But then, what I have done is not so unusual, I tell myself. For centuries unwanted children have been killed, exposed on hillsides, sacrificed to gods and bricked into the foundations of bridges, forts, and castles to guarantee the strength of the edifices. Children have been beaten, made to work in mines, bent over looms, and bowed under with hard labour. What I have done is simply build on an ancient traditional where children had no rights and adults determined whether they would be allowed to live or die. – Narrator, Still Waters
The question at the heart of Camilla Noli’s debut novel, Still Waters, is this: Is every woman suited to motherhood? Noli’s book is a sharp, distressing look at the answer. Her unnamed narrator in Still Waters is a mother of two, living what some would consider the storybook life. She is attractive and well-educated; her husband is successful and caring; and her kids are, for the most part, bundles of joy. We soon discover, however, that such a lifestyle is not every woman’s idea of bliss.
Noli’s narrator resists her new role as wife and mother. For her, those titles are definitions reserved for women without ambition, content to change nappies and attend kinder meetings. Her new life lacks the adventure, verve, and spontaneity of her old life—her life pre-children. Noli describes in wrenching detail the decision her narrator eventually makes to return to her supposed former glory.
Revealing the book’s narrator as a killer is not to reveal a great plot twist. In knowing what will eventually come to pass, we are able to recognize more fully Noli’s purpose and achievement. Tension more than builds, it bludgeons, because we know what’s coming. Skilful and energetic though Noli’s writing is, Still Waters is not an easy book to read. The events described are upsetting to say the least. But this is exactly the point. Noli’s intent is to unsettle, to disturb. She dares us to take these events in, and forces us to react. We may want to dismiss Noli’s work as another overwrought thriller, but we can’t ignore the headlines made by Susan Smith, Andrea Yates, Diane Downs, and, just recently, Morgan Hite.
In the Susan Smith trial, prosecuting attorney Keith Geise labeled Smith, who drowned her infant sons in 1994, a “selfish and manipulative killer who sacrificed her children”. Noli’s narrator could be similarly summed up. But Noli reveals, too, that not all is just so black and white. Like Smith, Noli’s narrator is a complex woman with a history that goes some way to revealing the source of her violent behavior. Still Waters is very much a page-turner. But it’s one that attempts to explore a serious, ugly subject with more care and depth than your average potboiler. Its answers are not always satisfactory, but the fact that a first time writer not only dares ask the questions, but does so this well, gives it great merit.
PopMatters spoke to Camilla Noli about the book, the controversy, motherhood, and the writer’s dream realized.
The subject matter has sparked debate, and become a major selling point—did you consider the impact of the subject matter during the writing process? Did you expect such a response?
While I always believed that the character and the situation at the centre of Still Waters should be written about and explored, I never regarded the subject matter as necessarily a positive selling point—in fact the very opposite.
As my children were very young at the time that I wrote the book, I worried about potential back-lash against me as a mother. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised to find that people have no trouble separating the fact of me as a mother from the fiction of Still Waters.
Also, in the beginning, the subject matter was a concern for some publishers. Even now we find it easier to believe that a father is capable is killing his kids than we do that a mother is. There are many instances of this where a mother has killed a number of her children before anyone became suspicious (both in Australia and overseas). It is a difficult issue to explore because when parents do lose their children in tragic circumstances they require every support. However, the deliberate killing of children does occur. I believe, very strongly, that these issues are things that people should be talking about and that fiction is a fabulous medium to raise them. I think Still Waters is a good starting point for this.
Have you had any negative feedback due to the topic?
Not really. It has been disturbing for some readers I think, but most people tell me that—despite feeling unsettled – they cannot put the book down and that ultimately it is a fantastic read. I also think that, as time goes on, people will unpack some of the more subtle aspects of the book. Because, of course, the book deals with so many more topics than just the most obvious one of ‘unsuitable mothers’. For example: are there sufficient support networks for mothers and families, how has the breakdown of the extended family made things more or less difficult, what support do fathers need and get (many men identify with Daniel’s [the husband in the book] dilemma), mental health issues, etc.
A major theme in the book centers on women without a natural maternal instinct. To what degree do you think the narrator’s actions are based on that or simply poor upbringing? Do you think her issues with her own children perhaps sparked a pre-existing psychological condition?
There is no simple answer to this question. I think it was a combination, and certainly one of the tragedies of life is that, at times, nature and nurture combine with heartbreaking outcomes. But we need to also look at the role of others in relation to her. For example if the hospital had been a little more vigilant after the birth of [first child] Cassie, if Daniel had been around a little more, if she had a close friend or neighbour that she could talk to about her feelings, if the police had respected her grief a little less and probed a little harder. All these things would have changed outcomes.
