of the sinking of the Titanic in this debut novel, had me dreaming of icy seas for some time after I had finished it. The conundrum at the novel’s heart is a perplexing and tragic one: how could the SS Californian, a mere 20 miles away, not have seen the Titanic’s distress rockets? How could it not have gone to help? I wrote a more detailed review here and pondered how we humans can have the capacity to refuse to see what is in front of us.

This was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 23 December 2016.

 

David Dyer The Midnight Watch

This debut novel asks why the Californian, a mere 20 miles away, did not come to the stricken Titanic’s aid.

What more could there possibly be to say about that extraordinary story of hubris, the Titanic? Surely we all know how it ends: how, in 1912 the biggest cruise liner in the world foundered on an unseasonal iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean in the early hours of the morning and 1500 people perished.

David Dyer’s triumph in this beautifully observed and gripping story is to illuminate a little-known aspect of the tragedy – that another ship, the Californian, was a mere 20 miles away in the hours before the Titanic finally sank and could have rendered assistance but didn’t – and to do it with sensitivity and a deep understanding of the sea (in his non-writing life he served in the merchant navy and worked as a lawyer specialising in maritime law). It also asks a larger question about how we respond when we see others in danger. How might we convince ourselves that something dreadful is not happening? Or that we cannot do anything? Or that we do not know?

History is littered with examples of those who chose not to know (tobacco companies and the link between their products and cancer, for example; Nauru).

The central mystery of the Californian’s inaction is neatly encapsulated the morning after the disaster by Cyril Evans, the ship’s Marconi telegraph operator:

Now his friend on the Birma was asking him directly, ‘Did your ship see the Titanic?’ He sensed the rhythm of ‘yes’ in his hand; he felt the tiny ripple of muscle in the forefinger that would send it. It would take but an instant, and the rest would follow in a few seconds more: ‘We saw her distress rockets.’ But he did not send them. His left hand slid over to clasp tightly his right and he sat still, head hanging low, waiting, wondering, thinking of the captain and Mr Stone. Why had they not gone to the Titanic during the midnight watch? There must be a reason, but he could not think of it.

On the Californian, Dyer’s focus is the ship’s Second Officer, Herbert Stone, who took the midnight watch between 12 and 4 am, the hours when the Titanic sent up her distress rockets. He evokes the depth of the cold that night, ‘the heavy, still air [that] soaked through to the skin as if it were liquid’, the moonless dark, and the smell of the ice in the sea.

Stone would have preferred a career as an English teacher, but he has made the best of being forced by his father to go to sea, and his copy of Moby-Dick is as much a guide to the sea for him as his officer training. He particularly admires the character of Starbuck and his loyalty to Captain Ahab.

But the Californian’s Captain Lord is no Ahab, and the difficult relationship between Stone and his captain goes some way to explaining what follows. Both are actual historical figures, and it’s clear from his author’s note at the end of the book that Dyer has based his novel on extensive research.

The novel is in three parts, and the first is told alternately from the point of view of Stone and directly in first person by a fictional character, the journalist John Steadman, who works for the Boston American.

Steadman has experienced tragedy in his own life with the death of his baby son some years earlier. Estranged from his wife, his sole joy is his daughter, Harriet, who has grown into a young woman campaigning for women’s suffrage. He has a gift for reporting on the dead, and has covered a number of maritime and other disasters, including the Triangle fire at the shirtwaist factory in Manhattan, which claimed the lives of nearly 150 workers:

I gave those girls a voice and returned them to the world of the living. Dead bodies are gone too soon in this country. People never look long enough upon a corpse, and whenever they do look they see only a blank nothingness, or otherwise a fearful vision of their own future. I don’t see these things – I see a very great richness in the present. It takes courage to look upon the dead. It’s not ghoulish.

When news first reaches Boston that the Titanic is in trouble, his editor immediately sends him to New York to report on the dead – ‘There are bodies here, John, I can smell ’em’ – though at this stage no one knows that the ship has sunk.

Steadman arrives at the offices of International Mercantile Marine, the owners of the Titanic’s White Star line, to hear the company’s vice president, Philip Franklin, report that all have been saved and that the Titanic is limping towards Halifax, where the company has organised trains to transport passengers on to New York. When the truth is finally received, it is devastating. Franklin calls the press into his office to read the Marconigram confirming the loss:

No one in the room spoke. I watched Franklin’s face, transfixed. I saw something reborn, something washed clean, something breathtakingly honest. In one word, I saw courage: the courage to face the world anew, courage to stare down the truth. ‘The Titanic,’ he said at last, his sobs subsiding, ‘has gone.’

