Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 12, 2016

An Isolated Incident, by Emily Maguire #BookReview

an-isolated-incidentI bought Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident when I read about it in the Readings Monthly catalogue and thought, this sounds like a novel tackling an important issue.  And it does.  #DuckingForCover IMO it tackles the topic of violence against women in a more sophisticated and credible way than the much-lauded The Natural Way of Things.

The title An Isolated Incident is ironic: yes, the murder of Chris Michaels’ sister Bella is unusual in the small town of Strathdee, but murder and violence against women is an almost everyday occurrence, keeping the police busy in a town of only 3000 people.  But the realisation that this is the case is slow to take shape in the reader’s mind because – like Chris who relates most of the story to a listener whose identity is not revealed until the end – the reader is preoccupied by the horror of Bella’s death.  We do not ‘see’ the body as Chris does – there are no graphic depictions of violence – but we know enough to know that she suffered terribly and that the wounds inflicted are what make the police confident that the killer is not someone from Strathdee.  That is because they – like everyone else in Strathdee – know the men who are violent to their women, and they know the kind of violence they routinely inflict.   When another woman is murdered in the town, the police know exactly who has done it and they wrap up the case almost overnight, a phenomenon we see so often in perfunctory media reports that it is commonplace.  Bella’s murder is different. ‘This was done by someone who really hates women’, they say in Strathdee, oblivious to the reality that the culture of this emblematic town makes them all complicit in everyday violence.  It doesn’t occur to them that the other woman was murdered by a man-hating woman, because, you know, he was sorry afterwards.

Maguire has deliberately made this situation ordinary.  Chris is a barmaid in the local pub.  She lets truckies drive her home sometimes, and she thinks she can pick which ones are safe.   But in her unvarnished narrative focussing largely on her overwhelming grief, she also shows us the everyday men in her life: her violent stepfather and the way his wife accepted the violence meted out both to her and to Chris; her ex-husband’s police record and his struggle to give up the drinking that turns him from being a really nice man into a thug; the truckies and the blokes in the bar who – innocent of the crime – talk about violence against women in the town as part of the everyday.

Alongside Chris’s narrative there is May’s.  May Norman is part of the media storm that descends on the town, eager for any salacious detail and ruthlessly distorting the snippets they get from a town trying hard to be loyal to Bella’s memory and supportive to Chris.  Like Chris she is grieving the end of a failed relationship, but in contrast to Chris, she is ambitious and hopes that in a world of declining opportunity for journalists, she can break the big story on this murder.  What she finds instead in Strathdee is that she despises herself for the role she plays in making things worse for Chris.  She is forced to recognise that she has abandoned the lofty ideals she had about improving the world by telling the real story of crime to provoke change.  Her narrative shows us the strategies journalists use to build trust among the wary.  It also shows us how naïve this young woman is when she goes jogging by herself at night, in a place where women are fair game for any passing motorist.

The blurb calls this book a psychological thriller, but while Chris feels a sense of escalating panic as she realises she is now all alone in the world, even her realisation that the killer is among them, perhaps even drinking in her bar, does not drive the narrative tension.   Her fear is the fear of losing a loved one, and her anguish at the way her sister was killed.  Yes, as the media breathlessly reports, everyone is now locking their doors and Chris has upgraded her security, but it’s not the monster killer she fears, it’s one of the blokes in the pub who overstepped the mark, though she wouldn’t call it rape, no, it’s just par for the course and it’s up to her to make sure he doesn’t do it again.

When May finally gets an interview with Chris (as we knew she always would), she remarks on Chris’s ease with men:

‘[…] You’re good at your job, well-presented, as they say. If you wanted to you could get work in one of the more upscale places.  I think you like the Royal because it’s so blokey.  I watched you there one night. There was an energy. Between you and all the blokes.  Sexual, for sure, but not only that. They like you – not just for your body or whatever – but you.  And you like them.’

‘People are nice to me, I’m nice to them.  Nothing worth banging on about.’

‘That’s just it,’ May said.  ‘It’s so unusual and you don’t even realise it. You don’t realise how much most men dislike women.  And knowing that, most women can’t relax around men the way you do. Can’t let ourselves show that we like them even if we really do.’

‘Ah.  That’s a different thing, though.  I like ’em fine, but I’m never relaxed, not fully.  It’s like with dogs.  All the joy in the world, but once you’ve seen a Labrador rip the face off a kid, you can’t ever forget what they’re capable of.’

May leaned forward.  ‘Is that just a metaphor?  The Labrador thing?’ (p. 254)

All my life I’ve been surrounded by good men, non-violent men, so much so that when a vice principal once let his fear of female leadership overwhelm him, I walked out of the school and went home as a signal that I would not tolerate his screaming, his aggression and his invasion of my body space.   I had never encountered it before, and had never expected it to occur in a primary school, of all places.   Books like An Isolated Incident are a reminder to people like me and the nice men that I know, that there’s a culture out there that needs to change, and that it’s all the more dangerous because it’s so everyday.

Bill at The Australian Legend reviewed it too.

