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.

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2015

Noonday, by Pat Barker

NoondayWell, I never thought I’d be saying this about a novel by Pat Barker, but I found Noonday banal.  It’s basically a not particularly interesting version of the eternal triangle with the London Blitz as a backdrop, and the ending is trite.

Noonday completes the story of Paul Tarrant, Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville whose story began in Life Class and continued in Toby’s Room, novels which tread the well-worn paths of Ypres and the Somme and the concomitant loss of hope, faith and sometimes a moral compass.  These characters are all artists who first met at the Slade School in 1914, but in this novel all three  are risking their lives as the Blitz rages – Elinor and Kit as ambulance drivers and Paul as an air-raid warden rescuing people from bombed houses.  As you might expect, none of them have time to do much art but Kit (who also has a desk job in the Ministry of Information) spends his time bitching about how he’s been overlooked by (the real-life) Kenneth Clark for commission as a war artist.

Kit is sour and embittered because his face still bears the signs of reconstructive surgery after WW1 and because his marriage has failed, but it wasn’t the predictability of the novel’s resolution that irritated me so much as the bizarre characterisation of a medium called Bertha Mason.  Because the novel vacillates between all the characters’ points-of-view, we get hers too, and so we are expected to believe that although she’s been imprisoned for fraud because of her activities during séances, she really does commune with the dead – and that a level-headed character like Paul finds this convincing.  In Michelle Roberts’ review at The Independent, I learned that Graham Greene invoked the paranormal in his WW2 fiction (referring to The End of the Affair’s experience of God) and I know that mass bereavement fosters an impulse to try to hear from the lost one, but Bertha Mason’s spiritualism is IMO utterly unconvincing and she clutters up this novel with nonsense that doesn’t qualify as an absurdist response to an insane world.  Critic Gaby Wood at The Telegraph had doubts about this characterisation too.

And I agree with Gaby Woods thoughts about Barker’s pedestrian sentences.  With a few striking exceptions, the prose is flat and dull.  Elinor’s diary is particularly clunky and some of the imagery is merely sordid rather than striking.  When I think back to Barker’s compelling Regeneration Trilogy I find this novel really very disappointing indeed.  Critic Lara Feigal at The Guardian seems to have similar reservations to mine, and so does Robert McCrum in the same newspaper but be careful, his review is littered with spoilers which give away almost the entire plot.

But hey, some critics love it.  See Rebecca Abrams at the Financial Times,

Author: Pat Barker
Title: Noonday
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, 2015
ISBN: 9780241146071
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings, $32.99




Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2015

Three Cheers for the Paraclete, by Thomas Keneally

Three Cheers for the ParacleteThree Cheers for the Paraclete is the latest in my quest to read and review all the Miles Franklin winners; it was Thomas Keneally’s second win, in 1968, and that win remains remarkable for being the only time the judges have awarded the prize to an author two years in succession.  (Keneally had won it the previous year for Bring Larks and Heroes, see my review and the opening lines.)

But what makes Three Cheers for the Paraclete intrinsically remarkable is its theme.  The blurb puts it better than I could do it myself:

Set in a Roman Catholic diocese today [i.e. the 1960s] Three Cheers for the Paraclete is about the dilemma of the rebel who knows that established authority is wrong but doesn’t know how to put it right because he is himself too much a part of it.  It is also about a critical religious issue of today – the conflict between a new generation which sees religious truth as something that must change with the world, and an establishment which sees it fixed and immutable.

Half a century later, can we imagine any young Australian novelist daring to tackle the clash between dogmatic ideology and modernity within another major world religion? And can we imagine Miles Franklin judges having the courage to reward it?  It’s a different world today…



It’s a measure of the genius that Keneally has gone on to show throughout his long career as a bestselling author of literary fiction, that he was able to make an entertaining book out of this theme, a book that is still interesting today.  Who would have thought that a book interrogating Catholicism could be so intriguing?

The author places his errant priest in the claustrophobic community of a monastic ‘House of Studies’, poking fun at its gloomy corridors and low-wattage light-globes, its disagreeable food and the grubbiness of its hidden corners.  It’s not demeaning the novel to say that it’s plotted somewhat like a boarding-school story with Father James Maitland finding himself in one scrape after another.  He’s a feisty young priest who’s come back to Australia after studying overseas.  While he was there, he privately wrote and published – without asking the necessary ecclesiastical permission – a book which in the course of covering the history of the Catholic Church, challenges the issue of modernising some of its orthodoxies.  The book is called The Meanings of God, and it has created a bit of a splash.

