The First Week won the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award at the 2012 Adelaide Writers Week – and I can see why: it is gripping.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.
Author: Margaret Merrilees
Title: The First Week
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.