Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2019

She Would Be King, by Wayétu Moore

Hard on the heels of Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo (see my review), comes another example of historical fiction being used to rewrite the history that has been written by colonisers.  She Would Be King by Liberian-American author Wayétu Moore, blends historical fact with magic realism to trace the emergence of modern Liberia on the West African coast. This is the blurb:

In the west African village of Lai, red-haired Gbessa is cursed at birth and exiled on suspicion of being a witch. Bitten by a viper and left for dead, she survives to discover a new life with a group of African American settlers in the colony of Monrovia.

Then Gbessa meets two extraordinary others; June Dey – a man of unusual strength, born into slavery on a plantation in Virginia – and Norman Aragon, the child of a white British coloniser and a Maroon slave from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, who can fade from sight at will.

Soon all three realise that they are cursed – or perhaps, uniquely gifted. Together they protect the weak and vulnerable, but only Gbessa can salvage the tense relationship between the settlers and the indigenous tribes.

In her transcendent debut, Wayétu Moore illuminates the tumultuous roots of Liberia, blending history and magical realism in a profound tale of resistance and humanity.

Wikipedia tells me that Liberia began as a settlement of the American Colonization Society (ACS), who believed black people would face better chances for freedom and prosperity in Africa than in the United States.  Moore suggests that the motivations were more complex than that.  The story is narrated by the Wind, who is the spirit of an American plantation slave called Charlotte, and she tells us that US President Polk had matters ‘more important’ on his mind than the wellbeing of slaves.  (In fact, he was a slaveowner himself, see here, and slavery was legal in the US until 1865, 32 years after Britain abolished it).  Polk acquiesced in the ACS plans, but refused any funding for the settlement, provoking an angry response on all sides:

…objections from the black free Negro population that refused to leave the United States, a disgruntled South that argued Polk had indirectly criticised the ownership of slaves, a suspicious North that believed that Polk was acting in the best interest of the South and Southerners.  (p.202)

Moore depicts Polk as hostile to the ACS, which Wikipedia says was bitterly opposed by Black Americans who thought that the society respected slavery instead of opposing it.  Polk (in Moore’s novel)

… wanted little to do with the American Colonization Society and what he considered the self-righteous, vitriolic Quakers behind it.  In fact, Polk believed that they most certainly hated Negroes the most.  To spend the money and time required to send them back would be as maniacally racist as the man who brands his slaves as cattle, as the patrol who hunts for the thrill of seeing black flesh burn, the bigot… (p.202)

These factors come into play when Gbessa, the Vai woman cursed since birth as a witch, survives a brutal attack by French slavers* and comes into the orbit of the ACS.  Moore herself had a traumatic childhood during the Liberian Civil War, hiding for weeks in the forest with her father and siblings, and Gbessa’s flight through the forest at different times in her tragic life have the ring of authenticity.   When in Book Two she is taken in and groomed to be a servant, she is like a traumatised child, unable to speak, and terrified of causing offence and being cast out again.  She is very compliant: she submits to having her wild hair tamed, to wearing button-up shirts and long impractical skirts, and also to the attentions of Gerald Tubman (a famous surname BTW in the Abolitionist movement).  After being patronised and humiliated by her ‘saviours’ Gbessa turns out to be the one person who can resolve the conflict between the inland inhabitants dismissed as ‘country’ and the Christianised freed slaves-turned-settlers who consider themselves morally and intellectually superior.

Book One is more engaging than Book Two. The three main characters symbolise the peoples of Liberia: the indigenous, the repatriated slaves and the mixed-race offspring of the colonisers.   Gbessa’s story is heart-rending because of the way she is rejected by her own people and their superstitions, while Charlotte’s story about the slave plantation where June Dey is born is very confronting, and so is the story of Norman Aragon’s birth and childhood at the hands of a ‘researcher’ who treats People of Colour as specimens.  But all three characters are rendered with great skill, prompting the reader to hope for a better future for them all.

Book Two is a bit confusing in places and too much of it was (for my taste) the two male leads using their superhero gifts to smash their way through all kinds of conflicts.  But Gbessa is such a strong female lead that her scenes in the Monrovia settlement kept the narrative going.

Wayétu Moore is also the founder of One Moore Book which aims to publishes children’s books offering under-represented cultures. We need an initiative like this in Australia, to focus on publishing children’s books from our under-represented cultures too.

*Slavery was first abolished by the French Republic in 1794, but Napoleon revoked that decree in 1802. In 1815, the Republic abolished the slave trade but the decree did not come into effect until 1826. France re-abolished slavery in her colonies in 1848 with a general and unconditional emancipation. (Wikipedia)

Author: Wayétu Moore
Title: She Would Be King
Publisher: One, (an imprint of Pushkin Press) 2019, first published by Graywolf Press 2018, 360 pages
ISBN: 9781911590118 RRP $32.99AUD
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia for Faber Factory Plus

Available from Fishpond: She Would Be King


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2019

2019 Reading Women Challenge (Goodreads)

I don’t do challenges, other than make desultory efforts with 1001 Books, The Complete Booker and Read the Nobels.  But one of the groups I belong to is the Goodreads 500 Great Books by Women, and each year they have a challenge… which I did not even discover until today because I must have skipped the email that announced it.

So just to amuse myself, I hereby present my unwitting efforts to complete the challenge.  Some categories I was never going to achieve, not even by accident. Categories I’ve achieved are highlighted in bold.

  1. Mystery/thriller by a WOC: #Cheating? A mystery lies at the heart of The Yield by Indigenous author Tara June Winch, but genre fiction it is not.
  2. Woman with a mental illness: Beneath Pale Water by Thalia Henry and Butterflies in November, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon
  3. Author from Nigeria or New Zealand: Lots to choose from because I’ve read seven novels by Kiwi women, but I’ll go for In a Fishbone Church by Catherine Chidgey.  (I have Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche on the TBR but I haven’t read it yet.)
  4. About or set in Appalachia:  #PossibleFail/Possible Pass… I Googled Appalachia: Wikipedia says it’s a cultural region in the Eastern United States that stretches from the Southern Tier of New York to northern Alabama and Georgia.  I’ve read seven books by American women and five set in America by women (two of which were by Australian women, Toni Jordan and Lucy Treloar) but to get a pass on this I would have to mess around a lot with the geography and I cannot be bothered.
  5. Children’s book: #Fail.  Not on my radar since retirement! (But I did feature some from A Past Life in a recent #6Degrees).
  6. Multi-generational family saga: Epic fail.  (And no, thankyou, I do not want any suggestions).
  7. Featuring a woman in science: Through Ice and Fire (the story of the Antarctic icebreaker Aurora Australis) by Deputy Voyage Leader and scientist Sarah Laverick
  8. Myth retelling: Circe by Madeline Miller
  9. A novella: Dry Milk, by Huo Yan, translated by Duncan M Campbell
  10. About a woman athlete: #Fail
  11. YA book by a Woman of Colour: #Fail I’ve read one YA novel this year Stone Girl by Eleni Hale, what a shame they didn’t have a category for a book about triumphing over a miserable childhood in State care.
  12. Lambda Literary Award winner: this is a US award for books with LGBTIQ themes, and it turns out that I’ve read one of the past winners, Disoriental by Negar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover, but I read it in 2018 so it doesn’t count. But if the spirit of the category is what counts, I’ve read 9 books with LGBTIQ themes and characters this year, and of those I offer Real Differences by S. L. Lim.
  13. A translated book published before 1945: Kristin Lavransdatter#3 The Cross by Nobel prize winner Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally.  I can’t use La Mare au Diable (The Devil’s Pool), by George Sand because I read it in French.
  14. A play: Black is the New White by Indigenous author Nakkiah Lui
  15. Written by a South Asian author: Home Fire, by Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie
  16. By an Indigenous woman: Welcome to Country, a Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia, by Marcia Langton
  17. From the 2018 Reading Women Award shortlist: #Fail Finding out what these were involved listening to a podcast and I couldn’t be bothered.  Why have a time-consuming podcast when a quick and simple list would suffice?  But from a partial list in one of the participants’ posts, I learned that Terra Nullius by Indigenous author Clare G Coleman was one of the nominees.  I’ve read it, but that was back in 2017 so it doesn’t count.
  18. Romance or love storyBruny by Heather Rose.  (But it’s much more interesting than just a  love story… my review is coming soon.)
  19. About Nature: Blooms and Brushstrokes, A Floral History of Australian Art, by Penelope Curtin and Tansy Curtin (it’s not just about the art, it’s about the flowers too).
  20. Historical fiction: Zuleikha, a novel, by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C Hayden
  21. A book bought/borrowed in 2019: I’ve bought 24 books this year, 17 of them by women, but I’ll give a #ShoutOut to my library with Hearing Maud by Jessica White.
  22. A book you got because of the cover: #Fail.  Much as I like good cover art as in Blooms and Brushstrokes, I do not buy books because of the cover.  More often I don’t buy a book because of the sexism inherent in the cover (back view of headless woman; title in sickly pink script, anything with ridiculous high heels &c).
  23. Any book from a series: (doubling up here) Kristin Lavransdatter#3 The Cross by Nobel prize winner Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally
  24. Book featuring a religion other than your own (hmmm to the assumption here that everyone has a religion): This has to be Kristin Lavransdatter#3 The Cross (again!) by Nobel prize winner Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnall since it’s the only one I can remember that featured religion.

So this is the challenge you discover in mid September and find that you’ve accidentally done a good bit of it because you read widely! 16 isn’t bad IMHO when I wasn’t even trying, and if you count No 4 and No 12, then it’s even better.

What do you think of a challenge like this?  Do challenges encourage you to read out of your comfort zone?


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2019

The Flight of Birds, by Joshua Lobb

Included among the shortlisted books for the 2019 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, was a book by an author entirely new to me.  Joshua Lobb is senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wollongong and The Flight of Birds is his first novel.  It consists of 12 interlinked stories which loosely form a novel, and it’s one of a series called Animal Publics which focusses on the interaction between humans and animals.

The first story ‘What he heard’, introduces an unnamed man walking his dog in the bush.  He is not well:

He was staying in a friend’s cabin; he’d been there a month.  It was after what people called ‘his breakdown’, or what those closer to him called ‘one of his breakdowns’.  He just thought of it as ‘normality’.  It was a feeling he always had, hovering, just out of reach.  Every few years it would swoop down, grab him by the shoulders and carry him away.  (p.3)

Lobb’s setting suggests an intimacy that comes from long acquaintance with the bush:

Broken leaves crunched underfoot.  He was careful to sidestep the knuckles of eucalypt roots.  He could hear the dog, sniffing, in the semi-darkness.  He wasn’t sure if the dog was still following the wombat track, or the line of scent, or charting his own way between the thin trees. Their bark was smooth, mostly: lavender-grey with purpling bruises.  Every now and then his hand would brush against the rougher, splintery skin of a turpentine.  The treetops creaked in the rasping breeze.

Then he heard it.  An oozing, matted sound.  Plots of noise like snoring, sobbing.  The sound was too incoherent to be nearby and yet it felt close, like a heartbeat, thumping. (p.3)

This solitary man conquers his instinct to flee because he recognises this alarming sound as the wail of a child…

After this comes ‘Six stories about birds, with seven questions’.  A moment’s carelessness leads to the escape of a pet budgie called Charlotte, and the stories are told to distract the bereft child.  The father is a bit disconcerted to rediscover just how many fairy stories feature birds, both benign and malign.

It is not until the novel progresses that the third story ‘Call and Response’ seems to connect with the first one.  Again the characters are unnamed, but the man shares the emotional fragility of the first man with the dog.  In ‘Flocking’ — a heartbreaking story of the cruelties of school towards misfits, the background of the characters begins to be filled in.  And as the stories continue, the behaviour of humans begins to resemble that of birds: in ‘The Pecking Order’ the man endures his lowly place among his boisterous in-laws; the aggression is more overt in ‘Magpies’ when a workplace bully picks on the only named human in the book.  Notice here how cunning the characterisation is:

The first is our team leader.  She’s dynamic, inspiring, zealous: a stickler for detail, a cutter-to-the-chase. Her polished hair is shrewdly scraped back and her earrings glint.  Her jacket is tailored precisely: v-shaped around the neck, bold at the shoulders, slender at the waist.  A permanent silhouette. Only occasionally do you see flashes of the white blouse underneath. Her eyes dagger about the room. […]

The second person is not polished or decisive or inspiring. His name is Peter.  He’s probably in his fifties; he might always have been in his fifties.  He’s a bit sloppy. Today he’s wearing a lumpen jumper over his shirt and tie and there’s a glob of breakfast on it. There’s a shred of unshaven beard in the bend of his jaw. He’s kind of foul. We’re always on task-and-finish working groups together, but I never want to make eye contact with him.  I try to make small talk in the stairwell up to our department.  He has terrible teeth: brown and clumsy.  (p. 134)

When the stories draw to a close, there are Field Notes, which comprise about a third of the book.  This section reminded me of the illuminating essay in Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s My Name is Revenge where — for the benefit of readers who may never have heard of it —she links her short story with the Armenian Genocide.  (See my review here).  Written retrospectively, Lobb’s ‘notes’, however, focus on the process of writing The Flight of Birds:

… a tracing of the oscillations between (sometimes contradictory) ideas; the marking out of discoveries made, digressions explored, and surprises chanced upon.  More importantly, they are discussions about the points of encounter between two ‘fields’ that made the writing possible: the discourses or disciplines we call ‘fiction’ and ‘animal studies.’

