Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 30, 2015

Meet an Aussie Author: Yvette Walker

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It’s a little over 18 months since Karenlee Thompson wrote her enthusiastic guest review of Yvette Walker’s debut novel, Letters to the End of Love for this blog – but since then the novel has featured in both NSW and WA Premiers’ literary awards and so I approached Yvette through Twitter to request her presence in the ANZ LitLovers Meet an Aussie Author series.   (Twitter is an excellent form of social media for authors to have a web presence, and I use it all the time to locate them.  Fortunately Yvette uses her own name there so she was easy to find).

Letters to the End of LoveYvette’s bio tells us that she has a BA (Honours) and a PhD from Curtin University. She spent time at Varuna the Writers House in 2009 and again in 2011.  Letters to the End of Love (published by UQP) won a 2014 WA Premier’s Award (Emerging WA Writer) and was shortlisted for a 2014 NSW Premier’s Award (Glenda Adams’ Award for New Writing).  Impressive, eh?  Karenlee knows a good book when she sees one, and it’s nice to see her judgement confirmed by the judges of such significant awards.

But as regular readers of this blog know, Meet an Aussie Author asks penetrating questions that ferret deep into the writing life, and so without further ado, here are Yvette’s answers:

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Yvette’s writing desk: delicate knick-knacks, covetable doggy bookends, intriguing titles – and no computer!

1.  I was born two months before The Beatles broke up.  [LH: I am… a-hem… a tad older than Yvette; I wept inconsolably.]
2.  When I was a child I wrote long short stories in foolscap exercise books about the folly of the Roman Empire. Also the occasional foray into Vikings.
3.  The people who inspired me to write I found in my local public library: E.B. White, Susan Cooper, Colin Thiele, Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams.
4.  I write in the sunroom at the dining room table, at my desk in my bedroom, sometimes on the train scribbling on my lap.
5.  I write when I’m backed into a corner. The rest of my time is spent feeling guilty and anxious for not writing.
6.  Research is wandering in an endless city of possibilities, full of pleasures – doing research is when I feel most inspired, most able to create something of beauty.
7.  I keep my published work in the bookshelf with other Australian writers – I like to think the books chat to one another in the wee hours of the morning.
8.  On the day my first book was published, I unpacked boxes of my book at the bookshop where I work. And opened a bottle of Veuve at the bookshop counter.
9.  At the moment, I’m writing the zero draft of my second novel. I can’t say anymore – like all writers I’m too superstitious to say much about a work in progress.
10. When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I make a cup of tea. I walk around the neighbourhood and talk to the local cats. I pick up a favourite book, read a paragraph and shout at the invisible author, “How did you do this?”

I love the idea of books chatting to each other in the night: I can imagine some of the political biographies chez moi might have some rather rowdy conversations!

But fancy how exciting it would be to be browsing in the bookshop when a new author breaks open the bubbly!  I remember when my little book arrived in the mail from the publisher, and I was so overcome I just sat there and held it in my hands for ages looking at my name on the cover until my husband came home from work.  Yes, we did open a bottle of bubbly, but how perfect it would be to do that in a bookshop!

Like most authors in Australia, Yvette has other work besides her writing, but there’s a bookish theme to the work she does.  She’s worked in grubby second hand bookshops, jazz filled book cafés  and bookstores quite near the Indian Ocean.  Now that you know, WA readers, keep an eye out for Yvette in the bookshops and cafés and get your copy of her book autographed!

To buy Yvette’s book, see Fishpond: Letters to the End of Love
Or direct from UQP.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 28, 2015

Mannix, by Brenda Niall

MannixThere is a moment, towards the end of this biography when the subject, Archbishop Daniel Mannix (1864-1963) is in his nineties, when any thoughtful reader will pause.  Commenting on the Archbishop’s decision to buy his first electric razor at such an advanced age, his friend, Father Hackett said that Mannix didn’t like to be touched.  I think that is terribly sad. No matter what you may think about the priesthood and its scandals, it seems to me to be a dreadful thing not to have the comfort of human touch in old age. This one small snippet from the book really brought home to me what a lonely life is imposed by the Catholic priesthood…

Daniel Mannix was a man associated in my mind with destructive authoritarian power wielded from the pulpit to interfere with Australian politics.  He died when I was a child, but his protégé B.A. Santamaria (1915-1998) was active long after that, and the name of Mannix used pejoratively often made its way into the newspapers and books when I was old enough to take an interest in politics.  But elsewhere in the book Niall comments on the man’s loneliness, and this, I think, is her achievement in this book – not only does she tell the story of his life to correct so many of my erroneous impressions, she also shows the human price he paid for the way he lived it.

Mannix was born in Catholic Ireland to a family of six at a time when it was customary for a son to be gifted to the priesthood.  Daniel was the clever one and in time off he went to the seminary at Maynooth.  He was ordained in 1890 but never had a parish: he became an academic at the seminary instead and remained there until – in his forties, and without consultation – he was despatched in 1912 by the Vatican to be Coadjutor (archbishop-in-waiting) to the Archbishop of Melbourne.  Niall begins her book by noting that Mannix had his personal papers destroyed after his death, so there is no record of what must surely have been dismay.  He was passionately interested in Irish nationalism, and to the consternation of some in the church had been to some extent intemperately involved.  He was – publicly – a supporter of Sinn Fein, an admirer of the then radical Eamon de Valera and an opponent of making the Irish language compulsory for Matriculation.  Mannix was an Irishman, with a keen interest in Irish politics.  But off he went to Melbourne…

Catholics in Melbourne then, were almost exclusively Irish Catholics, disdained by the Protestant majority as a matter of course and automatically considered suspect in the matter of loyalty to Britain.  Nobody was expecting a local man to replace Archbishop Carr because all the archbishops were Irish then, just as all the Governors-General were Brits.    But the Irish Catholics were delighted with their new coadjutor who was tall, handsome, beautifully spoken and an impressive orator, and the rest of Melbourne looked on with apprehension.

As well they might.  When Mannix entered the political fray over WW1 conscription,  he brought (most of) the Irish Catholic vote with him and Prime Minister Billy Hughes‘ referendum was defeated.  Twice. Notwithstanding the disastrous Easter Rising in 1916 in the middle of the war.  Mannix was a man of power.

As anyone with more than a passing interest in Australian politics knows, Mannix went on to support B.A. Santamaria who led the crusade against communists in the ALP, which led to the Labor Split in 1955.  Mannix was therefore influential in keeping Labor out of government for 27 long years.  It might seem surprising if you know about the toxic enmities of the era to read in Niall’s biography that Mannix and Calwell (the Labor Leader of the Opposition) remained friends, but there was precedent.  Niall tells us that Mannix kept his friends for life, but also that friendships could transcend politics: Mannix had reached out to Billy Hughes on the death of his only daughter and the two were reconciled.

Aside from these personal touches, what is so interesting about this portrait of Mannix is (for me) the discovery that the man was quite liberal in many ways.  He was pro Santamaria and his anti-Communist activities, but he refused to quash the opposing Catholic Worker.  He never deviated from his belief in the right to exercise one’s individual conscience.  He is on record reassuring dissident priests who feared repercussions from Santamaria’s Movement that in his diocese

no priest should be afraid to say what he thinks… I do not agree with you but I respect your right to take that position. (p.314)

Paradoxically perhaps, this Cold War activist opposed Menzies when he tried to ban the Communist Party.

Mannix thought that the church was too fussed about sex; and although it was a rare example of failure to influence his flock, in 1942-45 he told his teachers to be frank and open because he ‘wanted people to be able to talk about sex without feeling ashamed or embarrassed’. (p. 212) It seems amusing now, but we can imagine the shock when he told principals of girls’ schools that ‘Sexual curiosity is good and natural… All of us are too puritanical in matters of sex.’ (p. 213).  Niall says that ‘there is no reason to think that Mannix questioned priestly celibacy‘ (p.213) but he was apparently an approachable confessor.  He was good at listening.

Most unusually for his time, Mannix argued for the abolition of corporal punishment in schools (but as many people I know can attest, this message passed by both nuns and brothers for long years after his death).  He was alert to Nazi anti-Semitism long before most other people; he was open-minded about Asian immigration.  It would be fascinating to know what influences had led him to these positions, but he left nothing behind that reveals the reasons.

