Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 24, 2015

A King in Hiding, by Fahim, translated by Barbara Mellor

A King in Hiding It’s just a coincidence that I had a copy of A King in Hiding, How a child refugee became a world chess champion, but the current crisis involving refugees from Bangladesh was a spur to bring it to the top of the TBR pile.  I’m glad I read it: prior to doing so, I knew about as much about Bangladesh as French chess master Xavier Parmentier who co-narrates the book with young Fahim:

Before I met Fahim and he became my pupil, I could locate Bangladesh on a globe, sharing a border with India.  I knew it was one of the world’s poorest countries, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that its capital was Dhaka.  And I didn’t know either that it is so much at the mercy of typhoons, cyclones, tsunamis and floods that by the end of the century, unless we do something to halt climate change, it will be swallowed up by the oceans. (p. 8)

(Of all the misery the West has inflicted on other countries in the name of progress, it seems to me that the most iniquitous of all is that it’s poor countries that will bear the brunt of climate change, when they have never had any benefit from the carbon-based economy.  And yet we close our doors to them).

Fahim, however, was not a so-called economic migrant, trying to escape poverty.  His father was a fireman, and his family lived in what Fahim considered a middle-class life in Bangladesh:

We were rich.  We lived in a big house with two rooms: a bedroom with a double bed for me and my sister, and the living room, which had my parents’ bed in the corner.  And the baby’s bed too.

It was a lovely house, but it needed a lot of repairs.  One day, a great chunk of ceiling came down right beside me and scared the life out of me.  Cyclones were frightening too: it felt as though the wind was going to tear the walls apart.  It wasn’t just me who got worried either: our neighbours would come to our house and say prayers in Arabic.  The monsoon season didn’t bother me though.  The rains were torrential, there was water everywhere and everyone got fed up with it, but it wasn’t frightening.  When the courtyard turned into a lake, the neighbours would pile up sandbags so they could walk about without getting their feet wet.  Sometimes the water would come up over the steps and into the house.  (p.10)

(You can see from this excerpt that Sophie Le Callennec, the anthropologist and teacher to whom Fahim told his story, has been able to keep the authenticity of the child’s voice.  Xavier Permentier fills in the background events and the social context in his co-narration).

For Fahim, life in Dhaka was good.  His father, a veteran of the local chess club, taught him to play and he loved it.  He was bored at school because the work was too easy, but by the time he was six, he was recognised as a child prodigy at chess and had won his first tournament in Kolkata in India.  He was on TV and in the newspapers.

But as it turned out, it was Fahim’s fame that brought his childhood to an end.  He and his father were forced to flee because Fahim’s fame as a junior chess player made him vulnerable to kidnap.  During the 2008 State of Emergency imposed by the military dictatorship Fahim’s father came to be suspected of political protest, and the house was repeatedly raided.   Kidnapping is apparently a common way to exert pressure on  parent, and his family’s efforts to protect him meant that he was confined indoors, unable to go to school or outside the house to play.  When one day an anonymous letter came, it was time to go.  To Fahim’s great distress, his mother and siblings stayed behind because the flight of a family of five was bound to attract attention.

The original plan was to go to Spain, but from India they made their way to Rome, and then to Hungary – where Fahim stunned the Hungarian Chess Federation by successfully competing against adults.  But when they entered Paris en route to Madrid, they were advised to stay because France offers protection to people like them.  In the beginning, it turned out to be true: they were treated humanely during the initial period while the claim was assessed, but things deteriorated once the claim was denied.  (It is deeply depressing to read just how easily mistakes were made, and to know that this not unusual.)

If you’ve seen the 2009 French film Welcome which highlighted the plight of illegal immigrants in Calais, then you will remember that shocking moment when the reluctant hero Simon realises that trying to help the young Kurd Bilal with a bed for the night and a bit of food,  is a criminal offence.  Although it wasn’t illegal for Xavier Parmentier to help Fahim and his father Nura during the application process, it became so after the claim was rejected.  Although it is glossed over in the book, probably to protect those who helped, it is clear that there is a functioning network of French people willing to risk trouble in order to act humanely.

Fortunately for Fahim, his talent as a chess player and his luck in finding Xavier Parmentier as a coach and mentor led to a better ending.  As Champion of France in the under 12 category Fahim made headlines, and before long the Prime Minister François Fillon was asked to intervene.   However, it is quite clear that it was that talent that led to political intervention on his behalf, which begs the question, what about all the others, not valuable enough to France to warrant being a special case?

Today Fahim is 15, ranked no 4 in the U/16 in the French Nationals, and 220 in the U16 world rankings, which is remarkable considering the experiences he’s had in his short life. As Sophie Le Callennec says in the Epilogue, a long period of hunger and homelessness have taken their toll. :

He struggles now to find the talent and spirit that were so much a part of him when he arrived in France.  He still nurtures ambitions, certainly, as though determined to get his own back on fate, and he is resolved never again to be in a position of need.  But in snatching his childhood from him, life has clipped his wings.  Fear continues to distil its poison.  At his age, it’s no easy matter to wipe the slate clean of three and a half years of hell.  Fahim has already endured more hardship and sorrow that most adults in his adopted country will ever know.  He’s no longer a king in hiding, but he’s still a king in recovery.  (p. 224)

This is an inspiring story, especially reading about the real hero of the tale, Fahim’s father.

Author: Fahim Muhammed, with Sophie Le Callennec and Xavier Parmentier
Title: A King in Hiding, how a child refugee became a world chess champion
Translated from the French by Barbara Mellor
Publisher: Icon Books, 2015
ISBN: 9781848318281
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin


Fishpond: A King in Hiding: How a Child Refugee Became a World Chess Champion

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 20, 2015

From India with Love, by Latika Bourke

From India with LoveWinner of the Walkley Award for Young Australian Journalist of the Year in 2010, Latika Bourke is a 30-something journalist who works for Fairfax, covering national politics for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.  She has also worked for ABC and 2UE in Canberra.  But From India with Love is not a book about federal politics, it’s a book that’s on a mission to promote the value of inter-country adoption.  From the horse’s mouth, so to speak, because Bourke considers her own experience as an inter-country adoptee a success story.

I should say at the outset that I don’t have an opinion about inter-country adoption.  But I know that there are very strong opinions out there, on either side of the debate, and that there is an Australia actor (whose name escapes me) who is currently on a high-profile mission to have Australia’s controls relaxed.  So this book, From India with Love, for all its wit and charm and confessional style, has politics at its heart.

Politics (from Greek: πολιτικός politikos, definition “of, for, or relating to citizens”) is the practice and theory of influencing other people. (Wikipedia)

It’s a lovely book, which traces Bourke’s happy childhood in rural New South Wales to her success as a young journalist, and her eventual realisation that she needed to visit her birthplace.  She writes with self-deprecating humour about her refusal to acknowledge her Indian origins because she felt so Australian.  She tells us that she experienced no racism, and she tells us that she has no curiosity or angst about not knowing anything about her birth mother because it was always accepted that nothing could be known.  She grew up in a loving family of eight children, (three adopted, all from India but not related to each other) and they grounded her in security.  Apart from the somewhat rocky adolescent years, she has a great relationship with them all.  She writes with great compassion, and a sense of her own good fortune, when she travels to Bettiah in rural north-eastern India and witnesses at first hand the grinding poverty in which she could so easily have been raised, had she indeed survived.

