Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 5, 2010

Escape, by Anna Fienberg

Anna Fienberg is the well-loved Australian author of the whimsical Tashi series of children’s books, and Escape is her first adult novel.

Although Fienberg has a light touch to start with, the novel becomes quite harrowing.  The chapter names signal the agony, the genesis, the rebirth and finally the resurrection of a woman caught in a trap of her own making; like a Houdini in a straitjacket, she must find her own way to escape.

It begins with a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci:

Between light and shade there is an intermediate state, something twofold, belonging to both, resembling a light shadow or a dark light.  That it is that you must seek, for it holds the secret of perfect beauty.

The quotation implies a need for balance, compromise, and recognition that it’s not wise to cling to unrealistic dreams.  But Rachel, the central character caught in a loveless marriage, doesn’t seem able to do that.  Not that she doesn’t try: she does her best. She supports her husband Guido, only to have him take advantage of her, time and time again.  She tolerates his infidelities and is rewarded only by neglect.   Venus and Mars pop psychology tells her not to ask an insecure male to help around the house because it’s a reminder of his mother nagging him and his response is to rebel – so she ends up doing it all herself rather than provoke a row, and her reward is to be treated like an incompetent servant.

What’s more, having invested all her love in her daughter, she’s not coping very well when Carla takes off overseas to discover the joys of independence in Italy.  (‘The Last Supper’ is the last meal the family has together before Carla’s departure.)   As the marriage disintegrates, so does Rachel’s tenuous sense of self.

It would be easy for Rachel to come across as a martyr, but she’s too self-aware for that.  Her rather intriguing profession saves her from being dreary – she’s a magician, and she’s writing a book about Harry Houdini.  However her obsession with the world of illusion blinds her to reality – she’s not just seduced by the panoply of escapology equipment on sale at Baudelaire’s magic shop  – she’s also built a palace of dreams around a man who’s not what he seems.  On the plus side, however, she’s unwittingly created a safety net for her daughter by teaching her a repertoire of escape acts, as if to provide her with the means to avoid making the same mistakes.

‘Slack’, it seems, is the principle by which escape acts  succeed.  The audience must somehow be distracted while the escapologist makes a space between the body and the restraint, whatever it is:

Slack, substitution, subterfuge – this is the bible of escapology.  Whether you are escaping from a straitjacket or a Bohemian Torture Crib, obtaining slack is the only way out. (p22)

How does this play out with the restraints of a marriage gone wrong?  Does Rachel cut herself any slack in dealing with Guido, the sexy self-centred poet who demoralises her on a daily basis?  No, alas, she vacillates between blaming herself for his appalling behaviour because he’s a ‘creative soul’ needing nurturing and she should have done what a loving wife would do – and simply giving up, because she thinks she’s unworthy of anything better.   Her friends and family have no illusions about him, but she’s blind to that.

In the daily hell of this rancid marriage Rachel is nostalgic for the days when Guido the poet-magician seduced her.  He was magnetic on stage and irresistible to a naive young woman.   But Clara’s right: her mother has confused her hero Houdini with her husband …and she’s given up on Guido because it’s easier to opt for a ghost than a demanding, critical living man. (p18)

It’s just a curious coincidence, I suppose,  that two children’s authors, Fienberg and Sofie Laguna (One foot Wrong) should contemporaneously choose to make their debut into adult fiction with novels that show the damage that can be done to a child’s psyche.

Author: Anna Fienberg
Title: Escape
Publisher: Bantam (Random House) 2009
ISBN: 9781863256681
Source: Personal copy (purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $32.95)


  1. Thankyou for an intriguing glimpse into this book, Lisa.


  2. She wrote an young adult novel didn’t she? Titled Borrowed light? I remember reading that and rather liking it. I think her Tashi books came out after my kids had grown out of that stage of reading but I recollect seeing them in the shops. They looked like fun. Are they good?

    And, did you notice that WordPress now has an option of asking to be notified by email of new posts as well as new comments. How wonderful is that.


  3. Yes, I think she’s done a couple of Young Adult books, though I haven’t read them.
    There’s some racy passages in Escape; I don’t think this one will be on the school library shelves LOL
    Re WordPress: do you mean the email subscription option on the RHS menu (on this blog) or somewhere else?


  4. No, I mean that now when you post a comment on a WordPress Blog – I’ve done yours and my daughter’s today – and both of them had a second check box ie as well as the Notify me of comments on this post one, there was also something like Notify me of new posts on this blog! I assume that means every new post will be emailed to me? Hope so and the RSS bizo as you know doesn’t work with my email client. (Oh dear, I’m being distracted by the golden voice of Leonard Cohen as I write!).


  5. Ah, I think they are the same thing…you can do it from that on the RHS (that has suddenly appeared?? on my blog too) or check the box at the bottom of the comment box …


  6. A most interesting review, and I will keep this book in mind.

    Could I join the growing clamor (well, two of us anyway) and ask you to add the Recent Comments widget to your sidebar? Given that many of your archive posts attract comment and your pre-eminent role as the blogger of Australian fiction, I’d like a handy sidebar feature that lets me know who has joined in.


  7. I have to say I had never heard of this author before but it sounds like quite an interesting and one I will have to have an eye out for itif it ever gets released over here. It doesnt like its on the schedules here yet.


  8. Oh Kevin, you flatterer, you! Have added the widget in response to your most persuasive appeal *grin*


  9. Hi Lisa,
    I was so excited to read your beautifully crafted review of ‘Escape’. I’ve only just discovered this terrific site – I’m a bit of a technological dinosaur, but I’m determined to evolve! It’s enormously gratifying as an author to feel so understood by a reviewer, who brings her own powers of perception to the book and deepens the whole experience. Your insights rang so true to me and you wrote about the book so skillfully and appealingly. Really, I couldn’t imagine a better review by a writer or reader – I wish your piece could be posted in all bookshops! I’ll pass it on to Random House, if they haven’t already seen it.
    Congratulations on a beautifully written review, and a fascinating blog – I’ll go on to read more here…I suspect we might share many similar responses to the lovely world of books. Thank you!


    • Hello Anna, how lovely to hear from you, and thank you for your very kind comments!
      I was very excited to discover your novel because I’ve been promoting your children’s fiction in my school library for years – not that those Tashi books need much promotion, the children love them:) I really liked the way you managed to weave the exotic into Escape without losing control of it: Rachel’s unusual preoccupations lifted this novel out of the ordinary and into something really special.
      Are you writing something new? (For grown-ups, I mean!)


  10. How good to talk to you…and read more of your writings and readings. It’s lovely to hear those comments about Tashi – thank you. And yes, I’ve been thinking about a new book for a while, for adults, but it’s all still very embryonic. Lately I’ve picked up again a children’s novel that I’d started a few years ago, during the long years of Escape, and I’m enjoying finding my way into this world – it’s a bit peculiar, the world of this book, but I’m persisting…After that, I’ll go on to the adult fiction. I’m looking forward to that. It’s exciting to move to the freedom – and terrors – of this genre.
    It’s been lovely to talk to you Lisa, and thank you so much for introducing me to all this!


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