YarraThis intriguing book is one that’s been sitting on the TBR for so long that I’d forgotten I had it until I went fossicking for Robyn Annear‘s Bearbrass as a reference for some school stuff I was doing.  I bought it long ago when I was a volunteer for the New International Bookshop  – the nearest I ever came to having a job in the book trade.

I can’t remember how I came to hear about the NIB, but because its mission was ‘progressive’ i.e. flogging tomes on socialism, sad little pamphlets on anarchism and a lot of unsaleable secondhand university Pinko politics and economics text books, it was a bookshop so unprofitable that it could only run to one paid employee and everything else was done by volunteers.  I was in one of my have-to-get-out-of-teaching phases and I thought it was a good weekend opportunity to learn a new career in retail.  The bookshop operated out of the Heritage-listed Trades Hall Building, was congenially across the road from some very nice Carlton eateries, and rewarded its volunteers with a 10% discount on purchases.  In addition to these charms, I agreed with one aspect of their philosophy.  I thought then, and I still do, that even if I think anarchists et al are barmy,  a sophisticated city like Melbourne ought to have a bookshop offering alternative political points-of-view.   I’ve often wondered since if my stint at the NIB has generated an ASIO file…

Since they also sold a selection of new release mainstream titles in an effort to subsidise the less profitable stuff, I spent a small fortune on books, keeping the NIB afloat some weekends when my purchases were the only sale of the day.  But I failed miserably at retail: I never mastered credit card transactions, tangled up the price sticker machine, and tried to steer people to the kind of books I like.  (Fatal mistake!)  However the committee collective which had oversight of operations was tolerant of these mistakes (or else desperate for staff)  – until they introduced the coffee machine.  (This was the era when bookshops thought they could lure customers with coffee and sofas for book browsing à la Borders).  Making dreadfully bad cappucino was very dispiriting so I decided it was time to bid the NIB farewell… and I think they were relieved.  Melbourne’s reputation for great coffee was at risk!

One of the treasures I bought from the NIB was Yarra, A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River.  (It’s still got its little yellow $32.95 sticker on the back!) It really is remiss of me not to have read it sooner because it’s such a delightful quirky book – and it (briefly) made me want to pack up a rucksack and go exploring along my city’s fascinating river banks. (I have actually done a bit of hiking around Dight’s Falls; have boated along the river as far as an 18-foot runabout will go; and The Spouse and I used to stroll along the river when we were courting because the backyard of his Hawthorn flat was the banks of the Yarra.  But *sigh* all that was before I wrecked my ankle).

Kristin Otto has pieced together a fascinating armchair ramble along this much-maligned river of ours.  First of all, she explains why it’s brown in a nicely patriotic way:  it’s because Australian rivers are notable for their muddiness turbidity i.e. they are silt-filled. The colours of the Yarra are the colours of our country, literally, being suspended earth from the upstream and middle-stream banks.   She tells the geological story, and the story of Batman’s infamous so-called treaty with the local Aborigines, and the shameful story of how when the river suffered one of its numerous diversions, the unmarked grave of Barak was lost forever.

And then she goes on to tell the extraordinary story of how it has been re-routed so many times and in so many places to meet the needs of the city that it bears almost no resemblance to its original meander at all.   As Robyn Annear also explains in Bearbrass, (a funny, clever, totally absorbing book about early Melbourne that should be in every walker’s backpack), diversion of the river’s natural flow and the annihilation of its billabongs began very soon after early settlement because flooding was so severe.   (And still is sometimes.  See here for an iconic photo of the 1972 flood).  The irony is that after a century or more of moving it and mucking about with it, Melbourne has finally realised that it’s better to live with it and is now busy restoring the old waterways and wetlands so that we will have a more natural and better-behaved river after all.

Then there’s the story of our bridges.  The beautiful ones, the ones that fell down, all the odd little ones that you forget about until there you are and they’re just irresistible – you have to walk over them even if you had no intention of going that way.  (My favourite of these is Kane’s Bridge at Studley Park).

And the social history is fascinating.  Commerce and industry dominated it at first, and then we got smart and started building gorgeous riverbank houses on it, and nice places like Southbank and the Fairfield Boat House.  (You haven’t lived if you haven’t idly rowed a skiff there on a balmy summer’s day and finished up with Devonshire tea in the tea rooms).

This is a terrific book.  Melburnians, of course, will love it but it’s an entertaining book no matter where you  belong.

(Well, maybe not Sydney).

Author: Kristin Otto
Title: Yarra, A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2005
ISBN: 9781920885786
Source: Personal library, purchased from the New International Bookshop (which is still going, still staffed by volunteers!)


Fishpond had a second-hand one the day I looked: Yarra and Text still have copies direct.
Or you could try Brotherhood Books or your library.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2014

Shifting Colours, by Fiona Sussman

Shifting Colours

I haven’t read enough South African fiction to know for sure, but I suspect that Shifting Colours is a rare example of a book that tells the story of domestic service during the apartheid years. That may be because the Black women who ran white households need to be empowered to tell their stories, or it may be that White South Africans feel that these are not their stories to tell.  If you have read my post about Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, you will know that the question of authorship across a racial divide is a vexed one…

Fiona Sussman was brought up in apartheid South Africa, but migrated to New Zealand in the 1980s.  She raises the issue herself in a note at the beginning of the book:

As I embarked on the writing of Shifting colours, I was acutely aware of the challenge ahead – the challenge of writing in the voice of characters whose life experiences and culture were so different from my own.  I hope I have not unwittingly caused offence to anyone.  In the end I have drawn on my experience as a mother, a daughter, wife and sister, and I hope that the common denominator I share with my characters is our humanity.

Shifting Colours is the story of a mother and daughter separated by a most unusual adoption.  Celia is a live-in maid in an apartheid-era household in 1960s Johannesburg, and she considers herself ‘lucky’.  Her living quarters consist of a cramped, bleak and ill-furnished room built in the back garden.  She has only rare contact with her three sons who are brought up by their grandmother in Soweto, and she hasn’t seen her husband who works in the mines for a very long time. This was the norm for residential domestic servants in South Africa: their living conditions were sub-standard and they were separated from their families for very long periods of time with visits home entirely at the discretion of their employers.  The alternative, however, meant long and expensive daily journeys from the segregated townships, rising before dawn to travel into the privileged suburbs of South African cities – and still seeing very little of their families.  But what makes Celia value her position in the Steiner household more than anything is that her little girl Miriam is allowed to live with her, and is an occasional beneficiary of gifts and – importantly – the beginnings of an education.

Told from the perspectives of Miriam and her mother, Shifting Colours tells the story of Miriam’s adoption by the childless Steiners, and her removal to England.  Like many South Africans, these employers are unnerved by the Sharpeville Massacre and they decide to leave.  Celia accedes to their unusual request to adopt Miriam when the child witnesses a shocking instance of police brutality.

She does so in earnest hope that it will lead to a better life for her child, but it breaks Celia’s heart.  And the promises made by Rita Steiner and her husband Michael are not kept.  They do not bring the child back for visits, and they do not write to tell Celia about the child’s progress.  What’s worse is that they tell Miriam that her mother didn’t want her.

