See the full edited discussion of Feather Man – the September choice
on the online Book Explorers Club hosted by Barnes & Noble.
The Barbara Jefferis Award 2008
‘This is a powerful, original novel, wonderfully well written. As an account of a young woman’s survival of a dysfunctional childhood in Brisbane, the coming of age theme avoids all the usual clichés. The story of Sooky’s gradually emerging independence is told in prose that is rich, lyrical and assured, and the portrayals of the characters in all their fabulous monstrosity ring absolutely true. Sooky – flawed, self-doubting, difficult, sensitive, painfully honest and supremely talented is struggling to make sense of her life and establish her identity as a painter. In so accurately analyzing the way Sooky uses her intelligence, wit and unconventional view of the world to fight herself out of the dark hole of her childhood, McMaster has created a fresh and original woman character who is at the heart of this brilliant, witty and disturbing novel.’
‘Last night McMaster’s Feather Man, her “edgy and dangerous work of portraiture”, was awarded the inaugural $35,000 Barbara Jefferis prize for literature. “Her control of her subject matter, through language, is remarkable,” said the novelist Rosie Scott, one of the judges. “Her prose is poetic, it is quite extraordinary; this is an extraordinary poetic sensitivity at work. She takes great risks with language to create such a wild, tricky, fabulous character. She gives us a woman using all that grief to remake herself. Here is a story of a woman making it through.”’
– Angela Bennie, Weekend Edition, Sydney Morning Herald, March 29-30, 2008.
‘Writer Rhyll McMaster last night won the inaugural Barbara Jefferis Award for the best novel by an Australian author that empowers the status of women in society.
McMaster was awarded the $35,000 prize for her novel Feather Man, which explores the effect of childhood sexual abuse on adult life. The NSW-based novelist is also an accomplished poet, and weaves a number of poems through Feather Man.’
– James Madden, The Weekend Australian, March 29-30, 2008
UTS Glenda Adams Prize for New Writing 2008
NSW Premier’s Awards
‘Feather Man is the story of Sooky, a young woman who survives childhood abuse and comes into her own as an artist. It is, however, so much more than a simple coming of age tale. The opening, in the backyard of a suburban Brisbane house, is unforgettably monstrous and real, capturing the child’s view of abuse with a truth that shakes the reader, never allowing us to settle comfortably into the story. We follow Sooky as she grows up, moving from man to man, struggling to paint and struggling to become herself as she encounters a host of appalling and fantastic people, all of whom ring absolutely true. At the centre, Sooky herself is difficult, flawed, frequently hard to like, but very much alive.
This is a novel written with a poet’s love of language. The prose dances and twists out of the darkness of Sooky’s childhood and into her emergence as an adult. Sooky sees the world in a completely idiosyncratic and unconventional way, never allowing us to paint her as a stereotyped victim of abuse. Rhyll McMaster has done what only the best writers do – she has used the richness of language to create new layers of story, giving us a novel that is witty, disturbing and completely alive’
Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards short-list 2007
‘McMaster has written an exquisitely crafted first novel rooted in the mundane and the mythological. In a language that is both poetic and visceral, she dissects her characters’ motives with a dispassionate gaze, revealing the darkness at the centre of their lives.’
‘Rhyll McMaster’s debut novel is simultaneously a portrait of an artist, an examination of the emotional alchemy from which art is born and a coming-of-age tale. It suspends Sooky, the girl protagonist, in a 20-year chrysalis… The juxtaposition of mystery and harsh grit lends the book a compelling friction…. Four sections delineate the spheres of influence exerted by sexual relationships on her art…. Finally, it is the sheer distance from the identity she built around place and past that enables Sooky to locate herself outside of the cramped house the featherman built for her.’
Helen Oyeyemi, author of The Icarus Girl, New Statesman, (UK review) 17 April, 2008.
‘This beautifully written and disturbing Australian coming of age novel grabbed me from the first page. Sooky struggles to overcome her difficult childhood, with a father who abandoned the family, an emotionally distant mother and abuse by the one person to whom she felt close. The effects of this childhood are powerfully portrayed as Sooky moves from relationship to relationship and from Brisbane to London. It is her growing sense of herself as an artist which balances the pain.’
