8076148I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, so I was pleased to see it at the library.

What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History begins with an Introduction by Marilyn Lake, titled: What have you done for your country?  It covers the reaction to her public lecture which was reprinted in The Age as an ‘Opinion’ piece, and subsequently broadcast on ABC Radio National.   There was, she says,  an avalanche of correspondence … much of it in the form of personal abuse and accusations of disloyalty. (p.1.)  What was most interesting was that many of the most angry respondents said that she had no right to write on this topic (p.4) and she noted that many felt the need to preface whatever they said with their own Anzac credentials, i.e. that they themselves had relatives who had gone to war and therefore did have the right to speak about it.

Well, by marriage, I have relatives who went to war (including some who died there) and the same is true on my own side of the family – but of course they were British (including some who died there) so perhaps they don’t count.  However, I find the mere idea that having an Anzac in the family confers some kind of privileged access to the discourse deeply offensive.  By definition, it excludes most of the Australians descended from non-British emigrants, and – given the racist policies about the enlistment of Aborigines, it excludes most of them as well (unless they broke the law and enlisted anyway, which at least 400 of them did, much good it did them when it came to accessing any post-war benefits that all the other Anzacs received).   There is a nasty little undercurrent in this divisive pseudo-patriotic exclusion, some horrid idea to do with people who are ‘real Australians’ and those who are not.

So you might think that I would be well-disposed towards this book, but actually, it made me feel uneasy.  The title is, I think, unduly provocative.   And for all that it is authored by venerable historians, I don’t think it is particularly well-written.  Much of it is repetitive, a good deal of it is boring, and at the end of the day, while it has some valid points to make, it doesn’t make a very convincing case for an alternative.  The argument that there are other aspects of history that ‘made’ Australia seems like more of an afterthought.

To summarise their arguments:

  • There is some spectacular ignorance about what actually happened at Anzac Cove in 1915.  They quote a correspondent wondering what would have happened if we had not won at Gallipoli (!) and others who overlook the uncomfortable truth that the allies were invading Turkey.  The belief that Australians were fighting for freedom and defending democracy in WW1 is something that I see parroted year after year by earnest school children at Anzac Day ceremonies, presumably because the journalists reporting it think it is true too.  (Lake and Reynolds say that the invasion of Turkey wasn’t anything to do with defending democracy, it took place to assist our ally Britain to support Russia, then the world’s greatest autocracy).
  • Australia was not under threat at all.  We could have chosen to remain neutral, but Australia has a habit of following its allies into wars on foreign soil. (Geoffrey Blainey rebuts the possibility of neutrality in his review, because the Germans were lurking about in German New Guinea and that is where the first Australian WW1 casualties were.  Unfortunately the article is on The Australian’s website so it may be paywalled).
  • Military history has been transformed into family history, made possible by online genealogical resources at the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
  • Australia became more dependant on Britain after WW1, not less, and this contradicts the notion that Anzac is what made us a nation.  Not only that, they say, but WW1 and Vietnam were wars that divided the nation because of the issue of conscription.
  • Other events before and after Anzac made us a nation: the peaceful Federation of the colonies; the peaceful, prosperous, innovative pre-war period which introduced women’s rights, a living wage, old age pensions and kindred measures which pioneered the welfare state.  (p.26)
  • The focus on a war so long ago has stifled debate about Australia’s expeditions to Iraq and Afghanistan.   This has led to an unwillingness to solve conflicts with diplomacy rather than war.  (I think it’s depressing that there is no debate about our recent wars, and shameful that our politicians can commit us to them with less fuss than negotiating a free trade agreement, but still, this argument seems incoherent to me.  If as they say, Australia always blindly follows its powerful allies into war anyway, what Australian efforts at diplomacy would there be?)
  • The qualities associated with Anzac are not unique: courage, mateship, sacrifice and determination are characteristics of other nations too.
  • Australia does not acknowledge the one war that did take place on Australian soil, that is, the frontier wars. There are no memorials to Aboriginal resistance fighters and the Australian War Memorial refuses to countenance building any.

The authors believe that it was

democratic equality and the fair go, the demand for justice and the assertion of rights that were once central to Australians ‘sense of themselves’.  At the heart of Australian nationalism, was a belief in equality of opportunity, but ‘equality of opportunity’ is not a value invoked by the ‘spirit of Anzac.’ (p9)

This argument, however, is diminished somewhat by their claim that conservative politics lies behind the promotion of national pride in Anzac as a substitute for our limp efforts to celebrate Australia Day.  Of course it’s true that January 26th is problematic because our indigenous people regard it as Invasion Day, but it’s always been a sad and sorry day to celebrate anyway.   Who wants to celebrate the nation’s birth as a penal colony when the people who came here didn’t have what we Aussies cherish most of all – freedom?  (The Americans have airbrushed their convicts right out of their history!) No, I’d love to have a national day that all Australians felt happy to celebrate, our indigenous Australians most of all, and that’s never going to be January 26th.  It seems to me that the reason most people don’t want to change the date is just because it marks a convenient end to our long, lazy summer holidays.  But whatever about that, the authors have not made a convincing case that Australians are submitting to a sort of conspiracy to make us forget about our awkward national day by making us get enthusiastic about Anzac Day instead.

It seems to me that there are other reasons why Australians go a bit overboard with commemorations, not just of Anzac but of a proliferating number of other battles from other wars as well.  Young people (according to plenty of research) think our history is boring, and for generations raised on X-box war games and aggro-movies from Hollywood, war looks exciting.

And people just like to have heroes.  Especially if they can claim one in their own family.  I think that Reynolds and Lake have got it right when they suggest that the rebadging of WW1 and Ww2 soldiers as heroic victims rather than as killers makes them more heroic and less open to any of the sort of angst that arose over Vietnam.  They acknowledge that there is a longing for a proud national history and they say that The Broken Years (1974) by Bill Gammage and The Anzacs (1978) by Patsy Adam-Smith played a crucial role in establishing the innocent young soldier as the face of Anzac, the beautiful boys in the film Gallipoli (p. 21)  But I don’t think this is a bad thing.  Yes, the Anzacs were aggressive and skilled wielders of the bayonet, they were killers as all soldiers are.  But if some of the Anzacs enlisted of their own volition, many of them were bullied into it with white feathers, and I should think that all of them were very quickly disillusioned by the reality of war.  If books and films showing the waste of young lives made their elders hesitate about sending them off to war, that would be a fine thing.

While I don’t share the authors’ concern about DVA itself developing curriculum materials for use in schools,  I have been uneasy for a while about the amount of money that they have to spend compared to other government departments.  I don’t understand why, when literacy, numeracy and science are supposed to be a very high priority, that – under both Liberal and Labor governments – there is never any money for curriculum materials to support the teaching of those areas, but there are literally millions of dollars available to produce multiple copies of kits about diverse aspects of war, every single year, for every single school in Australia.  (My school, with about 400 students, always gets two sets.  How many does a secondary school with 2000 students get? Do the maths and it’s a lot of money).

The pity is that this could have been a much better book than it is.  I think James Brown’s book, Anzac’s Long Shadow is a much better, more thoughtful and less biased book than this one.

Principal authors: Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds
Contributors: Joy Damousi, Carina Donaldson and Mark McKenna
Title: What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History
Publisher: New South, 2010
ISBN: 9781742231518
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 20, 2014

Book Giveaway: The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly


There are a number of established Aussie authors whose novels I always buy, for two reasons.  The first is because they’re terrific authors and I know that I’ll enjoy reading the book, and the second is that I want to encourage them to write another one.   In no particular order, these are the authors whose books may not be reviewed immediately but their latest books are on my TBR as soon as I can get my hands on them:

  • Alex Miller
  • Richard Flanagan
  • Joan London
  • Kate Grenville
  • Cate Kennedy
  • Andrea Goldsmith
  • David Ireland
  • David Foster
  • Rodney Hall
  • Kim Scott
  • Marion Halligan
  • David Malouf, and  last – but definitely not least…
  • Paddy O’Reilly.

And that is how I came to have a second copy of Paddy O’Reilly’s beaut new book – because her publisher, Affirm Press, very kindly sent me a review copy while I was waiting impatiently for the copy I’d pre-ordered to arrive.  So, you lucky readers, you have the opportunity to get your hands on Paddy’s beaut new book because I’m giving the second (i.e. unread) copy away.

This is the blurb from Affirm Press:

What happens when three otherwise normal people undergo radical medical treatments that make them international curiosities? They become wonders. Leon has a small visible mechanical heart; Kathryn has been cured of a rare genetic disorder but is now covered in curly black wool; while performance artist Christos has metal wings implanted into his back. Brought together by a canny entrepreneur, ‘The Wonders’ are transformed into a glamorous, genre-defying, twenty-first-century freak show. But what makes them objects of fascination also places them in danger. Challenging our ideas about celebrity, disability and the value of human life, The Wonders is a boldly inventive, acute and moving novel from one of Australia’s finest authors.

Here’s a Sensational Snippet, and you can read my enthusiastic review here.