And in the meantime, things don’t work out with Celia’s new employers, and her life goes from bad to worse, each new address making it more and more impossible to trace her movements.

England turns out not to be a promised land, and Miriam grows up experiencing a different kind of racism to the institutionalised form of it in South Africa.  And eventually she feels impelled to make the journey back to South Africa to resolve her confused identity and to try to find her mother.

There is an authenticity about the tale that unfolds that makes the book hard to put down.  This is a debut novel of unexpected power.

Author: Fiona Sussman
Title: Shifting Colours
Publisher: Alison & Busby, UK, 2014
ISBN: 9780749016128
Source: Review copy courtesy of Raewyn Davies at 24/7 PR


Fishpond: Shifting Colours

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2014

2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists

Dear me, it says something about the publicity machine at the PM’s office that I found out about the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists from Michael (The Complete Review) Orthofer  who tweets @MAOrthofer and lives in New York, eh?

Still, the good news is that the awards have survived the slash-and-burn budget cuts.  For the time being, that is.

The 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists are:


A World of Other People, Steven Carroll (Harper Collins) (On my TBR)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Vintage Australia) See my review
The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane (Penguin: Hamish Hamilton) See my review
Coal Creek, Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin) On my TBR.  See Kim’s review on her classy new blog.
Belomor, Nicolas Rothwell (Text Publishing) See my review


Tempo, Sarah Day (Puncher & Wattmann Poetry)
Eldershaw, Stephen Edgar (Black Pepper)
1953, Geoff Page (University of Queensland Press)
Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call, Melinda Smith (Pitt Street Poetry)
Chains of Snow, Jakob Ziguras (Pitt Street Poetry)


Moving Among Strangers, Gabrielle Carey (University of Queensland Press)
The Lucky Culture, Nick Cater (Harper Collins Publishers)
Citizen Emperor, Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Rendezvous with Destiny, Michael Fullilove (Penguin)
Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John, Helen Trinca (Text Publishing) See my review

Prize for Australian History

Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Joan Beaumont (Allen & Unwin)
First Victory 1914, Mike Carlton (Random House)
Australia’s Secret War: How unionists sabotaged our troops in World War II, Hal G.P. Colebatch (Quadrant Books)
Arthur Phillip: Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy, Michael Pembroke (Hardie Grant Books)
The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, Clare Wright (Text Publishing) See my review

Young Adult Fiction

The Incredible Here and Now, Felicity Castagna (Giramondo)
Pureheart, Cassandra Golds (Penguin)
Girl Defective, Simmone Howell (Pan Macmillan)
Life in Outer Space, Melissa Keil (Hardie Grant Egmont)
The First Third, Will Kostakis (Penguin)

Children’s Fiction

(I’ve read all of these and my students love them all.)

Silver Buttons, Bob Graham (Walker Books )
Song for a Scarlet Runner, Julie Hunt (Allen & Unwin)
My Life as an Alphabet, Barry Jonsberg (Allen & Unwin)
Kissed by the Moon, Alison Lester (Puffin)
Rules of Summer, Shaun Tan (Hachette)

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

The Sin of Father Mouret

The more I read of Zola, the more interesting he becomes.  The Sin of Father Mouret is utterly unlike the others I have read in the Rougon-Maquart cycle, and it tested my understanding of Zola’s place in the French Naturalism movement.  Because whatever else I might say about The Sin of Father Mouret, it isn’t the sort of realism that I have come to expect from my reading of Zola’s novels so far.   The chronology is impossible; time itself plays tricks; nature behaves more like a tropical hothouse than a French landscape, and the characters are surreal.


Since the dust-jacket of my 1969 Prentice-Hall edition gives away a good part of the plot, it’s not really a  spoiler to reproduce it here:

The Sin of Father Mouret presents the tragic confrontation of love, death and religion. A novel of overwhelming power, it revolves around the internal struggle of a priest determined to make himself worthy of the Virgin Mary by dissolving his basic human drives. Falling in love with the beautiful Albine, a pagan creature of nature, his conflict becomes so strong that he develops brain fever, and falls into a coma.
He awakens to find himself alone with Albine, in her secluded old mansion. In his weakened state, he remembers nothing of his past, and surrenders himself to the sensual delights of the girl and her garden paradise. Together, the two explore the primeval world of unspoiled nature, and finally discover the ecstasy of love and sexuality.
When the priest recovers his memory, he flees back in horror to civilisation. Appalled by his sin, he nevertheless is haunted by memories of his beautiful life with Albine. The girl, innocent of the world and of sin, implores him to return to her. The priest’s inner struggle becomes a paralysing force, precipitating the final tragedy of the novel.

Part 1 of the novel focuses on Father Mouret.  His parents are the cousins Marthe Rougon (from the legitimate side of the family) and François Mouret, (from the illegitimate side) so according to Zola’s belief in the scientific truth of eugenics, he is subject to the respectable and the disreputable in his personality, as they are expressed in the environment in which he finds himself.  This existential struggle between good and evil is heightened by Mouret’s vocation to the priesthood where he finds himself trapped in the geographically and spiritually arid environment of the godless village of Artauds.  His housekeeper, La Teuse struggles to maintain the standards of the church because they have no money to repair the crumbling building and the shabby vestments, and Brother Archangias urges him to give up altogether:

Meanwhile as Voriau led the way down the dusty road, Brother Archangias was speaking irritably to the priest.  ‘Give up the damned to hell, abandon these toads, Father.  There’s no way to make them pleasing to God short of hamstringing them. They’re wallowing in irreligion just like their parents before them.  I’ve been in this part of the country for fifteen years and I’ve yet to make anybody a Christian.  It’s all over the day they leave me.  They belong to the earth, to their vines and olive trees.  Not one so much as sticks a foot in church.  They’re animals in a war with their rocky fields. Lead them by hitting them with a stick, Father, with a stick.

Then catching his breath, he added with a horrible gesture, ‘Look Artauds is like the brambles that eat the rocks around here.  One was enough to poison the whole country.  They clamp themselves on, they multiply, they thrive no matter what.  The town’s just like Gomorrah; nothing but a rain of fire from heaven could cleanse it.’ (p.22)

In this spiritual vacuum, Father Mouret’s devotion to the Virgin Mary becomes an unhealthy passion.  Aged only 26, he spends long hours praying on his knees, inventing new ways to isolate himself from the world and suppressing all his natural instincts to the extent that he barely eats at all.  Since celibacy is a requirement of the priesthood, he is especially vigilant about avoiding the lusty young women of Artauds.  He is repelled by nature and is especially troubled by the fecundity of the animals tended by his simple-minded sister Désirée.  He finds it very hard to leave the sanctuary of the presbytery to deal with the needs of his parishioners, and his innocence is tested by the frank earthiness of premarital pregnancy and a father who would rather see his pregnant daughter unmarried than have her marry a penniless peasant. These pressures have their inevitable consequence and Mouret falls gravely ill.

