Ventura Press, Australia, 2021
This exquisite study of how we hold and resolve pain and loss is Lawrence McMahon’s first novel. Traversing themes of violence against women, the role of the missionary, religious practices, hierarchical structures in our society macro and micro – hence power plays between individuals and groups, medical ethics and our universal need for a place we call home, the novel is beautifully written and thoroughly absorbing in its content.
In some ways taking its structure from the historical fiction genre, the story transports us from past to present, from Pakistan to Melbourne, through the early traumas and current challenges in the lives of protagonists Kate, the plastic surgeon, and Malika, the brilliant girl from Pakistan who is disfigured as a result of an act of violence.
Both characters are in search of home, have a sense of loss of family – Malika because she is physically distanced from her family by her travels to a new home in Melbourne, Kate by both a lifetime of emotional separation from her mother and then her mother’s death early in this tale. The two are thrown together when Kate’s uncle, priest Father Mike, asks her to look out for Malika and to host her as a weekend guest to get her out of the school where she now boards.
Malika and Kate are people who keep their own counsel and who do not easily open to others. The relationship is slow to develop, Kate attempting to keep it at professional remove for a while, but it does gradually become family, and the resolution of this is deeply moving for the reader.
The author’s medical background enables him to share his inside knowledge not only of medical procedures and all things hospital – public and private practice, hierarchies, competitive and abusive behaviours, the importance of finding kindly supportive mentoring, career paths and choices and the like.
But at no time does this medical background overtake the human stories of our characters. It is well balanced and informative but never hectoring or lecturing. The exhaustion of the beginning practitioner in hospital residencies also gets a justifiable airing. At this time, we are particularly aware of the stresses on all of those who work in our hospital system.
Lawrence McMahon writes the ‘woman’s voice’ with skill and sensitivity, an uncommon skill – I admire this also in author Steven Carroll. His examination of the question of beauty and contemporary attitudes to perfection, physical and other, is perceptive and thought-provoking. His understanding of the difficulties of being a woman in professional and other arenas is profound and empathetic.
We feel such a range of emotions in this work and delve into such darkness – the tragedies and challenges of the book people are so adeptly written that we readily take them on as our own and are desperately hoping for a happy resolution. It would be churlish of me to reveal too much, but suffice it to say that we are uplifted as the work comes to an end. AND left hoping for another L.P. McMahon not too far away.
Thank you to Ventura Press and DMCPR for the review copy and for facilitating my interview with the author – such a privilege.