Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 10, 2023

Prudish Nation (2023), by Paul Dalgarno

Prudish Nation is a book that probably wouldn’t have been on my radar (because I assumed it would be about censorship, and I’ve already read Nicole Moore’s 2012 The Censor’s Library) but last week I heard Dalgarno in conversation with Angela Meyer about her new book Moon Sugar (2022, see my review), and I realised that Prudish Nation is about something else entirely!

It’s dedicated to anyone who’s ever felt like a weirdo, and anyone who hasn’t.  It’s a kind of guidebook to understanding cultural shifts in the way we approach gender and sexuality.

This is the blurb:

Interviewing more than 30 Australia-based authors and thinkers while examining his own journey towards being openly non-monogamous, Poly author Paul Dalgarno pulls together social history and illuminating first-hand accounts of what it means to have ‘unconventional’ relationships – with others and even with ourselves – in 21st-century Australia.

Do authors such as Christos Tsiolkas, Dennis Altman and Andrea Goldsmith think we’re more tolerant than we once were? Are writers such as Lee Kofman, Rochelle Siemienowicz and Jinghua Qian optimistic about the future? Do terms such as LGBTQIA+ help or hinder meaningful progress? How does transitioning now compare to transitioning in the 1990s? How does ‘queerness’ affect notions of parenthood? Do therapists and psychologists still operate from a straight-white-male perspective and how can new practitioners such as popular psychologist and author Chris Cheers change that?

Entertaining, insightful, funny and thought-provoking, Prudish Nation adjusts the country’s bedside lamp to show us a little more clearly who and what we really are.

Prudish Nation is a really interesting book which is rich in information.  It taught me about many things that I’d never really thought about, but I’m going to confine myself to just one aspect of one chapter to illustrate why it’s a book that most of us should read.

Now, because over the course of my life I can count among my friends and family people who identify with all the letters in the acronym LGBTQIA (and maybe also the +sign which is a recognition that there are categories of non heterosexual and non-cisgender people still absent) I might have a tendency to think that everyone else is as okay with this as they should be.  But I still had things to learn from Chapter 6, ‘What even are you?’ which explores ‘labelling’.

For a start, it clarified the acronym as we know it. According to Dennis Altman…

…it pulls together things that are actually quite different.  L, G & B are all descriptions of sexual preference or sexual desire.  T is, of course, for trans, which is an expression of gender, and may or may not be related to sexual desire.  The I — intersex — is a biological reality based on a person’s physical characteristics. (p.82)

The first three letters — recognising solidarity but also difference — became common in the 1980s, and T for transgender was added in the 1990s, and more recently queer, intersex and asexual (or “allied” depending on who you ask) have been included too, along with the +.  But now, to extend the nuance of the plus-sign, another term LGBTQQIP2SAA — is emerging.

It signifies lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, pansexual, two spirit, asexual and ally.

‘I prefer the term “queer” as an overall category,’ Dennis says.  ‘I’d rather that than watching the poor newsreaders on SBS struggling every time they have to say “the LGBTQIA+ community”.  For that reason, if nothing else, I think “queer” is a very useful word.” (p.83)

(Well, #RespectfullyDisagreeing: I don’t see any newsreaders struggling.  I think the acronym kind-of rolls off the tongue now, though adapting to LGBTQQIP2SAA might take a while!)

Andrea Goldsmith likes “queer” too.  She thinks that the ‘alphabet stew’ is well-meaning, but…

‘People are trying to be inclusive, but in doing so they’re actually emulsifying our differences, and that’s not diversity. The heterosexuals are in one group all by themselves, and all the non-hets are smooshed together. Seems to rather privilege the heterosexuals….” (p.84)

But there’s no such thing as a spokesperson for even one letter, or any other identity. 

Holden Sheppard, OTOH, doesn’t like being labelled, and he doesn’t like “queer” because of its connotations of “strange” and it doesn’t feel strange to him to be attracted to men.  He also points out that he’s not LGBTQIA+, he’s just one letter.

And while he’s pleased that his books get some traction at literary festivals, he makes a point that festival programmers should note:

“You end up on panel after panel that’s the “LGBT+ diversity panel”, Holden Sheppard says.  ‘You know: We’ve got three people here who are one of those letters. And it’s fine.  I like that we’re doing that. I like that my books have contributed to that conversation because it’s an important conversation to be having.  But sometimes you get there and you’re thinking, “Just put me on a panel as an author who wrote a book that used language nicely or made you feel something…”. The diversity thing seems to obscure every other element of who you are. ‘(p.86)

Something else to note:

Using labels to describe yourself and having others use them to describe you are , of course, very different things, whether or not the labels you’re employing are the same. (p.92)

Other chapters cover ‘coming out’; role models; different types of marriage; gay parenthood and much more.

Author: Paul Dalgarno
Title: Prudish Nation, Life, love and libido
Publisher: Upswell Publishing, 2023
Cover design by Chil3, Fremantle
ISBN: 9780645536928, pbk., 212 pages including notes
Review copy courtesy of Upswell Publishing.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, Roanna McClelland’s debut novel The Comforting Weight of Water is one of the most extreme I’ve come across.

This is the blurb:

In a near future where it never stops raining, a young adolescent runs wild. With only the cantankerous Gammy and a band of terrified and broken villagers for company, this story explores coming of age when society – and all its cues – has been washed away. For the few survivors, questions of identity, nature, love, and fear are explored through the eyes of a child, against a backdrop of encroaching water.

The novel is set in an unrecognisable world. Cities, towns, infrastructure, whole populations and all the mammals have been washed away under a torrent of endless rain, broken by only a very short period of sunlight each day.  The river is inexorably rising.  It widens, it breaks its banks, and the few remaining humans have to abandon their pitiful habitations once again and seek somewhere else on higher ground.  They have only a few rudimentary tools that rust a little more each day because there is nowhere that is really dry, not even inside their miserable shacks on stilts.  Their clothing rots on their backs. There seems to be no prospect of sustainable life and no possibility of a next generation being born.  These are the last days of the end of the world, with only aquatic life able to survive and breed.

Horrific as this is, it is made worse by the failure of community.  The novel is peopled only by the narrator who is an amoral  adolescent, by her ageing protector Gammy, and by a few hostile villagers who rely on the narrator for their food supply but fear her so much that she must wear a bell at all times to warn them of her approach. (It is only when she reaches puberty that her gender becomes obvious; for most of the novel she is genderless.) Information about what has happened is mostly withheld, leaving it to the reader’s imagination, but gradually it is revealed that religious belief triggered genocide. The narrator has only been allowed to survive under Gammy’s care during childhood because of some kind of bodily adaptation to the water.  Scaly feet can traverse the mud without slipping; sharp, pointed teeth enable the tearing of food which is gathered from deep beneath the waters. She is equally at home on land or water.

The narrator is strong, anarchic, and contemptuous of the feeble villagers.  Accustomed to death and drowning and a life without hope, this being is mildly curious about Gammy’s nostalgia for the past, but lives comfortably in a present that has no future. Occasionally there are glimpses of humour but this is a very dark novel indeed.

According to press release that came with the book, The Comforting Weight of Water was inspired by the many dystopian texts Roanna read as a child and young adult. TBH when I read the novel that emerged from that reading, I am not surprised that so many young people are troubled by hopelessness.  It’s skilful writing, but it’s extremely depressing.

The Comforting Weight of Water won the Arts South Australia Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award at the 222 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature.

Author: Roanna McClelland
Title: The Comforting Weight of Water
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2023
Cover art and design: Duncan Blachford
ISBN: 9781743059586, pbk., 276 pages
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 5, 2023

The Deck (2023), by Fiona Farrell

I am indebted to Karen McMillan from the NZ Review of Books for my discovery of a new favourite author.

The NZ Review is not a blog, so though you can subscribe to a monthly newsletter you can’t subscribe to receive new reviews by email the moment that they are published. And the newsletter, of course, covers all sorts of NZ publishing besides what I’m interested in, which is just reviews of NZ novels.  After a friendly exchange about this, Karen undertook to send me a list of the new reviews, and in May I spied The Deck. With a tagline “A New Zealand Decameron for the Covid era.”

Now I swore I was not going to read any pandemic fiction at all, because (don’t be surprised) I was sick of the pandemic, and very sick of people complaining about it.  But… the Decameron?

This is the blurb:

What is the point of inventing stories when reality eclipses imagination?

A little way off in the future, during a time of plague and profound social collapse, a group of friends escape to a house in the country where they entertain themselves by playing music, eating, drinking and telling stories about their lives. There are tales of thieves and pirates, deaths and a surprise birth, a freak wave and many other stories of misadventure resulting in unexpected felicity.

The Deck borrows the motifs of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century masterpiece, The Decameron, in which another small group gathered to avoid contagion and passed the time telling stories. But what is the role of fiction, this novel asks, as civilisation falters?

Miracle of miracles, my library actually had it in stock!

The novel operates at many levels, but in the third person, it begins with The Frame : it introduces the novelist, working on her Apple Mac, in Midsummer in a small city on an island in the southern corner of a vast ocean.

Sunlight glints on a harbour and a breeze bellies the curtains at an open window.  An undifferentiated hum of traffic and machinery rises from the city.  Someone is drilling something in the old Edwardian villa next door and across the road the children at the day-care centre are banging away on the xylophone they bring outside on sunny days.  Overlying the hum is a cheerful gamelan bing bang bong.

Beyond the harbour stretches the ocean, bordered as usual at the horizon by the mass of cloud that could be hills or snow-capped mountains.  Air and vapour only but so seemingly solid that Captain Cook, sailing down this coast on his first voyage, detoured many miles to the east over three days in order to satisfy his lieutenant that this was no great continent.  ‘In search of Mr Gore’s imaginary land,’ he wrote grumpily in his journal.  He himself was ‘very certain we saw only clouds’.

The imaginary land has always been present. (p.12-13)

I was hooked.  From the moment a breeze bellies a curtain to the anecdote about Cook, I knew I was in the hands of an author I wanted to read.

The frame goes on to place the novelist in context, with brief images of Covid wreaking its havoc across the world while New Zealand maintained its tally of zero cases in the silence of lockdowns and closed borders and a citizens’ army, the greatest peacetime mobilisation in this country’s history.  

Her room in the house is a sunlit citadel defended by thousands.  Battalions of nurses and cleaners and cooks and drivers and security staff are holding the front line at the quarantine hotels.  Scientists and laboratory technicians are tracing and tracking with a speed and precision that to the novelist seem completely miraculous.  Battalions of IT experts, data analysts, designers of public information campaigns, the civil servants staffing government departments, the ministers and members of Parliament who volunteered for office and found themselves administering a crisis.  The director-general of health.  The prime minister, the gifted and remarkable Jacinda, the Joan of Arc who leads it all from the front, encouraging, cajoling, choosing the strategic direction. (p. 15-16)

This homage to the citizens’ armies around the world made me think, it’s not just events this week in Australia that show that we give medals to the wrong people. Yes, this is a novel which makes us think about significant things.

So to the story.  As in the Decameron, the novelist writes a book about a group of characters who flee the contagion and  while away their isolation by telling stories.