When news comes that the Californian will be recovering the bodies, Steadman, determined to get the story first, makes it his target. From this point on, Steadman becomes obsessed with what did or didn’t happen on the Californian, with explaining the seemingly inexplicable. The second part of the novel is his account of the formal inquiries into the disaster, first in Washington and then in London, and his own inquiries in Liverpool (home to both Lord and Stone).

The third part, ‘Eight White Rockets’, is Steadman’s imagining of the experiences of a family of third-class passengers on the Titanic en route from England to a new life in Florida. It describes what would have happened to them that fateful night and returns the focus to the dead, reminding us just what has been at stake here.

Steadman is both a hard-drinking journalist and a progressive; he is supportive of his teenage daughter’s suffragette activity (touchingly, he believes the 20th century will belong to women), and ultimately chooses to write about the fate of the third-class passengers rather than the celebrities and millionaires who have received so much publicity. It is his dogged persistence that assembles the pieces of the puzzle and allows the story to unfold, and his eloquence that does so so movingly.

Here is his account of how, less than a week after the sinking, the liner Bremen comes across the bodies of the Titanic’s dead:

The Bremen’s passengers had seen a man in formal evening dress lashed to a door; a young man lying on a steamer chair; a girl tied to a wooden grating. Men and women clung to each other, others were still holding onto children ‘The sight was an awful one to gaze upon,’ said one passenger. ‘I saw the body of a woman with a life preserver strapped to her waist and the bodies of two little children clasped in her arms.’ What must it have been like for these people, I wondered, in those dark minutes after the Titanic left them?

This is a novel of multiple human failings, of stomach-turning stubbornness and lingering humanity. It takes the popular trope of ‘what if’ and ties it to these well-worn events with compassion and flair.

Within it, too, is the story of a world in the grip of change. Steam-powered ships such as the Titanic and the Californian have only recently replaced the great sailing ships; the Californian’s Captain Lord learned his craft under sail and has a poor opinion of those sailors, like Stone, who trained under steam. The Marconi telegraph is also new; if only the Titanic’s distress calls had been made a little earlier, telegraph operator Cyril Evans may have picked them up before he turned into bed at 11 pm. If only …

The Midnight Watch is David Dyer’s first novel, and its assurance suggests it will not be his last. It will be interesting to observe whether the sea will continue to be his subject, but whatever arena he chooses, he is a writer to watch.

David Dyer The Midnight Watch 2016 Penguin Hamish Hamilton PB 336pp $32.99

This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 23 August 2016

Emily Maguire An Isolated Incident

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.

Shakira Hussein From Victims to Suspects: Muslim women since 9/11

Do Muslim women need saving by the West? How have attitudes in the West changed towards Muslim women since those planes flew into the Twin Towers? 

Shakira Hussein’s book opens with a description of a celebrity fundraiser in New York for Afghan women. It is February 2001, seven months before 9/11. The Taliban is in power in Afghanistan. Girls’ schools are being closed; women’s movements are being severely restricted and they must wear the all-concealing burqa whenever they leave the home. At the fundraiser an Afghan women’s rights activist comes onto the stage wearing a burqa. Oprah Winfrey then removes the burqa from the woman to the applause of the audience.

It’s an effective metaphor for the attitude of many in the West towards Muslim women – that they are passive victims in need of help from the West to free themselves from oppression. In the case of Afghanistan, Western feminists stood ready to assist, and Afghan women’s organisations like RAWA (the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) did not shy away from the opportunities they provided to promote their cause.

Then that cause was co-opted by the US as one of its reasons for sending troops into Afghanistan. First Lady Laura Bush was vocal in her support for her Afghan sisters. Yet, Hussein points out, prior to the Taliban taking over:

The American-backed mujahideen had issued similar ordinances [limiting women’s rights] during the years of counter-insurgency against the Soviet Union … Unlike previous misogyny against Afghan women, Taliban abuses succeeded in generating a transnational feminist response.

Local activists were not confident that US troops would be helpful:

… RAWA believed that rather than liberating Afghan women and girls, the US-led military intervention would only leave them at the mercy of a different set of oppressors.