Nancy Felton, Broadside Books. (US review)
28/09/08 – Boston Globe ‘Pick of the Week’, Shelf Life column, with Nancy Felton’s review.
- Feather Man is the September ‘Pick’ for the IndieNext List of the American Booksellers’ Association. The IndieNext List showcases chosen titles each month in major independent bookshops in the US.
- Also listed for the Indie Next Highlights List, November, 2008
‘Feather Man, Australian poet Rhyll McMaster’s first novel, is sometimes distressing, but Sooky’s unflinching eye and sense of humor imbue the book with complexity and vitality. It’s clear that McMaster is a poet; her writing is filled with lyrical language that brings dusty Brisbane, Australia, where Sooky grows up, and gritty London, where she moves as an adult, equally to life. Sooky’s voice stands out as original and insightful and truly drives the book.’
Nancy H. Fontaine, ForeWord Magazine (September 2008), (US review)
*ForeWord is a trade magazine that exclusively reviews independent titles in the US.
‘Feather Man is at once both unflinching and poetic. McMaster’s unique perspective illuminates the hidden corners of the lives she portrays.’
Catherine O’Flynn, author of What Was Lost. (UK review)
‘I think Feather Man is quite wonderful. Beautifully written. Engrossing and utterly involving and it does something new.’
Maureen Freely, author of Enlightenment. (UK review)
‘Let me say first that Rhyll McMaster is an extraordinary writer. Her prose is dazzling, poetic and thought-provoking, and this is literary fiction at its best…I have likened Rhyll McMaster to Margaret Atwood. Atwood is brilliant, but in my view McMaster is even better…my money is on Feather Man making the Booker Prize longlist here.’
Lisa Glass, Vulpes Libris (UK online review)
‘There is a cumulative and haunting power to Rhyll McMaster’s novel of a woman desolated by the grown-up betrayals riddling her child’s world, and the reclamation of identity they eventually compel. A striking work, the poetic concision of the language carries a darkly nuanced understanding of love and loyalty, and the near-fatal costs they exact on the unprotected heart. In the sensuous descriptions, in the native knowledge of custom and culture, and particularly in the quirky suburban vernacularisms, Australia of the mid-twentieth century comes fiercely alive. Sooky may have an avant-garde sense of herself in the human universe, but we know exactly where she is from. McMaster’s insights, by turns moving and mordant, are always wise, and if the unraveling of Sooky’s life is profoundly unsettling, it is all the more satisfying when she learns how to ravel it back together. This is literature that sticks to the bones.’
Lynn Stegner, Author of Because A Fire Was In My Head (US review)
‘What an interesting character study this is… (Sooky’s) been trained not to feel. Instead, it comes out in her art, and I found in that the true beauty of this novel… The narrative is sometimes distancing and sometimes engaging, reflecting Sooky’s mood and personality extremely well… I really liked this book… And I’m conflicted about the ending! I’d love to find someone else who has read it to discuss this novel because it begs to be talked about. It’s very literary and the English major in me is crying out for a class on it.’
Meghan at http://www.chikune.com/blog, July 9 2008, (US online review)
- Feather Man has been getting 4 & 5 star ratings on Amazon reader blogs.
Some Comments from the Spread-the-Word Prize long listing (UK):
Beautifully written…very revealing about human behaviour…a very good choice for bookgroups – cactus
One of the best books I have read…there is a killer last line…brilliant on every level –Popsicle
A literary masterpiece…the best books show us something we’ve missed…Feather Man does this in spades – Jesse 2.0
Totally involving, moving, and manages to be funny also…her sentences make you smile because she uses language so well – choosy
A clever, subtle and incisive writer who pulls some extraordinary tricks from her writer’s bag…a very, very assured and exciting book – Ecosseboi
This book is a masterpiece. The characters haunt you long after you have finished reading it. I loved the blackness of the humour… – ez
I read this novel non-stop. I particularly loved the descriptions of Sooky’s art…McMaster must have synesthesia because her images are so beautifully and constantly visual –Tully
Highly recommended for reading groups, but it’s also a fascinating read for anyone who loves good writing… a stunning novel – Sunday
The main character became so very real to me…a great bookclub selection…I read it on Barnes & Noble’s online bookclub –Ibis
She has done what only the best writers do…giving us a novel that is witty, disturbing and completely alive. And I couldn’t put it down! – Elaine
A writer who takes you into the darkest recesses of the heart/mind…a haunting read –penden
The emotion of this book lived with me from the confronting opening to the fairytale ending…here is an author to pursue in the future –Loraine L.
