Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 28, 2021

2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards longlist

With thanks to Twitter, but no thanks to publicists who don’t provide the lists in text that is easily transferred to a blog post, here is the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Longlist.


Nothing to See by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press), see my review. This novel, BTW, is being published this year by Giramondo Publishing Australia, which will bring Pip Adam the exposure that Nothing to See deserves.  If you want to be one of the first to get your hands on a copy and at a reduced price, take out Giramondo’s new Prose Subscription, details here.

Bug Week by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press)

Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press), on my TBR, next in line on the bedside table, since before this announcement.

Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson) (I’ve read and liked Brannavan’s fiction before, and featured him on Meet a Kiwi Author but *shrug* have not heard a word about this book until now.

Victory Park by Rachel Kerr (Mākaro Press)

The Swimmers by Chloe Lane (Victoria University Press), on my TBR

Fake Baby by Amy McDaid (Penguin, Penguin Random House)

2000ft Above Worry Level by Eamonn Marra (Victoria University Press)

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (Fourth Estate, HarperCollins)

Toto Among the Murderers by Sally Morgan (JM Originals, John Murray, Hachette)

To see the rest of the longlists (because my patience for typing them all out from pictures of bookcovers is limited), see the Spinoff.  BTW the writers there, poetry editor Chris Tse and books editor Catherine Woulfe, note that the lists are very ‘white’. Compared to our awards nominations, which routinely feature a diversity of authors including Indigenous authors, the NZ lists certainly look rather monocultural, at least as far as I can tell from the Fiction List.

Thanks to the Spinoff, I can also tell you that the shortlist will be announced on 3rd March, and the winner will be announced on 13th May.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 28, 2021

The Beach Caves, by Trevor Shearston

Here I am writing this review in December, just itching to tell you about this superb new novel from Trevor Shearston, and I can’t because of the publisher’s embargo.  By the time this post is published on the date I’m scheduling it in advance, I’ll have read a dozen other books, but I won’t have forgotten this one.

The Beach Caves is a deceptively innocent title: this is a novel that reeks of jealousy, betrayal, and guilt.  Part I begins in the summer of 1970-71 with a team of archaeologists working a dig on the New South Wales South Coast.  They are poised to make remarkable discoveries about Aboriginal lifestyles in the late Holocene era.  Aled Wray and Marilyn Herr, a husband-and-wife collaboration, lead the team which includes their PhD students Annette Cooley and Sue Klima.  The outsider is Brian Harpur, who’s an engineering student fulfilling his parents’ ambitions, not his own.

It is Brian who by chance discovers the new site offering exciting possibilities, but the find fractures the cohesion of the team along fault-lines determined by Aled and Marilyn’s professional competitiveness. Shearston depicts with forensic precision Aled’s assumption that he should dominate: this is the 1970s when men in  western societies were having their precedence challenged by feminism, and those of us who were challenging the same assumptions on the domestic front as well as at work, will remember that not all concessions were made gracefully, and some men could not cope with being challenged at all.

Annette and Sue have to make their choices knowing that their PhD supervision is at stake.  And when one of the team goes missing and the team breaks up in distress, some of the group have their choices constrained by the Vietnam conscription ballot: they could defer their national service only for as long as they are students.  Dropping out of university means being forced to serve in a war that by this time is generally recognised as morally wrong. (Conscription and Australia’s participation in the war ended in 1972 when the ALP came to power after 25 years of Liberal Party rule).

However, it is Annette’s decision to intervene in the police investigation that drives the novel.  By chance she sees something that might or might not be relevant, but her behaviour is driven not by any moral imperative but by jealousy.  She had thought that Brian was interested in her. She wants to punish him.

In Part II, 2005-2006, the ramifications of that decision are laid bare when the mystery of the disappearance is revealed and the coroner’s open finding is overturned.  Annette by this time is married with children, but she is forced to confront her past self and the consequences of her actions.  This is the part of the novel which invites reflection and will engage thoughtful book groups: to whom, and how, can restitution be made after so many years?  Is apology or explanation even possible?  Is it better to accept the truth as others believe to be, if that’s what gives them healing?

Other issues up for discussion include the ethics of archaeology as it was practised in the 1970s and in general.  Even then, there were rules and legal obligations, which — as we see in the novel — get in the way of ambition.  But today there are also legislated cultural protections which were not in place in the 1970s so some sequences in the novel seem quite shocking.

Trevor Shearston writes beautiful prose, and is master of the landscape he portrays.  He also has a grasp of the longevity of the scars on opponents of the Vietnam War which is rare:

Annette knew his past, but hadn’t known how deep his contempt ran until the Subaru was stolen.  He’d refused to report the theft.  Instead, he’d got on his motorbike and cruised laneways, old factory sites, the railway yards, until he found it, four nights later, stripped and up on blocks, in a dead-end behind the cement works in Erskineville.

He rang the insurance company, but it was she who had to go to the police.  The two on the desk said nothing, but Annette saw in their faces when Brent’s name came up that so had his history.  At twenty, he’d spent fifteen months being moved from safe house to safe house, twice having to jump from a window, once lying for an entire winter’s night up a stormwater drain, before he, and others who’d refused to register for conscription were quietly taken off the ‘wanted’ lists.  Brent had never forgiven the police their willingness to be co-opted.  Nor their brutality at anti-war demonstrations.  He could still name individual detectives who’d hunted him.  (p.255)

This is a superb novel, which I expect to see in shortlists in due course.

Trevor Shearston is the author of Something in the Blood, (1979); Sticks That Kill (1983, on my TBR), White Lies, (1986); ConcertinasA Straight Young Back, (2000); Tinder, (2002); Dead Birds, (2007) and Hare’s Fur (2019, see my review). His novel Game, (2013) about the bushranger Ben Hall, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (see my review) and shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and the Colin Roderick Award. He lives in Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains.

Author: Trevor Shearston
Title: The Beach Caves
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2012
ISBN: 9781925849868, pbk., 332 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications.

Available direct from Scribe, from good bookshops everywhere, and from Fishpond. But please note that contrary to my previous advice, Fishpond appear to have modified their free postage policy for Australia and New Zealand and may now charge for it depending on what you buy, what it weighs and where you live, so do check before buying: The Beach Caves.


Today, January 27th, is International Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust during World War II. It commemorates the genocide that resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews and 11 million others, by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.

So today I share with you some of the extraordinary stories in Going Back: 16 Jewish women tell their life stories, and why they returned to Germany—the country that once wanted to kill them. 

It says in the Talmud that none are poor save him that lacks knowledge. May the reader be deeply enriched by this book! (Cathryn Siegal-Bergman, translator)

This is the blurb:

16 women, 16 different stories of lives turned upside down during the war. Fleeing the life-threatening policies of Nazi-era Germany, they escaped with the hope of a better life, relocating to countries around the world. A very different kind of diary, the book tells of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust with each chapter telling the story of a different woman, adapting to life as a refugee, and then an eventual return to Germany after the war.

I can’t begin to imagine the courage it would take for a Holocaust survivor to return to Germany.  The women survivors who contributed to this book had made new lives for themselves in Israel, America, the UK, France, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, some of them remaking their lives over and over again in different places, and yet for various reasons they chose to return to the country of their birth.

A common theme in these stories is the issue of identify:

Do I feel German? The country didn’t want me. I’m more American than German. The decision to come back to Germany was mostly because of my parents. I’m the sole survivor of Wiesbaden today. And I’ll never stop asking, “Why did you do that to us?” (Anita Fried).  (p. 49)

The other common thread is that non-Jews were well aware of what was happening:

Naturally my friend knew that her mother and her older sister had been taken to a concentration camp. Yes, people knew. Everyone saw that we were being picked up. The cars would pull up out front and people were loaded into them. It’s nonsense that no one knew anything! (Ruth Schlesinger, p. 129)

Family is the most common reason for returning to Germany.  Young women who’d survived wanted to ‘live a little’ after the way, and joined the millions of displaced people in finding new lives away from bad memories.  But when for various reasons they went away alone, eventually the needs of surviving parents or other relatives who had not perished brought them back again.  And Israel which made them welcome when they were young and healthy, seems not to have been ideal in later years.

I love that country. Even today. If I had family in Israel, or if I had money or was healthy, then I would be there. But over there I could never pay for something like a Jewish old-age home, like the one I live in here. But if you had asked me then, or even today, where my home is, I would not be able to answer. My childhood and youth were spent here, as a young woman I was there and had my most wonderful years there, and then I was here again. So where is my home? I have no home. Okay fine, I’m at an age now where I’ll say here, of course. But I yearn for Israel and I would say I’m Israeli.  (Ruth Schlesinger, pp. 132-133).

For Ruth Schlesinger, the return to Germany was also influenced by fears for her son and compulsory military service in Israel.

Ruth Galinski went back and stayed almost by accident.  She had been deported to the Warsaw Ghetto but escaped to work with the partisans in the Tatras.  Her husband, however, and many members of her family perished.  She only returned to Berlin postwar to get a visa to join her father who had managed to escape to Argentina.  But she met and fell in love with a survivor of the notorious Dora slave labour camp, Heinz Galinski, and they decided to stay to rebuild a Jewish community in Berlin.   It is nauseating to read that when he was president of the Central Council of Jews, from 1954–63 and 1988, this couple had to have bodyguards and bullet-proof windows in their apartment, and that his grave was vandalised after his death in 1998.

“Did the Germans feel guilty about what they did to us? I don’t believe they ever had much of a conscience. The Germans didn’t like Jews, not even after the war. Years ago, they found that 15 percent admitted being anti-Semitic. Today it’s much more. But no one talks about it. Sometimes I ask myself, why did we stay?  ” (Ruth Galinski, p. 50)

There is an illuminating interview with the author (who is not Jewish) here.  She explains that she had already written a book about Jewish women who had fled to Palestine, and that it seemed logical to explore the fates of those who went back to Germany.

Author: Andrea von Treuenfeld
Title: Going Back: 16 Jewish women tell their life stories, and why they returned to Germany—the country that once wanted to kill them
Translated by Cathryn Siegal-Bergman
Publisher: Clevo Books, Kindle Edition, 2018, first published 2015
Purchased for the Kindle after seeing an advert in the sidebar of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative blog. 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 25, 2021

Judy Cassab, a portrait, by Brenda Niall

Brenda Niall is one of my favourite biographers, and when she chooses an artist as her subject, it’s a match made in heaven.

Judy Cassab was born in Vienna in 1920 to Hungarian parents but grew up in Beregszász on the border of Hungary and Czechoslovakia (but now part of Ukraine).  Almost half the biography covers the extraordinary story of her years in Europe—a comfortable and secure childhood until the emergence of Nazism; falling in love with Jancsi Kampfner, an older man who promised that he would always support her desire to be an artist; her art studies in Prague truncated by the German Occupation; her survival through the generosity of her maid who allowed her to use her identity; and Janczi’s return from the slave labour camp in Poland.

Their families almost all perished in the Holocaust, and when Judy’s father died in 1947, she struggled with her identity.  Neither she nor Janczi were observant Jews, and she did not want her sons born in 1945 and 1947 to be Jewish.  For the time being in Hungary, however, it was time to rebuild their lives and with Janczi’s solid support Judy began painting, realising that her strength lay in portraiture.  Although abstract reigned supreme, she felt that for her it needed to happen without prompting. But just as she was determined to forge her own style against the prevailing abstractionism, she was equally indignant when politics invaded the art world and the new orthodoxy demanded socialist realism.  

Politics was also affecting Janczi’s return to the business of brewing beer.  He was an unabashed critic of Communist expropriation of property when in 1948 all businesses with more than 100 workers were nationalised. His ‘indiscretions’ were noted, and before long there were restrictions on his movements and the couple began to plan living in exile.

It was fortunate that when, stateless after the war, they were given a choice of citizenships and had chosen to be Czechoslovak.  Had they chosen to be Hungarian, the Soviets would have refused them passports.  Instead Janczi and Judy had official permission to leave and they emigrated to Sydney in 1951.   With a degree in chemical engineering from Prague, Janczi was a skilled engineer and presumed that he could soon establish himself making craft beers, but language difficulties and the parochial preference for well-known Australian brands meant that was not to be.  A first attempt at running his own clothing shop was a failure, and he ended up as owner-manager of a factory making surgical stockings.  It was never satisfying work, and Judy’s diaries record her enduring dismay that she was highly successful in her career as an artist which he was stuck in soul-destroying work that allowed no outlet for his creativity.

But she was determined to persist.  Niall’s biography records an extraordinary catalogue of achievements, including portraits of the rich and famous, winning the Archibald twice, when no woman had won it before.  She was awarded a CBE and an AO, and her list of other awards and prizes at Wikipedia is long and impressive. She served on prize committees, on boards, and her list of solo exhibitions at WP is even longer.  Her diaries, however, which she kept from 1944 onwards, reveal self-doubt along with rejection of unfair criticism and patronising praise such as calling her work ‘charming’.  She wanted to be taken seriously both as a portraitist and as an abstractionist, (which had come to her in its own good time!)

She also anguished about her sometimes stormy marriage, her absences from the children and their relationship with their father, who was more of a disciplinarian than she was because he was always there when she was not.

These details from the deeply personal diaries are interesting to read, revealing the complexity of a vulnerable woman who kept much of her private thoughts to herself.  But I would have liked to have heard more from friends and perhaps her sons, contributing their opinions or anecdotes to round out the subject more fully.

The Judy Cassab website is a treasure trove of all sorts of links, but the one I urge you to see is the link to an 8 minute segment of the 7.30 Report about her 60th anniversary retrospective when she was 93.  She died in 2015, ten years after this biography was published.

Author: Brenda Niall
Title: Judy Cassab, A Portrait
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2005
ISBN: 9781741144741, hbk., autographed first edition, 308 pages including an Author’s note, a map, 24 plates, some in colour; an Afterword, Appendices I, II & III, Notes, Bibliography, Acknowledgements, Illustration credits and an Index
Source: Personal library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 24, 2021

Ride on Stranger, by Kylie Tennant

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, retrieving unpublished reviews from my journals 1997-2007

Ride on Stranger, by Kylie Tennant (first published 1943)

According to the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature edited by Nicholas José) (2009), which includes an excerpt from Ride on Stranger, Kylie Tennant was sued for libel over one of the scenes in it.  In satirising the social life of the Communist Party of Australia, she apparently made one of her characters identifiable, so Angus & Robertson withdrew the edition and paid up £250.  But unless that was included in Kerryn Goldsworthy’s Introduction to the 1990 A&R edition, I didn’t know that when I scrawled my thoughts in my journal.  In 2006, I had not read anything else by Tennant, and as you can see, I was a bit dismissive.

