Having discussed in this week’s Monday Musings Margaret Merrilees’ essay on white authors writing about indigenous Australians, I’m now getting to my promised review of her debut novel, The first week, in which she does just this. It also, according to Wakefield Press’s media release, won the Adelaide Festival’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2012. I can see why it did.
The plot is simple. It chronicles the first week in the life of Marian, after she hears shocking news about something her adult son Charlie has done, news that would chill the heart of any parent. Marian is a middle-aged, widowed countrywoman who jointly manages a farm with her oldest son, Brian. She holds the conservative views that would be typical of her demographic. The setting is south-west Western Australia, the Noongar country of Australian author Kim Scott whose That deadman dance (my review) tells of early contact in that very region, but Marian understands little of that. She’s about to learn though, because, standing at a fence that she used to clamber through, she realises
… it was different now. There was a claim on it. This fence, a fence she’s ignored for years, had taken on new meaning. Where she stood was her land. The other side was theirs. Someone’s. Those Noongars from town.
What would they do with it? Any more clearing would be a disaster. The salt was already bad down there.
This comes early on day one, Monday, before she hears the news about Charlie, but already Merrilees has introduced us to Marian, the land she works and her attitudes. She clearly has little respect for “those Noongars from town” and yet she knows the land has been damaged. Merrilees also describes other aspects of Margaret’s life that will help inform our understanding of the week to come – guns, the family’s dynamics including her relationship with her troubled late husband, a dependence on a more savvy friend. It’s all lightly, naturally done through a well controlled third person voice.
By day two, Tuesday, Marian is in Perth, where the first order of the day is to attend Charlie’s arraignment in court. Here she meets Charlie’s housemates and is invited to their home to talk about what has happened – and there she meets Charlie’s neighbour and friend, the indigenous woman, Lee. In addition to the reference to “those Noongars” on Monday, Merrilees leads us up to this meeting with other suggestions of Marian’s prejudiced attitudes to “other” (to Asians and Aboriginal Australians). Needless to say, her meeting with the educated, political Lee does not go well.
This is where Merrilees confronts the issue she addresses in her essay, because for Marian to develop she needs to hear from indigenous characters. Marian meets Lee cold, that is, she doesn’t know Lee is indigenous: “No one had mentioned that. They wouldn’t think it mattered, probably. But it did.” Lee tells her about the Reserve in her region, about the treatment of indigenous people there and in the town. Marian doesn’t want to know – or believe – what she hears. She uses those patronising words “you people” and leaves in rancour. However, she is a woman still in shock and, knowing that all this has something to do with Charlie’s actions, her better self starts to realise that “she had to know whatever there was to know”. She reads Lee’s paper, attends Lee’s talk, and converses again with Lee. Lee is presented as fair but determined. She doesn’t go easy because Marian’s in pain, and when Marian admits that Lee has made her think, and that she’s ready to learn, Lee tells her:
Then you owe me … I won’t forget. Salvation doesn’t come cheap.
To my white Australian mind, Merrilees handles her indigenous characters well. They ring true to what my experience and reading tell me, but, as Merrilees also says in her essay, “it is not for a white writer or critic to decide what is appropriate.” I would love to know what indigenous readers think.
And this segues nicely to what I most enjoyed about the book – its humanity and lack of judgement. Merrilees lets her characters be themselves, warts and all. Lee, for example, is rather fierce but open to discussion and sad about the direction Charlie took. Marian is conservative, in great pain and feeling a failure as a mother, but is open to change. I particularly liked the way Merrilees captured the physicality of Marian’s pain – she can’t eat, or sleep, or remember her son’s phone number, her chest tightens, her heart races. From my own experience of an awful shock, I related to the point where she really has to face her changed circumstance:
Getting out of the car and leaving it behind suddenly seemed difficult. Her last tie with home and normal.
If my review has seemed a little vague about detail, that’s partly because the book is too. There’s a lot we aren’t told about what exactly happened, about why Charlie did what he did, but that’s because he is not the book’s main subject. Early in my reading, I was reminded of Lionel Shriver’s We need to talk about Kevin. This, though, is a different book. Yes, both books are about a mother and a terrible act by a son, but Merilees’ compass is broader. It’s both personal and political. And so, on the personal level, Marian realises that she can – she will – survive. But it’s the political lesson that is dearest, I think, to Merrilees’ heart, and it is simply this, “that she, Marian, was ready to listen” to Lee’s story, to listen to it “wherever and in whatever way” suits Lee. The first week is a compelling read with, dare I say it, an important message. I hope it gets out there.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also recommends this debut.
(Review copy supplied by Wakefield Press)