Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 14, 2016

The Healing Party, by Micheline Lee

the-healing-partyThe Healing Party comes with impressive credentials.  It’s been nominated for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, and the blurb is by Helen Garner who calls it a wild family drama, shot through with a furious, pure and grieving love.  But it’s a difficult book for unbelievers because it’s about a family of ‘charismatic’ Christians and their daughter who doesn’t share their belief that a miracle is going to heal her mother’s cancer. Of necessity there’s a lot in it about faith, and although at the beginning I was mildly interested to see how this manifested itself in family life, the intensity of it wore rather thin for me. It took me three days to read it and that was not because it was a long book… it was reluctance to continue reading it.  I doubt that I would have if not for the VPLA nomination.

However, as Garner says, it’s a family drama, and differences in religious belief are just another one of many differences that can tear families apart.  Likewise the dogmatic attitudes shared by the Chan family are just another kind of psychological barrier that can cause estrangement within families.  In this novel Natasha has escaped her father’s domineering behaviour by making a new life in Darwin, but she can’t run away from the love she feels for her mother and she leaves her job to come home when she learns the bad news.

But the tensions between the four sisters are still unresolved, her father is as domineering as ever, and her mother is wholly compliant, just as before.  What complicates things still further is that Dad has convinced himself that if everyone has faith, then Jesus will confer a miracle, and the family is to hold a massive party to celebrate her cure.  So the pressure is on Natasha, and the situation is complicated by her own faith, which is strong but not of the ‘charismatic’ kind.

At the same time she is struggling with a failed relationship in Darwin, with grief for a troubled friend who died in circumstances somehow related to Natasha’s  father, and with her own feelings of self-loathing because she can’t seem to forge the kind of relationship she wants to have with her dying mother.  To say that she keeps putting her foot in it, is putting it mildly.  Interrogating her mother about her father’s infidelities doesn’t seem to me like a great way to develop intimacy, and Natasha’s judgemental attitudes masquerading as honesty don’t do much to help.   But intelligent as she is, Natasha does not seek help with a counsellor but struggles on alone within this noisy demanding family.

Australian author Alice Pung in Growing up Asian in Australia and her memoir Unpolished Gem has written frankly about the intergenerational conflict that can arise when families migrate from countries with different attitudes towards the older generation.  Of Cambodian heritage, she also wrote about her father’s flaws in Her Father’s Daughter.  Born in Australia too but to parents from Hong Kong, Benjamin Law wrote a comic miscellany of tales about his family from Hong Kong in Family Law, making humour out of the way their Chinese attitudes and customs seem eccentric in Australia.  In The Healing Party Lee shows the reader ways in which members of the family adapt in different ways but still defer to the older generation.

In some ways they are not a stereotypical wealthy Chinese-Australian family of high achievers.  Dad is not a businessman, he’s an artist.  However, apart from Natasha, the women have what is in Australia an old-fashioned attitude towards the inevitability of marriage and the sisters who have successful relationships pity the one who does not.  And Natasha, for all her refusal to conform to their religious tyranny, still submits to the gender roles:  there is an expectation that women perform all the household tasks as well as nurturing and caring for their sick mother.  Sometimes the conformity to the Chinese ‘norm’ goes awry: the women spend long hours making a lavish Chinese banquet for the party but on the day Dad ignores all that and sends out for KfC for his guests instead.  But this is rendered more as an example of Dad’s thoughtlessness than an example of adaptation, just as the neglect of the garden is more a matter of Dad’s preoccupation with other things.  None of them stand up to this bully: it is the father’s decree that the women all wear cheongsam traditional Chinese dresses for the party, even though his wife struggles to wear it over her bloated abdomen. It is quite harrowing to read about her treatment in hospital being accompanied by ecstatic prayer and song.  (I have lived this experience with a dying friend of mine who was a born-again Christian, and the hospital intervened for her sake and the sake of the other patients).

It takes great courage for Natasha to object to any of her father’s orders, and she immediately regrets it afterwards. And this I think is the unresolved nub of the novel: leaving aside the tyrannical father because his characterisation muddies the water, how do families resolve very strongly held positions that they have elevated to untouchable?  My generation knows how the Vietnam War divided families for decades, and the conscription issue divided families in the early 20th century.  Sometimes estrangement is the least painful solution, but then there are always the births, marriages and deaths which test the participants all over again…

Michael McGirr reviewed it for the SMH, likening the characterisation of Paul Chan to Sam Pollitt in Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, and Linda Morris interviewed the author, also in the SMH. Geordie Williamson reviewed it for The Australian but that’s probably paywalled.

Author: Micheline Lee
Title: The Healing Party
Publisher: Black Inc, 2016
ISBN: 9781863958431
Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Available from Fishpond:The Healing Party: A Novel


Responses

  1. ‘Old fashioned’ is proving a difficult concept these days – so many attitudes and beliefs that we (lefty baby boomers) thought were behind us are now prevalent again. But I don’t think that means I have to read novels about ‘born again’ Christians, however well written.

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    • True…
      But I do think there is something different about yearning for love (at any age) and believing that there is something wrong with a young woman if she hasn’t got a boyfriend. I’m not talking about teenage meanness of the sort that goes on in schools. They do it to bully rather than because they really believe it, and they just as easily switch to something else (glasses, braces, body shape etc) when it suits them. I’m talking about adult women. I don’t think most adult women think like that at all. The single young women I know are only too keen to keep their independence. They buy their own cars, apartments and travel the world and they hang out with each other, not with the young men pining on the sidelines!

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  2. Don’t think this one is for me. I just finished a memoir in which someone died of AIDS and while it was well written I need a break.

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    • Yes, I’m in the same sort of mood. Just went to the library and borrowed Poldark!

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      • Have you seen the new series?

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        • I’m not sure which series I’ve seen. Probably No 2, and since I hadn’t watched No 1, I watched that on iView…

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          • I saw series 1 waiting for 2 to be released

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            • Gosh, for once I am up to speed!

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  3. […] The Healing Party (Micheline Lee, Black Inc.), see my review […]

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  4. […] The Healing Party (Micheline Lee, Black Inc.), see my review […]

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  5. […] Micheline Lee: The Healing Party: A Novel (Black Inc Books), see my review […]

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  6. […] Micheline Lee’s The healing party: A novel (Lisa’s review) […]

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  7. […] Micheline Lee: The Healing Party: A Novel (Black Inc Books), see my review […]

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