Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 22, 2020

Fauna, by Donna Mazza

Fauna is a compelling novel, I started it last night and loafed in bed today until I’d finished reading it.  The really interesting thing about it, is that although you find out what happens in the end, you don’t, not really, and that is very creepy indeed. The novel is a highly intelligent work of fiction which made me think of the disconcerting issues raised by Paddy O’Reilly’s remarkable novel The Wonders which also raised questions about what it is that makes us human.

Fauna is set in a very near future, in a world so very nearly like the present.  It begins in the everyday Perth suburbs, with a family eating takeaway in the messiness of daily life, the kids Emmy and Jake going to school and weekend sport, Isak (the father) busy with work and paying the bills, and Stacey, newly pregnant ad wholly absorbed in her future child.  There are brief allusions to the messiness of the world on TV, and to the comfort and relief of watching people cook and renovate houses. 

But with the birth of the infant, the family takes up an offer of a lifestyle far beyond their means and they move to a beautiful but isolated property in southwest WA where the family’s predicament is less likely to arouse interest.  This suits the researchers who are operating on the edges of legality but it exacerbates Stacey’s loneliness.  Like The Wonders, this novel draws attention to the intrusive media which can make life hell for anyone who is different, and she fears interaction with anyone outside their small family in case awkward questions are asked.  Because what this couple have done is to assuage their longing for another child by participating in an IVF research project which mixes their genes with those of some other creature.  It’s part of a project to reverse the extinction of creatures like the Tasmanian Tiger.  LifeBLOOD® does not tell them much about what they are in for, but with the arrival of Asta, their anxieties move far beyond worrying about whether their semi-human offspring will be hairy or not.

The novel traces Asta’s development year by year in successive chapters, and what becomes clear is that the confidentiality provisions of the contract they have signed have turned their lives into something resembling a witness protection program.  Stacey has had a difficult childhood due to her mother’s peripatetic lifestyle, and her only family connection now is with a brother who also fled Australia but—unlike Stacey—stayed overseas.  She cannot share her anxieties with him, and as the novel progresses their predicament impacts on her relationship with Isak as well as on their other two children.  The economy with which Mazza conveys this is more powerful for being open-ended.  When Stacey sends photos of her new house to Alex, he replies with ‘Did you win the lottery and not share with me?’ Stacey does not reply.

In some ways she is her own worst enemy, choosing not to take advantage of opportunities to get to know well-meaning locals who assume that Asta is a special needs child with a rare genetic disorder.  That’s how the couple have been advised to counter curiosity about her appearance, but unlike Isak, Stacey isn’t comfortable with this.  Like most of us, Stacey has not read the fine print, and finds the explanatory website alienating and confusing.  But as Asta grows, her future as an investment by LifeBlood® becomes harder for Stacey to deny, and eventually she takes extreme action to protect the child to whom she is utterly devoted, at the expense of everything else.

The setting is evoked in beautiful prose, contrasting the nature that surrounds them with the nightmarish use of technology for obscene profit. On the day Stacey drops her kids off at their new school, there is a violent storm:

Veined with sea foam, the waves curl and crash, spraying high into the wind.  Mist hurls back, dampens my shaking car.  Black coastal rocks bathed and tangled in a lacework of foam.  An endless race of breaking water headed for the coast one after another.  A great queue out there across the expanse.

The sea has risen with the storm, grown as if there is more of it.  It triggers images of the future.  Perhaps somewhere across the ocean there is a coast depleted when we are overwhelmed.

A band of sunlight falls on the green horizon, distant flecks and sprays of white-capped waves tell me this churning will go on for a few hours yet.

The car windows have misted over with our breath.  The lovely child fills her baby seat with her broad body.  She sleeps soundly, her wide lashes fanned against her pale cheeks.  Mothers with blond children walk by, their little ones packed tight against the wind, and she is here, hidden from view in the still-cold air of the car.  (p.177)

I couldn’t find book group notes at the Allen & Unwin website but I doubt if they would be needed.  Start by asking ‘what did you think?’ and the discussion will outlast the wine and nibbles, for sure!

Author: Donna Mazza
Title: Fauna
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760876302, pbk, 312 pages
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond:Fauna and good bookshops everywhere

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 21, 2020

2020 Australian Book Design Awards longlist

The Australian Book Designers’ Association has just announced its Book Design Awards longlist: there are 17 categories, all of which you can see here.

The categories that most interest me are

  • commercial fiction
  • literary fiction
  • biography, autobiography and memoir
  • non-fiction

Here they are:

It’s hard to judge between them when I’ve some of them and can see how the designs relate to the book content, but my favourite of these is The Sea and Us, designed by Josh Durham from Design by Committee.

I’m amazed to see that I’ve read only two in this literary fiction category, but once again my favourite is designed by Josh Durham from Design by Committee, I think that cover for The Returns is both beautiful and clever.

In this category I like From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, with its pitch perfect cover by W H Chong.

And finally, the only category where I’m choosing without being influenced by having read the book, and I’m afraid I think they’re a rather dull lot.  I quite like  Songspirals by Lisa White but it’s not really very original, and I quite like the cunning of Capturing Nature by Pfister + Freeman—but none of these make me want to pick up the book and read the blurb in the bookshop.  I don’t know if it’s eligible but I’d have nominated Island Story… and I am guilt-stricken because I forgot to include the details about the designer when I reviewed it, and it was from the library so I can’t check it now.  If anyone has a copy, please let me know so that I can amend it.

What do you think?
Which would you choose for the shortlist, or is there something else that you wish had been nominated?

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2020

One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I stumbled on this intriguing book at my local library, attracted firstly by the name (because I like Indian fiction) and then by the blurb. It’s a kind of contemporary Canterbury Tales, i.e. stories told by a group of strangers, but in this case they are linked by being trapped in a building damaged in an earthquake.

In that sense it reminds me of Ann Patchett’s Orange Prize winner Bel Canto—based on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis—and of Simone Lazaroo’s Sustenance which featured a group of tourists trapped in an Indonesian hotel by terrorists.  These characters in extremis open up to each other because they think they have nothing to lose. Facing a likely death, they reflect on their lives and identities and are able to be honest with each other because they are being honest with themselves.

The characters in One Amazing Thing are stuck in a passport and visa office in an unnamed American city: they are all en route to India for one reason or another.  They are, as the blurb suggests, a diverse bunch of people:

A punky teenager with an unexpected gift. An upper-class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. A young Muslim-American man struggling with the fallout of 9/11. A graduate student haunted by a question about love. An African-American ex-soldier searching for redemption. A Chinese grandmother with a secret past. And two visa office workers on the verge of an adulterous affair.

The collective struggle to survive begins with identifying which parts of the building are comparatively safe, and accessing food and water.  Without much argument, the leader who coordinates this is Cameron, whose experience as a soldier has given him skills in crisis management.  He holds the torch which provides the only light, and he assesses the state of the space they are in, and harvests the snacks the travellers have, for sharing.  At the beginning they have access to tapwater in the manager’s personal toilet, and the water which is seeping in from somewhere is only enough to soak the carpet.  Cameron also lays down the ground rules: no shouting or sudden movements which might trigger further damage to the walls or ceiling.

But group cooperation only goes so far.  The other young man resents the unquestioned assumption of power by Cameron and he resents being ordered about.  A smoker craving a cigarette risks an explosion from the gas leak.  One hides her tranquilisers and becomes more relaxed than is wise, and another has a secret stash of booze.  The exceptionalism which led them to migrate to America or transcend their personal circumstances doesn’t vanish because they are in this life-or-death situation, even as the waters rise and the building quivers around them.

In the wake of a crisis which nearly led to immediate disaster, Uma (who was reading Chaucer which she was reading to make up for a university class she was missing) suggests that they each tell a personal story, one amazing thing from their lives, which they have never told anyone before. As the hours pass without rescue, and punctuated by tension that rises with the waters, they take it in turns to tell stories of love and family, regrets and shame, guilt and redemption.

The reader, as the novel progresses, becomes invested in the characters. As the sense of unease deepens, it’s difficult to resist sneaking a look at the last pages to find out if they survive.

