Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 9, 2015

Fever of Animals, by Miles Allinson

Fever of AnimalsI wanted to like this book, I really did.  Fever of Animals won the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award and I expected it to be rewarding reading.

But alas, I didn’t take to it at all.  It’s very clever, no doubt about that, playing with form and interrogating the act of writing both as process and product.  It teases with the identity of the narrator who like the author is also called Miles and is an artist too.  The book opens in doubt as to its own beginning – should it begin as the author/character Miles travels back to Australia because his father is dying?  Or maybe with the death of his relationship with Alice?  Or should it begin with his fruitless search to unravel the mystery of the disappearance of the surrealist painter Emil Bafdescu, which has been bothering him ever since he saw one of Bafdescu’s paintings in a restaurant in Melbourne?  He can’t decide what to call the book that he’s writing either … nothing has quite worked out the way [he] planned.

The blurb on the front cover describes the writing as ‘painterly’, alluding to a characteristic of artworks that have visible brushstrokes, the result of applying paint in a less than completely controlled manner, generally without closely following carefully drawn lines. (See Wikipedia).  In art, painterliness tends to be impulsive rather than academic or skilfully detailed.  But while the effect in Fever of Animals may appear to be uncontrolled, it is in fact a very skilful artifice.

Some things about the book drove me crazy.  Yes, I know this is trivial, but the constant references to being drunk and to smoking got on my nerves.  I could almost smell that disgusting pong that lingers long after the smoker has gone away! Late in the book I came to understand that a 32 year old smoking has something to do with tempting fate and the narrator’s consciousness of death, which seems to underlie all his preoccupations.

It occurs to me now that I may have overlooked the significance of the title.  Night with Horses. There is a strange sense of foreboding to the painting, as if the night and the horses are coming from far away, are rampaging through the forest towards the viewer, just as the future comes, just as death comes, bearing down on us. (p.191)

The most interesting parts of the book are in Europe, where his misadventures are related in a wry, self-deprecating style.  In Romania, where since he speaks no Romanian, his ability to do any research is limited and there is a droll scene where he goes to a conference and can’t understand a word of it.  He wanders around in the forest where Bafdescu is thought to have been last seen.  He spends ages composing an email (in English) to Bafdescu’s son, hoping for a meeting.  (And I thought to myself, ha! if Bafdescu’s son’s junk-mail filter works like mine, it will automatically delete anything in a foreign language i.e. the narrator’s English email!) In Berlin he stalks Alice’s husband Wido.  At least in Berlin he knows enough German to order himself a beer…

But (whether this was the author’s intention or not) it’s not what happens in Europe that interested me (that’s all inconclusive like everything else is) – it was the narrator’s interior thoughts as a visitor marooned in a land where he doesn’t speak the language.  So many people think that they can visit anywhere in the world because everyone speaks English, but here we see that in Romania he is always alone because he can’t have a conversation with anyone.  He is so pathetically glad when he meets up with an English-speaking art academic called Louisa because he can finally talk to someone! (She takes pity on him and helps him a bit, but she debunks all his half-baked theories and makes him painfully aware that he has no training or expertise in research.  He’s not even smart enough to be a dilettante).

He does have an interesting conversation about the purposes of cave art with a girl in a bar in Berlin (who briefly fancies him but eventually flees in incomprehension):

… the first humans want to go back to the animal world, to before consciousness, yes? But how?  They know they must trick the world with magic.  So this is what they decide.  They go into the caves, which are the most powerful places, and they paint the animals they know.  Amazing paintings.  Better than Picasso.  She gestured at me.  Better than the Surrealists, for sure. And amongst these animals they also paint humans.  Not many, just a few here and there.  And this is the important thing.  She shook her finger in the air.  The paintings of the humans always have animal faces.  Because the humans are in disguise. You see?  They have returned in disguise to the world of the animals, and they crawl as far as they can into the darkness, all the way to the end of the cave, to paint. This is the first religion, this is the first art.  The first magic.

The girl pointed at her own forehead.

The cave is the tunnel back into time, she declared.  It is not a metaphor.  The tunnel goes right back into the part of us that is still connected with everything, the memory which is still in our brain.  The part that is still the animal.  (p. 246)

But apart from this, all his reflections are one way, there is no input from anyone else except for what he can make of body language.  It makes him very observant, but also very insular and self-preoccupied.

It’s hard to describe this book… It crossed my mind that it was a way of writing somewhat like Gerald Murnane’s conceptual literature, in the way that things swirl around and the narrator is refusing to engage with any of the expectations that a reader of fiction might have.  The only way to read it is to surrender and read it on its own terms.  But – although I feel as I’m letting this brave author down by saying so – it didn’t work for me.

Sophia Barnes at the Sydney Review of Books was very impressed.

Author: Miles Allison
Title: Fever of Animals
Publisher: Scribe, 2015
ISBN: 9781925106824
Review copy courtesy of Scribe.

Fishpond: Fever of Animals

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 8, 2015

An Aussie poem for International Poetry Day

There are lots of great Aussie poets working today, but their work is not copyright free so I can’t reproduce it here. You can, however, find all kinds of poetry at the Australian Poetry Library, searching by name, or type of poem or just exploring the work of featured poets on the website.  The site allows you to save your favourites, and you can for a very small fee, download the ones that you like as well.

However, for today, I needed a poem I could share with readers from around the world, and I’ve chosen one of only two bush ballads at The Australian Poetry Library. Having only two on the site is a bit sad because Aussie bush ballads are a great way to introduce poetry to kids, especially if you use some of the gorgeous picture book editions illustrated by artists  such as Deborah Niland and Kilmeny Niland.)

Banjo Paterson (Source Wikipedia Commons)

Banjo Paterson (Source Wikipedia Commons)

Anyway, I have chosen a (copyright free)  bush ballad by one of our best loved poets, A.B. (Banjo) Paterson (1864-1941), and since it’s a ballad, you really should read it aloud…

‘The Silent Shearer’ by A.B. (Banjo) Paterson, from The Animals Noah Forgot (1933), available at Project Gutenberg Australia.

Weary and listless, sad and slow,
Without any conversation,
Was a man that worked on The Overflow,
The butt of the shed and the station.

The shearers christened him Noisy Ned,
With an alias “Silent Waters”,
But never a needless word he said
In the hut or the shearers’ quarters.

Which caused annoyance to Big Barcoo,
The shed’s unquestioned ringer,
Whose name was famous Australia through
As a dancer, fighter and singer.

He was fit for the ring, if he’d had his rights
As an agent of devastation;
And the number of men he had killed in fights
Was his principal conversation.

“I have known blokes go to their doom,” said he,
“Through actin’ with haste and rashness:
But the style that this Noisy Ned assumes,
It’s nothing but silent flashness.

“We may just be dirt, from his point of view,
Unworthy a word in season;
But I’ll make him talk like a cockatoo
Or I’ll get him to show the reason.”

Was it chance or fate, that King Condamine,
A king who had turned a black tracker,
Had captured a baby purcupine,
Which he swapped for a “fig tobacker”?

With the porcupine in the Silent’s bed
The shearers were quite elated,
And the things to be done, and the words to be said,
Were anxiously awaited.

With a screech and a howl and an eldritch cry
That nearly deafened his hearers
He sprang from his bunk, and his fishy eye
Looked over the laughing shearers.

He looked them over and he looked them through
As a cook might look through a larder;
“Now, Big Barcoo, I must pick on you,
You’re big, but you’ll fall the harder.”

