I 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
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings Bookshop $29.99 (but it’s gone up since then)
Available from Fishpond (cheaper): An Isolated Incident