La Bete HumaineOh, this is the best Zola yet!

La Bête Humaine is No 15 in the recommended reading order for the Rougon-Macquart cycle, (and I’ve already read Germinal which is No 16, see my review) so I think I’m in a good position to judge.  This novel has a narrative drive which will have your pulse racing – and the ending, oh! the ending is so powerfully dramatic!

According to the excellent introduction by Roger Pearson, the novel received a fierce critical reaction, including the complaint that there were ‘too many trains and too many crimes’.  That should serve as a salutary reminder for book reviewers that we can be so horribly wrong because now La Bête Humaine is in the 1001 Books canon, and rightly so.

The central idea in the novel is the struggle between man’s primordial instincts and the civilising veneer.  Jules Lemaitre, writing in Le Figaro, was one of those who appreciated Zola’s genius, describing him as ‘the poet of man’s darker side’ whose whole work could be described by the title of this particular novel.  Pearson credits Lemaitre with being the best of the early reviewers of La Bête Humaine because he understood its point:

‘In his latest novel M. Zola examines the most frightening and most mysterious of all primordial instincts: the instinct for destruction and slaughter, and the obscure connection between this instinct and the erotic instinct.’ (p. viii)

The novel is set in the railway community, in 1869-70, along the Paris-Le Havre line.  Rail was well-established by the time Zola wrote this in 1890, and indeed, one crime is averted because of technological safety improvements.  But the tension between the onward rush of progress and the age-old emotions of jealousy and greed plays out into murder and violence no matter how the protagonists struggle against it.

The story begins with a respected train-driver called Roubaud and his wife Séverine, and the murder which propels the novel along was based on a real-life murder of a judge in a first-class compartment.  In those days carriages were self-contained: there were no corridors or connectors and no means of getting between carriages once the train was in motion.  So no one heard a thing, and the culprit was never found.  This notorious murder, and another which highlighted the dangers of travelling alone in a compartment, led to the introduction of footboards which ran along the outside of the carriages, the use of which must have been perilous indeed when the train was hurtling along at 80kph.  Pearson says that Zola was influenced by the celebrated serial killer Jack the Ripper as well.

But La Bête Humaine is not sensationalist tabloid rubbish.  Yes, there are shocking murders, and one of them is triggered by the sexual abuse of a young girl and another, which goes wrong, results in the deaths of many innocent victims.  If you are reading it here in Victoria where there is a Royal Commission into Domestic Violence, you will cringe when you see how neighbours hear and do nothing about the routine beating of women.  However La Bête Humaine is also Zola’s  roman judiciare (legal novel) and he uses it to expose the corruption of the judicial system which relied so heavily on patronage.  Monsieur Denizet, the prosecuting magistrate, knows not to rock the boat when an important man gets killed and with his usual forensic dissection of character, Zola shows us how this man manages to justify ignoring inconvenient evidence when it doesn’t match up with his own theories.  Further up the food chain, M. Camy-Lamotte, Secretary General at the Ministry, is too easily swayed by a pretty face and his anxieties about the fluid state of the empire.  (Yes, it was about to fall apart again, in the wake of the disastrous war against Prussia).  My guess is that the authorities would have been none too pleased about what they read about themselves in La Bête Humaine.

But interesting as they are, the insights into the minds of these powerful men are sidelines in a book which offers a masterful psychological analysis of the causes of violent crime.  In all cases Zola invokes the struggle between emotion and reason and the clash of base instincts against knowledge of what is right.  He shows with unnerving clarity how civilised behaviour can so easily be vanquished by inexplicable surges of rage and hatred.  In Jacques, we see the triggers which threaten to overwhelm him when he’s with women.  In Flores, we see the inane logic of jealous impulses.  We see how Mizard justifies his grotesque actions, and we see with Cabouche how easy it is to let an innocent fool take the blame.  We also see how easily crime can be forgotten when its proceeds lead to the desired outcome, how a moral gangrene sets in and leads to further wickedness, but how eventually it haunts the criminal from within.

The metaphor of the train as a symbol of runaway progress is brilliant, and the chapter where Jacques coaxes his locomotive La Lison through the snowstorm is Zola at his absolute stunning best.  This is an heroic struggle of man against nature with technology on his side, but we feel the vulnerability of man when the engine finally fails and the panic-stricken passengers are marooned in the icy-cold desolation of La Croix-de-Maufras.  En route, we are reminded that Jacques at the helm and his drunken fireman Pecqueux are exposed to the elements:

Never before had Jacques experienced such penetrating cold.  Pricked by the myriad needles of the snow, his face felt as though it were bleeding; and he had lost all feeling in his hands, which were stiff and achingly numb, so numb indeed, as he shuddered to realise, that his fingers could no longer feel the little gear-wheel.  When he lifted his elbow to pull the whistle, his arm hung from his shoulder with the dead weight of a corpse.  He could not have said whether his legs were supporting him, amidst the endless jarring and jolting which tore at his entrails.  Immense fatigue had overtaken him in this cold, as its icy grip spread to his skull, and he was afraid of simply ceasing to be, of not knowing any more whether he was driving or not, for already he was merely turning the gear-wheel in mindless, automatic response as he gazed in vacant bewilderment at the falling pressure gauge.  (p.190)

There isn’t a better description of imminent hypothermia in literature until you read the Russians.  (Tolstoy, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn).  And I am not going to think about the final chapter with the runaway train next time I’m on the TGV!

If you only ever read one Zola, then I recommend this one.  It’s brilliant.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: La Bête Humaine
Translated by Roger Pearson
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 1999, reissued 2009
ISBN: 9870199528669
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Book Depository (because I just had to get my hands on a good translation really quickly).


Fishpond: La Bete Humaine (Oxford World’s Classics)

The Beast in ManPS My first attempt to read this novel was with my copy of the 1956 Elek edition, translated by Alec Brown.  It was unbearable.  The dialogue of the working class characters were like excruciating caricatures.  Within five pages I was checking a French edition to see what had been done with it and I was appalled.  Just don’t.  Don’t.

Cross-posted at The Books of Emile Zola

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 1, 2015

For Someone I Love, a collection of writing by Arapera Blank

ilw 2015

For Someone I Love I think you can tell from the cover of this book that it’s very aptly named.

The blurb tells us that:

Arapera Blank  was one of New Zealand’s first bilingual poets and the first Māori writer to win a Katherine Mansfield Award in 1959. This extraordinary hard-cover book showcases her poetry, short fiction and essays written over thirty years, and includes photography from her Swiss husband Pius Blank. Both now deceased the book is a tribute to a glamorous aesthetic and vision for biculturalism and feminism.

Arapera was born in Rangitukia on the East Coast of the North Island of New Zealand in 1932.  Both her parents were Māori, of Ngati Porou and Ngati Kahungunu, and they passed Maoritanga on their children when Māori were on the cusp of being assimilated into Pakeha culture.

Arapera’s writing represents this experience, as Māori transitioned from rural communities to the city.  Loss of language and culture are central concerns, but there is also an optimism about who Māori could become in a contemporary context.  Being highly dextrous in both English and Māori, Arapera articulated an emerging biculturalism.  Her voice was also international, informed by her experiences in Europe and Asia over 30 years.  Arapera died in 2002, a celebrated teacher, writer and thinker.

The book is about A4 size, hardback, and filled with beautiful photos taken by Arapera’s husband Pius Blank, a Swiss photographer who migrated to New Zealand in 1952.  As their children Anton and Marino Blank say in the Foreword, these photos capture the romance and exuberance of their love.  They are a perfect match for Arapura’s poems, short fiction and essays.

The  bilingual poem entitled For my husband on the occasions of his birthday is accompanied by a full page B&W photo of Pius grinning happily from the door of a caravan, and the second stanza goes like this:

When you caress
your woman,
You are like
the War God, the Creator
who fashioned
his woman
from earth.
For a man must love
before he can bring forth
the bloom of flowers
with his hands.  (p.13)

But in addition to poems that express this deep love, there are also those that assert the poet’s identity: in Ko wai tenai? she rejects the suggestion that she is eccentric or extroverted.  Her last stanza is a joyous celebration of her sense of self:

And do you know?
I am the opposite
To what is said!
and all that
I am,
An aristocrat,
A romantic.
An independent, industrious
Woman, Maori,
That’s me!  (p.21)

There are political poems too, nailing the outrage against paternalism and rationalisations that determined the fate of colonised people.  After watching father re-uniting with sons in prison shows  the pain and anger that must be suppressed.  Confrontation likens the loss of justice in a smug writ to the loss of just intent in the Treaty of Waitangi.  These themes are echoed in the fiction pieces, which trace her journey towards identity.

The first short story is entitled ‘Yielding to the New’ and features a girl called Marama leaving her rural home for university where, in the 1950s, she was at first one of very few Māori.  A curiosity amongst those studying anthropology, she finds herself confused and unable to explain what Māoritanga is.  She has lived in Māori culture all her life, but she feels her ignorance when she cannot describe or explain it.  Back at home on holidays, she feels disorientated by her family’s expectations and their rejection of what she has learned.  But time passes and more of her people make the move to the city and to higher education, an achievement that brings its own sense of loss.

‘I am growing away from my parents.  I am going back to the turbulent flow,’ thought Marama, and she grew very sad.  (p.74)

‘The Visitors’ is a poignant story about the time some Pakeha visited a simple Māori home, furnished slowly and painfully over seven years with help from the Pakeha schoolteachers who lived next door.  The unnamed narrator observes her mother’s anxiety about the deficiencies of the house, because she fears she will be judged a bad housewife.  The twelve children have to be on their best behaviour, and a special menu is prepared as if it were Christmas.  But the visitors, a Māori scholar and his wife, are delighted with everything they find, and they are respectful about the mother’s collection of ancestral ‘antiques’ which have no monetary value.  Although she recognises that Mr Mills and his wife were so happy on their honeymoon that they did not care about anything except each other, still, this visit is the catalyst for the narrator to look at her own culture a little less critically.

