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Out of the Silence by Wendy James
From the Dustjacket
Out of the Silence is a stunning debut novel about three Australian women from very different worlds: Maggie Heffernan, a spirited working-class country girl; Elizabeth Hamilton, whose disappointment in love has served only to strengthen her humanity; and Vida Goldstein, a charismatic suffragist from Melbourne and the first woman to stand for Parliament in Australia.
When Maggie's life descends into darkness after a terrible betrayal, the three women's lives collide. Around this tragedy Wendy James has constructed a masterfully drawn and gripping fiction. Based on a true story, it unfolds at the dawn of the twentieth century against the compelling backdrop of the women's suffrage movement and a world on the brink of enormous change.
The novel powerfully evokes the plight of women in the early 1900s - not least their limited options, whatever their class and education. However, at its heart this is a story of love - of love gone wrong; of its compromises and disappointments, but ultimately of its extra-ordinary transformative power.
Publisher : Random House Australia
First published : 2005
ISBN : 1740513835
No. Pages : 348 pages
Often times when you're reading a novel it's hard to miss the fact that you are in the crime genre. The give away may be the murdered body laid out for you on page 1 or the shabby detective interviewing a client who needs help locating a missing loved one. Out of the Silence by Wendy James distinguishes itself from other books in the genre by the subtlety with which the crime aspect of the story is hidden...well, not so much hidden as given less significance. At least for the first three-quarters of the story, where we are treated to a very enjoyable historical fiction novel featuring Australia at the turn of the century. But when James decides to unleash, it's done with a suddenness that is particularly effective.
Maggie Heffernan is a young lady of 19 living in a country town in Victoria around the turn of the century. She is a headstrong, exuberant girl who doesn't get on well with her mother and delights in deceiving her. However she is nonetheless leading a contented, happy life when she meets Jack, a labourer who drifts into town. They secretly begin seeing each other. Much is made of the ways she contrives to be with her new amour, stealing quiet Sunday afternoons together while her parents are oblivious.
Their affair is cut short when Jack has to move on to follow work and then Maggie also leaves home to work as a domestic servant. Although she attempts to continue their relationship, she eventually loses contact, last hearing that Jack has moved on to Melbourne.
It's at this point that her life begins to crumble and she leaves her job to follow him to Melbourne only to be horribly betrayed when she gets there. Now she is alone, virtually penniless and in need of a friend or family for support. But that support fails to arrive and she makes a decision that will ensure that her world is utterly torn apart.
Scattered throughout the story of Maggie's life we are treated to a series of diary extracts and letters that come from the pen of Elizabeth Hamilton. Elizabeth is an English woman who has recently arrived in Australia, where she works as a school teacher. She has become friends with a woman named Vida Goldstein, a principal activist in the suffragette movement.
Through her commentary we get a terrific feel for the societal beliefs and expectations of the day, particularly in the attitudes of men towards women. We also get a greater understanding of some of the hardships that had to be endured in those times.
However while these letters and extracts are necessary for the purpose they serve, I felt they tended to ramble on for too long and much of the momentum of the story was lost. It was difficult to connect with Elizabeth and Vida, largely because their story is really just an analysis by Elizabeth as she passes the events on to her brother. It becomes quite dry in comparison to the more meaty subject matter that makes up Maggie's story.
This is a story that builds slowly, carefully setting the stage in which Maggie will perform. Her home life, the customs and hardships of living in rural Australia in the late 1800s are all illustrated giving a stirring impression of the difficulties facing a strong-willed girl. As a country girl, Maggie was mainly concerned with finding a beau, being courted, perhaps even finding employment to help the family earn a wage. But most of all, she wanted to crawl out from under the disapproving gaze of her mother.
From a sense of joy and hope for the future, we are taken through a vast range of emotions before reaching a deep and everlasting despair. This is a story that allows us to become closely attached to the main characters, we feel their pain, we can envision their dreams and, when things come crashing down, we can understand how things may have fallen apart while still coping with the disbelief.
The suffragette movement was building in momentum at the time and is used to good effect in the way this story plays itself out. The perceived role of women at the time and their place within society is significant and Vida Goldstein slots in nicely as a figure of hope, even though she faces massive odds.
Out of the Silence was a much deserved winner of the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel by an Australian author. The depth of emotion, the detail given to place and character, and the impact the story has on the reader cannot be faulted. This is certainly a book and an author to watch out for.
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