Now, the silent man was but slight and thin
And of middleweight conformation,
But he hung one punch on the Barcoo’s chin
And it ended the altercation.

“You’ve heard of the One-round Kid,” said he,
“That hunted ’em all to shelter?
The One-round Finisher — that was me,
When I fought as the Champion Welter.

“And this Barcoo bloke on his back reclines
For being a bit too clever,
For snakes and wombats and porcupines
Are nothing to me whatever.

“But the golden rule that I’ve had to learn
In the ring, and for years I’ve tried it,
Is only to talk when it comes your turn,
And never to talk outside it.”

Now, because it’s international poetry day, take a quick visit to the blog of my favourite living poet in the world today to read her haiku called ‘Carpe Diem, a riddle‘.  I read Celestine’s haiku for solace, inspiration, wisdom and a glimpse into a culture different to mine…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 6, 2015

The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

The Fishermen The Fishermen is a remarkable debut by Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma.  It is shortlisted for the 2015 Booker, and getting rave reviews everywhere.  What makes it so engaging is the storytelling style, with origins in traditional oral storytelling but very modern in its skilful narrative voice.

Ben is one of four young brothers, destined for great things, according to his ambitious, middle-class father.   Helped along by a fortuitous scholarship, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Ben go to a good school and are expected to become professionals.  But when Father is transferred to a branch of the bank at Yola – a town in the north that was a camel distance of more than one thousand kilometres away – the boys break free from the strict discipline of their respectable home – and tragedy unfolds…

More than a morality tale, The Fisherman is narrated by the guileless voice of Ben, aged 10, with carefully placed intrusions from his older and wiser adult self.  The adult voice explains the things that the child does not understand or foresee, so that the reader is always aware of the sense of impending disaster that follows on in an inexorable chain of events.

Nigeria as a developing nation is characterised by the conflict between the Christian faith of the family and the residual superstitions and beliefs in malevolent spirits which still have power to influence behaviour.  The family is devout, but when the boys take up fishing in the strictly forbidden (and heavily polluted) river and encounter Abulu, the town’s resident madman cum prophet, the impact of his curse on Ikenna is profound.  He tells Ikenna that he will be killed by his own brother in a river of blood, and Ikenna, who is almost fifteen, takes it to heart.  He becomes obsessed by fear, he stops eating, and he isolates himself from his family, to the extent that he won’t even let Boja share the bedroom any more.  There is endless conflict, especially when he does hurtful things such as destroying treasured possessions that are irreplaceable, and Mother has no strategies for dealing with this except for the age-old threat of  ‘wait till your father comes home’.

‘I will tell Eme everything you have done from A to Z, don’t you worry.’

She snapped her fingers at both of them, now standing apart, still trying to catch their breath.

‘Now tell me, Ikenna, what did he do to you?  Why were you fighting?’

Ikenna threw off his shirt and hissed in reply.  I was stupefied.  Hissing at an older person in Igbo culture was considered an insufferable act of insubordination.

‘What, Ikenna?’

Eh, Mama,’ Ikenna said.

‘Did you hiss at me?’ Mother said in English first, then placing her hands on her bosom, she said, ‘Obu mu ka ighi na’a ma lu osu?’

Ikenna did not answer.  He moved back to the lounge where he’d sat before the fight, picked up his shirt and walked to his room.  He slammed the door so hard that the louvres in the sitting room rattled. (p. 51)

English is used in this multilingual household only when there is serious trouble, as when Mother finds out about the fishing.  She quotes Proverbs to them in Igbo because it imbues the words with extra venom (not that it seems needed to me, it’s quite venomous enough in English: ‘The eye that mocks a father, that scorns an aged mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures.)’

But all else she says in English, the language of Western education 

… instead of Igbo, the language with which our parents communicated with us; while between us, we spoke Yoruba, the language in Akure.  English, although the official language of Nigeria, was a formal language with which strangers and non-relatives addressed you.  It had the potency of digging craters between you and your friends or relatives if one of you switched to using it.  So, our parents hardly spoke English, except in moments like this, when the words were intended to pull the ground from beneath our feet.  Our parents were adept at this, and so Mother succeeded.  For, the words ‘drowned’, ‘everything’, ‘exist’, ‘dangerous’ came out heavy, measured, charged and indicting, and lingered and tormented us long into the night. (p. 22)

The corruption and incompetence of Nigerian politics is a low-key strand in the novel.  Father has an occasional rant about it, and the kindly politician known as MKO Abiola who so impresses the boys meets an inglorious end when the 1993 election results are annulled (as they were in real life).  You can read the absence of leadership in the home as a metaphor for poor leadership in the country, but the moral of the story – and it does have one! – is that people bring tragedy on themselves, and being young does not absolve one from responsibility.

You will note that I been evasive about the plot because while the reader knows that tragedy looms, The Fishermen deserves to be read without spoilers. Suffice to say that the question of vengeance is one that arises for discussion…

Highly recommended.

PS Visit Amanda Curtin’s blog to see an interview with Chigozie Obioma!

Author: Chigozie Obioma
Title: The Fishermen
Publisher: Scribe, 2015
ISBN: 9781925106442
Personal library, purchased from Readings.

Fishpond: The Fishermen

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 3, 2015

Coal Creek, by Alex Miller

Coal CreekFor more than a decade, Alex Miller has reliably brought us a new novel to enjoy every two or three years, so by my reckoning we are about due for a new one soon.  It was time to read his most recent, Coal Creek, (2013) which had somehow lost itself amongst the others on the overflowing ‘M’ shelf…

It’s such a powerful book, I read it in a single sitting.  Narrated by Bobby ‘Blue’ Blewitt, it tells the story of a simple man caught up in forces beyond his control when an intruder disrupts the peaceful ways of generations in his small town.

Miller seems to have a nostalgia for the simple working folk of rural and remote Australia.  (See a quotation from Alex Miller’s introduction to the Folio edition of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet).  Bobby is an illiterate young man, subsequently taught to read and write by the twelve year old daughter of his employer Daniel Collins.  Constable Collins, ex army, has come to Mount Hay from the distant coast for a kind of post-war adventure.  Mount Hay is so remote that Bobby, who knows the country backwards, isn’t sure whether the next town west is in Queensland or the Northern Territory.  But it’s of no consequence anyway, since lines on a map mean nothing to Billy… tellingly, he is content not to know.

There was no town further west after Mount Hay, just them two big cattle runs, the Stanby’s Assumption Downs, and they was English people, and that family out at Preference whose name I never could remember, it was Irish.  But no actual town until you crossed the border into the Territory.  But I never went that far west and I never heard of no town over the border except what they used to call the Wheel.  I am not sure if the Wheel is in the Territory or is still in the state of Queensland.  Like I said, I never been out there and I have no picture of the Wheel in my head but only the name.  Mount Hay was the end of the line then and still is as far as I know that country.  (p. 9)

The coast, and all the towns in between are similarly irrelevant to Billy, although he and his stockman father range so far and wide in the scrubs that his mother has been dead for a week by the time they return from a job.  Bobby still carries the memory of his kind and gentle mother deep within him, and her death provokes a rare example of male stoicism faltering in this novel:

I did not weep out in the yards that day I heard my mother had been dead a week but I wept when I was on my own later.  And since that day I have wept for my mother many times, thinking of her love for us all and her special regard for me that I was never to know from any woman but one.  Me and Dad buried my mother up there in the cemetery behind the town reservoir and everyone in town come to her funeral and walked up the hill behind me and Dad and Ben Tobin and his dad who were all carrying her coffin.  Which weighed very little.  At the graveside I seen my dad weeping, his hat held in his hands in front of him, his face uncovered to the crowd and his grief at the loss of his beloved companion plain for everyone to see and no shame in him.  It was the only time I ever seen my dad weep and it moved me greatly and my grief caught me in the chest and I wept with him.  Charley did not get back from the coast for it.  (p. 6-7)

