An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire

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An Isolated Incident (2016) is the story of a rape and murder, in a town midway along the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney, told mostly by the murdered woman’s sister. It is not a whodunit, we are given no clues as to the murderer’s identity, but is rather a portrait of one woman’s descent into and eventual acceptance of grief. I bought and read this novel following MST’s review in Adventures in Biography where she writes, “Crucially, An Isolated Incident also illuminates the insidious sexism and misogyny of the genre, as well as of society”, and describes Maguire, whom I have not previously read, “as a safe pair of hands” whose “articles and essays on sex, feminism, culture and literature have been published widely”.

In Comments Michelle wrote that she thought I might like it, “Not least because it has trucks and truck drivers in it!” In fact, that ended up being the part that nearly put me off finishing, let alone writing a review.

On Monday, 6 April (which makes the year 2015) police in the fictional town of Strathdee knock on the door of big-breasted, 30 something barmaid Chris to ask her to come with them to formally identify the brutalised and barely recognisable body of her younger sister Belle which has been found a few kilometres out of town near the edge of the Highway. Strathdee is a town of about 3,000 people which has in the past few years been bypassed by the Highway but which still sees a lot of travellers and truck drivers pulling in for a beer and a night’s sleep. Chris will often bring a truckie home for the night, partly for the sex and partly it seems, because they are willing to pay.

Chris receives support from her ex-husband, Nate, with the compliance of his (pregnant) new partner in Sydney, and Nate is for a while the chief suspect. Over time Chris is befriended by a journalist, May, who gets a bit obsessed with retelling Belle’s story.

At the half-way mark the novel had two weaknesses, and I was close to giving up. Firstly Chris speaks directly to the reader. However, the conversational tone does not always come off, people don’t always speak in full sentences, and sometimes the author is forced to use awkward constructions to advance the exposition. Secondly, Maguire reads like a middle class city woman writing about an area she drove through once and thought she might reconstruct as the setting for a novel about working class male violence.

So. I’ve been up and down the Hume Highway since the 1960s when it was a hilly, winding country road. I remember when fog lines were first painted along the outside edges so that when an oncoming Grey Ghost (that’s a Kwikasair Express truck not a parking inspector) came wide around a bend in the rain in the middle of the night you could at least see you were being forced onto the shoulder. I remember stopping with my mates to build a bonfire and have a beer, when roadside pubs were the dinner stops of choice, when ‘general freight’ meant taking your time. Well, those days are gone. The Hume Highway has been a freeway now for a generation and Campbellfield to Camperdown takes 8 hours or you’d better explain where you’ve been, the blood alcohol limit for truck drivers is 0.00, and a break is half an hour at a plastic table at a BP/McDonalds truck stop.

If you’ve read Eve Sallis’ Hiam (1998) you might remember the fuss about whether Sallis had ever actually driven from Adelaide to Darwin. Well the same applies to Maguire. Strathdee is part Gundagai, part Tarcutta and part ‘imagination’. A town of 3,000 people may have 3 churches and lots of pubs but it also has a lot more than ‘six’ streets. And truck drivers don’t get to pull into bypassed towns, let alone for a few beers and a night’s sleep. If Maguire ever did drive down the Hume Highway at night she would find it nose to tail with trucks at 100 kph, and no place for cars!

In the second half of the novel Maguire sticks to doing what she knows best – writing about the nature of men’s violence to women – and it shows, in the flow of her writing and in the increase in psychological tension. Some of Chris’s increasingly frequent bad choices come back to bite her, and May, who’s been making some bad choices of her own, and whose point of view and journalism we hear from time to time, begins to identify with Belle, who had probably been having a secret affair with a married co-worker, as May was herself:

… maybe this was exactly what being that kind of girl [who screwed married men] felt like. It felt like being lonely and uncertain and excited and anxious about enjoying the company of a man who speaks frankly even while finding some of the things he says a bit upsetting. It felt like wondering if you were a bad feminist because the scent of a man’s groin sends the blood to your cunt and the way he grips your hair and groans gets you dripping wet and knowing you are a bad feminist and a bad person because there are more important things than wanting a man and wanting a man to want you …

In the end Chris is still alone, May has her one on one interview, and the Police have their man. This is a strongly written and opinionated book. I clearly didn’t like all of it, but by all means give it a try. And try not to get too annoyed at the bits I got too annoyed at!

