Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2015

Opening Lines: Anchor Point, by Alice Robinson

AnchorPoint_Cover hi res (2)Kath stayed in the studio through dinner.  Laura forked up meat and potatoes for the rest of them, a bag of frozen peas pressed to her eye.  When Kath eventually slunk in, tiptoeing, red-eyed, smelling of smoke, Laura thought how loud a person sounds when they are trying to be quiet.  She shared a glance with her father across the couch.

‘Mutti?’ little Vik called from the bedroom where she was meant to be asleep.

Laura grit her teeth against the yearning in her sister’s voice, a pinch deep in her chest. But she was beyond expecting Kath to respond. She could hear her mother filling up the kettle, opening the fridge and riffling through.  Vik started to cry.  She was only just five.

Anchor Point, by Alice Robinson, Affirm Press, 2015, p3

It’s an arresting beginning, eh?  And it gets better.  Anchor Point is an example of ‘cli-fi’, fiction which addresses the issue of climate change.

More later, when I’ve finished reading.

You can get a copy from Fishpond: Anchor Point or direct from Affirm Press.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2015

A Short History of Richard Kline, by Amanda Lohrey

A short History of Richard KlineAmanda Lohrey is a distinguished writer who hasn’t had as much attention as she deserves, which is perhaps one of the reasons she was awarded the Patrick White award in 2012.  (The award, set up by White using the proceeds of his Nobel Prize, is a cash award for a writer who has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition. )  I have previously reviewed her short story collection Reading Madame Bovary and her stunning novella Vertigo but a new novel has been a long time coming … her last one was The Philosopher’s Doll in 2004, longlisted in the Miles Franklin in 2005.

A Short History of Richard Kline is an ambitious exploration of discontent.  Written from the male perspective (alternating between first and third person), the novel traces Kline’s ‘history’ from adolescence through to middle age, focussing on his perennial angst.  In childhood his family is baffled by his moods, and he himself is at a loss to explain why he fails to enjoy the good times or to take joy in the moment as others do. 

Despite these moods, Richard is an outwardly successful person.  He has no difficulty finding work as an IT professional and he does some rewarding international travel until it suits him to come back to Australia.  He progresses from a succession of girlfriends to a nice wife called Zoe; and he loves his son, Luke.  They have a social life with friends and colleagues, and while their home life has some ups-and-downs, their relationship seems steady enough.  Like any other everyman, he also experiences some tragedy (as when his brother dies), but he has sufficient resilience to cope with it.

Reading this, one may well be thinking, well, what’s his problem?  It’s basically that he can’t understand why he gets bored in situations where other people are clearly exhilarated, and he is bothered by his inability to find meaning in life. 

A self-confessed sceptic, he is indifferent to the religion he was brought up in (Catholicism), and so he seeks answers in conventional medicine, trying treatment for depression and using meditation to stave off irrational bursts of ill-temper.  But nothing really works.  He’s not depressed, he’s just not really happy.  (And he expects to be, he thinks everyone else is and that there’s something wrong with himself.  Even if the reader doesn’t accept his belief that ‘happiness’, is normal, almost an entitlement, this is the premise in the novel.)

Up to this point, I was enjoying the story, because Richard is an interesting character, but I wavered when he discovers a guru.  He, um… feels a presence… and he, um… experiences some kind of spiritual blessing when he touches foreheads with her.  Now if you believe that there is a spiritual dimension to life and that there are special people who have some kind of spiritual presence, you will keep reading with enthusiasm.  You will respect his euphoria and his attempts to retain this spiritual element in his life.  If like me you regard all this as some kind of mumbo-jumbo, you are going to have to look for other reasons to keep reading.

For me, the reason to keep reading was the fascination with Lohrey’s way of juxtaposing Richard’s compulsion to solve his problem through the intercession of the guru with his common sense scepticism.

When at least I cruised into the fluorescent cavern of my garage I felt in my pocket for the small photo I had carried away with me, bought from the bookstall at the side of the hall earlier in the evening.  This was one of the few discordant moments of the night: the many images of her face for sale as if she were some kind of pop star. It reminded me of the dismal church iconography of my childhood, of all I had come to abhor. For a time I had gazed at the various shapes and sizes before I purchased the smallest photograph I could find, smaller than a postage stamp and clumsily encased in Perspex, handmade but tacky in the Indian way.  Perhaps, I thought, I could sit it discreetly in the top drawer of my desk.  (p. 150)

Richard is, to some extent, embarrassed about this new spiritual element in his identity.  He reads arguments for and against it, arguing about it sometimes, and remaining discreet about it at other times.  Lohrey doesn’t really explore how the wife, Zoe feels about it, nor the son (a character whose response might have been especially interesting to develop). Richard goes through moments of disillusion, elation, loneliness and despair, and he’s handicapped in his quest to find someone to understand him by his rather judgemental ideas about his fellow-devotees.  I couldn’t help but feel rather sorry for him, and wasn’t really convinced that he’d found happiness at all.  I was also rather puzzled by the ending…

Although this kind of quasi-religious experience is not my thing, I think Lohrey has made an interesting novel of this theme, depicting the ambivalence that a cynical forty-something might feel when an epiphany changes his world view.    I suspect that open-minded and respectful book groups might really enjoy this book (and there are book club notes at Black Inc.)  

See also this review at Arts Hub.

Author: Amanda Lohrey
Title: A Short History of Richard Kline
Publisher: Black Inc., 2015
ISBN: 9781863957182
Review copy courtesy of Black Inc. 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 2, 2015

Art in History, by Martin Kemp

Art in HistoryArt in History is an interesting little book.  Handbag sized, it’s ideal for reading a chapter at a time, in waiting rooms, on the train or over coffee in a cafe.  It’s written for people like me who are interested in art, but don’t know enough about it.  And as the title suggests, it’s about the way art intersects with historical events and how we can enjoy art more if we know more about this.

I found the early chapters the most interesting, probably because I could relate more to the kind of art Kemp was discussing.  He begins with a chapter on Greek and Roman art, and how it came to serve both religious and secular purposes, how it became able to express human emotion and pain (as in, for example, the Laocoon in the Vatican), as well as great events such as the Battle of Alexander against Darius, which can be seen in the Pompeii mosaic.  He then goes on to consider the arrival of Christianity which created a kind of crisis in art because the Bible proscribed ‘graven images’, as the Islamic religion still does today.  Fortunately for the development of Western art, Pope Gregory the Great sanctioned the use of religious images because they could stimulate devotion, and they could tell the stories of the Bible for the illiterate.   This is a very interesting chapter which discusses the role of icons in the orthodox church, Gothic art, and the ways in which the Church managed to find ways of defending the sophisticated religious image-making which emerged over time.   

Then, of course, there is a chapter on the Renaissance, and the age of patronage, and the influence of Humanism on art which aimed to imitate nature.  In this chapter and the following one about the role of the academies and the bourgeois, Kemp discusses paintings which would be familiar to many readers so it is easy to follow his train of thought and to enjoy the discussion.