6th October, 2006

Beware: spoilers

Written in 1943 and made into a tele-series in the 1980s, this is probably the most well-known of Tennant’s novels.  In her day, I think she was as popular as George Johnson.

It’s the story of Shannon Hicks, whose father works in the butter factory and whose mother wanted something better for her daughter.  It’s ironic then that Shannon ends up back in small town Kerluit (?sp) milking cows.  Then again, maybe not, because she left school prematurely, and never stuck at anything.

She is destined to be alone and independent, and yet she is the one on whom others depend—because she has an innate ability to learn new skills and to organise.  She goes to live at her Aunt Edith’s Sydney boarding house as an unpaid skivvy, but leaves when Edith marries a snake-oil salesman called Vincent Sladder (who eventually ends up in gaol.)  Shannon goes on to work in a variety of jobs unworthy of her and nearly marries Quilter, for whom she organises a political campaign.  She mixes with anarchists and lefties and has a harshly cynical view of the world.  I didn’t like her much.

I also became tired of the parade of characters.  They’re vaguely Dickensian in their stereotyping: good-hearted blowsy Beryl; Merv Leggatt the earnest Leftie; Mr Sladder the snake-oil salesman; assorted ‘types’ from the Proletarian Club.  Even John Terry whom she eventually marries because he seems ‘sane’ is a caricature of a ‘solid dependable type’.

Kerryn Goldsworthy says in the Introduction that the novel deals with serious issues and it’s true, but IMO they’re swamped by the slightly hysterical style.  Shannon’s mother nearly dies giving birth, and Olly dies from a botched illegal abortion—being a woman is a risky business before contraception.  There’s poverty, ignorance, exploitation by bosses, limited choices for women and so on.  But ultimately there’s too much of everything and it’s all a bit of a muddle.

Tennant at least thought so too.

Well, that last sentence is interesting, eh?  I have no recollection of what made me write it.  Perhaps there is something in the Introduction to suggest that Tennant was dissatisfied with her novel; perhaps Tennant had something to say about it in her autobiography The Missing Heir (1986).  Since I’d borrowed the book from the library, I can’t check it to see.

In my review of The Honey Flow, I referred to this review of Ride on Stranger in my journal as churlish. and I confess, re-reading it now, I am a bit taken aback.  I am, after all, resurrecting this review for Bill’s AWW Gen 3 week at The Australian Legend, and he thinks highly of Tennant. (See here).  But fossicking around online to find something to temper my criticism, I found that I’m not the only one to have some reservations about Tennant’s writing.  Some Curator’s Notes about the novel’s successful 1979 transition to screen by Anne Lucas suggest that she found the ABC TV series humorous and well-paced, less iconoclastic and more romantic than Tennant’s novel.  Well, I had long grown out of wanting romantic novels by 2006, but I did like political novels, especially written by feminists. Why didn’t I like this one much?

I consulted my own review of Kylie Tennant, a life, by Jane Grant in which Grant discusses Tennant’s rejection of modernism and her suggestion that this eventually made her writing unfashionable.  I thought there was more to it than that:

In… Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin (see my review), [..] she comments that Franklin never repeated the success of her early work because she lacked the education and mentoring that could have guided writing that instead became fossilised.  (That’s my word for it, not Roe’s). While both Franklin and Tennant had gifts of characterisation based on real life and their reportage was adept and incisive, and Tennant went on being published though Franklin had much more limited success, their publication difficulties were not because they were women, it seems to have been because they were writing picaresque novels that did not explore personal feelings, as did the novels of Ruth Park, Eleanor Dark, and Eve Langley.

Perhaps that’s what made the novel seem iconoclastic…

Author: Kylie Tennant
Title: Ride on Stranger
Introduction by Kerryn Goldsworthy
Publisher: Imprint Classics (Angus & Robertson), 1990, first published 1943
ISBN: ISBN 10: 0207166390, pbk., 301 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 23, 2021

The Ogre, by Michel Tournier, translated by Barbara Bray

I read this book haunted by the photo on the front cover.  The cover design is by Rebecca S Neimark from Twenty-Six Letters and the photo is titled ‘Fourteen year-old prisoners, members of Hitler’s ‘Air Guard’, from Archive Photos.  Their faces show bewilderment, truculence and naïve amusement at the predicament they find themselves in.  They are so young yet they represent both evil and innocence.  I wonder what became of them.

Reminding me that books were chosen for 1001 Books for their place in the history of the novel, The Ogre by Michel Tournier (1924-2016) is included because it marks a departure in style for French Literature.

The flamboyant baroque novels of Michel Tournier came as a breath of fresh air to a French literary scene dominated by the austere nouveau roman.  The Ogre, a heady mix of war story, reworked myth and sexual perversion, was Tournier’s second novel. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, ABC Books, 2006, p.620)

The novel won the Prix Goncourt in 1970, and Wikipedia also tells me that Tournier was a contender for the Nobel Prize. (See here).

The central character, Abel Tiffauges, is warped by his own experiences and by the evil regime.  He narrates the first third of the novel, (130 pages) in the chapter titled ‘Sinister Writings of Abel Tiffauges’ so that the reader is on alert from the outset.  Tiffauges grows up lonely and alienated because he is bullied for his stupidity and his appearance, and he drifts into employment as a garage mechanic.  He has an unhealthy attraction to young children, and thinks he has had an existential experience when he holds an injured youth in his arms… he relates this to the legend of St Christopher and thenceforth looks for supernatural signs that he is a child-bearer.

It is his girlfriend who recognises that there is something odd about this deceptively gentle giant: she christens him The Ogre.  He evades trial for rape by the outbreak of WW2 and his removal to Germany as a POW.  On the Rhine he is trained to manage the pigeons used for communication, and his obsessive tenderness in caring for them and his pragmatism about eating them is a portent of what is to come, caring for children destined to become soldiers while indifferent to their fate and the fate of other children under the Nazis.

He likes Germany:

Unlike the oceanic land of France, shrouded in mists, its lines blurred by receding shades, continental Germany, more harsh and rudimentary, was the country of strong, simplified, stylised drawing, easily read and remembered.

In France things got lost in impressions, vague gestures, incomplete wholes, in murky skies and infinities of tenderness.  The Frenchman had a horror of position, uniform, strictly defined place in organisation or hierarchy.  A French postman always liked to remind people, by a certain unbuttoned look to his uniform, that he was also a father, a voter and a bowling enthusiast.  Whereas the German postman, bundled up in his smart uniform, exactly coincided with his role.  Similarly the German housewife, schoolboy, chimney sweep or businessman were all more housewife, schoolboy, chimney sweep or businessman than their French counterparts.  And while the French propensity led to the weakness of faded colours, spinelessness, dangerous laxities like promiscuity, dirt and cowardice, Germany was always in danger of becoming a theatre of grimace and caricature, as demonstrated by her army, a fine collection of gargoyles, from the oxlike sergeant major to the corseted and monocled officer.  (p. 179)

By a series of odd but reasonably credible events, Tiffauges becomes a ranger on Hermann Goëring’s estate in Prussia, where he is trusted so much that no one ever notices when he goes missing on his own private missions to explore.  When the war comes closer and the hunting lodge is no longer safe, he is sent instead to the Kaltenborn fortress to help Professor Doctor Blaettchen measure the racial characteristics of children for selection into the Napola. This institution—one of many SS-initiated schools that indoctrinated boys to make them ruthless supporters of Nazism—was training boys to become soldiers against the Soviets.  As the tide turns against Germany and the willingness of families to sacrifice their boys wanes, Tiffauges uses skills honed in the eugenics laboratory, to identify and kidnap suitably Aryan children for the school.  He still hates the Nazis, but not his own role in their atrocities because of his bizarre belief that a supernatural power has revealed to him signs and symbols which will deliver him a heroic moment:

It was true that the SS filled him with the most acute repugnance.  But the Napola. whose discipline, uniforms and crazy songs went against all his inclinations and anarchist beliefs, forced him to make every possible allowance because it was so obviously a machine for both subjecting and exalting fresh and innocent flesh. Blaettchen’s maniac erudition, on the fringes of sadism and crime, carried this subjection and exaltation to their highest pitch. (p.253)

The novel suffuses Germanic myth amid the obscene reality of Tiffauges wartime experiences, and it’s a gruelling novel to read.  It’s a chilling reminder that certain types of people flourish in evil regimes.

Author: Michel Tournier
Title: The Ogre (Le Roi des Aulnes) a.k.a. The Erl-King
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972, first published 1970
ISBN: 9780801855900, pbk., 373 pages
Source: Personal copy, probably bought from the Book Depository


While travel is off the agenda and state borders are opening and closing at the drop of a hat, we’re adapting to local leisure activities.  So I was immediately interested when I saw the Facebook page of Ulysses Bookstore promoting Melbourne’s Best River, Bay and Lakeside Walks. (Not that I need much of an excuse to pay them a visit!)

It’s terrific.  Melbourne is blessed with countless parks and gardens, rivers, creeks, lakes and wetlands, but this book has introduced me to some I didn’t know about.

The book divides Melbourne into seven regions, offering walks graded from easy to medium, none of them longer than about four hours:


Albert Park Lake (Wikipedia)

  • Federation Square and Southbank
  • Melbourne’s Icons by the Yarra
  • Merri Creek Trail South
  • Docklands and the Wharves
  • Como House and Herring Island
  • Albert Park Lake


Cherry Lake Altona (Wikipedia)

  • Williamstown Maritime History
  • Altona Coastal Park & Cherry Lake
  • Werribee River Central Walk
  • Werribee River Park
  • Point Cook Coastal Park and Cheetham Wetlands
  • Tarneit & Skeleton Creek Wetlands

Melbourne’s West

Organ Pipes National Park (Wikipedia)

  • Maribyrnong River Walk
  • Spiritual creek Walk
  • Maribyrnong Creek
  • Solomons Ford Walk and Maribyrnong River
  • Organ Pipes National Park

Melbourne’s North

Dights Falls (Wikipedia)

  • Yarra Bend Park & Dights Falls
  • Edwardes Lake Park
  • Yellowgum Park, Plenty River
  • Coburg Lake Reserve
  • Darebin Creek Parklands

Melbourne’s East

Heide I (Wikipedia)

  • Gardiners Creek  & Glen Iris Wetlands
  • Heide & Banksia Park
  • Sugarloaf Reservoir
  • Cockatoo Creek to Emerald Hill Lake
  • Lilydale Lake
  • Ruffey Lake Park

The Southeast

Anniversary Lake at Wilson Botanic Park (Wikipedia)

  • Lysterfield Lake
  • Cardinia Reservoir
  • Wilson Botanic Park
  • Jells Park
  • Cardinia Aqueduct Trail

Southeast Bayside

Brighton Beach Boxes (Wikipedia)

  • Station Pier to Webb Dock
  • St Kilda to Station Pier
  • St Kilda Pier and Penguins
  • Elwood Canal and Foreshore
  • Brighton Beach Boxes
  • Red Bluff Sea Cliffs
  • Ricketts Point Marine Sanctuary.

Each walk has its own map/s, and advice includes suitability for dogs, prams and wheelchairs; whether there is cover or not; and how to get there by car or public transport.  It’s profusely illustrated with photos of the features you can expect to see: which include public art, museums, sculpture trails, boats and boat houses, heritage buildings, industrial history, a racecourse, Indigenous heritage, a city farm, and volcanic rock formations.  Not to mention congenial places for a restorative coffee or lunch.

Directions are clear, and very enticing.

Highly recommended as much for Melburnians as for visitors to our city.

Image credits:

Authors: Julie Mundy & Debra Heyes
Title: Melbourne’s Best River, Bay & Lakeside Walks
Publisher: Woodslane Press, 2918
ISBN: 9781921874420, pbk., 218 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore, $29.99

Available at good bookshops or contact the distributor at Woodslane Press.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 21, 2021

Dancing on Coral, by Glenda Adams

Winner of the Miles Franklin award in 1987, Dancing on Coral is a witty, picaresque satire of the 1960s.  Set partly in Sydney and partly in New York along with an interlude at sea, it was the second novel of Glenda Adams (1939-2007).

So who was this Australian author whose novel won our most prestigious award, from a shortlist of notable Australian authors such as Murray Bail, David Ireland, Nancy Phelan and Nicholas Hasluck? 

Except for a brief paragraph about Glenda Adams in my copy of The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1985, i.e. before the MF win)— she is not listed in any of my reference books.  Not in The PEN Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature (1983), i.e. after her short story collections Lies and Stories (1976) and The Hottest Night of the Century (1979) and also after her debut novel Games of the Strong (1982).  She doesn’t get a mention in Vernay’s Brief Take on the Australian Novel (2016) nor The Greatest Australian Novels—a Panorama (2009), and she’s not included in Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library (2012), nor in Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics, (2007).

But Dancing on Coral wasn’t a one-hit wonder.  Wikipedia, where Adams does have an entry, tells me that she was born in Sydney and her expat career began with a scholarship to Columbia University, from which she graduated in 1965.  She was a journalist, author, scriptwriter and teacher of creative writing, and her master of arts writing program at UTS became a model for postgraduate writing programs throughout Australia.  Wikipedia goes on to say:

Adams’ work is found in her own books and short story collections, in numerous short story anthologies, and in journals and magazines. Her essays, stories and articles have been published in, among other magazines, MeanjinThe New York Times Book ReviewPanoramaQuadrantSoutherlyWesterlyThe Sydney Morning HeraldThe Observer and The Village Voice.

While at Columbia University, she joined a fiction workshop and started writing using her real name, after using a male name prior to that to prevent her friends knowing she was writing fiction. Her short stories were published in such magazines as Ms.The Village Voice and Harper’s.

