This book sits comfortably on the shelf that holds Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man and indeed, Krein’s earlier book Into the Woods. Like them, it starts with a court case as its springboard. Here, it is the trial of Justin, a VFL player who hasn’t quite made it to the AFL standard, who is accused of rape after one of those numerous footy gang-bangs we read about. They bubble up into the news, meet with momentary tut-tutting and ‘boys will be boys’ then submerge again until the next dreary occurrence.
Like Garner and Hooper before her, Krein sits in the courtroom, observing the procedures, watching the protagonists and their families, feeling her own sympathies being twisted and swayed by what is playing out before her. “Playing” is the operative word here, because as observer, she is privy to what the jury is not: the blokey negotiation of what can and can’t be said in the court, and the effect of the enforced silences on the narrative that can be made to explain the events on the night of the crime.
For Justin may have been hanging around with the Collingwood Football Club big boys, but he wasn’t one of them. At first the courtroom bulges with Eminent Legal People because there is a chance that Collingwood stars will be caught up in it, but once the involvement of The Club is negotiated, they depart. Justin’s whole family will pay financially and dearly for the legal representation they are left with.
Justin’s family feel that Krein is on “their” side, but she is not completely. Sarah, the rape victim, does not engage with her at all (as is her absolute right), but it does mean that the narrative of the book is somewhat slanted.
But Justin and Sarah and what happened that night are only one part of the book as it spins off into a broader exploration of sex, rape, power, celebrity and permission. This is very much a join-the-dots exercise, as she narrates a series of sexual scandals that have arisen over recent years involving both AFL and NRL, all too many of which involve my own football team, St Kilda. She teases out these threads even further by examining the treatment of women journalists in sporting culture (for example, Caroline Wilson on The Footy Show) and the ubiquitous Wives-and-Girlfriends who have their own reflected celebrity status.
In many places, she can find no definitive answers, only more questions. She often refers to “shades of grey” (denoting uncertainty rather than That Book) both in her own response and in the issues that arise. I must say that I found this rather frustrating. Both Garner and Hooper, in their fore-mentioned books, also admit to “shades of grey” but somehow manage to come to some sort of definitive statement. I don’t know that Krein ever does: she can say that there are connections and injustices here, but I’m not sure that she ties them together into an argument that you can take issue with. You sense that she is dodging what she expects to be brickbats from feminists and football supporters, by raising questions and admitting uncertainty as a pre-emptive defence.
In recent weeks, the questions raised by this book have resurfaced with the publication of an article by The Secret Footballer, where he very much voices the arguments of the sporting fraternity: they (the women) are scrags and ask for it; what about permission etc. etc. etc. [Interestingly, the article itself seems to have disappeared, but a commentary on the article survives here]. He says that what is driving change is not all the behavioural programs imposed by the clubs, or wider societal change, but fear of exposure through social media. He never was involved in gang-bangs himself, he says, because he never did like to share his toys. It’s rather chilling to hear all this voiced so definitely. It reinforces everything that Anna Krein has written about in this book.
There’s a very good review of the book by Deb Waterhouse-Watson here.
I have posted this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.