TEXT review


Remembering where you come from

review by Enza Gandolfo

 


Tracey McGuire
Rabbit Heart
Hit and Miss Productions, Parkville VIC 2016
ISBN 9780734051868
Pb 237pp AUD25.00

 

At the centre of Tracey McGuire’s novel, Rabbit Heart, is the relationship between a father and daughter. The novel opens with a prologue in two sections that captures something of the essence of that relationship. The first section set in 1970 introduces the ‘rabbit heart’ that gives the novel its title:

Dianne ran to her father. She fell across the line and into those freckled, furry arms. He picked her up and gave her a whizzie. He hugged her to his chest.
‘Good girl, Number One Drop o’ Water. Second.’ She squeezed his neck and he snuggled his prickly chin under hers. ‘Your heart’s racing like a bloody rabbit.’ (8)

As a child and young woman, Dianne idealises her father – she is the one with his ‘rabbit heart’ – but as an adult she has to come to terms with his faults and flaws and claim her identity separate from his. The second part of the prologue is set thirty-five years later, and begins with Dianne waiting outside the church before her father’s funeral, and watching as the various family members gather. Ted’s secrets are out in the open now, and the whole family knows he had a long-time lover and another son. The ‘rabbit heart’ and Ted McIntyre’s death frame the novel.

A central focus of the narrative is the annual pilgrimage that Ted, his brothers, Archie and Jack, and their mates, Fat Cat and James Warner, make to the Braybrook pub on the 15th October, the anniversary of the collapse of the Westgate Bridge, and the death of Jack’s son, Jimmy. Jimmy was one of thirty-five men killed in the tragedy. They meet to reminisce and to have a drink for Jimmy. But this year will be their last; Ted has a brain tumour and is dying.

The narrative unfolds as the five men and Dianne (who will be driving her father home) make their way to the pub. While Dianne is the main protagonist and much of the novel is written from her perspective, there are also several other sections written from different perspectives. There is a section from the point of view of each of the brothers: Archie, Jack and Ted (Dianne’s father), and from James Warner. Each of these sections moves shifts back and forth from the men’s early lives in the 1940s to the present (2005).

In novels with multiple narrative perspectives, it can sometimes be difficult to connect with the characters, but McGuire has managed to give each character their own voice and back story, and each of them is compelling in their own way. Archie, whose desire to make and wear dresses results in him being an outsider even as a child. Jack, whose marriage to a woman his parents don’t approve of (because she is not Catholic) sees him estranged from the family for many years. And of course, Ted – a man with many secrets, with illicit desires and a tendency to do as he pleases. These are complex men who struggle with the demands made on them to conform to a society with narrow and conservative views on a range of issues including: masculinity, sexuality and religion. Their individual stories are woven together to create a portrait of a family, often dysfunctional, held together by their love for each other, and their willingness to support each other in times of crisis. The brothers and Dianne are the core of this novel. By contrast, James Warner’s role in the novel and in the narrative seems peripheral, and somewhat of a distraction.

In many ways, the novel is a homage to Melbourne’s western suburbs, and to the working class people who populated it in the 60s and 70s; a world that has mostly disappeared along with many of our manufacturing industries. McGuire is at her best evoking the landscape and culture of the industrial west in the second half of last century:

The West Footscray factory covered a large area, so big that the foremen get around on bicycles. It employed more than four hundred workers. Ted was the only apprentice. The place was a typical fifty-year-old factory – stinking hot in the summer, freezing in the winter. And dirty. Filthy dirty, whatever the season. After a day crawling around under the floor and amongst the greasy machines, Ted was black. They were all black. There were no showers, just buckets of cold water. It was the apprentice’s job to drop a piece of hot steel into each bucket to warm the water before knock-off time. No matter how much soap he used, or how hard he scrubbed, Ted couldn’t get the grease from under his nails. His collars were always grimy. But he reckoned it was ‘clean dirt’. Not like the blood and guts and stench that the meatworkers at the boarding house had to wash off. (44)

There is sometimes a nostalgic tone in Rabbit Heart, especially as the men now in their 50s and 60s look back, but the impact of having several perspectives and voices is that it is impossible for the past to be mythologised. And though Dianne loves her father and uncles, she is reflective and questioning of both her own motives and their stories.

I enjoyed reading Rabbit Heart. It evoked many memories of growing up in Footscray and Sunshine, and of the lives of many of the working class men and women of my neighbourhood. McGuire deals with the Westgate Bridge collapse and its consequences for ordinary families with sensitivity and through it gives us an insight into the way that men deal with grief and loss. It is rare to see a novel set in the industrial west, and for the stories of the working class to be told with such empathy and understanding.

The novel’s subtitle commands: ‘Don’t ever forget where you’ve come from’. Though the working class continue to struggle, the nature of low paying jobs and of the western suburbs has changed forever. The world rendered in this novel is gone, but it is part of Melbourne’s history. I agree with McGuire, these are the stories of the men and women who built the city; this is a history that we should not forget.

 

 

Enza Gandolfo’s novel, Swimming (Vanark Press 2009) was shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Award in 2010 and the ABC Fiction Award 2008. Her other books include Inventory: on op shops with Sue Dodd (Vulgar Press 2007), It keeps me sane: women craft wellbeing with Marty Grace (Vulgar Press 2009) and Love and Care: The Glory box tradition of Coptic Women in Australia (Vulgar Press 2011) with Marty Grace. Enza has a PhD in Creative Writing and is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Victoria University, Melbourne. She is also the co-editor of TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses.

 

Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

TEXT
Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste
text@textjournal.com.au