Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Book review: Saltwater, Cathy McLennan (2016)

It’s really terribly sad that this brilliant memoir has not been more widely acknowledged for what it so evidently achieves. For my part, I came across the name purely by chance and had not seen it, for example, spoken of on TV. I think the mention I saw was on social media somewhere.

Nonfiction is usually less loudly applauded than fiction, but the fictional aspects of this account of part of the life of a lawyer working for the Townsville and Districts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Corporation for Legal Aid Services are so dramatic and compelling that the book truly deserves to be broadly consumed so that everyone can better understand the kinds of things that are happening in remote communities. It’s easy to criticise TV personalities for being “racist” but when you come face to face in a book of this nature with the realities on the ground in such places you understand that comments made by Kerri-Anne Kennerley were well-founded in fact.

McLennan is now a magistrate and it is clear from reading this account that her feelings of responsibility toward the people living in the communities she worked for grew deep. When her partner, Michael, decides to relocate south to Brisbane for work (he is a journalist) she refuses to go with him and instead stays to help people she has grown to love and respect.

The cases McLennan takes on are often desperately sad. One of them has at its centre an 11-year-old girl named Olivia whose mother had abused alcohol during her pregnancy. The effects of that indulgence meant that Olivia never really grew properly and had the appearance at 11 of a five-year-old. And she compulsively steals things from people’s houses, which attracts the ire of the community. Her mother eventually promises to get off the grog but Olivia is confronted by a magistrate who requires her to live on Palm Island, where she is gang raped by men she has been sent by other girls to get drugs and alcohol from. In the end, Olivia’s mother gets the girl back to Townsville after a story is leaked to the local newspaper and the police refuse to arrest her for breaking her bail conditions.

This is a kind of victory but it’s an empty one because the damage had been done long before. Olivia’s father had beaten her mother and the poor woman relies on the state for support, although this is probably the least of her worries. Other cases engage McLennan just as intensely. There is the case that opens the book of four boys who are charged by the police with murder after they arrest them while they are driving the car of a man who had been beaten to death. This case is a thread that finds its way through the whole book and the court case held to decide the guilt or innocence of the boys comes right at the end of it.

McLennan when she first encounters the case of the four boys is a new employee just out of university but she matures into the role she has been given and in the end is forced to hand over the defence of the boys to others due to a conflict of interest. Several of the boys tell her the truth of what happened on the night in question and she must give the job of being their advocate to others. I won’t spoil the suspense for those who want to read this book, so you will have to buy it if you want to find out what happens to Malachi and his confederates. Because of professional privilege some details in this account have been changed, such as the names of some of the people.

The narrative apparatus employed to keep the reader interested in this book is pretty fair given that the author trained as a lawyer. Lawyers spend all their time working with words, so it is not entirely surprising to come across a member of the profession with a love of the apt phrase and the occasional bit of colour, someone who can give immediacy to situations that might, in other hands, have been too dry to make much sense of.

The secondary characters who work in McLennan’s office are just as well-drawn as are the clients whose cases make it into the book. McLennan does her level best to draw you into the story using the types of fictional techniques that make reading novels so enjoyable, although at times the mechanics of the work are somewhat exposed. In general, the author has done a proper job of writing a book that will be easy to read and engaging and she should be commended for the effort required to get everything down on paper after so much time had already passed.


Anonymous said...

Great review, Matthew.

Matthew da Silva said...

Thanks. The only comment about this book I found from a first nations person (in actual fact, two people) was very negative. As though McLennan being an Anglo made her observations inauthentic. I thought that such a response was unfortunate.