Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2022

Lily, a Tale of Revenge, by Rose Tremain

Lily, the latest novel from prolific English author Rose Tremain, (b. 1943) is a cautionary tale about the perils of revenge.

Set in a Dickensian 19th century England of punitive welfare for the children of fallen women, Lily brings us the story of a child whose mother wrapped her in sacking and abandoned her in freezing weather at the gates of a park in the East End.  Rescued by a passing policeman, she is taken to the London Foundling Hospital.  Her first six years are spent with a kindly foster mother on a farm in Suffolk, and then — of an age to start work — she is returned to this so-called hospital and begins a life of brutal drudgery and abuse.  An attempt at escape fails, her only friend dies, and the most vicious of the staff sabotages an offer of adoption.

As in the best of Dickens’ novels, this catalogue of misery arouses feelings of compassion for the victim and contempt for the perpetrators, but (like Dickens) Tremain has greater ambitions than that. The reader knows from the first page that Lily is a murderer.  No one else knows this, but she is tormented by her crime.

She does not fear being caught: authorities are not even certain that a crime has been committed.  She fears herself.  What she has done has brought no release.  She does not feel the satisfaction that she had anticipated.

Lily cannot unburden herself to anyone.  She cannot fall in love when she knows the fate that lies in store.  No hard work or good deeds can save her, not least because she knows in her heart that she won’t be able to bear the burden forever and will confess.

Any thoughts of justification have lapsed, and dreams of the noose that awaits her haunt her nights and sabotage her days.

She dreams of her death.

It comes as a cold October dawn is breaking in the London sky.

A sack is put over her head. Through the weave of the burlap, she can take her last look at the world, which is reduced to a cluster of tiny squares of grey light, and she thinks, Whyever did I struggle so long and so hard to make my way in a place which was bent on my destruction ever since I came into it? Why did I not surrender to death when I was a child, for children’s pictures of death are fantastical and full of a strange beauty?

She feels the noose, made of thick hemp rope, go round her neck and knows that the noose’s cunning is to be in perpetual coitus with a huge and bulbous knot behind her head.  The knot nudges the base of her skull.  Soon, a trap beneath her feet will open and she will drop into the void, her legs dangling like the legs of a doll made of cloth.  Her neck will snap and her heart will stop. (p.1)

Revenge has brought her no peace of mind.

Author: Rose Tremain
Title: Lily, a Tale of Revenge
Cover design: no credits except the source of the images (Bridgeman and Alamy)
Publisher: Chatto and Windus (Penguin Random House UK) 2021
ISBN: 9781784744571, pbk., 288 pages
Source: Kingston Library


‘China is an emergent empire of a kind never seen before … It’s not a gunpowder or dreadnought battleship or B-52 bomber empire. It’s an information empire, propelled by commercial interests.’ –John Keane

The eleventh issue of Australian Foreign Affairs examines the rise of authoritarian and illiberal leaders, whose growing assertiveness is reshaping the Western-led world order. The March of Autocracy explores the challenge for Australia as it enters a new era, in which China’s sway increases and democracies compete with their rivals for global influence.

lot has happened since this edition of Australian Foreign Affairs landed in my post box last year, but still, the first essay, ‘Enter the Dragon, Decoding the new Chinese empire’ offers interesting insights.  Written well before the Pelosi stunt and the backlash from China, it made me suspect something that I haven’t read anywhere in the mainstream media or even at John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.  What if all that firepower wasn’t intended to ‘punish’ or ‘threaten’ but was a signal to China’s domestic audience?  What if it was meant to show them what China could do, if it chose?  The Chinese people have endured two centuries of humiliation — what if the agenda was really to assert that China is confidently en route to world pre-eminence (and that a militarily overstretched and fiscally overburdened America can’t do much about that?)

John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney is the author of The Life and Death of DemocracyIt’s 992 pages long; I’m never going to read it.  But I can read his essay instead, and it makes compelling reading.  ‘Enter the Dragon, Decoding the new Chinese empire’ isn’t an apology for a China we don’t much like. It’s about facing up to a reality rather than indulging in wishful thinking.  It’s about addressing misconceptions that are dangerous:

Like bellows to a fire, fallacies about China are inflaming controversies and stoking divisions.  These misconceptions are dangerous because they spread confusion, attract simpletons, poison public life and blur political judgements.  (p.8)

The first fallacy that Keane addresses is that China is commonly said to have a totalitarian political system.  Strictly speaking, he writes:

… totalitarianism refers to a one-party political order ruled by violence, a single “glorious myth” ideology, all-purpose terror and compulsory mass rallies.  The bulk of Chinese people would say that daily life in their country just isn’t like that.  The Mao days are over. (p.8)

China is ruled, says Keane, by a ‘phantom democracy’ put in place by leaders who seek to win the loyalty of the population.  They know that mere power does not enable enduring rule.  They know that the symbols of economic progress aren’t enough either.  They reject power-sharing, but they mimic electoral democracies.  President Xi practises the common touch with well-crafted “surprise” appearances with the people.  There are village elections and the spread of “consultative democracy” into city administration and business.  They use digital media to shape public opinion via a giant information-gathering apparatus…

…which uses data-harvesting algorithms to send summaries of internet chatter to officials in real time, often with advice about terms to use and avoid during public brouhahas. (p.11)

China’s leaders know that government stability rests on public opinion.  

Ignored by those who view China as a country run by totalitarian bullies and authoritarian autocrats, this principle is of utmost importance in grasping that the new Chinese despotism is equipped with shock absorbers, and therefore more resilient and durable than many suppose. (p.12)

…the rulers of China acknowledge that power doesn’t ultimately flow from the barrels of guns, or from Xingjiang-style interrogations, arrests and internments.  They admit that little sustains the political order beyond the population’s loyalty — their willingness to believe that the system addresses their complaints, and that democracy with Chinese characteristics is therefore better than its ailing ‘liberal’ alternative. (p.12)

The second set of misconceptions addresses China’s burgeoning global role. Like America, China abhors the term ’empire’, but (like America), that’s what it is. Already.

[Empire] is the word that’s needed to describe accurately China’s rising global role in such fields as finance capital, technology innovation, logistics, and diplomatic, military and cultural power. (p.14)

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is building infrastructure around the world, costing more than a trillion dollars, seven times as much (when adjusted for inflation) as the United States invested in rebuilding Western Europe after World War II.  Serving China’s trade ambitions, it’s a counter to the US ‘pivot to Asia’, and it outspends the US and Australia in research and development.

This new Chinese empire is not like the old European empires…

China, by contrast, is preoccupied with capital of a different sort: the flow of investment, the spread of networked information technologies and the growth of global markets for its competitively priced goods and services. It connects cities and hinterlands by high-speed railways, airports and shipping lanes.  Buoyed by its dependence on digital communication networks, fluid mobility is its currency. (p.17)

It’s an information empire, propelled by commercial interests. (p.18)

If you rely on the mainstream media for reporting of the Chinese ambassador’s recent speech at the National Press Club instead of listening to it yourself, you won’t have heard the Ambassador talk about what China perceives is its ‘good global citizenship’ credentials.  (Though this essay was written before the anxious reaction to China’s overtures in the Solomon Islands), Keane explains its high-profile international reach:

China actively partners with its fourteen neighbouring states.  It plays a high-profile role in regional bodies such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Institutional restructuring and the soliciting of leadership roles within global bodies is equally high on its agenda.  China already heads four of the fifteen United Nations agencies.  In recent years, it has helped build, and now leads, multi-lateral institutions such as the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, which are founded on pragmatic consent, not formal treaty alliances.  (p.19)

Chinese officials are careful to massage their public image, throwing their cultural weight around to offset criticism and displaying strong commitments to rule-of-law precepts in bodies such as the World Trade Organisation.

[LH: The Ambassador dignified his refusal to discuss China’s trade embargoes on Australian products with Press Council journalists by reminding them that China’s dispute with Australia is awaiting WTO arbitration.]

They are also careful to promote their empire as a force for peace.  

This portrayal rests upon spin, silence and secrecy: according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) data, for instance, China is now the second-largest arms manufacturer, behind only the United States, and it has more cruise missiles and middle-range ballistic rockets than its great-power counterpart. The PLA’s navy is the world’s largest.  Military bases to supplement its existing Djibouti and Tajikistan installations are no doubt in planning.

China’s public relations task is nevertheless made easier by the fact that they are up against an American empire that some would say is obscenely overarmed.  Those who speak of China as a “bully” and an “aggressor” must remember that the United States remains the world’s commander-in-chief.  It has military bases and installations in 150 countries [LH: including a growing presence in ours] and according to SIPRI spends more on its armed forces than the next ten countries combined. (pp. 21-22)

Another point not mentioned in the mainstream media’s report of the Ambassador’s speech was his pride in China’s contributions to UN peacekeeping.  Keane gives the example of China clearing landmines on the southern Lebanon border with Israel. He notes also its unconventional military strategy towards the United States:

…since it is not an empire in a hurry, it can act under Sun Tzu’s guidance to wear down its competitor by avoiding war, demonstrating that deferral and avoiding “lengthy operations in the field” can yield lasting victories. (p.22)

The third cluster of misconceptions concerns predictions of China’s future, warped by wishful thinking.

From predictions of regime change, or that market reforms would be the catalyst for a liberal democracy, or that the moral superiority of American democracy would triumph, those who hope for China’s collapse wrongly imagine the new Chinese empire to be a repeat of Ottoman bribery, corruption, decadence and quarrelling advisers.

Keane ramps up his critique at this point in the essay: Proponents of a new Cold War attract xenophobes, racists and Orientalists.  

These bull-in-a-China shop warriors seem blasé about the probable consequences of the desired downfall — “the collapse of a world empire,” notes the German scholar Herfried Münkler, “usually means the end of the world economy associated with it.” They may be picking a fight that delivers political, economic and reputational setbacks to the United States, or further hastens its demise as an imperial power.

Reckless China-bashing and moonstruck love affairs with America are dead ends.  Talking up military aggression in the age of nuclear weapons is madness. (p.24-5)

What Keane recommends is agile non-alignment. Australia could embrace cooperation in some areas, such as scientific research and renewable energy.  As former PM Kevin Rudd suggested, we could manage prickly exchanges as elements of a truly durable friendship [..] built on unflinching advice and frank awareness of basic interests and ambitions. This would mean a change in mindset:

a new willingness among political thinkers, journalists, citizens and politicians to dissect their own ignorance about China, to see with fresh eyes its complexity and to avoid underestimating its shape-shifting resilience. (p.25)

For its part, China has flaws not to be underestimated.  Keane says it has a legitimacy problem, and makes a surprising recommendation:

Every Chinese government official, diplomat and businessperson should read The Vizier’s Elephant (1947) by Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić, the classic tale of resentment against the pinched promises and hypocrisy of occupiers, to grasp how easily imperial power can be doubted, satirised, worn down and defeated. (p.26)

[LH: Anyone read it? It’s summarised here.]

Other flaws are:

  • one that historically affected all empires: the chronic tension between the central rulers and administrators at the periphery;
  • environmental concerns and bio-challenges; and
  • its lukewarm and contradictory embrace of public accountability mechanisms.  It doesn’t have watchdog bodies such as public enquiries, judicial review and futures commissions that serve as risk-reduction mechanisms, designed to deal with threatening uncertainties, corruption and nasty surprises. 

I couldn’t hazard a guess as to what our PM and his advisors read to keep abreast of all the issues Australia faces today.  But I have no doubt that the AFF journal crosses Penny Wong’s desk and I suspect that she reads it carefully.  Everything she’s said and done so far suggests to me that she is mindful of Australia’s need for restraint, and to keep out of arguments that are not in our best interests.

The remaining contents of this edition of AFF include these essays:

  • Natasha Kassam & Darren Lim explore how Xi’s China model is reshaping the global order.
  • Sam Roggeveen considers Washington’s stance on China and whether Biden can seek to restore US primacy.
  • Linda Jaivin discusses how Australia might use its strengths as a middle power to combat China’s influence.
  • Huong Le Thu suggests how Australia can improve its South-East Asian ties.
  • Kate Geraghty lays bare the horrific impact that war can have on women.
  • Melissa Conley Tyler reveals the crippling impact of Australia’s underfunding of diplomacy.