There is also nothing to suggest that he knew anything about the sexual abuse scandals now revealed, but there were offenders who were ordained under his watch, including the notorious Father Kevin O’Donnell.  Mannix was a laissez-faire administrator, but Niall says there has been insufficient work done to show whether such crimes were any more or less numerous than under the interventionist Archbishop Gilroy in Sydney. (p. 218).  People will draw their own conclusions, perhaps, about the Mannix papers burned by his successor, but it was Santamaria, appointed Mannix’s official biographer, who went through those papers first and removed those of interest, keeping them to himself until his death in 1998 when his family passed them on to the diocesan archive.  If there were dubious reasons for this insistent privacy, they are lost to history.

According to Online Opinion,

it has been observed by Cardinal George Pell that no other figure in Australian history has inspired as many biographies as Daniel Mannix, with the sole exception of another Irish-Australian, Ned Kelly.

However, I haven’t (and probably wouldn’t) read any of these other biographies –  it is Brenda Niall’s brilliance as a biographer that made me want to read this one.  So I can’t be sure that she is the first to reveal the astonishing Vatican campaign to cut Mannix down to size.  I use the word astonishing advisedly: I read Susan Howatch’s Starbridge novels about the Church of England in the 20th century so I had some idea of the less-than-Christian shenanigans of church politics, but the Vatican’s strategy to destabilise Mannix’s leadership takes the prize for sheer bitchiness…

In 1933 the Vatican took exception to his criticism of General Eoin O’Duffy, a supporter of Mussolini and a threat to the first de Valera government.  As was the case so often, Mannix was eventually shown to be right to be critical of this drunken buffoon, but Pius XI sent his man Archbishop Giovanni Panico to destroy Mannix’s Irish power base in Australia.  Panico did this by appointing Australians to senior positions regardless of merit or their own personal preference, and by transferring Mannix’s staff elsewhere.  In the case of his loyal deputy Monsignor John Lonergan, who was forced to replace the intellectually mediocre and stubborn Bishop Norman Gilroy who was made Archbishop of Sydney, the decision was cruel.  Gilroy was a young man of forty who had thrived in the demanding desert parish of Port Augusta.  Lonergan was in poor health.

No sooner had the appointment been made than Lonergan collapsed from a heart attack.  He died some months later, without having been consecrated a bishop, and without leaving Melbourne. Mannix farewelled ‘the bishop that never was’ with a heartfelt tribute.  The requiem mass, which was sung by Mannix himself, and the panegyric, showed the affection and respect in which Lonergan was held. (p.239)

Panico went on to elevate Archbishop Gilroy to Cardinal, giving him a vote in the election for a new pope.  Well, Mannix wasn’t always tactful, and he did polarise opinion, but he was not only Gilroy’s intellectual superior, he also led his church through a period of enormous expansion, from 160 churches in the diocese in 1913 to 300 in 1963 when he died. And not just churches: during his leadership he set up the Corpus Christi seminary; expanded primary and secondary schools including the elite St Kevin’s College for bright boys from poor backgrounds; welcomed numerous orders of nuns and their convents; and the hospitals too.  From the start he campaigned for state aid for the schools, as a matter of religious freedom and national identity and finally persuaded Menzies to agree to it (a policy never since abandoned, leading to the shocking taxpayer-funded disparity between government schools and private schools which exists today).  By any measure, love him or hate him,  Mannix was the spiritual leader of Australia’s Catholics, and the appointment of Gilroy was a calculated insult.  The chapters about Panico, titled ‘The Vatican Chess Game’ and ‘The Cardinal’s Red Hat’ are the most interesting in the whole book.

I should say that I expected to take my time over this biography, as I usually do, reading a chapter every other day.  But not so, I could not put it down, and read it in three days.  No wonder Brenda Niall is Australia’s pre-eminent biographer!

Perhaps by coincidence, there is another book about Mannix, just released.  Authored by James Franklin, Gerald O Nolan and Michael Gilchrist, it’s called The Real Archbishop Mannix, from the Sources and it’s published by Connor Court Publishing.  According to Wikipedia, Connor Court Publishing publishes books on religion, global warming scepticism, culture and education.  A member of the IPA (Institute of Public Affairs) sits on its editorial board and its authors include Cardinal George Pell, Peter Costello, Tony Abbott and Jeff Kennett.  I haven’t read this other book and have no comment to make about it, but my advice is, be careful, if you’re buying, to remember the title and author that I’m recommending here … you might be disappointed if you accidentally bought the wrong one.  (Sometimes when I’m in a bookshop, I go browsing for a book I’ve just read about but can’t remember its title or author).

For another review, see Eureka Street.

Author: Brenda Niall
Title: Mannix
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922182111
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


Fishpond: Mannix
or direct from Text Publishing (where you can also buy the eBook) and all good bookshops.
PS Be careful of delivery charges and/or loading up the purchase price to cover ‘free’ delivery; it’s a heavy book.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 23, 2015

The Most Good You Can Do, by Peter Singer

The Most Good You can DoI love reading Peter Singer’s books; he inspires me to be a better person.

The Most Good You Can Do is about the concept of ‘effective altruism’; basically it’s about interrogating your own philanthropic choices to ascertain whether it’s money, time or other forms of altruism well spent.

All of us are influenced to some extent by emotion when we give.  There’s some rather dismaying research that shows that we are more likely to give to one child with a photo and a name than we are to photos of more than one child in need even when we know that we could save more lives for the same amount of money. We respond to cute and lovable, or tragic and sad, and we respond to personal appeals from someone we know.  Too many of us give small amounts to lots of charities even though the cost of administering these small amounts often outweighs the donation.  This is why charities pursue us for regular monthly deductions from our credit cards, because it’s the most cost-effective way of collecting the money and it’s money they can count on.

From this book I learned that there are organisations such as Charity Navigator in the US and Give Well that exist to evaluate the effectiveness of the charity dollars we donate.  But it’s not as simple as it looks: a charity with lower administrative costs may not be using some of its money to monitor due diligence or the effectiveness of what it does.  There must be effective checks to ensure that the money is being spent properly, but research into effectiveness needs to take into account that some programs are long-term and others are short-term.  Provision of clean water to schools (my favourite Oxfam Christmas gift) has an immediate impact on health outcomes (and school attendance) but adult literacy programs may take longer to take achieve results and the effects on community health or the local economy may be indirect and harder to trace. Some programs are inherently difficult to evaluate, such as a program to reduce the incidence of rape…

Then there’s the issue of ‘charity begins at home’.  Those of us who live in privileged countries often like to donate to worthy causes at home… some of my own pet causes involve (as you’d expect from a retired teacher) education for disadvantaged students; foundations for public institutions like the State Library; and medical research.  But Singer is firm about this: there is no moral equivalence between saving the life of a child who needs a mosquito net in a malaria prone area, and contributing to buying an historic document or providing support for kids who are receiving free education anyway in a country like Australia.  Tough as it may be for disadvantaged people in the wealthy West, he  says, it’s not a matter of life and death as it is in poor countries where the charity dollar goes much further.  Where it literally saves lives.

Charity Navigator apparently assesses thousands of charities that operate in countries rich and poor in a superficial way while Give Well rigorously evaluates only those that help poor countries on the grounds that

interventions aimed at assisting poor people in developing countries were likely to be much more cost-effective than interventions aimed at assisting the poor in more affluent countries.  (p. 152)

But Give Well does its evaluations so rigorously that it only recommends a very few charities, not because the others are not cost-effective but because there isn’t sufficient evidence.  They don’t recommend major aid organisations that we all trust like Oxfam, Care, the Red Cross, UNICEF, Save the Children, Doctors without Borders or World Vision: they say this is because it’s too difficult to evaluate the ‘good done by a dollar’ when these organisations divide it amongst different activities. Research into the effectiveness of aid organisations is a complex business indeed.

There are forms of altruism that I had not considered before, such as ‘earning to give’.  If, for example, you have signed up as I have to The Life You Can Save, then you have committed to donating a percentage of your income to a charity that works to reduce world poverty, such as Oxfam.  One of the examples given in Singer’s book is of a young man who deliberately chose to work in a high-income field and live simply so that donating 10% of his income could save many more lives, more quickly than if he worked for a more lowly-paid charity himself.  Another form of altruism is more confronting: most people will donate a kidney to a loved one who needs it, but donating one to anyone who needs it is rather different, yet it is a very effective form of giving: it saves a life.  Many people are willing to donate blood or maybe bone marrow, but a kidney seems a different thing altogether.