Latter chapters hint that Kemp is not terribly enthusiastic about some modern art.  He acknowledges that Impressionism brought a refreshing new way of making art.  He explains that there is deliberate technique in the ‘unfinished’ look of a painting like Manet’s Le Dejneuner sur l‘herbe because it’s part of it being ‘of the moment’; fresh and direct. (p. 138).  But when it comes to the assorted –isms of the 20th century, (cubism, fauvism, abstractionism etc.) the occasional snide remark betrays less admiration. He quotes at length from the journal of Dadaism, The Blind Man, to show how ‘silly’ it is, and the example he has chosen as an exemplar is Duchamps’ notorious ‘Fountain’ (1917), (which is a urinal).  He sums up Duchamp by saying that he was ‘urinating on the art world – but he is absolutely dependant on it for his impact.’ (p.170)  Further on, in discussing Rothko’s work says:

The chapel he undertook in Houston, dedicated in 1971 one year after the artist’s suicide, houses a series of large sombre canvases on the walls of an octagon – the shape inspired by the Byzantine church of St Maria Sunta on the Venetian island of Torcello.  Again we sense the dark void, whether nihilistic or transcendentally spiritual. Regular meditators in the chapel testify to the latter, but I felt only the former. (p179)

So although I’m the first to admit that I’m no expert on art of any kind, I didn’t find these chapters very convincing.  I don’t think this is because I am prejudiced against modern art, because I find some of it visually beautiful and/or thought-provoking, and even when it’s downright ugly, sometimes I find the ideas underlying such art to be interesting and worthwhile even if it’s confronting.  It may be that the format of this little book just doesn’t allow enough space to discuss the 20th century, which is IMO the most difficult period to understand because there are so many art movements and some of them are rather alienating. 

(Probably the most difficult type of art to discuss in a book is performance art.  Kemp uses as an example Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece from 1964 but is of course limited to a description of it with words, and of course it fails to make any impact on the reader at all.  If you watch it on You Tube, you get an entirely difficult and very disconcerting effect. )

Another limitation is the use of B&W reproductions of the art works.  Art in History is not  an expensive book (RRP $19.95 in Australia) so of course it doesn’t have expensive glossy paper with full colour, full page illustrations.  The images serve only a reminder of the art work, which is only ok if you know the paintings in question, or can find them on the web with the help of Google. 

Still, for an overview of the movements which shook up the art world in the 20th century and more bizarre postmodernist attempts to do the same, this little guidebook is very useful.  However, while I appreciate that the cartoons which ‘animate’ the book are intended to unify this publisher’s Ideas in Profile series, I found them lame: I don’t think they contribute anything to the book and indeed they just take up space that could have been better used.  

You can listen to an interview with the author at ABC Radio National.

Author: Martin Kemp
Title: Art in History, 600BC – 2000 AD
Series: Ideas in Profile
Publisher: Profile Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781781253366
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2015

The Drunken Buddha, by Ian Fairweather

The Drunken Buddha

I had only just started reading this lovely UQP reissue of Ian Fairweather’s The Drunken Buddha when I got the news that I’m needed up in Queensland again.  With a beautiful textured cloth hardback cover; calligraphy on the spine; lush sea-green endpapers; expensive paper; and full colour reproductions of Fairweather’s paintings; the book is much too gorgeous to risk battering it in a suitcase (or *shudder* have  my luggage go astray) – and it’s big and heavy – so I’m going to have to leave it behind.

But the Drunken Buddha exhibition at Tarrawarra Museum of Art, which was on my list of Delightful Ways to Spend My Retirement, ends on March 15th.  So I’m jumping the gun with my thoughts about the book in order to publicise the exhibition and to remind you to take some extra money to buy the book while you are there.  Because you will definitely want to have it, (and there are many tempting eateries in the Yarra Valley as well).

I have written about Ian Fairweather before.  I borrowed Murray Bail’s Ian Fairweather from the library a while back and enthused about it here but I didn’t absorb that Fairweather was a Sinophile and that he was sufficiently expert in the Chinese language to be able to translate this famous novel The Drunken Buddha.  This expertise  – most unusual for an Australian during Fairweather’s era – came about because he was a POW in Germany during WW1 and used his time to study Chinese calligraphy.   Some time after the war he enriched this expertise with six years in China and during his lifetime would translate Chinese books into English to amuse himself.  (Fairweather was a man of solitary habits).

The date and authorship of the original novel The Life of the Great Ch’an Master Tao-chi is unknown but Fairweather’s translation is based on a late 19th century edition – and therein lies a story in itself.  Apparently novels were regarded with some scorn in China – right up until the 21st century – and so anyone with any dignity made sure that they could not be identified as the author of a novel.  Editors and publishers were also cavalier with the text, adding and deleting bits at whim and sometimes even sticking in whole chapters from other books!

Still The Drunken Buddha was very popular, ever since it was penned in the 13th century or thereabouts, perhaps because it humanises the life of a Buddhist saint, Tao-chi who lived in the province of Chekiang.  We might expect Buddhist saints to be abstemious and well-behaved, but this one

continually scandalised his fellow monks by his drunkenness and apparent irreverence, and yet disconcerted them with unexpected saintliness.

I can see signs of a sense of mischief even in the early chapters about his childhood.  The book begins with a chapter about the monastery where the Drunken Buddha ends up, a monastery which is in decline because there isn’t a Lo-han to transmit the authentic traditions of Buddhism. (BTW There are helpful notes with the text to explain aspects of Buddhism to the uninitiated, like me).  Upon the death of the old Chang-lao (an elder, analogous to an abbot) there is a sort of vision foretelling the advent of a new priest, the son of Tsan-Chan.  But when with great dignity the boy is invited by a respectful emissary to join the monastery, he refuses, with some too-clever-by-half answers, and his embarrassed father has to apologise for him.

I really like the story-telling style with which Fairweather writes, and find myself charmed by the chapter endings which follow this pattern:

What happens after this?  Listen, and it will be told in the next chapter. (p.9)

Ch’ing Chang-lao began to explain.  To know what he said listen again and it will be told in the next chapter. (p17).

If you do not know how Tao-chi learned to sit on the prayer mat, listen again; in the next chapter it will be told. (p. 25)

There are poems too.  I like this one, when Tao-chi is complaining about the rigours of prayer:

Tao-chi said, ‘I can endure no more.  I must ask the venerable master to let me go.’

The Chang-lao said, ‘I have told you before that to leave home is easy but to return is difficult.  You have left and now you cannot return.  Prayer is the first duty of a priest.  Have you no zeal?’

Ta-chi said, ‘The venerable master says that prayer is merit, but does not say that it is pain.  This brother would speak of that if the master will listen.

‘First seated on the prayer stool
The heart is light, all worry gone.
Yet soon comes doubt.
Where is the merit now
Where the light heart,
In time the head sinks
And the eyelids droop,
The back bends camel-wise.
To hold erect all sinews ache.
By evening, cramps invade the limbs
The head rolls on its weary neck,
The bones are locked in woe.
Then comes sweet sleep,
And falling, the head is bruised again,
And then the janitor, with bamboo stick
Adds yet another bruise.
Master, the Buddha’s grace is wide,
Grant this unfortunate reprieve.’

The Chang-lao laughed and said, ‘How can you say that prayer is hard, that is wrong.  It is only that you do not know how to pray properly. Go and pray again until you can do it right.  I will tell the janitor not to beat you, since you have repented.’ (p.30)

Tao-chi goes on to complain about ‘the thought of food and wine’ and how ‘not having them the thought of them is always present’.  But he’s none too impressed by the bowl of noodles when it comes either, and he quickly composes another verse:

‘Little yellow bowl with stars of bran,
Half full of leeks rotten,
In after life the scriptures tell
You will be full of nothing’.  (p. 31)

The Chang-lao has his work cut out for him with this novice!

