It’s autumn in Melbourne, and our grape vine is stunning.

So I was very taken with this beautiful excerpt from The Revenge of the Foxes by Turkmen author Ak Welsapar.  (He’s the one who wrote The Tale of Aypi).

I was at lunch in the city with my friend Mairi Neil (after visiting this exhibition) when one of the wait staff started sweeping up autumn leaves that had opportunistically blown inside the café through the opened door.  I had Welsapar’s book with me, to read on the train, and I read out the passage to her.  (This is what is so nice about having friends who are writers: you can do things like this without them thinking that it’s peculiar.)

I remember that autumn, I remember the vicissitudes of time and departing warmth, I remember the feeling of pain.  Each leaf of the old oak tree in the hospital courtyard would break off and fall, as if counting the minutes; longing and grief filled my spirit.  The doomed autumn leaves would try with their last strength to break out of their predestined circle and save themselves from extinction.  They hastened in flocks after chance passers-by, alarmed by the movement of their steps.  Caught up from the moist earth by a gust of wind, the leaves would cling to people and tag along with them like stray dogs, ready faithfully to serve anyone not driving them away like noisome flies.  But no-one would stop, they all passed by and, deceived in their treasured hopes, the yellow and red leaves would fall into the mud and long continue to flutter in an attempt to rise and rush after new passers by.  (The Revenge of the Foxes, by Ak Welsapar, translated by Richard Govett, Glagoslav Publications, 2018, ISBN 9781912894109, p. 9-10)

I have only just begun reading this novella, but already I can tell that the metamorphosis of these leaves is a metaphor for the impending collapse of the Soviet Union.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 23, 2019

2019 Miles Franklin Longlist

Yes, I know, the MF longlist is old news.

I could make the excuse (which is partly true) that I’ve only just got back from NZ and I forgot about it until I saw Sue’s post at Whispering Gums.  But why didn’t I make an effort to do my own post yesterday?  Because, seriously, I was too dispirited.  First the election, and then a disappointing MF longlist.  In both cases, it’s always worse when you thought you were on the same page as everyone else and you find out that you’re not.

Anyway, FWIW here’s the longlist:

My prediction, which clearly you should ignore, is that Too Much Lip will win it because Lucashenko deserves it for this and other novels, or that they’ll give it to Gail Jones because she’s been a bridesmaid so often.

These two should have been on the longlist, and it is unforgiveable that they are not:

And outliers that should have displaced some of the ‘encouragement award’ nominees include

Some years, the MF loses its way, and this is one of them.

PS Robert Lukins (see comments below) has quite rightly pointed out that some of these (The Children’s House, A Superior Spectre, The Everlasting Sunday and Book of Colours) are ineligible because they are not ‘about Australia in all its phases”.  LOL I was too indignant to remember the rules.  But I think I’ll leave them here, because they are excellent reading, so why not?

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 22, 2019

The Naturalist, by Thom Conroy

At home in Australia, I had Thom Conroy’s latest novel The Salted Air (2016) on the TBR, so I recognised his name when I stumbled on this book at the Paper Plus bookshop in Palmerston North.  (Unlike Whitcoulls, the other bookshop in this town, Paper Plus has a set of shelves dedicated to Kiwi fiction, so that made it easy for me to find and buy a couple of interesting books.  The other one was Thalia Henry’s Beneath Pale Water which I read and reviewed while in NZ).

Allegory to Ernst Dieffenbach reaching the summit of Mout Egmont (Wikipedia)

The Naturalist was fascinating.  Fascinating as a study of character, and fascinating as an introduction to the colonial history of New Zealand. The novel is historical fiction to correct the injustice of a history that has been unvoiced: it tells the story of illegal land acquisition but also the story of at least one man who respected the Māori and their customs—but ultimately was powerless to change the course of events.  The Naturalist is based on the real life story of Ernst Dieffenbach (1811-1855), a German physician, geologist and naturalist, and the first scientist to live and work in New Zealand.  The book tells the story of his travails as a subversive in Giessen in the Duchy of Hesse, his brief imprisonment and exile in London, and his subsequent voyage to New Zealand as an employee of the New Zealand Company and his attempts to rehabilitate his reputation and return home.

Conroy presents this complex character as an idealist who wanted Germany to emulate the democratic reforms of England and France.  Ernst imprudently gets involved in an illegal duel too, and what with one thing and another he has to leave what was then not Germany but a patchwork of principalities.  (Unification under Bismarck had to wait until 1871, thirty years after Ernst died; democratic reform took even longer).  The authorities take a very dim view of Ernst’s activities, and the exile’s lament for his lost home is a poignant theme throughout the novel.

In London Ernst schemes to regain his reputation and the possibility of being allowed home, by making a name for himself.   He had studied medicine in Zurich but became fascinated by what was then called natural history, and thanks to the influence of his old teacher Schönlein, in 1839 he gets a berth on the Tory as a ship’s surgeon, surveyor and naturalist.  The Tory is a private expedition to New Zealand to buy land for settlement.  It is not endorsed by Queen Victoria; she’s turning a blind eye to it, but everyone knows that the land will be acquired one way or another, legally or otherwise. (The Treaty of Waitangi had not yet been negotiated.) Ernst has a higher grasp of ethics than the other members of the expedition but he has to be circumspect in voicing his concerns because he is the outsider in the group.  Some of the crew loathe him just because he is German…

In London Ernst formed an attachment to Nora because she has a keen mind and she is impressed by his ideas, but he can’t possibly marry her because he has no money, no career, and no place in society.  In New Zealand where mores are different, he grows fond of Hariata, a slave offered to him in gratitude for saving the life of a chieftain’s wife. In one of many ironies in the novel, Ernst is not the only exile: at this stage the Māori have not been driven out of their homes by settlers, but rather have been forced from their homeland in Māori wars, while others are enslaved. A former American slave aboard the Tory has no home to go to either, and Nahiti, the interpreter and guide who went off with Europeans for adventure, is afraid to go home because he has talked up his status as a prince, and fears the consequences when his own people find out.

The story is told in a jigsaw of times and places, from Germany to London, New Zealand back again.  I did find it a bit confusing occasionally, but I only needed to consult the Table of Contents to work out the chronology of events.

At the Auckland Writers Festival, one of speakers noted that, these days, in many places around the world, people do not die where they are born.  Their children are born in places where their parents were not born.  People marry in places where neither partner was born.  For millions of us around the world in these restless times, home is—has to be—a flexible concept.

This novel speaks strongly of the importance of home.

…Nahiti continued, ‘Though I return to Aotearoa, I shall not be with my ancestors again.  You see, my people were driven from their home.  Te Rauparaha led us to safety, and so my people go on surviving, yes, but living—that’s a different matter.’ (p.49)

Finally, Te Horo spoke again.  ‘First to Waikanae we came, now here to Tōtaranui…But our tūrangawaewae* is not here.  It is far away at Taranaki.  That is our mountain.  There our ancestors lie.  We live in this place, but we will never call it home. (p.126)

*Tūrangawaewae: a place to stand, where one feels empowered and connected. A foundation, a place in the world, home. (see Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand)

My peripatetic childhood predisposes me to an open-minded view of what home might be:

[With a panoramic view from the ridge of Arapawa Island] ‘Do you know what you see?’ Charles replied.  ‘Home.  Our new home.’
‘Home’, Ernst said, half under his breath, ‘If only you could tell me what that word means.’
‘Don’t be quarrelsome, Ernst.  Could you not be happy here?  If you never saw Germany again, what would that matter?  Name one thing which you cannot have here the same.’ (p.148)

[Back in London] …he thought he might be beginning to form some understanding of what the word now meant to him.  A home was a place where a man felt at peace, where his mind was active and his laughter was heard.  (p.176)

‘Home is also being with one’s people,’ [Ernst] said.  ‘People who know who one really is—as long as that criterion is met, anywhere can be home.’ (p.313)

The most important observation that Ernst makes is quoted at the beginning of the book:

I am of opinion that man, in his desires, passions and intellectual faculties, is the same, whatever be the colour of his skin; that mankind forms a great whole, in which the different races are the radii from a common centre; and that the differences which we observe are due to peculiar circumstances while have developed certain qualities of body and mind.  (Ernst Diffenbach, Travels in New Zealand, Vol 2, 1843)

Picture credit: Allegory to Ernst Dieffenbach reaching the summit of Mount Egmont (artist unknown, public domain, Wikipedia)

Author: Thom Conroy
Title: The Naturalist
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House), 2014, 362 pages (not counting the maps, notes & cast of characters at the back of the book)
ISBN: 9781775536482
Source: Personal library, purchased from Paper Plus, Palmerston North, New Zealand, $37.99NZD

Available from Fishpond: The Naturalist


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2019

In A Fishbone Church, by Catherine Chidgey

I have finished this book here on my very last day in Auckland and am going to have to leave it behind because of the weight of my suitcase, and unfortunately, I don’t have the time to write the thoughtful review that it deserves.

