It feels strange to be reviewing a Vogel Literary Award runner up, which Rachel Hennessy’s The heaven I swallowed was in 2008, in a year when the judges decided not to award the prize because they didn’t find ‘that special quality that a winning entry has’. C’est la vie I suppose, but what a shame for this year’s entrants. I hope it doesn’t discourage them. Rejections can be good for you – or so I’ve been told.
The heaven I swallowed is Hennessy’s second novel, though I hadn’t heard of her before. Her first, The Quakers, won the Adelaide Festival Award for an Unfinished Manuscript. She has also had many short stories published, a short play performed, and a short film, Not Waving, Drowning, screened at several festivals. She’s clearly been around.
According to Wakefield Press’s Media Release, The heaven I swallowed was inspired by Hennessy’s grandmother who was a member of the Stolen Generations, and by her paternal great-aunt whose husband fought in the second world war. The novel is set in the 1950s, with flashbacks to the past. It tells the story of Grace (Gracie to her husband Fred) and opens around 1950 when Grace is 40. She’s alone, having lost her husband, Fred, to the war, and childless, having had a miscarriage after Fred enlisted. She decides to take in 12-year-old Aboriginal girl, Mary, who, we later realise, is a stolen child. Grace, though, has been told that Mary’s an orphan. Caring for her, Grace says, represents “the epitome of my goodness”. The novel is divided into two parts, with the second part set 5 years after the first.
My problem is how to talk about it without giving too much away. Telling you what separates the two parts would rather spoil the tale. It’s not a heavily plot-driven story, but there are some significant events that mark its progress, so instead I’ll focus on character and style. And, I’ll start by saying the novel reminded me of Anita Brookner. Grace could have stepped right out of a Brookner novel. She’s an outsider, she’s isolated, she’s lonely. She was an orphan, brought up by nuns – and that seems to have set her off on a path from which she finds it hard to deviate.
This orphan business leads to one of the main themes of the novel – secrets, lies and deception. Grace identifies with orphans. She often reads about them. Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and Tom Jones all make appearances in the novel. Consequently, Grace feels an affinity with Mary – though Mary says she has a mother. When Grace discovers, via her parish priest who had organised Mary’s placement, that Mary’s mother is looking for her, she accepts the priest’s advice and hides this fact from Mary. After all, as Father Benjamin says, “the girl’s much better off with you”. Yep, that’s true! She’s learning a lot about housework! Such was usually the lot of stolen generation girls.
This, though, is not the only lie in Grace’s life. There’s another big one that shadows her – to do with her role as a widow – and there are innumerable small ones. Many are those “little white lies” people tell, but in Grace’s case they are a way of life and serve to isolate her from those people who do reach out to her. Meanwhile, she is doing her best to raise Mary, albeit relying a little too much on the nuns’ methods she experienced, methods that were short on love and high on rules. One of the rules concerns lying: “Don’t lie to me again Mary”, she says. The irony, the hypocrisy, is not lost on the reader.
The heaven I swallowed is a well-plotted novel with lovely links that unite the plot, characters and themes. For example, the opening scene is a flashback to an experience Grace has when she was 12 – a visitation at night from what she believes is the Virgin Mary. Twenty-eight years later, 12-year-old Mary comes to stay with her. She feels Mary as a “presence”, but she also comes to love her, in her own way. Visits, visiting, presence, shadows run through the novel – some physical, some imagined, some spiritual. They provide much of the novel’s tension.
The story is told first person, by Grace. I found her a sympathetic character, but Murray Waldren on the back cover of my edition calls her “a memorable monster”. That’s a little harsh, I think. Grace makes many, many mistakes, but she’s a person in pain, describing herself at one point as “alone and untethered”. She’s not intentionally cruel, she’s not vicious, but she’s defensive and self-centred. In trying to protect herself she hurts both others and herself. It’s a credit to Hennessy that she can write about a “perpetrator” of the Stolen Generations with such compassion – she enables us to empathise with Grace without at all condoning her behaviour.
It would be hard for any book to follow Hilary Mantel‘s Bring up the bodies, and I must say that for the first few pages of this novel I was a little disengaged. Here we go, I was thinking, another girl damaged by her religious upbringing, but Hennessy soon got me in. She has captured the era – the 1950s with its small-mindedness, its gossipy church communities, its racism and sexism – convincingly. She seems to have listened to her family’s stories well!
As for Mary? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens to her. I recommend you do, because this is a quiet but fierce little book about real people and real situations. It’s not always pretty, but it has a heart.
The heaven I followed
Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2013
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)