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  The March of Autocracy, Australia’s Fateful Choices
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 11, February 2021
ISBN: 9781760642105
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library

In my idle moments, I’ve been watching Series III of the Danish TV program Borgen. In Series III (2013) the central character, the former PM Birgitte Nyborg who lost office at the end of Series II, forms a new party in response to her old party’s drift to the right and its stance on immigration. Alongside this storyline, there is a strand about the relationship between politics and the media, and in this series there is a Bright Young Thing who has been parachuted in to TV1 to lift ratings.  Amongst other ‘innovations’ he directs the Head of News to change the news narrative to something ‘positive’, offering viewers a glimpse of ‘I’d like to be that person in the news’ rather than ‘I’d hate to be that person in the news’.

I admit it, I felt a faint (but fleeting) moment of connection with this inane directive.  It came to mind when, for #WITmonth I was reading a novella newly available in English: The Pachinko Parlour, by the French-Korean author Elisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.  And I thought, why is it, that the novels set in Japan that come my way all feature repressed, alienated characters in melancholy claustrophobic settings? Why have these books never made me feel, I’d like to go to Japan?

Pachinko machine (Wikipedia)

The Pachinko Parlour is beautifully written, rendered in English with spare delicacy by the translator.  Set in Tokyo in a humid summer, the novella brings the reader to a crowded city of oppressive heat, where clothes cling to the body and all energy seems to be drained away.  The pachinko parlour of the title is a symbol of the aimlessness of life and the cynicism of the authorities, who’ve turned a blind eye to it.  Gambling for money is illegal in Japan, but the Koreans who’ve clustered together (in what amounts to a ghetto in Tokyo) play these one-armed bandits that deliver small balls for a win, which are then exchanged for money outside the pachinko parlour.  Like pachinko, the game of life for some in Tokyo is low stakes, low strategy.

The Pachinko Parlour is narrated by a blow-in called Claire, the 29-year-old Swiss granddaughter of a couple who fled the Korean War to Japan.  She is visiting from Switzerland where she lives with her mother. From her room, all she can see is the passing feet of the salarymen, a metaphor for the way life is passing her by.

The purpose of her trip is to escort her grandparents on their first-ever return visit to their homeland. The boyfriend Mathieu was supposed to come along, but he has PhD commitments so she’s on her own. Other complications are that the grandmother appears to be regressing to childhood and the grandfather, now in his nineties, is still working all hours at their Pachinko Parlour. It all seems ill-advised.  Why would these very elderly grandparents submit to visiting a place of bad memories with a granddaughter they barely know?

The novella is full of enigmatic elements like this, raising questions which are not answered.

These grandparents have lived in Tokyo since the Korean War, but have never integrated into the host society.  The grandmother, in particular, refuses to speak Japanese, and is said to have cut out part of her tongue during the WW2  Japanese Occupation of Korea rather than speak their language. Claire, under the misapprehension in Switzerland that learning Japanese would be useful in her relationship with her grandparents, has studied it at university and her Korean is only rudimentary.  Clearly, the communication difficulties they have now go back a long way since the reader can assume that—whether the grandmother ever talked about the Occupation or not—the communication (letters? phone calls? Skype?) that she (in Tokyo) had with her daughter and granddaughter (in Switzerland), must have been in the Korean language. Why didn’t Claire understand this before her visit? And anyway, why is it Claire who doesn’t speak Korean making this visit, and not her mother, who does?

Whose desire is it, that Claire should spend her 30th birthday, marooned with people she barely knows and can’t communicate with?

What narrative tension there is in the novel, derives from the reluctance of these grandparents to make any preparations for the trip to Korea, the implication being that they have accepted their situation.  They don’t really want to go and may have been pressured into it.

Claire (instead of doing whatever GenY tourists do in Tokyo), spends her days lying around in the heat, playing games on her phone, and intermittently teaching French to 10-year-old Mieko.  Mieko lives in a hotel abandoned when it went bankrupt; her living arrangements are odd, to say the least:

I follow Madame Ogawa back towards the entrance.

‘Mieko’s room is downstairs,’ she says, indicating a door half-hidden by a coat rack.  The door opens onto a concrete staircase. ‘Be careful,’ she says.  ‘The light switch is at the bottom of the stairs.’

Her voice echoes slightly, as if in a cave.  I feel my way down until the concrete gives way to a springier surface underfoot.  The humidity rises.  A neon light flickers on to reveal an open pit surrounded by a walkway with a waist-high glass barrier.  The floor of the pit slopes gently down to a drainage hole.  In one corner sits a single bed.

At this point in the narrative, this image triggers a scene from those awful crime shows where girls have been locked underground by a serial killer, but no, this nightmarish space is the bedroom of Madame Ogawa’s 10-year-old daughter.

Madame Ogawa places her hands on the guard rail.

‘The swimming pool.  It’s never been used, even when the hotel was open.  Mould.  It’s clean now, since we had it drained.  Mieko sleeps here, for the time being.’

I lean over the barrier to get a better look.  Arranged around the bed, a desk and a chest of drawers, a yoga mat and a hoop reflected to infinity in mirrors of either side of the pool.  Plastic blocks are arranged at the foot of the steps leading down into the pool.  I can’t help thinking of the arcade game Tetris, with the geometrical shapes that drop down and have to be rearranged in space. (p.5-6)

Other than the absence of Mieko’s father, which might account for poverty, there is no explanation for why a teacher of French and her daughter are living in such peculiar conditions.

Whatever the ambiguities of The Pachinko Parlour, the pattern is familiar to Australian readers: postwar migrants and refugees got on with rebuilding their lives and shouldered their memories of trauma privately. With rare exceptions such as Oh Lucky Country! by Rosa Cappiello, they did not write about the migrant experience in fiction or in memoir.  It is their children and grandchildren who write stories of displacement, loss of identity and resentment about a society that they feel is not inclusive.

Jacquiwine loved this book, and I recommend that you read her review too. See also Sharon’s review at Where the Books Go.

Image credit: pachinko machine By Piotrus – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Author: Elisa Shua Dusapin
Title: The Pachinko Parlour (Les billes du Pachinko)
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
Publisher: Scribe Publications Australia, 2022 , first published 2018
ISBN: 9781922585172, pbk., 176 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 11, 2022

Nimblefoot, by Robert Drewe

Nimblefoot, the eighth novel from the prolific Australian author Robert Drewe (b.1943), is an intriguing mixture of rollicking yarn, social exposé and a mischievous flirtation with the historical truth.  It’s a fictionalised version of the all-but-forgotten story of Australia’s first international sporting star, Johnny Day (1856–1885) who in real life was an undefeated child winner of walking races in the 1860s, who went on to win the 1970 Melbourne Cup on a horse coincidentally called Nimblefoot and who then disappeared out of the historical record.

Click here to see an image of Johnny Day at Trove.  Drewe says in the Afterword that it’s the only picture of Johnny in existence and that he was captivated by it:

Johnny and his exploits were completely unknown to me — and also to everyone to whom I subsequently mentioned him.  I was riveted by the sepia print of a confident little Australian kid wearing a winner’s sash and red athletic shorts and leaning nonchalantly on a milestone on a winding dirt road in the English countryside.  (p.302)

Did you follow that link?  So, in the Afterword excerpt, did you notice the red shorts described in a sepia print?  Did you notice where Johnny’s impressive sash is? Did you then Google Johnny, to find him featured on the ABC no less, back in 2014? Fossick around online a little more and lo! Click here to see another image of Johnny Day, this one at the National Portrait Gallery.

*chuckle* These are signals that the author is being playful, eh?  Clearly, the reader needs to be alert…

The first part of the novel brings Johnny’s childhood to life, and while this is a book intended to entertain, there are aspects of this childhood that will give a reader pause.  We have, sadly, been made only too well aware of historical institutional abuse and exploitation of indigenous and parentless children; and while A.B. Facey’s autobiography A Fortunate Life, by A.B. Facey (1894-1982) covers a period some decades later than Drewe’s novel, it gives a vivid picture of a childhood of neglect and exploitation that was commonplace for children of the working class. Drewe’s novel, while not labouring the point, also illuminates the pitilessness of 19th century life for the children of feckless parents.

The ‘rollicking yarn’ in Nimblefoot is a smokescreen for a novel that reveals a devastating portrait of the way children were treated in the colonial era.  Transpose the way Johnny Day’s parent exploited his son’s precocious talent to the present day, and he’d be hauled up before welfare authorities and the media would have a field day.

The novel is told from Johnny’s point-of-view, sometimes in Johnny’s voice, and sometimes by a narrator who sees and comments on more than Johnny does.  The tone is often jocular, and Johnny seems sanguine about walking incredible distances and his father pocketing his winnings.  He gets to travel the world in pursuit of these winnings, but he doesn’t actually see much of it because he has to make the most of being a child prodigy while he can.  (He doesn’t get an education either.)  By the time he reaches his teens, Johnny’s days as a child wonder are over, and since he’s very short in stature, his father offloads him to work in the racing industry.

Well, even today, the racing industry means a hard life that contrasts with the glamour of the track, but in Johnny’s day it meant sleeping on a sack in the stables so that the horse doesn’t get stolen.  The horse is valued a whole lot more than the vulnerable human looking after it.

Crude medical care failed his mother in that era, and in the form of leeches and quackery it fails Johnny and his stable mates too when they catch various infections from their unhygienic living conditions.

But Johnny’s triumph at the Melbourne Cup takes the novel off on a different, more sombre tangent.  Nimblefoot’s win coincides with the visit of Prince Alfred (one of Queen Victoria’s offspring) and while I have only Drewe’s word for it, Prince Alfred celebrated the win with underage sex at the same hotel where 14-year-old Johnny, plied with drink, has lost his virginity with a couple of good-time girls. He wakes to screaming:

In the hubbub no one pays me any attention.  The Prince disappears back into his room, complaining about bad form, leaving the other three, standing in their underwear in the corridor.  [Police Captain] Standish and [society bookmaker] Slack look to [Lord] Lacy for instruction.

‘Time to call it a night,’ he says.  ‘Oh, what’s this we have here?’

A sobbing naked girl about my age and hardly developed, limps out into the corridor, all swollen and bleeding down her legs.  A tortured but beautiful face.  She sobs that she’s reporting the Prince to the police for poisoning her and burning her insides with Spanish fly.

‘I am the police, Standish says.’ (p.78)


The girl yells that she will tell all the influential clients who also come to Mother Fraser’s — the Governor, the Solicitor-General and their associates.  What happens after that is that a lot of people have to be silenced to preserve the Royal reputation. The light-hearted tone of the narrative doesn’t mask the horror when the list of potential witnesses grows to include Johnny’s father:

Butchering being perhaps the most heavily armed of the basic trades, butchers don’t anticipate violence on their premises.  Back in Ballarat a week after the court case, Tom Day had sent his workers George and Bobby home and was preparing to close up at eight o’clock when a late customer entered the shop.

Perhaps his father had forgotten his Standish anxieties when he turned his back to trim the customer’s order of lamb cutlets.  Maybe he was impressed by an order of spring lamb instead of the usual hogget or mutton.  Anyway the killer caved in his skull with is own meat hammer and left the cutlets, hammer and body on the floor, different bloods fusing in the sawdust. (p.96)

Johnny takes flight, making his way to Western Australia on the steamer Queensborough.  Along the way he meets Anthony Trollope on his tour of Australia, and can’t resist bragging a little about his sporting achievements.  Alas, he was not to know that Trollope can’t resist writing about the child wonder…

His pursuer, careless of the fact that police had no powers once they crossed colonial borders, tracks him down and then there is a cat-and-mouse trail south and north and into the hostile inland as Johnny tries to elude capture while also making a living and falling in love with a couple of young ladies.  Disappearing into anonymity is made harder by Johnny’s short stature. He can disguise himself with a fledging beard, but he cannot disguise his height…

Johnny is a remarkable hero for this novel.  What we would now call PTSD haunts his adolescent dreams but he is indefatigable.  He comes across as an adolescent with initiative, courage, good humour and resilience.

That much is true, I like to think…

Author: Robert Drewe
Title: Nimblefoot
Cover design by
Publisher: Penguin Random House (AU)
ISBN: 9780143786450, pbk., 307 pages
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House (AU)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 9, 2022

Sensational Snippets: Late Journals, by Antigone Kefala

How should one review a published version of a writer’s journal?

I’ve been pondering this since I started reading the Late Journals of Antigone Kefala, an Australian writer of Greek-Romanian heritage who writes in both Greek and English. Born in 1935 in Romania to Greek parents, she and her family lived in Greece and New Zealand before migrating to Australia in 1960.  Over her lifetime she has published poetry, fiction, non-fiction, essays and journals.  This journal is said to be her last.