In a Fishbone Church is Catherine Chidgey’s debut novel, and it’s so interesting to read it after falling in love with The Beat of the Pendulum last year.  That was a book constructed out of fragments of daily life, and contrary to my own expectations, I was utterly captivated by it.  Well, In a Fishbone Church—published 20 years beforehand—has some similar elements…

The reader learns about the characters from a diary, not the diary of an educated or especially literate man, just the daily notes of what is mostly a humdrum life, recorded by an Everyman who recognises that even an everyday life has significance of a sort.  He’s a butcher, and he goes hunting, and he buys presents for his wife, and he records his pulse rate because he’s got a heart problem.  He is not very interested in other people, and he finds it surprising when others, especially his family members, end up not doing exactly what he expected them to.

So much, so ordinary, and yet Chidgey has constructed from this material an absorbing tale of three generations interacting with this man and being influenced by him sometimes against their will.  The book made quite a splash: longlisted for the Orange prize in 1999, and winning the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in South East Asia and Pacific (1999), the Betty Trask Award (1999), the Hubert Church Best First Book Award (1998), and the Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing (1997).

This is the blurb from Goodreads:

When Clifford Stilton dies, his son Gene crams his carefully kept diaries into a hall cupboard. But Clifford’s words have too much life in them to be ignored, and start to permeate his family’s world. In a Fishbone Church tells the story of three generations of the Stilton family, woven together with brilliance and subtlety, spanning continents and decades. From the Berlin rave scene to the Canterbury duck season, from the rural 1950’s to the cosmopolitan present, five vivid lives cohere in a deeply affecting and exhilarating novel.

It’s such a brilliant depiction of the cross-currents of family life.  Clifford is a bit bombastic in the way that a lot of fathers used to be.  They didn’t need to lay down the law or boss people around because they simply assumed that everyone would do what they said, just because they were men, and their wives, including the one in this novel, were complicit in that power dynamic.  (My father, I hasten to say, was not like that.  Not at all.)  But time passes, and the next generation doesn’t take his advice, moves away from home, and raises daughters who go much further afield, to Sydney and to Berlin.

Highly recommended if you can get your hands on it!

Author: Catherine Chidgey
Title: In a Fishbone Church
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 1998, 271 pages
ISBN: 97808647333351
Source: Personal library, purchased second-hand from Bookmarks, Devonport, Auckland, New Zealand, $14NZD

Today was the last day of the Auckland Writers Festival, and just as well because having been to 15 events, I am tired out!

My last two sessions featured authors I haven’t yet read, but now surely will.  Andrew Sean Greer is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Less, which is about a mid-list author who makes a living going to writers’ festivals until he unexpectedly wins the Pulitzer prize.  Greer’s story about how he learned that he himself had won it was hilarious, especially when he suddenly received about 100 Tweets featuring bottles of champagne, balloons and applause, but he didn’t know why because the Pulitzer people announce it at an event he hadn’t attended.  I had initially thought that I wouldn’t bother with this book because I am a bit ‘over’ books about authors writing books, but I have changed my mind about this one!

The session with David Chariandy was more sombre.  Chariandy’s parents were migrants to Canada in the period before it opened up to become the multicultural country it is today, and he spoke movingly about their experiences of hard work to give their children the opportunities they’d never had, and how he and his brother never told them about the racism they experienced at school.  His book Meaning to Tell You is a letter to his daughter, to try to prepare her for the future, while at the same time he is so proud of the way she has the courage to push back that he never had himself.

I found myself wondering what he thought about being the only Person of Colour in the entire room.

The AWF has been a beaut festival and I’ll take the opportunity here to thank the organisers and the army of volunteers who were unfailingly friendly and helpful, and without whom, of course, the festival could not function.

PS Those of you who are devoted fans of Amber, guest reviewer of Smoky the Brave back in June 2018, may have been wondering about her welfare while we’ve been gadding about in NZ.  She has been on holidays herself, at Aunty Gloreea’s over the road, and has, we have learned from the texts she occasionally sends us, been spoilt rotten for the entire time.  She may not want to come home when we get back to Australia tomorrow!



Carl Shuker is the author of A Mistake, which I read and reviewed just before coming over here for the festival.  But he has also written a number of other books, some of which sound very interesting indeed.

His first published book was called The Method Actors (2005)… which

in 2006 won the Prize in Modern Letters, then the world’s richest prize for an emerging author. ‘Brash and fearless,’ wrote the New York Times, ‘The Method Actors is a self-consciously postmodern challenge to our perceived reality and its fictional depiction’. The AV Club described it as a ‘mesmerizing opus…a serious accomplishment’. (Academy of NZ Literature website)

but it was not actually his first novel.  That was the semi-autobiographical novel The Lazy Boys which was published in 2006 after The Method Actors.  The chair, Simon Wilson, made a point of noting that the first novel announced Shuker as a writer of big ideas and he went on to ask if the NYT comment was code for ‘difficult and hard to read’.  I thought this was rather a churlish question: it’s high praise for any antipodean author to be noticed by the NYT, never mind acknowledging the work as an important book.  Interpreting their comment as oblique criticism seemed a bit of a put-down to me, but of course Shuker had no alternative but to go with the flow, and say that his writing had changed since becoming a parent and that he was now not trying to write about big ideas so much. A Mistake is a complex book, but it’s not difficult to read.

It was a rather strange conversation, and I hope I’m not misrepresenting it.  Talking about his character Elizabeth Taylor in A Mistake, Shuker said that he wanted to do big things when he was young, and that’s not a nice quality to have.  (I am not sure why he now feels ambition is something to feel ambivalent about, perhaps he was equating ambition with arrogance, or he was picking up on some undercurrent in the conversation that wasn’t obvious to the audience.) But he made the point, (and I agree) that the world does need people like that, even if they are not particularly likeable.

Wilson said that what was common in all the novels were a character in distress who is not equal to the task, and he asked (ad nauseam) if Elizabeth Taylor the character was a dangerous person.  He referred to her behaviour towards a dog she gets lumbered with, and the way she drives in a risky erratic way when she is angry, as example of how this surgeon loses her cool in situations outside the operating theatre, but not within it.  He talked about how she was dangerous because she ‘harms’ people—her lover, her colleague, her boss.

So Shuker had to explain what (I think) should have been obvious to anyone who’d read the book, that he was trying to show that surgeons—ordinary human beings like the rest of us—are invested with enormous prestige and the power of life and death and that the responsibility we invest in them sometimes goes awry.  His character isn’t dangerous, she is human, just like the rest of us, and expecting her to be 24/7 supercool when the family, the media, the hospital admin and some of her colleagues are looking for a scalp is too big an ask for any human.  (And not only that, would the reader’s expectations have been the same if she were a man?) The parallel narrative about the fatal Challenger disaster is explicit about how a small error in a chain of events can have catastrophic consequences, and that there are complexities of attribution to consider whereas we are more likely to look for an easy person to blame.

Reviews of disasters and tragedies are aimed (or should be) at preventing recurrence, so they explore the systemic flaws that lead, say, to an accidental overdose in a hospital, not at why an individual nurse accidentally administered it.  Blaming a high-profile target like a surgeon is detrimental to the system overall if the system loses an otherwise good doctor and the years of training and experience that person had.

It is Elizabeth Taylor’s obsessiveness that makes her so very good at her job, and Shuker’s message is that we ought not to waste half our lives papering over our flaws to make ourselves more palatable to others.  In fact, he says, in fiction, it’s the characters with flaws that are interesting, even if they’re not likeable, and that’s like real life.  We don’t often meet perfectly likeable people in real life.

