Being Magdalene by Fleur Beale
(Penguin Random House, $19.99)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington
When I was growing up in a rationalist household, I had a friend in my street whose family belonged to an exclusive and unworldly Christian sect. As soon as she turned 16, my friend was married to an adult man in her church community. Her brother, a pupil of my secondary school teacher father (at that time implying a community standing that must have made our family somehow suitable for friendship), couldn’t do the prescribed homework when it entailed reading a recent newspaper report and paraphrasing it. “Please sir, I’m not allowed to read the paper.” Nor, it turned out, could he listen to the radio. My father made no comment, but set an alternative exercise for the “poor chap.”
That was my only encounter with such a family until I read Fleur Beale’s novels I am not Esther, I am Rebecca, and now Being Magdalene, which tell of a more extreme way that some families have been known to live – in New Zealand, and in many other places. The situations shown in this youth novel are shocking, scary, and very moving as we experience Magdalene’s struggle to be a perfect girl as defined by the cruel and unreasonable leader of “The Children of the Faith”, as she moves reluctantly into young womanhood. Children and adults alike are frightened into submission as they try their best to honour the tenets and impossible demands of their Elders’ beliefs, where they are under the unforgiving thumb of the group’s leader who presents himself as channelling the word of the Lord.
There is light at the end of this miserable tunnel – we see Magdalene’s 7-year-old sister’s delight in discovering earthquakes are caused by plate movement rather than the wrath of a vengeful Lord against the sins of the unworldly failed faithful and the worldly “sinners”. And we experience the saving of Magdalene herself, as she finds her own inner strength and capabilities and sheds her perpetual guilt and fear with the help of her family and friends.
Relationships between family members and within the closed community of so-called Christians are convincingly drawn and the situations plausible despite their contrast to the lives of most of us. I’m looking forward to my 14-year-old family member’s view – she introduced me to I am not Esther and I wanted more of the Pilgrom family saga. And here is the third one.
Hopefully worldly young readers of these prize-winning books will be grateful for the families they have, rather than feeling they are hard done by, after reading about the stresses and indignities endured by those growing up under the Elders’ punitive “Rule”. Freedom is relative and can so easliy be taken for granted. But don’t look for a moral to this story: just read it, and offer it to young readers.