24.02.10

Book Review: Somebody’s Crying by Maureen McCarthy

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:58 pm

Three years have passed since the murder of Alice’s mother, but still the killer is unknown. Alice, her cousin Jonty and his friend Tom are drawn together by the mystery, but what is each of them hiding? Will their secrets bind them tighter or tear everything apart?

First things first: I loved this book.  I read it compulsively and was extremely reluctant to put it down until I finished it.  McCarthy has a gift of creating entirely believable characters and then getting inside their heads; quietly mourning Alice, easygoing Tom and even loose cannon Jonty feel like people I’ve met and hung out with at some point.   Their emotional responses, psychological makeup and dialogue feel entirely real, and sweep the reader up.

Set in Warrnambool in Victoria, Somebody’s Crying felt at once familiar and alien; having grown up in a rural Victorian town myself (albeit on the other side of the state), the atmosphere McCarthy creates seemed intimately familiar in some ways, but as I don’ t know Warrnambool at all, there was still a measure of distance.

The mystery of who killed Alice’s mother, Lillian, forms the binding narrative of the book, drawing in the three distinct characters of Alice, Tom and Jonty.  The chapters skip between the three main characters, with McCarthy using third-person omniscient narration to great effect.  Flashbacks to the past from all three characters help to round out the story’s history and build up the intrigue as to who is Lillian’s real killer – a crime for which Jonty, her nephew, was arrested, but not convicted due to lack of evidence.  Jonty has returned to Woollongong, and faces a cloud of suspicion wherever he goes, despite his lack of conviction.  Alice has returned to her hometown to face her mother’s death and find the killer once and for all, and Tom is drifting after three years away, looking for some answers in his life.

Somebody’s Crying is not a perfect book; there are some fairly major plot points that feel somewhat flimsy, and the characters occasionally behave in ways that it would be very difficult to imagine someone behaving in real life; Alice’s choice to take a job with Luke, who is Tom’s father and the lawyer who represented Jonty in court, seems unlikely, yet several aspects of the plot hinge on this decision.

Overall, however, it’s a strong and compelling novel that shows great insight into its characters; despite the tragic backstory, there is also a great deal of emotional reality in the lives of the three main characters, and many of the minor characters are well-developed and engaging too.  It’s definitely worth reading if you haven’t already done so.

However.  There is just one thing I’d like to address – briefly, because I suspect it’s going to come up in its own post sometime soon.  See that cover up there?  Moody, dramatic, evocative of a scene in the book, and pretty eye-catching. The girl on it is meant to be Alice.  Except it’s not.  I don’t say that as a fangirl who thinks they’re Doin It Rong, either.

See, Alice is meant to be fat.  Not pudgy.  Not a normal-sized girl with body image issues.  Fat.  It’s made explicitly clear in the book; it’s by no means a plot point, it just is.  It’s not really an issue for her either; she suffers some moments of self-consciousness about her weight, but a lot of young women her age do anyway.  She’s written as being an intelligent, captivating and beautiful young woman, whose weight generally isn’t an issue for her, and whose attractiveness is absolutely unquestionable.

So why did the publishers choose to portray her this way?  Well, okay, I get that: fat panic!  But why stigmatise a stigmatised physical characteristic further when an author has done such a good job of portraying it sensitively and in an empowering manner (something which McCarthy has also done in previous books such as Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life)?  Alice is one of three main characters whose journeys are followed in the book, yet she’s the only one depicted on the cover, and is depicted incorrectly at that.  If featuring a fat girl, even a conventionally stunningly beautiful one such as Alice, was so distasteful, why not feature the guys as well, or one of them?  Why not have an abstract, moody cover with no people in it at all?  I guess what I’m really asking is why can’t a fat character be fat?  Yes, yes, I know, fatphobic society, book sales to consider, fat girls aren’t “aspirational” or whatever.  But why couldn’t this book been jacketed in a way that doesn’t lie about one of the characters, particularly about a part of her appearance that sometimes affects how she interacts with the world, and how the world sees her?  It puts me in mind of the (rightful) fiasco surrounding the American cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar.

But like I said, this is something I’ll probably come back to in another post.

In the meantime, read Somebody’s Crying if you haven’t already done so, and let me know what you think of it.