I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to read this section: I was still immersed in the fictional world and the switch to this academic style was disconcerting after the beauty and sensitivity of the stories.  But my curiosity triumphed, and I found it fascinating to read about how these stories emerged and had been constructed in very precise ways.

Lobb’s awareness of the world of birds and how humans interact with them made me think of another recent book, The Grass Library by David Brooks (see my review here).  It’s a deeply thoughtful (and yet often light-hearted and amusing) book about the ethical compromises humans make to justify their relationship with animals.  Lobb’s novel comes from a different place because it is also a meditation on loss and loneliness, but it shares the same preoccupation with the way we share the same spaces as animals but see ourselves as apart.

I am grateful to the Readings Prize for introducing me to the work of this most interesting author.

Author: Joshua Lobb
Title: The Flight of Birds
Publisher: Sydney University Press, 2019, 313 pages (which includes110 pages of Field Notes and Acknowledgements)
ISBN: 9781743325834
Review copy courtesy of Sydney University Press

Available from Fishpond The Flight of Birds and direct from Sydney University Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 16, 2019

Dancing the Death Drill, by Fred Khumalo

A number of times now in recent reviews of historical fiction in the category that I call ‘hidden history’, (here and here and here and here) I’ve referred readers to Fred Khumalo’s article about how contemporary historical fiction is being written in South Africa as an activist’s tool and with attitude and a breathless literary intensity; a fire in its belly.  So I thought it was about time I read Khumalo’s book!

This is the blurb for Dancing the Death Drill:

Paris, 1958. An Algerian waiter at the famous restaurant La Tour d’Argent is convicted of the murder of two customers. As he is awaiting trial, his long-time friend Jerry Moloto helps an opportunistic and ambitious journalist build a case to defend him.

Through Jerry’s testimony the reader discovers that the waiter is actually Pitso Motaung, a mixed race South African who enlists to fight in the First World War. He is also one of the few remaining survivors of the SS Mendi tragedy, which saw the formidable warship sink off the coast of the Isle of Wight, killing 646 people, including many black South African soldiers. So how did a brave soldier become a criminal and will Pitso’s name be cleared before it is too late?

Commemorating the 100th year anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi, Dancing the Death Drill is a timely novel about life and the many challenges it throws our way.

Reading Khumalo’s book made me think about the processes of writing historical fiction and how that might impact on the text. Some historical novels emerge from an idea, or a theme, a distinctive character, or from the author’s passionate interest in a particular era.  And then there are authors who are seduced by a little-known event or person from history whose story deserves to be told.  The genesis of these stories is the gap in the historical record.  I usually prefer this type of historical fiction: I’ve learned a lot of history from historical novels!

However, authors setting the record straight or filling in the gaps need to be careful that on the one hand the history doesn’t overwhelm the narrative at the expense of a good story, and on the other that the imagined lives of the characters doesn’t detract from the credibility of the history.  Dancing the Death Drill engages the reader with a dramatic beginning but at times the backstory to the out-of-character murders drifts into an overlong life story of the central character.  It begins with a rather long account of his father’s life and patterns of abandonment: De La Rey’s desertion from the Boer forces; how he runs away with the chief’s daughter from the Sotho village that offered him refuge, and how then he deserts Matshilisio, without warning or explanation.  This part of the story ends rather abruptly.

Matshilisio and Pitso go in search of her own family but find the village has been taken over as farmland by the British, so she becomes a servant to an Indian family, and soon there is a fatherless baby with an Indian appearance.  Saloojee and his family leave town, Matshiliso is institutionalised, but dies soon after.  Her infant daughter does not survive conditions in the Bloemfontein orphanage, leaving Pitso Motaung an orphan.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, Pitso manages to get an education, and is fluent in many languages.  His leadership qualities are innate, and these come to the fore when he enlists in the South African Native Labour Corps.  The narration covers the training camps in the Cape, and the voyage to the battlefield, and the eventual collision of the Mendi with the cargo ship Darro with the loss of hundreds of lives.

This event is recorded at Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove unnecessary links)

Darro was an 11,484 ton ship, almost three times the size of the Mendi, sailing in ballast to Argentina to load meat. Darro survived the collision but Mendi sank, killing 616 Southern Africans (607 of them black troops) and 30 crew.[5]

Some men were killed outright in the collision; others were trapped below decks. Many others gathered on Mendis deck as she listed and sank. Oral history records that the men met their fate with great dignity. An interpreter, Isaac Williams Wauchope (also known as Isaac Wauchope Dyobha) who had previously served as a Minister in the Congregational Native Church of Fort Beaufort and Blinkwater, is reported to have calmed the panicked men by raising his arms aloft and crying out in a loud voice:

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers…Swazis, Pondos, Basotho…so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”

It is during the disaster that Pitso witnesses a war crime which (like other war crimes in the narrative) goes unpunished, and is the catalyst for his reprisal in the café decades later.  The heroic deaths of the men feels like the climax of the story, but the narration then continues to Pitso’s time serving in France, another love interest, and the enquiry into the sinking.  This is followed by another rapid cascade of events, with the conclusion of the war, Pitso’s decision to stay in France with a new identity, his marriage, and the advent of WW2.  The narrative is bookended with Pitso’s dramatic emulation of the warriors at the hour of their death on the Mendi, when on trial for his life, he demands his own dance of death. 

What still puzzles me, is the question of why Black South Africans enlisted to serve in the British army in WW1.  It was not even, apparently, because the opportunity appealed to them as warriors, because the British were careful not to arm them, but used them only in the service corps, transporting supplies, or labouring in construction work.  I was interested in this question because I’d recently read Our Mob Served which explored, amongst other things, the complex reasons why Australia’s Indigenous people served in the armed forces of the regime which had dispossessed them.  (See my review here). This may have coloured my reading of the novel, but I was also curious about why Indigenous Australians served alongside their White counterparts under the same conditions, while in what was the period before apartheid, the South Africans were segregated.  South African Blacks, often speaking mutually unintelligible languages, were all trained and billeted together, under the command of White South Africans.  And whereas Indigenous Australians generally served under the same conditions as the other soldiers, Black South Africans were fed inferior food, had inferior accommodation, and had no opportunities for advancement.  Although there was reference to some hopes that serving the Empire would lead to greater respect and the prospect of gaining the vote, and that some of the men were lured by pay that was better than anything they could earn in South Africa, IMHO the motivations of these men isn’t adequately explained.  I know, it’s a novel and not a history, but I would have been interested to know.

Nevertheless, as a window onto the Black history of South Africa, this is an interesting novel.  It’s of particular interest there, because the Mendi tragedy is commemorated by the Order of Mendi for Bravery, awarded to citizens who have performed extraordinary acts of bravery.

Dancing the Death Drill was also reviewed by Margaret von Klemperer at Books Alive in the Zimbabwean Sunday Times.

Author: Fred Khumalo
Title: Dancing the Death Drill
Publisher: Jacaranda Art Books Music Ltd, 2017 first published in South Africa by Umuzi (Penguin Random House) 2017, 318 pages
ISBN: 9781909762534
Source: Personal library

Available from Fishpond: Dancing the Death Drill

I have other things to do today, but I just had to share this Story of the Week from the Library of America…

A little over a hundred years ago, Amos Wright, editor of an obscure journal about beekeeping, wrote the first eyewitness account of a successful flight by the Wright Brothers.  If, like me, you still think that flying in an aeroplane is a miracle, you’ll love this story too.

Still, it was one of the grandest sights, if not the grandest sight, of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you—a locomotive without any wheels, we will say, but with white wings instead, we will further say—a locomotive made of aluminium. Well, now, imagine this white locomotive, with wings that spread 20 feet each way, coming right toward you with a tremendous flap of its propellers, and you will have something like what I saw.

The first powered, controlled, sustained airplane flight in history. Orville Wright, age 32, is at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. His brother, Wilbur Wright, age 36, ran alongside to help balance the machine, having just released his hold on the forward upright of the right wing. The starting rail, the wing-rest, a coil box, and other items needed for flight preparation are visible behind the machine. (Orville Wright preset the camera and had John T. Daniels squeeze the rubber bulb, tripping the shutter.) (Wikipedia, public domain: This image was restored by User:Wright Stuf in November, 2018 using GIMP.)

Root had heard the rumours about the highly secret trials, but was still awestruck by what he happened upon at Huffman Prairie on 20th September 1904.   What he witnessed was the Wrights’ first time landing the plane at the same place they had started.  He knew he had witnessed history.

God in his great mercy has permitted me to be, at least somewhat, instrumental in ushering in and introducing to the great wide world an invention that may outrank the electric cars, the automobiles, and all other methods of travel, and one which may fairly take a place beside the telephone and wireless telegraphy.

He understood the need for secrecy. He himself had been mocked when he imported a velocipede (bicycle) and tried to learn to ride it in public.  He succeeded by mastering it (and the tricky business of turns) in a locked hall where there were no discouraging witnesses to his mistakes.

He was alert to the sceptical response to this event: Everybody is ready to say, “Well, what use is it? what good will it do?”

When Columbus discovered America he did not know what the outcome would be, and no one at that time knew; and I doubt if the wildest enthusiast caught a glimpse of what really did come from his discovery. In a like manner these two brothers have probably not even a faint glimpse of what their discovery is going to bring to the children of men. No one living can give a guess of what is coming along this line, much better than any one living could conjecture the final outcome of Columbus’ experiment when he pushed off through the trackless waters.

In his background to this momentous event, he humbly attributes the same factors that enabled their success to his own with beekeeping — self-education and hard work.

If I allude to myself somewhat, please do not think I do it because I wish to boast. Some of you have read or heard me tell of the time when my attention was first called to bees. Almost the first thing I did was to go to the bookstores and see what books were to be found on the subject. I studied these books day and night, and read them over and over again. Then I procured the books and bee-journals from the old world; and when the language was something I could not manage I hired an interpreter to translate for me until I knew pretty nearly what the book contained. In less than one year I was in touch with the progressive bee-keepers of the world; and the American Bee Journal, that had been dropped for lack of support, was started up again. I mention this to show you that my success in bee culture, from the very first, was not luck or chance. It was the result of untiring energy and work. Now let me draw a contrast. During the years that are past, quite a number of men have come to me with their patented hives. A good many of these men had never seen a bee-journal. Some of them who had paid out their hard earnings to the Patent Office had almost never seen a book on bee culture, and they were not sure, from actual experience, of the existence of the queen-bee. We have inventors at the present time who are giving their lives and money to the four winds in the same poor foolish way. If you wish to make a success of any thing, or in any line among the many lines that lie before us in this great world of ours, find out what the great and good men have done in this special line before you.

The introduction on the Library’s website gives credit to a third member of the trio: schoolmate Paul Lawrence Dunbar, who shared with the Wright brothers an obsession with learning and went on to become an internationally famous poet before dying young, at the age of only 33.  The only African-American in their class, he was no doubt also a role model who showed what determination could achieve.

Publishing details: “The First Successful Trip of an Airship”  from Gleanings in Bee Culture, January 1, 1905 by A. I. (Amos) Root (1839–1923), in Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight, edited by Joseph J Corn

You can read the entire article at the Story of the Week website (where you can also subscribe) or in the book (which #ssshhh I have just bought as a Christmas present for The Offspring who is a pilot).

AALITRA-logo-image-file1.gifThis year the annual AALITRA Symposium here in Melbourne was held at the Multicultural Hub in Elizabeth St, and was well attended.  This is always a beaut event for anyone interested in translation, and – thanks to the Copyright Agency, it’s free.

The program began with a most interesting session presented by Harley Dunnoly-Lee and Dr Ruth Singer.  Both are linguists, and their topic was the rescue and reconstruction of Indigenous languages.  Singer researches multilingual practices in north-east Arnhem Land in partnership with the Warruwi Community, and her work focusses on the collaborative translation of stories and songs from the Mawng langauge.  Dunnolly-Lee is a Dja Dja Wurrung man from north-east Victoria.  He is the first-ever Aboriginal Community Linguist and Project Officer at the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VCAL).