I liked this little couplet too.  I found it at random when scanning through the pages.

‘Former sins today bring sorrow,
And sins today bring grief tomorrow.’ (p.123)

Depending on how salacious the story turns out to be, if I were still teaching, I would be tempted to try reading some of it to older students in Years 5 & 6, in much the same way as I used to read them other ancient tales such as  The Odyssey; Beowulf; and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.   I always wanted to have an ancient tale from Asia to balance my story collection for the older students, but could never find one that was suitable.

UQP has made a sample chapter available online so that you can get a taste of the book and Fairweather’s illustration style, which would be interesting to discuss with students too.   I find his artwork captivating, his colour palette is so subdued and yet it’s not morose.  I really am very disappointed not to be able to visit the exhibition at Tarrawarra…

Check out Sasha Grishin’s review at the SMH – he’s a professor at the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences so he discusses Fairweather’s art with expertise.

The calligraphy on the spine is by DCS Lu, and the cover design is by Sandy Cull of gogoGingko.  In a really thoughtful touch, the ISBN barcode isn’t imprinted on the back cover to spoil it, it’s on a removable paper strip which includes a short blurb with a cartoon of the Buddha.

Author: unknown
Title: The Drunken Buddha a.k.a. The Life of the Great Ch’an Master Tao-chi 
Translated by Ian Fairweather (1891-1974)
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 50th Anniversary Edition
ISBN: 9780702253461

Review copy courtesy of UQP


Buy direct from UQP or from the Museum Shop at Tarrawarra.

The House in SmyrnaRandom 8
Thank you to entrants for the Book Giveaway for The House in Smyrna!  Congratulations, no 8 – that’s you, Debbie Robson, you are the winner!

This novel offers an exciting new voice in international fiction and it showcases the style that has made Tatiana Salem Levy one of Granta’s Best Young Brazilian Novelists.   You can read my review here.

Please remember that it is a condition of entry that you contact me with your postal address for delivery of the book within 10 days of the date of this post.  So Debbie, if you don’t get in touch, using the contact address right at the bottom of the RHS menu (where I hide it from spammers in all the yada-yada about copyright) then I will re-draw  to choose a new winner.

Commiserations to those who missed out this time.  If you’d still like to read the book (and I hope you do!) please follow the link below or visit Scribe Publishing where you can also buy it as an eBook.

The House in Smyrna

Many thanks to Scribe Publishing for supplying the complimentary copy.

Author: Tatiana Salem Levy
Title: The House in Smyrna
Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin
Publisher: Scribe, 2015, first published as A chave de casa in 2007
ISBN: 9781925106411


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 25, 2015

The Well-dressed Explorer, by Thea Astley

The Well Dressed ExplorerAs you will know if you have viewed the Opening Lines or my more recent Sensational Snippet, there is much to love about Thea Astley’s The Well-dressed Explorer which won the Miles Franklin Award in 1962 along with George Turner’s The Cupboard Under the Stairs.   Thea Astley has the distinction not only of being a four-time winner of the Miles Franklin but also the only two-time co-winner i.e. when the award was shared between two authors.  Astley won it twice in her own right, with The Slow Natives in 1965; and The Acolyte in 1972, see my review; and she was a co-winner for Drylands along with Kim Scott’s Benang (see my review) in 2000).  Astley (1925-2004) is one of Australia’s great writers, notable not only for the numerous literary awards she won, but also for a powerful body of work over a sustained literary career of more than 40 years.

Remarkably, she achieved this with a distinctive modernist style.  The extensive use of complex metaphor can be taxing sometimes, but is offset by her wit; her passion for exposing petty corruption, injustice and human stupidity; and her brilliant observations of people at their most banal.  All these are superbly in evidence in her third novel The Well-dressed Explorer, but if you don’t like to have your brain circuits stretched by imagery used in new and challenging ways; if you’re put off by lush poetic descriptions or if you just like a what-happened-next kind of a story, then Thea Astley may not be for you.  But for me, reading The Well-dressed Explorer makes me want to read her first two: I have A Descant for Gossips (1960) on the TBR but not her debut novel Girl with a Monkey (1958)Hopefully it will turn up in the OpShop one of these days... it is nice to have other titles to look forward to…

The Well-dressed Explorer of the title is George Brewster, a narcissistic journalist whose career takes him exploring jobs, colleagues and women.  Like an explorer, he goes seeking the new, leaving nothing much behind him except a trail that briefly shows where he’s been.  Sometimes there is damage left behind, but most of the time, things revert to what they were, as if he had never existed.   Lippman, a colleague who doesn’t like him, dismisses his piece about the 1934 Melbourne Centenary like this:

…George with his journalistic glands opened to full throttle executed a timely series of articles on crowd behaviour, crowd control, and famous crowds of history.

“Sweet coz!” Lippman said later as he marked down the week’s edition for tabulation purposes.  “You can weave ‘em, pal!”

“What do you mean?” George demanded, affronted.

Lippman smiled grimly.  “Those clichés.  Journalistic fair-isle.”  (p. 114)

But barbs like this have little effect.  His self-absorption is so complete that he simply can’t believe any criticism:

“I have always been able to get people to do what I want without raising my voice,” he used to say.  It was true, largely because as he grew older he was maturing as a bore. Quick-fleeing obedience had its attraction for the underling about to be transfixed by a story. (p. 130)

He’s incapable of understanding the feelings of those he hurts (mostly the women in his life) because when, for example, they cry, he twists the situation to complain that he is hurt by their accusations.  His long-suffering wife Alice ends up amused by his indiscretions, and there are some droll scenes where she gently chastises her indignant daughter who’s outraged by his conspicuous flirting.

It’s not a wholly unsympathetic portrait.  The well-dressed Explorer isn’t an anti-male diatribe against a faithless husband, it’s a commentary on the society that makes his wife Alice into a doormat; on toxic workplaces where women are at risk from the dominant male opportunists; and on a religion that dooms mismatched couples to stay together.  His parents are a bit odd: they shop around for a religion that suits their social prejudices but doesn’t make too many demands; needing a religion that offers absolution-on-demand, George opts for Roman Catholicism.  (There’s a very funny scene where Father O’Neil – with whom George has a professional relationship, writing articles for the parish –  encounters him in the confessional.)  While he’s a serial philanderer, George does love his wife and child, and while we readers might well think she’d be better off without him, he wouldn’t dream of breaking up his marriage, a marriage made on the rebound.  It isn’t just a case of having the cake and eating it too: George tends to fall for the wrong sort of woman, and is badly burned by his first love who is as faithless as he turns out to be.  Some of his women harbour long term revenge – he does get his comeuppance, but somehow the reader doesn’t feel like cheering.

It’s a shame that there are no records of the 1962 shortlist.  Now that I’ve read both co-winners, I suspect that there were probably a few other gems there because The Well-dressed Explorer and The Cupboard under the Stairs show that there were publishers prepared to take risks.  My next Miles Franklin winner isn’t going to be the 1963 winner  Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliot or the 1964 winner My Brother Jack by George Johnson because I’ve already read them both, years ago, and I want to read the ones I haven’t read first.  So my next Miles Franklin winner will be the 1965 winner The Slow Natives – yes, another by Astley, and also published by Angus & Robertson.  I’m looking forward to it!

