Women who kill – especially women who kill children – are generally considered to be the very lowest of the low on the scale of human evil. Perhaps that is why the theme has never been the subject of huge numbers of crime novels. Or perhaps the reason for that is that the subject presents a raft of unique challenges for authors. Challenges I don’t think Anne Buist overcame.
Buist’s subject matter expertise is not in question. She is a professor, researcher and clinician who has worked in perinatal psychiatry and related fields for more than two decades. But this undoubted knowledge has led to one of the book’s problems. It is, at times, packed with medical jargon and it makes a lot of assumptions about readers’ knowledge of the medico-legal environment with which Buist is familiar. I cannot, for example, be the only person who has no idea what this sentence means “The differential diagnoses to consider are Dissociative Identity Disorder – D.I.D. – and personality disorder, Cluster B“. Am I meant to accept this and similar pronouncements as evidence of “science” without wanting an actual explanation? Or am I meant to think I should know what the heck personality disorder Cluster B is and be too intimidated to admit that I don’t? In addition there are several passages that revolve around legal nuances I don’t imagine the average reader would have a clue about. For example the book takes it for granted that we all have an understanding of the difference between murder and infanticide. For the record, I don’t. Still. I imagine the author was trying to use her background to take this story out of the realm of tabloid journalism which is admirable but to complete the exercise it would have helped to have some exposition. Perhaps if the main character had not been such an annoying human being (more about her later) she might have had a friend or less knowledgeable crime-solving partner type of character to whom such things could have been explained (there was potentially such a character but Natalie and Liam had a lot of sex which left no time for discussing things helpfully for the reader).
The next challenge presented by the theme is to develop a story in which that theme is handled sensitively and, as far as possible, without sensationalism. To be fair Buist has done this but in achieving it she has produced an overly complicated narrative, some of which seems completely devoid of purpose. The central character is a psychiatrist who is treating four main patients, three of whom have been accused of killing at least one child. Each case generates a raft of discussions and interactions with patients, their families, other medical professionals and various law enforcement types that have a stake in things. I assume this has been done to provide insight into the variety and complexity of these types of cases which – again – is admirable. But oh so confusing. Add in a suspected Paedophile ring and a vicious stalker for the protagonist and I’ll defy anyone to keep track of the cast, their alleged crimes and the myriad of minor characters drift in and out of the storyline. The jumble of facts and people and bits of information you think you need to keep track of resulted in a fairly superficial exploration of the central theme which is the exact thing I hoped the book would avoid.
And finally we come to the problem of a compelling central character. This problem is not restricted to books dealing with the troubling theme of women who kill but I’m sure the subject matter does take some options off the table. It would, for example, be more difficult to write this kind of novel successfully with a male protagonist. But I remain unconvinced that Dr Natalie King is the best voice these women could hope for. To me she is more the result of modern publishing’s desire for its crime solvers to be unique, tortured souls who are not like the rest of us than she is the result of a resemblance to any real-world doctor. She is a danger-junkie, suffers a mental illness but doesn’t like taking her medication, has questionable morals, lacks self-insight, sings in a band primarily so she can shock people with her lewdness. And on it goes. Most worrying of all is her disdain for the ethical guidelines of her profession. Because, of course, she knows best. I can’t pinpoint the moments but my interest in Natalie King as a character went from “I don’t like her but she’s interesting” to “oh piffle…another quirk…whatever next?” to “I wouldn’t mind if that crazy stalker killed her right about now“. In addition to being more of a laughing stock than a legitimate character Natalie and her quirks overshadowed the women who I was more interested in.
I was intrigued by the premise behind MEDEA’S CURSE. That women who kill children do not necessarily present as uniformly ‘insane’ nor are they the vengeful enchantresses of Greek mythology. And they do, on occasion, need someone to speak up for them. I was even prepared to go with the notion that the person who would do that would, of necessity, be a little out of the ordinary. But the book did not really deliver on any of this for me. The relatively delicate handling of the central theme comes at the expense of the book’s central character, who couldn’t be any more absurdly provocative if she became a murderess herself. In the end it I found this a fairly confusing tale that lost sight of being a thoughtful exploration of an interesting idea.
This is the seventh book I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself. I’m aiming to read 25 eligible books.
I’m feeling a little guilty having chosen this one for my book club to read but at least one fellow member appears to have liked it more than I did.
Publisher: Text Publishing 
Length: 366 pages
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