Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2015

The Profilist, by Adrian Mitchell

The ProfilistThere’s a certain synchronicity about finishing this book today, the very day on which I attended the History Writers’ Festival at Readers’ Feast, where one of the topics under discussion was the issue of historical truth.  Because this novel, The Profilist, is a splendid example of playing with the historical truth to tell a riveting story, the story of our fledgling nation, through the observant eyes of an artist.  This novel brings history alive…

Samuel Thomas Gill was a real-life English artist who migrated to Australia in 1839 with his parents and siblings, and you can read all about him at the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online.   You can also see dozens of his goldfields landscapes if you do an image search using his name.  What Adrian Mitchell has so cleverly done is to imagine the voice of a character called Ethan Dibble who’s a man ‘very like’ Samuel Gill.  He travels to the same places, he paints the same scenes, he suffers very similar setbacks in his life, and he dies the same undignified death on the steps of the Melbourne Post Office.  But where the real Samuel Gill’s legacy comprises wonderful sketches, lithographs and watercolours of life in the new Australian colonies, the imaginary Ethan Dibble’s droll observations form a journal that is a delight to read, each chapter introduced by a relevant painting from Gill’s oeuvre.

Here is he is, writing about the races in Adelaide:

And most of the crowd, in between the actual races, circulates about the refreshment booths and the dancing pavilions. This race meeting is after all held in the New Year heat, with the sun not only brilliant but relentless; and truth to say there is more time between the races than in the actual racing. In fact it might be more accurate to say that the taking of refreshments throughout the afternoon, when the day has arrived at its highest temperature, is the primary activity, punctuated by a race or two.  the Nobs of course has their drinks brought to them by waiters, a different sort of steward.

Mr Fisher, a leader in all matters to do with horse racing, is much in evidence on occasions like this.  He is no longer the mayor.  Governor Grey has scuttled Adelaide’s brief experiment with local authority.  He could see how well Mr Fisher enjoyed the status and was not going to encourage an old Company hand.   You can imagine Mr Fisher is not well pleased with Government House. But that does not inhibit him from dressing up to the nines.  As so there they all are, up in the box seat, and it is like the old days, with the Government party all in a coterie, and the Company loyalists all somewhat askance, and yet to look at them you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between them.  The Nobs and the Snobs, two sides of the same golden guinea. (p. 78)

While in South Australia Dibble – like the real Samuel Gill – travels into the Flinders Ranges with the explorer Mr H (John Horrocks) and a camel called Goliath, and similarly he witnesses Horrocks accidentally shoot himself.  While they wait for help he has nothing to do but look about him, and he begins his discovery of the Australian landscape.  A place of dancing mirages, those shadows of silhouettes.  And the Australian light fascinates him: a strange feature out there, of light consuming itself.  And more than that:

Here the world was all before us.  It was all endless horizon, fully around us in every direction.  As far as I recall, you get no such horizon in England, no horizon at all.  You are always enclosed by a valley, or a forest, or a fold of hills or something  That makes for a limited field of vision, comfortable for us to strut our brief hour in, no doubt. Out in the Australian inland – an apt incongruity of expression – the world is a very much larger space, so big as to pay no attention to us at all… (p.104)

Fate didn’t favour either the fictional Dibble or his real-life counterpart, and both made a prudent exit to the Victorian goldfields.  Dibble’s distinctive voice records the chaotic scenes in Melbourne, the drudgery of the trip to the goldfields, the diversity of the canvas towns, the success and the failures of the diggers, and their battles over licence fees culminating in the Eureka Stockade.  His folio of pictures brings success, so much so that a fraudster named Flock takes advantage of him and appropriates some of his work.  His sorrows are alleviated somewhat by falling for a woman called Elizabeth… and to preserve their reputations, since they are ‘handfasted’ rather than legally wed, it seems prudent to do a bunk to Sydney.

But that doesn’t work out either, and Dibble returns to Melbourne, only to find that Marvellous Melbourne isn’t interested in the goldfields any more, even though the gold is the source of its wealth.

Adrian Mitchell is the author-historian of three works of non-fiction, two of them reviewed on this blog, but in this novel he has made a smooth transition to fiction.  In tracing Dibble’s decline into drink, sickness and poverty, he has maintained the self-deprecating humour of his character, without a trace of maudlin or melancholy.  As we read on we become aware of Dibble’s inevitable fate, but his final days are marked by the friendship of a good-hearted sculptor called George which ameliorates the tragedy somewhat.

Oh dear, I hope I haven’t given the wrong impression.  Despite Dibble’s travails, this is not a sad book, far from it.   The Profilist is a sparkling, witty novel, telling a history we all know (or jolly well should know!) and peopled with a parade of historical figures ranging from Marcus Clarke to Ned Kelly and Sir Redmond Barry.  Dibble is an incurable optimist, with a knack for observing foibles and folly as well as the progress of the colonies towards wealth and stability.

Like an old wheelbarrow Fortune’s squeaky wheel trundles on, if you give it a big enough heave.  But it proceeds as if under protest.

The colony has been plodding at a lumbering pace, and yet at every turn its luck builds.  the difficult years have been followed by a succession of bumper crops, and now the farmers strut about the streets like so many turkey cocks.  They ram their beefy fists into their pockets and glare triumphantly at the passing throng, and jingle their coins. Their waistcoats strain across their bellies, their flat straw hats are tilted back.  They have become wealthy men in just a few years.  The common joke is that wheat is growing out of their ears, though what I observe in fact is a sport of vigorous wiry hairs in the same locality.  (p. 111)

It’s a delightful book.  Sasha Grishin at the SMH enjoyed it too.

Author: Adrian Mitchell
Title: The Profilist
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781743053454
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press


Fishpond: The Profilist: A Novel
Or direct from Wakefield Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 18, 2015

2015 History Writers’ Festival

I’m just back home from a great day at the History Writers’ Festival held at Readers’ Feast.

I attended two sessions:

Stories of War, History in Fiction, in which authors Steven Carroll and Robert Gott discussed with chair Angela Savage, the thorny issue of how much responsibility an author of historical fiction has to maintain historical veracity, and how much freedom is there to invent.  Both authors agreed that the facts ought to be right, but, well, sometimes they’re inconvenient.  Steven Carroll said, for instance that in writing The Gift of Speed it was important to be accurate about the cricket matches that frame the story, but that when he wrote The Art of the Engine Driver he needed a dramatic event for his conclusion and ‘the ‘Spirit of Progress’ never was involved in a major accident so he had to make one up.  Robert Gott, who writes crime novels set in the 40s, has found that his book’s retelling of an urban myth to reflect the truth of events upset some readers who would rather believe in the myth.   Sometimes also, the significance of an event is falsified, making it more important than it was at the time, as it is in one of Gott’s books which magnifies the importance of a fringe far-group during WW2 far beyond its real significance at the time.  This was a really interesting session, and it reminded me that I have Steven Carroll’s book A World of Other People on my TBR and I ought not to be denying myself the pleasure of reading it.

The other session Enduring Legacies, was chaired by Julianne Schultz, editor of The Griffith Review with guests Clare Wright, Ross McMullin and Jenny Hocking, all distinguished authors in their own right as well as contributors to the latest edition, Enduring Legacies.   This session sent me straight to the Readers’ Feast shelves afterwards: I would have bought all four books except that I already had Clare Wright’s Forgotten Rebels of Eureka anyway. (See my review). I bought McMullin’s Farewell Dear People; Hocking’s Gough Whitlam, His Time (Vol 2 of the Whitlam biography, I already had Vol 1); and of course the Griffith Review too, which I started reading on the train home.  I liked this session because I like a good stoush (as long as it’s intellectually rigorous).  The discussion began with the interesting proposition that ‘acts of national forgetfulness are an act of national aggression’, by which Clare Wright meant that forgetfulness is not necessarily benign.   While we are awash with Anzac remembrances at the moment, we are not hearing about the 100,000 people who marched in the streets against the war, and there is a collective hush about the two conscription referenda that divided the nation.  Ross McMullin mounted a persuasive argument that that when we buy the argument that Gallipoli made Australia a nation, we are wilfully choosing to forget that Australia had an impressive international reputation as a progressive nation before WW1.   Jenny Hocking reminded us that Whitlam’s progressive policies were profoundly influenced by his war service in the Pacific, shaping his geopolitical focus and his commitment to international bodies like the UN.   Not everyone in the audience agreed, which made it good fun…

There are other beaut sessions tomorrow so if you are in Melbourne, check out the festival website or call Readers’Feast on 9662 4699!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2015

The Strays, by Emily Bitto

The Strays

It was Glen Hunting who brought my attention to Emily Bitto’s debut novel when we were commenting on the Miles Franklin longlist, and so I owe my discovery of this terrific book to him – thank you, Glen!

