Modern feminist dialogue wears ladylike veneer

Fahey, Diane: The Mystery of Rosa Morland, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan, 2008, ISBN: 978 -0-9802983-3-8, RRP: $24.95

Mystery of Rosa Morland This verse novel is different from Diane Fahey's earlier work, but the continuities are striking. What Fahey does best is immerse herself in a world and dialogue with it. This time the world is turn-of-the-century Britain, refracted through a genre — detective fiction — much-loved by the poet.

It will be difficult for bookshops to house the book as its genre is wonderfully hybrid: crime fiction/poetry. The work has some of the trappings of a classic of the genre, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. As in Christie, a part of the charm in Fahey's verse-novel is its surface, a veneer only, of ladylikeness.

That it is a veneer only becomes obvious when the other participants of the carriage don't act like the usual assemblage of falsely accused suspects. Something else is afoot, and this is where this new addition to Diane Fahey's corpus has links with her past writing. It's a feminist dialogue about confinement in marriages that plainly don't work, best symbolised by Dolores, the Amazonian macaw, who is one of the most engaging characters in the verse-novel:

Mulch carpet, and chandeliers of leaves
hanging from hot blue — I played the distances
between them, my scarlet and yellow cries
filled the rainforest's dripping voice-box.

I was kidnapped, taken to live inside
a closed collective mind — among porcelain
sylphs and swains, stuffed owls, aspidistras.
The eyes of peacock feathers gleamed by altars
of heaped rubies, and died with them: transposed,
like myself, to paraphernalia.
an exiled Amazon queen, I gazed through
gilt bars, the gift of speech my only joy.

It is delicious when symbols, for instance, Dolores who is a prisoner of an overstuffed Victorian treasure-house, do double-service as characters and contributors to the argument. The verse novel articulates a very modern feminist take on sexual and actual violence within marriage and shows a number of steely women taking the action necessary to escape abuse.

However, it is not for the plot that one reads such a work. It is the texture of the pastiche, the understated poetry, the elegantly handled argument, the exotic characterisation and the refractions of particular characters through other characters' perspectives.

I relished the submerged plots about the vengeful third wife and her villainous, chilling spouse, and the invented works by Rosa Moreland which are another way of splintering and refracting the concerns of the work. These pastiche passages, from different novels, are parodic, gems in their own right, wonderfully overheated in the manner of pulp fiction of the era, but doing double service as metafictions:

She heard the wind in the yew tree, a raven's jagged cry. The hinges of the crypt door creaked again ... Footsteps coming closer; a discordant tune being sung. Then a heavy sack thumped down onto her chest, followed by a thick rain of earth, covering both her and ... what could it be but poor, dead Tabitha [her cat]? Was she about to be buried alive?

Is the lady novelist writing her gothic fictions as a form of therapy, or do the fictions (and her readers) require her to take risks in real life in order to fuel the fiction writing? Is oppression a bit exciting and over-stimulating for its victims? Dangerously erotic? Life imitates art which imitates life.

Another continuity. The work exemplifies stylistic metamorphoses in each of its dozens of sections, without compromising integrity at all. And the plots which are not quite tied up (why is Mario in the narrative? Is he the alter-ego of someone else?) are splendidly teasing postmodern touches.

I enjoy too the architectonics of the work — the way it introduces you to characters and the mise-en-scene before the dramatis personae and their histories beyond the scope of the narrative are presented. The latter are accomplished in a style that would have done a Victorian novelist proud. An unusual and deft way to tie threads together. Almost like an appendix.

'A study in grey-garbed propriety', it's cunning, subversive work, not unlike Diane Fahey's public persona: sweet, self-erasing and ladylike to all appearances, but laughing, subversive non-conformist, and passionate on the other side of her face. Her free spirit is most fully encountered in her poetry.

Frances Devlin-GlassFrances Devlin-Glass teaches Literary Studies at Deakin University. Her areas of interest are feminist writing and theory, Australian and Irish literatures, especially Joyce.



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