One Amazing Thing is Divakaruni’s twelth work of fiction for adults but she also writes for children.  Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove links and footnotes) tells us that she was born and educated in Calcutta but is now a teacher of writing at the University of Houston.

Her short story collection, Arranged Marriage won an American Book Award in 1996, and two of her novels (The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart) as well as a short story The Word Love were adapted into films. Mistress of Spices was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Currently, Sister of My Heart, Oleander Girl, Palace of Illusions, and One Amazing Thing have all been optioned to be made into movies or TV serials.

[…] Divakaruni’s works are largely set in India and the United States, and often focus on the experiences of South Asian immigrants. [She] has published novels in multiple genres, including realistic fiction, historical fiction, magical realism, myth and fantasy.

There’s an amazing roll call of blurbers on the back cover: Jhumpa Lahiri, Louise Erdrich, Ha Jin, Lisa See and Abraham Verghese.  IMO, their praise is well-deserved.

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Title: One Amazing Thing
Book design by Shubbani Sarkar
Publisher: Voice, Hyperion (Harper Collins), 2009
ISBN: 9781401340995, hbk, 220 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: One Amazing Thing

It seems only a short while ago that I read Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Allies in which he questioned whether the US alliance was still a useful foreign policy option for Australia, but it was actually six years ago.  That book was published back in 2014, when the world was a very different place.  That was before the Brexit referendum and it was when President Obama was in the White House.  We had our own troubles here with Tony Abbott as our embarrassing Prime Minister, but back then we could not have imagined that before long there would be clowns like him in power elsewhere, nor could we have guessed how much damage they could do to a fairly stable world order.

So this issue of Australian Foreign Affairs is timely.  The blurb tells you its contents:

The eighth issue of Australian Foreign Affairs examines the changing status of the United States as its dominance in the Asia-Pacific faces challenge from China and its “America First” foreign policy marks a shift away from global engagement.  Can We Trust America? looks at the uncertainties for Australia as questions arise about the commitment of its closest ally. Michael Wesley calls for an alliance makeover as China’s ambition puts US–Australian ties under strain. Felicity Ruby delves into the uses and consequences of America’s intelligence and surveillance facilities in Australia. Brendan Taylor explores how the United States can strengthen its position in a contested Asia. Kelly Magsamen reports from America on how it can preserve and enhance its role as a great power. John Blaxland proposes a compact with our Pacific island neighbours.

There are book reviews too, in which Helen Clark reflects on the role of foreign policy advisers, and Jacinta Carroll probes the making of Australia’s security state.

Michael Wesley’s article covers recent shifts in Australia’s thinking about the American alliance, but it concludes with the surprising advice that America needs us more now than it has in the past, and that we should stop invoking loyalty and sacrifice to give the alliance a marriage-like status.  What has happened, he says, is that since 9/11, both sides of politics in Australia have shaped a narrative about US/Australian shared values, and these have been invoked to create a slick marketing campaign about fighting shoulder-to-shoulder from one end of Eurasia to the other. This narrative…

…occludes the true history of the partnership, ignoring the complementarities and disagreements, the strategic calculations and limited liability commitments, in favour of a chronical of mutual loyalty, ideological solidarity and undying fealty. (p.21)

But the reality is that America wants to deny supremacy to any other power, and that means they want to return to their traditional strategy in Asia to counter China.  They need to disperse their military bases and that means that our geography is important to them.  But from our point of view…

Primarily, we should seek to make it less about fighting a seemingly inevitable war and more about preventing an entirely avoidable one.  As Sino-American rivalry deepens, the weight of our attention is on our alliance obligations in the event of war.  We forget that the primary reason for alliances is to prevent wars.  In the fervid dread about China, the challenge of Asia has dragged Australia and the United States into a military mindset, to the detriment of the diplomatic and developmental arms of their statecraft.

No doubt a clever military strategy will be necessary to prevent China from dominating the region, but it will not be sufficient.  We must deploy the other arms of our statecraft to build a set of institutions and norms to stabilise a contested power order, or the region will become increasingly prone to conflict.  (p.27)

Felicity Ruby’s essay ‘Silent Partners’ begins with the shocking image of Trump and Morrison having dinner in the White House, while only hours before Pine Gap had almost certainly helped aim the drone that mistook Afghan pine-nut farmers for Islamic State fighters.  Thirty civilians were killed, and forty were injured.  In the same week, she tells us, the memoir of the whistleblower Edward Snowden was published, a reminder that what is in the public domain about the Five Eyes signals intelligence-gathering alliance, is known only because of him.  Her point is that:

At a time when faith in the rules-based international order and trust in the United States’ willingness and capacity to exercise global leadership is decreasing, Australians need to understand the functions of Pine Gap and similar facilities and to evaluate the role they play in the nation’s defences, foreign policy and international standing. (p. 31)

It’s rather creepy to read that successive Australian Prime Ministers from Gorton to Whitlam did not know some really basic information about Pine Gap, since revealed by Snowden and by Wikileaks.  There is a legitimate case for some operational secrecy  but that ought surely not to apply to the highest levels of our government!

Malcolm Fraser makes an appearance in this essay: during the trial of six people who entered Pine Gap territory during the 2016 protests, the judge allowed him to be a surprise witness when he…

…allowed a seven-minute ABC Radio interview with former prime minister Malcolm Fraser to be played to the jury.  All in the court heard his distinctive voice echoing the concerns shared by the defendants about the role of Pine Gap in nuclear and conventional wars and drone strikes, and in the undermining of Australia’s potential for an independent foreign policy.

Fraser’s reversal of opinion on Pine Gap carried weight because of his roles as defence minister and prime minister, as well as his attempt during the Whitlam dismissal to amplify the controversy over the lease renewal on Pine Gap, which had recently been revealed to have significant CIA connections. (p.46)

Exactly.  As I said in my review the view that the expanded role of Pine Gap was actually dangerous to Australia carries a different kind of freight when it’s expressed by an old Conservative.  Ruby contrasts that with academic Hugh White’s  How to Defend Australia which, she says, fails to acknowledge the risk to Australia from nuclear weapons that facilities such as Pine Gap represent.  

And it’s ironic that we can’t ourselves comply with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons — an Australian initiative that won the Novel Peace Prize —  unless the United States shuts down the relay ground station at Pine Gap that supports nuclear warfighting systems.

Brendan Taylor’s ‘Message to Washington’ builds on Michael Wesley’s point that we can and should keep out of US-China hostilities, and he invokes the situation at the start of the Cold War as a guide, when strategist and diplomat Dean Acheson recommended countering Moscow’s strength, aggression and expansionist plans with what were called ‘situations of strength’, areas around the Soviet perihery where America was so strong that Moscow wouldn’t even contemplate aggression there.  Taylor acknowledges that implementation of this strategy was muddled but America needs to get its current directionless act together because they face challenges in their relationships with Taiwan, the issues in the South China Sea, and the fact that geography favours China too strongly in these growing situations of weakness.  

But of course Trump is the problem here.  The US has never liked balance-of-power politics anyway, and it likes to see itself as exceptional, and now they have a president with an overt disdain for alliances and a dysfunctional administration. Taylor seems to think that Australia has a role to play in counselling America. I would like to think he’s right, but the Morrison government doesn’t exactly inspire confidence…

Kelly Magsamen writes about the longer view, beyond the next presidential election. He says that the strategy of ensuring US dominance in all areas is outdated and expensive to pursue.

A more realistic approach than chasing primacy or pulling back would be for the United States to aim to ensure that all countries in the region can make their own security and economic choices, free from coercion. (p.78)

I suspect that’s an approach that a lot of countries in our region would prefer too. But intriguingly, Magsamen says that the US can only achieve a competitive political and economic model in this contested arena if it invests in its own people because they are its competitive strength.  The problem is that:

The basic economic and social compact with the American middle class that propelled the United States into the role of global superpower and ensure this position for decades is increasingly at risk. (p.79)

It would be interesting to know more about what she means by this, other than the need to solve domestic problems like gun violence and governance issues, and dealing with the growing distrust of American democracy and its institutions.

