Treading Air – Book Review

Treading Air by Ariella Van Luyn

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I delight in discovering little-known characters and events that revise my previously held assumptions about a place or period. The National Library of Australia’s digitalised newspaper archives are a priceless resource in yielding characters and plots for writers of historical fiction. This is where author Ariella Van Luyn discovered her protagonist for her forthcoming debut novel, Treading Air. Lizzie O’Dea appeared in the courts of Townsville and Brisbane in the interwar period for a variety of criminal offences. But this is as much historical ‘fact’ as Van Luyn could find about Lizzie’s life, and she began to imagine the gaps in the record to fill in Lizzie’s inner life.

It is in the interstitial space between fiction and history where Van Luyn’s academic life flourishes. Her first unpublished manuscript, Hidden Objects, was a finalist in the 2012 Queensland Literary Awards, but in writing it, Van Luyn says fiction is not a “complete solution” to telling a history.[1] There is a desire to use the narrative to showcase the research, which is at odds with the demands of plot and narrative.

In Treading Air I found little of this tension between narrative and history. It is a compelling and compulsively readable story, first and foremost. In imagining the inner life of Lizzie O’Dea, Van Luyn uses fiction to explore the wider historical and social context of changing attitudes towards women’s sexuality.[2] Treading Air, like Atwood’s Alias Grace, serves to challenge the traditional historical narrative that marginalises women’s voices.

The story opens with Lizzie O’Dea on the ward of the Brisbane Lock Hospital in 1945. Here, Van Luyn has imagined the social institutions that might have played a role in Lizzie’s life. Prostitutes with venereal disease were incarcerated in the Brisbane Lock Hospital until 1946, though in later years these efforts were more concerned with controlling the prostitution trade than with public health.[3]

It is Lizzie’s second time in the lock hospital and she is a much hardened woman than when she began her prostitution career in Townsville in 1923. Lizzie’s husband Joe is about to get out of gaol after twenty years and she is expected to be reunited with him. This narrative frames the story that begins in 1922 of when she first meets Joe, their move to Townsville and the circumstances under which she first enters prostitution.

By her own admission, Lizzie is “not usually the kind of girl nice things happen to.” There were few roles for women in the 1920s, often polarised into nice girls and bad. Similarly, there were few occupations a woman could aspire to. Sex work in 1920s’ Queensland offered women a financial freedom but excluded them from traditional roles as wives and mothers.[4] Finding the work enjoyable, Lizzie is determined to be a ‘queen’ earning enough money to buy their own house.

Lizzie’s preoccupation with owning property shows the inklings of female empowerment. But for most of the story, she is distracted—“caught up in the pleasure of owning beautiful things, rewards she gives herself for her work”—or reacting (often to her detriment) to the control of her fortunes by others. She still needs assurances from Joe like a smile from the bar to know she’s safe, and that he can “fix her up by loving her.” Raised by her father who stopped caring about her before he should have, she craves others’ attention.

Treading Air traverses territory that does not automatically spring to my mind as stable footings for a tale of female empowerment. Besides prostitution there is also gambling, cocaine use, infidelity, racism, standover tactics, murder, and graphic depictions of a prostitute’s trade. Van Luyn’s writing evokes the sticky messiness of the Townsville climate and Lizzie’s occupation. But Lizzie’s inner life is beautiful and delicate like an orchid.

For much of the story, Lizzie is aimless, disoriented, with “no reference points”. At first, Joe is the resourceful one—he directs her and steadies her when she teeters. Even her father’s house is “teetering”, where the floorboards shake beneath their feet. There are references to her feeling “unanchored” without her father, friends or Joe while he is at work. At one point, the gaol is “an anchor, holding their notes…  Joe’s letters steady her and tie her down, giving her something to hold onto.” But Joe is not the solid, dependable rock she thinks she needs, “they’re both on the edges, looking in on a world they’re all too aware of.” Living in the margins and in the dark is a recurring motif. Lizzie is not to be seen out and about during the day in the same context as her clientele’s wives. Her working name is Betty Knight—the inverse of her name, Lizzie O’Dea.

It is not until she tears down the blankets from the windows and nurtures what has been growing in the darkness that she can hope to gain control of her life. And from the silence of history and the margins of newspaper archives, Lizzie O’Dea’s voice is nurtured through Van Luyn’s imagination and research to be placed at the story’s centre.

Ariella Van Luyn, Treading Air, Affirm Press, 1 July 2016, pb, 304 pp., RRP $24.99

[1] A. Van Luyn, 2013. “Artful life stories: enriching creative writing practice through oral history”, TEXT, Vol.17, No.1, April 2013. http://www.textjournal.com.au/april13/vanluyn.htm

[2] A. Van Luyn, 2015. “Treading Air: using historical fiction to explore women’s criminality and sexuality in the interwar period”, Writing the ghost train: refereed conference papers of the 20th Annual AAWP Conference, 2015. http://www.aawp.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Van-Luyn-1.pdf

[3] B. Sullivan, 1997. The politics of sex: prostitution and pornography in Australia since 1945, Cambridge University Press.

[4] A. Van Luyn, 2015. “Treading Air: using historical fiction to explore women’s criminality and sexuality in the interwar period”, Writing the ghost train: refereed conference papers of the 20th Annual AAWP Conference, 2015. http://www.aawp.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Van-Luyn-1.pdf

My advance reading copy was courtesy of netgalley.

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