Book Review: For A Girl by Mary-Rose MacColl

For A Girl book cover, shows photo of young girl For A Girl by Mary-Rose MacColl
Allen & Unwin RRP: $29.99

For A Girl is such a touching, raw, personal book there’s no way I could give it a conventional ‘review’. In her latest work, Mary-Rose has chosen to share the heartbreaking story of her journey through abuse to motherhood – a layer cake of guilt, denial, punishment and redemption.This is a very important book from one of Australia’s best storytellers.

You know a book has you firmly in its grasp when a flight from Sydney to Brisbane goes by in what seems like minutes. I flipped open my Kindle as the rumbling ascent began. After awhile, the seat belt dinger dinged and I re-entered the real world with a start. I realised that I was biting the inside of my mouth and had a fistful of my own shirt scrunched in my hand. What must my fellow travellers have thought? I was in the emergency exit row what’s more! Luckily we stayed aloft.

This is testament to the vivid pictures Mary-Rose MacColl paints with her words; the type of impressive, well-developed narratives you might have enjoyed in Swimming Home or In Falling Snow. Except this time, the story is a true one – and in some ways it’s stranger than fiction.

As a teenager Mary-Rose befriended one of her teachers, and later the teacher’s husband. After awhile the friendship become a physical relationship, and the consequences would be devastating. I feel uncomfortable revealing more; as though I’ve been entrusted with a secret, having read this very intimate account. However, one point of the book is to release these long-held secrets into the universe, where they can be properly observed, atoned for, and (maybe) put to rest, so share I must.

Those who’ve followed Mary-Rose’s writing career will know that she has written powerfully on the topic of motherhood and childbirth. Another non-fiction must-read is The Birth Wars, where she tackles women’s lack of agency and the many myths and confusions around modern delivery wards. From other writing I was aware that the author had had a daughter early in her life whom she gave up for adoption. This is an emotionally fraught scenario regardless of the circumstances, but I could never have imagined just how harrowing MacColl’s experiences with abuse, rape and sacrificing her daughter to ‘the system’ truly were.

Like so many women, however, MacColl spent many years believing the suffering she had endured was her own fault. Her situation dances around many grey areas when it comes to notions of who is to blame in situations of sexual abuse and rape. She was a teen, not a ‘child’, for example. She liked, even loved, her abusers at certain times. In the cold light of day, knowing the things we know, there’s no question of Mary-Rose being at fault. But shame and denial lead to her keeping their secrets, for their sakes, for far too long. So long, in fact, that it ate her up inside and nearly caused her to lose any remaining positives in her adult world.

This book affected me for many reasons. The topics it traverses are timely in this age of new feminism and royal commissions into institutions that didn’t care for the people in their care. My own life experiences are vastly different from Mary-Rose’s, but there are points of intersection: I understand the pain of miscarriage, the mixed blessings of parenthood, and the pit-of-the-stomach regret of sexual encounters that should never have happened. But my insights are only glimmers of recognition, moments of empathy, a long way from truly understanding.

There will be triggers here for some readers, poignant moments of identification for others; and the imagery will stay with you for some time. It’s a book written to honour the girl Mary-Rose was, the girl to whom she gave birth, and perhaps other girls who’ve stayed silent about similar experiences. I read the whole thing in one sitting on my plane trip and I’ve never been quite so glad to find my family waiting for me when I arrived home.

Buy For A Girl from your favourite local bookstore. If you can’t find it there, try here…

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