Jennifer Maiden, Play with Knives Four: George and Clare, the Baby and the Bikies (Quemar Press 2017)
The first page of this short novel –– just over 157 pages – drops the reader in medias res, that is to say into the middle of a long-running story. Arguably that’s what any decent novel does, but in this case you could go back and read a lot of what has gone before. See my post on Play with Knives: Three: George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker for one synopsis.
In the first few pages, George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, once Probation Office and convicted child murderer (that is, convicted when nine years old of murdering her three younger siblings), now lovers thirty odd years later, are languishing in a heatwave in Mt Druitt in Sydney’s western suburbs. In a break from working on a report for their NGO employer about Indigenous children in custody in Sydney’s Western Suburbs, they chat about a draconian policy at the Cobham Juvenile Detention Centre (a real place, real policy), and then Clare looks up an extract from William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris on Project Gutenberg and reads out a passage, which makes them both cry – and which they then discuss in erudite terms, before indulging in some erotic play.
The book continues as it has begun: whatever else may be happening, George and Clare are always good for a bit of literary chat, some sharing of random information (George refers to his ‘op-shop mind’), commentary on international politics (the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017 is particularly upsetting), plenty of erotic carry-on (the word ‘foreplay’ features frequently), and lots of mutual introspection. Quotes from poetry and references to visual art abound: in this book, prints from Rosaleen Norton, the ‘Witch of King’s Cross’, play a significant role (there’s an example on the right, and you can click on the image for more). Not everyone would agree with Clare’s description of Roie’s work as mostly sweet and pretty.
The story unfolds in chapters that mostly alternate between prose narrated by George, and third person narration in verse. The baby great granddaughter of their Aboriginal friend Ruth has gone missing, and the quest to find her, alive or dead, involves, among others, a bikie gang (the Warriors of Hell), a super-criminal named Schmidt and his three diverse lovers, a number of George’s former Probation clients, an inmate of the juvenile detention centre (up on the roof, echoing recent real-world headlines), Idris the Grey Hat Hacker from the previous book now in Moscow, and George’s contact in the CIA in Langley. There’s a boxing match between two men who are old enough to know better (in which Jennifer Maiden, through George, reminds us of the second line to Muhammad Ali’s ‘Floats like a butterfly stings like a bee’), a witchcraft ceremony, a fabulously tense shoot-out in the Jenolan Caves, a number of deaths and a birth.
It’s good fun, it sticks to the tropes of the thriller genre, and could make an excellent movie. Some difficulties are solved a little too easily, and some of the connections between events aren’t clear, but I can’t say I mind. It’s full of surprise twists, not in the plot so much as in the telling: you never know where George and Clare’s minds will go next. For just one example, here’s George in the middle of the climactic cave scene, where people are dead and dying and things could hardly be more urgent:
… in front of me was a formation of such irresistible fineness that it stopped everything else in me for a second. The plain clear light was floating on a white inclining bank of intricately furrowed but luminously smooth limestone, with a cluster of long tasseled objects like sea plants embedded in the top. These showed delicate tints from iron, but in the sweet colours of skin, not its usual salty rust.
I remembered Proust writing that one can’t appreciate beauty when in severe sadness, but I wanted to add something about that point in which one is wracked with anxiety, and beauty is the only thing one can experience, perhaps just as those in grief always obsess on details. I wanted to tell that to Clare, and the need to do so reincarnated me – or maybe disincarnated me enough for me to continue.
Through it all, George and Clare’s relationship develops and though it may be a bit prim of me, I’m not going to say how. I will say that the last two short chapters, while completely within the conventions of the genre in having the world back to normal now that the threat has been dealt with, are deeply satisfying in terms of Clare’s long story arc: she can never forget that she killed her younger siblings when she was nine, has never asked forgiveness, but she does seem at last to have found a possible way to move on.
George and Clare, the Baby and the Bikies is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I obtained it, as you can, as a free download from Quemar Press.
Thank you for another excellent and discerning review.
I am really pleased you mentioned the Western Sydney Correctional Centre and its treatment of Indigenous inmates. In an earlier review, you compared Jennifer Maiden’s use of exciting plots to Eliot’s definition that such devices enable the writer to capture the reader’s attention about deeper issues, but, in a discussion of this with me, JM thought that her technique was closer to that of Dickens, in which the crucial issues are present in both the plot and the characterisation/writing style, each enhancing the other and holding the reader’s attention, at the same time allowing the reader relevant distraction and stopping the theme from seeming too simple or didactic.
One of the main topics to which she wished to draw attention in ‘Baby and the Bikies’ was the treatment of Indigenous inmates in current Western Sydney correctional centres. Much literature about Indigenous issues has the right attitude in general racial terms and to historic or well-known media exposures but does not mention specific current problems or illustrate them at any length.
JM also thanks you for the valuable and detailed reviews.
Thanks, Katharine, and JM in the background. I’m glad you both enjoyed the post. The Dickens comparison is interesting …