Suffragettes Resurrected, Maternal Ambivalence And Toxic Teens: Two Australian Novels Impress, But One Overpromises

Author: Liz Evans

(MENAFN- The Conversation) Earlier this year, I spent a day immersed in the second wave of British feminism at Tate Britain's Women In Revolt: Art and Activism in the UK 1970-90 . More of an event than an exhibition, the show was brimming with multimedia installations and artworks celebrating 20th-century, grass-roots activism.

I was equally struck by the audience and the exhibition. The gallery was buzzing as multiple generations gathered to learn and reminisce about the creative, politically engaged, socially diverse communities of women who altered British culture 50 years ago.

As their name suggests, second-wave feminists were not the first women to agitate for change. The pioneering work was done by suffragettes (the first-wave feminists), as Melanie Joosten explains in her vibrant new novel, Like Fire-Hearted Suns .

Review: Like Fire-Hearted Suns – Melanie Joosten (Ultimo), Thanks for Having Me – Emma Darragh (Allen & Unwin), Lead Us Not – Abbey Lay (Viking)

Unlike their successors, first-wave feminists were mostly white, wealthy women, and the movement was characterised by structural privilege. But Joosten's clever choice of protagonists allows her to critique this inherent issue, while detailing the struggles and dreams of the individuals involved.

Women in Revolt celebrates 20th-century, grass-roots activism. A suffragette prison story

A fictionalised account based on historical research, the story begins in 1908 and revolves around two young students, Catherine Dawson and Beatrice Taylor. The third protagonist is prison warden Ida Bennett, who oversees the suffragette inmates of Holloway prison.

Ida, a widow of mixed ancestry with two young boys, is clearly distinct from the well-to-do Catherine and Beatrice. Resentful of the uppity attitudes and frivolous demands of her prisoners, her distress is further complicated by her racist treatment and the traumatic burden of having to force-feed the inmates when they go on hunger strike. But Ida is also a single working parent, unable to raise her own children: she understands the need for change more than most.

Catherine and Beatrice share student digs, similar wealthy backgrounds and a belief in women's voting rights. They are also fiercely critical of each other's lobbying styles and contrasting political approaches.

Beatrice is happy to throw bombs and smash windows as a member of the Women's Social and Political Union, even though this results in repeated arrests and nightmarish spells in Holloway with Ida.

Catherine prefers the pacifist campaigns of the Women's Freedom League and sells copies of the League's own newspaper, The Vote, while petitioning the government. Catherine does not approve of Beatrice's tactics, and Beatrice deems Catherine's actions to be ineffective.

Together with Ida's conflicted attitude, the womens' mutual irritation and political divide adds personal depth and insight to the historical context of their story. The varied perspectives remind the reader feminism has always been a pluralist discourse.

With such distinct characters at play, the narrative's omnipresent point of view works well enough, though the switches from one individual's interior state to the next can be sudden and jarring, and the intentionally old-fashioned linguistic style is initially awkward to read. But Joosten is a gifted writer who manages to integrate factual detail into an engaging, compelling story with a fascinating cast. Her ability to revitalise such an important chapter of women's history is a huge achievement.

Brutalised and sexually assaulted by the police and the public, and horribly abused within the penal system during their 25-year campaign to gain the vote (from 1903 to 1928), the suffragettes' battle was a violent one, often enacted upon their own bodies.

Name-checked in recent years by Extinction Rebellion , Climate Rush and Just Stop Oil , they were honoured in 1981 by the women of Greenham Common , who wore their predessors' colours of green, purple and white while marching to the Royal Air Force base in Berkshire for their anti-nuclear campaign.

In 1981, the women of Greenham Common honoured their predecessors during their anti-nuclear protest. Jude Munden Visual Archive , CC BY-NC-ND

Nevertheless, the suffragettes have been largely consigned to the history books, where their stories have been misrepresented and misunderstood. Joosten's novel reasserts their right to be heard on a wider scale.

Like Women In Revolt's tribute to the Greenham women at the Tate, it's a worthy commemoration of a conflict that should never be forgotten.

Read more: What are the four waves of feminism? And what comes next?

Maternal ambivalence

A very different tale of 20th-century women comes from Emma Darragh in her debut novel, Thanks for Having Me , the first fiction release of Joan Press , the new Allen and Unwin imprint under the curatorship of Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander actor, writer and producer (now publisher) Nakkiah Lui .

Confronting, poignant and tender, the novel highlights some uncomfortable truths about the bonds of love and conventional family systems, within a mosaic of beautifully crafted stories that turn the spotlight on maternal ambivalence.

Refusing a straightforward chronological sequence, these tales of transgenerational trauma unfold around each other organically, hanging together in a loose but discernible pattern. Fraught and fragile mother–daughter bonds are juxtaposed with toxic sibling rivalries and unfulfilling marriages. Lost ambitions are weighed against the disappointing realities of family life and unfulfilling relationships. Yet somehow, love is never quite absent from the picture.

Mary Anne, her mental health in the balance, walks out on her husband and teenage daughters, retreating to the seat of familial dysfunction that is her parents' house.

Nursing a hot, maternal wound, Vivian is volatile and unstable but settles down with a caretaking husband, only to leave her own child, Evie, when life gets too beige to bear.

Little Evie, born around the millennium and named after her late great aunt, is left at home with her dad and her broken, child-sized heart. Caught in the crossfire, Vivian's love leaves enough of a trace to sustain her. Over the years, she shifts into a touchingly maternal role with her motherless mother, who has never quite grown up.