Author: Thea Astley
Title: The Well-dressed Explorer
Publisher: Angus & Robertson, First Edition, 1962
ISBN: None
Source: My collection of First Edition Miles Franklin winners


Fishpond had a second-hand copy on the day I looked.   You could also try Brotherhood Books, they had half-a-dozen Astleys, but not this one.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 25, 2015

Skin, by Ilka Tampke

SkinHistorical fiction with fantasy elements is not my usual reading fare, but this debut novel from Ilka Tampke turned out to be enjoyable light reading.  It is set in Southwest Britain in AD43, just as the Roman legions are about to invade, and its heroine is a feisty girl called Ailia.

Ailia’s tribe, the people of Caer Cad, has a belief system based on ‘skin’.  At birth girls are given their skin and sung into being.   This entitles them to participate in ceremonies, and to learn the ancient knowledge of the tribal ancestors, the Mothers.

But Ailia is a foundling, abandoned on the doorstep of the Cookmother, and although she is mysteriously privileged in some ways, she does not know her ‘skin’ and so she is not permitted to learn, to marry or to participate in the rituals of her people.  Analogous to the restrictions on illegitimate children in times gone by, this lack of ‘skin’ is an implacable barrier to full participation in the life of the tribe.  This is a tribe in which women have power and authority, a tribe with a female leader called Fraid, but Ailia who is a natural leader herself, is denied it all.

With the impending Roman invasion, however, things are changing, and the handsome, sexy warrior Ruther sees opportunities where the others see only the destruction of their ancient ways.  He has travelled, and he knows the likely result of any resistance to the invaders.  Impressed by their imperial might and the magnificence of Rome, he sees tradition as a barrier to progress, and his forward-looking attitude makes him open to a relationship with Ailia despite her lack of ‘skin’.

Pulling her heart in the other direction is the enigmatic Taliesin, a man who emerges from the mysterious Old Forest where Ailia has been expressly forbidden to go.   Wilfully, she ventures into unsanctioned areas and is lured into another path that leads to enormous power – if only she had ‘skin’.    It was in this part of the novel that historical fiction sometimes gave way to fantasy and tested my engagement somewhat; I think it would have been a better novel without the magical elements but readers who enjoy fantasy will probably disagree.

The first in a series called ‘The Song of The Kendra’, Skin is about a woman who comes to power as the ancient ways collide with the modernising Romans. Will she be the Boadicea of her tribe, and lead a revolt against the Romans?  Presumably the rest of the series will reveal all…

Author: Ilka Tampke
Title: Skin (The Song of the Kendra #1)
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922182333
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


Fishpond: Skin
Or direct from Text Publishing


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 23, 2015

Sensational Snippets: The Well-dressed Explorer, by Thea Astley

The Well Dressed ExplorerI was reminded recently that it’s been a while since I made any progress with my long-term project to read all the Miles Franklin winners, but it was no hardship to take Thea Astley’s The Well-dressed Explorer down off the shelf.  I have already posted the Opening Lines of this novel (back in 2009, when this blog was near-new!) and I also reviewed George Turner’s The Cupboard Under the Stairs which was the co-winner of the Miles Franklin in the same year.   But neither prepared me for the delight of Astley’s wit in The Well-dressed Explorer, the first of the four Miles Franklin Award-winning books she was to write over a long career.   Here’s just a small sample:

George is a narcissistic cub reporter at a newspaper in small-town Queensland.  He has moved to this town because he’s infatuated with Nita.

George congratulated himself that Duckworth, the editor and part owner of the paper, a barrel-chested big-bellied bully of fifty, had taken a fancy to him.  For apart from the to or three dinners he had enjoyed at the editorial home – largely, he was sure, that more work might be squeezed out of him by the semblance of friendship – he spun in a flurry of loving, dingy café meals, diamanté gifts, cheap wine and all night parties that culminated in bursts of passion which at times both bored and nauseated him.  Yet his interminable desire for Nita, now a musky reality of flounces and cheap jewellery, found its continuance in the magic he projected from lost visions of shared summers.

The Duckworths lived in an impressively added-to house on the east side of the town above the river were fawning willows tottered up from the waterway to flatter the ant-eaten bleached timbers.  Imelda Duckworth, an aggressive long-legged woman with a rubbery red mouth, had fossicked for years among the junior reporters on her husband’s staff, the sanguine old-timer, turning up the occasional small but pleasing nugget.  The frustration of having worked out her last seam two years ago focused her prospector’s eye on George, upon whose bland baby face late hours had sketched an intriguing map.  Here is the island, children.  Here the land-locked harbour with the treasure hill beyond inviting the seekers.  Here the cay, the reef, the intimations of tropicana – the cabbage palms, the desolate plantation, the branded tree.  Primary tactics included invitations to the house, to tennis clubs, to study groups (Know Your History, Know Your Painters, Know Your Music) but later, when the lubricatory effects of whisky had established for her not only Nita’s existence but also his relationship with her, and she had, with the manners of a procuress, made her house occasionally available to them, polite affectations vanished; and one singularly humid evening, she climbed into bed with them.  George made of this in later years an uproariously funny story, but at the time used to confess with fetching naïveté.

“Lord, was I embarrassed!  Didn’t know which way to turn.”

Thea Astley, The Well-dressed Explorer, Angus & Robertson, First Edition, 1962,  p44-5

Update 25/2/15 Re what follows below: As of today, I still haven’t had any response from Random House so I’m going to assume that the copy referred to is indeed a counterfeit and that they have nothing to do with it. (In fact they may be victims too, through lost sales).   I have had a response from Fishpond (who sold me the book through its Sell Yours system, i.e. they provide a space for people to sell second-hand copies) and they say I can return the book at the seller’s expense and get a refund, and they’re investigating.  I am leaving the rest of this post as is, to warn other readers to be careful.  (After all, I’ve never encountered a counterfeit book before, I bet most other people haven’t either).


Ok, before I start with my impressions of this novel, here’s a copy of some feedback I sent to Random House UK:

The book I received (The Sorrow of War)  is not the quality I have come to expect from Vintage (Random House).  This edition ISBN 9780749397111 is published under the Minerva imprint, but it looks more like a pirated copy.  It has the same cover as the original Vintage edition with the B&W photo of a soldier, except that there are typos in the back page blurbs (“untilnow”, “Pulitze”, “require reading”), and the Vintage logo has been replaced by Minerva.

The verso page looks a lot like a badly done scan of the Vintage verso page, and nowhere on the pages (as distinct from the cover) is Minerva Press mentioned at all.  The scanned pages are badly mis-aligned, and some words in the text have letters incompletely printed, making it hard to read.

If this edition has indeed been reprinted by Random House as Print On Demand under the Minerva imprint (See for the history of their acquisitions) then Random House should be ashamed of themselves.

Ok, got that?  Yes, I am very cross indeed that a fine book like this one, should be so shabbily published.  I have had Print-on-Demand books before, and while I don’t like the cheap print, they have been readable enough.  But this one is a disgrace.