Yes, Latika Bourke is a poster girl for successful inter-country adoption.  If a reader finds this sunny picture completely convincing, it’s a case of mission completed!

There’s also a sub-theme about the need for Australians to take more notice of India than they do.  Bourke admits that she was shamefully ignorant about India before going there, and it made me wonder a bit about the course content of the journalism studies she completed at Charles Sturt University, said to be one of the best in Australia.  I recognise that such a course has to provide generalist skills that provide opportunities for all kinds of journalism, and political journalism is probably well down the rating scale of desirable jobs for many a graduate.  But journalism isn’t content-free.  I recognise that India has been off the Australian radar for a long time, and that expertise in Indian affairs would be rare amongst Australian journalists.  (LOL I suspect that doing the hippy trail would probably be more of a liability than an asset.)  But … I’ve pontificated here before about Australian journalists being woefully underprepared for postings in our neighbouring countries because they don’t speak anything but English, and this book made me curious about other kinds of under-preparedness among our journalists.  Perhaps Bourke has expertise in Asian affairs closer to home that she hasn’t mentioned in this book because it was outside its ambit.  But her confession about ignorance of India made me curious.  Surely applicants for serious journalism are expected to have specialised in relevant content such as international relations, or Asian Studies, or whatever?  It’s a worrying thought that our political pack in Canberra might be too parochial to have stepped outside the Australian politics bubble to understand something about our complex place in the Asian world…

Author: Latika Bourke
Title: From India with Love
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2015
ISBN: 9781742377735
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin


Fishpond: From India with Love

Four Lives in ArtFour Lives in Art couldn’t be more different to the last biography I read, but the undertaking is the same: to rescue from obscurity Australians whose lives have been overlooked.  And though the reasons are different, like Dundalli in Warrior, the four women in Awakening present challenges to those who would reconstruct their lives.

Successful in their lifetimes, today these four are largely unknown, and it is our view that their remarkable lives and achievements deserve recognition.   Although all four women are mentioned in anthologies and are now the subject of postgraduate research, only Louise Dyer has received in-depth attention, from Jim Davidson, in his account Lyrebird Rising: Louise Hanson-Dyer of Oiseau Lyre, 1884-1962 (1994).  With the exception of Louise Dyer, much of the work they made also no longer survives.  It has suffered the fate that Germaine Greer described in The Obstacle Race  (1979), having been lost or assimilated by their better known male contemporaries. Sculptures by Dora Ohlfsen in public collections, which for years languished in storage, are now lost.  American and Australian collectors bought Mary Cecil Allen’s work, yet today the whereabouts of most of these works is largely unknown.  (Introduction, p. vii)

Not mentioned in this paragraph is the publicist, Clarice Zander’s work.  More about her later…

The book doesn’t claim to be an exhaustive biography.  With about 40 pages for each subject,  Awakening spans the period between the close of the nineteenth century to the outbreak of the Second World War, focussing on the career paths of these women from the heady days of the post Federation era to the calamities of war.  This has the somewhat disconcerting effect of creating abrupt endings to the biographies, which are resolved in the Epilogue.  If I had realised that as I read, I would have consulted the Epilogue at the end of each section rather than when I reached the end of the book.  Separating the concluding years of the subjects’ lives like this is an editorial choice which assumes that readers read the book straight through in one go, rather than as I did, reading about each woman over a fortnight and reading other things in between.  But it’s a small quibble…

Anyway, it’s an interesting book.  Elsewhere, I have read and heard about the impact of WW1 on Australia’s view of itself. In the wake of the war it became more introverted, more nationalistic, and less welcoming of new ideas.  For the women in this book it meant that there was little alternative but to escape the stifling conservatism by going overseas, and that’s what they did, embracing opportunities for innovation and change.  At the same time, they took with them the Australian sense of independence and egalitarianism, which contributed to their success in new milieus.

Dora Ohlfsen (1867-1948) was a modernist artist who began her overseas training as a pianist in Vienna, but abandoned music for sculpture, and was very influenced by her time in Rome.  In particular, she created medallions, which – evidenced by the full colour illustrations in the book – were exquisite.  (You can see some of them here at Museum Victoria though predictably they are all Anzac medallions).  Not much of her work remains, but in the Art Gallery of NSW you can see The Awakening of Australian Art (1907), a detail from which is on the cover of the book, and other bronze work, the most beautiful of which is, I think Ceres (1910).  The Art Gallery, however, turned out to cause major disappointment when (after a return visit to Melbourne for family reasons) she was commissioned to design a bas-relief to adorn the entrance, but it all fell through in the end.  Her competition entry to design the sculptural decorations for the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne was not successful either.

Back in Rome fascism was emerging under Mussolini, and despite her doubts about the wisdom of staying there, she ended up accepting patronage from an old friend who was influential with the regime.  Thanks to this friend Tosti, she was commissioned to design the war memorial at Formia in Italy, which you can see here.   The Adelaide Register noted the event in an article dated 28 Dec 1926, which you can see at Trove nut otherwise she did not receive the recognition she should have had.   She certainly was recognised in Rome, where she also produced a medallion of Mussolini, visiting him five times and finding him ‘a great dynamic force’.  Whatever we might think about Mussolini now, Ohlfson was energised by the great fascist art projects, some of which you can still see in Rome if you know where to look.  She died in Rome, ‘Australian by birth, Italian at heart.’

Louise Dyer (1884-1962) was the brains behind the Lyrebird Press, rescuing early music from oblivion by publishing it in scholarly editions.   A great philanthropist who also worked indefatigably on her projects, she used her wealth and privilege to produce, amongst other works, a 12-volume edition of the Œuvres complètes of François Couperin (1668-1733) in the wake of post-war aversion to German music.  By the 1920s she had realised the cultural limitations of life in Melbourne, and its nationalism was stifling her attempts to promote new music such as that of Bela Bartók.  She had found London no better, but Paris was the mecca for musicians and it was there that she was able to support the new interest in early French music.  She was successful in many projects, the most spectacular of which, the authors say, was the 14th century Montpellier Codex of polyphonic works which she had transcribed into modern notation with notes and commentary, the edition enclosed in panels of Australian Blackwood.  It is dispiriting to read that despite her extraordinary success and prestige in the world of French arts, she was virtually ignored when she made a return visit to Melbourne.  This book is worth reading, if only to become aware of how Australian parochialism deadened cultural life in this period.

Clarice Zander (1893-1958) was a publicist.  Like many whose lives were blighted by WW1, she was widowed early though it appears to have been a merciful release because her husband came back from the war as a changed man, and the disastrous soldier settlement scheme exacerbated his drinking.  Clarice supported her daughter with a variety of jobs but found her métier when she was appointed manager of the New Gallery in Melbourne.  The artist Will Dyson became her soul-mate although she never married him, and for reasons of discretion, she followed him on a later ship to London.  Her promised job fell through, but she was a resilient woman and with Dyson’s connections and her own indomitable spirit she soon established herself in freelance journalism and eventually art promotion.

