Stay With Me by Maureen McCarthy

“‘My daddy sometimes hurts Mamma,’ she tells Harry, apropos of nothing.”

Maureen McCarthy’s Stay With Me is a haunting portrayal of the horrors of love spirally into violence and heart-wrenching terror. Tess is on the run from an abusive partner with her three year old daughter Nellie, terrified, confused and not thinking with the sharpness she used to.

“I want to go back into my own head, to the racing tunnels of thought whirling and dodging each other like cars at an intersection with faulty traffic lights. I have to keep my wits about me. Words are the last thing I need.”

Tess meets Harry and Jules at the library in town and they offer her a ride south. After four years of Jay’s abuse, he went too far and Tess jumps at the chance. When Harry shows up without Jules, Tess is unsure whether to trust him, but she has no choice, Jay is the more imminent threat.

As Harry, Tess and Nellie drive south Tess’s fear entwines with her memories of how she came to fall in love with an abusive man and stay with him for so long. Repeatedly, she wonders why she didn’t leave at that moment, or that moment. She always justified his behaviour, as he whittled away her self esteem to the point where she felt she deserved every beating or verbal assault.

“I found out the hard way that it’s just about always better to keep your mouth shut.”

Jay slowly isolated Tess from her friends and family, even took her phone when she thought she had lost it. On a farm in the hills outside Byron Bay, she had no one to turn to, until the chance meeting with Harry and Jules.

“The brilliant mornings here, first light on the leaves and wet grass, birds chirping away in the trees – my love for it all sings alongside the low strident buzz of dread eating at my insides, slow and constant as a hungry rat gnawing through a wall.”

Harry seems the perfect savior and I questioned his motives from the point he arrived without Jules. Why was he being so nice? Were he and Jules grooming Tess to join their cult? My paranoia was as bad as Tess’s. She questions Harry’s kindness and thinks she sees Jay at every truck stop and town on the way. There are some sensational moments in their escape, but Maureen McCarthy didn’t need to add to the horrors of domestic violence. Tess’s paranoia is mostly just that, her descriptions of Jay’s violence over the years are dreadful enough.

Harry is blind in one eye, has little movement in one hand and a prosthetic leg, from a motorbike accident in the past. I often forgot his disability as I read, until Nellie asks a three year old question about taking off his other leg or Harry says he can’t drive all night because he only has one eye. I felt this was well done, a person’s disability doesn’t define them, but making Harry the kind stranger who accepts every angry outburst Tess yells at him, didn’t sit quite right with me. He lost a promising career in music after the accident and tells Tess about the depression he experienced as a result, but the lengths he goes to for Tess seem forced. Tess is angry and terrified, but Harry remains calm and willing to do anything for her, a magically empathic person, just because he’s experienced hardship in his life.

That’s my only quibble with Stay With Me. The portrayal of the downward spiral of domestic violence and the horrendous difficulty of escape are painted in appalling detail. Tess’s age makes the situation so much worse. When reading the blurb I wondered why a story about a 21 year old with a three year old daughter was YA, but she was 17 when she met Jay and still finding her adult self half way through Stay With Me when she introduces her daughter to the sisters she hasn’t seen for four years.

The cover design by Astred Hicks is remarkable. The photo, shot by Luisa Brimble, was printed out, torn, glass smashed over it and re-photographed. This clever process makes it look three dimensional and evokes the horror of the violence Tess experiences. The title font is hand lettered and the spine title is the same, just with slightly different stroke weights to make it fit in the smaller space. The chapter and page numbers use a similar hand lettering/ numbering that makes the internal design stand out.

Interspersed among Tess’s narrative are medical reports of Tess’s great grandmother from the 1920s. These are in a typewritten font and the Coroner’s Inquest reports are printed unevenly as if the typewriter ribbon needs to be replaced.

These reports are part of the mystery of Tess’s life which the reader discovers bit by bit, as Tess does. Tess was named after her great grandmother and the similarities between their lives are tragic, but Tess has one advantage her great grandmother never had – the love and support of friends and family, when she thought she had nothing left after the years of Jay’s abuse.