June 7, 2016

Going the bloody hard way

By Helen Garner
Notes on Micheline Lee’s ‘The Healing Party’

I first met Micheline Lee several years ago when she took part in a two-day course that Michael Gawenda and I were running at Melbourne University. A dozen strangers worked together for two gruelling days in the peculiar, deceptive comradeliness of a writing group.

There was talent in the room at Melbourne University that weekend, and there was also, of course, an absence of talent; but the quality that radiated from Micheline Lee, this quiet, thoughtful, warm-faced individual, was unmistakeable.

It was clear at once that she was that rare and awesome thing, a natural.

At the end of the first day, after the students had packed up and staggered out exhausted, Gawenda and I looked at each other and one of us said, “What the hell is she doing here? She should go home and write her book.”

But we didn’t say this to her. She was too modest, too generous a presence in the room, too ready to listen and to learn, for us to forgo her company on the second day.

I have rarely waited for a book with such confidence.

The settings of the events it relates strongly resemble the material world we know – the suburbs of Melbourne, the streets of Darwin, the thick dust and blue skies of the Northern Territory, and, in the characters’ memories, the cityscapes and houses of Hong Kong.

But what raises it out of the ruck of modern Australian novels is its highly charged emotional and spiritual element: that is, the world of evangelical Christianity, with its dramatic Biblical rhetoric, its speaking in tongues, its melodious singing, and the mysterious totalitarianism of its demands.

The narrator of the novel, Natasha Chan, is a character of fascinating depth. With great delicacy and subtlety, Micheline Lee has created a psychological portrait of such a person in all her painful contradictions.

Natasha has been raised in fundamentalism. As a young adult she becomes disillusioned and repelled by it. A fugitive from its domineering extremes, she leaves her family and makes a new life elsewhere, among people who are more interested in politics than in the state of the soul, at least as it is defined by charismatic Christians.

But now she has been called home, to join her father and her sisters in caring for her dying mother. Even while she is wracked with doubts about her family members’ unshakeable certainty that prayer will bring about a miraculous cure for her mother’s end-stage cancer, she finds she is still capable of a deep response to their musicality, their hysterical energy and their bizarrely generous warmth.

What this struggle forces Natasha to know about herself, and about the people who love her, I found terribly moving. It’s the core of the novel, mercilessly analysed and written in a plain style that blossoms at times into passages of poetic beauty. And like all really good writers, Micheline Lee does not shrink from the strong rule of laughter.

The Healing Party is a marvellous and enthralling read.  It moves along at a steadily intensifying pace it’s impossible to put it down. It’s packed with well-drawn characters, male and female with heart-breaking and hilarious clashes, with moments of awful truth and of the purest tenderness.

I once read something that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said to one of his students, who was about to slide away into a quick, lazy, shallow solution to a problem. The great philosopher lost his temper and shouted, “Go the bloody hard way!”

What impresses me most about The Healing Party is Micheline’s refusal to go the easy way. As someone who has written about family in many different forms, I know from sore experience that there is a terrifically powerful urge in women writers to veer aside at the crucial moment, to blur the sharp angles of the things that are longing to be said – to do the womanly thing, to soothe and comfort, to let the reader – and to let herself – off the hook of the true meaning of what she has brought into being, in her years of labour.

Go the bloody hard way. I don’t know what it’s cost her, but Micheline Lee has risen to Wittgenstein’s challenge.

In The Healing Party there is no cop-out. There are no cheap resolutions, no simplifyings or sentimental softenings. Micheline Lee holds herself to the highest and most rigorous artistic standards. This is what makes her novel such a superb piece of feeling and thinking and imagining – a pained hymn to the complexity of that mighty institution, the family, in all its unbearable pressures, its betrayals and abandonments and silent endurances, its rickety renovations of itself, and its unexpected explosions of compassion, pity and forgiveness.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the launch of The Healing Party.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are Stories and True Stories, and her diaries Yellow NotebookOne Day I’ll Remember This and the upcoming How To End a Story.

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