Charley is Bobby’s brother, who fled the inertia of Mount Hay and lost touch with his family.  But Bobby is more than content with the insularity of its people, he celebrates it.  For him, the quiet ways of the men he knows are more effective than any alternative:

Dad never had much to say unless he was angry with you, then you heard it from him.  If Dad wanted me to do something when we was out mustering he raised his whip and indicated.  He knew I would be keeping an eye on him, like a man playing in a brass band has one eye on the bandmaster and the other on the music.  That is the way all them old fellows did it.  They indicated.  And we understood them.  They never had a lot of time for yelling and carrying on like people do today.  (p. 6)

Hard men they were, but with a belief and a grace in them and in their actions that we do not see in men now.  It has been forgotten.  I do not know why. (p. 8)

Daniel Collins does not understand the reticence of these locals, and makes a fool of himself through habit of interrogating people about their everyday dealings.  These people operate on the basis that you will be told about something if you need to know it, or if you can’t for some reason work it out for yourself.  Waiting while things sort themselves out is preferable to stirring up unnecessary trouble.  Bobby, who has taken on work as Daniel’s assistant, interprets Daniel’s clumsiness in his dealings with people and his lack of knowledge about the bush, as irrevocable ignorance.  He lets Daniel ride home through the bush, knowing that he will get lost, not out of malice but because he thinks Daniel is unteachable.

Somewhat reminiscent of Sinclair Lewis’s character Carol in Main Street (see my review), Daniel’s wife Esme is quietly mocked for her efforts to liven things up with dancing and a tennis club.  Like her husband,  Esme is fuelled by good intentions which are primed by a belief that things are done better elsewhere.  She is relieved to make ‘a good work’ out of Bobby’s illiteracy, and encourages Irie with the lessons.  For his part, Bobby enjoys his place on the margins of their family life, and despite the age difference between himself and Irie, he entertains fantasies about becoming part of the family at some time in the future.

The patterns of life in Mount Hay shift when Old Rosie reports that the local tearaway Ben Tobin has abducted her daughter.  Everyone in town knows that Rosie has a grudge against Ben and is, consistent with her cultural belief in payback, using the police to stir up trouble for him.  But Daniel arrests Ben and the young man does time in the Stuart gaol.  And Ben, who has had a hard life with a brutal father, is known for payback of a different kind…

Throughout the text there are narrative devices which foreshadow the tragedy that unfolds.  Bobby is writing from the perspective of a man made sadder and wiser by experience.  The sense of loss of innocence pervades the novel from first page to last, despite its not entirely convincing conclusion.  But the book also resounds with a sense of injustice, exposing the silence which for so long perverted the justice system in Queensland.  Neither Ben nor Bobby can expect a fair go from the system, the media or the locals amongst whom they’d grown up.  The only mercy comes from Alfred, a lawyer in far away Townsville, a man who knows Bobby better than Bobby knows himself.  (Though I stand to be corrected, theoretically, Alfred’s refusal to take instructions is a breach of ethics).

I think that book groups would enjoy discussing some of the contentious issues arising from Coal Creek. What should the response be to a friendship between a young girl and an older man?  What is the morality that lies behind a live-and-let-live attitude?  And are there times when outsiders do know better?

See also Geordie Williamson’s review in The Monthly.

Author: Alex Miller
Title: Coal Creek
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2013
ISBN: 9781743316986
Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $29.99

Fishpond: Coal Creek

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 2, 2015

Penguin and the Lane Brothers, by Stuart Kells

You know those folksy little credits on the back of Popular Penguins?

popular penguins back cover

Back cover, Summer Crossing by Truman Capote

They don’t mention Richard Lane, do they?  Penguin and the Lane Brothers, The Untold Story of a Publishing Revolution by Australian biographer Stuart Kells is the story of how the partnership between brothers Allen and Richard Lane was shattered, and the book provides an alternative to the official Penguin history which focusses on Allen Lane…

The early chapters of the book don’t do much to make me like these brothers.  While I felt some pity for Richard (the middle one and hero of this biography) when he was exploited as one of the Barwell Boys in South Australia’s immigration scheme for agricultural labourers, the stories of their adolescent partying and carousing in London didn’t interest me at all. Born into comparative privilege, they became even more privileged through inheritance, and promptly gratified their taste for what Kells calls ‘mischief’ and I call loutish behaviour.  This example follows on from their routine strategy for not paying the gas meter in the digs they shared, to which a new landlord took exception.

When Pritchard died, O’Grady bought the practice and cracked down on the tenants, with whom he had grudgingly shared the sitting room and bathroom, and for whom he had developed a needling dislike.  When he took over the building, one of his first acts was to padlock the bathroom’s meter box.  Rising to the challenge, Richard fossicked through his collection of old keys and found one that fitted, ‘so we reverted to the one-penny system’.  Relations with O’Grady quickly deteriorated and the Lanes decided to leave with a bang.

On their last night, the Lane brothers removed all the fittings: the cable from John’s room, the pictures, the stair carpet (which was nailed down and only gave in after a fight), the stair rods and whatever else they could dismount, unscrew or jemmy up.  Lifting the carpet made a racket and, accidentally on purpose, more noise was to follow.  ‘The stair rods which we had carefully gathered at the top of the stairs we had unfortunately forgotten to tie up securely, and soon after O’Grady had retired for the night someone, no doubt passing the top of the stairs in the dark, was unlucky enough to kick them down.  They made even more noise than we expected.’ Two pictures in ‘rather unattractive frames’ were smashed.  ‘Then when everything had quietened down, the three of us, who were attempting to dismantle John’s bed, all lifted it upwards at the same time and peculiarly enough all let go at the same time.  John’s room was over O’Grady’s bedroom, and this was too much for him.’ The doctor put on his dressing gown and left in search of a policeman. Luckily for the brothers, ‘the policeman was a reasonable type and refused to do anything about it.’ (p.91)

World War II sobered younger brothers Richard and John, while it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Allen – the villain of the story – was a greedy shirker.  Not only did he not serve, he also tried to set up a black market arrangement to sidestep rationing quotas for printing paper.  This was especially shabby because Penguin had been allocated more paper than any other publisher because it was allocated on the basis of sales in the previous year, and 1938-9 had been the year of the bestselling Penguin Specials.   But this pales into insignificance when compared with Allen’s cruel remark on hearing that John had been lost with all 800 other men aboard HMS Avenger, that the wrong brother had been killed in the war.

Things go from bad to worse, as Allen outmanoeuvred Richard at every turn, finally acquiring complete control of the business, and reneging on succession and financial agreements.  Richard was sidelined to Penguin Australia, but made a new life here for himself and his family, apparently resigned to his brother’s perfidy.

For Penguin aficionados, and people interested in the history of books and publishing, Penguin and the Lane Brothers will probably make for enjoyable reading.  Stuart Kells has an engaging style, and the frequent inclusion of anecdotes, diary entries and letters, liven up the corporate history that might otherwise be rather dull.

