Part of me is so weary of crime novels and TV dramas revolving around the discovery of (another) mutilated body of a woman. What bugs me is not depicting the reality that women get murdered. Of course they do, every day, of every week, of every year. My issue is that I feel uncomfortable, even voyeuristic, watching the investigators, journalists and the rest of cast paw over the details of her life and her death. Of course, her murder is never condoned and the murderer receives our strongest condemnation. But beyond the surface-level motive, there is never any exploration of why this happened. What is it about our culture that creates the space for these events; that makes it unsurprising when another women is violently murdered?
I picked up Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident expecting a run-of-the-mill crime thriller (although a very good one given its accolades), and found instead an astonishing novel that expertly delivers a poignant yet gripping read, while exploring the drivers of violence against women. I can’t think of another novel like it.
The book opens with a local cop arriving at Chris’ doorstep to break the news that the body of her little sister, Bella, has been discovered. At that moment, Chris’ life unravels and over the course of the novel we bear witness to her searing grief, the media maelstrom and the vicissitudes of the investigation set against the backdrop of a small country town.
Much of the narrative is related by Chris – a flawed, but endearing character:
My problem was my tits… For the first few years I tried to ignore them. I mean ignore the effect they had on people… And now, well, now, I wear low cut tops and bend forward more than I need to if it’s been a slow night for tips and I barely notice when men speak to my chest, women shoot death-stares at it….
Chris’ love for her little sister was profound, and whilst her anguish at her murder is deep, she is bewildered at the public outpouring of grief:
I was making coffee when my phone rang. Unknown number, but I answered it anyway. I’d never do that now, but this was early days. I didn’t get that a bunch of strangers saw themselves as lead characters in a thrilling story which began with the discover of a pretty dead girl, who happened to have been my sister.
Feel free to take that personally by the way.
Private security is required at the funeral to stave off the crowd of locals, as well as ‘the news people… a bunch of fucking blowflies around a rotting corpse’. Five thousand people march through Sydney to mourn Bella’s death, without Chris’ involvement or consent.
At various points, different characters in the book question ‘why Bella?’. Everyone in the town of Strathdee speaks well of her – she was kind and sweet, thoughtful and pretty. No one, least of all Chris, can comprehend why this happened to her. This question of why is never answered directly, but Macguire gives us plenty of clues – through Chris’ life story (‘the first time a man hit me I was fourteen’), other events unfolding in Strathdee (shortly after Bella, another woman in the town is murdered by her husband), the attitudes of the police to Chris’ private sex life and through the talk of men at the local pub (‘He nodded and moved along down the other end of the bar, lent into the group of men and talked low the way he had to her… There was laughter and more mumbling and she heard it clearly this time: gash‘).
Macguire patiently weaves into the plot all the indicators that point to the answer to ‘why Bella?’. Macguire’s subtle, but clear message is that the attitudes and beliefs we witness in Strathdee are the same ones at work in society more broadly, and it is these that underpin and permit such violence against women.
Towards the end of the novel, Macguire explicitly presents her hypothesis: one character asks another if Bella’s murder was because ‘plenty of people want to hurt women just for being women’. His answer? ‘Gotta say mate, it’s a stupid question, it really is’.
The identity of the killer is revealed in the last couple of pages, in a perfunctory way because by this point, it’s pretty irrelevant. It almost doesn’t need saying that the murderer was just an ‘average’ looking guy, that the broader wrongs haven’t been righted by his arrest – that Bella’s murder is anything but an isolated incident.
An Isolated Incident is not polemical. It is a poignant, expertly-crafted, page-turner of a novel. But it is also super smart. Unlike other books in this genre, the question it poses isn’t ‘who killed Bella’, but rather, why anyone is surprised that she was. Which, when we take the time to reflect on our world in the way Macguire suggests, isn’t a stupid question at all.