Part 2 takes place in a lush Garden of Eden.  Fearful for Mouret’s sanity, his uncle Doctor Pascal has removed him from any exposure to religion and sent him to an old ruined estate called Paradou, and placed him under the care of the young and beautiful Albine.  Crucially, Albine is a pagan, in the original sense of the word, that is, she has no knowledge of any god.  In this part of the novel called only by his Christian name Serge – Mouret recovers, but with no memory of his life as a priest or of anything outside his immediate environment.  Like Adam and Eve before the Fall, these innocents explore the glories of nature in this Paradise, and, yes, like Adam and Eve they eventually succumb to their natural desires.  (There is lots of serpent-like imagery in the garden).  (And a lot of flowers, of which more later).

But there is also a wall which surrounds the old estate, and a spot which affords a view of the town and Serge’s old life as Father Mouret.  Albine implores him not to venture there, but the inevitable happens.  And so begins Mouret’s struggle to reconcile his sin with his vocation.

Part 3 traces Mouret’s tortuous path through guilt and temptation.  Like the Knowledge of good and Evil which irrevocably cast Adam out of the tranquillity of innocence, Mouret’s knowledge of human love sabotages his devotion to the Virgin Mary.  He tries substituting devotion to the passion of Christ and he tries denying his love of Albine but he is a man now, no longer an innocent boy.  And Albine’s love is demanding: she does not understand the vows which torture her lover, and she will not be denied.

The misogynistic Friar Archangias is a caricature of the Archangel who expels the lovers from Paradise.  Sex, and the women who tempt men into it, are sinful, and Archangias wields a mighty stick to ward off the temptations to which he is subject too.  He bars the gateway to Paradou with his massive body, but he is no match for Albine.

The plot resolution with its malevolent flowers is even more surreal than the other mythic sequences, yet it has a strange kind of realism all the same.  The Catholic Church is as intransigent about celibacy today as it was in the 19th century, but there are provisions for men who fall in love to leave the priesthood, and while I am not sure if it’s the church that provides supports for those who leave, there are psychological and counselling services available to assist with the transition.  For Father Mouret, the spiritual dilemma could realistically only be resolved by death.  A death, (like many other odd circumstances in the novel) by magic realism, though the term hadn’t been invented then.

While some may read The Sin of Father Mouret as a critique of the Catholic Church, I find that Zola’s portrait of religious devotion is sympathetic.  It seems quite clear to me that Zola intended to show that it was the godless environment that tipped Mouret into  insanity.  If he had been in a contemplative order, the flaws in his personality would never have been tested.

According to my edition’s helpful Afterward by the translator Sandy Petrey, the surreal style of the novel suits Zola’s mythic purpose.  Like The Dream, (see my review), it shows Zola experimenting with different writing styles and genres (though that term – as far as I know – hadn’t been invented then either).   Written in 1875, it’s No 9 in the recommended reading order, between The Ladies Paradise (1883) (about Father Mouret’s brother Octave in a social history sort of novel) and my next title in this Zola Project,  A Lesson in Love (1878) which is apparently a star-crossed lovers sort of novel.  Zola as a romance novelist?  That will be interesting indeed!

The Petrey translation, I’m sorry to say. is pedestrian.  It is sad to see a great writer’s work spoiled like this: I cannot imagine what he might have thought of ‘Don’t say stupid things, kid’ (p 269, used to denote the French tu); or ‘Okay, when will that guy be through with covering himself with incense?’ (p. 226).  As for hamstringing in the passage quoted above, even the often risible Google Translate can do better with On devrait leur casser les reins as We should break their backs. But until something better comes along, there is limited choice for this title, as you can see at the Translations page at Reading Zola. I think I’m stuck with old Vizetelly for A  Lesson in Love!

Author: Émile Zola
Title:  The Sin of Father Mouret (La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret)
Translated by Sandy Petrey
Publisher: Prentice-Hall, 1969, first published 1875
Source: Personal Library, purchased from AbeBooks.

Cross-posted at The Works of Emile Zola.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2014

The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark, read by Judi Dench

The Driver's SeatI was quite enthralled by this rather strange novella, but I’m glad it wasn’t the first Muriel Spark novel I read.

Because  it might well have been the last. I might have dismissed it hastily, and crossed Spark off my list of authors to explore. Fortunately for me, I had read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie back in the year 2000, and more recently I’d read the swish Folio edition of The Girls of Slender Means (see my review).  So I was more tolerant of the spiky prose and peculiar characterisation than I might have been, and of course I was also captivated by the splendid voice of Judi Dench as she  narrated it.

It’s the story of Lise, an office worker setting off for a holiday on the continent, terrorising shop girls with her outrageous attitude to frocks and startling the entire plane with her odd behaviour.  Well, not quite everyone, Lise manages to captivate Bill, who has the seat beside her.  Bill’s macrobiotic diet apparently requires him to achieve two orgasms a day and he has his eye on the main chance, but a holiday romance this is not. Authorial foreshadowing alerts the reader to Lise’s eventual fate, but it is certainly not the one that I was expecting.

The plot, frankly, is completely bizarre, but once you reach the conclusion, it does make a peculiar kind of sense.  Lise , for reasons not revealed until the end, has a death wish, because it’s the only thing she can control. This makes the novel rather confronting, and it made me wonder if Spark would have written it today, when things are so very different.

If you are quite sure that you are never going to read The Driver’s Seat, or if you’ve already read it, you will probably enjoy this amusing video review of the film version.

The Driver’s Seat is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition) and it was apparently Muriel Spark’s favourite novel.

It isn’t mine.

Update: Kim at Reading Matters loved it!

Author: Muriel Spark
Title: The Driver’s Seat
Publisher: Canongate Books, 2010, first published 1970
ISBN: 9781471220951
Source: Kingston Library


Try your library or Brotherhood Books.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2014

Richard Flanagan wins the Booker Prize 2014!

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
I was thrilled to hear this morning that Richard Flanagan has won the Booker Prize with his magnificent  novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North has been reviewed widely:

Author: Richard Flanagan
Title: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Publisher:  Knopf, 2013
ISBN: 9780857981486
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh


Fishpond:  The Narrow Road to the Deep North (hbk); The Narrow Road to the Deep North(pbk); and also the audiobook The Narrow Road To The Deep North

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 13, 2014

To Name Those Lost, by Rohan Wilson

To Name Those LostI try not to overdo the superlatives when it comes to discussing books, but Rowan Wilson’s new novel To Name Those Lost is magnificent.  Somehow he has managed to capture both the brutality and the redemptive promise of early Tasmania in a superb novel that had me captivated from the moment I started reading it.

Thomas Toosey is a veteran of the Black War about which Wilson wrote so evocatively in The Roving Party.  He is a hard man, brutalised by years of poverty and violence, his own childhood destroyed by life on the Tasmanian frontier:

His first sight of the island as a child of fourteen sent out for thieving two overcoats in the winter of 1827 was the sandstone buildings studding the hill above the harbour in Hobart town and when they brought him above decks of the Woodford in iron fetters and set him aboard a longboat for the shore he’d thought Hobart a pissing version of his own Blackpool, the inlaying of warehouse masonry much like the stores on Talbot Road, the stark shapes of houses near the same, but then the winter mist parted from the mountain peak above and he knew he was in venerable country, as old as rock, and it wasn’t long before he became indentured to the frontiersman John Batman who ran a trade in victualling the army, and here the boy Thomas learned how the island’s wilder parts truly belonged to the tribal blacks, a displaced people taking refuge in the hills, and for a government bounty and to secure his land this frontiersman meant to hunt them by whatever means just or unjust, bloody or brave, and he marshalled a party of transportees and black trackers and put into the scrub armed for war and war it was, a bloody war, in which all hands were soiled and Thomas’s no less than another’s for a killer now he was, an easy killer, and yet while he was diminished by it, made less in God’s eyes and his own, he saw in the bullet, the knife, and the club a power that could make a man his own master.  (p. 55)

(You can see in this excerpt Wilson’s masterful use of prose which conveys a sense of the 19th century and its rugged idiom without overdoing it).

