Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Book review: An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire (2016)

This lovely, engrossing, genre-bending novel is very accomplished and exhibits a perfect sense of authorial poise even though one of the major characters, a 37-year-old barmaid named Chris, is as plain as a paper bag. Chris exhibits the same kind of plumb ordinariness and down-home wisdom as Jane Turner in character as Kath Day-Knight. You might find her a bit much, but you can’t help admiring her.

If Tim Winton were to write a good female character, Chris is what he’d come up with, but unfortunately for him he doesn’t have the talent Maguire possesses. But Maguire does a double back-flip and forward pike as well because she inserts into the novel a pushy journalist named May who comes down to the town of Strathdee, where Chris’ sister Bella has been murdered, and covers the case for her outlet, a news website that isn’t making any money yet. May is another of those smart, media-savvy women that has been appearing with regularity since Bernard Keane invented Kat Sharpe to use in his 2015 novel ‘Surveillance’ (reviewed on this blog on 4 September 2015).

Maguire’s novel sits alongside Emily O’Grady’s 2018 ‘The Yellow House’ (reviewed on this blog on 3 January 2019) and Shirley Barrett’s 2018 ‘The Bus on Thursday’ (reviewed on this blog on 19 December 2018) in setting a story about violence against women in an Australian country town. In ‘An Isolated Incident’ the town is located halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. It has four pubs, two motels, and was bypassed in recent memory cutting the town off from the Hume Highway. Chris’ ex-husband Nate now lives in Sydney with Renee, his new partner, but he comes down on occasion to help out in the aftermath of the murder.

The narrative is in the third person when May is focalising it but when Chris is focalising the narrative it is given in the first person, so you get all of her personality downloaded like a massive data dump into your consciousness. There’s plenty of information about May’s personal life as well but the different way that the story is handled in her case makes her less vibrant and to appear more collected. With Chris you are faced with a competent stream-of-consciousness and so you are exposed to a lot of intimate information reflecting the Australian psyche. For foreigners who want to understand this country, this novel is a great place to go looking for guidance, although there is a danger in objectifying Chris as a character when she has peculiarities and angles to her personality that make her idiosyncratic and unique, in her own right.

Nate is handled very well. This important secondary character adds considerable depth to the story and helps Maguire to interrogate the question of female sexuality. She also does this by getting May to think about her own lover, Craig, who has a family and a wife he is hardly likely to abandon on May’s account. Another important secondary character is a truck driver named Chas who May picks up in a pub in town and takes back to her motel room several times. There is also a young police officer named Matt who buys May lunch once or twice and who gives her information. The book takes a bald look at the kinds of feelings that characterise male-female relations and considers what is commonly felt by people on both sides of the fence. Craig helps to anchor the theme of sexual desire because he is, at base, a good man even though he has split his allegiances and has left May feeling alone.

As with O’Grady’s novel the issue of secondary violence – against animals – is touched on. This seems to be a trope for this kind of writer to use to enhance the sensation that the problem of male violence is pervasive, like a chronic health problem that mere surgery alone (imprisoning the perpetrators) cannot fix. The title of this book underscores this regrettable fact.

What Maguire does so well, even though this is at heart a genre work, is to use all the novelistic paraphernalia at her command to build a coherent superstructure on which to hang her theories about men and women and about the kinds of things they do to each other. In this regard Chris is not without her own sense of guilt, and the fact that Nate is with another woman underscores that fact. But what men do to women is different in quality, and this is the overriding theme of Maguire’s fine book.

What Maguire does not do is provide answers. There is a lot of analysis in this book but no specific suggestions about how to solve the problem of male entitlement (or, as some would formulate it, “toxic masculinity”). In my mind it’s a biological imperative but others would probably counter this view and say that personality is entirely constructed as a result of socialisation and can therefore be altered using the same method. There are plenty of ideas about these sorts of things but so far no-one has provided us with definitive solutions to the problems that this book illustrates.

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