After 16 years away, she returned to Australia and became writer-in-residence at the University of Western Australia, the University of Adelaide, and Macquarie University. Her literary friends included Australians Robert Drewe and Kate Grenville (who she supervised as a graduate student at the University of Technology, Sydney), and the American Grace Paley. Wikipedia Glenda Adams page, lightly edited to remove links & footnotes, viewed 21/1/21)

In addition to Dancing on Coral (which also won a Special Award in the 1987 NSW Premier’s Literary Award), her other novels include her debut Games of the Strong (1982); and Longleg (1990, which won the National Book Council’s Banjo Award for Fiction, was joint winner of the 1990 Age Book of the Year for imaginative writing and was shortlisted for the 1991 Miles Franklin Award).  The Tempest of Clemenza (1996) was her last novel but she was not forgotten.  She was posthumously awarded the ASA Medal in 2007 after her death from ovarian cancer, and the NSW Premier’s Award for New Fiction is named after her.


Tantalisingly, the reference in the Oxford has more to say about her writing.

Several of the fourteen stories of The Hottest Night of the Century concern family and school life in Australia; the later stories are influenced by the experimental form and heavy symbolism of some contemporary American fiction. Games of the Strong is a complex novel with strong overtones of the classic Orwellian ‘1984’ personal dilemma that sometimes surfaces in conditions of extremist political identification and group rhetoric.  (The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, edited by William H. Wilde, Joy Hooton and Barry Andrews,1985, p. 16)

Adams certainly has fun satirising group rhetoric in Dancing on Coral.  Dated by allusions to the late 1950s by her protagonist Lark Watters’ visit to the cinema to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and her father’s ambition to be on the Jack Davey 1950s radio show, Dancing on Coral pokes fun at the university set exemplified by the ‘Sydney Push’.   What I know of the them is derived from my reading of Richard Appleton’s Appo, Recollections of a Member of the Sydney Push, but the poseurs, inane babble and heavy drinking of Dancing on Coral seem authentic.

Lark had watched Donna Bird for several years as she floated around the quadrangle, looking like some sort of court jester, always arguing and waving her arms about, always surrounded by groups of the important students—the libertarian who wore no shoes and tied his khaki trousers with a piece of rope and wrote lewd columns for the newspaper; the architecture student who was caught by a security guard on the floor of the library stacks with the psychology fresher; the leader of the student conservative club who was known only by his initials. (p.22)

Lark stumbles into this bunch of pseudo-intellectuals when she meets her first American.  Sprung at the cash register for hiding an extra pat of butter under her roll to save the extra penny, she is defended by Tom Brown:

“Good for you,” he said, “fighting the system like that.  Butter belongs to the people.  Butter and guns and art.  They should be free, and if they’re not, the people should take them.” (p.24)

Tom is studying urban anthropology.  He’s a social theorist and, in his spare time, a critic of society.  And when Lark timidly suggests that the ‘anthropological’ activities of Tom’s mentor Manfred Bird in the Pacific makes him a plunderer, stealing art from societies that couldn’t protect themselves’, she is promptly patronised by Bird’s daughter Donna (who turns out to be Lark’s nemesis):

“It’s called preservation,” said Donna quickly.  “Sometimes the natives just threw away the stuff, their funerary carvings and so on. The Rockefellers and my father just wanted to preserve art.  Art is what matters.” (p.27-8)

Tom suggests that they take Lark on as a ‘project.’

“She’s young and inexperienced,” said Tom to Donna, at the same time patting Lark’s hand in a fatherly way.  He turned back to Lark.  “Donna should know,” he said gently, like a doctor at an invalid’s bedside.  “After all, she’s the one who knows them all.  Say,” and he turned back to Donna Bird, “what say we take her in hand.” (p.28)

Well, they do, and it mostly consists of getting involved in dubious pranks, infantile protests, a lot of long-winded pompous rhetoric from Tom while Lark fends off drunken advances from young men who lecture her about not perpetuating outdated morality.

Lark doesn’t really know what she wants to do but the one thing that she craves, is to leave Australia.  Her parents are eccentrics but life, as far as she can tell, is lived elsewhere, and so she applies uselessly for jobs which offer free travel.  Her interview at Qantas is cringeworthy: she is told that “in addition to a deep desire to serve others, our hostesses have to be good-looking girls.  The best of the crop.” It’s no better in an interview at The Daily Mirror where her degree and her French and her knowledge of world affairs are dismissed as irrelevant:

“Listen girlie, you’re too educated, you’re too big for your boots. You might look like a schoolgirl, but actually you’re already too old,” he held up his hand in case Lark was about to protest, “and you’re a girl.”


“Our reporters start with us at sixteen and by the time they’re twenty-one they’re old hands.  And girls only get into trouble.,  Or they get married.  Same thing.  You can’t count on them. And none of my men want to work with girls.” (p.59)

Somehow she survives all this only to succumb to the only way to escape Australia: she agrees to travel by freighter with Donna Bird to meet up with Tom Brown in the US on a freighter.

The scene which gives the novel its title implies a moment of fun and laughter, but that’s not actually how it was.  Lark is actually terrified when the captain stops in the middle of the Pacific to give Lark and her hateful fellow-passenger Donna Bird the opportunity to paddle on a coral reef.  In this often comic coming-of-age novel Lark has not yet emerged from the timidity which hampers all her interactions, and she lets herself be steered into doing things that she doesn’t really want to do.  But though she seems incurably naïve and romantic, the novel plots the arousal of courage, and a wiser interpretation of the way her ‘mentors’ behave.

Some droll sequences border on absurdism as Adams critiques aspects of life both in Australia and in America.  The wedding and subsequent ‘trial’ on the street outside the New York Apartment are hilarious, and there’s some enjoyable schadenfreude in the concluding pages as well.  I’m really pleased that this novel won the Miles Franklin, otherwise I might never have come across it.

Reading Glenda Adams‘ is the blog of Caitlin, Glenda Adams’ daughter, and I was moved more than I can say by a post at Caitlin’s other blog ‘Slippery Crockery’ which showcases some of her mother’s brooches.

Author: Glenda Adams
Title: Dancing on Coral
Publisher: Viking Penguin, New York, 1987
ISBN: 03163087
Source: personal library, Miles Franklin winners collection

Available in Text Classics in good bookshops everywhere and at Fishpond: Dancing on Coral (Text Classics)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 20, 2021

2021 Indie Book Awards Shortlist

The 2021 Indie Book Awards Longlist has been announced.  Most of them were not even on my radar…


All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton (HarperCollins Australia)

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan (Knopf Australia), see my review

Mammoth by Chris Flynn (University of Queensland Press), on my TBR, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums

Honeybee by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin)


Phosphorescence by Julia Baird (Fourth Estate Australia), see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums

The Happiest Man on Earth by Eddie Jaku (Macmillan Australia)

People of the River by Grace Karskens (Allen & Unwin)

Truganini by Cassandra Pybus (Allen & Unwin), on my TBR


The Bluffs by Kyle Perry (Michael Joseph Australia)

Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson (Hachette Australia), on my TBR

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu (Allen & Unwin), see Kim’s review at Reading Matters

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (Affirm Press), see my review


Sam Bloom: Heartache & Birdsong by Samantha Bloom, Cameron Bloom & Bradley Trevor Greive (ABC Books, HarperCollins Australia)

Plantopedia by Lauren Camilleri & Sophia Kaplan (Smith Street Books)

Beatrix Bakes by Natalie Paull (Hardie Grant Books)

In Praise of Veg by Alice Zaslavsky (Murdoch Books)


The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dangerous Animals by Sami Bayly (Lothian Children’s Books)

Sing Me The Summer by Jane Godwin, illustrated by Alison Lester (Affirm Press)

The Grandest Bookshop in the World by Amelia Mellor (Affirm Press)

Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (Lothian Children’s Books)


Future Girl by Asphyxia (Allen & Unwin Children’s)

Catch Me If I Fall by Barry Jonsberg (Allen & Unwin Children’s)

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix (Allen & Unwin Children’s)

This One is Ours by Kate O’Donnell (University of Queensland Press)

Category Winners and the Overall Book of the Year Winner will be announced on Monday 22nd March 2021.

Devoted to films from childhood, Greene’s fiction always had a cinematic aspect, and the actual writing of scripts intensified this quality. (p.97, underlining mine to indicate the subject of the sentence)

A fairly prolific author, Jerrold’s books were unreadable. (p.158, underlining mine to indicate the plural subject of the sentence)

As a journalist, Graham Greene’s special subject was faith under conditions of oppression. (p.264, underlining mine to indicate the subject of the sentence)

Those hanging clauses, dear readers, are why it took me so long to read this biography of Graham Greene by Richard Greene. It was not Greene’s fiction (the underlined subject of the sentence) which was devoted to films, it was Greene himself.  Jerrold’s books were not a fairly prolific author, that was Jerrold. Graham Greene’s special subject was not a journalist, he was.  Those and other examples of sloppy editing, irritated me so much that I took occasional breaks from the reading because I found myself being distracted from what is otherwise an entertaining biography of a writer I really admire.

The other problem that was exasperating was that in a text of 500+ pages, there were passages which referred to one of the numerous people in Greene’s life without an adequate reminder of who the person was. Nobody reads a biography of a long life like this and commits every name to memory.  In some places, the text helpfully clarifies events and people with a reference to a page number, but not always when it’s needed.  For example, towards the end of the book, on page 493 there is a reference to Hugh taking a turn for the worse, with no surname. I could not remember who Hugh was.  I read back a couple of pages and found on page 490 that Hugh (again, no surname) was his closest male friend and unlikely to recover from cancer, but it was not until I consulted the index that it was clear that Hugh was Graham Greene’s brother (who hadn’t been mentioned for 50+ pages).  And while I was able to correctly guess Hugh’s surname from the reference on page 490 to Greene’s other brother who had just died, there was no help in finding his daughter Caroline Greene’s place in the index, because she is listed under her married name Bourget and not cross-referenced with the other members of the family under Greene.  It was not until Chapter 51 when Caroline marries that her new surname is revealed.  (I wanted to know more about her because I wondered if Richard Greene the biographer was any relation.  He’s not, but I learned that from a newspaper review of the biography).

My other gripe is one shared with the reviewer at the Guardian.  Blake Morrison, in an otherwise very enthusiastic review which I hope you will also read, concludes like this:

For all his claims to be drawing on new material, Richard Greene can’t help but go over old ground, from the Shirley Temple libel case to the tiff with Anthony Burgess. It was an immensely busy life and the telling of it here, in 78 short chapters and 500 brisk pages, feels rushed. The emphasis on Greene as foreign correspondent and emissary is certainly fresh. But the cost is an excess of information on the internal politics of the countries he visited, not always pertinent to the fiction. To spend more time on the history of Panama in the 1970s, for example, than on Greene’s long and complicated affair with Catherine Walston may be a corrective to earlier biographies. But it does little to explain the man and throws more attention on a lesser nonfiction book (Getting to Know the General) than The End of the Affair, his masterpiece. (from ‘Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene review – addicted to danger’, by Blake Morrison, The Guardian, 28/11/20, viewed 18/1/21)

Yes, my interest waned too over pages and pages about the political background behind the novels. Cuba, Panama, Sandanistas, I knew it all already anyway, though it did make me wonder how much my opinions had been shaped as much by Greene as by the media reports that we read at the time.

Still, the biography is definitely well worth reading.  Some of it is gossipy, and some of it is already well-known or accessible via Wikipedia (and possibly in Richard Greene’s other books about Greene) but the insights into Greene’s thinking and beliefs were invaluable.  The novels and other writings of significance are traced from inception to publication, and linked to Greene’s experiences and the people he encountered.

Greene explains the way in which this occurs in a letter to the Spanish Monsignor Durán—who influenced Monsignor Quixote (1982).  Books, he says, take on a life of their own:

A novel is a work in which characters interrelate.  It doesn’t need a plot.  The novelist’s own intervention must be very limited.  What happens to the author is rather like the pilot of a plane.  The pilot needs to get the plane off the ground. It takes off with the aid of a pilot.  Once it is in the air, the pilot does virtually nothing.  Once everything has started working, the characters begin to impose themselves on the author, who no longer controls them.  They have a life of their own.  The author has to go on writing.  Sometimes he writes things which appear to have no raison d’être. Only at the end is the reason apparent.  The author intervenes to allow the plane to land.  It is time for the novel to end. (p. 434)

It was also interesting to read (on p. 397) what Greene, in a rare TV interview, said could be an epigram for all his works.  Quoting from Browning’s long poem ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology‘ he said:

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demirep
That loves and saves her soul in new French books—
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway…

I haven’t read Greene’s autobiography A Sort of Life in which he apparently portrays himself as a world-weary cynic, but this biography suggests that it should not be taken at face value.  There is a core of nostalgia, even sentimentality, in him that he worked to conceal. His journey to Liberia, for instance, was motivated by a desire to see human beings in a state of innocence.  At the same time, the biography notes that it is difficult to fit Greene into standard academic arguments about the colonial impulse in literature because in the same interview he said that he set books in places far from England because he wanted “to see English characters in a setting which is not protective to them”.  Greene was not interested in domestic politics, but rather in the impact of politics on the individual.

The analysis of A Burnt-out Case (1960, see Simon’s review at Tredynas Days) reminded me why I like literary fiction.  The structure of this novel is a story-within-a-story, for the specific purpose of revealing a greater truth about the privileged position of a white man in a developing country where leprosy is a cruel and socially isolating disease:

Querry, his depression, recovery and absurd death are only part of a larger story— it is a ‘farce’ contained within the tragedy of infection and mutilation. The experiences of a white man are at best a play within a play which like ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ in Hamlet, touches the conscience on just a particular point.  His next novel, The Comedians would rely even more on this structural device.  That Querry and his problems are not all that important is seen when he is telling the doctor about his vocation while a little boy awaits treatment.”

The boy waits impatiently and the doctor’s anger grows while Querry’s self-absorption delays what really matters, getting treatment to boy who needs it urgently—a boy who represents a great many more people suffering from this awful disease.

The Comedians (1966), set in the turmoil of Haiti, depicts for the first time what is only implicit in earlier novels, the intelligentsia of a formerly colonial society.  However he wanted to use the ‘voice’ of people that he knew, (i.e. to avoid what we now call appropriation) so he could not write in the voice of Magiot or Philipot.  As the story unfolds, the problems of the four white characters are shown not to be important, compared to what’s going on around them.  This is, IMO, what distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction: stories of domestic and personal life alone are not enough to make a novel significant.

