An Isolated Incident
by Emily McGuire, Picador, 2017, ISBN 978-1-76055-356-2
Emily McGuire is a widely published Australian writer. She has five novels to her name, including this one. She has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review, The Age and The Observer. She won the Media Category of the Edna Ryan Award for her writing about women's issues in 2007. I knew none of this when I bought this book. It was advertised in the bookshop with one of those assessments handwritten by a member of the bookshop’s staff which said it was good. The blurb on the dust jacket was suitably enthusiastic so I made the investment.
The book was nominated for the 2017 Stella Awards and was shortlisted. This means, of course, that it must be good for the judges at these book awards know more than we do. In the case of this book they probably got it right. McGuire’s non-fictional writing focusses on feminism and domestic violence (see her website) so it not surprising that these themes occur in this book. It’s a novel about violence against women. The novel is set in a small and imaginary Australian town, Strathdee, which we suppose is somewhere between Sydney and Melbourne. This is the sort of town where men are men and women are … well, women don’t really count. Bella Michaels disappears after work one day and is found murdered. She has an older half sister, Chris, who is thrust into the glare of the press interest in the murder. The other leading character, May Norman, is a journalist who is sent to cover the story of Bella and her death. Much of the narrative of the book is psychological; events are recorded but the main thrust of the book is around the motivations, or at least the behaviours, of the people of Strathdee. The central relationship is between Chris and May. May develops a relationship with Chris and the case and this leads her to quit her job and stay in Strathdee to get to the bottom of the story.
Strathdee is a small town yet days go by with no progress toward finding Bella’s killer. This leads Chris to view almost anyone, including May, with suspicion. The book is about the resolution, if there is a resolution, of those suspicions. Emily McGuire draws her character well. They are all flawed and not many of them are not particularly likeable but they may well be the people we meet and talk to everyday. We do not know what lies behind the face we see. The two leading characters are not perfect and the compromises they make with what life throws at them is the reason that McGuire’s book avoids being polemical. It makes it point better through the inconsistencies and illogic of human behaviour. The jacket describes the book as a “psychological thriller”. I am not sure that it is a thriller; a thriller needs to put you on the edge of your seat. This book doesn’t do that; its pace is measured but quick enough to be engaging. And it is psychological because it is about the human mind and the way it functions. Of course, McGuire has a particular view about that mind but that view does not get in the way of what is a good novel.