One of the things I like about this journal is that its contributors don’t always share the same opinions.  Magsamen, for example, contests Taylor’s suggestions about using the Acheson model, basically because the US and Chinese economies are  as co-dependent as they are rivalrous which was not the case with the US and the USSR.

John Blaxland’s ‘The Fix’ shifts the focus onto the micro states of the Pacific, suggesting that we develop mutually beneficial compacts with our smaller neighbours.  Obviously there would be sensitivities about this, and it will only work if Australia avoids a patronising, domineering and selfish approach, and agrees to safeguards that ensure the dignity of the states involved.  It would be interesting to learn more about this, perhaps in another AFF journal.

I really like these long form essays which take the place of what I used to be able to read in the quality press.

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  Can We Trust America? A Superpower in Transition
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 8, February 2020
ISBN: 9781760641771
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library




Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2020

The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

Lots of people like this book, and it was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but I found it dull.  Perhaps this might not be so for readers who don’t already know Homer’s Iliad, but I do, so I knew exactly what was going to happen because Barker’s plot so closely follows the original story from the 8th century BC.  Without the narrative tension of an unfamiliar plot the book needed other aspects to create reader engagement: it needed to be interesting because it offered the female perspective omitted from the original epic, and the writing needed to be vivid and captivating.  And IMO it is inadequate in both respects, and Barker’s ambition to redress historical gender inequity in an archaic piece of literature and link that to the contemporary #MeToo movement is not enough to redeem it.

Perhaps it’s not fair to compare Barker’s coarse and unlovely prose with the stunning poetry of Homer’s original.  But even in translation, (I most recently read the Fagles translation), The Iliad is suffused with striking images and powerful rhythms, and David Malouf in Ransom showed that a prose version can be beautiful as it tackles the tortuous redemption of Achilles and the journey of the enemy king towards full humanity.  Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles isn’t beautiful in the same way, but it explores the psychology of the protagonists in a popular version written for an audience unfamiliar with the original story.  To give Barker the benefit of the doubt, perhaps her crude style may have been deliberate: maybe she did not want to glorify the story in beautiful prose as her predecessors have done because her version of it is an ugly story.  As her character Briseis says on the last page, an audience doesn’t want to hear about

…the brutal reality of conquest and slavery.  They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls.  They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. (p.324)

But still, the shallowness of the writing is a disappointment because I have previously really liked Barker’s novels, ever since I read The Regeneration Trilogy. 

But the story written from the women’s perspective is a disappointment too.  The original epic is set during the Greek siege of Troy during the Trojan War,  and its focus is the conflict between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles, and the terrible inhumane consequences of their intemperate natures. But (as you’d expect in an any ancient epic) those inhumane consequences do not include mention of what some cultures now call ‘collateral damage.’  Pat Barker’s aim was to bring alive the fate of the women and girls who were captured and enslaved and raped.  Well, she does this, sometimes in revolting detail, so if a reader lacks the imagination to understand the fate of women as a consequence of military defeat in countless cultures and from ancient times to as recently as in Germany’s defeat in WW2 and in the Yugoslav wars (1991-2001), then The Silence of the Girls will supply the story.

But although Briseis narrates most of the story (except, awkwardly, the parts that she could not personally have witnessed) this novel is (inexplicably) still mostly focussed on the story of Achilles and his intemperate rage.  Everything Briseis thinks and says and does occurs in that context. It’s disappointing because if you have read any literature about people who were enslaved in the Holocaust, or imprisoned in Japanese POW camps or kept in grim circumstances for their ‘moral improvement’ in female factories and workhouses, you will know about the inner resources that people drew on in order to survive.  In captivity and enslavement, despite the horror and the dehumanising treatment and the physical exhaustion, people found ways to connect with and support each other; to sustain their own cultures, history, music and literature; to teach the children and each other; to use grim humour as a covert counter to their all-powerful captors; and to hope and plan for a different future.  But there is very little of this in The Silence of the Girls.  And apart from the final sequence where Briseis recognises that Achilles’ child that she is bearing will be part Trojan as well as Greek, there is little sense of the women as survivors.

Yes, that’s historically accurate, up to a point, because the Trojan culture was vanquished.  And yet there is a Troy museum in Turkey where you can see tear catchers, glass and terracotta perfume bottles, figurines, gold pieces, necklaces and bracelets, coins, ornaments, bone objects and tools, metal containers, terracotta potteries, weapons, axes and cutters, milestones, inscriptions, altars, sarcophagi, sculptures and many other special pieces from the area’s 5,000-year old history.  The Trojans and their culture were not obliterated.

In my disappointment about what this novel might have been, I found myself remembering Anna Lanyon’s Malinche’s Conquest, a book which explores the life of the woman given as a slave to Cortes in Mexico and how she survived by relying on her intelligence, her skill with languages and her courage.  And then there’s Elisabeth Storr’s Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy, which brings to life the Etruscan civilisation absorbed into Rome through the figure of Caecilia, a Roman noblewoman who is used to barter peace through a diplomatic marriage with the neighbouring Etruscans. She is not a slave, but noblewomen married off to secure alliances had very little freedom all the same.

It occurs to me that contemporary readers who haven’t learned anything about classical civilisations at school and come to The Silence of the Girls as newbies to the world of Ancient Greece, may well come away with the impression that the Greeks were brutish monsters.  Well, they were, just like all the cultures of the ancient world, and yes, just like all the others, they used women as possessions.  But they also bequeathed aspects of western civilisation that are still valued today. See this four part series at The Snarky Historian:

You might also get the impression that the Greeks paid no attention at all to the fate of the Trojan women.  Not so.  Euripides wrote a play about them in 415BC during the Peloponnesian War. 

There are numerous reviews to counter my lack of enthusiasm for this novel, but these two are representative:

Simon at Tredynas Days admired it too reviewed it here. 

Author: Pat Barker
Title: The Silence of the Girls
Cover art by Sarah Young
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK, 2018
ISBN: 9780241338094, pbk., 325 pages
Source: Personal library

Available from Fishpond: The Silence of the Girls: Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019


Sometimes, it’s just a case of being in the right place at the right time…

The Spouse and I went to a book launch today at the Victorian Artists’ Society in East Melbourne.  The book is called Pictures and Prose, Existentialists and Atheists Speak, and the reason we were interested in this somewhat esoteric publication was because The Spouse is included in it.  As I’m sure readers have gathered by now, he is a man of many interests and from time to time he has given a talk at the Existentialists’ Society (even though he isn’t one of them).  And he was giving a talk there when Melbourne painter, printmaker and photographer Raffaella Torresan was there sketching the presenters and that is why he is in the book which is a collection of talks given at the society.

His talk was titled ‘Skepticism, Science and Scientism, and I don’t need to read it because I already have.  (I have proofread all his items for publication, and his philosophy essays for uni as well.)  There are other talks which look quite interesting but my eyes aren’t up to close reading today, so that’s for another time.  What I was able to do today was read the other book I bought, which is called Poetry & Ideas, Text and Images, and it’s a beautiful collection of illustrated poetry.  While The Spouse was doing his ‘Swing and Sway’ radio show at 3CR I went round the corner to a beaut restaurant called Lladro in Gertrude St, and over a scrumptious lunch and a very nice glass of wine, I browsed through what is a very fine collection of poems (in well-spaced, easy-to-read print)…

The back cover includes a blurb from Bruce Dawe, and a list of the poets:

Raffaella Torresan’s Poetry & Ideas is a very beautiful integration of Raffaella’s dramatic artwork with specially chosen, theme poems, by many of our most notable poets, whose work has been specially chosen by Raffaella for the book.