HOW TO ENTERBe in it to win it!  Anyone with an Australian postal address is eligible.  Please indicate your interest in the Comments box below and I’ll select a winner using a random generator by the end of August.

All entries from readers with an Australian postcode will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner.   (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met).

Good luck!

PS BTW, for those who count these things, my list of Must-have Authors is a 7/6 male/female split, and I listed those authors in the order that I thought of them with no deliberate attention to gender, ok?)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 17, 2014

Deeper Water, by Jessie Cole


Something rather odd happened when I finished reading Jessie Cole’s second novel last night.

Usually when I finish reading a book, I close the covers, and mull over it for a while.  I give it time to settle, like leaving a curry in the fridge overnight to give the flavours a chance to meld together.  But at the back of Deeper Water there is something I had never come across before: a section called Q & A with Jessie Cole – and the very first question is, ‘What do you think Deeper Water is about?’  And having spent 337 pages showing the reader what the novel is about, Jessie Cole proceeds to tell us.  (To be fair, I doubt if this concept was her idea.)

Like a fool, I read it, and it spoiled the book for me.   I was really, really cross.  I felt as if I were back at school, being told what to think about what I had read.  Because what the author thought this book was about, temporarily swamped what  thought it was about.  I had to stomp around the kitchen doing irrelevant housekeeping things for a long time this morning, before I could get the author’s earnest voice out of my head.

Deeper Water is the story of an innocent called Mema whose sheltered world on a bush block is disrupted by a stranger trapped there by floodwaters.  This man, Hamish, is an eco-consultant and his world is turned upside-down when he is marooned in a place where there is no internet or phone, and all his possessions are gone.  Mema finds herself attracted to Hamish, but her older and wiser sister and mother warn her off.  The characterisation is so good that the reader becomes as convinced as Mema that there may be a future for this relationship.  So yes, this is a (rather YA) story of sexual awakening, and yes, it’s an homage to getting in touch with the nature from which humans seem to be divorced.

But as discerning readers realise, authors often reveal more of themselves in their books than they know.  Deeper Water is a more interesting book than either the author or the creator of those inane Book Group Questions also at the back of the book seem to realise.  For once a book is out of the hands of its creator, it belongs to the reader, who makes of it what she will.  And I thought there was much more to this story than the rather overwrought sexual awakening of its rather improbable character.

FWIW, whether it was intended or not, I thought the book was about the prison of ignorance that parents can impose on their children.  How deciding to bring up their children in a certain way,  can limit their children’s opportunities, destroy their choices, and make them vulnerable.   The irony is that Mema’s male siblings escape the protective, womblike home as soon as they can, and they sever all contact too because they do not belong in it.  It is not that they are too wild, as Mema thinks, it is that they need their freedom and they want to be part of a wider world.

Mema recognises that her all-female world has left her unprepared for relationships, but has no idea how to resolve emotional love and an instinct for sex.  Meanwhile the reader wonders about the definition of masculinity that is evoked in this novel.  They are all Other: Frank, (would-be lover of her mother); Billy (would-be lover of Mema); Anja’s manic father, Jim; and Hamish the Stranger too, of course.  The sense of males as unreliable and dangerous explodes into aggression when the toddler Rory bites Mema, as if warning her that he too will become Other:

Rory bit me then, right on the soft part of my thigh.  I screeched, kicking out at him, ’cause I wasn’t expecting it, but he only bit down harder.  There was a scramble, all of us trying to get him out from under my skirt.  When he appeared he was red-faced and wild.  Mad as a cut snake, floundering around so much Sophie had to pin his arms down.  Mum handed Lila over to me.  My sister couldn’t manhandle Rory on her own, so the two of them dragged him off to the bedroom to give him a talking to.  Holding Lila in one arm, I lifted my skirt.  Rory hadn’t broken the skin, but his teeth marks were already turning a bright scarlet.  My thigh was swelling under my eyes, red and bruised.  I dropped my skirt again so I didn’t have to look at it and Lila started up her squalling.  I tucked her against my shoulder and – stranded there beside the kitchen sink – we cried. (p.321)

The other aspect that interested me was the way that the author explored the impact of isolating oneself from (i.e. rejecting) the trappings of modern life, especially the way that ‘being connected’ makes one dependant on its intrusive communication systems.  I remember reading with sadness that one of the victims of the Black Saturday bushfires had chosen not to listen to local radio.  She did not have a mobile phone.  She did not want the world intruding on her little piece of paradise, because for her, the whole point of living in a rural area was to be able to ignore what was happening in the rest of the world.  So she did not hear the warnings: she expected someone from the CFA to come knocking on her door to warn her.   Deeper Water, it seems to me,  makes a statement about the necessity to take responsibility and remain alert to potential threats to one’s way of life.  It makes no difference whether one lives in a city or the bush: none of us can afford to choose ignorance about decisions that are being made about the way we live.  And the politics of ‘green’ issues in rural areas can be every bit as destructive to the natural environment as fracking is said to be.

Now, if you read other reviews of Deeper Water you will notice straight away that they are effusive about the lush environment in which this story takes place.  Susan Chenery at the SMH commented on the sense of the author’s rural home as an untouched world and the characters being unsullied by the modern world.   She talks about the characters as simple people with a decency and a rough country kindness and how she felt when returning to her own reality that it seems to be missing something.  But Chenery chooses not to comment on Mema running the gauntlet of the town’s young men calling her a slut, nor about the one who starts to manhandle her over to the river because he thought she was up for it, like mother, like daughter.   She takes Jessie Cole at her word when she says that she created the world of Deeper Water as a more welcoming habitat than her previous novel as if Jim’s hut is not an horrific place of violence and as if Anja’s plight had not been so comprehensively ignored by the town.  But as I read it, there is a steely undercurrent in this novel that is very much in tune with Cole’s debut novel Darkness on the Edge of Town (see my review) – it certainly does not romanticise rural life.

Author: Jessie Cole
Title: Deeper Water
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2104
ISBN:9780732298586
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 16, 2014

Warning, The Story of Cyclone Tracy, by Sophie Cunningham


I was alone in the house last Saturday when I began reading Sophie Cunningham’s Warning, The Story of Cyclone Tracy, and a windstorm was brewing.  It was gusting up to almost 60km/h, which is 7 on the Beaufort scale, almost a gale.  I went outside and did the usual things that I do when the weather seems ominous, stacking outdoor chairs away and tucking the cast-iron table upside-down under the shrubs at the back of the house.  I was very conscious that short of evacuating the city altogether, nothing much the residents of Darwin could have done would have made any difference when in 1974 the city was hit by a cyclone packing 217 km/h before the anemometer ceased functioning.  You only have to look at this video to see the destruction.

In the prologue to Warning, the facts are presented without emotion:

These are the bare bones of it: around midnight on Christmas Eve, 1974, a cyclone hit Darwin.  Around seventy-one people died, hundreds more were injured and seventy per cent of the homes of Darwin’s 47,000 inhabitants were laid waste.  That left only five hundred residences habitable out of some twelve thousand.  Every single public building was destroyed or seriously damaged. While the loss of life was limited, the material damage was unparalleled.  The population of Darwin endured winds that some believe reached speeds of three hundred kilometres per hour.  In the week after Tracy, close to thirty thousand people were airlifted out of the ruined town in what remains Australia’s largest evacuation effort.  Many of them never returned.  The damage bill was estimated at between 800 million and 1.5 billion dollars, which is the equivalent of 6.1 billion today.  This, set against the town’s relatively small population means it still ranks as one of the world’s most costly disasters.

The damage was contained, comprehensive and explicitly material.  Tracy wiped out a city.  (p. 7)

But in the ensuing pages, Sophie Cunningham brings these facts to life.  She reviews events with a compelling mixture of oral history and official archives. Acknowledging from the outset that memory is fallible, she has nonetheless made the facts more real with the reminisces of people who were there.  Some of the names are familiar to those of us down south who reacted to the news with a mixture of horror and compassion.  We read about Major General Alan Stretton jetting in to manage the emergency relief program; on TV we saw assorted politicians walking through the rubble in stunned dismay, and we caught vox pops of the evacuees as they staggered onto the tarmac of airports around the country.  But most of the testimonies in Warning are the vivid voices of ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary event.  These were people confronted by an unimaginable force of nature with only their bodies to protect themselves and their children.  Everything else: roofs, furniture, walls, birds, trees, gardens, meaning.  All that disappeared.  (p.9)

At its worst, parents were not able to protect their children at all.

Ken Frey describes a colleague’s experience:

One of our architects, who had three children, went into the bathroom, and the two youngest they put into the bath itself, thinking it was fairly safe.  And the mother, I think, was against one wall with her husband.  And one of the children was hanging onto the hand basin when the wall went out; the bath went with the wall, and so did the hand basin.  So all three children went out and the two parents were left in there …. (p. 33)

What I did not know until I read this book was that the evacuees were packed into military planes like sardines, with no toilet facilities.  I did not know that families were separated because in the chaos, that people were simply bundled onto planes without a manifest.  Indigenous people for whom connection to land is a spiritual necessity were packed off to places that were as foreign to them as China would be to me, and they were not necessarily made welcome.  I did not realise that the urgency to evacuate was because there just wasn’t any food, or water, to sustain the population in Darwin.  There were no communications.  For quite some time, the people of Darwin did not know if the rest of Australia had heard about their plight.