You can see from these examples that The Most Good You Can Do is a challenge to all of us to think more carefully about what we do when we give.  I am not sure what I am going to do next time Melbourne University asks me for a donation!

PS The cover design is by the inimitable W.H. Chong.

Author: Peter Singer
Title: The Most Good You Can Do
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922182692
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


(All author royalties from the sale of this book will be donated to effective charities listed at The Life You Can Save)

Fishpond: The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically
Or direct from Text Publishing

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 22, 2015

Musth, an African Thriller, by Fred Guilhaus

MusthThrillers are not really my thing, but I was interested when this one turned up in my postbox.  It’s set in Africa, (Kenya, actually) featuring a corrupt wildlife organisation; the privatisation of national parks; and the would-be westernisation of the Maasai, but it’s written by a German-born company director, living in Adelaide. And the cover design by Kevin Murphy is an arresting image, eh?

Musth refers to the highly aggressive behaviour of bull elephants when they are in season but that’s not the only testosterone floating about in this book.  Dr Bridget O’Connor is given a grant by SHE Inc (Science, Heritage and the Environment) to research her method of sterilising elephants that are so numerous in Kenya, they are destroying their own environment.  But SHE’s generosity is specious; in reality it is in cahoots with the corrupt Kenyan government and the men involved in this are, at every level, like rogue elephants.  Characterisation is a bit black-and white, but I guess that goes with the genre.

In Australia there is Frank Olsen, who hires Bridget.  He’s ruthlessly ambitious and greedy, with no redeeming qualities.  Bridget’s friend Jerri, who’s an investigative journalist, takes him on when Bridget’s suspicions are aroused, but it’s Olsen’s loyal secretary (yes, a bit of stereotyping here) who investigates Terri and blows the whistle.  This turns out to be perilous indeed, because the real agenda behind the privatisation of the national parks involves the removal of the Maasai who have farmed cattle in the area for generations; illegal hunting of elephants by rich tourists; ivory for the Asians, and oil.  To achieve this, mercenaries have been hired, and they are all brutish and cruel.

… They knew when Cashman was joking, because it never happened.  His prison reputation was potent. He spent much of his time in the gymnasium, and was not retiring in enforcing his will on others. ‘There’s over one thousand elephants in this park.  It can support three hundred. A good bull will fetch one hundred thou.  You’ll only be poachers for a short while.  A distraction. You see we have to convince the government that you’re here for a good reason. Poachers have avoided Amboseli.  There’s not enough cover, and too many tourists.  We have to go north, kill a couple of real poachers, perfectly legal, bring the bodies back here and you guys will be the ones who brought them in. Just a smoke screen for the main event.  You kill a few elephants, get the rangers used to having a few drop around the place. That’s what that truck is for, ivory and whatever.  We establish credibility with the authorities, point at a few dead poachers, and gradually assume control. Then we’ve got a bag-full of wealthy clients back in the States who will be doing the real hunting, and paying for it.  The elephants wander in and out of the park.  The hunting will occur in the denser scrub, around Kilimanjaro.  I’ve given you an indication of what you can earn,’ he sat back and dug his hands in his pockets.

‘That’s it?’ Fielding asked.

‘There’s more.  Plenty more. This is the pocket money.  ‘I’ll be telling you about the real thing after you perform.’  He then slowly fixed each man with a penetrating stare that was lost on no one.  ‘You three stick together at all times. Any word of this gets out…’ (p. 64)

On the side of the Good Guys and providing the Love Interest, there is the rough diamond Bill Davison, who pilots the helicopter that Bridget uses to fire darts to stun the elephants, and there is an English-educated Maasai improbably called Daniel who introduces her to Maasai culture.  And conveniently speaks English and can muster a bunch of young warriors to help out in the exciting climax.

Musth is well-written, skilfully plotted and offers much to think about in the way that literary fiction does.  However, thrillers of this type rely on perpetuating the stereotype of African governments as hopelessly corrupt, and romanticising Daniel as a sexy Maasai with an identity crisis doesn’t resolve my doubts about outsiders stereotyping ‘Africans’.  I’m also uneasy about the characterisation of the three imported thugs from the States; while the evil masterminds are all White men, the thugs who do what they’re told are Black, and they’re not given the dignity of being described as African Americans, just generically as small-b blacks.   There’s also a credibility issue when it comes to representing women dealing with the trauma of rape: business-as-usual and an objective concern for others in the aftermath doesn’t seem likely to me.

There’s also an unacceptable number of annoying typos…

Author: Fred Guilhaus
Title: Musth, an African Thriller
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781743053416
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press


Fishpond: Musth
Or direct from Wakefield Press

The White CastleThe White Castle is a short novella of only 145 pages, but it took me forever to read.  It’s a title from the Faber Firsts collection, celebrating the first novels of such authors as Peter Carey (Bliss), Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar) and William Golding (Lord of the Flies), and Faber has included it in this collection because it was the first of Pamuk’s novels to be available in English, in 1985.  His first novel was actually Mr. Cevdet and His Sons published in 1982.

I expected to like The White Castle because I’ve read and really liked three of Orhan Pamuk’s novels: Snow, The Museum of Innocence, and Silent House.  But The White Castle, despite its pedigree as winner of the 1990 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, failed to engage me.  I dawdled through it, punctuated by extended frolics with Samurai Sudoku (always a bad sign).

It’s the story of an unnamed Italian scholar who is captured by pirates and sold at a slave auction in Istanbul.  He is acquired by Hoja, a Turkish savant with ambitions to be a Big Deal at court, but the Italian is not treated like a piece of property.  He is not treated as a slave using the tropes with which we are familiar (humiliation, degradation, exploitation and/or brutality); for him, enslavement means the loss of his freedom and an almost visceral longing for home.

Indeed, his life is almost congenial.  Hoja admires European advances in science and engineering, and it is his desire that the Italian should teach him everything he knows.  So their relative positions are inverted, the Italian with his superior knowledge becoming the teacher and the Turk becoming the able pupil, intent on being able to impress the Sultan and gain favour at court.  But the Italian is a man of straw: even though he is very intelligent, he has actually faked being a doctor in order to get preferential treatment in the slave market.  The novella is, of course, an allegory for Turkey’s position in the modern world apropos Europe, and even as his obsession with improving on Western military technology fails risibly, Pamuk’s Hoja rails against ignorance and the fools who sabotage his attempts to modernise the court’s modus operandi away from soothsaying and superstition.  But it is only fair to say that if I hadn’t read Pamuk’s other novels with their themes of Turkish identity and its struggles with modernism, I think I might well have missed the point.

(It is also only fair to say that the erudite review I’ve read at the NY Times has not a word to say about The White Castle being an allegory in this way, so it is more than possible that my interpretation is completely wrong. However, in an interview with The Paris Review, Pamuk himself refers to reworking traditional literary sources including allegory in The Black Book, and that he recognised this cross-cultural national anxiety in The White Castle after he had written the book.  Alas, The Paris Review is touchy about copying any of its content, so if you want to see what Pamuk had to say you will have to visit their site and read the interview, which is rather long.  The reference to allegory is about half way down, and The White Castle below that.)


From the outset we are told that the Italian and the Turk bear resemblance to one another, and the inversion of their power relations hints at the identity crisis which is to come.  The confused state of their relationship is punctuated by bursts of inchoate rage from the frustrated Turk and unspoken arrogance from the Italian, and from time to time both withdraw from one another to lick their wounds.  Hoja, or Hodja, is an honorific meaning master or lord (see Wikipedia) but both characters, who may be one and the same, vacillate between contempt and admiration for one another, complicated by the figure of the Sultan who is only a child at the beginning of the book, a metaphor (I think) for the immaturity of the State by comparison with the advanced democracies of Europe.  (The White Castle was first published in 1985, though not available in translation until 1990).