Once again, Australia let its talent down when she returned home to care for her ailing mother.  In 1932 she organised an ambitious exhibition of contemporary art brought from London, but there were few sales and the costs were higher than she had anticipated. Most discouraging was the reluctance to embrace the modern in art, and market protectionism added to the cost of anything imported.  Still, more than 5000 people visited her 1933 exhibition of paintings and sculpture at Newspaper House in Melbourne, notable because she brought art and design together for the first time with the inclusion of textiles, furniture and applied art from Cynthia Reed’s gallery.  But as in Melbourne, at successive shows in other states local galleries failed to buy Australian artists who had succeeded overseas but were not well-known at home, and most them were returned to England unsold.

No purchases were made by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the trustees were criticised for this.  Clarice’s exhibition became a focal point for the disaffection younger artists had felt for some time about the gallery, prompting a confrontation between the old and the new.  John D. Moore wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald criticising the Sydney trustees:

They have failed, as leaders of artistic thought, to help make our art galleries representative of the vital art of our time.  Instead, we find in our collections, with a few exceptions, lifeless examples of the work of artists, who though physically alive, are mentally dead. (p. 111)

Clarice returned to journalism in England in 1933 with her daughter, reporting on riots in France as well as art and society gossip. But in 1934 she was appointed to the Royal Academy of Arts as a press agent where she skilfully steered the Academy through a period of change.  Until WW2 broke out, she worked on  exhibitions to great acclaim there, developing the role of press agent into a new form:

Her work differed substantially from public relations as understood today. Today she would be called a gallery educator, coordinating and writing public programs, roles as yet generally not developed by museums in the 1930s.  Clarice was required to shape and direct public access to the gallery, write articles for the press, put together educational ‘kits’ and guide visitors from the press through an exhibition, all of which required expertise in art history and public relations. (p.118)

She also organised the first TV program from the Academy, but the advent of war, and the bombing of the Royal Academy in particular, brought her back to Australia.  Where – depressingly – her career came to a halt.

Mary Cecil Allen (1893-1962) began her career during the boom years when views about art were polarised.  She was ideally suited to educating art audiences, because she was an artist herself and her education in the university environment (where her father was a professor of medicine) had made her well-read and culturally erudite.  She took classes at the prestigious art school at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and then travelled to London with her family, arriving contemporaneously with exciting new developments in the arts.  She enrolled at the Slade School and worked with the notable figure painter Tonks, but left after three months, discouraged by her experience and declaring that they never taught one anything but that one’s pencil should be well sharpened and in the Life School the model was to be drawn in outline only!! (p.138)

She returned to Australia in 1914, but – keen to study again overseas – she applied for the NGV Travelling Scholarship.  She didn’t win it.   Instead she continued to innovate in her own art and at the same time became an interpreter of the progressive forces in art for her contemporaries, in her books and lectures, making modern art intelligible to both those with an interest in it and those who professed themselves hostile to it.  (p.142)

But when an opportunity came to travel to New York, then enjoying a boom, Mary took it.  Within months she was giving lectures, and before long her lectures were being published by Nortons.    She was not an apologist or polemicist for contemporary art but rather a progressive educator, communicating complex trends in jargon-free prose.  She seems to have fulfilled the role that the young Robert Hughes played when he brought The Shock of the New to television screens in the 1980s.  What a pity Australia couldn’t keep her!

Awakening as a really interesting book which augments the literature of art history in our country.

Steven Miller, BTW is the author of Dogs in Australian Art, which I reviewed some time ago…

Authors: Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller
Title: Awakening, Four Lives in Art
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781743053652
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.


Fishpond: Awakening: Four Lives in Art
Or direct from Wakefield Press

Read More…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2015

Meet an Aussie Author: Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne

I owe Craig Sherborne an apology … He sent me his contribution to Meet an Aussie Author last month, and I drafted most of it, but I was distracted by Aged Parent Duty in Queensland and mislaid the author photo file.

Now that he has been shortlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award, I have scoured my email files for the photo – and voila! here he is:)

Craig is a writer of memoirs, novels, poetry, and journalism.  Readers of this blog may know him as the author of the memoir Hoi Polloi (2005), which was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards; and for its sequel Muck (2007), which won the Queensland Literary Award.  He has also published two books of poetry, Bullion (1995) and Necessary Evil (2005); and a verse drama, Look at Everything Twice for Me (1999).  I discovered his writing in 2011 when he produced The Amateur Science of Love (see my review and a Sensational Snippet), a wonderful novel which was shortlisted for a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and a NSW Premier’s Literary Award, and won the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Best Writing Award, (and you can see a photo of him accepting the award here).   But the novel for which he has been shortlisted is Tree Palace.   With a body of work like that – and the journalism which you can easily find with a bit of a Google search, Sherborne – who lives right here in Melbourne — looks like a potential entrant for the Melbourne Prize, eh?

Here are Craig’s answers to my questions:

1.  I was born … by caesarean section. My mother was anaesthetised and my father was at the Warwick Farm races. That’s all I’ve been told about the incident.

2.  When I was a child I wrote ... a story about a rabbit for class and my teacher accused me of plagiarism. He was wrong and I cried and then had a sausage roll and chocolate milk.

3.  The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write is/was… Nobody has inspired me.  I use the people who discouraged me for motivation.

4.  I write in … an attic.  I sit at a pinewood school desk or lie on a bullskin rug I call Carlos the Impaler.

5.  I write… very early in the morning in the mild weather and much later in winter providing the heater works.

6.  Research is … very boring. I hardly ever do it. Fortunately I’ve not led a sheltered life and can use that instead.

7.  I keep my published works in … removalist boxes in case I need to flee due to fire, flood or a neighbourly dispute.

8.  On the day my first book was published, I … found a typo in the first chapter.

9.  At the moment, I’m writing … a novel about a person who is convinced of the benefits of lying.

10. When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I … drink excessively and ride a horse named Killarney, though seldom at the same time.

Isn’t it interesting to see how some authors featured here enjoy research and others don’t?  Somebody should be doing a PhD about that, I reckon.

Do see Angela Meyer’s review of Tree Palace at Literary Minded.

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2015

2015 Miles Franklin Shortlist

I am pushed for time this morning, so this is just a quick alert to the 2015 Miles Franklin shortlist.

The 2015 Miles Franklin shortlist


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2015

Entries open for The 2015 Melbourne Prize for Literature

Well, the news is out, and now we know the new category for the 2015 10th anniversary Melbourne Prize for Literature!

As you will know if you read my previous post about the prize, the Melbourne Prize is a generous award for writers resident in Victoria.  These are the categories:

The Melbourne Prize for Literature 2015
The winner receives $60,000 cash.  This prize is supported by The Vera Moore Foundation and The Tallis Foundation.

The Melbourne Prize for Literature 2015 is for a Victorian author whose body of published work has made an outstanding contribution to Australian literature and to cultural and intellectual life. The author’s work can include all genres and forms, for example, fiction, non-fiction, essays, plays, screenplays and poetry. There is no age limit for this prize. Entrants must be commercially published authors.