What I didn’t know when I sent that feedback because I hadn’t read very far, was that there’s an even bigger problem: some of the pages are out of order and some of them are missing altogether.   I now think it’s possible that this copy is a counterfeit copy, possibly not published by Random House’s Minerva imprint at all…

Here’s what happened:

I wanted to know something about the translation process for this book.  What did it mean, I wondered, when it says that this English version by Frank Palmos is ‘from the original translation by Phan Thanh Hao’?  I had to go to Wikipedia to find out:

Bảo Ninh achieved prominence in Hanoi with the first version of the novel, Thân phận của tình yêu (literally, The Destiny of Love), which was published in roneo form (similar to photocopying) before 1990. Soon afterwards Phan Thanh Hao translated it into English and took the manuscript to the British publishers Secker & Warburg. Geoffrey Mulligan, an editor there, commissioned Frank Palmos, an Australian journalist who had reported on the Vietnam War and written about it in his book Ridding the Devils (1990), to write an English version based on the raw translation. Bao Ninh had read Phan Thanh Hao’s Vietnamese translation of Ridding the Devils and was willing to accept this arrangement. After several meetings with both the author and the translator, Hao, in Hanoi, and journeys throughout Vietnam to check details, Palmos wrote the English version over seven months . It was published in 1994 under the title The Sorrow of War.

The book went on to win the International Foreign Fiction Prize in 1994, and was included in the Best 50 Translations of the 20th Century by the Society of Authors in London, 2010.  So although it’s not clear to me whether the ‘English version’ is just a version edited to tidy up English idiom and so forth, or whether it’s a thorough rewrite resulting in a different version altogether, the judges for these prestigious awards must have been satisfied enough with this dual translation process to award the accolades as they did, and the author shared the prize money with the two translators.  Interesting, eh?

Alas, Wikipedia goes on to say that counterfeits of the English version became widely available in Vietnam, aimed at the tourist trade. Counterfeit sales have reportedly far exceeded sales of the original edition.  Is this what I have read, a counterfeit that means the author has received nothing in payment for my purchase?  I suspect this is the case.

But it’s not just that the author has been diddled out of his royalties…

I was becoming deeply absorbed in the book, a melancholy account of the way in which war dehumanises people and a meditation on the author’s writing process when I reached the part where the narrator Kien meets the girl Hanh. Hanh was almost immediately re-named Hanna, which threw me a bit, but that was nothing compared to my confusion when at the end of pages 58-59, she calls a halt to the digging of a air-raid shelter in her room so that she can try it for size.  She then says ‘We might need some…’ and I turned the page and was taken aback by …”We’ve each been ghosts in each other’s mind,’ he said, and lo! Kien is with a different girl called Phuong, and that’s because page 59 is followed by page 76-77 – and then reverts to page 62-3.  But page 60-61 is nowhere to be found – I looked through the entire book for it, only to find that there was more grief to come.  This is the page sequence:


and from there on it seems to be in the correct order, though I noticed that a fair few of the page numbers are actually written by hand -not typed – so I am not entirely confident about that.  But the book is unreadable anyway, I can’t make sense of it without the missing pages.

I have abandoned books before, but none with such regret as this one, because from what I have read of it, it is a beautiful war novel, nostalgic for lost youth and lost values, and deeply personal in tone.  Bao Ninh served in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade and of 500 men who served with him, most of them teenagers, he was one of only ten to survive.  He begins the book by describing his work with the Missing In Action Body Collecting Team and although he is restrained in the telling, the Jungle of Screaming Souls is a terrible place to be.  The book is said by an impressive collection of blurbers to be another All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque, but until I can source a legitimate copy with its pages in order and intact, I am going to have to wait to see if this is true.

Author: Bao Ninh
Title: The Sorrows of War
From the original translation by Phan Thanh Hao, English version by Frank Palmos
Publisher: (allegedly) Minerva, an imprint of Vintage (Random House)
ISBN: 9780749397

Zest for LifeÉmile Zola’s Zest for Life (La Joie de vivre, also translated as The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is) was first published in 1884.  It’s the 12th novel in both the recommended reading order and the chronological publication order for Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart cycle.  It’s also the most sad of all the Zola novels I have read so far.

The story centres on Pauline Quenu, daughter of the prosperous charcutiers Lisa Macquart and M. Quenu who featured in The Belly of Paris (Oxford World’s Classics) (Le ventre de Paris) which I read in the new translation by Brian Nelson in December last year (see my review).  Unfortunately there isn’t a modern translation of La Joie de vivre so I took the advice of my friend and Zola expert Jonathan who contributes to the collaborative blog The Books of Émile Zola (and also blogs at Intermittencies of the Mind,) and sought out a copy of the Elek transation, published in 1955.   For anyone considering reading La Joie de vivre in English, it is vital to avoid the self-censored Vizetelly freebie version because as Jonathan explains in this Exceptional Excerpt at The Books of Emile Zola, the Vizetelly version prudishly omits the most powerful scene in the entire novel.

In Zest for Life Pauline’s parents have died and, aged ten, she comes to live with relatives in the small seaside town of Bonneville in Normandy.  The sole inheritor of her parents’ legacy, Pauline’s interests are guarded by a collective of well-intentioned but not very effective souls and it is not long before her fortune is at risk.

As usual, Zola contrasts the characters to show how the effects of heredity and environment conform to his theories about eugenics – but in this novel the negative characteristics that are associated with all the descendants of Pauline’s great-grand mother mad Adelaide Fouque (Tante Dide), fall to other characters and not to Pauline.  Pauline, while too realistic to be saintly, is one of those good, kind-hearted souls who gets her greatest pleasure from pleasing others.  Happiness, to her mind, depended neither on people nor on things but on adapting oneself to people and things in a sensible way. (p.182).  For her, with limited resources at her disposal to improve the lives of others, it is enough to reduce their suffering as best she can, and she still feels this way even when their misery is self-inflicted:

‘Isn’t the relief of suffering an end in itself?’ she went on.  ‘It’s a pity they don’t mend their ways, for they’d perhaps be less wretched.  But when they’ve been fed and warmed, well, that’s enough for me, it makes me happy; it’s that much less suffering in the world.’  (p.188)

Unfortunately this generosity of spirit is too great a temptation for Mme. Chanteau.  The Chanteau household is bedevilled by sickness and money worries and its sole hope for advancement lies with the spoilt and selfish Lazare, aged 19 at the beginning of the book.  Contrasted with Pauline’s boundless optimism and healthy value system, Lazare is a dreary pessimist and nihilist, convinced that life is futile and that there is no point in doing anything.  Rather than finish his studies and take up gainful employment to help his parents, he flits about from one project to another, obsessed with it while it holds his interest but abandoning it at whim.  He has a stint at an unfinished Symphony of Sorrow, and later on as a novelist, but it’s when he needs an investor for his seaweed-processing factory that Mme. Chanteau abandons her ostentatiously professed principles and borrows the money from Pauline’s inheritance.  Pauline is also manoeuvred into funding a subsequent project to build fortifications against the seas which encroach on the hapless village – in advance of a grant which fails to materialise.

The servant Véronique – a great character – is wise to the goings on, noting the ways in which Pauline’s money is used to pay for pressing bills and how she is exploited as a nurse to M. Chanteau, crippled by gout.  Zola’s vivid descriptions of the suffering of this piteous man are offset to some extent by Chanteau’s self-absorption and lack of self-discipline, but no reader can be indifferent to his suffering.

As Pauline was getting up, Chanteau uttered a low cry.

‘Is it starting up again?’

‘Starting up again?  Why, it never stops… Did I groan? Isn’t it odd, I’ve got to the point where I groan unconsciously.’

