We need to talk about Amy Matthews' End of the Night Girl. I'm sure you remember it. It's the novel you showered with rejection letters for ten years, until it eventually won the Adelaide Festival Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript. Perhaps you thought that nobody would buy it – that it was too strange, too complex, too gloomy a mixture of holocaust trauma and modern day malaise.
Well, take note: I did buy it, and I'd happily buy it again. End of the Night Girl is exactly the kind of fiction that I will be spending my hard-earned cash on in the future. It's innovative. It's tight, brusque, engaging. It wears its Australian–ness comfortably and quietly. It's well-written (which counts for a lot when you're a creative writing student who woke up one morning halfway through first year to find that Dan Brown suddenly made you cringe.)
To call End of the Night Girl a 'holocaust novel' would be to sell it short. We've had far too many of those already. Matthews takes one step back from the typical story of cruelty and starvation, and instead gives us Molly, a young waitress from Adelaide who, for reasons that she herself struggles to understand, is writing a novel about the holocaust. The metafictional element is strong but subtle. Molly's story is carefully interwoven with that of her protagonist, Gienia; a polish woman who haunts her through her futile job, her nights spent drinking, her failed relationships, her family problems.
Though the novel received positive reviews, quite a few readers and critics seem intent on unwrapping Gienia's story and throwing away Molly's. Christopher Bantick in The Australian even went so far as to say that Gienia's story 'matters' while Molly's does not. Quite aside from the fact that I personally connect more with Molly than I do with Gienia, I could not imagine one story without the other. It is the relationship between the two that sets End of the Night Girl apart. Together, they form an exploration of how we use fiction to make sense of our own lives; how we find ourselves in characters who have never existed. 'I don't expect her to do more than stare,' says Molly of her constant, ghostly companion, 'so I'm surprised when she reaches out to comfort me.' In the face of bewildering reality, literature provides not only comfort, but also clarity.
Molly's character is just as full and convincing as Gienia's, and her suffering is no less important. Gienia starves because she is in a concentration camp. Molly starves even though she is surrounded by the peace and plenty of twenty-first century Australia. The question of why is far more interesting to me than yet another description of holocaust suffering, however evocatively rendered. As Molly attempts to piece together the fragments of Gienia's story, she confronts the lack of a linear plot in her own life; the difficulty of tracing patterns of cause and effect. 'I try to find the beginning,' she writes, 'the first moment that led to all the other moments – but all I find are loose ends, long threads weaving in and out of one another.'
Far from being bewildering or aimless, however, the novel itself is needle-sharp. Matthews guides us through Molly's nights and days, moment by moment, plunging into her past as the opportunities arise. The result, somehow, is a satisfying novel about dissatisfaction, a precisely structured story of structural breakdown.
So, for the benefit of any editorial button-pushers reading this, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not interested in 'more of the same'. I'm interested in more books like End of the Night Girl – books that are refreshing and challenging and just plain good.
Oh, and Wakefield Press – you're off the hook, obviously. Please publish more of Matthews' work. I look forward to reading what else she has to offer her generation of Australian writing – a generation that looks better and better with every book I read.
By Samuel Williams