The sovereign was a sweet, red-cheeked child of a height proportionate to his few years.  He handled the instruments as if they were his toys. Am I thinking now of that time when I wanted to be his peer and friend, or of another time much later, fifteen years later when we met again? I cannot tell; but I felt immediately that I must do him no wrong. (p. 31)

Over time, all societies have suffered, one way or another, in the march towards modernity.  From the closure of the fields to the Industrial Revolution to the unintended results of globalisation and the IT Revolution, there have been winners and losers amid the social upheaval.  But Turkey represents a society trying rapidly to ‘catch up’ without losing what matters, and some of the choices being made are contentious.  Their leaders want to join the European Union but there is resistance to shedding aspects of their culture that are incompatible with modern Europe.  (Signing the protocol on the abolition of capital punishment in 2004, for example, signals essential human rights reforms to comply with becoming a fully fledged democracy,  prerequisite for their campaign to join the EU).  Paraphrasing Pamuk in the same interview at The Paris Review (2/3 down the page) it seems that the cost of some reforms is that they don’t have democratic support.

Pamuk’s decision to employ the Italian as narrator signals, I suspect, his own frustration with Turkey’s ambivalent national identity, caught between tradition and modernity and anxious about finding a place in the modern world without losing its unique culture or provoking the hostility between nationalists and modernists into something worse.  As in Snow, innocuous-seeming objects turn out to be symbols of this struggle: at one point when the Italian and Hoja are working on a clock to synchronise the time of prayer at different mosques, the Italian teaches him about tables.  Suddenly my mind was filled with images from TV docos of middle-eastern families sitting not at tables for a meal, but on cushions on the floor, not out of poverty but from choice, and I realised that the use of the humble table can have a political and cultural significance in some contexts.

When I brought home the piece of furniture I’d had made by a carpenter according to my specifications, Hoja was not pleased. He likened it to a four-legged funeral bier, said it was inauspicious, but later he grew accustomed both to the chairs and the table; he declared that he thought and wrote better this way. (p. 25)

Pamuk mentions the newness of this table several times as if to reinforce the point.

All very interesting, but no, I did not really enjoy this book.  The first chapters are interesting enough, a little like an adventure story – suggesting the nightmare of capture and enslavement and perhaps the possibility of escape.   The middle section, however, loses momentum.  In detailing the conflict between the two and their benign conspiracy to delude the Sultan into adopting modern ideas, their endless arguments about identity become rather self-indulgent and somewhat repetitive.

I replied that I didn’t know why he was what he was, adding that this question was often asked by ‘them’, and asked more and more every day. When I said this I had nothing to support it, no particular theory in mind, nothing at all but a desire to answer his question as he wished, perhaps because I sensed instinctively that he would enjoy the game.  He was surprised.  He eyed me with curiosity, he wanted me to continue; when I remained silent he couldn’t restrain himself, he wanted me to repeat what I’d said: So they ask this question? When he saw me smile in approval he immediately became angry: he wasn’t asking this because he thought ‘they’ asked it, he’d asked it on his own without knowing they did, he couldn’t care less what they did.  Then, in a strange tone he said, ‘It’s as if a voice were singing in my ear.’  This mysterious voice reminded him of his beloved father, he’d heard a voice like that too before he died, but his song had been different. ‘ Mine keeps singing the same refrain,’ he said, and seeming a bit embarrassed, added suddenly, ‘I am what I am, I am what I am, ah!’ (p. 49)

The rupture that comes in the concluding attempt to reach the unattainable, i.e. the white castle, is both poignant and intentionally confusing…

Author: Orhan Pamuk
Title: The White Castle
Translated from the Turkish by Victoria Holbrook
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 1991
ISBN: 9780571244775
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond


Fishpond: The White Castle
Probably not available at your local bookshop.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 19, 2015

Meet an Aussie Author: Alice Robinson

Robinson, Alice

Author photo by Steph Tout from Longwayhome Photography.

As you will know if you saw the Opening Lines to Alice Robinson’s debut novel Anchor Point, and my enthusiastic review, I am delighted to add another author to those I can confidently recommend to readers of this blog.   Alice has a PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University where her research centred around climate change and settler Australian attitudes to the land, and the novel tackles this complex contemporary issue with respect for diverse points of view while skilfully avoiding polemics.

AnchorPoint_Cover-hi-res-2.jpgAlice has been published widely in print and online,  and the release of this  novel has brought further critical acclaim.  Annie Condon at Readings liked the intricate portrait of the relationship between sisters and the story of grief over a missing mother and wife while Owen Richardson at the SMH admired the delicacy in handling the climate change theme, (but there are spoilers in his review so don’t read that one until after you’ve read the book).

Alice lives in a rundown miner’s cottage in the Macedon Ranges with her husband, also an academic/writer, and two small children, and as you can see from the photo below, she has ‘a room of her own’ in which to work on her current writing projects.   (I am pleased about this, I worry sometimes that a debut novel might be a one-off.  The writing life is hard for everybody, and even the best of writers have difficulty managing the multiple demands it makes.)   She’s currently on maternity leave from her position as a lecturer for the Bachelor of Writing and Publishing at Melbourne Polytechnic (NMIT) where she has worked since 2009, but there is another novel on the way.

No doubt Alice is also very busy promoting the book (published by Affirm Press who also publish a favourite author of mine, Paddy O’Reilly)  but somehow she found time to answer my questions, and here they are:

1.  I was born …in Melbourne, via c-section. My father recounted the whole episode in graphic detail in lieu of a speech at my 21st birthday party…

2.  When I was a child I wrote… letters to famous people. When I was eight and bedridden with scarlet fever, I received a response from Queen Elizabeth II penned by her lady-in-waiting.

 3.  The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write is/was… early on: my mother, an adult literacy academic, and my father, a visual artist. A creative writer is probably the natural brainchild of those two.

Alice Robinson's caravan4.  I write in… my office – an old caravan out in the garden. But I also like writing in bed.

5.  I write …when I can.  I used to be very routinised about how I wrote – always at a desk, for a pre-determined length of time – but now I have two small children and everything is complicated, compromised and exhausting.

6.  Research is…. so much easier and therefore much more enjoyable than actually doing the work of writing.

7.  I keep my published work/s in … a stack on my bookcase. But the novel as a physical artefact is still so fresh and new. I don’t yet feel as though the book is really mine.

 8.  On the day my first book was published, I… thought that there would be a moment of reverential recognition, something I would recall and cherish forever, but the chaotic reality of motherhood superseded any such thing.

 9.  At the moment, I’m writing …notes for my second novel. I think that it involves a Tsunami-like apocalyptic event, the Grampians, and motherhood.

 10.When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I … sit very still, with my face scrunched up, making a pained sound, as though I’ve stubbed my toe. It really works.

It’s hard to imagine Alice with her face ‘scrunched up’ … she looks so serene in the photo!

You can learn more about Alice from this interview with Dan Bloom, and you might also like to read Alice’s article about climate change fiction on the Wheeler Centre’s website.  You can’t attend her panel session ‘New dystopias, Climate Change and Fiction at the Wheeler Centre on March 24th unless you’ve already bought your ticket because it’s booked out, but perhaps the Wheeler Centre will make it available on video in due course.  (Jane Rawson is on the panel too, her novel A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unpaid Lists (see my review) won the 2014 Most Underrated Novel Award.)

Anchor Point is available from Fishpond or direct from Affirm Press or any good bookshop.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 16, 2015

Book review: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

Lisa Hill:

I’m not ready to read this book, not yet, but I’d like to promote it, so do visit this enticing review at Amanda Curtin’s blog, Looking Up Looking Down

Originally posted on looking up/looking down:

The scenario is claustrophic: in medieval England, Sarah, a seventeen-year-old virgin, relinquishes worldly life—family, human touch, comfort, light, fresh air—and is locked into a tiny stone cell attached to the village church. It is voluntary. And it is permanent. The door to the cell, or anchorhold, is nailed shut. Sarah conceives of this as ‘the nailing of my hands and feet to the cross with Christ’ but an equally fitting comparison would be the nailing of a coffin, because the anchorhold is to be Sarah’s home and also her grave: lest there be any doubt, she is told that the bones of a previous anchoress, Sister Agnes, are interred beneath her. Her life’s work is to devote herself to prayer—for the edification of the village and the soul of the wealthy landowner who is her patron.

9781460702987I was sent a copy of Robyn Cadwallader’s debut novel in preparation for a…

View original 850 more words

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 15, 2015

Authors from Victoria (Australian Authors #1)

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while: compile a list of Victorian authors reviewed on this blog.  With the 2015 Melbourne Prize for Literature coming up this year (it’s a triennial prize), I’ve finally got round to it.

