Emily Maguire’s novel, An isolated incident, reminded me of Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (my review). Sure, An isolated incident is a crime novel, albeit a genre-bending one, while The natural way of things is a dystopian novel, but both deal with the same fundamental issue, misogyny. Wood exposes the scapegoating of women for their sexuality, while Maguire tackles violence against women (and in doing so, also traverses some of the same ground regarding attitudes to women’s sexuality).
That Maguire is going to confront the issue head-on is implicit in the irony of her title. Twenty-five-year-old Bella’s murder may have happened in an isolated place, and such murders may be rare in her small country town, but as we all know in our media-fuelled times, violence against women is not isolated. Indeed, it happens with terrible frequency. Maguire makes sure that not only do we not forget this, but that we see it in its entirety.
I started by saying that An isolated incident is a genre-bending crime novel. Now, I’m no expert in crime fiction but I know enough to recognise that this book inverts our expectations. In a nod to the genre, the novel is told chronologically with the chapters named by the date, such as “Monday, 6 April”. However, it is not told from the point-of-view of the police or detectives, and it does not focus on the whodunnit aspect, though the investigation does provide an ongoing thread. Instead, the story is told through two voices – the first person voice of Chris, Bella’s grieving big sister, and the third person voice of journalist May who has come to town with her own demons regarding a married lover. This narrative approach enables Maguire to broaden her reach, to focus on things other than catching the criminal, because that is the least relevant – I almost said least important except of course we do want these perpetrators off our streets – part of the story. The most relevant is why does this violence happen, and how does it affect those involved.
Maguire does not, however, provide any answers to these questions. Who knows why it happens? But Maguire does show some of the ways misogyny plays out in everyday life, from the “all piss and wind … harmless” pest who follows women in his car, through men who won’t take no, the men in the pub who know about violent men but do nothing, the schoolboy who enacts his sexual attraction by creating ugly pictures, to actual domestic violence resulting in a wife’s death. It’s powerful because it’s all so real – and true. And, definitely not isolated.
In a telling exchange between May and Chris, May says:
‘… You don’t realise how much most men dislike women. And knowing that, most women can’t relax around men the way you do. Can’t let ourselves show that we like them even if we really do.’
‘Ah. That’s a different thing, though. I like ’em fine, but I’m never relaxed, not fully. It’s like with dogs. All the joy in the world, but once you’ve seen a labrador rip the face off a kid, you can’t ever forget what they’re capable of.’
Late in the novel, Chris ponders this whole issue of the things men do and don’t do, and, heartbreakingly, decides:
… and there are men … who are pure and good of heart and intent and who only want to be our friends and brothers and lovers but we have no way of telling those from the others until it’s too late, and that, perhaps, is the most unbearable thing of all.
Similarly powerful is the way Maguire captures bereaved sister Chris’ grief. Chris is a down-to-earth, small-town barmaid who’s not above taking the odd man home for a little necessary money on the side. Her grief, her loss, is overwhelming, threatening to upset her sanity, and Maguire captures it well, including showing the impact of requiring a relative to identify a body when that body has been horrifically disfigured. The memory of how Bella looked, and imagining how the disfigurement occurred, add significantly to Chris’s grief.
An intriguing thread in the novel concerns the role of writing. Through May being a writer, Maguire explores, initially, the exploitative behaviour of journalists. They sweep into town en masse, intrude on people’s lives, trot out their jargon-laden reports about “close-knit” communities, and when the excitement is over, breeze out again to the next drama. May is one of these, until something about this story, and about Chris, results in her quitting her job to stay.
She explains to her brother why. It’s because she wants her writing to help overcome “the fear, the injustice”, whether by helping to catch the killers or just writing about Bella in a real way rather than simply as a victim. A little later, she tries to convince Chris to talk to her, arguing that her writing may help bring justice. As she argues with Chris, we wonder how much of what she is saying is sincere and how much is desperation to get a story, now that she’s freelance. Maguire writes:
May had started speaking in desperation but as the words came she realised she had once believed all of this about the power of a well-written story. The quaver in her voice told her that maybe she still did.
Hmm, is this Maguire, too, arguing for the value of writing her novel – and for writing in general?
So, did I like the novel? I did enjoy reading it. Maguire’s writing is compelling: it was easy to engage with Chris particularly, and to be interested in journalist May. Maguire’s picture of Strathdee is convincing, and she successfully imbues the story with a complexity that offers no easy answers. If it has a failing, it’s that it’s spread a little thin across the issues – male violence, media intrusion, grief and closure – resulting in an ending that didn’t quite punch an emotional or intellectual point home.
Quite coincidentally, just as I finished this book, Mr Gums and I watched the 2008 miniseries of Sense and sensibility, whose script was written by Andrew Davies. Towards the end comes a line from Marianne, albeit not Austen’s. Having been “burnt” by the dastardly Willoughby, she asks Elinor, “What do men want from us – perhaps they don’t see us as people but as playthings”. Fortunately, many (most, perhaps) men do see women as people, but these novels, together with books like Anna Krien’s Night games (my review), remind us that we still have a long way to go before there is true equality, true respect, between the sexes.
This book has been reviewed by several of my blogging friends, including Michelle (Adventures in Biography), Bill (The Australian Legend), Lisa (ANZLitLovers), Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest), and Kim (Reading Matters). Two didn’t like it much, the others were more positive!