Poets: Jordie Albiston, Eric Beach, John Beaton, Patrick Boyle, Kevin Brophy, Jen Jewell Brown, Edward Burger, Grant Caldwell, Dimitri Cingovski, Jack Charles, Libby Charlton, Domenico de Clario, Jennifer Compton, Robert J Conlon, Eddie Dalton, Bruce Dawe, Jim Dodd, John Flaus, Gary Foley, Sybelle Foxcroft, Anna Gruenz, Lynn Hard, Jennifer Harrison, Kris Hemensley, Matt Hetherington, James Hickey, Jeltje, Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper, Komninos, Chris Lawrance, Geoffrey Lehmann, Kerry Loughrey, Patrick McCauley, Maurice McNamara, Ian McBryde, Phil Motherwell, Les Murray, KF Pearson, Nick Powell, John Ridland, Homer Rieth, David Shepherd, Pamela Sidney, Leon Shann, Lish Skec, Alex Skovron, Kerry Scuffins, Steve Smart, Kenneth G Smeaton, Gavin Sanderson, Fiona Stuart, Yvette Stubbs, Colin Talbot, Peter Tiernan, Tim Train, Michael Ward, Lauren Williams.

The themes declare a preoccupation with conservation and environment, grouped by issues such as nuclear power, whales, trees and sustainability.  In ‘Keep it in the Ground’, Bruce Dawe has two poems, ‘The Way to Chernobyl’ and ‘Going to the Ball’:

Will you be my partner at the Nuclear Club Ball?
Everyone’s going this year…
There’ll be free Strontium-90 for one and for all
and if you say Yes I’ll be happy to call
and we’ll dance the fandango of fear!

There’ll be new folks a-plenty from East and from West,
and there’ll be room for big parties and small:
Kim Jong-il will foot it along with the best,
while in Tehran they’re planning another big test
and hoping no fall-out will fall.  (p. 2)

Dawe goes on to list the other members of the nuclear club who will be there, all of them oblivious to the problem of plutonium and what on earth will we do with it all.

The late great Judith Rodriguez has a poem called ‘Leave it in the Earth’ in this section too.

‘Weep Leviathan’ has poems about whales by Les Murray and by Melbourne performance poet Komninos who manages to pack a great deal of thoughtful commentary into just nine lines—and there is also a brilliant poem called ‘Imagine’ by Patrick Boyle, which begins like this…

Imagine the wailing
imagine the furore
if an elephant was harpooned
its body dragged across forest floor (p.15)

Imagine the outrage he exhorts us, and pleads for us to imagine then/the death of a harvested wild whale.  

Lauren Williams has IMO the standout poem in the section called ‘Trees’.  In ‘History Lesson’ her poem of seven stanzas begins like this:

The last people of E___ kept building
a big economy, a great stony-faced economy
forever gazing offshore, their slogan
mantra, buzzword: More.

The great stone economy was hungry.
It devoured trees and oil, whatever the people
could wrest from the soil, and for dessert, desert —
a crumble of salination and extinction, served hot. (p. 29)

In the section called ‘Greed’ there are poems whose themes you can guess from the titles: ‘Plastic hangs in the trees like fruit’ by James Hickey is heart-breaking, and ‘Mars Realty (it’s Gotta be Red) by Bruce Dawe comments on the absurdity of colonising another planet once we’ve ruined our own.  But Lynn Hard’s ‘State of the Union’ is brilliant too…

Everything must go,
except the lies.

So we’ll keep the flag
and let the country go,
we’ll board up the libraries
and keep the bumper stickers,
we’ll buy prejudice
and sell wisdom
we’ll lose the farm
but keep the name for the housing development
we’ll invest in last week
and asset strip for tomorrow. (p. 47)

Her poem ends, so pertinently: and no one/will get back to you.

There are lots of really thoughtful poems in the section called ‘Beauty’ including John Ridland’s ‘Pear’ which challenges our ideas about what we think ‘beauty’ is.  The pear survives the gentle fingers of the pickers and the careful checker at the supermarket, and it bears itself with the dignity/of one who can boast My great-great-great grandpère/was painted by Cezanne. That pear had decomposed/(before Cezanne got the composition right but Cezanne still saw him fresh off the tree, unblemished, ripe. Such a gorgeous image… beauty unchanging despite the ravages of time.

It’s somewhat similar to Patrick Boyle’s ‘[there beauty is]:

there    beauty is
in the trust shining from your eyes
in the generous warmth of your body’s coiling
in the gentle lilt of your voice’s joy
in the welcoming smile that finds shape
on these defining edges of your being
these manifold curves (p.55)

This is just a taste of the lovely poems in this collection, thoughtfully illustrated by the artist.  I’ll leave you with some words from Lynn Hard, ‘To a Lady Who Does Not Like My Poetry’ because it’s a good reminder that reviewing poetry is always risky!

She does not think straight
this critic of mine,
her thought has too little meat,
too much wine.  (p.62)

Contact Raffaela at her website if you are interested in buying a copy of this lovely book.

Edited and drawn by Raffaella Torresan
Title: Poetry & Ideas, Text and Images
Publisher: Devil Dog Castlemaine, 2015
ISBN: 9780646940397, hbk., 166 pages
Source: Purchased for $10 at the launch of Pictures and Prose, Existentialists and Atheists Speak, also drawn and compiled by Raffaella Torresan.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 14, 2020

I, James Blunt, by H V Morton

As Bill from The Australian Legend remarked just recently, the provenance of second-hand books is sometimes almost as much fun as the contents. I owe my discovery of this rare little booklet by the great travel writer H V Morton (1892-1979) to Niall Taylor from the H V Morton Society…

Members of the society receive regular bulletins from Niall and other contributors, and these are now available online at the HVM blog. It was in January this year that Niall posted a reprint of an article by Kenneth Fields which had originally been circulated as HVM Collectors’ Note No.6, on 22nd April, 2004.  The article (which I urge you to read by following that link) was about HVM’s role in producing propaganda for the Ministry of Information during WW2.  I, James Blunt is a slim novella published in 1942, and it’s rare now because it is so fragile, printed under wartime regulations on soft paper and with a very soft cover.  I did a search and was lucky to pick up an affordable copy from New Zealand that was advertised via AbeBooks.

This is from the dustjacket blurb:

The Diary of James Blunt will remain fiction as long as England condemns complacency and brings to times of good news the same high courage and resolution which inspire and unite her in her darkest hours.
It is September 1944. James Blunt, a retired tradesman living near Farnham, is one of the millions of Britons suffering under the Nazi heel. In secret, he keeps a diary. Through his eyes we see the Gestapo at work in an English village, German troops goose-stepping past Buckingham Palace, the whole face of Britain unrecognisably altered by humiliation and tyranny.
‘James Blunt’s diary’, says H V Morton, is dedicated to all complacent optimists and wishful thinkers, and to those who cannot imagine what life would be like if we lost the war.’

The novella is only 56 pages long, but it makes for fascinating reading.  It is set in what was in 1942 the very near future: five months after the Capitulation in 1944 with Britain now learning the reality of Nazi Occupation.  James Blunt is a veteran of the First World War.  He is devastated by Britain’s defeat and is very worried about his family.  His wife Elsie was killed in the Blitz, and he has a daughter called Marjorie and two grandchildren called George and Ann.  While the children are now of an impressionable age and must start in one of the new German primary schools for indoctrination, Marjorie’s husband Jack works in a shipyard taken over by the Hermann Göring Company.  His record as a trade unionist makes him very vulnerable because they are always the first to disappear.  Blunt is also anxious about his sister Elsie, whose imprudent letters put them both at risk now that the Gestapo has complete control of the Post Office. 

Along with overt signs of occupation which include removing the word ‘Royal’ from everything, hanging Swastika flags everywhere and renaming all the places that alluded to British victories (such as Waterloo and Trafalgar) with the names we in our time have come to despise (such as Himmler, Goebbels and of course Hitler), there is now a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion. No one dares express opinions in the pub, reporting on the appalling suicide rate is forbidden, and the presence of German officers demanding identity cards on pain of severe punishment makes any venture away from home perilous.  For those of us who have read a bit or seen films or TV series about the Occupation of France, these tyrannies are familiar.  What makes it ghastly is that they take place in a country that has always been proudly independent and with which we in Australia identify for historical reasons.  Even if you have no love for Britain and her own conquering empire, reading this little novella is a salutary experience, once you realise that every one of Britain’s ‘possessions’ would be have been subject to the same tyranny.  (I learned on my recent holiday in New Caledonia that New Caledonia refused to submit to Vichy law and that Australia supported their refusal to acquiesce to fascism.  We might not have been able to do that had Britain capitulated, and we should never forget that Britain stood alone against Nazism with America pragmatically waiting in the wings for far too long).

