Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 21, 2022

Iris (2022), by Fiona Kelly McGregor

Fiona Kelly McGregor is, according to her website a cross-disciplinary author, artist and critic who writes novels, essays, articles and reviews.  Some readers will know her as a performance artist, but most notably as the author of Indelible Ink (2010) which won the Age Book of the Year. (See my review.)  Her previous fiction also includes Strange Museums (2008); Chemical Palace (2002); Suck My Toes (1994), short stories re-issued by Scribe as the ebook Dirt (2013) along with the novel Au Pair (1993) which I read and enjoyed before I started this blog or (alas) even a reading journal. She was named as one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists in 1997.

Mcgregor’s website tells me that this new novel Iris, is the first in a duet of novels based on the life of real-life Iris Webber:

a petty criminal active in Sydney’s sly-grog underworld from the 1930s-1950s. Set 1932-37, Iris is an epic and picaresque ride through inner-city slums; a doomed love story peopled with scammers, gangsters and thieves. It’s an interrogation of how society criminalises its most marginalised people.

So the 448 pages that I’ve just read is but the first instalment of prodigious research for McGregor’s doctoral thesis!

(Mercifully) the novel doesn’t read like a thesis.  Written in a profusion of short vivid sentences, peppered with (a-hem) lively language and authentic slang of the era, it tells the story of a woman who was a survivor, but whose survival was always only tentative.  And while Iris comes across as a woman determined to be in charge of her life, I came to the end of the novel feeling melancholy because her life was so compromised by crime as a solution to extreme poverty.  She and her friends were constantly in and out of gaol for both petty crime and on remand for more serious crimes, and the ‘Refty’ was a brutal place.  A very brutal place, where Iris was often cold, hungry, and recovering without medical attention for the beatings that had been dished out to her.

In a life characterised by insecurity in all the things that matter (shelter, income, safety, dignity) it was the insecurity of her friendships that seemed most tragic to me.  Conned — not too reluctantly, it must be said — into sex work when she arrives in Sydney after a disastrous marriage in Glen Innes, Iris has a transactional view of sex until she meets the love of her life, Maisie.  But Maisie, and her other friend Kath, and the brothel madams that support her are all living on the margins too, and their own survival has to be their top priority. Loyalty is a luxury they can’t always afford.  Yes, they thieve together in gangs, and they pay each other’s bail when they can, but there are long periods in gaol on remand for murder when Iris has no visitors, and no certainty that the witnesses she’s relying on for her defence will come through for her.

Iris is a long and occasionally confusing novel with a lot of characters, and there were times when I felt that repetitions made it too long for itself.  But when I turned the last page I realised that it needed to be the length that it is.  The life of Iris, and people like her, living in a society that had abandoned the victims of the Depression, was not an episode that can be tucked into a tidy novel of about 300 pages.  That kind of life was a relentless, grinding struggle to find food and shelter and a measure of safety, and it went on and on for years and years.  Iris is not like Amy in Olga Master’s Amy’s Children (1994, see my review) who likewise comes to Sydney to escape the poverty of rural NSW during the Depression but manages to transcend her situation to make a life of dignity.  Iris in McGregor’s novel has more initiative, more talent and greater adaptability than Amy ever had, but what she lacks is Amy’s patience.  Amy accepts that there is no way upward but to accept a life of privation and to value small victories when she achieves them.  Iris, when she makes the fateful decision at Sydney’s Central Station not to go to a stultifying life with her aunt, wants more, and she wants it faster.  And life has already taught her that being ‘good’ and working hard just leaves her open to exploitation.

Iris lives life on her own terms.

Other reviews are at The Conversation, Arts Hub and other paywalled sites.

Author: Fiona Kelly McGregor
Title: Iris
Cover design by Amy Daoud
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan) 2022
ISBN: 9781760787684, pbk., 448 pages
Source: Kingston Library

 


Responses

  1. I have a copy of this and hope to read it soon.

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    • You’d know Sydney much better than I do, and I’m guessing you’ll be struck by the contrast between the posh suburbs of the inner city today, and what they were back then. I’ve read Ruth Park, but although I think her characters are more vivid (maybe because there are less of them) I think McGregor renders the Sydney streets more vividly than Park does.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I bought this ages ago and it’s still sitting in the pile! Hope to read it soon-ish…

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    • It crossed my mind when I was reading this that it would appeal to readers of true crime, so I’ll be interested to see what you think.

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