 

Emily Maguire, An Isolated Incident, Picador, Sydney, 2016

 

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30 thoughts on “An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire

  1. *chuckle* Some blokes are never happy… he finally gets a book with trucks in it, and he’s not happy with it!
    But yes, the Ex and I did the Hume from Melbourne to Seymour/Puckapunyal once a fortnight in the 1970s when it was a very dangerous stretch of road, an undivided highway with only one lane going each way with an occasional overtaking lane. (Though in our day there was a truck stop at Seymour where one of my neighbours did the midnight shift).
    In fact our old Mini met its end on that road. The bloke we sold it to was driving back up to Pucka when he met three trucks coming towards him over Pretty Sally. There wasn’t anywhere else for him to go but a tree on the side of the road because he figured he was better off to hit a stationary tree than a moving truck. And he lived to tell the tale though the Mini was a write-off.
    But as you say, it’s nothing like that now, and even the occasional user of the Hume must have seen those massive truck stops where the truckies pull in for a quick meal. The cooks in those places are real heroes the way they serve the orders up so quickly! Bypassed towns are just that, and their laid-back cafes wouldn’t last five minutes with busy truckies who don’t have time to wait around while the hamburger gets cooked. The Spouse and I have occasionally thought to bring a little business to the bypassed towns on the NSW side of the Hume and have invariably left furious that the coffee machine ‘has just been cleaned’, the kitchen is ‘closed’ and the food if anything is available is atrocious. No sign of country hospitality in my experience, not in small places, and their attitude is that if you’re not from there, you don’t matter.
    But, hey, I have this book on my TBR (I have no idea why I bought it) so I will see what I think of it when I eventually get to it!

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    • Don’t get me started on Hume Highway stories! I’ve always avoided it if I could, in favour of back roads that preferably didn’t end up in Sydney. Look forward to hearing what you think of the book, but personally I don’t think trucks belong in literature.

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    • I don’t think you’ve stopped at the right places Lisa! We plan our Hume Highway road trips around our favourite places! Love Long Track Pantry at Jugiong, will go quite a way off route to the Gallery Cafe at Benalla, have a favourite in Seymour, and I’m pretty sure we found a good one at Euroa too on our last trip. We’ve finally found a nice one in Holbrook (not the “world’s best coffee” one, and not the Submarine one, though they do do some lovely fresh salads for lunch.)

      As for Canberra to Sydney – there are also several great coffee (and light meal) places. Grit just off the freeway near Goulburn – in the Big Merino and Macdonalds area (but don’t dare park in the Macdonalds carpark and go to Grit!!) – and the Meridian in Marulan are two favourites. Challenge is to make sure they are open. As retirees we travel mid-week often and find Tuesday is closed day for too many. Why don’t they coordinate we wail! Of course, we don’t mind waiting for nice coffee and perhaps a cake.

      Having just driven the Hume to Sydney yesterday in the company of trucks though – hmmm – not fun!

      As for Maguire, no comment as I’ve still to read one of her books though she is on my TBR!

      End of rave!!

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      • Ah yes, I bet I know your favourites in Goulburn, Benalla and Euroa, but I was thinking more of smaller towns than those. The ones that trigger curiosity when you see the signage for the turnoff, but when you leave there still hungry because there’s only one café and it’s open but the kitchen is closed, you realise why you’ve never heard of it!

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      • Fair enough Lisa … I wondered if that’s what you meant but had to stand up for our favourite places! I use Trip Advisor to avoid the ones you talk about. I find TripAdvisor really pretty good overall for country towns. Have rarely been led astray.

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      • Goulburn is a stopover for us, and it has long been a mystery to us that it took so little advantage of its opportunities. I think we found the B&B we use via Trip Adviser, but it was always a struggle to find anywhere nice for dinner. So I’m pleased to hear that things are on the improve!

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      • And that’s the point that Maguire misses. All these bypassed towns are tourist traps now and nothing to do with truckies other than those for whom the town is home base. I’m sure she was only trying to add colour to her underlying novel but IMO she failed to carry it off.

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      • I wonder if it would bother those not in the know. I find assessing fiction on facts tricky … If I’m not in the know it might seem perfectly plausible to me. Does that make me or it wrong? Still pondering this imponderable!

