It’s summer, 1977, when 12-year-old Jake and his best friend Robbie meet Rory Macbeath, whose family have just moved from Glasgow to their suburban Adelaide street.
Rory may not be any good at cricket or rugby but, as the three boys’ friendship develops, he is revealed as a fearless – if graceless – swimmer and an expert fisherman. He can also hold his own in a fight.
Early on he steps up when Jake is being bullied at the local pool and fells an older boy with a couple of devastating punches. Jake has never seen anything like it: ‘Long after I got home … I was still shaking, could still hear the sound of Rory’s punch.’
The story is narrated by Jake and soaked in the pleasures of pre-teen suburban life: swimming, street cricket, fishing trips, camping in the front yard, making slingshots, spying on the neighbours and riding a go-kart. But gradually, as we learn more about the people in Jake’s street, darker threads emerge.
Take the Williams family, who live next door to Jake and his mother, Harry. Mr and Mrs Williams got divorced and there is a new Mrs Williams now:
Sometimes at night, when I was in bed, I’d hear him yelling, even through the sandstone walls of our house … Sometimes Mrs Williams would knock on our door at night and talk to Harry in our lounge room, and I’d hear her crying, and then Harry would open a bottle of wine, and then I’d hear laughing, then more crying. Harry would tell me in the morning that Mr Williams was yelling about the same stuff he’d been yelling about for years, it was just at a different wife now.
And then there is the way Mr Macbeath lays into Rory after the boys have been caught using a slingshot to shoot pebbles onto a neighbour’s roof.
At one point Jake, troubled by what he sees around him, asks his mother:
‘Do we live in a weird street? … Some of the people do bad things … Some of them … have got stuff wrong with them. They’re deaf, or they have a birthmark, or their brain isn’t right, or their wife’s dead but they say she’s alive. It’s all … It’s all a bit weird, I think.’
Harry is unusual herself: a criminal barrister (one of only two women barristers in her chambers); a single mother who allows Jake to watch her in court during school holidays (but won’t discuss the identity of Jake’s father); a dedicated smoker (her cigarette consumption is a frequent barometer of her moods – and of course in the 1970s you can smoke just about everywhere); a generous party-giver who isn’t beyond asking Robbie’s mother to feed Jake if she’s late home. Harry is very good at her job, and doesn’t mind upsetting the old boys’ club (not all that hard to do in the 1970s):
She was wearing black slacks, a white blouse and her black bar jacket. Harry regularly wore slacks to court. She said the reaction to this from some magistrates and judges was undisguised outrage.
Harry is also a friend to those in distress, and it’s not just Mrs Williams who comes knocking on Harry’s door; before long Rory’s mother visits as well.
The story unfolds in a deceptively leisurely way – there are terrific descriptions of summer afternoons spent fishing and swimming, and of Harry’s various clients (she specialises in getting acquittals for small businessmen charged with arson) – until the reader is so enmeshed in the lives of Jake and Robbie and Rory and their neighbours that when the crisis comes, it is as shocking as it is inevitable.
In its aftermath, Harry marshals all her legal skills to try to prevent injustice following tragedy.
Richard Beasley is a lawyer as well as a novelist (Hell Has Harbour Views was published in 2001 and Ambulance Chaser in 2004) and it’s not a huge stretch to see Rory Macbeath drawing inspiration from one of the most notorious criminal cases of the 1970s, that of Violet Roberts, a case whose ramifications are still being felt today.
Violet Roberts was jailed for life in 1976 for the murder of her husband. For more than 20 years she had suffered terrible violence at his hands, but in court this could not be admitted as a defence, and there was a public outcry at the verdict. As a result NSW Attorney-General Frank Walker changed the law to allow for a defence of provocation to be used so that, in particular cases, the lesser charge of manslaughter, rather than murder, could be found.
But over the intervening years the defence of provocation has come to be used not only by battered women but by men who have killed their wives. At the end of April this year the NSW Parliament released the Report of the Select Committee on the Partial Defence of Provocation. This Committee was established as a result of the Singh case, where a husband who had cut his wife’s throat received the lesser conviction of manslaughter by claiming that she had provoked him – she had told him she was in love with someone else and was going to leave him.
Unlikely as it may seem, this point of law provides becomes a compelling pivot in the novel. Jake has been brought up around courtrooms, and he is a confident guide to the emotional temperature of a case. The courtroom scenes are deftly done (and Harry is very good at her job). A key cross-examination late in the book is rendered with powerful understatement.
Me and Rory Macbeath reveals the devastating effects of domestic violence, and of the insidious nature of bullying in general. From the schoolyard, to the local pool, to a neighbour’s kitchen, there are only questions of degree. This novel does not pose any easy answers, but asks important – and timely – questions.
Richard Beasley Me and Rory Macbeath Hachette 2013 PB 384pp $29.99
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