Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany will take its place at the forefront of both Australian and women’s literature. The winner of the inaugural Stella Prize, the author presents the reader with a dark, tightly controlled and poetic novel which has been long-listed for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award.
Set in an outlying eastern Perth suburb in the foothills of the Darling Ranges, Exploded View tells a story of a dysfunctional family in the 1970s. None of the characters have names. The novel is written in the first person from the point of view of the protagonist.
Outline of story
The girl and her younger brother live with their mother and she often alludes to ‘the time before’.
The girl truants from school, trespasses and steals. She is also mute. At night, when father man locks and deadlocks the family into the house, she escapes. Some nights she takes a client’s car for a drive with the lights off.
As well as this, she also sometimes expresses the normal thoughts, hopes and dreams of other adolescents.
The mother works in an office and lives in a fantasy, Mills-and-Boon-world. Her partner, whom the protagonist calls ‘father man’, lives with them. He is a shonky backyard mechanic works in the shed at the back of the block.
Father man refers to the children as ‘stupid and stupider’ and cuts off the girl’s ponytail for a slight misdemeanor at the dinner table. He throws it in the bin, while her mother does nothing to stop him.
At night or sometimes when mother is out of the house father man assaults the girl. She responds to his sexual abuse by dissociation, refusal to talk and sabotage.
Structure of Exploded View
The story is told three parts. In the first, ‘My Family,’ the writer sets the scene and develops the circumstances of the family.
The second, longest part, ‘A Trip’, tells of a seventeen-day road journey across Australia from the west to the east coast. Father man drives mother and the two children with very few short breaks. After three days in a strangers house in the east, they return to Perth. The point of the journey, for him, is the driving.
They sleep in the car, with the adults in the front seats reclined. The boy sleeps on the back seat and the girl sleeps on the floor, with her few possessions used to cushion her from the discomfort of the hump over the differential shaft. The tight sleeping arrangements protect her from the attention of father man. She says,
Sometimes father man has to leave the car at night because of the congestion. He’ll moan and adjust his trousers and open the car door and walk off gingerly into the night. No one will stir. My mother breathes her night breaths. My brother breathes his night breaths. I pretend I don’t know that father man has gone. Time is grainy for a while. I can pretend there is nothing that I know.
‘Home Again’, the third part of the novel, takes up the interrupted story.
Carrie Tiffany’s writing is poetic, spare and intensely sensual. She builds the story and the tension through short snippets, most no longer than a paragraph separated from the next. The girl’s thoughts, images and actions follow each other in quick succession.
The beauty of the writing and the frequently unexpected humour offset the dark themes of this novel.
Photo of Carrie Tiffany
Part of the richness of Exploded View is the use of metaphors. The girl’s thoughts are full of comparisons of one thing with another, including images from the time before.
She is knowledgeable about cars, perhaps because she spends time helping father man in the shed. Her most prized possession is the manual for father man’s own vehicle.
‘Hidden under the bed is the manual for father man’s blue car. Scientific Publications Holden Workshop Manual Series No. 51, in its protective cover, with its rub of grease across the front.’
The author uses the concept of this car manual as a sustained metaphor for the girl’s experiences. She applies it in a wide variety of ways.
Talking about the manual, the girl says,
An exploded view is to show the spaces between the parts and how they fit together.
Using that statement, Tiffany explores (through the girl’s eyes) the parts of the family and how they come together and yet stay apart. She also uses the metaphor for the parts of the human body and how they also fit or oppose each other. Descriptions from the manual are applied to many aspects of life.
While this book may not appeal to everyone because of the theme of child sexual abuse, it has a great deal to recommend it. I look forward to seeing how it fares in the Miles Franklin Award later this year.
Australian Women Writers Challenge, 2020
Due to the pandemic and long period of isolation, I am very behind in my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020. This review will help increase my tally.
Help and support services
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