tale of the wild west
never quite reconciles with her grandparents, whose hearts broke when she ran away. Her father, her most tangible link to Western Australia ( he was born and raised there before the family returned to France), is a distant, lonely figure. He is never fully realised. ‘‘ When he says Perth, his home town,’’ Rey recalls, ‘‘ he pronounces it the French way, and it becomes: perte — loss.’’ The absence of conflict between the estranged father and daughter — his dignified, inevitable unhappiness — lends a Racinean quality to their relationship; a quality for which Rey’s early fiction is renowned.
More than sadness, anger dominates the novel. It is directed mainly at Rey’s mother. At times the pages sear with vitriol, lambasting ‘‘ Madame, ma mere’’ as Rey calls her. The mother is a horrendous figure: selfish, caustic and with no maternal sensitivities; she openly rues giving birth to her daughter. Madame is almost a parody, in this sense, of the monstrous matriarch of The Spruiker’s Tale , Magnolita, whose soul was like ‘‘ a bog in which the Devil himself could drown’’.
Stepping Out is a curious, engaging yet ultimately problematic book. The narrative structure is largely responsible: it lurches moodily from teenage recollections to ruminations on writing, to the struggle for equality between the sexes. All this makes for compelling stuff, and Rey is a fervent writer, but at times it is difficult to know which Catherine is narrating and, in turn, which protestations and diatribes are plausible.
That said, Rey nails perfectly her youthful self: her conflicting identity, her teen solipsism. From a young age she is a voracious reader and we have a lot of insight — and fun — as she recounts her delight in Gustave Flaubert, Andre Gide and Gaston Bachelard. Later, when her feminist agenda kicks in, she admires Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes and Carson McCullers.
Rey is wonderfully unbashful in describing her creative process: ‘‘ You have to keep what’s lame, revitalise it, rework it, shorten it here, draw it out there, give it body, a good set of lungs, rhythm, colour, contrast . . . You have to love it without being mesmerised and look at it without loathing, to get a grip on yourself above all.’’
She also remains sobered by the realities of life as a creative artist: ‘‘ It’s hard to explain to anyone who’s not creative that daily life is often hell and can quickly become hell for anyone sharing it. Ten-hour days, a life of sacrifice, iron discipline, no holidays because you can never take a break from yourself.’’
The feminist tracts of the novel reveal a woman practising contradiction. Her desire for equality and opportunity is fierce and yet Rey, as she admits herself, remains trapped within the traditional role of wife. Later, when Catherine moves to Western Australia, she begins a relationship with a man known only as P. Here she suffers emotional and physical abuse.
Stepping Out is a lively call for renewal. Catherine is in constant search for new beginnings in her life and her art. The Spruiker’s Tale began with verses from the Book of Ecclesiastes, stating the end of originality. Stepping Out, in contrast, celebrates the literature that came before it, acknowledging its influences, and Rey’s own earlier tendency to pastiche.
‘‘ I write to resurrect the women who engendered me,’’ she declares, proudly. Stepping Out is an earnest, honest achievement. In its own, modest way, it is an inspirational novel. Rebecca Starford is deputy editor of the Australian Book Review.