Ain’t that the truth!

PS In the evening we went to hear Anthony Beevor, author of all those military histories, including two that I’ve read, Stalingrad and (most of) The Battle for Spain.  His story of how he gained access to Soviet archives was fascinating – it was really a stroke of good luck and very good timing, and it turned out that the Soviets were very pleased with the book.  But not so pleased with his book about Berlin because they don’t like the reputation of the Red Army to be besmirched by accounts about the German women they raped…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2019

Auckland Writers Festival: An Inside Peek

An Inside Peek was what it said it was: a brief insight into the lives of five New Zealand authors.  Each of the five had five minutes to talk about their working day and then there was a kind of round-up by the chair, Owen Harris.

I am a bit embarrassed that I was too slow off the mark to get a screenshot of Tessa Duder’s writing place. I have the four others, but it seems all wrong that Tessa, who is an essayist, a novelist, and writer for children and young people, seems a bit sidelined in my slideshow.  Because children’s authors are the lifeblood of literacy: it is their books that bring people to love reading, and even if they don’t grow up to love books, they love the experience of being read to, and of talking about the issues raised in the books.  I used to be a children’s librarian.  I know this is true, and I know that the authors of children’s books are a vital part of the publishing industry.

Tessa talked about how other aspects of her life impact on the time for writing. Domesticity is the big one, but so is the business of being a writer. I interpret her talk as a reality check for any aspiring authors in the audience: if a successful writer like her still has to do a lot of unpaid work both in the home and outside of it, then aspirants should know this before they set out on the path.   Amongst other interesting things she talked about, she said that she doesn’t do drafts: she rewrites sentence by sentence, line by line, as she goes.  I found myself thinking, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have video of how she does this, wired up with electrodes, so the way her brain is working is recorded at the same time.  (This could never happen, it would be a shocking intrusion, but oh! it would be fascinating to see, eh?)

Albert Wendt was next: he said that writing is important but family is more important.  He has a huge family, I think he said he had 23 siblings and part of each day is about keeping in touch with them via Facebook because they live all over the world.  He said that writing centres him when things go awry (and I can relate to that, all the horrible times in my life are recorded in diaries, and anyone finding them if I don’t burn them all before I die, will get completely the wrong impression about my life!)  Albert also likes to paint, and he used to organise his day with writing in the morning and painting in the afternoon.  Now he just writes till he runs out of energy, and then he paints until he runs out of energy. And he loves revising his work, that’s why it takes him so long to finish a book.  And (raising a laugh) he also likes, as he ages,  to take long lunches followed by a nap, so the urge to write is diminishing…

Vincent O’Sullivan’s writing career has also always been part-time.  Like most NZ authors he has had to earn a living in other ways and the writing has had to fit into the time that’s left over.  But he sees that as a plus: he doesn’t feel constrained to meet a certain word target or percentage of writing each day, he just does it when it fits into his life.  Sloth, he claims, is the writer’s best friend, but he also warned us that writers make a career of telling lies, so maybe that was a lie too. He likes research, it’s part of the fun, and he likes it when it makes the reader think you’ve done a lot more than you really have, as, for instance, if you’ve portrayed really convincingly a place you’ve never been to.

Fiona Kidman told us that she’d always wanted to be a writer.  She was an only child and had a somewhat isolated childhood, so for her, writing was a means of communicating with the world.  The catalyst for the real start to her writing career was when, as a school librarian, she was told to go home and knit when she became pregnant.  (This was a long time ago, of course). She raised a laugh when she said she found she wasn’t very good at knitting, but instead, sitting at the kitchen table,  wrote a radio play for a competition.  She was thrilled by the judge’s praise, and went on to have a career as a screenwriter for radio and TV, and as a journalist.  She said she learned a lot from these different aspects of her career.  There are four elements to a radio play (sound effects, music, words and silence) and from this she learned how to write dialogue.  From writing for TV she learned to see visual details, and from journalism she learned to ask questions.

She lives high on the hill in Wellington (and now I’ve been there, I know where she means) where she can write overlooking the view without people walking past, seeing her there at the table, and ‘popping in’.  She had a routine which she shared with her husband: they breakfasted together and had lunch together, working during the morning and having a life outside of writing in the afternoon.  She thinks this is very important for a writer, to be out in the world doing other things too.  But now she’s a widow she is having to reinvent herself, and though she said that her longstanding habits are helping, the audience could tell from a slight catch in her voice that she is finding it very hard.

Witi Ihimaera began with the revelation that as a child he had to do his homework quickly before the oil in the lamp was used up, and then he wrote on the walls.  He used a lot of Maori words in his talk so I didn’t understand it all, but it was something about having an awareness of the void and only being able to write when the dawn comes.  He talked about being guided by Maori principles, but I didn’t catch much of this, except that it’s important to write their mythology for a new generation because it’s their inheritance, and how in New Zealand the Maori are writing their way into existence.  I think he also said that he identifies with an international Indigenous audience, more than with the readers here.  Could he have said that there were only 12 Maori writers in contemporary NZ, or did I mishear him?  I hope that’s not true, it’s shocking if it is.

As readers of my travel blog know, I have always tried to learn some of the language of the places I visit.  I am reasonably confident in French and Indonesian, and can get by quite well in Spanish, Italian and Russian.  I can also do German and Vietnamese with a phrase book at hand.  But it never occurred to me that I should learn some Maori before coming here, and I didn’t know that NZ is officially a bilingual country.  it’s a bit disconcerting.  I can’t see myself spending six months learning a language that is spoken only in one place in the world, and besides that, I have a yearning to learn the language of the Bunerong people on whose land I live.  (I have put my name down to do a course in it whenever it becomes available).  Yet it feels a bit like a failure when I don’t understand what’s being said at all…

Now, here are these author’s writing places.  Can you guess whose is which?

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In the afternoon I went to hear Sisonke Msimang talk of Exile and Home, and once again it was in the big theatre and they did the thing with turning the lights off, but I have read both her books and can confidently say that she held the audience in the palm of her hand, talking about the ideas in those books.  If you haven’t read them, do it.  She is a must-read author. See my reviews here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2019

Auckland Writers Festival: The Good Immigrant

It was nobody’s fault, but I was a little bit disappointed that Iranian-American Porochista Khakpour wasn’t part of the panel for this session, because she (the author of The Last Illusion) was the very reason I bought a ticket for it.  Unfortunately she had to withdraw from the festival altogether because of ill-health, but there were other interesting authors to listen to, so I enjoyed the session anyway.

However, (and I’ll say this first, to get it out of the way), I don’t think the moderator Noelle McCarthy gave enough attention to Rosabel Tan, the curator and editor of a New Zealand online arts magazine, The Pantograph Punch.  The topic was immigration and belonging, which is probably just as important an issue in New Zealand as it is anywhere else, but the questions were nearly all directed to Alexander Chee (of Korean-American heritage) and Elaine Castillo (who’s of Philippines-American heritage).  They were vibrant and lively panellists, and what they had to say about the situation in America was important, but I was keen to learn about the diversity of Kiwi writing and publishing, and I would have liked to hear Tan (who grew up in Brisbane but is of Chinese heritage) compare the situation in Australia with New Zealand—but I left none the wiser about that.


The first question was about what it was like to be writing in the era of Trump.  Castillo spoke first, saying that she’d been in the UK when Brexit was happening and that the election of Trump was a catalyst for her to return to the US to ‘fight’.  She made the point that while ‘well-meaning white liberal friends‘ were surprised, People of Colour and Friends of Colour were not.  (And this very first comment was interesting to me because I would have thought that ‘well-meaning white liberal friends’ would also be ‘Friends of Colour‘ but apparently not.)  But her point was that there were issues in US society that were invisible to the wider society.

Chee was in Korea when Trump first made his nuclear threats against North Korea on Twitter (and he drew a melancholy laugh from the audience when he said it felt so weird to say that out loud) – and this threat was a catalyst for him to write a meditation on life, belonging and how Korea had transformed itself under its new president.  He said that the problem with nationalism is that it is predicated on agreeing to forget the flexibility that is part of the nation, in exchange for what is an artificial confidence and involving the turning away from grievances and issues that need to be addressed.  These were wise words about what we stand to lose if nationalism holds sway.

