Fiction – paperback; Random House Australia; 320 pages; 2005. Review copy courtesy of the author.
This delightful book by first time novelist Wendy James is set in Australia at the dawn of the twentieth century.
It revolves around two women from vastly different backgrounds: Maggie Heffernan, a headstrong working-class country girl; and Elizabeth Hamilton, a well educated Scottish immigrant keen to start afresh after the death of the doctor to whom she had been engaged to be married.
Elizabeth’s friend Vida Goldstein, an early feminist reformer and the first woman to stand for Parliament in Australia, is also a central pivot to the story, which goes something like this.
Maggie, spirited and inclined to leap before she looks, falls in love with the local town scoundrel and falls pregnant. When he secretly scampers off to Melbourne, Maggie follows but is unable to find him. Refusing to admit that she has been abandoned, she finds a job as a domestic help in a Melbourne hotel, hoping that no-one will notice her expanding girth.
Meanwhile Elizabeth, who narrates her story through a series of diary entries and letters to her American-based journalist brother, lives with her cousins in South Yarra and works as a teacher at the school set up by the Goldstein family. For the most part she is able to keep her head above water, but she is desperately lonely and seeks “a home, hearth, love — even children. To have a future! To be released from the prison of this solitary existence.”
It is only when Maggie is arrested for a terrible crime that the worlds of these two women collide. I don’t wish to spoil the story line, because it is this collision — a completely unexpected turn of events that caught me, as a reader, totally off guard — that is the high point of this novel. In many ways, it divides the novel in two, because the chapters that follow are like a different book entirely.
Out of the Silence is based on a true story, which gives it extra gravitas. There are newspaper extracts and letters to the editor of The Age to give added weight (I suspect these are real but I cannot be sure).
The prose is confident and the characterisation is strong. But I found some sections tedious and believe it could have benefited from the odd cut or two. While it is supposed to convey the plight of women in the early 1900s and the suffrage movement, some points — for instance is it better to marry for love or security? — were laboured a little too strongly.
Plus, and this generally happens to me whenever there is more than one narrator, I found myself enjoying Maggie’s entries more than Elizabeth’s.
Still, this is a fascinating easily-digestible read that throws up many questions about the role of women, and I suspect those readers interested in the suffrage movement will find much to delight them in Out of the Silence.