Anyone who could write “Her brain is stripped to its inessentials. She’s disposed of the gears. Her mind is full of old shoes that don’t fit. Clothes. Which? Which? She twitches a pair of slacks over her shoulders. I used to have such lovely…lovely… extract from poem ‘On My Empty Feet’ 1993 HAS GOT MY VOTE! – Glenda.jones
‘Rhyll McMaster has struck gold with her debut novel of betrayal and loss…This is a stunning, dark story with tight, controlled prose. Unforgettable. *****(five stars)’
Good Reading Magazine – June, 2007
‘… I think it would be a good choice for book clubs as there can be different reactions both to the adventures and the structure of the story.’
Eve Abbey in Abbey’s Bookshop newsletter, Issue #215, August 2007.
‘…a well-structured and accomplished character-driven work…a flowing, subtle and rewarding read.’
Australian Bookseller and Publisher, April-May 2007
‘McMaster achieves many brilliant effects…a tour de force of vivid and surprising imagery and allusion …Her eye for detail, for recognizing the exceptional in the most mundane of things, illuminates these pages. The seedy ordinariness of life in London is superbly conveyed.’
Andrew Riemer, Review of the Week in The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 April 2007
‘Rhyll McMaster may be well known for her poetry, but this novel, her first, brings to light a new talent that will make her work even more sought after. There’s much that will resonate with Australian baby boomers… McMaster’s style is very readable – punchy with short sentences, earthy and often humorous… As descriptive as it is of times past, it’s also a modern day tale of the human condition.’
Highlife Magazine, Country Life in the Southern Highlands of Australia, 2007.
‘…a novel which explores the impact of childhood sexual abuse on adult life …a brutal tale, but an exquisite read, full of the most satisfying psychological truths.’
Ramona Koval in The Book Show, ABC Radio National, 6 June, 2007.
‘…an exhilarating and absorbing work of prose…’
Catherine Freyne, Producer, The Book Show, ABC Radio National.
‘A highly original first novel…’
The Daily Telegraph, 12-13 May 2007
‘Rhyll McMaster tosses us in at the deep end …It’s a masterstroke…she makes this novel so much more than a simple story: in the clever patterns of imagery, the brilliant descriptions, the narrative structure and the understanding – more and more absent from contemporary fiction – that a good novel has something to say about the world’.
Kerryn Goldsworthy in The Australian, Review, June 2 – 3, 2007.
‘McMaster is interested in the fragility of identity and the dynamics of personal power. This superb first novel is beautifully written but not for the faint-hearted. …in a class of its own.’
Christina Hill in Australian Book Review, July-August, 2007.
‘…a novel about privacy, about an experience so secret and so traumatically internalized that its effects go on reverberating long after the child victim has grown up. In tracing Sooky’s progress from a traumatized suburban childhood to the beginnings of a successful international career as an artist, McMaster charts the emotional complexities of dependence, loyalty, cruelty and betrayal…’
Kerryn Goldsworthy in The Australian Literary Review, July 4, 2007.
‘Whose girl are you? It’s the question everyone asks in this spiky little bildungsroman – a tale of growth and development – and our protagonist, Brisbane-born boomer Sooky, never really knows the answer. …men will loom over Sooky in one way or another, demanding to know whose girl she is. Sooky is observant and clever and at times wonderfully funny. At a gallery opening, annoyed by the old man leering at her breasts, she grabs his hand and says ‘why don’t you have a feel, since you’re so keen’.
Michelle Griffin in The Age, Saturday 21 July, 2007
‘Feather Man is boldly original and self-assured. The narrative voice is darkly witty, but beguilingly honest. Nothing is sugar-coated here…Sooky is the consummate loner, albeit a girl with guts and a sense of irony’.
The Courier-Mail, 5-6 May 2007
‘In Feather Man Rhyll McMaster has written a love-letter to the physical landscape of Brisbane. The intimate and panoramic are in equally sharp focus: the beauty and mastery of each is undeniable.’
