There are books that are good for you like all-bran or brussel sprouts, and there are books that are the mental equivalent of junk food – tasty, devoured in a flash, but vaguely unsatisfying (hello, Dan Brown).
In Manhattan Dreaming, Anita Heiss tries to have a foot in both camps by creating chick-lit with a message. Serious points about Aboriginal rights are disguised inside a frothy story about finding love in New York.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if the disguise was actually convincing. I wanted to overlook the constant moralising, because I liked this book a lot. But every few pages Heiss would pour a metaphorical bucket of cold water on the story by having her characters make a serious point about indigenous rights and racial equality in general. Perhaps people do have these earnest conversations in real life (although I have my doubts) but frankly I can do without being lectured when reading fiction.
So apart from the morality issue, what was my view on the book? I read it on a plane, and found it to be perfect plane reading. The characters were well-developed, and I didn’t end up wanting to shake the main character while yelling “get over it!” (always a good sign). The story was engaging, predictable to a point but not simplistic. I think Heiss has real potential as a writer.
But oh, those morals. I like the idea of an aboriginal woman in New York – the setup would have worked fine on its own to gently get the point across. But Heiss feels the need to add paragraphs like this:
“We have the same discussions back home,” I told him. “What constitutes “Aboriginal Art” and who is an “Aboriginal Artist”? It’s complex and takes the focus away from the art itself, which is problematic.”
Or, have you ever heard anyone, whatever their race, say “I hate being the exotic ‘other’?” As a line of dialogue it comes straight from a thesis and it shows.
I don’t believe that Heiss should leave the Aboriginal perspective out of her books, and I’ll admit that I learned some things about Aboriginal culture while reading Manhattan Dreaming. However, I do think that she needs to avoid lecturing readers. If her goal is putting forward Aboriginal and Indigenous perspectives, in the long run subtlety is likely to be more effective.
The verdict? I’m happy for my chick-lit to come with a message, but I don’t like to be hit over the head with it. Heiss may be a Adjunct Associate Professor but she should save the lectures for the classroom.