The use of that power lands Toosey a 10-year sentence in Port Arthur, further hardening his heart.  But this brute receives a pitiful message from his son, twelve years old, and motherless now.

My deer Mother is dead.  I have been turned out of Home.  I have nothing at all Deer Father I wish you wood come back.  There is no home for me with out you. I have only You in the hole world to love.  I hope You will stow this letter safley as a tresher of my faith in You your loyal Son.

He hasn’t seen the boy for many years, but he keeps this battered letter in his pocket and sets out for Launceston to rescue him.

But anarchy reigns in Launceston. The new Deloraine-Launceston railway has failed, and the people are refusing to pay a levy to ameliorate its debts.  Across the city there is looting, arson, and thuggery.  Young William and his orphaned friends are at risk not only from hunger and homelessness, but also from men who take advantage of the general lawlessness.   Wilson’s depiction of how these youngsters live shows the human tragedy of societies that don’t provide safety nets for the vulnerable.

Into this chaos comes Thomas Toosey, pursued by the Irish transportee Fitheal Flynn and his strange companion, a hooded man.  Flynn doesn’t just want the £200 that Toosey stole from him, he wants revenge.  His companion is ambivalent: the lawlessness will not last forever, and a confrontation that ends in violence as it is destined to do, will be a Pyrrhic victory.  Yet what lies beneath the hangman’s hood demands retribution and Toosey knows it.

With consummate skill, Wilson weaves the story between pursuer and pursued, leaking information about the connections between them but revealing the bitter truth only at the novel’s shattering conclusion.

Geordie Williamson also reviewed To Name Those Lost for The Australian but you may find it paywalled.

Author: Rohan Wilson
Title: To Name Those Lost
Publisher: Allen and Unwin. 2014
ISBN: 9781743318324
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin


Fishpond: To Name Those Lost

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2014

The Last Illusion, by Porochista Khakpour

The Last IllusionThe Last Illusion is a rather exotic novel: it’s a strange melange of magic and  realism, and although it’s set in New York,  its defining myth comes from Iranian legend.  The characters are all outsiders, and the central character, a feral child, is incapable of that most basic of human feelings, love.

Bringing all these elements together is a risky endeavour for a novelist,  but somehow Porochista Khakpour pulls it off with panache.

Shahnama (Persian Book of Kings)Derived from a legend  from the medieval Persian epic The Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, the central character in The Last Illusion bears the same name as the great hero of the legend, Zal, an albino who is abandoned in the wilderness and raised by a giant godlike bird.  Like his namesake the novel’s Zal is born in Iran, and also like him the contemporary Zal’s too-white skin and blond hair makes him a freak in the rural village where he is born.  But there the resemblances end.  Zal does not grow up to be a great hero: thought to be a White Demon, he is raised in a cage with his mother’s pet birds, and untouched by human hands till he is recued at the age of ten, Zal of the novel is a feral child.

A New York child psychologist and feral child researcher called Hendricks sees a doco about the child and because he has some familiarity with Iranian culture and language since his now-dead wife was Iranian, he is allowed to take this irrevocably damaged child to New York for therapy.  The novel traces the coming-of-age of the boy.

Although it is made clear from the outset that some psychological damage can never be undone, Zal – through a combination of good therapy and the unconditional love and wisdom of his new father Hendricks – is able to transcend some of the limitations that had been forecast for him.   Despite some residual physical limitations and the damage to his brain, he learns to walk and to talk, and his therapist teaches him ways of resisting most of the habits that he learned in the cage: dreaming in ‘bird’, desiring to fly, and eating insects. 

However, his fame brings him into contact – and disillusionment – with people who are attracted by his unique life story.  He meets the illusionist Silber who claims he can fly (and whose ultimate illusion bears some resemblance to the disappearance of the Statue of Liberty performed by the famous illusionist David Copperfield).  It is a relief to Zal when he meets a rather odd artist who believes she is clairvoyant because she doesn’t know about his tragic history, and makes no allowances for his limitations, considering.  But her family life tests the reader with the question of what ‘normal’ might be in contemporary New York. Both Asiya and her sister have eating disorders and her brother is very strange indeed.

Asiya’s visions gain in intensity in the September of 2001, and they coincide with Zal’s devastating realisation that his future will always be constrained by his past.

Every novelist who conjures the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks takes a risk, but the conclusion of this novel is an homage to the spirit of New York.  It ends in hope.

Author: Porochista Khakpour
Title: The Last Illusion
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781620403044
Source: Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury


Fishpond: The Last Illusion

The Last IllusionPS 13/01/14 A paperback edition ISBN 9781408858585 with a gorgeously clever cover design by Sarah Greeno is now also available, see The Last Illusion

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2014

2014 Barbara Jefferis shortlist

The Nobel Prize for Literature was announced today, and I’m pleased to see that my good friend Stu has reviewed at least one of the winner’s books so I recommend that you visit his blog to find out more about Patrick Modiano.

But not to be overshadowed, I hope, here’s news about one of my favourite awards -

The 2014 Barbara Jefferis Award has just announced its shortlist for 2014, and I’m pleased to have read and enjoyed so many of the books!

Amy Espeseth: Sufficient Grace (Scribe) (on my TBR
Tracy Farr: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press) see my review and Meet the Author here.
Jacinta Halloran: Pilgrimage (Scribe) see my review
Margo Lanagan: Sea Hearts (Allen & Unwin)
Fiona McFarlane: The Night Guest (Penguin Books) see my review
Margaret Merrilees: The First Week (Wakefield Press) see my review
Drusilla Modjeska: The Mountain (Vintage, Random House Australia) see my review

I’m glad I don’t have to choose between them, there is some really great reading here!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 8, 2014

Vale Morris Lurie (1938 -2014)

I am sorry to have to pass on news of the death of Morris Lurie, author of short stories, essays, plays, children’s books and comic novels in his own, distinctive style.

Born in Carlton, Morris began his career with his first novel Rappaport in 1938, and he went on to write numerous other novels (see Wikipedia), two of which I have reviewed on this blog: To Light Attained (Hybrid Publishers, 2008) and Hergesheimer in the Present Tense (Hyrbid Publishers, 2014).

His name is familiar to generations of school children for the unforgettable The 27th Annual Hippopotamus Race which won the YABBA award in 1986.

In 2006 he received the Patrick White Award for under-recognised, lifetime achievement in literature.

What I loved about Lurie’s writing was his great sense of comic timing, his self-deprecating humour, and the poignant raw honesty with which he wrote about his travails.

He will be sadly missed.  He is irreplaceable.