Dr Singer explained that Aboriginal languages are owned by their speakers in the community, and not by the linguists who research them.  This concept of a language being owned is foreign to speakers of English, which is spoken everywhere, by anyone, and it gets adapted to suit the circumstances. [True, and sometimes in ways that pedants don’t like!]  Dr Singer’s practice is usually to work from audio recordings but sometimes from written records because there were over 350 books produced while the community had a bilingual school.*  However, written stories aren’t necessarily easier to work with because the Mawng language has only been written down for a few decades, and early stories were very literal transcriptions and it’s not always easy to work out what they mean.  But through a collaborative process, young people today read these stories in Mawng, and then read their translation into English.

The significance of Dunnoly-Lee’s appointment to VCAL is that for the first time, it enables the study of his languages to be undertaken by someone who has cultural authority.  Dunnoly-Lee is learning his own language.  His mother knew only fragments of it, and he is working to restore stories and songs.  His studies are in Linguistics, Archaeology, History, Anthropology and Indigenous Studies, and he made the point that in the process of decolonising Victorian Aboriginal languages and taking ownership of them, it’s necessary to have the European tools of linguists in order to be able to revive them.

It seems an impossible task when there may be only 50 words of a language left today, but Harley explained, although revival relies on 19th century texts such as miscellaneous records of missionaries, squatters, surveyors and so on (often in illegible handwriting) there are ‘families’ of languages, so that for instance, 87% of the languages of north-western victoria have features (such as word endings) in common [in the way that the Romance languages of Europe do].  So sometimes a grammar can be restored, while in other instances it has to be borrowed.

It was interesting to learn that the language families of eastern Victoria are nothing like those of the west, [but once you remember that the mountains and rivers were as much a logical boundary for tribes and clans as the Murray River that separates Victoria from New South wales, it makes perfect sense].

Dunnoly-Lee also explained the protocols involved in contemporary linguistics. Aborigines in Victoria want to lead the study of their languages.  Indeed, some families do not want to share them at all outside their community.  Much of what has been written in the past has been offensive and wrong, and interpreted by others who did not understand cultural features of the language.  (For example, missionaries could often only talk to the men, and often they did not record what was said in the right form.)  While Dunnoly-Lee was careful to say that he did not speak for others, he suggested that some Victorian Aborigines do not want to have White people telling them about their own language and culture, so there are cultural protocols, roles and behaviours to ensure that no further damage is done.

At Question Time, I asked about how optimistic Dunnoly-Lee was about the current calls for Indigenous languages to be taught in schools, (and I mentioned Bruce Pascoe as one of the advocates).  The reply was that there is not agreement about this among mobs in Victoria, and that it was up to them to decide. Some don’t want non-Indigenous people knowing their language better than they do, because of the ‘shame factor’.  OTOH some are keen to have language programs in schools.  The other complicating factor is that for some languages all that remains are ‘loose words’, just names of things.

Dr Singer also made the point that it is essential to start with respect, and then you have to learn how to do that respect.  It means a long-term commitment to respect Indigenous systems and their authority.  It involves a long time in consultation and collaboration, and you often need to pay for their time.

* I didn’t ask about this, but I assume these books were teacher-made ‘books’.  It is common practice when teaching in a language for which there are  no commercial resources, for teachers to make small ‘books’ from stories dictated by the children (or in the case of Indigenous communities, from Elders).  These little ‘books’ are usually printed on A4 paper, stapled or bound together with coverboard.  They are illustrated by the children, who like reading these teacher-made ‘books’ because they are about their familiar world and they use recognisable vocabulary, making them easier to read.   I made dozens of them when I was teaching ESL to students from Afghanistan because there were no books about their culture or lifestyle to use as teaching materials.

Image Sources: VCAL Aboriginal Languages of Victoria map, free to download here. (I wish I’d known about this when I was teaching… I reckon every school teacher in Victoria should have this map on display alongside any contemporary map of our state.)


The next speaker was Stephanie Smee in conversation with a PhD student called Caroline, whose surname I didn’t catch.  Smee is the translator of a book I really admired, No Place to Lay One’s Head (Rien où poser sa tête) by Françoise Frenkel (see my review) and is about to release her translation of a French noir novel called The Godmother (La Daronne) by Hannelore Cayre.  But she also translates children’s books, including those of the 19th century French children’s author Countess de Ségur who wrote Les Malheurs de Sophie (Sophie’s Misfortunes), but also those of the Swedish author Gösta Knutsson, who wrote The Adventures of Pelle No-Tail (Pelle Svanslös) and its sequels.

One issue that comes up when translating these older stories is that they can be dated, and the punishments meted out to naughty children, are inappropriate today.  For example, Smee gave the example of changing a ‘whipping; to a ‘beating’, and a ‘Punishment Room’ to a ‘Time-Out Room’, but there are also other tricky words like ‘nurse’ or ‘nanny’— words which may be familiar to readers of English literature but not to others of a different cultural background.  Racism—casual or otherwise—can be a problem too.

Even layout issues can crop up: today’s chapter books have a ‘he said/she said’ style, but the Countess used a declaratory style, announcing the speaker as in a play.  But the biggest difficulty is translating word play and ditties which are common in children’s books but rare in their translations, for obvious reasons.

Smee says she is guided by listening to the musicality of the text, and the voice of the author. (She sometimes tries out her version on her own children to see how they react.) The key issue is readability versus loyalty to the text, because strict loyalty can make it unreadable for its audience, that is, today’s children.


I was sorry to miss the final speaker, who was Omid Tofighian, translator of Behrouz Boochani’s book No Friend but the Mountains, but I was feeling seedy so I made my way home.

Many thanks to Elaine Lewis for the invitation to attend and the warm welcome!

For more information about AALITRA or for membership enquiries, see here.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2019

The Kowloon Kid, a Hong Kong childhood, by Phil Brown

All over the world, there are people on the other side of middle age, who enjoyed life in one or other of Britain’s colonies during the Empire.

Which as you know, occupied a vast swathe of the globe.  (No, I’m not going to repeat the old clichés about maps coloured pink, or suns not setting).  But there are a lot of people who lived in luxury not shared by their counterparts in the native population, and who may—or may not have—nostalgic memories of a lifestyle vastly different to wherever they ended up after their colonial home gained independence.  Whether they were in India during the Raj, or Malaysia, or Egypt in the Middle East, or any number of countries in Africa  or the Caribbean, they tended to live beside but apart from the local culture.  Like expats, but perhaps with an added sense of entitlement. Not always, I hasten to add.  No one could accuse George Orwell’s Burmese Days (1934) of having a sense of colonial entitlement.  It was an exposé of corruption and bigotry, and a bitter portrayal of colonial society.

Some who grew up in the colonies transitioned from their experience to an adult awareness of the issues that surround colonialism.  In Oleander, Jacaranda (1994) Penelope Lively wrote vividly about her ashamed astonishment that as an adult she could not bear to witness the ubiquitous poverty and squalor in Egypt, but had never even noticed it as a child though it was all around her.  “How did I not see it? she asked herself… OTOH June Porter wrote a memoir about her time swanning about in India during the Raj… it was called Can a Duck Swim? (2013), and you can see my thoughts about her insouciance here.

The Kowloon Kid, a Hong Kong Childhood is interesting because so few authors tackle the mixed emotions arising from a colonial childhood.  There must be thousands of them, not just from when the Colonial Office sent its staff out hither and yon.  There were also families like Brown’s who had commercial interests in the colonies as well. Brown’s father had a construction business which did very well in postwar Hong Kong’s boom, and presumably provided a lot of employment and contributed to development generally.  So though born in Australia, Brown spent the formative years of his childhood in Kowloon from 1963 to 1969.

Brown is a columnist for a lifestyle magazine and is Arts Editor of The Courier Mail in Queensland, so he has a breezy, entertaining style.  Although the book is mostly about childhood fun and mischief and his growing anxiety about his father’s drinking which burgeoned amid the social life of Hong Kong, he does also contend with the realities of colonial life.  He notes, without being heavy-handed about it, that although he should, he knows next-to-nothing about their household staff, people who included his amah and the driver who were part of his daily life.  And although he was only a child at the time, he alludes to a Communist uprising in 1967:

On July 8, 1967 armed villagers from the People’s Republic attacked a border police post at Sha Tau Kok, killing five policemen.  Reports of uniformed people moving towards a major crossing point in force sent the colony into a panic.  Britain’s crack Nepalese troops, the Gurkha Rifles, led by Major General Ronald McAlister, ended the siege of the police station and protected the border throughout the troubles.  They were tough.  I know because we used to play their children at soccer and even the kids were tough. We doubled up our shin pads for those matches. (p.175)

[Brown’s light-hearted memoir is not the place for historical analysis, but I found myself wondering what China’s motivation might have been.  They could not seriously at that time have thought of taking on the British Empire, even though it was weakened after the war.  This incident makes me think of the way China has responded to the current situation in Hong Kong by massing armed forces near the border.  It conveys a clear message: look what we could do if we wanted to.  We might not win, but we can make you feel very insecure, and over time, that might be enough to break you.]

If you’re a regular reader here, you won’t be surprised to know that I had to Google ‘the kid across the road’ Michael Hutchence.  I had heard of him, and I knew he was some kind of rock star, and I had heard of INXS (though never listened to it, as far as I know).  But I did not connect the two, and I didn’t know what Brown was referring to when he referred to Hutchence’s tragic death.  But I was very interested to see what Brown has to say about him, because it speaks to the influence that any one of us might have, without knowing it.

When I knew Michael Hutchence only one of us had ever fronted a band and it wasn’t him.  My time as co-lead singer of The Sidetracks [a school band] was a flash in the pan, admittedly, but I had one up on him.  Now I’m not saying I’m the guy responsible for turning the future front man of INXS onto pop music.  Let me just add, I’m not saying I wasn’t either.  Because I might well have been.

The fact of the matter is I was the cool guy with the record player, the collection of Beatles records and the Jimi Hendrix poster on my bedroom wall.  And Michael was the younger kid from across the road who may — or may not — have looked to me as a rock god. (p.190)

It’s a tantalising idea, isn’t it?  And it has credibility.  I know this because I was the uncool kid who influenced her best friend from round the corner into loving classical music which she never heard at home.  We spent our weekends listening to Beethoven together at my place, and she even persuaded her parents to buy a piano and pay for music lessons because of me.  So Brown and Hutchence? Maybe.  Hutchence didn’t live long enough to write his memoirs…

The Kowloon Kid is entertaining reading, with an added frisson because of the current situation.   Snaps from the family album add to the authenticity of these reminiscences.

Author: Phil Brown
Title: The Kowloon Kid, a Hong Kong childhood
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019, 304 pages
ISBN: 9781925760361
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond The Kowloon Kid: A Hong Kong Childhood or direct from Transit Lounge.


I took the plunge this month, and joined the bookgroup organised by A French Journey in Hampton, where I have French lessons every week. As anyone who’s ever tried to learn a language knows, it is essential to have authentic opportunities for speaking and listening, so AFJ learners can attend cultural occasions, lunches, meditation sessions, film nights, cooking classes and immersion trips to France and New Caledonia.  But when they introduced a French book club this year I thought it would be too advanced for me, and it wasn’t until the book of the month turned out to be L’étranger (The Outsider) by Albert Camus that found I could not resist the opportunity to join in.  We had a month to read the book… it couldn’t be that hard if French students read it at school, right?

(And I’d read it twice before, so I already knew what happened).

There are thousands of thoughtful reviews of L’étranger already, so I thought instead that I would share the discussion points we explored (me in my limping French).  The consensus among our group was that it was a difficult book, not because of the French, but because of the philosophical issues raised and the absurdism of the text.  We discussed the way Meursault is shown to be an outsider disconnected from his society, observing life but not really participating in it.  Most of the time he shows no emotion at all, even on occasions when almost anyone would.  (Someone brought up the idea that he was perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum, but I think that’s a contemporary preoccupation, and interpreting the characterisation like that misses Camus’s point.)

We also talked about Meursault’s alienation from the Algerian society he lives in.  In this respect, our teacher explained that Camus was presenting a critique of the way French colonial society was not integrated into the country.  Meursault exoticises the sounds and smells of the city, and he is always bothered by the weather, especially outside when he seems to suffer from heatstroke which affects his ability to think or concentrate or make sensible decisions.  He is the narrator of this story, and the reader notices that while he names all the characters, even quite minor ones, the ‘Arabes’ are never named, and they are presented as people who do not belong.  In this respect you can have an interesting discussion about who Camus is representing as the stranger/outsider of the title, Meursault or the Algerian man that he kills, and in what ways the title is ironic.

