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Emily Maguire, An isolated incident (#BookReview)

June 25, 2017

Emily Maguire, An isolated incidentEmily 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!

aww2017 badgeEmily Maguire
An isolated incident
Sydney: Picador, 2016
343pp.
ISBN: 9781743538579

20 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2017 12:24 am

    I’ve just finished reading this, Sue! I agree it was a compelling read, but I got frustrated with, as usual, structural issues – introducing the ghostly element halfway through without preparing the reader for it, and not really resolving the relationship with the ex. It was kind of sprawling, without a centre. Perhaps that was the point. I enjoyed it as I read it, but it didn’t make me think much.

    • June 26, 2017 12:32 am

      Thanks Jess. You’re quick off the mark! Yes, I think your point about the centre is perhaps what I was trying to say about its being spread too thin. It’s almost as though it was more about grief, but I don’t think that was her intention. (And yes, good point about the ghost, the “you”. It worked once you worked it out but the first couple of references had me writing in the margin, “who’s you?”). I enjoyed it as I read it too, but while the ending of The natural way of things has kept that book vivid for me a year later, I feel this one will fade.

  2. June 26, 2017 2:04 am

    The plot of this reminds me a little of Broadchurch, especially with the bits about journalism and how they breeze into town when there’s a crisis.

    • June 26, 2017 8:31 am

      Ah, interesting point Jeanne . though with Broadchurch the police are still front and centre. But it certainly does look at the wider picture at some depth doesn’t it?

  3. June 26, 2017 2:16 am

    I might be interested in this one if it ever makes it this way.

    • June 26, 2017 8:33 am

      Oh yes, Guy, you certainly could. Hopefully with its several short listings it will have the pull needed for it to travel, if you know what I mean.

  4. June 26, 2017 6:29 am

    Reblogged this on World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum..

  5. June 26, 2017 10:19 am

    Insightful review Sue, and thanks for the link.

  6. Theresa Smith Writes permalink
    June 26, 2017 10:54 am

    Given how I appreciated The Natural Way of Things, your review and comparative reminder makes me believe I should definitely make the time to read this novel.

    • June 26, 2017 2:40 pm

      And being shortlisted for the Miles Franklin this year, as Wood was last year, creates another reason, Theresa.

  7. June 26, 2017 11:01 am

    Thanks for the mention, Sue:)

  8. June 26, 2017 11:22 am

    It is obvious over the course of the reviews that the violence in An Isolated Incident is much more visceral for women than for men. My opinion – and thanks for linking it – is that while Maguire feels strongly about the issues she covers, Charlotte Wood’s is by far the better work.

    • June 26, 2017 2:42 pm

      I wouldn’t say “far the better” Bill, but I think Wood’s was more powerful for me, much as I enjoyed watching (and appreciated) what Maguire was doing. Months after reading it, Wood’s book is still strongly in my mind.

  9. Meg permalink
    June 26, 2017 2:00 pm

    Hi Sue, I am in the minority here. I anbd my book club enjoyed An Isolated Incident so much more than Charlotte Wood’s novel. We all felt that we could relate more to Maguire’s characters and situation. I do agree Maguire didn’t fully develop some of the issues and I didn’t consider it as a crime thriller. I saw it as novel about how society and human relationships react in different ways to women and domestic violence.

    • June 26, 2017 2:52 pm

      Thanks Meg. You’re with Lisa then. And no I didn’t see it as a crime thriller either. The back cover calls it a “psychological thriller” but there was very little suspense generated from my point of view, though there were occasional moments of potential menace.

      That’s an interesting point about relating more to Maguire’s characters. I would agree with that – her characters were probably more like people we’d come across – but I don’t think I base my reading preferences or assessment on whether I like or relate to the characters? Wood’s was a more “out there” sort of book and I think I liked the riskiness of it – and, I do tend to “like” (if I can say that) dystopian novels (the ones I think are good anyhow!) because they tend to hit hard. You can’t escape their message, if you know what I mean.

      Thanks for your comment – I love comments which make me explore my reactions a little deeper!

      PS I wonder what Wood and Maguire think about their books being compared? It’s interesting that so many of us bloggers have made the comparison. I drafted my blog and then looked for those reviews to link too and was intrigued by how many of us referred to Wood as well. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.

      PPS My bookclub did Wood, but we may not end up doing this one, though who knows.

      • ian darling permalink
        June 26, 2017 7:03 pm

        A powerful novel by the sound of it. I probably would have the Wood novel higher on my TBR list because I agree you that the dystopian mode seems a little more searching.

        • June 26, 2017 8:02 pm

          Thanks Ian. Some people don’t like dystopian novels, but sounds like you and agree on their value!

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