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  2. I’ve lost track of the indents. But, Lisa, I should have said, I’m glad you remember the Hume Highway in ‘the old days’, it was a truly terrible road. And Sue, Michelle who knows (or knew) the Hume pretty well was impressed by the book, so it’s probably just me, but it’s the same with that novel about the station on the edge of the Nularbor running Herefords that you all like, city novelists writing about the bush rub me up the wrong way.

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    • It sure was a truly horrible road – and Victoria got their side under better control much faster than NSW. Even just the road from Canberra to Sydney was awful – that tortuous wending through Mittagong, Bargo and Picton when I first lived in Canberra was awful. My trips to Gundagai (Yass to Gundagai) when I had a teacher friend in Tumult were more pleasant because that stretch was at least flatter and straighter.

      As for Stephen Orr, I guess we’ll just have to continue to agree to differ!

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  3. This one had crossed my radar but the quote you pulled out really doesn’t appeal to me at all. Must say that when there are details in a book that are wrong (such as the things you mentioned about blood alcohol etc) I find it so irritating that I almost can’t move beyond it. It’s lazy. And if you’re writing a book about the Hume, wouldn’t you drive it a few times?!

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    • Irritated is exactly how I felt. Novelists talk so much about their research, but in my opinion Maguire was focused on men and violence and thought (maybe rightly) that she could wing it on truckies and the Hume. Taking the trouble to set her story in a real/properly described Gundagai would have given the novel much more heft.

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      • A trap because it’s the ‘simple stuff’ like the Hume that you absolutely can’t stuff up – errors are glaringly obvious because it’s common experience!

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      • Actually, the afore-referred to Stephen Orr said on Lisa’s blog that research is over-rated, or over-focussed on, somesuch. I truly don’t worry about “fact” in fiction. I worry mostly about plausibility of character, ideas being explored, quality of the writing. I understand that if you “know” a subject well, inaccuracies can put you off (whether you consciously want them to or not) but in the end my view is that we are reading fiction and those other things I mentioned are the critical ones for me.

        I always come back to the idea that what if I’m faced with two books that are “equal” to me in terms of those things I mentioned (character, ideas, writing): one is set in a place I know and I see factual “errors” there; the other is in a place I don’t know and has the same sort of factual “errors” but I don’t know them. I love this one but am irritated by the other? Is that truly valid? It is valid, emotionally, because I can’t help my reaction, but looked at logically it really isn’t. This discrepancy is why I give authors a lot of slack when it comes to “fact” in fiction.

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      • Responding to comments is character forming! I’m not exactly developing opinions on the go but I’m being forced to clarify those opinions, not least to myself. So, the place I am at is that, leaving aside SF, I prefer fiction written out of the author’s direct experience. ‘Research’ has always seemed to me to have the aspect of someone in the business of writing in search of a gap in the market. My main focus as a reader is the author who is driven, and whose own main focus is the Art of writing, and as Sue says, character development. In relation to this book I’m sure that Maguire had in her a book on men’s violence that she needed to get out. Her failure was to site it in a location/situation that she wasn’t comfortable/competent in writing about. Sue, I probably shouldn’t pick on Stephen Orr given I’ve only read reviews of his work, and if he thinks that fiction shouldn’t need to rely on authors reading up great wads of material on their chosen topic then I agree with him.

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  4. So I’ve just finished this book. Honestly, I would not have read it were it not on the Stella Prize 2017 longlist. To be frank, I didn’t care for it at all – kind of felt like Maguire defeated her own purpose by basing her story on what seems to be the Jill Meagher case…

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    • It seemed to me that lots of women readers found the ‘main’ story, about men’s violence, compelling. I guess it was but I also thought the book wasn’t well written. The Stella, particularly as it admits non-fiction, seems to be more about subject matter than the quality of the writing – and indeed, who today is encouraged to write like Patrick White or Christina Stead? Anyway, do we get a review?

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      • I found the book to be focused on grief and the intrusive role of the media rather than violence. I think you’re right about the focus on subject matter (and for that reason I reckon The Hate Race will win this year – haven’t read it yet but the topic is timely).

        Have posted a review – acknowledge that I’m in the minority on this one.

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