This is the description from the back cover:

Late Journals completes a trilogy of works in which Kefala develops and expands her range as a memoirist, beginning with Summer Visit (2003), and followed by Sydney Journals (2008), both published by Giramondo. Kefala is not alone in writing in the journal form – Beverley Farmer and Helen Garner are notable contemporaries – but she is remarkable for the poetic resonance and intellectual significance she imparts to her observations. Feeling acutely her position as an outsider, because of her migrant background, she nevertheless expresses a strong sense of community with the writers, artists and thinkers who share her situation, or have influenced her work. The journals abound in portraits and tributes, reflections on art and life, and wonderful descriptions of places and landscapes, which give full reign to her imagination, and her ability to express the vitality and strangeness of the life around her.

But how to review it?

It’s a journal, and even though it may have been written with an eye to publication and edited so that we read a polished product, it’s still Kefala’s personal reflections, in fragments.  How can we ‘judge well’, as Angela Bennie says a reviewer should? There is artistry in the prose, and there are insights that are memorable, but I can’t capture this in the form of reviews that I usually write.

Late Journals includes interesting fragments about Kefala’s rich cultural life in Sydney, her musings on mortality and the loss of friends, and commentary on current affairs (though not the banality of politics).  A scholarly reader would probably draw on themes and issues from previous works, and identify continuities and departures in this one.  But I am not a scholarly reader, and I’ve never read Kefala before.  It seems to me that the flavour of this work is best captured by sharing some of the fragments that resonated with me…

The fragments that most often meant more to me, were those that referred to what I found familiar (e.g. about Beethoven’s music or Anna Akhmatova’s poetry), or were opinions that I found intriguing, whether I agreed with them or not.

After a dance performance at the Sydney Opera House:

A clean, muscular performance, interesting dissonant music, the woman dancer very beautiful. More like acrobats. (p.3)

On reading an unnamed new book:

The poems, as if constantly saying something, yet an empty sort of phenomenon, like an artificial essence they put into drinks to make people want to drink more, but which leaves them empty. (p.5)

On reading an unnamed magazine featuring an unnamed writer describing difficulties with writing.

He was describing his efforts to become part of the Australian scene after he migrated here with his parents, by trying to mirror Aboriginal writing and approaches, to be told off by an Aboriginal writer with whom he shared a platform at a reading.

I thought last night — a deeper alienation than mine.

In my case neither mirroring nor mimesis, from when we left Romania, and even before that, I was aware that I was trespassing on someone else’s territory.  Constantly trying not to venture on their patch, appropriate, trying to define my limits, my territory, mostly inwardly, my experience, finding a language for it.

In spite of the intellectual gloss of the paper, nothing but inner desperation. (p.7)

An entry for June in Journal 1 about computers offering new communications, contact with the world, more information and making friends with the world makes me wonder what year she wrote this.  The underlining in the excerpt below is mine, and I’m wondering if she’s taking a long view, or is (like some older people) commenting on innovations that have not been ‘new’ for a while now:

A new method of running away from oneself, listening less and less to oneself, everything finally simulated. (p.13)

This alienation from the digital world worsens in August, when she understood from a friend no longer writing letters to her, that she had gone on FACEBOOK, wrote impressions of her travels, performances she had seen… amazing how people responded…

We are being forgotten in favour of FACEBOOK, TWITTER… Everyone is going public.  Conversations with the world!  While the intimate exchange is ignored. (p.17)

Another expression of disappointment in contemporary life:

Reading a small biography of [Grace] Cossington-Smith.  The phenomenon of someone of such calibre working for so long unrecognised, till she is almost eighty.  An old story.

While everyone now thinks that they can pick up a genius at first glance.  As Pat used to tell me, that if my painter friends are not making it, it is because they are no good, because now, everyone is on the lookout for talent.

But the question remains, they may be on the lookout, but WHAT ARE THEY CAPABLE OF SEEING? (p.21)

And this one:

The literary scene, as the sports scene and so on, seems to be dominated by a few names, as if written by adolescents who can only remember one name, more names in a scene impossible to sustain. (p.148)

And this, a conversation with ‘Elizabeth’ in Journal IV about her omission from the PEN Macquarie Anthology:

‘Are you in it?’

‘No, I don’t think so.  They have not asked for permission.’

They should have waited for her to die and then take her out, she has been in every anthology published so far. (p.101)

And then, a poignant entry in Journal VI:

Looking at the latest Companion to Australian Literature — we appear in a subsection called ETHNIC MINORITY WRITING. After so many years of writing here we are still totally outside the whole scene.  Not only Ethnic, but Minority as well — a double blow… (p.147)

In 2021 UWAP published a critical study called Antigone Kefala, New Australian Modernities, edited by Elizabeth McMahon and Brigitta Olubas.  The book description reveals Kefala as a cultural visionary:

Antigone Kefala is one of the most significant of the Australian writers who have come from elsewhere; it would be difficult to overstate the significance of her life and work in the culture of this nation. Over the last half-century, her poetry and prose have reshaped and expanded Australian literature and prompted us to re-examine its premises and capacities. From the force of her poetic imagery and the cadences of her phrases and her sentences to the large philosophical and historical questions she poses and to which she responds, Kefala has generated in her writing new ways of living in time, place and language. Across six collections of poetry and five prose works, themselves comprising fiction, non-fiction, essays and diaries, she has mapped the experience of exile and alienation alongside the creativity of a relentless reconstitution of self. Kefala is also a cultural visionary. From her rapturous account of Sydney as the place of her arrival in 1959, to her role in developing diverse writing cultures at the Australia Council, to the account of her own writing life amongst a community of friends and artists in Sydney Journals (2008), she has reimagined the ways we live and write in Australia.

It sounds as if it would be rather interesting to read about her role in developing diverse writing cultures…

Author: Antigone Kefala
Title: Late Journals
Cover image by Eleni Nakopoulos
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9781925818970, pbk., 162 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2022

Klotsvog, by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Lisa C Hayden

With thanks to Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for my discovery of this book, my choice for #WITMonth turned out to be compelling reading. Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog, (2009) was translated by Lisa C Hayden in 2019 for The Russian Library at Columbia University Press and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker, as was Khemlin’s The Investigator (2012, translated by Melanie Moore for Glagoslav in 2015, see my review).  Information at Wikipedia about Khemlin is sketchy but it seems that her international profile blossomed in the post-Soviet era and reading these two novels confirms my opinion that Khemlin (1960-2015) was an outstanding author of subtlety and style.

Klotsvog, with its unprepossessing title, is subtitled Notes from the Jewish Underground but its portrayal of secular Jewish life is confined to the mental landscape of its central character, the narrator Maya. Like a Soviet version of Becky Sharp from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-8), Maya is on a quest to better herself.  In the Stalinist USSR, upgrading from cramped and overcrowded housing becomes an all-consuming quest for Maya who engineers successive relationships to achieve an apartment of her own by the novel’s end.

Like Becky, Maya is shallow, selfish, manipulative and cruel, but unlike Becky, her motivation is not merely materialistic.  As noted in the Foreword by Lara Vapynya, Khemlin, the catalyst for her outrageous behaviour is fear.

Maya, like all the secular Jewish characters in her milieu, lost most of her family when they perished under the German Occupation of Ukraine during WW2.  She and her mother survived through ‘the evacuation’ (the mass migration of 16 million western Soviet citizens to the east) during the Soviet retreat.  They were among about 1.5 million East European Jews—mostly from Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia—who, in contrast to near annihilation of the Jews in the rest of German occupied Europe, survived behind the lines. Wikipedia tells us, however, that in the postwar era, Stalin reignited anti-Semitism, with campaigns against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ (i.e. Zionists), among whom were writers and intellectuals arrested for ‘espionage’ and ‘treason’ beginning in 1948 and culminating with the Night of the Murdered Poets.

The surviving fragments of the Jewish community had good reason to fear a Soviet version of Hitler’s Final Solution, and they were also haunted by the long history of pogroms in Ukraine, Poland and Russia. In the novel, Maya—who gradually becomes aware of how her suppressed Jewish identity impacts on her life—thinks that catastrophe is inevitable.  She determines to live as well as she can in the meantime.

My romantic infatuation with Viktor Pavlovich had overshadowed my thinking, leaving me with just enough awareness to think only of my love for him, especially since this was my first love. But the horrible assumptions hovering all around literally drove me into a corner and forced me to return, again and again, to the days in evacuation that had brought so many deprivations.

Of course, the problem of the future fate of the Jewish people—of which I was a constituent part due to my birth—rattled me.  But things were working out from that angle, too: I could live pleasantly and with dignity alongside a reliable person, at least for an allotted time, until new ordeals.  Be that as it may. (p.14)

Khemlin, as I said, is a subtle author, and Maya, as I said, is shallow. So with only occasional insights into Maya’s mental landscape of fear, the novel romps through her energetic efforts to improve her lot while she awaits her fate.  Her first lover Viktor, (her maths teacher at the technical college in Kiev where she is studying to be a teacher and the father of her first child, Mishenka) is soon ditched because divorce from his wife Darina would leave the ex-wife registered to live in their accommodation.  Maya upscales to Fima, manager at her workplace.  (She has ditched her studies as they are incompatible with her plans but continues to claim that she is a pedagogue throughout the novel.)

Maya tricks Fima into thinking that Mishka is his child, and moves into his slightly more spacious rooms.  But Fima is grieving the loss of his entire family and his excessive drinking is a symptom of his fragile mental state.  Maya moves on to her second husband, also a manager and offering better prospects.  Meanwhile, Maya’s mother is also upscaling her status, income and accommodation.  She marries Gilya, a widower who lost family too, enabling Maya to spirit Mishka off to live with her mother in rural Ostyor in Russia, where Maya’s only concern is that he is learning Yiddish, which makes him vulnerable.  Speaking it outside the home could lead to his death. 

Alas, Maya does not know that Miroslav has something to hide too: his paralysed mother, who is dependent on nursing that Maya is expected to provide.  Nonetheless, the indefatigable Maya intends Miroslav to adopt Mishka, and before long offloads the nursing and the laundry to a young woman with whom Miroslav finds some consolation. Things are not working out as Maya had planned.  Soviet life is complicated.

Readers who know The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, translated by Krystyna A. Steiger, will remember how family homes were subdivided after the October Revolution to accommodate numerous unrelated residents. The New Moscow Philosophy…

… is set in late Soviet-era Moscow, in Apartment 12 where numerous people are crammed into a space which was once home to just one family, of whom the elderly Alexandra Sergeyevna Pumpianskaya is now the sole surviving remnant.  After what Russians call the Imperialist War (i.e. World War 1) ‘at the time of the so-called consolidation of the Moscow gentry and bourgeoisie’, the apartment was subdivided by soviet decree and the Pumpianskaya family ended up with only the dining-room.  The rest of the apartment became home to a disparate group of people, who now form an uneasy kind of extended family, bound together by the intimacies of daily living at the same address and – over the years – a shared history of life under the Soviets. (See my review)

What with the Soviet rules for allocating households to accommodation, the residency rules, the complex adoption process and her adroit management of her lies, concealments and self-deceptions, Maya’s personal life is such a complicated mess that she even thinks of the impending deportations as a solution to her problems.

But Maya does not allow setbacks.  There is another husband, another lover, another neglected child, along with Maya’s self-justifications in pompous Soviet-era bureaucratese.  She is in complete denial about Ella’s delayed development, about her estrangement from Mishka, and she takes no responsibility for neglecting what remains of her family or the trail of broken people she leaves behind her.

Sombre notes occur only intermittently in Klostvog. Some could be easy to miss, such as the gift of a Mazuzah (Mezuzah) for Marik’s birthday.  Maya catalogues all his gifts as a measure of her status, and she is very cross when her daughter Ellochka removed it from its hiding place to show her friend that it’s ‘true’ that ‘Jews have expensive jewels’, and then threw it away.  What is unsaid in the novel is that it had to be hidden because to display it on the front door would identify theirs as a Jewish household and invite peril.  It was made of silver, and very valuable—and a ‘souvenir from the war’ a delicate inference that it was looted from an abandoned Jewish home.

Klotsvog is a remarkable novel and Lisa Hayden’s translation is excellent.  She provides a helpful translator’s note too, giving context to the work and explaining a couple of historical references that clarify Maya’s survivor’s fear.

I read this book for #WITmonth, initiated by blogger Meytal Radzinski and now an international movement to celebrate the work of women writers in translation.  Visit Women in Translation for more information.

Image credit: Mazuzah:

Author: Margarita Khemlin
Title: Klotsvog, Notes from the Jewish Underground, (Клоцвог)
Translated from the Russian by Lisa C Hayden
Publisher: The Russian Library, Columbia University, 2019, first published 2009
ISBN: 9780231182379, pbk., 245 pages
Source: Personal library

This month’s #6Degrees starts with Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness which has just won the Women’s Prize.  I confess to having sent it back to the library unread: I’d reserved it before it won the prize, and other, more enticing books were calling me and I thought it was unfair not to return it when it was so obviously in demand.