One aspect that I hadn’t noticed (because my grasp of French tenses is feeble, to say the least) is that there is a stylistic difference between Parts I and II.  The first part (when Meursault has some agency though he chooses not to exercise it) is narrated in the active voice, while the second part is in the passive voice, when he has lost control of what will happen in his life.  This bifurcation is signalled at the end of Part 1 when the Arab draws his knife and Meursault fires the first shot, the precise moment in the present tense:

 Tout mon être s’est tendu et j’ai crispé ma main sur le revolver. La gâchette a cédé, j’ai touché le ventre poli de la crosse et c’est là, dans le bruit à la fois sec et assourdissant, que tout a commencé. J’ai secoué la sueur et le soleil. J’ai compris que j’avais détruit l’équilibre du jour, le silence exceptionnel d’une plage où j’avais été heureux. Alors, j’ai tiré encore quatre fois sur un corps inerte où les balles s’enfonçaient sans qu’il y parût. Et c’était comme quatre coups brefs que je frappais sur la porte du malheur.

My entire being tensed and I clutched the revolver. The trigger gave way, I touched the smooth belly of the butt and it is there, in the noise both brittle and deafening, that it all started. I shook off the sweat and the sun. I realized that I had destroyed the equilibrium of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I had been happy. Then I fired four more times at an inert body where the bullets sank in without a trace. And it was like four short blows that I knocked on the door of misfortune.

Since Meursault’s only defence is that the first shot was an accident, a shot fired in panic at the sight of the knife, his decision to fire four more shots is crucial.  IMO he fires those four shots into the body because he may as well.  He has already ruined the day, and his entire life.  (Not to mention the Arab’s of course, but IMO that first shot was self defence, and he wouldn’t have had that gun if he hadn’t tried to prevent violence by taking it away from Raymond in the first place).  The question as to whether he ever comes to rue his action, is also crucial to the penalty he receives…

Though it came up late in the conversation, I want to share how we talked about the famous opening lines narrated by the doomed central character Meursault: Aujourd’hui, maman est morte, which translates as Today, mother died.  However, the way that the simple word maman is translated can, depending on your own cultural background, set the tone of the entire book in a direction perhaps not intended by the author.  Camus could have chosen the word mama, but he didn’t.   In this article at the NYT Ryan Bloom argues that for the modern American reader the translation of ‘maman’ to ‘Mother’ instead of ‘mom’ implies an impersonal, formal relationship, not one of affection.  Since the ensuing prosecution for murder makes much of Meursault’s callousness towards his mother, ‘Mother’ has the power to change the way we read everything that follows.   Well, I beg to differ. In British/Irish culture or class, far from being a cold and unfeeling term analogous to ‘dog’ or ‘husband’, ‘Mother’ is what I called my mother, with affection, as she, coming from an Anglo-Irish family also addressed her mother. Amongst the Brits, using ‘mum’ rather than ‘mummy’ is a marker of class. Gilbert (the translator of the edition under discussion, who was an Oxford scholar) was simply trying to avoid such class distinctions because he would have considered France to be a classless society.

We also briefly discussed the strange inclusion of a story about a Czech that seems to have nothing to do with anything.  Meursault finds under the bed in his cell, a scrap of newspaper about a crime which seems meaningless. We came up with no satisfactory explanation for why Camus included this, but did better with the strange reappearance of ‘the woman in the restaurant.’ Meursault sees this woman and notes her odd behaviour, and she turns up as a witness at his trial but is not called to the stand.  This can be explained, perhaps, if she had read about his case in the papers which were featuring it because it was a dry spell for news, and she came forward, but there is no explanation for why the prosecution would want her testimony except that her presence reinforces the absurdity of the trial proceedings.  I ma happy to be enlightened about these minor points by anyone who’s read the book too.

I enjoyed two concluding exercises… we had to choose which of these applied to Meursault

ça m’était égal

je me suis ennuyé

c’est ne pas de ma faute

j’avais tout le ciel dans les yeux et il était bleu et doré

It was all the same to me

I was bored

It’s not my fault

I was blinded by the sunlight

and then which of these applied best as a summary of the book:

Cela ne veut rien dire.

(Pour moi) c’est un malheur.

C’est alors que tout a vacillé.

It n’y avait rien de change.

(J’ai répondu qu’)on ne changeait jamais de vie, qu’en tout cas toutes se valaient.

Il n’y a pas d’issue.

It does not mean anything. 

(For me) it’s a misfortune.

It was then that everything altered.

Nothing had changed.

You can’t change your life and whatever you do it’s all the same

There is no way out.

If you’ve read L’étranger, which ones would you choose?

Author: Albert Camus
Title: L’étranger
Publisher: Folio, Gallimard, 1992, 184 pages
ISBN: 9782070360024
Source: purchased from AFJ.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 9, 2019

2019 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award

The winner of the 2019 Carmel Bird Literary Award has been announced.
The winner is Tanya Vavilova’s short story collection Grub.

According to the Booksellers and Publisher’s website:

Author and prize judge Moya Costello described Grub as ‘astonishingly outside of realism—vividly imagining a queer dystopian future of sex, sadness and sly humour’. The collection includes ‘a range of stories, from the eponymous “Grub”—charting one woman’s obsession with cleanliness—to the dystopian The-Handmaid’s-Tale-esque “Whipped Cream”.’

There were also two other finalists with short story collections:

  • Megan McGrath for All Hands; and
  • James Hughes for Understanding Almost Nothing of the World.

The winner receives $3000 and the finalists each receive $1000. All three works have been published as ebooks by Spineless Wonders, and are available from their website.

PS Ashley Kalagian Blunt was a finalist for this award in 2018, and you can read my review of her novella My Name is Revenge here. 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 9, 2019

2019 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers Longlist

Hachette Australia and the Emerging Writers’ Festival (EWF) have announced the longlist for the 2019 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers.

Don’t get excited about finding new books to read, not yet. This is a competition for proposed works of fiction or non fiction.  Entrants in the competition had to submit the first three chapters and a synopsis of a proposed work of adult fiction or narrative nonfiction.  So these longlisted works have been judged to have potential.  (But there is no indication as to whether the works are fiction or non-fiction, genre fiction or LitFic; and I also couldn’t find out exactly what the criteria are for an ’emerging writer’.)

The winner receives $10,000 and a 12-month mentorship from a Hachette publisher to help develop the work to publication.  Hachette also has first option on the shortlisted works as well. The Guardian newspaper will publish an extract and do a profile on the winning writer so this is a prize well worth winning.

The nominees are:

Sarah Fiddelaers, Where the Lost Boys Go
Tee Linden, The Nameless
Sara El Sayed, The Blind Pussy Cat
Sunil Badami, An Allergy
Ruby Todd, The Counterpart
Allee Richards, In Real Life
Delila Bevan Zavadsky, Thawed Waters
Yannick Thoraval, White Foam
January Gilchrist, The Lady Detective
Ayla Black, The Earth Starts Talking
Simon Robertson, The Reset
Else Fitzgerald, Nearly Curtains
Josiah Slough, Capstone
Kylie Orr, The Fundraiser
Justin Hamilton, The Ultimate
Heather James, The Inlet
Christine Kearney, The Book of Eels
Jacqueline Winn, The Glorious Madness
Lauren Draper, We’ll Meet Again
Jennifer Carlisle, The Ultimate’s Sister
Daniel Ryan, The City’s Heart

It’s pleasing to see that Australia’s multicultural mix is indicated by the cultural diversity of these names.

The shortlist will be announced on October 7th, and the winner on November 8th.

Thanks to Booksellers & Publishers for the tweet that alerted me to this, and to the EWF festival for hosting the webpage with more information. See here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 8, 2019

Minotaur, by Peter Goldsworthy

Peter Goldsworthy AM (b. 1951) is a versatile author, but Minotaur is, I think, his first venture into writing a thriller.  I read most of his novels before I started this blog, so the only reviews here are of his memoir, His Stupid Boyhood (2013), and of Everything I Knew (2008) which was shortlisted for the PMs Literary Award in 2009.  But I certainly never thought of him as a writer of genre fiction, and I still don’t. Minotaur is a thriller, but it’s much more interesting than that.

This is the blurb:

Peter Goldsworthy’s new novel features a blind detective determined to deliver justice to the man who shot him, even though his failed assassin has broken out of jail and is equally determined to finish the job. Cleverly structured around the five senses, and with the action confined to one week, it’s pacey and taut, with the cat-and-mouse tension leavened by lighter interludes.

Goldsworthy is interested in all that his protagonist cannot see, as he is forced to meet evil, acting on a trust in his senses, and the ineluctable mystery that is memory.

The part-man, part-bull Minotaur of Greek legend was so dangerous that King Minos of Crete had it incarcerated in a maze, until Theseus successfully killed it.  The significance of this, in terms of the novel, is that both Theseus and the Minotaur were trapped in the maze, and Theseus only escapes through the love of a woman, i.e. Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter. In Goldsworthy’s novel, Detective Sergeant Rick Zadow is trapped in his house not just by his blindness but also by a desire for vengeance that is not much different to the vengeful escapee’s.  I won’t share whether he is saved by the love of a woman or not, because that would be a spoiler!

There’s a small cast of characters.  There is Zadow, blinded by a shot from the man who has now escaped from prison.  He has an absent wife called Willow a.k.a. Willowpedia because she’s a know-it-all, and there are two psychiatrists who will be combatants in the court case to award him compensation.  His former colleague Terry drops by to tell him the good news and to suggest possibilities for getting back to work, and there’s Annie, a desirable policewoman who shares the same ‘flexible’ attitude towards administering the law when it suits.

Zadow gets about with a cane, a failed guide dog called Scout and a digital personal assistant called (you guessed it) Siri.  His house has been modified as a Smart House, which responds via Siri to commands such as turning off the lights.  As is apparently common, his other senses have heightened to compensate for the loss of his sight.  Nevertheless, one might think that he would feel vulnerable, knowing that his nemesis is on the loose, but on the contrary, Zadow welcomes the situation and goes out of his way to let the media broadcast his whereabouts.  And he sets a very clever trap.

Dialogue is witty and sharp, especially the scenes with the psychiatrists who struggle to retain their professionalism when he baits them.  In many ways Zadow is his own worst enemy, and that’s partly because he is obsessed with confronting the evil.  What’s also interesting is Goldsworthy’s portrayal of the absent wife: it reminded me of Rodney Hall’s A Stolen Season (see my review) in the way that it shone a light on how injury-acquired disability affects not just the person but family too.  In A Stolen Season a disaffected wife has to cope with the expectation that she will be a loving and supportive partner, after the husband she’d been planning to leave comes back from Iraq a shattered man. In Minotaur Zadow’s wife has to deal with his sudden blindness and irascible temper.  When he pleads his case for forgiveness and makes all the usual promises, he sounds just like any other man in this situation.  Given his disability, are there mitigating circumstances?  Will readers forgive, whether the wife does or not? That’s a question for book clubs to ponder.

The main question however, hovers around the Old Testament desire for retribution.  Justice, retribution and vengeance are on a continuum, and Zadow wants an eye for an eye.  His blind spots are not just because he can’t see.

BTW, apropos of nothing at all, I wonder if Goldsworthy is a climate change denier.  On page 120 there’s an exchange about a reporter called Sophie, who made her name with a hard-hitting investigation into climate change and the flooding of the Pacific Islands.

A louder bell rang, not so much the series itself, as Willowpedia railing against it, episode after episode.  ‘They’re living coral atolls, you f— bimbo! They grow with the rising seas.  They’ve been doing it for thousands of years.  Some basic science please, not this pseudo-religious claptrap!’ The program obviously meant a lot to her, because she always went back and watched the next episode — dare I say, religiously.  ‘What next? The End is Nigh! Punish us, O Gaia, for our carbon sins!
Oh, f— me, stick to saving cure baby animals, moron!’

There seems to be no relevant reason for this snippet, except to expose what might, or might not be, faulty science in climate change reporting, and for this character Willow to demean a woman journalist. It’s a rather odd flaw in an otherwise enjoyable book.