Of course some decisions were hasty, ill-conceived and poorly executed. Of course there were competing egos and hissy-fits amongst the personnel who took charge and then had to relinquish power.  Of course there was the usual blame game.  But the miracle Cunningham documents is just how well people somehow coped, how much cooperation there was and how little looting there was.  (And is it looting, if in extremis you take something needed for survival?)

1974 doesn’t seem like such a very long time ago, yet the authorities’ attitudes to women were closer to those of the 19th century than our own.  Cunningham points out that it was never even contemplated that women might contribute anything to the relief effort.  Priority for evacuation was given to the sick, injured and pregnant, then women and children, and elderly couples, married couples and single people after that.  By December 31st, there was only 5-10% of Darwin’s women left in town.   Not all of them had wanted to go.

As if the trauma of the cyclone were not enough, separation was devastating:

When Howard Truran was interviewed about his experience fourteen years after the event he still remembers that, although he wanted his wife and kids evacuated because he was so worried for them, the experience was extremely traumatic.

I wanted to get ‘em out because everything was new to us; we didn’t know what was happening.  And then there was rumours that there was typhoid around, and [there was] no power, no sewerage, no nothing…. [Getting them on the bus] was very heart wrenching.  Therese was very upset and I was upset, and the kids.  You just piled them on the bus; you didn’t know when you were going to see them again: [there was] all this devastation around, and women crying and people on the bus and everybody [was] upset, and then just see the bus disappear. (p. 104)

Warning, however, is not just the story of the people who endured the catastrophe.  Cunningham unpacks the decision-making processes, analyses the reconstruction effort and notes the resemblances with other recent natural disasters.  Explaining her motivation for writing this book, she reminds the reader that the extent and severity of natural disasters is increasing due to climate change:

…the human race is transforming the land, the seas and the weather.  There are signs of that all around us, and in a country already tended to extremes of drought, flood and bushfire we are now facing a world where there will be more calamities more often and larger numbers of us will be affected.  (p. 11)

I hope some of the ostriches in  Canberra pick up a copy of this to read on their flights to and fro…

Author: Sophie Cunningham
Title: Warning, The Story of Cyclone Tracy
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922079367
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2014

The White Woman, by Liam Davison


The White WomanI was impressed by Liam Davison’s Soundings, but The White Woman is an extraordinary book.  I was lost in the world it created from the moment I started reading it.

The White Woman is not an historical novel, but it evokes the period of early European settlement to tell the story of the mysterious White Woman said to have been held captive by the Kurnai People of Gippsland in the 1840s.  The existence of this woman has never been proven, but the stories had remarkable longevity as can be seen from this extract at Trove.  Indeed if one potters about on the web for a while, one can find a number of scholarly works which deconstruct this legend using any number of isms.  They mostly focus on the gendered and racial sub-text: the public horror over the purity of civilised womanhood being sullied by savages, and the way that successive rescue expeditions provided a convenient justification for surveying and in due course acquiring more indigenous land.  These scholarly works ooze disapproval.

In Liam Davison’s capable hands, this apocryphal story becomes a fine short novel, one which interrogates these isms without being heavy-handed.  The novel takes the reader back into the mindset of the time, while also offering some kind of redemption through the narrator’s latter-day reflections.  We did this, the narrator says, and we were foolish and wrong.  It is the novel that seems more true to me…

The White Woman is a disturbing book, but – especially if you know the Gippsland Lakes and you’ve been there on a day when the lake is absolutely still – the prose is exquisite too.

For all our eagerness to be there, our confident expectation of what we’d find, none of us was prepared for what we saw when the river eventually opened into Lake Wellington.  The banks of the river fell away from us and we were faced with a stretch of water so vast it might have been the sea.  Its surface was absolutely still and, in the distance, its shore broke up in fog so a series of small islands seemed to drift on top of the water.  Nothing was as we’d expected.  Hundreds of swans pocked the water on either side of us.  Even with the light diffused through the soft haze, it still hurt our eyes to look too long across the water.  It seemed we’d come to a place not filled with light but made of light itself.  We clung to the shore for fear of vanishing into it.  (p. 41)

(You can Google Lake Wellington images and see how lovely it is, but none of the photos capture the light the way that Davison’s prose does.  It’s a place that makes you long to be a landscape painter.)

Imagine, if you will, a time when European settlement in Victoria was fragmentary.  There are still plenty of places in Gippsland where stepping off the beaten track can lead to peril and the idea of being lost and alone in remote, densely vegetated areas can cause justifiable terror.  In the 1840s when countless ships were lost off the perilous Victorian coastline, the loss of the Britannia which was wrecked on the Ninety Mile Beach in 1841 gave rise to the rumour that a female survivor had been taken captive by the Kurnai People.  Fear of the unknown and public outrage led to rescue expeditions, one of which is the basis for the novel.

Davison frames his story as a narrative told by one of the expedition survivors forty years after the event.  An un-named man seeks him out to find out the truth about his father, who was involved in events all those years ago.  The discursive, bitter, cynical, and anti-romantic account of events insists on self-doubt:

It’s odd how memory serves you.  Or how it fails.  Before you arrived here tonight, knocking surreptitiously at my door for answers to your half-formed questions, I could barely recall your father’s face.   Oh yes, I could conjure up the vague outline of a man if I put my mind to it (large, heavy-jowled, a solid jaw) but of course there was never any need.  He belonged to his own past, you see, as much as mine.  Nowadays, no doubt, you’d make a photographic print to hold it fast, the image of him as he was then, as if you had to fight against the past to keep him from slipping into where he belongs.  Yes, I’m right aren’t I? Memory’s not enough.  Tell me you haven’t sat in front of the magic box yourself and winced at the phosphorescent flash.

Yet now, with you sitting here before me, the outline sharpens; it takes on your features, your voice, your manner of holding the hot tea to your lips. Your father is back before me. All the years before have gone and I find, yes, I do remember.  I remember what he was like.  I talk with confidence about the things we did.  The events fall easily into place, day follows day, night follows harrowing night.  I open my mouth and it all comes tumbling out as if it happened yesterday: the search for her, the first signs of your father’s presence, the journey up the river… Almost without thinking, it finds its undeniable shape.

But I worry.  If it was somebody else who knocked, somebody else who walked impertinently into my shabby little room to claim association with my past, would I have just as readily recalled a different face?  Would things have moulded themselves just as comfortably to accommodate a different set of features, different questions, different expectations?  Would I have found myself recounting a different story about a different past? And if no one had knocked…? (p. 73)

From time to time, the narrator interrupts his ambivalent account of the expedition to acknowledge his listener, forcing the realisation that his father was an evil man.  The search for the woman was motivated by romantic notions of rescue, but the gruesome reality that they uncovered instead was that pioneer settlers on the ungoverned frontier in Gippsland were massacring the indigenous people.  What’s more, the ideals that motivated the narrator were not shared by other members of the expedition: they knew that it was better not to find a ‘sullied’ woman because it was the search itself which furthered their grandiose ambitions.  The position of De Villiers, who leads the expedition, is secure for just as long as they don’t find her.

It made him what he was, you see.  And once we’d found her, or failed, the focus would shift to her.  Or to whatever it was he knew would be revealed about ourselves. (p. 75)

Rival expeditions muddied the waters further:

Good and evil; black and white.  It’s tempting, isn’t it, to reduce it all to that – moral purpose, the clear delineation …. characters … as if people really worked that way.  They didn’t want us there, you see.  The story grew with every telling until Tyers, half wanting to believe perhaps, had set off in pursuit.  And before long, we had Walsh as well, tramping through the bush towards us with five of his police, following his own story to its natural conclusion.

You had to wonder what they thought we’d find, I mean, to follow us so closely.  They didn’t want us snooping.  Didn’t want us to find her – not when they had failed. (p. 97)

Davison peppers the narrator’s account with images of this woman’s plight.  We see her bound, beaten, delivering a child on a bush track.  Hauntingly, we see her dragged away, looking behind her at potential rescuers beyond her reach.  All of it is rumour, emanating from both black and white who – for their own reasons – claim to have seen her.   The story had resonance because it symbolised a clash of civilisations, at a time when only the European civilisation was acknowledged, and ironically it was thought to be vulnerable when it was actually the indigenous civilisation that was in peril:

The story was unresolved as long as we were out there, and even De Villiers could still convince himself it would end right, with all our actions justified.  He could still believe, in spite of what he knew, that we were under threat, that all we had to do was turn our backs and decency and virtue would be snatched away from us.  It’s not hard to imagine, is it?  Even now, there’re people who will argue that’s how it was (or is) … that we planted civilisation here against all odds. You see them polishing their pedigrees, trying to salvage something from their families’ pasts.

