Thursday, July 25, 2024


Anna McGahan
Allen&Unwin, $32.99

Immaculate is a captivating and unusual novel.

It is also a nuanced examination of how faith grasped hungrily but imposed narrowly can segue into a slipperier sense of becoming, a wild tributary pulsing with possibility and sorrow.

We first meet Frances when she is newly divorced from her pastor husband, rejected by the Christian community she once worked in, and grappling with the prognosis of her terminally ill child.

She is also in the midst of a crisis of faith.

“The day Lucas and I separated,” she says, “was the day I decided not to read the Bible anymore, and decided to write my own.”

Thus, we receive The Gospel According to Frances, which tells her side of the story – and it’s a rollercoaster of events and self-analysis. We’re also offered The Book of Mary; the narrative of a 16-year-old pregnant girl Frances is forced to shelter and who claims she is bearing the Son of God conceived through immaculate conception.

Interspersed with these two perspectives are other “texts” that prove pivotal. They include emails, Uber receipts, text messages, police transcripts and Bible passages. Through these fragments we encounter the malice of Frances’ ex-husband Lucas, the beliefs and practises of the church community, the heartbreaking advance of her daughter Neve’s disease, Frances’s homoerotic daydreams and encounters, and the trouble she gets into over the murder of a young woman.

We also learn along the way that while, initially, Frances couldn’t wait to see God perform the miracle of healing on her two-year old daughter, she had since had to “grow up” in her faith and learn “how to hold someone in their suffering, without denying its existence.

“I saw the pain in her, pain that no performative prayer could cure but which the loving arms of a mother could actually soothe,” she says. “I felt repulsed by the idea of dishonouring her suffering by assuming God would remove it.”

It is during the murder investigation, and through Frances’s interactions with Mary, that we gain a clearer picture of how radically Frances’s sense of reality has shifted. Some pretty surreal events take place that I ended up attributing the derangement and to the desperation of grief and which I was relieved to see ultimately augmented the narrative.

The characters in Immaculate are also refreshingly diverse and cleverly-crafted, and include a sex worker caring for her partner with early onset Alzheimer’s, a policeman whose grief has galvanised his vocation, a sympathetic dog called Dog (God backwards?), a young, homeless man caught up in a drug network, and a grandmother whose anxiety over her dying grandchild is distressingly palpable.

Anna McGahan’s deft storytelling and mastery over her material makes her a worthy winner of The Australian/Vogel’s Award for young writers for 2023, and I hope this means we will soon see more of her work on our bookshelves.

Her uncle, Andrew McGahan, was also a Vogel’s Award winner and celebrated Australian author, who died far too young at age 52 in 2019. While Anna may have drawn on his literary wisdom, she has also plumbed the well of her own life and creativity to create a memorable novel that mingles theatrical play with great gravitas.

A novel this deep is rarely written without a corresponding measure of personal loss, intense soul searching and a thirst to find freedom. As Immaculate gains a wider audience, I look forward to hearing more of how the catharsis of writing this unique book allowed Anna reflect on her own experiences of changing faith, sexuality, grief and single motherhood.


The Australian / Vogel’s Award for Young Writers that has launched the careers of over a hundred Australian authors, including Anna’s uncle, beloved Australian novelist Andrew McGahan. The award is one of Australia’s richest and most prestigious awards for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of 35.







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