Anyway, it’s an easy segue to the Women’s Prize winners that I have read.  I’ve read nearly all of them because the prize winners are usually the kind of books I like though they can be a bit middlebrow, depending on who the judges are. Kate Grenville famously won it with The Idea of Perfection in 2001. Kate Grenville used to be one of my auto-buy writers, but she lost me with Sarah Thornhill (see my review) and a tiresome book about her allergy to perfume.  (I didn’t review it because I only scanned it, enough to know that if I want to know about allergies, I’ll read one by a medical expert.)

After that she compounded my irritation with a fictionalised life of Elizabeth Macarthur.  FWIW Elizabeth Macarthur was IMO an Australian pioneering woman of sufficient importance in our history to warrant reading about her real life, interrogated from a 21st century perspective that explores how the work of pioneering women farmers has been overlooked.  Margaret Scott Tucker’s wonderful biography, Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World is the book to read for that.  As you can see in my review, the bio places Elizabeth Macarthur where she belongs as the pioneer of the wool industry, displacing her tiresome husband who got all of the credit for it even though he wasn’t the one making the crucial decisions that led to their success. And as you can see from the cover of the second edition, the cover blurbs my judgement that the bio is unputdownable. 

Most of the biographies that I read are literary biographies, (though I make an exception for anything that Brenda Niall and Hazel Rowley have written).  The LitBios I like best are the ones that show how the writing emerges from the life, such as Nathan Hobby’s recent bio of Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Red Witch. (See my review.) These bios enrich my reading of the author’s work and often stimulate me to seek out more of the author’s work.  The Red Witch made a serious dent in my book budget because of Nathan’s enticing analysis of titles I didn’t have—but it also warned me off being a completist with KSP because Moon of Desire was a potboiler, written when Prichard was short of money and hoping for a Hollywood option.  A good literary biographer can save a reader from making unwise purchases!

Which leads me to…

Just recently in the #54321 meme, I listed four auto-buy authors, but I didn’t list Richard Flanagan.  I love all his novels, except for the potboiler The Unknown Terrorist.  Flanagan is a writer after my own heart, he’s a man of strong opinions and he is fearless about expressing them.  But after my disappointment with that novel, I hesitate before I part with my money. The Unknown Terrorist, as it says at Goodreads:  is a relentless tour de force that paints a devastating picture of a contemporary society gone haywire, where the ceaseless drumbeat of terror alert levels, newsbreaks, and fear of the unknown pushes a nation ever closer to the breaking point.  I read it before I started this blog, and this is what I wrote at Goodreads:

This book is utterly unlike Richard Flanagan’s other literary fiction novels. If this is the first and only book you have ever read by this Australian writer, don’t make the mistake of dismissing him as a writer of polemic not-very-convincing thrillers. His other books, Death of a River Guide, Gould’s Book of Fish and Wanting are brilliant, intriguing, complex novels that will reward every millisecond you put into reading them.

Clearly, I must segue to one that I found rewarding, but oh! which one of Flanagan’s multiple novels which have stayed with me as indelible memories?  Perhaps with one not reviewed on this blog, because I read it back in 2002: Gould’s Book of Fish, famously canned by the literary critic Peter Craven before it hauled in a mass of prizes, including the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (2002), the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal (2002), the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book Overall (2002), and a nomination for Miles Franklin Literary Award (2002),

Well, Peter Craven is not the only literary critic to be out of step; *chuckle*, while not in his league, I’m out of step myself often enough. (Most recently with Sarah Winman’s Still Life!) Everyone’s a critic these days, but I am mindful of the wise advice from Angela Bennie in the Introduction to Crème de la Phlegm: Unforgettable Australian Reviews.  As I wrote in my review:

What matters, according to Bennie, is that criticism should ‘judge well.’  She cites a number of harsh reviews which demonstrate that the reviewer didn’t know anything about the theory behind the work  – notably A.D. Hope’s excoriation of modernism in Patrick White’s Tree of Man, labelling it ‘illiterate verbal sludge’, which must have amused the author when he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Paul Haefleger’s dismissal of Sidney Nolan.  You can’t , for instance, pretend to be an critic of the visual arts today if you don’t know anything about post-modernism – after all, the artist has probably studied post-modernism at tertiary level and it’s to be expected that they’d be influenced by it.  But some of our reviewers pander to shock-jock attitudes and simply write scornful stuff instead of trying to educate their readership about new ideas.  If you’re going to be a critic, Bennie says, you ought to be informed about the media you review.

I also noted Bennie’s summation of the current state of reviewing:

Bennie, in her decade-by-decade analysis of how arts criticism has adapted over the years, says that in general, literary criticism is in decline.  Constraints of space, pandering to popular taste, dumbing-down: it’s all downhill from here, and at a time when more and more books are being published.

That was back in 2007…

From the winner of the Women’s Prize to a book about literary criticism, that’s my #6Degrees for this month!

Well, well, I just finished my draft and visited this meme’s host Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best to see what the next book is to be and it looks like I’ll be revisiting Bennie’s book!

Next month (September 3, 2022), we’ll start with the book you finished with this month (and if you haven’t done an August chain, start with the last book you read).


Literary criticism of an author’s work is not my usual fare these days, though I read a lot of it in my university days.  I credit it with my ongoing love of literature because it showed me that there is always more to discover in a book that you admire.  

These days, I’m more likely to enjoy a literary biography, but I could not resist a copy of Julieanne Lamond’s Lohrey, the first in MUP’s Contemporary Australian Writers series. Though reading it will reveal some of Amanda Lohrey’s personal life, it is not a biography, it is a delicious survey of her fiction, and was such an intense pleasure to read that it made me appreciate the Lohrey novels all over again. 

Scholars of literature in general and Australian literature in particular will be champing at the bit to get their hands on Lohrey, but for general readers—whether the completists among us who’ve read everything or those who’ve just discovered Lohrey since she won the Miles Franklin Award, Lamond’s book is a treasure trove of insights into one of the best living authors in Australia.

As regular readers know, I was up to page 4 of Lohrey when I jumped ship to read The Morality of Gentlemen, Lohrey’s debut novel from 1984.  My only hesitation in enthusing about it in my review was that while I’d had a copy on the TBR, it is now difficult to source.  I really hope that Lohrey triggers a reissue of this title because Morality is a superb example of a destabilising effect recurring in Lohrey’s fiction: it creates readerly confusion because the author disallows a point-of view.  Her fiction is always unsettling partly because there are multiple perspectives including assertive narrators who undercut the characters, and partly because she creates such irritating characters, who act in ways that we don’t approve of and yet we feel some sympathy for them. But, says Lamond, her broader concern is how our lives are impacted by the economic and political structures in which we live.  

Morality, as I noted in my review, features detailed descriptions of the venues where events take place. In the chapter titled ‘The Politics of Renovation’, Lamond discusses the symbolism of houses which are also plot devices in Lohrey’s fiction. Renovating recurs as both a literal activity and an enactment of philosophical ideas and emotional states. Referring to an older meaning of renovation, Lamond provides a fresh insight: it also means “to cause to be spiritually reborn [or[ to invest with a new and higher spiritual nature.” That is what the central character is struggling with in The Philosopher’s Doll, (2004); A Short History of Richard Kline, (2015); and in The Labyrinth, (2020) too.

For middle-class characters and wealthy characters alike the home becomes a site of self-discovery and reinvention.  These processes are often accompanied by discomfort caused by the contradiction of desiring social mobility whilst feeling distaste for displays of such desire in others.  Richard Kline and his wife Zoe scoff at ‘the lingua franca of Sydney life: real estate’. (p.49)

[LH: I find that these discomfiting emotions often provide the humour in Lohrey’s fiction.]

In Chapter Two, ‘Free Solo’, Lamond explores the way Lohrey interrogates the competing expressions of masculinity in the wake of the growth of corporate culture in the 1980s in The Reading Group (1988, see my review.)  Lohrey doesn’t harp on about toxic masculinity or exclude them from her insights, she unpacks the way they behave.  In Camille’s Bread (1995); in Richard Kline and in The Labyrinth, what the reader witnesses is a desperate and dogged attempt for Lohrey’s characters to escape the ways in which they have been socialised to be men.  

Many men in Lohrey’s novels are socialised into an expectation of unencumbered power and agency which they cannot enact, except through violence.  (p.79)

What these men fear is the unthinking violence of their male role models. Readers of The Labyrinth will remember Jurko, the undocumented immigrant with whom Erica builds a wary friendship. 

Jurko’s life is defined by a ferocious beating from his father; his response is to leave his home country and his profession and remake himself, on his own terms, in Australia.  He enters The Labyrinth like a bearded, older, Balkan version of Stephen from Camille’s Bread. Like Stephen, he is a man drawn to asceticism, damaged by his father, but now bedraggled, down to the bare bones of life. (p.79)

Lohrey also shows from Morality onwards, how women are sidelined. She is brilliant, says Lamond, at detailing what it feels like to be belittled by everyday interactions between men. It was delicious to be reminded by Lamond of that scene in Camille’s Bread where Marita is thinking about the men in her life—and in the fiction she reads—who resist being ‘domesticated’.

Contemplating this now, she is suddenly aware of a presence and looks up.  A large black cockroach has scurried out from under the bench and is poised beside the cooling rack … No matter what she does she is never rid of them and now she accepts that they will always be there; big, brutish, ugly and omnipresent. (p. 149 in Camille’s Bread, cited on p.83 in Lohrey.)

[LH: It was this quotation that sent me to second-hand booksellers for a copy of Camille’s Bread. I must have read a library copy of it rather than bought my own, and I simply must have it so that I can re-read it!]

The chapter titled ‘Fire’ explores the way Lohrey writes about our apprehension of crisis and its proximity and how the motif of fire raises questions of ethical and political responsibility for others.  Fire is a symbol and a plot device, and a metaphor for crisis more generally. Lohrey doesn’t write dystopias about the endgame of climate change; she uses the form of the realist novel to consider ecological and political agency.  In The Reading Group (1988) and in Vertigo (2009), Lohrey tackles climate change but also explores the causes of inaction.  She has a long-held interest in the causes and conditions of political inaction. 

Have I given you a taste of this wonderful book?  I haven’t discussed the pleasures of the chapter titled ‘Scenes of Reading’ nor the author’s interview with Lohrey because this book deserves to be widely read in its entirety — not just by those intrigued by Lohrey’s writing (and I haven’t even mentioned her short stories or her forays into non-fiction!) — but also as a masterclass in writing about writers.  Lamond is a writer in her own right: incisive, insightful, and often amusing.  

Forthcoming books in the series include readings on two more of our greatest authors, Gerald Murnane and Joan London.

Author: Julieanne Lamond
Title: Lohrey
Series: Contemporary Australian Writers 
Cover design by Evi O. Studio
Publisher: Miegunyah Press, an imprint of MUP (Melbourne University Press) 2022
ISBN: 9780522878936, pbk., 173 pages
Review copy courtesy of MUP. 


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2022

2022 Queensland Literary Awards shortlists

The shortlist for the the Queensland Literary Awards 2022 has been announced. The winners will be announced on Thursday 8 September 2022.

