Mys­tery, in­ten­sity strike home

Ker­ryn Goldswor­thy Feather Man By Rhyll McMaster Brandl & Schlesinger, 320pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IN a Bris­bane sub­urb in the 1950s, young Sooky — ‘‘ Dad said he called me Sooky be­cause I was a girl’’ — has gone next door to hang out with her neigh­bour Lionel, a man older than her par­ents, and help him with the rou­tine care of his chooks. Rhyll McMaster tosses her and us in at the deep end: by the end of the first chap­ter, fewer than 20 pages in, the sex­ual as­sault has been ac­com­plished, a cou­ple of mys­ter­ies have been briefly hinted at and we al­ready know more than we want to know about her mother.

Even as a child Sooky likes to take notes on what she sees around her, and as she grows up this taste for ob­ser­va­tion de­vel­ops into a tal­ent for vis­ual art that brings her to Lon­don, suc­cess in the art world and a mar­riage with Lionel’s son Red­mond, who was her hero as a child. But all along there has been the se­cret of Lionel, the worm in the bud, the me­mory that Sooky thinks of as the chicken peck­ing at her heart.

This novel is es­sen­tially a Bil­dungsro­man, in which a young per­son grows up and learns about the ways of the world, but here it’s en­livened by a gen­uine mys­tery, a slen­der but pow­er­ful nar­ra­tive thread work­ing away deep in the back­ground of the story.

That thread is pulled tight at the end, where the hero- turned- vil­lain gets his come­up­pance and all the story’s chick­ens come home to roost. It’s a mas­ter­stroke rem­i­nis­cent of Ja­cobean re­venge tragedy at its nas­ti­est and most re­lent­less: Red­mond is bru­tally, lav­ishly pun­ished, not only for his var­i­ous cru­el­ties and deceptions but also for the sins of his fa­ther, in a way that is pe­cu­liarly sat­is­fy­ing for both vic­tim and reader.

The last line of the novel is a fur­ther twist of the knife and is per­haps more sin­is­ter even than what has gone be­fore, es­pe­cially if the reader hasn’t heeded the warn­ing im­plicit in the ti­tles of the book’s four sec­tions: Sooky, who is try­ing to es­tab­lish her­self as an artist and whose real name we don’t know un­til the end, is de­fined by the names of the men in her life.

McMaster has a solid, long- es­tab­lished rep­u­ta­tion as a poet and it shows in the way she makes this novel so much more than a sim­ple story: in the clever pat­terns of im­agery, the bril­liant de­scrip­tions, the nar­ra­tive struc­ture and the un­der­stand­ing — more and more ab­sent from con­tem­po­rary fiction — that a good novel has some­thing to say about the world.

McMaster is par­tic­u­larly good at con­vey­ing states of mind: the in­fe­ri­or­ity of a child who doesn’t un­der­stand what is be­ing done to her; the un­re­lent­ing neg­a­tiv­ity and mean­ness of spirit of a cer­tain kind of Aus­tralian wo­man in a par­tic­u­lar time and place; the dense tan­gle of feel­ings of a child sex­u­ally as­saulted by some­one that she and her fam­ily know and trust. One of this book’s most valu­able in­sights is ex­pressed in its ac­knowl­edge­ment that the am­biva­lent feel­ings and be­trayal of trust in­volved in sex­ual as­sault by some­one known to the vic­tim might do even more psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age than the as­sault it­self. Sooky is not a par­tic­u­larly en­dear­ing char­ac­ter, but then why would she be?

I was re­minded while read­ing this book of Nora in Jes­sica An­der­son’s Tirra Lirra by the River and also of the di­aries of Ade­laide artist Bar­bara Han­ra­han, for Sooky is like both: strug­gling to find ways to prac­tise her art and to re­sist the many pa­tri­ar­chal traps and lim­i­ta­tions of her time and place, she comes across as sullen, re­sis­tant and oc­ca­sion­ally cruel. You can’t find her lik­able, but you can’t help bar­rack­ing for her.

Feather Man is not a pleas­ant or re­as­sur­ing book, but it’s writ­ten with great con­fi­dence and lyri­cal in­ten­sity, and most Aus­tralian read­ers will recog­nise in its pages some­thing of their own time and place. Ker­ryn Goldswor­thy is an Ade­laide writer and critic.

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