He had become a dreadfully pitiable sight.  Gradually his chronic gout had accumulated chalkstone in all his joints, and enormous tophs (sandstone deposits) had formed, piercing through his skin in white growths.  His feet, now concealed in slippers, were drawn up like the claws of a sick bird.  But his hands displayed their deformity in all its horror; each joint was swollen with red, glistening nodules, and the fingers were distorted by lumps that splayed them out and made them lopsided, particularly on the left hand, made hideous by a chalkstone the size of a small egg.  On the left elbow a heavier deposit had caused an ulcer.  And his limbs were now completely anchylosed, [fused] he could use neither hands nor feet, and the few joints that still functioned a little creaked and rattled like a bag of marbles being shaken.  (p. 275)

Mme. Chanteau is not wholly bad: she did, after all, willingly take the orphaned child into her home, and her initial intentions to leave her fortune alone were sincerely made.  But she has a blind spot where Lazare is concerned, and she salves her conscience about embezzling the money by finding ways to blame Pauline, and eventually to sabotage her marriage plans.

The title is, of course, ironic.  There is no joy in this book; it is a study of how sickness of body and mind exacerbate poverty and vice, and how its victims are often undeserving of their fate.

My next title in my Zola Project to read the entire Rougon-Maquart cycle is No 13 in the recommended reading order,  L’Assommoir (Oxford World’s Classics) in a recent translation by Margaret Mouldon.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Zest of Life (La Joie de vivre)
Publisher: Elek  Books, London, 1955
ISBN: none
Source: Personal library, purchased via AbeBooks.


Out of print.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2015

Black Rock White City, by A.S. Patrić

Black Rock White City

I’m always really pleased when an author makes the leap from producing acclaimed short stories to writing a full length novel.  (I know, I know, short stories are not a lesser form, but they are often part of the pathway to publishing novels – and novels are what I like to read).   A.S. Patrić is an ‘edgy’ writer, and IMO the longer form of Black Rock White City allows that edginess to flourish in a way that his shorter works have hinted at.  (See my reviews of Las Vegas for Vegans, and Bruno Kramzer).

Set in the suburbs of Melbourne at the turn of the last century, Black Rock White City opens with a hospital cleaner, Jovan, tasked with the removal of graffiti that keeps mysteriously appearing throughout the hospital.  This graffiti takes various forms and becomes increasingly menacing, triggering consequences that shock the reader out of the complacency that comes with living in a modern city where graffiti is part of the background of our lives.

Woven through Jovan’s semi-articulate verbal responses are his thoughts – he thinks in poetry, as he did in his former life as a professor of literature in Sarajevo.  His wife Suzana, as damaged as he is by the death of their two children during the Bosnian War (1992-95),  wants a  more satisfying, objective picture to dwell on than the suburban wasteland that surrounds her and searches for a way to live – but they approach their new life in different ways.

She knows that Jovan used to be able to turn almost anything over to a new perspective, see something deeper, redeeming, more beautiful even if pitiful.  It was what made him such a superb poet back in Yugoslavia.  And it still takes her breath away, an actual gasp of air at the top of her lungs, when she thinks how crucial poetry used to be to him.  How Jovan used to wake in the mornings with poetry emerging in rhapsodies.  How it used to drive him, his body slumping over a bedside table and writing with eyes that couldn’t open from sleep, and with a drowsy hand, poetry that cut through all the usual bullshit poetry was, the usual mediocrity, and opened up new ways of feeling, seeing, understanding and being.  And now nothing.  He doesn’t write anymore and it’s as though he never did. (p. 89)

Suzana is embarrassed by Jovan’s English.  She is beginning to think that he

…doesn’t want to rid himself of the heavy accent that makes sales assistants or doctors or the landlord talk to him as if he’s a cretin.  That he knows how to form perfectly constructed grammatical sentences and feels more comfortable at a distance to English – a language to dabble in, and play with.  Everything that he has been serious about, all his work, left behind with his native tongue.  (p.104)

They are not able to share their pain, and Suzana doesn’t know about the black crow that lurks within Jovan’s apparently phlegmatic exterior:

Jovan feels the fluttering, and then he’s within the feathers and claws of the black crow.  He makes it to a toilet cubicle and is able to close a door.  All he can do is place his head in his hands and breathe while the crow crashes his brain with adrenalin and fear.  Promise himself that it will pass. Sit and wait.  Close his eyes and press his palms into his face.  He knows it will pass.  Curl his shoulders over and bring up his thighs until he’s above the balls of his feet and on the edge of the toilet cover.  (p. 122)

(I can’t help but note at this point that there are refugees – including children – in Australian mandatory detention centres who are suffering similar trauma, exacerbated by the inhumane conditions of their detention.  It makes me feel ashamed.)

The strength of this novel lies in its mature characterisation.  Apart from the vivid characters of Suzana and Johan around whose lives the story revolves, the minor characters are quirky and compelling.  There is Johan’s lover Tammie, a dentist whose forthright lust surprises him because beauty doesn’t need to behave like this; Jelka, the friend Suzana met on a Frankston bus when they both swore at each other in Serbian, and then laughed over it; Miss Richardson, the optometrist so affronted by the graffitist’s assault on her pristine diagnostic equipment; and David Dickens, a garrulous psychological profiler who quizzes Johan about Dr Graffiti’s obscure messages.

The novel focuses on Jovan and Suzana at a point in their journey of grief and their troubled relationship where things start to change.  As the reader becomes more and more invested in the tentative signs of hope, the plot moves towards a shocking climax which will leave most readers breathless.

Black Rock White City is a stunning novel that places A.S. Patrić among the finest of our new crop of writers.  His prose is uncompromising but his imagery is exquisite.  He doesn’t fall back on lashings of foul language to express ferocity and violence; and his use of poetry to reveal the Jovan unseen by the people he meets, is sublime.

let me go
on the waters
above the stars
let me go

Most importantly, Patrić is writing about important themes.  It’s not just another relationship novel; it’s not just a novel about sad migrant experiences and damaged people.  Black Rock White City is a novel about the complexity of city life and although it’s firmly grounded in the suburbs of Melbourne, it is universal in its fully realised ambitions.

PS  My apologies to A.S. Patrić for mis-spelling his name in the previous review of Las Vegas for Vegans.  Neither the WordPress software nor my computer has a method of adding an accent to the letter ‘c’.  Each ‘ć’ here has been copied and pasted from the Transit Lounge site, the only place I could find that reproduces it to be consistent with the name on the book-covers.  But WordPress (and GoodReads) somehow strips the accent away in some places, it must be very annoying to see one’s name spelled incorrectly all over the place!

Author:  A.S. Patrić
Title: Black Rock White City
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2015
ISBN: 9781921924835
Source: Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Availability  (from April 2015)

Fishpond: Black Rock White City
Or  direct from Transit Lounge
Or buy it from Alec himself, he’s a bookseller at Readings in St Kilda. Tell him I sent you!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 15, 2015

Want to write? Go to Varuna

Lisa Hill:

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade ListsJane Rawson, who wrote the acclaimed A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (see my review), is just back from a three week stay at Varuna, the writers’ retreat.   I’ll second what Jane says: if you want to support Australian writing, put your hand in your pocket and make a donation to Varuna.   $50 will pay for an evening meal or add some Aussie books to their library. 10 people donating $5 can achieve that:) Here’s the link: donate here.

