Stella Prize 2023 Longlist Reading – Iris by Fiona Kelly McGregor

In the first few years of the Stella Prize, I put my head down in March and ripped through the entire longlist. But over the last year or two, my enthusiasm has waned, and this year I’ve been distracted by Reading Ireland Month and books on the Women’s Prize longlist, so my Stella reading has been patchy.

I selected Iris by Fiona Kelly McGregor after reading Lisa’s glowing review.

It tells the story of Iris Webber, a real-life petty criminal reputed to be ‘…the most violent woman in Sydney’ during the 1930s. Iris was twice married and twice charged with murder. She arrived in Sydney from Glen Innes in October, 1932, and was spotted looking lost at the train station by a brothel madam, who asked, “Here on holidays?” Iris replied, “I’m here to live.” And ‘live’ she did – she made money initially as a prostitute, but moved on to busking, thieving, and helping sell sly-grog. She spent many a night in gaol, eventually secured her own place in Surrey Hills, and mixed with people similar to herself – those scraping by. She found people she could trust, and knew who to steer clear of.

McGregor has done an impressive job of recreating the criminal underworld of Depression-era Sydney. There are moments when you feel a ripple of fear, as Iris is being pursed, or knicking something just metres from a shop assistant. But there are also moments of great tenderness, when people show kindness toward each other (even when down to their last penny) or take the rap for another person’s misdeeds.

Where the book shines is in the descriptions of the relationships between Iris and other women. I’m loathe to say too much for fear of spoilers, but the tentativeness and importance of these relationships is beautifully done, and not short on love, betrayal, humour and heartbreak. It is through these relationships, and Iris’s inner thoughts, that McGregor reveals Iris’s vulnerabilities. Of course the crime provides contrast and there is plenty of violence and sex, and no detail is spared (the difference between the sex scenes in brothels and those where Iris is a willing participant is notable).

Personally, I find stories written in the vernacular are either spectacular successes or dismal fails. Thankfully this is a success – the language is immersive and fun to read, and more generally McGregor’s descriptions of Sydney are striking but not overdone. For example, as Iris arrives in Sydney she notes the ‘sawtooth skyline’ and the arches of Central Station ‘…like a cathedral, light streaming in through its high vaulted roof…’. How do readers not familiar with the Australian vernacular find words such as ‘bronza’, ‘bluey’ and ‘bullo’? I imagine they’re hitting the internet for a translation!

I did feel that the novel lost its way toward the end, when Iris’s scrapes and challenges became a little repetitive – hardly McGregor’s fault, if that’s the way Iris’s life was. Nevertheless, it was in these last sections where I noticed a bit of historic detail that wasn’t as seamlessly incorporated into the narrative as it was for the vast bulk of the book. But overall, an interesting read and one that fans of historical fiction will enjoy.


3 responses

  1. I read this one earlier in the month but haven’t yet reviewed it. TBH, I struggled with the size of it… and, as you say, the latter bit is too repetitive. Fans of Tanya Bretherton’s true crime books will enjoy it … similar era and about women who committed or were caught up in crimes.

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