I am fascinated by books written contemporaneously with war, when the author had to live with the immediacy of warfare and could have had no idea what the outcome might be.  Irene Nemirovsky is a powerful example of this, writing vividly about the evacuation of Paris in the wake of the Nazi advance, and — with no knowledge of how long this war was to last — about the complexity of living with an occupying force and an enemy soldier billeted in the house.  She was not to know that the Nazis would catch up with her and that she would perish in Auschwitz.  H V Morton, when he was writing this novella in 1941, would have had good reason to be pessimistic.  The authenticity of his writing is what gives it power: like my parents, their family and their friends living through the Blitz and watching Europe fall, he expresses the fear that gripped them day by day. Although they did not know the full horror of the Nazi regime, they knew what had happened in France and they knew how vulnerable Britain was.  They knew they were alone against a powerful foe and until December 1941, they knew that American isolationism offered no assistance.  HVM wrote this story because he knew how vitally important it was to sustain morale, and he was asked to do it because the Ministry of Information knew how popular he was, but still, I wonder just how convincing it might have been when the situation looked so dire.

Fascism is on the rise in Europe, and populism in Britain and the US hasn’t helped. I, James Blunt is an unsubtle piece of propaganda that expresses a profound truth, that we should—those of us in democracies—cherish the freedoms that we have, because if we don’t defend them, one day it might be too late.

PS I am making an unenthusiastic visit to the eye specialist this afternoon, with the possibility that he may wish to do a ‘procedure’ there and then.  I have no idea whether this might affect my reading and writing, but I hope that normal service will resume ASAP.

Author: H V Morton
Title: I, James Blunt
Cover design: not acknowledged, but impressive because it places the individual first and foremost, with the emphasis on the word ‘I”
Publisher: Methuen and Co, 1942
USBN: None, pbk, 56 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Hard To Find Books NZ via Abebooks, $50.00 AUD

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 12, 2020

The Innocent Reader, by Debra Adelaide

I wish, I really wish, I’d found time to read this book before last Christmas—because if I had, by now, you would all have your own copy and so would your friends because you would have given them all a copy as a present.  I am not really a fan of books about reading, but The Innocent Reader has brought me so much pleasure, I hardly know how to begin.

Perhaps at the end?  In the last chapter titled ‘In Bed with Flaubert’, Adelaide writes an uncannily accurate description of what it’s like to be what she calls an incompetent sleeper. Somehow, she manages to describe the torture of insomnia with humour and grace, listing every trick, remedy, therapy, from folklore tale to contemporary medical advice, and every suggestion from people who claim to suffer from insomnia themselves, and have cured it by one simple method or another:

Nothing works.  You count sheep.  You count goats.  You count animals in masses: fleas on dogs, schools of sardines, a hive of bees. Locusts, budgerigars and ants—anything that lives in large groups—you count them all and still, and after the nine hundred and ninety-ninth termite, the one thousandth fruit bat, sleep remains elusive.  You memorise then recite the Periodic Table of Elements and still remain awake by the time you arrive at 118, oganesson.  (p.250)

As she says,  your body is unbelievably wily.  It is fooled by nothing.   And so, just like me, she reads.

If you can’t sleep but your brain isn’t alert enough to be useful and learn introductory Spanish or memorise the  Crimes Act (1900) then you can at least comfort and indulge yourself with reading novels, and long romantic poems.  Medications wear off, warm drinks go cold, therapeutic pillows and blankets become stiff and lumpy, but the books remains the same. (p.252)

Yes.  Reliable, patient, responsive to our desire yet always like new. Beautiful books, written just for us, as this book has been written just for me by Debra Adelaide.

I love what she writes about how other people seem to get by with reading the paper and watching the news, but reading—which is supposed to fill up the gloomy void of ignorance—instead expands it. Because we readers are never satisfied:

The more you read the more you become aware of the enormous holes in your reading, and the more authors there are to read unfold before you.

Arrive at adulthood as I did having read Austen and Dickens, and lo! there are the other classics… and then there are the French and German ones you didn’t discover until middle age.  And then, what about the wealth of contemporary writing, and translated fiction, and all the underrated women authors that you haven’t read?  I was reminded of this just yesterday when I was chatting with Joe at Rough Ghosts—he had just written a superb review of Saudade, a book from Angola which had broadened my horizons because I knew nothing at all about Angola until I read it. I could wallpaper my library if I printed out the number of times I’ve introduced a review with the words ‘I knew nothing about this #InsertSubject/Country/History until I read #InsertNameOfBook’.

Yes, the books you read do this to you, and that’s not all. Adelaide doesn’t mention the way blogging friends writing enticing reviews add to this delightful problem.  No wonder we all have groaning TBRs and not enough storage place.  Not even me, with my purpose-built library.

There is an hilarious essay about Adelaide’s experience with students at writing schools.  I once started  a course in Professional Writing and Editing (and nearly finished it but abandoned ship when a Writing Non-fiction turned out to be writing for tabloids.)  She has not only described my Short Story class perfectly, but *cringe* me as well.  Why, she asks, do people sign up for courses taught by experienced writers, who have books in the marketplace and experience with publishers, only to take no notice whatsoever of the teacher’s published work or her advice?  Everybody wants to be a writer, but nobody wants to learn what it really entails because they think they already know.  It must be exasperating.

Her advice to writers BTW contains so many gems there is little I can say except that every aspiring writer should buy this book, but I will share this one, because I love it so:

There is a lesson to be learned in all of the above [in the chapter called ‘Terms and Conditions’] but it is not a lesson about the craft of writing, rather one about human nature.  Whoever became a good parent by reading a book on the topic or attending antenatal classes?  They became good when their child cried and cried and they found they could soothe her by stroking her forehead or by holding her prone or by taking her for a walk.  They will not even know this until then try one thing then another, until they find whatever it is making that baby cry, and how to fix it.  Writers must similarly work it out for themselves, and not just for them as writers, but for that particular story, script or book, because there is one other certain thing: what works for one novel sure as hell is not going to work for the next. (p.157)

I had another cringeworthy moment when I read ‘Do Not Tell Me a Story’…

Everyone has a story in them.  Everyone has a novel in them, or so it is frequently said.  And humans tell stories.  It is part of who we are, though some cultures prioritise storytelling much more than others.  So it makes sense that people everywhere, from cocktail parties to wedding receptions and the signing queues in bookshops, lean forward confidentially and offer you a story, if only you are prepared to write it.  Mission: Impossible.  Your job, Mr Phelps, should you choose to accept it, is to write a 150,000 word bestseller based on this incredible tale I am giving you right now, and be eternally grateful.  Good luck, Jim. (p.107)

Yup, I’ve done that.  Not quite like this example, but still…

Here is the scenario, which every writer has experienced more or less, and in any variety of circumstances.  For clarity’s sake I will streamline the story.  In this case it is at a fiftieth birthday party.  A woman I have never met before, upon hearing I am an author, leans towards me and tells me she has a story for me, and it is such an extraordinary one that I will want to put down my glass of wine and race home to my desk and commence writing it that very evening.  It is the story of her family, and the things you wouldn’t believe! It’s a long saga spreading across five generations.  (p. 108)

And on this woman goes for three-quarters of a page…

Well, we’ve all had to work out strategies for extricating ourselves from interminable family history stories at social occasions.  At least in my defence I can say that my ‘story’ came about over a chatty lunch with the author Susan Johnson, and I had no intention of suggesting that she (or anyone else) should write it.  She was the one who said it should be turned into a novel.  I told her she could use it herself if she wanted to. (I don’t think she ever has).

There is an interesting article about reviewing, its ethical obligations and the diminishing opportunities for paid reviewing—and also the first acknowledgement I have ever seen in print that despite the democratisation of reviewing and the interference of algorithms at Goodreads and Amazon, the fact is there are numerous excellent literary blogs and online journals delivering quality reviews to readers, all free.  I don’t count my little blog as in the company of the ‘excellent’, but ANZ LitLovers is informed by a lifetime of serious reading, and it is sincere, and careful, and as respectful and honest as I can make it.  So it is rewarding to see a counter to the dismissive opinions of so many in the print media.