Shakira Hussein’s book engages with the complexities of gender, race, and cultural identity and how they impact on the West’s relationship with Muslim women. It also clearly shows the diversity of Muslim women’s experiences – whether in Australia, Afghanistan or Pakistan – and the broader political dimensions.

One example of these broader dimensions is the response within Pakistan to Malala – the young girl who became an activist for girls’ education, was shot in the head by the Taliban, recovered, and went on to become the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. To the West, Malala is a hero, an articulate and courageous champion of girls’ rights to education. In her native Pakistan, however, the response has been less straightforward. For years the US has been using drones to bomb Pakistan as part of its fight against al-Qaeda, and the drones often hit civilian villages. In receiving support from the West – Malala originally came to prominence writing a blog for the BBC, and was later photographed with US government officials – Malala is seen by some as aligning herself with the bombers, the enemies of Pakistan.

In this climate, support for Western concepts of civil rights or gender equality can become support for the enemy who is bombing your country.

This slim volume covers a huge amount of territory, and ranges over everything from the madness of the anti-halal movement and anti-Islam groups like Reclaim Australia, to what Western teenage girls might really be seeking when they convert to Islam and offer themselves as ‘jihadi brides’, to the false statistics behind the panic over Muslim population increases in Western countries (‘They’re afraid of my uterus!’ Hussein realises at one point), to Australia’s attitudes to Muslim refugees, to the debates within Western feminism over whether calling out misogyny in another culture is racist.

More recently Muslim women are being seen as having cultural and moral authority within their communities, and as such are both urged to turn their families away from extremism and regarded as incubators of terrorism. Then there is the more insidious threat they pose to Western feminism:

… alongside [the] fear of Islamic terrorism is a growing fear of Islam as a cultural hazard that is gradually undermining Western societies from within – and Muslim women, the transmitters of Muslim cultural practices, are held to play a key role in this infiltration. As well, their ‘chosen’ subservience supposedly threatens to reverse the gains made by generations of feminists in the West, re-opening questions that had been considered closed.

Among the responses to the perceived threats Muslim women present has been Senator Jacqui Lambie’s demand that the burqa be banned, and former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s attempt to have burqa-wearing visitors to Federal Parliament seated in a separate sealed-off section of the public gallery.

Too often Western engagement with Muslim women becomes reduced to a discussion of head coverings. Hussein quotes Joumanah El Matrah from the Islamic Women’s Welfare Association of Victoria, who says that the focus on the hijab has meant that, for Muslim women, ‘… in restricting ourselves to this topic, an opportunity has been created for Muslim men to monopolise and define Islam.’

Shakira Hussein has written for outlets such as New Matilda and Crikey and has been a commentator on gender, Islam and multicultural issues.  Her writing is lucid, urgent and passionate.

Whether or not Muslim women wish to be ‘saved’, there is no doubt they could be better understood by the West. Shakira Hussein’s book is a useful and eloquent contribution to that understanding.

Shakira Hussein From Victims to Suspects: Muslim women since 9/11 NewSouth 2016 PB 192pp $24.99

This review was first published on 3 March 2016 in the Newtown Review of Books.

Robyn Cadwallader The Anchoress

From its medieval cell this debut novel soars into the light.

In 1255 a young Englishwoman, Sarah, chooses to become an anchoress – that is, to be walled up in a cell adjoining the Church of St Juliana in the village of Hartham in the English Midlands. Immediately prior to her immuring, she undergoes a form of funeral service for her previous life: walled up, she is between life and death, her days to be given over to prayer and contemplation.

Her cell is nine paces by seven paces; its window is a ‘squint’, an aperture no thicker than a wrist that allows her to see the altar – and nothing else – of the church. The cell door is nailed shut, never to be opened. If she were to leave, the bishop counsels her, ‘it would be grievous sin against our Lord, and grievous sin against the Church’.

Her situation is not unique. This particular anchorhold, as such cells were known, has had two previous occupants, one of whom, Agnes, has been buried directly beneath it. The village reveres Agnes as a saint, and the arrival of a new anchoress is considered a blessing. The fate of Agnes’s successor, Isabella, is less clear, however.

Why would a young woman choose such a thing for herself? If she must pursue a religious vocation, why not join a convent, where at least there is the possibility of daylight and some kind of companionship?