I love books involving art and artists, but this one has a slightly different twist to it.  In fact, it reminded me a little of Gillian Slovo’s memoir of her parents’ role in the apartheid struggle in Every Secret Thing (1997).  Slovo’s mother was the activist Ruth First who was assassinated by the South African security forces; her father was Joe Slovo who was imprisoned and then lived in exile until negotiations began to end the apartheid era. Gillian Slovo grew up knowing always that she and her siblings came second to political commitment.  In Bitto’s novel, the children of avant-garde painter Evan Trentham and his bohemian wife Helena, always come second to art…

Is there a difference between being an idealist serving a noble cause at the expense of your children, and being a bohemian doing the same thing in the service of art?  Perhaps not to the children… but that’s a question for book groups to argue about, eh?

Set in the Depression years and afterwards, the story is narrated by Lily, the observant, sensitive young friend of Eva, the middle child of Evan and Helena.  Lily is captivated by the exotic elements of Eva’s home life: the freedom; the absence of routines; and the careless attitude to school and homework and rules.  She compares the casual makeshift elegance and easy-going atmosphere of the Trenthan home with the placid conservatism of her less wealthy parents, and finds them wanting.  She achieves her dream when difficult circumstances at home allow her to move in and live with the Trenthams for a while, and she believes that she is part of their world, the emerging world of modernist art in Australia.

It’s impossible not to associate The Strays with the real-life history of Sunday and John Reed at Heide.  The Reeds were great patrons of the modernist art movement in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and personal and professional relationships amongst the Heide Circle were notable for being unorthodox.  The main characters in The Strays play a similar role as patrons and advocates for modernism, and their home on what was then the outskirts of Melbourne sounds a lot like Heidi in ambience.  Bitto writes with great skill about the artworks and their significance but she has also been careful to rein in the flamboyance of Evan and Helena so that they remain authentic:

‘Having you all around, ‘ Evan gestured to Ugo, Jerome and Maria, ‘has filled me with a very uncharacteristic sense of community.

‘I’m glad,’ said Maria.

‘Helena’s noticed a change in me, haven’t you, my love?’

Helena nodded.  ‘Much less grumpy.’

‘Can’t say I’ve noticed that,’ said Bea.  Helena shot her a look.

‘Hush, progeny,’ said Evan.  He clinked his glass again.  ‘Order, order.’

‘Just get to the point, Evan,’ said Helena.

Patrick and Vera were exchanging perplexed glances.

‘Yes, alright.’ Evan gulped his wine. ‘Helena and I see an opportunity.  To squander her family fortune.  To take advantage of what we have here.  This house.  This refuge from the tyrannies of the world. Nothing would please me more than to share this refuge with like-minded compatriots.  Why should I be the only b—– to be allowed the luxury to absent myself from my civic duty, from interaction with the frankly asinine majority, to closet myself away and not give a bandicoot’s a— about what anyone else thinks or does or claims I should be thinking or doing, especially of the petty… f——petty concerns of the art market.  As you know, I’m far from a capitalist, but I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed reaping the benefits of capitalism. And one of the benefits, and I’m not unaware of the irony of the situation, is getting away from the capitalists.  The b——- who try to tell me my labour’s not worth anything in the exchange market unless I’m producing something like cars or shoes or cheese -‘

‘Oh god, Evan,’ Helena cut in.  ‘You’re ranting.’

Evan eyed her with irritation. ‘In short, then, my darling…’.  He sat up straighter in his chair and cleared his throat.  ‘Helena and I would like to invite you all to come and live with us here.  We’d love to take in a few more strays, and we invite you all to quit your jobs and join our commune. Work and live side by side.  So we can all thumb our noses at the rest of the world.’  (p. 88)

Now while I’m not entirely convinced that middle-class men of the 30s, bohemian though they be, used in front of women and children the kind of language that I have obscured above (in the interests of this being a family friendly blog used also by students at secondary schools) –  I like the way this dialogue is structured, to undercut the pomposity of Evans without losing his sincerity.  That’s skilful writing, IMO.

Lily, observing all this, is excited because it offers the prospect of a place there for her too, but she is not to know then the price that the children paid for this unorthodox household.  She does observe, however, that the littlest one, Heloise, is almost always in untended tears, and that housekeeping is a secondary concern.  The Trenthams are not short of money, but their children are often hungry because no one has remembered to shop or cook for them.  Indeed they seem so often to forget that they have progeny at all, that the children have to shift for themselves.  Houseguest Lily sleeps on the floor, without enough bedding to keep her warm.    There is a grubbiness about the house and a lack of organisation, and although Lily has come to despise her mother’s preoccupation with order and routine, she still has the occasional doubt.

As does the reader when one of the artists wants the children to pose for him.

The doubts grow greater when one of the young artists finds the nubile daughters ‘interesting’.  Artistic ambition is a complex issue and it’s not always easy to be clear about when moral boundaries have been crossed.  Artistic rivalry rears its head too, and loyalties are tested when the protégé outstrips the patron.

The Strays is an exceptionally good debut novel which deserves its nomination in the Dobbie Awards.  I’m glad I’m not on the judging panel because I’d be hard pressed to choose between this one and Christine Piper’s After Darkness.  (I haven’t read the other two, Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke and Sideshow by Nicole Smith.  No doubt they would make choosing even more difficult).

Author: Emily Bitto
Title: The Strays
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781922213211
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond: The Strays

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 15, 2015

Meet an Aussie Author: Wendy Scarfe

Scarfe, Wendy

It’s barely a month since I finished reading Wendy Scarfe’s terrific novel Hunger Town and here we are with the news that the book has been long-listed for the $30,000 Kibble Award – and in eminent company too! (See my post about the 2015 longlist here).

Hunger Town was the first book I had read by this prolific author, and I was curious to learn more about her.   I dashed off an email to Wakefield Press (who were very excited about the longlisting as well) asking if Wendy could be persuaded to participate in Meet an Aussie Author – and here she is!

1.  I was born at Henley Beach in Adelaide. My father’s family were all South Australian but I grew up in Melbourne, went to school there and to Melbourne University.

2.  When I was a child I wrote poetry, mostly about nature.

3.  The persons who encouraged me to write were my parents, the author Eric Lambert and my husband. I was inspired by the American writers of the 1930s-40s who tackled the great social issues –Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck. I learned my writing skills from the classics.

4.  I write in a spare bedroom with a desk and a the view from the window of the river estuary and the sea. In the past when our 4 children were home I wrote on the kitchen table.

5.  I write in the mornings when I’m fresh and do more boring things like housework when I’m tired. I rarely try to write at night but when ideas come to me I get up and write them down because I’ll have forgotten them by the morning.

6.  Research is essential. I do a great deal but in writing a novel I always integrate the research into the text so it doesn’t seem to be stuck on.

7.  I keep my published work in a separate bookcase in the lounge room.

8.  On the day my first book was published in 1967, my husband and I shared our excitement at our joint publication. It came from London, was entitled A Mouthful of Petals, and concurrently had a lengthy AGE review by Nancy Cato: ‘Hungry Children eat Flowers’.