Queensland Premier’s Award for a Work of State Significance

  • Wounded Country by Quentin Beresford, NewSouth
  • Muddy People by Sara El Sayed, Black Inc. Books
  • The Burnished Sun by Mirandi Riwoe, University of Queensland Press
  • Operation Jungle by John Shobbrook, University of Queensland Press
  • Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego, University of Queensland Press

Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award

  • Rebecca Cheers
  • Marilena Hewitt
  • Miranda Hine
  • Sean West

The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award

  • The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Hachette Australia
  • Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au, Giramondo Publishing, see my review
  • The Furies by  Mandy Beaumont Hachette Australia
  • The Keepers by Al Campbell,  University of Queensland Press
  • Australiana by Yumna Kassab, Ultimo Press

University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award

  • Lies, Damned Lies by Claire G. Coleman, Ultimo Press
  • Muddy People by Sara El Sayed, Black Inc. Books
  • The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar, Pan Macmillan
  • The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen by Krissy Kneen, Text Publishing
  • Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego, University of Queensland Press

Children’s Book Award

  • My Brother Ben by Peter Carnavas, University of Queensland Press
  • A Glasshouse of Stars by Shirley Marr, Penguin Random House Australia
  • Kunyi by Kunyi June Anne McInerney, Magabala Books
  • The Boy Who Tried to Shrink His Name, by Sandhya Parappukkaran and illustrated by Michelle Pereira, Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing
  • The First Scientists by Corey Tutt and illustrated by Blak Douglas, Hardie Grant Explore

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award

  • Girls in Boys’ Cars by Felicity Castagna, Pan Macmillan
  • Katipo Joe: Wolf’s Lair by Brian Falkner, Scholastic
  • Morrison and Mr Moore by Michael Hyde, In Case of Emergency Press
  • Social Queue by Kay Kerr, Text Publishing
  • Sugar by Carly Nugent, Text Publishing

University of Southern Queensland Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection

  • Dark as Last Night by Tony Birch, University of Queensland Press
  • The Kindness of Birds, by Merlinda Bobis, Spinifex Press, see my review
  • The Burnished Sun by Mirandi Riwoe, University of Queensland Press
  • If You’re Happy by Fiona Robertson, University of Queensland Press
  • Lake Malibu and Other Stories by Su-May Tan, Spineless Wonders

Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Collection

  • TAKE CARE by Eunice Andrada, Giramondo Publishing
  • Statis Shuffle by Pam Brown, Hunter Publishers
  • accelerations & inertias, by Dan Disney, Vagabond Press
  • At the Altar of Touch by Gavin Yuan Gao,  University of Queensland Press
  • Bees Do Bother: An Antagonist’s Carepack by Ann Vickery, Vagbond Press

David Unaipon Award for an Emerging Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Writer

  • ‘Finding Billy Brown’ by Edoardo Crismani
  • ‘Wawun, Judulu and The Big Storm’ by Julie-Ann ‘Garrimaa’ Moore
  • ‘Always Will Be – stories of Goori sovereignty, from the future(s) of the Tweed’ by Mykaela Saunders
  • untitled manuscript by Rick Slager
  • ‘Unplanned Journey: A personal account of one Indigenous woman’s life’ by  Aunty Joan Tranter

Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer

  • ‘Do you like the artist Georgia O’Keeffe?’ by A E Macleod
  • ‘The Interventions’ by John Richards
  • ‘Sunshowers’ by Emily Winter
  • ‘Things Left Unsaid’ by Yen-Rong Wong

The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award

Voting is open for The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award.  Cast your vote by 15 August.

  • Whole Notes by Ed Ayres, ABC Books
  • The Keepers by Al Campbell, University of Queensland Press
  • Muddy People by Sara El Sayed, Black Inc. Books
  • Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss,  Simon & Schuster Australia, see my review
  • The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen by Krissy Kneen, Text Publishing
  • Red Heaven by Nicolas Rothwell, Text Publishing
  • Crime Writer by Dime Sheppard, Ruby Books
  • Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego, University of Queensland Press

To read the judges comments, see the awards website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2022

Still Life, by Sarah Winman

I was expecting to like Sarah Winman’s Still Life.  It’s had very positive reviews, it was longlisted for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and I liked her previous novel Tin Man, declaring that it was rare to find a novel that is so much about love and kindness and friendship without descending into sentimentality.

Alas, Still Life is an English fantasy of Tuscan postwar life: sunshine and weather mild enough for shorts; good food and nice wine; appealing scenery round every cobblestoned corner complemented by splendid Florentine art; and a language easy to learn between the sheets should you need to know more than the vocabulary for food.  Yes, there are occasional problems such as the 1966 flood, but such difficulties are overcome by the niceness of people who come together as a genial community, and Brits who flit in to help without any clear idea of what to do can still manage to access the essentials of life such as a bath and a decent meal. Plus, this Florence is, despite Italy being a Catholic country, easy-going about gays and lesbians; and it’s tolerant of stuffy English people and an excess of tourists.  Most remarkable of all, they have an impressive ability to transition briskly from a military dictatorship under Mussolini with no hard feelings about who was on which side.

All this while Britain was enduring postwar austerity and Germany was rebuilding the ruins.

The story starts outside Florence during WW2 with the meeting of Evelyn Skinner the art historian and the soldier Ulysses Temper, named not after the Greek hero but after a racehorse.  This detail is important because it establishes Ulysses as an ordinary unpretentious fellow who is nonetheless charmed by the whimsical Evelyn and he earnestly imbibes lessons about Florentine art.  While there are inconclusive hints that Evelyn might actually be a spy, if that’s what she is then her cover is not very convincing.  It does seem somewhat unlikely that any English art conserver, much less a woman, would be dodging artillery fire on the front line, and indeed if she or any other English person were there at any time when the Germans were there as well they would have interned her as a matter of course.

Besides, surely Italy  had plenty of art historians of its own…


This meeting takes place as the characters are cheerfully looting a Tuscan cellar after the German retreat.  While I suspect that the Tuscans wouldn’t have begrudged their liberators, it doesn’t alter the fact that the military is not supposed to help itself to the possessions of the locals, who presumably need what remains of their surviving stock to earn a living after the war.  Italian superintendents are mentioned but they seem to be there to protect what remains of the art after the German departure, and it wasn’t made clear whether these characters in the cellar were there by invitation or not, or whether they paid for the splendid bottles of wine which they drank with such sophisticated appreciation.  A minor detail, but truth be told, I am always more likely to notice minor details if I’m not much engaged in a novel.  And I was often bored by this one.  Yes, bored. This book is much too long for itself.

Anyway Ulysses the dutiful soldier meets the art historian Evelyn across a social divide bridged by war, and then the war moves on and they are parted by more than just the decades between their ages.  He goes back to Britain to an inconclusive relationship with a rather bad-tempered woman called Peg, but with the proceeds of a lucky bet, goes back to live in Florence with an assortment of other male companions and Peg’s school-age daughter by another man (for whom she’s still carrying a torch).  The novel then proceeds to tease the reader with reunions that would have occurred had only Evelyn done this or Ulysses done that.  Although I did entertain what turned out to be a fruitless interest in the spying side of things and I  wondered if Ulysses would ever stop hankering after Peg and find the love of his life, I grew tired of these inconclusive meanderings of the plot, such as it was.

Why then did I continue reading the book?  I chose it from the TBR after reading Mercé Rodoredo’s Death in Spring, because I wanted something less harrowing. And I knew how that this book is dearly loved by many people, so I kept expecting that something would illuminate it for me, and then I would love it too.

It just didn’t happen for me.

Read the reviews of readers who loved it here, and here and here.

Author: Sarah Winman
Title: Still Life
Design and Illustrations by Ellie Game
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2021
ISBN: 9780008283360, pbk., 436 pages
Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 2, 2022

2022 NIB Literary Award longlist

The 2022 Mark and Evette Moran Literary Award longlist has been announced.

Established in 2002, the NIB is an award that focusses on excellence in Australian research and writing, and it’s the only major national literary award of its kind presented by a local council, i.e. Waverley Council (in NSW).

This year’s total prize pool is $28,500. Finalists each receive the Alex Buzo Shortlist Prize (6 x $1,000) and will be eligible for the Nib People’s Choice Prize ($2,500) and the Mark & Evette Moran Nib Literary Award ($20,000).

Alas, I have read only one of the nominees, and have only one on the TBR.

  • Currowan by Bronwyn Adcock (Black Inc Books)
  • Telling Tennant’s Story by Dean Ashenden (Black Inc Books)
  • Q Anon & On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults by Van Badham (Hardie Grant Books)
  • Leaping into Waterfalls by Bernadette Brennan (Allen & Unwin), on my TBR
  • Two Afternoons In The Kabul Stadium by Tim Bonyhady (Text Publishing)
  • Making Australian History by Anna Clark (Penguin Random House)
  • Signs and Wonders by Delia Falconer (Scribner Australia), see my review
  • The Asparagus Wars by Carol Major (ES Press)
  • Delia Akeley and the Monkey by Ian McCalman (Upswell Publishing)
  • Mafioso by Colin McLaren (Hachette Australia)
  • Mortals by Rachel Menzies and Ross Menzies (Allen & Unwin)
  • Inseparable Elements by Patsy Millet (Fremantle Press)
  • My Tongue Is My Own by Ann-Marie Priest (La Trobe University Press)
  • Red Heaven by Nicolas Rothwell (Text Publishing)
  • A Great Hope by Jessica Stanley (Picador Australia)
  • Here Goes Nothing by Steve Toltz (Penguin Random House)
  • The Jane Austen Remedy by Ruth Wilson (Allen & Unwin)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2022

Vale David Ireland (1927-2022)

I am indebted to a tweet from @kateharrisontas for the news that the award-winning Australian author David Ireland AM has died.  He won the Miles Franklin Award three times, in 1971, in 1977 and in 1979, and the ALS Gold Medal in 1985.  

Kate Harrison proofed and distributed Ireland’s last published novel, The World Repair Video Game for Island Magazine’s special limited edition in 2015.

There is very little biographical information about David Ireland in the public domain, but from Wikipedia and the Text Publishing website, I gather that Ireland, born in New South Wales in 1927, began by writing poetry and drama before turning to fiction with his first novel The Chantic Bird in 1968.  He worked on a number of blue-collar worksites before turning to writing full time in 1973 after he had won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971). Though interesting, and still worth reading, it was IMO a ‘blokey’ book, and so was The Glass Canoe which won the MF in 1976, so I was mildly inclined to disagree with Nicolas Rothwell, in his Introduction to the Text edition of The Glass Canoe, when he suggested that Ireland went out of literary fashion because the literati were no longer interested in his brand of realism. IMO, it was more that the milieu in which Ireland set his novels seemed irredeemably old-fashioned for feminist readers like me who savoured the emergence of Australian women’s fiction in the 1980s.

But I have not yet read any of Ireland’s fiction published in the 1980s.  I never even heard about it. I had bought  A Woman of the Future (1979) only to add it to my MF collection and it sat neglected on my TBR amongst the other winners.

However, after an absence of nearly ten years from publication, Ireland surfaced again with The World Repair Video Game in 2015, (see my review). Its nomination for the MF and my delight in reading it sent me scurrying to my favourite second-hand sellers to supplement the TBR with his backlist. I don’t have them all, alas,

Ireland’s novels are listed at Wikipedia as follows:

ANZ LitLovers extends condolences to the friends and family of David Ireland, another giant of Australian literature lost to us this year.

Update 4/8/22: Do read Van Ikin’s superb tribute to Ireland’s oeuvre at The Conversation. 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2022


I discovered this meme via Lizzy Sidal from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

It’s not as easy as it looks.  And of course, if I did it next week, my answers would be different.

5 Books I Love (just from my 2022 reading, just from Australia and New Zealand)

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

The Red Witch, a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard by Nathan Hobby

The Morality of Gentlemen by Amanda Lohrey

Other Houses by Paddy O’Reilly

Loop Tracks by Sue Orr


4 Auto Buy Authors (Australia and NZ only.  This was hard.)

Brian Castro

Catherine Chidgey

Amanda Lohrey

Stephen Orr

3 Genres I Love (no surprises here)



Literary biographies

2 Places I love to read 

In bed

On the sofa

1 Book I’m (probably) reading next (for #WITmonth)

Klotsvog, Notes from the Jewish Underground, by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Lisa C Hayden

Not having left myself much time to read something for Spanish Lit Month at Winston’s Dad, I chose Death in Spring (La mort i la primavera) from the TBR, thinking that at 150 pages I could read it quickly, and that it was a great lead-in to #WITMonth as well. It’s also said to be Mercé Rodoreda’s masterpiece, published posthumously in 1986.  (I’ve previously read her short stories and In Diamond Square.)

Alas, Death in Spring turned out to be slow and reluctant reading because it is so violent and grotesque that I could only read it in the daylight hours. The publisher’s description at Open Letter Books didn’t really prepare me for what lay ahead:

Considered by many to be the grand achievement of her later period, Death in Spring is one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most complex and beautifully constructed works. The novel tells the story of the bizarre and destructive customs of a nameless town—burying the dead in trees after filling their mouths with cement to prevent their soul from escaping, or sending a man to swim in the river that courses underneath the town to discover if they will be washed away by a flood—through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy who must come to terms with the rhyme and reason of this ritual violence, and with his wild, child-like, and teenaged stepmother, who becomes his playmate. It is through these rituals, and the developing relationships between the boy and the townspeople, that Rodoreda portrays a fully-articulated, though quite disturbing, society.

The horrific rituals, however, stand in stark contrast to the novel’s stunningly poetic language and lush descriptions. Written over a period of twenty years—after Rodoreda was forced into exile following the Spanish Civi War—Death in Spring is musical and rhythmic, and truly the work of a writer at the height of her powers.

