Academic journal article Hecate

Reclaiming Identity in Rhyll McMaster's Feather Man

Academic journal article Hecate

Reclaiming Identity in Rhyll McMaster's Feather Man

Article excerpt

In 2007, the poet Rhyll McMaster published her first novel, Feather Man, with a small publishing company, Brandl and Schlesinger, after six years of 'almost universal rejection from every Australian publisher and literary agent'. (1) In that year Feather Man was shortlisted for the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. The following year, Marion Boyars Publishers published Feather Man in the UK, US and Canada. 2008 was also the year that Feather Man was shortlisted for the Australian Literary Society's Gold Medal for an outstanding literary work, and won the inaugural Barbara Jefferis Award as well as the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, NSW Premier's Literary Awards.

One possible reason why such a powerful--and eventually successful--novel was rejected for so long by publishers and agents is the dark intensity of its subject matter. The novel is an intricate portrait of a young girl's struggle to grow up against the backdrop of an oppressive Brisbane in the 1950s. We are introduced to the character as 'Sooky' and McMaster pulls no punches about Sooky's situation. Feather Man opens with a scene of sexual abuse enacted upon a very young Sooky by her grandfatherly neighbour, Lionel.

What follows is Sooky's painful journey in her search for meaning and identity in a world of fear and betrayal. The novelist Rosie Scott, one of the judges for the Barbara Jefferis prize, said that McMaster 'gives us a woman using all that grief to remake herself. Here is a story of a woman making it through.' (2) McMaster, with a poet's sensitivity with language, weaves us an intricate tale of Sooky's triumph over her circumstances of place, time and events.

'Sooky' is a nickname bestowed upon the character by her father, 'because [she] was a girl'. (3) In her father's world, being 'sooky', or sulky, is necessarily a feminine trait. We are told that 'when he was in a good mood he called [her] his popsy' (29). Sooky is called by a myriad of diminutive names throughout the novel such as Girlie, little fairy, Lady Muck, Lice, Sweetheart, Baby, Honey Heart, and Doll. The child-Sooky tells us that '[she] knew no-one used [her] real name because [she], too, didn't really exist.' (29).

In Feather Man, names are powerful symbols of identity, for Sooky tells us that 'when you name something it becomes invested with substance, soul, that essence you look for in the eyes.' (291). Sooky's real name is alluded to throughout the book, but is not directly revealed until the penultimate chapter of the book, when the 'archaic' (245) name of 'Lyce' becomes 'quite unexceptional' (303) in a pedestrian event of a telephone call.

In the novel's epigraph, McMaster summarises the Greek myth of Lyce and Daphnis, beginning with the line: 'The nymph, Lyce, made Daphnis swear eternal fidelity to her; otherwise, he would go blind.' Only when Sooky comes into her own existence can she lay claim to her real name and come into the full power of her Greek counterpart.

There are four parts to Feather Man, the first being the longest at 22 chapters. Significantly, each part is titled with the name of each of the four men with whom Sooky has sexual relations.

The first part, 'Lionel', details most of Sooky's childhood, although the narrative jumps back to her childhood throughout the novel, following the character's turn of mind. Sooky describes Lionel as 'big and authoritative' and 'very powerful' (23). In relation to this 'royal beast' and 'king of the kids' (36), Sooky is 'a mere girl' (84) powerless to stop her abuser. The consequences of Lionel's sexual abuse in several instances are detailed as such in Sooky's words:

   Lionel robbed me of naturalness. He severed me from the right to 
   grow up easily. He took from me the expectation of good things, and 
   contentment. He stole the mundane, unexamined happiness of ordinary 
   life. … 
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