The Best Writing Award
The winner receives $30,000 + $2,500 Qantas airfare credit
This prize is supported by its sole patron, The Robert Salzer Foundation.

The Best Writing Award 2015 is for a published work of outstanding clarity, originality and creativity by a Victorian writer. The work can be any genre for example, fiction, non-fiction, essays, plays, screenplays and poetry. There is no age limit for this award. The recipient of this award will also receive Qantas International air travel to the value of $2,500 (including GST). Entrants must be commercially published authors.

The Civic Choice Award
The winner receives $6,000. This prize is sponsored by Readings Bookstore and Hardie Grant Books.

A public exhibition of the finalists in the Melbourne Prize for Literature 2015, the Best Writing Award 2015 and the Writers Prize 2015 will be held at Federation Square between 9 and 23 November 2015. This award will be given to the finalist with the highest number of public votes. Votes can be made using the online voting form, available at from the announcement of finalists on 2 September to the close of the Federation Square exhibition on 23 November. A voting form will also be available in the free catalogue, available during the exhibition. The announcement of the winner of the Civic Choice Award 2015 will be made on 27 November 2015 at

And now *drumroll* the new prize in 2015, is

The Writer’s Prize 2015
The winner will receive $20,000 + $2,000 each for five finalists This new prize is funded by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

The Writers Prize 2015 is a new category made available this year to continue the 10th anniversary celebrations of the annual Melbourne Prize. Entrants to the Writers Prize 2015 must submit, by the close of entries (20 July 2015), an essay of up to 20,000 words (minimum 10,000 words). The essay must include Melbourne, Victoria or Australia as part of its subject. Submitted work in the Prize must not have been commercially published. Five (5) finalists will be selected by the judges, who will be announced on 2 September. A $2,000 fee (including GST) will be given to each of the five finalists. The winning author will receive the Writers Prize 2015, valued at $20,000.  Entrants must be commercially published authors.

To find out the key dates and other important conditions for entries, download the entry form, or visit the Melbourne Prize website for more information.

ENTRY FORM_Melbourne Prize for Literature 2015 and Awards

Thanks to Simon Warrender, Executive Director and Founder of the Melbourne Trust, for his input to the preparation of this blog post.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2015

Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín

Nora WebsterIt seems to me that Nora Webster has been very widely reviewed so perhaps there is not much more that needs to be said.  If you have read Colm Tóibín before you have probably rushed out and got yourself a copy of this book as soon as you could, just like I did.  And if you have ever had the pleasure of hearing Colm Tóibín speak you have probably read it with the lilt of his voice telling you the story, just like I did.  And I can’t imagine anyone not loving this book, which speaks so eloquently of a widow’s grief and her courageous struggle to redefine herself in the wake of her loss.

The book is set in the 1960s in Enniscorthy, a small Irish town not far from Dublin, a town with a claustrophobic atmosphere where everyone knows everything about everyone else, since birth.  Opportunities are limited, especially for women, and Nora’s stay-at-home role means that for many in the town she is Maurice’s widow, not a person in her own right.  She herself is not keen to go back to work but she has no choice: the widow’s pension is just not enough to bring up four children, and the small increases that come her way make her see in the politician who proposes them in a different light to the rest of her extended family.

Adjusting to tedious clerical work and ghastly office politics is draining, and there is also her ongoing concern about her two young boys and their adjustment to the loss of their father, a teacher at the local secondary school. Her older girls are taking wing, which brings a new set of concerns, all exquisitely depicted through Nora’s perspective, in a family where silences prevail and people keep their thoughts to themselves.

Nora, vacillating between wanting solitude and a new life, finds solace through music.  There is profound pathos in the moment where she is lent a record of music that she loves, but has no record player to play it on.  Mothers will smile in recognition at Nora’s mild resentment when her self-denial lapses and her ‘extravagance’ with the new record player is appropriated by her son playing pop music.  Other small extravagances ‘grow’ the new Nora: a new hairstyle, a new dress, some high heels.  Slowly she begins to make decisions without thinking about what Maurice would have said and done; slowly she begins to take pleasure in the company of people who are her friends.

It’s not a dramatic novel.  Unlike Tóibín’s powerful early novels (I’ve read them all) and the dramatic tension of The Master, Nora Webster is like Brooklyn (see my review) in tone and written from the female point-of-view, tracing the limited lives of women in Ireland yet revealing their emotional depth and domestic power.  (He did the same, in a different place and time, in The Testament of Mary (see my review).  Nora Webster is written in Tóibín’s characteristic plain style, the plot revealed in chronological order with only rare and brief flashbacks to fill in the details of Maurice’s death.  Contemporary events are lightly sketched: Donal, the older boy, is desperate to see the moon landing, and the entire family is appalled by Bloody Sunday across the border in Derry, though divided in how to respond to it.  They represent, in microcosm, the Irish response: Nora’s daughter Aina follows her father’s history with Fianna Fáil and urges action, while the extended family responds with caution torn by a sense of identification with the Catholics of Northern Ireland who are as Irish as they are.

A wonderful book!

To see other reviews, visit The Guardian, the Sydney Review of Books, and the Literary Review UK.

Author: Colm Tóibín
Title: Nora Webster
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2014*
ISBN: 9781743532195
Source: personal library, purchased from Kidna Books Hampton $29.99

* A small quirk: on the verso page of this edition, the © title is printed as The Heather Blazing, instead of Nora Webster. Someone did copy-and-paste, and forgot to change the title!


Fishpond: Nora Webster

The MasterpieceFor most of us who know a little about Zola’s life,  the man is a hero.  He is famous for denouncing the anti-Semitic persecution of Dreyfus, and he’s a literary lion for his championing of a realism which portrayed French life warts and all – and bravely spent a lifetime cocking a snook at the regime into the bargain.  But in The Masterpiece he bares his soul and shares the struggle that underlies all work in the creative arts.  He shows us the loneliness of innovation and the despair that accompanies the quest to make the object match the imagination.  It’s a superb book…

First published in 1886 when Zola was forty-six, The Masterpiece has also been translated as A Masterpiece or His Masterpiece and this is, it seems to me, a rare example of a translated title being better than the original.  Zola called this book L’Œuvre, a word which translates somewhat clumsily as ‘the body of work’, (which is why English has appropriated the French word oeuvre as a more elegant option).  But Zola’s novel isn’t really about a ‘body of work’ or an oeuvre, it’s more about an artist’s obsession with capturing one symbolic image on canvas, which would be his masterpiece. Perhaps Zola was being ironic…

Anyway, the story begins with the optimistic young Claude Lantier arriving in Paris to take it by storm.  The art world was astir with the birth of Impressionism and the Paris Salon was exercising its power to humiliate the brash young artists who created strange ‘unfinished’ pictures of unheroic life. (You can read more about the battle between the conservatives and the innovators in Ross King’s The Judgement of Paris, see my review). Lantier doesn’t care: he is certain that ‘old’ art is dead and that the light-filled beauty of the new will sweep it away.  But Lantier, first introduced to readers of the Rougon-Macquart cycle as a very young artist in The Belly of Paris (1873) and briefly alluded to as the son sent away to his uncle in Plassans in L’Assommoir (1877), is the son of Gervaise, as doomed as she is by her fatal flaws.  (Click the links to see my reviews).