Author: Emily Maguire
Title: An Isolated Incident
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2016
ISBN: 9781743538579
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings Bookshop $29.99 (but it’s gone up since then)

Available from Fishpond (cheaper): An Isolated Incident


  1. I must say I still prefer The Natural Way of Things, but the way you (and Michelle) read this while not totally different to the way I did, is still sufficiently different in emphasis to make me wonder is it a bloke thing – I might be able to see it but perhaps I don’t feel it.

    • Good grief, I forgot that you had reviewed it too. Will fix that now with a link.

  2. Great review, thanks Lisa. I couldn’t agree more that this one is a much more sophisticated take on misogyny than The Natural Way of Things. For me, An Isolated Incident also illuminates the insidious sexism and misogyny of the crime genre, as well as of society.

    • Thank you!
      And yes, Bella being ‘pretty’ and ‘good’ is a point well made in the novel.

  3. Sounds excellent, but why did I think you didn’t read psychological thrillers?

    • Hi Kim, I don’t really think it is a psychological thriller, not in the sense that I understand the genre. The blurb says it is, but there are no heart-pounding moments over and over again building to a crescendo when you think she (or someone) is going to be attacked. The tone is altogether different to that kind of novel.

      • Hmmm… interesting. Your review didn’t make it sound like a typical psychological thriller, hence my question. I read a domestic abuse novel earlier in the year that was billed in similar way but I’m not sure it really fit in with the normal conventions of the genre, although it did have some genuinely scary moments in it.

        • Well, I don’t really know what the conventions of the genre are, because I didn’t like the ones I’ve read that seemed like psych thrillers, so I haven’t really read enough to know. But LOL I guess there must be some heart-stopping moments where you think something terrible is going to happen, even if it turns out not to take place. And maybe being a page turner is part of that?

  4. Oh, I loved this book. As you say, it’s the very ‘ordinariness’ of the situation that makes it so powerful – and I found Chris really got under my skin for her mixture of strength and vulnerability. I’ve read this book twice – I’ll probably read it again at some stage. Terrifically well done.

    • Hello Sylvia, good to hear from you:)
      I imagine that authors would really admire this book for the skill in its characterisation. As you say, getting the balance with Chris just right.
      I have been wondering whether it could have worked equally well in the outer suburbs of one of our big cities, where in pockets, people do know each other really well, and the police certainly know who their ‘persons of interest’ are…

  5. I grew up in the Blue Mountains (decades ago) and it rang pretty true to me. Also – vulnerability, I’ve decided, is not the word I want to use for Chris. She’s too strong and gutsy to be simply vulnerable. It’s more about the danger of being a woman in those circumstances – that sort of woman, in those circumstances. I really thought EM nailed that. It’s a fabulous book – glad you reviewed it.

    • (Although *chuckle* there was no intelligent plan involved, just the vagaries of my TBR) I’m glad I timed it a bit after the initial publicity following the release, because it gets a new burst of publicity now. I want lots of people to read this book.

  6. […] you can see from my review, it’s a novel that speaks to Emily’s skill in creating compelling and highly readable […]

  7. I read An Isolated Incident just recently and thought it was a good read. I agree so much better than The Natural Way of Things. Chris is a believable character and the setting rang true too. I do like Emily Maguire’s writing style – it is not forced.

    • I agree, and I think it’s the characterisation of Chris Michaels that makes the book a success. She refuses to be a victim, she has great self-awareness and she can see the droll side of things which saves the book from being too grim.

  8. Ive put this on my wishlist on the strength of your review.

  9. Great review Lisa. I’ve just finished this book but unfortunately didn’t read with the same insight as you. In retrospect, I can see the subtleties in Macguire’s message and the way it was delivered but I was distracted by her style which I felt was extremely overdone (in particular, I don’t think the ‘ordinariness’ was in fact that ordinary).

    This is certainly not my usual fare but read it because it made the Stella longlist. I don’t think it’s shortlist material but I suspect I’m in the minority!

    • *chuckle* Who knows, my experience on a shadow jury is that trying to predict the winning book is fraught with difficulty. Some judges dig their heels in over books they really dislike, so that a compromise book has to be chosen even though the majority really liked something else, while others (like me) wimp it and let the others have their way.

  10. […] other reviews of this book, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers and Kate’s at booksaremyfavouriteand […]

  11. […] An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire, (Picador Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia), see my review […]

  12. […] Emily McGuire: An Isolated Incident, see my review […]

  13. Your review is definitely luring me back down to the bookshop, despite my ever increasing reading pile. Thanks…I think.
    xx Rowena

    • It’s a terrific book. One of the things I like about this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist is that every book is well worth reading, whether they win it or not.

  14. […] blogging friends, including Michelle (Adventures in Biography), Bill (The Australian Legend), Lisa (ANZLitLovers), Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). Two didn’t like it much, and two liked it a […]

  15. […] An Isolated Incident, by Emily Maguire, see my review […]

  16. […] (I would have liked to write ‘zero tolerance’ but Emily Maguire’s powerful novel An Isolated Incident would give the lie to […]

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