Author: Peter Goldsworthy
Title: Minotaur
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Random House), 2019, 326 pages
ISBN: 9780143795698
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Minotaur $25.92

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 7, 2019

The Dismissal Dossier, by Jenny Hocking

For me, one of the remarkable aspects of reading The Dismissal Dossier, Everything You Were Never Meant to Know about November 1975 is that the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975 seems to generate so little interest.  The book isn’t written for people like me who lived through the hours of November 11th with increasing shock and dismay, it’s written for people who weren’t paying attention at the time, or have come to adulthood in the ensuing years.  I can’t comprehend why people don’t realise how much it matters for our democracy…

I’m not going to revisit the historical events of the day, because Wikipedia provides a readily available account and because the timeline of events is actually secondary to what matters.  My father was one of those outraged by the Palace’s role in these events, and he wrote to the Queen and in due course received the usual mealy-mouthed denial that the Queen had any responsibility for it.  What matters is that this denial and all the others are shameless lies, and Jenny Hocking lays the deception bare in the first chapter ‘What did the Palace Know?’  The Palace knew what was going to happen beforehand, had provided advice beforehand, and went on to shower Kerr with honours after the event.  So much for the oft-quoted assertion that the Queen is always neutral in matters of domestic politics.  She wasn’t neutral then — and she isn’t neutral now because she is still refusing to release archival material that is obviously detrimental to the fantasy of Palace neutrality.

[Jenny Hocking took the case to the High Court to force the Palace to release the papers, and failed.  You can read the judgement here, but the nuts and bolts of it is that the correspondence is not the property of the Commonwealth and therefore there is no authority to release them under the Archives Act.  The Palace can embargo their release indefinitely…]

I was glued to the radio on November 11th 1975, and I remember the short-lived moment of relief when Whitlam returned to the House of Representatives after Kerr had dismissed him and the House carried a motion of No Confidence in Kerr’s stooge Malcolm Fraser.  I thought that everything would be resolved then… the Senate had passed Supply and it’s the House of Reps that forms government in democracies like ours.  But in the chapter ‘Sir John Kerr’s  Second Dismissal’ Hocking makes it explicit: from this moment on, this moment that I remember so vividly, Whitlam should have been restored to office.

The single most important resolution the House of Representatives can ever make, the resolution by which governments are made and unmade, is a motion of confidence in the House of Representatives.  It is the defining feature of the Westminster system and the sine qua non of democratic government.  The continuation of Fraser in office, despite the no-confidence motion against him, profoundly challenged the very essence of parliamentary democracy and its established political processes.  The repudiation of this foundational role of the House of Representatives in the formation of government was nothing less than a repudiation of parliamentary democracy itself.  (p.84)

And Fraser, who should have resigned there and then, let ambition override integrity, went on to rule for seven years, and had not a word to say about it in his memoirs.

The only way to ensure that this can never happen again is to have a republic, and to those who say, ‘ok, but not till the present Queen dies because she’s done a good job’, my response is, read this book. 

Yes, I am angry…

You can also download Hocking’s essay ‘The Dismissal of the Whitlam Government: From the Shadows of History’ from the online National Library of Australia Magazine – December 2015

See also Janine’s review of The Dismissal Dossier and John Menadue’s at his blog.

Author: Jenny Hocking
Title: The Dismissal Dossier, Everything You Were Never Meant to Know about November 1975
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, updated edition, 2017, first published 2015, 183 pages (including 22 pages of notes)
ISBN: 9780522873009
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Dismissal Dossier: The Palace Connection: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know about November 1975 $16.78

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 7, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation: A Gentleman in Moscow, to …

This month’s #6Degrees starts with a book I really enjoyed: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. (See my review here).  One of the reasons I liked this book so much was that it offered a different perspective to most of the Soviet era literature I’d read — it shows a member of the privileged classes adapting to the privations of the new Soviet reality rather than being oppressed by them, as in Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn.  I like being surprised by my reading, and having my assumptions challenged.

Another book which offered a surprising perspective on Soviet Russia was Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C Hayden. (See my review here).  I never imagined that anyone could find any positives about being deported to Siberia, but Yakhina’s book was based on the real life experience and reflections of her Tartar grandmother, so it just shows you how very differently men and women experience life-changing events.

It was not until 2016 when I read Melbourne author Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, Sister (see my review here) that I realised that in all my reading about the Holocaust, I’d never read anything from a woman’s perspective. Blay’s memoir retells the experiences of her mother and her aunt, two sisters who survived the Holocaust, Hela through the mercy of Oskar Schindler, and Janka just barely alive at the end of a death march from Auschwitz.

The mention of Oskar Schindler reminds me (of course!) of Thomas Keneally’s best-known and Booker-prize-winning Schindler’s Ark (1982) and the subsequent film Schindler’s List, and how he as an author has tackled so many historical issues that some people tag him as Australia’s Balzac.

The fact that the Booker win triggered the film makes an interesting contrast with his two Miles Franklin wins for Bring Larks and Heroes (1967, see my review here) and Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968, see my review here), neither of which to the best of my knowledge have been made into films.  (BTW I have counted these two books as one link rather than two).

I think this says as much about the status of the MF back in those days as it does about the books themselves. The Miles Franklin award had been running for less than a decade at that time, and it’s only in recent years that it has acquired publicists and marketers to generate the interest that it has today (and even now, it rarely makes the TV or radio news).  But the Booker was and still is different and has always had an international profile (in the Anglosphere) as The book prize, and American authors chafed at being excluded from it until the Brits finally caved in and let them enter.  Filmmakers weren’t interested in making any of Keneally’s books into film until The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972, see my review here) was shortlisted for the Booker.  Is that the cultural cringe that went away for a while and has come back again?

Whatever, perhaps someone who pays more attention to the film industry than I do can correct me, but I find it a bit depressing that I can only think of one recent Australian book that’s been made into a film, and that was the three-hankie The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman.  See my review here and note that I predicted its future in film!

So that’s my #6Degrees: from a book about overturning assumptions to another that plays right to all the tropes about motherhood.

Next month’s book is a complete mystery to me.  It’s called Three Women, it’s by Lisa Taddeo, and it’s *yawn* about the sex lives of three American women.  Will I read it?  Not a chance…

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (El Greco) (Wikipedia*)

If, like me, you like art but you haven’t studied it, you might also think of El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos, 1541-1614) as a rather gloomy painter.  I’ve seen his paintings in the Prado in Madrid and in the Palazzo Barbarini in Rome and also in situ at the church of Santo Tomé in Toledo where ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’ is the centrepiece of the chapel wall.  There’s also an El Greco at the NGV: it’s called ‘Portrait of a Cardinal’ and it was purchased through the Felton Bequest in 1950.  You can see it here.

My take-home impression of this artist is that he painted lots of sombre noblemen in black outfits with the obligatory white ruffles, and lots of even more sombre religious paintings in very sombre colours indeed.  Even allowing for the deterioration of what might have once been brighter paint colours, El Greco seems depressing.

Which is why, when I saw this book at the library, I was quite taken aback by the portrait on the front cover of this book.  ‘Lady in a Fur Wrap’ is quite unlike any of the other El Greco portraits I’ve seen, and — as it turns out — also unlike the ones in this book.  The painting is discussed in the chapter ‘Posthumous Fame in Spain’ where there is discussion about the extent to which El Greco’s son, Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos (1578-1631) was responsible for finishing some of his father’s paintings after his death in 1614.  And hmm, it seems to me to be a bit cheeky to put ‘Lady in a Fur Wrap’ on the front cover of a book about El Greco, because…

Recent research dates the work to the 1570s.  Yet there are weighty arguments for considering it not a work of El Greco’s at all but from the hand of a female artist, Sofonisba Anguissola (1535/40-1625).

So this painting on the front cover of a book about El Greco, probably wasn’t his work at all!  And from what I can see of her work at Wikipedia, she was a fine portraitist and if I ever get to go back to the Prado, I’m going to look out for the paintings that are now recognised as being painted by her.


This book is one of a series called Basic Art 2.0, and according to its blurb the series has evolved from its beginnings in 1985 with the title ‘Picasso’, to being the best-selling art book collection ever published.  Listed at the back of this book there are 62 more titles representing artists from Bacon to Warhol, as well as 12 books on art genres from Abstract Impressionism to The Blaue Reiter (which was a movement of German Expressionists.) There are also 18 books about architecture, from Aalto to Zaha Hadid.

El Greco, a Prophet of Modernism measures about 26cm x 21cm and most of its 95 pages are full page, full colour reproductions of his art works.  There are 9 chapters in which Scholz-Hänsel covers these self-explanatory topics:

  • From Icon Painter to ‘Disciple of Titian’
  • In Search of Work in Rome and Spain
  • Under the Sway of Michelangelo
  • Censorship and Inquisition
  • Toledo, the Artist’s New Home
  • The Greek Heritage in the Conflict of Confessions
  • Posthumous Fame in Spain
  • The First ‘Homeless Man of Art’ and the Avant-Garde
  • El Greco 1541-1614 Life and Work (a timeline of his life)

There are three reasons why El Greco is the best-known foreign artist of his period, yet we know much less about him than many lesser Italian artists of the post-Renaissance era.  Firstly, he made a long ‘pilgrimage’ through the Mediterranean before finally settling in Toledo in Spain in 1577.  Secondly, it was not until the 17th century that Spanish writers on art emerged, and thirdly, until Goya, there was no Spanish school of engraving, so his works weren’t reproduced as prints. Still, recent research has uncovered all kinds of useful documentation, which helps to fill out the picture.  Nobody is quite certain which religion he practised, but he probably trained in icon painting in a ‘hybrid’ Byzantine school.  He quickly gained a reputation as a master in this field, and he soon started to experiment beyond the traditional motifs.  There are some stunning triptychs in this chapter, on view, apparently in Modena.

Retrato de Vincenzo Anastagi (El Greco) (Wikipedia*)

By 1570 he was in Rome, painting remarkable portraits.  Some of these like the one of Vincenzo Astagi at right look so modern they might well be 19th century portraits, (except for the bloomers).  However most of his religious paintings feature people in dowdy green, grey and wishy-washy blue clothing and they have long faces with very sour expressions and grey skin tones. ‘The Purification of the Temple’, painted in 1570-75 (and held at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts) makes Jesus look painfully vengeful.  He has no halo, and his expression reminds me more of a sulky young thug than the Son of God upholding the sanctity of the temple.

However El Greco made himself very unpopular by offering to paint over Michelangelo’s nudes in the Sistine Chapel in accord with more strict Catholic dogma.  This was such a bad idea that he was forced to leave the city.  (And a good thing too, IMO… just imagine if he’d succeeded with his plans!)

By this stage of the book I wasn’t very fond of El Greco which may have influenced my already not enthusiastic opinion of his work.  I’m certainly not keen on ‘Mary Magdalene in Penitence’ (c.1576), again painted in sombre greys and blues (unlike the beautiful blue gown that we typically see Mary wear).  She’s fondling a skull and her expression IMO looks scornful rather than penitent.  It’s at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, and you can see it here.

By 1580 he’d shed naturalism, and began to express spiritual phenomena… 

His works of the 1580s show an increasing disregard for Renaissance rules of perspective and proportion.  The figures lose plasticity, become slender and elongated. As we know from Pacheco, El Greco prepared his compositions not with live models but, like Tintoretto, with clay figurines.  The illumination took on a symbolic function, light and dark came to stand in a marked contrast to each other, and the colours began to take on a more expressive character.

At right is the painting that Scholz-Hänsel has chosen to show this astonishing change in style… it’s theMartyrdom of St Maurice, 1580-82, held in the Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Patrimonio Nacional, and it’s interesting for a whole lot of reasons including that we can see in the foreground Maurice (in the blue tunic) meeting the legionnaires and if you look in the LH middleground, there he is again, comforting someone else about to be beheaded. (BTW Does anyone else find the stance of the legionnaires in this picture a little odd? It looks more like an invitation to dance than an arrest.)

The chapter called ‘Toledo, the Artist’s New Home’ has quite a bit about ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgas’ because it’s El Greco’s best known painting.  By now he had abandoned the concepts of the Roman High Renaissance by using light for symbolic effects. If you look back up at the painting at the top of this post, you can see that the heavenly sphere is dominated by a restless oblique light, while the earthly realm confronts the viewer as a uniformly illuminated stage on which the roches, surprisingly, seem to give off little real light.  The Wikipedia image shows the painting at its best, obviously photographed under strong lights.  It doesn’t look like that in a small church where the lighting isn’t very good anyway and the effect is melancholy indeed. Scholz-Hänsel says in a later chapter that Picasso’s painting ‘Burial of Casamagas’ was influenced by this painting and that Picasso strongly identified with El Greco even as late as his Pink Period.

I find it interesting that Scholz-Hänsel argues that it was intellectuals and the international art avant-garde who resurrected interest in El Greco, after he had long fallen out of favour, his works judged affected and exaggerated. He quotes the Spanish artist Palomino (1625-1726) as saying ‘But when he saw that his paintings were confused with those of Titian, he attempted to change his style with such extravagance that he made his painting inferior and ridiculous both in the distortions of drawing and the insipidness of colour.’ (p.89) 

And that’s what I think too.