Yes, the past! It says something about us, don’t you think, that we’re so preoccupied with it?  Isn’t that what you’re here for?  Patting yourself on the back for who you are?  Yes, I know your type – all ears for what you want to hear, all shock and indignation for the truth. Well listen up, we’re not done yet! (p. 75)

The White Woman is uncomfortable reading because the thought of any woman being held captive is shocking yet our contemporary sensibilities resist the idea that it was more shocking because (if she existed) she was held captive in a culture so different to her own.  Patrick White explored this idea in A Fringe Of Leaves and Fiona Kidman did the same in The Captive WifeThat puts Liam Davison in distinguished company indeed.

Liam Davison and his wife Frankie were killed when their plane, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, was shot down over disputed territory in Ukraine, and all lives were lost.  This review is the third in my personal tribute to an author, who, to my regret, I have discovered only because of the tragic circumstances of his death.   I find it very sad that The Betrayal, the next of his novels that I shall read, is his last.  He was a remarkable writer who deserved to be more widely known.

Author: Liam Davison
Title: The White Woman
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 1995
ISBN: 9780702226809
Source: Personal Library, purchased from AbeBooks

Availability

Out of print.  Scour the second-hand shops or try your library.  This book is well worth hunting down.

BTW On the day I looked, Fishpond had two second-hand copies of Liam Davison’s award-winning but out-of-print Soundings.  So if you were tempted by my review, be quick!


MonaWhere would I be without Karenlee Thompson to help me out when the pile of books for review grows so big it won’t fit in the drawer?  Yes, in my home library they have their very own designated drawer (one of those large plastic Oates stackable ones from Bunnings) so that these books don’t get lost among the 700-odd other books neatly arranged in alphabetical order and waiting their turn in my TBR shelves.  The drawer holds about 20 books (depending on size) and when it starts to get full, I stoically resist offers from authors and publishers and publicists because I don’t like to commit to things I can’t deliver, and I like to read my own books as well, of course!

But some publishers and publicists get so excited about their new books, they just can’t resist sending a copy to me anyway.  Of course it’s great that they feel that even though they know I don’t read thrillers/SF/crime/sad memoirs et al (see my review policy) they have so much faith in the new book that they feel sure that this particular one will overcome my reservations and I will love it like they do!  Authors need publishers to love their books, of course they do, and it’s especially pleasing to see that Scribe is doing its best to promote translated fiction.  (Stu at Winston’s Dad will be pleased too, I bet). But, I just didn’t have time to read Mona, so I’m very grateful to Karenlee for her willingness to write a guest review, especially since she is busy writing her second novel:)

Dan Sehlberg’s Mona is the first book of a two-part thriller, its sequel Sinon being due for release this year.

The plot is breathtaking in its frightening possibility:

Eric is a computer science professor who invents a thought-controlled system for browsing the web and, while some readers might think this is merely imaginative sci-fi, the truth is it is far too close to reality for comfort. Eric’s system collides with Professor Samir Mustaf’s newly-created computer virus with catastrophic results and it is just a matter of time before the lives of Eric and Samir become entwined.

When Eric’s wife Hannah becomes infected with a mystery virus, Eric is convinced that his browsing system has somehow become involved in passing the latest sophisticated computer virus on to her.  No-one believes him so he embarks on his own quest to find answers and to save his wife who has drifted into a coma.  In the process, Eric has to deal with Mossad, Hezbollah and the FBI nipping at his heels.

The intrigue and espionage extend to a Palestinian spy in the highest levels of the Israeli government and a ruthless Mossad assassin – Rachel Papo – who, despite being psychopathic in intent, finds some softness in her heart when it counts most.

There are a number of extremely contrived plot devices and, while it is difficult to settle into an easy belief and relax into the ride, accepting the coincidences that help us on our journey, it is not so difficult to accept the credibility of the fantastic results of the meeting of the virus with the thought-control program.

There’s something of the fairy-tale twist in the denouement that is unfortunately rare in real life, particularly when we are dealing with the volatility of the middle-east. If only these two men from opposite sides of the ideological, philosophical and religious spectrum could so easily bury their differences. If only two men could alter such catastrophic events. If only life were so simple.

The Style

I didn’t find much in the way of Literary style in Sehlberg’s prose but I know little about the translation process and, as I cannot read the novel in its original, there is no way for me to tell how much of the style is completely Sehlberg’s and what – if any – is as a result of the translation. The translator Rachel Willson-Broyles, was lauded for the exceptional job she did with Jonas Hassen Khemeri’s 2011 novel Montecore.

Word choices and sentence structures are sometime jarring.

‘Parents – exclusively women – were standing nearby or sitting on benches, and talking to each other on phones.’ (p. 320) Wouldn’t those ‘parents – exclusively women’ be ‘mothers’? Or ‘women’?

‘Jens hugged him as heartily and roughly as always.  His rough beard scratched Eric’s cheek.’ (p. 40). Most editors would have marked ‘roughly’ and ‘rough’ for a rethink. ‘Eric returned to his car, which had received a parking ticket. He left it where it was and backed out of the parking area.’ (p. 162) Clunky and uninspired.

Occasionally, a gem of a sentence emerges. For example, ‘She was Jewish, with all of Europe running through her veins’ (p. 25-26), imparts the information in a less pedestrian form than elsewhere throughout the book. And this: ‘But when he woke, reality waited restlessly for him with sharp claws and a wide sneer.’ (p. 129). For the most part, though, I found the prose style to be a little dull.

Still, you don’t need Literary style to make a Hollywood movie and that’s where Mona is headed. There’s quite a buzz around Swedish story-telling lately but let’s be clear; Sehlberg is no Stieg Larsson and Mona is a far cry from The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Nevertheless, Mona is a page-turner and it comes as no surprise to me that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, ‘New Regency’ has picked up the movie rights.  I can definitely imagine a good Hollywood thriller in a Matt Damon or Mark Wahlberg kind of way and, if Angelina Jolie would take on a less starring role, she’d glint like sharpened steel as the ruthless Rachel Papo. This is likely to be one of those rare cross-overs where the movie will upstage the book.

Throughout the story, I often found myself thinking back to the prologue, in which a little girl in Lebanon brings a tin can home to her mother and grandmother.  She’d found the can while chasing a striped cat through a muddy field.  In that creative way of children, she has imagined the cat as a tiger and the can as its cub.

[she] saw her mother’s tears.  She looked nervously at her grandmother, and heard her prayers.  Then she extended the hand with the tiger cub.  That wasn’t a tiger cub.  That was a can. That wasn’t a can.  That was a grenade from an Israeli cluster bomb. (2)

Such imagery is so close to the reality for many families in the Middle East today, on both sides of the fence. It is gut-wrenching.

© Karenlee Thompson

Karen Lee ThompsonKarenlee Thompson is an author and an occasional reviewer for The Australian and was featured on Meet an Aussie Author in 2011.  Her debut novel 8 States of Catastrophe is reviewed on the ANZ LitLovers blog here.  Karen blogs at Karenlee Thompson.

Thanks, Karenlee, for once again sharing your expertise in reviewing!

PS Don’t you love the way that Karenlee has the perfect turn of phrase? ‘if Angelina Jolie would take on a less starring role, she’d glint like sharpened steel as the ruthless Rachel Papo’!

Cross-posted at Karenlee Thompson’s blog.

Author: Dan Sehlberg, Dan
Title: Mona
Translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles
Publisher:  Scribe Publications,  2014.
ISBN 9 781922 070975
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Availability

Fishpond: Mona

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 13, 2014

The Wonders, by Paddy O’Reilly


I am a big fan of Paddy O’Reilly’s writing, and so I had been waiting impatiently for The Wonders, her third novel.  I read it over the weekend between sessions at the Bendigo Writers’ Festival and I am not at all surprised that it is already racing up the bestseller lists at indie bookshops.

If you read my thoughts about Angela Meyer’s anthology The Great Unknown you may recall that Paddy had a story called ‘Reality TV’ in that collection.  Little did I realise when I noted that the story skewers the hideousness of reality TV without mercy that Paddy’s interest in celebrity was to morph into an irresistible novel!  In The Wonders she exposes the morbid curiosity that lies behind not just the freak shows of the 19th century but also those contemporary ‘human interest’ stories that feature disabled people.  This is a novel that will engage your interest and your empathy, make you laugh and perhaps cry, but it will also make you think deeply about your own behaviour.

As you will know if you read The Fine Colour of Rust (see my review)  Paddy O’Reilly is brilliant at creating memorable characters.  In The Wonders, Leon, Kathryn and Christos form the troupe managed by Rhona, an American entrepreneur, and from the beginning the author inverts expectations about who’s doing the gawking:

What a shock, then , to meet Rhona at the station in Melbourne.  She was waiting to greet him off the train, wearing cowboy boots and rhinestone jewellery.  Titian red hair.  A big white handbag studded with fake rubies.  Leon had been stewing in indignation about how he was to be displayed as a monster, gawked at by strangers, until he stepped onto the platform and found himself staring at Rhona as if she was the exhibit.  Around him the other travellers were staring too.