Karen James, co-producer/presenter in OzWrite – National Community Radio Network book program, June 2007.
‘The writing is impeccable …and the descriptions are truly memorable and repellent. Like Sooky, this is not a scene we can easily leave behind. The descriptions of the art she creates are particularly vivid: confessional and sometimes surreal… a coming-of-age novel, and a story of an emergent artist.’
The Canberra Times, June 23, 2007
‘The novel’s final sentence, the perfect way to end it, will leave you gasping… It’s a treat to read the work of someone who can express things so compellingly. I am itching to read McMaster’s next novel.’
Louise Swinn in Overland 189, 2007.
‘A searing first novel… a disturbingly believable character… The conflict between her romantic compliance with her imprisonment in male constructions of women’s roles, and her rebellious insistence on her right to freedom… is deeply insightful and powerfully conveyed. The narrative is skillfully managed… leading the reader gradually to an understanding of the profound conflicts… and ending with a characteristically cruel, funny, back-to-the-beginning last line.’
Anthony Hassall, Emeritus Professor of English Literature, James Cook University, in Westerly, Vol. 52 2007.
‘Moving from a sleepy 1950s Brisbane to a grubby London of the 1970s, McMaster’s narrative is at once both intense and detached; she renders the lived experience of both cities and the characters in them with painful clarity. … the search for identity in all the wrong places. … an impressive first novel – rich, darkly funny and disturbing.’
Rachel Slater in Australian Women’s Book Review, Vol.19 No.1 2007.
‘…black comedy, of the fierce and painful kind, full of disasters and farcical pratfalls and trust betrayed.… a getting of wisdom steeped in social satire, with elements of the fairy tale (Cinderella meets Bluebeard) and Greek myth, it unfolds in the first person… remarkable for its poise and concision, its irony, its trenchancy. Her eye is relentlessly sharp… the momentum is irresistible. …the last word, coming as it does with the full weight of the book behind it, hits like a whiplash.
Beverley Farmer, author, in Island 110, Spring 2007.
‘In Feather Man, McMaster has delivered a near-perfect rendition of the story of a young girl’s long, convoluted search for her identity. With a final masterstroke, McMaster reminds us that Sooky’s eventual identity must be independent of men – for even the most ‘fond’, ‘benign’ and ‘indulgent’ of men must want something of your soul in exchange.’
Eileen Chong, an essay, Reclaiming Identity in Rhyll McMaster’s Feather Man, Hecate, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2008.
‘…read the first chapter today while eating lunch and had to slam it shut lest I do no work for the rest of the day.’
Morgan Smith, Events Manager, Gleebooks
‘I think Feather Man is a great book – it grows stronger the more I think about it, and I believe that with the excellent attention it is receiving it will reach a very wide readership and become recognized as a truly important and powerful work of Australian literature…’
Peter Bishop, Director, Varuna Writers’ Centre, Blackheath, NSW.
‘How wonderful to read something so fully developed that it is not only complicated in structure but still so fluid. Like a complicated woven fabric. The constant rewriting and polishing has produced a truly great piece… had my heart in my mouth most of the time…The kid was in such permanent danger. And so damaged. But then she became so dangerous! And I was glad…. And what about that hand leaping out of the grave in the last sentence, grabbing me by the throat?… I will tell all my friends to buy and read it… “just for fun”.’
Errol Sullivan, film producer, Southern Star
‘It’s great … Very visual. I loved that the protagonist was an artist. I really liked the outcome however – neither good nor bad – very life-like! The fact she ends up with a combination of her father and her childhood abuser is such a salient illustration of how we keep recreating unresolved scenarios from our youth. The whole story stayed with me after I finished the last page.’
Megan Brownlow, Television producer.
‘…And it’s so funny, sometimes, and so sad, and black but never bleak – just what readers (like me) desire in any novel. And it is wonderfully chilling the way the story unfolds – just when you’re thinking what a foul beast Lionel is, and how misused Sooky has been, she describes the pleasure of watching Lionel shave in the mornings, and everything becomes clearly more complicated … And what a great chilling last sentence, because…even very thoughtful reflective people may keep repeating their mistakes, if their new mistakes come along in clever disguises. I feel she has many rigorous adventures ahead of her.’
