The Salt Madonna
by Catherine Noske
Published February 2020
Since colonisation, stories of lost white children have been a feature of Australian literature. Elspeth Tilley calls it the ‘white-vanishing’ trope, arguing that stories of lost children, compulsively retold, enable white Australians to assume a victim position. Obscuring a history of violent dispossession, the lost white child functions as a symbol of national innocence. The lost white girl, in her spotless lace and linen, is where innocence is doubled down on. While the search for the lost girl offers an opportunity to assert national character, the mystery of what happens to all those cupids and Botticelli angels, merging prettily into the landscape, into the nonspecific threat of ‘out there’, remains a compelling lacuna around which the community rallies.
In Mary Grant Bruce’s 1913 novel Norah of Billabong, a ‘little laughing’ white girl, Babs Archdale, wanders off from her family’s ‘white cottage’ and vanishes into the surrounding bush. Fifteen months later the child is found in the company of an Indigenous woman, ‘Black Lucy,’ and she is restored to the family home. While the returned child ‘won’t say a word’ about what happened during her disappearance, her intrepid young rescuer, Norah Linton, invokes the Christian parable of the prodigal son. As Tilley observes, the biblical parable ‘links the fate of a lost white child to the discourse of manifest destiny underpinning terra nullius’: the stoicism of Babs’ Christian mother is rewarded with the return of her lost property, her ‘treasure trove’ of a daughter, while Lucy’s role in the child’s survival goes ignored.
Though it cemented the lost girl narrative in the Australian imagination, Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock views its community-building aspect through a surprisingly arch lens. The novel, which was published in 1967, is set in 1900 and it centres on the search for three schoolgirls who go missing on a Valentine’s Day picnic at Hanging Rock. The community is more concerned with its reputation than with the possibility that the girls have been the victims of a sexual crime. The college headmistress Mrs Appleyard suppresses this line of inquiry, insisting to police that her ‘well-behaved girls would never have allowed any familiarity from strangers’. When one of the lost girls, Irma, is found, the woman to whose care she is entrusted notices her corset is missing, but neglects to mention this to the authorities. She is too modest to utter the word in the presence of a man. Lindsay’s narrator offers a sly gloss: ‘as if by common consent the thin veils of make-believe obscuring the ugly realities were left intact.’
If Lindsay’s novel was as much a knowing pastiche of the lost girl narrative as a compulsive repetition, the latest addition to the canon, Catherine Noske’s debut novel The Salt Madonna, quickly announces itself as a self-conscious work of genre revision. ‘Once upon a time, a girl called Mary lived on an island called Chesil,’ the framing narrator Hannah Mulvey tells us, before confessing, pages later, that Mary is not her real name. Hannah, a teacher, met the 14-year-old high school student in the early 1990s, when her mother’s ill health brought her back to Chesil, a fictional island off the coast of Western Australia, and she took a position at the local school.
After a protracted set-up, in which Hannah wonders how best to tell Mary’s story, first person narration cedes to third person limited which alternates between focalising Mary’s perspective and those of other characters. Mary’s is an embodied portrait of adolescence, full of anguished consultations with the mirror and bids for freedom in which she must elude her father, a capricious man from whose moods she is barely protected by her mother’s nervous attempts at appeasement. The grape harvest that the island’s economy previously depended upon has declined and Mary’s father, like many of the men on Chesil, relies on sporadic employment by Edward Mulvey. A wealthy landowner indifferent to the community’s decline, Mulvey is also Hannah’s estranged uncle. Though Hannah’s mother has been disinherited from the family fortune, Hannah remains a Mulvey, and, in this insular community riven with class antagonisms, this means that she is treated with suspicion. When she encourages Mary to apply for a scholarship to boarding school on the mainland, Mary’s father quashes her hopes, the catalyst for her to run off, in her school-dress, in a storm. When Mary later remerges, she refuses to speak, a silence that forms the dramatic heart of novel.
Noticing Mary’s absences from class, Hannah makes inquiries but her attempts to clarify the situation are stymied by the school headmistress, Mrs Culliver. This echoes Mrs Appleyard’s efforts to suppress inquiry into the missing girls in A Picnic at Hanging Rock. To emphasise the intertext, Mrs Culliver asks Hannah to take the children on a Valentine’s Day excursion to the island’s ‘monolith’: the dilapidated railway bridge that once transported the grape harvest to the mainland. As Hannah’s concern over Mary deepens, and her calls to police on the mainland go ignored, she is haunted by this ‘shining path off the island’:
The plaintive voice of the rail bridge, moaning as the wind vibrates… sings desperately and endlessly, high-pitched and inescapable, its voice reaching right across the village and up the hill.