‘One two three four five’ traces a little boy’s first day at school.  His name is Whaimata, (and unlike the teachers in Patricia Grace’s story Cousins which I have just reviewed) this teacher doesn’t anglicise his name, although it is against the rules to speak the Māori language.

Arapera’s essays trace the transition from rural to city life.  Some are a record of a voyage to Britain, but the most illuminating is a 1974 essay about the role of women in contributing to a changed way of life that was thrust upon the Māori.  There is a raw honesty about those who failed to take responsibility for the most important thing, the well-being of their children, keeping them healthy, preparing them for school,  and most importantly, communicating with them. She acknowledges that it’s best for secondary education to take place in boarding school because the farm responsibilities that children have makes it too hard for them to manage their studies as well.  What she suggests is that school should be:

… a kind of society in miniature which fosters in pupils confidence in and respect for the society outside, and by a perpetuation and reinforcement of the values of this society in a multiracial context, to give Māori parents a sense of confidence in this new education…

… For too long educationists have been too slow in fostering a comparative type education which highlights values shared by all races, even though approached by different means.  I see no harm in educating children above the norms of a community.  Admittedly children should not be made to feel superior to their parents, but should be encouraged to appreciate that, above the mundane tasks of getting a living, are ideals of what a society should be, if they are not to be creatures who just eat, sleep and do not know how to fulfil a vital spiritual need – the need for leisure.  This is so important in a society such as ours overweighted with materialistic goals and suffering because of too speedy a pace in achieving these.  (p.127)

Living comfortably in two cultures means that

[Māori must] perform a kind of back and forth paddling movement – back to their own culture for inspiration and forth to that of the Pakeha for confirmation that the valuable things in that society are no different to our own. (p.238)

This essay was written more than forty years ago, but certainly here in Australia, these issues are still up for discussion.  I’d be interested to hear from New Zealanders if they’re still current there as well.

Author: Arapera Blank
Title” For Someone I Love, a collection of writings from Arapera Blank
Publisher: Anton Blank Ltd, 2015
ISBN: 9780473299187
Review copy courtesy of the publisher.


Fishpond: For Someone I Love: A Collection of Writing by Arapera Blank

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 31, 2015

Mulga’s Magical Colouring Book, by Joel Moore a.k.a. Mulga

Mulga's Magical Colouring Book As I’m sure everyone knows by now, colouring-in is the latest in fashionable things for grownups to do.  But perhaps not everyone knows that there is actually reputable scientific research that shows that colouring-in actually works to reduce stress, and that it’s a good alternative for people who just can’t take to other strategies such as meditation.  I wish I could find the online article that I read that showed that neuroscientists had shown that the brain responded positively to certain types of colouring activities … and that it can reduce blood pressure too.

That article made it clear that it doesn’t work with any old colouring-in.  Disney Cinderellas and Nemos are not going to have the same effect on mindfulness: prismatic and symmetrical designs are the best because there’s a kind of rhythm to the way they are completed.  What forces the brain to slow down and relax is, as I recall the article,  the need to concentrate on keeping within the lines, and maintaining the colour patterns that you choose.

Mulga’s Magical Colouring Book is fun, but restful it’s not.  Mulga a.k.a. Joel Moore is apparently a well-known street artist in Sydney, and his designs are quirky and humorous.  There’s a toucan with a beanie, Pineapple Head Fred, Captain Gorilla and Pronger the Peacock.  These designs are, to use the parlance of teenagers, very cool, and very hip.   While not quite in the spirit of mindfulness self-help, it may that this liveliness is a good thing, because so many young people today seem to be stressed about what should be the best time of their lives, and maybe the ‘coolness’ of this book might make using it for relaxation ‘cool’ too.

Just one quibble: some of the designs have large areas that are already filled with black.  This might suit Goths, but I think it defeats the purpose of a colouring book if large swathes of the design can’t be coloured.

Artist: Joel Moore, a.k.a. Mulga
Title: Mulga’s Magical Colouring Book
Publisher: Hachette 2015
ISBN: 9780733634949
Review copy courtesy of Hachette.

Fishpond: Mulga’s Magical Colouring Book

ilw 2015
Indigenous readers please be aware that this page contains the names of deceased persons.


It isn’t hard to think of friends who would love this book…

Old Man's StoryOld Man’s Story is, as the sub-title suggests, the thoughts of Bill Neidjie, the last remaining speaker of the Gagadju language.  But the wise words of this impressive old man are also accompanied by stunning photographs of Kakadu, and I imagine that for those who’ve been there, this book would be a wonderful memory to have.  (And unless you’re a professional photographer like Lang is, your snaps are probably …um… not quite so spectacular!)

The book begins with an introduction that tells the story of how his book came to be.  Mark Lang, a professional photographer, gave up house and home to travel round Australia but before long, he knew that something was missing…:

…[I] reached a point where I felt that I had seen a lot of the place, and yet still had not got to know the place.  My relationship with this amazing land was rather like a passing friendship; just as the acquaintance was deepening it was time to go, to move on, back to the road again.  In my heart, there was a growing awareness of the immense spirit of the land, and with that came a realisation that the country would not reveal its secrets to me easily.  Perhaps I might learn more if I could just learn to be still and dwell awhile. (p. xiii)

This introduction tells how Lang’s first attempt to build an indigenous relationship failed, but that Old Man Bill took him under his wing.  Lang is intensely conscious of this privilege, and very aware that Bill had reached a tipping point in his responsibilities to his land and his culture because he was the last speaker of his language and he felt the necessity to break with tradition and tell his stories in print.  His own words about how the young ones aren’t interested or can’t be trusted to fulfil the ancient responsibilities, are poignant indeed:

I went there one time to look, teach children
Teach my son Aborigine life, teach him how to look after
How to look after yourself, and kids
He alright, sometime he go look.
Sometime he don’t like.  (p.7)

What you realise as you read through these pages, is that what Bill means by this ‘looking after’ is that looking after their country is essential to looking after oneself and one’s family.  These responsibilities are mutual.

And what is gone cannot be replaced or resurrected:

We used to camp here.
Sometimes ceremony here.
They used to have ceremony, old people.
They used to make plenty fire, good corroboree.

Nobody doing it now.
No more tree, no more growing.
They clean up.  (p. 8)

The First Story and Back to the Dry chapters bookend the book and correspond to the chapters called Dry Season and Wet Season.  Each section contains breathtaking photos which Lang has made available as a slideshow on his website  so you can see my favourite, ‘Moon shining through woolybutt trees’ – you will know it as soon as you see it.

(Does it sound dorky to say that I would love to have these images as a screensaver on our big TV in the sitting room?  It’s not as if we watch TV on it (except for *blush* Game of Thrones), and it would be lovely to watch these magnificent landscapes crolling slowly past me as I potter about.)

Like many old men, Bill has firm ideas about educating the young.  There was no mollycoddling when it was time for him to learn to hunt, but things are different now:

All that.
That way I explained, but young, they don’t get it.
New generation no good, nobody listen.
Old generation better. (p. 26)

But the tragedy now is that the break in traditions and respect for ancient ways has created irreparable damage.  Bill’s life story – as told in his own words in this book – shows that he was not an old curmudgeon who rejected all forms of change – he was an adaptable, resilient person, well able to marry new ways with the old.  He thought, for example, that although he was born in the bush, it was better for babies to be born in hospitals.  But his lament is that there is no one to follow him in ways that keep traditions alive as well.  He is worried about the pernicious effects of money…

This is a book to read slowly, and to mull over.  The verse layout of Old Bill’s story has a slow and graceful rhythm, but for those like me who have little familiarity with Aboriginal English, it takes time to find the flow.  And sometimes the meaning is opaque for a while, only becoming clearer after a page or so, with guidance from Lang’s narrative.

A word about the method used to record this story, because this type of telling another person’s story can be controversial.  Bill Neidjie was an old man when he told these stories, and he was extremely frail.  Over a period of months, Lang would pick him up in his truck, with the wheelchair on the roof rack, and drive Bill out to the places where he belonged where they would settle for as long as the old man was up for it.  Lang recorded everything, and transcribed it word-for-word, subsequently reading it back to Bill to check that it was an accurate reflection of what was said.   Out of respect for the traditional belief that the name and image of a deceased person not be used, Lang also discussed this issue with Bill before he died, and ensured that he had permission to use these stories as he has.  (It was Bill’s idea, he says, that a document be signed to that effect).   In the editing process some repetitions were removed and the sequence of some parts were moved around for better flow.  I don’t know what anthropologists would make of this technique, but it seems to me to have captured the thoughts of the subject with authenticity.  The only thing that made me wonder a bit about the editing was that Bill uses the word ‘Aborigines’ or ‘Aboriginal people’ where I would have expected him as an Elder to use the name of his own people.  But perhaps he was generalising rather than being specific…

Old Man’s Story challenges us as Australians to think about whether there could be a better way.

This earth, important this one.
Earth, we got to go to.
No matter who he is, or colour,
Our mother, this one.
World, or anybody, no matter who colour.  (p.64)

Stories, he says are good for you, and he hopes that the words of this book will spread.  That cover photo, says Lang, expresses Bill’s hope and determination that we will look after his story.

Georgia Delaney also reviewed it for Readings and there’s an interview with Mark Lang here.

Author: Bill Neidjie, with Mark Lang
Photography by Mark Land
Title: Old Man’s Story, the last thoughts of Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781922059949 (also available as an eBook)
Review copy courtesy of Scott Eathorne at Quikmark Media


Fishpond: Old Man’s Story: The Last Thoughts of Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 29, 2015

Nightwalkers, by Siv Parker

ilw 2015Just yesterday on TV I caught a snippet of some bloke arcing up about what a terrible place Twitter was, full of shaming and other kinds of beastliness, and all I thought was, sorry, but you are hanging out with the wrong sort of Tweeters, and now you want us to buy your book about it.  Well, no, if I’m going to take any notice of anyone on this topic of internet shaming, it’s Monica Lewinsky who knows more about it than anyone else, and whose wise advice is free to anyone on the web.  (If you haven’t seen it, click here for her TED talk.  It’s very powerful.

