Iris by Miles Franklin short-listee and multiform artist, Fiona Kelly McGregor, trails the journey of eponymous protagonist, Iris Mary Webber (née Shingles). Iris is a frank and gutsy country girl from Glen Innes, who arrives in Sydney in spring 1932 to a city in the throes of the Great Depression. Her incredible conviction, street-smarts, loyalty, and stubbornness are revealed as she navigates an itinerant life in a web of razor gangs, female brothel owners, and male protectors.
The novel begins with Iris leaving her husband and Hay Women’s Prison for the winding back streets of Sydney city. Two women brothel owners run the criminal underworld: Tilly Devine of Darlinghurst and Kate Leigh of Surry Hills, as it was illegal at the time for men to run brothels. Iris’s journey begins with sex work under the auspices of Tilly Devine. However, as she finds her feet and escapes an affair, she moves on to shoplifting and bar work, eventually busking as a musician and doing drug runs for Kate Leigh on the other side of town. Along the way, Iris develops a deep attraction and fondness for a young sex worker and friend, Maisie. As their romance flourishes, their same-sex relationship endangers Iris’s status as a feared member of criminal authority on the streets.
The novel’s power emerges in the fidelity of the historical reconstruction and vivid portrait McGregor paints of Iris’s compelling character. This, paired with the careful rendering of Iris’s vernacular through the narration, creates a striking voice that steers the narrative. I was impressed with the way this rollicking historical drama moves effortlessly between the smoggy reconstruction of Iris’s life in the city and chapters showing Iris being held and interrogated at Long Bay Reformatory for Women, awaiting trial. I found myself swept up in the grittiness of McGregor’s story world and deeply immersed in Iris’s fight for survival.