Wikipedia tells us that Mercé Rodoreda (1908-1983) is the most influential contemporary Catalan language writer. Although she lived to see the death of Franco, his fascist government was the catalyst for her to flee Spain and live in exile from 1939-1972.  Hugh Ferrer from the University of Iowa suggests in his review at Words Without Borders that Death in Spring is an address to oppressive, authoritarian government, especially Franco’s, and so it indeed seems.  The harsh, authoritarian blacksmith who rules the village with his despotic, irrational regime commands terror, not respect, but his rule seems impenetrable to change, a permanent blight on the villagers he brutalises.

Written in the style of a grisly fairy tale, the novella is narrated by a teenage boy observing the rituals and trying to make sense of things that make no sense.  It begins in the forest where he witnesses his dying father trying to pre-empt the savagery of the ritual that is inflicted on the dying so that their souls cannot escape.  There are moments of some relief when he frolics with his young stepmother—and moments of hope when he conspires with the blacksmith’s son to prevent some of the violence—but these episodes are fraught with tension because of the fear of discovery and its consequences.

The blacksmith’s son has been deliberately kept frail so that he cannot participate in the perilous annual ritual prescribed for all the men of the village.  They are required to swim in the river that the village straddles, many of them emerging disfigured by being hurled against the rocks.  Some of them die.  The narrator learns unspoken things from the blacksmith’s son, some of them just part of the superstitious nonsense his father insists on, but he also speaks some truths.  Some terrible things happen only because people believe they will happen.

The prisoner, cramped into a cage for the amusement of the villagers, tells the narrator that you had to live pretending to believe everything.  

Pretending to believe everything and doing everything others wanted; he’d been imprisoned when he was young because he knew the truth and spoke it.  (p.81)

This prisoner now says that after so many years of captivity and abuse, he is no longer a prisoner, and he no longer wants to speak:

Nothing mattered to him, living behind bars or no bars.  He was his own prison. (p.81)

The narrator is summoned by Senyor, the rich man who lives above the village, to help him evade the prescribed death.  He wants to die with his mouth open, without having cement shoved down it to prevent his soul escaping.

Remembering my father in his very old age, I am reminded that it is not death that people fear, it’s the manner of that death. I was also reminded me of those scenes in WW2 films, where the resistance fighter is in the hands of the Nazis, and they choose to use a cyanide capsule to deny their captors control of their death.

Senyor thinks that the prisoner is the bravest:

The prisoner—he called him the man in the cage—the man in the cage knew me, he was the bravest, forever looking straight in front of him, he’d always say: since you can’t choose the way you live, you should at least be able to choose the way die… (p.97)

But all Senyor’s wealth, power and prestige is no protection against the will of a population cowed into submission to the blacksmith and perverted into a loss of humanity:

But he had to die like everyone else.  They made him die in the centre of the Plaça.  They wanted to watch him. (p.101)

Senyor’s death is the catalyst for a sense of unease and some indications that the blacksmith’s power could be challenged.  Typical, it seems to me, that society only recognises the need for change when the rich and powerful suffer.  We are finally getting action on climate change only now that big business wants it.

I really feel for the translator Martha Tennent.  Translation involves reading and re-reading a work many times, and this novella would not only be difficult to render into English, but revisiting its catalogue of horrors must also have been a psychological strain.

Stu reviewed it too.  and so did Grant at 1st reading. For a discussion of metaphysical aspects of the novella, see Hugh Ferrer’s review at Words without Borders. 

Author: Mercé Rodoreda
Title: Death in Spring (La mort i la primavera)
Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2009, first published posthumously in Catalan in 1986
ISBN: 9781934824115, hbk., 150 pages
Source: personal library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 25, 2022

Love Regardless, by Barbara Kamler

Barbara Kamler’s Love, Regardless is a collection of poetry with an unusual focus.  It’s a collection of ‘poetic portraits’ celebrating love that lasts, a phenomenon which has fascinated the author for a long time.  All of the couples she portrays have been together for twenty years or more, these couples in configurations that defy the impression that diversity is something new.  The couples come from all walks of life and ethnicity, including three from the Jewish community; long-established marriages; couples surprised by love after failed relationships; gays who before marriage equality could only have a civil union; couples who’ve had to negotiate disability and illness, and people who’ve had to make a choice about which part of the world they’ll live when each partner is drawn to somewhere else.

This is how the author introduces the collection:

As a culture we are inundated by romantic narratives which dramatise the passionate beginnings of young love and/or details its devastating endings.  But what about couples who survive the years together, remaining committed and true to each other, and to love? What do we know of such stories outside stereotypes of the unimaginative, stale or stuck? These are the stories I explore and celebrate in Love, Regardless—delving into the intimacy of connecting as well as negotiating the complications that inevitably arise, and the solidity that ultimately emerges.  (p.xii)

The format is interesting.  Fourteen couples are featured, each fictionalised somewhat to provide anonymity, but it is a compromised kind of concealment: friends, family, acquaintances, workmates in their worlds will undoubtedly recognise some of them for who they are.  I read this not expecting it to apply to me, but I think I do recognise one of them — our family dentist who operated a surgery from her home in East St Kilda.

There is a brief sketch of each couple, and then the couple speak alternately in syllabic verse.

Following the initial interview conversation, I transcribed each couple’s words into poems.  Words on the page and voices in my head, I tuned into their rhythms of speech, tone of voice, pacing and manner of interacting—who speaks first, longest, more definitely, with what emphasis and attention to detail.  (p.xiii)

You can see how this plays out on the page. Here are Rosie and Saul, together for over 52 years:


We marry in synagogue December eighth, nineteen sixty-eight.
The reception at The Stanmark in St Kilda—a popular
venue at the time, but it has nothing to do with us. It’s more

a celebration for our Polish parents building their lives in
Australia.  Our marriage—their glory! They don’t even allow
us to invite our close friends to the dinner—only to supper

after. The most heart-warming part is Saul’s speech, organising his
seven nieces and nephews to march into the hall holding up
placards saying—We love Auntie Rosie.  (p.58)

After five more verses from Rosie, Saul responds with just two:

We share a similar Jewish heritage, yet out family
patterns of interaction couldn’t be more different.  For me
PEACE AT ALL COSTS.  I’m desperate to please others, avoid conflict

while you suffer because I seem more concerned with other people’s
feelings than yours—which is absolutely CORRECT. It’s agony
for me when you behave in ways I PERCEIVE as brash or not polite. (p.59)

Rosie speaks of the histories they bring to the marriage—her depressed parents grieving for family extinguished by war while he was a child who’d had little mothering.  Saul speaks of how they resolved their differences fairly late in life.  

The glue that binds us is not about being soul mates, it’s making a
choice to commit absolutely—no matter how we provoke or
aggravate.  For fifty-two years we’ve resided together, fought

together, forgiven together.  I love you Rosie so much
MORE than I was capable of as a young man.  You hold my heart,
carefully. How could I ever find such grace with anyone else. (p.62)

Phoebe and Patrick are interviewed on the cusp of a great change in their lives.  Both have suffered terrible trauma, Patrick as a victim of clerical abuse and Phoebe estranged from her family. A serious medical diagnosis prompts them to waste not a minute of their lives together, and they have a wonderful impulsively romantic marriage and then abandon home, friends, family, careers and the stress —to live an idyllic life in Bali, living the dream.

Kerry and Will’s story is a departure from the format because Will has had a stroke, and Kerry must speak for them both.  It’s easy to see how she relishes the memories of how they met in a pub in Cardiff:

It’s complicated.  I’m fifty-five and Will is fifty-nine
when we meet.  I have not long arrived in Cardiff to take up
a research chair at the university when we collide.

Literally.  I rush into a pub for dinner with a
stack of papers to read and crash into this man-mountain in
the doorway holding a pint of beer, which I spill all over

him.  He asks if I’d like a drink! We talk non-stop all night. By
eleven we still haven’t eaten. We catch up again the
next day.  That’s how it begins.  Will’s lovely—standing at the bar

ordering drinks and I think—I like him—I really like the
look of him, there may be something here. And that’s within the first
two hours! Saturday he takes me to dinner, Sunday to… (p,90)

Whether you have memories like this or not, this is a gorgeous anthology, uplifting and sincere, and it renews the hope that love and companionship is possible, even if previous relationships have failed.

About the author, from the publisher’s website:

Barbara Kamler is a Melbourne poet and Emeritus Professor of Education at Deakin University. She is the author or editor of nine academic books and over sixty journal articles and book chapters on literacy, writing pedagogy and identity. Her poetry has appeared in publications such as ‘The Age’, ‘The Australian’, ‘Australian Poetry Journal’, ‘Poetrix’, ‘Poetry New Zealand’, as well as various anthologies.

Author: Barbara Kamler
Title: Love, Regardless
Cover design:  Marchese Design
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2022
ISBN: 9781925736489, pbk., 149 pages
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 23, 2022

The Morality of Gentlemen, by Amanda Lohrey

My reading of Amanda Lohrey’s debut novel The Morality of Gentlemen (1984) was prompted by the arrival of another book chez moi: Julieanne Lamond’s Lohrey, published under the prestigious Miegunyah Press imprint from Melbourne University Press, is the first in a series called Contemporary Australian Writers, and is a ‘guide to the world of Amanda Lohrey’s fiction. I was up to page 4 when an intriguing reference to The Morality of Gentlemen sent me to retrieve it from the TBR…

Lohrey’s novel is, as Ian Syson says in the Introduction, a bit of a rarity in contemporary Australian fiction.  It is a working class novel: a political/industrial novel about the lives of a group of workers during a long lockout.  

#StayWithMeHere… this is a most enjoyable novel. There are lots of reasons why it is such a pleasure to read…

The Morality of Gentleman purports in part to be research notes of a lofty academic who is writing a history of the waterfront dispute in Hobart.  His narration is in italics. The rest of the novel consists of fragments: interviews, recollections, fly-on-the-wall observations, transcripts, press articles, letters, (hilarious) letters to the editor and court transcripts.  The narrator is looking for reliable witnesses to make sense of these conflicting accounts, but the novel teaches him a lesson that he ought to have known anyway.  Historical objectivity isn’t possible.

There are witty juxtapositions of the characters’ expectations and behaviour.  Some of them are laugh-out-loud. Here is the unionist Plunkett taken aback by the appearance of the Chief Justice, George Cosgrave:

Plunkett had pictured him as a tall man who would preside poker-faced and with an air of immaculate decorum, his magisterial features an impressive portrait of total, unobtrusive concentration.  Instead he is a man of barely medium height with broad shoulders who moves restlessly on his grand chair and fidgets with a pen on the bench.  From time to time he scratches his nose, managing to look like a banker who has wandered into his scarlet, white and black judicial robes by mistake, presiding with the impatient and patronising air of a man filling in for a friend and anxious to get back to his stocks and bonds. (p.250)

There are perceptive descriptions of the places where the paths of the characters cross, especially interesting when a character is out of his comfort zone. These include the drinking holes of the rival factions; homes both working class and petty-bourgeois; barristers’ chambers; and the court room.  Here we see the narrator on his quest to interview the State President of the union, Eyenon, a tall, thin man with a long scimitar nose. 

I seek him out in the Marquess of Queensberry where he drinks after work.  The Customs House around the corner is a proletarian pub, bare and shabby with green walls and scratched brown chairs. The Marquess has more character: brown furry wallpaper, sporting trophies over the mantel; pictures on the walls of old whaling boats, the local slipways in 1900, the colonial docks with sailing ships; and framed photographs of local sporting heroes, including one of Jaz [Eyenon’s son] in his blue and white football strip [sic*]. Ten minutes after the five o’clock siren the bar is strong with booze and smoke and thronged with wharfies, seamen, bookmakers, politicians and lawyers who are slumming it. (p.92)

*Alas, there are a fair few typos in this edition, and I have a suspicion that this word should be stripe/s. Update, not it’s not a typo.  See Simon’s comment below, I am ignorant about sport.  (But there are typos.)

There are brilliant descriptions of the characters — a large cast of them, yet all seem distinct in the reader’s mind. Here is Jaz (sounding a bit like an author gathering material for a novel, eh?):

Jaz, like any natural commentator, talks to himself, in his head assembling facts, clarifying events, polishing anecdotes, categorising behaviour, constructing a personal galaxy of types—mugs, ratbags, opportunists and a small elite which consists of those men like Travers [ and his father whose integrity, he acknowledges, is beyond question. (p.93.  Travers is Federal President of the union and a Communist Party official.)

Jaz is more interested in union politics than he’ll admit.  He’ll discuss some issues but he won’t allow himself to be provoked into a lecture or a diatribe.  