Oh, and if you haven’t read Jane’s book, here’s the link for that too, so that you can see why I am nagging her to write her next novel: A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists

Originally posted on Jane Bryony Rawson:

Last year I won a fellowship – the Mick Dark Flagship Fellowship for environmental writing – which awarded me three weeks at Varuna, The Writers House. I was delighted to win, but mostly because it made me feel better about the project I was working on: I’d been worried it was a bit rubbish, and also that I wouldn’t finish it by the time the WP_20150120_004publisher wanted it. It was nice to be validated and given a little extra time to hit that deadline. But I was also a bit scared: about being away from home and my husband for three weeks (I’m not very good at that kind of thing), about spending enforced socialising time with other writers (also not very good at that kind of thing) and about bushfires.

Going to Varuna has to be one of the top five things that has happened to me. I…

View original 388 more words

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 14, 2015

Loving Daughters, by Olga Masters

Loving Daughters In prosperous, comfortable, complacent 21st century Australia, it’s somewhat chastening to read this first novel from Olga Masters (1919-1986).   Set in a small farming community south of Sydney after The Great War, it’s a window on a different kind of life, one where there would be no bread on the table if a woman did not bake it every second day or so, and no hot water for tea if she did not light and tend the fire for the stove.  A life where women made all their clothes themselves and the household linen too.  A life so pinched with poverty that the Reverend Colin Edwards struggles to mask his anxiety about the cost of a phone call, and feels wasteful over the cost of a stamp when a letter home to his mother in England is merely one page long.

It’s also a life that is strictly gendered.  If the shortage of men during the war created new opportunities for women, those opportunities had mostly contracted afterwards although Rachel still runs the post office.   For Jack Herbert’s daughters Enid and Una, the future is either marriage and motherhood, or spinsterhood.  (The word ‘spinster’ itself has gone out of contemporary usage!) Jack (see a Sensational Snippet featuring Jack here) feels no compunction in wishing a life of spinsterhood for Enid because she is the better housekeeper and since the death of his wife Nellie, he wants Enid to keep making the pickles and jams and have dinner on the table when he wants it, as if by instinct.  Olga Masters does not shy from suggesting that, ominously, he is also attracted to Enid in other ways.

The arrival of a new, eligible male in Wyndham upsets Jack’s plans and it sets the girls in competition for the possibility of marriage.  The Herberts’ property is bigger than most and they have something of a position in the town, so (apart from the new arrival being tall, handsome and (having avoided war service) still all-in-one-piece), the prospect of being a minister’s wife has appeal.  But the archbishop isn’t keen because Edwards’ contract is for two years on a single man’s stipend.  Already the Reverend feels keenly that his status is compromised by having only a sulky for transport while the Herberts have a car…

It is these sharp observations that make reading Loving Daughters a delight.  Although Masters had won the National Book Award in 1983 for her short story collection The Home Girls in 1982,  Loving Daughters (1984) was her first novel, written more than half a century after the events she describes.  By then women had access to university education, the professions and trades.  They received equal pay, had agency over their own money and were expected to contribute to family finances at least until the arrival of children.  Household drudgery and the restricted lives of women as depicted in Loving Daughters were things of the past yet Masters represents this life with a familiarity that is all the more powerful for never being strident or shrill.

The contest for the affections of Edwards is only the beginning, however.   Three women compete for custody of Small Henry, who is doubly orphaned by the death of his mother and subsequent abandonment  by his father.  His aunts Enid and Una both want to show Edwards how maternal they can be, but their Aunt Violet pre-empts them by taking Small Henry in.  She does this not out of family feeling but rather as a symbol of her heartless competence as a trained nurse.  Not at all interested in nursing her husband Ned who has come back damaged from the war, and childless, she has ambitions to set up her own maternity hospital.  And in another triangle of frustrated lust, Ned’s brother George fancies her.  Though for different reasons, both Violet and George privately wish that Ned would take himself off into the bush and die out there as ancestral Phoebe did in the early days of settlement.

The characterisation is at its most affectionate in the representation of Edwards.  The narration is omniscient third person, so that the reader is privy to all his self-delusions and anxieties.  He vacillates between self-confidence and disillusionment, and his honeymoon predicament is both amusing and poignant.  He is so ignorant about women but his choice means he has to learn fast!

The people were right.  She was a fashion plate but he loved her for it, and it was too early to start worrying where future clothes would come from.  She had made herself enough, he supposed, to last a long time.

She snapped a small purse shut now, one on a long chain he hadn’t seen before and this disturbed him too.  The bag of creamy coloured leather shaped like a large envelope which she carried with her from the house after the wedding sat on the dressing table with some pots and jars.  Goodness, he had thought it would be one bag for one woman.

He had a lot to learn, he could see, and felt terribly inadequate that all he could do in preparation was to brush at his coat with his fingertips and smooth down his hair with his hands.

She went out of the room ahead of him, sauntering down the wide hall filled with the smell of the evening meal cooking, something savoury, Edwards could detect with rising spirits.

Mrs Chance put her head out of one of the doors and with her bold eyes asked if they had spent the time in the bedroom at you-know-what.

No, we didn’t, came Edwards’s bold eyes in reply.

And if you ask me, said his back passing through the front door and crossing the verandah to meet the sparkling sea, it’s a quite a way off yet.  (p. 213)

Minor characters are cleverly drawn too.  This Mrs Chance who runs the honeymoon guest house takes pride in her efforts and is not best pleased when they are ignored:

Mrs Chance waited in vain for compliments on the room, for she had brought in a small table and covered it with a white cloth for them to have breakfast in private if they wanted it and she had two bowls of flowers on the mantelpiece, although heaven knows they were hard enough to come by in the January heat.  She went off in a huff resolved not to put herself out further.   (p. 210)

If only Olga Masters had written more!  I have read both her novels now, Loving Daughters (1984), and Amy’s Children (1987), see my review hereA Long Time Dying (1985) is a series of connected short stories, and I have her 1982 collection titled The Home Girls (see a Sensational Snippet here) so I shall have to be content with that…

Author: Olga Masters
Title: Loving Daughters
Publisher: University of Queensland Press, 1984 First Edition
ISBN: 0702217581
Source: gift of Sue from Whispering Gums, thank you, Sue!


Fishpond Loving Daughters (UQP Modern Classics)
Or  direct from UQP.

Soldiers of SalamisI have two reasons for reading this book.  It’s on my shelves in the first place thanks to a great review by my GoodReads friend, K D Absolutely,  and it’s made it off my shelves and into my hands to read because I’m joining Stu from Winston’s Dad in his International Foreign Fiction Prize project, Winston’s IFFP, celebrating 25 years of the prize by reading five of the titles from previous winners and the shortlist.

We chose these five books together:

1990 Orhan Pamuk, The White Castle (translated from the Turkish by Victoria Holbrook)

1994 Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War (translated from the Vietnamese by Phanh Thanh Hao)

2004 Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamina (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean)

2007 Eva Menasse, Vienna (translated from the German by Anthea Bell)

2009 Celine Curiol, Voice Over (translated from the French by Sam Richard)

I’m reading the Cercas first while I wait for the others to arrive from Fishpond.  It’s an unusual book, not structured like any I’ve read before.  This is because it’s in three parts, narrated by the character of Javier Cercas, journalist and would-be author.  (Yes, Cercas is a character in his own novel).  The book is a blend of fact and fiction, and it’s more than a little complicated for readers unfamiliar with the complex history of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).  (If I hadn’t read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls which were catalysts for me to find out about the war, I think I would have found some of Soldiers of Salamis rather confusing.)