‘My Hyland, a pleasure to meet you, ‘ she said in her big American voice, stretching out her hand to shake.  ‘Geez. honey, they told me that Aussies always shut their lips tight to keep out the flies.’  (p. 11)

Leon becomes a celebrity because he has a mechanical heart – and it’s not neatly tucked away underneath the skin of his chest, it’s visible.  He is joined by Kathryn, whose treatment for a rare disorder has caused her to grow fine curly black wool all over her body, and by Christos – who has elected to become a curiosity.  A performance artist, he has had wings implanted into his back.   While Kathryn’s unexpected genetic mutation has had the effect of making her beautiful and sexy, and Christos has transformed himself into a creature of glorious wonder, Leon remains what he always was – an ordinary man, vaguely reminiscent of Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz because he too yearns for love.   Insecure and bashful, he is a tragi-comic figure, puny and plain and often at the mercy of Kathryn’s biting sarcasm.

As some of us know from personal experience, the media can be intrusive, insensitive and a pain in the proverbial.  As Deb Fitzpatrick observed her in recent novel The Break once The Powers That Be decide that a situation is in the public interest, there is no escape for the hapless people caught up in it.  In The Wonders this situation is turned on its head.  Leon, Kathryn and Christos – under the expert management of Rhona – invert this inability to escape from the media and take control.  They manipulate the timing and placement of exposure; they ration appearances; they choreograph information about themselves; and they carefully stage-manage their costumes and aspects of their physical appearance to meet the expectations of the public.  Nobody ever sees or hears the agonising struggle that Christos must endure each time his wings are reinserted; the public knows nothing about the physical limitations of Leon’s heart; Kathryn’s ogling fans do not have any idea that she cannot bear to be touched by anyone.

The trio come in for severe criticism from disabled activists who resent a glamorization of disability which excludes people whose ‘otherness’ isn’t sexy.  Yes, how does the commercialisation of  medical curiosities in this way impact on the long hard struggle for disability rights?   Leon, Kathryn and Christos become rich – very rich indeed – but what of those left behind?  In a celebrity-obsessed society, how much does image matter, and what effect does the manipulation of image have on the person behind it?  As I write the media is obsessed with the fate of the athlete Oscar Pistorius but the more thoughtful commentators are pondering on how the cult of celebrity affects personality and behaviour.

There is also the question of lifestyle.  Is it possible for any of these three to have any kind of normal life, pursued by paparazzi, shielded by security guards, and walled up inside a gated mansion that’s more like a fortress?  And if not, what responsibility does the medical experimenter bear?  In The Wonders it is quite clear that personal ambition was the impetus for Leon’s experimental surgery which was not only dangerous but also illegal.  The plot involves all kinds of people – from voyeurs to outraged fundamentalist Christians – who are trying to track the Wonders down, but it also involves Leon trying to track down the people who saved his life, only to transform it in ways he could never have anticipated.

These clever inversions of our ideas and assumptions makes The Wonders a compelling book, surreal in its depiction of media ‘attractions’, but light-hearted in its execution.  The female characters, Rhona and Kathryn, skewer the males with witty repartee; there is a menagerie of wild animals in the gardens of the mansion to liven things up; and a kidnapping satirises the forces of law and order, making explicit that the very rich don’t need to follow the same rules as the rest of us.  For along with those who adore the Wonders there are also those who hate them, and they cannot always insulate themselves from the real world.

You can hear Paddy talking about her book with Michael Cathcart at the ABC here, and Ashley Hay has written a superb review at The Australian.

Update: Catch this terrific interview with Caroline Baum:

Author: Paddy O’Reilly
Title: The Wonders
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781476766362)
Source: Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press.

Fishpond: The Wonders

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 11, 2014

Sensational Snippets: The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly


I have just finished reading Paddy O’Reilly’s stunning new novel, and – while I mull over what to write in my review – I thought I’d share a splendid little snippet from the novel.  It made me laugh out loud:)

Leon has been showing off his book collection to the very desirable Kathryn, and you (like Kathryn) can glean something of his personality by checking out some of the titles on his shelves:

  • Seven Steps to Self-Confidence
  • You Can Be a Better Lover
  • Mood Therapy for the Introvert

I won’t spoil this splendid scene by reproducing the repartee, except for Kathryn’s parting words at the conclusion of her inspection:

‘Buy a few novels, will you,’ she said over her shoulder as she swung out through the apartment doorway.  ‘They’re better than that self-help shite.’

Ain’t that the truth!

Don’t wait for my review, get your copy now!

Fishpond: The Wonders

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 10, 2014

Bendigo Writers’ Festival 2014


We are just back from a most enjoyable weekend at the Bendigo Writers’ festival.  Thanks to our good friend Gloreea who came to dog-sit our dear old Saffy, we set off yesterday at sunrise and arrived in Bendigo in time for our first session – Alex Miller in conversation with Raymond Gaita.  It is always a pleasure to hear Alex speak and this was no exception.

After that The Spouse and I parted company – he went off to indulge his interest in classical antiquity with a session called The Idea of Greece while I went to Hacks and Heroes, which was a silly name for an excellent session with poet and art critic Chris Wallace-Crabbe in conversation with  Sasha Grishin about his new ground-breaking new book Australian Art: A History.  What’s different about this one is that it brings together indigenous art and the rest of the Australian art tradition, instead of segregating them as so many art histories do.  It also celebrates the work of many neglected artists and there is more prominence given to the work of female artists.  There was a lot to enjoy in this session but I was particularly interested to see Grishin’s PPT slide showing previous art histories – it’s rather gratifying to see that over the decades these have become more and more comprehensive.  The cultural cringe is dead, and rightly so….

Now that I’ve had the privilege of chairing a panel at a literary festival, I realise just how much skill and effort is involved in doing it well.  The aim is to give the authors an opportunity to showcase their books, to talk about their ideas and to engage with the audience, and it’s a matter of asking the right open-ended questions.  It’s important to give all panel members a fair go, to keep the discussion moving along, and to be familiar with the authors’ books so that you can respond to what’s been said.  So when I’m at a festival, I take the opportunity to watch and learn from the best of them   Two chairs stood out for me: Natasha Mitchell in conversation about The Amazing Brain with Doris Brett and her husband Martin, and on Sunday Jeff Sparrow leading a discussion about subjectivity in non-fiction, in a session called I am a Camera.

Doris Brett’s latest book, The Twelfth Raven: A memoir of stroke, love and recovery,  tells the story of her husband’s journey through stroke to recovery, and the intimacy of this session meant that it needed to be handled with tact and delicacy.  Natasha Mitchell was superb: thoughtful, responsive and compassionate, especially with an audience member who shared what was for her an intensely emotional experience.

Jeff Sparrow led his discussion with aplomb.  I am a Camera explored the phenomenon of journalists intruding into the story, and featured authors Moira McKinno and Julie Szego, and also John Van Tiggelen, former editor of The Monthly magazine.  I myself am not very keen on the subjective evidence style but it was interesting to hear it championed, not least because it made me more wary of it!

The session called Science Matters was excellent too.  David Holmes chaired a lively panel consisting of Natasha Mitchell, Jane McCredie, Leslie Cannold, and John Pickrell.  Their passion is science and its importance in 21st century discourse.  The point was well made that if ordinary people don’t have science literacy then they can’t participate in important debates about climate change, and they may make foolish decisions about vaccinations, fluoridation and so on.  Leslie Cannold is a passionate advocate for people to understand that all opinions are not equal and that people need to understand the evidence base that underlies science.   The problem is that scientists are not necessarily good at communicating and too often they think that the facts will speak for themselves.

My last session on Sunday was Homer’s Troy and the Gallipoli Writers, presented by classics scholar Chris Mackie.  It was fascinating to learn that so many of the educated elite who went to Gallipoli had had a classical education, and looked at the enterprise through the lens of Homer’s Iliad.  Gallipoli, in fact, is an old Greek word meaning beautiful city, and some of the British poets we know so well (e.g. Rupert Brooke)  took copies of Homer with them and were excited about the idea of becoming warriors so near to the ancient city of Troy.

Mackie said that WW1 was a ‘very classical conflict’.  It was fought at a time when classics dominated the curriculum for the socially elite, and it is hard for us to realise how this much this mattered to them. There was a bunch of aristocratic young men (described by Mackie as ‘nerds from British public schools’) who called themselves the Argonauts, who saw themselves as re-enacting going to Troy. They had a romantic view of the war and when Brooke died, his death was written about in lyrical Homeric language as ‘dying on Achilles’ island.  DH Lawrence and Charles Lister described Gallipoli as a suitable resting place for those who died on the plains of Troy.

Just as Gallipoli is a place of pilgrimage today, it was in the past as well.  Even Alexander the Great went there in 334BC in recognition that the first hero of the Trojan War was killed there – but he wanted to assert himself not as the war’s first victim but rather as a hero who was going to be like Achilles.   Lord Byron went to Gallipoli too and re-enacted Leander’s swim across the Hellespont – and apparently people still do this today and the authorities stop the sea traffic once a year in August for them to do it!)

I asked Mackie if he thought that perhaps this perception of the conflict in classical terms might have contributed to the scorn often expressed by Australian soldiers for the officer class, and he laughed and said it probably did.