My experience of Twitter is that it’s a great place to discover all kinds of things that you might otherwise know nothing about.  Today, scrolling through the #FNAWN (First Nations Australian Writers Network) hashtag, I came across shout-outs to Siv Parker who was running a workshop on blogging at the national workshop here in Melbourne.  I’d never heard of this writer, but she was just a few clicks away at On Dusk, and before I knew it I was chuckling over her piece entitled Edit #27 and thinking how lucky I was to find this smart and funny author…

Review of Australian Fiction Vol 8 Issue 6From there I went to Tomely via a link hidden modestly at the bottom of Siv Parker’s blog … I’d never heard of Tomely either.  It’s a site where you can buy eBooks.  I know, I know, I must have been under a rock, but, you know, eBooks are so not my thing and I hate my Kindle.  But if a book can’t be had between two real covers, sometimes it is indeed the only way.  And a copy of the Review of Australian Fiction, Vol 8 Issue 6, curated by Jennifer Mills and with a story by Bruce Pascoe was cheap as chips, at $2.99.

Nightwalkers, is as Jennifer Mills says, dark, urban, and utterly chilling. She calls it boardinghouse gothic.

His shorts were too short for a man of his age. His dress sense confirmed he’d stopped the clock over two decades ago. He was hairless as far as the eye could see, with a cast to his skin only prison provides.

The symbols and vows he’d needled into his skin with a cell-made tattoo gun were largely indecipherable and no longer applied. He had perfect teeth, all capped after having had them knocked out at one time or another. He claimed to have loved the taste of his own own blood, which I didn’t doubt. A good bloodletting for some is as calming and life-affirming as meditation is for others.

Nightwalkers, by Siv Parker  (Kindle Locations 101-105).

Smart, funny, versatile and writing about the real world in a way that will make you sit up and take notice.  Keep an eye out for this author.  You heard it here first…

Siv Palmer is from the Yuwallaraay Aboriginal Nation in far west New South Wales.

Author: Siv Palmer
Title: Nightwalkers (short story)
Review of Australian Fiction Vol 8 Issue 6, 2015
Kindle Edition

Here’s where you can buy it too, for only $2.99.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 29, 2015

Well, this is embarrassing…

Here we are, right at the start of Indigenous Literature Week 2015 and I have just discovered that Akismet (the spam blocker that runs under the radar at WordPress) has been blocking my comments on other blogs.  Yes, they’ve tagged me as a spammer…  This has been going on at least since the middle of August, and possibly longer.

(And it’s still going on today, though I reported it to Akismet yesterday).

So to all my blogging friends who have perhaps noticed my absence, I apologise.  It isn’t that I’ve been ignoring you, not at all!

I want to say a big thank you to my friends that I’ve contacted by email about this.  Sue, Stu and Mairi have searched their blog’s spam folders for my comments and liberated them.  (Having done this once for a friend of mine caught in this position, I know it’s a bit of a pain to do).   Liberating my comments by marking them ‘not spam’ helps to confirm to Akismet that I’m not a spammer, and hopefully hasten my rescue.  If you have a blog that you like me to visit, and you have time, I’d appreciate it if you could do the same thing.

In the meantime, be assured I am reading your posts – and I am missing being part of the conversation.

Update #the next day

Many, many thanks to friends and fellow-bloggers that I have contacted who have taken the time and trouble to liberate my comments from their spam folders, #too many to name now, but you know who you are.

However, I am not very impressed by how long it’s taking to resolve this. It’s now over 48 hours since I first reported the problem and I wouldn’t have thought that it would take very long to establish that my comments don’t lead to commercial sites (or anything even more dubious). I have contacted five bloggers today after I received email advising me that they have new posts, and I couldn’t comment on any of them until I emailed them to ask for help and they kindly liberated my comments from their spam folders.

So, again, if you haven’t heard from me, and that’s unusual, please check your spam folder. Search using Lisa Hill or ANZ LitLovers, and mark anything you find Not Spam, and then the comment will go to moderation, and you will need to approve it again.

*sigh* Until Akismet resolves this I am depending on having an entirely personalised access to your blogs!


Update September 1st

I’ve just had an email from Akismet telling me that they have fixed it, though *chuckle* having tried it out by making a comment on one of my favourite blogs for thoughtful poetry, Reading Pleasure, I find that my ‘rehabilitation’ includes being ‘sent to moderation’ first *wry smile*.

Thanks again to those who helped, *blush* it actually feels rather nice that you did that for me.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 28, 2015

The Secret Son, by Jenny Ackland

The Secret SonA little while ago I had a minor whinge about my wish that debut authors would write about less predictable topics, about how it’s disappointing to see promising authors dredging up Relationships #101 and Dysfunctional Families #101 over and over again, as if there were nothing else to write about in Australia.  So I was very pleased to come across debut author Jenny Ackland’s The Secret Son – because it’s ambitious in theme, scope and structure and very interesting to read as well.

There are two narratives, the turn-of-the-20th-century narrative of  James, a farm boy of little initiative in Beechworth, and of Cem, a young man of Turkish descent who, despite his family’s misgivings, takes off from Australia for the village of his ancestors in the 1990s.  These two narratives do intersect, but the novel takes its time to do that, creating a nice frisson of mystery to be resolved.

James’ narrative is well-written, with a slow gentle rhythm that matches this character’s ambivalent personality and also that peaceful lost era before the cataclysm of World War I.  For James there is the puzzle of his vanished father’s identity and his mother’s reluctance to talk about it, exacerbated by the town’s diffidence towards them.    When his mother dies and James finds out that the property for which he had plans is only rented, and that puts paid to his even more vague plans for a bride, he drifts into working at a newspaper printing room in Melbourne, and from there into enlistment.  He ends up in the Dardanelles.

This characterisation made me wonder about how many other young men of vaguely pacifist intention might also have enlisted and managed to survive the war without actually killing anybody.  James’s impulsive enlistment derives in part out of frustrated love for Linda Cole (real life daughter of E.W. Cole of Cole’s Book Arcade fame) and her obsession with flying.  But James is also fascinated by the bees on his mother’s farm: he likes their orderliness, their industry and their hierarchical structure.  Perhaps the army momentarily had something of the same appeal.

The back cover blurb reveals enough of the plot for me to be able also to disclose that this first section of the novel ends up with James heading for a Turkish village, gravely ill, rescued from the abandoned trenches of Gallipoli by a Turkish boy whose life he had earlier spared. 

The next section, however, brings a change of pace, a change of locale and a change of era.  Cem is also a diffident young man who has difficulty making decisions about his own future.  Brought up in an extended migrant family from Turkey, he drifts into university but drifts out of getting a job afterwards.  Curious about the family stories he has heard all his life, he decides to visit the village of their birth, despite strong objections from his irascible grandfather.

But raised on his grandfather’s myth-making, Cem soon finds that reality doesn’t match what he finds, and the culture clash is deftly handled.  The exuberant characterisation of this section brings new momentum to the novel, and the dialogue is lively.  The taxi driver who delivers a crash course in Turkish culture has an authentic style which derives, so the blurb tells me, from the author’s own love of the country and her connections there.  (I haven’t been to Turkey yet, but it’s on my bucket list.)

This character Ibrahim is a lovable charmer:

‘My mother has very beauty heart.’  Ibrahim ate a stuffed vine leaf and reached for another.  ‘But I very angry, with all these feelings.  I sell wristling for ticket to Istanbul.  I catch bus with little bit money in my pocket.  All we men in this country has is big hopes with empty pocket.  Some days I think for us to stay small, in our shit villages is better.  This city, she making us too sad.’

Cem started to agree, but Harry interjected. ‘No.’ He was half standing, leaning over the table, the taxi-driver’s wrist caught in his hand.  ‘You were right to follow your dreams.  The first and most important thing a man must do is identify his quest.  The second thing he has to do is complete it.  You have succeeded already, don’t you see?’ Harry released the taxi-driver’s hand, sat down and held up his briefcase.  ‘On the matter of dreams, all will be revealed.’

Ibrahim grabbed Harry around the neck and kissed him on the cheek.

‘Harray, I not understand your speaking, my friend, but you is clever man!  I am believe you!  We live in this crumbling city, we have black feeling in our hearts.  Music makes it blacker, all the broken people around us, but still we are proud, and still there is honour.

He poured more raki into their glasses.  (p.103)

This Harry, on the other hand, is a pain in the neck.  Cem is a nice, friendly young man, and en route and against his better judgement he gets saddled with Harry, an academic who is obsessed by his theory that Ned Kelly (yes, the bushranger) had a son who went to war and didn’t return.  Harry is, to put it mildly, a crashing bore.  He talks too much, and he has endless problems with back pain.  Cem is not best pleased when he discovers that he’s heading for the same village that Harry needs to visit, to research his bizarre theory.  And since Harry speaks not a word of Turkish, Cem is expected to translate for him…

Now, as it happens, I am concurrently reading Zola’s La Bête Humaine (The Beast in Man), a novel which explores the idea that the base instincts of men can be passed on in families.  Ackland’s novel places Cem in the invidious position of being held to account for actions taken long ago by his relations.  The Ned Kelly motif allows some discussion about tainted blood and how ‘debts’ might be repaid in atonement.  These are interesting ideas to think about in the contemporary calls for apologies for past wrongs.

The dual narratives work well for the most part, but it is a complex plot requiring close attention by the reader throughout, especially when it comes to working out the relationships across time and place.  As is sometimes the case with debut novels, there are occasional elements to the plot which seem unnecessary, and here and there I noticed expressions that seemed a little incongruous, which could have been dealt with by more astute editing.  I have never before come across snuck (as a replacement for sneaked) in the written past tense, and I was baffled by this use of shrug as a description of a person:

At the beginning of 1990, Cem was twenty-three and a kind of shrug.  He was one of the sugar men, but his sweetness was diluted in Melbourne.