For Greene, [..], remembrance is a political act: the revolutionary work of this novel is to remember the obscure dead and name truthfully what killed them. (p.367)

Graham Greene had a ghastly time at school.  After a sheltered time at home he went to the same school where his father was headmaster, and this appears to have been the catalyst for his ‘personal mythology’ of trust and betrayal, caught between loyalty to his father and the boys.  Always he was interested the problems of good and evil, and he never wavered from the belief that relationships with individuals were more important than than those with countries, or societies or groups.  This is why he defended the notorious traitor Philby, because he was his friend, and it’s also why he used his fame to protest against persecution of dissidents in the USSR and elsewhere.

I really enjoyed reading Richard Greene’s survey of the books I’ve read (and re-read sometimes as audiobooks): The Third Man (1935, see my review), A Gun for Sale (1936, see my review); Brighton Rock (1938); The Confidential Agent (1939, see my review); The Power and the Glory (1940, see my review); The Heart of the Matter (1948); The End of the Affair (1951); The Quiet American (1955); Travels with My Aunt (1969, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums) and his last novel, The Captain and the Enemy (1988), see my review).  I still have some novels on the TBR: his first popular book Stamboul Train (1932); The Human Factor (1978); The Honorary Consul (1973), and Monsignor Quixote (1982), and this biography makes me want to drop everything else and read them.

Which really, despite my quibbles, is a strong endorsement for reading this biography!

Author: Richard Greene
Title: Russian Roulette, The Life and Times of Graham Greene
Publisher: Little, Brown, 2020
ISBN: 9781408713440, pbk., 591 pages
Source: Bayside Library.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 18, 2021

The Immoralist, by André Gide, translated by Dorothy Bussy

1001 Books begins its summary of The Immoralist like this:

A thought-provoking book that still has the power to challenge complacent attitudes and unfounded cultural assumptions, The Immoralist recounts a young Parisian man’s attempt to overcome social and sexual conformity. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, ABC Books 2006, p.241)

The novella is prefaced by an attempt to explain that the ‘problem’ of the book existed before it was written.  It is then book-ended at the beginning by a pseudo-letter to the Prime Minister that asks what role in society a young man like the hero might have… and completed by that same friend’s awkward conclusion after the hero’s story has been told.  That story is narrated by Michel, who starts out as an austere young scholar and ends up as a defiant hedonist.

The translation, by Dorothy Bussy, uses the term ‘hero’ in the preface.  But it does not seem to me that there is anything heroic about Michel.


Michel’s mother died when he was fifteen, and he was only twenty-four when he married Marceline to please his dying father.  He says at the outset that he does not love her.  Marceline is a devout Catholic—whose role in the novel is to be a devoted and uncomplaining wife—and she saves Michel’s life on their honeymoon in Tunisia when he has his first haemorrhage from undiagnosed TB. This experience makes him re-evaluate his life, and sets him on a path towards pleasure.

And suddenly I was seized with a desire, a craving, something more furious and more imperious than I had ever felt before—to live! I want to live! I will live. I clenched my teeth, my hands, concentrated my whole being in this wild, grief-stricken endeavour towards existence. (p.29)

Through Marceline’s attentive care, and his own determination to recover, he begins to recuperate and finds himself enjoying the company of Arab children.  Though nothing is explicit, frequent references to bare skin makes it clear that a sensual attraction to these boys is emerging.  There is a curious incident with Moktir, who he sees stealing Marceline’s scissors.  Michel says and does nothing to reprove him, and in a sign that his moral compass is beginning to shift, Moktir becomes his favourite.

(We do not judge novels from 1902 by the moral standards of today, but we note that these are boys not of the same age as Michel, and his money and status in a French colonial society makes for unequal power relations between them.)

At the same time Michel begins to notice how pretty Marceline is, and he pays more attention to her.  They have, however, still not consummated their marriage.

Michel’s rejection of bourgeois life and the trappings of society becomes clearer when he returns to Europe. They travel through Italy, where Michel realises that he has lost interest in his field of expertise, classical history.  By abandoning austerity to indulge only his sensual appetites, he has alienated himself from his education, his family values, and European culture.

While his father was alive, he had lived a simple life and did not even realise that they were wealthy.  But his inheritance comes with certain obligations including attention to the family estate, La Morinière in Normandy.  This estate is managed by an ageing man called Bocage whose loyalty and honesty have been unquestioned.  Michel, however, becomes attracted to his son, Charles, who persuades him that his father’s ways are old-fashioned.  Michel’s behaviour becomes bizarre when he moves on from allowing Charles to make some changes, to indulging his desire to be closer to the earth and the people who work it, to the detriment of the farm and its income.  He allows the sloppy team that does the annual tree-lopping to leave the job unfinished so that new growth is sabotaged; he joins Bocage’s son Alcide in poaching from his own land while at the same time requiring Bocage to catch the poachers; and he interferes with the management of the tenant farmers so that they end up leaving and the untended farm becomes worthless.

The couple return to Paris and though the inheritance is diminishing, they take very expensive rooms and live in luxury.

Marceline, meanwhile, has been neglected, but when Michel belatedly notices that she has become ill, he rushes her off the alps where the clear air brings some improvement.  Alas for Marceline, his boredom resurfaces, and they embark on travels in Europe and North Africa which bring her nothing but bad food, poor hotels, exhaustion and exacerbation of her condition.  Reading this section reminds the reader that Michel has recovered from his TB due to attentive care and good management of his condition.  His selfish hedonism and distaste for her symptoms means that when she contracts the same disease, her prognosis is entirely different.

Reading the concluding pages also reminded me of the selfish behaviour of John Middleton Murry, that I read about in Kathleen Jones’ bio Katherine Mansfield, Storyteller. Murry’s insistence on living in England forced Katherine Mansfield to return to its perilous weather when really, she needed to be nurtured in a more benign climate on the continent.  The descriptions of Mansfield’s struggle for breath and her constant haemorrhages towards the end of her tragic life were in my mind as I read about Marceline.

The reason for Gide’s semi-apologetic preface becomes clearer as the narrative deteriorates into self-pity.  Michel’s freedom from bourgeois constraints and conventional morality has trapped him in a spiral of loss, and with Marceline’s death he has nothing to live for and no one to care about him except for these friends to whom in extremis he has turned.

What frightens me, I admit, is that I am still very young. It seems to me sometimes that my real life has not begun. Take me away from here and give me some reason for living. I have none left. I have freed myself. That may be. But what does it signify? This objectless liberty is a burden to me. (p.157)

But the unnamed friend has his doubts:

…we each of us had a strange feeling of uneasiness.  We felt, alas, that by telling his story, Michel had made his action more legitimate.  Our not having known at what point to condemn it in the course of his long explanation seemed almost to make us his accomplices.  We felt, as it were, involved.  He finished his story without a quaver in his voice, without an inflection or a gesture to show that he was feeling any emotion whatever; he might have had a cynical pride in not appearing moved or a kind of shyness that made him afraid or arousing emotion in us by his tears, or he might not in fact have been moved.  Even now I cannot guess what proportions pride, strength, reserve and want of feeling were combined in him.  (p.157)

As 1001 Books concludes:

Michel’s attempt to access a deeper truth by repudiating culture, decency and morality results in confusion and loss.  In being true to himself, Michel has harmed others.  Yet the novel remains as much an indictment of the arbitrary constraints of a hypocritical society as it is of Michel’s behaviour. (1001 Books, p.241)

That letter to the Prime Minister makes more sense when we realise that Michel is going to need a job because he’s gone through his entire fortune.

The dilemma, to which 1001 Books refers when suggesting that the book has the power to challenge complacent attitudes and unfounded cultural assumptions, is that most contemporary readers would support Michel’s discovery of a life beyond the confines mapped out by his father, including exploring his own sexuality and making friendships outside his own class.  The problem is that he goes too far: he exploits and then cruelly neglects his wife; he takes advantage of boys too young to exercise any real choice; and he destroys a working farm that provided income to people more vulnerable to poverty than he is.  This is distasteful, but Gide had his reasons for framing it this way.  As it says at Wikipedia:

Gide exposes to public view the conflict and eventual reconciliation of the two sides of his personality (characterized by a Protestant austerity and a transgressive sexual adventurousness, respectively), which a strict and moralistic education had helped set at odds. Gide’s work can be seen as an investigation of freedom and empowerment in the face of moralistic and puritanical constraints, and centres on his continuous effort to achieve intellectual honesty. His self-exploratory texts reflect his search of how to be fully oneself, including owning one’s sexual nature, without at the same time betraying one’s values. (André Gide page, Wikipedia, viewed 17/1/21)

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed it, and Melissa at The Bookbinder’s Daughter reviewed it too. 

Author: André Gide
Title: The Immoralist (L’Immoraliste)
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 1960, 1986 reprint, first published in 1902
ISBN: 9780140014976, pbk., 159 pages
Source: personal library, OpShopFind


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 17, 2021

Coonardoo, by Katharine Susannah Prichard

I’ve departed from my usual practice in reviewing Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo from 1929: I’ve read other opinions about it, both before and after reading it.  I also re-read Mairi Neil’s post about the play Brumby Innes and its place in the history of Australian drama because Prichard first used the theme of the novel in the play.

I did this additional reading because this work has a contentious place in the history of Australian literature.  Coonardoo is the first detailed representation of Indigeneity in Australian fiction, but the author was not Indigenous herself.  So I’ve included both Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives in my pre- and post-reading of the work.

While the representation of Indigeneity has changed with the passage of time, and the issue of appropriation is ongoing, this book, written almost a century ago, is the subject of attention and scholarship because it’s written by one of our finest writers. Katharine Susannah Prichard makes an appearance in almost all the reference books I have: Australian Classics, by Jane Gleeson-White; the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (Ed. Nicholas José);  the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (Ed. Wilde, Hooten & Andrews), and also in Jean-Francois Vernay’s A Brief Take on the Australian Novel.  Harry Heseltine writes about KSP extensively in The Literature of Australia (Ed. Geoffrey Dutton).

All of these non-Indigenous authorities refer to Coonardoo, but only some of them address issues of racism.  The Oxford Companion says only that the more polished Coonardoo was joint winner of the 1928 Bulletin novel prize and was praised as the first realistic and detailed portrayal of an Aboriginal.  

The Macquarie Anthology, for example, refers to hostile criticism for its portrait of a loving sexual relationship between a young Aboriginal woman and a white man. Heseltine, however, while stating that the creative treatment is neither sociological, nor patronising, but (at least by intention) tragic, goes on to acknowledge, albeit indirectly, prior occupation of the land on which the story takes place.  Refuting the doctrine of terra nullius, he writes:

It is a matter of some interest that what is probably Prichard’s most complex attempt at characterisation and her most intensely sustained emotional encounter with her material should be inspired by a member of a race whose dreaming, whose search for identity, was accomplished long before white men came to the Australian continent. ( ‘Australian Fiction Since 1920’ by Harry Heseltine, in The Literature of Australia (Ed. Geoffrey Dutton, 1964, ISBN 0140700080, my copy is the 1976 revised edition).

However Larissa Behrendt of the Eualeyai/Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay people analyses Coonardoo more harshly in Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling.  At the conclusion of a lengthy chapter, she writes:

Though some may read Coonardoo as a reminder of the loves lost because of racism, the novel is also a reminder of the unacknowledged legacy of colonisation on Aboriginal women: their inability to freely consent to sexual relations with the white men who had the power of life and death over them was fundamentally constrained.  It is also a reminder that, regardless of any good intention, constructed stereotypes of Aboriginal men and women continue to appear and be perpetuated in even so-called ‘sympathetic’ twenty-first century literature. (Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling, UQP, 2016, ISBN 9780702253904, p.99)

Finally, thanks to Nathan Hobby, whose biography of KSP is forthcoming, I also read Wiradjuri woman Jeanine Leane’s 2016 deeply personal response to the novel at Overland. 

So, what do I think about Coonardoo?

The first thing to say is that KSP is a great writer who was nominated for the Nobel Prize because she wrote about important things. Although some of her work is weighed down by her desire to bring issues to the reader’s attention, in the fiction which I’ve read so far, she tackled the big picture issues of her time: poverty, disadvantage, inadequate health care, disability, and working conditions.  (The Oxford Companion tells me that she also wrote about her desire for world peace and nuclear disarmament, and almost all of the commentators mention her commitment to communism.)  The big issue that she tackled in Coonardoo is IMO best expressed by Jane Gleeson-White in Australian Classics:

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel Coonardoo is the story of an Aboriginal woman, the eponymous Coonardoo, and the struggle of white and Aboriginal Australians to live together and work the vast land of the Kimberley, where their worlds come into intimate contact. (Australian Classics, Allen & Unwin, 2007, ISBN 9781741753417, p106.)

That intimate contact is a story of love thwarted by denial, prejudice and racism.  Coonardoo is an unpaid station hand in the Kimberley, alongside Hugh Watt, the son of the station owner.  Narrated from Coonardoo’s perspective, Hugh’s and that of his mother, the formidable widow Bessie Watt — the story shows how their love emerged, was frustrated and denied, was consummated, and then denied again.

If we put all the wrongs to one side just momentarily, we can recognise that in 1929 Indigenous people were not then telling their own stories as they do today.  Even if they were literate, and most had opportunity only for rudimentary education, the publishing gates were firmly closed against them.  As well, there was a great veil of silence about Indigenous dispossession and disadvantage, and we can assume, I think, that marketing of a novel that fractured that silence was problematic.  Enter KSP, fearless and marketable.  She held power in her pen and she used it as nobody else ever had, to depict her Aboriginal characters as people with emotional lives within a work of popular fiction that admitted the history of wrongs done against them.  Readers could no longer say they didn’t know.

Still, some of the language grates.  All the racist terms that were common parlance in that era are used.  Even though it’s authentic dialogue, the mind fights against getting used to it. It is a persistent reminder that this book demands to be read in context and that the issues within it be addressed.

Gleeson-White’s 2007 summary and interpretation of Coonardoo is impressive, but flawed. (Though to be fair, Australian Classics is a collection of 50 classics, and each entry is covered in only about five pages, precluding great detail for any of them.) She writes about the way Coonardoo grows up with Hugh Watt and they become deeply bonded through their shared love of the land and horses, but how they come to maturity hundreds of miles apart makes no mention of the gulf in their opportunities, and their shared love of the land is not equal in any respect.  Coonardoo’s love of the land is her birthright which has been stolen.  Hugh’s love of the land is a mere possession which derives from a brief moment in linear time. Indigenous people, as I understand it, have a different conception of land: for the millennia in which they have occupied this land it has had what we might call a religious significance and it involves mutual obligation: they belong to and care for the land and the land belongs to and cares for them.  Hugh has no conception of this chasm in their relationship to the land, and KSP probably didn’t either at the time.