9.  At the moment I’m relaxing from the past five years of work on my new novel Hunger Town.

10. When I’m stuck for an idea I go for a walk or a swim. When I’m stuck for a word I use my Thesaurus. Initially I write the manuscript by hand in biro in exercise books. On the page opposite my writing I have a collection of synonyms and brief reminders of ideas. I regard computers as a necessary evil.

Wendy has a large body of work in her own right, but she also has co-written a number of books with her husband, Allen Scarfe.  Her work includes:


  • Shadow and Flowers


  • The Lotus Throne
  • Laura, My Alter Ego
  • The Day They Shot Edward
  • Miranda
  • Fishing For Strawberries
  • Jerusha Braddon Painter
  • An Original Talent
  • Hunger Town (see my review)

Non-fiction, with Allan Scarfe

  • A Mouthful of Petals: the story of an Indian village
  • Tiger on a Rein: Report on the Bihar famine
  • JP His Biography
  • All That Grief: Migrant recollections of Greek resistance to fascism 1941-9
  • Taste for Carnage: Alex Sheppard, a portrait 1913-97

And there are more, as you can see at Wikipedia!

Wendy’s career has been built around teaching and writing, but she has also brought up a family of four children.  She has lived in England and India (where she and Allan ran an experimental rural school), and when she retired from teaching she completed a B.Litt. in Classical and Near Eastern Studies.  What an amazing life of achievement, eh?

Find out more about Wendy and Allan at their website.

Buy her book at Fishpond: Hunger Town: A Novel
or direct from Wakefield Press
and good bookstores everywhere.

L'Assommoir L’Assommoir, variously translated as The Dram Shop, The Gin Palace, Drunk and Drunkard is said to be Zola’s masterpiece.  Well, I haven’t read all of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, this is no. 13 in the recommended reading order so I have seven left to enjoy, but I can certainly attest to the brilliance of this one…

L’Assommoir is overwhelming.  Like the very best of Dickens, it tells the story of an underclass with respect and compassion and it leaves its readers emotionally bereft.  Its central character Gervaise begins the novel with such hope, and she rises to make a success of her humble life, only to stumble on a downward trajectory that can have no other resolution than degradation.  Oxford Worlds’ Classics have compounded the melancholy with a superb portrait by Edgar Degas on the front cover.  This image becomes quite haunting as you read…

The Rougon-Maquart novels are not a family saga, but Gervaise’s place in the family of Antoine Maquart serves to emphasise her tragedy.  Her sister Lisa lives barely a mile away, confidently running a charcuterie and living a bourgeois lifestyle.  But she might as well be on the other side of the planet: Gervaise’s life is a world away and their paths never cross.  Would Lisa have rescued Gervaise if she knew about her circumstances?  If you’ve read The Belly of Paris you know the answer to that question.


The fatal mistakes Gervaise makes begin early: she’s only fourteen when she has her first child by her feckless lover Lantier, and when they run away to Paris together in hope of a better life, he spends his way through a small inheritance and then abandons her and the two young boys.  It is typical of his moral cowardice that he leaves it to the older boy, Claude, to bring her the room key that signals his departure, that she is hard at work in the laundry when she finds out in this humiliating way, and that he had insisted that very morning that she pawn her shawl and her chemises, money which he has now used for his new adventure.  To compound Gervaise’s misery, he has dumped her for Adèle, sister of Virginie, one of the other washerwomen, and a degrading cat-fight ensues over this worthless man.  But as the novel progresses, Zola uses both Virginie and Lantier to show Gervaise’s fatal apathy when she lets them both back into her life later on.

Zola’s characters are all marked by his view that human destiny is formed by heredity, environment and their place in time.  Gervaise’s fatal flaw is her easy-going nature: she likes to please others and it’s easier to go along with the milieu that surrounds her.

Her only weakness … was being very soft-hearted, liking everybody, getting desperately fond of people who then put her through endless misery.  So, when she loved a man, she wasn’t interested in all that nonsense, what she dreamt of was simply living together happily ever after. (p. 38)

Her dreams are not ambitious; what she wants is

to be able to get on with her work, always have something to eat and a half-decent place to sleep, bring up her children properly, not to be beaten, and die in her own bed. (p.421)

If only.  Consigned to the seedy parts of Paris at the time when Haussmanisation was impacting on working-class communities and industrialisation was replacing artisanship, Gervaise supports her boys as a washerwoman and eventually – not without some reluctance – marries Coupeau, a teetotaller with a steady job as a roofer.  Despite their good intentions they get into debt with the cost of their marriage because of their desire to put on a good show for their friends, but with hard work, a prudent lifestyle and offloading the older boy to an apprenticeship in Plassans, they recover financially,  and begin saving towards Gervaise’s dream of running her own laundry.  But destiny steps in when Coupeau has a fall from a roof and can’t work for a very long time.  This has two fatal effects: Coupeau gets used to idleness and Gervaise has to use all her savings to support the family (which has now grown to include their daughter Nana).

One of Gervaise’s friends is the gentle giant, Goujet, a blacksmth.  He loves Gervaise with a quiet passion, and he and his mother offer a loan that enables Gervaise to fulfil her dream.  She moves her family out of their dingy rooms to a place of warmth and light, where she sets up her laundry to general acclaim.  Industrious and careful, she is excellent at her work and everybody except her jealous in-laws admires her.

But Zola has structured the novel so that this success is the high point of Gervaise’s life, and portents of her future are already there.  Coupeau fills his idle hours by boozing with his layabout friends, and lovely little Nana who might have been a support to her mother later in life, is running wild.  The friends who admire and like Gervaise are also only too ready to listen to malicious gossip about her from her sister-in-law Madame Lorilleaux, and they’re also only too ready to encourage a lavish lifestyle that Gervaise can’t really afford because she has a loan to pay back to the Goujets.

It is heartbreaking to read about the downfall of this wonderful character.   I suspect that it’s impossible to read L’Assommoir without becoming very fond of Gervaise.  But apparently, (according to the introduction by Robert Lethbridge), Zola’s novel didn’t please anybody.  Although it was a contemporary bestseller, conservatives didn’t like its dangerous socialist message and thought it proved that the working-class wasn’t fit to vote, and progressives were angry that it showed the underclass as feckless and irresponsible.  But when we read it today we can see that Zola has rightly depicted some fundamental truths: that the underclass has the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their children as anyone else, but that their precarious finances make them vulnerable to life events which can plunge them into disaster from which there can be no return.  Zola could not have written this novel the way he did, had there been a safety net to tide the family over Coupeau’s injury, and workers’ compensation for his inability to get back to work.

But there was no safety net, and Gervaise (like everyone else) likes the Good Life, and it’s just too easy to let loan payments slide and to spend more than she’s got on a splendid celebration of her name day.  And it’s on that fateful day, depicted in a magnificent set piece by Zola, that Lantier slithers back into her life.  Coupeau, who’s a bit pickled, goes outside to tell Lantier to stop hanging about and upsetting Gervaise, but he ends up bringing him inside to join the feast.  This is partly because Coupeau is a terrible judge of character at the best of times, and partly because Lantier is a master salesman of his tawdry product, that is, himself.  It doesn’t take long for him to ingratiate himself so thoroughly that he moves in, starts interfering in the laundry and bossing about the family, and takes turns with Coupeau to beat Gervaise whenever the mood takes them.   Not only that, but Lantier also sabotages Coupeau’s unenthusiastic efforts to get back to work …

Needless to say, you can’t go on sprees and work as well. So, after Lantier joined the household, Coupeau, who already hardly raised a finger, got so that he didn’t so much as touch his tools. When, fed up with not earning, he did find himself a job, his mate would track him down at work and tease him mercilessly on seeing him hanging from a knotted rope like a ham that was being smoked; he’d shout to him to come down and have a quick one.  That settled it, the roofer would walk off the job and start a binge that went on for days, for weeks. First rate, those binges were a general inspection of all the bars in the neighbourhood, the morning’s boozing slept off at lunchtime and resurrected in the evening; round after round of rotgut stretching into the night like Chinese lanterns at a party, until the last candle and the last glass were consumed. (p. 257)

Squalor descends and at first Gervaise does little but shrug her shoulders in resignation.  She didn’t run after her man; indeed if she caught sight of him in a bar she’d go the long way round so as not to make him angry.  (p.266) But the time comes when she thinks she may as well join the men in a drink, and then – despite her kind heart and good intentions – it’s all downhill from there.  Lantier is after her, and after her business, and everything he does conspires to bring Gervaise down so that he and Virginie can have their revenge.

