A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Let me say first that Rhyll McMaster is an extraordinary writer. Her prose is dazzling, poetic and thought-provoking, and this is literary fiction at its best.
Feather Man is Sooky’s story and it’s set in 1950s Brisbane, moving through to London of the 70s. The book is split into four sections, which correspond with the four men who change Sooky in some way. It starts with Lionel, the creepy ex-magistrate neighbour who befriends and later molests Sooky. The second section is Peter, Sooky’s first boyfriend, an uncomplicated lad that Sooky agrees to marry, even when she knows she’ll break the engagement. The third section is Redmond: Lionel’s son. Redmond is a popular, handsome, nasty and self-absorbed piece of work; Sooky marries him and ends up living in poverty in London. The final section is Paul, an older ‘middle-European’ gallery owner, who scoops Sooky out of her distressing life with Redmond, and deposits her into wealth, a decent job and a future.
So that’s the structure of the novel, and although it’s not exactly thrills, danger and hi-jinks on every page, there is tremendous tension within the narrative. Feather Man is an intense character study and I was particularly impressed with the portrayal of Sooky’s family. Sooky’s parents are something to behold; their peculiarities are described unflinchingly:
He began dissecting frogs. He excited a particular nerve in the just-dead frogs’ legs and made them kick. Up and down they paddled in the dry air, trying to escape to some resurrecting pond. Their small exposed hearts were still capable of beating. He looked at me to see my reaction and laughed at my disquiet. He had a peculiar way of laughing, a manic snicker high in his nose that I tried to emulate.
My mother’s only entree into the life of science was to feed the fish, though she did take on one self-appointed duty. She made tiny slip-over jackets for the live frogs, to keep them warm while they awaited their demise. It was the only sewing task she appeared to be any good at and she did it with a warmth of feeling that was lacking when she made my clothes.
There’s been debate about the content of the first section with Lionel, with some readers reluctant to read past the first chapter. The publishers of Feather Man have said on their blog, Risking It, that:
Not all stories are ones with happy endings.
I’m writing this since another person has told me they could not read past the beginning of Feather Man. The first one was the person who was judging the Waterstone’s New Voices, which Feather Man was short listed for. In both cases, because the book opens with a young girl being persuaded into a sexual act by an older man (who does not actually go as far as he could – guys, this is blog, open to all readers, so I will not be more specific here), they stopped reading. Yes, it is unpleasant, but then books are supposed to open up worlds beyond the reader’s experience.
If you would like to read the first chapter of Feather Man to decide for yourself, it can be found here.
It’s my view that writers should be able to confront whichever subjects they need to confront. I hate the idea that writers should be confined to comfortable subjects. I don’t think it’s right that writers are criticised for writing about difficult issues, just because it unsettles some readers. Having said that, I know there are times when an author will write something that makes me wince, and then I’ll read those parts quickly, possibly with gritted teeth and one eye open (!) but I wouldn’t criticise the writer for including those sections of the text, or hold them responsible for my subjective reaction. To my mind, reading is half what’s on the page, and half what the reader brings to the page.
For me, reading Feather Man is like reading poetry – it’s one of those rare books that enable you to see the world in new ways, or as Andrew Riemer writing in the Brisbane Times says of McMaster, “Her eye for detail, for recognising the exceptional in the most mundane of things, illuminates these pages”. The imagery is so vivid that certain scenes are burned into my memory. It doesn’t shy away from the more embarrassing or difficult elements of life, and as a reader I was glad of that.
The only thing I’m in two minds about is the very last line of Feather Man, a rhetorical question from Paul, which seems to undercut the expectations built in the last quarter of the novel. I was sure that we were headed for a certain outcome, and in one short final sentence, McMaster pulls that all away. I assumed Sooky had learned something about herself already, and I hoped a pattern had been broken, but Paul’s question suggests that wasn’t the case. The last line made me think about men, about the sort of relationship patterns that women can fall into, about love as a kind of ownership, and about what it means to continually be a victim – it was brilliant, but I wasn’t sure if it sat well with the preceding text. I’m still not sure about that line, but I suppose the fact that I’ve been thinking about it for a fortnight is testament to the penetrating nature of this writing.
Elsewhere, I have likened Rhyll McMaster to Margaret Atwood. Atwood is brilliant, but in my view McMaster is even better. This novel is published by independent publisher, Marion Boyars, and I would say they did extremely well to sign McMaster. Feather Man has quite rightly won literary prizes in Australia and my money is on Feather Man making the Booker Prize longlist here.
For the Brisbane Times review of Feather Man, click here.
Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd. ISBN-13: 978-0714531489. 320 pages. £9.99.