Every so often, I read a novel which makes me think and question my own assumptions about identity. This is one of those novels.
‘You see, the great thing about cities is, the more people you have in them, the more you’re left alone. Or the more you find yourself alone in them at least.’
In 1938, a woman is hit by a car on Oxford Street in Sydney. She’s taken to Sydney Hospital where, comatose but aware, injected with morphine, memories come flooding back to her. These memories are disjointed, and it is difficult to know what might be real. The woman, eventually identified as Jean Ford, has £100 in her pocket. She also has memories of being found guilty of murder and sent to Long Bay:
‘What was it – almost twenty years ago now? – I was sent to die under a different name. I travelled to Long Bay Penitentiary like a celebrity, on a tram with tinted windows, …’
From this beginning, Pip Smith writes a novel about the different and varied lives of Eugenia Falleni. Part of the story is told by Jean Ford in the first person, other parts are presented chronologically, interspersed with what may (or may not) be accurate reportage from the time. The first part of the novel presents a life of the young Eugenia, a life which makes some of her later choices understandable. If a girl had little power in the late nineteenth century, then a man surely had more. Eugenia Falleni spent over twenty years living as a man named Harry Crawford. And as a man, Crawford married two women and (possibly) murdered one of them.
‘She was just a half-wild creature who felt herself apart and different, who had grown cunning and furtive, hiding her secret and satisfying her needs.’
So many questions. So few definitive answers. Much of Eugenia Falleni/Harry Crawford/Jean Ford’s life remains a mystery. Ms Smith’s novel provides possibilities to consider: just how fixed is identity, how mutable might it be? And how very difficult it was (and still is for many) to live outside accepted, defined and prescribed gender roles. The many different characters who appear in the novel each provide a different perspective, another aspect of Eugenia Falleni/ Harry Crawford’s life to consider.
I found this novel unsettling. I’ve previously read Mark Tedeschi’s true crime account ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’, but this is the first novel I’ve read based on Eugenia Falleni’s life. I was intrigued to read that it was seeing a police mugshot of ‘Harry Leon Crawford’ who, after being arrested for the murder of his wife, was discovered to be Eugenia Falleni, a woman who had been passing as a man since 1899 which provided Ms Smith with the starting point for her novel. I’ve seen the same mugshot, and wondered about the lives, about the experiences, behind the eyes. In this accomplished debut novel, Ms Smith provides some possibilities to consider.