Cahill, Michelle. Daisy and Woolf. Hachette Australia, 2022. RRP: $32.99, 296 pp, ISBN: 9780733645211.
Michelle Cahill’s debut novel, Daisy and Woolf, is a narrative driven by longing. It poses the question: ‘does writing ever satisfy the desire running through our bones?’ (81). In the case of Daisy and Woolf, the yearning is for that which is lost; people, memories, and voices.
The novel opens with Mina, a Sydney-born writer living in London. It is 2017 and Mina’s mother has recently passed away, leaving her daughter adrift and in mourning. In the midst of her grief, Mina’s need to better understand the shadows cast by her mother’s death interweaves with her fascination with Daisy Simmons. Daisy—a character who appears briefly in Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway—and Mina’s mother become irrevocably bound together in Mina’s imagination. The desire to write about their shared experiences as Anglo-Indian women gifts Mina with a reason to live.
Daisy and Woolf is a narrative shaped by multiperspectivity; it is rhythmically polyphonic. The novel is told through Mina’s narration, with fragments of the manuscript Mina is writing about Daisy braided through the story. Taking the form of imagined letters, scenes, and journal entries, Mina attempts to resuscitate Daisy, ‘the woman whom Virginia Woolf had scarcely sketched as naïve, vulnerable and wanton, giving it away too easily, pretty and young’ (12). She is a hazy figure caught in our peripheral vision, described by Woolf in Mrs Dalloway as dressed ‘all in white, with a fox terrier on her knee; very charming, very dark’ (145). Daisy is an impressionistic blur, viewed primarily through the constrictive lens of the male gaze. Cahill seeks to change this, and gives Daisy ‘a voice and a body’ (12). In so doing, Cahill writes into a postcolonial tradition which seeks to challenge the status quo of the overwhelmingly-white Western literary canon.
The idea of bringing to life a marginal—or rather, marginalised—character of colour is not a new one: it was perhaps most memorably finessed by Jean Rhys in her 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Yet unlike Rhys, Cahill moves into a metafictional space: she writes about the process of writing, and thinks about how the written word holds power. Through the character of Mina, Cahill exposes the ways in which racism is woven into the fabric of the Western literary canon, ‘peeling away layers of colonial privilege’ (290). She examines how the stories and voices of people of colour—especially those inhabiting liminal spaces between cultures—have been dismissed. Mina makes adroit links between racism and gender oppression, drawing lines between misogyny and racial infantilism through writing towards decolonisation.
Through the process of deconstructing systemic racism and colonial trauma in her prose, the character of Mina also explores what it means to write about and reflect upon these themes. She observes ‘how it irritates; the blankness, the emptiness that immigration cause[s]’ (51), and ponders:
Maybe memory has no function when life is perfect; when life is warm, secure and charmed […] I have often wondered if the past can speak its own story in the same way the wind’s presence shapes the dunes, sculpting acacia and saltbush, making the leaves whisper and howl. (52)
Memory and its unreliability are at the centre of Cahill’s novel. Writers, particularly, will enjoy the ways in which Cahill unravels the agonies and ecstasies of the craft, as the ethics and responsibilities which come from writing about the past—and the present—are the engine which motors Daisy and Woolf.
A previous knowledge of Mrs Dalloway may help readers to understand some of the paths Cahill walks in Daisy and Woolf. However, there is also something to be gained through reading a metatext without having a close relationship to the original—a freshness, or originality, of perspective. Those reading Cahill’s novel with, and without, the prerequisite of Woolf will experience different narratives.
Daisy and Woolf is a strong debut. It is a novel which seeks to explore what it means to reclaim narrative power. While writing cannot ultimately fulfil ‘the desire running through our bones’ (81), Cahill is persuasive in her argument that the written word can go some way in satiating the elusive longing for that which is beyond our grasp.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. Alma Classics, 2016.
Ellie Fisher is a poet and writer. Her creative work has appeared in Westerly Magazine, Gems zine, and Pulch Mag, amongst others. Ellie is studying Honours in English at The University of Western Australia, researching a creative writing dissertation on gender, bodies and prose poetics. She lives in Kinjarling, on unceded Menang land.