Vulpes Libris

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.

Feather Man by Rhyll McMaster

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.

6 comments on “Feather Man by Rhyll McMaster

  1. Weeping Sore
    May 21, 2008

    I came on your review cold, knowing nothing about the book. My first reaction was that I too, wouldn’t want to read a book that got off to such a bad start with the reader. I read to “escape” stuff I carefully avoid in my real life, why would I want to race into the arms of bad stuff in fiction?
    Then, you persuaded me that perhaps life is better lived without my head in the sand. Of course now, if I read the book now, it will be because you dared me not to, and to prove that I’m a mature grown-up.
    But, that’s my problem. You did your job, warned me like Mom used to (instead of sewing jackets for doomed frogs). Thanks for an excellent review, and an excellent recommendation.

  2. marygm
    May 21, 2008

    You’re setting a high standard for this book, Lisa; I love Margaret Atwood so this is high praise indeed.

    Usually, books that deal with difficult subjects don’t turn me off at all but child sexual abuse is a particularly hard one for me to not flinch at.
    I fully agree with you that “reading is half what’s on the page and half what the reader brings to the page” and of course “writers should be able to confront whichever subjects they need to confront” but so too should a reader have the right to not participate if the writer has created a world they don’t want to share without it being a criticism of the writer.

  3. Jackie
    May 21, 2008

    The comparison with Atwood intrigues me and I do agree with you about writers ought to be able to write whatever they wish, the same as painters and musicians pursuing their ideas without censor. But there’s too many subjects here that make me uncomfy, so I’ll not be reading this one. I do think it’s a big compliment to the author that you are still thinking of the book so long after reading it, especially since it’s not the icky parts, but issues she raised that stick in your brain.

  4. Lisa
    May 22, 2008

    Weeping, thanks so much for commenting! Lovely to see new faces around here. The first part of Feather Man with Lionel is so important to Sooky’s story that I can’t see how McMaster could have left it out, but in terms of pages, it’s only a small section. Jackets for doomed frogs is such a weird image, isn’t it?

    Mary, I love Atwood too. Atwood doesn’t shy away from these difficult subjects either. In The Robber Bride, for instance, there is a harrowing section about the young Charis’s life with her uncle, a man who sexually abuses Charis (or Karen as she was called then) over a long period of time. It seems to me that Atwood looks at that abuse with clear eyes. After reading it, I felt different, that Atwood had opened up a world, which although upsetting, I felt I needed to see.

    “so too should a reader have the right to not participate if the writer has created a world they don’t want to share without it being a criticism of the writer.” I totally agree with this, Mary. It shouldn’t be a criticism of the writer, but I think quite often people do criticise the writer for including things that unsettle them.

    This is a subject close to my heart, as I encountered a fair bit of criticism from editors (although strangely, not agents) for including an account of the Armenian genocide in my novel, Prince Rupert’s Teardrop. I wrote something for Two Ravens web magazine, Corvaceous, here.

    Jackie, yes the book has really stayed with me. I keep recommending it to friends because I want to discuss it with them, which is surely a good sign in terms of word of mouth! I was concerned to read that a judge for a literary prize wouldn’t read past the beginning of Feather Man, but I do think we’ll be seeing FM in the summer prize listings.

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  6. mandy
    July 5, 2009

    I found Feather Man nothing short of brilliant. Borrowed from the library I will purchase a copy of my own. Rhyll finally puts into words all those feelings I never could. I shared a personal journey with the text and found it healing.

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This entry was posted on May 21, 2008 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , .



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