By Laura Jean McKay
Domesticity is supposed to be cosy, isn’t it? A tea on the couch and a cuddle in the dark. But, linguistically at least, it quickly turns. Add an ‘a’ to the start and you get a row. Add ‘violence’ to the end and you get what, according to a 2019 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, millions of Australians have experienced from a partner – physically, sexually, emotionally.
The modern iteration of the word ‘domestic’ also has a broader meaning. Of home and also the country we’re in. We ‘do’ domestic travel, we read domestic news, we live domestically on the land of the longest continuous culture in the world. Land and Indigenous people who, over the last 200-plus years, have been subject to violent colonisation. These different ideas of domestic violence, gender-based violence, race-based violence and violence against country and Country are imagined in three recent novels by Australian authors: Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The Gulf (2017), Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (2015) and Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip (2018).
Violence lives at home in The Gulf. The teenage protagonist, Skye, and her little brother, Ben, are taken to the home of their Mum’s new boyfriend, Jason – a volatile, addicted and selfish man. He’s also amused, recalcitrant and ambitious, in a druggy kind of way. His violence strikes suddenly and doesn’t spare children. When Skye points out that if Jason hits her in the face it will be visible, he replies with ‘Fine’ and punches her in the stomach instead. But it is when he seizes Ben by the neck that Skye goes to gut-wrenching lengths to get herself and her brother away, sacrificing her home and education, and enduring physical, sexual and emotional violence to make the decisions her mother can’t.
The Natural Way of Things imagines gender-based violence in a near future where women are rounded up and taken to a remote ‘camp’ as punishment for high-profile perceived sexual misdemeanours. In the opening pages, a young woman’s jaw is broken for speaking out and the violations continue through head shaving, starvation and isolation. Far from the homes that they know, the scenario echoes colonial-convict experiences – the shock of imprisonment on foreign land. A place where ‘all the girls are mottled with bruises now after six days of Bouncer’s stick’.
Too Much Lip, which won the 2019 Miles Franklin Award, looks at colonial violence and the shocking abuse of land. The protagonist, Kerry, arrives back in her childhood town to grieve for her Pop alongside her deeply spiritual mother, traumatised and emaciated nephew and always-about-to-erupt brother. The very ground that they sing their Pop back to is threatened by politicians, leading Kerry and her family to desperate measures as they try to save their Country from ‘the whiteman world we’re living in’.
Unlike in real life, where people are often unable to escape violent legacies and individuals, novels can offer scenarios of revenge and redemption. These authors don’t turn away from brutality, and it is clear in each that the effects of violence will live on beyond the pages. But there is a sense of hope in each through triumphant female protagonists who will do almost anything to turn violence around. As Lucashenko’s Kerry reflects: ‘When the men with guns come after you, you go and you go fucking hard and you don’t look back’.
The characters in these novels go fucking hard, whether it is to sneak silently through the early morning (The Gulf), ram through an offending fence in the middle of the day (Too Much Lip), or surreptitiously wipe a tear from a swollen, dusty face (The Natural Way of Things). The novels are also threaded with grim humour – the sort that can transform tears of shock to those of laughter. Lucashenko’s Kerry tells her mum – who is offering sympathetic lament over the white neighbour’s lack of culture – ‘Everyone on the planet’s got a culture, Mum, even if it’s The Footy Show and Southern Cross tats – it’s still a culture. Just a shit one.’ Meanwhile, Spargo-Ryan’s Skye deals wryly with her mum and dealer boyfriend’s suggestion that the teenager should start paying rent: ‘A job? No problem. Maybe then I’ll be able to afford whatever it is you two are selling.’
Novels that depict violence in the home access a deeply shared fear that millions experience and everyone knows about. In an interview for The Guardian, Spargo-Ryan reflects, ‘Any woman can find herself there. You can be a very robust, successful woman and still find yourself in a relationship that is volatile or abusive.’ Wood echoes this in another interview for The Sydney Morning Herald, recalling, ‘A couple of men who have read [The Natural Way of Things] wanted to know where it came from and I said, “I think it just came from 50 years of being a woman”.’
When it comes to colonial violence, this shared experience stops. A white woman living with domestic violence knows nothing about the experience of the intergenerational trauma of genocide. As Aileen Moreton-Robinson argues in Talkin’ Up to the White Woman (2000), ‘all Indigenous women share the common experience of living in a society that depreciates us. An Indigenous woman’s standpoint is shaped by the following themes. These include sharing an inalienable connection to land; a legacy of dispossession, racism and sexism.’ This is the power and generosity of Lucashenko’s book: a novel that both portrays the unique relationship that the Indigenous characters have with Country, as well as the shared knowledge of how race-based violence and environmental degradation affects everyone.
Cosy books? Not really. Transformative, revelatory, hilarious and heartbreaking? Yes, like life.
Laura Jean McKay is the author of The Animals in That Country (Scribe, 2020) and Holiday in Cambodia (2013). Laura’s work appears in The Saturday Paper, The Lifted Brow and The North American Review. Laura is the ‘animal expert’ on ABC’s Animal Sound Safari podcast and a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University in New Zealand.