A Tale from The Decameron by John William Waterhouse

A Tale from The Decameron (1916) by John William Waterhouse

At some time in the future in a year that is not this year, nor the year when the writer writes, nor the year when the reader reads, when a different virus — haemorrhagic but equally lethal — has raged out of India and is taking the peopled world, country by country… characters who are by now experienced in the ways of pandemics, bundle up the essentials and head off in haste before the restrictions kick in, to their ‘crib’.  (This sites the story in the southern part of the South Island, because in other places in NZ, a holiday house is called a ‘bach’.)

They are an interesting microcosm of New Zealand life.  There’s Philippa, a former judge who is now a children’s book illustrator, and her ageing husband, the architect who designed the crib with its self-contained ‘pods’ as extra guest rooms.  Philippa hasn’t quite given up on presiding over other people’s lives.  Because she really wants the company of her dearest friend Ani, Philippa asks her to come along too.  But Ani is still grieving her long dead partner Leo who rescued her after her car had been stolen… so Philippa has also invited Tom’s friend Baz, a gentle bachelor all his life.  He’s a surfer who will enjoy the coastal setting, and he plays the guitar, and ostensibly he’s there for Tom’s birthday… but really because it’s time Ani stopped pining for Leo. 

Ani’s brother Pete has come along too with his lover Didi of ambiguous gender. (He tells the most heart-stopping story of them all, as if to say, hey you can experience severe trauma but you can survive it and still have a great life.)

Philippa’s plans go awry when her sister Maria turns up uninvited with her grand daughter Zoe, who’s taken flight from her nutty parents Sophie and Jason who’ve been seduced by conspiracy theories.

Ani and Pete’s characterisation raises interesting food for thought.  How do people of mixed Maori heritage who were abandoned by their birth mothers and subsequently adopted out, negotiate their identity when it seems to have become so culturally important to know who your ancestors are? Farrell toys with the idea that it’s something that can open up possibilities.

Drifting in the cavern while out in the rowboat…

…Ani also looks up.  She thinks of the person with her toes, her hair, her ears, who might have ventured through the gap, because when you are descended from no one in particular, not from someone whose name is remembered and recited over and over by generations, then you could be descended from anyone.  They could have been anywhere.  Right here, for example, in this cavern.  That person could have slid through the gap and drifted, hearing the high-pitched call amplified within the void, the cries of sea creatures that could also be the voices of women calling, bringing together those past, those present and those still to come. (p.243-244)

And then there’s the question of reconciliation and forgiveness. There’s fraught contact and a spiteful lack of forgiveness between a birth mother and the child she gave away.  A child who likes to rub it in that there were no more children after her.  There’s also Maria, who treated Baz very badly a long time ago, and they hadn’t seen each other since.

He stands at the open side door, putting everything back in its place, his back to her, saying nothing.

And then, as he knew she would, she steps in closer.  He can feel the warmth of her at his back, though she has not touched him.

‘Baz?’ she says again. ‘Look, I don’t know how to say how sorry I am.  I’ve done stupid, horrible things to all sorts of people in my life, but that with you, that was one of the worst. And I can’t say anything except I’m sorry and it happened so long ago, last century, and now I don’t want to die not being your friend.’

He pauses.  He can hear her breathing.

‘Are you?’ he says.

‘Am I what?’ she says.

He turns and looks at her, and she looks straight back, the way she always did.  Straight between the eyes.

‘Going to die?’ he says.

‘Course,’ she says. ‘We all are.’

And for the first time he thinks, that’s true.  Not even thinking it, but recognising it the way you recognise an old friend and their reality. (p.240)

Although there are plenty of moments in The Deck that made me chuckle, there is also so much wisdom in this novel that it made me wonder… Perhaps because I am today so conscious of Elizabeth Jolley’s centenary and how she as an older woman wrote books that enriched our lives, it’s made me think about whether another generation of older authors will be around in our reading future.

Fiona Farrell was born in 1947 and like many of our finest writers, she’s in her seventies now. If we in the bookworld (readers, reviewers, booksellers, publishers, LitFest programmers, and dispensers of prizes, fellowships and government grants) focus on shiny new authors at the expense of the wisdom of our elders, might we regret failing to nurture our authors to grow and develop so that they can have an ongoing career in writing? Are we doomed to one-hit wonders by authors with a use-by date that arrives before they reach middle-age?

You can listen to a quick review of this book at Fiona Farrell’s website.

Author: Fiona Farrell
Title: The Deck
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House) 2023
Design by Gemma Parmentier
ISBN: 9781776950003, pbk., 303 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Image credit: By John William Waterhouse – Unknown source, Public Domain,

Western Australians within visiting distance of Perth are in for a treat.

To mark the centenary of Elizabeth Jolley’s birth on 4th June, 1923,  Curtin University Library has curated an exhibition about her life, work, and connection to Curtin, in the Robertson Library.

As Sara Culverhouse says in her article ‘The Centenary of Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007): Legacy of a Curtin Literary Great‘:

Curtin University lecturer Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) was a critically acclaimed, bestselling author in the 1980s and 1990s. She wrote quirky, dream-like novels and short stories. One of her best-known novels, The Well, won the Miles Franklin Award in 1986. Her friend and colleague at Curtin, writer Philip Salom, describes her work as ‘mirth and malice’. In 2005, The Age newspaper wrote ‘Elizabeth Jolley has been a gentle giant of the Australian literary world’; Susan Sheridan called her ‘one of the great originals of Australian literature’.

As you’d expect, there is a display of her books, mostly in (enviable) hardback first editions.

She was a prolific author, and her oeuvre is all the more astonishing when you consider that her first novel was published when she was 57 (though of course she had been writing long before that).  If you check out my Elizabeth Jolley author page, you can find reviews of most of her work. Her novels include:

  • Palomino (1980)
  • The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981)
  • Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (1983)
  • Mr Scobie’s Riddle (1983)
  • Milk and Honey (1984)
  • Foxybaby (1985)
  • The Well (1986)
  • The Sugar Mother (1988)
  • My Father’s Moon (1989)
  • Cabin Fever (1990)
  • The Georges’ Wife (1993)
  • The Orchard Thieves (1995)
  • Lovesong (1997)
  • An Accommodating Spouse (1999)
  • An Innocent Gentleman (2001)

There were short story collections, plays and NF as well:

  • Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories (1976)
  • The Well-Bred Thief (1977)
  • The Travelling Entertainer and Other Stories (1979)
  • Woman in a Lampshade (1983)
  • Off the Air: Nine Plays for Radio (1995)
  • Fellow Passengers: Collected Stories of Elizabeth Jolley (1997)
  • Central Mischief: Elizabeth Jolley on Writing, Her Past and Herself (1992)
  • Diary of a Weekend Farmer (1993)
  • Learning to Dance: Elizabeth Jolley: Her Life and Work (2006)

Among the unexpected memorabilia in this exhibition, there is a plate  painted by Elizabeth Jolley, circa 1995.

Nathan Hobby, special collections librarian at Curtin University Library, tells me that:

She painted this image of eggs and bacon for a charity auction to raise funds for Rocky Bay. When no one bid on the piece, Jolley’s friend, the artist Santina Stransky, ‘stepped in and bought the piece herself’. Stransky remembers that Jolley was so happy that ‘every time she came to lunch she would remark on it’.

Also on display is Jolley’s PhD hat and the Curtin University register of honorary doctorates – she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Technology in 1987. ‘Doctor of Technology’ seems odd… why not Doctor of Letters or a Doctor of Literature? Perhaps someone who visits the exhibition can enlighten me…

You can read more about the exhibition here, and also Nathan Hobby’s article on the centenary of Elizabeth Jolley written for the State Library of New South Wales Open Book magazine here.

The exhibition runs from 1st June to 31st  August.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 3, 2023

Six Degrees of Separation: from Friendaholic, to ….

This month’s #6Degrees, hosted by Kate from Books are my Favourite and Best starts with Friendaholic by Elizabeth Day.

Gosh, I thought, confidently advancing to an opinion despite not having read the book, now there is a risk of addiction even with friendships… imagine the trauma!  I moved on quickly to see if I had read any books by authors with the surname Day.

Why, yes, I had.  Three superb biographies by David Day: two about our wartime PMs Curtin and Chifley, and one about Maurice Blackburn, Champion of the People (2019), founder of Australia’s leading compensation and social justice firm of lawyers that bears his name. (See my review here.)

That led me to another lawyer with an interest in social justice: Elliot Perlman who — as a sideline —has been writing interesting novels since his debut Three Dollars (1998) skewered the impacts of downsizing in a globalised economy. The novel struck a nerve: it was made into a play and a film, and Perlman went on to write the brilliant Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003); The Street Sweeper  (2011, see my review) and most recently Maybe the Horse will Talk (2019, see my review).

We often hear about authors struggling to find the time to write when they also have a day job, so it’s interesting to see that there’s another group of professionals who find time to write really interesting books: doctors.  On this blog you will find novels by doctors Louise Allan, Melanie ChengJacinta Halloran, Filip Vukasin and Peter Goldsworthy. Michelle Johnstone’s debut novel Dustfall (2018, see my review) was one of the best of these and I have her Tiny Uncertain Miracles (2022) on the TBR.  (I’m not sure about that cover.  Pretty as it is, it doesn’t show up well on screen.)

In New Zealand, there are doctor-novelists too: Fiona Sussman, for example. And Carl Shuker (although not a doctor) wrote memorably in A Mistake (2019, see my review) about the fallout from an emergency operation that went horribly wrong.  The novel is a vivid exposé of the way we in the modern world have merged accountability with blame.  Blaming and shaming, we’re so good at it…

I know of two novels that track the way parents are unfairly blamed (and blame themselves) for the crimes of their children.  Meg Merilees wrote about it in her debut novel, The First Week (2013, see my review), and Amanda Lohrey tackled it in her award-winning most recent novel The Labyrinth (2020, see my review).

Those novels were about sons who were in prison, but we don’t often read about women who were.  In Long Bay (2015, see my review) Eleanor Limprecht wrote memorably about the way poverty was the driver behind the imprisonment of backyard abortionists, and more recently Fiona Kelly McGregor in Iris (2022, see my review) showed us the revolving door of gaol time for women of the underclass in the first half of the 20th century.  Iris (the character) learns not to have any illusions about her friendships… her friends are all struggling for survival too and though they do what they can, loyalty is a luxury they sometimes can’t afford.

I seem to have come full circle — from a novel about addiction to friendship to one that tells a blunt truth about it, that’s my #6Degrees for this month!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 2, 2023

Vale Olga Lorenzo (1959-2021)

Photo of Olga Lorenzo

Source: A Story to Tell

This is a much belated obituary, because I have only just learned of the death of Melbourne author Dr Olga Lorenzo, a writer whose work I really admired.

Born in 1959 in Cuba, Olga Lorenzo grew up in Miami.  AustLit tells us that while there, she was…

… a card-carrying alien. There were no jobs and no welfare. The family lived in a squalid laundry room in Little Havanna, two metres by 2.5 metres, shared with another family, and experienced racial prejudice.

Somehow she transcended this disadvantage to study at Washington University, St Louis, Missouri.

She came to Australia in the 1980s where she worked as a journalist and sub-editor at the Melbourne Age. Her writing won the Felix Meyer Scholarship and the Percival Serle Bequest at the University of Melbourne where she gained her PhD in creative writing, and she was awarded an Arts Victoria grant and a Varuna Fellowship.

