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The Avondale Poets
Beyond Redemption

"Sydney Morning Herald,  Saturday,  February 28, 1987

A Catholic girlhood seen afresh

by Jennifer  Dabbs
McPhee Gribble/Penguin Books, 258pp
reviewed by  Dianne Johnson

There are many accounts of growing up poor, powerless & Catholic. Yet Jennifer Dabbs' first novel is remarkably fresh & funny.

Jennifer Dabbs - the writer of novel -  Beyond Redemption
Jennifer Dabbs - the writer of novel - Beyond Redemption

The main character in th4e novel is Mary Kathleen Mitchell, usually known as Katie. She is an intelligent girl & finds the constantly intruding adult world around her curiously unwilling, or unable to give her the answers.

Katie is the only child of Mae, a prim, frugal & ambivalent mother, & Bill, a kindly, compassionate & loving father.  While Bill is away at the war  (WW2), Mae packs up her belongings & with Katie moves from Sydney back to the bosom of the Clancy family in Melbourne.

Could be - town where Clancys lived - when prosperous - in country pub
Could be - town where Clancys lived - when prosperous - in country pub

This extended family's absorption with trivia & pettiness is relentless, relieved only when one of its members tries to break free.  There are a few attempts & high drama ensues. The Catholicism of the family is used to justify all manner of tedious & inane behaviour in the guise of respectability.

centre back - could be - Clancy - old devi
centre back - could be - Clancy - old devi

Bill, however, having married Mae on the basis that he would try to convert to Catholicism, finds the reality of doing so, increasingly untenable. Despite his daughter's prayers, his wife's pleadings & the rest of the family's barely concealed barbs, he steadfastly refuses to embrace the one true faith.   'It's the confession part", he quietly reveals to Katie one day. "I just can't cop the bit confessing your sins, saying a few prayers & everything's  'hunky dory'  ... I think I believe in God, but it's a bit hard to see the Almighty as being all loving & merciful when you've been through a war."

 Could be - Clancy matriarch
 Could be - Clancy matriarch

Dabbs' eye for fine detail is never better than when she dscribes the ageless nuns who figure so prominently in Katie's life. Sister Philip for example, is one of the best teachers at Stella Maris, the school where Katie wins a scholarship.  She was "a strange demented creature", muses Katie, "her wimple was always askew & she barged around the corridors tripping over her rosary beads."

Could be  - Clancy mature age bachelor son
Could be - Clancy mature age bachelor son

As well as overseeing all school activities, th nuns seated in neat rows, kept a vigilant eye on school dances.  At her first dance, Katie wore a modest pink taffeta ballerina dress, its skirt held out by a stiff petticoat.  Unlike some of her peers, she managed to pass Mother Julian's hawk-like inspection, but was aghast at being left a wallflower, deserted & betrayed by her best friend who, despite promises to the contrary, was seen flirting on the cance floor  "like a skittish horse"  with a tall spidery creature.

Could be - Clancy matriarch & daus & gr son
Could be - Clancy matriarch & daus & gr son

Katie's search for herself is plagued with the gracelessness & gaucherie that teenagehod seems to demand so often.  Her overwhelming concern with sin reminded me of a girlfriend I had once.  .........

Katie's great love of music is a thread throughout the novel & signals a path to a quieter, more peaceful self. Her discovery that she is musically talented, has perfect pitch & has Italian origins is extremely significant for her, & coalesces in her passion for Italian opera both on & off the stage.

Could be - Mae Mitchell & dau Katie
Could be - Mae Mitchell & dau Katie

Nothing quite prepares the reader for the final chapters in this novel. Katie's short-lived but rapturous love affair with Silvio, the handsome & debonair opera star, reads as if it were straight from the very heart of romance land.  It is the ultimate girlhood fantasy, of gentle deliverance from the wilderness & clumsiness of virginity to the hearth & home of loving, passionate & expert sex. That is, until mother Mae finds out.

Could be - Katie Mitchell goes on stage
Could be - Katie Mitchell goes on stage

And then, all hell breaks loose. Katie's humiliation is truly awful.  Mae's anger knows no bounds as she revengefully recruits every last member of the family, the local priest & the school nuns to punish, shame & ridicule her daughter. Not even father Bill can ward off the attacks this time.

Could be Katie Mitchell  - redeemed -  & parents
Could be Katie Mitchell - redeemed - & parents

The novel ends abruptly, with the stage set for Katie's avenging rebellion.  I look forward to Jennifer Dabbs'  next novel.


Dianne Johnson is a Sydney writer."

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