My condolences go to his family and to his publisher, Anna Rosner Blay. 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 3, 2014

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, by Mohammed Hanif

Our Lady of Alice BhattiOur Lady of Alice Bhatti  is Mohammed Hanif’s second  novel and I’d enjoyed A Case of Exploding Mangoes for its quirky satire, so when I was in the mood for something light-hearted to read,  I retrieved it from the pile.  It was not quite what I expected.

The humour is very black indeed.  Hanif writes in a brisk, sardonic style that juxtaposes violence and horror with dry wit.  His setting is the chaotic city of Karachi, in which his central character Alice Bhatti must somehow try to negotiate a fate between victim and saviour.  Her observers watch but cannot intervene; they are powerless against a culture where women are in peril if they don’t conform.

Alice is a young nurse working in the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments in Karachi, transcending her fate as one of the Untouchables, keeping quiet about her lapsed Catholic faith in an intolerant Muslim society, and – with the judicious use of a razor blade in defence of her own standards – holding her own in Pakistan’s male-dominated world.  But as you’d expect, there have been hurdles along the way, not least a stint in prison on a trumped-up charge and a sour experience at nursing school that made her swear off doctors with leftist tendencies and penetrative sex. (p. 180).


But when it comes to love, sassy, street-smart Alice is a fool.  Seventeen year old Noor, a fellow inmate at Borstal now also working at the hospital, is not very literate, but he’s landed a job as a record-keeper, a steno, a secretary for those who are not budgeted to have a proper secretary. (p. 22).  He has a bad case of puppy-love for Alice, but his cynical advice to her turns out to be prescient.

You probably should get married.  I have heard that a good husband is the only cure for bad dreams. You know why? Because then you are sleeping with your bad dream. (p.43)

Noor, a keen observer of Alice’s fate,  anticipates her peril when she falls for a thug called Teddy.   In any other society Teddy would be a gangster, but in Hanif’s Karachi this narcissistic body-builder is in the ‘Gentleman’s Squad’, a backdoor unit of a corrupt police force which dispenses its own kind of rough justice with torture and middle-of-the-night executions.  Teddy keeps himself nice with a self-deluding description of his job as providing valet parking for the angels of death.

Their fatal meeting occurs when Teddy turns up at the hospital not to be healed but to have his thumb crushed on his boss’s orders: they have a very dangerous suspect and they need proof that he’s dangerous so that the medico-legal niceties can be observed and G Squad can have him for a few days to torture the ‘truth’ out of him.  Noor, who has learnt the art of making friends in jails, and is the one who supplies Teddy with his ‘vitamins’ and other forms of assistance for body- building competitions, gets the job of smashing Teddy’s thumb into multiple fractures.  And thus it is Alice’s fate that Teddy just happens to be there (despite his soiled bandages) to rescue her from the Charya ward, a grotesque psychiatric ward which is no place for a decent woman but – disbelieving – she ventures there alone anyway.  Did she want to be rescued?  No, Teddy carries her out of there kicking and screaming at his effrontery.  (Alice is a bit naïve about what it means when she is picked up and carried by twelve deranged men and put onto a bed.)

Alice is also a bit naïve about what Teddy does on ‘night shift’ but perhaps she might have twigged that his impulsive nature might cause trouble when – after she had initially rejected him – he assuaged his frustration by firing a gun at random, killing a truck driver and sparking three days of ethnic rivalry rioting in the city.  Noor finds the attraction incomprehensible (and so does the reader!)

Noor sees Alice and Teddy walking out of the  Sacred, hand in hand, and starts to suspect that love is not just blind, it’s deaf and dumb and probably has an advanced case of Alzheimer’s; it’s unhinged.  (p.78).

He can’t imagine reading their names together except maybe in a tragic news headline. (p. 83).

Even Alice doesn’t understand it:

She is relieved that everything has happened so suddenly; she hasn’t had the time to examine her own motives, otherwise her love story would have turned into an anthropological treatise about the survival strategies employed by Catholics in predominantly Islamic societies (p. 92).

The plot and its absurdities serve to satirise the sad state of contemporary Pakistan.  Hanif is a Pakistani journalist so his depiction of a dysfunctional society presumably emerges from authentic experience.

During the three-day shutdown, eleven more are killed; two of them turn up shot and tied together in one gunnysack dumped on a rubbish heap. Three billion rupees’ worth of Suzukis, Toyotas and Hinopaks are burnt.  During these days Alice Bhatti is actually not that busy.  When people are killed while fixing their satellite dish on their roof, or their motorbike is torched while they are going to buy a litre of milk, they tend to forget about their various ailments; they learn to live without dialysis for their kidneys, home cures are found for minor injuries, prayers replace prescription drugs. (p.71-2)

When the newspapers proclaim ‘Normalcy limping back to the city,’ as if normalcy had gone for a picnic and sprained an ankle (p.72), one wonders what normal might be like in Hanif’s surreal world – and in his real one.

Other observers of Alice’s fate are her bemused colleague Sister Hina Alvi, and her father, Joseph who performs miracles both in the shambolic sanitation system and with curing stomach ulcers.  But Alice needs her own miracle to survive the fate that awaits her.  You’ll have to read the book yourself to discover the extraordinary ending.

Author: Mohammed Hanif
Title: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, 2011
ISBN: 9780224094085
Source: Personal library, purchased from readings $32.95


Fishpond: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 2, 2014

Surviving Year Zero, by Sovannora Ieng and Greg Hill

Surviving Year ZeroI don’t think it’s just a coincidence that there is a rash of books about refugees suddenly available on the Australian book market.  This month’s Australian Book Review  includes a review by Peter Mares Confessions of a People-Smuggler by Dawood Amiri (Scribe) and of The Undesirables: Inside Nauru by Mark Isaacs (Hardie Grant).  (Sorry, the ABR site is pay-walled.)  Another title, Refugees: Why Seeking Asylum is Legal and Australia’s Policies are Not by Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong is reviewed at Readings, and no doubt there are others.  I myself recently reviewed The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny.  I think that there are a good many Australians who are appalled by Australia’s current policies and since the prospects of change look quite hopeless at the moment, it seems that about the only thing one can do is to try to counter the disinformation and hard-heartedness of the tabloid media through books.

There seems to be two strands of reportage tackling this subject.  There are the exposés about the current situation, aiming to penetrate the veil of government secrecy about what’s going on behind the shrieking headlines, and then there are books like the one I’ve just read, Surviving Year Zero, My Four years under the Khmer Rouge.  Books like this aim to show the Australian public that they have nothing to fear from people who seek asylum here: people who flee their homes as refugees have escaped unimaginable horrors but have since proven themselves to be worthwhile Australian citizens.

Sovannora Ieng’s story begins when he is just fourteen, as the Khmer Rouge arrive in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.  His story traces the brutal four years during which his family were, like millions of others, uprooted from their homes, forced to work in the fields, beaten and starved, and spied upon by their friends and neighbours forced into it on pain of death.  He himself was ‘lucky’ to escape execution.  As we know, more than a million Cambodians didn’t (about 20% of the population died in the Killing Fields).  It is an extraordinary story, told in simple prose that makes the horror painfully vivid.

Then Thon came up to me.

‘You will come with us, ‘ he whispered.

