Bri Lee's And Louise Milligan's Predictable First Novels Combine Noughties Feminist Politics With The Swagger Of 80S Bonkbusters

Author: Liz Evans

(MENAFN- The Conversation) Making the leap from journalism and nonfiction to writing a novel takes courage. When I first entertained the idea myself, back in 2017, I needed some coaxing – followed by several years as a creative writing student – before I felt confident enough to do it.

Having been published consistently for decades as a feature writer, an author and an academic, I knew I could write, but that wasn't the issue. I wasn't a brand multi-hyphenate or a TV personality, but still, fiction felt more risky, more exposing, than the kind of work I had previously done.

Instead of focusing on rock stars, artists, writers and other luminaries, I was now generating my own characters. And while my story integrated some of the ideas and theories I'd studied over the years, now I was weaving them into my own creation . Effectively, I was making stuff up, and while it was fun, it was also quite scary because it meant I was going to be held accountable for this work in a whole new way.

With this in mind, the recent release of debut novels from two high-profile, highly regarded nonfiction writers deserves respect at the very least. No matter who you are, or how much you've achieved, it takes dedication, commitment and faith to make up enough stuff to fill a book.

Review: The Work – Bri Lee (Allen & Unwin), Pheasants Nest – Louise Milligan (Allen & Unwin)

Louise Milligan leaving the Magistrate's Court during the Cardinal Pell case. Luis Ascui/AAP

Louise Milligan has an exceptional track record as an award-winning investigative reporter and author , and is best known for breaking the story of child abuse allegations against George Pell .

Bri Lee , also a journalist, has established herself as a key figure among Sydney literary circles with her exhaustive interrogations of Australia's private education system and patriarchal beauty standards , as well as her brave memoir, Eggshell Skull , in which she takes on the law as an insider.

Forceful, intelligent agitators, both women have made their distinctive marks on the cultural landscape of contemporary Australia. But how do they fare when it comes to writing fiction? And is it possible to judge these books fairly, on their own merits, independently of the powerful reach and personalities of their authors?

Given Milligan and Lee have each delivered sure-to-be bestsellers, perhaps not entirely.

Bold stories of powerful women at the top of their games, both Milligan's Pheasants Nest and Lee's The Work are ambitious in scope and unashamedly brash in style. They feature glamorous protagonists, steamy love stories and between them, a multitude of prime locations.

Sharing all the hallmarks of page-turning mainstream fiction, these novels are tailor-made for the screen. They are also distinctly different from each other: Milligan's involves a horrific sexual crime (inspired by , but not based on, the Jill Meagher case), and Lee's highlights the ugly truth about the contemporary commercial art world.

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Rompy sex in a conservative world

Set in the upper echelons of New York society, The Work examines the age-old dilemma of creativity versus creative industry, effectively asking if the two can ever be separated within the context of capitalism.

The theme is huge and potentially complex, and you have to admire Lee for taking it on. But while the novel raises a raft of worthwhile ethical questions concerning wealth and white privilege, it can't decide whether to address them with satire or deny them with dazzle.

Redolent of a 1980s bonkbuster , The Work is centred around Manhattan gallery owner, Lally, and Sydney-based antiquities auctioneer Pat, who balance the indulgent demands of their jet-setting careers against their red-hot international love affair.

Juxtaposing lots of rompy sex – complete with wobbly buttocks, the odd smack and a spot of hair-pulling – with the glossy but mercenary dealings of the New York art scene, the novel depicts a horribly conservative world where youthful beauty and old white money continue to reign.

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When the story begins, Lally is having an affair with Mexican artist Joseph Rivera, who is working in the States without a visa. Just before his solo exhibition at her gallery, Lally catches him filming her during sex and threatens to alert the authorities, after which he suddenly dies of an overdose.

Over in Sydney, Pat is indulging his Mrs Robinson fantasies by getting it on with his old schoolfriend's stepmother in an ugly bid to handle the sale of her ex-husband's estate. From the outset, Pat and Lally are as awful as each other when it comes to hard-nosed ambition and self-serving relationships.

The two meet when Pat's boss sends him across the world to the Armory international art fair in New York. The attraction is instant and intense, effectively sealed by some slightly contrived, heated bickering about the relevance of classical art. Inevitably, Pat and Lally embark on a passionate affair, characterised by masses of vanilla-porny sex, and glitzy art parties until Pat flies home.

Once they're apart, the couple's impressive failure to communicate effectively is compounded by their mutual fear of commitment, together with the 14-hour time gap and stuttery internet connections. Needless to say, they still manage a spot of teen-wank-fantasy video sex, which seems to help.

As they fly back and forth between Australia and the US, desperately trying to ascertain what they mean to each other, Pat and Lally remain fully at the mercy of their respective professions. Pat gallivants around Sydney with his white-collar bros, drinking,“nailing” hot girls, enjoying the odd sensitive chat at his friend's bakery and trying to work out how to stop the stepmother ripping off his pants without losing his job.

Lally, mired in the greed and competition of the contemporary art market, continues to run herself into the ground for the sake of“Gallery Lally”, but takes an ill-advised turn by deciding to exhibit the work of photographer and renowned sex pest, Chuck Farr.

Determined to succeed in a profession that chokes creativity with business deals, where making art becomes a depressingly cynical practice, Lally chooses compliance over control. In a move that sits oddly with her smart, sharp character, she risks her livelihood and her reputation for the sake of Farr, a performative narcissist she fails to discern as just that.

