Jennifer Maiden, Play With Knives: Two: Complicity (Quemar Press 2016)
This is a sequel to Jennifer Maiden’s Play With Knives (Allen & Unwin 1990), taking up the action maybe ten years later. The manuscript has been circulating for decades, and excerpts and commentary have appeared in literary journals, but it seemed destined to remain unpublished. Then Quemar Press made a PDF available as a free download last year.
The main characters of the Play With Knives novels (there are two more after Complicity) are George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, who have featured powerfully in at least fifteen of Maiden’s poems in her last half dozen books. The first novel begins with, George, the narrator, as a parole officer assigned to Clare’s case, having to decide whether to recommend her release from prison, where she has served time for murdering her siblings when she was a young girl. There’s a plot involving a serial killer in western Sydney, but the heart of the novel is in their developing intimacy, and their almost obsessive questioning of what it means for both of them to live in the long shadow of Clare’s act.
In Complicity they have both moved on. George begins the novel working for an NGO (Prisoners of Conscience) monitoring dubious legal proceedings in third world countries; Clare is living with a journalist and runs a small business. George returns to western Sydney and their mutual probing recommences, along with a couple of lovingly detailed sexual encounters. As before, there are thriller elements: people are dying from poisoned benzodiazapines, and someone assaults Clare a number of times with escalating violence. As before, these elements are secondary to the ebbs and flows of relationships, and to George-as-narrator’s ruminations. The characters return again and again to Clare’s childhood crime and to the climax of the first novel, analysing their meanings and their emotional impacts – much as real people might, rather than like characters in a TV thriller.
Lynda La Plante this isn’t. (I love at least some of Lynda La Plante’s TV shows, but one novel was enough.)
In six books over more than a decade now, Maiden’s George and Clare have been materialising in political hotspots all over the world, encountering characters ranging from Somali pirates to resurrected ancient Chinese nobility, with George W Bush and more recently Donald Trump somewhere in between. In those poems, George and Clare have their own adventures, but they are mainly interesting as lenses through which Jennifer Maiden can look at the wide world. In this book, though George Bush Senior’s Gulf War is a significant backdrop, George and Clare’s relationship is the focus. But we come to understand, perhaps even more than in the first novel, what it is about them that makes them such a useful lens. We see them grappling intensely and honestly with Maiden’s version of ‘the problem of evil’: how people who are not monsters can perpetrate atrocities, and how to live honestly with that reality.