My stomach dropped. What did Thon want? He was just playing games again, I thought.  That must be it.  But there was last night.  I had slept on guard duty, and he must have found out.

Then I saw two Khmer Rouge soldiers.  They were dressed in their black uniforms with their knives and guns holstered on their waists and AK-47s strapped across their shoulders.  They nodded to Thon and he pointed.  They walked straight up to me.  Grabbing my arms, they twisted them behind my back, pushing me to the ground. They tied my hands and arms – my two elbows joined behind me – and covered my face with a cloth.

‘Get up, ‘ Thon called.’ Follow me.’

I stumbled as he led me by the arm.  I told myself to stay on my feet, otherwise they would drag me.  I knew my group was watching, but they remained silent.  I thought I would never see my family again, but I kept up, and I kept my footing as I was marched along.  (p. 190)

There is some controversy in Cambodia about the UN-backed special court conducting trials of those involved in the genocide.  No one of any great importance in the Khmer Rouge leadership has been tried, and it is thought by some that a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission might help to resolve old enmities and perhaps enable the finding of some of the missing dead. In the epilogue Ieng explains why he felt compelled to leave the home he had made in Australia to go back to Cambodia and help:  Cambodia is still in a mess.  There is confusion, poverty, greed, corruption and  no identity. (p. 289)

Of course the fact that he can do this is because Australia gave him refuge when he needed it, patched up the education that he had missed out on, and supported him to grow into a confident and capable young man who could reach his potential despite his dreadful experiences under the Khmer Rouge.

How many people of similar potential are languishing in our detention centres today, I wonder?

You can listen to an interview with the author on Radio Australia here.

Author: Sovannora Ieng and Greg Hill (no relation)
Title: Surviving Year Zero, My Four years under the Khmer Rouge
Publisher: Five Mile Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781760063641
Source: Review copy courtesy of File Mile Press


Fishpond: Surviving Year Zero

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 30, 2014

One of the Wattle Birds, by Jessica Anderson

1979314Thanks to the generosity of Sue from Whispering Gums who reviewed One of the Wattle Birds earlier this year, I’ve also been able to enjoy reading this last novel from one of Australia’s greats, Jessica Anderson (1916-2010).   As Sue says, it’s a deceptive book, initially giving the impression that it’s a coming-of-age novel.  Cecily Ambruss is seeking answers about her dead mother’s behaviour, and like a wattle bird, she’s making a lot of noise while she’s pecking away not getting anywhere.  Like her live-in lover Wil, she’s supposed to be studying for her exams, but unlike him, she’s focussed on something else, her quest to unravel the reasons for the hurtful decisions that were made while she was overseas with her friends.

As Cecily hassles various friends and relations about her mother’s inexplicable actions, the reader learns that Cecily’s mother Chris had denied Cecily the chance to say a last farewell because she refused to let anyone contact Cecily about her impending death.   Not only that, but Chris, a single mother herself, had stipulated in her will that Cecily was not to inherit until she was married.  There’s not a lot to inherit, so it’s not the money or the possibilities it might offer, it’s the implication that Chris regretted her unmarried status.

But Uncle Nick said, rather pained, that the double block of land made it an attractive property, and that if he managed the sale well, which he flattered himself he would do, it would be a nice little sum.

‘Enough to give a YOUNG COUPLE A GOOD START,’ said Aunt Gail.

But I asked why they kept on about nice little sums and young couples when oh, all that was beside the point, when oh, it was as clear as anything that by putting that in, she was saying she regretted it. ‘There,’ I said, ‘that’s the point.’

I didn’t mean that she regretted having me, exactly, but that she regretted becoming one of the first frankly single mothers, which people were not very relaxed about nineteen years ago.  But Aunt Gail misunderstood me, and leaned forward and said, ‘Cecily dear, NOBODY EVER REGRETS having a baby.  EVER.’

And before I can get closer to what I mean, she looks right into my eyes and says, from about five centimetres away, ‘You are speaking of a BIOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY.’ (p. 19)

(And in this excerpt you can see only too clearly, the formatting flaw used for the character of Aunt Gail which irritated me.  That profusion of capital letters is meant to show that she’s a dominant personality with an bombastic manner of speaking, but it’s tiresome.  (And these days too, a breach of Netiquette, for which I apologise.  I am not shouting at you, the text is *sigh*)

I was about half way through the book, thinking that its preoccupations made it a novel ideal for the Young Adults market, when I was suddenly taken aback by a conversation between Cecily and her grandmother in England.  Confessing that she had send her sons to expensive schools for their snob value, Gran talks about the way the boys were bullied because of their Italian background, and that it was a racist old place in those days, your wonderful Australia.  To my astonishment Cecily’s response is to try to justify this racism in her own mind, thinking rebelliously that racism is a relic of our descent from the tribally aggressive chimpanzee.  And when Gran goes on to say that she thinks that things won’t have changed that much for Cecily’s cousin Eugene when he marries a Chinese girl, Cecily isn’t appalled by Gran’s predictions but by the way her own lie has gone viral (though that’s not a work that was in use back when Anderson wrote this book in 1994).

It was the middle of the night, but I went back to the beginning of the book and read more carefully.  There are three kinds of discrimination tackled in this book: illegitimacy and whether it was really accepted or not; racism in a so-called multicultural society; and homosexuality, which Uncle Nick would have difficulty accepting for his only son.  Cecily’s invention of a Chinese girl as a fiancé for Cousin Eugene brings these prejudices into sharp relief: Eugene’s parents suspect that he is gay and Uncle Nick’s relief that he’s not is what makes him willing to accept a mixed-race marriage.   Anderson’s irony, of course, is that Uncle Nick and Aunt Gail have concealed their own Italian heritage by dropping the ‘i’ from their surname, but their twin daughters are going to reinstate it when they’re old enough.

As Sue points out in her review, the power of money is also an issue.  One of the things Cecily likes about the twins is that their teeth are a bit ‘buck’ like hers are.  The girls will have theirs straightened of course, whereas Cecily evidently didn’t.   Her grandfather, a migrant made wealthy in the fruit-and-veg business, never forgave Chris for becoming an unmarried mother, and Cecily gets a taste of that outrage when she visits her Italian relations in Lucca.  While grandfather willed Chris half the house she lives in, he insisted that she pay rent for it and never assisted financially.  His wife, Gran, didn’t approve of that kind of Old Testament punishment, but she had no power to do anything about it while he was alive.

Well, as it turns out, Grandfather isn’t the only one who acts in a high-handed way.  Cecily is equally dogmatic in some ways, revealed by her unwillingness to test her own literary theories about Malory’s characterisation of King Arthur while on study-vac, and more importantly, by her refusal to listen to people who knew her mother and understood the reasons for her actions.  The plot takes a surprising and satisfying twist at the end when the one person Cecily refused to interrogate turns out to have the answers she was looking for.

I haven’t read enough of Anderson’s oeuvre to know if this novel is her best, but I certainly agree with Sue that it’s a fitting conclusion to Anderson’s literary life.