The reader finds out eventually what this reference to sugar is about, but shrug remains a mystery.  Perhaps it is a metaphor for Cem’s inability to explain himself because he often doesn’t know what he thinks, but the text takes a while for that aspect of his characterisation to become clear.  It’s not until five pages later that this passage begins to reveal his ambivalence, and even then there’s no reference to him shrugging his shoulders:

Cem lengthened as he grew and began to lope when he walked, hands in pockets, chin dropped to the ground.  He didn’t look people in the eye because inside all of his stretched new form, he hadn’t even begun to reach his own edges, and he was unsure about everything.  He was on the verge of something, but he wouldn’t have been able to say what.  His family, though, never tired of telling him what kind of person he was.  (p.78)

I think most readers will enjoy the settings, the mystery and above all the lively characterisation in The Secret Son.  It’s more than a coming-of-age novel, as its allusion to the ‘guilt’ of post-Holocaust Germans implies.  This story lays bare the bewilderment of someone held to account for the sins of the previous generation, coupled with the pain of those who’ve been wounded and long for acknowledgement and restitution.

There’s also a review at Readings.

Author: Jenny Ackland
Title: The Secret Son
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2015
ISBN: 9781925266160
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.


Fishpond: The Secret Son and all good bookstores.


Visit this post – Indigenous Literature Week 2015 at ANZ Litlovers – to sign up if you want to participate in ILW for 2015.

ilw 2015


Thanks to everyone who is participating in 2015 Indigenous Literature Week – I hope that hosting this celebration helps to make more people aware of our indigenous writing!

ILW 2015 this year takes place to coincide with the First Nations Australia Writers’ Network Workshop, which is being held in Melbourne in the last weekend of August.  I will be monitoring this page until the end of September.

You are welcome to add your review/s early.

When you are ready to share your reviews, please use comments below:


  • your name & the name of your blog (if you have one) and
  • the URL where your review is posted (your blog, or your GoodRrads or Library Thing account).

(Please do not add Amazon consumer reviews because they generate intrusive Amazon ads and I don’t care to support Amazon advertising).

If you don’t have a blog or a GoodReads/Library Thing account, then please share what you thought about the book you read in the comments section at the bottom of this post.  Or if you’d like to write a review of greater length, contact me at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom about writing a guest review to be hosted on the ANZ LitLovers blog.

I will gather these links to generate a list which will be added under the headings below on this page. I will also add any new titles that crop up to the master Indigenous Reading List.

PS If you haven’t signed up to participate yet, or want to know more about ILW, please click here.

PPS I’ve just discovered this directory of indigenous bloggers, it’s called Deadly Bloggers – and for those of you not up-to-speed with Aboriginal English, no, that doesn’t mean they’re blogging about crime novels, deadly means they’re wonderful, excellent, great!

2015 Reviews (in alphabetical order by author)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors


Maori Authors

Cousins, by Patricia Grace (review by Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers)

And from elsewhere…

The Game of Silence by Louise Edrich of Ojibwe (American Indian) descent  (review by Becky from Becky’s Books)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 26, 2015

Cousins, by Patricia Grace

ilw 2015
I decided to kick off my first review for Indigenous Literature Week with a novel by Patricia Grace of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa descent, because she is visiting Melbourne for the Melbourne Writers Festival and the First Nations Australia Writers’ Network Workshop.  Grace is one of New Zealand’s best known writers and has an impressive body of work which includes novels, short stories and children’s books.  Her best known work is probably the ground-breaking Potiki (1986) which I reviewed a while ago but I also enjoyed Baby No-Eyes which came out in 1998. (See my review).  In between these two novels, however, came Cousins in 1992, and I think I like this one best of all.

(But perhaps I should reserve my judgement because I’ve just ordered her new one, Chappy, from Readings – and it’s getting rave reviews in NZ. I also found a copy of Tu (2004) at Brotherhood Books, so these are treats in store.)

Cousins (517x800)Cousins begins with the heart-breaking story of Mata.  There are three interlocking stories, with narrations that shift to allow for differences in intimacy.  We meet Mata striding along the road at night, barefoot and with nothing but the clothes on her back and a photo of her mother, who died when she was a little girl.  Mata’s story is poignantly told from her child’s point-of-view, punctuated by her middle-aged first-person narration, which works like a barrier against revealing her feelings.

Where?  Didn’t want to ask where or why, or to have thoughts that lead to thinking. Only wanted hands in shoes in pockets and just herself, her own ugly self, with her own big feet and big hands, her own wide face, her own bad hair, which was turning white, springing out round her big head. One coat, one dress. Shoes on their last legs or in their last pockets, a photo in a frame, and her name. (p. 14)

Mata Pairama spent her childhood adrift from her culture.  Her father refused to let her extended family take care of her and abandoned her to the guardianship of Mrs Parkinson, who offloaded her to an orphanage.  Her childhood was spent in terror of an omnipotent Old Testament God, in the loneliness of a child who belongs to no one, and in confusion about her identity.  She is re-named May Palmer, but that doesn’t make her acceptable to the mother of her only friend, Betty, who wasn’t allowed to bring dirty, black children into the house… 

By chance when Mata is ten, the resemblance to her cousin Makarata is spotted in the school playground and the orphanage allows her to spend a three week holiday with her extended family.  With Mrs Parkinson’s exhortations to be on guard against sin, bad companions and the devil ringing in her ears, Mata sits on the train looking out for houses…

because that was what she liked best, liked thinking about houses.

Inside houses were mothers, fathers and children, tables and chairs, cups and dishes in cupboards, curtains with flowers on them, floral wallpaper, patterned mats of floors, beds with shiny bedspreads, drawers and wardrobes full of clothes.  There were toys and dolls.  The dolls had dresses and pants and there were tins of beads that you could make bangles and necklaces with, threading the beads on cotton – green white read, green white red, all red, all green, any way you like.  When it was long enough you tied it round the doll’s wrist or neck. (p.17)

But the house where her aunty lives is not what she expected:

There’d been room for her to sit between the table and the wall and there was a little window high above her head.  It was like being in the fort that the School boys had made once, out of boxes and boards. There was a stove with a pot and a kerosene tin on it, a basin and a row of tins on a bench and boxes nailed to the walls like cupboards without doors.  In the boxes were plates and mugs, bowls and billies and knives.  The walls were papered with old Free Lance and Auckland Weekly pages and there was a lamp hanging from the ceiling on a piece of S-shaped wire.

The poverty and squalor of entrenched disadvantage is seen vividly through this child’s eyes.  The toilet is outside at the end of a long path and there were flies and spiders and maybe snakes.  She doesn’t like eating eels from the river, and she is shocked that she has to share a bed with one of her cousins.  The other kids seem to run wild, and she doesn’t fit in.  She wants to go ‘home’.

But things improve.  By contrast, her grandmother Keita’s house is a ‘real’ house as befits her status as the matriarch.  It has windows, bedrooms, and curtains, and the food smells good.  That night Aunty Gloria cuddles her to sleep, and tells her that she is a loved member of the family and that she belongs to them.  Keita gives her a photo of her mother, and she is shown her mother’s grave, and the graves of her ancestors, and told the story of how her mother Anihera ran away to the city with a man who was no good.  But Mata is utterly overwhelmed by it all.  She is confused when Keita insists on calling her Mata instead of May, and she doesn’t understand the language of her own culture, Māori.

And most poignant of all, back at the orphanage, she thinks that none of it was true.  She wasn’t their girl at all.  She had waited every day but they hadn’t sent for her. She’d never heard from any of them, never been there again. (p.56) She doesn’t know how her grandmother tried to get her back, and failed. So Mata spends her life waiting…

Mata’s cousin Makarata is the Chosen One, the ceremonial puhi.  (See the Mai Review for a very interesting article about this).  Traditionally, puhi were treasured daughters of chiefs, were of high rank, endowed with aristocracy, and fiercely protected and respected by the tribe. They were renowned for their beauty, their courage and leadership, and their role was to keep the tribe protected, safe and prosperous.  They were cherished as future leaders and led very privileged lives.  Indeed, Makarata never brushes her own hair until she goes to boarding school and has to be taught by the other girls how to do it.  But puhi were also often betrothed at birth, mainly to formalise alliances with another iwi or tribe.  In the 1970s when feminism was changing the role and expectations of women around the world, the puhi tradition was destined to clash with the independence and self-empowerment that Makarata yearns to have.

Makarata’s narrative voice is mature and sophisticated and she speaks standard ‘educated’ English.  Her mother, Polly had left the community, ostensibly to care for her sick sister Cassie and the children in the city, but it was really because after mourning her husband Rere who was killed during WW2, that Polly wanted a city life.  Like Anihera and others of this generation, Cassie had not wanted to have the elders choose her husband for her, and the husband she chose is ‘no good’ either.  Polly leaving the whānau (family) arouses strong feelings of disapproval, but when she isn’t able to care for Makarata the child is brought up by her grandmothers, cosseted and loved, and eventually sent to boarding school where she does very well.

However, Makarata too rejects the traditional role that was chosen for her, causing upset and shame to the entire family.  In Wellington, she becomes a nurse, which involves breaking various traditions to do with touching other people and the care of the dead.   The author makes use of Māori and Pākehā names to denote the extent to which family members identify with their own community or reject it, and later, when Makarata marries ‘out’ she names her children Michael and Kate.  It’s not until the period of Maori activism and the Land March in the 70s when she has been married for ten years that Makarata’s pakeha husband Rick discovers that she speaks Māori.

Missy’s story is narrated from a child’s point of view, by the spirit of her unborn twin brother, never acknowledged at birth, which has curled itself into Missy.  Her Māori name is Maleme Karoria Tatua.  She’s one of a somewhat chaotic but loving family of seven children, and her father is a good-natured but irresponsible drunk.  She goes to school irregularly, but is there enough to absorb the message that speaking her own language is forbidden and that Māori children are not expected to achieve much.  Missy is mildly jealous of poor little unloved Mata when she visits, and in a family where the children amuse themselves unsupervised, is nonplussed about how to relate to this forlorn child, too scared to do anything that might get her clothes dirty. Missy’s future doesn’t seem bright until she steps into a place for which she is wholly unprepared and unexpectedly finds love and respect.

