Book Review: “An Isolated Incident” by Emily Maguire (#AWW2017 @TheStellaPrize #Stella17)


Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident (Picador, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2016) is a disturbing book, not only because the incident described in this story is not isolated at all, but also because similar incidents – violence against women – are so common that they have become a monstrous cancer of our culture and society, even the whole world.

While reading the aftermath of the murder of Bella Michaels in this novel, the following quote, commonly attributed to Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov, kept surfacing in my mind:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

There is no tender and soft “moonlight” in An Isolated Incident. However, we see a lot of “broken glass”, pieces so sharp and merciless that they bleed dry the hearts of those impacted by Bella’s death. Particularly wounded is Chris, Bella’s older sister, who is forced to dig deep into her own soul and examine the meaning of her life as a small-town barmaid. Also affected emotionally and intellectually by the case is May, a self-exiled freelancing reporter determined to succeed yet unsure of future survival without her man. Through the eyes of these two women, we see a cruel world dominated by men who indulge in sex but remain more or less nonchalant about the needs and welfare of their opposite sex.

Chris appears to be such an unreliable character that it was sometimes difficult to read her confession. Like Natalie King, the protagonist in Anne Buist’s Medea’s Curse (2016), women who go out of their way to pursue the pleasure of sex often make female readers cringe. But why? I recall the movie Accused (1988), in which the rape victim is shunned by everyone, including her own lawyer, due to her working-class background and prior record of behaving “improperly” in public. Indeed, sometimes it is not just men, but also women, who look down on those females that they perceive to have drifted away from social “norms”.

Maguire’s depiction of life in a small country town also reminds me of Stephen King and even H.P. Lovecraft. The dark, unspeakable secrets shared by town folks form the force that not only unites but also binds and silences them. In the same way that the rape and murder of Bella is not an isolated incident, the town in An Isolated Incident may be seen as a microcosm of our society at large where violence against women is so common that people increasingly become indifferent to it. It is a nightmare from which people wake up in the middle of the night, soaked in cold sweat, yet it remains a small disruption that they promptly and deliberately forget as they roll over and fall asleep again. Tomorrow is and will always be a better day… right?

As Maguire sees it through May’s eyes:

May spent a few hours online familiarising herself with ten years’ worth of unsolved rapes and murders. She read about bodies burnt beyond recognition, decomposed, dismembered, shoved in suitcases, dumped in rivers, stashed in freezers, partially dissolved in chemical drums. She read about stab wounds, blunt-instrument trauma, strangulation, suffocation, shots through the heart, stomach, throat, head. She saved details of those that seemed closest to Bella’s murder. It was a long list. The list of those she disregarded was twenty times longer.

There was nothing in this research especially new to her as a reporter, a news junkie, a viewer of crime dramas and serial-killer films. But when she tried to sleep that night her closed lids opened caverns of horror. Immense dark spaces in which time rolled back and the shattered, smashed, melted, desecrated bodies showed her their faces and limbs and beating hearts and screaming mouths. (p.337)

It hurts so much to read this book. However, please preserve if you care about your fellow women – each and every one of them.

Note: Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident is one of the six titles short-listed for the 2017 Stella Prize.


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