May 2021

by Helen Elliott

‘Fury’ by Kathryn Heyman
With stripped-down eloquence, the Australian novelist delivers a raging memoir about her rape as a teenager

Kathryn Heyman is a successful writer, novelist, scriptwriter, teacher. She speaks with rounded vowels, has straight teeth and expensive hair. In publicity shots she looks straight into the camera, exuding middle-class confidence.

It wasn’t always like this.

Kathryn Heyman once had another name, and things happened to her that she has never spoken about. Although in her fiction there has often been a sense of a phantom story, in her most recent novel, Storm and Grace, a forensic analysis of a controlling relationship between a man and a woman, the story consistently sheeted through. It was female fury.

Fury (Allen & Unwin) is memoir in which Heyman uses her own fury to navigate, sound, survey and finally reflect male sexuality in a world where female means prey. She uses real names. Heyman grew up in a small town near the New South Wales coast where her father was a local policeman “who blustered and blistered and bellowed until her mother found a way to leave”. Until she was nine she shared a bed with her mother. Heyman was the youngest child and although her mother did her best, she was left to bring herself up. Her role models, those she watched puzzled but “curious and furious”, were girls from school, girls who, unlike Heyman, apparently knew how the world worked. Perhaps they did. Heyman certainly did not.

At 14 she’s introduced to hitchhiking by Sylvie who, artlessly, believed that “Being a girl … was everything”. Heyman tries to be a girl: she parties, has boyfriends, is intense about clothes. At 20 she dresses carefully and goes with a friend to a party. She doesn’t know anyone, she doesn’t know the suburb, and when her friend abandons her for a boy, Heyman, drunk, walks onto the road and hails a taxi. She wants to be safe.

Except the driver rapes her. And no one believes her story. Not the police, not the lawyers, not the judge. She was drunk, she was wearing underwear that men interpreted as her being sexually available. The taxi driver is found not guilty. Heyman asks: “So if he is not guilty? What then? What am I? Did I have to be an innocent to be innocent?” This question encompasses the whole memoir.

Distraught, young, unsupported, Heyman leaves university and starts hitchhiking up north. If she is officially shamed by the legal system and judged as worthless, then she must be. She ends up in Darwin and, by the mad circumstances that attract the young, she gets work on a fishing trawler. One woman and four men. The sea, the space and the practical kindness of these flawed men, as opposed to her experience of the brutality of just about every other man she has met in her brief life, reveal another world to her. It’s a world not about “being a girl”. She can work as well as any of the men and she enjoys the tough physicality of it. She discovers she has agency, not as a girl but as a mate.

Like Rick Morton’s One Hundred Years of Dirt, Fury is about class and power as much as sexuality. And it has the dismaying impact of Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do. This, however, is exhausting to read because the voice is monotone. Furious. But being female in a world run by men is exhausting. Heyman is daring us to enter into her private, eloquent fury. She’s stripped down her words to just this to make us see in a fresh way. It’s high risk, but given the political landscape she will never have such a thoughtful or grateful audience.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

Cover of The Monthly, May 2021
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In This Issue

Image of artwork by Sarah Goffman

How to lose her voice

On testimonial injustice and the ways women are silenced

Image of Question Time at Parliament House, December 9, 2020.

From Abbott to Zumbo

A short history of the Coalition’s ‘women problem’

Image of artwork by Sarah Goffman

Ill-informed consent

How piecemeal relationship and sexuality education is failing our schoolchildren

Image of “Man working” (Rufus Wilton), Nepabunna, circa 1930

Sole of a nation

The untold Aboriginal history of the R.M. Williams boot

Read on

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Body and soul: ‘The Airways’

Fusing elements of crime fiction and ghost stories, Jennifer Mills’ latest novel is an interrogation of gender, power and consent