But it’s not an easy task.  How does one define ‘Victorian’?   The Melbourne Prize is presented every three years to a Victorian author ‘whose body of published or produced work has made an outstanding contribution to Australian literature, as well as to cultural and intellectual life’.  I don’t know what their criteria are so I’m not sure how the prize differentiates a ‘Victorian author': does it mean born here, resident here, or resident here at some stage or for most of the time the body of work was created?  Would Germaine Greer be eligible after all this time away as an expat? What about Peter Carey and Lily Brett?

Previous winners of the Melbourne Prize for Literature are unequivocally Victorian.   They are:

Anyway, for what it’s worth, this is my list.  I’ve been liberal in claiming these authors as Victorian (so not all of them may be eligible for the prize) and I’ve defined a ‘body of work’ as five books or more, and I’ve included non-fiction, poetry and essay writers.  I’ve also included an Honour Roll of authors who are no longer with us.

Victorian Authors with a body of work, reviewed on this blog


Of course there will be other major authors that I haven’t reviewed here, and I welcome suggestions for additional Victorian authors of significance that I should read.

My Victorian Authors To Read and/or Review list

  • Lily Brett (I’ve read Just Like That and Too Many Men, but that was before I started this blog).
  • John Marsden (I’ve read Tomorrow when the War Began, but only reviewed it at GoodReads).
  • Stephanie Alexander (A hugely influential writer, and not just in the kitchen.  I think we’ve got all her cookbooks and her writing is superb, but I’ve never reviewed any of them).
  • Arnold Zable  (I’ve read Cafe Scheherazade but pre-blog).

PS Lest you think me parochial, I will one day get round to doing a similar page for the other states, but in the meantime visit Whispering Gums because Sue has done a number of posts on the same topic.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 15, 2015

The People’s Train, by Tom Keneally

The People's TrainKeeping up with Thomas Keneally’s output is a bit of a challenge for any reader, and if I were a “completist” I would have a long way to go before I could tick this author off my list.  At last count he had 33 novels listed at Wikipedia and 18 works of non-fiction and a good many of those are chunksters too.

Although Balzac was master of the short story, there are good reasons why Keneally is sometimes referred to as the ‘Balzac’ of Australian life.  He’s a great storyteller, and (of the nine of his novels I’ve read), I’ve seen him range across all sorts of characters and different periods of our history, most recently with Shame and the Captives (2014), The Daughters of Mars (2012) and The Widow and Her Hero (2007).  In style these are a long way from his early Miles Franklin Award winners, Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968) and his debut novel The Place at Whitton (1964, but recently reissued). He seems to have abandoned modernism for a narrative style focussed more on story, as seen so successfully in The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972) and the Booker Prize winning Schindler’s Ark (1982).

The People’s Train (2009) is another splendid story, depicting a character perspective rarely offered.  Artem Samsurov is a Russian dissident living in exile in Brisbane during the prelude to the two Russian Revolutions in 1917.  He’s a communist, and more specifically a Bolshevik, and so he gets into strife with the Queensland authorities who are in a moral panic about dissent in general and communism in particular.  The book is in two parts, Artem’s narrative in Brisbane, which includes his memories of imprisonment and escape from the Russian gulag; and then that of his journalist friend Paddy’s narrative which recounts the chaotic situation when Artem returns to Russia after the February Revolution.

If you’re like me and your knowledge of this period of Russian history is a little scanty, it helps to know what is neatly summarised at Wikipedia, not so much for the first part of the book, but to make sense of latter events.  The book is actually based on a true story with lots of fictional characters interacting with real people, who include the ones you’ve heard of i.e. Lenin and Stalin a.k.a. Koba, and those you probably haven’t i.e. Kerensky, Kollantai, Antonov-Ovseenko and Martov.  To save you looking it up (though you can read more if you follow this Wikipedia link)  here it is:

The Russian Revolution is the collective term for a series of revolutions in Russia in 1917, which dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Russian SFSR. The Emperor was forced to abdicate and the old regime was replaced by a provisional government during the first revolution of February 1917 (March in the Gregorian calendar; the older Julian calendar was in use in Russia at the time). In the second revolution, during October, the Provisional Government was removed and replaced with a Bolshevik (Communist) government.

The February Revolution (March 1917) was a revolution focused around Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg). In the chaos, members of the Imperial parliament or Duma assumed control of the country, forming the Russian Provisional Government. The army leadership felt they did not have the means to suppress the revolution and Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, abdicated. The Soviets (workers’ councils), which were led by more radical socialist factions, initially permitted the Provisional Government to rule, but insisted on a prerogative to influence the government and control various militias. The February Revolution took place in the context of heavy military setbacks during the First World War (1914–18), which left much of the Russian army in a state of mutiny.

A period of dual power ensued, during which the Provisional Government held state power while the national network of Soviets, led by socialists, had the allegiance of the lower classes and the political left. During this chaotic period there were frequent mutinies, protests and many strikes. When the Provisional Government chose to continue fighting the war with Germany, the Bolsheviks and other socialist factions campaigned for stopping the conflict. The Bolsheviks turned workers militias under their control into the Red Guards (later the Red Army) over which they exerted substantial control.[1]

In the October Revolution (November in the Gregorian calendar), the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin, and the workers’ Soviets, overthrew the Provisional Government in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks appointed themselves as leaders of various government ministries and seized control of the countryside, establishing the Cheka to quash dissent. To end Russia’s participation in the First World War, the Bolshevik leaders signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in March 1918.

Ok, got that?  Two Russian Revolutions, one in February and the Biggie in October, and chaos in between.  (Well, actually in March and November according to our calendar, but that’s not what the Russians were using then.  I bet making travel reservations in Europe was fun in those days with two different calendars operating.)  There was also a civil war between the Reds and the Whites that lasted from 1918 until the USSR was formed in 1922 but that’s not in the book so you don’t need to worry about that.

I hope  haven’t put you off with all that because The People’s Train really is a very good story.  Artem, although an enthusiast for a political system now thoroughly discredited, is a sincere idealist, and his narration of events in Brisbane is fascinating.  While other émigrés simply want to settle down and melt into the Aussie landscape, he wants to change the world so he gets hold of a printing press and puts out a newsletter that escapes the notice of the Brisbane police with the community notices in English and the rabble-rousing in Russian.  He seems too genial and reasonable to be a fifth columnist but that’s what he was, and yes, the authorities do take notice when he stirs up strikes of one sort and another, and they are only too keen to arrest him on spurious charges of murder when one of their spies meets his end.  He is lucky that he has the help of Hope Mockridge, a bourgeois radical lawyer, with whom, despite his reservations about relationships v The Cause, he has an affair.   There is a great cast of characters in this section of the book, and the Brisbane evoked is a long way from the Brisvegas we all know now.

But when the February Revolution takes place, Artem makes his way back to Russia, which is in chaos in the interim period while the provisional government has an uneasy relationship with the soviets and the tsar is yet to meet his doom.  Artem takes his journo mate Paddy Dykes with him so that reports of the revolution can be despatched to sympathetic ears around the world, and even though Paddy is a communist sympathiser, he is a foreigner with a limited grasp of Russian language and culture, and this enables a distancing effect.  In rendering the state of confusion at this time, Keneally uses Paddy to report on its impact and his clear-eyed observations offset political dreams against reality: there are food shortages, strikes, and chaos in the transport system and the argy-bargy between the factions is reminiscent of that famous Monty Python sketch.

But Paddy’s more important role in the novel comes almost at the end, when the Bolsheviks have stormed the Winter Palace and one of them exercises what he thinks is his right of reprisal in a shocking way.  What happens next is a moral test, which symbolises the path the Soviets were to follow.

The idealists were doomed to disillusionment almost from the very start.

See also this review at The Telegraph and this one at The Independent.