Zola famously got into strife with this novel because (as Roger Pearson explains in the Introduction) it was interpreted as an attack on impressionism, and Cézanne, Zola’s friend since childhood, severed the friendship over it.  And it is true that Zola doesn’t depict the new artworks with any great sense of respect.  But like many an outraged friend who thinks his flaws have been depicted in a novel, Cézanne failed to see that Lantier is an amalgam of many people that the author knew.  From Cezanne, says Pearson, Zola did derive many aspects of Lantier, but he also drew on what he knew of other contemporary painters including Manet and Monet.   Still, Cézanne had some grounds for anger:

As well as being the model for Lantier’s Provençal childhood, Cézanne also provides his physical appearance, his obstinate and volatile temperament, his timidity with women, his vaulting and obsessive artistic ambition, his murderous self-doubt (and tendency to put a fist through his canvases), his growing isolation from his fellow painters and a reputation for being a ‘madman’, his failure to have a painting accepted for the Salon except once (in 1882) as an act of ‘charity’ on the part of a lesser, derivative artist (here Antoine Guillemet* is indeed the model for Fagerolles), and – in common with Manet and the Impressionists – his enduring lack of recognition as an original and talented artist. (Introduction, p. xi)

* Guillemet is an artist now so obscure that he rates only a brief page at French Wikipedia, and apart from listing all the honours he was (so undeservedly) given and the (now forgotten) paintings that he exhibited at successive Salons, it mainly covers his role in having one of Cézanne’s paintings accepted by the Salon jury, of which he was a member.

But the artwork which drew so much derision to Zola’s character Lantier is not attributable to Cézanne, it’s a close description of Manet’s striking Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (which you can see at Nancy’s commentary over at The Books of Émile Zola).  While I enjoyed these ‘spot-the-painting’ moments, what interested me more was the struggle to create them, that is, to realise the artistic vision in the imagination with hand, eye, and paint.

But for Lantier, there is also the struggle to survive financially.  His small legacy is soon gone, and his imprudent marriage to Christine results in an unwanted and badly treated child.  Christine loves him, but she doesn’t understand him, and while she is willing to put up with poverty for his sake, she wishes he would paint saleable pictures.  It is only the first of many sad moments when he is reduced to painting commercial commissions in order to put bread on the table…

The confessional aspect of this novel comes in the character of Sandoz.  Clearly recognisable as Zola himself, Sandoz is determined to ignore the criticism and produce his series of novels, and he diligently sets about doing so.  He works solidly as a journalist to pay his way and support his ailing mother, and as his fortunes rise by contrast with his struggling artist friends, he hosts ‘Thursday’ dinners as much to provide them with a decent meal as to enjoy their company.

As young men, Sandoz and Lantier shared the same dreams and confused ideals:

[Sandoz], too, fell silent.  The previous winter he had published his first book, a series of pleasant sketches of life in Plassans, in which a harsh note here and there was the only indication of the author’s revolt, of his passion for truth and power.  Since then he had been groping his doubtful way through the mass of still confused notions that besieged his brain.  He had started toying with the idea of a gigantic undertaking and had projected an ‘Origins of the Universe’ in three phases: the creation, established according to scientific research; the story of how the human race came to play its part in the sequence of living beings; the future in which beings succeed beings, completing the creation of the world through the ceaseless activity of living matter.  He had cooled off, however, when he began to realise the hazardous nature of the hypotheses of this third phase, and was now trying to find a more limited, a more human setting for his ambitious plan.  (p, 38)

Lantier muses aloud about his dreams:

‘The ideal would be,’ said Claude after a while, ‘to see everything and paint everything.  To have acres of walls to cover, to decorate the railway stations, the market-halls, the town-halls, whatever they put up when architects have at last learned some common sense! All we’ll need then is a good head and some strong muscles, for it isn’t subjects we’ll be short of…. Think of it, Pierre! Life as it’s lived in the streets, the life of rich and poor, in market-places, at the races, along the boulevards, and down back streets in the slums; work of every kind in full swing; human emotions revived and brought into the light of day; the peasants, the farmyards and the countryside…. Think of it! Then they’ll see, then I’ll show ’em what I can do! It makes my hands tingle only to think of it! Modern life in all its aspects, that’s the subject! Frescoes as big as the Panthéon! A series of paintings that’ll shatter the Louvre! (p.38)

Sandoz shares Lantier’s ambition to do something new and to be acknowledged for it, but he differs in personality.  His capacity for dogged persistence and to adapt when necessary is in marked contrast to Lantier’s fatal flaws, not least because he is willing to revisit and revise his own work whereas Lantier destroys his out of frustration and keeps having to start again.  His quest for perfection dooms him in the end.

The glorious artwork on the cover is a detail from Portrait of Frédéric Bazille, c. 1866, by Auguste Renoir.  Bouquets to whoever chooses the artworks for the Oxford World’s Classics series of Zola’s novels, the choices are all just perfect for the titles they represent!

Do read Arnold Bennett’s thoughts on The Masterpiece as well.

The Beast in ManThe Masterpiece is the fourteenth title in my quest to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle of 20 novels in the recommended reading order.  Next up is The Beast in the Man (La Bête Humaine, 1890) and since there isn’t a nice new edition, I have acquired a splendid old Elek edition (1956) with a characteristically lurid cover to match Zola’s most violent work.  I plan to read it in July…

Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Masterpiece
Translated by Thomas Walton (1950), revised by Roger Pearson (1993)
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2006
ISBN: 9780199536917
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press


Fishpond: The Masterpiece (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at The Books of Émile Zola


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 15, 2015

Robbed of Every Blessing, by John Tully

Robbed of Every Blessing Robbed of Every Blessing is a splendid book; it’s compelling reading.

It begins in the 1800s as the Brits impose harsh repression on the Irish in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the action then moves to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) when the rebel Maurice O’Dwyer is transported after a shambolic trial.  His trials and tribulations are vaguely reminiscent of For the Term of His Natural Life except that with plot and characterisation Tully draws a link between the colonial appropriation of indigenous land and the British Occupation of Ireland.  Marcus Clarke, writing in the 1870s when it was believed that the indigenous people were on the verge of extinction, excluded them from his narrative, but John Tully’s convict escapee finds an indigenous ally in the bush, and authorial respect is paid to indigenous bushcraft and survival.

(Please see my review of Lyndall Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines, a History since 1803 for an overview of indigenous life in this period and how the myth of extinction came to be perpetrated).

Robbed of Every Blessing shares with For the Term of His Natural Life the themes of guilt, treachery, redemption, and the nature of evil.  Like Rufus Dawes, Maurice O’Dwyer is tested to the limits of human endurance, and part of the interest in the book lies in how far he can be pushed before his spirit or his integrity fails.  As the title indicates, O’Dwyer is robbed of all he holds dear, but a cruel travesty of justice has brought his younger brother to Van Dieman’s Land too, and the need to protect the simple-minded Padraig makes O’Dwyer more vulnerable to his nemesis Captain Reynolds.