All the characters, one way or another, symbolise the values in conflict: industriousness, diligence, cleanliness and self-control versus idleness, laziness, filth and self-indulgence.  But the one who prefigures Gervaise’s own sordid downfall is an innocent.  Lalie Bijard, the child who becomes mother to the other small children after her alcoholic father beats his wife to death, does not – unlike Gervaise – have any choices at all.  Her final moments are classic 19th century sentimentality, but no less powerful for that:

Gervaise, meanwhile, was trying her best not to burst into tears. She reached out with her hands, wanting to comfort Lalie, and as the ragged sheet was slipping off she pulled it right down, intending to remake the bed. The poor little body of the dying child was thus exposed. Lord Jesus, what a heart-rending, pitiable sight!  The stones themselves would have wept.  Lalie was quite naked, with only the remnants of a bodice round her shoulders to serve as a nightgown; yes, quite naked, the nakedness of a martyr, bleeding and tortured.  There was no longer any flesh on her, her bones poked through her skin.  From her ribs to her thighs thin purple weals reached down, where the whip’s bite had left its vivid imprint.  A blue-black bruise circled her left arm, as if the jaws of a vice had crushed this delicate limb, no thicker than a matchstick.  On her right leg, there was a gash that hadn’t healed, some nasty wound that must have reopened each morning as she hurried round doing her chores.  She was nothing but a bruise from head to toe.  Oh what butchery of childhood – that dear little chick crushed under a man’s heavy foot; what infamy –  that feeblest of creatures dying under the burden of such a cross! People in churches venerate martyred virgins whose naked flesh is not so pure.  Gervaise had crouched down again, forgetting to pull up the sheet, overcome by the sight of this pitiful nothing, lying there sunk into the bed, as with trembling lips, she tried to say a prayer.

‘Please, Madame Coupeau…’ whispered the child.

In her great modesty, and full of shame for her father’s sake, she was trying to pull up the sheet with her short little arms.  Bijard stood there stupidly, staring at the corpse he was responsible for, and rolling his head about slowly like an animal that’s bothered by something.  (p. 401)

It’s not possible to read this without thinking of today’s little children brutalised by their own parents: Chloe Valentine, Daniel Valerio and the anonymous ones still suffering unchecked abuse.  Alcohol used to excess, and now the use of illicit drugs too, still combine with community indifference to allow these things to happen.  Gervaise, notwithstanding her tears and prayers, leaves the surviving small children to their fate.  Zola shocked his readers with L’Assommoir and it seems tragic that in the 21st century we still rely on shocking media stories to force action in this area of need.  (If you have time, do read ‘Child abuse and the media’ by Chris Goddard and Bernadette J. Saunders (2001) on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website – it makes it clear that it is media coverage prompting public outrage that gets action on family violence).

Given its sordid subject-matter, why is L’Assommoir the favourite Zola novel of so many?  I think it’s because of the brilliant way this novel is structured to make the reader care about the central, lovable character of Gervaise.  The novel’s realism captures the environment in which this humble woman rises to success and then stumbles into tragedy.  Instead of judgemental moralising, Zola depicts the pathos of her fall with careful observations that show her helplessness to save herself or anybody else.

Well, what next, to surpass this masterpiece of Zola’s? It’s L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece), the story of Gervaise’s son Claude, the struggling artist in Paris.  I’m going to love that one, I’m sure, because I always enjoys novels about artists.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop)
Translated from the French by Margaret Mauldon
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press) (Oxford World’s Classics series), 2009
ISBN: 9780199538683
Review copy courtesy of OUP.


Do yourself a favour: do not read the freebie editions that you can download: Zola used 19th century vulgar colloquial slang for much of the dialogue, which will either be sanitised or excised from the freebies, or incomprehensible if you try to read the original in French.  This title is notorious for being very difficult to translate for contemporary readers. I recommend this translation by Margaret Mauldon (which also has a comprehensive introduction about all kinds of aspects that I haven’t covered here i.e. the politics of the era and the symbolism), but the OUP edition is (of course) the only one I’ve read. However, whatever you choose, make sure that it is a recent translation, uncensored and with annotations that explain the geography of the novel; the significance of the ribald songs and slang; and the cunning way that Zola made allusions to politics in ways that evaded trouble at a time when there was savage repression of any political critique.

Fishpond: L’Assommoir (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at The Books of Emile Zola, where you can also find a plot summary if so minded.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 13, 2015

A Descant for Gossips, by Thea Astley

A Descant for GossipsThe title page of my battered 1983 copy of A Descant for Gossips tells me that it was formerly the property of schoolgirls Emma from 10NR and Marianne from 10MM – whose teachers presumably chose it as a set text because the novel shows the brutal power of teenage bullying.  But while I ached with compassion for poor, plain, lonely 14-year old Vinny, it was her teacher Helen Striebel who stole my heart, and it was her sad resignation to the power of small-town gossip that resonates with me still.

When kids bully, or they stand by as a supportive audience for the bully, they do it without really knowing the consequences.  How can they, with their limited experience of life and immature capacities for empathy?   It is up to the family and the school to teach young people about those potentially tragic consequences, and in the adolescent absence of maturity or concern for others, it’s the adults’ responsibility to monitor behaviour and provide swift, effective responses whenever bullying takes place.

But adults purveying gossip as they masquerade behind self-righteousness know full well what they are doing, and they delight in it anyway.  When Thea Astley (1925-2004) wrote this marvellous book way back in 1960, she would not have dreamed of today’s sordid celebrity culture and its spiteful gossip, justified by its readers as harmless fun because they think its victims are rich, offstage, and ‘asked for it’ anyway by becoming famous.  What Astley did know, and has depicted in her trademark incisive style in A Descant for Gossips, is the viciousness of small-town gossip.  It is a searing experience, reading this book, but if I had my way, it would be a set text for adults everywhere.

(Fortunately, UQP is reissuing A Descant for Gossips which has been out of print for ages, so it’s going to be much easier for me to implement my decree if ever I get to run the country for five minutes or so.)

The kind of country town where the story takes place is as recognisable now as it was in the sixties:

Cruciform, the two main streets had as their pivotal point the school, both primary and secondary sections, and martyred along the town’s four limbs were a score of shops and business premises and three times as many houses.  There were other roads leading out to the mountain district around Cootharabah and there was the road that curled in across the Mary Valley, but over all the deathly stillness and quiet of that first yawn of near summer shimmered above the scrub box and the tallow trees.  Spring paraphrased itself with shoots from sap rising in the hoop-pine forests to the west and the piccabeen palms and sand cypresses to the east; but here, centred in hills, valleyed below Bundarra, hammer-hitting the hard blue sky, there were only the new pastures, the sprawling paddocks of Rhodes and paspalum, green-squared between township and forest.  What there was of spring in the lack-lyricism of the summer opening was known in seascaped detail to the black swans and cranes fifteen miles away over the water-acres of Cooroibah, but not to Gungee, and not to Vinny Lalor now moving through the motionless morning to her personal crucifixion at the town’s heart.  (p.2)

For Ginny, the daily walk to school warrants the allusion to the Stations of the Cross.  She has always been rejected by the group, and they make her life a misery.  She has never done anything to deserve this; it’s just how it is.

It seems that in the mob there is frequently the one shunned or suspect or unlovely in some very simple and irremediable way.  And in this case it was Vinny.  She was not a pretty child or even a particularly clever one.  She was thin, pale, and red-headed.  Her eyes were a peculiarly light grey and like her mouth they were nearly always unsmiling.  But then she had little reason to smile.

