This year I have finally gathered courage to join the Australian Women Writers Challenge and to commit myself to read six books by Australian women writers and review four of them between now and the end of 2014. This is my first review. Chosen by the book club to which I belong for the February meeting, the selection was thrust upon me, rather than a choice I made. But Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved is a treasure.
This beautifully written first novel won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Emerging Author (2011) and a place on the Miles Franklin Literary Award short list (2013) for good reason.
Against a backdrop of life in the 1950s in Port Moresby (where Anna Faulkner spent much of her childhood) with excursions to Sydney, Melbourne and Canada, The Beloved is the story of the protagonist’s somewhat stormy childhood in a family fraught with problems.
Stricken at the age of six with polio, the protagonist, Roberta ‘Bertie’ Lightfoot – yes, really – is left with a disability which means she must eventually wear a boot to correct her gait. Her deformed foot impacts on her perception of herself and how she chooses to dress, as well as forces her to compensate in many areas of her life.
From the outset, the reader is shown Bertie’s exceptional artistic talent. This talent, as well as the child’s passion for her art, puts her in direct conflict with her strictly controlling mother, who aspires to a career in medicine for her daughter. The conflict is epitomised in the mother’s steadfast refusal to give Bertie the box of 72 coloured pencils for which the little girl longs. The battle between mother and daughter draws the story along at a page-turning pace, ensuring an easy read. Bertie’s deception and secrecy as she pursues her art against her mother’s wishes is at the heart of the novel; but hers is not the only deception.
I loved the way Annah Faulkner portrays her characters, even minor ones, giving them a distinctive life of their own. The author’s passion for, and knowledge about art is apparent throughout the book. But what impressed me most was the fascinating use of the voice of the child to tell this story in first person as she develops from a little girl to a thirteen-year old. For the first few pages, I was unsure of the voice. Once I became used to it, I was impressed with the deft way the author manages to maintain a voice which matures as the girl grows older, and becomes more cognisant of what is happening around her, and the implications of other people’s actions.
This is an excellent book club choice and I look forward to discussing it soon.