Emma Darragh. Sarah Wilson

Written with varying degrees of grit and empathy, Mary Anne and Vivian make ill-judged decisions and create terrible predicaments for themselves and those around them. They grasp at love, security, acceptance, and try their best to make things better – to do things better. This saves the novel from becoming bleak, despite the pervading sense of hopelessness.

An assured debut ringing with empathy, Thanks for Having Me critiques the flawed institution of motherhood by showing its impact on maternal experience.

With nonfiction publications like Lucy Jones' Matrescence now addressing maternal ambivalence and the challenges of parenting from the perspective of science as well as culture, second-wave feminists like psychotherapist Roszika Parker and poet and essayist Adrienne Rich are being reappraised.

Projects like the MotherNet collaboration between universities in Vilnius, Uppsala and Maynooth are funding research into a range of fields that converge on maternal experience, which doesn't necessitate having a child. Conversations are changing, and Darragh's novel is a valuable contribution.

Read more: I've had enough of Sad Bad Girl novels and sensationalised trauma – but I'm hungry for complex stories about women

Teen girls and toxic friendship

Thanks For Having Me is not just about family though. Friendships play a part here too, with their capacity to soothe or exacerbate familial harm. Joosten also acknowledges the importance of friendship within the testing conditions of political divide. And in her debut novel, Lead Us Not , Abbey Lay makes friendship the whole story.

Toxic teenage dynamics have become something of a trope in recent years, and for good reason. With the complexity of adolescence now troubled by the rapid ascent of social media, and the added confusion of online networking, there is much to explore. But while Lay's subject matter holds currency, especially with the added questions of sexual exploration, her story lacks intrigue and ultimately fails to convince.

The premise is familiar enough. Millie, an insecure teenage girl develops a fascination with the more beautiful, more sexually experienced Olive, who moves in next door. Both are in their final year at the same Catholic girls' high school, though their paths have never previously crossed.

Olive quickly establishes herself with the upper hand in the relationship, while the fixated Millie does her new friend's bidding, happily dumping her old one, Jess, in the process. Boys are present but peripheral, serving as fodder for the girls' intimate discussions. To this end, Olive instructs Millie to lose her virginity with the painfully awkward Leon, while divulging the details of her own sex life with handsome tennis player, Hunter.

There is nothing surprising in any of this. Teenage girls are renowned for their intense, romantic, often cruel, sometimes transgressive friendships. The merging of identities and unequal power dynamics are virtually a high-school rite of passage. After all, TV shows like Yellowjackets , in which teen-girl rivalry escalates into lifelong trauma following a plane crash in the wilderness, were not born into a void.

There is nothing wrong with this story arc either – and Lay's prose is elegant and well crafted. She carefully avoids extreme drama, while raising interesting questions about the authenticity of friendship. But while she builds tension with skill, the plot is too pedestrian and the characters are not compelling or mature enough to match the level of suspense she spins.

Olive and Millie, supposedly in year 12, behave more like year 9 or 10 students, setting out on relatively innocent social and sexual adventures with high-blown attitudes. However, their emotional concerns and conversations are too young for their age.

Next to Laura Elizabeth Woollett's West Girls , with its complex twists of social, cultural and ethnic hierachies, their white middle-class preoccupations appear simplistic and anodyne.

There is a distinct uniformity to Olive and Millie's world. All their friends are from conservative backgrounds, with good-enough families and comfortable homes. The Catholic girls consort with the boys from St Marks as if in a preordained bubble. Nobody deviates or dissents, which makes Millie's obsession with Olive all the more curious, because apart from a touch of drama-school charisma, Olive is no different to the rest.

When the girls explore the boundaries of their friendship during a school camping trip, there is potential for something to develop. But the tentative steps they take towards each other are barely discernible, and the emotional landscape remains under-explored.

After the trip, a communication failure brings the unhealthy dynamic to a head. Olive retreats, leaving Millie upset and confused. Millie, an intelligent, sensitive girl on the verge of womanhood, inexplicably fails to understand why Olive has withdrawn from her. The narrative presents this emotional temperature change as a pivotal mystery for both Millie and the reader, but it's too much of a stretch: there is no mystery. The reasons for Olive's vanishing act are all too plain.

Abbey Lay is 'hopefully on the edge of a promising career'.

Overall, Lay's novel would be better suited for the young adult (YA) market. The book's attempt to interrogate themes of control, vulnerability, trust and honesty within a toxic dynamic is worthwhile, but the level at which these topics are addressed is too naive to satisfy an adult, or even an older YA readership.

A poised and assured writer, Lay is hopefully on the edge of a promising career, but her use of subtlety and restraint needs to be balanced with greater depth and scope. And her characters are in danger of sleepwalking into the future. By contrast, the women and girls of Like Fire-Hearted Suns and Thanks For Having Me understand the need to fight.

If I could, I'd pitch the Catholic girls into the thick of a suffragette rally with Beatrice, or get Evie to sneak them some vodka at a party while Vivian flirts her arse off. Then I'd transport them to the Tate and the epicentre of Women In Revolt, where Gina Birch's Three Minute Scream echoes through the galleries.

Finally, I'd guide them through all the feminist diversity of that whole heartstopping show, in the hope of enriching their perspectives and expanding their vision.

And then I'd let go of their hands.

The Conversation


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