She married cartoonist John Spooner, and although she was a brilliant writer and a beloved teacher, she said in her last interview at A Story to Tell:

“I’m first and foremost a mum, I just adore my kids, and I’ve got great maternal drive, with a great nurturing instinct.”

In that same interview at A Story to Tell she explained why teaching took priority over writing her own work:

“I had started teaching everywhere—at the CAE, at the Victorian College of Arts, at Melbourne University, at Holmesglen TAFE, at Kangan-Batman TAFE. I was more than full-time!

“I taught right around a lot of different subjects across both fiction and nonfiction—journalism, research, writing childhood, novel. It was really, really hard! I had three young children and a lot of prep to do for each class.

“And I realised that I loved teaching, and I got really good feedback. This was a big revelation to me. But I had loved journalism, so I thought, ‘This is something I’m gonna do just for a while.’ But then I realised, no, actually, teaching is what I want to do, so I actually fell into my life’s purpose.

“I wanted to teach novel. It was what I loved. What I have loved all my life. Literature, particularly fiction, and particularly novels.”

So she taught writing at tertiary institutions including RMIT University for 17 years.

Olga died early in 2021, and as the obituaries from her colleagues at RMIT attest, she was a much loved teacher, mentor and friend who helped to launch the careers of some of our best known authors, including the children’s author Martine Murray and among others, many novelists who have featured on this blog: Carrie Tiffany; Toni Jordan; Chris Womersley; Peggy Frew; Lucy Treloar; and Ilke Tampke;.

She published just two books that I know of:

  • 1990: The Rooms in My Mothers House, a memoir which was shortlisted for the IMPAC award
  • 2016: The Light on the Water, longlisted for the Davitt Award

I reviewed her novel The Light on the Water back in 2016 and from what she says about it at Ten Things You Didn’t Know about Olga Lorenzo, it grieves me to learn that she did not live to finish the novel she was working on before she died.

Still, her legacy lives on in the careers of the writers she nurtured to publication.

Image credit:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 1, 2023

Hopeless Kingdom (2022), by Kgshak Akec

Winner of the 2021 Dorothy Hewitt Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, Hopeless Kingdom by debut author Kgshak Akec was already on my radar when it was longlisted for the 2023 Miles Franklin Award. Deservedly so.

Some years ago, The Spouse was reminiscing about his childhood when he happened to mention that the first time he ever heard anyone speak in a different language was when athletes competing in the 1956 Olympics were billeted near his suburban bayside home, where he had lived until adulthood.  By the same age, (and even more so by the time I was ten), I was a veteran of repeatedly moving house within and beyond the UK and ‘foreign languages’ were no big deal — though I certainly knew what it was like not to understand what was being said to me outside my home.  (And sometimes inside it.  My parents sometimes spoke either French or German at home to keep things private from little ears anyway.)

And although Kgshak Akec’s experience of migration and belonging is more complex than mine because her family fled the war in Sudan as refugees, her coming-of-age in a place not her own is a portrayal of an experience very common to many of us not born here in Australia.  Migration makes us adaptable, flexible and open-minded about ‘difference’ and most of us are genuinely grateful to the country that’s offered us a secure homeland — but it’s also hard.  It is hard for little kids to be uprooted from all that’s familiar, to lose contact with their extended family and friends, to make and lose friends in one school after another, to leave behind favourite toys and play-places, to have to learn new languages and bewildering cultural mores.  To always be the one who is ‘different’ where even the playground games are not the same, and to cop teasing and abuse for it.  It’s also hard to witness the success and failures of other members of the family on their journey to belong.  (I think it’s harder in different ways for teenagers and adolescents, which is also vividly portrayed in Hopeless Kingdom.)

Hopeless Kingdom is told in two alternating voices, beginning with Akita when she’s a little refugee kid in Cairo, offset by the narrative of her mother Taresai.  Akita’s problems are immediate, and domestic: squabbles at home, and being bullied and unfair discipline at school. She lives in the present tense, as children do.  Taresai has more complex problems.  She has to learn a new language to negotiate new challenges, and her lack of literacy (because she was denied schooling) makes her dependent on others in a way that it did not before in Sudan. She has to deal with the fallout of her eldest son’s aggression but she also looks to the uncertain future of her family.  She sees and interprets the behaviour of all her children as individuals; she has hopes and dreams for them. She struggles to maintain connections with the extended family which isn’t as supportive as it could be, and she has to deal with a husband whose frustrations at being unable to work within his professional expertise causes him to lose his way.

The novel traverses the years until Akita becomes a young woman finding her own way in the world, and Taresai negotiates the changes imposed by her husband’s return to Sudan, which was only temporarily deferred by another pregnancy.  She becomes a working mother, dependent on Akita to help run the household and look after the three younger ones.  Taresai learns English, and to read.  Powerless to intervene, she sees her son’s behavioural problems escalate out of control and the tragedy that ensues.  But as she grows in confidence, she tackles longstanding resentments about the way her education was sacrificed in favour of her sibling’s.

All of this is achieved by mother and daughter in the context of the racism they encounter and the loneliness of not belonging, but Hopeless Kingdom is not a heavy-handed denunciation of the flaws in Australian society.  It ends on a note of hope, expressed so poignantly by Taresai in the Epilogue:

I’ve lived a life.

A life that knows the pain of my darkest nights.  Knows the love that burns with the heat of a thousand suns and a hope that orbits mine like the moon orbits this earth. To have lost.  To pour love into children I bore, to watch them be, become and live evermore. To have memories line the folds of my brain, stained with feeling in a golden hue.  I watch their bodies move with the years, their faces change with the seasons as I come home to a house, with different coloured lights shining out of every window.

At the start of each day and at the end of each night I realise that there is hope in my kingdom, because I have seen all my wounds turn to scars.  (p.345)

I saw an interesting critique of the narrative voice in a review at Goodreads, and I want to address it.  The reader thought that there wasn’t enough differentiation between the child’s voice and the adult’s: she thought that Akita’s childhood narrative was far too mature and intellectual. But this criticism overlooks the complexities of the narrative voice.  Firstly, this is a middle-class Sudanese family — the father Santino is an architect; and secondly, Akita is an unusually intelligent and mature child.  But also, when young Akita is narrating the story in Egypt, her languages do not include English: they are her mother-tongue Dinka and the Arabic which she has acquired at school. Two types of Arabic…

Wikipedia tells us that Arabic is a language where two types of the same language are used by a single community: vernacular varieties, which are mother-tongues, and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or Classical Arabic.

Colloquial dialects vary significantly from MSA, impeding mutual intelligibility.  MSA is only acquired through formal education and is not spoken natively. It is the language of literature, official documents, and formal written media. In spoken form, MSA is used in formal contexts, news bulletins and for prayers. Wikipedia’s page about Arabic language, viewed 1/6/23 and lightly edited to remove footnotes and unnecessary links).

When we hear Modern Standard Arabic in translation (as we often did during the Iraq war), it can sound rather florid to our ears because our own English has become more casual. The distinction between written and spoken English has blurred since my days at school.  We do not often hear formal English, and people who do not read widely don’t often read literary or formal English either.  Readers fed a steady diet of YA sometimes complain that the literary language of the classics is too hard to read but many people my age read them when we were teenagers with no difficulty. I don’t think we were any cleverer than they are, but the language young people are exposed to has changed since then.

Akita is exposed to numerous languages at a formative period of language and literacy acquisition.  Formal Arabic is the language that Akita is taught at her Egyptian school, and that the family would have heard on the TV news and encountered in official contexts.  OTOH some form of colloquial Arabic would have been spoken in the playground at school, and in the markets where Taresai does her shopping—so the family becomes ‘bilingual’ in Arabic.  (Taresai speaks five languages, but until quite late in her migration journey, the family speaks Arabic at home even when the children have become fluent in English.)

So how does an author render the complexities of these different languages and registers in Australian English?

When Akita is narrating the spoken word, the tone is informal and childlike, as playground Arabic would be. She tells us, too, when she lacks the words to express herself.  Unreliably, she also tells us sometimes that she says nothing for ethical reasons, or not wanting to lower herself to the behaviour of others.  Perceptive readers are entitled to consider whether there might be other reasons that she doesn’t want to admit to.  But when Akita is narrating her thoughts and feelings, her language becomes a fluent mixture of formal and informal registers.  She is writing a work of literature, and even as a child she knows that written words have to be different to spoken language, but she does not have full command of it. And when she comes to Australia, she carries that formative idea of ‘literary’ language with her and she uses her growing vocabulary to full effect.

I think this capture of the complexities of migrant language acquisition is spectacularly good.

You can hear Kgshak Akec’s talking about her book at this Totally Lit podcast. 

Author: Kgshak Akec
Title: Hopeless Kingdom
Cover design by Mika Tabata
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2022
ISBN: 9781760802158, pbk., 350 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 30, 2023

Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters (2022), by Mandy Sayer

As most readers know, Hazel Rowley (1950-2011) was a superb biographer, and it was fitting that in her memory her family and friends set up the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship valued at $20,000, to support Australian writers working on biography projects.

Award-winning novelist and non-fiction author Mandy Sayer won the fellowship in 2021 for her biography of Australian silent filmmakers, the McDonagh sisters.  It was published in 2022 as Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters: Australia’s First Female Filmmaking Team, and was shortlisted this year for the 2023 The Age Book of the Year in the non-fiction category.

As you can see from the cover design by Debra Billson, the publishers have signalled the era of the book with Art Deco motifs, but what you can’t see from the cover is the clever internal design by Josephine Pajor-Markus.  Chapter headings are in 1920s style Cinematic fonts, and the Table of Contents includes a ‘Trailer’, 21 Main Features and Extras (i.e. a filmography, a bibliography, notes and acknowledgements.)

This is the blurb:

The trailblazing McDonagh sisters were the first women in Australia to form their own film production company. Between 1926 and 1933, this remarkable trio produced four feature films and a number of documentaries.

The youngest, Paulette, was one of only five women film directors in the world. Phyllis produced, art directed, and conducted publicity. And the eldest, Isabel, under her stage name Marie Lorraine, acted in all the female leads. Together, the sisters transformed Australian cinema’s preoccupations with the outback and the bush—and what they mocked as ‘haystack movies’—into a thrilling, urban modernity.

Their private lives were equally adventurous, and their suitors included a famous magician, a wealthy rubber broker, a defrocked Anglican priest, and a number of silent film stars.

In Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters, Mandy Sayer reveals the sisters’ remarkable story, from daughters of a respected Sydney surgeon with a love of theatre and the arts, to their first feature film, Those Who Love (1926), an instant hit, to their controversial final film, Two Minutes Silence (1933). Today, their most famous feature, The Cheaters , is frequently screened at international film festivals around the world.

The story of these three young women reads like a film script.  Though they had some dubious ancestry, the sisters were born into a life of privilege, were cast into penury when orphaned and their father was discovered to have debts, and then resurrected by an inheritance from a distant relation.