The author’s passion for exposing the injustice of transporting Irishmen for defending their land against oppressive invaders is clear, but it’s kept under control, as is the depiction of transportation.  Writing about the convict era in Tasmania takes real skill because it was a brutal and sadistic regime, and any attempts to airbrush its cruelties would lack authenticity.  An author can’t credibly sentimentalise or excuse the violence of the system.   At the same time, nobody wants to read a sensationalised catalogue of horrors either.   Tully handles it by narrating the story through a cast of characters that includes almost everyone involved in the plot (which works surprisingly well, it’s not confusing at all). These multiple perspectives prevent a clichéd binary presentation of opposites, and offers some understanding of why and how the brutality of the system impacted on the gaolers too.

I enjoyed John Tully’s previous book Dark Clouds on the Mountain (see my review) but Robbed of Every Blessing confirms this author as a really good storyteller, with a powerful story to tell.

Visit the Hybrid Publishers website for an interview with the author and the opportunity to listen to the author read an excerpt from the book.

PS That magnificent photo on the cover is by Bob Brown.

Author: John Tully
Title: Robbed of Every Blessing
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2015
ISBN: 9781925000894
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers


Fishpond: Robbed of Every Blessing
Or direct from Hybrid Publishers.
Available as an eBook too.

The Story of My TeethThe Story of My Teeth is a most unusual book.  It’s very clever and very witty – but… I can’t say that I really enjoyed reading it.

Valeria Luiselli is a rising star in Mexican literary circles and this novella is published by Granta.  The blurbs praise her intellect and her mastery of prose.  The book itself is a postmodern pastiche of styles which come together to explore the value of the things we buy and the way that celebrity attaches itself to consumer goods to inflate the price.  All you need is a good story, and the narrator of this book, auctioneer Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez, tells stories of increasing absurdity to achieve ridiculous prices for the goods he auctions…

Which happen to be teeth.  Sanchez himself has bought Marilyn Monroe’s teeth to replace his own, and thus he auctions his teeth with stories about them having belonged to everyone from Plato to Enrique Vila-Matas.  Yes, it is meant to be absurd, and yes you are meant to get the connections with the literary borrowings from Proust and Shakespeare et al.

It’s less than 200 pages altogether and some of that is B&W photos of scenes from the novel and a timeline at the back.  It’s littered with quotations and quasi-quotations but it’s not actually difficult to read though the shift from the mostly light-hearted and optimistic first person narration to the darker, perhaps posthumous concluding chapter is a bit of a jolt.  Its quirkiness reminded me of the style of Cesar Aira’s Varamo.  But – maybe I just wasn’t in the mood – but I didn’t find it amusing.  Or especially illuminating…

I see from GoodReads that it polarises opinion.

Best if you check out reviews from elsewhere… see this one at The National and this one from Claire at Word by Word – it illuminates the author’s preoccupations in an earlier book of essays …

Author: Valeria Luiselli
Title: The Story of My Teeth
Translated by Christina MacSweeney
Publisher: Granta 2015
ISBN: 9781783780815
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin Australia.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 10, 2015

Warrior, by Libby Connors


It’s an ambitious quest, to write the story of an Aboriginal hero of colonial times.  Reading Libby Connors’ account of the life and violent death of the warrior Dundalli and how she untangles events from sources that are inevitably Eurocentric makes for fascinating reading.  Warrior is an important contribution to the debate around the exclusion of the colonial frontier wars from the national military narrative and its associated memorialising.

Events unfold in what became Brisbane in the 1840s as the fledgling British settlement came under attack.  Dundalli, a powerful warrior and lawman who led indigenous resistance against incursions onto traditional lands, was captured and executed after a shambolic trial which had no legal reason to take place.  Connors also shows how the indigenous justice system of ‘payback’ ritual spearing escalated into much greater violence in response to cases when the British broke their own laws.

What’s interesting is the way Connors unpacks the documents to show that there was initial accommodation of the interlopers and how crucial Aboriginal politics were to the disaster that eventually unfolded for Dundalli and his people.

Connors’ painstaking recreation of events shows that early settlement was peaceful enough.  Some Aboriginal groups apparently welcomed it because it gave them advantages over others – better axes and other tools that they inventively adapted were useful for hunting and fishing or as gifts for trade with other Aboriginal groups in what was then a rich regional economy.  This is demonstrated in well–documented examples of the Aboriginal economy trading in partnership with the British economy.   Occasional outbursts of ‘payback’ over perceived European infringements were consistent with Aboriginal law – but these were not recognised as such by the British.

The Indigenous and European legal systems operated in parallel, and the leading participants of each assumed that their own system was the dominant one.  It is as if in these early years neither the Indigenous nor European communities appreciated how effectively the other’s set of laws functioned within its own sphere.  (p.180)

However, as  observed by colonial missionaries, there was serious rivalry  – which sometimes erupted into war – between the Aboriginal peoples in the area.  Dundalli was from the Dalla people whose lands in the Blackall Ranges were surrounded by the Wakka Wakka to their west; the Gubbi Gubbi people along the Mary River; and by the Undambi in the east.  (There is a helpful map which clarifies these geographic relationships). These Undambi were also known as the ‘Mwoirnewar’ (Saltwater) people and their communities included the Ningy Ningy in what is now Brisbane’s bayside, and on Bribie Island, the Joondaburri.  Southwards was the Yaggera language group, with the Mianjin in what is now the Brisbane CBD; the Quandamooka in the southeast mainland of Moreton Bay; the Ngugi on Moreton Island; and on Stradbroke Island, the Nunukul and Goenpul.  (I must say, that as a tourist in these places, I like to see the increasing signage that acknowledges our Indigenous Peoples.  I like to know the story of the land I stand on, and I like to pay respect to its history, no matter how fraught that may be).

Anyway, all these peoples were keen to take advantage of useful new European tools which could enhance their trading and political superiority.  Tragically for Dundalli, they also manipulated the settlers into settling some scores for them, and the complexity of Aboriginal internal politics makes for interesting reading.  I’m not an historian, so I can only note Connors’ acknowledgement that sources from an Aboriginal point-of-view are scant, but her arguments are convincing:

From what we can perceive of the debate inside Aboriginal society, its politics were just as sophisticated [as the Europeans’ were].  In the summer of 1842-43 all the south-east Queensland peoples had agreed that the settlers were base and ignorant people whose unlawfulness could not be tolerated.  The question was how best to respond to them.  Should the old ways of ancestral law continue to have primacy when Europeans were so lacking in the courtesy and honour that Aboriginal law required?  Europeans had powerful technology and no sense of proportion, so their vengeance lacked all subtlety – it would be wreaked upon those living in close proximity to European settlement and would always escalate disputes.  Those who persisted in asserting that traditional ways were sacred and immutable could flee to their mountain fastnesses and island homes.  In the 1840s any regions without roads or accessible waterways generally remained safe for Aboriginal people.

