Why reading and writing is the road to happiness...

This blog started years ago as a place to muse on the life projects keeping me entertained. It is no surprise then that it has morphed into a blog about my reading as that has been my lifelong project. Here I review lots of different types of books, with an added focus on Australian women writers. Hope you enjoy - feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Book Review: 'Have You Seen Simone?' by Virginia Peters (No 7: True Crime)

Virginia Peters’ 2014 book ‘Have You Seen Simone?’ would be classified by booksellers as true crime but to say it is strictly in that genre would be incorrect. Unlike the majority of true crime writers, Peters does not have a journalist or police background: she is a mother and a fiction writer who, by her own admission, was led to investigate this 2005 Ballina crime after being haunted by the photo of German backpacker Simone Strobel pinned to the wall in her local café. The missing person poster caught her eye one morning over coffee:
Have You Seen Simone?‘Whoever had made this poster had kept it simple. A parent would have been more pleading, I thought. I wondered whose number it was – a friend’s? A lover’s? I went back to my coffee and paper, scanning the pages for news, only to find my eyes returning to the counter. There was something interesting about this girl, the vulnerability of her stance, the way her arms hung loosely at her sides’.
And so started Peters’ six or so year obsession with finding out how Simone Strobel had come to her death in a Ballina caravan park, possibly by asphyxiation but even that has never been clear from the autopsy examination. Like my previously reviewed ‘Murder In Mississipi’ by John Safran, this crime has never been resolved, emphasized repeatedly by Peters’ in the text, as recent litigation by Simone’s boyfriend Tobias Suckfuell (and suspect in the case) declaring defamation has hampered the release of the book. Much like Safran’s text, Peters’ is dogged in wanting to ‘solve’ the crime, as much as a writer can, and in fact, Peters’ is given much more free reign with witnesses and police files than Safran received from the US in his particular case.
The subtitle of this text, ‘The Story of an Unsolved Murder’ is telling given the use of the word ‘story’: this is very much a narrative of the author’s journey following the case rather than a strict retelling of a court case or police investigation.  We learn little about Simone, even very little from the conversations transcribed from Simone’s family after Peters’ takes the extraordinary move to travel many times to Germany to interview all the key players. Whether she was unable to get a handle on the true Simone, or whether it was not the main focus Peters’ wanted to take, it is not until the end of the book that Peters includes Simone’s last letter to her parents. It is poignant reading given that we are left hanging without any resolution to what happened to this lovely young woman.
Essentially, Peters’ journey is about finding her place as a writer, finding her place as a working woman after being at home for several years with three children, and it is also about being a daughter to her aging mother. The most heart-felt parts of the book are Peters’ interactions with her mother, who was the catalyst for attending the Strobel / Suckfuell inquiry in Lismore: Peters’ mother had always enjoyed attending court hearings in Sydney, taking her daughter when she was a teenager. Her mother acted as a sounding board during this investigation and like two amateur sleuths they nutted out over pots of tea possible motivations, wondered over inconsistent stories. At the inquiry, a court attendant asked after their interest in the case: ‘My interest? The word ssemed to connote some form of ownership or share, not the sort of interest that had nothing to do with anything. ‘I’m a student,’ I said. Then, noticing my mother had sidled up, I added, ‘And, um, this is my mother’. He gave a diplomatic nod, as if ‘mother and daughter’ explained everything.’
After also telling a reporter there that she was writing about the case, Peters felt committed and this book became her PhD creative writing project.
I felt the best writing in ‘Have You Seen Simone’ was Peters writing about the mother of the Strobel , Suckfuell and her own mother, who fell ill during the writing of the book:
‘I looked across and saw our two figures in the bathroom mirror, stooped awkwardly over her enormous tumour, our heads resting in the hollow of each other’s neck, an apex teetering on collapse. Up until then we’d been treating dying as a new and slightly macabre adventure on which we were both embarking. But now we were at the point of no return’.
Peters also reflects on her transition from writing short pieces drawn from her domestic world, to this larger scale human drama, and she shows insight into the interrelationship between fiction and non-fiction:
‘But real life didn’t work like fiction; after weeks working on a story based on my own experiences, I knew that better than anyone. Real life did have a predictability about it, an ordinariness that was totally unsuited to the twists of fiction. Consequently, the story I was writing – about a woman who was lost, in a metaphorical sense – was going nowhere, and it seemed trivial in comparison to this real situation unfolding in Lismore, where a girl was truly lost, and probably through no fault of her own.’
She is also unrelentingly honest about the more questionable aspects of her life during the writing of this book and I found her admission of petty resentments when dealing with an interpreter, naivety when dealing with Channel 7 producers who were also chasing Suckfuell, and her tension with her family as this case takes over her time, refreshing. The families of the Germans quite rightly questioned why Peters was so interested in the case: of Simone’s sister in law, ‘She was suspicious of me – she had every right to be, I realised, because even I was suspicious of me. Why the hell had I come here? I muttered something about the worthiness of my project, but with little conviction’. Certainly, Peters’ objectivity as an ‘investigator’ and writer were compromised during the years but she is frank in that regard:
‘No wonder that, as I sat down to write, I was feeling a little worried about objectivity, and concerned about how I could write my way out of this story. It didn’t help that my PhD supervisor had written me an email suggesting, as Cass Brennan had, that I might be writing my book through a veil of guilt, even though he’d not yet read anything I’d written’.
This is a hard book to pin down because I wouldn’t say it had enough substance in it to please diehard fans of the true crime genre but it was an intriguing book nonetheless and an interesting insight into a writer’s craft. As for Simone Strobel herself: it is clear that the incidents of extreme violence against women are reaching alarming levels in this country and she is yet another senseless tragedy in our recent history.

*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014


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