Unlike Lindsay’s rock, Noske’s bridge brooks no mystification. Her novel is grounded in the reality that what happens to girls and women is horribly banal and man-made. Focusing her lens on the insular community of Chesil and the growing conspiracy of silence surrounding Mary, Noske locates the gothic in the quotidian and the desperate lengths people will go to protect themselves from difficult truths.
The central narrative of The Salt Madonna is written in a present tense that moves nimbly between characters, even if it occasionally inhibits psychological exploration. Noske’s sentences bounce like skipping stones – quick, curt clauses skimming over the depths – and her verbs do a lot of descriptive work: men sneer and flare their lips, women falter and cringe. Chesil is a community afflicted by a strangled inarticulacy, restrained by anachronistic gender roles. In one scene the local publican, Bull, attempts to comfort one of ‘Mulvey’s men’, who has been laid off and is drunkenly crying and vomiting at the back of his pub, but is rebuked with a quick ‘Fuck off, Bull.’
Noske economically employs set pieces like this to capture the group psyche: the land-locked despair of the men and the anxious efforts of the women to be good wives and mothers, concealing the emotional, physical and economic abuse they endure.
At the centre of the women’s lives are the church services led by Father John, a ‘poor, dear man’ who has been going through the motions since his wife’s death. When he is approached by Mary’s mother Ellen Burnett about her daughter, who is still refusing to speak, Father John reluctantly agrees to meet with her. Worried Mary is exhibiting signs of pregnancy, Ellen insists ‘she’s a good girl, she wouldn’t do that.’ Failing to rescue the situation from incoherence, Father John becomes distracted by the ‘mesmerisingly delicate’ girl and her ‘powerful silence,’ in which he feels the flickering renewal of faith. Seized by a notion that she should appear as the Virgin Mary in the Easter parade, Father John launches on a deranged interior journey, in which he is haunted by visitations from his dead wife. There are notes of Patrick White’s Voss (1957) here, but Father John also brings to mind Oscar Hopkins, from Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988), a man whose own civilising mission presented as an eccentric folly. Noske toys with our literary affection for self-elected visionaries, men whose disarming fragility distracts from the damage they inflict. Rallying around him with casseroles, the women of Chesil dote on Father John, heedless of his repulsion, ‘the suffocation of [their] pity, the biting sarcasm it draws out in him.
In echoes of Robin Hardy’s film The Wicker Man (1973), Chesil has its own failed harvest, and the community is seized by the conviction that it is being ‘tested’. From the moment Mary is hoisted above the Easter parade in a wicker chair, the abstemious Father John threatens to morph into Chesil’s own Lord Summerisle. In one scene he looms over a pool of stagnating water, full of the bloated bodies of dead fish, ‘coagulating against the lip of white sand that stands between the river and the open sea,’ and declares ‘I release thee,’ before remembering himself: ‘but this is being pagan, melodramatic.’ When the river later clears, word of the ‘miracle’ spreads through the community, drawing crowds to the church services in which Mary is a silent fixture.
Hannah perceives the mounting hysteria from the schoolyard:
the children band together to play chase, the aggressors roaming as a pack. They are animalistic in their physicality, wilful. She watches as a group of boys trap a girl against a fence and close in.
When she reluctantly chaperones her ill mother, who is hungry for a Lourdes-like experience, to one of the church services, Hannah is surprised by the pull it exerts on her and the ease with which Mary’s pregnancy remains ‘in the abstract’: dressed in a white robe, she has become ‘more story than girl… a sort of shared hallucination, communal and projected.’ Roving between parishioners, tracking various reasons why each suspends disbelief in an immaculate conception, the narrative relinquishes any commitment to realism. In an echo of Norah of Billabong, Mary’s mother murmurs ‘it’s almost like a parable, isn’t it.’
The Salt Madonna is a novel dense with intertextual allusion. When Mary disappears a second time, absconding from the church, the anxieties about legitimacy that lost child stories seek to assuage are brought to the fore. As the churchgoers embark on a frenzied search of the island’s shoreline, Noske links the community’s desperation to reclaim Mary as their symbolic virgin, ignoring the possibility she has been the victim of sexual violence, to the fiction of terra nullius. One of the women, stumbling upon some Indigenous cave art, becomes dizzy at the thought of ‘Chesil not real but hollow underneath, riddled with these caves and these drawings.’ When Mary is found, the search party returns a ‘happy group’.