But while I think there’s a place for this sort of ‘set-the-record-straight’ story, I found the book unedifying.  I didn’t enjoy reading about Allen’s rotten behaviour, but it was in the chapter entitled ‘In Armour’ that I realised the reason for my distaste.  During the war, in 1942, Penguin negotiated with the military brass to start a Forces Book Club, providing cheap quality paperbacks for men and women in the services, people like my father in the army and my mother in the ATS.  My father still has some of these books on his shelves, and while this marketing coup was very profitable for Penguin, its lasting effect was a conditioning of a whole generation to a sense of gratitude for Penguins, to a degree of autobiographical identification with the Penguin achievement. 

I think this identification with Penguin transcended the generations, and people like me grew up with the idea that the Penguin brand meant high quality reading at an everyday price.  Without knowing anything about the people who founded the business, I had developed a sense of fondness for and loyalty to the brand – and I didn’t like reading about the shenanigans that lay behind it in this book.  Perhaps this somewhat emotional response was a case of having had my illusions shattered…

Author: Stuart Kells
Title: Penguin and the Lane Brothers
Publisher: Black Inc, 2015
ISBN: 9781863957571
Review copy courtesy of Black Inc.

A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice
No, I am not making this up.  Bloomsbury sent it to me in September but I’ve had to hold off on the review till publication day.

And since chez moi was home during The Offspring’s childhood to a succession of guinea pigs (all conveniently named GP) I had to read it straight away.  (It’s only 56 pages long, and half of those are photos.  Of cute guinea pigs in Regency era costume).

What would Jane Austen think?  I think she’d have a good chuckle over it.

Perfect for people who need to pretend they’ve read the original, perfect for those fond of guinea pigs.  Destined for Christmas stockings all over the world…

No vampires, #Just thought I should reassure you.

Author: (hmm, Jane Austen)
Abridgement: Alex Goodwin
Illustrator: Tess Gammell (she drew the houses: Netherfield Park, The Parsonage and  Pemberley.
Photography: Belmondo (the real star of this authorial show)
Title: A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2015
ISBN: 9781408865514
Source: Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury


In bookshops from October 1st.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2015

The Life of Houses, by Lisa Gorton

The Life of HousesThe Life of Houses, a debut novel by Lisa Gorton, is a quiet, sharply observant short novel.  It centres on the interior world of two characters as they negotiate the demands of family from whom they are estranged.

Anna, a self-made woman with an art gallery, is about to break up her small family.  Her husband Matt has just gone overseas, not knowing about Anna’s affair with Peter and that they plan to be together.  In the interim, in exasperation over the usual teenage disdain, she sends her daughter Kit to stay with her parents from whom she has been estranged for decades.

The house to which Kit travels alone by train is one of those dingy old station homesteads.  It’s been in the family for generations but is in decline – as is the family.  Passing their days there are Anna’s parents, Patrick and Audrey, and her unmarried sister, Treen.  (Such a grating name! It set my teeth on edge every time I saw it!).  Audrey is grotesquely fat and barely able to breathe, but she is an old survivor who will be around to entrap Treen for years to come.  It’s Patrick who takes malicious delight in telling Kit about the resident house ghost, who suffers a sudden heart attack.

It’s also Patrick who casually announces that the house will be Kit’s one day, bypassing any expectations that others might have:

Patrick passed his hand back and forth irritably over the top of his cup, refusing tea.  Treen poured out her own tea and settled back in her chair.  She took up the crossword.  Kit saw that Treen had washed her hands of them both – had claimed for herself the heat-struck, fatalistic peace of the garden.

‘The house will be yours one day,’ Patrick said.  ‘I should show you one or two things.’ He rolled his napkin and fed it into his napkin ring.  Kit, who had not thought to take her own napkin from its ring, rubbed her fingers on a corner of the cloth.  She glanced across at her aunt.  Treen, who had found her spectacles when she went into the house, now held the crossword up to her face.  She was counting letters; she fumbled for the biro she had dropped down the side of the chair. (p. 127)

I’ve read quite a few novels treating the issue of inheritance, but few have skewered so mercilessly as this, the cruelty of old men in using their assets to settle old scores…

The early chapters alternate between Anna’s and Kit’s point of view, but as the novel progresses Anna fades away for a while and the novel focusses on Kit’s self-absorption and her impressions of the situation she finds herself in.  She’s only fifteen, and very preoccupied with exploring the rambling old house and observing the people she meets in the small seaside town.  She is told, often, how much like her mother she is, and has trouble adjusting to this jolt in her identity.  They all ‘know’ her because they know her mother.  They, like the house, have memories and allusions that beset her.  They have opinions about her, her family and the house.  But she knows no one.  She is a blank slate, a canvas yet to be sketched.  But she wants to sketch it herself, independent of these exterior perceptions of who she is or might be.

She meets Scott, a contemporary of her mother’s.  He is vaguely resentful that Anna has moved on but he hasn’t.  There is a slight sense of menace about this man and his interest in Kit which – ironically, considering the way Anna despatched the girl as if she were a mere parcel to a place where she knows no one – provokes a slightly hysterical reaction when Anna eventually arrives in town.

We are not meant to like Anna very much.

It’s not a novel where much happens – it’s not plot-driven and much remains unresolved at the end.  It’s a work which explores feeling.  Through Kit, and through Anna to a lesser extent, The Life of Houses shows how -although we shape ourselves in the context of others – we become conscious of how they interpret us and we need to separate ourselves from those perceptions in order to become an independent self.  The metaphor of the house is used to show how old money and class distinctions – like the napkin ring which was at first invisible to Kit – exert a powerful influence in relationships.  (You can see this also in the Sensational Snippet that I posted previously).

It’s also a novel to linger over.  I was reminded of Patrick White because the writing so often provoked me to reread, to savour observations of people which are precise, economical and unexpectedly savage.  (Shirley Hazzard does this with her prose too.) Treen has stubborn outsized flesh.  Later, packing Treen’s clothes, Kit can’t bring herself to handle the woman’s bra.  Patrick inclines his head in a gesture so courtly, so fastidious, she wondered whether he had bowed.  Peter shows a sort of compassionate chivalry.  Anna, watching him look through her cupboards to find glassware, realises that if she had paid attention to where he looked, she would have known where he and Clare kept their champagne flutes.

If you like this kind of writing too, you will like The Life of Houses very much.

Author: Lisa Gorton
Title: The Life of Houses
Publisher:  Giramondo, 2015
ISBN: 9781922146809
Review copy courtesy of Giramonda


Fishpond: The Life of Houses



At last!  My lips have been sealed for months now, but today bookings are open and you can book your tickets to hear a wonderful panel of guests at this year’s Stonnington Literary Festival.

Spooky stories

The session is entitled That’s Odd and it’s a discussion about fiction that’s strange, macabre, or  inexplicable.  The panel includes

The [untitled] Literary Festival will take place from 19 – 26 November 2015, and my session is on

Sunday 22 November, 2pm-4pm, Toorak/South Yarra Library
Bookings open 1 October. Enquiries: 8290 8000

All events are free, but you need to book.

To book online and find out more about the rest of the program, visit the festival website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 30, 2015

Lovely Loot in my Letter Box

Many years ago when The Offspring was only in his teens, we made a trip to Western Australia, and because he was too young to share the driving on long trips, we took day bus tours to visit Wave Rock and the Pinnacles.  These were eight hour 600km round trips, and both involved travelling very long distances between remote small towns where there were no commercial eateries to provide a bus load of tourists with refreshments en route.