Vinny has always been the last to get a turn at skipping and hopscotch or to be chosen for the rounders team.  Her chief tormentor Pearl Warburton has perfected the art of the whisper accompanied by a meaningful slight movement away.  Aided and abetted by Betty Klee, she is expert at passing notes which Mr Moller sees but does not intercept.  Vinny has never recovered socially from her mother’s well-meaning attempt at a birthday party, a party which revealed the family’s poverty to her vicious class-mates even more than her let-down hems had already done.    No one on playground duty can save her from the patronising remarks and the cruel laughter that seems to be her eternal fate.

But two teachers make Vinny’s life almost tolerable.  Middle-aged Mr Moller, world-weary and somewhat cynical, teaches English literature, while Mrs Striebel, a young widow, teaches maths.  Neither of them take much notice of Vinny until she hands in an essay that illuminates her bleak life, and Moller – who’s impressed by it – reads the essay to Helen.  Pity provokes an impulsive gesture, and Helen ends up taking Vinny to her sister’s in Brisbane for a weekend cultural jaunt, with transport provided by Moller, who has a car.

This trip becomes the catalyst for these teachers’ romantic relationship to develop.  They are like-minded souls adrift in a narrow-minded town, and apart from their shared cultural values, they are also honest and tolerant in a way that is unique among the pettiness that surrounds them.   In a small town, of course, the affair must be kept discreet: Moller is married, and his wife is a pitiful invalid with a terminal illness.  Teachers are expected to be respectable.

Astley dissects the inevitable discovery with sharp wit.  Naïve about their relationship, Vinny nonetheless tries to protect the lovers from the crass graffiti that litters the school-ground.  Findlay the principal responds with pompous morality; the middle-class wives respond with viperous glee.

‘Put that phone down, Cecily.  It’s time for the news.’
‘Just a minute, Freda.  What was that, Garth?’
‘I said put the damn phone down.’
‘Garth’s getting mad, darling.  I’ll see you tomorrow. ‘Bye.’
‘Happy?’ he asked.  ‘Busy spreading it round?’ (p.238)

What is remarkable to me about this novel is the economy with which Astley makes the reader feels Helen Striebel’s pain. The book is only 260 pages long, and the circumstances of the affair decree that the lovers spend very little time together.  Yet it is impossible not to know the depths of Helen’s love for Moller:

Her back was to the sun, her face in shadow, but Moller’s burned in the late extravagance of light coming from the western sky.  She squeezed his hand in return and briefly placed her other hand over his. ‘Mckeith is watching us fascinated through the signal-room window,’ she said, and turned finally from him.

She was late coming to the dining-room that night, having spent more time than usual exploring the possibilities of dress, examining her face with a new consciousness that comes to the lover and the loved. (p.162)

Times and mores have changed, but judgemental people still gossip and that gossip can still cause enormous harm.  I doubt if anyone could read the last page of this novel and not be horrified.

Author: Thea Astley
Title: A Descant for Gossips
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 1983 (the same year that ABC TV produced a mini-series based on the book.  I wish I could find  copy to watch it.)
ISBN: 070221843x
Source: Personal library, OpShop find.

A Descant for Gossips UQP reissueAvailability

UQP has just released a reissue of this title in their UQP Modern Classics series, ISBN 9780702253553.  There are some great titles in this series, and so far, they’re all by women!

You can buy a copy at Fishpond: A Descant for Gossips (UQP Modern Classics), direct from UQP  or any good bookstore.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 11, 2015

2015 Kibble and Dobbie Longlists

Once again the Kibble and Dobbie longlists have brought attention to some excellent books!

The nominations for the $30,000 Kibble prize for an established woman author include:

The nominations for the $5000 Dobbie prize for a first-time published author include:

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2015

Trio, by Geraldine Wooller


I am in two minds about Trio, the fourth novel of Western Australian author, Geraldine Wooller.  On the one hand it is a wise and thoughtful depiction of the bonds of friendship over many decades, but on the other, it is a novel that lacks narrative drive.  It’s rather like eavesdropping on a café conversation; enjoyable enough, but there’s no great impetus to stay and listen to the end of it.

But I stayed with it, interested enough in the lives of the characters, enjoying the nostalgia, and chuckling in recognition at the pontificating about aspects of modern life.

The trio comprises Celia, Marcia and Mickey who become friends in London in the 1960s.  All three want to work in the theatre industry but only ever succeed on its margins.  Celia (the Australian) is a set designer; Marcia (who’s English) is an actor; and Mickey (from Ireland) is a director.  Their friendship is close, and it sometimes involves sex, but it’s not a menage-a-trois and it’s not a competition between the two women for the man.  No, in this novel the betrayal that really hurts is a failure to pass on contact details so that a possible job is missed…

Over five decades the three move between the UK, Italy and Perth, and Celia and Marcia take up other work while Mickey struggles on with drink for solace.  But their only long-term relationships are with each other, and even that suffers the strain of estrangement towards the end of their lives.  Theirs is not the rock-solid friendship that endures all: it’s messy, fragile and desultory.  Told mostly through the perspective of the women, the novel is at its best in depicting the interior lives of its characters: the thoughts unexpressed; the doubts; the debates of conscience; and the regrets.  There are lovely allusions to plays, books and music that permeate the characters’ lives, and there are also asides that place events firmly in their era, as when Mickey bemoans Margaret Thatcher’s changes to dole eligibility so that theatre people could no longer rely on it between jobs.

Trio is a quiet, reflective work that feels autobiographical in origin.  Some snippets made me wonder, was this a preoccupation of the character, or the author?

In the late afternoon of the next day, she left her house to buy a couple of food items.  Putting on a coat she noticed two buttons missing: must attend to that.  There was a mercer’s not far away where they sold all kinds of old-fashioned things, where women customers and staff murmured about wool thickness and alternative types of stitch, in voices one only heard now in this kind of store.  She could think of no other place where this kind of quiet exchange took place, certainly not libraries any more, where people did talk if they felt like it and no one checked them. Though most visitors were now sitting in front of a wretched computer, clicking and pressing buttons. (p. 169)

I have my suspicions…

Other reviews are at the SMH and Readings.

Update: 20/4/15 Thanks to the author for the correction, the trio meet in the 1960s, not the 70s as I had previously written.  And no, she says, it’s not autobiographical.

Author: Geraldine Wooller
Title: Trio
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2015
ISBN: 9781921924781
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


Fishpond: Trio
Or direct from Transit Lounge where there are also book group notes.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2015

The Melbourne Prize 2015 (forthcoming)

One of my favourite literary prizes is the Melbourne Prize.  Unlike other prizes, the Melbourne Prize rotates between three creative endeavours in a three-year cycle, which are:

  • the Melbourne Prize for Urban Sculpture (awarded last year, 2014, the 10th anniversary of the prize),
  • the Melbourne Prize for Literature, (to be awarded later this year, 2015) and
  • the Melbourne Prize for Music (to be awarded next year, 2016).

Each annual Melbourne Prize is valued around $100,000, depending on the range of prize categories in each sector.

An initiative of Executive Director and Founder Simon Warrender, the Melbourne Prize Trust was established in 2004.   It was launched following the unveiling of the children’s garden precinct at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne and the commissioning of The Magic Pudding sculpture, by Louis Lauman, in 2000.  Click here to see it, it’s no 18 on page 2.) (You can buy a limited edition bronze miniature if you have spare cash.  All proceeds support the Trust ).

The Trust is a not-for-profit cultural organisation which provides financial, career development, travel and exhibition opportunities for Victorian writers, musicians and sculptors, via the annual Melbourne Prize.   It’s funded by cross-sector public, private and corporate partnerships, and donations from small donors like me (which is how I got to know Simon).  It’s a community investment that directly benefits Victorian arts.