Author: Tom Keneally
Title: The People’s Train
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 2009
ISBN: 9781741667431
Source: Personal library


Fishpond: The People’s Train

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 13, 2015

Meet an Aussie Author: Amanda Lohrey

Amanda LohreyAmanda Lohrey is an author whose career I’ve been following ever since I first discovered her writing, way back in 1997 when she co-authored Secrets with Robert Dessaix and Drusilla Modjeska.  I started with The Philosopher’s Doll (2004), which was before I started this blog (but see this perceptive review by Aviva Tuffield at The Age).  Exploring issues of work-life balance and the Generation X biological clock dilemma, The Philosopher’s Doll was long-listed for the 2005 Miles Franklin and for the IMPAC in 2006, and I promptly added Lohrey to my list of must-read authors.  Subsequent to that I read Camille’s Bread which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin in 1996 and won the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal in the same year.  (See a review by Troy Martin at Lit-is-Stan), and then there was her stunning novella Vertigo - which is my favourite, and you can read my enthusiastic review here.

After that there was a collection of short stories, Reading Madame Bovary in 2010. Short stories are not my thing but of course I read it because this author interests me.  Like Amanda Goldsmith, she eloquently captures the angst of middle-class life with an interesting twist, but Lohrey is also interested in spirituality, which I am not, and I find it salutary to read the intelligent insights of someone so different to me.  This was why I found her latest long-awaited novel so intriguing: as you will know if you read my reviewA Short History of Richard Kline is an exploration of a middle-aged man seeking meaning in his life and, being a sceptic, he finds himself affronted by the impact of a mystic on his psyche.  Lohrey’s skill is in keeping me engaged in something I am not interested in, but want to know about why it matters to other people.  If you too are baffled by the angst of modern middle-class life, Lohrey can explain it to you and make a beaut novel of it at the same time.

There are also two early titles I have yet to lay my hands on:  The Morality of Gentlemen (1984) (discussed by Geordie Williamson for The Australian here) and The Reading Group (1988) which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Prize.  I found The Morality of Gentlemen in reprint and a second-hand copy of The Reading Group at Fishpond and have ordered them both, so I now have those to look forward to…

The release of a new novel is always a very busy time for any author so I was delighted when Lohrey responded to my hesitant request to feature her in Meet an Aussie Author.   Here are her answers to my questions:

1.  I was born in Hobart in 1947.

2.  When I was a child I wrote in weird Victorian prose because I read so many Victorian adventure classics like R M Ballantyne’s Coral Island. To the horror of my teachers I wrote sentences like: ‘He was affrighted not a little.’

3.  The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write is/was – no-one. It was inborn.

4.  I write in my workroom, a former bedroom in my house. I’d like a superior treehouse with central heating but it’s not feasible.

5.  I write mostly between 2 and 5 in the afternoon, but it varies.

6.  Research is not applicable. I don’t like research driven novels – you can smell the library in them.

7.  I keep my published works on a shelf. I tried putting them in boxes in the garage but found I needed to refer to them a surprising number of times and in summer I worry about snakes in the garage.

8.  On the day my first book was published – I have no recollection of this whatsoever. I had a small baby at the time and was very distracted.

9.  At the moment, I’m writing another novel. The disease is incurable.

10.When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I press on and revisit the problem later.

After an academic career teaching politics at the University of Tasmania, and writing and textual studies at the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Queensland, Lohrey now lives in her birthplace, Tasmania.   She is a regular contributor to The Monthly magazine and is a former Senior Fellow of the Literature Board of the Australia Council.   In November 2012 she received the 2012 Patrick White Award for literature, celebrating her impressive body of work.

Lohrey is also a major essayist: I make a point of reading her stuff because it’s always right on the cultural pulse.  Of essays listed at Wikipedia I recall reading those written for The Monthly:Enrolment Daze’ in 2005 and ‘Green Christine’ (about Christine Green, leader of the Australian Greens) in 2008; and for Quarterly Essay she wrote ‘Groundswell, the Rise of the Greens’ (2002) and ‘Voting for Jesus, Christianity and Politics in Australia’ in 2006, a hot topic then though it’s gone somewhat under the radar nowShe also edited the 2014 edition of Best Australian Stories.

I stumbled on  Spiritual Stories, the website that Lohrey co-authors with her husband, when I was searching for a review of The Singing Cure, listed at GoodReads but not at Wikipedia.  I’d never heard of it and wondered why not, because it’s a recent publication (2013) and I pay attention to this author’s work.  From the description of the book I couldn’t tell whether The Singing Cure was fiction or NF: it turns out that it’s about the joy of singing in choirs.  I suspect it’s a republication as a single volume of her essay ‘The Clear Voice Suddenly Singing’ in Secrets.  Perhaps someone can clarify this for me.

To enjoy a taste of Lohrey’s style, visit the Stories page at Spiritual Stories where you can find a couple of recent short stories.

You can buy these titles at Fishpond:

and you can also find some of them at her Black Inc author page.


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Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 12, 2015

Death Fugue, by Sheng Keyi, translated by Shelly Bryant

Death FugueI was delighted to receive a copy of this novel from Giramondo, because I am the first to admit that I haven’t read much contemporary Chinese fiction, and very little of that has been written by women.  Sheng Keyi (b. 1973) came to my attention when Northern Girls (2012) was long-listed for the now defunct Man Asian Literary Prize and I have no doubt that Death Fugue would have been nominated too if the prize were still in place.  (What a loss it is! It was such a good way of discovering Asian writing in all its complex diversity!  If only there were some philanthropist out there who could see his/her way to resurrecting the award!)

Death Fugue is a more complex, more demanding book, (so much so that I read it twice before penning this) but it’s also more rewarding than Northern Girls.  (See my review).  Death Fugue is a sophisticated allegory for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and its aftermath.  Given what we know of the suppression of literary critique in China, I’m surprised this novel hasn’t landed its author in major trouble.  (It’s not published in China, of course, but it is available in Hong Kong and Taiwan).

Because it is so obvious that “The Tower Incident” is a metaphor for the massacre at Tiananmen Square.  The author has set her story in a mythical state called Dayang, and the incident takes place at ‘Round Square’ – a contradiction in terms, yes, which alludes to Tiananmen Square being forever associated with the Chinese State using its liberation army to slaughter its own people in a place named after the Gate of Heavenly Peace.  It’s also the site of the Monument to the People’s Heroes who liberated China.

Giramondo provides a taste of the hostile reception for Death Fugue with the back cover blurb:

Sheng Keyi stands out from the other writers born in the 1970s in that she is so vulgar, so filthy, shallow and shameless.  Her presence ensures that the world will see her generation as incapable of speech and lacking in depth of ideology.

Feng Tang, (a Chinese author not very popular at Goodreads and
whose own latest novel is apparently a tad on the smutty side) 

This nastiness is offset by praise from Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize; Li Jingze, a Chinese literary critic; and the blurb from the Wall Street Journal:

Sheng Keyi is one of China’s upcoming star literary novelists, in part because the most powerful images in her fiction are rooted in reality.

At the end of the book, the character Suitang says that

The past should not be forgotten.  Sometimes art is the only means by which we may find out the truth, and the only tool flexible enough for its communication.  Some may think that freedom of expression depends upon one’s environment, but I want to say to all poets and writers and artists that the environment shouldn’t be the real issue.  The real environment is in your mind.  If you have a flame in your heart you can make any kind of water boil. If you have enough talent you can find the secret path to freedom. (p. 374-5)

What Sheng Keyi has done in this novel is to create a ‘secret path’ to tell the story of the lost generation born in the 1970s, damned by the authorities if they joined the pro-democracy movement; or damned by their own consciences if they didn’t.  Her central character Mengliu didn’t share the same fate as his friends and fellow poets because he was indifferent to the protest and was only caught up in it because he was pursuing his girlfriend Qizi.   He always feels guilty that he had not played the part of a hero at the crucial moment.  (p.205) After he is released from arrest, he abandons his role as a poet to become a surgeon, an occupation that allows him to travel in search of Qizi who – like so many – has disappeared.

The role of the poet is central to this novel, and poetry has a public significance largely lost in the west.  In some ways it reminded me of the role of poetry in The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, (see my review) where Mughal salon poets duelled for social and political supremacy using sophisticated forms to express contemporary issues.  Being obedient citizens under a tyrant’s reign is immoral  says the young man from the Propaganda Unit at Round Square, but Mengliu failed to live up to the expectations people had of him as one of the trio of poets called the Three Musketeers.  Now Mengliu can no longer write poetry because his conscience won’t let him: he has lost his moral authority.  Which is why the corrupt characters of Swan Valley, a metaphor for modern day China, try so hard to get him to write poetry for them.

