I always like reading a Miles Franklin winner and this one recently won this prestigious prize.
The novel begins with the narrator opening a Facebook message from a man called Tony who is wondering if she is Maggie from his childhood foster home. The message leads Maggie to reflect on her old life and she takes us down a heart-breaking and tragic past. Her mother died from an overdose and her father was is in jail for murder by the time she reaches five. From then she is shunted from foster home to foster home, encountering abuse, drugs and institutional neglect.
This is a tough story to read and it makes you wonder how much trauma and tragedy a person can endure. For some, this will be a very difficult story to get through. Yet the writing compels you to keep reading, to turn the page with the desperate hope for something better for little Maggie. And whilst there is at times despair, there is also hope as she claws her way to people who do care and love her unconditionally. The scenes with her last foster mum are heart-warming and gratifying as is her early life with her husband and his family. But of course, nothing lasts for too long as events take a twist forcing her to make difficult choices.
The foster care system is fully scrutinised and its failings highlighted for debate in the wider community. Down shines a light on how institutionalisation affects a child’s, education, sense of belonging and self, demonstrated when Maggie finds she has no history – no photos, scant background on her family and little record of where she’s been.
Set in various parts of Melbourne and Phillip Island it’s always gratifying to read about my own backyard and the author has been meticulous in her research given that the time periods of which she writes have not been directly experienced by her.
It’s a fascinating novel, highlighting important themes, yet the last third for me seemed to drag a little. Perhaps the trauma of her life was just a little bit too much for me. However, I was compelled by Maggie, her resilience and her perseverance for the life she wanted and eventually got.