By Catherine Noske
Sophie Hardcastle’s debut novel has attracted significant attention, with international rights already taken up and celebrated by Allen & Unwin UK, the same publishers releasing it here in Australia. The novel has also been endorsed by several significant figures, including Brooke Davis, Clementine Ford and Bri Lee. Attention like this, while nice to see growing around a new Australian author, always makes me a little nervous when the work in question is dealing with sensitive and intricate topics. Hardcastle’s debut is nuanced in its approach to questions of sexual abuse and trauma, but these things still risk sensationalism in both media and social discourse. They are also themes with high stakes for any living with the reality of sexual violence.
This context of power as a theme is essential to our understanding of the rape itself, but Hardcastle also does vital work in the minute detail she offers in personal interactions between key characters.
The novel itself is, however, certainly worthy of attention, and in subtle ways interrogates the social reception of rape. It follows the story of Olivia across three periods in her life, tracing the experience of a rape and the aftermath in trauma that it creates for her. The most interesting element of the novel is not only Hardcastle’s sophisticated negotiation of the politics of consent, but her depiction of the broader social structures of power which surround the narrative events as a whole. This context of power as a theme is essential to our understanding of the rape itself, but Hardcastle also does vital work in the minute detail she offers in personal interactions between key characters. She moves in part through recognisable male figures – the demanding father, the emotionally-detached grandfather, the uncaring boyfriend, the boy next door – but plays with our recognition of these norms to make a point about the social prevalence of masculine power.
The opening, for instance, sees Olivia effectively tricked into thinking she has been kidnapped – waking up in an unknown location after a night of drinking to find herself on a boat with ‘an old man wearing an oilskin jacket, an orange beanie. His skin is weathered, salt-encrusted, with sunspots and a coarse white beard. Beyond him is the ocean. Its surface is dark and choppy. My body shudders, my spine curls.’ We discover soon enough that Mac, the man in question, is benevolent and caring, and has essentially been acting to protect her. But it is a cruel joke, uncomfortable to experience in the first person. And the construction of this encounter through the Gothic frame ensures that even in this moment we are conscious of Olivia’s vulnerability as a woman. This vulnerability is not (directly) connected to Mac. Twisting the Gothic trope, he is not cast as the villain. The encounter as a whole is not frightening, and the reality of the situation is quickly asserted. The vulnerability we perceive is thus set as a state of being, an unavoidable aspect of Olivia’s womanhood. This remains an undertone to their friendship, and to Olivia’s journey in general, as a reality she must come to terms with.
Regularly the female relationships in the book are configured around the sharing of stories – there is a scene towards the end of a communal sharing which I am sure will be familiar to many women.
At the same time, Hardcastle creates a space in the novel for the representation of powerful and assured women, with the character of Maggie close to its emotional centre. Regularly the female relationships in the book are configured around the sharing of stories – there is a scene towards the end of a communal sharing which I am sure will be familiar to many women. This act of sharing and acknowledging experience rises as a counterbalance to voicelessness, a response to the trauma of not being heard. Interestingly, Maggie as a character offers this to Olivia from the very early moments of the work. The acknowledgement of another’s voice is therefore not dependent on trauma, but developed across the novel as a deep ethics of care and respect.
Hardcastle herself has described her work in the terms of a call to action: ‘my cry out into the dark for women everywhere. Our stories have been resting on the ocean floor, wrapped in coils of seaweed for millennia. Only now is the truth bubbling up.’ For me, the most powerful moments in the writing were those in which this theme of speaking and being heard was understood as something very different from the imperative to define the ‘truth’ of a traumatic encounter. Hardcastle makes wonderfully clear the manner in which a victim’s understanding of the events can change and develop over time, and that there may be many ‘truths’ felt through the experience of trauma.
Writing this event, and the trauma that follows, in the first-person is a brave and ambitious narrative choice. Olivia’s voice as a character is made distinct by her synaesthesia. While at moments this felt slightly contrived, it also adds a richness and depth of symbolism to Hardcastle’s fluent and frequently lyric description. Beyond that, it also asserts Olivia’s individuality, defining her in a way that is undeniably distinct from the role of victim, and ensuring that her voice is not subsumed by the narrative structure of her experiences. Coupled with the novel’s ethical trajectory towards empathy, this is a valuable message to offer a society that still typically ignores, denies or sensationalises the stories of women who have suffered through similar experiences.
Catherine Noske is a lecturer in creative writing and editor of Westerly Magazine at the University of Western Australia. Her work has been awarded the AD Hope Prize, the Elyne Mitchell Prize for Rural Women Writers, and shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award. Her debut novel, The Salt Madonna (Picador), has just been released.