But as Larissa Behrendt points out in Finding Eliza, Coonardoo is never accorded the status of an equal partner, which we can see quoted in this passage from Australian Classics.  Hugh has returned from school in Perth with a fiancée so…

…his old ease with Coonardoo has gone, but their rapport remains.  When he eventually takes over Wytabila, his need for Coonardoo has become so overwhelming, complex and fear-filled that he buries it.  ‘She was like his own soul riding there, dark, passionate and childlike. In all this wide empty world Coonardoo was the only living thing he could speak to, Hugh knew; the only creature who understood what he was feeling, and was feeling for him.  Yet he was afraid of her, resented a secret understanding between them.’ (Gleeson-White, p.106-7).

Prichard’s word ‘childlike’ signals a conception of Coonardoo that is, contrary to Heseltine’s view of it, patronising.  Indeed, Gleeson-White goes on to say that in the twenty-first century, Prichard’s view is necessarily anachronistic, and she quotes Behrendt as saying in 2004 that Coonardoo is ‘a story about white sorrow, not black empowerment.  The book leaves out any possibility that Coonardoo and her community could benefit from the assertion of their own authority or autonomy.’ 

Well, yes, that’s true.  It is patronising.  But would that possibility of such an assertion have been an authentic representation of how things were in the era being depicted? KSP was a writer of realism.  In 1927 KSP also produced a play called Brumby Innes which I have read but not reviewed.  Her portrayal of this awful man, a drunken, violent station owner who exploits his black workers and abuses the women is very much like Sam Geary in Coonardoo who is loathed by characters both black and white.  From my reading of Indigenous-authored literature, it seems to me that there is a grotesque authenticity about this character Geary who ends up taking ownership of Wytabila when drought ruins Hugh and he is not able to ride it out as his mother had done.

However, Prichard’s realism does allow for what may well be the first acknowledgement of dispossession, massacres and other atrocities against Indigenous people in Australian fiction.

Although Behrendt says on p.86 of Finding Eliza that recent history of violent frontier encounters, along with the backdrop it provides to black-white relations, is missing from the pages of Prichard’s novel, the character of Geary is balanced by the figure of the pearler Saul Hardy.  He is a man troubled by the violence he has seen and by the misrepresentation of Indigenous people.  Saul — in his reproof to Hugh’s racist wife Mollie, who’s from a coastal town and believes in the divine right of white men to ride rough-shod over anything aboriginal that stood in their way — tells her in chapter 17:

“You can’t help seein’ the blacks’ point of view.  White men came, jumped their hunting grounds, went kangaroo shooting for fun.  The blacks speared cattle.  White men got shootin’ blacks to learn ’em.  Blacks speared a white man or two—police rode out on a punishin’ expedition. They still ride out on punishin’ expeditions…” (Coonardoo, by Katharine Susannah Prichard, p.105, Pacific Books, Angus & Robertson, 1961, no ISBN, first published 1929, underlining mine.)

Prichard doesn’t go into great detail but it’s quite clear: writing in 1929, she acknowledged violent frontier encounters in her novel.  Saul then goes on to talk about an episode of ‘black-birding’ where the pearler drove a crew of Swan Point boys all overboard at gunpoint when he got to sea.  He also talks about the bounties paid for Aborigines being hauled in to custody, in chains, leather straps round the neck, fastened to their stirrup irons. 

Twenty or thirty I’ve seen like that, and I’ve seen the soles of a boy’s feet raw when he came in.  Never spent eighteenpence a bob on ’em either. Police’d let one or two men hunt for the rest, bring in kangaroo. (p.105)

He talks about the time when he was surprised by armed Blacks and left alone unharmed, and says that they ‘never kill for sport—only for food and vengeance’ and the blacks have plenty of reasons for vengeance.  He’s been in the country for thirty years and he’s seen things:  “No black” he says, ever did to a white man what white men have done to the blacks”. (p.104)

It would be so interesting to know what Prichard’s contemporaries made of this.  Behrendt says that Prichard’s book scandalised readers with its portrayal of a so-called ‘love relationship’ between a white man and an Aborigine. (Behrendt, p.82)  Were they also scandalised by Saul Hardy’s descriptions of atrocities?

Coonardoo was not Prichard’s only fiction featuring Indigeneity.  There is also a short story called Marlene (1938) in the Macquarie Anthology, which I have yet to read.

Author: Katharine Susannah Prichard
Title: Coonardoo
Publisher: Pacific Books (Angus & Robertson, 1961, first published 1929
ISBN: none, pbk., 207 pages
Source: OpShop find.

Availability: out of print.

I like books about the history of food.  Readers may remember my adventures with Historic Heston, by Heston Blumenthal which was a book of recipes derived from his mission to rescue Britain’s melancholy reputation for awful food by exploring its grand old traditions using chef’s recipe books of the past.  That’s a book for an ambitious cook because the recipes are adapted from creations at his London restaurant Dinner. The book is suitably extravagant with stunning photography and illustrations and I liked it very much but I’ve only ever been tempted to try one of the recipes.

The Original Mediterranean Cuisine by Barbara Santich (whose books I’ve reviewed before) is a more approachable book.  The first part of the book is about the history of Mediterranean cuisine, starting with a chapter about the unity of Mediterranean Europe in this period, when Catalonia, southern France and Italy shared a common nature and a common culture, including language, that differed in many respects from the nature and culture of northern Europe.  Travellers in the period could see it for themselves in the abundance of wheat and wine, olive oil, dates, almonds, citrus fruits, and figs in the southern region often grown using irrigation because of the dry climate, while in the north it was apple-and pear trees, cider, beef, fish, milk and butter where summer rain enabled three-year crop rotation.

The diet common throughout medieval Italy, southern France and much of Spain, as well as North Africa was based on white wheaten bread, olive oil, eggs and fish when possible, an abundance of wine; a variety of vegetables; and meat in the form of mutton, lamb and kid.  There was only a little fresh pork , as pork was more commonly eaten salted. (p.3)

Not much in the way of recorded recipes exists until the 13th century, though some Roman manuscripts resurfaced in the 15th century.  It was the crusades that revitalised trade in the 11th century, and cities grew rich transporting and provisioning pilgrims and crusaders.  In this and other chapters there are charming reproductions of medieval pictures, and ‘The Medieval Culinary Revival’ shows the purchase of currants and other dried fruits.

‘The Hierarchy of Food’ reminds us that the hierarchy of food corresponded to the social hierarchy.  It’s no surprise to learn that the lower orders were thought to be unable to appreciate or digest elite foods, which were reserved for nobles and those who lead a contemplative life.  Not only was food for the poor less interesting and less nutritious, there was also less of it, though of course they were the ones doing the manual labour.  All this was divinely ordained, with everything graded from top to bottom with those nearest the earth ranked lowest. The foods described in the recipes are for the wealthy, as you’d expect. This applied to herbs and spices used for medicine too, so they also signalled wealth and status.

Interestingly, medieval account books don’t include vegetables because they were outside the money economy.  They came from the kitchen garden and/or were bartered.  So at least the poor folks could have vegetables!

As we know from exploring the origins of foods and their movements throughout the world in The Gourmet Atlas by Ward, Clifton and Stacey, the medieval diet lacked some of the ingredients that define it today: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, corn, and zucchini did not come from the New World until later.  The recipes, however, don’t appear to be lacking in any way. They have all been cooked in a test kitchen and quantities derived from the approximations in the original recipes.  Like the best recipe books do, the collection is divided into sections:

  • Sauces (absolutely essential to the medieval table, apparently)
  • Meat and poultry
  • Fish and seafood
  • Vegetables and pulses
  • Pies and torte
  • Desserts and fritters
  • Preserves

You will be relieved to learn that Santich substitutes the blender for a mortar and pestle for pounding meat, and that she eschews the bland and mushy recipes for convalescents as well as certain kinds of offal and lampreys.  There are suggestions for alternatives to (Maggie Beer’s favourite ingredient) verjuice, and instructions for how to make almond milk.

So, what looks nice? Well, Basil and Verjuice Sauce sounds good as an accompaniment to chicken or quail, and then there’s the Peacock sauce, which contrary to expectation neither contains peacock nor is served with one, because peacocks are apparently gross, difficult to digest and promoting melancholy.  This sauce, made with ground almonds, a chicken liver, balsamic vinegar, honey, cinnamon, ginger and saffron, can be served instead with the more humble chicken, though because it’s so rich, just a spoonful is enough per serve.  If you don’t have a spit-roasted partridge, you could also try the Almond and Pomegranate sauce with your hen, but Santich sounds a bit dubious: the result is the consistency of mustard, rather than a pouring sauce, best used in small quantities; the combination of flavours is somewhat unusual.  You might be better off with Cameline sauce which was a staple in all the recipe books: it’s made with currants, bread, almonds and cinnamon or cloves, and you can serve it with almost any kind of roast.

Moving on: in the meat and poultry section there are heaps of chicken recipes because poultry was so commonly used as a prestige food to impress people.  There is chicken with lemon; or with pomegranates, or with saffron and spice sauce;  or with verjuice &c.  But there are a few recipes with veal and also some for lamb.  I don’t like lamb not even with the recommended quinces, and the same goes for pork, with or without a sweet-sour sauce.  But the fish and seafood section is much more appealing, whether floured and fried (small fish) or poached (large fish), or baked with herbs,  I like almost any kind of fish and the more simply cooked the better. I like the sound of squid with almonds, pine nuts and currants, but no, I could not be bothered stuffing a sardine even though there is an enchanting picture of some fisherman hauling them in with their nets.

Vegetables had an important place on the medieval table.  They were not accompaniments.  Many meals were of necessity meatless, but even wealthy people ate imaginatively created vegetable dishes as a main course.  The basic recipe was potage i.e. boiled with a piece of fresh or salted meat and served with bread and maybe some of the meat.  (Yes, I can see the vegetarians among us shuddering at the thought of it).  The vegetables could be enriched with eggs, cheese or meat, or almond milk in Lent.  Legumes, not as highly valued as vegetables, came into their own during Lent when religion forbad the eating of meat.

Santich has chosen recipes to appeal to modern tastes where the vegetable is the star of the show: fried asparagus,  stuffed eggplant, (or have them Moorish style with coriander and pecorino or parmesan).  (There’s an intriguing illustration for eggplants: there seems to be some kind of dalliance going on, but the eggplants are growing higher than the people.  I’ve never seen them growing to such a height and I’m not sure if this is just a medieval problem with perspective or a variety I’ve never yet seen.) There are plenty of recipes for broad beans because they were so very common on the medieval table, but I skipped the page about *ugh* cabbage and likewise the turnips.  (I note also that there are no recipes for zucchini muffins which are a staple at our place during the season.)  Spinach was often paired with currants, a bizarre combo but it’s suggested as an accompaniment to ham.

Pies were medieval street food, sold by hawkers in the towns, but torte were more elaborate.  There’s a quail pie with pine nuts and pancetta, and chicken and pork pies, plus a cheesecake and a ravioli.  Desserts, alas, were not part of the medieval menu; sweet things were served with other dishes, though marzipan, biscuits and wafers were usually served last with a sweet wine called hypocras. Most of these recipes are fritters or one sort or another, including one called ‘the Emperor’s fritters’, made with ricotta, egg whites, pine nuts and icing sugar.  The one that interests me is the recipe for marzipan because I’ve never come across that before, and it actually looks quite easy. There’s also an appealing recipe for Figs with Rose Petals, but alas, I can never bring myself to pick roses just to eat them so I’m pleased to see that you can just sprinkle the figs with rosewater instead.

Apart from its recipes being appealing to the modern palate and easy enough to make, this book is interesting in its own right.  The Mediterranean diet is commonly recommended as one of the healthiest ways to eat, and this book shows you its origins in recipes that are still being made today.

Author: Barbara Santich
Title: The Original Mediterranean Cuisine, Medieval Recipes for Today
Publisher: Second edition Wakefield Press, 2020, first published in 1995
ISBN: 9781743056424, hbk., 205 pages
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval recipes for today or direct from Wakefield Pressor your favourite indie bookshop.


I read this short story by Guy de Maupassant because I have plans to watch the film with a friend of mine who’s also learning French.

The film appears to have an interesting little history. According to Wikipedia:

Partie de campagne is a 1936 French featurette written and directed by Jean Renoir. It was released as A Day in the Country in the United States. The film is based on the short story “Une partie de campagne” (1881) by Guy de Maupassant, who was a friend of Renoir’s father, the renowned painter Auguste Renoir. It chronicles a love affair over a single summer afternoon in 1860 along the banks of the Seine.

Renoir never finished filming due to weather problems, but producer Pierre Braunberger turned the material into a release in 1946, ten years after it was shot. Joseph Burstyn released the film in the U.S. in 1950.

The short story ‘A Day in the Country’ is in my freebie edition, Original Short Stories Vol 12 by Guy de Maupassant, which I acquired for the Kindle a good while ago.  It isn’t very forthcoming with publishing details.  It credits a producer as David Widget, and mentions translators as Albert M.C. McMaster, A.E. Henderson and Mms Quesada and Others, and also acknowledges ‘Public Domain Books’.  These details are the same as the 2004 edition named as The Entire Original Maupassant Short Stories at Project Gutenberg but my edition doesn’t have the usual yada-yada about the Gutenberg terms of use and licence.  Which it should have if that’s the source of it.


It seems a slight story to turn into an 80 minute film: it’s only about 4000 words and it only took 15 minutes to read, if that.  But as always with Maupassant, there’s always more to it than that.