Eventually Lally is taken to task for platforming Farr by a rising young female artist she was hoping to showcase – and shows apparent remorse. Yet it's hard to know whether Lally is truly sorry, or simply concerned about the damage to her reputation.

Meanwhile, up in regional Queensland, Pat is taught a thing or two about the value of relationships by his decidedly shabby, uneducated rural-dwelling relatives. Whether Lee is championing the family values of country Australia or lampooning a bunch of embarrassing redneck bumpkins is unclear. Maybe both?

A swagger of a novel

Glossy and smutty, The Work is a swagger of a novel teeming with exaggerated tropes and bright shiny drama. But while both plot and protagonists are overblown to the point of parody, Lee seems too enamoured of Manhattan's glamourous art world to fully satirise its inherent fragilities.

Bri Lee's brand is very popular. Instagram

In The Work, everyone is on the make, scruples don't exist and misogyny, ageism and racism are weaponised in a high-stakes game where art is a commodity and the artist is a star.

In Manhattan, the thought of growing older (60!) fills Lally with horror, and the presence of an Asian American gallery assistant is counted as box-ticking. In Sydney, racial stereotyping persists through the kind of casual attitudes that cause Pat's corporate bros to comment on the genitalia of black men, while women fake lesbian status to avoid being harassed in the office.

All the characters – country folk aside – are impeccably dressed, oozing money or striving for wealth, unashamedly schmoozing and sleeping their way to the top. Yet none of this is presented with the necessary dose of derision.

Consequently, as an expose, the novel is too caught up in its own glittery trap to deliver the cutting insights of more assured authors like Kiley Reid and Zakiya Dalila Harris , author of The Other Black Girl.

However, given the popularity of what is effectively Lee's brand, I don't think these shortcomings will stop The Work flying off the shelves.

Read more: Kiley Reid invites us to judge her college girls, as money, status and desire lead them into murky ethical territory

A pacy, racy, brutal thriller

Pheasants Nest punches with a similar force to The Work in the blockbusting ranks, though this is a story of physical, as opposed to financial, survival. Like Lee, Milligan uses story to attempt a critique of social and cultural failings. She focuses on patriarchal structures, including the worst type of Aussie bloke, the tough-talking machismo of news journalism and institutional oppression within the police force.

A pacy, racy thriller, the story charts the brutal rape and abduction of TV reporter Kate Delaney, while emphasising her identity as a woman rather than reducing her to a victim. Switching between Kate's point of view and that of her friends and boyfriend, who are desperate to find out what's happened to her, the narrative shifts the focus of more traditional crime fiction with warmth.

However, Milligan's gallows humour treatment is questionable. Attempting any kind of humour from the perspective of a woman who has been savagely attacked in the street, anally raped in an alleyway, beaten, tied up and thrown into the back of a car, is, for me at least, deeply problematic.

After such an ordeal, would anyone manage to feel anything other than pure, abject terror? Would Kate really be thinking about what the Famous Five would do in her situation, how she could“murder a baked potato”, or how to turn all this into a TV documentary one day? Would she really address her attacker as“mate”? As a psychotherapist who has treated dissociative identity disorder and complex trauma in sexual assault victims, I'm not so sure.

There is no doubt about Milligan's naturally lyrical style. The perpetrator, referred to generically as“The Guy” throughout the novel, is an uncomfortably familiar figure: average looks, low intelligence, damaged male ego, terrified of women. Her portrayal of Camo, Kate's newspaper editor, is razor-sharp, hilarious and excoriating. And her description of Kate – dorky, lippy, overdressed, and slightly muddled about British subculture – is both amusing and endearing.

She also raises valuable issues, such as the way the media prioritises stories of young, white, pretty women, thereby creating the“perfect victim”, and the problem of PTSD within the police force. And she is right to frame gallows humour as a defensive coping mechanism.

Read more: Review: Louise Milligan's Witness is a devastating critique of the criminal trial process

It's commonly adopted by reporters, police officers, medics and other people who encounter tragedy and trauma within their working lives. It also masks a lot of pain and can result in psychologically damaging levels of repression, as a police woman once told me in London, during my first clinical training.

But while Kate understandably gets by with the help of negative comedy in her professional capacity, I find it difficult to believe this would transfer to the middle of such a vicious, life-threatening experience. Given the strength within vulnerability, I wonder how else she might have maintained her sense of self and hung onto her self-agency, instead of imagining her rapist being“popped off by a comically maniacal murderous granny” and picturing people eating prawns and drinking champagne at a posthumous commemorative award ceremony.

Structurally, the novel depends a little too much on exposition, with each new character accompanied by an elaborate backstory. And some of the details don't quite resonate.

Would The Guy really be smart enough to operate a complicated security system, but dumb enough to forget about his victim's phone? Would Kate really manage to take her tights off while her hands are tied? And personally, I wondered why one of America's most culturally enlightened rock bands, Pearl Jam , was used to illustrate The Guy's machismo. (I think Pantera would have been a better choice.)

But enough of my nitpicking. The commercial success of these novels seems certain. Ideal for long winter evenings, lazy weekends and book clubs, they each promise an entertaining read with a dollop of escapism and there is value in that, as I was recently reminded by a well-respected author.

Just like those '80s bonkbusters, these are stories that promise women“you can have it all” – even if you're abused by a ruthless idiot, or brought down by a callous egomaniac.

Prioritising female friendship, ambition, perfect boyfriends and fabulous frocks within the safety net of romance and predictable endings (albeit against the context of a serious crime in Milligan's), both novels are likely to sit on the bestseller lists for some time to come.

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