About a year after their mother’s death, the family solicitor contacted Isabel with the sensational news that Ernesto Amora, their Chilean great uncle, and brother of their criminal grandfather, John Horatio, had recently died and left the seven orphans some money in his will.  The children had barely heard of their distant South American relative, let alone met him, though they did remember their mother writing to him regularly, and the promise to name her youngest child after him if it had been a boy.

Amid grief and great personal challenges, salvation did not descend from the respected McDonagh side of the clan but from an unknown benefactor whose brother had brought shame upon the extended family.  The sisters accepted the money but asked no further questions about their Chilean ancestry.

They had just inherited a staggering 8000 pounds (the average price of a Sydney house at that time was just over 1000 pounds). In this sudden and thrilling turn of events, their lives were assuming the qualities of the Hollywood melodramas that had enthralled them for so many years. (p.84)

They used the money to bankroll their first film.

Now, if you look up McDonagh Productions at Wikipedia, this is what you’ll find:

McDonagh Productions was a short-lived Australian production company that produced feature and short films. It was run by the McDonagh sisters, PhyllisIsabel and Paulette. The company eventually went broke after the failure of its last two features. (Wikipedia, McDonagh Productions page, viewed 30/5/23)

This brief and uninformative paragraph is followed by a filmography, which is incomplete.  Someone has made an effort to write more informative articles on the linked pages for the feature films, but some of what’s there conflicts with what’s in this thoroughly researched biography.

More importantly, Wikipedia doesn’t tell the story of how the company — like all the other Australian filmmakers — struggled against the Hollywood behemoth.  The sisters began their David and Goliath struggle on the cusp of the arrival of the Talkies, and Hollywood stitched up the market by refusing to supply films unless cinemas did it on their terms, which included squeezing out local productions.  As everyone knows, if you can’t get distribution and marketing for your product, it doesn’t matter how good it is.  And the Federal Government was resistant to providing any support.

(That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

As MP Barry Jones, quoted in The Extras, said when he delivered a eulogy for Paulette and Phyllis McDonagh in the House of Representatives, the enterprise and creativity of these three sisters deserves better recognition than that.  I think he would be pleased to read this lively and comprehensive biography.

Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters is also reviewed by Sharon Conolly at APH.

Author: Mandy Sayer
Title: Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters: Australia’s First Female Filmmaking Team,
Publisher: New South (University of New South Wales), 2022
Internal design by Josephine Pajor-Markus
Cover design by Debra Billson
ISBN: 9781742237435, pbk., 321 pages
Source: Bayside Library

I have read a couple of other winning titles (click the links below for my reviews):

I have some on the TBR;

  • 2014 winner: Maxine Beneba Clarke for The Hate Race (2016); (#Blush: I accidentally bought two copies, and have read about half of it three times but never finished it to write the review.)
  • 2017 winner: Ann-Marie Priest for My Tongue Is My Own: a life of Gwen Harwood (2022)

and I will certainly read more of them as the books become available.

You can donate to the Fellowship Fund to help ensure its ongoing support for biography.

Hazel Rowley wrote four critically acclaimed biographies:

and on my TBR:

  • Tête-à-tête: The Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre (2005)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 29, 2023

2023 ALS Gold Medal Shortlist

The ALS Gold Medal shortlist for 2023 has been announced.

I’ve read some of them so I know why they were shortlisted!

We Come with This Place, by Debra Dank, see Kim’s review at Reading Matters

Limberlost, by Robbie Arnott, see my review

Iris, by Fiona Kelly McGregor, see my review

At the Altar of Touch by Gavin Yuan Gao

Waypoints by Adam Ouston, see my review

Art, poems by Charlotte Papertalk Green and John Kinsella

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 28, 2023

Milk and Honey (1984), by Elizabeth Jolley

1984 Milk and Honey

In anticipation of the centenary of Elizabeth Jolley’s birth on June 4th, I read my Fremantle Arts Centre Press edition of Jolley’s fifth novel, Milk and Honey. 

First published in 1984, Milk and Honey is in some ways classic Jolley: it features a lonely character alienated from and yet trapped in the society around him; but the Gothic elements in this novel were a departure from her previous fiction.

#Digression: One might think that the newly published Cambridge Companion to the Australian Novel might offer some insight about a major writer such as Jolley, but no.  On page 9 in the Introduction she gets a cursory mention as a teacher of creative writing for Tim Winton… and that’s it, other than half a dozen of her novels listed in a 36-page chronology that begins 65,000 years ago. (To be fair, I’ve only read half of this Companion so far, but one mention in the index doesn’t look promising.)


Somehow, I was able to get behind the paywall at the ABR to find Stephanie Trigg’s 1986 review of The Well, which makes reference to the common themes in Jolley’s fiction.

Comparing Jolley with Helen Garner whose work is said by critics and reviews to be similarly confined to a domestic canvas, Triggs writes that Jolley’s pictures of domestic life are much wilder, more dramatic, and more violent. Murder, madness, sexual and psychological violence abound, and many Jolley narratives in their bare bones are quite alarming and bizarre. That is most certainly true of Milk and Honey, despite the Biblical allusion of its title to a ‘promised land’ of abundance and fertility. There are unexplained deaths, illnesses and disappearances, and a death which is not a death though the ‘murderer’ thinks it is.  The central character’s wife has a child but it’s not his because he is impotent with her, though not with his lover who is herself infertile.  The sterile marriage is offset by the birth of a child through incest.

The ‘mad woman in the attic’ is not a woman and is not mad either, but rather a grotesque caricature whose tragedy is that he has been denied a life because of his parents’ fear of doctors. Reminiscent of the entrapment imposed by the destitute elderly Russian émigré, Nastasya, in The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981, see my review) Waldemar both traps his family and is trapped by them because they refuse to hand him over to institutional care. Childlike Waldemar, dripping with the honey that he loves to eat, is the only character who represents fertility and abundance.

And the musical prodigy turns out to be really rather ordinary, fit only for a provincial orchestra and then not even that when his own violence disfigures his hands.  This is not a story of resilience or triumph over adversity and there is little kindness in it.

In Brian Dibble’s 2008 biography Doing Life (which I can’t find on my shelves, did I lend it to someone?), Jolley’s story begins with the enigmas of her own family life.  As I wrote in my review, Jolley’s father bore his wife’s love for the enigmatic (and underfoot) Mr Berrington with fortitude, and this influenced Jolley’s interest in depicting sexual triangles. 

In Milk and Honey, the central character Jacob is offloaded by his widowed father onto a family of European refugees, to whom he eventually brings his inheritance.  The Heimbach household consists of Leopold, his sisters the termagant Tante Rosa and the gentler Aunt Heloise, and his two children. Louise is a few years older than 14-year-old Jacob, and Waldemar is about the same age as Jacob but has intellectual and physical disabilities. Leopold’s wife who was Jewish, was left behind when they fled Nazi Austria.  Her fate is not spoken of, though there hints of blame attaching to her, along with nostalgic memories of the privileged life and the possessions they had to abandon.

(What was Jolley doing with that peculiar thread? Did they flee because they feared Nazism?  Because Waldemar would have been subjected to the eugenics policies of the regime?  Both the children would have been at risk because they would have been classified as Jewish because of their mother, but why didn’t this unnamed and apparently unlamented wife escape too?  There are no answers to these questions.)

Jacob is hot-housed as a musical prodigy, perhaps as the son that Leopold yearned for.  Constantly hailed as The Prince of a Cello, he grows up in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a house isolated from normal life. (He goes briefly to school, but it doesn’t last.) He becomes attracted to Louise, and somehow finds himself engaged to her despite the aunt’s vigilance in keeping them under surveillance.

I still had not experimented with kissing Louise.  I watched for a chance but we were never left alone together.  Tante Rosa or Aunt Heloise seemed to spring from behind doors or out of cupboards, from the very floorboards, as I stepped towards the kiss.  (p.57)

(Note the narrator’s hyperbole in that excerpt.  It’s not the only time this narration creates confusion about the boundaries between reality and delusion.)

Jacob, however, has also developed an attraction to Madge, a violinist in the orchestra that Leopold despises as vulgar, because the musicians were people who just played to make a living and had no feeling for music at all. At the same time that this teenager is trying to kiss the fiancée who seems to have been gifted to him unsolicited, he is plotting how to make time alone with Madge, who is much older than he is and married to a travelling salesman.

Jacob is also puzzled by a presence in the attic above.

I meant too to watch the upper staircase to see if Tante Rosa carried trays of food up there or if she came down with the rosebud pail.  But Leopold wrote a cadenza and wanted me to practise it, and when at last I was free from the extra lessons and practice, there was no sign of anyone upstairs. (p.58)

Triggs, in her review of The Well, notes that

One of the most frequently remarked motifs in Jolley’s work is possession. The object of possession can be land, a person, a home, though wealth and property are never valued for their own sake: possessions are important as they mark out physical or psychological territory.

Jacob, in Milk and Honey, seems to be both possessed and a possession. Firstly, he is given away by his father as if the boy were a mere possession himself. He then becomes possessed by the strangeness of his life and by his obsessions, particularly his pursuit of Madge which involves the profligate spending of his inheritance.  That inheritance represents dispossession because the money comes from the sale of his father’s vineyards over which the Heimbach family take control.  Jacob is also possessed by the Heimbach family, as a husband for Louisa, as a father for Elise, and as a source of money for their declining years.  And they will not let him go.  Not until the denouement which brings clarity to the opening chapters which preceded Jacob’s back story.

Though the central character and narrator is a male, all the women of Milk and Honey are captive possessions too.

Milk and Honey won the 1985 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.  I bet it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin too, but all records of shortlists prior to 1987 are lost. (Jolley won the MF in 1985 for The Well.)

Wikipedia tells me that Elizabeth Jolley’s diaries are stored at the Mitchell Library but are closed until after the deaths of her children or 25 years after her death.

Bill reviewed this novel too, at The Australian Legend.

Author: Elizabeth Jolley  (1923-2007)
Title: Milk and Honey
Publisher: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984
Cover photograph by Roger Garwood
ISBN 9909144818, pbk., 185 pages
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind, $3.00

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 25, 2023

Naked Ambition (2023), by Robert Gott

If you’re in the mood for some daft, light-hearted fun, Robert Gott’s Naked Ambition may be just what you need to lift your spirits during this rather grim phase in our nation’s psyche.

Briefly, the plot is this.  A state politician called Gregory takes it into his head to commission his portrait from an ambitious artist intent on winning the Archibald Prize.  The larger-than-lifesize portrait, when it is revealed to his startled family, shows him not in the obligatory suit with a tie in the party colours, and not in hail-fellow-well-met casual gear, but naked.  Full frontal.  Completely naked.

Even before the state premier Louisa Whitely makes a surprise visit to advise him that he’s been elevated to the ministry because of some inopportune scandal about to derail the election campaign — there are objections to the mere existence of this portrait.  His wife Phoebe, a PR agent, warns against the (pardon the pun) exposure of the portrait; and Joyce, his MIL, a Bible-bashing fundamentalist, thinks it’s an abomination. His own mother Margaret amuses herself by sardonically baiting the religious fanatic, and his sister Sally (the only one who knows anything about the cutting-edge reputation of the artist) isn’t impressed by depictions of the naked male because she’s gay. (Yes, the comedy does rely on stereotypes.  The clodhopper copper is another one, completely unfair to the detective who lives next door to me, she’s as sharp as a razor.)

