Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 448 pages; 2015.
First published in 1954, Kenneth Mackenzie’s The Refuge is based on an intriguing premise: a newspaper reporter is tipped off about a young woman found dead in Sydney harbour, except he already knows the news because he committed the crime.
But the novel, deeply evocative of wartime Sydney and the paranoia affecting its citizens about Communism and European refugees, doesn’t live up to its promise. While it has moments of quiet brilliance, as a whole it is over-written — it contains pages and pages of purple prose — and over-wrought. This is a great shame because with some judicious editing (the novel is about 200 pages too long) there’s a brilliant story inside that is dying to get out.
That story is obviously framed around the murder — why it was committed, and how? And while those aspects are covered in a satisfying way, the narrative pacing is all wrong. So what should be a fast-paced tale riven with tension and suspense becomes a laborious, self-indulgent journey focused on the man who tries to justify what he has done. It’s billed as a mystery, but it’s not a mystery at all. It’s a literary novel with a deeply philosophical tone, but it’s uneven, patchy — and flawed.
The first chapter is compelling, fast-paced and suspenseful. Lloyd Fitzherbert, the police reporter with the Sydney Gazette, is getting ready to go home after his long shift when his contact in the CIB calls him about a woman currently lying in the morgue, who had been “netted” in the “harbour off Woolloomooloo”.
Coming in with the tide, I suppose. They tell me it’s a real beauty — a woman, and not a mark on her. Luck, eh? Only the colour’s wrong for a drowning.
The woman is Irma, a Dutch refugee, whom Fiztherbert had secretly married three years earlier and, then, as it turns out, had drugged and murdered for reasons that don’t become clear until the end of the book. But why did he marry Irma in the first place and then keep it secret from everyone he knew, including his teenage son? And why did they live in separate, albeit adjacent, apartments?
To answer these questions, the story spools right back to the beginning to explain how the pair met and then charts their fledgling relationship in minute, long-winded detail. Their romance is not straightforward. Irma is young — just 19 when she first meets Fitzherbert, who is 12 years her senior — and troubled. She’s a Communist fleeing Nazi Germany and she believes she’s been tailed by three men on the refugee ship who wish to destroy her.
Fitzherbert, the handsome Australian saviour, tries to help her. It would seem he has her best interests at heart and while he’s attracted to her — there are many descriptions of her “Slavic cheekbones” and beautiful eyes and lips and figure — he spurs her sexual advances, and she ends up running away. They do not see each other for six years.
In the meantime, Fitzherbert, who is a widower, raises his son, Alan, single-handedly. (Their relationship is close and tender and one of the strengths of the novel.) He diligently works on the newspaper (the descriptions of journalistic practices are rather wonderful) and leads a quiet, respectable, drama-free life.
When he is eventually reunited with Irma and marries her (under strange circumstances, it has to be said), he is blissfully happy but somehow fails to see that she is not. She makes at least one suicide attempt which is practically swept under the carpet as if nothing untoward has happened.
The events leading up to her murder are relatively predictable, and while nothing is spelled out, the author wastes a lot of time telling us the emotional toll this is having on Fitzherbert. We never do hear from Irma, who remains an enigma throughout the entire novel.
My main issue with The Refuge is the overt sexism and objectification of women throughout. This, no doubt, is simply indicative of the time in which it was written, but the introduction by Nicolas Rothwell in this edition makes absolutely no mention of this. (Rothwell is more inclined to place the story in historical context, to explain how Communism and immigration impacted the Australian psyche still reeling from the impact of the Second World War, which is fascinating and, importantly, does help to explain some of the racism in the book.)
On more than one occasion, I was reminded of all the problematic issues I had with Sophie’s Choice when I read it a few years ago. That novel was very much focused on a single character’s beauty and sexual appetite, whereas this one tends to portray women as a group of unfathomable creatures who think and act differently from men because of some innate biological makeup. This is just one of many examples:
Con used to say that women arrive at a remarkable number of correct conclusions by thinking with their livers. When I said, why their livers? he said, “Well, any of their organs that happen to be unnaturally affected at the moment.” Of course, I took the opening to point out to him that the brain is also an organ, but he said that was different — a woman never allowed her brain to interfere with what she called her thinking.
That said, the book isn’t a complete dud. When Mackenzie hits his stride and focuses on showing us, instead of telling us, how Fitzherbert is feeling, he’s excellent. The historical setting is evocative — large parts of the novel are set in the lead up to the Munich agreement in 1938 — and I loved reading about the hubbub of the newsroom and the quirky characters who inhabit it.
The Refuge was Mackenzie’s last novel (he has three earlier ones to his name) — he drowned in mysterious circumstances a year later.
I read this book as part of the 1954 Club, a week-long initiative hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy of Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings in which everyone is encouraged to read books published in — you guessed it — 1954. More on Kaggy’s blog here and Simon’s blog here.
I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. The author was born in South Perth in 1933 and raised on a property at Pinjarra, in the Peel region about 80km south-east of the WA capital. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.