Monsieur Dufour, an ironmonger in Paris, takes his family for a long-desired day in the country to celebrate Madame Dufour’s birthday.   He borrows the milkman’s wagon; Grandma, Dufour’s daughter Henriette and the apprentice come too. Their sentimental expectations are disappointed soon after Madame Dufour exclaims her delight at being in the countryside at last:

The sun was beginning to burn their faces, the dust got into their eyes, and on either side of the road there stretched an interminable tract of bare, ugly country with an unpleasant odour. One might have thought that it had been ravaged by a pestilence, which had even attacked the buildings, for skeletons of dilapidated and deserted houses, or small cottages, which were left in an unfinished state, because the contractors had not been paid, reared their four roofless walls on each side. Here and there tall factory chimneys rose up from the barren soil. The only vegetation on that putrid land, where the spring breezes wafted an odour of petroleum and slate, blended with another odour that was even less agreeable. (Guy de Maupassant, Original Short Stories — Volume 12 . Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition, Loc. 63.)

But things improve as they cross the Seine again and when they reach Bezons they stop at a roadside inn for lunch.  Some testiness in the Dufour relationship is subtly revealed: “Well, Madame Dufour, will this suit you? Will you make up your mind at last?” he says, and she takes her own sweet time to consider it.  Her stout appearance and superabundant bosom forced up by her straining corsets to her double chin have already been noted; and whereas Henriette attracts the interest of some young men when she launches herself from a swing with a pretty show of leg and hair blowing free when her hat comes off, alas, Madame Dufour can’t get herself off the ground.  If you look at the DVD cover at Wikipedia she doesn’t seem as chubby as all that,  but the text is quite explicit:

Sitting in the other swing, Madame Dufour kept saying in a monotonous voice: “Cyprian, come and swing me; do come and swing me, Cyprian!” At last he went, and turning up his shirt sleeves, as if undertaking a hard piece of work, with much difficulty he set his wife in motion […] and her whole figure shook like a jelly on a dish. (Loc. 87)

Maupassant pre-dates the concept of fat-shaming.


The two young men who have been watching Henriette take the opportunity to start a conversation when they offer the Dufours their table.  Attired in boating costumes, they are contrasted with the yellow-haired apprentice though it’s not explicit.  Since he and Dufour get drunk, he doesn’t get much of a mention in any of what follows, not until the end of the story:

They were sun-browned and their thin cotton jerseys, with short sleeves, showed their bare arms, which were as strong as a blacksmith’s. They were two strong, athletic fellows, who showed in all their movements that elasticity and grace of limb which can only be acquired by exercise and which is so different to the deformity with which monotonous heavy work stamps the mechanic. (Loc.111)

The young men offer to take the ladies up the river in their boats. Henri (who has the good fortune to have a name similar to Henriette’s) wangles it so that he rows the pretty young girl while the other made a martyr of himself and took the mother.

Well, the unexpected twist is that Henriette is indignant about Henri’s advances, and she calls a hostile halt to the flirtation.  Returning to the inn…

…they walked rapidly, side by side, without speaking or touching each other, for they seemed to have become irreconcilable enemies, as if disgust and hatred had arisen between them. (Loc 183)…

…while the ‘martyr’ turns out to have had an unexpected pleasure:

By and by they heard a noise behind a bush, and the stout lady appeared, looking rather confused, and her companion’s face was wrinkled with smiles which he could not check. (Loc. 183)

The family goes back to Paris, farewelling the young men with only a sigh and a tear.  When two months later, Henri calls in at the shop, he learns that Henriette is married: the apprentice has joined the business.  And in case we needed confirmation of Madame Dufour’s interest in his friend, there is this exchange.

He was going out, feeling very unhappy, though scarcely knowing why, when Madame called him back.
“And how is your friend?” she asked rather shyly.
“He is very well, thank you.”
“Please give him our compliments, and beg him to come and call, when he is in the neighbourhood.”
She then added: “Tell him it will give me great pleasure.”
“I will be sure to do so. Adieu!”
“Do not say that; come again very soon.” (Loc. 206)

A year later, he returns to the scene of his abortive dalliance, to find Henriette sitting sadly on the grass, while by her side, still in his shirt sleeves, the young man with the yellow hair was sleeping soundly, like some animal.  They share nostalgic memories of that day:

…when he told her that he was very fond of that spot, and went there frequently on Sundays to indulge in memories, she looked into his eyes for a long time.
“I too, think of it,” she replied.
“Come, my dear,” her husband said, with a yawn. “I think it is time for us to be going.” (Loc. 206)

I gather from the summary at Wikipedia that the film takes liberties with this story, and we shall have to see if it has the same mildly cynical tone.  But FWIW, I think this short story has a similar preoccupation to Maupassant’s 1889 novel Like Death which I reviewed here.  In that novel happiness is thwarted by the ambition to make a good marriage in Paris; in this short story Henriette (who we can assume is an Dufour’s only heir) is herself complicit in rejecting happiness in order to keep the young apprentice in the family business.

Update 21/1/21: Well, we watched the film, and it is different.  The testiness between the husband and wife is gone, and although she does go off in the boat with the young man and giggles a lot, it’s not because the husband and the apprentice have fallen asleep after drinking too much wine, it’s because the young boatmen have lent them some fishing rods.  It’s not at all clear that there’s been hanky-panky between the mother and the young man because they have cut entirely the scene where in Paris, she makes it clear that she would very much like to see him again, and sooner rather than late.  It’s still a good film, but it would have been better without the coyness and the clichéd Hollywood music.

Author: Guy de Maupassant
Title: Original Short Stories Vol 12
Publisher: Freebie Kindle Edition, probably sourced from The Entire Original Maupassant Short Stories at Project Gutenberg 2004.  I haven’t been able to find the first date of publication for this story.

There is a more modern translation by David Coward available in the Oxford World’s Classics edition A Day in the Country and Other Stories. As always with this series, it has perfectly appropriate cover art for its title story.  Available from Fishpond: A Day in the Country and Other Stories (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at Marvellous Maupassant.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 11, 2021

An Angel in Australia, by Tom Keneally

Shortlisted for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award, and nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award, An Angel in Australia is the 29th novel of the prolific Australian author Thomas (Tom) Keneally.   It’s a very interesting book, and one worth seeking out.

Although it’s not the focus of the novel, nor is it explicit, An Angel in Australia is also a novel which acknowledges clerical sexual abuse.  The focus is exposing the problem of the sanctity of the confessional, and the dilemma faced by a priest when he knows that lives are at stake, including his own.

The priest Fr. Frank Darragh who hears this abhorrent confession is young, naïve and idealistic, and all the confessions he’s heard so far have been about minor sins.  Unlike the more cynical of the other young priests with whom he plays tennis at White City, he does not find the banality of confession tedious. Darragh is wholly sincere, and parishioners queue on his side of the church because he is gentle with them.  He is shocked to the core when another young priest confesses what he has done, and his furious response startles this perpetrator who expected mercy and thinks that trying ‘to make amends’ will achieve absolution for his crime.  Darragh’s demand that the perpetrator admit his crime to the authority of his superior comes to nothing because the young priest runs away.

It is more than merely disconcerting to read the likely consequences had he stayed and admitted his crime.

There was a silence beyond the curtain.  Darragh could guess that the young brother was most fearful of being made to do that; to admit to such a crime in front of the head of his community.  He had hoped that what he had done to the boy was now walled up forever in Darragh’s brain, bound never to emerge.  But if a condition of being absolved was that the young man tell Brother Keogh, there would be no red-velvet secrecy.  He would be required to go on retreat, a time of withdrawal and reflection at a monastery.  He would be sent to another school with a cloud over his name.  The most senior men in the order might be warned of him, and the chief sin of his life. (p.51)

Reading this is an unambiguous reminder that this was the institutional response to clerical abuse, to move perpetrators on and to hope that it would not happen again.  Keneally does not flinch from making it clear to his readers.

It is war-time, Sydney in 1942, and a missing priest is of no consequence except to Darragh, and soon, he has another crisis to deal with.  There is widespread anxiety about a likely Japanese invasion, and the city is full of American soldiers flirting with the local women.  One of these men, an African-American called Gervaise, also comes to confession, because he hadn’t understood that the friendliness of Australians towards them did not extend to sexual relations between black men and white women.  It is through Fr. Darragh’s contact with this man that Fr. Darragh makes the acquaintance of a military policemen called Fratelli.

The shadow of the Depression lingers and Mrs Kate Heggarty is not averse to receiving gifts from a generous American who will enable her to get by in dignity while her husband is a German POW.  But — emblematic of the power and influence of the churches at this time — she is also a Catholic, and she consults Fr. Darragh outside the confessional because she wants him to know that her reasons for dalliance have more to do with the fear of poverty than sexual attraction.  This consultation at the presbytery means that Fr. Darragh is not hampered by the anonymity of the confessional, and he visits her to try to change her mind.  Prompted by gossip, he also visits Mrs Flood, a lapsed Catholic in a ménage a trois with her husband and a firebrand Communist, and feels himself a failure when he has no impact on their arrangements either.


All these threads come together when a woman is murdered; and within the confessional Fr. Darragh learns the identity of the murderer.  The newspapers make suspicion out of his refusal to breach the sanctity of confession, and his superiors are less than supportive, but the real tension in the narrative comes from his realisation that there are men and women at continuing risk and that his knowledge makes him vulnerable as well.  The arrival of Japanese submarines in Sydney Harbour provides an exciting climax.

Not long after the publication of An Angel in Australia, Peter Pierce acknowledged Keneally’s place in Australian literature with these words:

Keneally can sometimes seem the nearest that we have to a Balzac of our literature; he is in his own rich and idiosyncratic ways the author of an Australian ‘human comedy’. (Wikipedia, Thomas Keneally page, viewed 11/1/21)

Like Balzac, Keneally puts a human face on issues that are troubling.  One of Balzac’s most memorable stories is An Episode Under the Terror (the period under Robespierre following the execution of Louis XVI) in which he explores the guilt of the executioner.  As I say in my summary at Goodreads:

The stranger claims to be guiltless, yet his grief and repentance is profound. He asks the priest the question which has bedevilled moralists from Henry VIII to the Nuremburg Trials: should participation in evil acts be punished when one is only following orders? For him there are two competing dogmas: obedience as the first principle of military law versus respect for the king as a matter of religion.

An Angel in Australia shows us that for the priests caught up in the tangle of heinous crimes and their strongly held religious beliefs about the sanctity of the confessional, it is not a simple matter of right and wrong.  In a secular society like ours, where the need to protect victims is paramount, this is a very difficult issue indeed.

Keneally’s writing, however, is often beautiful, as Balzac’s rarely is.  This scene comes from Fr. Darragh’s forced retreat, when he is troubled, amongst other things, about the impact of the scurrilous anti-Catholic press on his mother, who gave up so much to help her only child fulfil his vocation:

He took the hiking trail again.  There was in the Australian bush today, after yesterday’s blankness of fog, an impassive air.  The eucalypts gave the sense of being not only pre-Christian and thus indifferent, but pre-human and thus doubly indifferent.  The trees, tall in knowledge, continued to keep to themselves all that Darragh had no doubt they possessed.  The idea of an answer encoded among these great, shaggy-barked, smooth-fleshed shafts was sustaining, and he would not like to have been stripped of that expectation.  He would not have minded being, for the next moment, hour, or forever, motherless Adam, and for this neutral vegetation to cover the entire planet not already covered by the chiding blue of the distant sea.  (p.246)

I read this book now to make some room on the TBR, but now I don’t want to part with it.

Author: Tom (Thomas) Keneally
Title: An Angel in Australia
Publisher: Doubleday, Transworld (Random House Australia), 2002
ISBN: 9781864710014, first edition hbk, 336 pages
Source: personal library, bought second-hand, $18.00

Available (new and second-hand) from Fishpond: An Angel In Australia

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2021

The Architect, by Jillian Watkinson

My first Australian novel for 2021 has been long out of print, but it was an excellent choice to start my reading year.

The Architect was the debut novel of Jillian Watkinson, and (under the title ‘Shoelaces’) it won the 1999 inaugural Best Manuscript in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, and was also shortlisted for the 2001 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.  Watkinson published a further novel called The Hanging Tree in 2004, but I haven’t been able to find much else about her except that she submitted a MPhil Thesis called ‘Beachcomber’s Bed’ in 2007.

The Architect is harrowing reading, but full of insights such as this one…

Clint and Jules are visiting a cattle-station owned by Jock who doesn’t realise that one-armed Jules (the architect) can only use his remaining arm with the aid of a hidden splint and can’t do something as everyday as opening the gates for the cattle to go through.

At the yards Clint rescues me from the improbable task.  He is laughing as he uncovers his face from a blue bandanna.  I think that I have never heard Clint laugh.  He steps from a saddle, a Drysdale caricature come to animation, and until now I have had no reference point from which to understand that painter’s interpretation of the Australian land’s impact on a person.  Clint drinks from a canteen, gargles and spits; sinew and bone, the body desiccated by the idea of dust and ashes, stretched between earth and sky, the elongation necessary to accommodate a searching soul. (p.248)

I have always associated Drysdale’s elongated figures with Modigliani, so I like this alternative conception of the ‘searching soul’. I also like the clever way Jules’s origins outside Australia are signalled not just by his unfamiliarity with rural Australian but also by the grammatical correctness and slightly stilted formality of his narration.  It’s not exaggerated; it’s just right.


Jules has been badly burned in a motorcycle accident, 60% of his body according to Donna whose narration begins the novel.  (There are multiple narrators). She is a burnt-out nurse, anguished that she has become inured to the pain she witnesses in the burns unit where she works.  She expected Jules to die, and her narration of his suffering spares the reader very little.  Improbably, he survives, and she defers her resignation until he leaves hospital.  She then becomes his carer, not just helping him with everyday life, but also tending to his ruined body while for years he endures skin grafts, infections and pain not fully ameliorated by morphine.  Watkinson has been a registered nurse and though no one else can feel another’s pain, this account breathes authenticity and it lays bare what must be real life for burns victims who we hear about in the media.

At the same time, Jules has to adapt: he can no longer express his creativity.  He is a world-renowned architect, an internationally famous photo-journalist, and he painted and played the guitar. But it is not only his physical disability depicted in this novel: he has retreated into himself. He was always a private person anyway, hiding his inability to love behind an aloof public persona of elegant clothes and style.  A succession of failed relationships including estrangement from his children emerges as Donna’s duties include dealing with his international financial transactions and messages via answer-machine and email.  Jules is a very flawed character, never going to be the ‘inspirational’ role model for disability, buttressed by a supportive family.

