Suzie Miller is a multi-award-winning playwright, whose one-woman play Prima Facie – after earning plaudits for Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company – was staged in the West End, starring Jodie Comer, and won a Best New Play Olivier Award. Prima Facie ran on Broadway this year and Miller is adapting it into a film, but it has also found its way into the form of this novel.
If the story seems eminently adaptable, it is partly because it is so resiliently familiar. The protagonist of Prima Facie, Tessa Ensler, is a young working-class woman who is raped while drunk and who subsequently attempts to pursue justice against seemingly insurmountable odds. While she might call to mind Jodie Foster’s character in The Accused (1988), Tessa has more in common with Michelle Dockery’s character in the Netflix series Anatomy of a Scandal (2022), as she has worked her way into a position of power. After winning a scholarship to Cambridge, she has established a successful career as a criminal defence barrister.
When we first meet Tessa she is exercising her power in the courtroom, which is depicted as a performative but also highly competitive environment. The aim is to win and the courtroom and its players are described in sporting terms. The barristers are “thoroughbreds”, and when it comes to the witness she is interrogating, Tessa waits for a “break in his serve”. Finally, she revels in the “moment where I have won the game and he is forced to look at me, and to realise that he had completely underestimated who he was dealing with”. After she is raped, however, she needs the system to be more than a game: she needs it to be about actual justice.
The first-person, present-tense narration is effective at establishing intimacy and Tessa is rendered even more sympathetic by her working-class background and the other adversities she has overcome, including a childhood history of family violence. She is certainly more likeable – though also more vulnerable – than most of her entitled Oxbridge-educated colleagues. The writing is sharp and authoritative, with the narrative providing a kind of legal procedural, showing us what Tessa must endure in seeking justice and why the conviction rate for sexual assault – at least in Britain, where the book is set – is 1.3 per cent. Notably, the novel is dedicated to the one in three women who are said to have suffered sexual abuse.
Australian readers will have a hard time reading this story without thinking about the allegations made by Brittany Higgins and joining Suzie Miller in advocating for long-overdue change.
Picador, 352pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "Prima Facie".
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