I’ve worked backwards through this lovely book, and ended up at the chapter entitled ‘Reading is Sport’.  What a splendid argument for justifying absconding from sport in one’s school days! It’s true, reading is sport.  You do exercise your eyes.  And your mind. And it’s also true that sport is nothing more than a cruel series of jokes invented for the physical and emotional torture of types like myself.  And likewise, a reader who tries to fit in and be ‘normal’ by playing netball is doomed to fail.  I once filled in for a missing player because the team thought I’d be good at it since I was tall. Proximity to the net is no help if you miss catches, or you hold the ball too long, or you throw it to the wrong team.  Debra Adelaide does not mention ducking when the ball comes unwanted in your direction, but trust me, that doesn’t make you an asset to the team either…

I don’t know why schools inflict sport on readers.  The world does not need more sporting types.  It needs more readers.

Author: Debra Adelaide
Title:  The Innocent Reader
Cover design by Debra Billson, cover image by George Cave Gaskin/Getty Images
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019
ISBN: 9781760784355, pbk., 257 pages
Review copy courtesy of Picador (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Available from Fishpond: The Innocent Reader: Reflections on Reading and Writing and good bookshops everywhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 11, 2020

Dental Tourism, by Mark O’Flynn

Mark O’Flynn writes drama, fiction, memoir and poetry, and is the author of The Last Days of Ava Langdon (2016), a novel I really liked. A fictionalised portrait of the eccentric author Eve Langley, it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, and it won the Voss Literary Prize in 2017.  I wasn’t expecting it to have similarities with O’Flynn’s new collection of short stories, but it does.  Because like the character of Ava Langdon negotiating a mundane world from an off-beat perspective, the characters in these short stories find themselves in situations which seem both bizarre and yet entirely normal…

The one I liked most is called ‘White to the End of the World’.  A teenage girl who would rather go shopping finds herself taking her grandfather’s place on an Antarctic flight with a bunch of geriatric scientists.  And even though shopping bores me witless, I identified with this girl because six hours is an awfully long time to sit on a plane, only to find when you get there you have to turn around and come back.  To spend all that time in a plane and not be anywhere when you land again seems to me to be utterly pointless, especially since you can see much more of Antarctica with David Attenborough in close-up if you are so minded, (which I am not).  But The Spouse (who likes wild-life docos) was ecstatic when I bought him a ticket for one of these flights for one of his Big Birthdays, and even though you can only see properly on one leg of the journey because you have to share the window seat with whoever is next to you, he had a wonderful time and still likes to talk about it and look at his photos.  For poor Denise, the trip only livens up when something unexpected happens, but you’ll have to read the story for yourself to find out what it is.

The titular story is a cautionary tale.  Donald Watkins decides to save money on some expensive dental treatment by having it done in Thailand.  His local dentist (as he would, wouldn’t he?) talks about the risks — but the disaster that happens has nothing to do with Donald’s troublesome teeth.  Some readers will remember all that political trouble in Thailand a while back… I remember it well because one of The Spouse’s business associates was caught up in it and had to hole up in his hotel room for much longer than he wanted to.  This was a surprise to him because he makes regular trips to Lebanon — where one might expect political trouble — but it had never occurred to him that he would be one of hundreds of thousands of stranded passengers in Bangkok and that there would be violence on the streets in the land of smiles. But that’s not all that happens to poor Donald.  Lone Australian men travel to Thailand for more dubious reasons than having their teeth fixed, and corrupt policemen take advantage of this.

‘Tooth for a Tooth’ is nothing to do with dental treatment.  It features a bookgroup, one that’s been meeting for twenty years to share trial recipes and the latest Booker winner.   There is a core group of about six people, which sometimes swells to twice that, and one of the stalwarts used to be Amanda.  But Amanda has been locked up as a forensic patient for sixteen years, and the ladies about to share the Asian infused swordfish with greens are mightily disconcerted to learn that Tanya, who’s been writing to Amanda, has invited her to join them tonight.  These light-hearted, progressive, liberal-minded ladies have to confront painful ideas about justice and forgiveness and when punishment has been enough.

‘Political Correctness’ features an acerbic wife wryly observing her husband’s outrage when he spies a politician at the same island resort.  Dean (who gets in her personal space too much, which tells you something about their relationship and how this second honeymoon is progressing) rants on about politicians’ privileges, taxpayer rorts and all the sort of predictable rot you would hear if you were silly enough to listen to shock jocks.  Yes, I would have booked up my time with pedicures and massages too, rather than put up with it.  It’s quite funny, especially since, put to the test, all this manufactured outrage fizzles out when confronted by the politician’s charm.  Except that having been left to his own devices, Dean has got up to some unexpected mischief!

It is the absolute ordinariness of the characters in these stories that makes them interesting because we see ourselves also negotiating a world that suddenly tips off balance.

Author: Mark O’Flynn
Title: Dental Tourism
Cover design by Miranda Douglas
Publisher: Puncher and Wattman, 2020
ISBN: 9781925780536, pbk, 245 pages
Review copy courtesy of Puncher and Wattman.

Available from Puncher and Wattman, from Fishpond: Dental Tourism and from all good bookstores.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 9, 2020

You Will Be Safe Here, by Damien Barr

Cultural warning: a part of this review uses racial slurs when quoting text from the novel.


This is another book that I became aware of through the release of the Adelaide Writers’ Week program.  It’s an ambitious book, with a big story to tell, but the link between its two competing narratives is IMO tenuous.  Both narratives are set in camps which promise to keep their charges safe, and neither of them do. That seems a thin thread to connect them, and I’m a bit bemused by the conflation of the suffering of internees in a concentration camp a century ago with present-day homophobic brutality towards boys struggling with their sexual identity.  However, while one needs to read between the lines, the novel — by being written mainly from the perspective of White South Africans — exposes some attitudes which show that South Africa has a long way to go before being a Rainbow Nation at peace with itself and the world.

Part 1 is the story of the Boer Sarah van der Watt and her treatment at the hands of the British during the Boer War (1899-1902).  It is often said that the British were the first to use concentration camps as a weapon of war, but it’s not actually true.  Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove links and footnotes) tells us otherwise:

Although the first example of civilian internment may date as far back as the 1830s, the English term concentration camp was first used in order to refer to the reconcentrados (reconcentration camps) which were set up by the Spanish military in Cuba during the Ten Years’ War (1868–78), and similar camps were set up by the United States during the Philippine–American War (1899–1902). The term concentration camp saw wider use as the British set up camps during the Second Boer War (1899–1902) in South Africa for interning Boers.

But there is no doubt that the Brits used the brutal internment of civilians including women and children together with a scorched earth policy in their campaign against the Boers. Barr, using the device of a diary written by his character Sarah van der Watt, takes the narrative from her dread of what was coming, to the grim reality of being used as punishment for the military activities of her husband Sam, and to her terror that her small son Fred might die.  The conditions were terrible, and, as in real life, thousands of people died from malnutrition and disease.  In the modern era in South Africa, hostility to British people can be traced to this history of concentration camps during the Second Boer War.

(Abhorrent as this war crime was, it needs to be differentiated from the Holocaust because the intent was not genocidal: it was not intended to exterminate an entire race of innocent people, their religion and their culture.  Concentration camps began in South Africa in response to the introduction of guerrilla warfare by the Boers, and was intended to pressure their fighters to surrender by cutting off their support and breaking their morale. And unlike German public opinion demonstrated by their acquiescence to the persecution, deportation and murder of six millions Jews in World War II, British public opinion deplored the emergence of concentration camps in the Boer War under Lord Kitchener.  There was strong censure by MPs in the British Parliament, notably by David Lloyd George, and opposition to the war itself was stoked by condemnation of these tactics by the British public, due in part to the efforts of Englishwoman Emily Hobhouse who campaigned against the camps.)