He won’t take that from his father, let alone from a younger man.  He makes it clear, in routine gestures, that his attention is straying.  He changes the subject, losing himself in rambling speculations as to how he can make a quid on the side to pay off his gambling debts. (p.94)

The most poignant home depicted is Tom Shelly’s after his wife has left him.  She is fed up with him being out on union business till all hours of the night. His bleak address smells of loneliness, while other homes smell of comfort, or pretension.  He is bitterly aware of the contrast when he goes to visit the union’s lawyer…

Tommy sits in the Conlan living room.

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ she says.

‘If you’re making one.’ He takes in the room: the green velvet sofa; the rose-patterned silk curtains and the exotic rug by the fireplace; a painting of a naked woman on the wall, in yellow and red and black; red hydrangeas in a silver bowl and books in a glass case.  She’s been listening to a record.  ‘That’s a nice bit of music,’ he says, thinking she must be a bit of a romantic to sit and listen to that all day.  Up in the air; someone to do the housework and the kids looked after.

‘It’s the Fourth Symphony by Brahms.’ She walks towards him, teapot in hand.  ‘I’m afraid I haven’t any milk.’

‘That’s alright.  I’ll have it black.’ Disorganised too. (p.95)

He checks out her legs as well… noting that she’s a bit muscular around the calf.  (We can almost hear the weary sigh of feminists around the nation.)

Sly feminist commentary crops up sporadically in this very male environment.  Who does the unpaid labour in the Revivalist Hall where the ALP holds its annual State Convention?

The hall has been rendered spotless by the old ladies of the city branch who have placed jugs of water on the trestle tables and set flowers in glass vases on the broad plaster ledges under the windows.  The pregnant young politician’s wife sits in a back corner, near the door, knitting baby clothes and talking to the Party’s Assistant Secretary, a young woman of thirty, solidly built into a smart version of a bus conductress’s uniform with an incongruously gay silk scarf at the neck. The delegates file past them in increasing numbers and take up their seats as indicated on the master plan which roughly corresponds to the voting blocs of the three major factions.  (p.119-120)

Overall, the patchwork of fragments forms a coherent whole which shows us—among other things—why a love affair that emerges to form a bridge between the classes, is doomed to fail.  The union is like a family, and like a family, it protects its culture with certainties and prohibitions.

Having set the scene in delicious detail, Lohrey builds the narrative tension with a series of wharfside confrontations between the ‘scab’ who is a test case for refusing to pay union levies, and the unionists, either militant or compliant because it’s necessary to get their ticket.  (Some of the unionists are Communists, earnestly attending meetings to hear works of Red philosophy read to them, see below.) Each time these contests occur, the reader, like the participants, holds her breath in case the encounters erupt out of their carefully managed procedures.  Each time the union leaders coach their men to be non-violent and to follow the strategic timing of events; each time the police turn up to form a protective cordon around the scab, timing his progress towards the picket line with great care so that there is no violence—because Superintendent Whiffen would rather this dispute were dealt with by the courts. And each time the scab is provocative.  He’s a stooge for the politics of the Anti-Communist Party and the Catholic church which would in time morph into the Democratic Labour Party which kept the Australian Labor Party out of office for all of Menzies’ reign and beyond, until 1972.

Many people say that communism fell because of the détente between political leaders, and Gorbachev’s embrace of social democracy.  But #TongueInCheek I think that the impact of Monty Python on popular culture had a lot to do with it.

This excerpt is one of my favourite scenes.  Women readers, prepare to gnash your teeth!

Quinn wheels his bike up the steep hill at the Glebe.  Halfway up he stops and chains the bike to the fence of 91 Paternoster Road, a small weatherboard cottage and the home of Charlie Button.  Button, a gnarled veteran of sixty-two, opens the door and welcomes him with a fatherly grunt.  Tonight is the monthly meeting of the city branch of the Communist Party, at present reading its way through Lenin’s The State and Revolution, having just completed The Short History of the CPSU(B).  Quinn also attends a special weekly reading group which is four chapters into Leontiv’s Political Economy.  Both groups are taken through their paces by Alec Plunkett, a full-time organiser for the Party and Bill McClean, an economics lecturer at the university and Party sympathiser who lectures to the second group on aspects of Capital. State Secretary Frank Jenkins is there and his wife, Dorothy, a sharp-faced kindergarten teacher who laughs a lot and knits incessantly.  Every year she runs for a position on the State Committee and every year she’d defeated by the men.  She quotes the example of Rosa Luxemburg to them but it doesn’t make any difference.  Your turn will come, comrade, says Plunkett, but not yet.  Meanwhile he directs her to reforming the petty-bourgeois elements of the Housewives Association. (p.75)

Typical of Lohrey’s rich prose and attention to detail, there is so much in that paragraph.

In the Introduction Synon interprets the narrator’s difficulties as the product of inevitable class conflict.

This contradiction is brought home in an exchange between the narrator and Leo Eyenon, a militant he is interviewing.

At the door, he stops.  ‘What did you say this was for?’
‘I’m writing a history.’
‘Whose version, yours or ours?’
‘A combination of both,’ I say ingenuously. ‘I’m here to be objective.’
He laughs,.  “It’s not possible,’ he says.  ‘Pick a side and stick to it.'( Introduction, p.8)

The narrator dismisses this response as crude, scornfully thinking that it shows the limits of self-education. Synon quotes this exchange between the intellectual left and the working class as a clash of deep significance that illustrates conflicting notions of history, manners, morality, education and intelligence.  

*chuckle* Now that I’ve read the Introduction to Lohrey, I suspect that Lohrey was also mocking her own experience as an academic transitioning from a childhood on Hobart’s working-class waterfront during the turbulent industrial/political 1950s.

The Morality of Gentlemen was one of a number of working class novels that Synon explored in his PhD: Dorothy Hewitt’s Bobbin Up (1959); Mena Calthorpe’s The Dye House (1961); Betty Collins’ The Copper Crucible (1966); and The Delinquents (1962) and Down by the Dockside (1963) by Criena Rohan.  Syson is not the only academic to take an interest in the ‘proletarian’ novel… see my review of The Dye House for the thoughts of Jean-François Vernay in The Great Australian Novel—a Panorama (2010).

Some of these books (as you can see from those links) are available as Text Classics but others are hard to find.  Trust me, a hunt for The Morality of Gentlemen is worth the effort, but as of today I could only find one copy from an American bookseller via Abebooks.  However, I am hopeful that Lohrey’s profile as a winner of the Miles Franklin with The Labyrinth will encourage the reissue of The Morality of Gentlemen.

Author: Amanda Lohrey
Title: The Morality of Gentlemen
Introduction by Ian Syson
Cover design by Lynda Warner
Publisher: Montpelier Press in association with The Vulgar Press, 2002, first published 1984
ISBN: 9781876597078, pbk., 301 pages
Source: personal library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 21, 2022

IndoLit Club Sydney: Translation forum

I am hopelessly behind with reviews and everything else, but the opportunity came up to attend a translation forum this morning so I jettisoned #SituationNormal…

# Update 23/7/22 Please note that some elements have been edited from the original post at the request of Toni Pollard.

The IndoLit Club Sydney is an online book group which meets with Zoom, and (thanks to Twitter) I was able to attend their forum on translation.  The session was moderated by Kestity Pringgoharjono from the IndoLit Club. (See their Facebook page).

As one of the participants mentioned, the panel consisted of an older generation of translators, and this session was an opportunity to mentor younger people wanting to make a career in translating Indonesian.  The panel introduced themselves and their work, beginning with John McGlynn whose work as both translator and publisher I know from my own reading:

  • John McGlynn: when he began translating there was next to nothing in the way of Indonesian literature available in English.  His own Indonesian teacher (in the US) had used IndoLit to teach the language, and so McGlynn found himself able to read novels early on and wanted to share his enthusiasm with others.  He  began translating even as an undergraduate, and in 1987 founded the Lontar Foundation. He found that it was impossible to have an income as a literary translator so he diversified into freelance commercial translation, working for US Dept of State and other bodies, and also translated non-fiction and films, as well as technical materials.  He has 40 book length titles translated under his own name, as well as an extensive body of translation work, too much to detail here.
  • George Quinn: Quinn is the translator of the novel The Rape of Sukreni by Anak Agung Pandji Tisna.  He has also translated some short stories and some children’s picture books from English into Indonesian.  However he is mainly interested in translating from Javanese, and is a strong advocate for what he says is the oldest literary tradition in Southeast Asia, more than 1000 years old.  He says that a “censorious” shadow has fallen over Javanese Lit since Indonesian nationalism. (He didn’t explain what he meant by this to his audience of people very familiar with Indonesian culture and politics, but I am guessing that this is probably because the Javanese are said to dominate the rest of Indonesia.)
    • Keith Foulcher: Foulcher said that by comparison with Quinn and McGlynn, his literary translations are ‘minimal’.  His interest comes through his 40 year friendship with Putu Oka Sukanta, a notable author in Indonesia, who like Pramoedya Ananda Toer endured a long period of political imprisonment (before Indonesia became a democracy).  Foulcher likes Putu’s poetry, but his latest translations are the novels Threads of Dignity and The Turning Wheel (which are available from Lontar).
  • Pamela Allen: Allen was a student at the ANU and an academic the University of Tasmania, now retired).  She began by saying that she was rushed into her first translation and would still like to improve it, but alas, I didn’t catch the name of the book.  In 1992 she become aware of and contacted the Lontar Foundation, and was encouraged by McGlynn’s response. She now translates mostly for Lontar, and her most significant translation is Ayu Utami’s Saman (1988), which I am also yet to read.
    • Toni Pollard: Pollard explained how she stumbled into translating the novella Above the Day, Below the Night by Putu Oka Sukanta when she was about to be made redundant. She says the publisher used a terrible cover for a novel about Indo prostitutes, but having the work published gave her the confidence to contact John McGlynn, because prior to that she had just been translating drivers’ licences etc. Mirah of Banda was her first major translation, and it took 2-3 years because it had to be fitted into part-time teaching work. Now she also works for the Ubud Writers Festival, and has also translated for a couple of other publishers.
  • Isla Winarto: Winarto said that people often assume that translating is easy for her because she grew up in a bilingual, bicultural household, but she didn’t get involved professionally until she encountered George Quinn as her honours degree supervisor.  Translating is not her main source of income, but again John McGlynn was the catalyst for her career as a translator.  She has done 20 short stories and a novel.  She loves reading in the Indonesian language and is currently reading the literary sensation Gadis Kretek by Ratih Kumala (translated by Annie Tucker) which is being made into a film for Netflix. (I am a bit spooked by what appears to be a film that valorises the development of Indonesian cigarettes, even if the feminist in me likes to see a woman given credit where credit is due.  Smoking is a serious health problem in Indonesia claiming 300,000 lives every year.)

These translators made the point that I have heard many times before: literary translation is a labour of love and it is rare to earn a living from it.  It has to be an adjunct to other income producing work, preferably in ways that enrich the translator’s knowledge of the language and culture they are working in.

The discussion then turned to what the ingredients of a book worthy of translation might be. John McGlynn’s advice is to:

  • Start with a good work.  If the original work is badly written, then the translation should read badly as well because that’s a good translation.  It’s not the job of a translator to fix it or make a text better than it is.
  • Work on something that you like, or else it’s no fun.  He mentioned his early work as a translator of texts about Indonesian economics, which was definitely not fun.
  • Try to make it as good in English as it is Indonesian.
  • Believe in what you’re doing.  His project is to bring the book to a wider audience, and that’s important work to be doing.

George Quinn agreed that a translator should not embellish a work. but then went on to raise the question of cultural differences that interact with the literary conventions of English.

  • Sometimes complying with those English traditions can so some ‘violence’ to the original.  He gave the example of Javanese honorifics levels (respect levels) which are not present in Indo or in English, but are very important in Javanese Lit. It can be hard to manage the untranslatable.  He referred also to tu/vous in French, and how that distinction is multiplied many times over in Javanese. The moderator Kestity also mentioned the same issue when translating the other way, giving the example of referring to an older person using kamu which would be very disrespectful.
  • Quinn thinks it’s important for translators to immerse themselves in the culture of the language they translate.  He does it mainly by reading, and he thinks that the national literature of Indonesia should include writing in Javanese, Sundanese etc.  (This reminded me of the same issue in India, where there are multiple languages but only a couple of them are translated into English.)

Keith Foulcher reminded the audience to consider who they are translating for.  Who is the readership?