A narrative thread in which Hannah discovers her distant ancestor John Mulvey’s diary, revealing his ‘settlement’ of Chesil as an act of violent dispossession involving the enslavement and rape of Indigenous women, suggests this unacknowledged, brutal history fuels the communal mania for redemption. Islands, of course, are a favoured colonial symbol of Eden. Noske employs the setting allegorically, dramatising the way notions of manifest destiny permeate contemporary Australian life.
For Hannah, the discovery of her ancestor’s diary ‘made [her] complicit in everything that [she] had previously ignored or denied.’ In her framing narration, she volunteers to act as a retrospective ‘voice of reason’ for the reader: just as Chesil’s fabled economic boom was ‘shaped by the mercenary habits of her ancestors,’ so too is its decline a result of unsustainable practices. The algae bloom at the river, she tells the reader, was caused by fertilisers; the water cleared because of a trench cut at the mouth, a superficial salve that risks triggering a more extensive fish kill (‘whole populations, whole species can be wiped out.’)
Circling out from her own failures to intervene and protect Mary, to the broader structures of power and white solidarity in which she is enmeshed, Hannah’s narration offers a counterpoint to the fabulist leanings of the churchgoers. Yet as she foregrounds her growing knowledge of her own complicity, her narrative voice retains something of the Gothic – the wracked conscience, the handwringing – and the cumulative effect of all her regrets can be cloying. ‘Please don’t judge me here,’ she implores the reader: ‘I know you will, I know you have to.’ Moments of polite complicity, already effectively dramatised in the central narrative, are conspicuously flagged: ‘You can see it though can’t you, how I am to blame in this?’ By the time she writes, ‘I am so sorry. I am so sorry,’ it is tacitly understood that Hannah is apologising for much more than her failure to intervene in Mary’s plight.
There’s something schematic and performative to all this. Noske began writing the novel as part of a PhD, and its meta-narrative aspects can read like exegetical throat-clearing: ‘reading back now, I realise I have done this wrong. How is it that I have written just another story about a girl who is a victim?’ Though Noske is careful to avoid the myth of white innocence in her central rescue narrative, in the novel’s framing narration – Hannah’s conscientious inventory of wrongdoing – the urge for redemption seems to have taken root. As Alison Whittaker asserts in her recent Meanjin essay ‘So White. So What,’ whiteness is ‘a very wriggly structure with its innocence at its centre,’ and confessions of white complicity can seek to turn weakness into a strength. Alert to the pull to absolution, Noske has Hannah’s sister accuse her of ‘self-flagellation.’
If I am to blame, it is neat, it is easy, it could have been redressed. There are no wider questions to ask, nothing more difficult to wrangle with in the why and how. Nothing future in it – just past tense: forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
Clarifications like this are diligent, but compound a sense of ideology being vouchsafed. A little too neatly, Hannah has already been disinherited of Mulvey land, taken in as a child, along with her mother and her sister, by Darcy, one of her grandfather’s employees.
Described fleetingly as a ‘dark man,’ there are some hints that Darcy, one of the novel’s few sympathetic characters, is Indigenous, but this is never made explicit. It is mentioned in passing that he is involved in a border dispute, but although the bulk of the novel’s action is set in 1992, the year of the Mabo decision, Noske shies away from direct engagement with the issue of land tenure. While she foregrounds a sense of kinship between Hannah and Darcy, the relationship between Darcy and Hannah’s mother, and the provenance of the house her mother is now living in, remains vague.
The Salt Madonna concludes with its white narrator’s own redemptive homecoming. Two decades later, returning to Chesil, Hannah tries to remember ‘the good things’: camping with Darcy as a child, their shared love of horses. From inside her deceased mother’s house, she hears one of Darcy’s old horses in the paddock. Later, she tells us, she might go out and ‘make friends.’ But for now: ‘I am home. I am quite snug.’
Katie Dobbs is a recipient of a 2020 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the first of three essays by Katie that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients Cher Tan, Bryan Andy, Prithvi Varatharajan and Keyvan Allahyari.
Mary Grant Bruce, Norah of Billabong (Ward, Lock & Co. 1913).
Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock (Penguin 1967).
Elspeth Tilley, White Vanishing: Rethinking Australia’s Lost-In-The-Bush Myth, Cross/Cultures 152 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012).
Elspeth Tilley, ‘A natural(ised) home for the Lintons: Lost children and indigenising discourse in Mary Grant Bruce’s and John Marsden’s young adult fiction,’ Australian Studies (2009).
Alison Whittaker, ‘So White. So What,’ Meanjin (Autumn 2020).