  • Part One: Forest Friends, purports to be a non-fiction account of the journalist Cercas’s circuitous quest to find out the facts on which to base his story;
  • Part Two: Soldiers of Salamis, purports to be the biography of Rafael Sanchez Mazas, a key instigator of the Spanish Civil War and propagandist for Franco, as told by the character Cercas distilling his research into some kind of truth; and
  • Part Three: Rendezvous in Stockton, purports to be Cercas’s conversations with the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) and his meeting with Antonio Miralles who might be the militiaman who saved the life of Mazas.

But in playing with these forms, Cercas contests the reader’s assumptions about truth.  In Forest Friends, the journalist (a failed novelist) recounts his quest to find out about Mazas, the Falangist who was said to have fled death by firing squad during the Spanish Civil War when an unidentified Republican militiaman spared his life.  This event had mythic status in Spain but the search to identify the militiaman is fraught (because both sides of the conflict would regard him as a traitor.)  Perhaps to obscure his own failings, the journalist meanders around his tale with all kinds of apparent irrelevancies.  It is the very antithesis of succinct journalese:

Three days later Figueras called me. He apologised for not having done so sooner (his voice sounded slow and distant on the phone, as if the man it belonged to were very elderly, perhaps unwell), he mentioned Aguirre, then asked me if I still wanted to talk to him.  I said yes: but arranging a date wasn’t easy.  Finally, after going through every day of the week, we decided on the following week; and after going through every bar in town (beginning with the Bistrot which Figueras didn’t know), we settled on the Núria, in the plaza Poeta Marquina, very close to the station.

There I was a week later, almost a quarter of an hour before the time we’d agreed.  I remember the afternoon very clearly because the following day I was going on holiday to Cancún, in Mexico, with a girlfriend I’d been seeing for a while (the third since my separation; the first was a colleague from the newspaper; the second, a girl who worked in a Pans and Company sandwich shop).  Her name was Conchi and her only job I know of was that of fortune-teller on the local television station; her stage name was Jasmine.  (p. 33)

He goes on to tell the reader more about this Conchi, padding out the details almost as if he is writing her biography, almost as if to confirm with these digressions his claim that he is not a very good writer.

Part Two is compelling. It traces Mazaz’s role in fomenting the war, and then his arrest by the Republicans.  Cercas brilliantly conveys the misery of the war on the ordinary people as Mazaz travels past them on his way to be shot by a firing squad:

Silently the bus crosses Barcelona, which has been changed by the terror of exodus and the wintry sky into a ghostly desolation of boarded-up windows and balconies, and wide ashen avenues with the disorderly air of an abandoned refugee camp, and traversed only, if at all, by furtive transients who gnash their teeth like wolves looking hungry and ready to flee as they pass craters in the pavement, protected from adversity and from the glacial wind only by threadbare overcoats.  Upon leaving Barcelona on the road to exile, the spectacle turns apocalyptic: an avalanche of men and women, old people and children, soldiers and civilians together, carrying clothing, mattresses and household goods, advancing laboriously with the unmistakeable trudge of the defeated or riding on carts or mules of despair, the road and ditches overflowing with people strewn intermittently with corpses of animals with their guts exposed or abandoned vehicles.  (p.88)

Equally compelling is the story of Mazaz’s survival after his unexpected reprieve from death, and how he met up with deserters from the other side who helped him until the Nationalists arrived and he was restored to a position of power in the Franco government.  But the miracle of Mazaz’s reprieve needs a hero, and in Part Three, Cercas the journalist stumbles across a most unlikely contact.  Sent to interview the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, he discovers that Bolaño knew the man most likely to have been the unidentified militiaman, and so the quest changes focus.

The style of Cercas’s storytelling forces the reader to confront ideas about truth and history.  As time goes by it becomes harder to know what the truth is: people remember the stories they’ve told rather than the actual event that they witnessed.  And in Spain, where Franco’s dictatorship told history entirely from the perspective of the victors, even the war memorials are lies, because they list only the victorious dead, not the defeated.  Conquest of any kind must be hard enough to live with, but the aftermath of a civil war where the official story negates the deaths of half the population makes any kind of reconciliation even more fraught.  The journalist Giles Trembath explored the post-Franco beginnings of the movement to investigate the past in his book Ghosts of Spain, published a couple of years after Soldiers of Salamis, but it seems as if there is still a long way to go…

BTW That cover photo is brilliant.  It’s by Robert Capa.

Author: Javier Cercas
Title: Soldiers of Salamis (Soldados de Salamina)
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2004
ISBN: 9780747568230
Source: Personal library, purchased from The Book Depository (before the Amazon takeover!)


Fishpond: Soldiers of Salamis

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2015

Sensational Snippets: Loving Daughters, by Olga Masters

Loving Daughters Olga Masters (1919-1986) was a journalist, novelist and short story writer who won the National Book Award in 1983 for her short story collection The Home Girls (1982).  Loving Daughters (1984) was her first novel.   It tells the story of two sisters, Una and Enid, in competition for the one eligible male in their small farming township south of Sydney after The Great War.

The story begins with the death of Evelyn, shortly after she gave birth to Small Henry.   Jack, her father-in-law did not approve.  He had planned to gift the couple the cottage that he and his wife had first lived in and he blames her dead as she might be for Henry’s decision to return to Sydney:

Jack came upon her once sitting on the narrow little verandah rubbing her feet gently into the earth.  He had pulled his horse up, hidden by a thicket of eucalyptus, and watched the girl get up and clear a window of cobwebs to look in.  Not much to see but four rooms and a fireplace that would take a stove and had a chimney still in working order.  Nellie had made a home of it!  He was beginning to think grudgingly that the girl might too, when she moved to the end of the verandah, standing so that her big stomach became a silhouette.  Jack wheeled his horse then and cantered away too angry to care whether she had seen or not.  Those stomachs on women offended him!  The girl had trapped Henry, there was no doubt of that.  He was glad he did not have to look at her that evening at tea, for she had gone to bed with stomach cramps, he overheard Enid say, and Henry went off to play cards at the Hickeys.

George blamed the girl too, but had envied Henry, mostly at night, George’s room being next to theirs.  He heard, or imagined he heard, the thud of Henry’s body leaving hers, and the stirring of bed springs as he gathered the bedclothes around him for sleep.  A woman with you in bed!  Violet next to him!  He needed to rub his face into the pillow to rub her away.  The girl spoke little in the daytime in the Herberts’ company, and he listened hard at night for her voice, thin and wispy like her hair.

She had a short cut, one of the few in Wyndham, convincing Jack that here was another reason why she got herself in trouble.

Girls with long hair wouldn’t be free with their favours, Jack thought, with his mind on Enid.

Olga Masters, Loving Daughters, University of Queensland Press, 1984 First Edition.

I owe this book to the generous gift of Sue from Whispering Gums, but if you like the sound of it, you can buy UQP’s reissued edition direct from UQP or from Fishpond Loving Daughters (UQP Modern Classics)

You can also check out my review of Olga Masters Amy’s Children.

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