Every year during the prize season when there are the inevitable disappointments that this or that personal favourite has been overlooked, I sometimes wonder if the judges were aware of the alternatives.  The Melbourne Prize gets round this by convening a high profile judging panel each year so that leaders in each sector are exposed to a broad range of artistic talent.  This not only enriches the pool of judges so that there are more of them with expertise, it also gives artists the opportunity to profile their work to eminent professionals in their field.

The prize recognises and rewards excellence and artistic talent, inspiring creative development and enriching public life.  It develops our abundant creative resources and showcases this talent to the public. This enhances Melbourne’s reputation as a cultural capital and centre of opportunity for artists.  Yes, of course I am going to brag about Melbourne being a City of Literature…

Melbourne as a City of Literature

In 2008 Melbourne was designated a City of Literature along with Norwich, Edinburgh, Iowa City, Reykjavik, Krakow and Dublin, all cities where literature plays a central role in the urban environment.  With its valuable literary award under the banner of Melbourne, the Melbourne Prize for Literature 2015 adds to the range of literary activities here, including the Premier’s Literary Awards; the Melbourne Writers Festival at Federation Square; and a plethora of other literary festivals across the state.  (For some odd reason the Wheeler Centre doesn’t maintain its own calendar of our LitFests so organisers have to add their festivals to it themselves, which is a bit clunky.  However there is what looks like a comprehensive list at Writers Victoria ).   These various literary initiatives in Victoria raise awareness of our immense local literary talent and strengthen our position as a place of opportunity for writers locally, nationally and on an international basis.

The Melbourne Prize

Melbourne Prize cataloguesThe prizes cover a range of career stages, and each culminates in a free public two-week exhibition of finalists’ work at Federation Square each November, plus the main prize presentations at Deakin Edge in November.  The Trust prints a free exhibition catalogue for the public during the event and for the finalists to retain as a record.   The Civic Choice Award enables the public and visitors to the exhibition to vote for their favourite, which in 2015 will be a writer, who has the chance to win $5,000.

Now in its fourth cycle, the annual Melbourne Prize has an eminent alumni and has made significant funds and opportunities available to Victorian artists.   You can find out about previous winners of the Music and Sculpture Prizes at the Trust’s website.  Past recipients of the Literature Prize include:

Recipients of the Best Writing Award were

Winners of the Civic Choice Award were

  • 2012: Tony Birch, Blood (University of Queensland Press, 2011)
  • 2009: Amra Pajalic, The Good Daughter (Text Publishing, 2009)
  • 2006: Henry von Doussa, The Park Bench (Thompson Walker, 2005)

(Click the links to see my reviews &c)

The 2015 Melbourne Prize

The Prize and Award offering this year will be similar to past years with one addition.  As part of continuing the 10th anniversary celebration of the annual Melbourne Prize, a significant new award will be offered, details of which will be released in May, along with the entry form.

The judging panel in 2015 will follow the same strategy as 2012 and will include five esteemed figures in the literary sector. (The 2012 judges were Mark Rubbo OAM, Professor Brian Matthews, Hannie Rayson, Christos Tsiolkas and Michael Williams).

Federation Square will again be the site of the finalists exhibition in November to showcase the outcome of the competition.  Who will the nominees be?  Take a guess from my list of Authors from Victoria but remember, they’re only the ones I’ve reviewed on this blog, so feel free to suggest others.

Currently, one can register interest to receive information on the 2015 program when it becomes available by visiting  The Prize is open to Victorian residents only.

So, what will that significant new award be??   The existing categories are

  • the Melbourne Prize for Literature: for a body of work (in any genre) that has made an outstanding contribution to Australian literature and to cultural and intellectual life
  • the Best Writing Award
  • the Civic Choice award (where we get to vote for our favourite).

We have to wait till May to find out, but in the meantime we can guess, eh?

I’m hoping for a Biographers’ award (and I’d nominate Brenda Niall).  What about you?  Please add your suggestions in comments below.

To whet your appetite for this prestigious prize, here are some photos from the 2012 Melbourne Prize.  All photos courtesy of Leisa Hunt Photography.

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Many thanks to Simon Warrender for his input to the preparation of this article.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2015

The Return, by Silvia Kwon

The Return

It’s only a day or two since I was moaning about how I wanted to read stories of rural Australia that tackled the big issues of farm inheritance and the depopulation of the bush, and it turns out that I had one on my shelves anyway!

There is more to The Return, however, than those two issues.  It is a stylishly constructed novel which draws together themes of redemption and reconciliation.  Merna, married to Frank who is still nurturing post-Burma Railway feelings of hatred towards the Japanese, performs the role of woman-as-mediator when, in the 1960s, their only son brings his Japanese bride into their home.

The prologue, set on ‘the line’ in Burma in 1944 when Frank loses another mate to the brutality of the Japanese, sets the scene for the reader to understand his enduring hatred.  The writing suffers by comparison with Richard Flanagan’s powerful evocation of this same situation in his Booker-prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (see my review and a Sensational Snippet) but I suspect that will be true for most writers who tackle the representation of that horror.  Flanagan, writing at the peak of his powers with his father’s experience on ‘the line’ to inspire him, has achieved a singular greatness in his novel, impossible to emulate.  Still, leaving aside the choice of second-person narration in The Return’s prologue which was IMO a mistake that risks banality, Kwon offers her own insight:

You catch the eye of a young Japanese soldier and the intensity of his gaze chills you in the fetid air.  The young man’s contempt is a silent weapon and you are unprepared for this otherness. You signed up to fight the enemy but spend all of the war observing him, getting to know the darkness of his soul.  What you see and learn – you realise – is no good to anyone. (p. xiv)

The man who comes back to Merna is a ruin.  Always reticent anyway, he retreats into impregnable silences and his wife learns to adjust to a dour and emotionally unavailable man.  Like others suffering post-traumatic stress, he has nightmares that frighten his wife, and he takes solace in alcohol and episodes of complete unavailability, in his case vanishing into the bush for two or three harrowing days.   This has its impact on Paul, the son born after Frank’s departure for war, and like many, he doesn’t want to return from the bright lights of the city after he finishes engineering at university.  His choice of employer, however, has major ramifications.  He tests Frank’s hatred for all things Japanese by working for Toyota.

Like many parents in rural Australia, Frank and Merna both hope for Paul’s return to take over the farm, but the pain of their son’s choice to follow a different path is exacerbated by Frank’s hatred for Japan.  And when Frank brings his Japanese bride home to meet his parents, the (fictional) small town of Metatung reacts with predictable racism.   Wisely, Kwon does not harp on this, choosing instead to write her narrative entirely from Merna’s perspective and leaving the empathetic reader to imagine the depths of Miko’s devastated response.

So, like Merna, the reader sees Paul’s consoling arm around his wife; we hear her quiet sobs through the bedroom door; we note the stilted dinner conversations where Frank ignores Miko; we observe her retreats to the vegetable garden to avoid him and we witness her brave attempts to assimilate by learning to bake scones and drink English tea.  But Merna is on her own journey too: she has spent almost twenty years in stoic resignation with no hope of recovering the Frank she used to love.  She does not share his hatred, but she respects his right to have it.  She knows by name the losses of people in town whose sons and husbands died in the Pacific War, and she does not sit in moral judgement on their reaction even though she knows that Miko was orphaned by the war.

Torn between Frank’s implacability and what she initially sees as Paul’s provocative lack of sensitivity, Merna has no alternative but to try to build bridges between them.  It takes her a long time to realise that the defiance with which she meets the racism of the town is what’s needed to break through Frank’s attitude as well.  Merna is a carefully-wrought, beautifully complex character representing the dilemmas of post-war life.

I look forward to this author’s further explorations of Australian life in her next novel.

Author: Silvia Kwon
Title: The Return
Publisher: Hachette, 2014
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh


Fishpond: The Return

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2015

Vanessa and Her Sister, by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her SisterI really, really enjoyed this book, and was sorry to come to its end.  It is a fictionalisation of the life of Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and her sister Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) between 1905 and 1912, and I wanted to know what happened next.