In adulthood these lives are transformed.  Makarata becomes a powerful spokesperson for her people in the political-legal battle for Māori self-determination and land rights, and a chance meeting at a critical time in her life leads to a reunion and the end of estrangements.  Cousins is a beautiful, thought-provoking book that made me wish I knew more about the Māori culture.  I think that a New Zealand literary festival at the some time in the future might be the catalyst for me to start learning…

BTW It’s a bit dated, but I found this interesting little snippet called the Beginners Guide to Visiting a Marae from a NZ government website about settling in as a migrant

Author: Patricia Grace
Title: Cousins
Publisher: Penguin New Zealand, 1992
ISBN: 9780140168082
Source: Personal library, purchased from Brotherhood Books.

Patricia Grace’s books are still in print in New Zealand, but although you might find her latest title in an Australian bookshop, you’re not likely to find her backlist unless you strike lucky like I did in a second-hand bookshop.  Your best bet is Fishpond because they deliver free to Australia.   This is the link for Cousins.

PS I’ll be setting up the page for other Indigenous Literature Week reviews in the next day or so….

The Handbook This is a fantastic book! Get yourself a copy!

Will you believe me if I say that I picked it up The Handbook late last night after I had finished reading Patricia Grace’s Cousins just to have a look at the introduction before turning out the light, and found myself reading the entire book instead?  It’s true.  I couldn’t stop reading it…

I did already know I was going to be interested,  I had heard the authors discuss the book with Patricia Karvelas in The Drawing Room on Radio National.  I knew it wasn’t yet another book  about the science of climate change so that you can have arguments with climate change deniers, it was, as the title implies, a book about what to do to make life bearable now that climate change is upon us.  How to make your life better in the 2° rise-in-temperature scenario, which is now inescapable.  How to prepare for that, because it’s happening in your lifetime, in your own little house in the suburbs or wherever.  Yes, present tense, not future tense.  Noticeable changes now, and only going to get worse even if a miracle happened and our witless politicians started doing something to prevent it getting to the 4° rise-in-temperature scenario.  But, well, I admit it, I was expecting The Handbook to be a bit worthy.  I was expecting it to be a bit dull.

I should have known better.  I hadn’t heard of Whitmore before (he edits the Environment pages at The Conversation) but Jane Rawson (who used to do the same thing) is the author of A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists which won the 2014 Aurealis Award and the Most Underrated Book Award (see my review), and she’s just won the 2015 Seizure Prize for a macabre novella called Formaldehyde, so she’s never going to write anything dull.  Although a serious book, The Handbook is really interesting to read and in some places will even make you chuckle.

It’s a mixture of things any intelligent person could predict will happen when temperatures rise (e.g. you will use your air-conditioner more and your power bills will go up; there will be even more bushfires and floods and you may lose your house and belongings, that’s if it doesn’t kill you) – and things you might not have thought about, like food shortages because storms have wiped out the crop and Australia’s heavily centralised food distribution system has failed because the roads have been washed away.

Remember the price of bananas, for ages and ages, after Cyclone Yasi hit Tully?  What if it hadn’t been just bananas, eh?  It’s disquieting to learn a few facts:

Nobody starved during the 2011 Queensland floods, but the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries report made some rather chilling conclusions.  It turns out that Queenslanders got very lucky.  There are a number of factors which make Australia’s food supply vulnerable to disasters.  Over recent decades the supply chain has grown longer, more complex and more centralised.  More than 80% of us depend on supermarkets for our food, and the food must first travel from farm to distribution centre to supermarket, distances of thousands of kilometres.  In the whole supply chain, Australia holds only five days of fresh food, two weeks of chilled goods, and a month of dried goods.

The report found that, while Queensland ably dealt with the severe flooding, if the disaster had arrived at the same time as something else, say bushfires in Victoria, or a major cyclone, supermarkets would not have been able to restock and people could have gone hungry.  That may sound unlikely, but recall that a major cyclone did strike Queensland less than a month later.  If Yasi had struck only 250 kilometres north or south., at Townsville or Cairns, Queensland would have been facing a disaster that the food supply chain couldn’t handle.  (p.157-8)

But the book is not about scaring you.  Apart from sensible ideas about having an Emergency Pantry List, and growing some food in your own backyard or a community garden, it offers a wealth of ideas that build on people’s capacity to cope and to be resilient.  What that kept me reading after I read the introduction was that the first chapter was about people, and how they react to threats.  The Handbook addresses the psychological issues from the outset: it observes that people dismiss threats or become paralysed with fear and do nothing, and offers suggestions for how to prepare your mind to deal with the inevitable.

In my last years at school before my retirement, I had responsibility for Emergency Management Planning.  As luck would have it I was Acting Assistant Principal during the term that the education department, in the wake of the Black Saturday bushfires, was insisting that all schools update their Disaster Plans.  We didn’t have a Disaster Plan, and we had only ever had desultory evacuation drills, not any other kind.  And although I was working in a school on the urban fringe 1000 metres from a national park to the north and 500 metres from bushland to the west, I lived 25 kilometres away in the safety of the southern suburbs and the thought of bushfire planning hadn’t entered my head.  I did not know that embers can blow up to 15km to land on a school’s roof and start a fire in the building.  To say that I was on a steep learning curve is a bit of an understatement.

But one of my enduring achievements at that school was to make sure that every staff member understood the risk, and that we were not only prepared, we had drilled for every conceivable eventuality.  And when our planning was eventually tested in the real, when there was a bomb threat, we had 400 kids and 50 adults safely outside in three minutes, and crucially, there was no panic.  At the subsequent debriefing, the police told us that they had never encountered a school so capable and calm.  At the subsequent staff meeting, I was amused to find that there had been some muttering about ‘Lisa inflicting a drill on us just at home time’, some staff had not known that it wasn’t a drill!

(If you’ve got kids at school, I bet you’re wondering how their school would get on.  Ask your kids if they have different kinds of drills, and if you’re not satisfied by what they say, go and ask nicely about it.  Offer to help, you’ll learn things that may save your life or your home).

The Handbook, however, isn’t just about the day/s of the disaster, it’s about the aftermath.  Yes, you need to do things now so that you can survive the next heatwave without your air-conditioner because the power supply hasn’t coped with a week of 45° temperatures.  You’ll need to be prepared in case you have to come up with meals that don’t rely on electricity for cooking.   And if the overnight temperatures are going to hover around 25-30° (like they did in Melbourne in 2013-4) you need to have a cool space somewhere in your house so that you can sleep.   You also need to have a community around you to look out for each other.  It’s better, isn’t it, if the hale and hearty venture out to do any desperately needed shopping for medicine than your neighbour who’s got to take small children in her less reliable car?  It’s important, isn’t it, that somebody checks on that batty old lady who lives alone in your street?  But you also need to take care of that community afterwards, to support each other in the recovery phase and to learn from the disaster as well.

Have you checked with your local council that they have made provision for the homeless in extreme weather conditions?  I have.  I asked them last summer, and was pleased to find that they were ahead of me.  The Handbook makes a point of addressing inequity: they have suggestions for things that you can do on the cheap and is hard-headed about how the rich will inevitably cope better than the rest of us.  If Tasmania and New Zealand look as if they’re going to be more congenial places to live as temperatures rise, you can bet that Gina Rinehart and Co have already got their eco-survival mansions sorted, probably in gated communities, thereby putting that real estate option out of the reach of the rest of us.  (Well, maybe not Gina, she’s said to be a climate change denier.

The book is extensively researched, and at the end of each chapter there is a list of websites and resources to help you.  I’d write more, but I’ve got things to do.  I’ve already got an emergency kit but there’s a couple of things missing: I haven’t got a wrench to turn off utility supplies, and I haven’t got a solar powered phone charger.    I need to update my risk analysis too: I think the most likely thing I’m going to face here in Melbourne in the short term is recurring heatwaves and electricity blackouts that will last longer and longer before the power is restored, but I hadn’t thought about food shortages.  Our pantry reflects my foodie-Spouse’s interest in gourmet cooking, not a supply to depend on for a week or more.  (Depending on whether I’ve just stocked up or not, the dog will be ok.  I buy in bulk for her.)

I also haven’t given enough thought to flash flooding which last came to my place with a huge storm in 2011.  It paralysed traffic on my terrifying route home from work and made wellies a necessity in my street and my back garden.  My vegetables are in raised beds so they would be ok, but where did I put my wellies after they dried out?  And have we had the gutters cleared this year, so that they can cope with an overwhelming onrush of water?  One of our three water tanks (the first one, the one that wasn’t installed by a plumber) doesn’t have an overflow valve, where will the water go if it overflows?  Will a sudden rush of water knock over the nearby fence so that my precious dog could go exploring into hostile new territory?  Or will it dislodge the adjacent tree so that it crashes into the shed and breaks the windows, shedding glass everywhere for unwary paws?  Maybe I should retrofit the valve, eh?

Get the book, read it, and make yourself a manageable plan.  Don’t do it on your own, your best asset is other people!

Authors: Jane Rawson and James Whitmore
Title: The Handbook: Surviving and living with climate change
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2015
ISBN: 9781921924934
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Fishpond: The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change
and good bookshops everywhere.

PS Do check out Crikey’s Dirty Dozen, the ones doing the most to block action on climate change, because:

In 50 years’ time, as the world swelters, crops fail, bushfires rage and extreme weather causes devastation around the globe, the Dirty Dozen are the people who should be remembered for their role in allowing it to happen. Perhaps primary schools could bury this list in time capsules to be excavated in 2100, just so future generations will not forget what they did.