Cadwallader never quite answers this question, but deftly captures the limitations of medieval women’s lives and attitudes to them. Ranaulf, Sarah’s confessor, has been taught to regard women as:

… lustful and tempting; [at school] he had been told that if he touched a woman, he would feel his flesh burn like the fires of hell. After that, Ranaulf had flinched whenever his mother hugged him. Later, he had fought temptation by reciting to himself the words of the Fathers: ‘daughters of Eve’, ‘gateway of sin’, ‘foul flesh’, ‘deformed male’.

Sarah’s situation is one of relative privilege. Her father is a cloth merchant, she has been taught to read and write and, thanks to her father’s business, has had no lack of beautiful clothes.

But she has seen her mother die after giving birth to her brother, and, more recently and piercingly, her sister has died in childbirth. When her father’s ship founders, its valuable cargo lost to the sea, Sarah’s nascent hopes of a religious life are confronted by reality. Her father tells her:

‘You owe it to me to help, girl. Be more friendly with men and we’ll make a marriage, get a loan. I’ve seen Sir Thomas look at you. Forget this foolishness of God and purity.’

Sarah immediately resolves to ‘resist this man and his demands’. And resisting the demands of men (not only those of her father, it must be said) is a significant part of her decision to become an anchoress. (It’s also fairly clear that she sees marriage as having only one outcome: death in childbed.) The catalyst is Sir Thomas’s father, the local lord, who has noticed his son’s interest in the merchant’s daughter and, determined to prevent his son making an ‘unsuitable’ match – and with an eye on his immortal soul – agrees to fund the anchorhold.

This is not an insignificant commitment. In addition to basic supplies, the anchoress requires the services of two maids, who pass food to her (and remove waste) through a special low-set serving hatch. The lord’s endowment includes a grant of lands to the abbey, which must in turn provide a confessor to visit the anchoress once a week. Cadwallader is good on the details of how such an enclosed life is possible, not only in terms of Sarah’s daily routines, but the support required by the community and the abbey.

For Sarah, there are the rounds of prayers for each part of the day. There are also her efforts to subdue the needs of the body in the service of the spirit.

Yet Sarah is not without company. In fact at times the anchorhold seems more convivial than contemplative. There are the daily interactions with her maids – the older, widowed Louise, and the younger Anna – and the weekly pastoral visits from her confessor, as well as visits from the village women, for whom the anchoress is a source of spiritual advice and comfort. The confessor and villagers speak to Sarah via a narrow curtained window in the cell that opens onto a parlour guarded by the maids. Inevitably, as Sarah gets to know the women, she also gets to know the doings of the village and the world outside.

The walls, she learns, are porous, and not simply in terms of the cold (why Sarah doesn’t die from pneumonia in her first year is a miracle in itself). At one point of crisis she finds:

The stones around me were no longer firm. When I touched them they shifted like water, gave way beneath my fingers. I’d been so sure they were solid, sealing me in, sealing out the world, but now I could see right through them. The world could thrust its way in.

For a vocation that values sexual abstinence (Sarah’s virginity is a ‘fragile treasure, your jewel, the blossom of your body offered to the Lord’ according to the bishop), there is a robust sensuality running through life in the anchorhold. Whether memories of Sarah’s own desire, or ecstatic visions of sensual union with Christ, or the activities of the villagers (one night two lovers use the anchorhold’s parlour for their tryst), there seems no escape from awareness of the body and its demands.

Village women come to her with stories of wife-bashing, the progress of the seasons, the difficulties of harvest, of the lord’s enclosure of common lands, of rape and possibly arson. All Sarah can do is pray for them. Is it enough? For the women, it seems so.

The contest between the physical and the spiritual is central to the novel and to the Rule governing anchorites, which acknowledges that the ‘outer rule’ of physical comfort may need to be varied to ensure the functioning of the ‘inner rule’ of spiritual practice.

This dualism of inner and outer, physical and spiritual, is echoed in the paradoxical image of the acrobat that recurs throughout the book. As a child Sarah saw an acrobat flying through the air, and longed to have his freedom:

But that was as a child, when my body was secure, like that of a boy, and I felt myself whole and able to try anything.