Well, I know, of course, what happened next.  The war; Vanessa becoming a noted avant-garde artist; the founding of the Hogarth Press; and Virginia becoming a famous writer and her suicide.  But I wanted to read about all that from Vanessa’s point-of-view and savour her further voyage of self-discovery; and to relish this author’s delicious prose and startling imagery, so apt for a novel mostly narrated by a visual artist.  (The novel is a pastiche: there are also ‘telegrams’, ‘postcards’ and the occasional brief letter by other characters, but it is Vanessa’s narration that carries the book).

Fortunately for me, and for most other readers who are intrigued by the devoted, gifted sisters who defied convention, expertise in the oeuvre of Virginia Woolf is not required.  I’ve read eight of Woolf’s novels but (with the exception of Orlando reviewed here on my blog) that was so long ago I am not tempted even to write a brief review at GoodReads; and I have the Victoria Glendinning bio of Leonard Woolf, but I haven’t read it yet.  So I read Vanessa and her Sister as I think most people would, on its own terms, and I enjoyed it very much.

The novel begins when the Stephen sisters have set up house with their brother Thoby and Adrian in pre-war Bloomsbury.   Their parents are dead, and with their glittering circle of Cambridge friends, they are deliberately flouting convention.  In what must have been a nightmare for servants used to routine, friends drop in at any time, and they stay till the small hours of the morning.  They abandon conventions of dressing for dinner (which was probably a relief for the servants, less laundry), and – it seems droll now that this was noteworthy – they were careless about the gender balance of their guests. But they are not nonchalant about all this: they expect to be noticed.

… we are a surprising company.  For all our confidence, only Morgan [E.M. Forster] has done anything of any note in the outside world.  The rest of us are still living on the borrowed fuel of potential and have so far not left deep footprints. But together we carry a brackish air of importance.  As if we are doing something worthy in the world.  Maybe how we live our lives is the grand experiment?  Mixing company, throwing out customs, using first names, waiting to marry, ignoring the rules, and choosing what to care about.  Is that why we matter? Or perhaps Miss Warre-Cornish [the fiancée of one of their circle] is right and we do not matter in the least. (p. 90)

Well, history showed that Miss Warre-Cornish was wrong.  They did matter, and not just because they heralded a relaxation of stuffy conventions.  But this novel stops short of any of the triumphs to come: Virginia is still trying to get book reviews accepted and does not begin writing her first novel until 1910; Lytton Strachey is unpublished; Leonard Woolf is a civil servant far away in Ceylon; Maynard Keynes is still not sure of what he wants to do; and Vanessa is admiring post-impressionist artworks but is yet to find her own style.

And for all her delight in unconventionality, Vanessa is pondering her own unmarried status.  At 26, she doesn’t want to risk spinsterhood and she hasn’t found the right man.  She feels responsible for Virginia too, likewise unattached at 23.  Any potential marriage of these stars of the coterie is also of keen interest to the men (mostly gay or bi) because the suitor must fit in.  ‘Postcards’ and ‘letters’ between Lytton and Leonard and others show their anxiety that the brilliant, artistic atmosphere of the Bloomsbury Set should not be sabotaged.

Against her better judgement, Vanessa falls in love.  She shares a love of art with Clive Bell, and she decides to marry him.  And that’s when Virginia’s possessiveness veers into dangerous territory.  She is an unstable personality, and at the time of this novel had already had one episode of mental illness (now thought to be bipolar disorder).  She goes after Clive, when what she really wants is Vanessa who has always been her touchstone but now seems to be abandoning her.  And Clive, for his part, is jealous of the baby that arrives within a year of the marriage…

Priya Parmar juggles Vanessa’s experience of tragedy and betrayal with her optimism, her pragmatism, and her changing sense of self.  The novel shows how trying it can be to live with a sister’s caprice, and how hard it is to vanquish bitterness.  But she also shows the impregnable bond between the sisters: Vanessa loves Virginia dearly, and feels responsible for her.  She makes decisions to protect herself, but when the crisis comes, she cares for Virginia despite the hurt.

Other aspects of the novel still resonate today.  Vanessa’s unexpected delight in motherhood is balanced by her discovery that small babies don’t fit in sparkling intellectual circles.

Elsie [the nurse] had a toothache so I left her here and took Julian to visit Virginia.  It was awful.  I held him and rocked him and bounced him, but he still fussed, and Virginia soon adopted a martyred expression. I walked him in slow blunt squares around the room. Virginia said I was making her dizzy.  Fortunately Clive called in for me and told Virginia amusing stories that gave her the opportunity to make witty and incisive observations.

I was left undisturbed to cope with Julian.  When he is uncomfortable I cannot keep my thoughts on the spinning conversational plates.  They get tossed my way and I let them crash to the ground. Finally Clive put me in a cab.  Best I went home alone.  Julian’s crying unsettles him anyway.  (p.169)

Vanessa is, of course, of that privileged class to have servants and a private income.  She has a nurse for the child, and she continues to paint.  They travel extensively, they make trips to the countryside and they are out and about in the cultural milieu of Edwardian England.  And so in the course of events she discovers that the man who became an advocate of modern art in Britain, Roger Fry, admires her painting, and that they share other attributes too…

All this is more or less common knowledge amongst devotees of the Bloomsbury Group, but Parmar brings it alive with a sensibility that is both authentic and contemporary.  Ignore the ludicrous cover design: trust me, Vanessa and Her Sister is not a soppy historical romance, it’s a wise, thoughtful, sparkling rendition of a life too often subsumed by the profile of others.

Author: Priya Parmar
Title: Vanessa and Her Sister
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2015
ISBN: 9781408850213
Source: review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury ANZ


Fishpond: Vanessa and Her Sister

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 1, 2015

Meet an Aussie Author: A.S. Patrić

Photo credit: Kip Scott, by permission

Photo credit: Kip Scott, by permission

I first discovered A. S. (Alec) Patrić in 2012 when one of my favourite publishers, Transit Lounge sent me a copy of his short story collection
Las Vegas for Vegans and I went along to the launch at Readings in St Kilda We had a lovely evening and I left hoping that there would one day be a novel from this exciting writer, because novels are my favourite form of reading.  Las Vegas for Vegans went on to be shortlisted for the Australian Short Story Collection – Steele Rudd Award in the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards, and Alec went on to publish Bruno Kramzer in the FL Smalls Series commissioned by another of my favourite publishers Finlay Lloyd and also The Rattler, an eBook published by Spineless Wonders.

But as you know if you saw my review, 2015 sees the publication of the long-awaited novel and it is a beauty.  Black Rock White City is a stunning debut and it is well worth the wait:)

Since the name A.S. Patrić looks destined to become well-known to those of us who love Australian literary fiction, I invited Alec to introduce himself to readers of this blog through Meet an Aussie Author, and here he is:

  1. I was born at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava, in Zemun. Details that now sound to me like something from a lullaby since it was so shortly after birth that I was living in Melbourne.
  2. When I was a child I wrote poetry. A few short stories a little later on. I even attempted the novel, a Sci-Fi space epic, but pretty girls turned me back around to poetry.
  3. The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write was… no one in particular. Many a musician dedicates him/herself to playing an instrument because they heard music and it blew open their soul/heart/mind. For me it was (and is) literature.
  4. Alec's desk  (I wish mine were as tidy).

    Alec’s desk
    (I wish mine were as tidy).

    I write in my study, at my desk.
 I can scribble a few notes in a café but the only place I can really write is at my desk.

  5. I write whenever I can. Kids and work means I don’t get to choose my writing time. And yet I write every day. In between daily bursts of writing I’m always preparing to write.
  6. Research is crucial if you’re going to write beyond your immediate experience, but the essentials are already present before work starts on a story or novel.
  7. I keep my published works on my bookshelves with authors like Proulx, Poe, Paley, Perlman, Petterson, Pavić, Pynchon, Proust, Packer, Pushkin… the first letter of our surnames being the only thing in common.
  8. On the day my first book was published I was wondering what it would feel like to finally have a book published. Turns out, not much difference (after an initial thrill).
  9. At the moment, I’m writing another novel. It’s called Atlantic Black and is set on the Aquitania, an ocean liner sailing to Europe—over the course of one day and one night, new year’s eve 1938.
  10. When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I remind myself that I’m always stuck for an idea/word/phrase and being ‘stuck’ is part of the process, and what makes getting un-‘stuck’ and flowing for a few hundred words every day so damn liberating.

