I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance a writer needs to strike between crafting beautiful sentences, tackling issues that make the reader think deeply and creating a story so compelling that the reader has no choice but to keep turning the pages. After all, who wants to write a serious, weighty book about important issues that no one reads because the story is dull?
The reason I was thinking this is because I was about a third of the way through a book, which shall remain nameless, but which had been widely praised by critics and which I thought I would enjoy. I didn’t. I found the story plodding, full of scenes in which nothing happened, peopled by characters I felt no connection to, and with no desire to turn to the next page to see what would happen. I just didn’t care.
Fractured by Dawn Barker
And then Dawn Barker’s brand new book, Fractured, arrived. I hastily put away the nameless book and opened hers and was so glad that I did. Because right from the outset I was pulled into the heart of the story. I was so desperate to know what would happen that I even skipped ahead a little and peeked at the next chapters, and while I may not have liked all of the characters all of the time, I revelled in their complexity and in my need to know why they had done the things that Barker hints they may have done.
Combined with this very skilful narrative, Barker tackles an issue of motherhood that is spoken about very little, and which should be spoken about more (I can’t say too much here because I don’t want to reveal what happens). Barker brings the issue to its full emotional life and I found, as a mother, that I couldn’t help but reconsider my own experiences of mothering a new baby in those first and often god-awful six weeks after birth.
The writing in these parts of the book is especially good. You immediately feel the claustrophobia of new motherhood, as well as the small moments of joy that are often pushed away by the incessant demands of the baby and the need to recalibrate relationships within a family which, up until then, had consisted of only a husband and a wife and on the needs of oneself and one’s partner, but not on the needs of a tiny dependent baby.
Fractured made me think, not just about my own experiences of motherhood, but also ahead to the future, to an unimaginable time when my own children might have children of their own, and what my role as a grandparent could be. It also made me think about the stories of motherhood that we tell, of such much love and wonder and happiness, but I will also be sure to tell my children of the despair and the total re-evaluation of oneself and the fear that it will never end – and I will tell them that this is normal, and that it does end. And on yet another level, it made me think about my own writing, and the importance of keeping the reader not just intellectually stimulated, but also drawn right into the heart of the story.
The book is so accomplished that it is difficult to imagine it is Dawn’s first. I’m certainly looking forward with much pleasure to her second.
Pilgramage by Jacinta Halloran
The other book by an Australian woman writer that I have read this month is Pilgramage, by Jacinta Halloran. This is a quiet book, with perhaps not the same drive as Barker’s, but with still the same tackling of serious issues, this time to do with ageing and mortality and medicine versus the spirit. I liked the way the book explored these themes, which are obviously similar to the themes of my book, If I Should Lose You.
Halloran’s narrative is contemplative, and driven forward by Celeste, a character who is particularly unlikeable at times, and very humanly fragile at others. I did find some of the coincidences in this book perhaps too much, and I also found myself cringing a little when a romantic entanglement seemed to threaten, but Halloran got us out of that in the nick of time. Certainly, the scenes with Celeste and her mother towards the end of the book are very powerful and this is a book worth reading.
These books are my third and fourth reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.