Image credits:

  • The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’ View of the painting by El Greco in the church of Santo Tomé, Wikipedia, public domain,  
  • Retrato de Vincenzo Anastagi (El Greco)  – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, 
  • The Martydom of St Maurice (El Greco)  – Colecciones reales, Patrimonio Nacional de España, Public Domain, Wikipedia

Author: Michael Scholz-Hänsel
Title: El Greco, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, 1541-1614, a Prophet of Modernism
English edition translated by John Gabriel
Basic Art Series 2.0
Publisher: Taschen, 2016, 95 pages
ISBN: 9783836534536
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: El Greco $28.05 (which seems much cheaper than most art books that I see).  Fishpond seem to have quite a few of these titles, search Taschen Art Series or see here.  They vary in price, but there are also some second-hand copies which are considerably cheaper.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 5, 2019

Pearly Gates, by Owen Marshall

Owen Marshall (b. 1941) is a well-known author in New Zealand, with a very substantial body of work and some impressive accolades from the KiwiLit community, not to mention mentions in three shortlists noted on this blog — but it was not until I came across John McCrystal’s review of his new novel Pearly Gates in the New Zealand Review of Books (about which I have enthused before, see here) that I got round to chasing up one of his titles.  (Which just shows you the value of an enticing review, eh?)

It’s a surprisingly interesting book, given the quotidian nature of its characterisation and plot.  It’s very everyday, just the tale of an ordinary man in small town New Zealand and his late life crisis of conscience, but I couldn’t put it down.  It’s a remarkable achievement to make a reader care about the ethical fate of a man whose success in life has made him complacent and a little too proud of his somewhat mundane achievements.

Aged 64, Pat ‘Pearly’ Gates is a real estate agent, and in his second term as mayor of the small provincial town he lives in.  He is comfortably married to Helen, and they have two adult children regrettably living far away but not estranged either.  Pearly is a recognisable face around town, and admired for his long ago feats playing rugby for Otago although injury forced him out before he could achieve his ambition to play for the All Blacks. He’s a good ‘people person’, comfortable with listening to the inevitable complaints from constituents, and with a good team around him at the council, reasonably responsive to reasonable requests.  He’s mildly obsessive about appearances, becoming unduly irritated by a scratch on his car and passing over a best-qualified job applicant because his shoes were dirty, but not realising that he’s not exactly a smart dresser himself until late in the day when out-of-towners more successful than he, return for a school reunion.

But he is a bit smug:

Pearly reviewed his decision to stand for a third term.  He enjoyed being mayor, although he was now fully aware of the tedious nature of many of the responsibilities and functions. And his satisfaction in the role wasn’t just an expression of his sense of achievement, of entitlement.  Pearly had real affection and concern for his home region.  Indeed for the country as a whole.  He liked to see decent intentions and decent people succeed, as he had himself, and he rarely doubted his own judgement.  Pearly was his own role model. (p.10)

So it comes as a surprise when this basically decent if complacent man stumbles across political advantage and slyly uses it for his own benefit.  Actually, it’s more than a surprise, it’s quite shocking.  No one know about Pearly’s role in it, not even his victim, but it preys on his mind.  Along with some other stupid out-of-character things he’s done, such as hugging an attractive divorcee when a sale goes through and she rapidly rounds on him as one of a number of men ‘hitting on’ her now that she is on her own.  Such as feeling mildly envious of his brother who took up the failing family farm and made a success of it, and now has a son who wants to carry on the family business.  He regrets that too many of his friends have been neglected, especially now when mortality seems so much closer than before.  And there are small signs that not all is well with his body: the reader notes these cumulative signs but he ignores them (and the impulse to have a long overdue checkup).

The novel builds up slowly to the moment of crisis.  Pearly is, of course, on the organising committee of the 125th reunion of the school, and it’s his role to pick up the school’s most preeminent Old Boy and ferry him around.  He also makes the welcoming speech, only to find himself appearing provincial and a little too self-absorbed by comparison with the concluding speech of Sir Andrew Nisse and his global, future-orientated perspective.  Wrong-footed when he’s not the most important person around, Pearly gives in to an impulse: he encourages a none-too-bright and mildly-tipsy friend to demonstrate his loyalty in a dare that goes horribly wrong.

And his conscience will no longer be silenced.

If you are a subscriber to the NZ Review of Books, you can see John McCrystal’s review here.  Rebekah Fraser also reviewed it at NZ Booklovers (and vouches for the authenticity of Marshall’s portrait of small town NZ).

Author: Owen Marshall
Title: Pearly Gates
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House New Zealand), 2019, 281 pages
ISBN: 9780143773153
Source: Bayside Library Service

Available from Fishpond (freight from NZ to Australia is free) : Pearly Gates

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 5, 2019

Water Under the Bridge, by Sumner Locke Elliott

Just over a week ago, Writers NSW and the State Library of NSW hosted another in their Honouring Australian Writers series, with a tribute to the author Sumner Locke Elliott (1917-1991).   Hearing about this event prompted me to retrieve his sixth novel Water Under the Bridge from the TBR where it had languished for far too long, and subsequently listening to the podcast* enhanced my reading of the novelSo I must acknowledge the speakers at the event: Sharon Clarke who wrote a 1996 biography of Sumner Locke Elliott; and the other speakers Kim Knuckey, an actor with a keen interest in Elliott’s plays; the film producer Margaret Fink who produced the film based on Elliott’s Eden’s Lost in 1988; and Walter Mason who did some of the readings.

Sumner Locke Elliott is known to most of us as the winner of the 1963 Miles Franklin Award with his first and very poignant autobiographical novel Careful, He Might Hear You which I read years ago when it was made into a film in 1983.  Much more recently I reviewed Fairyland (1990), which was the last of his novels and an autobiographical novel which reveals a rather grim Sydney in the days before homosexuality was decriminalised.  Apart from Edens Lost (1969) and Water Under the Bridge (1977) which were both set in Australia, all the others were set in the US, where he lived from 1948.  These included: Some Doves and Pythons (1966);  The Man Who Got Away (1972); Going (1975);  Signs of Life (1981); About Tilly Beamis (1985); and Waiting for Childhood (1987).  In 1977 he won the Patrick White Award.

But apart from these novels which were internationally successful (including in translation), Elliott was also a successful playwright and scriptwriter, most notably for Rusty Bugles (1948) which was, according to one of the speakers on the podcast, the first play to feature the Australian vernacular, an homage more commonly applied to Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955) by Ray Lawlor.  This may well have been because Rusty Bugles was promptly banned because of its bad language, which is apparently quite tame by contemporary standards.  I’ll leave that to others to judge.

What I learned from the podcast, and subsequently by poking around in my Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1985 edition), was that one way or another, all Elliott’s novels were autobiographical, featuring orphaned boys brought up by lone surrogate mothers.  Elliott’s own mother died young, leaving him to the tender mercies of the aunts who waged a custody battle for him as fictionalised in Careful, He Might Hear You. In Water Under the Bridge, the mother is careless of him, dumping him on a theatrical friend while she goes to nurse the husband by whom she so besotted that she barely notices the child’s existence.  Both of them promptly die of the flu epidemic, leaving him in the dismayed hands of the friend.

The portrayal of Shasta, the ageing chorus-girl, is both brutal and sympathetic.  She gives up her big break on the stage to take care of him all through the bleak years of the depression, but her resentment about this entrapment and the lost opportunities for fame and for love bleed through into hysterical rants which are legendary in the boarding house.  When Neil comes home after the celebrations for the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, he is warned to be wary:

The front hall light had been left on for him which would mean sixpence would be added to the rent.  The house had a peculiar smell of old carpet, frying and stale beer.  The vestibule was a slight cut above the neighbours’, with threadbare carpeting rather than lino.  There was a lithograph of ‘Hope’ crouched blindfold in despair over the globe of the world, and a framed mirror that had tarnished into golden measles.  On the fumed-oak dropleaf table was a bowl of dusty wax grapes that looked like tumours and a china Tyrolean couple probably won at Luna park years ago.  Mrs Chauncey reluctantly took telephone messages and one or two of these were propped up against the grapes.  One read ‘Neil’.

In the uncertain light he read ‘Cave.  V.B.M.’  Chauncey liked a bit of Latin.  Cave was Latin for Beware.  […] V.B.M. meant Very Bad Mood. Good old Chauncey, what a pal.  Neil unlaced his shoes and took them off and went up the stairs using the extreme side which was less inclined to squeak. (p.57-8.)

Mrs Chauncey’s warning does him no good at all.  Shasta is awake, and she lures him into what starts as a genial conversation that then morphs into a tirade about his selfishness, about how she doesn’t care about anything he does, but she’s sick of being treated like a doormat, and so on.  And on and on.  Shasta has become an awful old harridan, tormenting Neil at every opportunity, and not evoking much of the reader’s sympathy — not until a last opportunity for happiness arises.  Elliott has set his novel in an era of real suffering — the Depression, and then the war, but he gives proper weight to Shasta’s tragedy: the collapse of her long-held hopes and her fear of a lonely old age…

She lay awake and thought about being rescued from the descending spiral of shabby rooming houses, each one worse.  Of the diminishing of old pals, the eventual state home for the aged, recognised the fact that in all her born days of entertaining men in and out of bed, she’d never before had a legitimate proposal of marriage.

Most of all she thought about the horror of ending her life in any kind of hospital or institution.  She could never forget going to visit broken-down old Queenie Dawn in one of those places, the stench of disinfectant, the rows of beds with the old women lying in their own wet or shuffling up and down the ward in their institutional grey cotton bathrobes, the cold disinterested attendants.  And Queenie saying, ‘You’re the only one who’s ever come to see me, Shast.’  Even at that she couldn’t ever go back. (p.285)

But it’s not easy for Neil to escape.  He yearns to be free, and he manages to make a career as an actor despite her scorn, but he feels guilt and responsibility for Shasta and he ends up just as trapped as she is.  This pattern repeats itself in his efforts at romance.  He is bedazzled by the wealthy Carrie Mazzini, for whom he’s just a plaything, and in his search for self he comes to realise eventually that he is beguiled in part by her unavailability.  But he still can’t break away and at a crucial opportunity in his career, she whistles for him once again…

How she liked to bring up these tangential things, liked to tantalise you with some sort of metaphor seemingly unrelated in any way to what was being talked about and then give that quizzical smile, and if you asked what did she mean, would laugh or say contemptuously that if you didn’t get the point she couldn’t explain it to you.  It had never been any use asking Carrie what she meant, or if she meant to mean anything. Like what she meant about not finding people real.  Interesting, because if anything, the reverse was true, she was the unreal one, she was the conundrum.  She was there and she wasn’t, she was alluring and a nuisance, vulnerable and self-contained, and it occurred to him now that in her casualness of give and take, asking for your hand, asking for your heart, she was conscienceless and that this made her unattainable and irresistible.  (p.275)

Water Under the Bridge is a character-driven novel exploring diverse destinies, with Sydney itself as a character.  The depiction of class differences in (so-called) egalitarian Australia is brilliant, ranging from the dingy boarding houses, to the genteel poverty of the Flagg sisters and the casual luxury of the Mazzini family.  The bland mediocrity of the suburbs is contrasted with the soaring arches of the Bridge, captured in the excruciating banality of Nance Coles’ correspondence with her friend Beryl living all the way down the south coast in Wollongong.  

Elliott is master of the droll but devastating turn of phrase, as in describing the awkward relationship between the journalist Maggie McGhee with Don Brandywine:

How about the Tiv some night.  Did she like that vaudeville sort of show?  He crept up on her like a habit.  She had only one brief fling since Neil, with an American lieutenant who had been whisked away to the Philippines.  Perhaps she had grown choosy: she had long forsworn marriage and she had never been attuned to the casual lay, and as the differential that lay between was hard to find, she had become becalmed.  She sought and could not find the long-range affaire of the heart.

So, drifted becalmed into this surrogate relationship with Don, which had then, to her surprise, ripened into this ambiguity.  It was a dead-end from which she could not extricate herself.  It was almost as if he were a parcel delivered to her by mistake. (p.298)

Water Under the Bridge is long out of print and will be hard to track down.  Hopefully, one of our publishers who are rescuing classics from obscurity will soon include this in their catalogue.

PS, thanks to a prompt from Carmel Bird, see comments below: The beautiful jacket illustration is a detail from ‘The Bridge Under Construction’ c.1928-9 by Roland Wakelin, and you can see the whole painting in the NGV Collection online.

*Some of the sound recording is a bit erratic but it’s worth persisting.