It was the Country Women’s Association that came to the rescue.  These canny ladies had stitched up a deal with the tour bus company to provide morning and afternoon tea, all proceeds going to the local community.  (Lunch was a picnic at our destinations, where the international tourists learned what an Esky was).  As Aussies know, there are very few small towns that don’t have a sports oval with some sort of grandstand, and it was there that the CWA put on the most splendid morning teas I have ever had. It was old fashioned and homely, but their cakes were sublime and their sponges became the gold standard by which I have judged sponges ever since.  (And by that standard, my mother-in-law, now in her nineties, is the only person I know who can make a decent sponge cake.)

Calendar of CakesAnyway, all of that is a roundabout way of alerting you to a new publication from Wakefield Press. It is a Calendar of Cakes with ‘recipes, tips and tricks’ from the South Australian Country Women’s Association.  It is a cook book that will teach you how to make cakes properly so that they taste the way cakes should taste, and there’s a recipe for every week of the year, including some for special events like Father’s Day, St Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day

Now, it only arrived in my letterbox today so I have not yet tried a single one of the recipes. But I don’t need to, because I can see that it’s full of practical advice and that the recipes are all do-able with fresh ingredients that are seasonally available. You make Peach Melba cake in February because that is when peaches are cheap and in season (not when you feel like using a tin out of the pantry). August is when you make cakes using root vegetables such as German Streusel Spiced Potato Cake or the Chocolate, Beetroot and Almond Dessert cake.  (Using fresh beetroot not that tasteless stuff that comes in tins).

Of course if you subscribe to the Marco Pierre-White why-not-use-pre-prepared-stuff out of packets and tins philosophy of cooking, then Calendar of Cakes is probably not for you.  But you will never know the taste of truly delicious cakes.  And I doubt if the good ladies of the SA CWA would buy the excuse that you don’t have time, because these country ladies know all about being busy … and still they find time to bake for their families in the old-fashioned way, using recipes passed on to them by their grandmothers who were even more busy.  (On the other hand, there are limits to the old-fashioned way.  One of the WA CWA ladies told me, all those years ago, that she always beat her egg-whites by hand because she got better results that way.  Well, although she was right about that, because I’ve tried it, I have to confess that my trusty Kenwood, now over 40 years old, is a ‘new-fangled’ appliance I couldn’t do without).

But truth be told, it doesn’t actually take any significant amount of time longer to measure out a cup of flour and a bit of butter than it does to open a packet full of stabilisers and flavour enhancers and other dubious ingredients.  If you factor in your time at the supermarket buying packaged cake mix it probably takes less time.  What adds time with home baking is the washing up afterwards but with a dishwasher that’s not a problem anyway.  I discovered this myth about so-called time-saving processed food as a very young bride when I brought home a packet of Rice-a-Riso Nasi Goreng, made an awful mess in the kitchen and had to wash up three pans afterwards.  I was working two jobs then, setting out at eight in the morning and getting home after ten at night during the week, and I soon learned that it was much easier to cook fresh food simply and it was infinitely cheaper too.

#Ok, Off my soapbox.

The only recipe that I am doubtful about in Calendar of Cakes is the gluten-free cake because I am yet to eat anything gluten-free that tastes any good, and I feel really sorry for people with coeliac disease who have to limit their culinary adventures in this way.  But the Gluten-Free Christmas Wreath looks quite pretty and the Gluten-free Lamingtons are probably a good choice if you need to take a plate somewhere where it might be an issue. There’s also a Gluten-free Ginger Fluff Sponge but since I’m not keen on ginger I won’t be baking that one.

Orange cakeNo, the recipe I’m going to try first, because our tree is groaning with lemons, is the Lemon Curd and Cream Sponge Cake, and there’s also a Zingy Marmalade Cake that I’m going to try, to see how it compares with my usual Orange Marmalade Cake (which I make using my own home-made marmalade).  It goes very nicely with  home-made Lime Ice-cream from Stephanie Alexander’s Cook’s Companion, which tastes better than Heston Blumenthal’s ice-cream and is a zillion times easier to make).

Un Village FrancaisThe other thing that came in my letter box today is a DVD.  As you know I have been working my way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, and also exploring the work of French Nobel-prize winning author Patrick Modiano, and it is my heart’s desire to read these books in French.  To complement my French lessons with Laura Laffitte Salis-Gabbiani at the Hampton Community Centre, I’ve been watching this and that on French TV, and I came across a great TV series called Un Village Français – but it’s horrible to watch on YouTube because of all the intrusive adsJB Hifi got the Series One DVD in for me, and I am starting again with Episode 1 as soon as I finish watching the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall, which is a very good adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel.

You don’t need to be plodding along learning French like I am to watch Un Village Français because it has English sub-titles.  It is wildly popular in France where it is just going into its seventh series.  As it says on the blurb, it confronts the difficult subject of French collaboration with the Germans during WW2, and it details the lives of the people of a fictional town in rural France, and shows how the machinations of war lead some to collaborate with the Nazis.  It’s a very sophisticated treatment of a difficult period in French history and it shows just how hard it must have been and how sitting in judgement about it is a really stupid thing to do.

So there you are!  Thank you Australia Post!

PS You can buy Calendar of Cakes direct from Wakefield Press or via this link Calendar of Cakes: Recipes, Tips and Tricks from the South Australian Country Women’s Association from Fishpond. And probably lots of other places too.

PPS 8/10/15

Apricot Loaf (Calendar of Cakes)In the event, I decided to try the apricot loaf first instead.  It is dead easy. The only tips I would like to pass on are:

  • you can leave preheating the oven until after you’ve brought the apricots, butter and water to the boil because it takes quite a while to cool down enough for the next step in the recipe, and there’s no point in having the oven on all that time; and
  • and it’s best to use a larger saucepan for the apricots because it’s easier to mix the flour in, in a bigger  saucepan.
Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2015

Sensational Snippets: The Life of Houses, by Lisa Gorton

The Life of HousesIf you like Patrick White, do not let this delicious novel pass under your radar:  I have only just started reading The Life of Houses by Lisa Gorton but I am captivated already…

Anna has just separated from her husband, and she has despatched her tiresome teenage daughter Kit to her parents, from whom she is estranged, so that she can progress her affair with Peter.

They are in a restaurant, watching one of those horse-drawn carriages in the street below:

In the carriage, a middle-aged couple was glancing back at the cars behind them, their flushed embarrassment a version of delight.

‘The deliberate happiness of tourists,’ she said. ‘Finally getting enough attention.’

He laughed. This was their ease: her placid malice, the banter that modulated into contempt. ‘I’ve got you something.’  He set a navy box on the table. She knew he meant this gift to signal the event: this week in Melbourne, his advance into her house. Only this ceremoniousness marked him off from the social world that he inhabited, otherwise, like a native.  A scholarship student at school, he had fallen in with the boys who spent their summers at family beach houses and their winters in the snow; an unassuming and, finally, inevitable guest.  His clothes must have been a problem, she thought. Doubtless his success had depended on a readiness to disarm mockery by first mocking himself.  What he had not managed to subdue, she thought, was this desire to mark occasions.  He lacked the unconsciousness which, more than anything, marked the bounds of that inherited world, which had no end and no beginning for those who lived in it: it was outside history; it was how they knew each other.

The Life of Houses, by Lisa Gorton, Giramondo, 2015, p16.

Yes, this is how she thinks about the man she now loves!


Fishpond: The Life of Houses



Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2015

Little Jewel, by Patrick Modiano, translated by Penny Hueston

Little Jewel
It’s not long since I read Paris Nocturne (Accident nocturne, 2003) but I think it’s best to read Patrick Modiano’s Little Jewel (La Petite Bijou, 2001) as a companion piece.  The books share common themes and a similar sense of angst, and while I wouldn’t suggest reading them one straight after the other, it’s easy to recognise the parallels that occur in the characterisation if you don’t leave it too long.

