“It’s a delightful reversal that I’ve become more radical as I’ve gotten older. I get so enraged by the kind of social injustice I feel”: Rosie Scott in an interview with Rob O’Neill in Quote Unquote, August 1996, but the words could easily have been spoken by Faith Singer, the eponymous protagonist of Scott’s latest novel. Faith Singer, a middle-aged woman and former rock singer, is on her way to work one night when she stumbles over a female street kid being propositioned by an old man whose clothes smell “spermy”. Rage inflames her, but Faith does nothing, although feeling an immediate connection with the girl: “I recognised her instantly and loved her like a mother.”
The novel is the story of the friendship between the older woman with the “flashing eyes” and Angel, who despite her opportunistic ways, has a “rare quality of quickening the pace of life around her.” At the beginning of the novel, Angel can’t admit she’s already gripped by her habit (“I just take it now and then”), but her mercurial appearances, her chemical smell, and her mood swings fail to convince Faith. Readers of Scott’s work will recognise echoes from her first novel Glory Days, the story of Glory Day, also a rock singer, who tries to save a young junkie. She too feels a bond with the girl (“She was like me years ago, she was my daughter”), but the girl dies. In faithsinger, Faith is determined that Angel will not die, and the novel tells of her efforts and success in saving her. In rescuing Angel, Faith is also rescued from the sorrow which has stopped her singing.
It’s hard to have a relationship with a drug addict, no matter how beguiling; but perhaps that’s the point Scott is making about addiction and the power of love. Faith witnesses Angel’s collapse from an overdose, visits the Wall where kids are picked up (and where Angel was stabbed by a man in a BMW), accompanies her to a run-down needle exchange, and watches the power of Trev, the local pimp over other young girls. Trev is a menacing character, but, says Angel matter-of-factly, he’s “also one of my best Johns”. These experiences are triggers into Faith’s past: her childhood, her sexual experiences, her friendships, her love of music, and the grief that has silenced her.
The resonance of these experiences varies. The story of her childhood has some nice touches. Abandoned by her mother, Faith was brought up by an emotionally repressed aunt whose house “smelt of linoleum, and where bearded Russians gazed down from the walls.” She taught Faith that “trying to right wrongs and alleviate suffering were simple human obligations as fundamental as breathing.” When Faith was ten, her aunt made her sing the “Internationale” at a communist Christmas party. There she discovered that “music was the thread out of my maze and my saving.” Descriptions of listening to Kurt Cobain, Bruce Springsteen and Sinead O’Connor, however, are flaccid: a litany en route to a righteous crescendo about the power of music to “bypass language, judgment and self-consciousness [and] lodge in the heart where everything necessary comes from.”
Scott’s work is infused with redemption. In an essay entitled “Love and Violence” from The Red Heart, she supports the idea that the world is held together by the love and passion of a few people: “I am constantly drawn towards such semi-religious concepts as grace, absolution, epiphany and redemption as the best way to express [love’s] various manifestations and trajectories.”
These ideas are both the strength and weakness of Scott’s writing. At its best, faithsinger is a heart-warming story about a girl saved from addiction. Scott has a keen sense of place; her descriptions leave the reader in no doubt of her love of Sydney. She makes some fine contrasts between the beauty of the sun shining on the harbour at the end of the road, and the stench of the room where Angel survives with other street kids. Faith’s job in a bar enables Scott to describe other teenage lives, whether it’s Cosmo, the middle-class white boy who wants to be a writer, or Darren, a Koori boy, with a habit so searing “it left him out cold in doorways for hours.” There are, however, always rescuers. Faith herself is cared for by her neighbour, who brings her vegetables and lends his dog, and, more particularly, by her best friend Ruth, a powerful greenie. When Faith realises she can’t save Angel if the latter remains in the Cross, Ruth arranges to have her stay in Tasmania. Ruth is part of Faith’s past – they sang together, and she was a mother to Daisy, Faith’s daughter.
The story suffers, however, from an excess of authorial anger. In the first chapter, Faith feels a surge of “rage”; she is “furious” at the “crime against nature”. As Faith’s relationship with Angel develops, so too does her fury against a social order which spawns street kids. There’s nothing wrong with anger, and the best of Scott’s writing focuses on details which highlight the horror (such as an old man’s hands scrabbling at a young girl’s hip), but too many passages bludgeon the reader, and the effect is to blunt rather than arouse awareness. The writing becomes stereotyped, adjectivally-oppressed, and curtails an experience of mystery and discovery, surely essential ingredients for satisfying reading.
Too often a conversation between characters is interrupted; it’s as if Scott can’t trust us to observe friends having a cup of tea without reminding us that “right now there are thousands of street kids sleeping outside in this rich city.” The goodies are invariably the marginalised; the baddies are always the others. The man who slashes Angel is a powerful Sydney business man. The police are corrupt. Middle-class indifference is responsible for homelessness. Men are fickle (although useful for sex). The “cackle” of womanly laughter transmutes despair into sweetness.
Scott knows how important words are. There is a moment in the novel when Faith considers writing a statement to lawyers about Angel. “It’s the right language I have to find,” she mutters. Perhaps Scott should suspend her moral outrage and concentrate on finding those words which show rather than tell us how it is.
Catharina Van Bohemen is an Auckland reviewer.