The Stella Prize shortlist celebrates the six best fiction and non-fiction books written by Australian women, noted for their excellent, original and engaging prose.
In the six weeks leading up to the winner’s announcement on April 18 Sinéad Fogarty reviews each of these books for Hatch.
This week, An Isolated Incident, by Emily Maguire.
An Isolated Incident, like all books, begins not with a first sentence, but with a dedication. “For my sisters” hovers the Garamond font, humming on an otherwise empty page. You’d be excused for thinking that author Emily Maguire was one of a few daughters, and that could be. Yet this book is dedicated to all women, everywhere. Like sisters, allied in their shared experiences of mice and men.
Maguire’s fifth fiction novel is a psychological thriller, set in Strathdee, a popular truck stop country town halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. The population of 3000 is fraught when the body of 25-year-old Bella Michaels is found in an unspeakable state, a victim of rape and murder.
The brambly narrative voice of Bella’s older sister, Chris Rogers, colours the novel with a raffish tone. Immediately you’re in South Western NSW, surrounded by hulking men with beards styled with dust and sweat, soiled boots settling into a mud of grubby carpet, chin wagging over a schooner at the grimy Royal Hotel. Her compathy, coarse and unmannered, doesn’t beat around the bush. She’s straight up, regardless of the sting.
“Every breath is hard, because you don’t know if it’ll let more of the black shit into you or if something worse’ll come spewing out.”
A second lens on Strathdee is provided by journalist and Sydneysider May Norman, a dogged crime reporter desperate to unpeel the layers of the crime, and sieve through a town where wife beaters, animal torturers, and hoons are the norm. Peppered throughout the novel are Norman’s articles written for fictional news site Australia Today, which adds a real-time feel to action.
“It felt, to May, that there was a thread connecting it all, and if she could find it she could follow it back, see where it began. Rip it out and examine its source.”
The day-by-day pacing punctures your nerves, the cagey characters make you recoil, and the protagonists are so well-rounded you can even hear the rumble of their bellies. But if you’re looking for a Laarson-esque thriller, this isn’t it. You’ll be waiting a long time for the gasp-inducing twist, which gauges open the gears of the crime – for it never arrives. Sure, we find out who the killer is, but the reveal is a simple sentence rather than a spectacular showdown.
Instead, it’s a crime thriller fused with feminism. At its heart, the novel explores how women are perceived from the moment they hit puberty, and the callousness of victim-blaming culture. Maguire questions the reasons behind why men, in particular, commit atrocious acts of violence against women, who forge hell by their own hand and continue to go about their lives unscarred, sleeping and waking as if it were a dream.
“And there are men who don’t cause quite so much damage and so are all too happy to publicise the worst so they can look mild in comparison, and men who do no violence and so don’t see how it is their problem that others do, and there are men who want us to know about the bad and the worse and the negligent so that we go to them for protection and there are men – my heart wants to say it’s most of them, but my heart is a battered, blood-soaked madwomen – who are pure and good of heart and intent and who want only 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.” – Sinéad Fogarty
An Isolated Incident
By Emily Maguire
Published by Pan Macmillan Australia, 343pp. RRP $33