Book review: Thunderhead, Miranda Darling

Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, this novella explores coercive control. 
Thunderhead. On the left is a book cover of clouds in a dark blue sky, with large pearls dotted across the cover, and the title running down the sides. On the right is a black and white headshot of a young white woman with long straight hair and a fringe.

Thunderhead is Miranda Darling’s fifth book after publishing a memoir (2006), two spy thrillers (2010 and 2011) and an adult non-fiction book (2023). She also had one of her short stories included in an anthology edited by Larissa Behrendt (2011). This breadth of experience sets her up to capably experiment with a form explicitly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

Thunderhead follows the internal conversation and physical activities of Winona Dalloway, the carer for the household and children, as she spends the day getting ready to host a dinner party. Unlike Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness technique, Darling uses a variety of ways to indicate different internal voices, along with modern technology, to bring the form into a contemporary context. 

The story opens as Winona wakes for the day, an hour before the “Small Ones”. She has a routine to keep herself calm, including making lists like, “LIST OF QUALITIES FOR FAILED DOMESTICATION”. The use of bold and italic fonts, selected capitalisations when she names ideas or people, along with the lists, helps the reader understand which of the character’s own voices they’re hearing. The story settles properly into its rhythm around page 14 – in that, it doesn’t jump around between the different voice techniques, thereby giving the reader some time to feel anchored in Winona’s world.

The “Husband” then makes a forceful entry into Winona’s reverie with text messages, “DON’T FORGET TO RING ME AFTER YOUR APPOINTMENT” and alerts from the shared Google calendar “He” set-up, “{{2pm. Plumber, Dave}}”. Together these interruptions ensure that while the “Husband” (never named) may not be physically next to Winona as she goes through the day, she feels under constant surveillance and her internal dialogue indicates that she’s well aware she’ll be punished if she doesn’t do the “right thing” or meet “His” expectations. 

As the story unfolds, Winona reveals her world travels that gave way to working as a professional analyst of “terror networks and infectious diseases” before becoming “Wife #3”. On the surface, there seems little to connect these jumps in Winona’s life story, but Darling’s short bio on the inside back flip case share her experience in such areas, which shows that even established writers continue to draw on their own experiences to make compelling stories.

The choice of the shorter length novella means there’s little space for error in managing the pacing and coherence of this story. This is broadly achieved; however, towards the later part of the book, the rhythm gets occasionally interrupted by sections that could’ve been placed elsewhere in the story to avoid disrupting the breakneck pace of foreboding that has otherwise gathered. 

Read: Book review: Loving My Lying, Dying, Cheating Husband, Kerstin Pilz

At its core, Thunderhead is about how accomplished (if your community cohort counts well-travelled and well-educated as a measure of success) and independently-minded women can slowly ‘spiral into silence’, as Winona puts it, when they’re in a coercive relationship. It shows yet again that these relationships can happen to anyone, making Thunderhead a timely addition to a national discourse that’s (momentarily) focused on domestic violence.

Thunderhead, Miranda Darling
Publisher: Scribe Publications
ISBN: 9781761380396
Pages: 160pp
RRP: $29.99
Publication Date: 3 April 2024

Catherine C. Turner (she/they) is based in Djilang/Geelong and is an emerging writer, amateur musician, hobby photographer and lifelong arts consumer. She has an honours degree in creative writing from the University of Canberra and an MFA (Cultural Leadership) from NIDA, during which she wrote an original Australian feminist fairy tale.