Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 1, 2014

The First Week, by Margaret Merrilees


The First WeekI am so impressed by this debut novel!

The First Week won the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award at the 2012 Adelaide Writers Week – and I can see why: it is gripping. It’s the story of a woman whose quiet life is shattered by the actions of her adult son.  Her world is destroyed and her search for meaning in what he has done takes her on a journey of discovery which is painful and confronting.

Marion Anditon has led a difficult life: her husband was not an easy man and there was often low-level conflict in the home.  After he died she managed the family farm alone while bringing up their two sons.  The economics of family farming mean that only one can inherit the farm, but Charlie has always known this and goes away to Perth to study, apparently contented with his lot.  But at a time in her life when things ought to be gradually easier, Marion is jerked out of her routines by a strange message left on her answer-machine – from a girl she doesn’t know:

My name’s Sam. I’m a friend of Charlie’s.  Um … there’s a problem.  Charlie might be in trouble.  The sound was suddenly muffled, as though someone had put a hand over the receiver, then it cleared again.  I’ll ring you back I guess.

Any parent would be distraught at getting a call like this, and Merrilees captures perfectly Marion’s disjointed thoughts as she waits for the girl to call back. She feels guilt that she hasn’t kept in touch with Charlie, and that she doesn’t know who his friends are. Her imagination goes into overdrive about what the trouble might be, but she is shocked beyond words when she finds out where he is.

Merrilees’ control of events is masterful.  Marion sets off for Perth not really knowing what he has done, and the reader is on the same journey of muddled thoughts, confusion, denial, blame, guilt and horror.  Gradually we pull the pieces together as Marion does, and we watch her struggle to make meaning out of an incomprehensible act.  We see this country woman dealing with city traffic, getting lost, finding some comfort in the familiarity of CWA accommodation  and seeking solace in the quiet beauty of Perth’s King’s Park.  But we also see her naïveté at dealing with the machinery of crime: lawyers, courts, psychologists, and prison, and we empathise with her inability to take in much of what is said to her by the these people who are suddenly in control of her life and her son’s destiny.   We see how it gradually dawns on her that her other son Brian and his wife face consequences too because society associates them with the violence.  We feel her relief when a non-judgmental friend turns up to help.

All this would be interesting enough, but Merrilees links Charlie’s actions to his politics, and part of Marion’s journey is a confronting re-evaluation of assumptions she has long held. Coming from a conservative farming community, she has little experience of people like Charlie’s friends, and her discomfort is palpable, especially when she meets the indigenous woman who has radicalised him.  There is some brave writing where characters articulate ‘politically incorrect’ positions but Merrilees has resisted any temptation to self-censor and unpalatable opinions sound authentic.

I expect there will be some readers frustrated by unanswered questions and an unresolved ending, but I found this book curiously satisfying.  Every day the media is saturated with stories of violent crime, usually accompanied by pop psychology explanations for it. A book like this that explores the impact on the perpetrator’s family and chooses not to supply a ‘reason’ for the crime is a lot more like reality.

I look forward to Merrilee’s next novel!  She blogs here and there are other reviews of this book on her page here.

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed it too.

Author: Margaret Merrilees
Title: The First Week
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2013
ISBN: 9781743052471
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

Availability
Fishpond: The First Week: A novel
Or direct from Wakefield Press.


Responses

  1. It sounds intriguing; I’ll have to check it out.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Jonathan!

  2. I like the sound of this Lisa. Unlike most people, I am usually happy with some unanswered questions. I love to have something to think over, something to debate with friends, options to choose and then discard. It is why I am not a fan of most Hollywood movies … they don’t allow any scope for my own imagination or thought processes.

    • Yes, that’s what I think too.
      And *being very careful to avoid spoilers* one of the most interesting questions raised by this book for me is, why do some radicals in some societies resort to violence in support of their cause, and others don’t. One critic of this book that I came across thought there were too many issues raised, but I think that’s a sign of being out of touch (or just not listening): young people who care about this planet and the people on it often are concerned about multiple issues and so they should be.
      Questions like this must remain unanswered, because there is no answer, and books with cut-and-dried explanations and solutions are futile reading IMO (unless you’re just reading for a bit of fun, like watching Midsomer Murder LOL).

  3. It sounds like an author totally in control of her material with just the right balance between disclosing and revealing. How do people get to be so good? It’s a mystery to me!

  4. Great review Lisa .. you’ve described the book perfectly I think. I agree that it is an excellent read. I’m scheduling my review to post in a few hours.

    • Thanks, Sue! I’ll be over to look at yours ASAP:)

  5. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also recommends this debut. […]


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