Sarah’s diary is used to convey the terrible suffering within the camp.  It is addressed to her husband, and somehow kept, surreptitiously, throughout the internment.  Most readers will, I hope, notice amongst the depiction of the atrocious conditions, the casual and not-so-casual racism against Black South Africans.  Black servants are not differentiated as Zulu or Xhosa or anything else, just labelled by an offensive term.  That is, of course, authentic.  The dismissive attitudes towards their greater suffering are, no doubt, a valid representation of how Afrikaners like Sarah would have spoken and behaved.  She records without a word of compassion that her servant Jakob [was] laid out on the stoep, his hands bound behind his back, rolled to one side so they wouldn’t have to step over him. Lettie is also trussed like Jakob tying a pig and dragged onto the stoep.  Later she notes that at least they were in the shade, though they don’t suffer the sun like us. Even in the camp, Mrs Kriel’s little Kaffir girl sleeps right outside. 

“The final indignity is the Khaki Kaffirs set to spy on us. I grieve to see them turn against the people who gave them shelter and work. We are all sons and daughters of the same soil. It is a sin that will not quickly be forgiven.”

However, in a contemporary novel, one might expect that author acknowledgements or a preface would address the question of representing the racism that undoubtedly occurred, to ensure that readers understand its purpose.  There is a risk that not everyone will recognise the irony in that excerpt, and I think it’s important that they do. I do not know how people in South Africa negotiate discussions about depicting historical authenticity when it uses language and vocabulary that is deeply offensive.  It’s not a matter of political correctness.  It’s a matter of reconciliation.

Part 2 is the story of 16-year-old Willem who suffers appalling treatment at the New Dawn Safari Training Camp which is a proxy for a Far-Right paramilitary camp.  Like Part 1 it is based on a true story, in this case the catalyst for the novel, the murder of a teenager called Raymond Buys at a South African ‘conversion therapy’ camp that promised to ‘turn boys into men’.  The authenticity of Willem’s experiences of being bullied at school and his insensitive step-father’s behaviour perhaps derives in part from Barr’s own experiences as depicted in his memoir Maggie and MeBut Barr expands on this with an association between these boot camps and the white supremacist ideologies spawned by Eugène Terre’Blanche in the wake of the collapse of apartheid.

It bothers me that characters with speaking parts are almost all White.  Perhaps this is where the rhetoric about identity appropriation takes us.  If Barr as a White outsider ought not to speak for the People of Colour in South Africa, then what the reader encounters is IMO distorted.  There are frequent references to the violence of post-apartheid South Africa, all from the point-of-view of white South Africans concerned about the security situation: car-jackings, gang-rapes, farm attacks.   We learn that jobs used to be easy for Whites to get, but Willem’s parents know that he will be competing not just in a multi-racial market for employment, but one with quotas to redress the privilege that White South Africans had enjoyed. Unless he finishes school, his prospects are limited.

Even Willem traces back what happened to him, to the security situation.

Willem remembers the power cuts — long dark hours without the internet, long hot nights without air-conditioning and windows you can’t open, the constant bleep of alarms, the panic buttons by his bed, the razor wire with roses growing through it, the neighbours with the perfect garden they never go in because it’s full of security snakes, according to the sign they had to put up. He’s only in this place now because he got expelled but what happened with Anton only happened because of what he can hardly bear to remember on the minibus.  And that only happened because they couldn’t stop on the road because of what might have happened if they had.  If it had been safe to stop he could have got out and had a piss and that would have been that.  He could have been at home right now. (p.235)

We learn why the school mini-bus couldn’t stop:

The driver knows only too well you don’t stop upcountry, even for cops, especially for cops.  If a cop car flashes you just flash back then drive to the nearest busy place, say a petrol station, and stop there so you have witnesses and CCTV.  If you see a body in the road you drive round it or over it if you have to.  You never slow down to look.  You certainly do not stop a private-school minibus with fifteen white kids and a white lady and a pretty black girl in the middle of nowhere.  (p.196).

Blaming post-apartheid violence (which certainly exists) because a fifteen-year-old boy wet his pants on the bus seems a bit of stretch, eh? Unless one reads between the lines to interpret this as an example of White nostalgia for the securities of apartheid, even amongst young people.

Out of curiosity, I visited the website of the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein which Willem visits with his school group in 2009… and could not help but notice


It is during this museum visit that the reader meets Mthunzi, a teacher-in-training who unlike Mrs de Vries, seems to have no surname or title.  She is belittled by the tour guide, who, when handing out a teaching resource to the group starts with Mrs de Vries then the boys, then the girls, and hands the last to Mthunzi.  Even Vorstadt’s choice of language for instruction provides an opportunity for a putdown:

‘Well, everyone, welcome to the Anglo-Boer War Museum.  I’m Anna Vorstadt, a curator here, and I’ll be taking your tour.  You all have Afrikaans, ja?’ She smiles cleanly at Mthunzi who nods once then turns to Mrs de Vries who chirps ‘Ja’ on behalf of Grade 12. Everybody prepares to tune in to the frequency of the classroom. (p.199)

Language is a particularly complex issue in post-Apartheid South Africa, and this article from 1982 explains the historical Black antipathy towards Afrikaans. Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove footnotes) explains:

South Africa has 11 official languages, and the first year of schooling is provided in all these home languages.
Before 2009, schools serving non-English speakers had to teach English as a subject only from grade 3 and all subjects were taught in English from grade 4 (except in Afrikaans language schools). Since 2009, all schools teach English as a subject from grade 1 and all subjects are taught in English from grade 4. Afrikaans language schools are an exception, in that all subjects (other than other languages) are taught in Afrikaans.

So when it comes to the language of instruction for South African students, the choice is loaded.  The choice is not just about inclusivity and academic success, it impacts on access to higher education within and beyond the country, on opportunities for employment and positions of power, and on the ability to read media in English, the world’s lingua franca and the second most-commonly spoken language in the world (after Chinese).  English, Willem’s mothers ruefully says, is the language of American TV and his books: Willem loves to read Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings.  As we see in his conversation with his soulmate Harry at school, nobody talks Afrikaans unless there’s an adult about, and in the camp — despite the risk of severe punishment — he prefers to speak English with his only friend Geldenhuys.  So his parents’ choice to send him to a privileged Afrikaner school says something about their priorities, and Willem’s preference for English despite his years of schooling in Afrikaans, says something about his.

It is, IMO, unfortunate that one of the few Black South African characters is a crude and vulgar driver who, grabbing his crotch, uses a disgusting acronym to tell Willem’s stepfather what he would like to do to Irma, Willem’s mother.  This episode gives Jan an opportunity to reflect on his National Service days when men like Fumbi were the enemy:

Now a lot of Jan’s old Defence Force mates are in security because people feel safer with a face like their own on the gate.  Jan had considered becoming a cop but couldn’t get used to blacks in uniform.  On the news the other day he’d seen a black judge.  It’s all rigged now.  If you give a white guy a job you have to give a black one too.  (p.177)

Well, Jan is a covert member of the AWB (Afrikaaner Resistance Movement) but even so, in the absence of any commentary to balance it, the author’s choice to voice his opinions and those of other racists makes for disconcerting reading.

You Will Be Safe Here puts the reader in the awkward position of feeling sorry for the White victims represented in the story, while the suffering of black characters is entirely muted.

Alfred Hickling at the Guardian was impressed.

Author: Damien Barr
Title:  You Will Be Safe Here
Cover design by David Mann
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2019
ISBN: 9781408886090, pbk, 327 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond:You Will Be Safe Here




Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 7, 2020

Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi

I don’t usually review books I haven’t finished — but I’m making an exception with Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread, because I am so baffled by it, I’d like to know if anyone else has made any sense of it.

I was well out of my comfort zone anyway because it’s an adult novel with fairy-tale elements, but in first four chapters I could see how the author used whimsy to deliver a biting critique of contemporary British society.  But from there onward, I was mostly lost.  When I finally decided to give up at page 155 because the confusion was impenetrable, I sought out some reviews… and I found that everyone else seemed able to make some sense of the first part and then got lost just as I did.

