Louise Nicholas: My Story is a very good book. I feel I should start by making that clear, because I would have read it - I would have recommended it - even if it hadn't been very good. The book's strength comes because Louise Nicholas has something to say, and her voice, her experiences, her reality, comes through in every paragraph.
The book is written in alternating sections Louise Nicholas's and Phil Kitchin. Louise Nicholas tells her story, from going up in Murapara to hearing John Dewar's guilty verdict. Phil Kitchin provides all sorts of information about the trials and investigations, but he also tells us how his story intersected with Louise Nicholas's from an anonymous tip-off in the 1990s.
I'm going to concentrate on Louise Nicholas's chapters in this review, but Phil Kitchin's material adds hugely to the book. The two voices only work together because Phil Kitichin doesn't just stick to the facts, but allows himself to come through as a person. We learn about his reactions, we get snippets of his life, and are right there when he gets fired. Because both stories are personal they mesh well together.
Both voices contain a lot of information, that you didn't already know. I learnt a lot about what had happened, and I'd followed the cases obsessively. The book really demonstrates how poor the reporting on the police trials was. Some of those flaws have been apparent for a while - there are people out there who believe Louise Nicholas's flatmate gave evidence. But some flaws I hadn't realised. For the first time I was angry at the jury - the book lays out the crown's case in a way the media of the time didn't* - and the jury had more than enough evidence to convict, on some of the charges.
But the strongest part of the book isn't the information, for all everyone should know it - it's Louise Nicholas's voice which comes through powerfully and beautifully. More than that, her voice comes through because she knows what's important. It is so easy for non-fiction narratives to be lost in a sea of irrelevant statements. Louise Nicholas, and possibly her editors, have done a very good job of selecting the telling details, and leaving out the rest.
I'll give just one example of this sort of selection. I've had a lot of respect for Ross Nicholas for a long time, although I don't think it was based on anything, but a vague optimism. In this book he comes through as a person, and rather an awesome one. When she told him about Phil Kitchin's evidence about John Dewar she writes of him responding:
'I told you, didn't I?' he crowed. 'I said to you lots of times I didn't trust him that bastard! That there was something screwy about him. But would you believe me? Nooooo! Eh missus? So there you go! Once again, I'm right and you were wrong, eh missus?'That one exchange not just convinced me that I wasn't wrong about Ross Nicholas, but also conveyed so much about his character and their relationship.
The book works best when it's focused on the main narrative, but because we don't live our lives in compartments this story tells us about much more than sexual violence.
The realities of reproduction: pregnancy, breast-feeding and caring for small children, are a constant thread. For those who don't know, or don't think, about the work involved in raising kids, this book is very telling.
We learn, as Grace Paley would say, not just about her blood, but about her money - what provincial working class people need to do to continue existing on this world. People get laid off, they get fired. The dangers of working life in her story outraged, but did not surprise, me.
Her story has depth, because she includes the things that matter and talks about them in her own voice.
I do have two criticisms of the book, one is that I think the design does the book a disservice. While I think Random House did a fantastic job of the editing (according to Louise Nicholas it was Random House that choose how the two parts of the story would intersect), the design crew were not so skilled. Phil's and Louise's sections are in different fonts, which is understandable, but both fonts are hard to read (and I'm not normally someone who notices that sort of thing). More importantly the cover makes it look like a standard biography of a celebrity, rather than a well-written book with something to say.
The other is some of Phil Kitichin's sections. Evelyn Waugh criticised Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death by saying that she lacked a clearly stated attitude towards death (to which she replied "Do tell him I'm against it"). I feel that Phil Kitichin lacks a clearly stated attitude towards consent. Particularly when talking about raping with a police baton, he falls back on the idea that the act itself is depraved, and therefore no-one would consent to it. I think that is a very weak position to be arguing from. Indeed it enables people like Kathryn Ryan to ask Louise Nicholas, 'other women consented to these acts, can you see why that makes people doubt your story?'. Phil Kitchin also discusses Louise Nicholas's sexual history completely unnecessarily.
I as able to over-look Phil Kitchin's statements, because the book is so good. But it is not an easy book to read.
The hardest section to read is her description of what happened at Corbett St. For four vivid pages she takes us inside her head while those men raped her. It's the worst, but it's certainly not the only; I decided I needed to steel myself for the worst parts so I read forward from the trial, before I read the earlier chapters. But the book is full of horrific details, as other women tell their stories. Rape is horrific and they don't step back from that.
Not everyone will be able to read this book. Although I think it should be compulsory for anyone who doesn't believe her, and any man who doesn't know that all the sex he's had is consensual. But I think if you can you should try and read it. Because for all it's sad and horrifying its not a book about despair, it's a book about hope.
There's hope in her survival.
There's the very personal hope of a family that believed her and stood by her. Her eldest daughter was 13 when Phil Kitichin's story came out, the same age Louise Nicholas had been when she was raped by police in Murapara. And her reaction is particularly powerful
There's hope because she was believed by so many people.
There's hope because by standing up she has given strength to other women. An 86 year old woman told Louise Nicholas that she had been raped when she was 16, and never told anyone, but after she heard Louise Nicholas's story she told her family for the first time.
There's hope because she has already made a difference, and if we stand together we can do so much more.
Please read this book. Please take it as a call to arms.
* There were suppression orders in place which stopped the media reporting a lot of the most important evidence for the crown. But what is so frustrating is that they didn't let people know that the holes existed. They could have made it clear that they were painting a fragmented picture and they didn't.