Reviewed: The Eulogy, Jackie Bailey, Hardie Grant
The premise—or promise—of The Eulogy, Jackie Bailey’s sincere, smartly constructed autofiction novel, is that if you knew who did the awful thing you might find healing. The familial transgressions recounted here are many: the rage of parents against children, of carers against the disabled, of a mother engaged in a sick war against her husband, kids and self. These take place against the backdrop of another transgression—the colonisation of South-East Asia by ‘Australian’ forces. The family violence is wryly and movingly explored. The imperialist violence passes without comment.
The Eulogy is narrated by the author-avatar, Kathy, dipping in and out of memory as she composes a tribute to her intellectually disabled sister, who has recently died of cancer after years of sadistic torment from their mother, Madge. Kathy is also trying to work out who sexually abused her as a child. It’s an elegant device, enabling Bailey to jump between contemporary Sydney, 1980s Queensland and colonial Malaya post-WWII, as if events from her family’s past might help explain their terrible behaviour.
Bailey’s tone is rueful. At no point did I sense bitterness—the phrase that came to mind was ‘It do be like that sometimes’. But this generosity seems unevenly distributed. I raised an eyebrow at the line, ‘Donald is not a violent man’—‘Donald’ being an ‘Australian’ soldier in Malaya, where between 1948 and 1960 imperialist forces used Agent Orange to strip forests of leaves, beat striking workers to death, and encircled whole villages with barbed wire; such that white plantation owners might continue to enjoy their rate of return, white consumers their cheap rubber and the white British heart of empire, its newly-formed welfare state. Later, Kathy expresses mystification at Madge’s rage, a Chinese-Malaysian woman married to one of the enforcers of this regime: ‘Its source is long buried … at some point in the past, I can only hope it was justified’.
Racial ordering pervades Madge’s life. As revealed in a flashback, she comes from the kind of family that has ‘Malay servants to do all the chores’. She is reduced to compulsive, futile armchair judgments: Chinese men are disgusting, Sikhs rip you off. A tendency towards racial categorisation bleeds into Kathy’s voice as well. The novel seems to oscillate between recognising and perpetuating sexual racism—Kathy praises her Chinese husband Evan, even as she denigrates almost every other Asian man she meets: ‘Always slavering … garlicky Asian desperation … not an iota of pheromonal presence, a body’s way of stating, “I am here”.’ I found myself juxtaposing these remarks with Kathy’s account of her soldier-father’s tour in Vietnam, where he finds ‘a swamp covered in dead bodies … The smell is unbearable’. What do Asian male bodies signify? Either they stink of garlic, or of desexualised nothing, or of death. I don’t blame Bailey, telling her truth within a hierarchy of desire she did not construct. I do, however, question Evan’s framing as ‘the tall, handsome, Chinese-Australian man’. Is it only through access to ‘Australianness’ that the Asian man, finally, fucks?
But maybe that’s the wrong question. Though it gestures at political themes, The Eulogy is a resolutely personal story. Any transformation is individual—Kathy doesn’t want revenge, she wants closure. I was touched by the faith implicit in the novel’s structure, a paper trick unfurling to reveal truths that free you from the past. By the end of the book, awful experiences have been systematically replaced by better ones. Good sex drives out the bad, the good family replaces the abusive one, the nation that enriched itself off the bodies of the colonised is reborn as a new, multiculturally-integrated nation.
Spending time with an auto-fictional narrator can be a real drag, unless the projection of self that emerges stems from sincerity. After reading The Eulogy, I felt familiar enough with Kathy both to wish her happiness and feel confident she will get it. Debut authors assemble their worlds out of borrowed bits of other people’s visions—it isn’t Bailey’s fault that in a place like ‘Australia’, most of those visions will be racist trash. Describing Evan’s exceptional potency, Kathy writes: ‘If I was in physical danger, Evan would fight, and he would win.’ But I thought of another passage where Kathy—or Bailey—describes her father, armed to the teeth by the ‘Australian’ state as he hunts down the guerillas: ‘The Communist threat … insurgents foolish enough to still be lurking along the Thai-Malaya border’. I don’t think it is foolish to strike at the colony. I know my fight.