Author: Sumner Locke Elliott
Title: Water Under the Bridge
Publisher: Macmillan Australia, 1877, first published by Simon and Schuster, 1977
ISBN: 0 333 23009 4
Source: Personal copy, it’s been on the TBR since 2009

Availability: try your library or the OpShop

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 3, 2019

Meet an Aussie Author: Meg Mundell

Photo credit: Joanne Manariti Photography

Born and raised in New Zealand, Meg Mundell is a Melbourne-based novelist, journalist and academic.   You might have seen her journalism in The Age, The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald, The Monthly, New Matilda, The Australian Financial Review, The Big Issue, and Eureka Street, or her essays in Meanjin, Cordite Poetry Review, Overland, and in The Weekend Australian. She is what I describe as an author of social conscience, which can be seen in the collection she edited:  We Are Here: Stories of Home, Place & Belonging (Affirm Press, due out in October 2019), a world-first collection of true stories by people who have experienced homelessness.

But Meg also has a substantial body of work in fiction. Her short fiction has been published in Best Australian Stories, New Australian Stories, Modern Australian Stories, Australian Book Review, and Eureka Street, and Things I Did for Money (2013) was her debut short story collection.  I first discovered her fiction when I read her acclaimed first novel, Black Glass (Scribe, 2011 see my review here), which was shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Award, the Norma K Hemming Award, and two Aurealis Awards.

And as you know if you read my recent review of her new novel The Trespassers (UQP, August 2019), it’s making a splash too.  Books+Publishing gave it a five-star review and it was Readings’ Book of the Month for August 2019.  It’s a literary murder mystery set on a migrant labour ship in the near future – and I thought it was gripping reading, unputdownable from the first chapter, and inhabited by characters impossible to forget.

A chance conversation at Twitter led me to ask Meg if she’d be willing to participate in Meet an Aussie Author, and I am very pleased to say that she agreed. Here are Meg’s answers to my questions!

1. I was born in a small backwater called Huntly, which regularly tops the infamous “Sh– Towns of New Zealand” list (although I can’t confirm: we weren’t there long).

2. When I was a child I wrote everywhere: up trees, in various secret forts, in the hay barn, under the bedsheets at night with a torch.

3. The people who encouraged me to write were my parents, whose bookshelves were always well stocked. And I loved bashing away on the manual typewriters at dad’s work.

4. I write in noisy cafes (with earplugs), or in my home office, at a big rolltop desk held together with wire and bent nails (also with earplugs).

5. I write in a disciplined way. Working in journalism, I learned not to wait for inspiration to strike: you just have to sit down and do it.

6. Research is a joy, but also my day job. It’s easy to disappear down a research rabbit hole, so I set daily word targets to keep focus.

7. I keep my published works in two sets, in case lightning strikes: one set on the bottom shelf in my office, one set at my parents’ house in NZ.

8. On the day my first book was published, I was happy, but nothing changed in any profound way. I didn’t suddenly start wearing a cravat, and the bills still had to be paid.

9. At the moment, I’m writing a research proposal, an article about “belonging” for Dumbo Feather, and emails to arrange library visits, author talks and interviews about my new book.

10. When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I open the thesaurus, search for evocative images, go for a walk, or speak lines aloud to tap into the rhythm and flow of language.

For all those of us who like a little glimpse into a writer’s world, Meg has shared a photo of some sea-themed knick-knacks that live on her desk.

Bricks-and-mortar stockists for Meg’s books include: Readings (Carlton and SLV), Sun Bookshop (Yarraville), Neighbourhood Books (Northcote), Eltham Bookshop (Eltham), Dymocks (Collins Street store), Paperback Books, Hill of Content, and Mary Martin Bookshop in Melbourne; Better Read than Dead (Newtown) and Best Little Bookshop in Town (Cronulla) in Sydney; Avid Reader in Brisbane; Fullers Bookshop in Tasmania; and the National Library of Australia bookshop.  Her books are also available at Fishpond: Black Glass: A Novel and The Trespassers

You can find out more about Meg at her website.

Thanks to Meg for her willingness to participate, especially at this very busy time!

#3 Footsteps

Footsteps (Jejak Langkah) is the third in the Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, the series of four novels tracing Indonesia’s ‘awakening’ that Toer wrote while in prison on the island of Buru.  (See my review of Book 2 for the background to this, and also for my thoughts about the translation and introduction which apply equally to this volume). Footsteps is a more ‘political’ novel, and belongs in that distinctive category of historical fiction as activism, that is, it’s written by authors redressing the hidden stories and silences of colonised peoples in well-researched fiction.  Toer had spent years researching the life of Tirto Adi Suryo, who was the inspiration for this quartet, but Toer’s papers were all destroyed when he was arrested and held without trial for fourteen years.

Notwithstanding that setback, Toer created this novel from memory, telling the story of a man honoured in 2006 as a National Hero of Indonesia. Toer’s central character Minke appears to be a reasonably authentic recreation of Tirto’s life, (though the Wikipedia entry in English includes nothing about his personal life, which in the quartet so far, includes three wives.)  As Max Lane explains in the Introduction, Tirto was editor of the first Native-owned newspaper and co-founder of the first magazine for women; he initiated a legal advisory service; he co-founded a modern political organisation devoted to developing what would become Indonesian nationalism; and he was a pioneer of indigenous literature in a language of the nation yet to be born. 

NB: My use of terms to describe different ethnic groups and social divisions are those that are used in the book.  ‘Indonesians’ would be anachronistic in the era of the Dutch East Indies, and Toer uses terms like Native, Indo, Indisch, and regional descriptors such as Javanese, Moluccan and Balinese to indicate racial differences while also indicating social differences with terms of address in different languages, like Mas, Gusti Kanjeng, Haji, Sinyo, Meneer, Mevrouw, Ndoro, Teukoe and Princess. 

Books 1 & 2 — This Earth of Mankind (see here) and Child of All Nations (see here) trace the influences on Minke, born into the aristocatic priyani caste and expected to surrender to work as a salaried administrator like his father.  But these characters show him a different path to take:

  • Annalies, his first Indo (Eurasian) wife, who died after ‘repatriation to the Netherlands, because her citizenship was reverted there in order to prevent her inheriting Javanese assets from her Dutch father;
  • Nyai Ontosoroh, Annalies’ mother and concubine to a failed Dutch businessman, whose self-taught efforts rescued the business and whose courage and understanding of the modern colonial world alerted Minke to much injustice; (See The Girl from the Coast for Toer’s representation of what concubinage was like);
  • Jean Marais, a French veteran of the war in Aceh who taught Minke to connect with his own people rather than the Dutch at his elite school;
  • Khouw Ah Soe, an activist for the progress of Chinese people in Java, who was killed by assassins from a Chinese secret society;
  • Thoenodongso, a peasant who led an uprising against the colonial sugar barons;
  • Magda Peters, his Dutch teacher at the elite HBS school, who recognised Minke as a future leader (and got herself sent back to Holland because of it); and
  • Herbert de la Croix, a liberal Dutch administrator and his two daughters, who return to Holland in disillusionment.

So, Footsteps starts in 1901 with Minke at the medical school for Natives. This school was a belated initiative by the Dutch in the wake of international embarrassment about their colonial regime, but its graduates are condemned to serve only as badly-paid doctors attempting to lift the life expectancy of Natives from a shocking 40 years.  Minke makes few friends, but is visited by Ter Haar, a liberal Dutch journalist who improves his status at the school by engineering invitations to the Harmoni Club, where he meets Van Kollewijn, a liberal MP espousing the Ethical Policy aimed at improving the welfare of the NativesGeneral van Heutsz, the man who led the slaughter against the Acehnese; and Marie Van Zeggelen, an author who wrote books supportive of Native freedom including a biography of Kartini, (a pioneer of girls’ education who is referenced in Footsteps as ‘the girl from Jepara). These contacts with powerful people enable Minke to flout school rules with impunity, but he ends up abandoning his course to take up journalism.

Footsteps isn’t a book that flows smoothly; Toer was at pains to make various political points, and so there are jerky sequences of events and occasionally awkward conversations that are included as activism rather than as part of a credible plot. His Native characters are generally more convincing than the stereotypes he uses to convey opinions held by colonials or ethnic identities not from the Indies.  Two topics discussed in an unlikely conversation between a very young Minke and these powerful people are raised at the ironically-named Harmoni club:

  • Van Kollewjin talks about Holland owing a moral and financial debt to the Indies because exports under the Culture (Forced Cultivation) System saved Holland from bankruptcy, paid for Holland’s infrastructure development and provided it with capital for expansion.
  • Marie Van Zeggelen tackles General Van Heutsz over his use of the word ‘unify’ instead of ‘expand’ to describe the conquest of Aceh.  He talks of ‘pockets’ of ‘political enclaves’ ‘destabilising the Indies’ and how they must be brought to ‘acknowledge the sovereignty of Her Majesty’.  Ter Haar and Van Zeggelen argue that they are independent states, and that the aim of these operations is conquest not unification.  They ask what his plans are for East Papua and Southeast Papua, while sarcastically noting that West Papua is a heavy burden for the Indies.

Questions of (and activism in support of) recompense for Holland’s moral and financial debt, and the territorial integrity of Papua and Aceh under Indonesian sovereignty remain pertinent today. The book also references Bali’s heroic struggle to resist Dutch conquest, with Klungkung finally falling in 1908.

In between starting his own newspaper, political organisation and a career as a writer, Minke marries twice more in this novel.  His second wife is a covert activist for Chinese progress, and is, truth be told, merely a symbol for yet another influence on his life.  (He marries his third wife, just as quickly, and for similar symbolic reasons, showing him that violence is ultimately going to be necessary).  While his mother’s ‘wisdom’ (and some excruciatingly tiresome dialogue) is all about her wish for him to be proud of and grateful for his Javanese heritage, and thus marry a nice Javanese beauty, Minke’s marriage to Mei enables Toer to refer to the inspiring news of Japan and China (i.e. Asian countries) fighting off predatory European colonists for the first time.

Mei and the activists who work for this outcome in the Indies are both role models and rivals, because one of the issues that has to be tackled is defining what the Indies encompass.  Java, then as now, was dominant, and hidebound by social stratification — even its language structures were socially divisive.  Not everyone who shares Minke’s ideology shares his expansive geographical and social view of the racially mixed group that he calls ‘Indisch’.  His first organisation is limited to the aristocratic priyani, and it fails because they are basically collaborators in the colonial project. His second attempt at forming a more broad-based organisation suffers embezzlement, and far flung branches breach the membership rules.  Even the esteemed ‘girl from Jepara’ isn’t completely onside: she wants to start by focussing on the customs of their own people, while Minke thinks that they can work towards the ultimate goal of independence at the same time.  He thinks she lacks the courage to do more.

Minke’s decision to impose Malay as the language of his newspaper and his political organisation is always being contested:

‘Why should the Javanese be subordinated to Malay?’

‘You have to be practical, Mas.  In these times whatever is impractical will be pushed aside.  Javanese is not practical.  All the levels it contains are just pretentious ways of allowing people to emphasise their status.  Malay is simpler.  The organisation doesn’t need statements as to everyone’s status.  In any case, all members are equal.  No one is lesser or greater than another.’

[In the Introduction, Max Lane repeats his assertion that the Indonesian authorities’ claim that Toer was surreptitiously spreading Marxist-Leninist teachings’ was spurious.  Not quite, IMO.  It seems pretty harmless to me, but still, there are a couple of rants against capitalism, and the insistence that all are equal could be read as a socialist ideal as well. On page 342, there is also a rant about advertising in the modern era and how it blackmails people into buying new things that they don’t really need because it threatens them with losing out in some way or another.]

‘But Javanese has a richer literature.  It has a greatness because of that which Malay does not have.’

‘You are not mistaken,  When the Javanese held sway over all the islands of Nusantara, the language of diplomacy was also Javanese.  But that time has passed.  The times have changed and so have the demands of the times.  During the time that the foreigners have controlled the islands, it has not been Javanese that has been the language of diplomacy, but Malay.  Our organisation is not a Javanese organisation, but an Indies organisation.’ (p.377)

Minke goes on to dismiss the claim that Javanese should be used because they are the majority, and makes the valid point that it’s much easier for Javanese to learn Malay than for Malays to learn Javanese which is a very complex language.  ‘And what harm is there if we Javanese let go of the greatness and richness of the past, a past that is no longer in accord with the needs of our age? For the unity of the Indies!’  [I bet these same arguments surface any time the subject of Indigenous Australian languages come up in our own time.]

Toer also has Minke dismiss the epics celebrated in wayang all over the Indies:  he talks about the problem of trying to lead a people who live in a world of ideas rusted over by Javanism.  

… I had to become a teacher who taught that it was not blood or ancestry that determined whether a person would be successful or not.  Rather it was a question of the education he received from those around him and a question of his own determination.  Success was not a gift from the gods, but a result of hard work and study.

