Not just for she who does the cook­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sue Green

DYS­FUNC­TIONAL fam­i­lies are grist to the mill for writ­ers of the style of con­tem­po­rary writ­ing too of­ten dis­missed as do­mes­tic drama or women’s fic­tion. Con­sider the likes of English novelist Joanna Trol­lope, whose in­ci­sive fam­ily­based nov­els have been tagged, some­what de­ri­sively, ‘‘ Aga sagas’’: pre­sum­ably best suited to she who does the cook­ing.

But sto­ries about fam­ily life and the tragedies, de­cep­tions, se­crets and in­tense emo­tions in­trin­sic to it have been cap­tur­ing our imag­i­na­tion since Dick­ens and Jane Austen, and be­fore. Emerg­ing Aus­tralian writ­ers Wendy James and Tess Evans un­der­stand the power of the fam­ily, not sim­ply as a nar­ra­tive fo­cus but as a means of ex­am­in­ing char­ac­ters’ in­te­rior lives and of ex­pli­cat­ing the re­la­tion­ships be­tween them in the con­text of con­tem­po­rary so­cial is­sues.

They do so with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess in these new nov­els.

James’s psy­cho­log­i­cal drama The Mis­take has at its heart not only fam­ily dy­nam­ics but those of small-town Australia. Small-town pretty much any­where, in fact. Set in the fic­tional New Eng­land town of Ard­ing (Syd­ney-born James is based in New­cas­tle), its fo­cus is Jodie Gar­row, a mid-40s house­wife. Jodie’s care­fully con­structed life be­gins to un­ravel when, on a chance visit to a small Syd­ney hospi­tal, she bumps into a mid­wife who at­tended her as, sin­gle, alone and des­per­ate, she gave birth there 24 years ear­lier. Through smoothly in­ter­wo­ven flash­backs we dis­cover that Jodie did not want her baby girl, who was the re­sult of a one- night stand; she wanted to marry An­gus Gar­row, the young lawyer, lo­cal aris­toc­racy, to whom she was en­gaged. So the hospi­tal ma­tron ar­ranged an il­le­gal adop­tion and $5000 for Jodie.

A bright, beau­ti­ful schol­ar­ship girl who strove to es­cape the poverty and squalor of her child­hood, Jodie set her sights not on univer­sity and a stel­lar ca­reer but on mar­riage and mid­dle-class com­fort. In this pas­sage she is talk­ing to a child­hood friend: ‘‘ I think I just want to be one of those nor­mal grown-ups. The ones with pink lip­stick, and high heels, and — a sta­tion wagon.’’ She purses her lips, turns her head from side to side. She thinks of her mother. Adds: ‘‘ And a hus­band. I’d like a nice, hand­some hus­band. Hand­some and rich. Def­i­nitely.’’

But when the nurse she en­coun­ters starts dig­ging, then takes her tale of a miss­ing, un­reg­is­tered baby to the po­lice, An­gus and his lawyer try to head them off by feed­ing the me­dia a sob story. Soon Jodie is the sub­ject of a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion and a na­tional me­dia frenzy. Her friends go AWOL, her hus­band and trou­bled teenage daugh­ter won­der just how well they know her. And over it all hangs one ques­tion: did Jodie mur­der her baby?

Jodie, blonde hair im­mac­u­late, clad in her ar­mour of quilted vests and pearls, is an un­sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter, cool and de­tached: ‘‘ Jodie is ex­pert at not think­ing too much into any­thing — at liv­ing in the mo­ment, dis­card­ing the un­wanted past . . . Even now, when the past is com­ing at her from all an­gles, is ever present, she is still able to ex­pertly de­flect un­pleas­ant thoughts.’’

James is a ver­sa­tile writer — her de­but novel Out of the Si­lence won the Ned Kelly award for first crime fic­tion six years ago — and she tells not just a tense and in­volv­ing story, but also raises im­por­tant ques­tions about the role of the me­dia, as the miss­ing baby story be­comes a run­away train. The Mis­take, cred­i­ble and ac­com­plished, also asks what hap­pens when fam­ily mem­bers be­gin to doubt each other, to won­der how well they know each other.

Tess Evans, whose 2010 de­but novel The Book of Lost Threads was widely praised, is less suc­cess­ful in build­ing a sus­tained nar­ra­tive in The Mem­ory Tree. This novel also has its fo­cus on the dis­in­te­gra­tion of a dys­func­tional — and how — fam­ily of four: hus­band and wife, son and daugh­ter. But here it is not the rev­e­la­tion of a long held se­cret which pre­cip­i­tates this but the death of the mother, Paulina Ro­driguez, which tips her hus­band, Hal, from ma­nia and in­sta­bil­ity to para­noia and men­tal break­down.

Mad with grief, Hal be­gins to hear voices, then falls un­der the in­flu­ence of a self-styled preacher, ‘‘ Godown’’ Moses Wash­bourne, whom he in­vites to move in with him, his chil­dren and their house­keeper.

The chil­dren, Selina, known as Sealie, and Xavier (Zav) find their own way, Sealie be­gin­ning nurs­ing train­ing and Zav en­list­ing, mar­ry­ing and be­com­ing fa­ther to a daugh­ter born while he serves in Viet­nam. But then Hal’s mad­ness and re­li­gious fer­vour drive him to an act so des­per­ate and tragic he will be de­tained in a ward for the crim­i­nally in­sane while the lives of those around him are shat­tered.

With its suc­ces­sion of dra­matic and tragic plot de­vel­op­ments, The Mem­ory Tree should be en­gross­ing — but it is not. Its prose is laboured, and it is ham­pered by a no­ten­tirely suc­cess­ful nar­ra­tive de­vice im­pos­si­ble to re­veal with­out de­priv­ing the reader of the story’s most sig­nif­i­cant shock value. Sue Green is a Melbourne-based re­viewer and writer.

For Wendy James’s pro­tag­o­nist Jodie, a baby born out of wed­lock was a mis­take

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