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Monday, September 5, 2016

'The Love of a Bad Man' by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

A schoolgirl catches the eye of the future leader of Nazi Germany. An aspiring playwright writes to a convicted serial killer, seeking inspiration. A pair of childhood sweethearts reunite to commit rape and murder. A devoted Mormon wife follows her husband into the wilderness after he declares himself a prophet.

The twelve stories in The Love of a Bad Man imagine the lives of real women, all of whom were the lovers, wives, or mistresses of various ‘bad’ men in history. Beautifully observed, fascinating, and at times horrifying, the stories interrogate power, the nature of obsession, and the lengths some women will go to for the men they love.

‘The Love of a Bad Man’ is a short story collection by young Australian author, Laura Elizabeth Woollett.

I have been dying to read this book, ever since I met Laura Elizabeth Woollett at the launch of ‘Betanarratives’, where we both had short stories in the ‘Body Language’ edition. Laura gave me a very brief run-down of her short story collection that was coming out with Scribe, describing it very succinctly as; "lovers, wives, or mistresses of various 'bad' men in history,” and I was so on-board. I’d been keeping my eyes and ears peeled ever since, and now that I’ve read the collection I’m not the least bit surprised that this tantalising theme completely holds-up under the weight of Woollett’s considerable talent.

There are twelve stories in all, focused on real women throughout history, but telling their fictionalised stories. Some of these women I was already familiar with (Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, Blanche the sister-in-law to Bonnie and Clyde and Charles Manson’s California girls) but others were a welcome revelation and unusual little history lesson. The likes of Martha Beck (one half of "The Lonely Hearts Killers") and 13-year-old Caril Ann for her fateful relationship with a murderous greaser were all new to me. Even the stories of women I was familiar with had secret compartments to be unlocked in the telling, no matter that their lives have been reimagined by Laura. There were still sprinklings of truth; like discovering that Hitler probably had a sexual relationship with his niece, Geli Raubal, before she killed herself and he found young Eva Braun for example. I guarantee that these stories will set you off on a most macabre Internet search to satisfy the curiosity they invoke (there is also a very handy appendix that I cut away to after finishing individual stories, to stop me from putting the book down and interrupting my read with a Google search!).

I actually want to talk about ‘Suicide Squad’ in relation to ‘The Love of a Bad Man’ – which, I know, is totally out of left-field … but is it?

When I finished reading Woollett’s work, I went that weekend and saw ‘Suicide Squad’ in cinemas. There’s been a lot of talk around the movie’s particular disservice to fan-favourite character Harley Quinn, namely in making an even bigger mess of her already problematic and abusive relationship with The Joker. Read about that bizarre coupledom that goes to hell in a hand-basket in the movie here, here, here and here if you are so inclined. But I basically agree with everyone (even actress Margot Robbie) in just not getting that relationship, especially not the way it’s been portrayed in ‘Suicide Squad’ … But I actually want to talk about how Woollett’s entire collection can be seen through the pop-culture prism of Harley Quinn (who is a feminist icon for some fans, which I also don’t really get?)

Woollett is exploring various women who, – much like Harley Quinn – are seeking and accepting the love of bad men. The difference is that Woollett works damn hard to get to the ‘root of the root and the bud of the bud’ of this thing called love, and what she brings up are startling realisations. Sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes understandable but all of them are unique in trying to understand how these women tick. And she is very much interested in the women over the men in this collection. In most of the stories, the men are as unknowable to the reader as they are to their loves and lovers – which is often much appreciated (I don’t particularly want to work hard at understanding Hitler’s thinking, quite frankly). Woollett is embodying and writing to the flip of that ‘Behind every great man there's a great woman’ shtick, and instead saying that cliché works for bad men and women too.

‘You should go home while you can, baby,’ he tells me at a camp outside Waco. ‘I’ll put you on a bus right now. You’ll be back with your folks by nightfall.’  
I think of my poor old pa, deaf in one ear, and the little Okie church where he preaches to other farmers. But there’s no leaving Buck, no matter how much he tries to baby me, no matter how much bickering, dirt, and tears. This is the life we’ve been given, and if anything makes us better than animals, it’s each other. 
—‘Blanche’

The history-buff in me loved how Woollett also picks apart threads of time to provide context for these women and their crimes. It's another testament to how finely researched these women were, that Woollett really does look for their tender truths amongst the rubble of history;

According to my sister Ilse, there’s a Jew in Vienna who spends all his time listening to bored women talking. They lie down on a couch with their backs to him, plucking at their blouse buttons and going on about all sorts of things: their dreams, their memories, their childhoods.  
‘Why?’ I ask Ilse. 

‘For enlightenment,’ she says. ‘Of course, you wouldn’t know anything about that.’
—‘Eva’

… But if I’m being really honest, I just loved this collection for the gore-factor too. I think this is pretty close to a historical horror short story collection, and there’s something deliciously gothic and gory/gorgeous in picking at these wounds and wickedness;

On the night of Charlie’s frying, I watch the clock. I watch the minutes click by as they strap his arms to the chair and fix the metal bowl over his head. I look out at the darkened prison yard, my forehead cold against the window grating. The minute hand ticks one after midnight. I close my eyes and smell the smoke of him on the night air.
—‘Martha’

I adored this collection! ‘The Love of a Bad Man’ is definitely a favourite book of 2016 for me, and I’m keen to read whatever else Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s writes next.

5/5

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