However, an architectural team develops a way for him to contribute to a major project despite his inability to draw, and he finds himself having to fend off sexual attraction from Peter (who is bi) and Peter’s lover Chloe, a blind potter.  Donna falls a little bit in love with him too, but both these women become furious with him because he conceals himself.  He manipulates his movements so that he is freed from Chloe’s pity but this disempowers her: she does not know what everyone else can see and has not told her, reinforcing her blindness.  Donna is furious because he disempowers her too.  It is her professional responsibility to care for him, and his stoicism makes this impossible. When he finally cracks after many months, she is appalled that out of fear he has denied himself relief that could have been available.

The characterisation of people transcending disability is powerful.  It’s not just Chloe who makes beautiful (bankable) pots; Marc, who witnessed Jules’s accident is a doctor in a wheelchair.  There’s a lovely moment when he is lifted into the saddle by his brothers and boasts as he canters back to Jules that, see, there’s nothing he can’t do. To which his brother Jock replies laconically, ‘You’re lousy at housework.’   It’s moments like this that make Jules yearn for the unspoken understandings that come with family life.  But there are also moments that de-romanticise the idea of invincible disability: Jules puts a book out of reach when he doesn’t want Marc to see it; Jules can’t tie his own shoelaces or open that gate.  He doesn’t care much about the gate, though he’d rather be ‘rescued’ than have to ask for help, but he does want to wear shoes with laces.

From what I could see of Watkinson’s description of her MPhil thesis, she was interested in subverting the romance genre, and she certainly does that in this novel.  Marc and Clint are looking for a father-figure from a man who has failed fatherhood; everyone is looking for openness from a man whose career turns out to have demanded concealment; and the love interests all know that sex doesn’t yield the intimacy that they want.

It’s a very interesting book.

Author: Jillian Watkinson
Title: The Architect
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2000
ISBN: 9780702231841, pbk., 279 pages
Source: personal library

Availability: out of print.



If you weren’t too busy with festive season frivolity, you may remember a couple of December posts I did about books that had arrived in time only for me to suggest them as Christmas presents.  I provided this description of Pride of Place, Exploring the Grimwade Collection, edited by Alisa Bunbury

A stunningly packaged hardback exploring the rich visual and textual material in the Grimwade Collection, and providing a unique perspective on Australia’s history.
The Russell and Mab Grimwade Bequest comprises a rich and sometimes unexpected variety of art, books and objects. A scientist, businessman and philanthropist, Sir Russell had wide-ranging interests embracing industry, history and botany. In all of these he was strongly supported by his wife Mab. The core of the bequest is Russell’s collection of visual and textual material, which provides a perspective on the European exploration of the Pacific and the British colonisation and settlement of Australia. His keen interest resulted in an extensive body of prints, drawings, watercolours and books, as well as oil paintings, decorative arts and personal records. These are jointly housed by the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art, Special Collections (Library) and University Archives. Pride of Place is the first publication to explore the diversity of this remarkable collection. In this beautifully illustrated book, numerous experts share their interpretations of its highlights, responding to past historical attitudes and offering twenty-first century insights.

Pride of Place is a very beautiful, lavishly illustrated book for lovers of history, but there is much more to it than it seems at first glance.  As the introduction explains, this collection was gathered at a time when people thought very differently about exploration, colonisation and the acquisition of artefacts from other civilisations. Today’s attitudes are more respectful, and this requires a thoughtful reinterpretation of the materials in the collection.

There are all sorts of interesting snippets, *chuckle* such as the origin of the ‘man bun.’ Contrary to the light-hearted explanation at Vox, its first appearance in European circles may date from Sydney Parkinson’s 18th century portrait of a chieftain in New Zealand.  ‘Head of a New Zealander’ is in Alexander Dalrymple’s 1770-71 book about Cook’s voyage to New Zealand in 1769, and you can see it here. The discussion about this portrait is not (of course) as I have framed it on the origin of the ‘man bun’ but on the cultural significance of the young man’s appearance.  His ornaments indicate his chiefly status:

…a tall titireia (whalebone comb) inserted upright behind his piki (a smooth, tight, barrel-roll hairstyle that shows both his high rank and his region).  (p.43).

The contributor to this section of the chapter is one of a distinguished group of academics and experts who contextualise the items in the collection through a contemporary lens.  Dr Patricia Te Arapo Wallace is an adjunct fellow at the Aotahi School of Maori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury.  Her specialty is interdisciplinary research of traditional Maori dress, textiles and technology, and she not only explains the significance of features in this portrait, but also contributes this snippet of information that conveys so much about contemporary interpretations of items like this:

Dalrymple’s book was read by officers on board the Endeavour as a source of earlier information about Pacific exploration.  Joseph Banks referred to him when he noted a particular Maori garment: ‘It was tied on exactly as represented in Mr Dalrymple’s book, p.63’.  It was this observation, combined with a number of sketches by Parkinson and Cook’s other graphic artists that eventually led to the recovery of the tapeka, a traditional method of wrapping a cloak around the body that slipped out of practice and was forgotten during the process of colonisation. (p.43)

It’s chastening to realise that an unintended benefit of some colonial-era artwork can lead to the recovery of some cultural traditions.

Discussing another artwork by Parkinson, ‘Two of the Natives of New Holland, advancing to combat’ (which you can see here) Dr Shane Ingray, a Dunghutti/Dharawal man from the La Perouse community wrote his contribution with the Gadhungal Research Group, and these words are well worth noting:

Events of [Cook’s] eight-day ‘visit, which started on 29 April 1770 and was recorded by Cook, Banks and Parkinson, among others, generate mixed feelings for our community.  The natural, initial feelings as a Gamayngal person are usually sadness, anger and unforgiving dislike towards these initial intruders.  They stole weapons and removed plants from Country without permission, and made first contact with our people by firing shots from their muskets.  The events also represent the prelude to what happened eighteen years later and the start of the end for traditional life as we knew it.  Beyond these feelings, though, this depiction of two men can provide an educational experience and complement cultural knowledge still held in our community today.

He goes on to explain cultural aspects of the image, pointing out that the men depicted were upholding their cultural obligations when the visitors breached protocol, and then goes on to make a generous assessment of this artwork’s value in the present day:

…the educational value of this image outweighs the negative feelings that will always be associated with its history.  The family stories, local history and cultural perspective of the image evoke positive emotions as well: feelings of bravery, pride and resilience, a desire to stand strong no matter what, and the fighting spirit that are the characteristics many of our young community members possess—the same people who will one day be our leaders. (p.45)

Another of Parkinson’s artworks discussed in the same chapter is ‘A View of Endeavour River on the Coast of New Holland’ (which you can see here).  Alberta Hornsby, a First Nations woman connected to Ankkamuthi, Guugu Yimidhirr, Kuku Yalanji, Yidinji and Gangalida communities in Far North Queensland, contributes information that shows how lucky Cook was to land where he did when he struck the Great Barrier Reef and needed repairs on land.  Parkinson’s sketch is the first European-drawn landscape of Australia’s east coast.

This place is Waymburr, home to the Waymburr Warra clan, one of thirty-two clans of the Guugu Yimidhirr-speaking tribal area.  The bay is the mouth of the Walmbaal River, the river that Cook re-named the Endeavour River and it is the present-day site of the township of Cooktown.

Parkinson captures a feeling of tranquillity in this landscape.  Unbeknown to the artist, this place is embedded in Lore: it is a place of neutrality and peacefulness, where neighbouring clans visit to settle disputes, and conduct initiations and ceremonies.  It is a place where no blood is to be spilt. (p.47)

I wonder how many of the inhabitants of Cooktown know this fundamental aspect of their town’s history?

I haven’t finished reading the book but I wanted to post about these elements of Chapter One (‘Southern Seas’), because they seem to me to be emblematic of the book.  The selection of items from the collection serve to illustrate a different way of looking at our complex and contested history, in a way similar to Ochre and Rust, by Philip Jones. Ochre and Rust explored the histories of artefacts that represent the collision of Aboriginal and European culture, and it celebrated the innovative ways in which Indigenous people adapted their ancient technologies to take advantage of those which arrived with European settlement.  What’s different, though, in Pride of Place is the editorial choice to be inclusive in the choice of contributors to interrogate European artefacts, and this gives this book a role to play in the national debate, which is always fraught as Australia Day looms at the end of the month.

There’s another item which attracted my attention: Alexander Shaw’s Catalogue of the Different Specimens of Cloth Collected in the Three Voyages of Captain Cook (1787).  According to Dr Billie Lythberg, Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland, whose specialty is exploring first exchanges between European and Pacific peoples, bark cloths were given to newcomers as a technology of containment to control their potentially dangerous mana (personal potency).  These beautiful cloths, intricately and delicately stitched, were essential to the establishment and maintenance of relationships.  Cook and his crew received these gifts of bark cloth during their voyages, but their artists could not conceive a way to represent their real meanings, sometimes resorting to romanticised portraits instead. Shaw, however, a bookseller and dealer in London, conceived the idea of gathering samples and making a book out of them.

Unique and beautiful, the Grimwade volume is an assemblage of meetings and presentations preserved in material form.


More than a mere interweaving of paper and cloth, more than miniature collections, these are artful compendia of mediations—between people and between worlds. (p.61)

Pride of Place is a form of mediation too, and it made me think about things differently. That is what I value in books more than anything else.

PS In the same chapter but in a section by book historian, curator and librarian at the State Library, Dr Anna Welch, I was fascinated to discover that Grimwade’s enthusiasm for collecting led to an eccentric item in the collection.  It’s Réstif de la Bretonne’s 1781 work of proto-science fiction.  It has a very long title in French, which translates to The Discovery of a Southern Land by a Flying Man, or, The French Daedalus.  It’s the only work of speculative fiction in the collection, somewhat out of place, perhaps, among all the NF texts in English about the real exploration of the Pacific by Europeans.  The novel’s rather fanciful plot anticipates piloted flying machines (i.e. the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon in 1783) but also fuses French Enlightenment scientific and philosophical thought with satirical utopian fiction in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726.)  And we have this treasure right here in Melbourne! Maybe one day it will get an outing during Rare Books Week? (I reported on Anna’s Rare Book Week presentation about marginalia in 2019. She’s one of our city’s cultural treasures, IMO).

PPS The Potter Museum of Art, which houses the Grimwade Collection is closed for redevelopment at the moment, but according to their website, they are still hosting a program of events at different venues. Covid_19 notwithstanding, I’d be surprised if they didn’t offer an exhibition from the Grimwade Collection to coincide with the publication of this book. To find out what’s on and where, you can subscribe to their newsletter here.

About the editor: Alisa Bunbury has been Grimwade Collection Curator at the University of Melbourne since 2017. Prior to this she was Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of South Australia for many years. She has researched and curated exhibitions on numerous topics and now specialises in Australian colonial art. She also undertakes independent work and has received fellowships from State Library Victoria and the National Library of Australia.

Update 20/1/21 I’ve been reading this book on and off over the last ten days and tonight I finished the book.  It really is revelatory… it’s been teaching me a whole new way of looking at colonial art and its artefacts.  The chapter on Melbourne is (of course) especially interesting to me, not just because of the artworks, but because of the stories behind them.  (Fascinating to realise that for Grimwade, the Gold Rush was recent history, and Bushrangers were within living memory.) I also really liked the chapter on botanical art because it’s a favourite of mine.  For anyone interested in the relationship between art and history, this book is a treasure. 

Editor: Alisa Bunbury
Title: Pride of Place, Exploring the Grimwade Collection
Publisher: Miegunyah Press,
ISBN: 9780522876383, , hbk, 281 pages inclusive of 25 pages of Notes to the Reader, Abbreviations, Notes, an Index and Acknowledgements.
Review copy courtesy of Melbourne University Publishing.

Available from the MUP Bookshop, ($59.99 RRP) and good bookshops everywhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 5, 2021

I Claudius, by Robert Graves

The first book I’ve finished in our brand new year is I Claudius, the fictional autobiography of the accidental emperor of Ancient Rome, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus (10BC-AD54).  I wanted to read it because of my interest in Ancient Rome (which I studied at university when I did Classics.)

For those of us of a certain age, it’s impossible to read this book without remembering the characters from the 1976 BBC series starring Derek Jacobi. It’s still available in various re-mastered editions, and it’s still good entertainment despite showing its age in terms of special effects, scenery and costuming.

The book, however, is a bit arduous to read.  My edition comes in at 395 pages, but the font is small and dense, and most modern editions are 450+ pages. Robert Graves (1895-1985) based his historical novel on real events in the early Roman Empire using Tacitus and Suetonius  as sources, and he spares his readers no detail.  Since the participants in the history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty were an ambitious lot, much given to disposing of rivals in a variety of duplicitous ways, they adopted alternative heirs and successors willy-nilly and made things harder to follow by being wilfully unimaginative in naming offspring with the same old names over and over again.  Which is why, when I started this book way back in August 2019, I abandoned it at page 67 and watched the TV series on DVD to clarify who was what and which ones had been bumped off and why.  I then progressed to page 177 but the book got moved off the coffee table to make way for 2019 Christmas revelry (which we were allowed to have in those pre-Covid days, remember?) And then I forgot about it, except when I looked at my Goodreads ‘currently reading’ status, where it dropped down lower and lower as other shiny new books took its place.

So in very late 2020 I had to start at the beginning again…

The take-home message, cleared of all the murders and plots and depravity, is that somehow Rome was by and large a stable society.  Yes there were assorted ‘barbarians’ at the borders that needed to be quelled, but the enthusiasm for that was largely because soldiers and their leaders were handsomely rewarded.  It’s telling that when Claudius slinks off to his estate to avoid the horror of Caligula’s lunatic reign, his slave Calpurnia is able to help him restore his financial fortunes.  She hasn’t needed to spend the money he gave her in return for her wise advice; it’s there to help him out after Caligula has bled him dry.  While the  Senate is too craven to rein in any emperor’s excesses, the ordinary people went on farming and selling produce and paying their taxes, largely free of the shenanigans in Rome.

