The plot of An Isolated Incident could be summed up by reporter May’s words: “woman dead, sister sad, police know nothing”, as so many so-called isolated incidents are boiled down to in journo-currency. But unlike other crime novels, Emily Maguire has written a story that is not so much in the plot details, but in the making of story itself. And in the underlying thread that connects all news stories of violence against women.
An Isolated Incident examines the language used by news stories to construct the narrative of a certain kind of murder. To hear the phrase “an isolated incident,” the public already has an expectation of the victim, the method of murder, the perpetrator, and other circumstances surrounding it. Murder becomes a narrative to be consumed.
The novel is told through two point-of-view characters. Chris is the ‘sad sister’, telling her narrative in the first person. Her personal journey of grieving her dead sister, dealing with the return of an ex she still loves, and determination to find the killer, is interleaved with May’s, the reporter sent to the scene of the crime.
To borrow language from another discourse: May and Chris are joined by other ‘stakeholders’ in constructing the narrative of Bella’s murder. The police have their functional role. There are also the neighbours, colleagues, brother-in-law, former school friends, and anyone else who ever knew Bella, the dead girl, who each feel a need to insert themselves into the story.
“[T]his is a thing that happens around high-profile cases. All kinds of people—lobbyists, crazies, nasties, well-meaning idiots—they try and get involved, make it about them, about their cause.”
In hindsight, Chris acknowledges that at first she wasn’t conscious of her role in the narrative being woven around her, or the responses she should have been making. Or that the death of her sister wasn’t her personal story of grief—it was shared by others. “I didn’t get that a bunch of strangers saw themselves as lead characters in a thrilling story which began with the discovery of a pretty dead girl, who happened to have been played by my sister.”
May’s love interest, Craig, he of the familiar story of cheating-husband-who-abandons-lover-because-wife-is-pregnant, offers an insight into why the public is hungry for intimate details of the victim’s back story. “Murder in the abstract is terrifying; in the details, you realise it has nothing to do with you.” The very words “an isolated incident” can strike terror in small-town hearts. Especially if the victim is seen as ‘innocent’, without any sordid behaviour or connections in her past which might have brought her fate on herself. If such people could be murdered at random, then so could anybody.
When another woman is found murdered in town soon after Bella, her story is given the briefest of mentions in the news, and is summarily dismissed by locals as a story that “was always going to end badly.” The second woman is the victim of a domestic violence murder, and her end is seen as an inevitable part of her narrative.
While the explicit message of An Isolated Incident is in the construction of murder narratives, implicit is the message that all violence against women stories are connected. Women are essentialised into certain ‘roles’ that justify the violence done to them. Chris is the “damned whore” counterpoint to Bella’s “innocent angel”. Because of the way Chris looks and how she behaves, men have expectations of the way they can treat her. And to a certain extent, Chris has internalised the story constructed for her. Certain women are ‘asking for it’ we might hear. But any ‘story’ that allows a woman to become subject to violence is one which needs to be deconstructed. Why does the public care more about the death of ‘pretty’ women? All women should feel safe in society.
An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire, 22 March 2016, Picador Australia, RRP $32.99