The repartee between this lot is full of witty one-liners, which ramp up when the painting is stolen.  Who by? Hardly anybody knows about its existence.  What’s to stop photos of it going viral if it’s got into the wrong hands? And how can the artist be placated when the work she’s created to win a valuable prize goes missing?

Amid the chuckles, we might ponder some of the questions raised by this comic novel.  Is it ever ok to destroy a work of art? Who ‘owns it’, the artist, the sitter, or the purchaser? Is a nude portrait ‘about’ the subject or about the art, and why — in an age where people get their kit off for mass photographs of nudity — is a nude portrait of a politician death to his career?

Here’s an excerpt with my favourite one-liner:

— Gregory moved in front of the picture and faced the four women ranged before it.

‘Forget that it’s me, Louisa.  Forget that it’s someone you know.  Imagine you’d come upon it in a gallery.  What do you think of it as a work of art?’

Louisa hadn’t risen to be premier by being vague about her responses to things.  She was a pragmatic person.

‘I can’t forget that it’s you, Gregory.  It’s obviously, ostentatiously you.  Its value as a work of art comes a distant second to that simple, inarguable fact.  It’s you, and you’re nude.’

‘You have a female nude on the wall in your office.  You’re not going to tell me you disapprove of the nude in art.’

‘It’s a Picasso, and most people think it’s a cucumber.’ (p.85)

Robert Gott is the author of crime novels and the cartoonist behind the newspaper cartoon The Adventures of Naked Man.  (BTW, be careful if you Google that, you may get images you’re not prepared for.)

See also the review at The Newtown Review of Books. 

Author: Robert Gott
Title: Naked Ambition
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2023
Cover design by  Scribe
ISBN: 9781922585967, pbk.,256 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe


In the light of recent events, it seems timely to reproduce (with permission though Creative Commons) this review of a book from The Conversation

Published and viewed today: May 23, 2023 6.05am AEST

Stan Grant’s new book asks: how do we live with the weight of our history?

Heidi Norman, University of Technology Sydney

This month, journalist and public intellectual Stan Grant published his fifth book, The Queen is Dead. And last week, he abruptly stepped away from his career in the public realm, citing toxic racism enabled by social media, and betrayal on the part of his employer, the ABC.

“I was invited to contribute to the ABC’s coverage as part of a discussion about the legacy of the monarchy. I pointed out that the crown represents the invasion and theft of our land,” he wrote last Friday. “I repeatedly said that these truths are spoken with love for the Australia we have never been.” And yet, “I have seen people in the media lie and distort my words. They have tried to depict me as hate filled”.

Grant has worked as a journalist in Australia for more than three decades: first on commercial current affairs – and until this week, as a main anchor at the ABC, where he was an international affairs analyst and the host of the panel discussion show Q+A. The former role reflects his global work, reporting from conflict zones with esteemed international broadcasters such as CNN. His second book, Talking to my Country, won the Walkley Book Award in 2016.

Review: The Queen is Dead – Stan Grant (HarperCollins)

In this new book, Grant yearns for a way to comprehend the forces, ideas and history that led to this cultural moment we inhabit. The book, which opens with him grappling with the monarchy and its legacy, is revealing in terms of his decision to step back from public life.

Released to coincide with the coronation of the new English monarch, Charles III, The Queen is Dead seethes with rage and loathing – hatred even – at the ideas that have informed the logic and structure of modernity.

Grant’s work examines the ideas that explain the West and modernity – and his own place as an Indigenous person of this land, from Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi and Dharawal country. That is: his work explores both who he is in the world and the ideas that tell the story of the modern world. He finds the latter unable to account for him.

“This week, I have been reminded what it is to come from the other side of history,” he writes in the book’s opening pages. “History itself that is written as a hymn to whiteness […] written by the victors and often written in blood.”

He asks “how do we live with the weight of this history?” And he explains the questions that have dominated his thinking: what is whiteness, and what is it to live with catastrophe?

The death of the white queen

In his account, his rage is informed by the observation that the weight of this history was largely unexplored on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s death last September. The death of the white queen is the touchpoint always returned to in this work – and the release of the book coincides with the apparently seamless transition to her heir, now King Charles III.

In the lead-up to the coronation, “long live the king” echoed across the United Kingdom. Its long tentacles reached across the globe where this old empire once ruled, robbing and ruining much that it encountered. The death of the queen and the succession of her heir occurred with ritual and ceremony.

Small tweaks acknowledged the changing world – but for the most part, this coronation occurred without revolution or bloodshed, without condemnation – and without contest of the British monarchs’ role in history and the world they continue to dominate, in one way or another.

Grant argues the end of the 70-year rule of Queen Elizabeth II should mark a turning point: a global reckoning with the race-based order that undergirds empire and colonialism. Whereas the earlier century confidently pronounced the project of democracy and liberalism complete, it seems time has marched on.

History has not “ended”, as Francis Fukuyama declared in 1989 (claiming liberal democracies had been proved the unsurpassable ideal). Instead, history has entered a ferocious era of uncertainty and volatility.

Grant reminds us that people of colour now dominate the globe. Race, as we now know, is a flexible and slippery made-up idea, changing opportunistically to include and exclude groups, to dominate and possess.

Grant examines this with great impact as he considers the lived experience of his white grandmother, who was shunned when living with a black man, shared his conditions of poverty with pluck and defiance, then resumed a place in white society without him.

And writing of his mother, the other Elizabeth, Grant elaborates the complexity of identity not confined to the colour of skin, but forged from belonging to people and kinship networks, and to place – which condemns the pseudoscience of blood quantum that informed the state’s control of Aboriginal lives. This suspect race science has proved enduring.

Grant’s account of the death of the monarch is a genuine engagement with the history of ideas to contemplate the reality of our 21st-century present.

Liberalism and democracy = tyranny and terror

In several essays now, Grant has engaged with the ideas of mostly Western philosophers and several conservative thinkers to explain the crisis of liberalism and democracy. Grant argues that, like other -isms, liberalism and democracy have descended into tyranny and terror.

The new world order, dominated by China and people of colour, is in dramatic contrast to the continued rule of the white queen and her descendants.

In this, perhaps more than his other books and essays, Grant moves between big ideas in history – the Enlightenment, modernity and democracy – to consider himself, his identity, and his own lived experience of injustice, where race is an undeniable organising feature.

In this story he explains himself, as an Indigenous person, “an outsider, in the middle”; “an exile, living in exile, struggling with belonging”; living with the “very real threat of erasure”.

Love, friendships, family, Country

In the final section of the book, Grant’s focus switches to the theme of “love”, and to friendships, family and Country. He speculates that his focus on these things is perhaps a mark of age.

Now, he accounts for the things in life that are truly valuable – and this includes deep affection for the joy that emanates from Aboriginal families. Being home on his Country, paddling the river, he finds quiet and peace.

The death of the monarch of the British Empire, who ruled for 70 years, should speak to the history of empire and colonial legacy and all its curses – especially in settler colonial Australia. Yet her passing – which coincides with seismic change in the global economic order with China’s ascendance and the decline of the United States and the UK, the global cultural order and the racial order – has been largely unexamined in public discourse in Australia.

The history of colonisation and of ideas that have debated ways to comprehend the past have been a feature of Grant’s intellectual exploration, including on the death of the queen. As he details in his new book, the reaction from some quarters to this conversation has exposed him to unrelenting and racist attack.

In this work and in others, exploration of the world of ideas to understand the past and future sits alongside accounts of the everyday; of the always place-based realities of Aboriginal accounts of self.

The material deprivations and indignities, the closely held humility that comes with poverty and powerlessness – shared socks, a house carelessly demolished, burials tragically abandoned – are countered by another reality: the intimacy of most Aboriginal lives, characterised by deep love, affection, laughter and belonging. These place-based, “small” stories Grant shares sit alongside the bigger themes of modern history, such as democracy and freedom.

In this latest work, Grant details his sense of “betrayal” at the discussion he sought about the monarch’s passing and the discussion that was actually had, the history of ideas and his own place in this.

And now, of course, he has announced his intention to exit the public stage. Racism, we are reminded, is an enduring feature of the modern world – a world yet to allow space for an unbowing, Wiradjuri-Kamilaroi-Dharawal public intellectual.The Conversation

Heidi Norman, Professor, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Creative Commons licence does not permit any editing, but it does not include permission to reproduce images and I was only too delighted to remove an image of the coronation.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 22, 2023

2023 Walter McRae Russell Award Shortlist

It’s not often I’ve read a book that’s shortlisted for the ASAL Walter McRae Russell Award because it’s an award for the best book of literary scholarship on an Australian subject published in the preceding two calendar years. As an ordinary reader, I don’t read much in the way literary scholarship!

But I do read (and love) literary bios and their offshoots…

And so, look! here are the shortlisted works for the 2023 Walter McRae Russell Award, and I find that I have read one of them: Lohrey by Julieanne Lamond — and what’s more in 2022 I named it as one of two Best Non-Fiction Books of the Year. I loved it, see my review here.

My other Best NF Book for 2022 was Nathan Hobby’s The Red Witch and that’s just been shortlisted for 2023 WA Premier’s Book Awards shortlists! See my review of that one here.

Starry night sky, with a header: Shortlisted for the Walter McRae Russell Award 2023. Five book covers: Beth Driscoll et al, Genre Worlds: Popular Fiction and Twenty-First Century Book Culture Julieanne Lamond, Lohrey Roger Osborne, The Life of Such is Life Denise Varney, Patrick White’s Theatre Helen Vines, Eve Langley and the Pea Pickers

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

PS I have no idea what the award is worth or when the winner will be announced because the website isn’t forthcoming about that… Thanks to a prompt reply to my query on Twitter, I can now advise that the winner will be announced on 4th July.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 22, 2023

Aphrodite’s Breath (2023), by Susan Johnson

I was having time off from reading memoirs… but when Susan Johnson — one of my favourite authors —  writes one, well that’s different and I can break my own rules as much as I please.

I had read and admired The Broken Book (2005, see Kim’s review at Reading Matters) when it was longlisted for the Miles Franklin, the IMPAC Dublin Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Queensland Premier’s Prize for fiction, the Nita B Kibble Award, the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ALS) Gold Medal Award and the CAL Waverley Library Award for Literature… but I fell in love with Susan Johnson’s writing with Life in Seven Mistakes (2008, see my review).  That sly black comedy was so brave and honest and true, I almost wept except when I was laughing. I’ve read everything she’s ever published since, and I think I’ve got her entire backlist on the TBR but Life in Seven Mistakes remains my favourite.

Susan is one of those rare writers who can mine aspects of her family life without making me cringe with embarrassment or pity.  She does it again in this memoir, Aphrodite’s Breath, where she recounts her ‘Greek Island adventure’ with her 85-year-old widowed mother.  With breathtaking chutzpah she jettisons her secure job in journalism and sets off for a year on Kythera, sharing the exorbitant cost of travel insurance with her brother in case her mother needs to be airlifted back to Australia for health care.  The trip was financed on a shoestring with a publisher’s advance, to finish the book that turned out to be From Where I Fell  (2021) (see my review) and to write the memoir that turned out to be this book, Aphrodite’s Breath. 

