A myriad of voices

August 14, 1996

The Cross
By Mandy Sayer
Angus and Robertson Pyable, 1995
296 pp., $14.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Tony Smith

Don't be deterred by cover notes which hail a "thriller, love story, tale of the city". The Cross is none of these. Rather than hybridise banal genres, Mandy Sayer creates a work that is slick and confronting.

The plot is simple. It interrogates a famous Sydney mystery: the fate of an heiress-publisher and resident of Victoria Street who is entangled in the politics of slum clearance and commercial exploitation in Kings Cross in the '70s.

Sayer did her research and wisely opted to avoid speculative answers to the mystery.

Only the reader knows something like the whole truth about central character, Gina Delgado — how she photographed her Ecuadorian abductors and how her husband died in her arms. Sayer maintains Delgado's elusive, larger-than-life status by letting various characters give their recollections. Sayer also maintains her neutrality and does not discredit other witnesses by favouring the heiress's account. The resulting balance of voices is readable and entertaining.

Sayer sheds no new light on unsolved crimes, but she poses interesting questions about the reliability of an author's narrative when 10 or a dozen characters tell different stories. Some will see this as a cop-out. Others will congratulate Sayer for avoiding the ghoulish game of recreating the death of an unfortunate victim of organised crime.

But even readers frustrated by the lack of an authoritative voice will enjoy the freedom this technique gives diverse characters. Each seems free to speak openly, assured that no central objective truth will spring from the body of evidence to contradict them. Only the most naive could imagine that a landed ship's cook, a toy-boy high-diver, a night club owner and his minions, men undergoing traumatic sex-changes and an Aboriginal girl could perceive events the way an heiress does.

Sayer tackles this urban myth with confidence and maturity. Her prose is economical and adaptable. To present successfully the voices of a couple of these narrators would be admirable. To make then all live is superb.