PPS Sadly, right on cue, within an hour of me posting this, the ABC is reporting severe weather events in NSW.  Three adults and two children are stuck in floodwaters on a causeway at Kiama,  the Jerrara Dam has overflowed at Illawarra and people are being evacuated, there are floods outside Orange and there’s a mini-tornado at Dubbo.  The SES are doing heroic work as usual and dozens have been rescued…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2015

The Orpheus Clock, by Simon Goodman

The Orpheus ClockEarlier this week, I read in The Guardian that the children of Holocaust survivors have genetic evidence that the trauma has been passed on to them.  It seems it is not just an old wives’ tale that bad experiences can be passed on to the next generation, there is now research evidence for the theory of epigenetic inheritance: that is, that environmental factors can affect the genes of your children…

I thought of this as I was reading The Orpheus Clock, an account of Simon Goodman’s search for family art treasures that had been stolen by the Nazis.  He begins the book with his discovery of some old boxes hoarded by his father, which came into his possession after his father’s unexpected death.  Bernard Goodman, once Bernard Gütmann, was eighty, but it was not his body that life had broken. Later on, as the author explains that the box contained voluminous correspondence and files, he says that his father’s quest for justice was an obsession, and that the few things that were recovered caused division and dissension amongst the remaining family members.  It is unutterably sad that in addition to all the horrors of the Holocaust, the quest for justice and recompense has been so complex and tortuous and that it is still not resolved more than 70 years after the end of the war.

The first part of the memoir traces the rise of the Gütmann family and their prominence in German banking.  They moved in elite circles, and lived a life of luxury.  A man of excellent taste, Simon Goodman’s grandfather Fritz built a magnificent art collection which included works by Degas, Renoir, and Botticelli, and a superb collection of silverware.  With the rise of the Nazi party, some family members relocated to other parts of Europe,  but fatally, others believed that the histrionic hatred of Jews was only another manifestation of the anti-Semitism that had historically ebbed and flowed to coincide with economic downturns and recovery.  Fritz and Louisa Gütmann settled in the Netherlands, where they wrongly believed that they would be safe, and their son Bernard went to study in England (where he anglicised his name, and survived the war).

The next part of the book covers the ghastly history of the Holocaust, and how it impacted on the extended Gütmann family.  But it also includes the not so well-known scheme to systematically loot the occupied territories to build a personal collection for Hitler and for his henchmen.  (There are reports this week that a Nazi train full of looted treasure has been found in Poland.)  Conquerors have done this kind of looting since time immemorial, of course, but surely none have done it with such extraordinary duplicity, maintaining a fiction of buying the art with now notorious Nazi bureaucratic paperwork, while systematically stripping Jewish owners of their property with bargain-price payments paid into banks that Jews couldn’t access, before shipping the victims off to slave labour and the death camps.

But it was this fiction of buying the art that made recovery a legal minefield after the war.   A surprising amount of the art was located quite quickly by an American team called the Monument Men, but claimants – often dispersed around the world – had to be able to identify it, and prove ownership.  Just the process of identifying it was hard enough: imagine being a descendant with no particular expertise in art and having to name and describe the paintings on your grandparents’ walls, and state their size with accuracy.  Paintings are sometimes renamed, and occasionally they are attributed to different painters after an authentication process.  But proving ownership when the Nazis had forced the owner to sign sale documents in triplicate at gunpoint was a legal conundrum requiring common sense and a fair go, which Goodman says that the post-war socialist Dutch government wasn’t disposed to offer because they weren’t interested in making things easy for ‘rich capitalists’ to get their pictures back.  For Bernard as executor of his parents’ stolen estate, it was a frustrating and mostly fruitless task which added to the devastation caused by the loss of so many members of his family in the Holocaust.

What Simon discovered after Bernard’s death was that a lot of the recovered art work flooded the market in the post-war era, and much of it made its way to America because there was post-war austerity everywhere else.  While I can understand the discomfiture of an unwitting buyer being suddenly confronted with the knowledge that they have a stolen artwork on their hands, as Goodman tells it, the story of having to fight in the courts to recover his grandfather’s artworks is an unedifying one.

But rather than concede defeat, Simon Goodman took up his father’s quest, despite friends warning him that ‘You can’t change the past.’  He explains it like this:

From the earliest age I had carried with me an unidentified sense of loss.  Growing up in a silent void, I only recognised much later in life the invisible “elephant in the room”, the Nazi cataclysm that had almost obliterated my family.  Whether unconsciously or not, I had clearly been affected by my forefathers’ suffering, and as a result I found to difficult to rest. Only by addressing their unfinished business, reaching back to change the past however minutely, did I find some solace.  As I embarked on this quest to find my family’s lost treasures, a solution to my underlying grief emerged.  The more I traced our hidden artworks, the more my family’s buried history resurfaced.  As I placed one more piece of the shattered jigsaw puzzle back together, the lost lives became tangible once more.  With each piece came a little renewed pride.  Today I am comforted by knowing my place in all that.  I no longer suffer from an isolation of rootlessness.  My roots are deep and wide, with ancestors that go back many centuries and relatives on four continents.  (p. 317)

Other reviews are at The Daily Mail UK and you can read Simon’s own account of the Rubens in the Courtauld Gallery at the Irish Times.

Author: Simon Goodman
Title: The Orpheus Clock
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2015
ISBN: 9781925106800
Review copy courtesy of Scribe


Fishpond: The Orpheus Clock: the Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2015

Dangerous Allies, by Malcolm Fraser

Dangerous AlliesIt was when I was reading Simon Mawer’s Tightrope (see my review) and came across the part about the American betrayal of its allies in the late stages of WW2, that I remembered that I wanted to read Dangerous Allies by Malcolm Fraser in which he argues that Australia should be more independent of the US in its foreign policy.  The notable point about this opinion being that Fraser was a Defence Minister who acquiesced to the Americans, sending men too young to vote to fight and die in the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call the American War).  Fraser was also the Liberal Prime Minister who went to his grave with unanswered questions about any external involvement in the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975 (thus disappointing any conspiracy theorists who naïvely thought he might one day ‘fess up).  So this book is not predictable Leftie anti-American stuff; this is a book by a conservative…

(No, I don’t believe that leopards change their spots.)

Well, the book came in from the library (no way I was going to add to the Fraser coffers by buying it!) and I have just finished reading it. It’s a bit repetitive here and there, and a lot of it is clunky.  I admit to skimming over the chapter about the history of Australia’s transition to a fully independent nation as distinct from one which relied on the Brits for defence and foreign policy and which had no ambition to change that.

(I’m not slack, it’s just that I already know all that from doing Constitutional Law at Queensland University, but also because I was paying attention to Gough when he talked about the remnant bits of dependence that lurk in our systems of law and governance.  But if you weren’t paying attention when someone interesting like Gough was talking about it with such eloquence and passion, you’re not very likely to find it interesting at all in this somewhat plodding book. )

Anyway, (leaving aside that there might not be anybody left to care after a nuclear war) Fraser’s message is that Australia’s alliance with the US makes us vulnerable in the event of a stoush between China and the US, probably triggered by Japan and the issue of those islands with a hybrid name (Diaoyu/Senkaku).   (He says) the US would probably lose since they’ve already lost three wars because they don’t have the domestic fortitude to win (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan).  If the US retreated to the western hemisphere to resume an isolationist position, that would leave us friendless and adrift in Asia… [LH Goodness knows how we would get on if they refused to trade with us, now that we have jettisoned most of our manufacturing industry, including the food processing and car industries].

Fraser also says that our continued hosting of Pine Gap and the Marine Air-Ground Task Force in Darwin and other US bases makes us complicit over assorted dubious US activities (e.g. the use of drones which kill civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia).  And while our alliance makes it hard impossible for us to stay out of any war between China and the US, his analysis is that we ought not expect that they would reciprocate that alliance if we had some dispute with our only conceivable threat, our neighbour Indonesia. (Amongst other examples, he cites US lack of enthusiasm for helping with the Timor peace-keeping force.)  Fortified by American belief in its own exceptionalism and its God-given destiny as Leader of the Free World, the US acts in its own interest, he says, and it’s not in their interest to worry much about Australia.  Especially not since we always go along with what they want, whether it’s in our interests or not.

The chapter on Evatt’s post-war role in the UN was interesting (and surprisingly benign).  So too was the chapter about how, despite a rocky start, South-east Asian nations in the post colonial period have set up their own initiatives for development and peace in the region.  But I had to grit my teeth to read the sections about the Vietnam War, in which blame apparently lies entirely with first, French intransigence and then US duplicity in the service of the prevailing Cold War rhetoric, and for which he, Fraser, as a very junior minister complying with the pattern of Australia’s strategic dependence, takes no responsibility.  Everybody thought communism was monolithic, you see, so everybody believed in the domino effect.  Oh, ok, then…

For Fraser, the end of the Cold War was a game-changer, because American hubris since it achieved sole superpower status makes it a dubious ally.  In amongst all the waffle, Fraser seems to be saying that whereas once we shared their values, now we do not.  This manifests itself in ugly ways such as their pursuit and assassination of terrorists within allied countries; their refusal to allow the International Court of Justice to have jurisdiction over Americans; and their abrogation of human rights in the service of their own security.  He doesn’t mention US use of torture or Guantanamo Bay (unless I missed it) but those are examples that we all know about.

[LH: There are echoes of this attitude to abandoning long held values in Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s latest pronouncements about likely Australian willingness to join the US in the bombing of Syria:

He [Abbott] acknowledged legal differences between carrying out strikes in Iraq compared to Syria, but indicated that would not be a roadblock.

“While there is a little difference between the legalities of air strikes on either side of the border, there’s no difference in the morality,” he said.

“Whether it’s operating in Iraq or Syria it [ISIS] is an absolutely evil movement and in the end, when they don’t respect the border, the question is why should we?” (Source: ABC News)


Anyway … Fraser’s position is that strategic dependence was a foreign policy that served us well.  We needed Britain till WW2, and there were benefits in the alliance with the US until the end of the Cold War.   But now it’s time for an independent foreign policy for Australia, and if Canada and New Zealand can have an independent foreign policy, why can’t we?