I should note here that my school holiday sojourns to Burleigh Waters to take my 85-year-old housebound mother for a jaunt to Bunnings or Big W were the only (not-even-remotely-similar) mother-daughter expeditions I’ve ever organised…

But although Susan’s mother and mine shared a forthright capacity to (a-hem) ‘know her own mind’, Barbara Johnson  is an active, spry 85-year-old with all her health conditions well under control. (See her photo here.) In her brief Epilogue at the back of the book, Barbara writes that Kythera will stay in her heart as a year well spent but the early chapters of the memoir tell a different story. Barbara never embraced Kythera as Susan did, and there was constant friction between them, even though Susan suppressed her feelings out of longstanding habit.

The reader soon realises that although these two share a strong bond, and are protective and loyal to one another, they have nothing in common.  Barbara enjoyed the stability of home and home-making  while also accompanying her husband on corporate travel  trips, while Susan was a risk-taker determined to fulfil her creative potential, preferring freelance work and the adventure of living an expat life.

So there were times when the relationship was hazardous.  Susan interrogates her own behaviour each time, concluding poignantly that…

I believe that in some families there are mothers and daughters who sit down together and verbalise their feelings, but I have also heard it is possible to reach the peak of Mount Everest with the right training. (p.129)

Barbara complained.  A lot.  Often with good reason, but it must have been wearying.  It is not until much later in the book that it dawns on Susan that her mother might be homesick, and while she obsesses over the tragedy of a 19th century Kytheran uprooted to Dublin where she could not speak the language, she fails to comprehend that her own mother might be lonely because she doesn’t speak Greek.

For a person of normal intelligence, I can be breathtakingly stupid.  I am ashamed to say it never occurred to me that mother might be homesick. Why was I writing romantic tosh about Rosa Kasimati when my own mother was in the next room, probably missing home too? (p.164-5)

But the ‘Almond House’ on Kythera also had limitations which were hard to live with.  For a start, contrary to expectations, it was cold, and the house they’d rented lacked adequate heating.  Susan makes comedy out of its shortcomings but it lacked even the most rudimentary creature comforts such as reliable electricity and modern plumbing. But worse than that was the problem of language.  Susan’s naïve fantasy of getting by with some rudimentary phrases and Google Translate took me by surprise.  There are Greek expressions here and there throughout the book so I just assumed that she spoke Greek, but no. Imagine!

So, imagine Susan — stranded when the internet connection to Google Translate was lost — unable even to deal with conversations with the locals, much less the bank, the local bureaucracy or the fellow ripping her off over the purchase of a car!

I sat there, my tongue dumb in my mouth. I understood, in its entirety, the meaning of Heidegger’s idea that language is ‘the house of being’.  I hardly knew anything else about Heidegger (in high school I had barely passed Logic, a precursor to more advanced studies of philosophy which I definitely did not attempt at university), I understood that language was a representation of myself in the world, my calling card, my barter, my door.  I recognised that I was locked out.(p.55)

The next chapter is called ‘Speechless in Gaza’, with an epigraph from Joseph Brodsky: ‘The condition we call exile is, first of all, a linguistic event.’

When I phoned the local Greek bank, a hesitant English speaker asked me to speak more slowly please.  It was exactly what I asked when anyone spoke to me in Greek: I needed each word to stand alone, shipwrecked in a little pool of air, adrift from the rest of the fleet.’ (p.57)

And yet, Susan settles into island life, disconcerted at first by how different it was in the 21st century with access to ABC News 24 and family chat through the Internet…

Gone were the days of 1978, when Greece was a distant as the moon—so far away that my parents did not hear from me for months at a time and vice versa—when the only news came in a flimsy blue aerogram delivered via poste restante, the old British colonial system of addressing letters to post offices throughout the world until they were picked up by their intended recipient. (p.67)

Only to find as time went by that she had so forgotten her old life in Australia, that the world of consumption, of shopping centres and purchases seemed remote and irrelevant.  That when her mother returns early to Australia, Barbara doesn’t just sound physically distant but as if she was in some place I could no longer picture.  

I couldn’t recall the noise of shopping centres or the feel of being caught in a traffic jam.  When she spoke of her life—which bathroom tile she might choose, her difficulties with builders—it was like news in a radio report on events in an unfamiliar country. (p.303)

Hot Reads stand at Bayside Library featuring Aphrodite's Breath

The romance and adventure of Susan’s sojourn captivated me and I was wholly unprepared for the concluding chapters back in Australia.  Now I understand why this book has already gone into a second printing and why it’s one of the ‘Hot Reads’ at Bayside Library.

Aphrodite’s Breath was also reviewed at Reading Matters and at The Conversation.

PS: Transparency update: I forgot to say, Susan thanks me at in her Acknowledgements, but I’m sure I don’t know what for, except that I’m a keen reader of her work.  Which means I owe thanks to her, not the other way round!

Author: Susan Johnson
Title: Aphrodite’s Breath
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2023
Cover design by Louisa Maggio Design
ISBN: 9781760876562, pbk., 350 pages including Acknowledgments and a Bibliography
Source: Bayside Library

Cover of All for NothingWinner of an English PEN award and a bestseller in Germany, All for Nothing (2006) by Walter Kempowski (1929-2007) tells the story of a wealthy family sitting out the war in comfortable isolation in East Prussia while the Soviet Army on the border moves inexorably towards the capture of Berlin.

The Georgenhof estate is a small one and is in decline. The family was ennobled only in 1905 under the civil service aristocracy set up under the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Old Herr von Globig had bought the estate after WW1 and extended it with more pastures and woodland. (These details will strike a chord with German readers who may ask themselves how he managed to do that when everyone else was suffering under punitive war reparations.)

Whatever about that, his successor sold off nearly all the land and invested in English steel shares and a Romanian rice-flour factory, both of which became valueless at the outbreak of war.  But life is still comfortable enough.  Nominal head of the household in the absence of her husband is Katharina, placid mother of 12 year-old Peter (evading the Hitler Youth with a persistent cough), and wife to Eberhard von Globig (who is currently drawing an officer’s salary in an administrative post far from the front in Italy as a Sonderführer).  Peter’s sister Elfie had died of scarlet fever two years ago, reminding the reader that grief is ever-present, not just in war.  The real head of the household is Auntie, an unpaid and undervalued housekeeper originally from Silesia.

Silesia is an historical region first annexed by Germany in 1742 but (mostly) restored to Poland and Czechoslovakia after WW1; it was then occupied by Germany in WW2 and (mostly) restored to Poland afterwards. These historical details would also be known to German readers who would recognise Auntie as a survivor who has the resilience to cope with evacuation and forced expulsions but who cherishes nostalgic memories and hopes of return.

As it turns out, however, resilience is not enough.

Dr Wagner is a daily visitor who gives Peter private tuition. He thinks of himself as a valued member of the household, but learns that he is not.

The household also includes workers whose loyalty is ambiguous because they are from areas which have see-sawed between Soviet and German occupation. There is the Pole Vladimir who manages the horses and the outdoor work, and two Ukrainian women Vera and Sonya who do the household labour under the stern eye of Auntie.

And across the road, keeping a vigilant eye on things is Drygalski, who had joined the Nazi Party in its early days and fancies himself as deputy mayor of the new housing development which had been built for the 1936 Olympic Games. He takes a keen interest in the stream of refugees, especially those that enjoy the hospitality of the Georgenhof.  It is he who maintains bureaucratic standards, documenting arrivals and departures, checking papers and issuing permits to continue on to what everyone believes is the safety of Berlin. At first he seems to be a caricature: he is loath to billet the refugees with the von Globigs because despite his jealousy he respects the ordered nature of German society.  But he has a son lost on the battlefields, and a wife prostrated by grief.  And in the concluding pages of this novel he rises to the occasion in a truly selfless act. Kempowski is determined that the reader will see each of his characters as fully human.  They are all flawed human beings caught up in a catastrophe beyond their comprehension.

With meaningful snippets of information all the way through, the narration builds the sense of an impending doom while conveying the perspectives of all the characters, even the minor ones.  When the first of the Georgenhof’s visitors arrives — a political economist, so he says — he scrutinises his hosts very carefully but manages to stay under Auntie’s radar.  As he enthuses over a framed photo of Eberhard, Katharina explains that her husband was one of the specialists helping to keep supplies to the German population going, draining the resources of the eastern agricultural territories for the benefit of the Greater German Reich.  

This war was very different from the war of 1914-18, when the Germans had subsisted on turnips.  This time bad feeling was not to be stirred up among the people unnecessarily; they would be allowed access to an adequate diet.  Bread, butter, meat, whole freight trains full of melons. They came from the Ukraine, from Byelorussia — all kinds of good things were to be had there.  Wheat, sunflower oil, who knew what else?  But now it all lay in ruins, smoke rising from their fields. (p.12)

Katharina doesn’t know that the smoke rising from the fields derives from the scorched earth policy of the German Army in retreat.  And it does not occur to her to consider the diet of the local people in what had been occupied Ukraine and Byelorussia.  After all, Eberhard is in sunny Italy, busily confiscating wine and olive oil to be sent away… and sometimes able to abstract something for the family’s private use, brown sugar, for instance, several hundredweight of brown sugar. 

But Auntie is alert to the value of that sugar,  When Katharina offers Dr Schünemann some ginger biscuits left over from Christmas…

Oh, not those, Auntie might well be thinking, those were the good ones. but she let it pass; after all, the guest was an academic. (p.23)

The tone shifts when finally, despite months of denial, the remnants of the family decide to evacuate.  In Katharina’s absence — imprisoned for helping a Jew though, really, she had no idea what she was doing — Auntie takes charge.

The chaos of evacuation reminded me of Irene Nemirovsky’s portrayal of the evacuation of Paris in Suite Française. People take all kinds of Stuff, because they have no idea of what lies ahead.  Wealthy people take more Stuff because they have it and they have no understanding of what might be needed for survival.  Or of what might be left to them after the looters have done what they do for their own survival.  Or of what might have value as a family heirloom.

I look around my house and wonder what I might take if all that might remain to me is what was in my pocket.

All for Nothing was also reviewed at The Guardian

Author: Walter Kempowski
Title: All For Nothing (Alles Umsonst)
Publisher: Granta Books, 2016, first published 2006
ISBN: 9781847087218, pbk., 343 pages
Source: Personal library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2023

Beowulf, (1948) by Bryher

I came across this marvellous book in one of those weird and wonderful 21st century ways that Bookish people have come to enjoy.  It was mentioned in passing on some podcast I was listening to, and when I searched for it I found it listed at Furrowed Middlebrow by way of Mrs K Investigates.  Since then, I’ve also found it at Neglected Books.

The Introduction by Susan McCabe in my Kindle edition of Beowulf, a novel of the London Blitz,  tells the extraordinary story of this unconventional novelist, poet, memoirist, and magazine editor, born Annie Winifred Ellerman but convinced from childhood that she was meant to be a boy.  She took the name Bryher (which comes from one the smallest inhabited islands of the Isles of Scilly) because she wanted to be independent of her father’s name.  Before WW2 she wrote two very early accounts of gender dysphoria —Development (1920) and Two Selves (1923) — and went on to write 13 more novels, as well as poetry and non-fiction.