Sally McInerney, author and artist.
‘ it’s often very funny…and as vivid as life- what higher praise of a novel could there be than this last phrase?’
Professor Peter Alexander, Uni. NSW
‘…an astounding and assured first novel, full of sharp insight and very real pain.’
Tom Shapcott, poet and author.
‘…can I just mention that while we in the office primarily knew of you as a poet and loved your writing, each of us has read Feather Man and enjoyed it. It is a regular topic of conversation and we have put it into the hands of many who have ventured into the office looking for their next book to read.’
Jeni Caffin, Director, Byron Bay Writers’ Festival.
Other readers say:
‘I love your book…I found it chilling from half-way through and couldn’t put it down. It really is a stunning achievement… I see it as a powerful women’s book – all women…. I reckon Feather Man would make a great film. What I love is the grappling with emotional complexities and the insights which result. That’s what for me is most absent from contemporary writing and it’s what Feather Man delivers in aces.’
‘I can’t get my head out of Feather Man! But when I do, I can’t stop thinking about it! I love it. It has taken me right back to those puzzling and troubling days. Your sharp eyes and incisive prose have captured everything so acutely. It makes me realize how I relied on my shortsightedness to blur the reality of my early history.’
‘…the whole structure of the book, the skillful story-telling, combined with your incredible ability to put into words who people are, and what’s going on in their heads, is quite remarkable. I was struck breathless at times by the exquisite aptness of some of your descriptions. Sure, there was ugliness, and gut-gripping fear/disgust for what was happening, and would eventually happen to Sooky – but I couldn’t hate her, really felt for her, admired her in some ways, was pleased for her accomplishments and in the end preferred to take the happier option from the ambiguous conclusion! …you were very successful in conveying that insidious way a predator grooms his victim, and then the mixed emotions and responses of that victim, and the way his/her future life is so affected. I never read a book a second time unless for study or re-visiting one of the classics that I haven’t read for years – I’m now reading yours again!’
‘There’s so much atmosphere. I’m transported back to the times and the backyards, and the blokes in them. I was completely drawn in from the first couple of paragraphs, right into 50’s Australia… You write with such heartbreaking beauty… the razor sharp observations of the main character tore through me and left me reeling sometimes. The subtleness of her revenge. On the surface, almost no revenge at all. ’
It grabbed me on the first page – so rare for this censorious reader – and didn’t let go until, not only the final line, but beyond… frantically hoping that Lionel would not prevail in her life – too many Lionels in too many innocent lives… The novel is extraordinary – avoiding every cliché – what a knowing, unsentimental but clear-eyed commentator. What a book, what skill, what depth of understanding and what forgiveness of human frailty…’
‘I thought it wonderfully well written and a novel of “our” experience in Australia.
To me more relevant than so much of the “approximately” historical fiction of the day.’
‘It was great to get back into reading again after having a baby, the book was easy to read and it was like watching a really good movie. I certainly didn’t like that horrid, wretched Redmond or Lionel and at times I thought Oh my gosh, is this poor woman ever going to have something good happen to her. She certainly had an awful non supporting mother too. I look forward to reading more stories from you. It has inspired me to take up reading again.’
‘It was absolutely amazing and enthralling.’
‘I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your book… it was so beautifully written… I loved how you described how you would paint… I have never had any of the experiences that Sooky had but could identify with the child and the adult… thanks.’
‘I was absolutely bowled over by it. It has not left me for days – it is so spare – but every word hits places in me.’
‘There was something so tough and alive in it. However, first one has to get inside the secret castle and that means getting past the forbidding door of the first chapter. All the clues are there but one has to not react to the subject matter but follow something in the writing itself that hints at what will be explored. It is under the surface because the exploration of the feel of damage, what it does long-term and to all relationships finally, and the rendering of that feeling into a tough poetry of expression… The revelations are wonderful too, as the peeling occurs… I was…appalled by the take-no-prisoners nature of her responses as Redmond lost his power and cruelty itself acquired poetic license. I was divided within myself and I think this is good, as it prepared me for the ambiguity of the last line: by then, I was inside her head and knew how a comment like that would hit the damaged interior.’