Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Book review: Eggshell Skull, Bri Lee (2018)

This outstanding piece of literary journalism is a memoir that recounts a period of the writer’s life from when she starts working as the associate for a judge of the District Court of Queensland after graduating in law, until the end of her own court case. You’re halfway through the book by the time Bri decides to tell someone else about the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of a friend of her brother’s named Samuel Levins when she was still in primary school.

The drama builds slowly over a period of about three years, with bits of the puzzle being dropped into the plot at strategic moments in order to generate a feeling of suspense. Bri’s time as an associate primed her for her final decision to have recourse to the authorities. It brought her into contact with many cases where children and women had suffered sexual abuse. It is in the context of these cases, and Bri’s thoughts about them, that her determination to see justice done in her own case started to grow.

Bri’s dad was a policeman and her boyfriend is a law student, and along with her mother and brother they support her through the stressful weeks of waiting that precede the trial that Levins brings on because he won't submit a guilty plea. The denouement is dramatic, like the moment in the middle of the book when Bri decides to seek justice for the wrongs done to her when she was a girl. The people around her are part of the drama, of course, and much of the forward momentum in the book derives from the rich characterisation that she achieves with them.

Characterisation is not the only thing that is done well. In addition the plotting is tight, with new information introduced in small increments so that you have a minute-by-minute grasp of the importance of even the smallest event. No doubt Bri kept good journals to aid her in this work.

She also takes you on little journeys into her mind. A single event might cause a specific action or reaction to take place, and then you are wafted away on a new loop of the narrative that adds to the depth of characterisation that is constantly taking place, and which also stretches your understanding. You are asked to empathise with things that you might not immediately understand perfectly. Bri is there holding your hand at each step, making sure you are still with her but not treating you like a complete idiot. You are allowed to imagine, to expand your horizons, and as a result you see things that you might never have had the opportunity to see before.

This is all about the talent of the writer. She is consummate in her command of the facts, the drama and the plot. What you also get of course are insights into what it is like to be a woman or girl who has been abused by a man who thinks nothing of her feelings, who demonstrates contempt for her sense of worth, and who believes that he should simply be excused from the consequences of his selfish acts.

The portrait of Brisbane that Lee provides is redolent with significance for me as I lived on the Sunshine Coast for five-and-a-half-years. The drenching downpours and the swollen river in the wet season, and the crushing humidity of a summer’s day are here on purposive display.

This book is an antidote to the ceaseless deluge of bad news on the domestic violence front. If ever a book had to be written to demonstrate the deleterious effects this scourge has on Australia, this is it. The title is explained inside it. It’s a legal principle but it is almost too difficult for a mind as dull as mine to understand. It means that in court the defendant has to take the victim as they are, and cannot use for their defence that she should have been more robust than in fact she was. The cover of the book is pink in the printed version. It shows a human skull with a representation of a cicada where the mouth should be. The cicada is an insect that can live underground in a dormant state for up to seven years before emerging on the trunk of a tree to fill the summer air with noise.


Anonymous said...

Lovely review Sounds like a must read.
I remember living on the Sunshine Coast too. It rained the whole time we were there. This will bring back memories of Queensland. Thanks for this Matthew.

Unknown said...

What was the sentence or can it not be disclosed or is it being appealed.

Matthew da Silva said...

I don't remember what the sentence was. It might not have been custodial but I'm not 100% sure. I think the main thing for Lee as the accuser was to get the guilty verdict and the note that was made on the defendant's criminal record.

Unknown said...

Wow! What sadness, courage and finally victory. All pile into one amazing recount of one girl's sexual assault. As the author states, she has seen many so-called 'serious' assaults go nowhere. But she won her case. We all now realise that this 'thing' in the court system which allows so many perpetrators to go unpunished is so scary. What are we going to do about it?

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