Mackie said that what fascinates him is why some conflicts are remembered in epic terms (Gallipoli) and others (the Western Front) are not – and what I liked about this festival was that there was a place for this type of session along with a variety of others.  Indeed there was something for everyone at Bendigo!

The festival venues are all within a stone’s throw of each other in the Arts Precinct in View Street, and visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to somewhere to eat (though some coped better than others with the crowds).  We had a delicious dinner at Le Bouchon on Saturday night, all the more enjoyable because we were within walking distance of our hotel and could enjoy the recommended wines without a qualm!

We will certainly be going again next year:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2014

The Break, by Deb Fitzpatrick


22466948I have mixed feelings about The Break, by Deb Fitzpatrick.  The characterisation is really good, the story lures the reader in, the setting is well-realised and some of the lyrical writing is exquisite.   I thought, however, that the novel laboured a bit to reach its climax, and then it felt as if the author couldn’t quite deal with the tragedy that unfolds.  This may have been because the plot derives from a natural disaster that actually happened  – there can sometimes be a sense of trespass when writing about events still raw in public memory.  This novel is also Deb Fitzpatrick’s first venture into adult fiction and she perhaps has not quite achieved the transition: she’s a well-established author of YA books, which include The Amazing Spencer Gray (2013), Have you seen Ally Queen? (2011) and 90 packets of instant noodles (2010).  

The story revolves around two families living in the beautiful Margaret River region of Western Australia.  A disillusioned journalist called Rosie and a FIFO mineworker called Cray chuck in their jobs to pursue a more meaningful lifestyle in Margaret River; while Liza and Ferg are farming the land of Ferg’s forefathers.  Along with Ferg’s recently widowed mother, Liza and Ferg have a school-age son Sam (holding together their rather creaky marriage), and also a brother in drug-rehab who joins them, acting as a catalyst for long-held resentments.  So it’s an interesting cast of characters, delivering multiple intergenerational points-of-view.  The dynamics between them all makes for interesting reading, but it’s not until the aftermath of the tragedy that these two families actually meet …

The novel explores the experience of settling in and adapting to a rural lifestyle in contrast with the feeling of being trapped into living a parent’s expectations rather than following one’s own.  Conflicts and doubts are often unspoken,  and the boy’s awareness of his parents’ crumbling marriage is touching to read.  The novel also dabbles with the well-worn theme of development v. environment and the council that is insensitive to the wishes of the local community, and the fragility of the environment is mirrored in the fragility of the human relationships under scrutiny.

Having been to the Margaret River (as one of the tourists that irritate the local ‘Margies’), I can vouch for the contention that it’s one of the most beautiful places in Western Australia.  This little snippet reminded me of the beautiful books of botanical art that I have reviewed on this site:

That things – survive – indeed, sometimes thrive – on these dry, smoothed yellows of the sand dunes is remarkable.  Arms of succulent groundcover reach and grip.  Eventually, waxy magenta flowers open into sandy gusts; insects hide in the calm of the plants’ tiny places.

Out here you either resist or succumb to the rushing sand.

A woman in a sarong stands in the fuzzy distance on the beach.  She leans lightly into the wind, her weight perfectly balanced, as if the wind were a waiting cocoon, as if she might fall into it and never get up. (p. 54)

In contrast with the lyrical evocations of the natural environment between chapters which anchor the novel to its place, the dialogue is crisp and contemporary:

Rosie suddenly wished that she’d worn her work clothes rather than shirt and jeans; the woman wore shoulder pads like a weapon, despite the eighties being long gone.  The office was quiet, and a secretary hid behind a computer monitor.

With Cray standing beside her, Rose gathered herself, raised her own eyebrows in return and said, firmly but politely, ‘We’re looking for a place to rent.  Long-term.  Under one-fifty a week.’

Under one-fifty…’

Rosie shifted her feet on the slate floor.  Yes, under.  ‘It doesn’t have to be in the middle of town, we’re not worried about that.’

‘Are you working?’

Rosie’s heart sank.  Her eyes faltered, but she held the woman’s look.  She couldn’t think of the right thing to say to that.

Cray’s voice came into the silence.  ‘We’re not, yet.  But if it gives you any piece of mind, we have plenty of savings and good references from our last place.’  Cray passed her an envelope containing a glowing reference from their Freo landlords, and gave her a moment to peruse it.  (p. 77)

Rosie sometimes self-sabotages her rebellious attitudes with this faltering confidence: she is scornful about people who conform and she’s high-minded about the excesses of tabloid journalism, but she isn’t quite comfortable with the identity that she thinks she wants to have.  It’s this ambivalence that defines her character as a somewhat immature twenty-something not quite sure of herself, and to my mind positions the novel more towards YA than adult fiction.

I’d be interested to know what other readers think…

There are teaching notes and book club notes at Fremantle Press.

Author: Deb Fitzpatrick
Title: The Break
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781922089632
Source: Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

Availability

Fishpond:  The Break

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2014

Soundings, by Liam Davison


SoundingsWhen I set out to read Liam Davison’s novels as a tribute, I had no idea how rewarding it was going to be.  I had never heard of Davison; I was motivated by sentiment and a determination that his work would not sink into obscurity because of his untimely death.  But Soundings, Davison’s second novel, has turned out to be a riveting book to read.  It’s an extraordinary book, one that sucks the reader in as surely as the mud of the mangroves of the story trap the characters into murky waters below.

The novel is written in three timeframes woven together, and – infused with an intimate knowledge of the landscape – it draws on the history of the Westernport region.  It begins in the early 19th century with a sealer called Kerrison observing his woman clubbing seals on the rocks.  Nameless, she is an Aboriginal woman, abducted from her home and her people to be Kerrison’s slave.  Kerrison witnesses a French ship arrive in the bay and take observations.  Their act of measuring and naming everything makes his familiar world suddenly feel different.  William Hovell arrived a week after the departure of the French, disconcerting Kerrison still further when he takes an interest in the woman.

As the ships sailed out of the bay, Kerrison knew that any chance of respite for him had gone and that he was left to face what had been building inside him since the French had come.  He watched his wife dragging herself across the rocks, her black skin shining with grease as she edged her way closer to a family of seals.  And he thought of the sketches the French had made of her and the questions Hovell had asked, wondering what it was they had seen that he couldn’t see for himself.  He remembered how quickly she had aged, how she’d lost the suppleness she had had as a girl and how he’d been left to share his bed with a woman he could never know.  And he hated himself for it.  Not because of what he’d done, but because he continued to live with her and because it had taken others to show him that there was more to her than he could ever have imagined before.  (p. 81-2)

Then there’s Jack Cameron, a 20th century man isolated by his temperament and his obsession with the past.   Old books, postcards and photographs act a catalyst for him to begin photographing the area, the mudflats and swamps.  He tries to recapture the way that early artists and writers viewed the landscape through the distorted lens of a European sensibility, trying ‘to see his land the way a European mind had seen it two hundred years before’. (p.28)  Staying in the home of Anton Kleist, he comes across the documents and photos of Theodore Drost, a 19th century land developer who saw the land as a place fit only for acclimatization.  He imported thousands of exotic birds and animals for hunting, and he subdivided the land to an assortment of hopefuls who thought they could tame the extensive river system draining into a tidal bay.   One of these hopefuls is Jasper Black, his son-in-law, a stubborn and difficult man who fulfils the doubts that Drost had about the suitability of Anna’s choice of husband.

The novel criss-crosses these periods of time as Cameron begins seeing images from the old photos in the landscape.  These fragments of other times and other lives bleed into his present yet while he loses his grip on reality, he also ‘sees’ the landscape in a clearer, purer light.  He gets hold of an obsolete photo-finish box (from the greyhound racing industry) and takes photos from inside it, his vista limited by the box but he is fascinated by the idea of capturing time instead of space.  He sees parties of Aborigines moving across the flats, and he witnesses what happens to Kerrison’s woman.  What he sees disturbs his sleep, the way this book disturbed mine.

Soundings is a splendid novel, revisiting our history in an innovative and challenging way.  It also shows impressive development from Davison’s first novel, The Velodrome, which I reviewed last weekSoundings won the National Book Council’s Banjo Award for Fiction in 1993, and was shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.  (Thanks to Sue Terry who provided the link to the ASAL obituary for Liam Davison which clarified which novels won these awards.  See Sue’s comment below).

Davison’s next novel The White Woman also questions our historical narratives, and I shall be reading it before long…

Author: Liam Davison
Title: Soundings
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 1993
ISBN: 9780702224621
Source: Personal library, purchased from Leura Books, Bowral, NSW, via AbeBooks

Availability

Out of print.  Try your library, or second-hand stores.

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 2, 2014

Lost River, four albums, by Simone Lazaroo


20862994I’ve read two novels by Simone Lazaroo: The Travel Writer (2006), and Sustenance (2010) but Lost River, four albums is a departure from her previous sensuous style.  Sustenance in particular was a celebration of colour, texture and aroma, but this new novel has a more sobering palette.

