Debbie Lim Reviews “Feather Man” by Rhyll McMaster

Feather Man
by Rhyll McMaster
Brandl & Schlesinger, 2007
ISBN: 9781876040833
Reviewed by DEBBIE LIM
What repels can often also compel. In Feather Man, author Rhyll McMaster seems to know this as she draws us into the life of Sooky – a girl who is sexually abused by her neighbour in 1950s suburban Brisbane. The story opens with Sooky helping her perpetrator, Lionel, in his chook yard. By the third page, we cannot help but read in growing horror as Lionel commits the violation that will set up the damaging patterns that define Sooky’s relationships in adulthood.

The confronting scene in the chook shed could be a microcosm of the novel’s world. This is a visceral place that’s stifling and grubby, where women rank low in the social pecking order. But it’s also in these early pages that Sooky’s gift for observation becomes apparent:

I saw a pair of chook’s legs walk by my head. Even the chooks acted as if everything was normal… But my thighs looked unusual, the way Lionel had jacked them up and spread them apart. I wasn’t used to seeing them that way. They looked pale and nude, the inside of frogs’ legs, as if they were too unripe to be like that.

This ability to ‘see’ leads Sooky to become a successful painter in later years. Her capacity to find an idiosyncratic beauty amongst the urban squalor is also what allows us to venture into what could otherwise be a bleak setting. One morning, for example, when the adults are still asleep after a night of partying, she goes outside:

I walk out onto the grass in the sloping backyard and bend down.    There is much to look at in this close-up world. The heavy dew lies in tiny round crystal balls on the clover. A grasshopper with a green spike extending from its head springs out of nowhere onto my hand. Its mandibles graze my skin. I can feel it eating me…I am queen and king of this region and nothing can harm me.

Ultimately, Feather Man is a novel about self-identity. In Sooky’s case, it’s less the search for identity than a struggle to reclaim the ‘ordinary’ self that was taken from her by Lionel as a young girl. For while her artist’s eye is acute, her heart still knocks to the dysfunctional rhythms of childhood. After breaking off an engagement to a besotted but conventional footballer, Sooky marries her childhood idol, the charming Redmond – who is also the son of her abuser Lionel.

For Sooky, the attraction is primal:

The first and most important thing to mention about Redmond is his burnished hair. It is the colour my father brings up out of mahogany, as he polishes in small oily circles. The fox coat. Deep and rich, active, alien.

But Redmond also turns out to be a cruel narcissist. This becomes increasingly apparent after Sooky marries him and they move overseas so he can forge a career in the London art world.

It could be said that none of the characters in Feather Man are particularly likeable. Even Sooky is not conventionally endearing: she is blunt, obstinate and unpredictable. But it is also her lack of convention that makes her such a sympathetic character.

Neither is Sooky one of the two stereotypes she might easily have been: the victim quietly nursing her wounds or the veering car crash leaving a trail of debris. While she has aspects of both, she is intelligent, resilient, introspective and, perhaps most importantly, has agency. Her dispassionate observations can be blackly funny. For instance, during the first time she has sex with Redmond:

The moment has a flavour of clinical deadness. He has taken off his trousers and his shirt and I see he wears a string singlet. Oh, Redmond, I grieve.

Below the dreadful singlet, in the light from the street, I can see his erection. That looks funny too, a polyp or sea worm waving around in the current. I admonish myself: It is not really waving.

One of the achievements of Feather Man is that, via Sooky’s internal reflections, it explores the complicated and enduring relationship between victim and abuser. It is due to McMaster’s skill that, rather than bog down the narrative, these sections deepen the complexity and our understanding of the issue. With Sooky’s eyes, we see how the beast of abuse wears a coat of subtle shades of grey, how it operates in the liminal zone, where the back fence is ignored and boundaries blurred.

Since its publication in 2007, Feather Man has won the 2008 Barbara Jefferis Award. It remains a relevant and powerful book. I was also happily surprised to discover that Rhyll McMaster’s personal website provides detailed notes on the novel’s development. This includes original sections that were later edited out and even the initial reader’s report by the book’s publisher, Brandl & Schlesinger. It’s a fascinating and refreshingly open look into the author’s creative process.

Readers familiar with McMaster’s poetry (she has published six books of poems) will likely be fascinated to learn that her debut novel incorporates poems from two of her previous works (Flying the Coop and Chemical Bodies). According to McMaster, poems have been re-worked as prose in an ‘attempt at post post-modernism’. Also woven throughout are numerous references to fairy tales and nursery rhymes. 

The pages of Feather Man bristle with animal imagery. This is skillfully used to depict humans in all their brutality and strange complexity. Sooky’s father, for instance, keeps a tank of sea horses and anemones. However, his seeming fascination with the creatures reflects his disconnectedness and lack of self awareness:  

He liked the idea of horses and flowers underwater. He searched for the ridiculous or the out-of-place, the askew, the left-handed, like himself… He looked at those sea horses with so much incomprehension.

In another passage that echoed vaguely the voice in Nabokov’s Lolita, Sooky likens her susceptibility to Lionel’s attentions as unavoidable as basic cell replication:

Lionel, how I loved you…I was a plate of medium in a laboratory ready for someone to seed me with the bacteria of love. Anything might have stuck. Healthy, unhealthy, fungoid, parasitic. I couldn’t discern between them.

McMaster frequently uses animal similes to describe the characters, resulting in vivid portraits. It also lends a sense of dissociation, a certain fantastical edge. The ultimate beast, of course, is Lionel who is the menacing ‘Feather Man’ of the title. As the name suggests, he looms as a type of half-man half-animal, the childhood monster from the henhouse that eludes capture.  

The actual animals that appear in the novel typically don’t fare well under the custodianship of humans. The seahorse tank cracks and gushes its inhabitants onto the carpet, chickens are scalded and disembowelled, while the family cat is put down without warning and perfunctorily replaced. Overall, humans are seen as negligent and with a tendency to abuse power.

In Feather Man, life is a savage place where only the fittest survive. This is a powerful and uncomfortable work that refuses easy rescue. Although self-empowerment through art is one of its themes, in the end this is not a lofty tale. There are feathers on the ground, grit under the fingernails, and a sense that the wolf will always be watching from the shadows. Even so, in McMaster’s hands, there is a strange poetry to be found for those whose gaze remains unflinching.