The Healing Party : Micheline Lee's exquisitely rendered debut novel

The Healing Party

MICHELINE LEE

BLACK INC, $29.99

As soon as she finished school, Natasha Chan ran away to Darwin. Eight years later, she is summoned back to Melbourne by her eldest sister, Anita. Natasha returns to the very street from which she had fled because her mother, Irene, is dying of cancer. For the next few months, she will try to build some kind of bridge to Irene, a woman with whom she has longed to be able to connect.

Micheline Lee's creation of this deeply bruised but tender relationship is exquisite. It allows silences to speak volumes; it understands the nature of confusion and secrecy. It knows that intimacy can be a lonely experience. Both Natasha and Irene create all sorts of questions for the reader. Most people get tangled up in relationships of this kind and, although the Chan family are strange by many standards, the games they play are familiar.

Healing Party

The Healing Party by Micheline Lee.

The major obstacle in the relationship between mother and daughter is Paul Chan, Natasha's father and Irene's husband. Chan is an artist whose vibrant, even aggressive, work has been described as "primal". He scrapes together a living as a photographer. This is not a wealthy family. Their yellow Holden is 13 years old. Paul and Irene both come from Hong Kong.

Paul grew up as a Buddhist, became a Catholic at the age of 19, gave it away for seven years and now, for the 26 years he has been in Australia, has been the religious zealot from central casting. He became a Catholic charismatic, a small group that lives in the intersection of pentecostal and liturgical traditions. In this presentation, it combines the worst of two worlds. Here is a community that both prays the rosary and speaks in tongues.

It gives Paul Chan all the cover he needs to lead a life of damaging self-deception and horrendous manipulation of others. Paul is a destroyer claiming to believe in a creator.

At times, the portrait of Paul Chan feels like a stereotype. He can come across as a statue in a family where everyone else is only too real. But Lee creates a broader context in which to understand him. His fellow charismatics are not as malign. One, Geoff, runs an electrical store in Chadstone and makes light of discount-hungry gospellers. Another, Father Lachlan, creates a distance between himself and Paul's extremes, especially Paul's insistence that Irene is to be miraculously cured at the healing party that gives the book its title. In addition, Paul comes from a family of 12 where a mentally ill sibling was kept in a cage and eventually committed suicide. He was always an outsider in Australia.

None of this, of course, justifies Paul's predatory sexual behaviour. He abused one of Natasha's friends, Bonnie, whose portrait is beautifully rendered. He did the same with a nanny in Hong Kong and is at it again with one of Irene's carers in Australia. Anybody who dares to challenge him is accused of standing up against God. It is hard to witness his immunity from reality.

Paul's abundant energy is reminiscent of the controlling force of Sam Pollitt in Christina Stead's The Man who Loved Children. Pollitt, like Chan, is a jumble sale of broken bits assembled from the life of both himself and others. His immaturity is scary. Sam was "always anxious for morning". He hates the night because it is the time when an "inward, dark sense" can make itself known. He prefers the daylight where he can stand "on feet of clay in a world of clay".

Curiously enough, Paul Chan embraces the world of the spirit for precisely the reason that Pollitt avoids it. Fear. Religion is Chan's disappearing cloak. Atheism does the same job for Pollitt.

Natasha Chan is a figure of moving authenticity, more so than either of her parents. She negotiates her own relationships, especially with Jason and Ed, her successive boyfriends, with honesty and fragile trust. She moves to the light. Her father should take notes.

Michael McGirr is the dean of faith and mission at St Kevin's College in Melbourne.

 

 

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