By the standards of contemporary historical fiction, I, Claudius isn’t all that great.  Attention to depicting the historical setting is perfunctory, and the opportunities for characterisation are wasted.  Yes, Livia is a manipulative, ambitious woman with a penchant for poisoning rivals and enemies, but the reader never learns why she stoops to the depths of such wickedness.  The only explanation that can be inferred is that she’s ambitious and power-hungry, but that’s not really enough to explain her depravity.  The only time we see her as a human being with feelings is when she is near to death (as they all were in that family, all the time, given the way things were) and she begs Claudius to ensure that the Senate will make her a goddess after her death, because goddesses are immune from eternal punishment.  Repentance or remorse are not on her agenda.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh, but it seems to me that all the characters, with the exception of Claudius the narrator, are Dickensian caricatures minus the humour.  Augustus is a Blustering Fool, Germanicus is a Noble Big Brother too honourable for his own good, Livia is a Wicked Woman and Tiberius is Paranoid.  We never understand the motivations or sensibilities of any of these characters, except through the prism of jealousy and ambition.  Though Graves is coy about sadomasochism and pederasty, if not for the salacious details of murder and intrigue, nobody would bother to read this novel, and even then it wears thin.  I was very tired of Caligula by the last chapters and just wanted him to depart the stage.

There are better classics to read than this one.

Image credit: By Source, Fair use,

Author: Robert Graves
Title: I Claudius, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, Emperor of the Romans, Born BC 10, Murdered and Deified Ad 54 (Claudius #1)
Publisher: The Great Writers Series, Marshall Cavendish, 1988, first published 1934
ISBN: 0863077021, hbk., 395 pages, including a family tree of the Imperial Family.
Source: Personal library, $12 second-hand

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 4, 2021

2020: ANZ LitLovers stats

Right up until a week ago, I didn’t think I could do this analysis because back in June I’d lost all my data and still hadn’t finished recreating the lost file.  I’d been plodding away, a bit here and there, but in early December I was still back in the noughties.  But somehow, here we are!

I’ve read 163 books this year,  and eight of those books were chunksters which helped to make up a total of 43,629 pages (according to Goodreads, that is).

Reading by nationality, region and diverse heritage

Which nationalities did I read? This year I’ve spared you a graph which shows every country I read from, and simply grouped them by region.  Of course there are lots more Australian authors (90 books), but the UK & Ireland (20+6 respectively) made a reasonable showing which I put down to my ‘attendance’ at the digital Edinburgh Festival.  Europe & Russia (15 + 1 respectively) edge out books from the US & Canada (9 +1 respectively) but there were only three from New Zealand compared to 20 in 2019 when I went to the Auckland Writers Festival.  I read 6 books from African countries and 6 from Asian and SE Asia, 3 from the Indian subcontinent and the others are negligible.

But what these stats do not show is the diversity that lies behind the Australian books I read.  Excel has a new feature which offered to plot this data on a map, which looks cute, but isn’t actually very helpful.  (It did not know what to do with the ‘Indigenous’ Category, or ‘Australian First Nations’, so I had to enter ‘Australia’ to make it show that I read 8 books by Indigenous authors.)  Visually, it looks as if there were a lot of Australian authors with a Chinese heritage, but actually there was only one: and I cannot see what it has done with Sienna Brown’s Jamaican heritage — it should be off the coast of Florida somewhere.  I read two authors whose heritage is from India (shaded red), and the other countries shaded blue to represent one author were China, England, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, South Africa and South Sudan.

And as always, the diversity of the authors I read is always a matter of intelligent guesswork using whatever is in the public domain.  I have no doubt that there are others not represented here and if you visit my Diversity page and find errors or omissions, please let me know.

New releases vs the TBR

Once again there were no surprises when I came to look at the Year of Publication and despite everything it looks pretty much as it did last year: 76 new releases from 2020.  I did what I could to support the Australian publishing industry by buying new releases (from Australian bookshops) and I did my best to read as many of them as I could. However, you can also see that the TBR for C20th books had a little attention, but progress with 1001 Books was a feeble 4 books.


Next up was Gender: In 2020, 46% of my authors were male, 50% were female, and 3% were co-authored by male and female authors.  Overall, the percentages for male/female reviews over the life of this blog (i.e. since 2008) have been more or less stable, currently 51% male authors, 47% female and 2% M&F co-authored. As I’ve said in previous years— if there are still people claiming that women don’t get a fair go when it comes to being reviewed, then they are choosing to ignore what’s happening online and privileging the prestige of print over digital.  (Which also means that they are privileging male reviewers over female ones because male reviewers dominate the print media.)

Exploring new horizons

Tracking whether one is reading familiar authors or venturing into new territory is an idea that comes from Annabel Queen of Reading Stats, but this year I have tracked it for all my authors, not just Australian ones.  Though the graph doesn’t show it, I read 10 debut Australian authors this year,  and there are more on the TBR which I didn’t have time to get to. So, no, while I love my favourite authors I am not stuck in a rut!

Fiction vs NF

Now for non-fiction and fiction: no surprises here, 25% of my reading is non fiction and 75% is fiction, up a little on last year. I read 5 collections of short stories, one play and the rest was novels or novellas.  No complaints please: that’s what I like to read.

This year, I haven’t bothered with graphs to analyse patterns in the NF genres I read. I mainly read history and current affairs (in the form of journals from Quarterly Essay and Australian Foreign Affairs), but I also read biography (especially literary bios).  Although I’m not keen on memoir, I read eleven of them all the same because they were about interesting people who’d done interesting things. (BTW If there are any publicists browsing this post, be warned: I have no intention of reading any moaning memoirs about Covid or Lockdown.  We all had our crosses to bear this year, and there was a surfeit of complaint on the ABC every day and I do not want to read another word of it. Ever.)

What may be of interest is that I read six books which could be categorised as travel. Usually I read up on places I plan to visit, but that’s obviously off the menu and travel even within Australia looks risky with hard borders popping up any time there’s an outbreak.  I don’t care for armchair travel — I want the real thing — so my choices might seem a bit perverse but each of the six was much more than a travel book.  Four of them were also opportunities to learn history (The Woman Who Sailed the World; Rivers, the Lifeblood of Australia; The Third Tower, Journeys in Italy and In the Steps of the Master.  OTOH Spinoza’s Overcoat, Travels with Writers and Poets was a gorgeous book retracing the steps of some of our great European writers, and A Mouthful of Petals, Three Years in an Indian Village was an inspiring look at the work of a young couple volunteering to help others in dire poverty.


Then, translations: 12% of the books I read were translations, and and the only one not a novel was The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich.  As usual I read more from Europe than anywhere else, but as I’ve said before that’s hardly surprising because Europe provides a lot more support to translations and there’s more variety in what’s available.  I read less from Asia this year because my Indonesian book-group was suspended and then re-launched on Zoom, and by then I had had enough of Zoom so I let it slide. I’ve only finished one book in French this year, though I started one and disliked it so was very relieved when French book group was suspended.  I mislaid another (Petit pays by Gael Faye) but have now found it and will resume reading as soon as I finish the last of my 2020 half-finished books.

As you can see 36% of the translations I read were by female authors compared to 63% of males, down from 42% and 58% respectively in 2019.  But it is an improvement on my starting point in 2018 i.e. 25% / 75% respectively, and much better than the oft-quoted norm of under 15% women writers in translation.  I read less in translation overall for the simple reason that in 2020 I was aiming to support the local writing and publishing community.


Where did all these books come from?  48% came from my own personal library; 34% came from publishers (all Australian except for Glagolav); 18% from my local libraries, and there were a few loans and gifts or from the journals I subscribe to.  That graph BTW is another newbie from Excel, it’s called a Tunnel Graph, and I rather like it.

Here I want to give a shout-out to those publishers who found ways to circumvent the difficulties of this very challenging year.  We all know how the Feds gave little or no support to cultural industries (whereas they went out of their way to provide money, exemptions and a blind eye towards infractions of the restrictions for sport) and the book industry struggled. Grants died up, publications were deferred and cancelled, books printed overseas couldn’t be landed in Australia because there were so few flights.  Authors struggled to get traction for the books that did get released even when there were innovative adaptations for author talks, book launches and festivals.

I wanted to help but I don’t (won’t) read proof copies or eBooks yet an indefatigable group of authors, publicists and publishers managed to keep me busy with 56 books to read and that’s not counting the 11 more in my pile of books to review.  Authors, if you’re with these publishers, they’ve done a mighty job this year.

State of the TBR

For those who worry about these things (not me!), my TBR has grown: because I lost my file it’s not an exact comparison, but my 2019 version of this post said that I had 1171 on the shelf.  Losing the file gave me an opportunity to sort it a bit differently and cull a few that I was never going to read (nearly all NF)  so now I know that I now have 1012 in fiction and 209 in NF.

*wink* At about 200 books a year, I have enough to last me five years or so if libraries and publishing go entirely digital.

Readership Stats

Of course, without you, my readers, none of this would matter a scrap.  So what do the stats say about my readership?

Well, contrary to expectations because of all the negativity about people not reading this year, my stats have improved :  This graph shows that I had more readers in 2020 than ever before, but you can’t really see how the average views per day almost doubled from 2019. I’ve done a separate scatter chart for that.

What’s popular? The usual suspects that are on school and university reading lists, and then the ones that matter to me, the top three Australian ones for 2020 are:

But they’re got a long way to go to catch up with my most popular post ever for an Australian title: Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803, by Lyndall Ryan (15,406 views since 2012) and Voss, by Patrick White with 11,124 views since 2009. and the ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List with 8,504 views since 2012.

So (assuming my data collection and maths is all ok), there it is for 2020!  Don’t forget to visit Annabel’s version of stats for the year as well.  (Hers are much classier than mine!)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 2, 2021

The Empire Strikes Back, by Rebecca Harrison

The Empire Strikes Back is not what you might be expecting from the title of this book, which of course comes from the George Lucas sequel to Star Wars.  This book is a new release in the BFI (British Film Institute) Film Classics series published by Bloomsbury. It’s the film equivalent of literary criticism.

I expressed an interest in reviewing The Empire Strikes Back because one of my English lecturers at the University of Melbourne discussed Star Wars (1977) as an example of a modern morality play.  We were studying early English drama, reading medieval miracle plays, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Cyril Tourneur before moving on to Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen et al. So we were quite startled at the presence of Star Wars in this company but soon made sense of it as sharing the characteristics of medieval morality plays, i.e. a battle between good and evil in which the good guys win as they are supposed to.  His argument was a tad more sophisticated than that but hey, this was back in 1980 and no, I have not kept my lecture notes.  But it stuck in my mind and I was interested to see if Harrison’s critique of the sequel would amplify the same idea.

The book turned out to be much better than that.  Some readers may recall that I reviewed Michael Wood’s Film, a Very Short Introduction a while back, but I have to say that Harrison’s book makes the VSI look rather old-fashioned.  An unabashed fan of Empire, she critiques the film through a variety of lenses including its politics, its historical context, and its representations of race, gender, identity and class.  The film has, apparently, been the subject of a great deal of scholarly interest, but Harrison goes further to explore fandom, marketing, divergent US and UK industrial relations and even colonialism.

I discovered from this book that I enjoyed an irreplaceable privilege when I took The Offspring to see it in 1977.  (He was only a little boy and had never been to the pictures before, and at the end he stood up and applauded).  We saw it in a cinema with a huge screen and surround sound, and this is not an experience that younger generations can have because it’s not shown in cinemas any more.  They may get to see it in one of those home cinema setups, but are more likely to see it on an ordinary TV.  I’m no film aficionado but even I know that the cinema experience contributes to the impact of the film.  No one in that cinema will ever forget that opening crawl, that pounding fanfare and then the death star which emerges to take up the entire screen as if it were flying overhead.

But remarkable as it was, by comparison with Empire, Star Wars was quite old-fashioned.  What I did not know was that Lucas heightened the hype of his brand in Empire by demanding that cinemas upgrade their technology: if they wanted to screen the sequel, they had to have 70mm projection and new Dolby sound systems.  And the cost of those innovations, recouped of course from cinema-goers, meant that — unlike in the 1930s during the height of the Depression when many people could still afford to go to the pictures because the cinema was cheap — going to see Empire was expensive.  And then there was the merchandise.  The Lego kits.  The light sabres.  Did you know that there were a whole lot of unsold Princess Leia figurines because boys didn’t want them?

Harrison analyses many aspects of this film through a feminist lens which is hardly surprising.  It’s not just the role of Leia and the way characters interact with her: Harrison investigates who gets credits as scriptwriter and other roles behind the scenes including women film critics and fanzine writers.  But I was a bit startled to learn that it is the Dark Side that is most obviously, if implicitly, coded as queer.  It certainly wasn’t obvious to me, but this is what Harrison has to say about it:

For example, the male Emperor is played by a woman, demonstrating a kind of gender fluidity that makes the character dangerous to heteronormative culture.  Neither the Emperor nor Vader express any particular interest, sexual or otherwise, in Leia.  And, playing to homophobic stereotypes, the two Sith Lords are notably older men who seek to lure the young, handsome Luke to the Dark side — the queer side — of the Force.   (p.51)

In discussing this, Harrison explains how the disruptive nature of the film, created during the Cold War and a time of social and cultural change, is signalled by all sorts of disruptive film techniques: strange camera angles, and the clash between Luke and Vader in a slow motion sequence of queer time.

Harrison’s perspectives about race and identity, about the role of subservient drones and the colonised spaces are interesting too.  What seemed like an exciting adventure film turns out to have meanings and significance that have certainly changed in the forty years since it was first screened.  For me, it’s a new way of looking at a well-loved film.

*chuckle* And also a catalyst for me to buy the complete series on DVD while I still can!

There are some other titles in this BFI Film Classics series that interest me: there’s one about Star Wars  (of course); Rebecca (forthcoming); Babette’s Feast; The Birds; The Third Man, The Sound of Music, When Harry Met Sally; and lots of other films that most people have seen. You can buy them as paperbacks or eBooks, and quite a few of them appear to be available at Fishpond (considerably cheaper than elsewhere in Australia, see here.)

(I checked at, BTW, where they are claiming that Fishpond charges $7.95 for delivery.  Not so: FP delivers free in Australia and New Zealand, which makes $31, for Bonnie and Clyde one of the cheapest for a new copy in Australia and some of the other titles are much cheaper than that.  FP isn’t advertising all of the 200 titles, but if you are interested, you can find the ISBN at the publishing details at the Bloomsbury website and ask FP to order it for you).

Author: Rebecca Harrison
Title: The Empire Strikes Back (BFI Film Classics series)
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020
ISBN: 9781911239970, pbk., 100 pages inclusive of 22 pages of notes, credits and a glossary
Source: review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

Available from Fishpond: The Empire Strikes Back (BFI Film Classics), $23.32


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