And so on.

In other words, there’s nothing really new in what Fraser says in Dangerous Allies, what’s new is that he’s the one that’s saying it.  (Or was, he died earlier this year).

What’s a bit depressing about Dangerous Allies is that whether you agree with any or all of what Fraser says, the difficulties in extricating ourselves from the US alliance seem insurmountable.  I don’t like the idea that our leaders over time seem to have put us into a position where we no longer have any choice about it.

Is Dangerous Allies likely to have any influence?  Not according to Mark Beeson, reviewing it at The Conversation.  But he has a higher opinion of its worth than I do:

Nevertheless, this is one of the most original and timely contributions to a debate that, with a few honourable exceptions, tends to be sterile, predictable and unchanged since the end of World War Two.

As Fraser points out, the world has changed profoundly in the interim. It’s about time some of our thinking began to reflect the new realities, too, he suggests. An independent Australia could actually play a useful role in doing precisely that.

Don’t hold your breath…

PS Hats off to the designer of that clever bookcover! It’s by Design by Committee.

Author: Malcolm Fraser, with Cain Roberts
Title: Dangerous Allies
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780522862652
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 20, 2015

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetI am very late to the party with this one, especially since I already have David Mitchell’s latest book, The Bone Clocks on the TBR since last year and anyone who is anyone has already reviewed that one too, so I’ll try to keep this review brief.

But I do want to convince you to beg, borrow or steal a copy if you haven’t got one, because it is such a splendid novel, (as is everything else this author has written).   I will start by warning you that, enjoyable as the early chapters are, they are deceptive.   Even an alert reader may be lulled into thinking that this is a story of a junior clerk called Jacob de Zoet, up against corruption in the trading post where in 1799 he works for the Dutch East India Company, a tale spiced up with the claims of two women on his heart, one of them Japanese and the other at home in Holland.   Such a story is interesting, it will engage your attention, (and it will stop you doing the housework) … but it is just a taster for a heart-stopping tale that becomes more enthralling with every page you turn.

No, no more about the plot.  But a word or two about the characters can’t hurt…

There are three characters whose lives are defined by a thirst for knowledge.  Jacob falls on his feet when he’s abandoned on the doorstep of a bluestocking.  Orito is fired by a passion to build bridges over the ignorance of her countrymen, and Dr Marinus wants to be the first European to describe the botany of Japan.  But Japan in this era is a closed society, where to bring a Christian psalter into the country is to invite grave punishment, where they do not even know that Europe’s discovery of the printing press and the rifle is about to impact on the East, and where by the 1850s the gunboat diplomacy of the Americans was to prevail because the Shoguns had no power to withstand it.  There are spies everywhere, watching every move the Dutchmen make and reporting back to their Japanese masters.

But the lesser characters are equally compelling.  Among the Dutch merchants and traders, all are out to make money, occasionally through promotion but more often through graft and corruption, to make up for the long years spent away from home.  (And sometimes for having been press-ganged into service in the first place).  Among the Japanese, there is the enigmatic Ogawa who unbeknownst to Jacob is a rival for Orito’s heart, there is Enomoto, a powerful man angered unwisely by Jacob who won’t grant his desire to have a monopoly on mercury, and there is Shuzai, a man more cunning than he seems at first.  The bluff arrogance of the Dutch contrasts with the wily courtesies of the Japanese, but there is deception and betrayal on all sides.  (There’s another …um… group that comes in for critique, but I’m not going to spoil the surprise by naming them, though if you know your history you can probably guess).

Mitchell also explores faith and belief in this novel, and what people will do because of it.  The Japanese fear the Christian faith so much that they will not allow any practice of it on their soil.  Their belief in their own superiority closes their minds to any foreign ideas, and that includes religion.   But Jacob will not part with his strictly forbidden psalter not just because he is a pious man who uses it to pray, but also because it deflected a musket ball from his grandfather’s heart when he was serving in Palestine.  It’s not exactly a talisman against danger, because Jacob is not a superstitious man, but it has saved the lives of two of his ancestors and he values it as a family heirloom too.

Holding on to the psalter, however, doesn’t just put Jacob at risk, it also endangers the inspector who failed to confiscate it, and Jacob feels guilty about that.  Guilt, who feels it and why, is another powerful theme in this book.

But this is nothing compared to the consequences of another man’s beliefs about immortality.

One of the aspects of this novel that I really liked is Mitchell’s narrative technique.  Every word spoken between the Dutch and the Japanese on the tiny island of Dejima, takes place in two languages.  While the reader sees the point of view of multiple characters, what we read first is the perspective of the Western characters, and then the struggles of the Japanese translators to render it intelligible to their masters.  Graded according to their skill, they confer with each other, and sometimes gain the assistance of one of the Dutchmen, (usually Jacob).

Marinus peers through the lamp-lit smoke.  Uzaemon wonders whether his discourses are prepared in advance or netted from the thick air extemporaneously.  ‘Microscopes and telescopes are begat by Science; their use, by Man and, where permitted, by Woman, begets further Science, and Creation’s mysteries are unfolded in modes once undreamt of.  In this manner Science broadens, deepens and disseminates itself – and via its invention of printing, its spores and seeds may germinate even within this Cloistered Empire.

Uzaemon does his best to translate this, but it isn’t easy: surely the Dutch word ‘semen’ cannot be related to this unknown verb ‘disseminate’? Goto Shinpachi anticipates his colleague’s difficulty and suggests ‘distribute’.  Uzaemon guesses ‘germinate’ means ‘is accepted’ but is warned by suspicious glances from the Shirandô’s audience: If we don’t understand the speaker, we blame the interpreter. (p.205-6)

Later on, when Marinus launches into further pomposity and some tactless observations that could well offend the Japanese, he invokes Bacon the Englishman, causing a different kind of consternation:

Arashiyama deals with the word ‘quackery’ by omitting it, censors the line about tyrants and commoners, and turns to the straight-as-a-pole Takaki, a translator of Bacon, who translates the quotation in his querulous voice.  (p.206)

This is so cleverly done, enabling the reader to visualise from all sides these scenes where East meets West: the interlopers, impatient with what they think is superstition and ignorance; the interpreters, learning as they go; and the rulers of the island, alert for any information that questions their authority or power.

I met David Mitchell once, when he was here the year that Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the Booker.  I’ve got a photo of him autographing my first edition:)

Author: David Mitchell
Title: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Publisher: Sceptre, an imprint of Stodder & Houghton, 2010
ISBN: 9870340921579
Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh.


Fishpond: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 19, 2015

Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh

Flood of FireIsn’t it just wonderful when you find a book that you simply can’t put down!  Many assorted duties have been neglected in the two days it took me to romp through the third and final book in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, Flood of Fire. My only disappointment is that there are no more to come…

It isn’t necessary to first read Sea of Poppies (see my review) or River of Smoke (see my review), but if you like grand storytelling, well, why wouldn’t you want to read them all?  If you are monolingual, it might perhaps take you a little while to get used to some of the patois…

Annabel and Mrs Burnham left later that day and for a fortnight afterwards the Burnham mansion was silent and dark.  Then suddenly the lights went on again and Zachary knew that Mrs Burnham had returned.  A week later there was an explosion of activity around the house; khidmatgars, chokras, malis and ghaskatas went swarming over the grounds, stringing up lanterns and putting out chairs.  One of the chokras told Zachary that a big burra-khana was to be held at the house to celebrate the Beebee’s birthday.   (p.58)

… but Ghosh makes it easy enough to deduce that those khidmatgars, chokras, malis and ghaskatas are servants and a burra-khana is a party – and by the time you come to Book 2 it will seem quite normal.  (As some of it was, for me: some of the odd borrowings in my family’s lexicon (e.g. ‘Let’s have a dekko’ / Let’s have a look) must have derived from Hindi – my grandfather and great aunt served in India before WW1.)

These books are such fun, even though Ghosh raises serious issues in all three novels…

Flood of Fire begins with the fallout of the financial disaster than befell the Indian merchant Bahram when the Chinese cracked down on the opium trade.  His widow Shireen is bankrupt, but she knows there’s something odd about the way he died.  It’s not easy for her to leave the purdah that has always confined her, but Shireen is a splendid character – she gets a wardrobe of western clothes ready and sets off for Canton to restore her husband’s reputation and claim her share of the compensation that the opium merchants are demanding from the Chinese government.  They intend to get it too.  As I suggested in my review of River of Smoke, the British merchants are determined to impose their version of Free Trade on China, and for strategic reasons, it suits the British government to go to war over it.  (They end up with Hong Kong, as we all know).

Among the soldiers that gets caught up in this morally bankrupt conflict is Kesri, a sepoy in colonial India.  In ensuing chapters we learn his back story, and how he is connected to one of the survivors of the Ibis disaster off the coast of Mauritius.  (Yes, I am being evasive about some of the characters – this is because it takes a pleasurable while for Ghosh to reveal which ones survived the Ibis – and it would spoil the story if I so much as mention their names.) Kesri is the moral compass of the novel: bewitched by the romance of the military life, he disobeys his father and joins up, only to find that he has to deal with the enemy within as well as the opposing forces.  There is the racial chasm between the British troops and the sepoys, with differential treatment in pay, accommodation and status, exemplified over and over again in the overt disdain that marked every interaction.  But there is also the sometimes brutal jealousy of the other sepoys, which always has the potential to wreck Kesri’s military career.  The omniscient narrator tells this story from his point-of-view, revealing his inner torments about where his loyalties lie – but time and again we see him show valour and wisdom in his interactions with lesser men, as well as on the battlefield.

