The Healing Party
The plot of Micheline Lee’s debut novel, The Healing Party, is straightforward and summed up by the title. Natasha Chan is 25 and living in Darwin, away from her parents and three sisters, when her mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Natasha quits her job and farewells her boyfriend to move back to Melbourne to help care for her. Her family are charismatic Christians and, after her father experiences a prophecy, they are so convinced Irene Chan will be cured by their prayers and faith that they plan an enormous healing party and invite friends, acquaintances and strangers to bear witness to the miracle they are sure is coming. Irene will stand up from her wheelchair and walk, they believe. They expect it, as do their scores of guests.
The Chan family moved to Melbourne from Hong Kong when Natasha was 10, and consequently there is a formality and lack of colloquialism to Lee’s prose. Natasha, as narrator, is unsophisticated and not lyrical. There are no poetic metaphors or subtle, subtextual dialogue. Stylistically, the novel is social realism bordering on the naive; if picked up and read without context, it could pass as memoir.
Lee, however, is an established artist, and art that appears simple on the outside is rarely that. The heart of this story revolves around the family’s faith and, like a devotional painting, the unadorned style reinforces Natasha’s childlike naivety. She’s the most rebellious of the sisters but is herself unclear what she has difficulty accepting: is it Jesus, her father, or perhaps the blindness of the faith that the rest of the family share?
For Natasha, it’s like being colourblind while the rest of her family and their friends see the world in vivid rainbows. Their mother, Irene, is a contained, controlled woman who finds it hard to show affection or talk about her past or her feelings, but like Natasha’s sisters – terse Anita, proselytising Maria and anorexic Patsy – she’s a committed believer. Their father, Paul, is an artist of “… pictures of bare-breasted women, bucking buffaloes and faces of Jesus dripping red”, the old-fashioned head of their family and charming leader in their faith, but he’s a more complicated character than either his wife or daughters can acknowledge. “One night,” Natasha remembers, from their childhood, “he woke us at 2am to tell us he had seen the face of Jesus.” He’s also very fond of his wife’s pretty young female carers, and his daughters’ girlfriends, but the family don’t talk about that.
When they do talk, it’s mostly about practical matters, and their plain everyday language contrasts with their spiritual language of speaking in tongues. This contrast is an elegant way to show the absolute belief the family shares, which is strong enough for these sounds to mean something sacred and profound. Natasha thinks:
I would speak in tongues only in private, not wanting them to know I still spoke this way. But now I opened my mouth and let the words flow. Unay unay astinor, umbala meshala...
They thought I had rejected the gifts of the spirit, but it wasn’t true.
Must faith be blind, in order to have value? In the eyes of her family and everyone they know, the life of her mother rests on Natasha’s shoulders. After his hints make no impact, her father insists she has breakfast with him and Geoff, his close friend and member of his ministry team, and over apple pie at McDonald’s, Geoff tells her he’s had direct communication about her mother’s cancer: “Jesus said to me, Tell the Chan family that if so much as one of the Chan family doubts, it will hold your mother back and ruin everything. ” Her father agrees, and Natasha is upset to be singled out. “Are you doing this with my sisters too, Dad? Will they get a breakfast invitation?” Natasha asks.
They don’t. She’s the weak link and everyone knows it.
“How do you know that they’re not right and that it’s we who are missing the point? How do you know miracles don’t happen?” Natasha says on the phone to her boyfriend, and this is the key question she must resolve. When the party finally arrives, Natasha realises how much of her own identity, and the relationship with her family, is resting on her mother’s miracle. “How vile I was, putting down my family in front of others,” she thinks, when she tells her friends about them, and this sense of self-loathing is evident throughout the novel. Natasha has a problem with forgiveness, including towards herself.
“God is truth. Satan is a liar. All the worst evil is caused by lies,” Natasha’s father tells her. Yet she finds the line between faith and self-deception is paper thin. The Chans’ charismatic congregation shows the family incredible support during Irene’s illness, volunteering at prayer vigils and helping with the party. This makes it even harder for Natasha to work out where she stands. She thinks: “It had always seemed to me that they didn’t really see who you were or who they themselves were; that they only did things because they thought God told them to, or to resist the devil. But now I felt gratitude, warmth and the bond of shared effort.” Rejecting these kind, giving people seems unnecessary and self-defeating, when her mother needs so much care. Yet, at a large faith rally the family attends, the leader of the Victorian chapter:
...told us that the visiting American preachers had asked why they didn’t see more Mercedes, BMWs or Volvos among us Aussie believers. “ ‘Don’t insult Jesus,’ they said. ‘He don’t want no second-class followers!’ Let us show the world that we are winners for Christ!” Lou exhorted.
For nonbelievers, The Healing Party is part reality television and part an anthropological study of a strange foreign culture. Yet I found myself praying also, as I read this deceptively simple, disciplined work: please don’t let it be overlooked and underestimated. There is much skill here, lying just beneath the surface. LS
Black Inc, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Micheline Lee, The Healing Party". Subscribe here.