Epiphany in Harrower’s “The fun of the fair”

With Bill’s AWW Gen 4 Week still in play, I hoped I’d find something relevant to share from Reading like an Australian writer. And there was, a discussion by novelist Emily Maguire of a short story by Elizabeth Harrower. The short story, as you can probably guess, is titled “The fun of the fair” and it opens Harrower’s collection, A few days in the country, and other stories (my review).


I love short stories, so love that Maguire chose to explore one in Castles’ anthology. Moreover, I was thrilled to see that her angle was the “epiphany”. I have loved that word since I first came across it. It has such a great sound and look.

In her essay, Maguire briefly discusses its meaning. She starts with its religious origins as “a moment of spiritual or divine revelation”, and then says that, in a literary sense, it describes “a different kind of realisation”. She gives examples from To kill a mockingbird, and from Disney’s Frozen and Dumbo. She doesn’t, I was surprised to see, mention the writer though whom I was introduced to the concept, James Joyce – and his novel A portrait of a young man.

So, I did a browser search to see if my memory was correct, and yes, it was, at least according to Wikipedia:

Author James Joyce first borrowed the religious term “Epiphany” and adopted it into a profane literary context in Stephen Hero (1904-1906), an early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In that manuscript, Stephen Daedalus defines epiphany as “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” Stephen’s epiphanies are moments of heightened poetic perception in the trivial aspects of everyday Dublin life, non-religious and non-mystical in nature. 

Wikipedia says more, including that “Scholars used Joyce’s term to describe a common feature of the modernist novel, with authors as varied as Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, and Katherine Mansfield all featuring these sudden moments of vision as an aspect of the contemporary mind”. And then the penny dropped. I suddenly remembered that Bill had decided to pop Harrower, who straddles his Gen 3 and 4 eras, into Gen 3, which we did last year, because she was “a modernist”.

But now, given the origin of “epiphany” is less important to us than its use and relevance to our reading, let’s get back to Maguire and “The fun of the fair”. Maguire makes a couple of points about epiphanies: they are internal, that is, they come as “a shift within the character”, and “they are not the result of logic or conscious reasoning”.

Indeed, Maguire says they can come “seemingly out of the blue”. In the rest of her essay she provides a close reading to show just how our 10-year-old protagonist’s epiphany comes about. I checked my marginalia for the story, and found that I’d written that the fakeness in the sideshow Janet attended had “shocked her into her own truth”. This is essentially true, but Maguire describes the build-up so eloquently in her analysis. She says that young Janet, who, at the end, “ran, not crying now, but brilliant-eyed” is “experiencing an extreme surge of emotion, so she wouldn’t, and doesn’t, stop to articulate this”. But, she has had a feeling, an epiphany, that we readers see as hopeful, as something that will take her forward into the next stage of her life. I thoroughly enjoyed Maguire’s analysis.

Now, I’ll bring this back to our AWW Gen 3 and 4 discussions. Maguire comments near the beginning of her essay, that ‘sometimes the epiphanic moment is obvious because it’s announced outright with a phrase like “She suddenly realised that”…’ However, she continues,

What this kind of signposting gives us in clarity it may take away in verisimilitude. In real life, a person may experience a powerful feeling or thought that, looking back later, they might call an epiphany. But in the moment itself, the person is probably so busy experiencing the insights or revelation that they don’t pause to note its occurrence.

Elizabeth Harrower, being a realist writer, Maguire says, won’t have her characters exclaim they’ve had an epiphany, but will show us, the readers, that something has changed. She certainly does this with Janet. This made me think of Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain (my review), and Jessie’s epiphany at the end. Jessie is older than Janet, and reflects consciously about life, so her epiphany is more signposted, but elegantly so. Near the end, she sees a garden and finds herself “clamped in the cruel snares of memory”. Memory jolted, she comes to a realisation that, like Janet’s, is a hopeful one. It’s not a guaranteed “happy-ever-after” but the novel closes with a vision of a more positive Jessie than she had been for some time. The power of the epiphany!

I am enjoying this anthology.

Emily Maguire
‘”Not crying now, but brilliant-eyed”: Epiphany in Harrower’s “The fun of the fair”‘
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 233-243
ISBN: 9781742236704

Elizabeth Harrower
“The fun of the fair”
in A few days in the country, and other stories
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015
pp. 1-14
ISBN: 9781925240566

Emily Maguire, An isolated incident (#BookReview)

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
ISBN: 9781743538579