As a woman, her options are more limited. However, by choosing enclosure, Sarah believes she has achieved a superior kind of flight:

I’d thrown away everything in this world and leaped into the air, lighter than I’d ever been, flying to God, who would catch me in his arms. Here … I was a body without a body. Even inside the thick walls of my cell I felt I could see the sky all around me, blue and clear …

It is Sarah’s interior story that flies highest. Part of what the anchorhold teaches her is to face her own past. As Ranaulf tells her during a heated exchange after she has had a particularly disturbing visitor, ‘Don’t come to God and ask to be safe, Sister.’

The exterior story, of the abbey, the villagers, the local lord and Sarah’s relationship with her confessor, keeps things moving but can at times feel a little forced (there is a fire at one point that feels a bit like wishful thinking). Nevertheless, Robyn Cadwallader has avoided easy options with her plot.

This is a novel of visions, demons, and ghostly presences, balanced against the world of the flesh and its temptations. There is – literally – often an apple to hand. It is also a novel of page-turning grace. The language is frequently beautiful, and Sarah’s choices linger long in the mind.

Robyn Cadwallader The Anchoress Fourth Estate 2015 PB 320pp $32.99

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books.

Sonya Hartnett Golden Boys

Longlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award

Early in this thorny coming-of-age story, 11-year-old Declan Kiley persuades the neighbourhood bully, Garrick, to hit him instead of going after the smaller and more vulnerable Avery. At first Garrick is doubtful, but Declan convinces him “[a] punch is a punch”, and eventually Garrick obliges.

At key moments in Golden Boys, people attempt to make things right by taking on punishments that might more justly be served on others. Their success or otherwise is just one of the engines driving this succinct and vivid novel.

Golden Boys focuses on two families in an outer suburb of Melbourne, the Kileys – long-time residents, their six children bursting the seams of their modest three-bedroom home – and the Jensons, the glamorous newcomers, who seem “burnished right to the bone”.

Twelve-year-old Colt, the older of the two Jenson children, possesses shelves full of actual golden boys: statuettes of figures frozen in mid-stride who sit atop his many athletics trophies. Yet Colt the athletics champion has given up running. In fact he seems paralysed, or as if he exists behind cellophane, like one of the many unopened toys in his family’s playroom.

It is Rex Jenson, Colt’s charismatic father, who invites the Kiley boys, Declan and 10-year-old Syd, and their friends Avery and Garrick, inside to play with his sons and their “mountain of toys”.

To the Kiley children, the Jensons seem to have it all: a BMX bike, skateboards, a swimming pool. For Freya, at 12 the eldest of the Kileys and feeling an unbearable weight of responsibility, Rex becomes a confidant.

If Rex Jenson has a sophisticated easy charm, Joe Kiley is a rough-around-the-edges working man trapped in an unhappy marriage with too many children and too little money. He frequently comes home drunk, and often it’s only a short step from drunkenness to anger. Plates are smashed, voices are raised, the younger children cry and the older ones try to administer comfort.

Yet it’s Joe who first sees something beneath the smooth veneer of the new neighbour. Colt, too, is beginning to question his image of his father. When the local children are introduced to the playroom overflowing with toys, Colt realises: “His father spends money not merely on making his sons envied, but on making them – and the word seems to tip the floor – enticing. His father buys bait.”

And it works. The Jensons’ place quickly becomes a magnet for the neighbourhood boys. And before long they begin to notice something else about Rex, something more insidious. When does teasing tip into cruelty? When does friendly roughhousing become groping? And if it does, does it matter? What can you do? Who will believe you? Is this just the way the world is?

Sonya Hartnett has made a career of writing about – and often for – children, and the relationships between the children in this adult novel pulse with life: Declan’s laconic care for the younger Syd; Freya’s impatience with just about everything, except Rex, who she comes to believe will somehow save them; the thuggish, too-loud Garrick, and Avery, a “lawless being” with the habits of a street cat.

Told in the present tense, Golden Boys is nevertheless saturated in a suburban landscape of decades past, where boys ride bicycles through silent streets, play pinball machines at the local milk bar, and hang out in the mouth of the huge stormwater drain beside a patch of waste ground, untroubled by mobile phones or the internet.

Spanning only a scant few weeks, Golden Boys flows as easily as a bike ride on a summer afternoon. But within its effortless unfolding are sombre themes: of the neighbourhood’s acceptance of domestic violence, and its effects on children; of the way class and money can enable and protect a predator; and how resilient, vulnerable, opportunistic and courageous children can be.

This review was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 30 August 2014.