Mystery, intensity strike home
Kerryn Goldsworthy Feather Man By Rhyll McMaster Brandl & Schlesinger, 320pp, $ 32.95
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.