Now, because he’s published this book under a nom de plume and no one knows that he’s the author, he gets himself into more difficulty than he ever anticipated.  He’s already under a cloud with his superiors because he wrote a provocative article about Luther for an English review journal, in which he suggested that Luther’s early work wasn’t so heretical as to justify the schism.  He exacerbates the opprobrium when a crafty journalist baits him into defending a sacrilegious work at an art show: it’s difficult enough for the priests who have to block the Couraigne Prize from being awarded to any painting that’s blasphemous or obscene (because the church funds the prize) without Maitland going against the party line in the papers.   But when a debate erupts in the newspaper about his own book The Meanings of God – and his superiors ask him to defend the criticism of it, he is in a quandary…

The characterisation is excellent.  Monsignor Nolan represents the conservative forces – he even takes umbrage when Maitland lets his homeless cousin sleep overnight in his room. Brendan and Greta are recent arrivals in town and have nowhere to go – but Nolan is livid because … a-hem, they are young marrieds … and their inevitable ‘nocturnal activities’ breach the rules.  The House of Studies has been a celibate house since its foundations were laida matter of eighty years.  Nolan demands that the sheets be changed the very next day and sends the housekeeper up with fresh linen while Brendan and Greta are still there.  The scene is set for conflict when Maitland sends the sheets away…

He is a complex character: thoughtful and kind, but intemperate.  He has to guard himself against the arrogance that annoys him when he finds it in others, and he doesn’t always succeed.  He finds it hard to settle in and makes few friends among the men.  Confronted by social injustice he will take on a cause like a bull at a gate, as he does when he finds that another cousin has been ripped off by a land development company.  He makes personal representations on his behalf, and when that doesn’t work he preaches a fiery sermon from the pulpit – alas, unaware that not only is a prominent church supporter on the board of the company but that the church itself has shares in it.

Keneally builds to a fine conclusion when Maitland’s only friend, Egan, makes a ham-fisted attempt to be released from the priesthood to marry.  In the wash-up, Maitland has to face up to his profound dilemma: how much does he want to be a priest?  It’s the same issue that exercises anyone whose faith is torn between orthodoxy and modernity, and it’s central to the novel, recurring in a variety of ways and set out clearly in an early exchange between Monsignor Nolan and his widowed sisters on the topic of contraception. (The Pill had just come onto the market back at the time this novel was written but this is still a live issue for contemporary Catholics, and to anyone who cares about birth control in developing countries with large Catholic populations).

Mrs Lamotte and Mrs Clark  congratulate Maitland on being a popular priest for confession, especially in the case of Helen Simmons who has been given a commonsense solution and no claptrap when she sought his advice after “Four Caesarians and the doctor wouldn’t take responsibility for the fifth”.  Monsignor Nolan demurs because he thinks that “Telling people that they are still bound by the same laws as ever is a marvellous reassurance to them”.

“The same laws as ever,” Mrs Clark harked back.  “Since all the doubt began-”

Nolan gave a small litigious giggle. “No doubt has begun.  The church’s stand on these issues is identical with its stand in the first century A.D.”

“Oh, go on!” said Mrs Clark, whom Maitland was beginning to like.  “The Pope’s waiting to make up his mind.  How can anyone have a stand in the first century on drugs that weren’t discovered till the twentieth?  I ask you. “

Though the third person narrative tells the story from Maitland’s point-of-view, at times the narrator has a broader perspective, as when the topic of abortion arises one evening:

[Maitland] felt cheated when their legalism transformed them momentarily into ciphers.  Such as the night Costello introduced for discussion a question he had been asked that same afternoon.  A girl had been walking home the evening before when a man attacked and raped her.  A doctor had telephoned to ask Costello whether a person was justified in treating the girl in such a way as to prevent a possible pregnancy.

“Of course, I referred him to Monsignor Nolan, who happened to be out.  But I told him I was sure that, however, unfortunately, the answer was no, he couldn’t treat her in that way.  Agreed?”

He made an adenoidal noise and stirred his coffee, and the gentle lighting of the parlour was trapped in each crystal of his glasses.  Anguish did not penetrate their cheery rimlessness; he had no notion of the stew of heartbreak he stirred with his coffee-spoon.  Like any specialist, he could not afford adverting to such things. (p. 111)

But Keneally is too good an author to let this unlikeable character or any other be a cipher.  As his characters negotiate the tricky issues such as divorce, abortion and celibacy from their respective positions, the complexity of humanity remains a constant.  As you might expect, it seems to be women who most often test the boundaries of church orthodoxy, and they are superbly rendered too, especially the young nun who questions the status quo.

Does Keneally the author take a position on the issues he raises?  I think we can sense his pessimism in his choice of Costello for promotion within the church, and with Maitland’s decisions at the end of the book.  But he might just have been being provocative…

I would love to know how this book was reviewed in the Catholic Press of its day, but the only review I can find online from that period is at Kirkus.  Matt Todd at A Novel Approach reviewed it more recently.

