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Posted on 16 Apr 2024 in Fiction |

MIRANDA DARLING Thunderhead. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Miranda Darling deploys all the voices in her protagonist’s head to reveal a fraught relationship in this allusive novella.

Winona Dalloway, like Mrs Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s novel of that name, often finds herself ‘lilting between observing life from the outside and the desire to be fully present in it’. There are echoes of Virginia Woolf’s novel throughout Thunderhead, but Winona, unlike Woolf’s heroine, questions and resists the urge to conform. She is helped by the voices in her head, which are like the voices we all hear but do not acknowledge – voices of reason, desire, knowledge and self justification. For Winona, they are the voice of hard facts (represented in bold type); the voice of wants, desires, emotions (italics); and the voice of knowledge (bold italics). For example:

Perhaps you, Winona, are single-handedly spearheading the re-wilding of suburbia.

I see myself as a zebra, walking down New South Head Road during rush-hour, parting traffic, hardy and independent.


The idea pleases me very much.

You embody every deviant characteristic on that list – do you realise …?

The thought is not as pleasing as being the zebra.

Please focus on the work you need to do.

Since we are party to Winona’s thoughts, she decides that it might help if she describes what she ‘looks like from the outside’, which she does in detail, but ends:

Oh, but I forgot to tell you the funniest bit of all! You will laugh. I am Wife#3.

She is married to a man she refers to throughout as ‘He’, ‘Him’ or (once) ‘The Husband’. He is known to be ‘charming’, and Winona sees Him described in a glossy weekly magazine as ‘a Local Figure of Note in the Community’, with a photograph showing ‘everybody looking very pleased with Him’. She is regarded as a ‘very lucky’ woman, but she knows that He and she ‘no longer have a shared vision … share the same reality’. For Him, ‘it is more important to exist in a reality everyone can see’. As He sees it, she ‘made things up for a living’, which was ‘unsafe’ – ‘problematic and ill-defined and, as such, best shrugged off or, even better, ignored entirely’.

Winona tries hard to learn ‘How to Be’ in His world. Before her marriage she had loved adventure, travelled the world, and held down an important job ‘analysing emerging threats and challenges’. Once she became pregnant, she left her job and ‘chose to write romantic fiction’, because she ‘thought the genre would make Him feel safe’, but also so that she could imagine revisiting the exotic places she once knew. She is successful but ‘not enough to be a threat’. The voice of hard facts, typically, tells her: ‘You make the life of your characters seem desirable so you can accept your own’ and ‘This kind of thinking will destroy you. Please focus on the task in hand. Where is your list?’

Winona’s lists are:

useful evidence that I had participated, that I had been present, that I had done what was expected, that I had noticed the world around me.

They include shopping lists, ‘BOUNDARIES THAT SHOULD NOT BE CROSSED BY WINONA DALLOWAY’, ‘COLOURATIONS …’ (which was a list which ‘formed itself’ while Winona was being questioned by a psychologist He had booked an appointment with for her), abstract things like ‘CAUSES OF SILENCE …’ and, especially, lists that work ‘backwards’, so that Winona can cross off things she has already done and add another bead to her ‘nascent necklace of success … “Click.”’.

Winona is not mad. She is imaginative, capable, adores her two little boys (‘the boys. My hearts’), and has developed strategies to help her negotiate situations in which she feels alien:

I do not share the Goals of the Collective Project of Life around me. My passivity masks my rebellion nicely. The refusal to want what others want is an act of resistance in itself, just as is walking the street with no destination (la flâneuse), just as is stopping to notice the cat on the wall, watching us; or drifting away from the conversation at dinners I cannot refuse to attend, smiling silently through another description of the work ethic of the newest nanny.

My resistance lies in disappearance, in my non-participation, in my silent no: I will not play my part in the collective delusion.

He, in the guise of protecting and supporting her, has built an ‘exoskeleton’ around her. ‘You are too sensitive,’ He tells her. ‘Too emotional’ – taking my hand – ‘you need to manage yourself. You will make yourself sick.’ … ‘Everyone else just thinks you’re crazy, but I don’t. You just can’t cope with real life.’ And ‘You need help.’ He has scheduled all her daily appointments and commitments in a shared diary He created on her phone, and constantly reminds her of them and gives her orders by text message. Winona suspects that He goes through her things – her purse, her drawers – and checks her phone messages.

He sometimes falls into rages in which the children, too, suffer, and Winona once told Him ‘He could not come home unless He dealt with His rage.’ He did consult ‘a guru’, who, apparently, told Him that ‘His rage was an expression of His masculinity.’

On another occasion, Winona told him to leave. ‘How did that go?’ asked the voice of hard facts:

The voice was snide, but I chose to answer the question as if it were not.

He ignored me. I said it three times. I couldn’t say it again – I would sound mad. He already thinks I am mad. It’s like He couldn’t hear me. Like I was aurally invisible. Like His ears couldn’t find my voice …

He just kept sorting through His shirts, choosing His socks to match. It’s like I had vanished in my own presence. I was totally invisible.

Winona is aware that she had been different before she met Him: ‘I went to lectures and talks and exhibitions, I had goals and worked with passion, writing articles and giving talks.’ She was ‘the arrow and not the bow’. Now, she has ‘lost all confidence in how to navigate The World’. She resists, but she is becoming ‘exhausted by the effort to constantly insert myself into my own life’.

The voices she has come to rely on encourage her. ‘To do the incredible, you must believe in the impossible’ her self-defending voice tells her; and ‘You cannot allow yourself to doubt your moral universe, Win,’ says the voice of hard truths. When this voice tells her ‘You have woken to your power to disrupt. What will you do with it?’, she vows to ‘leave the script that has been written’ for her. And ‘make Unauthorised Changes to the narrative’.

Thunderhead follows Winona through a single day, from the moment she gets up, through her tasks, her imaginative storytelling dilemmas, her ‘dance of courtesy’ with other people, her fears and her joys, to the moment an approaching storm scares the boys and she leaves His guests, to whom she is serving the perfect dinner she has prepared, and goes to comfort them. Then, ‘the storm is inside the house’ and ‘the bearded thunderhead flashing with lightning, spewing crashes of thunder’ explodes. ‘Expletives pelt us like hail’, and terrifying mayhem follows.

Winona is a compelling character, full of life and humour, and Miranda Darling draws you into her world so thoroughly that Thunderhead becomes a powerful and gripping experience of the insidious and subtle effects of coercive control. Only when I had finished the book did I wonder about Wife#1, who quietly made an escape to Bali to teach ‘muscular yoga’, and Wife#2 who ended up, ‘sweet’ but ‘vacant’, in an ‘assisted living home’. Had they, like Winona, challenged the script that He was writing for them, or had Wife#2 been destroyed by it?

Miranda Darling Thunderhead Scribe Publications 2024 HB 160pp $29.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

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