It begins in the usual way: a beautiful, innocent young woman has been brutally raped and murdered in a small town just off the Hume Highway. But rather than the standard police procedural we might expect, Maguire tells the story largely from the point of view of the victim’s bereft older sister, Chris Rogers.
Chris is the quintessential small town barmaid – big boobs, a smart mouth and a drinking problem. Sometimes she takes men home after work and they pay her for sex. Apparently that makes her a whore (Chris’ words) but Maguire has skilfully and sensitively created a character we quickly care deeply about. Chris is simply a woman doing what she can to get through the night and maybe save up a deposit for her own place. At least, that’s what she was trying to do until her sister died and the world collapsed around her.
Chris’ point of view is written from the first person, offering a visceral immediacy that works because Maguire has deftly captured her tone, her voice and her small-town life. And every now and then Chris shocks us by speaking directly to camera, so to speak. We never find out exactly what happened to Bella, Chris’ sister, but Maguire knows that we want to. Chris, who identified the body and who does know, is reluctant to say.
Bad enough I must see inside my own mind flashes of suffering that look like fucking NCIS, sound like Underbelly, feel like a boot coming down on my chest. And if that sounds good to you then go ahead and read the goddamn coroner’s report and look up those obscene photos for yourself. I’m not your pornographer.
Maguire is barely interested in whodunnit. She focusses much more on ‘what happens as a result of’ and her story is therefore far more interesting. Can a violent man also be a good man? What do men and women want from one another? Can a journalist afford to give a shit?
Maguire takes all the standard tropes – murdered girl; whore with a heart of gold; large bearded man with a criminally violent past; hard-nosed journalist – and holds them up to the light, exposing them for the hollow stereotypes that they are. The police, detectives and uniformed officers both, only have cameo roles here and the reader has no insight into their investigation. Instead we are granted, through Chris, a glimpse into the depths of grief and, through the reactions of the friends and strangers around her, the multiple ripple effects of a savage crime. Crucially, An Isolated Incident also illuminates the insidious sexism and misogyny of the genre, as well as of society.
Maguire is particularly well-placed to explore these issues. According to her website, she is the author of the novels Fishing for Tigers, Smoke in the Room, The Gospel According to Luke and the international bestseller Taming the Beast. She was named as a Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year in 2010 and again in 2013. Her non-fiction book Princesses and Pornstars: Sex + Power + Identity (2008) is an examination of how the treatment of young women as fragile and in need of protection can be as objectifying and damaging to them as pornography and raunch culture. Maguire’s articles and essays on sex, feminism, culture and literature have been published widely including in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Observer and The Age.
Maguire as a writer is, then, a safe pair of hands and it shows. An Isolated Incident is beautifully written. The novel’s shape and structure work to add nuance and detail. Towards the end there is even a well-placed hint of meta-fiction that further illuminates the characters. Chris is the key protagonist but her story is amplified and juxtaposed with the novel’s second point of view. May Norman is a city journo keen to make her name as a crime reporter. She’s trying to run from a broken heart, having just ended her affair with a married man: another cliche of the genre that Maguire teases out in interesting ways.
Thirty-one year old May’s point of view is told in the third person, interspersed with excerpts from the newspaper articles May writes. We know very little about her background and, beyond the exchange below, never find out.
A middle-aged man in footy shorts and a white singlet leant against the bar an inch from her elbow. ‘How’s it goin’?’ he said to her thigh.
‘Yeah, good. You?’
‘Yep, yep.’ He ordered a beer, turned so he could look directly into May’s face. He was close enough she could’ve counted the broken blood vessels on his swollen nose. ‘You one of them light-skinned-Abos or something?’
May held her nerve the way she knew a woman with a near-stranger’s semen turning her undies stiff who had just quit her job in order to follow a nothing story in a shithole town would do. ‘Or something,’ she said.
‘Huh.’ He backed off a little but kept staring at her as he necked his beer, putting it down every so often to check his dick was where he left it.
Here Maguire tempts us as readers with yet another stereotype, this time the token black, and then throws our tokenism away. Where May is from is not nearly as interesting to Maguire as where she might be going. Along the way we see what May sees: the senseless roadside flower shrines left by strangers moved by a senseless crime; the salivating gossip; the mental acrobatics of people somehow blaming Bella for her own death. The quip about her undies turning stiff with semen is more than a throw-away line too (although it is a ripper). Maguire is at pains throughout the novel to show us the female experience in all its messy, leaky honesty.
At the end of it all no-one learns any lessons, there is no sense of ‘closure’. As Chris’ boss says about coping with bereavement:
‘Yer just always a bit sadder than before. Seems bad at first, but you get older, you look around, we’re all a bit sadder. It’s alright. You get used to it.
Maguire writes with verve and sensitivity and never falls into didactic moralising. On the contrary, she draws out the complexities and contradictions of her characters. The title hints at these complexities: Bella’s death might be an isolated incident but in Australia and worldwide the murder of women is an ongoing tragedy. An Isolated Incident is the best kind of issue-based fiction, because it is first and foremost a cracking good story.
Sydney Morning Herald interview with Emily Maguire: “I just found myself thinking, ‘I don’t care what’s haunted [the detectives]’,” Maguire says. “I want to know about the woman and the people who loved her most. If I think about all the women I know – and I know a lot of women – every single one of them, if it happened to them, it would just rip a hole in everyone who knew them.”
Collins Booksellers interview with Emily Maguire: “I read mountains of true crime while working on this novel, so that’s what was front of my mind throughout. Some of the most egregious, exploitative examples influenced my writing of the news reports and some of May, the journalist’s, thoughts and dilemmas.”