Rosalind Tan made one of her few contributions when she said that a split had emerged in New Zealand since Christchurch – a cleavage between those on the left who were shocked and responded by saying ‘it’s not us’, while for years the Muslim community have documented abuse and threats against them but it has never made the daily news.  She also said that there is now a new awareness that when they program events featuring Others, they had to consider whether they were exposing them to risk.  She thinks that there is not enough discussion about the risks of free speech.

(This remark made me look around the room, where I noticed not for the first time that the vibrant multicultural society that’s outside on the streets of Auckland, was not inside the tent.)

The next question was about whether writers feel a sense of responsibility.  Castillo said that all writing is political.  If it’s said not to be, it’s because it’s white, middle-class writing.  Topics such as motherhood or love are not universal, she says, because the way they are written about is alien to People of Colour.  She thinks that specificity is important, writing about the ‘textural, granular dailiness’ of motherhood or love for People of Colour is a way of ‘pushing back against the clichés: the refugee/migrant experience of having a better life if they work hard and being grateful for the opportunity. People forget that many immigrants leave their homes because of some cataclysm which is caused by others, and she referenced the ways that America had interfered in the Philippines which was what forced many people to leave, so gratitude was not the emotion that they felt.  And since America doesn’t have structural supports like universal health care, working hard does not guarantee a good life, because ill health can make you lose everything you’ve worked for.

Chee also said that ‘if there’s no ethnicity,’ it’s about whites.’  He said that in his writing he wanted to ‘fill in the spaces’ with the specificity and the fullness of lives.  He likes his students to write about the American Dream and how they fit into it, and he’s a bit concerned by some of them who don’t want to hark back to their immigrant origins.  Assimilation was the norm in the sixties, but now it’s not, so he thinks it’s unfortunate that some of them want to hide these ethnic origins of the last century.  It seemed to me that Chee feels a kind a melancholy about America now: he talked about how the US was like a ‘hissing cat, where the fur makes the creature seem larger than it is.’  I think he shocked the audience when he said that Trump was killing people: people dying on the border or succumbing to disease because they no longer have healthcare if they lose their jobs.

It was only towards the end of the session that there was a comment about needing to get past gatekeepers in the publishing industry (publishers, agents, marketers) because they are all white.   Chee said it was important to avoid tokenism but that in his collections he wants to support writing across a broad spectrum.  These comments made me think about the Australian industry which, it seems to me, offers more support for diversity (ethnicity, disability, LGBTQI, Indigenous Australians) from the indie publishers than from the global mega-publishers.  (Like all generalisations, of course, this one is open to exceptions, of course).  I don’t know enough about New Zealand indies to know whether that’s the case here too.

I talked about this with other people in the audience afterwards, but they didn’t seem to know either.  So now I’m on a mission to find out!




The Canadian writer Anne Michaels is renowned as a poet, novelist and essayist, best known for her award-winning debut novel Fugitive Pieces (1996, see my review here) but also for The Winter Vault (2009) and seven collections of poems.  In 2015 she was the poet laureate for Toronto, seeking as she said, language for the inexpressible, exploring the difference between silence and muteness, and she began the session by reading a couple of poems that she said were written in the wake of the loss of people she loved best.

In conversation, she chooses her words carefully.  Writing is a rigorous discipline, and she doesn’t agree with manipulating language to suit an agenda.  Certainty, she thinks, usually leads to something false.  It’s what you want to say that determines how you write it, and that’s part of the relationship between the reader and the writer. 

Mysteries like the mystery of death needs language restrained and chaste enough to express the ineffable.  Loss is desire pared down to its potency, and it important to cleanse language with brevity and simplicity to give it power.  In a world drowning in noisy input, how quiet does a voice need to be in order to be heard?  She can’t outshout it, she says, so it’s a search to find the right tone that might be heard above the tumult.

Writing, says Michaels, is not self-expression, it’s writing beyond the self, and writing of personal grief and loss is distilled as a gift to the reader. She doesn’t want to bring the reader to her life, she wants to offer a place for whatever they need to feel.

She made a very interesting remark which unfortunately wasn’t followed up by the interviewer:  in a world where optimism can be elusive, she said we need to care about our ideas and our laws… and a little later she said something about needing structures that support the instinct to do good.

I wondered what Michaels meant by ‘our laws’ and supporting ‘the instinct to do good’.  She could perhaps have been alluding to Jacinda Arden’s current international campaign in Paris to rein in the abuses of social media which have been uncontrolled for too long?  But to me her comment also implies a responsibility for all citizens to sit up and pay attention to the laws governments make and—just as importantly—the ones they don’t make when they should.  I don’t know if that’s what Michaels meant, but I’m sure it must mean that you need to know about our laws to care about them.  When we let ourselves get too distracted by popular culture and entertainment, and when those of us lucky enough to live in democracies become cynical about the political process, that’s when the future looks bleak…

What I really liked was how she concluded by saying that she wants her readers to feel some sense of redemption.  Her books aren’t about a political agenda: they begin with facts but she’s interested in discerning the meaning of those facts, and she doesn’t leave her reader in a state of helplessness.  She really does care about her readers…

I went to two really good sessions after this: Paula Morris in conversation with the very droll Patrick Dewitt (The Sisters Brothers), and then the King Memorial Lecture presented by Vincent O’Malley talking about the New Zealand Wars.  But for reasons best known to themselves, the organisers turned all the lights off in the auditorium and I couldn’t see to take any notes at all! Suffice to say, therefore, that I really should get round to reading Dewitt’s book when I get home, and that O’Malley seems to be New Zealand’s equivalent of Henry Reynolds, making a deeply felt argument that mature nations need to own up to the dark side of their history.  The picture he presented about the wars of Maori dispossession and massacre here in NZ are very different to the impression we Australians have that New Zealand’s Treaty of Waitangi was a more ethical colonisation than what happened in Australia…


Asia's ReckoningUpdate at about 6.30pm I’ve just been to a really brilliant session with Australian Richard McGregor on the topic of his book, Asia’s Reckoning, China, Japan and the Fate of US Power in the Pacific Century. They did this annoying thing with turning all the lights off again in the auditorium so I (and every journalist reporting on this important session?) couldn’t see to take notes.

However, it doesn’t really matter because I am going to buy the book when I get back to Australia and will write a proper review then…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 17, 2019

Beneath Pale Water, by Thalia Henry

The winter landscape at Aviemore was a different character to the ones Delia had met in summer and autumn.  The thin blanket of snow blended with a white sky, rendering outlines indistinguishable.  Ice crunched beneath her boots, spreading cracks and shards.  The seconds, leading into minutes, were excruciating.  Her fingers had become numb, and her nails, when she pressed against them, didn’t spring back with colour.  She no longer welcomed the cold.

Her body stiff, she walked towards the lake, reminiscing about a warmer day when she’d walked into the water wearing a sundress.  The hues of the scene had been bright then, yellow ochre and piercing blue.  The edge of the lake tickled her boots.  If she were to paint a scene on a flattened stone now it would be different.  The colours would veer towards pastel, influenced by the winter-white glow that surrounded her.  The lake had a unique scent to it.  (p.175)

This excerpt is just a sample of the exquisite writing in this beautiful book by debut novelist Thalia Henry.  The book won the Independent Publisher Book Award for Australia/New Zealand – Best Regional Fiction, and it derives from a play called Powdered Milk (2008).

Set in powerfully evoked landscapes of New Zealand’s South Island (mainly around Dunedin as far as I can tell), the novel focusses on a triangle of characters, all of whom have been damaged by life.  Of the three, a sculptor, a nomad and an artist’s model, the nomad seems at first to be the most troubled.  Through the chance pick-up of a winning lottery ticket, Luke was able to flee his domineering father and the hardscrabble cherry farm that blighted his youth.  He chooses to live as a vagrant, hunting and foraging for such food as the landscape provides, never staying anywhere long enough to form relationships or give meaning to his life.

But as the story progresses, Delia’s grief for her lost love intensifies.  She sculpts his image endlessly, and she forms a one-way attachment to Luke because he resembles Ben (who, only a young man, died of a heart attack and she found his body).  When the crisis occurs, it’s the model, Jane, who is the victim and it’s shocking, but even more shocking is her mother’s unwise intervention to prevent Delia from getting the help she needs.

