Reviewed: Iris, Fiona Kelly McGregor, Picador
A notable figure during the 1930s to 1950s, Iris Webber was a busker, petty thief and ‘sly grog’ seller who was implicated in a number of violent crimes in Sydney’s underworld. Later, she also gained a reputation for her fiery courtroom performances. In the hands of Fiona McGregor, who imagines her to life in Iris, the experimental author’s second novel, she’s a postmodern diva and queer icon. Through this character, McGregor evokes a crepuscular world where female empowerment, sexual liberation and individual autonomy are much more real than the narrow social roles offered by polite society.
McGregor has a preoccupation with Sydney: in her essay collection Buried Not Dead (2021), she captures a side of the city that is hardly written about—a queer, self-expressive counterculture, and the sometimes fiercely self-compassionate politics that goes into preserving it. In Iris, queer Sydney is the setting once again, and through the online Dictionary of Sydney we see that McGregor had written an entry on Webber as early as 2015. Here, we are transported to the 1930s, where drag queens and sex workers find themselves working in an environment of surveillance and disenfranchisement, much of this orchestrated by local gangland figures and the police.
McGregor’s keen eye for character shines through in this deeply felt and often funny novel. Through cleverly observed and well-researched period dialogue, the feel of the times and the steel of the people in Iris gleams as if we’re inside it. Not unlike Marlon James’s A History of Seven Killings, McGregor inhabits the vernacular of the 1930s Sydney criminal underworld; Iris plays out how intimately the languages we are born with and the languages we learn determine our choices.
Speaking a language that has more words for ‘fight’ than it does for ‘dance’ has at times harrowing consequences for Iris Webber, but there’s a real joy in following the way McGregor charts her development. In the novel, McGregor writes of Iris finding her voice in a city still learning that speaking in tongues is an act of necessary madness that helps a culture articulate its moral code. She busks with an accordion, a practice she keeps up throughout her life, and falls in love with fellow sex worker Maisie Matthews. In a culture that associated homosexuality with criminal misconduct, there are many slippery slopes: forbidden love happens alongside the violent shooting of drug lord Bill Smillie, and we see the twists and turns of Webber’s adventurous, sometimes tragic life.
Iris Webber’s struggle is not only the struggle to learn to sound like herself, but also one where she has to learn what she loves and who she is; this is, after all, an argot as rich as any language. It’s a struggle that shows how the policing of marginalised communities often extends beyond the law, where law enforcers can be as criminal as the people they police. McGregor represents the many exchanges between her characters with a frenetic joy, showing that Sydney in the 1930s is a city of the quick and the dead, with its denizens living by their wits under systems and identities that don’t allow them to be free. One can say this is true for some even in modern times. Webber achieves tabloid fame and the dubious designation of ‘the most violent woman in Sydney’, and while she doesn’t find a happy ending she remains fiercely free.
The critic James Wood wrote that postmodern historical fiction at its best acts as a site for the discussion of contemporary issues, in that ‘[…] the historical novel, typically the province of genre gardeners and conservative populists, has become an unlikely laboratory for serious writers, some of them distinctly untraditional in emphasis and concern.’ He name-checks Susan Sontag and A.S. Byatt, and rightly so: The Volcano Lover and Possession are notable for reinstating a plurality of voices, including those of women and queer people, which according to a Victorian moral code are considered criminal voices. I view Iris as belonging in this tradition—its striking lipstick scrawl on the cover to its bold imagination and expressive dialect is a testament to how necessary this work is. It reminds us how important it is to recover marginalised voices in history, and imagine for them the identities that were denied to them due to the unfortunate contingency of the time they lived in. It reminds us that this act of recovery is also an act of love.