The Stradbroke Islanders, Mianjin and Jagera of Ipswich and South Brisbane did not have such easy sanctuary.  Since they couldn’t avoid them, they preferred to exploit naïve Europeans to settle their own scores.  Settler understanding of Aboriginal politics was crude, and at times it was easy to persuade them to act against one’s opponents, whether they were European wrongdoers or Aboriginal rivals or offenders.  For, just as Europeans were preoccupied with their own national and family problems at the same time that they were debating frontier relations, Aboriginal law and politics continued to be about more than just the malevolence and savagery of Europeans.  It was Aboriginal-focused, not European-focused.
(p. 109-110)

The Nunukal people used the Europeans too (p.143) and it was eventually Aboriginal treachery that led to Dundalli’s arrest and subsequent execution.

But Connors’ PhD (1990) was about the operation of the law in pre-Separation Queensland from 1839 to 1859, and Warrior traces not only the clash between legal systems which led to conflict but also the shameful failure of British justice on the frontier.  The Aborigines were entitled to think the settlers dishonourable when they did not give warning of payback but they could not have known that the deception and treachery of luring the victim into range during vigilante/police paybacks for summary execution, with no attempt at arrest, was illegal under British law too.  But the authorities who dealt with these cases knew, and they failed to act.  What’s more, Aboriginal men on trial for their lives usually had little or no legal representation and they were precluded from giving evidence in their own defence because they could not swear on a Christian Bible.

In the case of Dundalli, the settlers were out for blood because for twelve years he had led the resistance against them and he had mythic status because of his size and strength.  It seems quite clear from Connors’ analysis of court documents, newspapers accounts and the judge’s memoir that the courts should have thrown out the conflicting evidence of young witnesses browbeaten into changing their story under the relentless newspaper campaigns for vengeance.  But the judge capitulated to public pressure…

This book would be an essential reference for teachers of history at Year 9, for the topic ‘Making a Nation’ because it dovetails so well with this theme:

The extension of settlement, including the effects of contact (intended and unintended) between European settlers in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (ACDSEH020)

But it’s also essential reading for anyone interested in Australia’s Black History…

PS I can’t yet find any reviews by professional historians online, but will add links to them if they come to my attention.  Any suggestions for who to link to would be most welcome.

Author: Libby Connors
Title: Warrior
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2015
ISBN: 9781760110482
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin


Fishpond: Warrior: A Legendary Leader’s Dramatic Life and Violent Death on the Colonial Frontier
Or from good bookstores everywhere.




Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 9, 2015

A private launch: Solly’s Girl, by Ros Collins

Lisa, Karenlee & RosToday I had the very great pleasure of attending a private launch of a book I can’t wait to read. It’s Solly’s Girl, a memoir, by Ros Collins, known to readers of this blog as the wife and literary executor of Alan Collins (1928-2008), whose books are reviewed here on this blog.  And there’s another face familiar to my readers in the photo too: it’s Queensland author Karenlee Thompson, author of 8 States of Catastrophe, (see my review) and a regular guest reviewer of short stories here … Karenlee is celebrating Solly’s Girl too because she mentored Ros throughout the writing journey and is as thrilled as I am to be toasting its birth with a glass of bubbly.

The book is the 124th in the Makor Write Your Story series, and this is the blurb:

In her introduction, Ros writes that she wants to entertain the reader; she has done a great deal more than that in this highly original, intricately woven memoir. Eschewing the easier chronological approach, Ros has created a colourful tapestry of stories from her own life in England and from her family and professional life in Melbourne, intertwined with research on ancestors both noteworthy and not-so worthy and completed with insightful writing on the career of her husband of more than fifty years, the well-known Australian Jewish author, Alan Collins.

In London the ‘boring’ fifties were coming to an end when Ros met her Aussie, Alan; she was soon to accompany him to Melbourne as a ‘Ten Pound Pom’. Box Hill, nowhere near the Jewish ‘ghetto’, was where they could afford a home in which to raise their growing family of three boys. Life in the ‘bush’ offered challenges to their Jewishness but also gave them a singular freedom. While work in advertising provided needed income for the family, Alan’s writing eventually became his sole occupation. Meanwhile, Ros began work in librarianship that would ultimately result in her making significant contributions to the field, especially within the Jewish community. Ros describes the many vicissitudes of rearing three boys with the dismay, humour and love of a Jewish mother.

Spanning well over sixty years of both Ros’ and Alan’s lives, the memoir is not only an intelligent and thought-provoking account of Australian Jewish life; it is also a loving tribute to the talent and accomplishments of a much-admired author. In the final chapters we learn of Ros’ efforts to ensure that Alan’s work is remembered after his death.

Unfortunately I’m going to be overseas for the official launch on Sunday June 14th at 2.30pm at the Beth Weizmann Community Centre, 306 Hawthorn Road, Caulfield South.  It promises to be a splendid  occasion, with Jeanne Pratt AC doing the honours and music from Gershwin by the much-loved jazz singer Nichaud Fitzgibbon.   If you’d like to attend click the link for more information:  Solly’s Girl launch

If you’d like to pre-order the book, click the link to download the orderform.

PS That gorgeous Corgi in the photo is called Roxie:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 8, 2015

Ariel, by Sylvia Plath

ArielI really like the current trend for publishers to re-issue some of their classic texts: there’s Text Classics with dozens to choose from; UQP Modern Classics – only four so far  but all of them are essential reading; Oxford World’s Classics – source of most of the Zola novels I’ve been reading but there are heaps more to choose from; Popular Penguins including classic crime; and now the Faber Modern Classics series,  with ten titles released in April and a further six to come in June.  With crisp new cover designs and nice paper, these are going to look good on the shelf and at $12.99 RRP they are inexpensive enough to buy the whole set.

Although I read poetry, I don’t usually write about it here because poetry reviews are difficult to do, but Sylvia Plath’s 1965 collection Ariel was the first of the Faber classics that I picked up to read.  I was having a difficult day, and I needed something really absorbing to take my mind off things.  The very first poem, ‘Morning Song’ is such a remarkable tribute to the universal experience of motherhood, it brought back memories from many years ago.

Love set you going like a fat gold watch
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

She confesses that disbelief in her new self as mother, that all of us, surely, have felt some time:

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

Here is the ever-present alert attention in the night :

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s.  The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars.  And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

But this is Plath, a tortured soul, so as well as confessing the ambivalence of mothering, she also writes bitterly about death, and suicide, and anger.  There is a surreal sense of menace and dislocation in her allusions to nature (trees, rabbits, poppies) and it’s dark reading.

There isn’t a foreword or introduction in this small collection (it’s only 81 pages) so I had to consult Wikipedia to see whether this edition is the complete edition.  It is: it includes the four poems notoriously edited out of the posthumous collection by Plath’s husband Ted Hughes.  Reams have been written about whether he was justified or not; whether he wanted to protect her reputation or his own; whether he wanted to shield the children from her intensely personal revelations; whether he wanted to edit the collection to be the best it could be etc.  Now, of course, we can read the poems and hear the poet’s own voice to help decide for ourselves.

