Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. Better not to succumb to initial feelings of rage and do something intemperate that you might later regret. Better to take vengeance later, they say, better not to be hasty…
Judith Colquhoun, in this thought-provoking novel, explores the idea of revenge delivered years after the event. As single mother Kate O’Connell lies dying, she realises that she owes it to her daughter Lucy to explain about her father. Kate was raped, and she knows who the perpetrator was. A naïve country girl with no family support behind her, she was working as a waitress in Carlton to support herself at university when she met her employer’s nephew Paolo, visiting Australia from Italy. They went out together, and he raped her on the way home. It was hushed up by the family and the church, and Kate had her baby in a Catholic home for single mothers. A not uncommon story for the era, but 20-something Lucy is outraged. She wants justice for her mother. And the trail has not gone cold.
The story takes us to Italy, where Lucy plans to confront Paolo Esposito and make him suffer. Her vendetta involves skill and cunning, and more than a little luck. In the beginning all she has is a name and a hunch, and a prejudice against all things Italian. But Italy weaves its magic, and she meets helpful people who defy the stereotypical view of Naples. Lucy finds Paolo – and his family. She meets her half-siblings, and her nonna, and she ends up working in Paolo’s restaurant while she plots a way of exacting justice – without hurting them.
At the same time, she meets the gorgeous Stefano. The plot twists and turns through cross-cultural gaffes and Lucy’s unwillingness to trust him. His patience wears thin; her stubbornness is like a fort around her heart.
It could be a soap opera, couldn’t it? And indeed, Judith Colquhoun’s career as a writer was, for forty years, scriptwriting for TV soaps. She won five AWGIE awards and was made a Life Member of the Australian Writers’ Guild for writing numerous soaps, everything from Home and Away and Neighbours (which I’ve never seen) to GP and A Country Practice (which I watched avidly). This novel originated in plans for an ABC telemovie that never made it*. Colquhoun’s skill in scriptwriting shows in the masterful dialogue and scene setting. It’s great to read.
Lucy is a lovely girl, and the reader is on her side from the start. Like her mother’s friend Geoff, we are enlisted to care about her and to worry not only about the wisdom of her quest, but also about its potential for danger. She has never been out of Australia, she is travelling alone, she has a scanty grasp of Italian and she is headed for Naples, renowned for its perils. (On our way through Naples to Pompeii in 2005, The Spouse and I were warned by kindly Neapolitan businessmen on the train. They told us to take their city’s notorious reputation seriously. We took their advice). Should Lucy succeed in finding and confronting Paolo, his reaction could be violent, cruel or dismissive. And of course she is emotionally very vulnerable. She is grieving for her mother, and – solitary by nature – she is alone in the world except for her good friend Sim and Geoff. She makes a lot of expensive phone calls home!
But as I said when reviewing After the Fall I want something to think about from the books I read. Thicker than Water delivers much more than you’d expect from a soap. Without the least hint of moralising, the novel explores all kinds of threads…
Determined on her vendetta Lucy doesn’t realise how much she would have to change her own nature in order to hurt someone, even someone deserving of justice. She doesn’t recognise how her resentment of one Italian has extended to a prejudice against all Italian men, or how that’s clouded her judgement. She doesn’t see how her own naïveté is not unlike her mother’s. She has courage, but not much insight.
Through Lucy’s eyes, Colquhoun also depicts the aching loneliness of life as a single mother. In Kate’s situation, her wariness of men is understandable, but even if she had been open to a new relationship, their poverty meant curtailed opportunity. Her university career was over, and finding work and day-care for the child meant there was never much money. The nuns’ reaction to Kate’s decision to keep her baby was typical of the era’s prejudice. A family of two meant exclusion.
Revenge, justice, restitution, forgiveness and penitence are concepts that test our moral fortitude. Families that are flawed test our human need to belong. And trust, while it lies at the heart of any relationship, is hard-won and easily lost.
This is a compelling story indeed – reading it on the train home today, I very nearly missed my stop!
*Budget cuts to ABC funding, I betcha. A co-production in Australia and Italy would have been too expensive for Aunty. Underfunding the ABC has had a terrible impact on Australian-made drama.
Author: Judith Colquhoun
Title: Thicker than Water
Publisher: Black Pepper Publishing, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Black Pepper