This wrong view about blood and ancestry had such strong roots in the literature of Java.  The Mahabharata and Bharatayuddha provided nothing to grab hold of for those who wanted to enter the modern era.  These great epics had become obstacles to the people’s advancement.  These centuries-old teachings had lost touch with real life.  They did not teach how rice was planted, or houses built, or how it was that people must sell what they produce.  They taught only about fighting, and how good it was to become a lover of the gods, and thus further and further away from being human.  (p.373)

Minke recognises that when people admire this rust…

There is no other way than to approach things as politely as possible, peeling off one layer this year, and one layer the next.  For how many years would it have to go on?  I didn’t know. (p.376)

In other words, he was in favour of gradual change through education, not revolution.  Nothing Marxist about that…

Footsteps is like a companion novel to Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) (1887) by José Rizal (translated by Harold Augenbraum) which was instrumental in forging a Filipino identity which led to independence.  The difference is that Footsteps is an historical novel, telling a story which was suppressed first by the Dutch and then by Indonesians themselves.  We need, I think, a new word to define historical novels like this, which as Fred Khumalo says, bring ‘hidden history’ into the public domain.

My Indonesian book group will be reading Book 4, The Glass House in due course.

Author: Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Title: Footsteps, The Buru Quartet #3; (Jejak Langkah, Tetralogi Buru #3)
Translated from the Indonesian and with an Introduction by Max Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books USA, 1996 (first published in English by Penguin Australia 1990, first published in Indonesian 1985)
ISBN: 9780140256345

Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond: Footsteps (Buru Quartet)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 30, 2019

Wolfe Island, by Lucy Treloar

Wolfe Bay, set in the indeterminate near future, is a bleak book: it foreshadows the annihilation of home due to the rising oceans.  However what it also shows is that catastrophe can bring out both the best and worst in people, often to their own surprise.

In a departure from the Australian setting of the award-winning Salt Creek (see my review) the central character of this novel lives in America.  Kitty Hawke lives alone on high ground on (fictional*) Wolfe Island in Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, where she creates art from the debris of summer houses lost to the sea. She is estranged from her husband and daughter on the mainland, and her son has died in circumstances not revealed until late in the book.  She is not self-sufficient because the rising salt affects her attempts to grow vegetables, so she travels occasionally to the mainland to buy supplies and to sell her art to her agent.  But other than that she has very little contact with other people and she likes it that way.

Over at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, Caroline Lodge has been posting all month about older women in literature. It’s hard to know how much traction this initiative has had, but the reasons for it are obvious: the depiction of older women tends to be stereotypical even amongst contemporary authors.  But that’s not a trap Lucy Treloar has fallen into…

It’s not quite clear how old Kitty is because both her daughter and granddaughter were/are very young mothers.  But Kitty has acquired the patina of the older woman through her lifestyle.  She lives independently on an island that everyone else has abandoned, and to the people on the mainland, she seems eccentric.  Her husband is baffled by her defection: he does not understand her creative impulse.  She lives for her art; she is wholly absorbed by it.  She thinks about creating her ‘makings’ as she takes her walks over what’s left of the island, and she ‘disappears’ for days on end when creating.

With weather-beaten skin and hair, Kitty dresses as she pleases, for comfort and practicality, with no thought of fashion or pleasing others.  While warmth is crucial to survival in the hostile weather, food and cooking is not important to her, not unless it becomes a source of comfort to others, and she has had to compromise anyway because some foods are no longer available. She has had her share of threats from men who’d thought she was vulnerable and learned otherwise, and she’s experienced their cowardly forms of revenge that take place when she isn’t there.  Her armour is her mature acceptance of things she cannot change.  The past is there, and there is much to regret and be blamed for, but it cannot be changed.

Because she lives alone, she has become a little set in her ways.  But she is strong and capable, and she’s a quick thinker.  Crucially, she can adapt to changing circumstances, and as the plot progresses she reveals latent skills (including some that shock) and a capacity for strategy.  What surprises her, because she has done without love and family for so long, is her own resurgent love for the people that matter to her.

The catalyst for change is the unexpected arrival of three adolescents and a child. Kitty’s granddaughter Cat has brought her boyfriend Josh, and they need to lie low from some kind of unspecified activism for a while. With them are siblings Luis and Alejandra, who are ‘runners’, part of a phenomenon that is reminiscent of the migration crisis in the US. (Or anywhere else that has shut its borders and is actively expelling ‘illegals’). Their mother has been captured in circumstances not explained till late in the novel, and Luis uses the internet at Kitty’s place to search for answers and solutions, while little Alejandra — suffering some kind of post-traumatic anxiety — gradually learns to make friends with Kitty’s wolfdog Girl and to trust Kitty as a protector.

The presence of these four on the island, however, changes everything.  The origins of Luis and Alejandra are never specified, but the spelling of their names suggests that they are illegal immigrants (i.e. without papers) from the south.  Their quest to reach the north suggests Canada with its humane response to the migrant crisis, as a refuge. In the remote area of the novel, such refugees are hunted not only by the authorities, but also by hostile males armed with powerful guns.  These men have a frontier mentality and they know that the murder of people without papers will have no consequences.  When Cat and Josh continue their reckless activism, events escalate, tearing Kitty out of her comfort zone and triggering actions that she had never anticipated.

This harrowing narrative is propelled along by a quest for safety among hostile people and an unpredictable environment.  The waters closing in on Kitty’s island are no metaphor.  Readers know (from the Pacific Island Forum, if they didn’t before) that rising oceans are encroaching on island communities, and though what’s different about Treloar’s scenario is that Wolfe Island is a summer holiday destination rather than a community’s only home, the hostility to people seeking a new place to live is no fantasy.  In a welcoming place called Freedom, Kitty asks herself, ‘what makes these people so different?’  Later, she learns that they are welcoming to people in transit, not to anyone who wants to stay.

I have barely scratched the surface of the opportunities for discussion in this powerful new title.  There are not many reviews around at the moment because the book has only just been released, but Marie Matteson at Readings loved it too.

*There are two Wolfe Islands in Canada, one in Ontario and the other in Nova Scotia, but Chesapeake Bay is in is an estuary in the U.S. states of Maryland and Virginia.  Its waters exit to the Atlantic Ocean.  As far as I can tell from an internet search, there is no Wolfe Bay in Chesapeake Bay.

Author: Lucy Treloar
Title: Wolfe Island
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019, 389 pages
ISBN: 9781760553159
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia

Available from Fishpond: Wolfe Island. You can also buy it as an eBook from the Macmillan website.


In this fascinating book, in just 150 pages, Swedish author Elisabeth Åsbrink makes us re-think the assumptions that we tend to have, about Sweden.  This is the blurb:

What are the real Swedish Values? Who is the real Swedish Model?

In recent times, we have come to favour all things Scandi — their food, furnishings, fiction, fashion, and general way of life. We seem to regard the Swedes and their Scandinavian neighbours as altogether more sophisticated, admirable, and evolved than us. We have all aspired to be Swedish, to live in their perfectly designed society from the future. But what if we have invested all our faith in a fantasy? What if Sweden has in fact never been as moderate, egalitarian, dignified, or tolerant as it would like to (have us) think? The recent rise to political prominence of an openly neo-Nazi party has begun to crack the illusion, and here now is Swede Elisabeth Åsbrink, who loves her country ‘but not blindly’, presenting twenty-five of her nation’s key words and icons afresh, in order to give the world a clearer-eyed understanding of this fascinating country.

Each chapter consists of 5-6 pages that interrogate an idea.  It begins by reminding us that Sweden as a nation state is a comparatively new idea, and its history is vague.  And in reminding the reader about this, we are reminded of something else that we ought not to forget. Noting the scanty historical sources that mention peoples who might, or might not be Swedes, Åsbrink writes:

Spurred by a general longing for logic in the random events we call history-leading-up-to-the-present, historians and nationalists use Tacitus and the others as if they were suppliers of indubitable facts, when it would be more accurate to describe them as isolated sources of light in a compact historical darkness.  (p.2)

Indeed.  (We’re just as guilty here in Australia, where until comparatively recently, we’ve acted as if our history began in 1770.  We didn’t even acknowledge European landfalls, much less our Indigenous history).

The second chapter is about Beowulf, the English epic poem about a hero who comes from afar to rescue the Danes from a savage monster.  Because it’s set in Scandinavia, with a hero who might have come from present-day Sweden, it’s regarded as a national epic there too.  But the fact is, nobody actually knows where the Geats lived.  Maybe Götaland in Sweden, maybe not.  (The Danes, says Åsbrink, use Beowulf to entice people to visit Viking museums.)

The Øresund or Öresund Bridge (Wikipedia*).

Apparently the Danes and the Swedes do not Get On.  Later in the book she uses the word ‘hate’ to describe the relationship, and there were major conniptions over a bridge linking the two countries.  They can’t even agree on the spelling of its name.  Now that it’s been built (commercial imperatives usually win) it looks as if they had a tiff during construction and both sides went home in a huff, but in fact it drops down into a tunnel from that artificial island so that shipping can get through.  The bridge was supposed to end passport control but Sweden reneged on this to prevent refugees coming in from Denmark.

Perhaps because I’ve never been to any of the Scandinavian countries, I’d never really investigated their history so the murkier aspects of their society came as a horrid surprise.  Ikea and ABBA and their sophisticated welfare systems all seemed so bland and benign.  (Well, benign, that is, until you actually try and assemble something from Ikea.)  But Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Ikea, had a very dubious personal history:

… there are also two ways into the Ikea story.  One is uplifting and inspirational: a young man from a modest background, but with more than the usual dose of business acumen, builds an empire.  Although the hero of the story makes an occasional mistake, that is precisely what made him human and such a treasured symbol of Swedishness.

The other way leads from Mr Kaprad’s childhood and adolescence in a Hitler-loving family, Germans who had immigrated from the Sudetenland, in Czechoslovakia, where both his paternal grandmother and his father were Nazis; his long-lasting commitment to the Swedish fascist movement; and his membership, during the Second World War, of Sweden’s Nazi party, Swedish Socialist Unity.  Both stories are equally true.  (p.90)

Equally dubious is their posturing about neutrality during WW2.  In fact they facilitated the movement of Nazi troops and supplies almost from the beginning.

Swedish politics, in fact, has been distinctly dubious for quite a while, and the rise of the Far Right there ought not to have come as a surprise.  They were the first nation in the world with racial research financed by the state.  It was called the State Institute for Racial Biology, and in 1921 a Social Democrat MP spoke in its favour like this:

We are fortunate enough to be of a race that is still quite pristine, a breed that is a bearer of very high and very good qualities.  It is peculiar that while we are indeed committed to construct pedigrees for our dogs and horse, we are not as eager to assure the preservation of our own Swedish folk stock. (p.67)

The statistics on the number of people who were sterilised are shocking.  I know what you’re thinking: many countries, Australia included, in the early 20th century had high-profile supporters of eugenics.  But read on — it wasn’t just back then.  It continued after WW2, long after eugenics had been discredited everywhere else:

Between 1928 and 1976, approximately 63,000 Swedish citizens were subjected to sterilisation.  During the same period, 58,000 Finnish citizens were sterilised.  The same goes fro 41,000 Norwegians and 11,000 Danes.

How come the Nordic countries became world leaders in sterilisation with Sweden top of the class? (p.69)

Åsbrink suggests that there are three reasons:

  • the idea of an ‘unspoiled race’ with ‘very high and good qualities’ whose superior strains should be kept pure;
  • all the European countries with mass sterilisation programs were Protestant.  Catholic countries opposed it, as they also oppose contraception and abortion: humans should not interfere with God’s creation; and
  • the generous welfare system is based on the idea that everyone contributes through diligence, work, and a subsequent high tax.  Sterilisation programs ensure that those who don’t contribute don’t continue to be a problem.

In fact, the year before child support was introduced, [1948] over two thousand people were sterilised; six people a day — a new Swedish record. That is seriously creepy, IMO….

In an era when Scandinavian concepts of ‘hygge’ and ‘lagom‘ promote Sweden as a modern, pleasant country, with good taste in design, music, and crime fiction:

… actually, Sweden isn’t ‘lagom’ at all.  On the contrary, the Swedish way of living and its basic values are extreme compared to the rest of the world. (p.ix)

It seems it’s a case of: Social reformers, be careful what you wish for…

Image credit: The Øresund or Öresund Bridge (Wikipedia), by Nick-D – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Author and translator: Elisabeth Åsbrink
Title: Made in Sweden, 25 Ideas that Made a Country (Orden som formade Sverige)
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2019
ISBN: 9781925849097
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Available from Fishpond Made in Sweden: 25 ideas that created a country and direct from Scribe(also available as an eBook)

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