When you read the excised four: ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Tulips’, ‘Daddy’ and ‘The Munich Mannequins’ you can guess at the reasons for Hughes’ interference.  The so-called Holocaust poems ‘Lady Lazarus’ (about her unwanted rebirths after unsuccessful suicide attempts) and ‘Daddy’ (which seems like an exorcism expelling him from her life) are difficult to interpret but raise questions about the appropriateness of using Holocaust imagery; while ‘Tulips’ (where a gift of flowers interrupts the calm of her time in hospital) and ‘The Munich Mannequins’ (which is famous for its opening line Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children) seem to annihilate the female self, but also expose imperfections in Plath’s marriage.

The publication of the collection even it its edited form two years after her suicide must have been sobering indeed.

If you, or anyone you know is struggling with mental health issues, get help.  In Australia, Beyond Blue will help you find the support you need.

Author: Sylvia Plath
Title: Ariel
Publisher: Faber Modern Classics, 2015
ISBN: 9780571322725
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Fishpond: Ariel: Faber Modern Classics
Or good bookstores anywhere.

The Four BooksI’ve read two other books by Yan Lianke: Dream of Ding Village (2005) which was an indictment of China’s scandalous blood collection scheme, (see my review) and Lenin’s Kisses (2003) which mocked China’s get-rich-quick entry into capitalism (see my review).  Lianke, living and writing in China, is a scathing critic of his society but although his works are censored, he (unlike other Chinese writers in prison or in exile) has so far avoided curtailment of his personal liberty and freedom to write.

This is, he admits, because he has exercised some self-censorship in the past.  But with The Four Books he decided to write as he pleased, knowing that he would have trouble with the censors anyway.   The book deals with a no-go area of China’s history, The Great Leap Forward, (1958-1961) which was Mao’s disastrous campaign to effect the rapid transformation of China from an agrarian economy into an industrialised socialist state with collectivized farming.  It caused the Great Chinese Famine resulting in millions of deaths.  (The numbers are disputed, of course.  Estimates vary between 15 and 45 million people.)

As expected, the authorities have prevented publication of the book in mainland China.  In 2010 it was first published as Sishu in a small print run for friends and colleagues in Hong Kong, but is now enjoying a wide readership outside China since its translation into English by Carlos Rojas (who also translated Lenin’s Kisses).  It is sad to think that ordinary Chinese cannot know their own history, an ignorance foreshadowed in the novel when the hapless members of the brigade try to find out if the famine is localised, or affecting the entire country.  They never do find out, and their naïve belief that the higher-ups would surely send food if they could, is only one of many sharp ironies in the novel.

The four books of the title refer to four interwoven narrations.  The characters of the novel are never named: they are designated The Child (who is in charge) and the members of the 99th Brigade, sent for re-education through labour because of their crimes (i.e. being, by definition, pro-Western because they are intellectuals).  These intellectuals are, amongst many others, the Theologian, the Philosopher, the Linguist, the Musician, the Scholar and the Author, and it is the author who writes the excerpts from ‘Criminal Records’ – a journal written at the behest of the Child and denouncing the other members of the brigade for various incriminating behaviours.  The author is also secretly gathering material for his novel, to be written after he is released, and these excerpts are called ‘Old Course’ (alluding to the old ways of doing things, which are of course, strictly forbidden in Mao’s China).  There are also fragments from ‘Heaven’s Child’, an anonymous work that tells the story of the Re-Ed Compound with religious and mythological overtones, and the final chapter is an allusion to endlessly unachievable tasks called ‘A New Myth of Sisyphus‘ which purports to be a secret manuscript written by someone else in the compound.  It may sound unnecessarily complex or confusing, but it’s not.  Each excerpt reads smoothly, and it’s not at all complicated.

In fact, the plot is almost too simple.  It follows what happened in real life.  Pushed by insane targets, people with no farming expertise destroyed the arable land, then mined it to try to reach insane industrial targets and then the famine struck. Lianke uses satire to show how this took place.

Emulating the higher-ups, the Child institutes an absurd system of rewards and incentives to encourage higher productivity.  Only it’s not higher productivity – it’s reporting of higher productivity.

At the beginning of winter, those who reported production of more than six hundred jin of grain per mu of land were praised, whereupon they all proceeded to the county seat to receive their awards.  There the Child reported six hundred jin of grain per mu. This was a large figure, but there were also some people who reported as much as sixteen hundred jin. The award for those reporting one thousand jin was an iron shovel, and for those reporting fifteen hundred jin the award was a shovel and a hoe.  Those reporting more than two thousand jin would also receive a flashlight and a pair of rubber rain boots, and for every additional hundred jin over three thousand they would receive another foot of muslin fabric.  As a result, everyone started reporting like crazy.  Some reported five thousand jin, others reported ten thousand and one person even reported having produced fifty thousand jin per mu.

They were shouting and waving their hands.  One person loved his country so much that he reported production of a hundred thousand jin per mu. (p. 36)

So.  In order to acquire the tools needed to do the work, brigade leaders report insanely unachievable production levels.  The higher-ups soon realise the rort, but they are in on it too, and so they issue a cascade of red blossoms with a number attached that tells how much may be reported.  The Child only manages to grab one with 500 on it, so he gets no award.  So, like a manipulative child, he sulks so that one of the higher-ups lets him report 15,000 jin which makes him eligible for a hoe, pick-axe, scythe and a great roll of cloth…

The Child institutes the same system of red blossoms back at the brigade.  The incentive is to be able to go back home.  But he also sets up surveillance: the blossoms must be on display beside the beds, and roommates must inspect each other’s blossoms.  Any stealing results in the loss of all the thief’s blossoms, and reporting a theft earns extra blossoms.  When the brigade responds with an aghast silence to the ludicrous target the Child has set, he offers eight blossoms to whoever concurs first and in this way he gets acceptance.  With the few remaining sceptics (the Scholar, the Theologian, the Musician and others) he produces the scythe and tells them to slice his head off.  He is clearly mad, but they give in…

Each successive directive from the higher-ups is treated the same way, with the hapless brigade trying to achieve the unachievable and going to extraordinary lengths to achieve it, while at the same time, what matters is not what is produced but what is reported.  The disaster as it unfolds is chilling reading.

The Four Books is a remarkable novel which brings to life an event which I knew about only in the abstract.  Somewhere between 15 and 45 million people died in that famine, and the sometimes biblical tone of the ‘Heaven’s Child’ narrative reminds the reader of those Old Testament disasters inflicted by a vengeful god.  Mao thought he was a god, but in reality he was one of the most evil men in history and under his dictatorship his policies resulted in more deaths of his own people than almost any other tyrant.

There are plenty of reviews around: I liked this one from The Financial Times.

Author: Yan Lianke
Title: The Four Books
Translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922182487
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


Fishpond: The Four Books
Or direct from Text Publishing
Or any good bookshop.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 2, 2015

2015 Williamstown Literary Festival June 13-4

This year’s Williamstown Literary Festival is shaping up to be a terrific event.

Here’s the link where you can buy tickets: Williamstown Literary Festival 

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