Sunday, June 20, 2010
Thomas Keneally "A Dutiful Daughter"
My feelings are mixed for "A Dutiful Daughter." The language is amazing and often perplexing. Much of the narrative is told in the second person, addressed to Damian. I can not readily recall a book I have read recently that uses this type of story telling:
The moment you saw her she surprisingly extended her hand, commanding yours. You instantly grabbed the hand with both of yours, as if you needed rescue. p.24
The use of "you" is even more intimate than first person narrative. As soon as Damian enters the drama and the narrative switches to the "you" of second person, I felt inextricably drawn into this whirl pool of family hardship and guilt.
Other intriguing story telling tools include the use of a reflective journal written by Barbara. The journal is largely about her feelings and comments on the life of Joan of Arc. Here she clearly identifies with the trials of Joan of Arc to express feelings of her own sense of duty.
A Dutiful Daughter is told in an allegorical style. Often books using strong symbolism tend to leave me a bit cold. However Keneally makes this work. The symbols used are extreme and quite horrifying, but I felt they were appropriate for the message Keneally is trying to convey. And I guess, as allegorical stories are more open to interpretation than other fiction, the following comments on the themes are only that; my interpretation.
I felt at the heart of A Dutiful Daughter is a sense of enmeshment and suffocation between the family members, and the guilt that often follows this sort of enmeshment and misplaced sense of duty:
Suddenly you found yourself angry that she so consistently saw herself as the centre of gravity in the Glover vortex of suffering. p.30
A Dutiful Daughter was first published in 1971 and set during the preceding decade or so. I mention this because I do get the sense that Keneally is making a statement about the effect of feelings of "duty" not just to aging parents but also the effect of constraints and expectations of a parents' generation on their offspring. I suspect that while some of these issues are still relevant today, they were particularly relevant during the 1960s.
I just felt so incredibly sorry for the brother and sister at the heart of this story. Damian and Barbara are both struggling in different ways, to form an identity of themselves that is not a tragic product or reflection of their truly awful family ties. Keneally also beautifully captures that things can go terribly wrong even when the family players have no ill intent towards each other. I think it is this that makes this story so incredibly sad.
The landscape also features in this novel and forms part of the tempo of the narrative. Keneally gives a good sense of place and small town life. The heavy rains and rising flood waters add to the mood and momentum of the story.
In summary this is a particularly dark novel. I did find myself compelled to read on though, and at only 147 pages it is a quick read. I genuinely admire what Keneally has achieved with this book. Using a very shocking narrative he explores themes of family, duty and identity that aren't really tackled in modern fiction. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to enjoy an expertly written, unusual story.