It’s appropriate, considering its subject matter.  The ironically named Ruth Joiner (who is very much the outsider) has terminal cancer.  She is a single mother of a twelve-year-old daughter, and she has no family other than the judgemental missionary couple who adopted her from a Balinese orphanage.  She ran away from them when she was seventeen.  She doesn’t miss these absent parents at all.

But the damage Grace and Fred Joiner have done to her identity and to her sense of self-esteem is profound.  When the novel opens we learn that David – the man with whom she had a fleeting relationship when she was at her most vulnerable – had left her, telling her that he would be gone just a short while.  Her daughter Dewi – not yet aware of the seriousness of her mother’s condition – wants to know more about him.  Ruth conceives the idea of using four photo albums salvaged from the Op Shop where she works, with the few photos she has, as a record for her daughter.

The four albums, annotated with (sometimes enigmatic) quotations from an ‘Oriental Wisdom 1976 Pocket Diary’ act as a framing device.   As Ruth places photos in the albums, coloured grey, blue, green and white, the novel shifts backwards and forwards to Ruth’s impending death and her memories.  So we learn about her disagreeable adoptive parents, who thought her Balinese culture so worthless that they did not bother to keep a record of the four names bestowed by her mother.  We learn that her only friend on the mission was an Aboriginal woman called Nelly, who suggests that perhaps Grace is ‘too strict …they prob’ly shamed bout something they done themselves.’

How do you know?

‘Had too much shame, too.’ Nelly put her hands over her face, spoke through the gaps between her fingers.  ‘A white man made me pregnant when I was just a bit older than you.  I had my little baby boy lo-ong time ago, before Joiners came here.’ She lowered her hands slowly, wiping her broad cheeks.  ‘the old missionaries sent my baby to a home in the city for half-caste children, they callem.  Sent me to work here. Treat me like rubbish.  I never saw my baby again.  Anyone try to make you feel like rubbish, don’t be shame like I was.  Too long I felt shame.’ (p. 103)

But Ruth’s life is blighted by poverty, and poverty brings shame.  She welcomes few people into the crumbling house that she rents from David’s brother Luke, and her daughter doesn’t bring friends home.  Exploited at the Op Shop as one of the ‘losers’ by her employer Eloise, Ruth dresses Dewi in cast-offs.  Her efforts to supplement her income by selling home-made rag rugs and B&W postcards made from prints of David’s photos don’t help much.  Her few friends are ‘rough diamonds’ with issues of their own, and Luke, Dewi’s uncle, is busy with his own life.  It is, however, his remorseful return of her rent money that enables her to visit Bali, and there is a kind of redemption for Luke towards the end of Ruth’s life.

I found some of the representation of middle-class characters unsatisfactory, too predictably judgemental.  There are attempts at support from social welfare services – but these are rejected because Ruth has absorbed the message that The Welfare will take her child away, so the reader never gets to see if these social workers might have had some redeeming features.  (There are three ‘stolen’ children in this novel: Nelly’s, Katy’s and Roberta’s). Dewi’s teacher is insensitive, the real estate agent is grasping, the council inspector is overbearing, and gossips in the supermarket sneer audibly.  I was a bit uneasy about the portrayal of the Aboriginal woman Katy helping herself to goods in the Op Shop too.  She wasn’t the only one who did this, and Eloise the manager is the most blatant of the thieves, but still, in the absence of any positive portrayals of Aborigines in the novel (unless you count the way they dispense wisdom) I felt that this representation of Katy contributes to an unfortunate stereotype.

Lost River is more of a meditation on grief and loss, loneliness and rejection than a plot-driven novel.  Like The Travel Writer a mother-and-daughter relationship and a cross-cultural identity is central, but the colours of this novel are bleached away.  Like the rag rugs Ruth weaves on her home-made loom, there are few ‘running veins of vivid colour amongst the more faded’.  (p. 112)  Almost all the characters are damaged in some way, and the repercussions cross the generations.  One is left hoping that Dewi, a spirited, blithe creature most of the time, will have a more positive future, but I suspect that few readers will feel confident about that.

The beauty of this novel lies in its portrayal of courage in adversity, the strength of the mother-and-daughter relationship and the gradual way the gentle courtship of David and Ruth is revealed.   But it left me with an overwhelming feeling of sadness.

PS Check out Claire Scobie’s review at the SMH (paywall permitting) and Ashleigh Meikle’s at the NSW Writers’ Centre.  (She calls it a novella, but it’s not, it’s nearly 300 pages long).

Author: Simone Lazaroo
Title: Lost River, four albums
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press) 2014
ISBN: 9781742585390
Source: Review copy courtesy of UWAP

Availability
Fishpond: Lost River: Four Albums


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Irish-born author Chris Flynn has certainly reinforced his perspective on Australian masculinity with his second novel, garnering impressive reviews.  But these reviewers are (surprise, surprise!) male.  Does the novel work for female readers?  Guest reviewer Karenlee Thompson, with reservations about just one character, thinks so. Here are her thoughts:

In closing my review of Chris Flynn’s novel A Tiger in Eden, I referred to the author’s bio which tells us that he was once a sumo-wrestling referee in a travelling fair and I noted there was a novel in that, for sure.

While The Glass Kingdom is not about a sumo-wrestling referee, it does centre on a travelling carnival.

Part One is narrated by Corporal Benjamin Wallace, a man I warmed to immediately (although if Ben was real, he wouldn’t take kindly to my choice of words there). I felt a great empathy for this big bear of a disfigured soldier, despite the fact that he’s a hell of a bad-assed drug dealer. Flynn is good at getting the reader to care about what should be an unsympathetic character.  He certainly did that in A Tiger in Eden and he’s done it again here in The Glass Kingdom. However, my sympathy and empathy didn’t quite extend to Mikey Dempster (more about him later).

Benjamin’s injuries (sickening burns and psychological trauma) come courtesy of his tour in Uruzgan but there are other injuries dating back to his childhood when this son of a “tattooed lady who swallowed swords and danced wearing naught but her ink” (P. 104) and a repugnant and controlling father, tried to run away from the travelling show.

Benjamin/Ben/Benji/the soldier has a way of looking at the world through blood-tinted glasses.  He’s a sharp-shooting, hard-living, tough-talking guy who tells it like it is, sometimes with a wry smile:

Just as well nine mils weren’t available to young blokes in Australia.  There’d be no men aged fourteen to thirty left standing.  The dickheads would all shoot each other. (p. 11)

The travelling carnival can be a lively affair but there are nights when drought and poverty and unemployment can be a drag on the spirits.  Flynn has the down-and-out country family down pat:

The kids would stare at the shiny rides with their hollowed-out eyes and occasionally risk a pleading stare at their fathers.  The men would gaze into the middle distance, giving a shake of the head. (p. 15)

Inside a country pub, Ben elbows his way through “a crowd of flannel shirts” (p. 25) where the dance floor is “obscured by a forest of thin denim legs” (p. 27) and you can soon tell that, with his sidekick Mikey on the loose, the proverbial is going to hit the fan.  When it does, the fight scene comes to life frighteningly on the page.

It’s a very Australian novel in a kind of outback, commodore-loving, laconic way where drivers chuck “a skidding uey” (p. 52) and fights break out in pubs at the drop of a hat.  “A Mustang’s all well and good,” muses Ben about his girlfriend’s dream car “until the f—— exhaust falls off in the middle of the Hume” (p. 48).

In this first part, the character of Mikey is an absolute gem and a perfect foil for the taciturn Ben. Mikey, with his outrageously funny hip-hop rap is basically a “grommet from Freo” (p. 13) [for those unfamiliar with Aussie slang; that’s a young surfer from Fremantle in Western Australia] who’s hoisting up his pants and puffing out his chest and trying to make some sort of mark on the world without expending too much energy.

Part Two ‘Voltan, Master of Electricity’, is narrated by an ageing electrician and life-long member of the travelling Fair whose memories will fade as his dementia increases and this section serves as a clever device to highlight some of the difficulties Ben endured as a youngster.  Voltan’s reminiscences help to solidify our sympathy for Ben:

He left the Kingdom for good, one fateful autumn day, and he died, that boy, in some foreign desert. I mourn his passing when I think of him.  Someone else came back, you see – a man none of us knew, a man utterly changed, a young prince returned from the great war of our time to reclaim his throne. (p. 116)

Voltan has a story of his own and when I read “That tale is for another day…” (p. 105), it occurred to me that it might not be the last we hear of this quirky character.  I am confident there would be a worthy story in the life of this son of a miner who was followed to Australia across the ocean by “something of the dread atmosphere in the mining village” (p. 105).

Part Three is narrated by Mikey (AKA Mekong Delta) and it is here where my interest in the story waned. I enjoyed Mikey when I saw him through Ben’s eyes “(there was a tiny bit of handsome hidden underneath that fake-gangster exterior)” (p. 20) but couldn’t warm to him on his own. The argot of this wannabe US gangster-rap hip-hop Aussie lout, while perfectly realised, becomes too much of a strain to read, once his character becomes the focus.  In addition, I couldn’t find the sympathy I’d mustered for Ben and I just yearned for the soldier to come back and take the starring role again.