She was widely travelled and was in Europe to witness the rise of Nazism.  Her lover  the modernist poet HD Hilda Doolittle escaped back to England along with her child Perdita Aldington, but Bryher delayed in Switzerland until the occupation of France forced a perilous journey back through Italy and Spain, to rejoin HD who had been in London since the start of the Blitz.

Beowulf the novel is written as a series of linked vignettes, each chapter introducing new characters whose story we learn. All of them are grieving, one way or another, for a life that is gone, because even if the war ended in an hour, there would always be a rift, a sense of loss. The genius of this novel is the way it sees the inner heart and soul of Londoners outwardly stoic.  The book’s title comes from a plaster British bulldog in the teashop, the setting which links the stories.  The dog is named Beowulf, after the hero of the Anglo-Saxon epic. He symbolises tenacity, honour and courage, and represents triumph over evil.

Chapter 1 begins with Horatio Rashleigh, an elderly painter used to better days but now very hard-up because people no longer send hand-painted Christmas cards to each other.  His cousin Agatha grudgingly sends him a monthly cheque but she isn’t always punctual and sometimes he runs short.

Living in poverty with no means of earning an income, and pitifully cold in London’s bleak winters because he can’t afford heating, Horatio is disturbed each morning by Eve downstairs who puts on a bit of swing as she gets ready for work.  When he gently remonstrates, she claims to keep the wireless down low, but the noise is worse than a dozen roundabouts.  The war affects Horatio as an inconvenience rather than as an existential threat.  He hates the blackout because he can’t sleep with his curtains open as he used to, and at his age, he thinks he may as well be killed by a bomb in his bed as catch pneumonia down in a bomb shelter. He is, after all, a lonely old man now, bereft after 30 years of domestic happiness.  There’s nothing for him to look forward to anyway.  Poignantly, he worries that he might be too frail to visit the National Gallery by the time they bring the paintings back from storage safe from the bombs.

Horatio braves the cold to buy some tea, where he is patronised by Mr Dobbins who is cranky from a noisy night of it.  Colonel Ferguson, who is welcome in Dobbins’ shop because he can afford to buy tea in pounds not ounces, admires Dobbins.  It was wonderful the way these wardens had tackled the crisis.  Colonel Ferguson has his own troubles… he has returned to Britain in its hour of need but he misses the warmth and colour of Lausanne.

England had changed. It was less familiar, certainly less friendly, than the Continent. There were still the old colours in the fabric; people stood up nightly to the raids as if they were merely thunderstorms, but there was a new, ugly, bureaucratic class without guts and without what he called “empire imagination.” They laughed at his fifty years of service as if he had been some petty tax collector. He was still fuming over yesterday’s interview. “I don’t understand, sir, why you returned to London,” the official had said, pursing his lips as if he nibbled a pencil permanently. “You have been domiciled abroad ever since you left India and you are well over military age.” Colonel Ferguson had not even troubled to reply, “To offer my services.” After half a dozen young men in as many different Ministries had turned him down in varying tones of boredom and icy politeness, the logical part of his mind was saying “Why?” to himself. (p. 62).

My favourite character is Adelaide Spenser, gently mocked by the author when she checks her hat in the reflection from a shop window because it is so essential these days not to lower one’s standards!  She does not argue with people because it’s bad for the complexion,  and the best way to deal with relatives, she had found out by long experience, was to sit quietly, say nothing, and treat herself to a good dinner afterwards.

Adelaide had opportunistically stocked her pantry with sixty pounds of marmalade, which she’d been able to barter for eggs so that her bad-tempered husband Thomas should have his usual breakfast at a time when luxuries could be obtained with ease but eggs had almost disappeared.  She privately credits these jars of marmalade with Thomas getting a promotion so that they didn’t have to evacuate.

“Dear me, no! I always preferred a florist’s window to a garden, and I positively hate cows. I suppose the war has made a lot of difference to you? How are things getting on?”

The correct answer should have been “Splendidly, thank you,” but Selina hesitated, in spite of her resolution. “We mustn’t grumble, of course, but the times are a little trying.”

“Unnecessarily so,” Adelaide’s voice was firmer than she intended, “when you think that we could have stopped the whole affair in 1933 with a thousand British policemen.”

“It was hard to know what to do for the best,” Selina ventured cautiously. It was an unbreakable rule, always be neutral with customers. “But I am sure that the Government meant well,” she added loyally, “all of us wanted peace.”

But it isn’t a static thing, Adelaide longed to reply; it isn’t the name of a virtue to be copied out in coloured inks and hung in a school hall. (p. 71).

I loved this book though the ending broke my heart.

Highly recommended.

In memoriam: This is my father’s cousin Joan Hill, who died aged 19 in the Blitz on the 8th October, 1940.  Joan’s mother Ellen was widowed by WW1: her husband Thomas from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers had been killed on active service in 1915.

A month later, another cousin Ronald (Ronnie) Stanley Watts was killed in the Blitz on 16th November 1940 aged 22.

These are not the only casualties from WW2 in my family history, just the civilians.

Author: Bryher
Introduction by Susan McCabe
Title: Beowulf, a novel of the London Blitz
Cover design and illustrations by Evan Johnston
Publisher: Schaffner Press, 2020, 180 pages, first published in French in 1948; in English in 1956
ASIN: B09R346B9M, Kindle edition

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2023

2023 New Zealand Ockham winners

Update, later the same day:

I owe sincere and humble apologies to Claire at Word by Word.  If you saw an earlier version of this post, you will have seen that below my post, was a version with a copy-and-paste of Claire’s announcement of this prize.  The news about The Axeman’s Carnival had come through to me via Twitter but it was hard to read the book titles from the Twitter photo of the winners and my Twitter feed only showed the fiction and poetry winners,  and I also couldn’t find the actual names of the awards. And so I copied Claire’s post which had that info into mine so that I didn’t have to go back and forth between two programs.  And in a rush to get to an appointment, I pressed publish without previewing my post or, most importantly, acknowledging Claire as part of my sources.

So, Claire, I’m sorry! I couldn’t have written my post without yours, and this acknowledgement should have been in my earlier post.

Hard on the heels on the Miles Franklin longlist announcement comes news from across the ditch that one of my favourite authors has won the Fiction prize in the New Zealand Ockhams book awards.

Fiction Prize

If you follow Catherine Chidgey at Twitter, you may have encountered the narrator of The Axeman’s Carnival i.e.  @TamaMagpie. He was even more demanding today:

The Axeman’s Carnival won the People’s Choice award, and the $64,000 Jan Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction.

(I have promised myself that I will not whinge about my travails in trying to source a copy of this book.  Suffice to say that I placed a reserve at Bayside Library in March. I am first on the list, and I am waiting, waiting, waiting…)

Here are the other winners, from top to bottom in the image:

Best First Book: Jessie MacKay Prize for Poetry

We’re all Made of Lightning by Khadro Mohamed

Best First Book: Hubert Church Prize for Fiction

Home Theatre by Anthony Lapwood

E.H. McCormick Prize for General Non-fiction 

Grand, Becoming My Mother’s Daughter, by Noelle McCarthy

Jann Medlicott Prize for Fiction and the People’s Choice Award

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey

Mary and Peter Biggs’ Award for Poetry:

Always Italicise, How To Write While Colonised by Alice Te Punga Somerville

Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction

Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand by Nick Bollinger

General Non-Fiction

The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi, by Ned Fletcher

Best First Book: Judith Binney Illustrated non-fiction

Kai, Food Stories and Recipes from my Family Table by Christall Lowe

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2023

2023 Miles Franklin Longlist

The Miles Franklin 2023 longlist was announced last night.  But…

The gremlins got to me. I had almost finished my post about it when I must have refreshed the page somehow before I’d saved the draft and suddenly all my text and links and images were gone. I was so tired and cross with myself that I went to bed and read a book. (All for Nothing by Walter Kampowski translated by Andrea Bell, a book that couldn’t be better for putting a computer glitch into perspective.)

So here we are again, and I’m pleased to see that some of the books I liked and admired are included.

Kgshak Akec, Hopeless Kingdom (UWAP) (Winner of the 2021 Dorothy Hewett award and on my TBR, see the review at Westerly 

Robbie Arnott, Limberlost (Text) (see my review)

Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow (Giramondo) (see my review)

Shankari Chandran, Chai time at Cinnamon Gardens (Ultimo Press) (I abandoned it, but see Brona’s review)

Claire G Coleman, Enclave (Hachette) (see the review at The Guardian)

George Haddad, Losing Face (UQP) I abandoned this at 50 pages, sorry. See the review at The Guardian.

Pirooz Jafari, Forty nights (Ultimo Press) I heard about this book in an episode of Published or Not at 3CR and borrowed it from the library but didn’t have time to finish it. See the review at Readings.

Julie Janson, Madukka: The River Serpent (UWAP), a crime novel, on reserve at the library. See the review at the West Australian.

Yumna Kassab, The Lovers (Ultimo Press), see the review at Readings

Fiona Kelly McGregor, Iris (Pan Macmillan Australia) (see my review)

Adam Ouston, Waypoints (Puncher & Wattmann) (See my review)

I think the prize for the best cover goes to The Lovers! It’s beautiful, but I don’t have the book so I can’t tell you who the designer is.

The shortlist will be announced on 20th June, and the winner on 25th  July.

Congratulations to all the nominees, editors and publishers!

Update, later in the afternoon: I’ve finally been able to locate a link to the announcement at Perpetual. FWIW their website says that you can keep up-to-date with all the latest news via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter but if Twitter is any guide, they haven’t gone out of their way to muster any enthusiasm for Australia’s most prestigious literary prize. There is one Tweet about the longlist (yesterday) and prior to that, nothing since October last year. Besides, who among us is willing to rely on algorithms to produce what’s wanted in a feed, eh?

There’s no option to sign up for the reliability and ease of use of an email announcement, and if I were a bookseller expected to stock these books, I’d be livid that there was no advance notice. It’s common practice for some of us to receive embargoed information about prizes so that we can be up-to-speed and give the nominees the prompt publicity they deserve.

Plus see my comment about accessibility for disabled readers below.

Perpetual, you need to do better.

In other news I am delighted to report that Cath Chidgey has won the Fiction Prize at the NZ Ockhams, for The Axeman’s Carnival and if I ever succeed in getting my hands on a copy (which #LongBoringStory I have been trying to do ever since it was released), I will read it and tell you why!  #FrustratedFrown I may have to resort to a Kindle Edition…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 17, 2023

The Changeling (1958, reissued 1989), by Robin Jenkins

The Changeling, by Scottish author Robin Jenkins (1912-2005) is an unsettling novel.  I would dearly love to give a copy of it to every politician around the world who is turning a blind eye to poverty.  Without a single sentimental word, Jenkins depicts the soul-destroying misery of childhood privation and dispenses with firm authority any fantasies of well-intentioned but useless help.

Charles Forbes is a middle-aged teacher in Glasgow.  He’s a well-meaning and kindly fool, mocked behind his back and protected at home by his tolerant wife Mary and his children Gillian and Alistair.  And when he takes it into his head to Do a Good Deed for one of the slum children he teaches, he compares himself to the Good Samaritan.