  • He brought translation and publishing into a wider context by drawing attention to its politics. To what extent do you make the cultural world accessible, he asked, in the context of the hegemony of global English and the concept of ‘world literature’ and the politics of international publishing.  Should English readers have to come to terms with aspects of culture that they’re going to struggle with, or is it really important to make those readers aware of Indonesian literature and make the book more accessible?  Readers who don’t know anything about Indonesian may not relate to it  because it’s ‘not interesting because it’s too different’.  OTOH sophisticated readers sometimes find IndoLit not quite ‘up to standard’ (He said hates quoting these criticisms).

The moderator Kestity asked how do we reconcile these issues?

George Quinn said that because of the political pressure on JavaneseLit, its writers are writing for an in-group, and not for Indo or Anglo readers.  They can assume that their readers know what their allusions are, and he gave an example sometimes criticised as weak characterisation: an allusion to ‘bulging eyes’ brings the reader familiar with Javanese culture to a whole culture of of characters deriving from wayang (i.e. traditional puppet plays.)

Pam Allen talked about the domestication v foreignisation debate in academic circles.  She explained this as a spectrum which at one level means not translating foreign elements such as CSI (culturally specific items & concepts) if you can’t.  This includes keeping the sentence structures so that readers know they are reading the other language.  This approach challenges the reader to do the hard work, while the other end of the spectrum homogenises the text to make it easy for the reader, with substitutions or omissions so that reader may not even realise that they’re reading a ‘foreign’ text.  Market forces, she said, are also at work because publishers don’t want to produce a book that’s likely to be read by very few buyers.  Most translators are somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.  Allen also made mention of the novel Pachinko, written in English by a Korean-American author.  The book has no explanations or footnotes…

Toni Pollard talked about the importance of her network of Indo friends who help her to develop her cultural knowledge, and asks for help to check anything she’s not sure of. She prefers the accessible approach using straightforward language and uses a thesaurus a lot to broaden her knowledge.

Isla Winarto reiterated that being bicultural and bilingual does not make it easy.  (Even she can get even a character’s gender wrong, because dia/nya are not gender specific).

  • A lot of what she does is instinctive, she said, but the target audience of the novel is relevant… many Indonesian novelists are not writing for an international audience, and she tries to be aware of what other readers are not going to understand.  She believes in broadening the English view of the culture, and that the books that have been selected for translation are chosen for that reason.  She gave the example of a recent translation of Sun Lee Thomas Alexander’s My Birthplace and Other Stories. It features Chinese Indonesians, with whose culture she was familiar to some extent because family members are Chinese, but she still had to do extra work to make the translation good.

Kestity says all translators are supplementing their income in commercial ways… She says translators learn something new every day, and it’s important to be open-minded to all works.

Pam Allen responded to an audience question about how to improve the English translation if it’s not the translator’s mother tongue.  She said (and o! how I agree!) that it’s important to read widely in the target language as well.

Many thanks to Kestity Pringgoharjono and the IndoLit Club for making this presentation accessible and for moderating the session so well.  It was an excellent discussion covering a wide range of issues, specific to Indonesian and to translation in general.

BTW It was depressing to find that some of the books referred to were not in the Goodreads database, (or anywhere else that I could find) and that a couple of titles which were at GR did not #NameTheTranslator (which I took the opportunity to fix because I am a GR librarian.)

I also couldn’t access the Lontar website because my malware protection wouldn’t let me.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2022

Hydra, by Adriane Howell

If you’re in the mood to channel your inner brat, you will enjoy Hydra, the debut novel of Adriane Howell.  Here’s how it begins:

This is not the beginning in narration’s traditional sense — things had come before — but if you’ll humour me a little, I’ll start by speaking of my work at Geoffrey Browne, where we were vultures scavenging remains.  After a funeral, in we’d waltz with our Post-it notes: yellow for indexing, green for research, pink for Primas.  We’d strip houses to the bones of their walls and clean them of mouldings too, drilling deep, tearing out cartilage to gain the sale items, thicken the catalogue — profiteers of death.

My dear friend Beth said I was too hard on myself, that an auction house was hardly the Serengeti, that I was prone to pessimism and exaggeration — ‘miserabilism’, she called it.  But that wasn’t true,  I liked the word ‘miserabilism’; it felt good rolling around the tongue, proving an appetite for life.

Metaphor aside, the reality is I had no qualms ransacking dead people’s houses.  It was a thrill finding an object hidden for generations and unearthing its narrative.  Who had dusted it, lounged in it, held on to it with a false sense of duty? And for how many decades had it sat in the one room, absorbing years of cheer and anguish that left stains even the most skilled carpenter couldn’t sand away. (p.3)

As you can see, the author has a great way with words. And you can also see that the protagonist-narrator does a nice line in cynicism and black humour, and that she lacks, shall we say, a certain practicality?  As an executor, I’ve packed up a couple of deceased estates and even though I’d known both of the deceased for decades, even I had trouble ‘unearthing the narrative’ of some objects.

Anja, however, is in the grip of a fantasy.  She’s an ambitious antiquarian, working in the Mid-Century Modern Department of Geoffrey Browne’s Auction House.  Back at work from the holiday on Hydra which ended her marriage, she has dreams of reorientating the classification system which has always served sellers and buyers so well, so that objects will be classified according to the emotional response they evoke — by which she means, of course, her emotional response.

Anja’s nemesis is Fran, with ambitions of her own, asserting them by sitting in Anja’s chair in admin.  These two tussle over clothing as emblems of good taste.  Anja wears a ‘winking panther’ designer brooch to exude confidence in the way that some women wear red lipstick.  (Anja confides little gems like this to her bemused readers throughout the text).

Fran twice tapped the plastic cat with her fingernail.  ‘You always make such bold choices,’ she said, sitting on my desk to face me.

It was my fault we’d lost any sense of personal space: I’d been too festive at the last Christmas party and pulled at the stitched bonbons on her holiday-themed skirt.  She’d spent the next several months poking and prodding at my clothing to reclaim ground I’d conquered.  (p.7)

#Digression: O feminism, where are thou when the younger generation so badly needs you?

Well, things go horribly wrong, and Anja ends up unemployed and unemployable in her chosen field, and in a histrionic gesture she uses an inheritance from her mother to buy a derelict house hived off from the neighbouring naval base on the Mornington Peninsula.  Again her ambitions are trumped by reality: growing vegetables in an abandoned boat on a salt-laden coastline is never going to work.  Again her ideas about herself are a fantasy.  She is not only broke and lonely and not self-sufficient (see vegetables above) she is also haunted by an urban myth.

Ah ha, that brooch was not so random after all.  The Anja narrative is interrupted from time to time by redacted 1986 reports from Naval Intelligence.  Google urban myths in Victoria and you will find the source of Anja’s startling experiences, and (of course) the ‘cover-up’ by authorities who debunk it time after time.  These gothic elements do not distract the reader from the suspicion that Anja is an unhinged, bad-tempered character who can’t get along with other people.

Deliciously entertaining!

Author: Adriane Howell
Title: Hydra
Cover and book design by Peter Lo
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2022
ISBN: 9781925760989, pbk., 256 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 16, 2022

Freedom Ride, by Sue Lawson

Cultural warning: this post contains the names of an Indigenous person who has died.

I don’t often read YA novels, but I picked this one up because it’s the only fiction I’ve ever seen that deals with the 1965 Freedom Ride in Australia.

As you can see in more detail at the AIATSIS website, this Freedom Ride led by the Indigenous activist Charlie Perkins (1936-2000) was a significant event in Australia’s Black History.

In 1965, a group of students from the University of Sydney drew national and international attention to the appalling living conditions of Aboriginal people and the racism that was rife in New South Wales country towns. Known as the Freedom Ride, this 15-day bus journey through regional New South Wales would become a defining moment in Australian activism.

Sue Lawson’s Freedom Ride was a nominee for significant prizes in 2016: the CBCA Book of the Year, Older Readers; the NSW Premier’s Young People’s History Prize and the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature; and the WA Premier’s Book Awards.  The novel has a continuing place in ensuring the event is not forgotten, but it also has a continuing relevance today,

Because before long, all Australians will be voting in a referendum that calls for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. And there will be pockets of Australia that will be resistant to that change.

Lawson is not Indigenous, but her novel asks the question, what was it like to be an ordinary white boy living in a blatantly racist community and to confront your own unthinking acceptance of it?  What was it like to see racism expressed openly — and publicly — by your own family and friends and even the girl you fancy?  What was it like to overcome your own hesitancy and fear to stand up for what is right, knowing that you are in a vulnerable minority?  This novel is powerful because it’s based on documentary records of the time (including the diary of Freedom Rider Ann Curthoys) but the focus is not so much the protest as an external catalyst for change but on the process of change from within.

Freedom Ride shows just how difficult it was for any locals to confront the prevailing racism.  It doesn’t do this to make readers feel sorry for them; it shows the entrenched racism that anyone of good will was up against. When Barry Gregory returns to the fictional town of Walgaree (an amalgam of outback NSW towns Moree and Walgett), he employs teenage Robbie for weekend and holiday work in his caravan park. When business gets busier, Barry also employs a young Aboriginal boy called Micky from the Aboriginal camp. Barry is immediately ostracised, and Robbie gets bullied at school.  When the town perceives the challenge to the status quo segregation from the university students on the Freedom Ride, the treatment of Barry escalates to violent threats, damage to his caravan park, and economic sabotage including exclusion from banking services and short-term credit accounts with local shopkeepers.

While the novel also asserts that there is a responsibility to act, it also shows the importance of enablers, people like Barry Gregory and his mother, and the out-of-town policeman who provide support and moral authority for changes in behaviour.  Robbie, surrounded by hostile peers at school and the fury of his tyrannical grandmother and sole-parent father at home, has other problems which amplify the ways in which small town secrets are hushed up so effectively.  As a plot device, Robbie’s discovery of his back story provides him with a bolt-hole if things get really difficult.  It gets him out of harm’s way.

The novel’s ending is a realistic scenario.  There is no simplistic resolution to the confrontations in the climax: the Aboriginal women defuse the violence with courageous truth-telling, and Robbie finds the courage to denounce the hit-and-run driver who killed an Aboriginal man, but Walgaree is not going to change overnight.  It isn’t clear if Barry’s caravan park will ever revert to being the thriving business that it was.  Lawson doesn’t resolve that or any of the other problems such as changing the culture at the school, the police force and the business community.

Freedom Ride asks any of us, what would you have done then?  Would you have had the courage?

Thirty years after the Freedom Ride The Spouse and I were on a sentimental outback journey to visit a little place called Come By Chance, said to be the place where his seven-year-old ancestor had never seen rain and didn’t know what it was when she saw it.  En route, we stopped for fuel and engaged in the usual chitchat triggered by the Victorian number plates. To my appalled astonishment we were warned not to go to Walgett.  I won’t share the racist content of this catalogue of crime and violence that was said to await us.  Needless to say, we argued over it, and stayed overnight in a Walgett motel as planned, where the most eventful thing that happened was a skink in the bathroom.  My point is that it was comparatively easy to challenge that racism and then get in the car and drive away.  It’s not so easy when you live in a community where that kind of racism is the prevailing attitude and there isn’t even any so-called political correctness to make people keep their racist thoughts to themselves.

It was interesting to see in the book credits that Freedom Ride was developed as part of a Creative Time Residential Fellowship provided by the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust. Visiting their site offers an amazing roll call of writers supported by this fellowship. (Scroll down to 2014 on their alumni page to read about Sue Lawson) and you can also read an interview about it with Sue Lawson at Read Plus.

Author: Sue Lawson
Title: Freedom Ride
Publisher: Black Dog Books, an imprint of Walker Books, 2015
Cover design: images are credited to Shutterstock but I can’t find the name of the designer/s.
ISBN: 9781925126365, pbk., 367 pages
Source: Personal library.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 14, 2022

2022 National Biography Award winner and shortlist

Update 10/8/22 The winner has been announced: congratulations to Bernadette Brennan for her biography of Gillian Mears, Leaping into Waterfalls. (I always like it when a LitBio wins!!)

The 2022 National Biography Award shortlist has been announced.

The NBA is the nation’s richest prize for Australian biographical writing and memoir:

•    $25,000 for the winner
•    $2,000 for each of the six shortlisted authors
•    $5,000 Michael Crouch Award for a first published biography, autobiography or memoir by an Australian writer.

These are the nominees. (Links take you to the judges comments)

I was interested to see that although shortlists often include memoirs (and clearly they are eligible), eleven of the last twelve winners of the NBA were biographies.

Has anyone read any of these?

To find out more visit the NSW State Library website.

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