There are also many secondary issues which Still Waters raises of course, which people have barely even begun to focus on yet. One of those is the role of fathers. Some people have blamed Daniel for his lack of support of the narrator or have asked why he didn’t do more to stop her. But of course like many ‘good fathers’ and ‘good husbands’ he was doing what he thought was best—working hard, earning money, and providing for his family. And even when he was suspicious of the narrator at the end, what could he have done? Who would have believed the word of a father against that of a mother? Maybe we need to also be having a debate on the role, rights and responsibilities of fathers as well.
Was there a reason you didn’t dwell on the narrator’s past? To what extent, do you think, does her past make us sympathetic towards her? Was that your intent, or was it more about explaining her actions?
We do feel some sympathy for the narrator at times, but in terms of her past explaining her actions ... well we need to remember that we have only the narrator’s word for everything that occurs in the book. This is her story and while she is self-obsessed, she is not locked into unending retrospective analysis of why she is the victim in this situation. Also, I feel that too often books provide an easy out for bad characters—something that allows readers to relate to them and say “if only ...”. There are no easy reasons here.
The flashbacks to and comments about the narrator’s childhood indicated this was a damaged woman more than a damaged mother. Do you see her that way?
Yes she is a damaged woman and would be a dangerous person to cross in any setting—not just in a domestic one. However, I think we need to be careful in attributing that damage as being necessarily caused by her upbringing. We need to remember that she is a skilful actor and liar. It is clear that she doesn’t like her mother and blames her for many things—but the story shows some cracks in that story. The narrator’s cousin thinks highly of her mother, Daniel trusts the mother enough to ask her to come and babysit when he is untrusting of others, and I would hope the reader may question some details of the narrator’s story about her father’s death ... Yes, the narrator is a damaged woman, but whether it was because of her childhood is a debatable point.
What was it like to live with this narrator during the writing of the book? Can you describe what it was like to write those scenes of child abuse?
She is not a character whom I plan to revisit! I let her inhabit my head for only as long as I had to; she was, and is, a powerful voice and her character dictated the writing of Still Waters very strongly. The more disturbing scenes were written very quickly without me dwelling on them. They have changed very little from the very first time they were ever written, as if every word had its exact place.
Did you do much research into infanticide and child abuse? Is the narrator’s situation uncommon?
I have always been appalled by the idea that people can hurt children. I have never understood how it is possible. A recent report from the Institute of Health and Welfare, shows very clearly that incidents of child abuse are on the rise—unfortunately this is a statistic which cannot be ignored and should be talked about. And these are the statistics which we know about—perhaps elements of the narrator’s situation are more common than we realize.
I really thought the narrator was going to heave Daniel off a cliff towards the end of the book—they were so tense, those hiking scenes. Did you always know how you were going to end the story?
Not entirely, but I knew that she was a character who would never allow herself to be circumscribed. I didn’t want a Hollywood-like ending where she got her just desserts, because this is not what life is like.
I really wanted Daniel to go to the police—why does he let her off like that, or does he? What was Daniel hoping at the end, do you think?
This is such a complicated question and I’ll have to give you the short answer. I think that Daniel was trying desperately to hold onto what he had and, of course, it was always only ever going to be his word against hers and who are the police more likely to believe in such a situation ...? Men, fathers, don’t always have a lot of power in these type of situations.
I read that the narrator came to you in a dream. Can you describe how you “met” her, and what made you want to tell her story? Do you know, exactly, how you came to dream about her?
Writing for me is all about evoking a particular response—an emotional feeling of some kind—in the reader. Because it is not unusual for both characters and situations to present themselves to me in dreams I try to use the ‘feeling’ of these dreams to make my writing real and evocative.
The narrator of Still Waters entered my head one night and she certainly evoked a very strong reaction in me! I think that I was particularly fascinated by her at that time in my life as my children were still very young and I couldn’t help but wonder how someone like her would be if she were responsible for caring for young children. With those two impulses—the character and the situation—the premise of Still Waters was born.
Can I ask how/where you think the narrator is?
She is free, in her own mind at least—wherever she is physically—and for her that is perhaps all that really counts. And at the end I think that she has become almost symbolic, representing the embodiment of archetypal evil, a little bit of which we all carry within us.
How does it feel seeing your book on the shelves? What do you think of the art?
It is wonderful of course, but a bit nerve-wracking—my little book in such big shops. But I love the cover design—which sums-up the feel of the book so well—and think that, with such an evocative cover, Still Waters really stands out.
The book is to be published in the UK—do you feel as though a dream is coming true?
It is very exciting. And yes, it is a dream come true. I have written all my life, but for a time work and family took precedence. I began writing Still Waters almost seven years ago, so it has taken time to get it to this point—even dreams require hard work! But now I love being able to balance writing time with family life and am looking forward to hearing about a US deal, perhaps sometime soon ...
And, finally, what’s up next?
Well, I have a second book scheduled to come out next year, hopefully around April as well. I love looking behind the façade of seemingly happy lives and I think that fascination will be around for awhile!