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