A career soldier, Kesri is troubled by the harsh punishments meted out in the name of discipline, and he is appalled by the senseless slaughter of a vanquished enemy that refuses to surrender.  He is uneasy about his role in fighting wars that have nothing to do with the interests of India.  But Kesri has sworn allegiance to Queen Victoria, and he is a man of his word.  He consoles himself by remembering the ancient Indian epics:

A tremor went through Kesri as he thought of the part that he himself had played in what was unfolding around him now:  deep within, he knew that his actions would have to be answered for in many lives yet to come.  To combat the dread in his heart, he reminded himself of the heroes of the Mahabharata who had fought, against their own inclination, on the side of evil, only because it was their duty: because not to fight would have brought dishonour.  He reminded himself of Dronacharya battling Arjuna, the pupil he loved more than his own son; he thought of Bhisma Pitamaha, most righteous of men, committing himself to an unjust cause; he thought of King Shalya, making war upon his own sister’s sons, only because of a few words, unmindfully spoken, had bound him to his fate.  It was in just that way, Kesri told himself, that he too had sworn an oath to the British and could not now go back on his word without dishonour.  (p.505)

He is also loyal to an officer who becomes his friend, a troubled man who lost the love of his life because he was of the wrong class.

Less honourable is Zachary Reid.  Each chapter weaves together the fortunes of the survivors of the storm that hit the Ibis at the end of River of Smoke, and as it slowly dawns on the reader that this handsome, charming character is about as contemptible as it’s possible to be, his catalogue of betrayals grows.  (I listed half a page of them in my reading journal).  Ghosh is too good a writer to paint characters in black and white, however, and what we see in Reid is that while pride and ambition have made him venal, he is a product of the economy in which he thrives.  What have you become? he is asked and his reply is:

‘You wanted me to become a man of the times, did you not?  And that is what I am now; I am a man who wants more and more and more; a man who does not know the meaning of “enough”.  Anyone who tries to thwart my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must expect to be treated as such.’ (p.582)

Yes indeed, it’s just not possible to read this novel set in 1839-1841, and not notice resonances with contemporary economics…

Ghosh makes it clear that the British acted with their usual cynical self-interest, and they have their share of incompetents and villains, but it’s not heavy-handed and he doesn’t absolve the Chinese for their own part in their downfall.  The Emperor in faraway Beijing is divorced from reality, and pays more attention to the venal advice of his hangers-on than he does to the hapless governors-general of Canton.  Any effort to negotiate a settlement to avoid the slaughter of a war the Chinese could not win was stymied by the refusal of the Emperor to countenance defeat.  (Not unlike Japan in WW2, or Hitler.  Or any number of other monsters playing with the lives of their own people.)

Will there be a Book 4?  There are hints in the Epilogue …

There are reviews all over the place, but I liked this one at the Financial Times.

Author: Amitav Ghosh
Title: Flood of Fire
Publisher: John Murray (an imprint of Hachette), 2015
ISBN: 9780719569012
Review copy courtesy of Hachette


Fishpond: Flood of Fire

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 18, 2015

The Ballad of Desmond Kale, by Roger McDonald

Ballad of Desmond Kale

Roger McDonald is an author whose work straddles the rise of the internet, so it’s his later work which tends to be reviewed online while reviews of his earlier work are hard to find.  I’ve been reading his novels for long time, but all I’ve reviewed here is

The rest of his oeuvre is part of a mini-project of mine, to review earlier works by favourite authors, so that I will eventually have reviewed them all.  And since The Ballad of Desmond Kale (2005) was also the 2006 Miles Franklin winner, it’s part of my challenge to read and review all the MF winners as well.  (I’ve got 16 left to read, but 33 to review).

So although re-reading  The Ballad of Desmond Kale was triggered by my conversation with Roger McDonald at the Bendigo Writers Festival it was a book I was always going to re-read anyway.

I know I didn’t do this novel justice the first time I read it.  It’s such a big, ambitious book, epic in its scope and uncompromising in its style, it’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ve spent some days mulling it over before trying to capture it enough to persuade readers to tackle it.  At 638 pages it’s a big book, and, as you can see from the Opening Lines, McDonald’s prose reproduces the style of the period.  If you make the mistake of thinking that it’s a book about convicts and settlers and the birth of the wool industry in Australia, you might falter before discovering its magic.  And that would be a pity, it really would.

As I said when reviewing Ian Reid’s recent The Mind’s Own Place, Australia’s fledgling colonial society was potentially a place for redemption.  It’s a cruel irony of our history that the dispossession of the indigenous people and the near-destruction of their culture led to the birth of an egalitarian society where people could remake themselves in ways that were never possible in England.  Penned in by the impenetrable Blue Mountains on one side and the vast oceans that lay beyond Port Jackson and Botany Bay on the other, convict and gaoler alike were imprisoned in a place where old certainties no longer applied.  Despite the brutality of the penal settlement, emancipists of energy and ambition could reinvent themselves alongside the officer class as farmers, as merchants, as landowners, as artisans and in time, even as members of the clergy, the magistracy, the government or the bunyip aristocracy.

But as author Jane Rawson recently said in a completely different context at the Bendigo Writers Festival, it’s one thing to predict what will happen in any given circumstance, and another thing entirely to predict how people will behave.  In Roger McDonald’s early 1800s, an Irish convict called Desmond Kale has charisma.  He is a natural leader (which is why the Brits transported him as a political prisoner) and his obsessed foe Stanton fears his de facto power.  (Which Kale exerts through rumour and the ballads that are sung about him.  He is hardly ever actually present in the tale).

Stanton, like everyone else, is bewitched by the possibilities of wool, which thrives in the pitiless climate.  It provokes his greed and ambition, and it brings out his latent cunning.  He hears the rumours that Kale’s audacious escape inland has ended not in failure and a dreadful death but in a spectacular new breed of sheep, in competition with his own.  Rivalry turns to hatred and obsession.

The novel weaves intricate relationships into new forms of loyalty and betrayal.  Of necessity, new kinds of families form and family ties are tested.  Stanton ‘adopts’ an Aboriginal boy orphaned by ruthless land-clearing, and exploits him as unpaid labour.  Titus is subsequently supplanted by Kale’s grandson, Warren Inchcape, adopted in this case because the boy has a natural instinct for handling sheep and Stanton doesn’t want any rival sheep-breeder to hire the boy’s skills.  Warren’s mother, who loves him dearly, gives him up in the hope that Stanton’s hatred of Kale will be tempered by forming a relationship with the convict’s grandson.  But Stanton also sees the boy as a potential heir, because he has no son.  As adolescent hormones kick in, Warren begins to see himself as a potential husband for Ivy while all the while Stanton’s wife Dolly plots to ensure that her social ambitions prevail.  (And they don’t include having a convict’s grandson as a son-in-law).

Love is a powerful thread throughout the novel.  Officer ‘Ugly’ Tom Rankine is in cahoots with Kale and is willing to bring all kinds of supplies to the hideout in the mountains.  But women are at a premium in the colony and although the woman he really loves is Kale’s daughter Meg Inchcape, he’s not willing to part with his current lover Biddy McGee when Kale asks for her.  But none of the women in McDonald’s novel yield readily to male power unless they want to, and Biddy isn’t as naïve as she at first seems.

McDonald also explores what his characters will risk to get what they want.  Some risk the noose, the cat, their freedom and their families for financial gain.  Some risk reputation and honour.  Family feuds fester across the oceans; a small inheritance might be worth more than it seems; and social barriers fall.

The plot is as tangled as a wool drawer but some themes stand out.  Power is held by those not fit to have it, and people will do almost anything when there are get-rich-quick opportunities.  But a dream can sustain you through all kinds of hardships and sometimes the fortune you are searching for turns out to be another human being who loves you after all.  I loved the ending: a surge of rollicking adventure with shipwrecks and murder and a Dickensian lawyer in his London office, and yes! justice triumphs as well.

I said at the beginning that McDonald’s style is uncompromising.  You’ll either adapt to it, or you’ll struggle.  I loved it, and this is just one example that shows you why:

‘That has all been settled, said Rankine.  ‘The governor has reviewed the events of the day from every slant.  Rangers were the escort detail that day.’

‘So they were.  Isn’t it interesting.  And so shall I tell you something, my dear captain?

Rankine could only raise an eyebrow.  The rest of him was frozen.

‘It is you – I have you under suspicion as the officer involved.’

Rankine with wild inspiration held his wrists up to Stanton.

‘Very good,’ said Stanton, smiling wanly.  ‘You invite the shackles.  You do not even quake.’

But if I don’t get out of here with Clumpsy, I’m done,’ thought Rankine, experiencing the intolerable sensation of exploding inwardly, in his mind.  The thought he now had was to leave Meg in the care of the Josephs as soon as he could, turn back and admit his involvement to the governor.  That way neutralise Stanton by baring himself without shadows.  And get his marriage papers signed.

‘I would rather have Kale than you, ‘ confided Stanton in a whispering rush.  ‘I would be kinder to Kale than I ever was before, if I had him in irons.  I do heartily regret any distress I have caused his daughter, except that what I do, in my courts, the malefactor gives me best reason to do.’

Then Stanton threw his head back, and said, in a vomit of opposite feeling, ‘You must like old coats, sir.’

‘I do beg your pardon?’ said Rankine.

‘In your dalliance with women.  Wasn’t she spoiled enough by Marsh and having a child out of wedlock, and whatever officers found her willing, right up to the governor, for you to ever dream of turning her petticoat hems honest?’

Rankine decided that one day, when he could, he would strike the minister in the chest, break his jaw and kick him to the ground, and feed him to the dogs in pieces.  Smaller and smaller, hoping every one hurt.  (p. 364)

Stanton is a splendid villain, and McDonald will have you barracking for his opponents right from the start!

Peter Pierce reviewed it for The Age, and so did Matt Todd at A Novel Approach who sums it up perfectly: Within its covers, you will find something to keep everyone happy – intrigue, mystery, romance, and a cracking good story

Author: Roger McDonald
Title: The Ballad of Desmond Kale
Publisher: Knopf, 2005
ISBN: 9781741665161
Personal copy (and signed by the author!)

Fishpond: The Ballad of Desmond Kale

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