See the opening lines here.

Author: Thomas Keneally
Title: Three Cheers for the Paraclete
Publisher: Angus & Robertson, 1968
ISBN: 0207950466, first edition
Source: Personal copy from my collection of Miles Franklin winners


On the day I looked, there were three second-hand copies at Fishpond and one at Brotherhood Books. Or try your library.

The Intervention

The Intervention, an Anthology is an important book, so I would have liked its introduction to be better than it is.  While it provides a vivid picture of how The Intervention has hurt Aborigines living in Northern Territory communities, it assumes from the outset that the reader already knows about what this Intervention entails, which made me wonder who the intended audience is supposed to be.  If it’s supposed to be a call to middle Australians of good heart for their support, it gets off to a clunky start.

While Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory have been living with the Intervention ever since it was rolled out by John Howard’s government in 2007, it has faded from mainstream public consciousness elsewhere.  That is obviously not as it should be, but (perhaps as a consequence of bipartisan political support) the mainstream media has moved on to other issues.

So for someone like me who has had no source other than the mainstream media to explain what the Intervention involved, it would have been helpful if the book began by explaining what this program actually meant in practice, i.e. in terms of government actions and of limitations on indigenous behaviour.  But that’s not how the book begins.  Instead there is an introduction by Rosie Scott which deplores ‘a number of drastic actions’ without saying exactly what they were; and then there’s another introduction by Anita Heiss about the need to pay homage to the heroes of the land rights movement and to galvanise action to have human rights reinstated, without saying clearly what rights had been taken away.  Heiss directly addresses the claim ‘not to know’ and repudiates it:

Many older Australians who read my novel on the Stolen Generation will tell me ‘they didn’t know’.  No Australian today can claim ‘not to know’ what is happening in the Northern Territory. (p. 13)

Well, all I can say to that is that I do my best to keep up with current affairs but I have failed this expectation.  I remember some of the more contentious elements of The Intervention under Howard, and I was expecting the Rudd government to rescind it, so I was surprised when Minister Jenny Macklin approved its extension and there were high profile Aboriginal voices in support of that.  It seemed a strange policy for a political party that had led the way in indigenous issues – from Gough Whitlam’s land rights reforms to Keating’s Redfern speech to Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations – but I had faith in their good will.

I should add that I have always objected to the Intervention as a matter of principle on the grounds that it targeted a racial group not individual behaviour.  It remains my belief that if any child, regardless of race or ethnicity, is subjected to neglect or abuse, then the state should intervene to protect that particular child.  Any perpetrator, regardless of race or ethnicity, should – while having regard to his or her legal and human rights – be subject to the full force of the law.   But to impose blanket provisions on any group of people based on the idea that they as a group are believed to behave in a particular way, seems to me to be morally wrong.  But I must also acknowledge that contradictory positions held by eminent Aboriginal spokesmen and women on this issue led me to believe that it was a matter best dealt with by indigenous people themselves.



I consulted Wikipedia to find out exactly what the provisions of The Intervention were and how they differed from the Stronger Futures program (Wikipedia as viewed 13/9/15):

The Northern Territory National Emergency Response (also referred to as “the intervention“) was a package of changes to welfare provision, law enforcement, land tenure and other measures, introduced by the Australian federal government under John Howard in 2007 to address allegations of rampant child sexual abuse and neglect in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. Operation Outreach, the intervention’s main logistical operation conducted by a force of 600 soldiers and detachments from the ADF (including NORFORCE) concluded on 21 October 2008. In the seven years since the initiation of the Emergency Response there has not been one prosecution for child abuse come from the exercise.

The measures taken via the $587 million package were

  • Deployment of additional police to affected communities.
  • New restrictions on alcohol and kava
  • Pornography filters on publicly funded computers
  • Compulsory acquisition of townships currently held under the title provisions of the Native Title Act 1993 through five year leases with compensation on a basis other than just terms. (The number of settlements involved remains unclear.)
  • Commonwealth funding for provision of community services
  • Removal of customary law and cultural practice considerations from bail applications and sentencing within criminal proceedings
  • Suspension of the permit system controlling access to aboriginal communities
  • Quarantining of a proportion of welfare benefits to all recipients in the designated communities and of all benefits of those who are judged to have neglected their children
  • The abolition of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP).

