I’ve been meaning to review this book for weeks but have been thwarted by another bout of flu, my sister having a baby, and madly trying to write postdoc proposals. Now the overdue library fines are getting to the point of embarrassing, so the book has to go back tomorrow.
I came across The Beloved while doing a roundup of the Dobbie and Kibble awards for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, where it was reviewed by Lauren of The Australian Bookshelf. It was also longlisted for the Dobbie, a prize for first time women writers, and made it to the Miles Franklin shortlist. It was also the 2011 winner of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Emerging Author, before Campbell Newman canned the awards, making a mockery of his role as an ambassador for the Year of Reading. The have since been resurrected by a dedicated group of Queenslanders and renamed the Queensland Literary Awards.
The novel is told in third person from the point of view of Roberta, who in 1954 is struck down with polio. She manages to walk again, but with a limp and a built-up boot. She moves with her family to Port Moresby, teaches herself to draw and paint against her mother’s wishes, and finds ways to keep on making art when her mother punishes for it.
I really liked Roberta’s character. She was tough, defiant and, although painfully aware of her disability, didn’t let it cripple her character. I have to confess I smirked when, while staying with her mother’s relatives in Canada, her cousin attempts to rape her, snarling, ‘who else is going to want you with that piss-ugly foot?’, and Roberta gets away. She then ‘lifted [her] booted foot and rammed it between Charlie’s legs. Piss-ugly, but useful’ (162).
I also loved Faulkner’s lush descriptions of the tropics. Port Moresby, she writes,
pressed against you with hot damp hands and filled your head with the musky smells of frangipani, copra, rotting plants and dead fish … More than anything, Moresby was colour – the blood-red hibiscus Mama pinned in her black hair; the dark natives bent at the waist, sun flashing off their twisted serif-blades; the dark green mago leaves, dark purple betel juice and orange paw-paw. Colour was everywhere, and all of it begging to be painted (65).
I was impressed with Roberta’s obsession with making art. You know someone is an artist when they just can’t stop regardless of their circumstances, or parental disapproval.
Roberta’s mother was a hard woman. Her dreams of being a doctor and ending up with the man she loved had been thwarted, and she took her bitterness out on her children. Her toughness helped her through her shaky marriage, and shaped her into a photographer who shot film in remote outposts, but it made her a strict parent. I could understand that she was frightened for her disabled daughter, and wanted Roberta to be successful in order to become self-sufficient. However, the best thing my parents ever did for me was to support me as a writer, and although they were worried about that choice, they kept it to themselves. Fortunately, Roberta had her mother’s stubbornness, and became an artist in the end.
The pace of the novel was subdued, as though slowed by the muggy Moresby heat, but this meant there was more time for the vividness of the place and its characters to come through. Although it didn’t have a complex plot or narrative voice, I thought it made up for this with the evocative writing, and was on the whole a relaxing read.
Book details: Faulkner, Annah. The Beloved. Sydney: Picador, 2012.
Borrowed from Brisbane City Council Library.
This is my 8th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.