For Annette Young, writing novels is a way of seeking to answer some of life’s most perplexing questions.
The unassuming mother of four from Maitland, who converted to the Catholic faith as an 18 year-old, is about to publish her second novel.
Her first novel, published in 2012, was an experiment begun during her doctoral thesis on Charlotte Brontë to test certain literary theories.
She wrote her second novel as an attempt to resolve the conflict between the concepts of justice and mercy, a conflict she had been grappling with in her own life. How should a person respond when a grave injustice is committed against him or her? When does the search for justice become vengeance? To what extend should justice be tempered with mercy?
“Justice relates as much to the person, to the perpetrator, as well as to the victim. The victim can spend themselves in the pursuit of justice and heap much injustice upon themselves in the process,” Annette said.
Such is the complexity of the theme that it’s going to take her not one but three books to resolve. By Violence Unavenged, set to be launched in Sydney this June, is the first instalment of a trilogy—In the Hearts of Kings.
Set partially in Sydney’s inner west and partially in Vienna, By Violence Unavenged transports the reader back to the inter-war period of the 1920s and 30s, when people were coming to terms with the damage incurred by the First World War, while at the same time Europe was hurtling rapidly towards the Second World War.
Her first novel, A Distant Prospect, was likewise set in the suburbs of western Sydney.
“I happened to be living in Strathfield when I wrote A Distant Prospect and I love inner-western Sydney and all the old houses and terraced homes.”
The narrative of By Violence Unavenged however, plays out on a more global stage.
From the pretty streets of Stanmore, where beautiful and vulnerable heroine Phoebe Raye becomes the victim of abuse and an unresolved crime, the reader is soon whisked to the other side of the world, to the romance and majesty of 1930s Vienna with all its political complexity.
Annette and husband Francis visited Vienna during their honeymoon in 2002, and the city made an indelible impression on her, in particular the Schönbrunn Palace.
“That city really affected me in a way that no other city has affected me… the Schönbrunn Palace was really quite special. What really struck me was the similarity between it and Assisi, in the Franciscan spirituality, the poverty and the beauty.”
As the home of Mozart, Vienna is also the city of music, another significant element throughout both Annette’s novels. Already a pianist, she learnt the cello in order to write A Distant Prospect, and the violin for By Violence Unavenged. This allowed her to understand the musical passions of both her heroines—cellist, Lucy Straughan, and violinist, Phoebe Raye.
This inevitably leads to the question, how much of herself has the author put into her fictional heroines? What is the overlap between author and heroine?
“A lot and nothing,” she laughs. “One can’t help but split oneself into all sorts of fragments when one writes characters but the heroine is not the author, the author is not the heroine… The author sits somewhere between all the characters and that’s what being an author is about.”
“The whole thing is getting into another’s shoes and seeing the world from a different point of view.”
The novel follows Phoebe as she is driven by her burning desire to see a criminal brought to justice. This leads her into numerous intrigues and romances involving a myriad of characters who act like guides, helping her as she tries to figure out whether she should relentlessly pursue justice or move on with her life.
“There’s a whole lot of factors in play … The nature of justice, the nature of forgiveness, the nature of mercy. What is true mercy, what is false mercy? Is mercy simply giving in? Is mercy empathy? What does it involve? … Each character is representing different aspects of this whole spectrum.”
The title – By Violence Unavenged – is a reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy, which also deals with justice, mercy and forgiveness.
Set during the era largely shaped by Hitler and the Nazis, the book also explores the nature of evil.
“How is it that people can do terrible things with such aplomb and go on living? … The essence of evil always wears a mask.”
“Think also of Nazi Germany—how did it become so accessible to so many people?
… It was considered good. Well then, how do we represent it in such a way that people fall for it? How do we portray the villain in such a way that they are attractive or interesting?”
Raised loosely as an Anglican, with a non-practising mother and an agnostic father, she eventually discovered the Catholic faith as a young woman.
“I converted when I was 18 in my quest to find the meaning of life, the universe and everything.”
Her Catholic faith has had a “huge” influence on her writing.
“It’s both the foundation of what I write and why I write as well as an apostolate.”
With the first instalment of her trilogy having taken six years to write, the busy mother of four teenage boys hopes the second will be complete in another three years.
She said her quest to make sense of the conflict between justice and mercy through her writing has led her down many unexpected twists and turns.
“You start off writing a book thinking you know everything. This is the theme, and you start nutting it out and you go deeper and deeper into it, and you come out a complete ignoramus.”
“You go in expecting to write certain things but then you come out having written quite different things. That’s part of the joy of it.”
To pre-order a copy of By Violence Unavenged: annetteyoung.net/books