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Colleen Higgs

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Review of Things Without a Name in the Cape Times

I have recently branched out into writing reviews, here is one which appeared in the Cape Times Book page on Friday 16th January 2009. Watch this space…

Things Without A Name, the third novel from Joanne Fedler (Jacana) is a compelling read. At the heart of the story is Faith, a vividly evoked, extremely troubled, quirky character who works as a legal counsellor in a women’s crisis centre. She loves animals passionately, and is a vegetarian who cuts herself in bad moments. As readers we aren’t sure we can trust Faith, she breaks most of the rules of her profession, and she doesn’t always come clean about why she does what she does. Through this loveable yet unreliable narrator, Fedler examines how caregivers come to terms with a daily dose of trauma, when dealing with the victims of domestic and other violence, and rape. We see through Faith the extreme personal cost of blurry boundaries for caregivers and the relentless drain it is on those who counsel and assist women who day after day come in, raped, abused, beaten, abandoned, molested.

In this ambitious novel, Fedler combines lightness, humour as well as tackling a wide range of serious issues in some depth. Things without a Name fuses the loves story genre with a tougher psychological drama and a journalistic foray into the world of crisis counselling for abused women. The love story holds the tension, keeps you hooked, and while Fedler doesn’t delve into what happens in the afterwards, the reader is left wondering what kind of afterwards it will be, as Faith’s troubled soul clearly needs much more than just a traditional “happy ending” to heal. Some of the darker aspects of friendship between women is under the spotlight here, issues such as envy, need, and mothering. The power of family secrets and tragedies to shape and distort their survivors is another strong thread. Fedler shows us Faith navigating (not always successfully) a course between her instincts and the evidence. The truth she learns as she proceeds is murky and often unsatisfying.

Faith’s Nonna tells her that things without a name “don’t exist. And if they do, they are …lost.” Faith learns to name things that she was avoiding. She also doesn’t name some things, such as why she cuts herself, and the mystery and guilt about her mother and her infant brother’s death remains somewhat unresolved.

Fedler’s prose is richly textured, gathering meaning and resonance as the story progresses. Faith’s love of spiders and other animals, her ardent vegetarianism, her missing butterfly pendant, and the uses of scissors amplify as the book unfolds. Fedler alludes to and quotes from Charlotte’s Web and The Training Manual for crisis counsellors are with equal dexterity.

The cast of characters in Things Without A Name reaches Dickensian proportions, and includes amongst them a sickly childhood friend, Josh; a kind vet and romantic interest, Caleb; her unstable, highly-sexed friend at work, Carol; her mother who copes with the terrible tragedy of her infant son’s death by writing about it and running support groups for other grieving mothers; a mentally retarded pregnant young woman who lives in a home and her well-meaning parents; an immigrant Somalian woman, Sanna, who is murdered by her husband and her grief stricken sister Priscilla; Faith’s wise and loving Nonna; her quiet shadowy father; her tough, sharp boss, Genevieve; and lawyer – Shaun Hamilton who does pro bono work for the counselling centre for possibly dubious reasons.

Things without a name is likely to have popular appeal, it reminded me American writers Sue Miller and Jane Hamilton, who also bring complex, troubled women to life in their novels, and follow them into the dark places where their actions lead. Fedler’s writing gets better and better.


Recent comments:

  • Maire
    January 22nd, 2009 @09:11 #

    I've just finished reading it Colleen (note to self, update what I am reading)and loved it, as I did Secret Mothers’ Business/em>. I agree, Joanne's writing does get better and better - I can see this doing the rounds in (and being highly recommended to)bookclubs very quickly.


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