The unlikely love story that emerges is an affirmation of hope, and it’s deftly handled by an author who clearly has a gift for observing people outside the bubble of modern urban life.

Highly recommended.

That evocative cover is by Rosa-May Rutherford.

You can find out more about the author at her website.

Author: Thalia Henry
Title: Beneath Pale Water
Publisher: Cloud Ink, 2017, 248 pages
ISBN: 9780473407261
Source: Personal library, purchased at Papers Plus, Palmerston North New Zealand, $29.99NZD

Available from Fishpond: Beneath Pale Water

Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold took place in the Heartland Festival room, which is a bit like the Melbourne Festival’s Melba Spiegeltent.  It’s a most congenial venue, especially if you get there early like we did and enjoy a glass of bubbly at the cabaret-style seating with a table and comfortable velvet padded seating.

The event was an opportunity for readings from some of the Māori writers who contributed to the book Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold.  The readers were some that I knew: Tina Makereti (see my reviews of two of her novels); Paula Morris (see my review of Rangatira); and Nic Low (whose short story collection Arms Race was a giveaway for Indigenous Literature Week in 2014).  Other readers were Kelly Joseph, Regan Taylor and Whiti Hereaka, and the whole performance was accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Kingsley Melhuish who blended brass and percussion instruments with conch shells and other devices to create an atmospheric soundscape that was particularly effective for the first story which was based on a creation myth.

The stories were creative retellings with a modern twist.  Some of the vocab was a bit beyond us, because we’re not familiar with the names of characters in Māori myths and legends, particularly in the last story where a lot of Māori terms were used, and there was one featuring a troubled rugby player that was a bit difficult for those of us not interested in the sport.  But I liked the sly humour of the one about the creation of woman, and I also enjoyed the rather creepy one where the character’s whakapapa (genealogy) was automatically downloaded by an app at Border Security.  Not such a far-fetched idea in these nationalistic days, (and we’ve encountered some rather disconcerting nationalism in casual conversation with a couple of Kiwis who’ve gone out of their not-very-friendly way to let us know what they think of Australia.)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 16, 2019

Auckland Writers Festival: Orlando (Dyad Productions)

We have just seen a magnificent stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.  (See my review of the book here).

The performance was a special event for the Auckland Writers Festival, and this is the blurb:

A theatrical triumph and an intriguing exposition of art and identity: personal, sexual, national. Acclaimed British theatre company Dyad Productions present their latest offering – an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 satire Orlando: A Biography – with their usual elan. The ageless, gender-fluid, immortal fictional poet Orlando, played by Rebecca Vaughan, sweeps through four centuries of English history. Vaughan’s turn is “towering” (The Scotsman), surpassing her artistry in previous Festival favourites Austen’s Women, Dalloway and Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. Written and directed by Elton Townend Jones.

Supported by Platinum Patrons Julienne Brown & David McLean.

Rebecca Vaughan was superb. In a one-woman performance lasting 90 minutes, she captured the playful persona of her gender-bending character, and with minimal costume changes convinced the audience that four centuries of time were passing.  (The credit for these cunning costume changes goes to costume designer Kate Flanaghan from Dyad Productions (see here, and click her name).  With Woolf’s book transformed from ‘biography’ to a confessional autobiography, Vaughan had the audience captivated from beginning to end, making us laugh when she said ‘If I am rambling, the fault is yours for listening to someone talking to themselves!’ The writers among us also chuckled at the satirical commentary on the travails of a poet subject to the whims of a critic.

If you ever get a chance to see this production, don’t miss it! (You may still be able to get AWF tickets here if they’re not already all sold out).

Image credit:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2019

2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards winners

The 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards winners have been announced.  The winners, harvested from Twitter, are in bold below.


  • The New Ships, by Kate Duignan (Victoria University Press),  see my review. 
  • The Cage by Lloyd Jones (Penguin Random House), see my review
  • This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman, (Vintage, Penguin Random House),  See my review
  • All This by Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press), see my review




  • Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath (Victoria University Press)
  • There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime by Erik Kennedy (Victoria University Press)
  • The Facts by Therese Lloyd (Victoria University Press)
  • Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press)


  • Fight for the Forests: The Pivotal Campaigns that Saved New Zealand’s Native Forests by Paul Bensemann (Potton & Burton)
  • Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor edited by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith (Massey University Press)
  • Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing by Sean Mallon and Sébastian Galliot (Te Papa Press)
  • Birdstories: A History of the Birds of New Zealand by Geoff Norman (Potton & Burton)


  • Hudson & Halls: The Food of Love by Joanne Drayton (Otago University Press)
  • Memory Pieces by Maurice Gee (Victoria University Press)
  • We Can Make a Life by Chessie Henry (Victoria University Press)
  • With Them Through Hell: New Zealand Medical Services in the First World War by Anna Rogers (Massey University Press)

There were Best First Book Awards too (I’m not sure if I’ve got them all, and welcome corrections if I’ve missed any)

Best First Book for General Non Fiction

We Can Make a Life by Chessie Henry (Victoria University Press)

Best First Book of Fiction

The Sound of Breaking Glass by Kirsten Warner (Makaro Press) (on my TBR at home)

Best First Book for Illustrated Non Fiction

Whatever it Takes by John Reid, (Victoria University Press)

For more information about the other awards, visit the Ockhams website.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 13, 2019

Liberation Square, by Gareth Rubin

I was in the mood for something frivolous after plodding through Book 3 of Kristin Lavransdatter, and I succumbed to impulse buying when I saw this book on the stands in the bookshop at Palmerston North.

The premise, an alternative history of postwar Britain, could have worked really well. This is the blurb:

1952. Soviet troops control British streets

After the disastrous failure of D-Day, Britain is occupied by Nazi Germany, and only rescued by Russian soldiers arriving from the east and Americans from the west. The two superpowers divide the nation between them, a wall running through London like a scar.

When Jane Cawson calls into her husband’s medical practice and detects the perfume worn by his former wife, Lorelei, star of propaganda films for the new Marxist regime, she fears what is between them. But when Jane rushes to confront them, she finds herself instead caught up in the glamorous actress’s death.

Nick is soon arrested for murder. Desperate to clear his name, Jane must risk the attention of the brutal secret police as she follows a trail of corruption right to the highest levels of the state.

And she might find she never really knew her husband at all.

But alas, it’s a very silly book.  The plot is an awful muddle of completely unbelievable events, tangled into a plot that’s hard to follow (if, that is, the reader can be bothered to invest time in trying).  In a book with multiple flaws, the biggest one is that Rubin chose to narrate the book through a female character, and he doesn’t seem to have any idea about how women think and behave.

I came to the conclusion that the author wrote it because he was a bit alarmed by the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘democratic socialism’ and wanted to show his idealistic adherents what they would be letting themselves in for.  The central character Jane believes the Soviet rhetoric about a fairer society with better housing, free health care and education, but as the plot progresses and she witnesses the privileges, the corruption, and the excessive power that the Soviet leadership has, lo! she realises that it’s not a utopia after all.

I left the book in the airport lounge at Napier.

Author: Gareth Rubin
Title: Liberation Square
Publisher: Michael Joseph, 2019
ISBN: 9780718187101
Purchased from Paper Plus, Palmerston North, New Zealand

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 11, 2019

The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christine Lefteri

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a beautiful, haunting novel that captivated me for two days as I made my way from Wellington to Napier in New Zealand.  As I read it, I couldn’t help but be conscious of how privileged I am.  My entry to New Zealand from Australia was merely a matter of producing my passport, (and I have two that I can choose from), and my journey by rail and road was simply a matter of buying tickets and arriving at my destination safe and sound.  For the central characters in this compelling novel, the journey is an odyssey worthy of Homer.

This is the blurb:

Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape. But what Afra has seen is so terrible she has gone blind, and so they must embark on a perilous journey through Turkey and Greece towards an uncertain future in Britain. On the way, Nuri is sustained by the knowledge that waiting for them is Mustafa, his cousin and business partner, who has started an apiary and is teaching fellow refugees in Yorkshire to keep bees.

As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.