‘Little Jewel’ was the stage name of the narrator, Thérèse, a young girl abandoned as a child by her parents and all alone in Paris.  She ekes out a living by baby-siting a child as unwanted as she was herself, and drifts aimlessly in a city which is indifferent to her.  But one day she sees a woman in a yellow coat – a woman that she thinks might be her mother, even though she has been told that her mother died in Morocco twelve years ago.  This sighting provokes a stream of memories and a surge of fears that cripple her already fragile sense of self.

Like the unnamed narrator in Paris Nocturne, Thérèse is preoccupied by the past, and the novella has the same textural qualities as Suspended Sentences too.  To quote from my last review where I noted the similarities:

 There is the same dreamy quality, that same sense of an ill-defined menace, the same hint of an oppressive presence, the same half-light and mistiness that veils the night, and that same sense of confusion that inhibits action.  And the same elusive people and places that the narrator does not and cannot ever know.

Thérèse never knew her father, and has only disconnected memories of her mother.  She has vague memories of the places where she lived and went to school in her childhood, and she latches onto what she does know in order to try to resurrect the past in a meaningful way.  She’s not even really sure of her mother’s name because she seems to have had reasons to change it.   One of the most poignant scenes in the story comes when Thérèse is co-opted to appear in a film alongside her mother:

I had to lie on a bed, then sit up and say, ‘I’m scared.’  It was as simple as that.  Another day, I had to keep lying on the bed and flip through a photo album.  Then my mother came into the bedroom, wearing a diaphanous blue dress – the same dress she was wearing when she left the apartment on the evening after losing the dog.  She sat on the bed and looked at me with big sad eyes.  Then she caressed my cheek and leaned over to kiss me; I remember we had to do it several times.  In everyday life, she never showed the slightest bit of affection’ (p.124)

The paralysis of action that grips Thérèse stems from fear.  Fear of being alone, fear of crowds on the Metro, fear of being deserted again.  Fear of the live grenades that are said to be still in this post-war period, in the Fossombronne-la-Fôret. And sadly, although she has never seen this film in which her mother showed her the affection that she never showed in real life, she also fears that the film will deteriorate and then there will never be any proof that they were once together.

There are kindly characters who express concern for Thérèse – a translator at a radio station and a pharmacist – but her introspective manner and habit of telling lies makes this needy young woman hard to help.  When the pharmacist takes the girl under her wing, Thérèse betrays this woman’s motherly kindness because she fears connection as much as she fears loneliness.  What Modiano seems to be saying is that without remembrance, a quest for identity is doomed to fail.

Tony Messenger reviewed it too.

Author: Patrick Modiano
Title: Little Jewel (La Petite Bijou)
Translated by Penny Hueston
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781925240115
Review copy courtesy of Text.


Fishpond:Little Jewel



Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2015

Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's CrossingGeraldine Brooks has a new book coming out next month, so it was high time I read her last one, which has been sitting patiently on my shelves since I rushed to buy it four years ago in 2011.   And truth be told, I wanted something I knew I’d enjoy, after my last disconcerting choice.  Like Brooks’ other fiction (all of which I’ve read),  Caleb’s Crossing, is historical fiction featuring brave and fearless women stepping outside the expectations of their time.  It ought not to work, but it does…

There is a universality about the theme that drives Caleb’s Crossing, one that Australian readers will identify with despite the American setting.  Based on fragmentary evidence of the first American Indian to graduate from Harvard College, Brooks invents a life for Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wôpanâak tribe of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard) in the middle of the 17th century.  At this time the tribe is being dispossessed by the ‘purchase’ of their land in much the same way as Batman’s unscrupulous ‘purchase’ of the land that became Melbourne, and missionary activity is impacting on traditional ways in much the same way as happened here a century later in Australia.

And as in the fledgling settlements of Australia, there is little respect for indigenous language and culture on the island of Noepe, where a Calvinist minister has brought his family in order to escape the hardline Puritans on the mainland.  Bethia Mayfield, twelve years old when the novel begins, is a high-spirited girl who yearns for education which is denied her because it is not God’s plan for women to be educated beyond their role in life.  In the intimacy of the spartan family home, however, Bethia learns anyway, overhearing her dullard brother Makepeace’s lessons not only in classical languages but also in Wampanaontoaonk, the tribal language that Makepeace must master if he is to become a minister like his father.

This facility with Wampanaontoaonk leads in due course to a covert friendship with Cheeshahteaumauk, renamed Caleb by Bethia, as he renames her Storm Eyes.  It was, and remains, an innocent friendship, but it becomes a powerful bond, one which enables Bethia to transcend the patronising superiority of her own people and – despite her strong faith in a punitive God – to acknowledge much that is valuable in the indigenous culture.

The covert nature of their friendship, however, and Bethia’s habit of suppressing her rebellious thoughts in line with her gentle mother’s strictures, means that she is unable to challenge any of the assumptions that come to rule Caleb’s life.  With missionary zeal, Mayfield secures Caleb as a pupil after smallpox destroys his family and sends him eventually to what was to become Harvard.  His hair is cut, his clothing altered, his diet and habits modified in order that he might become an Englishman.  The goal is to make him indistinguishable, and to renounce his culture and beliefs.


Bethia, meanwhile, is expected to submit to a predetermined destiny.  Much good it seems to do to ask herself why she has no choice in the matter of her marriage, but fate intervenes when her father is shipwrecked and she goes to work as an indentured servant at Caleb’s college.  There again she is able to eavesdrop on lessons, and to acquire knowledge forbidden to women.  However, it is her knowledge of midwifery and herbalism – substitute forms of knowledge suggested by her mother – that saves the life of an Indian woman called Anne in a crisis that makes for compelling reading.  Brooks does not flinch from dealing with harsh realities in her fiction, and the hypocrisies of the Puritan community are laid bare as they whitewash events in ways that are only too familiar to Australian readers.  It is left to Caleb to exact justice…

The harshness of 17th century life comes vividly alive in this novel as Bethia confronts one bereavement after another, interpreting each one as a punishment from God for her sins.  Brooks uses the forbidden diary technique for Bethia to record both events and also her misgivings about the attitudes and behaviour of the adults around her.  This makes for satisfying reading: we like to read about feisty young women who defied their times to make a difference, and we especially enjoy the frisson of indignation when these women are obviously smarter than the ones who seek to suppress her.  The fact that this was rare for the times does not make it any less credible, especially not in the hands of a wordsmith like Geraldine Brooks.

What makes Brooks’ fiction rise above the many contemporary novels that reveal the presence of brave, intelligent women in past times, is her interest in humanist values.  In conjuring Caleb and Bethia, the author shines a light on the unenviable choices that indigenous people had to make:

He turned from me then and looked back across the dunes that hid the pond where we had first encountered each other.  Then, with easy grace, he folded his legs under him and sat down upon the sand, his back very straight, his eyes upon the horizon.  Without looking at me, he beckoned – the same brisk gesture he had always used when he wanted me to follow him.  So I settled myself on the sand beside him and stared out at the waves.  Often, in the past, when we had looked together at a common thing, I had learned that we saw it in quite different ways. He had taught me, long ago, how to see a school of fish moving through the water deep below the surface – how a certain change of light and dark could disclose them and reveal where one must throw out a net.  Because of him, the sea was no longer an opaque mystery, but a most useful lens.