Though no one would belittle the benevolence of the Good Samaritan, in one respect he was lucky: he was alone with his conscience and his neighbour in trouble.

There were, for instance, no business or professional colleagues to warn against the folly of interference, and no wife to cherish him for his altruism but also to shrewdly point out the likely repercussions.  Those voices Charles Forbes had to heed on the occasion when he, too, decided not to pass by on the other side. (p.1)

His benevolent intentions are prompted by an essay by Tom Curdie.  A bright child, whose academic ability transcends the appalling circumstances of his home life in the slums of Donaldson St, Tom has written a beautiful essay about the sea, and Mr Forbes is transfixed when Tom tells him that he has never seen the sea.

And from this scene the reader gets a first intimation of the complexity of this child character.  When he says that he just made up his composition, and the disdainful class sneers at him like so many little Columbuses with the marvels and avarice of oceans in their eyes…he had lied.  And he lied because he knew that they, and the teacher, were greedy for it. (p.2)

Tom is on probation for the theft of some cigarettes, butter and sweets, but though the child is judged by the rest of the staff as destined for the life of a delinquent, Mr Forbes sees his potential.

Tom Curdie, on the contrary, had one of the best intelligences in the school.  Properly fed, clothed, rested, and encouraged, he could go on to the University and have a brilliant career.  As it was, malnourished, in rags, gnawed at daily by corrupting influences, discouraged everywhere, and perpetually tired through sleeping in a room with his brother and sister, where his mother and her horrible paramour also slept, he could still hold his own among the cleverest of his contemporaries, and could excel these in the strange beauty of his imagination. (p.3)

And out of a self-conscious desire to do good, Mr Forbes offers to take Tom with him on the family’s annual holiday to Towellan.

It all goes horribly wrong, and not just in the ways that were predictable.  Tom’s presence in the holiday household which has expanded to include the formidable mother-in-law Mrs Sturrocks, changes every one.  The adults think Tom is a changeling because of the transformation wreaked on their smug, complacent lives, but all that Tim really does is to bring out in them the worst of their own natures: snobbery and disdain; fear and contempt of the other; jealousy and selfishness; indifference to the pain of others; the shallowness of Mr Forbes’ benevolence and the self-righteousness of the women.

Jenkins is too great an author, however, to leave it at that.  Tom is changed too, and not in the way Mr Forbes so naïvely intended.  Tom, exposed to a way of life so different from his own, recognises that he cannot go back.

But he has nowhere else to go.

Kim at Reading Matters reviewed it too. 

Jenkins’ profile at Goodreads tells us that

Author of a number of landmark novels including The Cone GatherersThe ChangelingHappy for the ChildThe Thistle and the Grail and Guests of War, Jenkins is recognised as one of Scotland’s greatest writers. The themes of good and evil, of innocence lost, of fraudulence, cruelty and redemption shine through his work. His novels, shot through with ambiguity, are rarely about what they seem. He published his first book, So Gaily Sings the Lark, at the age of thirty-eight, and by the time of his death in 2005, over thirty of his novels were in print.

Clearly, I need to source some more of them!

Author Robin Jenkins
Title: The Changeling
Cover design: Tim Byrne
Publisher: Canongate, 2008, first published 1958
ISBN: 9781847672384, pbk., 232 pages including an Afterword by Andrew Marr
Source: Personal library, purchased ages ago.

Wikipedia tells me that 154 women have been elected to the Australian House of Representatives since Federation, and women have had the right to both vote and sit in parliament since 1902.  Four decades later, the first women were elected.  It was not until 1943 that Dame Dorothy Tangney,  (1907-1985) became the first female Senator while Dame Enid Lyons (1897-1981) was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and became the first woman to serve in federal cabinet. I have Anne Henderson’s 2008 biography of Enid Lyons somewhere in the house… but if someone has written a biography of Dorothy Tangney I can’t find it any trace of it, though I expect she gets a mention in A Woman’s Place, Women and Politics in Australia (1984) by Marian Sawer and Marian Simms.   

An article published by the ANU in 2021 was about how political biographies focus on men.  Well, yes, of course, you’d expect that to be the case, but would it surprise you to learn that of 31 political biographies [1] published since 2010 only 4 featured women? They were:

  • Margaret Simon’s 2019 bio of current Foreign Minister Penny Wong, see my review;
  • Lekkie Hopkins’ bio of May Holman (1893-1939) whose list of achievements is so long you really must click the link to my review see them all;
  • Also by Lekkie Hopkins, with Lynn Roarty, a bio called Among the Chosen of Patricia Giles OA (1928-2017) who founded the WA branch of WEL and was a Senator, serving as president of the International Alliance of Women after her retirement;
  • Pauline Hanson (about whom the less said the better.)

And surely it’s a surprise that eight years after our first female Prime Minister had departed the scene, that there was no biography of her?  The ANU article says that she and other women politicians have filled this gap by writing memoirs, but seriously, that is no substitute for a warts-and-all analysis of their contribution to public life.

So Margaret Simons’ choice of Tanya Plibersek MHR as the subject of a 2023 biography is interesting.  Why Plibersek, and not Gillard, eh?  I think the answer to that question is partly that Simons is interested in the future not the past.  But her introduction  to Chapter 4 mirrors my own thoughts:

The arc of history is easier to perceive in retrospect.  Looking back, Plibersek’s time in parliament can be understood as a series of episodes when, if an alternative path had been taken, Labor and Australia’s history might have been very different.  What if Labor had kept Kim Beazley as its leader, rather than switching to Latham in 2004? What if, after the trauma of Latham losing the 2004 election, the party had again stuck with Beazley, instead of moving to Kevin Rudd? What if Julia Gillard had not deposed Rudd as prime minister in what he went on to describe as a coup?  Perhaps the dysfunction in the government would in any case have led to its downfall — or perhaps the cabinet would have confronted Rudd with the consequences of his management style and the ship of government would have been brought back to an even keel.  Perhaps, then, Labor would have won the election of 2010 in its own right, instead of being forced into minority government.  Perhaps Labor would then have retained government at the 2013 election, instead of losing to the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott.  There might have been no Abbott government, no Turnbull government, and no Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Australia would be a different nation. Within the ALP, leadership would have passed to a new generation in a more orderly, less damaging fashion.  But that is not what happened.  Instead, Labor’s dysfunction blighted its six years in government between 2007 and 2013. (p.96)

Although I’m interested in politics, the last thing I want to do as a reader is to revisit Gillard’s responsibility for some of this mess, and perhaps Margaret Simons as an author felt the same way.  It’s interesting to me that Simons, whose journalism I really admire, has chosen to write biographies of two women ALP politicians who are steady, unflappable, calm and methodical.  Both have impressive credentials and electability: they work hard and have a cult-like fan base both within the ALP and beyond; both are thought by some to be future prime ministerial material  but neither are charismatic.  Although both decline to revisit that disastrous history, it is clear from Simons’ account of Rudd’s downfall that both think that it should never have happened. Both recognise that unity is essential to good government and electability; both are pragmatic, sometimes voting to support issues with which they don’t agree, in order to remain in the tent where you may at least have some influence.

Plibersek is admired and liked for her calm, empathy and kindness, and for her highly successful management style in various ministerial roles.  Do we remember that when she was the Minister for Housing, implementing the white paper on homelessness in the first Rudd government, that programs were managed so efficiently that the number of homes exceeded the targets by about 13 percent. That with Rudd providing prime ministerial support and Plibersek implementing an intelligent, effective program, 32,000 new homes were built, in a long-term addition to Australia’s stock of social housing? That tens of thousands of lives have been quietly but dramatically transformed because of the simple expedient of a secure home?  

The Social Housing Initiative was one of the big successes of the Rudd government, and that was largely Plibersek’s achievement — through her preparation of a coherent policy framework, and through her sheer competence in a complex job of management.  It says something about the nature of our national conversation, and of our politics, that today almost nobody outside the housing sector remembers that it was done — because there were no problems.  That’s how we value competence. (p.181)

Well, that’s one interpretation. My view of it is that in order to shore up Gillard’s always unpopular position as the one who shafted a popular sitting prime minister, the celebratory feminist narrative of the first female prime minister as we read it in the media and in a raft of hasty books about it, was that the Rudd government was entirely dysfunctional.  The only space ever given to Rudd’s achievements was the Apology to the Stolen Generations.  So a Rudd/Plibersek achievement to redress homelessness never got any airtime, not even from the ALP itself.

Simons tackles the accusation that Plibersek lacks the ambition and the ruthlessness needed to be prime minister, exploring the idea that she might represent a different kind of leadership — less macho, more team-orientated, with less ego.  Well, maybe, but in Chapter 6, Simons writes that in the face of the Global Financial Crisis Rudd and Swan acted boldly.  That audacity and capacity for a prompt, decisive response to an unprecedented situation meant that Australia was the only advanced economy not to suffer a severe recession.

This biography draws attention to the question of what kind of political leaders we want.  Is ‘presidential politics’ morphing into a feminised kind of leadership, as the Teals would have us believe? Or is it the case that all organisations, including our parliaments and governments, need a blend of personality types whose strengths and weaknesses balance each other to achieve good outcomes?

This biography makes interesting reading, and it’s even-handed and humane in the way that it handles personal issues within Plibersek’s family.  I wonder who will be the next subject of Simon’s perceptive pen?

Tanya Plibersek, On Her Own Terms has also been reviewed by Geordie Williamson for the (paywalled) Saturday Paper. 

Update, later the same day, in response to a question and my reply in comments below:


To clarity the criteria by which this number of 31 biographies were included in the ANU study I downloaded the article ‘Where are the Great Women? A feminist analysis of Australian political biographies’ by Blair Williams from the ANU website. The article explains that the list was compiled using the NLA’s Trove catalogue over the last 10 years, (p 30).That appears to mean that if a cataloguer identified a book as a political biography, it was included in William’s’ study as one of the 31.   Elsewhere, on p32, in questioning why in the preceding decade no leader of a political party other than Hanson had been the subject of a definitive biography, Williams concedes that selective studies such as Jacqueline Kent’s The Making of Julia Gillard do exist.’ But — other than her introductory paragraph about how traditional biographies have been defined on p.24 (see the excerpt below) —she does not explain what it is that makes the Kent book a selective study’ rather than a biography.  Later in the article, on p.36, discussing the tendency for women to retain agency in their own story by writing their own accounts, Williams includes a chart of 12 political autobiographies/memoirs written by women, which includes Gillard’s My Story.  

The writing of traditional biographies has generally been defined as the creation of a coherent narrative around significant events in the life story of a chosen subject.  Political biography goes beyond this to weave a narrative that not only recreates life, but says ‘something about the conduct of politics’. (p.24)

But from reading this very interesting article that, amongst other things, proposes five principles for a ‘feminist political biographical methodology’ a definition becomes clearer to me, though I am loath to go further than I have because I think that those who are interested should read Williams’ article in full.

Source: Australian Journal of Biography and History: No. 5, 2021 »

Author: Margaret Simons
Title: Tanya Plibersek, On Her Own Terms
Publisher: Black Inc., 2023
Cover design by Tristan Main, cover image by Kym Smith/Newspix
ISBN: 9781760643386, pbk., 340 pages including Endnotes, an index and an 8 page insert of colour photographs
Source: Kingston Library

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