With a change of government and a review, the Intervention became the Stronger Futures Program but is still subject to criticism because

  • It excludes Aboriginal customary law and traditional cultural practices from criminal sentencing decisions
  • It bans all alcohol on large swathes of Aboriginal land, and continues to suspend the permit system in Aboriginal townships, even though these measures have been opposed by the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal Peak Organisations.
  • It provides excessively increased penalties for alcohol possession, “including 6 months potential jail time for a single can of beer and 18 months for more than 1.35L of alcohol.”
  • It provides the Australian Crime Commission with “‘Star Chamber’ powers” when it investigates Aboriginal communities, overriding the right to remain silent.
  • It provides police the right to “enter houses and vehicles in Aboriginal communities without a warrant” if they suspect alcohol possession.
  • Makes laws “allowing for information to be transferred about an individual, to any Federal, State or Territory government department or agency, without an individual’s knowledge or consent.”
  • It bans all “sexually explicit or very violent material” on Aboriginal Land.
  • It gives the Commonwealth control over “local regulations in Community Living Areas and town camps.”
  • It expands the School Enrolment and Attendance Measure (SEAM). Under the measure, parents of truant students (who are absent more than once a week) will receive smaller welfare payments. This action ignores “rising concerns among Aboriginal families regarding inappropriate education”
  • The two thousand remaining paid Community Development Employment Program positions will be cut by April 2012. This is, in Stand for Freedom’s view, “the final attack on a vibrant program which was the lifeblood of many communities, employing upwards of 7500 people before the Northern Territory Intervention.”
  • Changes proposed to the Social Security Act would constitute “further attacks on the rights of welfare recipients.”

Armed with this information that could usefully have been provided at the beginning of the book, I read on…

Excerpts in the anthology convey with great power the trauma that the Intervention has caused to people for whom self-determination was so hard won.  There is poetry by Natalie Harkin, Lionel Fogarty, and Ali Cobby Eckermann, and there is fiction by Alexis Wright.  Rodney Hall, Eva Cox and Arnold Zable lend a non-indigenous point-of-view to explain the constitutional connection; the relationship between bad policy and bad politics; and the potential for a meeting place between the Aboriginal and the Jewish search for lost ancestors.  Strong Aboriginal voices in the form of memoir, press releases, political speech-making and deputations to our political leaders clarify the fundamental wrongness of the intervention: that it is a breach of human rights; that it failed from the outset to include community consultation so it was doomed to fail; that it marginalises and humiliates the people it is supposed to be helping, and that far from achieving its intended outcomes, it has actually made things worse on many key indicators.  These Aboriginal voices include both the well-known and the less famous, but who mostly seem to be tertiary educated and media-savvy.  These voices include amongst others Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Pat Anderson, Larissa Behrendt, Melissa Lucashenko, Bruce Pascoe and Yalmay Yunupingu.

There are also compelling accusations that there was a hidden agenda behind the Intervention – that the urgent, militarised mission to rescue children from widespread child abuse – was a mask to enable the federal government to resume control of the valuable mining land.  Equally compelling are the simple words of women and children recalling their fear when uniformed soldiers suddenly entered their communities with sweeping powers – because these communities have painful memories of having their children stolen away by men in uniform.  In remote Australia with no access to TV, radio, telephone or the internet, many of these people had no forewarning and were terrified that a new form of missionary control was back, paternalistically interfering in their lives.

Amongst the many contributions which made me think again about The Intervention, was Rodney Hall’s discussion of constitutional issues.  As a long-time supporter of an Australian Republic, I admit to feeling an intemperate desire to jettison the monarchy before Charles has any chance to become an embarrassing king.  This desire for haste makes me tend towards any model that accomplishes this change quickly, but Hall has made me reconsider.  He says, and I agree that it’s something we should have a national conversation about, that we should consider rewriting our horse-and-buggy constitution in its entirety.  There is no particular reason why the modern nation of Australia could not exercise the same right to frame the nation as did the so-called founding fathers and update the Constitution so that it reflects who we are and how we run the country.  This would enable us to include Aboriginal people and the environment to address the needs of a modern state (p. 185).

(Hall also points out that just how patronising [the Intervention] was can be measured by imagining what an outcry there would be if the government sent the same army personnel to intervene after accusations against the Roman Catholic Church.  (p287) To which he might now add allegations of sexual abuse in institutions run by the Salvation Army, Geelong Grammar and a number of high profile Jewish schools).

In the blurb on the front cover, Australia’s President of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs says that

This important collection … should be on school and university lists and pored over by book club members.

I think she’s right about that, with the caveat that you need to read the entire collection to get a real sense of what the problem is and why indigenous people in the Northern Territory deserve mainstream support to have their human rights restored.

Check out this review at Sharing Culture, from where you can find links to other reviews as well.

Editors: Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss
Title: The Intervention, an Anthology
Publication crowd-funded by ‘Concerned Australians’ 2015
ISBN: 9780646937090
Source: personal library, purchased by special order from Readings who now have copies in stock

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