Random House, 1998, 333pp
ISBN: 0 09 183401 5
I think you should know that guardian angels are not always reliable. Some make a habit of slipping away for a smoke or a game of cards, or they just hang about waiting for their person to die. Some, even, give their charge a push so that they can go on to a more interesting job. And in extreme situations, when you think you might need them most, they are inclined to atrophy and fade away.
Petra Alma Penfold's guardian angel told me all this. Luckily, he ("Beau", Petra called him) is one of the conscientious kind, although a little more cynical and world-weary than one might expect, for a spirit, and with a very black sense of humour. Still, with a charge like Petra, he no doubt needed a certain professional detachment.
Petra. Charismatic, alluring Petra was Queen of the Hill House Brethren and 'Mother' of the little girls, to whom she related tales of the Massacre of the Innocents at dinner times. Petra, was a thoroughly bad lot. So, too, was Irving Victor Clay, 'The Master', 'The Captain' of the Brethren, one time lecturer at the University of Melbourne and best-selling author of _Sensual Spirituality and the Finger of God_. According to Beau, Irving was "a sex-driven prophet" whose own children "wisely removed as soon as they could to distant countries, out of the reach of their father's lunatic ideas".
Petra and Irving were a deadly pair who influenced the lives of many others. Some chose to join them. Others, like the little girls who were brought up in the cult and destined to become the mothers of a superior race, had no choice.
In Red Shoes, Carmel Bird has written a horribly fascinating story, and much of its fascination is achieved through Beau, whose quirky character becomes evident as he tells the story. In a matter-of-fact tone and with sundry off-hand comments, Beau discloses a tale which is worthy of the Brothers Grimm at their grimmest."We are beyond logic here", comments Beau, of the lives of Petra and the Brethren.
"We are in the realm of Higher Truth where faith and obedience and charisma and a certain amount of LSD and Magic Meru are all you have to go on".
Quite so! Yet like most fairy-tales we recognise a pattern, and the worst aspects of the story are horribly familiar to us from media reports of strange sects, fetishes, sexual deviance and drug-taking. To emphasise this familiarity, Bird has Beau refer to recent events (like the Back-Packer Murders, Deep-Sleep Therapy and missing children) in a way which some will find callous and unacceptable. But it is quite in keeping with Beau's character, and with the sort of fears and yearnings which psychologists like to tell us lie hidden in fairy-tales.
On a structural level, Red Shoes is innovative and ultra-modern enough to appeal to a variety of readers. Its chapters are short enough for the shortest attention span or, if you prefer to use the CD and what Beau calls the "21st century approach", for reading quickly from your computer screen. There are cryptic chapter headings ('Start-Rite Anti-Slip', 'Charity Was devoted to the Girl'), and the chapters are sprinkled with quick quotations and sometimes scurrilous verse. There is also "The Footnote", which Beau turns into a little story in itself. But, as someone who regards footnotes as a necessary evil in academic texts, I found Beau's love of them distracting and, in the end, I gave up reading them so that I could immerse myself in the story.
Then there is the CD-ROM. Perhaps this is the face of books to come. Once I had worked out which of the two identical sides of the CD was the "level" side which I was instructed to load "up", I found this multi-media presentation of story, footnotes, illustrations and music most entertaining. Footnotes often have surprising visual effects and music to accompany them: heavenly choirs, a disappearing mythical maiden, even a rude Freudian ditty which reflects the imagery of sex and passion which pervades the book.
Reading the story on screen, however, entails scrolling down the text and jumping between bold-text and footnotes. Personally, I much prefer a simple, take-anywhere, non-electronic, user-friendly, good-old-fashioned, printed book. Which has the added advantage that I do not have to re-configure my computer monitor (as instructed on the CD) in order to read it.
But a good story-teller like Beau understands that, too:
"If you don't want to use the CD-ROM, don't want to sit down and choof around the screen with a mouse ... I've organised things so that you can lie on the couch propped on silken cushions and idly move around the book itself...probably closer to Scheherazade, depending a bit on the nature of your cushions".