In Adelaide in 1937 four young women come together to fight patriarchy and fascism. Adelaide, Jane Rawson writes in one of many winking characterisations, a place where “nothing was happening, the same way that nothing ever happened. It was a peacefulness close to death”. Yet the women find that their city has become home to a nest of Nazis determined to take advantage of what’s happening overseas to seize government and turn their dreams for Australia into reality.
The women are Maggie, her sister Esther, their childhood friend Audrey, and new friend Phyllis. Audrey learned witchcraft, the power to alter people’s dreams and so alter reality, from her great-aunt, and teaches the other girls. They make a pledge to use their “power to lift up the weak and strike down the strong” and go about taking revenge on cruel and irritating boys in joyfully violent ways. But quickly their work becomes more dangerous. They infiltrate a fascist poetry club where Margaret makes a simple mistake or misjudgement with terrible consequences. Things take a turn for the Margaret Attwood as the new fascist government finds new ways to control women’s bodies and minds, and each of the witches has to figure out what they will do about it.
Reading Jane Rawson’s new novel I was reminded that Australia had its own flirtations with fascism in the 1930s. You only have to look at art from the era to see the dreams of a white ethnostate where the men would be manly and the women would be slaves. It’s femininity in A History Of Dreams that the men are particularly exercised about, whether women’s or the men who deviate from the masculine norm. The other day I learned about 1930s National Gallery of Victoria Director J. M. MacDonald at the brilliant new exhibition Queer, who said things about women like:
the contemporary movement is a feminine one and women rarely shine where workmanship is involved.
and things about gays like:
they rule the art-world of to-day, and unless real painters speak up for themselves and right art the women and their near-men abettors will ruin both.
Fascism is ridiculous and absurd, and one of the best things about Rawson’s book is that it subjects it to ridicule. The things the poets say are so stupid and evil they are almost funny – until you learn in the author’s note that they are quotes from real Australian fascists. Which is the unnerving flipside of fascism, that people with these ideas do get into power and then hang onto it and implement their terrible policies. Also people don’t have to be avowed fascists to have fascist policies – the White Australia Policy ruled until the 1970s, presumably with the tacit support of much of the population; the repressive policies of Rawson’s fictional autocracy are not so different to the inequities that women have faced and still face today. So there is despair in this novel too.
How to fight these nightmares? Rawson logically takes the battle to its origin, the minds of the people who dream them up. The witches’ magic is as imperfect and hard work as changing minds in our reality. I appreciated too that, unlike other fantasy stories, the witches aren’t up against the supernatural, just banal, human evil. Indeed, the magic falls somewhat to the side, less important than who’s wielding it and what else they’re doing. It’s here the novel takes on even more relevance to today’s urgent tasks of fixing the climate or the environmental crisis, or any other of the so-called “wicked problems” (funny how the term makes them sound like dark magic). Now that the battle over climate science is largely won, and we know at least intellectually what needs to be done, the toughest task is moving those thoughts to action en masse, and more importantly, fast enough to prevent catastrophe. Much like the women come to realise in A History Of Dreams, it’s by no means clear we’ll be successful.
So what’s left? Joy, dance, love, friendship. They sound hackneyed and trite but the more despairing things get, the more important they become, and in the face of the end of the world Rawson’s writing is as always lively, witty and delightful, whether it’s having the fascist government say stupid and sinister things like:
We will be removing a number of your liberties and rights. Rest assured we will … cherish and guard them, caring for them temporarily so that other may not take them permanently.
or the characterisations of the women, such as Esther:
longing for the kind of grace that combined a block splitter swung true, a race-horse run free in a paddock, and the wrong note struck at the perfect time.
And there are the anguished questions they ask, in this context of men about women, but which seep beyond to the entirety of who we are and who we could be:
why did Australians want dreams that weren’t even their own? … What are you turning away from when you turn towards this? What are you afraid of? What do you think we are?
Those questions linger after putting this wonderful book down.
Gay rating: 4/5 for queer characters, desire and themes.