If I had noticed one of Caroline Overington’s books on a shelf somewhere before signing up for the Australian Women Writers challenge this year I probably would have passed it by. I’ve no clue if they are written specifically for a female audience but they are certainly marketed almost exclusively to women and that kind of thing turns me off. I am bored and disheartened by popular culture’s constant reinforcing of gender stereotypes and my tiny (undoubtedly pointless) rebellion is to actively avoid the things I am supposed to read, watch, wear and think purely because I have a vagina.
But one of my personal goals in taking on this reading challenge was to dabble outside my reading comfort zone and so, early on in the year, I embarked upon Overington’s MATILDA IS MISSING (selected it must be said purely because the library had a copy prominently displayed when I went browsing) with as open a mind as I could muster.
The book tells the tale of couple who should probably never have gotten together and when common sense forces them apart the ugly subject of their young daughter’s custody arises. Overington tackles this thorny issue non-judgementally from numerous perspectives, both parents, extended family and the judge tasked with deciding on Matilda’s ultimate placement, with an equal mixture of drama, sensitivity and intelligence. It is a fine book and the fact that it will hardly ever be read by a bloke is sad. Because one of the things that good fiction, such as MATILDA IS MISSING, can do is provide much needed insight into the complex issues that occupy our real lives, often with a better balance and objectivity than is achieved by factual reporting.
In this book we are shown how each participant in a family break up is affected by that event and I couldn’t help thinking that if we all could have a little more understanding of these complexities we might behave differently when such sad occasions arise in our own lives. Because child custody is not a ‘women’s issue’. Our families, communities and news broadcasts are full of children trying desperately to make a go of living in multiple households, bereft fathers and mothers denied access to their offspring and a growing mountain of murder and suicide victims whose tragic endings can be directly linked to custody battles. The exploration of these issues in any forum is to be applauded and should not, by dint of marketing and tradition’s casual dismissal of ‘family’ as a purely female domain, be marketed to only half of the population.
I had not planned to read multiple books by any author for this challenge but when I saw that the challenge’s creator, Elizabeth Lhuede, had a heartfelt, angry reaction to Overington’s latest novel, SISTERS OF MERCY, I couldn’t resist. In my experience books that make intelligent people angry are almost invariably worth reading.
Not surprisingly I suppose it’s another book that will, largely, be invisible to the male half of the population and, again, it’s their loss. Ostensibly it is about the disappearance of an English grandmother who travels to Australia to meet Snow Delaney, the sister she only became aware of upon the death of their father. But really the book is Snow’s disconcerting, uncomfortable story. Snow was not exactly abused as a child but her mother was cold and undemonstrative which, one supposes, influences the woman that Snow becomes. As a nurse Snow starts out with lofty ideals but the system in which she works and the condition of the people she must care for soon sour her. By the end of the novel she has a number of severely disabled children in her care but her methods for looking after them are…questionable (that’s all I’ll say so as to avoid spoilers). What the book does though is raise another incredibly complex issue that is almost completely ignored in wider society. Disability, especially severe disability requiring around-the-clock care is one of the thorniest ethical issues I know a little bit about. Whose job is it to take care of the severely disabled? Especially those (and there are many) who are abandoned by their parents? What constitutes an adequate level of care and who should pay for it? How much respite should the parent or guardian of such a person be entitled to? And who will pay for that? And how will all of this be monitored to ensure no one is rorting the system and no one suffering unduly? And who will pay for that? And that’s all without even touching on the even thornier ethical dilemmas that occur daily in real life though we may like to pretend otherwise around when medical intervention to prolong the lives of the severely disabled is warranted. And when it isn’t.
Of course in our society the vast bulk of caring for the severely disabled is done by women but that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, make it a “women’s issue”. Surely it is up to us all to take responsibility for society’s most vulnerable people. And that doesn’t mean manufacturing outrage whenever the media highlights some horror case or other, as happens in this book, but actually doing something practical before the horrors happen. I’d like to think that if enough people, of any gender, read this book we would rise up as one and demand better from our politicians, our charitable organisations and ourselves on behalf of the severely disabled and their long suffering carers who, if they are relying solely on the government for their income, officially live below the poverty line.
But such a dream won’t have even have a chance at becoming reality unless we stop labelling and marketing such fiction as women’s fiction, with all the derision and dismissal the term carries. It’s irrelevant whether such derision is warranted. It exists in places that matter: in the reviewing pages of newspapers and magazines, the corridors of academia and in the rooms in which decisions are made about how to sell books. And because it exists there many good books which explore issues that we collectively need to tackle with more intelligence and creativity than we are currently doing are ignored and the issues they tackle remain forever unresolved.
I hate the very idea of women’s fiction and I dream of the phrase disappearing from the lexicon.