Moving, powerful, compassionate and beautifully written, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. Told with deceptive simplicity, it is the kind of book that reminds us of the power of storytelling.

It is just awful to see Before and After images of buildings in what was the beautiful city of Aleppo but The Beekeeper of Aleppo shows us the heartbreaking impact of the civil war on people.  The story is narrated from the point-of-view of Nuri… a man who is maintaining a brave face, taking responsibility for what must be done, caring for his wife stricken by blindness, and being pushed into making very difficult moral choices by the circumstances in which they find themselves.  It is only as this beautifully crafted novel progresses that the reader comes to understand that Nuri is also traumatised and so he is not an entirely reliable narrator.

The couple’s journey is horrendous. From the heartbreak of the bombs in Syria through refugee camps in Turkey, Greece, and Britain, they are always dependent on the goodwill of others for even the most basic of human necessities.  The reader learns that there are people smugglers both good and bad, and that children are especially vulnerable.  Yet Lefteri lightens the mood with Nuri’s reminiscences about his former life as a beekeeper in Aleppo, his joyful memories of his small son Sami, and with descriptions of Afra’s art.

And there is humour: in one sequence in Athens, Nuri feels very uneasy when he sees only women entering a place called The Hope Centre—until it is explained to him that this was a centre for women and children only, a place where they could have a hot shower and a cup of tea, where the children could play and new mothers could nurse their babies.  So he goes back to the park where they have been sheltering and collects Afra, and takes her back to the queue for a shower.  And afterwards there is a droll dialogue between them which gives the reader hope that their relationship will survive:

Afra came out of the Hope Centre smelling of soap, her face soft and gleaming with cream, and she had on a new headscarf.  I suddenly realised how bad I smelt.
‘Afra,’ I said, as we walked back to the park, ‘I stink.’
‘Yes,’ she said, trying not to smile.
‘I need to find somewhere to shower.’
‘It’s bad.’
‘You could at least try to lie!’
I sniffed at my armpits, surprised at how I’d become accustomed to the smell.  ‘I smell like the streets,’ I said.
‘You smell like sewage,’ she said, and I leant in and tried to kiss her and she scrunched up her face and pushed me away laughing and for that moment we were both the people we used to be.  (p.286)

The authenticity of this novel derives from the author’s experience working for UNICEF refugee centre in Athens.

I wish I lived in a country that took its fair share of the world’s refugees and offered them a generous welcome when they arrived, I really do.

Author: Christine Lefteri
Title: The Beekeeper of Aleppo
Publisher: Zaffre UK, with thanks to Allen & Unwin, 2019, 378 pages
ISBN: 9781785768934
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Following on from my previous posts about The Wreath (Kransen, Book 1 of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy), and Book 2, The Wife (Husfrue), I now find myself in the same boat as before.  I’d read Books 1 & 2, and couldn’t remember who the characters were and what they did when I’d started Book 3, so I went back to the beginning of the trilogy, making lots of notes as I re-read the two books, and then FWIW I wrote my reviews of the two books.  Well, here I am in New Zealand, having brought the book with me to finish off Book 3 at last, and once again I was floundering with the characters and the plot.  And of course my notes are all at home in Australia.

So the #TakeHomeMessage is: (if my review doesn’t put you off altogether, that is) read the whole thing all at once.



Book 3, The Cross,, is about the maturing of Kristin as she comes to terms with her fall from grace. Erlend, her reckless husband, was lucky to escape with his life after his treasonous activities against the king, and he owes his salvation to the intercession of Simon, Kristin’s betrothed who she had dumped when she fell for the handsome Erlend.  To appease the king, Erland and Kristin have lost their estate at Husaby and the prestige that went with it, and have had to return to inferior land at Jørundgård with their seven sons, who now have a dubious future.  Simon and his wife Ramborg, Kristin’s younger sister, OTOH, are wealthy, and their children can look forward to continuing a lineage held in esteem throughout the area.

Simon has never stopped loving Kristin, and #EpicFail he has not succeeded in concealing this from Ramborg Because A Woman Always Knows When A Man’s Heart Lies Elsewhere. To make matters worse, things go badly wrong when Simon’s legendary self-restraint towards Erlend finally fails and he tells Erlend that he can’t stand the sight of him.  This (unsurprisingly) causes an estrangement which is a matter of gossip everywhere, and while Kristin is acutely conscious that Erlend is responsible for all their woes, he is as insouciant as ever. Eventually Kristin loses her temper with him too, and #FatalMistake compares him unfavourably to her beloved father, Lavrans: whereas Erlend has not only frittered away his lands and opportunities, but also failed to engage the loyalty of his co-conspirators who could have pleaded for mercy on his behalf, Lavrans enlarged and preserved his estate, and left not only an impressive inheritance for his daughters but was also loved and admired by all who knew him.

Erland’s response to this is to leave the manor at Jørundgård in a huff.  He goes to sulk at Haugen, his aunt’s former home. This causes great distress to his sons, and is a great embarrassment to Kristin.  And whereas a modern woman might well say good riddance because Kristin is the one doing all the farm management while he goes out boozing with other men (who don’t really like him anyway) this separation is also a Grave Sin in medieval times, and on top of everything else, Kristin gets a dressing-down from the local priest. (Erlend, of course, does not).

Kristin, who as I said before in my review of The Wife, has a wearying excess of piety, and as well as tormenting herself for using sorcery to save Simon’s critically ill child, she soon finds herself with an opportunity for more guilt.  Tending to Simon on his death bed, she fails to keep him alive long enough to receive the sacraments so he goes to his Maker unconfessed and without the Last Rites.  But before this most temperate of men dies from wounds in a fight over Kristin’s honour, he beseeches her to take his apologies to Erlend for the hasty words he’s been brooding over ever since he said them.

So Kristin takes her guilt up the mountain and briefly reconciles with Erlend, which was A Bad Idea because even though Undset keeps telling us how old Kristin is (she’s about forty) she gets pregnant.  She Knows This In Her Heart But Does Not Tell Him.  (When will she ever learn, eh?) She hopes that Erlend will come to his senses and return to Jørundgård and take responsibility for his family, not to mention solving the Grave Sin Problem, but no, he wants her to stay up there with him in the dingy, filthy (and possibly haunted) house while he does Manly Things Like Hunting and Fishing.  She would rather be somewhere more congenial, and oh yes, back with her sons who’ve been doing without them both while all this reconciling has been going on.

You’d think things couldn’t get much worse for Kristin when Erlend ignores her appeal to be back home for the birth, so the gossips decide that the baby is not Erlend’s, and the baby dies because, they say, she neglected it out of guilt over her adultery.  But no, Undset has to wrap up this saga without a trace of this family left to linger, so Erlend dies from a spear wound, and with most of her children dead from this and that, Kristin takes herself off to be a nun at Tronheim where she does Good Works and nurses the sick.  And there The Black Death carries off the two boys who had become monks, and the one who was a sailor, and inevitably, Kristin herself as well.

As you can probably tell, I had lost patience both with Kristin and with Undset by the time I got to the end of all of this.  The introduction by Brad Leithauser has this to say about how it might be interpreted:

The growing call of religion renders richly ambiguous the culminating events of Kristin’s life.  One might view the trilogy as an accelerating accretion of tragedies [LH: you can say that again!], as Kristin’s poor abandoned suitor, Simon, whose love for her is hopeless and perpetual, goes to his deathbed with his faithfulness largely unnoticed or misunderstood by Kristin; as her marriage founders and she loses Erlend to a spear; as illness and blindness and plague pluck her children one by one.  The story might also be viewed as the record of a long, hard-won noble victory, as the passionate teenager who brooks no curbs on her desires, recklessly sowing pain and destruction in the process, decades later renounces the decaying kingdom of the flesh for the indestructible domain of the spirit. (p.xv)

Or you could just say that Undset was sick of the lot of them by the time she got to Book 3 and just bumped them all off.

Author: Sigrid Undset
Title: The Cross (Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy #3)
Translated from the original Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, and with an introduction by Brad Leithauser
Publisher: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, UK, 2005, 400+ pages, (running on to 1124 pages in this Penguin complete trilogy edition)
ISBN: 9780143039167
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $44.07 AUD.

