Essay by Georgia Blain
I’ve already lived several lifetimes and out of it all learned a few things – among them the necessity of living a truthful life. There’s nothing particularly mysterious about this: it is to do with earning a living by my own hands, being myself with people I know, staying kind, being needed, living tenderly in the present with the hard-won wisdom of a lifetime my only ballast.
These are the words of Faith Singer, a whisky-drinking, parsley-chewing (to hide the smell), white-haired blues singer who has enough heart, courage, honesty and failings to make her one of the most unforgettable characters of Australian writing. Faith’s words, towards the end of the book, capture the wisdom of a novel that is about the importance of compassion, truth, love and maintaining faith in humanity in all its mess, chaos, tenderness and brutality. It is a voice that is vivid and authentic, coming from a woman that I am reluctant to call a character – she is more akin to a living being; the kind of person that we all need in our lives.
Faith Singer lives in a run-down terrace in Kings Cross, working with the grumpy Antonio at his coffee bar and regularly befriending the lost and the lonely, in particular the many street kids whose lives are being ravaged by addiction. Raised by an austere aunt, Faith grew up with the creeds of hard work, honesty and the importance of helping those in need. Although, for Faith, this was a childhood without love, and one that she felt compelled to escape.
At the age of fifty-two, she is a woman who has lived passionately – a singer, a lover of men and sex, a drinker, a friend and a great believer in the healing powers of a good bath. Faith befriends Angel, a 14-year-old street prostitute in a cloche hat, who teeters between the naivety of youth and the brutal harshness of addiction. Faith’s own daughter, Daisy, died from a heroin overdose, and Faith fears losing Angel in the same way.
The narrative of Faith Singer is firmly grounded in literary realism. This is a slice of life, the story of a small group of people living in contemporary urban Australia. Social realist novels written by women are often given less attention than similar books written by men. They are frequently dismissed as domestic, personal, romantic. This dismissal is complex, and closely linked to how a book is marketed to an audience – the cover, the tag lines – which influences how it will be received.
The gender politics at play here mean that readers are often more willing to see a male writer’s take on the personal or domestic as reaching beyond the self and into a broader context. In saying this, I am well aware that the underlying presumption of such a statement is that the personal is still somehow less important than an external, or objective, take on the world. However, Rosie Scott is unapologetic in situating her politics in the self. What’s more,Faith Singer – like many of Scott’s other novels, such as Nights with Grace (William Heinemann, 1990), Feral City (William Heinemann, 1992) and Lives On Fire (UQP, 1993) – situates its politics in the life experience of a female character, a woman who navigates the world on her own terms, and who shows us that it is how we live on a daily basis and our interactions with those around us that matter. Faith Singer is primarily about creating change from within – living well within your small sphere of influence and the effect this has on the world around you. Yet, Scott does not ignore the broader context, with the book also reaching into a harsh critique of the gap between rich and poor, the corruption of power and wealth, and the power dynamics of the drug trade, addiction and sex.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Faith Singer is the fact that the compassion, love and vitality of its central character turns the book into a rich and vivid love letter – an epistle that sweeps up Sydney, creativity, friendship, passion, faith and humanity in its embrace. In celebrating the power and strength of a single life, it is truly dazzling in its sweep.
Let’s start with Sydney. Faith Singer opens with: ‘I first saw Angel on one of those electric Kings Cross nights wild with hunting and testosterone.’ In a single sentence, Scott captures the Cross. For her, the urban is akin to a breathing, throbbing being.
She describes Sydney as having a ‘febrile, ceaseless, hum’, and towards the end of the novel she gives us one of the most beautiful literary descriptions of the city, a vision that swims across the page:
There are only a few mythical golden cities left now where the inhabitants can live in peace and still catch a glimpse of wilder, sweeter horizons in their daily lives. Places where brilliantly coloured birds flash through ancient trees in the heart of town, and a few secret streets lead down to a tumble of roofs and the blue glint of harbour. Where there is the smell of working ships anchored alongside wharves corrugated with salt, and beyond, the promise of deserted bays, open uncharted seas washing right out on the rim of the world. They are cities where outsiders like me who never felt at home anywhere can finally be received, cities that remain at the shining heart of the world.
And yet, the city is not without its brutality. The flipside is an ugly one, as exemplified by the squat in which Angel lives: ‘…a tangle of rags, syringes, takeaway cartons and empty bottles in a stench of unwashed bodies, sex, vomit, ancient dirt, despair.’ Like humanity itself, the urban environment is light and dark, possibility and desperation. It is inseparable from the chaos of life, and Scott embraces it in its entirety.
