By Micheline LeeFictionBlack Inc.

The Healing Party

Estranged from her family, Natasha is making a life for herself in Darwin when her sister calls with bad news. Their mother is ill, and has only a few months to live. Confused and conflicted, Natasha returns to the home she fled many years before. But her father, an evangelical Christian, has not changed – he is still the domineering yet magnetic man she ran from, and her sisters and mother are still in his thrall.

One night her father makes an astonishing announcement: he has received a message from God that his wife is to be healed, and they must hold a party to celebrate. As Natasha and her sisters prepare for the big event – and the miracle – she struggles to reconcile her family’s faith with her sense that they are pretending. Is she a traitor or the only one who can see the truth? And what use is truth anyway, in the face of death?

Taut, funny and poignant, The Healing Party is an electrifying debut novel about faith and lies, the spirit and the flesh.

Portrait of Micheline Lee

Micheline Lee

Born in Malaysia, Micheline Lee migrated to Melbourne when she was eight. After completing a law degree she lived in Darwin for 15 years. Her first job was as a criminal prosecutor and her next job was as a painter, holding exhibitions in Australia and overseas. Micheline now lives in Melbourne with her partner and son, and continues to alternate between art and the law. The Healing Party is her first novel.

Judges’ report

With her debut novel, The Healing Party, Micheline Lee breathes new life into the dysfunctional family narrative. Emotionally honest, often funny and remarkably original, Lee’s novel paints a compelling portrait of a family grappling with their faith in the face of grief and conflict.

The Healing Party follows the Chans, originally from Hong Kong, who have migrated to Melbourne and become evangelical Christians. Natasha’s mother Irene is dying from cancer. Natasha’s father, Paul, a magnetic leader in their charismatic community, believes he has received a message from God promising that Irene will be healed. He plans to hold a ‘healing party’ so that their community can witness the miracle.

Lee is an exceptionally talented writer; her dialogue jumps off the page. This considered novel is full of empathy, and provides deep insight into the enormously complex issue of faith and conflicting beliefs within a loving family. An impressive, unique Australian debut.

Extract

It was a routine we knew well. Without talking, we dodged around each other, taking out ingredients from the fridge and choosing our implements from the cupboards. I gave a final stir to the basin of sticky pink pork mince mixed with chopped herbs and placed it in the centre of the round kitchen table. Scooping up a handful of flour, I swiped the section of table in front of me, then set out the small squares of wonton pastry in close rows. With 30 squares laid out, I proceeded to spoon a lump of pork mince into the centre of each one. When I looked up, Patsy had only started to flour her section of the table and Maria was still looking for implements.

I was determined to say something before Anita came back from helping Mum. ‘Father Lachlan seems to have cold feet about the miracle,’ I began.

‘No, he doesn’t,’ Patsy said.

‘He said that it depends on God’s will – whether Mum will be healed. He was basically saying it might not happen!’

‘No, he didn’t say that,’ Patsy shot back. ‘You don’t understand. Yes, it depends on God’s will and God has shown it is His will that Mum be healed. The Lord has promised it through the prophecy.’ She paused and said more softly, ‘He put it on my heart too.’

Maria opened the fridge door and stood in front of it, frowning. She was building up to say something, I could tell.

‘Are you just going to stand there with the fridge open, Maria?’ I said.

She closed the fridge and took a space at the table beside me.

‘Do you believe in miracles, Natasha?’

‘Do you?’ I said.

‘Yes, I do,’ said Maria.

‘As Dad says, miracles happen only to those who believe,’ Patsy said.

I didn’t like her righteous tone. ‘So you think that Mum will be completely healed of cancer,’ I said, ‘that she will leap out of that wheelchair and live into old age, just because we believe it?’

‘Yes, I do,’ Patsy said. She stuck her chin out but I saw her bottom lip tremble.

I tried to make my voice gentler. ‘In all those years we were going to prayer meetings together, I never saw a miracle. I mean a real miracle.’

‘Well, if you’re looking for proof, you’re taking the wrong approach. You either believe, or you don’t.’ Patsy’s voice took on a stridency. ‘It’s a gift. You could pray for the gift.’

‘Right,’ I said, ‘so you’re saying that’s all there is to it – you’re blessed and I’m not.’

‘You don’t have to put it that way —’ Patsy started to say.

‘Nat, I can tell you about real miracles,’ Maria interrupted. ‘They happen all the time. What about Janice Samuels, who converted Dad? Didn’t you read her book about being healed of cancer?’

‘She’s dead now, isn’t she? What did she die of?’ I said.

‘Not cancer!’ Maria said. ‘I witness miracles all the time. Just last week my housemates and I prayed over Bronwyn to be healed of cysts on her ovaries. The cysts disappeared! Dad prayed over Mei to become pregnant. She has a baby now! That meditation you do with Mum – you pray for healing.’

‘I’m doing it for Mum,’ I said, but as soon as I said it I realised it wasn’t true. Each day, the meditation was what I looked forward to. My hands were busy all the time we talked. I dipped my index finger into the milky water and cornflour mixture and wet the sides of the tender pastry. It was like touching skin. With both hands I picked up the wonton package, folded the pastry over the meat and formed the wings in a simultaneous tuck and twist of thumb and fingers on each side. I placed the wonton on the tray.

Without pause, I started on the next one.

Maria looked at me with her concerned counsellor face. She wasn’t even pretending to work on the wontons. ‘We all have doubts sometimes,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t matter. Just by wanting to believe, you will believe. Sometimes you need to just say it and your heart will follow. Even if you don’t feel it now, if you declare with your tongue, the rest will follow. That’s what I do.’

Maria took a step closer to me. ‘You had faith, Nat. Remember when we were kids, when I made the picture of Jesus light up? You fell asleep during prayers in the family room. We woke you up and said, “Look, the face of Jesus is glowing! It’s a miracle!” You believed it. I can’t forget how your mouth and eyes opened so wide,’ she said.

 ‘You got down on your knees, poor thing,’ said Patsy.

Maria put a hand on my shoulder. ‘I’ve always felt bad about tricking you with that light. Have you forgiven me?’ she said.

‘Don’t be silly, Maria, that didn’t mean a thing,’ I said.

The phone rang. We heard Anita pick it up and call out to Dad in his studio that it was Geoff. She came into the kitchen and started counting the wontons.

‘Not Geoff again,’ I said. ‘They just saw each other and he’s already ringing. Dad and Geoff meet for breakfast, then keep on talking on the phone every day. Mum doesn’t like it.’

‘He’s funny,’ said Patsy.

‘Funny strange, or funny ha ha?’ I asked.

‘Maybe both,’ said Patsy.

‘He’s creepy,’ I said.

‘Don’t just come here and start criticising people,’ said Anita.

‘Well, what do you think of him?’ I said.

‘It’s not about what we think of him. He is having a good effect on Mum and Dad. You should have seen how miserable Dad was before. Now they have hope,’ Anita said.

I had nearly filled my tray with wontons, 15 per row, 12 across. Patsy’s was one-quarter full and Maria had barely started.

His phone call over, Dad came into the kitchen. ‘Wonderful girls. Praise the Lord. Your mother will be proud of you, keeping up the Chan hospitality. We will not only feed their souls at the healing party, we will fill their stomachs!’ He picked up a wonton from Patsy’s tray. ‘Look at these beautiful shapes. Classic Cantonese-style, with folds and crevasses like the craggy mountains of Huangshan! Which of you artistic girls crafted these?’

 ‘I did,’ Patsy said, and meekly cast her eyes downwards. Her shoulders, however, pulled back in pride.

‘I should have known,’ Dad said.

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