Alec lives in bayside Melbourne and is a St Kilda bookseller, and he blogs at A.S. Patrić where you can read even more about his remarkable writing career.

To buy Alec’s book visit Fishpond: Black Rock White City, or  Transit Lounge orr buy it from Alec himself at Readings in St Kilda. Tell him I sent you!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 31, 2015

2015 Miles Franklin Award Longlist

The 2015 Miles Franklin longlist has been announced.  The nominees are

The ones I haven’t read must indeed be terrific to displace the omissions.  Where is Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders?  Where is N by John Scott, and To Name Those Lost by Rohan Wilson?  Where is just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth?  And is it really too much to hope that the MF might think of nominating Gerald Murnane for A Million Windows?

Update: just_a_girl isn’t eligible (see Book to the Future’s comment below).

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 31, 2015

Aquarium, by David Vann

AquariumIn his childhood, The Offspring had a keen interest in tropical fish: at one stage he took over an entire room with five tanks and it cost a small fortune in power bills to heat them.  He belonged to some club somewhere in Melbourne’s remote outskirts, requiring a devoted mother to drive for an hour after a rushed early dinner to take him to midweek evening meetings.  It was a salutary experience for said mother to observe said Offspring wholly absorbed for over an hour in a slide show explaining the technical details of breeding this or that species; said mother was bored witless.

I venture this by way of a confession: I did skip some of the descriptions of fish in David Vann’s new novel, Aquarium.  This is not to say that other readers might not find them fascinating, but for some it may be reassuring to know that it is perfectly possible to read this absorbing novel even if you have no interest whatsoever in ichthyology.

The fish have symbolic purpose, of course.  Caged in their glass prison, they are safe from predators, and they are stratified just as American society is, each keeping to their own layer as top, middle or bottom dwellers.  Some are beautiful and powerful, others are ordinary.  12-year-old Caitlin Thompson recognises the place of each in the watery world, just as she recognises her own in her community.   Her mother is one of the working poor in contemporary Seattle, and they live a life of privation and want, assuaged only by the hope that Caitlin, who is clever, will do well at school and have a better future than her mother.

Most readers know that David Vann writes novels that are emotionally demanding.  I admired the courage that lay behind the semi-autobiographical Legend of a Suicide but I didn’t like Dirt much at all and skipped his subsequent efforts until Aquarium came along.  In this one Vann takes on the narrative voice of a female child and focuses on her perspective and that of her mother Sheri.  The descriptions of their life together show a courageous pair, the child sturdily coping with long hours alone while her mother works, and her low expectations.  Their bond is close, and the mother, although a rough diamond, puts the child’s interests first.

It is that loving though unsentimental persona that makes the transformation of the mother so shocking.  An encounter with a man at the aquarium is the trigger for old memories to resurface, and the pain and rage of revisiting a traumatic period of her life makes Sheri impose the same experiences on the child.  It is horrific.  (Though, no, it’s not what you’re thinking).

So no, you are not going to ‘enjoy’ this book, and if you are like me, you will feel profound doubt about even the  hesitant resolution with which Vann concludes.  And yet it is a compassionate story, with glimpses of a forgiving Caitlin looking back on events from her thirties (so we know that she survives).   It shows the extraordinary lengths to which a single mother will go to transcend mothering as she knew it. The daily grind at the docks; the isolation in a dingy apartment; the absence of friends and entertainments; the distrust of any man who might disturb a hard-won equilibrium of self-denial; the painstaking arrangements for Caitlin’s safety when Sheri has shift work – all these aspects of the novel, together with the treasured season pass for the aquarium –  show this woman as almost heroic in her efforts to create a near-normal life for her child. The novel also shows that what makes Sheri lose control of her tightly repressed demons is the complete lack of support for her as a person.

I have never been able to understand how it is that the richest country in the world treats some of its own people so badly, and this novel is another example that shows that you either survive on your own, or you don’t.

Author: David Vann
Title: Aquarium
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922182708
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


Fishpond: Aquarium

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 30, 2015

Voice Over, by Céline Curiol, translated by Sam Richard

Voice Over I  don’t think Voice Over is an apt translation of the original French title Voix sans issue.  The literal meaning is ‘voice without issue’.  And while I can see how clunky that would be as a title, it has meanings that aren’t implicit in Voice Over. 

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

The un-named central character is an anonymous young woman in Paris.  Her job is to announce train departures and arrivals at Gare du Nord, one of six terminus stations in Paris – and it is huge.  It serves the urban Metro and regional train services in Northern France, and is also the international train station for UK, German and Belgium destinations.  It’s where you arrive if you take the Eurostar from London, and – even if you are a seasoned traveller – the sheer size, the noise, and the frenetic movement around you can seem quite overwhelming.  It’s the busiest train station in Europe. Wikipedia says it serves 190 million travellers each year, second only to Japan.

This young woman’s voice is broadcast over the hustle and bustle, both part of the noise which travellers ignore, yet also listened to intently when it’s their platform details they need to hear.  (A bit like the safety demo on planes, only the newbies are listening, everyone else goes on playing with their iPads.) My recollection is that all announcements at Gare du Nord are in French – another reason for me to practice my numbers en français –  but many international travellers don’t speak French so they’re not even listening to hear if they need to listen.  So hers is a voice that travels over the hubbub without much impact, without issue.  And work is the only place that anyone listens to her at all.

Written in the third person but entirely from this young woman’s point-of-view, Voice Over is a claustrophobic sort of novel, describing only her chaotic thoughts and feelings, and her bizarre actions.  There was a moment when I thought, oh no, not another damaged-by-child-abuse novel, because there are scenes in her fractured relationships that are terminated by her memories of what she calls her ‘rite of passage’, but there is more to it than that.  Her habit of disassociating herself from events as if she is an observer of her life rather than a participant in it is perhaps a coping strategy, but she is not wholly defined by this event in her life.  She fluctuates between passivity and trying to take control, but all her pitiful strategies are ineffective…

It is not just because she has fallen for an unavailable man and his woman Ange is drop-dead gorgeous.  (And nice, too.  It is she who invites the young woman to join her gatherings).  The inconclusive meetings that she has with him go nowhere, but her other assignations go nowhere too.  And just as well: she lets herself be drawn into some risky situations, and she provokes the sleaze Maxime into being more than totally obnoxious by announcing at Ange’s dinner party that she’s a prostitute.  She often says totally inappropriate things and she knows that people think she’s weird. She tells unnecessary lies all over the place, she shoplifts,  she drinks far too much, and she creates problems for herself with her endless introspection and trying to second-guess what others will say and do.

So she’s not a character with whom one can easily identify.  She is a self-destructive lost soul in a vast anonymous city, an anti-hero in the City of Love.  The author forces readers to confront their fantasies about Paris by demolishing the image of the confident sexy Frenchwoman.  Her face is interesting enough for a photographer to pick her up in a bar so that he can use her for his fruit photos, but she isn’t beautiful, she isn’t chic, she isn’t witty and she isn’t desirable enough for anybody to really want her.  The city couldn’t care less about her.

And it all ends badly, of course.

Nominated for both the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and Best Translated Book Award in 2009, Voice Over was Celine Curiol’s debut novel.  Wikipedia tells me that she has since published three further titles, but they don’t appear to be available in English.

Kim from Reading Matters reviewed it too, and so did Stu from Winston’s Dad.

Author: Céline Curiol
Title: Voice Over
Translated from the French by Sam Richard
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2008, first published as Voix sans issue, 2005
ISBN: 9780571229963
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond.

Fishpond: Voice Over

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