This review was first published in Idiom 23, 2007.
In the opening pages of Feather Man (Aus, US), amongst the stench of wet chook feathers and shit, something is taken from the young female character. ‘Lionel robbed me of naturalness’ she later reflects. It is a beginning and it is an end. ‘Sookie’ (as her Dad calls her) was an empty sort of child anyway. Small pleasures; like drawing pictures with clean pens, or joining the dog under the bed in a storm; take the edges off loneliness. But she had been seeking a somebody when she started hanging around Lionel, the grandfather-figure next door. She had been empty, friendless, unable to please her parents. Her mother and father she views in opposite sides of the kitchen, barraging her with cliches like ‘grin and bear it’, reminding her of the worthlessness of her existence. She is attention-starved and Lionel’s hungry eyes sense her vulnerability. For a while there is a strained friendship, moments of belonging, and then a violation that creates an internal chicken – scratching at her heart.
Throughout the novel the chicken pervades, as does other imagery of feathers, cages, and a heirarchy of hens. The book is in four parts, citing the names of four men that influence Sookie’s life. We don’t actually know the protagonist’s true name until the end of the book, when some semblance of her identity, her true desire, has been not necessarily fulfilled, but confessed – exposed. This coincides with the majority of negative occurences in the book being due to secrecy, unspokenness. In this way, Rhyll McMaster has delved into the loungeroom and neighborhood of suburban Brisbane in the 1950s. She captures the rigidity of the era well, the skewed perceptions of what was important. The female characters unfortunately all suffer from willingness of denial, and in this way are often portrayed as being even worse than the perpetrating males. Sookie’s mother stands by while her husband has an affair and leaves her for another woman. Lionel’s wife next door is as blank as canvas, she exists only as a gossiping mouth, reminding Sookie of what is ‘proper’. Friends and co-workers she encounters later on are all one way or another tied to their reliance on patriarchy and the males closest to them. So while Sookie struggles with the void of abuse, she also notices the imbalance of the sexes at every level. In the narrative there is one female she encounters that she admires – Redmond’s girlfriend Rosie. Redmond is Lionel’s son – the boy next door. But when Rosie dares to speak the unspoken, she too is shunned. This doesn’t stop Sookie from later marrying Redmond, the negative offender, in her own form of denial and self-abuse. He tells her to ‘be an asset’ while he chases his own selfish and whimsical dreams from Brisbane to London. He imagines himself heroic, intellectual, solid. Sookie ends up painting him as transparent, but her triumph is blasted when it fails to have an effect on his calloused shell.
Her means of expression is painting. Ironically it ends up being a man who helps her to success. It is almost a difficult thing to accept in a book that seems mostly feminist in its sensibilities. But McMaster justifies the true fulfillment of a relationship with another human being that is chosen – not merely constructed from needs:
‘What’s happening, if it does occur, is unviewable. I know that much. It lies between the lines of spoken words, housed in the silent gaps. It cannot be represented – or only obliquely. It is as hard to explain as consciousness. It has an imprecise name, this non-representation. It is swamped with desire.’
Juxtapositionally, this non-explanation sums it up perfectly. Elsewhere, McMaster employs her poetic ability to illuminating effect. The book is loaded with symbolism and metaphor, from the aforementioned chook allusions, to physical disease and other bodily features, the pristine and the dirty, wet and dry, art, aesthetics and colour, to the significance of places – indoor and outdoor. The first person internalisations are never dull, as the reader is privy to Sookie’s figuring out of the connectedness of things. This includes the blurred lines of sexuality and desire, social expectations, and artistic endeavours. The paintings themselves are described vividly so that the reader can envision them. It is an interesting experience because not only in your mind’s eye are you viewing a painting, but you are learning of its physical and material process, and also its psychological motivations. Each painting is a journey and an unveiling for the character and for the reader.A lot of time is spent with Sookie’s childhood, the shaper and maker of her burgeoning identity. Some time is devoted to her as a teenager where awkwardness can cover for the things she already knows, and realises she shouldn’t. As a young woman she encounters the first expectations upon her societally functioning self – to marry? to work? or dare she try it, to paint? Fate plays a small part in the final stages of the story, and it is overtly referenced as thus. While fate is in masculine form, it is still explored as the fact that all the paths Sookie took brought her to that finality. Without revealing the ending, positivity comes from the revelation of the truth, and in revealing the chicken pecking at her heart, Sookie can set it free.
Rhyll McMaster has had six books of poetry published, many of them prize-winning, but this is her first novel. For a poet she shows restraint and delicacy in her prose while still embellishing it with apt imagery. This is a beautiful and worthy Australian novel with absorbing characterisation and layers of resonant themes.