2016, 243 p
The reviewing cycle for a much-talked-about book seems to move so quickly that, after a few months, everything seems to have been already said and people are moving onto the next new much-talked-about book. So I come- at last- to ‘An Isolated Incident’, which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize, longlisted for the Miles Franklin and commended for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.
It all makes me feel rather outgunned when I say that my response is rather lukewarm.
You probably already know that it’s about a murder of a young woman, Bella Michaels, an aged-care worker in the small country town of Strathdee. Despite being described by the publishers as a ‘psychological thriller’, this book doesn’t really fill that description at all. Instead, it is the description of grief and the surrounding media manipulation of a murder report. We, as readers, know as much or as little about the murder as the police do.
It is narrated from the alternating viewpoints of the murdered girl’s sister Chris, a barmaid at the local pub in Strathdee, and May, the journalist dispatched from the city to report on the crime. The book is arranged chronologically, starting with daily entries on the 6th April, then becoming less frequent as media interest in the case wanes. Chris’s sections are written in the first person, using a conversational tone and capturing the cadences of a fairly rough, indifferently educated country woman. May’s narrative is written in the third person, interspersed with the trashy interviews and articles that she has written over this time.
For much of it, I felt as if I were reading an article at the supermarket checkout or watching Sixty Minutes. I know that this was probably intentional on the part of the author, drawing readers into the voyeurism of crime-watching and armchair speculation. This is just one of the things that the book does well. It also captures well the lazy, casual misogyny of everyday life, magnified further in a small town, and the juxtaposition of an active, consensual female sexuality alongside non-consensual sexual creepiness. Sexuality was used to manipulate by both men and women in this book. She also puts her finger on – although does not explore further – the connections between offences that are portrayed as only “isolated incidents”
This had nothing to do with what happened to Bella and what happened to Bella had nothing to do with Tegan Miller [another woman murdered in Strathdee] and none of it had to do with the rich Sydney housewife left out to rot in the street which had nothing to do with the Nigerian girls stolen as sex slaves or the Indian woman eviscerated on a bus or the man grabbing women off the streets of Brunswick.
None of it connected, she knew, and yet, and yet, it felt like it. It felt to May, that there was a thread connecting it all, and if she could find it she could follow it back, see where it began. Rip it out and examine its source. p.343
“Rip it out and examine its source”: a noble aim, but not one achieved in this book. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve read a book that has been consciously written for a book-group discussion or to air “an issue”. I couldn’t quite shake this feeling when reading this book. Don’t get me wrong- I am a member of a bookgroup myself, and know that I would happily participate in the discussions that this book is likely to generate for the next couple of years. However, I don’t like feeling that I’ve been targeted as a market.
There’s the enjoyment that a reader has during reading, as distinct from the discussion and contemplation afterwards. I found that the book dragged and it was really only in the last 1/3 that I found myself becoming more engaged. Until then, I was underwhelmed by the vacuity of both women, and irked by the supernatural angle that was introduced halfway through. Just as the case ambled along, with little progress, so too did this book. Perhaps this is one of those books where its strength lies after reading it, rather than while reading it.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
My rating: 7/10
I’ve added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.