June 2016

by Helen Elliott

‘The Healing Party’ by Micheline Lee
Black Inc.; $29.99

On an early June night in Darwin, Natasha, looking into the twisted shape of an old frangipani, takes a call from her eldest sister. Their beautiful mother with the lopsided smile has cancer, and it is terminal. Four weeks later, Natasha is back in suburban Melbourne. There is no frangipani here; her parents’ house is the only one in the court with mess rather than garden. Her father, a professional photographer and artist, is not a man to notice a garden.

Paul Chan lives his life through Charismatic Christianity. He and his wife, Irene, have raised their four daughters in the church, a life so constrained that Natasha, creative and imaginative, fled to Darwin. Natasha’s sisters respond to their father’s religion, at least outwardly, with old-fashioned female, and traditional Chinese, compliance. So when Paul announces that “we must hold a healing party” where “all and sundry will be invited so that they may witness the miracle”, the sisters, including Natasha, hurl themselves into organisation. The miracle will be Irene’s healing. Even nonbelievers sometimes wish for miracles.

This debut novel by Melbourne author Micheline Lee is distinguished by intelligence, wit and an absence of condescension. Paul’s sincerity is a given, but he loves Jesus because the external drama of Charismatic Christianity coincides with the internal drama of his own personality. Charismatic Christianity, homemade and practical, provides an identity for his grandiosity. But painful reverberations manifest in the repressed lives of his daughters and especially his wife. Irene, prettiness itself, was a highly sought-after young woman in Hong Kong before they married. Her life has been dedicated to staying pretty for him. There is no doubt that she loves him, but whether he deserves her love and devotion, and that of his daughters, is the central question of the novel. Now, at 62, Irene is going to die, and Paul must reassess himself.

A healing party is a tremendous premise for this eccentric and individual novel. The tenderness and exasperation with which the characters are drawn will ensure comparisons with Amy Tan, but the landscape – outer suburban, lower middle class, a reshaped and evolving Australia – is fresh. Lee has much to say and she does it with range, confidence and, most impressively, strict respect. Paul, Irene and Natasha are memorable long after the novel is shut. The Healing Party succeeds in the aim all novels share: it suggests new ways of seeing. The world of the outer suburbs is just as vital, just as rich with life as any other.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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