The importance of friendship and family are also celebrated. Family is what we make it. Faith and her aunt were like ‘two dry sticks rattling around in the house’, yet Faith creates family with her friends and the people she works with. The portrayal of these relationships is rich and true, from her bickering with Antonio, to the ease of her friendship with Joe, her neighbour, and the dynamic between herself and Angel. Some of my favourite parts of the book are the small moments between characters – when Angel tells Faith she’d like to be a river boat captain, or when she points out a pimple on Faith’s chin.
Entwined with this is a deep love of the simple pleasures of the domestic – from Faith’s house in Blackwattle Bay, where she lived with her daughter and friends, to her terrace with its faded blue walls where she lives alone, to the peace of Joe’s kitchen and garden. There is also a recognition of the nourishment that solitude can bring:
…I never expected the pleasures that came from my solitary life. Living alone gave me a sharpness in my daily living, a freedom and dazzling simplicity that I hadn’t been prepared for. In having to look after myself I had to become as alert as an animal sniffing the air, clean and light on my feet.
Creativity is another vital source of sustenance for Faith. She is a singer, and for her music is a means of ‘slipping sideways into this innermost self, bypassing all pretence’. It is not about fame or success, it is a vein into the pure. Authenticity is essential to a life well lived. Faith abhors hypocrisy, and as such even the uglier side of the Cross earns her respect: ‘It was the only public place I knew where polite masks came off and showed the truth of what lay underneath, so urgent were the purposes of the seething crowds. It was one of the reasons I liked living there…’
Faith herself is not without flaws: she is impetuous, and she drinks too much. In fact, she drinks steadily all day, believing she staves off the worst effects of alcohol by otherwise being healthy in her habits, the hard physicality of her job and the warmth of connections with friends. As she says, ‘whisky was more to do with a past need of warming than the present: an old habit that had died hard.’ Despite this, Faith does not try to hide who she is, or to be someone else. Truth is vital to her as a character and to Rosie Scott’s work as a writer, to her own creativity. Her concern is to capture life, to see us as we are, and in doing so to unearth what matters – what is truly of value in life.
Creativity is also linked to sex for Faith Singer, with the physical life essential to her being. She talks about her first discovery of music and how it stirred ‘sharp longings’. An intensely sexual woman, she describes her sexuality as the ‘compulsive urge…the sheer blind force that took me along such dangerous paths.’
Sex was so concentrated and inward, it was like drowning in dark water and spiralling to the light, as locked in and intense as the struggle to be born.
As an older woman, she is still very much in tune with her physical self. Lying back in a warm bath, she looks down at her body with ‘dispassionate fondness’.
It was the map of my physical life, the body I had been inhabiting so long, an old friend who let me down now and then but who carried me silently and uncomplainingly through the world. After a lifetime of these shocks and pleasures it had its own dignity.
This physicality extends beyond sex – Faith lives in tune with her environment. She relishes the juiciness of the tomato that Joe gives her. After Daisy dies, and the worst of her grief is easing, she heads to Tasmania with a suitcase full of whisky and pills, only to submerge herself in the intensity of her physical environment: the cold, the sea spray, twigs scratching her hands as she tries to light a fire, the meaty smells of her own unwashed self.
With nothing but her own body to look after and the wild landscape to live in, Singer’s creativity and sexuality return. The cerebral and the physical are linked once again in a final burst of music, before the next phase of her life begins – the period from which she narrates the novel.
My needs had become more modest…a warm house, a place where I belonged, intellectual freedom, peace, these things seemed to me the height of privilege.
Faith Singer is an optimistic book, and not just in terms of its narrative conclusion – Faith does affect change within her own sphere of influence. There is very much a sense that this sphere is small – there are still countless street kids in the Cross, a thriving drug trade, corruption and hypocrisy – but the fact that its reach is limited is irrelevant. Faith’s authenticity, the truth of her life, her compassion and faith in humanity, with all its flaws, are what matters. She has been herself, and this very act of living a true life becomes a far-reaching celebration of life itself, in all its beauty and its despair.
And there I was, a fierce white-haired woman, still alive, sitting in my kitchen, a glass of whisky at my elbow, the dog snuffling and smelly at my feet, the warm excitements of my beloved city roaring outside my windows.
© Copyright Georgia Blain 2014