Not just for she who does the cooking
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