Reading this novel is a bit of a challenge, not least because the symbolism is unfamiliar.  I puzzled over whether there were hidden meanings behind a boy being described as raccoon-like; flowers, foods and fog; the significance of the number seven;  and the ‘Plum’ Party.  But the novel also shifts backwards and forwards in time and place so that the reader must piece together the truth that Sheng Keyi is satirising, and sometimes things make no sense at all until a few pages later, which means it’s best to read without interruption if you can.  The style is harsh and uncompromising, and there are ventures into speculative fiction which don’t always succeed.  (There is, for example, a supreme spiritual leader who’s a robot, and since I simply could not imagine this, I chose to convince myself that this was a translation glitch in an otherwise competent translation, and that what was really meant was that the character had a robotic manner of speech and behaviour).

Characters are not always what they seem.  At first Mengliu seems like a bit of a loser, with an unattractive habit of relating to women as sex objects.  Like other Chinese authors I’ve read, Sheng Keyi has an ‘earthy’ style, but despite his dubious fantasies Mengliu is impotent with women the way that he is impotent in other aspects of his life.  He finds himself trapped in Swan Valley, a terrible false Utopia where personal liberty is non-existent and genetic purity is enforced in shocking ways reminiscent of China’s One Child policy.

In his naïveté, Mengliu criticises his home country of Dayang.  He deplores the urban/rural divide and occupational discrimination, and he despises the hypocrisy of the pretence that Dayang is an equal society.  The extremes of rich and poor mean unequal access to medical care and the spoils of the economic boom are unevenly shared.  At the same time there is a fear of challenging authority, and torture is used to deter crime.  But Swan Valley for all its beauty and virtue is no paradise: genetic control is achieved through forced reproduction using artificial insemination, while human sexual intercourse is wholly prohibited.  People are selected for their genetic compatibility but it’s all done in the lab and there is a gruesome death penalty for moral crimes such as adultery.  There is forced retirement and segregation at 50 years of age and unwanted babies are dumped in a waste facility for vultures to prey on.  Surveillance is ever-present, and control of thoughts and emotions are reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984.  These are all aspects of life in China that we know about, but the power of Sheng Keyi’s fiction makes them more real and more shocking.

If you are interested in contemporary Chinese fiction, do read Nicholas Jose’s review of Death Fugue.  He discusses the book in the context of other Chinese writing about Tiananmen Square, and is also familiar with Sheng Keyi’s other writing.  There’s also an interesting interview with the author at A Magazine.

Author: Sheng Keyi
Title: Death Fugue
Translated from the Chinese by Shelly Bryant – funded by philanthropist William Chiu through the University of Western Sydney Foundation Trust
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922146625
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo


Fishpond: Death Fugue
Or direct from Giramondo Publishing.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 8, 2015

Hunger Town, by Wendy Scarfe

Hunger TownI wonder how many of my readers have ever had the opportunity to speak to an older Australian about their experience of the Great Depression?  I was a young woman when I heard about teenage boys cycling from Northcote to Black Rock (25km) just to have an orange from their aunt’s tree, and it was the aunt who mentioned it (in the context of something else) because forty years after the event, the middle-aged man maintained a stoic silence about the shame of that poverty.  Knowing the aunt’s hospitality, as I came to do, I soon realised that a decent feed came with the orange too, but this was something she never mentioned.  She was a woman who took twin boys into her home in an unofficial adoption and brought them up as her own because her husband was lucky enough to have secure employment during those terrible years.  When Australians talk today about contemporary hardship, most of them have no idea, no idea at all.

Which is why I would recommend Wendy Scarfe’s new historical novel Hunger Town as a powerful evocation of an era which is soon to lose the last of its witnesses.  Scarfe (born in 1933 and now in her eighties) is a prolific author with a longstanding interest in social justice issues, and she based the book on family recollections and historical events.  And trust me, it is a compelling page-turner; it’s riveting reading.

Hunger Town tells the story of Judith Larsen who grows up on a coal hulk in the port of Adelaide, a city which was the first to feel the effects of the Depression and the hardest-hit.  As a child she witnesses the sight of men so hungry that they swim out in the river to retrieve bread scraps thrown from the hulk to the seagulls.  She sees men pad out their tattered clothing with newspapers to ward off the winter cold.  She’s just a girl when she witnesses horrific violence at a street meeting to protest against bans on free speech.  These experiences and the hardships of her father’s work as a winchman on the wharves predispose her to a life of activism but her friendship with middle-class Winnie shades what could have been a black-and-white polemic.

Judith’s schooling is irregular and when her father’s income is savaged by changes to the way men are hired, she has to leave school to work in the Chew It café.   But, befriended by old Joe Pulham at the Working Men’s Club, she stumbles into one of the libraries that provided an informal education to many working men in that period and she reads her way through Aristotle and Aristophanes until she reaches the letter Z on the shelves.  Crucially it is old Joe who introduces her to the idea of art as social commentary and shows her the work of Goya and the Australian political cartoonist Will Dyson (1880-1938), and providentially, he leaves her his meagre estate, which enables her to go to art school.  There she meets Marie Taylor who teaches her that

‘Artists must assert values and the harder times become the harder we must struggle to do this.’ (p. 156)

Judith’s talent as a satirical cartoonist commenting on the impact of the Depression supports her parents through the toughest times, and she is the breadwinner in her marriage to Harry Grenville.  Her first sale, to the conservative paper Despatch, shows the value of that informal learning:

I had done some additional cartoons, sharpening their meanings with ironic biblical quotations. I had learned from studying Goya’s work that there was a depth in the symbols we all recognised.

I had drawn two cartoons of the soup kitchen: one of Mrs Danley ladling soup into the billycan of a single man while a long queue of others waited and disappeared behind him.  I had given it the caption Give us this day our daily bread.

A second had been prompted by the women’s constant fears that one day they’d have no food to give out because the little shops which usually supported the poor had given so much on tick that now they, too, were going broke.  Soon the little extra they found to help the soup kitchen would cease.

In this cartoon I drew two women speaking to each other while they held a plate with five loaves and two fishes on it.  The people in the queue were turning aside in despair and trudging away.  The caption read: But this is all we have today. (p.145)

Scarfe paints a nuanced narrative of the political ferment that characterised the 1930s.  Judith, the first person narrator, is surrounded by competing solutions to the tragedy of economic depression.  Nathan (who eats at the café) is a committed communist who spouts dry theory falling on deaf ears amongst the Left, who fracture into anarchists who want local control; unionists who want to use industrial muscle to get a fair deal; and the Labour Party which doesn’t want to frighten voters away.  Most women, like Judith’s mother and the charity church-worker Mrs Danley, are in search of practical non-violent solutions to forced evictions and hunger.  But Judith’s idealistic husband Harry is seduced by the claim that Russia under communism offers free dancing lessons if you have talent and he joins the Communist Party, causing tension in the marriage.  Fatefully, he sets off on a ‘fact-finding’ mission to Spain – just as the Spanish Civil War erupts into massacres of anyone with left-leaning politics.  And he disappears…

Hunger Town is a love story; a dissection of marriage between people of differing political persuasions; an homage to lost causes; and an authentic testament to the tenacity and courage of working people in those days.

To learn about the remarkable way this story was written, visit this article by Carol Altman in Bluestone Magazine.

Author: Wendy Scarfe
Title: Hunger Town
Publisher; Wakefield Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781743053362
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press


Fishpond: Hunger Town: A Novel
or direct from Wakefield Press.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2015

Anchor Point, by Alice Robinson

AnchorPoint_Cover-hi-res-2.jpg As you could tell from the Opening Lines of Anchor Point that I posted a day or two ago,  I was thoroughly impressed by this debut novel.  It’s an absorbing, satisfying book that suggests a promising future for Melbourne author Alice Robinson.

