Despite being a straight, white, privately-educated man, until recently I never thought of myself as privileged. That’s how privilege works: it tricks you into seeing only your own experience, stops you from engaging with other people’s perspectives. Over the past five years, both through teaching people radically different from myself and reading much more broadly, that’s starting to change – but I’m still a work in progress, and so that means any novel that shows a radically different perspective from my own is really welcome. An Isolated Incident is one such book: one that unflinchingly shows some of the difficulties facing women today, and the ways those difficulties can directly affect everything else in one’s life. It’s a bracing, important novel that will surely feature on a lot of people’s ‘best of the year’ lists.
An Isolated Incident centres around Bella Michaels, a small-town Australian girl who’s found brutally murdered by the side of the road. Two narrative strands focus on Chris, Bella’s sister, and May, a reporter sent to write up the murder: both explore different angles on the event, with Chris’s narrative focussing on the mental impact of losing a family member while May’s tackles the complexities of writing accurately about such things. I found Chris’s narrative more compelling than May’s, possibly because of the power with which Emily Maguire renders Chris’s emotions – although that could be a matter of personal taste, as there’s certainly plenty to digest in May’s investigations.
It bears saying that An Isolated Incident is not a crime novel: it’s not written in that style, nor structured along genre lines. There are developments in the case, true, but Maguire is much more interested in using Bella’s death to explore the fault lines in Australian society. So, early on in the narrative May visits a shrine to Bella and sees (among other things):
Five candles, two of them never lit, one of them with BELLA crudely carved into its white wax. Two small teddy bears, a plush bunny, a sequinned butterfly pinned with a ribbon tied to a branch. BELLA MICHAELS 1990-2015 GOODBYE ANGEL etched into the tree, shallow enough that the tree would slough it off before long. YOU WILL BURN IN HELL MURDEROUS FUCKERS WHO DID THIS TO AN ANGEL ON EARTH… Beneath it, in green paint, unless I find you first then youll burn rite here.
There’s an economy of detail in that passage that expertly captures the way women are idealised after their deaths, along with its undercurrents of male misogyny and violence, and Maguire is shrewd enough to capture the contrast. An Isolated Incident is bracingly frank about sexuality, with Chris a part-time prostitute and May on the rebound from an ill-fated affair with a married man, and although Maguire’s narrative generally presents Chris and her activities positively, there’s always a sense that men view her as ‘that kind of girl’, her sexuality making her a target. It captures the complexity of life in a town like Strathdee brilliantly: a woman there simply can’t win, not when men are always watching and judging her.
Maguire’s novel is also remarkably wide-ranging and nuanced – one sub-plot revolves around a feminist organisation that want to “honour Bella’s memory by holding a march against victim-blaming and violence against women”, and when Chris gives a non-committal answer to its organiser, the event goes ahead regardless without any further input from her. Scenes like this, touching on the way deaths like Bella’s can be co-opted for political purpose, testify to how carefully Maguire has thought through her themes, elevating her writing to something special. Equally impressive is how the novel captures the collateral damage of Bella’s case, the way that even bystanders are sucked in, with the hunger of the news media dredging up everyone’s secrets without compunction.
It’s a timely novel, too, especially given the resurgence of bold feminist writing in the past few years. At one point May’s narrative briefly touches upon biological determinism, when May’s brother callously mumbles “women don’t, generally, do they? Kill, I mean… I used to think it was culture, socialisation, but the older I get the more I think it’s biological,” to which May reacts with predictable disdain. Similarly, and without wanting to give too much away, the ending also makes a strong argument for unity and solidarity – although Maguire is far too skilled a writer to give in to trite cliché, and she never shies away from showing the challenges faced by modern women.
An Isolated Incident is clear-eyed and forceful. It’s always compelling, it’s extremely well-written, and most of all it’s important: giving a sustained perspective about what life can be like for a vast section of people. At times it left me shaken and at times it left me horrified, but in the way that writing should do – showing you the world as it is, so you put the book down determined to take action. It’ll undoubtedly feature on many ‘Best of the Year’ lists in 2018, and deservedly so. I recommend it highly.
An Isolated Incident was published by Eye/Lightning Books. You can buy it on Kindle for £4.07 or in paperback for £8.99, from Amazon. Alternatively, buy it direct from Eye/Lightning Books here – the paperback costs the same, but Eye/Lightning will make double the money.
Eye/Lightning Books are on Twitter here, publishing both fiction and non-fiction. Their back catalogue is really fascinating, with some great titles, and worth a look.
Thanks to Eye/Lightning Books for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes
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