He lifted a fistful of sand and let it fall through his fingers.  ‘You ask why I eat with you, learn your prayers.  Why I study to hate all that I once loved.  Put your ear to the sand.  You will hear my reason’

I tilted my head, puzzled.

‘Can you not hear? Boots, boots and more boots.  The shore groans under the weight, and yet more come.  They crush the life from us.’

‘But Caleb,’ I said.  ‘This land – I mean the mainland – they say it is a vast wilderness – there is room and to spare even when we come many thousands….’

He had scooped up another handful of sand and stared at each grain as it fell through his fingers. ‘You are like these.  Each is a trifling speck.  A hundred, many hundreds – what matter? Cast them into the air.  You cannot find them even when they land upon the ground.  But there are more grains than you can count. There is no end to them.  You will pour across this land, and we will be smothered. Your stone walls, your dead trees, the hooves of your strange beasts trampling the clam beds.  My uncle sees these things, here and now.  And in his trance, he sees that worse is coming. (p. 170)

For Caleb, the only respite for his people is to find favour with your God, or die. His uncle calls that coward’s talk, but Caleb thinks it is braver, sometimes, to bend.

Even in fiction as committed as this is to the belief that good will and intelligence can overcome injustice, there seems no solution to the fundamental problem of colonialism.  Dispossession and cultural annihilation were morally wrong, and the sin was committed by people who claimed to uphold Christian values.  And those who tried to straddle both worlds – as Bethia and Caleb tried to do – were fighting against a tide as inexorable as the one evoked on this beach by an author who never disappoints.

Highly recommended.

Author: Geraldine Brooks
Title: Caleb’s Crossing
Publisher: Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins, 2011
ISBN: 9780732289225
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings, $24.95


Fishpond: Caleb’s Crossing


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 27, 2015

Human Traces, by Sebastian Faulks

Human Traces

Human Traces is a strange book: I was torn between admiring it very much and wishing it would hurry up and end so that I could read something else.

It’s a long book at 608 pages in the edition I read, but long books are usually no problem, especially not if they are written in the style of the traditional 19th century novel.  I grew up on the 19th century novel, and I like its certainties and its style, especially for comfort reading.  Faulks has recreated this style almost as if he had travelled in time, and the world he creates is compelling and believable.

The problem derives from the 19th century quest to understand the mind and madness, which drives the novel.  Two young men, Jacques Rebière and Thomas Midwinter, share the ambition to find a cure for the madness that made them doubt the existence of God.  To make this real for the reader, Faulks takes us through the history of managing mental illness, starting with Jacques’ brother Olivier, chained in a barn on the family farm, and moving on to Thomas’s first job in a vast English asylum where the descriptions of how the inmates were treated will haunt you.  But the author also devotes long pages to explaining the 19th century theories about mental illness, dressed up in the form of didactic digressions, as when Sonia, Thomas’s sister and eventually Jacques’ wife, is given a crash course in understanding medical terms so that she can understand their work.  There are speeches and papers at public events, and internal monologues which reveal the thoughts and anxieties of the two young doctors too.  And, as you might expect, there are also sequences of dreams and interpretations, although Freud is present only for his Oedipal theory to be mocked by Thomas, who believes in biological causation of mental illness.  (Which brings him into conflict with Jacques, who supports the coexistence of these competing schools of thought).

Unless you are very interested in theories which are now long out of date, or you enjoy searching for premonitions of contemporary knowledge about mental illness, these long digressions are tests of patience.  Which I sometimes failed.   Trust me, it is rather chastening to plod through page after page of a pedantic speech, only to find at the end of it, that I didn’t know what the point of it was.  I could not face re-reading it even though I suspected that it was important to the design of the novel. I found myself anachronistically wishing that he had used PowerPoint so that I knew what it was I was supposed to have understood).

On the other hand, there are moments of magic when the characters convincingly rise above their era to perceive the humanity of the patients they see despite the wretched circumstances of their existence.   Although Thomas and Jacques do not find the elusive ‘cure’ and they diverge in their theoretical beliefs to the point of estrangement for a while, both realise that ‘simple kindness’ and tolerance of otherness are in themselves a powerful remedy.  Much as they would like to move beyond ‘mere mapping’  like the cartographer in Africa, they have to content themselves being able to understand … what is in the world, and to pass [that ]understanding on, entire and without compromise, to those who follow. (p. 442) Yet even a limited ambition like this falters in the wake of diminishing confidence, Thomas in his fifties failing to publish anything after his catastrophic failure with Jacques’ brother, and Jacques compromised by his near fatal misdiagnosis of a patient who remains nearby to remind him of it.

In the meantime, in the clinic/asylum that they set up in an abandoned schloss in the alps near Vienna, they fund the care of public patients by treating wealthy clients who are often merely odd.  Like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Out of the Cuckoo’s Nest, Faulks’ Human Traces celebrates the restoration of human rights to the mentally ill, as with the characters of Daisy and Mary who become valued members of staff at the schloss.  In a most poignant scene in Thomas’s old age, when he feels he has achieved nothing, there is a passionate rebuttal from Daisy who implores him to understand that it was he who gave them both a life by rescuing them from the asylum.  Still, one senses that the characters themselves do not realise how revolutionary they were…

The love story which frames the story works well because the characterisation is superb.  English fails me here: we need another word for ‘love’ to capture the profound affection these men have for one another.  The bond they share is more than a professional relationship of shared ambition and idealism; more than a proxy brotherly love which makes them tolerant of each other’s faults and able to sustain the relationship despite hurts and misunderstandings; and more than the romantic, uxorious (mostly faithful) love they feel for their wives.   Faulks captures the ambition, intellectual exhilaration, compassion, kindness and stubborn determination of this male friendship in a way that is rare today, when the zeitgeist is preoccupied with revealing diversity in human relationships.

Human Traces is a big, ambitious novel which apparently took years to write.  Despite its flaws, it’s still well worth reading.

This novel was released back in 2005, so there are plenty of online reviews:  see The Observer, the New York Times, and The Independent.  And this one, which is not nice, but funny.  (It has ruin-the-book spoilers, so beware.)

Author: Sebastian Faulks
Title: Human Traces
Publisher: Vintage, 2007
ISBN: 9780099458265
Source: loan from a friend, thanks, Lurline!


Fishpond: Human Traces


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 26, 2015

Under Cover, Adventures in the Art of Editing, by Craig Munro

UndercoverUnder Cover, Adventures in the Art of Editing, by Craig Munro is a book that – as you’d expect since it’s been written by a book industry insider – has been widely reviewed by book industry insiders.  (Here’s Geordie Williamson’s in The Australian and one on the ABC where the reviewer seems to know that ‘Craig is such a lovely man’.)  But for me, reading the book as an outsider looking in, it’s perhaps a different experience.  I didn’t have to worry about whether I featured in it!

In 1970 UQP (the University of Queensland Press) began its transition from a traditional university press founded in 1948, with a poetry series called Paperback Poets (edited by Roger McDonald and featuring poets like Rodney Hall and David Malouf).  It then branched out into literary fiction, and as the fiction editor from 1971 to 2005,  Craig Munro brought us books by authors that are household names today.

Even a quick look through my library shelves shows just how many authors are from the UQP list:  Peter Carey, David Malouf, Katharine Susannah Prichard,  Murray Bail, Thea Astley, Janette Turner Hospital, Kate Grenville, Beverley Farmer, Lily Brett,  Olga Masters, Randolph Stow and Elizabeth Jolley.  Some of these authors stayed loyal to the company and others moved on after getting their start, but there is little doubt in my mind that Munro was instrumental in guiding literary taste in Australia for over a quarter of a century.

