Book Review: “Medea’s Curse” by Anne Buist (#AWW2016 @annebuistauthor @textpublishing)



I first started reading Medea’s Curse several months ago, but could not finish it. I stopped halfway through, perhaps for two reasons. First, I found it hard to identify with the protagonist, Natalie King, a “rule-breaker”. A flawed heroine is quite a necessary cliché, but in Natalie’s case, her flaws are confronting and for which there appears to have no clear explanation. The “rules” she breaks, together with her behavioural patterns, make it hard for me to believe how she can continue functioning as a professional.

Furthermore, Natalie is a forensic psychiatrist, and throughout the first half of the book she seems to be constantly trying to pigeon-hole her patients. In doing so, she appears to rely heavily on her academic training, and frequently uses all kinds of terminologies and theories to categorise the problems at hand. This is somehow in conflict with her judgement in personal affairs, and I wondered how she can take good care of her patients if she cannot get her own romantic and career interests sorted out.

So I returned the book to the library. Then, in recent weeks, having read three non-fiction books on Australia’s female killers (The Last Woman Hanged, Black Widow and Deadly Australian Women), I felt compelled to give Medea’s Curse another chance. Specifically, I felt ready to handle a fictional treatment of female killers, women who murder their own children for reasons that are often unknown even to themselves. In this case, having read This House of Grief is also beneficial in my attempt to understand how any parent can commit such a despicable crime.

Re-reading the book, I realise how important it is for authors, and even publishers, to win the trust of their readers. Such trust does not come naturally. In the case of Medea’s Curse, my faith in the publisher (The Text Publishing Company) is a significant contributor to my decision to believe the book has literary merits.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that Anne Buist is a relatively new author and her writing shows that raw and somehow unpractised brilliance only first-time authors possess – she does have “more than 25 years of clinical and research experience in perinatal psychology and works with protective services and the legal system in cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide and murder”. Even if her fictional treatment of a female psychiatrist seems unconventional, I feel I should at least trust that she is fully capable of developing her female characters as murderers.

More importantly, reading Medea’s Curse helps me confirm the kind of bias I have as a female reader, and how much such bias has been taken for granted as a “natural” part of “women’s nature” (as compared to “human nature”) in general. In Natalie’s words: “Most women didn’t like her much. Women her age were uneasy with a woman who enjoyed sex, liked being single – and thought a man’s marital status was his problem, not hers.” (p.89) In this sense, Medea’s Curse is very much about breaking “rules” – norms, customs and common perceptions of the ways in which women should behave in society, in front of men, and specifically among women. How women see themselves as being “good” or “bad” is very much a product of long processes of identity formation, standardisation and circulation by themselves as much as by others.

Again quoting from Medea’s Curse: “Natalie knew from her work in the mother-baby unit that women did have fleeting thoughts of not wanting their child, or of harming it. It wasn’t unusual. She also knew these thoughts caused enormous guilt. Women felt that, to be good mothers, they must always love their baby and if they didn’t, they were either mad or bad.” (p.176) Indeed, in Greek Mythology, Medea’s tragedy exists not because she kills her children to avenge her husband’s betrayal, but because she loves him and wants him to reciprocate it. This “rule” is broken by Natalie, yet, strangely but satisfyingly, it creates the freedom and independence she and her patients have always wanted, not just as women, but more so as human beings.

Medea’s Curse has a good plot, with many well-executed twists and turns to create haunting suspense and thrill. The stalking of Natalie is done subtly, and Georgia as a character is almost perfect. Yet, I feel some aspects of Natalie’s relationship with Liam are somehow stereotyped. I finished the book wondering whether it will be a more universally acceptable reading if the language is less Melbourne- or even Australia-eccentric. Still, I am glad to have read it – not a feminist text, but a women’s book.


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