This is my first time reading Kathryn Heyman, and not to be my last. I very much enjoyed the feeling of safety that comes from being in the hands of someone who is confident in what they're doing. This is Kathryn's fifth published novel, and it feels like it.
Which is good, because she tackles a few large subjects of biblical proportions - floods, like, and loss, and disasters and faith. Different types of faith.
There's the faith that sometimes comes easily and sometimes is lost just as easily. It's a faith that looks like faith but sometimes it can really just be a cover for something else, or someone else, or for not acting. And then there's the faith that is also lost easily - faith in life, in humanity. It's easy in our everyday world to be cynical and think that that has entirely eroded. People, after all, as a community, to turn to when you need them, can be very disappointing. They do not want to see your suffering. We do not know, in our culture, how to handle another's suffering very well. We do not know how to handle each other very well.
Horneville is flooded. And the waters keep on rising around the hospital where Gina Donaldson works as a nurse. She's a good one, too. She is able to provide care for patients along with the requisite detachment that is required to stop you from burning out. Gina's problem isn't detaching. It's detaching too much. And then really, Gina feels like she burned out years ago.
Mikey Brown has faith in spades. Or at least she thought she did. The host of the Shop for Jesus channel, Mikey's refuge has become NuDay, the megachurch began by her and her then-husband as a house church in their lounge room, but which sprung out into monolithic status by the vision of their pastor, Gary, who wanted to do big things for God. The result is NuDay, a sprawling complex of thousands of members.
Mikey is lonely. It's just hard to realise it.
With NuDay, you were never alone. Each day was stretched full with work for the ministry; by the time Mikey had given her hours in the NuDay store, then worked on designs for the services, gathered together the children's worship resources, filmed Shop for Jesus - well, she didn't have a lot of time left over to feel alone. Silence didn't come into it much, either - what with prayer and song and thankfulness and praise. Without silence, it got pretty easy not to notice whether you were lonely.
Mikey was originally going to travel to Horneville to protest against the gay pride march occurring there, to make a stand. But then when news of the flood came, her and Gary decided instead to use the care packages they had put together for overseas aid and use them instead in Horneville. So Mikey and her two sons, Talent and Mustard, drive the packages down there.
What Mikey and Gina both find within this disaster zone, amongst awful death and suffering, is renewal, and hope.
This version of the book came to Kathryn after she'd already written 60,000 words:
It dawned on Kathryn Heyman way too late that she had it all wrong. The novel she was writing about a woman called by God to take her sons on a road trip around Australia was unsparing in its portrait of certain absurdities of charismatic Christianity. But it lacked something. It lacked love. And there was another treacherous thought that, try as she might, she could not swat away.
"In that earlier book, I had a lot about the church and about setting off - and the church dynamic was a much bigger story and, really, right towards the end, I had this tiny moment in the hospital,'' Heyman says.
''I had read a report about the events that happened in Memorial [Medical Centre] in New Orleans and I was haunted by it. It was a life-or-death situation where the medical staff had to make extreme ethical decisions. It was a horrible feeling; I got to the end of the draft and thought, 'That's the moment; that's where the novel is.' I've never done this before. I threw away 60,000 words.'' (excerpt from Linda Morris's interview in The Age).
That's the thing about criticising - it's hard to do it without ending up seeming somehow as shabby as the thing you're criticising. It's easy, after all to stand against things, but just that much harder to actually stand for stuff. And charismatic Christianity is surely an easy potshot. So if Heyman needed to throw 60,000 words away to find a greater level of compassion, then it was worth it, because she doesn't come across as judgmental. The brush strokes with which she paints Mikey are just as generous, well-rounded and compassionate as they are for the other characters in the book.