Available from Fishpond: Kristin Lavransdatter (Penguin Classics)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 8, 2019

Rule Britannia, by Daphne du Maurier

Rule Britannia is a bit of a disappointment, if only because the purpose of Daphne du Maurier week hosted by Heaven Ali is to celebrate the work of a British author whose books have stood the test of time, and this book is not one of her best.

It is however, a strangely relevant one, as Ali explains in her review. This is part of the blurb from the Victor Gollancz 1972 First Edition:

Emma, who lives in Cornwall with her grandmother, a famous retired actress, wakes one morning to find that the world has apparently gone mad: no post, no telephone, no radio, a warship in the bay and American soldiers advancing across the field towards the house.  England has withdrawn from the Common Market and, on the brink of bankruptcy, has decided that salvation lies in a union—with the United States.  Theoretically it is to be an equal partnership; but to some people it soon begins to look like a takeover bid.

Well, of course, with Brexit looming, and the prospect of economic chaos in plain sight, the plot doesn’t seem as fanciful to us as it might have in 1972 when Britain was just about to join the Common Market (and my grandmother was sending us gloomy missives about it). I don’t know if du Maurier (1907-1989) was also one of the naysayers, or merely satirising them, but she certainly beats the nationalist drum in this book.  Her eccentric characters morph from bewildered onlookers into a somewhat amateur resistance movement, and though their activities are mostly only insults and mockery, the American occupiers and the London politicians who’ve stitched up the union take them very seriously indeed.

USUK (yes, say it out loud, it’s not subtle) is being promoted as a union of English-speaking peoples, intended to form a bloc with Australia, New Zealand, Canada (huh? Quebec?) and bizarrely, South Africa.  Methinks du Maurier (who was getting on a bit by then) had not been paying attention because South Africa (a) had Afrikaans not English as its national language, and (b) had long memories of the Boer War, and with plenty of hard feelings (c) had ditched Britain and became a republic in 1962. (Perhaps she had an old imperial atlas with South Africa still coloured pink).

The Trevalan household is a strange one.  Emma’s mother died when she was young, and her father, Vic, a bombastic merchant banker, has left her in the care of her grandmother.  But Mad (a childhood abbreviation of Madame) has also adopted a collection of undisciplined boys, ranging from three-year-old Ben (who is black, mute, and the only one whose adoption is not explained); six-year-old Colin who was abandoned at a pop festival; nine-year-old Sam, who was a battered baby; twelve-year-old Andy whose intellectual parents died in an air-crash; seventeen-year-old Terry whose drug-addled mother couldn’t name his father; and nineteen-year-old Joe, whose parents abandoned him to migrate to Australia because he was illiterate and he embarrassed them.  There is also Dottie, who was Mad’s dresser when she was on the stage but has reinvented herself as a housekeeper; and Folly, an ancient Dalmatian.  All the flawed ‘offspring’ turn out to have some quality which is indispensable.

But needless to say, my hackles rose when Ben was addressed as a Blackamoor by Vic. And why isn’t his adoption explained? Is there an offensive assumption about black parental responsibility happening here?

What saves this book is the characterisation of Emma.  It is Emma who reflects on the way human relationships are tested by this situation.  There is a nice young marine called Wally who fancies her, and it’s because of him that she has some understanding of the American troops doggedly doing their duty in a situation where they are clearly not wanted.  She is the only one who is appalled when one of the youngsters shoots a soldier with a bow and arrow, and quite rightly attributes the atrocity to Mad’s irresponsible parenting.  It is she who tries to restrain her grandmother’s intemperate actions which bring retribution to the whole village, and it is she who reflects on the way the occupation has made liars of them all.

The novel is anti-American, no doubt about it.  The Brits (with some justification) resented the belated US entry to both World Wars and WW2 in particular because America waited until Britain was on its knees militarily and financially.  While the US enjoyed phenomenal economic growth in the postwar years, the Brits suffered years of austerity while paying for postwar reconstruction in Germany as well as their own country.  Du Maurier expresses these resentments with references to American Independence and other allusions that make it clear that the US in this novel is colonising Britain with its plans to make England a theme park for tourists and a new home for American Christian Evangelism.

So it’s a flawed novel, but it is still interesting to read.  Britain is the home of eccentricity, and Mad is a good example of its pros and cons.  She is fearless and indefatigable, and although she is exasperating and intemperate, she has a loving heart and she is loyal to her loved ones and her community.   And the plot moves along nicely, with enough surprises to keep the reader interested.

But still, it’s not one of du Maurier’s best.  I’ve read Rebecca (of course); Jamaica Inn; Frenchman’s Creek; The Scapegoat (see my review); The Flight of the Falcon; and The Parasites; and I’d recommend them all, but Rule Britannia is too much like a grumpy old woman’s rant to be really successful, IMO.

Author: Daphne du Maurier
Title: Rule Britannia
Publisher; Victor Gollancz, London, 1972, 318 pages
ISBN: 0575015985 (hbk.)
Source: Personal library, OpShop Find

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 6, 2019

City of Trees by Sophie Cunningham

Don’t you hate it when four of your library reserves come in the week before you take off overseas?  I hope no one detected a note of panic in my hasty reviews of The New Animals; A Mistake and The Resurrection of Winne Mandela but I have managed to dash through them in under a week, leaving only City of Trees unfinished. By the time you read this the book will be back at the library and I will be on my way to Wellington, our first stop en route to the Auckland Writers’ Festival.

City of Trees is a collection of essays by Sophie Cunningham, the Melbourne author of Geography, Bird, Melbourne (City South Series, on my TBR) and Warning: the Story of Cyclone Tracy. She’s a former publisher and editor, she contributes to literary journals like Meanjin, she was a co-founder of the Stella Prize, and is now an adjunct professor at RMIT University.

This is the blurb for City of Trees:

How do we take in the beauty of our planet while processing the losses? What trees can survive in the city? Which animals can survive in the wild? How do any of us—humans, animals, trees—find a forest we can call home?

In these moving, thought-provoking essays Sophie Cunningham considers the meaning of trees and our love of them. She chronicles the deaths of both her fathers, and the survival of P-22, a mountain lion in Griffith Park, Los Angeles; contemplates the loneliness of Ranee, the first elephant in Australia; celebrates the iconic eucalyptus and explores its international status as an invasive species.

City of Trees is a powerful collection of nature, travel and memoir writing set in the context of global climate change. It meanders through, circles around and sometimes faces head on the most pressing issues of the day. It never loses sight of the trees.

Back in the 1980s, I was at a social occasion once with Kay Setches, the then Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands, when she said something about how difficult it was to bring together the loggers and the Greenies to reach an agreement on the perennial problem of managing Victoria’s forests.  She said something about not understanding why they couldn’t be logical about it, and I remember telling her that it’s not a matter of logic: sure, there are logical reasons why we should protect trees, but when it comes to old growth forests, people feel emotional about them.  If you’ve ever stood in awe beside a very old tree, you know what I mean.

Well, Sophie Cunninghamm is emotional about trees too.  She likes the splendour of trees, she photographs them daily for her Instagram account @sophtreeofday, and she’s taught herself to draw them.  She talks to them, she naps under them, and she confesses to hugging them too.  And although she’s never done it herself, she tells us that it’s been possible to email thousands of Melbourne’s trees directly, and more than four thousand people have taken advantage of this opportunity.  (Visit Melbourne Urban Forest Visual if interested).  My own local council doesn’t enable emailing trees, but (having for too long permitted the haphazard development of McMansions with no garden space big enough for trees) it has now developed a planning strategy that mandates having a canopy tree in both front and back gardens.  (And that’s logical, because trees reduce the heat bank effect which is going to matter even more as the climate warms). My part of Melbourne is lush with trees, but we want to retain that even as the suburb enables greater population density.  So the strategy plan gets a tick from me…

Cunningham’s first essay is an introduction to why people love trees, and there are awful statistics about entire populations of trees becoming endangered.  I was quite shocked to read in Chapter 3 that the Giant Sequoias are not doing well: they are now confined to a small area, and they’ve started to be badly affected by droughts.  The temperatures are now too high for them, even at higher altitudes.  And here in Australia, we’ll have lost more than ninety-eight per cent of our large old trees within fifty to a hundred years.  It’s a terrible thought…

But though trees are part of every essay, the focus of some chapters lies elsewhere.  ‘The Fall’ tells about her marriage to Virginia in America, and the tension and joy of the Marriage Equality Plebiscite in 2017.  It also explains cogently why it mattered:

Low-key as the wedding was, ambivalent as we were, it had a powerful effect.  It reinforced our commitment to each other.  It changed people’s reactions to us. In my experience people are less homophobic if they can find a way into understanding your relationship, and in America our being married gave people that way in.  Once I was married I started to understand just what was being denied to all people in same-sex relationships, to anyone who is told by the state that they are not due the full opportunities and protections of the law.  I was grateful to the United States for giving me that right. (p.12)

(It is really creepy to discover that there are still fossils in the Liberal Party who have seen fit to share their discriminatory ideas in this election. They may have been (belatedly) disendorsed by their party, but they’ve still been spreading their poison and I don’t like that at all.)