When Ben did eventually return in ‘O Dark Hundred’, it didn’t satisfy me.  He seemed to have lost his original voice and slightly morphed into something half Ben/half Mikey with a bit of silliness thrown into the mix.

In a desperate bid to get some perspective on my ambivalence toward the latter part of the book, I searched for any similar questions raised by other reviewers.  Of the few reviews I found, no-one’s climbing in my boat. Tony Birch reviewed The Glass Kingdom for the Australian Book Review and Alan Vaarwerk (who found Mikey to be a “real stand-out”) reviewed for ReadingsJames Tierney (Sydney Morning Herald) goes so far as to dub part three, in Mikey’s voice, as “quite simply a tour-de-force”.  So, clearly, I am alone on choppy seas when it comes to my dislike of the manic Mikey and my resentment that he played such a big part.

I am pleased to say that my non-relationship with Mikey was not enough to negate the fascinating, rampaging romp that is the first part of the novel and, coming on the back of A Tiger in Eden, I feel The Glass Kingdom has cemented Flynn as a writer of considerable muscle. Can’t wait for the next one.

© Karenlee Thompson

Cross-posted at Karenlee Thompson

Karen Lee ThompsonKarenlee Thompson is an author and an occasional reviewer for The Australian and was featured on Meet an Aussie Author in 2011.  Her debut novel 8 States of Catastrophe is reviewed on the ANZ LitLovers blog here.  Karen blogs at Karen Lee Thompson.

Thanks, Karenlee, for presenting the female perspective!

Author: Chris Flynn
Title: The Glass Kingdom
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922147882
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing.

Availability
Fishpond: The Glass Kingdom

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 2, 2014

Pot Luck by Emile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson


6251723Well, here we are at No 7 in the recommended reading order for those wanting to read Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels.   It’s Pot-Bouille, written in 1882 and translated variously as Pot Luck, Restless House, and Piping Hot though none of these really capture the metaphorical meaning of the original title, according to Brian Nelson, the translator of this Oxford World Classics edition.  There isn’t really an English word which manages to convey the ‘melting-pot of sexual promiscuity’ which pervades the building,  and the stewpot of swill as a metaphor for the moral and physical corruption of bourgeois Paris in the 19th century.  But if  you can’t read the novel in the original French, this translation is a most enjoyable version instead, even if the translator himself isn’t happy with his title!

In this novel, a smart new building is Zola’s metaphor for the hypocrisy of the bourgeois.  Octave Mouret, known to me as a man with his eye on the main chance from my previous (out-of-order) reading of The Ladies’ Paradise (see my review), comes to Paris from Plassans to make his fortune.  Through his connections with relations of M. Campardon, Octave rents a room on the fourth floor of a new apartment building. The building is distinguished by elegant surface features of fake marble and mahogany which mask shoddy workmanship, peeling paint and sleazy servants’ quarters.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

The concierge M. Gourd spruiks the building’s other tenants as he escorts Octave upstairs (where, alas, the posh red carpet fizzles out as they reach the cheaper rooms).  Gourd is at pains to emphasise the respectability of the house, but these tenants are anything but respectable!

The landlord is M. Vabre, whose offspring all live in the building.  They are:

  • Clotilde Duveyrier (Vabre’s daughter) likes to hold court in her artistic salon, waylaying every eligible male to sing in her chorus, and subjecting both her piano and her listeners to muscular renditions of Chopin.  Her husband Alphonse (a judge) spends most of his time with his mistress Clarisse, who (unbeknown to him) makes many a man welcome in the rooms he has furnished for her.
  • Théophile, (M. Vabre’s second son) is married in name only to Valérie.  She married expecting to inherit wealth.  But it’s common knowledge that she gave up on Théophile because he’s impotent.  She used a local stud to have a child so that they would get their share of the Vabre inheritance when the old man dies, and she’s been having meaningless affairs ever since.
  • Auguste (M. Vabre’s eldest son) is a silk merchant who makes a disastrous marriage to Berthe.  She is the daughter of the impecunious Josserands who (like Octave) live on the less salubrious fourth floor.  He makes the mistake of making regular business trips away from home…

The other tenants are

  • The Josserand Family:  Madame Josserand is a termagant.  Determined to marry off her daughters Hortense and Berthe but handicapped by not having enough money for the requisite dowries, she harangues her honest, hard-working husband into fraud and an early grave, and bullies the younger daughter into an unedifying pursuit of Auguste Vabre.  The Josserands also have an older son who avoids them as much as possible, and a boy ominously called Saturnin, who suffers bouts of insanity and attacks anyone who upsets Berthe.
  • The Campardon Family: Madame Rose Campardon is a pseudo-invalid, much given to languid loafing about and managing to look quite sexy although her ‘malady’ has made her ‘unavailable’ since the birth of their only child Angèle.  Mildly fond of her husband Achille, Rose initially turns a blind eye to his long-standing affair with Gasparine, a distant cousin, but when she gets tired of his too frequent absences, she moves Gasparine in to live with them.
  • The Pichon Family: This strange, completely passionless young couple are under the thumb of Madame Pichon’s interfering parents who have laid down the law about how many children it is respectable to have on their income.  They come round for dinner once a week to make sure that proprieties are being observed.  Things go badly wrong when Marie borrows a novel…
  • Madame Juzeur: Inexplicably abandoned by her husband after ten days of marriage, she likes to flirt with young men and then refuse them.  Today, she would be labelled a ‘tease’.
  • There’s also an anonymous author, who keeps himself to himself!

Into this curious collection of sexually mismatched couples comes Octave, young, virile, and ambitious in more ways than one.  He gets himself a job as a salesman at ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’ (just a drapery then, not then the spectacular department store it is to become in the later novel of the same name) and sets out to seduce his employer’s wife, Madame Hédouin.   When she’s not interested he turns his attentions elsewhere, and elsewhere, and elsewhere!  But he’s not interested in the servants, because he needs his conquests to lead to advancement in other ways.

The hypocrisy and sleaze spread outwards and upwards as well.  The Josserands have a dissolute old uncle Bachelard who hangs around with Duveyrier and Trublot, a cynical young man who sleeps with almost all the servants.  These hapless young women are caught between Gourd’s insistence on respectability (so much so that he evicts a young woman from the house on the eve of her confinement) and the expectation that they will submit to any man who wants a bit of fun upstairs.  They are vulgar and dirty, and they have filthy mouths, but these servants are the only honest characters in the novel.  In the most moving scene in the book, one of the servants gives birth alone and in silence, terrified of being caught and losing her job.  The fate of her infant is heart-breaking, but was probably not uncommon.  (It still happens today, though changes in social attitudes and the status of women make it rare, at least in the West).

Pot Luck is a biting satire, one of Zola’s best.

Next up in my Zola Project will be No 9 in the recommended reading order because I’ve already read No 8, The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames).   There isn’t a nice modern OUP World’s Classic translation of La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret so I shall have to make do with one of these, listed on the Translations page at The Books of Emile Zola by the indefatigable Jonathan who has contributed so much to our collaborative blog there:)

  • Abbé Mouret’s Transgression (1886, Tr: unknown, for H. Vizetelly, Vizetelly & Co.)
  • Abbé Mouret’s Transgression (1900, edited by E. Vizetelly, Chatto & Windus)
  • The Sin of the Abbé Mouret (1904, Tr: M. Smyth, McLaren & Co.)
  • The Abbé Mouret’s Sin (1957, Tr: Alec Brown, Elek Books)
  • The Sin of Father Mouret (1969, Tr: Sandy Petrey, Prentice-Hall)

PS Do check out this collection of cover images at The Books of Emile Zola.  Some of the racier ones are hilarious!

Author: Emile Zola
Title: Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille)
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, reissued 2009
ISBN: 9780199538706
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond(OUP have very generously sent me most of their Zola editions for review, but not this one, because I already had it).

Availability

Fishpond: Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille) (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at The Books of Emile Zola

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 1, 2014

Book Giveaway winner: Arms Race, by Nic Low


As promised, I have drawn the current Book Giveaway, using a random number generator.

The book is  Arms Race, a collection of short stories by Nic Low, who was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and runner up for the 2013 Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize.

Here’s Text Publishing’s blurb:

Data theft, internet memes, advertising, terrorism, indigenous sovereignty, drone warfare, opium addiction, syphilis, the moon landing, mining, oil slicks, climate change, giant octopuses: nothing is spared in this collection. Nic Low’s stories go beyond satire, aiming for the dark heart of our collective obsession with technology, power and image.

Set variously in London, an Indian village, remote Mongolia, the West Australian outback and mountainous New Zealand, these are prescient visions of the future and outlandish reimaginings of the past. Arms Race is an arresting debut from a fierce, playful new voice in Australian writing.

AND THE WINNER IS….

Entry No 3: Mairi Neil!

Mairi, I already have your postal address,  so the book will be delivered to you very soon:)

Commiserations to those who missed out, but remember, you can buy a copy from Fishpond: Arms Race or good book stores everywhere.

Thanks to Text Publishing for the giveaway copy!

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