What precipitated ten-year-old Laura’s swollen eye in that opening scene was that she had broken a pot created by her mother, an amateur artist.  The drama that ensues has lifelong implications for Laura who ends up becoming mother to her five-year-old sister Vik and a helpmeet for her father, who is a simple but single-minded man, devoted to the hardscrabble land on which he hopes to develop sheep pasture.   She is a mere child when she helps Bruce to clear-fell the land and help with the lambing…

The writing is vivid:

More months passed.  The palms of Laura’s hands, like the surface of the land, were changing.  Blisters rose like pearls of water, breaking, bleeding, running dry. Then the skin hardened – so much so that it started cracking as the weather grew cold.  Blood and then pus marked the fissures in the tissue along the lifeline and along the one for love. The cracks took ages to heal, but she couldn’t very well not use her hands.  Fixing the ute’s engine, covered in grease, head pounding through the fumes, she thought her skin might come right off.  (p.63)

Habits of guilt and self-sacrifice define Laura’s life, compromising her relationship with Luc, the man she meets at Agricultural College, and with her sister.  But she is sustained always by her love of the land, and its pre-eminence:

The house looked long-abandoned, falling into the dry earth.  Paint worn away by weather. Verandah sagging. Foundations shifted like rheumatic joints, as though it hurt the wooden skeleton to stay still.  Lopsided, the house gave the impression that after sliding into disrepair for years, soon it would slip all the way into dust. With only so many hours in the day, so many pairs of hands, Bruce had concentrated on the animals, the land. Laura understood.  She would have done the same.  (p.168)

Over the decades between 1984 and the near future in 2018, the novel traverses Laura’s childhood and adolescence on the farm; her sojourn in Sydney as a student and manager of a plant nursery;  and her father’s decline and her return to the land.  As time passes the cruel reality of Australia’s drying climate becomes a powerful undercurrent and while Laura is forced to acknowledge that Luc’s environmental activism has achieved very little, it influences her new vision for the land she had so laboriously cleared with her father.

Though she didn’t fully ascribe to all the radical things Luc thought, and fought for, she had spent enough time in the last decade at rallies and talking in bars to know that there were better ways of doing things at the farm, ways that would cost less and last longer.  Ways that would protect the place.  Not harm it.  The old Bruce would have resisted such changes; they just weren’t the way things were done.  Laura felt a stab of remorse at that.  More guilt.  But she wasn’t entirely the same daughter who had left all those years before.  She couldn’t erase what she knew.

If the work was hers to do, surely that gave her some right to choose how it should be done. (p. 174)

What Laura wants to do is to replant, and to rehabilitate the land.  But Luc is always going to be at home in the city, not in the bush…

The apocalyptic conclusion in Anchor Point places the novel in the new genre of ‘cli-fi’ – fiction about the impact of climate change and global warming, but it’s not a proselyting novel, and the cli-fi theme has equal weight with themes of secrets and lies; hope and disillusionment; resilience and recovery.  The prose resonates with an intimate knowledge of the landscape, and the characters are authentic.  And I really liked the way Robinson subverted my expectations about a couple of plot points and resolved them without sentiment.

Highly recommended.

Update: you can read an extended interview with the author here.

Author: Alice Robinson
Title: Anchor Point
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781922213617
Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press


Fishpond: Anchor Point
or direct from Affirm Press.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2015

Opening Lines: Anchor Point, by Alice Robinson

AnchorPoint_Cover hi res (2)Kath stayed in the studio through dinner.  Laura forked up meat and potatoes for the rest of them, a bag of frozen peas pressed to her eye.  When Kath eventually slunk in, tiptoeing, red-eyed, smelling of smoke, Laura thought how loud a person sounds when they are trying to be quiet.  She shared a glance with her father across the couch.

‘Mutti?’ little Vik called from the bedroom where she was meant to be asleep.

Laura grit her teeth against the yearning in her sister’s voice, a pinch deep in her chest. But she was beyond expecting Kath to respond. She could hear her mother filling up the kettle, opening the fridge and riffling through.  Vik started to cry.  She was only just five.

Anchor Point, by Alice Robinson, Affirm Press, 2015, p3

It’s an arresting beginning, eh?  And it gets better.  Anchor Point is an example of ‘cli-fi’, fiction which addresses the issue of climate change.

More later, when I’ve finished reading.

Update: see my review here.

You can get a copy from Fishpond: Anchor Point or direct from Affirm Press.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2015

A Short History of Richard Kline, by Amanda Lohrey

A short History of Richard KlineAmanda Lohrey is a distinguished writer who hasn’t had as much attention as she deserves, which is perhaps one of the reasons she was awarded the Patrick White award in 2012.  (The award, set up by White using the proceeds of his Nobel Prize, is a cash award for a writer who has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition. )  I have previously reviewed her short story collection Reading Madame Bovary and her stunning novella Vertigo but a new novel has been a long time coming … her last one was The Philosopher’s Doll in 2004, longlisted in the Miles Franklin in 2005.

A Short History of Richard Kline is an ambitious exploration of discontent.  Written from the male perspective (alternating between first and third person), the novel traces Kline’s ‘history’ from adolescence through to middle age, focussing on his perennial angst.  In childhood his family is baffled by his moods, and he himself is at a loss to explain why he fails to enjoy the good times or to take joy in the moment as others do. 

Despite these moods, Richard is an outwardly successful person.  He has no difficulty finding work as an IT professional and he does some rewarding international travel until it suits him to come back to Australia.  He progresses from a succession of girlfriends to a nice wife called Zoe; and he loves his son, Luke.  They have a social life with friends and colleagues, and while their home life has some ups-and-downs, their relationship seems steady enough.  Like any other everyman, he also experiences some tragedy (as when his brother dies), but he has sufficient resilience to cope with it.

Reading this, one may well be thinking, well, what’s his problem?  It’s basically that he can’t understand why he gets bored in situations where other people are clearly exhilarated, and he is bothered by his inability to find meaning in life. 

A self-confessed sceptic, he is indifferent to the religion he was brought up in (Catholicism), and so he seeks answers in conventional medicine, trying treatment for depression and using meditation to stave off irrational bursts of ill-temper.  But nothing really works.  He’s not depressed, he’s just not really happy.  (And he expects to be, he thinks everyone else is and that there’s something wrong with himself.  Even if the reader doesn’t accept his belief that ‘happiness’, is normal, almost an entitlement, this is the premise in the novel.)

Up to this point, I was enjoying the story, because Richard is an interesting character, but I wavered when he discovers a guru.  He, um… feels a presence… and he, um… experiences some kind of spiritual blessing when he touches foreheads with her.  Now if you believe that there is a spiritual dimension to life and that there are special people who have some kind of spiritual presence, you will keep reading with enthusiasm.  You will respect his euphoria and his attempts to retain this spiritual element in his life.  If like me you regard all this as some kind of mumbo-jumbo, you are going to have to look for other reasons to keep reading.

For me, the reason to keep reading was the fascination with Lohrey’s way of juxtaposing Richard’s compulsion to solve his problem through the intercession of the guru with his common sense scepticism.

When at least I cruised into the fluorescent cavern of my garage I felt in my pocket for the small photo I had carried away with me, bought from the bookstall at the side of the hall earlier in the evening.  This was one of the few discordant moments of the night: the many images of her face for sale as if she were some kind of pop star. It reminded me of the dismal church iconography of my childhood, of all I had come to abhor. For a time I had gazed at the various shapes and sizes before I purchased the smallest photograph I could find, smaller than a postage stamp and clumsily encased in Perspex, handmade but tacky in the Indian way.  Perhaps, I thought, I could sit it discreetly in the top drawer of my desk.  (p. 150)

Richard is, to some extent, embarrassed about this new spiritual element in his identity.  He reads arguments for and against it, arguing about it sometimes, and remaining discreet about it at other times.  Lohrey doesn’t really explore how the wife, Zoe feels about it, nor the son (a character whose response might have been especially interesting to develop). Richard goes through moments of disillusion, elation, loneliness and despair, and he’s handicapped in his quest to find someone to understand him by his rather judgemental ideas about his fellow-devotees.  I couldn’t help but feel rather sorry for him, and wasn’t really convinced that he’d found happiness at all.  I was also rather puzzled by the ending…

Although this kind of quasi-religious experience is not my thing, I think Lohrey has made an interesting novel of this theme, depicting the ambivalence that a cynical forty-something might feel when an epiphany changes his world view.    I suspect that open-minded and respectful book groups might really enjoy this book (and there are book club notes at Black Inc.)  

See also this review at Arts Hub.

Author: Amanda Lohrey
Title: A Short History of Richard Kline
Publisher: Black Inc., 2015
ISBN: 9781863957182
Review copy courtesy of Black Inc. 

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