There’s also a lovely chapter about the joys and consolations of walking, which includes a moving segment about Cunningham’s stepfather and his descent into dementia.

This is a lovely book, I’ll have to borrow it again when I come home.

PS The plan for NZ is to take Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter and finally finish off the third in the trilogy, The Cross. I’ve been putting this off because Kristen apparently becomes very religious in Book #3 and I haven’t found that very appealing.  Having nothing else to read on the plane should enable me at least to make a start on it. It’s about 400 pages long, so you may not hear from me until the end of next week or the beginning of the following one when we get to Auckland for the festival…

Of course if I don’t figure out the mysteries of connecting to hotel wi-fi with the new laptop, you may not hear from me at all until I get back!  But assuming I can get online, you can follow our travels here.

Author: Sophie Cunningham
Title: City of Trees, Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 312 pages
ISBN: 9781925773439 (hbk.)
Source: Bayside Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 4, 2019

2019 SMH Best Young Novelists

Just a quick post to alert you to the 2019 SMH (Sydney Morning Herald) Best Young Novelists:

Robbie Arnott, see my review of Flames

Jamie Marna Lau’s Pink Mountain on Locust Island, see Amanda’s review at Whispering Gums and Kim’s at Reading Matters

Tom Lee’s Coach Fitz, see my review

Ruby J Murray’s The Biographer’s Lover, see my review (BTW This is the second time Murray has been named, in 2013 she joined five other authors with her debut novel Running Dogs).

See the article at the SMH for more info. 

PS Check out previous winners at Wikipedia.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 3, 2019

The New Animals, by Pip Adam

The New Animals by Pip Adam has been on my radar since it won the Ockham New Zealand award last year, but it was a provocative review by Carl Shuker at the Spinoff that triggered my impulse to read it. The review was titled ‘On the blind, mulish idiocy of reviewers and the genius of Pip Adam’ so you get the general idea without needing to read it, but of course I read it anyway.  I found it entertaining, but not entirely convincing because I follow a couple of NZ blog reviewers and find them wholly undeserving of Shuker’s spray.  But his article did convince me to get Pip Adam’s book out of the library to see what I think of it.

(My guess is that Carl Shuker (whose book I reviewed here) will come in for some hostile questioning at the Auckland Writers Festival later this month!)

Books like The New Animals are sometimes called Marmite books, because readers either love them or they hate them.  You can see that at Goodreads where The New Animals is rated either 5 stars or one, with effusive praise or derision.  I’m rating it 4 stars because I reserve 5 stars for James Joyce’s Ulysses, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance and Shell by Kristina Olsson.  So no, I don’t think The New Animals is a work of genius.  But it is very good and well worth reading.

The book is written in two parts.  The second part, reminiscent of William Golding’s Pincher Martin and yet written from a different angle altogether, is a chilling depiction of despair morphing into tragedy. The first part is, as the author says, a love story to the profession of hairdressing (which is the work she did to enable her to write).This is the blurb:

Carla, Sharon and Duey have worked in fashion for longer than they care to remember, for them, there’s nothing new under the sun. They’re Generation X: tired, cynical and sick of being used.

Tommy, Cal and Kurt are Millennials, they’ve come from nowhere, but with their monied families behind them they’re ready to remake fashion. They represent the new sincere, the anti-irony. Both generations are searching for a way out, an alternative to their messed-up reality.

Pip Adam’s new novel walks the streets of Auckland city now, examining the fashion scene, intergenerational tension and modern life with an unflinching eye. From the wreckage and waste of the 21st century, new animals must emerge.

As the novel explores the world these characters live in, a reader like me becomes torn between finding them bizarre, shallow and incredibly narcissistic, and recognising that they’re part of an industry that looks glamorous but is actually insecure, badly paid and unfulfilling.  The constant introspection of the characters worrying about what others are thinking makes them shapeless sort of people.  They are afraid of conflict because their work is insecure and changeable: they are easily replaceable so their communication is fragile and inconclusive.  Their anxiety about how they are perceived is palpable.  They worry about short-term problems and trivial things because it is too frightening to look into the future when they can’t change anything anyway.

There’s a scene early in the novel where one of the characters is on a train.  Carla inspects some teenagers who are self-consciously fiddling with their straightened hair and trying to look as if it doesn’t matter.  But straightened hair has been around too long, apparently, and it was time for a change and this looked like it.  My reaction to this was to feel despair that women still evaluate each other like this, and to reject the fashion values that demand constant change.  But the novel makes it clear that a reaction like mine is a luxury that not everyone has.

The New Animals is very good at subverting what we think we know about the world. Much later in the book Elodie ponders the monstrous island of plastic in the ocean and recognises that charging for plastic bags in supermarkets isn’t going to change anything: People loved throwing things out, people loved using things once and throwing it out —it made them feel like they were rich. People (in the wealthy West, that is) also invest significance in trivia: Tommy’s ambition is to design the perfect white T-shirt.  Seriously?  Is there a difference between one white T-shirt and another?  Sharona, who has to turn Tommy’s autocratic demands into reality, says he doesn’t even know that you can’t leave an unfinished edge on a weft-cut knit.  He is the designer, but he has no idea.  He’s like the owners of hairdressing salons, the investors who have no background in the job, who buy into multiple salons and are more interested in upselling ‘product’.  So true, I thought, when I came across Duey’s musings:

Don’t ever promise anyone anything their hair won’t do.  It was this that set the hairdressers at the salon apart; it kept their books full, which meant they could keep the product shelf at the front of the salon the same size, while all the other places took out chair after chair and loaded it up with shampoo bottles.  People don’t want to be sold at.  They just want to sit down, have a cup of tea or a glass of wine and have their hair done.  (p.142)

The plot, such as it is, might exasperate readers who don’t like ambiguity.  Tommy has decided, on a whim, that they’ll do a photo shoot the next day.  That is, on less than 24 hours notice.  The samples, sent away to Indonesia (where they are manufactured next door to Louis Vuitton, not selling quality any more, only scarcity), have not landed back in Australia.  Sharona has to work till midnight to create what she remembers of the design from what’s left of other garments.  Models have to be found and prepped for the grungy effect that’s wanted.  It’s unreasonable and ridiculous but no one will challenge Tommy because he’s the designer and they are just the people who make things happen. If you’re expecting to find out whether the shoot comes off or not, you’ll be disappointed.  Because that’s not really what the novel is ‘about’.

The character who best represents what the novel is about, IMO, is Doug—a pit-bull terrier who was acquired solely for the purpose of a previous photo shoot and then abandoned by the stylist.  Everyone simply walks out, leaving Carla with the dog, and she can’t take it back to the shelter because the stylist told them she was giving Doug a ‘forever home’.  The dog has been brutalised by its former owners, it’s incredibly aggressive, and Carla who takes it home to her flat is terrified of it.  She thinks that it will kill her or she’ll kill it, and in the meantime it is (literally) destroying her flat, which means she’ll lose her bond and be blacklisted as a tenant.  Doug represents all the people who are used, and tossed away afterwards, and who fight back with violence because life makes them indifferent to human affection and careless about the property of others.  It’s a very confronting image which will stay with me for a long time.

Author: Pip Adam
Title: The New Animals
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2017, 220 pages
ISBN: 9781776561162
Source: Bayside Library, Sandringham Branch

Available from Fishpond: The New Animals

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