Other reviews have made much of Munro as the editor who ‘discovered’ Peter Carey who went on to win the Booker twice and even be suggested as a potential Nobel laureate, and the book is certainly rich in Carey anecdotes, but if you’ve participated in my annual Indigenous Literature Week you’ll probably guess that I was most interested in the story of how UQP came to set up the David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous writers.  I have just read this year’s winner Not Just Black and White by Lesley Williams and Tammy Williams, (see my review) and I’ve read a good many of the previous winners too: Alexis Wright, Philip McLaren, Jeanine Leane, Marie Munkara, Tara June Winch, Larissa Behrendt, Robert Lowe and Doris Pilkington, not to mention the award-winning Melissa Lucashenko who also features in UQP’s Black Writers list…

Goodness me, what a name-dropper I am in this post!  But it’s the nature of books like this to drop names, tell chatty anecdotes, even gossip a bit.  Some of the most revealing asides are a reminder of how times have changed since the days when an exchange of contracts took a week by mail, and Munro had to get permission from his boss to place a trunk call because they were so expensive.  But what’s also different now is a different sort of corporate mentality, the rise of the literary agent who is another sort of ‘gatekeeper’ in the process of getting published, and of course the whole global industry, the rise of ePublishing and the self-published author.

If you’re wondering whether this book will appeal to the general reader, my answer to that is to quote this passage about Olga Masters, that wonderfully talented ‘late bloomer’ who started writing at 62, and tragically died of cancer before she could realise her ambition to publish one book for each of her seven children.

At the time I recommended Olga’s stories to UQP, I still knew very little about her.  Only later did I discover that she was sixty-two years old and had grown up in poverty on the south coast of New South Wales.  Her first job was with a local newspaper, The Cobargo Chronicle, whose editor had encouraged her writing ambitions.  She had first begun writing fiction in the 1930s, aged just fifteen, making her even more precocious than Peter Carey. Married at twenty-one to a schoolteacher, she raised a family of seven children, continuing to work part-time as a journalist.

Olga had lived through some of the harshest years in Australia’s history, including the Great Depression and the social upheaval of wartime Sydney, subjects she later wrote about so movingly.  It was not until her fifties, when most of her brood had left home, that Olga was able to indulge her passion for writing.  After The Home Girls was published, two novels and a collection of linked stories followed in quick succession, and Olga announced that she wanted to publish a book for each of her seven children.  Yet she insisted to me on more than one occasion, ‘My children are my finest books.’  (p.147)

For those of us who love Olga Masters’ books, it’s a privilege to read this kind of insider knowledge.

It’s also good fun to learn that one of the judges in the year that Peter Carey missed out on the Booker was livid that her co-judges didn’t choose his book when she couldn’t make the final meeting due to theatrical commitments.  So much for a confidential judging process, eh?

The sub-title is important: Munro believes – as perhaps you’d expect him to – that editing is an art, and one that makes the book better.  Obviously it requires tact and persuasion as well as an understanding of what it is, that makes a book great.  I’ve read enough badly edited books recently to know that we owe a great deal to editors like Craig Munro – and dare I say it? Yes, I think I will: I think Munro’s academic background in literature – as distinct from ‘cultural studies’ et al – is part of the reason for UQP’s high standards over time…

Author: Craig Munro
Title: Under Cover, Adventures in Art of Editing
Publisher: Scribe, 2015
ISBN: 9781925106765
Review copy courtesy of Scribe

Fishpond: Under Cover: Adventures in the Art of Editing




Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2015

With Just One Suitcase, by Cheryl Koenig

With Just One SuitcaseWild Dingo Press is a small indie publisher that punches well above its weight.  I read their The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif by Najaf Mazari not long before I started this blog, but in those days I didn’t take much notice of publishing details and didn’t realise that Wild Dingo Press is located just around the corner from my place, in my local shopping centre!

But now I know more about them.  The tag line for Wild Dingo Press is Books That Stand Their Ground’ and they have a laudable philosophy:

Wild Dingo Press … brings to light the stories of individuals quietly doing extraordinary things, be it exposure of corruption and systemic flaws or the experiences of the disenfranchised, disempowered and dispossessed. Shedding light on social issues and sharing the rich cultural output and traditions of those oft-discussed but denied a voice, Wild Dingo Press publishes memoir, narrative non-fiction and investigative journalistic non-fiction that challenge readers and enrich them personally, intellectually and emotionally.

Wild Dingo Press is committed to contributing a valuable and necessary perspective to the discussion of social, cultural and political matters by giving control over representation back to the people affected.

Well, in view of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, it contributes to a feeling of optimism about the situation, to be reading a memoir of refugees who overcame adversity to rebuild their lives in the country that gave them a new home.

With Just One Suitcase is the remarkable story of two boys who had a fleeting acquaintance in Romania in 1938, endured all kinds of travails under Nazi Germany and Stalinist Romania, came separately to Australia in the post-war mass immigration era, and met again when their children fell in love and married! The story begins with their parents, who despite differences of religion and social class had a customer/client relationship and respected each other.  The boys grew up in the small town of Timisoara, but the innocence and stability of their childhood was shattered by WW2 and the shifting alliance between Germany and Russia.

Frici’s (Fred) Löw’s family is Jewish, and though they survived the war by hiding out on a farm and bribing local police, they lost almost all of his mother’s family in Auschwitz.  When the Russians arrived they commandeered what was left of the family business and took over their house.  But plans to escape faltered when the people smugglers were caught and shot, and only Frici and his brother got across the border to Hungary, and eventually to freedom in Sydney.

Istvan (Steven) Koenig’s Hungarian ancestry brought him into conflict with the Russians when they joined the allies.  Anyone of German or Hungarian descent was deemed to be hostile to the new regime, and he spent years of his young life in Soviet labour camps.  Despite the appalling conditions, he was determined to survive, and made himself indispensable to the authorities by becoming an interpreter, eventually making a successful escape after many attempts.  He made his way to Sydney too, and became one of many who made a successful life in our country.

While I wasn’t always entirely comfortable with the fictionalised conversations that fill the gaps in the narrative, I did like the emphasis on the contrasting personalities of these young men.   Although the author is the daughter of Frici, she is upfront about some of his character flaws: the pugnacious risk-taking that served him well in surviving the war and its horrors predisposed him to gambling, and that caused friction in the home.  Istvan, on the other hand, is stubborn and competitive, with an obsession for soccer that took precedence over school work.  That stubborn determination ended up landing him in the most severe labour camps because he kept trying to escape.

But both of them end up transcending their life experiences and their character flaws to become citizens that Australia can be proud of – and that’s really the ‘take-home’ message of this book.  In celebrating the immigration story of her father and father-in-law, Cheryl Koenig says in her introduction that:

The strength of character portrayed by the many thousands of post-World War Two immigrants to grace our shores – their valour in the face of oppression, fearlessness in travelling half way round the globe and their determination, with a work ethic to match – are just a few of the qualities that generations since will never truly possess.  The naïve may think that these settlers were disadvantaged – arriving in a new country young, alone and without financial assistance.  But it is we, subsequent generations, who are the disadvantaged ones, as we will never know the feeling of triumph and sense of pride that comes from building a new life in a new country, with just one suitcase. (p. ix)

You can buy the book direct from Wild Dingo Press or from Fishpond: With Just One Suitcase

Author: Cheryl Koenig
Title: With Just One Suitcase
Publisher: Wild Dingo Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780987178589
Review copy courtesy of Wild Dingo Press

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