Author: Jessica Anderson
Title: One of the Wattle Birds
Publisher: Penguin, 1994
ISBN: 9780140240320
Source: On loan from Sue at Whispering Gums


Fishpond: One of the Wattle Birds

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 29, 2014

Crome Yellow, by Aldous Huxley

Crow MellowCrome YellowJust recently, Finlay Lloyd publishers sent me a copy of Crow Mellow by Julian Davies, which the blurb says is a satire based on Aldous Huxley’s early social satire, Crome Yellow, but transplanted to contemporary Australia.  Crow Mellow looks like fun to read, especially since there are playful illustrations on every page, but it’s much too long ago since I read the original Crome Yellow for me to spot the resemblances, so I decided to re-read the original first.

My copy is an ancient grey Penguin Classics edition, one of four Huxleys that my father bought me as a present when I was a teenager.  My recollection is that I enjoyed them all, especially Brave New World, but I suspect that I was too young to really appreciate Huxley’s wit.  Considering that he was only in his middle twenties when he wrote it, it’s rather amazing that he wasn’t too young to write it!

The blurb draws attention to the science fantasies of Mr Scogan because this debut novel anticipates the Huxley of Brave New World, but I was more interested in the way that Huxley used  this character to satirise himself within his own novel.  Denis Stone is a middle-class young graduate with literary ambitions, paying a visit to Mr Wimbush’s country house.  He fancies himself as a poet, and is writing his first novel.  When Mary Bracegirdle, thinking it would be nice to have a little literary conversation, asks what he is writing and he replies that he is writing verse and prose, Mr Scogan pounces, unerring in his target:

“Of course,” Mr. Scogan groaned, “I’ll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a ‘novel of dazzling brilliance”; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future.”

Denis blushed scarlet. Mr. Scogan had described the plan of his novel with an accuracy that was appalling. (p.17)

Huxley then goes on to write exactly this novel in a splendid parody of the English Country House novel…

Moscow, Chekhov's shed (24)

Chekhov’s cottage at Melikhovo 40km from Moscow

Blake Morrison, in an entertaining article for The Guardian, listed 7 reasons why grand country houses are literary obsessions to this day.  They not only provide a setting that allows for multiple characters under one roof (which is especially handy for whodunnits), there are other opportunities too:

  • They are quintessentially English, even though other cultures also set their fiction in large country houses.  (Though I don’t agree with him about Chekhov’s country estate being equivalent: I’ve been there and it’s nowhere near the size of an English mansion, it’s not even two storeys.  In fact, it was so cramped that the poor man had nowhere to get away from all the visitors and ended writing some of his masterpieces in a little cottage as far away from them as he could get);
  • All those bedrooms and staircases and dark shrubberies offer great opportunities for illicit sex [or hopeful fantasies about it];
  • There can be rightful ownership disputes and envy (again handy for murder mysteries) and ambitions to marry heiresses;
  • Poets have rambled on about the wholesome virtues of country life since the days of he ancient Romans;
  • Rich Americans [or other interlopers] can muscle in where they don’t belong;
  • Their age and architecture makes them ideal for ghost stories and whodunnits;
  • Characters can include a mixture of classes.  Morrison refers to Upstairs/Downstairs i.e. servants can play a role, but country houses also played host to guests with little or no money and variations in what the Brits call ‘background’.

In one way or another, Huxley plays with all of these elements.  With its  eccentric 16th century privies influencing the architecture of its three towers, the house is as quintessentially English as you can get, and as Denis discovers to his envious dismay, Anne, heir presumptive has (a) plenty of dark shrubberies to fool around in with Ivor who is not only an interloper but a foreigner and (oh no!) a Catholic as well, and (b) a studio where the Provençal Gombaud (whose talent has an artist far exceeds poor Denis’s) can entertain the ladies.  When she falls over outside in the dark, even Denis gets to grope Anne a little bit.  There is a lot of poetry for Huxley to mock, most splendidly when Denis shares his efforts to use the word carminative in one of his odes, and Mr Wimbush invokes the ghosts of his ancestors with his whimsical tales from his History of Crome.

As to the characters, all of them are sponging off their host while indulging their pretensions.  But behind the humour, Huxley has something serious to say about England in this brittle between-the-wars period.  After the carnage of WW1, the young women have very little to choose from in the way of husbands, and the memory of the lost is being squandered in asinine arguments about what form the local war memorial should take.  The nihilism of the period is overt: As Mr Scogan has so rightly intuited, Denis the poet has nothing to say.

Crome Yellow is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition, which is the one I’m using).

Author: Aldous Huxley
Title: Crome Yellow
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 1936 edition, reprinted 1967.
Source: Gift from my dear old dad.

Fishpond: Crome Yellow (Modern Classics)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2014

Historic Heston, by Heston Blumenthal

Historic HesterIf I hadn’t already got this book, it would definitely be on my wish-list for Christmas. Historic Heston is the ultimate book for anyone interested in the history of food and cooking, and it’s a sumptuously luxurious book of ‘food porn’ into the bargain.  Unabashed by Wayne Macauley’s clever satire The Cook we here chez The Spouse et Moi are devoted to Masterchef Australia, and always look forward to Heston Blumenthal’s appearances for the extravagance of his creations and his humorous adaptations of staples like hamburgers.

Historic Heston is a generous (i.e. hefty) book of 430-odd pages, printed on expensive high-quality paper with a silky bookmark – and the witty graphics by Dave McKean and photography by Romas Foord are superb works of art in their own right. The still life for eggs in verjuice is worthy of a place in the National Gallery.  I am sorely tempted to upload a page or two just to prove it but rather than breach copyright I suggest that you can get an idea by visiting this article by Peter Aspden, and if you watch carefully you can see the still life at this trailer for the book, as well as some of McKean’s art work.    You can also see one of Foord’s still life photographs at a site called Good Food, which notes BTW that Historic Heston was co-winner of the James Beard Foundation’s annual Books, Broadcast and Journalism award for 2014.

The concept that lies behind this book is Blumenthal’s mission to rescue Britain’s melancholy reputation for awful food by exploring its grand old traditions using chef’s recipe books of the past, and adapting them into scrumptious creations for the menu at his London restaurant Dinner – and *in my dreams* wouldn’t I love to include a visit there on my next trip, sitting at the Chef’s Table!

Even if you’re not a ‘foodie’, Historic Heston is fascinating reading.  Starting in medieval times, the original recipes used all kinds of strange ingredients not always recognisable and of course the cooking methods described in Ye Olde English are entirely different.  In the chapter which charts the development of Blumenthal’s recipe for Alows of Beef, which dates from 1430, he explains that roasting, like everything else, was done over an open fire.   These alows were basically stuffed meat rolls using small cuts of beef, so they had to be cooked on a spit. Turning that spit by hand fell to one of the ‘scullions’, i.e.the lowest in the pecking order in the kitchen, and this child (who often lived and slept in the kitchen, and stripped off when tending the flames) had the job for as long as it took, supervised by the chef who monitored how the wood was burning, and when to move food nearer to or further from the flames.  We tend to think that people of the past didn’t care too much about working conditions so I was surprised to see Blumenthal quote a Kings Ordinance from 1526 that

It is ordeyned by the Kings Highnesse [that] scolyons … shall not goe naked or in garments of such vileness as they now doe… nor lye in the nights and dayes in the kitchens or ground by the fireside. (p.73)

Blumenthal, of course, is describing the arrangements in grand kitchens such as those of the king or his courtiers, but domestic cooks i.e. women would have had the same limitations in cooking over an open fire, without an army of underlings to help out (unless they had hapless children, I suppose).  This reminded me of my younger partying days when The Ex constructed a spit roast machine out of half a large metal cylindrical drum split vertically with legs welded on the bottom.  The hard labour of turning the spit was taken care of by a motor harvested from an old washing machine, but the all-day job of basting a suckling pig or whole lamb and adjusting the heat of the fire was shared with The Offspring, who like his father probably infringed whatever there may be in the way of domestic health and safety regulations by going shirtless.

