Immaculate by Anna McGahan

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Immaculate by Anna McGahan won the 2023 The Australian/Vogel’s Award for Young Writers.  Anna is the niece of one of Australia’s favourite authors – Andrew McGahan who died in 2019 – who had previously won this award for his first novel Praise published in 1991.  While Anna may share a name and a prize with her uncle, she has her own voice and a very distinctive and creative one at that.

Immaculate is an imaginative tour-de-force which explores and exposes faith, grief and suffering through the lens of three key protagonists – Frances Harkin [née Kocsmáros] Lucas Harkin and Mary – and a number of other complex characters.  Frances and Lucas have a four-year-old daughter Neve who is dying of cancer; they also negotiating the tensions and conflict which arise from a rather fraught divorce.  To further complicate her life, Frances has been ‘excommunicated’ from the Eternal Fire Church where Lucas is a pastor.

The book comprises chapters headed ‘The Gospel According to Frances’, ‘The Book of Mary’, ‘The Book of Jasper’ and ‘The Word of Dog’ – clearly alluding to the Bible and reflecting the erstwhile involvement of Frances in the Eternal Fire Church – interspersed with various letters, emails, police reports, medical notes and media articles.  Together they provide a rich and varied reading experience where the perspectives of the key characters – and the external events which impact on them – are exposed.  But it is Frances who lies at the heart of the novel as she struggles with the devastating prognosis of her daughter and the on-going conflictual relationship with ex-husband Lucas.  Her struggles are compounded and, at times, ameliorated by the appearance of Mary – a sixteen-year-old sex worker who claims to be pregnant by immaculate conception – and Frances’ friendships with Celine and Ruairí.

The sub-text of Immaculate is the fluidity of sexuality – Ruairí is non-binary; Celine a sex worker is in a relationship with Glenda who is in the early stages of dementia; and Frances explores her sexuality with Celine.  These relationships are described with sensitivity and non-judgement as a natural element in the diverse range of human experience

As a counterpoint to the pain experienced by Frances and the others through the book, there is a soupçon of magic when Frances wakes and finds ‘a soaring treehouse’ which ‘glows from within, revealing multiple rooms, and the silhouettes of people’ [124].  The Innkeepers have invited Frances and other of the book’s characters to a dinner party where their daytime personas are put aside and others are taken on.  Unsure whether the dinner party is a ‘dream or acid trip or psychotic hallucination’ Frances conducts herself with dignity and ‘for the first time in this cruel little life [she] can see’ [129].  But it is only an hallucination and temporary at that, and she soon is obliged to return to the cruelty of her life.

The novel is set in Brisbane and specifically in and around New Farm.  The bohemian and somewhat disadvantaged nature of New Farm is brought to life through evocative descriptions of its houses and streets – and of New Farm Park where the dinner party takes place.  The day-to-day living experience of the marginalised residents are honestly but sympathetically exposed to the reader.

Immaculate is a challenging and at times confronting particularly when revealing the agony of grief and loss – but always soaring in its use of language and its consistent honesty.

It is well recommended and a rewarding read for those who enjoy well-crafted and imaginative writing.



by Anna McGahan

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 1 761067 99 0

$32.99; 392pp

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