Two novels set in New Guinea on the one Miles Franklin longlist! Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain is a more complex work tackling more significant issues (see my review) but Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved is a satisfying debut novel from a perceptive author, and I liked its theme of the importance of being true to oneself.
The central character and first-person narrator, Roberta, is a terrific creation. Clear-eyed, ambitious, empathetic and wonderfully stubborn, she is forced to overcome physical and social disability when in 1954 she contracts polio in childhood, (not long before mass vaccination began in Australia in 1956). This horrible disease is all but eradicated now but I have vivid memories of classmates whose lives were irrevocably altered by its crippling effects. To my shame I remember as a very small child being frightened of the calipers and braces whcih were part of the paraphernalia of paralysis, and while I was never so cruel as to taunt polio’s victims as Roberta’s classmates do, until I was older, I avoided contact with these disabled children out of a fear that no one knew about and therefore did not address. I think schools do better these days at supporting ‘circles of friends’ for children with disabilities, but there was nothing like that when I was a child.
Roberta’s best ally at this time is her mother, Lily May. This is such an un-Australian name that Aussie readers will suspect foreign origins straight away, but her story is more complex than Roberta can possibly guess. One of the prevailing motifs in this novel is the question of secrets and the tension between parents’ right to privacy, and parents (mis)judging the right time to explain uncomfortable things to a maturing (and inquisitive!) young person. However, in the early part of the novel it is Lily May’s determination that her daughter will walk that gets the child through the long haul of exercises, poultices, and the ugly signs of disability: crutches, calipers, braces and walking sticks. What she cannot do is save Roberta from a withered leg and a surgical boot to compensate for one leg being markedly shorter than the other. She is so self-conscious about this that she insists on wearing long smocks instead of dresses and shorts, even though, of course, the smocks do not save her from cruel teasing at school. The frilly pink dress her mother makes her wear to a birthday party makes it even worse.
When the family moves to New Guinea, the setting becomes exotic, beautiful and dangerous. The children are taught to use guns, though this doesn’t prevent an outrage by the houseboy. (Who is not a boy, he is a man. Faulkner treads lightly in revealing the racism inherent in this Australian colony, but she does not ignore it).
It is in New Guinea that the real mother-daughter fight begins over Roberta’s passion for drawing. The child claims to be able to see auras, and she uses this ‘knowledge’ to draw discerning portraits and caricatures, lovingly described by Faulkner who has a gift for enabling the reader to ‘see’ these pictures. But the obsession for drawing exasperates Lily May, who is determined that Roberta and her brother Tim will achieve the academic success and professional career that were denied to her by her decision to marry their father. Not understanding how comprehensively the other children reject Roberta, Lily May demands that she put away the art that is her sole refuge and she bullies the child into social activities that are meant to expand into friendships. Her husband, Ed, is so aware of how precarious his marriage is, that he would rather be a quiet saboteur than confront his wife directly. I think book groups could have a good time teasing out whether he is just weak, or is trying to keep the family together when he knows that Lily May has never really loved him.
However, there comes a time when matters of the heart challenge this marriage even further, and unfortunately for Roberta, this leads to her mother forbidding her to draw altogether. The art therefore has to be hidden because it defies Lily May and it is resourced by The Other Woman. The tensions escalate when Roberta discovers the reason for her own name, and learns the story behind the contents of her mother’s secret box. The neat and well-ordered world of a 1950s marriage is torn apart and Lily May’s lack of internal resources is put to a test that she fails. Compared to the other sympathetically-drawn female characters Tempe and Helen, Lily May is a termagant, and it can’t be put down to ‘the problem that has no name’ because in New Guinea she is able to develop a career as a photo-journalist and has freedom and autonomy that would have been unheard of for women of that period in Australia.
This somewhat one-dimensional characterisation of Lily May is a rare flaw in a debut novel that offers some lovely descriptive passages, well-realised dialogue and a convincing plot that romps along to its satisfying ending.
The Beloved was the winner of the now defunct Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an Emerging Author, and I enjoyed it. However, if I were going to list crossover commercial-literary fiction in the 2013 Miles Franklin longlist, I would have chosen The Fine Colour of Rust by P.A. (Paddy) O’Reilly. (See my review). Because The Beloved’s preoccupation with coming-of-age issues is less compelling than O’Reilly’s bigger picture concerns about single mothers, who are ‘the battlers’ of 21st century Australia.
Author: Anna Faulkner
Title: The Beloved
Publisher: Picador 2012
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond: The Beloved