Is Historic Heston a cookbook?  Well, I suppose that depends what kind of a cook you are.  In the introduction, Heston says he hopes that some readers will give it a try, listing  as more accessible than the Taffety Tart which is complex and demanding to prepare, the Spiced Pigeon from 1777 (only two pages long and 26 ingredients for 6 elements) or the Powdered Duck from 1670 (also only two pages long, but involving curing brine, smoking duck fat and a sous-vide).  If the full recipe seems daunting, he suggests that domestic cooks can cherry-pick from the techniques and elements, and I think that is most likely what The Spouse may do, starting with the Red Wine Sauce (p.81) that goes with the Alows of Beef but would also be a delicious accompaniment for any roasted beef dish.  It’s basically red wine and madeira with the sort of vegetables you’d expect, with the addition of both black and pink peppercorns and some herbs that grow in our garden.  (I may need to volunteer as the scullion when it comes to mashing it through the fine-mesh filter bag).

I reckon we could easily do the strawberries with camomile sugar served with yoghurt cream and dead-easy almond biscuits (p. 124), but I am unconvinced by Blumenthal’s devotion to adding salt to food even if it is flavoured exotically with Earl Grey tea.  And while the Taffety Tart does look too hard (I’ve never successfully made caramel and have ruined too many saucepans ever to try again) I think that even with my rather ordinary plating skills I could easily assemble some of the elements (vanilla biscuits, rose cream, puff pastry arlettes, vanilla ice-cream and poached apples) into a swish dinner party dessert, notwithstanding the absence of the apple caramel gel, the tatin, the crumble, or the crystallised rose petals and lemon zest.  I’m also just a little bit tempted by Quaking Pudding, (p.152) which although prefaced with a somewhat daunting exposé of the difficulties involved in setting what is basically an egg custard, is a recipe of only one page, and might even be dead easy since we’ve got a sous-vide.  There’s also a very simple recipe for pickled beetroot (p.166) which I might experiment with if we have too many beetroots in the vegie patch, and the technique for making pickled lemons in the sous-vide bag is brilliant! (p.279)

Whatever the challenges posed by the recipes, this is the only book of recipes that I’ve ever read from cover to cover.  Blumenthal doesn’t just present fascinating stories about the origins of the recipes and how he adapted them, he also comments on political and cultural developments in British culinary history, everything from the way that religious fasts impacted on meat eating for almost half the year, to the influence of England’s first professional female cookery writer Hannah Wolley (1670) on Britain’s traditions of plain fare.  She wrote for domestic cooks, simplifying recipes and making them less expensive.  Another great British tradition, deep-rooted anti-French sentiment prompted by the continual wars with France was responsible for the 18th century demise of court cookery books full of elaborate French dishes, and it was the enclosure of the commons that eventually led to the demise of pigeons as a staple dish.  Vast numbers of dovecotes provided pigeons for the bleak winter months when other food was scarce, but once most of the land was turned over to farming, landowners took a dim view of pigeons stripping a field bare and that was the end of the dovecotes.  And I bet you did not know that the English philosopher Francis Bacon died researching refrigeration: he experimented with stuffing a dead fowl with snow and caught pneumonia!

There’s also a very interesting chapter about how the theory of the humours (based on the ideas of Aristotle and Hippocrates) influenced food combinations.  The medieval diet had to take into account the idea that the human body is made of four elements – earth, air, fire and water – and these manifest themselves as bodily fluids – blood (corresponding to a sanguine temperament); phlegm (a phlegmatic personality); black bile (a melancholy disposition); and yellow bile (a tendency to choleric behaviour i.e. crankiness).  Diners had to adjust food to balance their health and behaviour, which meant eating food with the opposite humour, for example, avoiding lamb (which was thought to be moist and cold) if you were very old or very young (thought to be phlegmatic).  It had to be cooked the right way too.  Blumenthal says that

… resourceful chefs began to make a virtue out of necessity: it’s thought that the development of sauces was largely inspired by the desire to find new ways to apply that final humoral seasoning.  A green sauce made with parsley (warm and dry) was the ideal accompaniment for cold, moist pike or mackerel. (p.91)

It must have been a nightmare for domestic cooks to muck about balancing the assorted humours of their usually large families!

For me, the must-quote sentiment comes from page 261, where (discussing the breeding of more profitable pigs) Blumenthal says this:

When large-scale commerce becomes involved, flavour often seems to drop down the list of priorities.

Amen to that!

Update 3/10/14

Today I started working on Heston’s vanilla ice-cream for the swish dinner party that I bragged about above, and am feeling a little chastened.  There were some hurdles that I hadn’t anticipated.  First of all,  to infuse the milk base with flavour you add vanilla beans, (easy) and coffee beans.  Not so easy if you have one of those new-fangled coffee machines with the little pods of coffee and no actual coffee beans.  I only needed 5, so I was hardly going to buy a whole packet of coffee beans for that.

The next hurdle was that the milk has to heat up to 90 degrees which means the use of a thermometer.  Mine has a nice little clip to hold it on the side of the saucepan when I’m making marmalade, but I hadn’t used a deep enough saucepan for this milk infusion so I had to hold it for the entire time.  After that you have to let it cool to 52 degrees before you add the skim milk powder and the cream, and then you have to heat it up again to 70 degrees and keep it there for 10 minutes while you stir it as well.  I soon discovered that my lowest gas flame was still too high to keep it at 70 degrees, so I had to balance the saucepan half on/half off the flame and move it around a bit to keep it at the proper temperature.

The next step was to cool it down to 5 degrees before adding the yoghurt and lo! my neat little thermometer only starts reading at 50 degrees.  Not only that, but Heston says to do this step in a sous vide bag, but the quantity of liquid (about 15ooml, milk + cream) wasn’t going to fit in any of the bags we had.  At this stage it seemed like a good idea to cool it rapidly in its saucepan in a water bath (i.e. the kitchen sink), then add all the ice we had to a fresh water bath, and then bung it in the fridge and go out to dinner…

Whether it was the effect of two lovely glasses of a boutique red from the Hunter Valley I can’t say, but the mixture seemed pretty cold by the time we got home.  So I added the yoghurt and we put it in the ice-cream machine and now (about 90 minutes later) it looks pretty good.

Oh, and the missing coffee bean flavour? Don’t tell Heston, but I used some posh gourmet coffee-flavoured yoghurt.  It’s given the ice-cream just the merest hint of coffee flavour, offset by the vanilla.

Author: Heston Blumenthal
Title: Historic Heston
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781408857571
Source: review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury


Pre-order from Fishpond, shipping on October 9th: Historic Heston
Or (from October) good bookshops everywhere!

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