Which makes me wonder what to make of praise like this, from Ron Charles at the Washington Post who isn’t embarrassed to admit that Oyeyemi works in an adjacent realm of dreams where things simultaneously make perfect sense and no sense at all:

Oyeyemi, now 34, isn’t just goosing old fairy tales with contemporary melodies. She’s drawn to what’s most unsettling about these fables: their disorienting logic, their blithe cruelty, their subtle encoding of race and gender. Nor is she in any way beholden to the source material she collects in the dark forest. No matter what characters she’s dealing with, she’s willing to cut off their tales with a carving knife.

Her new novel, “Gingerbread,” is a challenging, mind-bending exploration of class and female power heavily spiced with nutmeg and sweetened with molasses. If you think you know where you’re going in this forest, you’ll soon be lost. Oyeyemi has built her house out of something far more complex than candy.

Mmm, yes… but …at some point, absurdism can just become absurd, and so is any attempt to make sense of it.

Helen Oyeyemi is a British author of Nigerian heritage, and elements of her storytelling style reminded me of other Nigerian authors: Chigozie Obioma (who wrote the widely admired The Fishermen) has the same vivacious chattiness, which, as I understand it, has origins in oral storytelling.  Ben Okri’s The Famished Road features the same kind of non-judgemental narrator as in Gingerbread, with the same endearing impudence.  And though Oyeyemi is similarly dealing with some very serious issues as Harriet relates her life story to her daughter Perdita, the tone is upbeat and often droll, most remarkably even when Perdita attempts suicide.

Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham (1909) Wikipedia)

Gingerbread is known to most of us as a feature of the Hansel and Gretel fairytale, where it is used to lure the children to their doom, but there is also the story of the Gingerbread Man who comes to life as the longed-for but rather unpleasant child of an old man and woman.  There is a kind of malevolence in these representations of the sweet and spicy baked dough, but OTOH there are gingerbread houses as a symbol of love and affection at Christmastime in Germany and the US.   But…

Harriet Lee’s gingerbread is not comfort food. There’s no nostalgia baked into it, no hearkening back to innocent indulgences and jolly times at nursery. It is not humble, nor is it dusty in the crumb.

A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge. “It’s like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they ’d got away with it, ” the gingerbread addict said. “That heart, ground to ash and shot through with darts of heat, salt, spice, and sulphurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze and trickled through the dough along with the liquefied spoon. You are phenomenal. You’ve ruined my life for ever. Thank you. ” (p.1-2)

The gingerbread that Harriet bakes seems to be a kind of currency, a symbol of efforts to belong and their rejection.  As we see when she tries with gifts of gingerbread to bribe her way into social acceptance…

Perdita’s school has a PPA, a Parent Power Association instead of a Parent Teacher Association, and, determined to take her own place in this pantheon, Harriet filled nine tins with gingerbread, wrapped rainbow-coloured ribbon around each tin and attached notecards with the names of each PPA member.  Every single one of the PPA members left the tins on, under or behind their chairs without even opening them, leaving Harriet to wonder whether she had caused offence by mis-spelling names or misidentifying people — she could have been more diligent.  She’d been a bit tired when she wrote the notecards, her head full of the GCSE coursework she’d sat up all night correcting. (p. 10)

Later Harriet realises that she’s been trying to break into an impenetrable in-crowd, formed over twenty years ago, when these parents were prefects at the same school.  Not, we are meant to note, a disdainful cohort of racist middle-class whites, but, rather with their multi-ethnic names from Africa, Asia and Europe, an embodiment of Cool Britannia before the concept had even had a name.  They have wholly absorbed the status-conscious culture which (we are led to believe) clashed with postwar migration from the Commonwealth.

Harriet, by contrast, has only petty ambitions for her daughter: she wanted Perdita to get good marks at school, they wanted her not to cause trouble, not to punish them for being unable to afford the very best of everything for her. Oh, and they wanted her to smile every now and again. 

However, once Perdita is recovering from her failed suicide and Harriet is telling the story of her life before she came to London, things get very messy.  I am not even sure that I have made sense of the strand about Harriet’s birthplace, which appears to be a mythical place:

Druhástrana (druhástranae) is the name of an alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location. Very little verifiable information concerning Druhástrana is available, as there have been several prominent cases of stateless people claiming Druhástranian citizenship under a form of poetic licence, and other, yet more unfortunate cases in which claims to Druhástranian citizenship or ancestry have been proven to result from false memories or flawed cognitive information.

To date, Druhástrana has been formally recognized by only three nations. (See: Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary.) Slovakia revoked recognition of Druhástrana without explanation on January 1, 2010, and Hungary followed suit on January 1, 2013.

Several prominent thinkers have proposed reclassifying Druhástrana as a purely notional/mythical land since a) nobody seems to actually come from there or know how to get there and b) literal interpretations of the assertion that Druhástrana exists may be a profound mistranslation of Czech humour. (pp. 18-19)

Now it might just be that this apparently invented birthplace is nothing more than a vehicle for the storytelling, and it does offer an opportunity for a dig at Brexit:

The referendum has been the only way to definitively withdraw from the so-called brotherhood of nations; let them see, yes, they’d all see how well they got on without all the contributions Druhástrana has made towards world peace. (p.114)

It also seems to be a critique of landowners, colonialism, the stupidity of the exploited workers and (maybe) a dig at the invisibility of Commonwealth nations in their post-colonial phase.  When the map of the world was coloured pink on the empire where the sun never set, schoolchildren all over the world knew the names and locations of Britain’s possessions, from Kenya to Malaya.  But now? I bet many would be hard pressed to locate Nigeria in the right place in Africa, and indeed it’s a frequent complaint that many people refer to Africa as if it were a nation, and not home to 54 separate countries.

There are acerbic barbs at lotteries, which only teach you that the finer things in life aren’t earned by working round the clock and doing everything you can to uphold the law.  But some elements seem utterly pointless, as when we read that characters are expecting to experience discrimination from a hotel doorman, and then they don’t. A character is 78% happy.  What does that even mean? Is it satirising the way bean counters force data collection about things are fundamentally uncountable?  I don’t know.

Even though I am mindful that there is no shortage of people who dismiss James Joyce in a similar way, I did begin to wonder if this is a case of the of a wilful weaver creating the Emperor’s New Clothes, just to see if she could get away with it.

If you too have also struggled with this book, do share your thoughts about it in comments… and take a moment to enjoy this video of Ron Charles spoofing the work.

Image credits:

Available from Fishpond: Gingerbread

Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Title: Gingerbread
Publisher: Picador (Macmillan), 2019
ISBN: 9781447299431
Review copy courtesy of Macmillan


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 5, 2020

The Cut Out Girl, by Bart Van Es

This book came to my attention because the author is a guest at the forthcoming Adelaide Writers’ Week and I came across it when browsing the program.

The Cut Out Girl was the Costa Book of the Year in 2018,  taking out the prize in the Biography category as well as the overall prize for the work, worth £30,000 to the author.  According to the BBC, this is the first winner from the biography category since Helen Macdonald won it in 2014 for H is for Hawk and is only the fourth biographer to take the prize this century.  This is the BBC description of the book:

The Cut Out Girl tells the story of a young Jewish girl, Lien, who was taken in by strangers during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Her family were all killed but, like 4,000 other Dutch Jewish children, she escaped the Holocaust by being hidden from the Nazis by a non-Jewish family.

Bart van Es, a Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, has a personal connection to the story – his own grandparents were the couple who fostered little Lien in the Hague during the occupation. The Cut Out Girl interweaves the story of Lien in the 1940s with his own experience of uncovering it, a burgeoning friendship with the elderly Lien and some uncomfortable truths about Dutch collaboration during the occupation.

What intrigued me about the book was that there was a falling out between the adult Lien and her foster family, and I could not imagine how that could be.  I have always admired the astonishing courage of people who saved Jews during WW2, and the stories of children who were fostered by complete strangers seemed like a miracle of bravery and kindness.  What The Cut Out Girl reveals, however, is that rescuing these children was much more complex than just avoiding detection and the terrible risk of Nazi reprisals, and that while some people were open-hearted and generous, others did it because they felt they ought to for religious reasons, when they were not really the kind of people who should have the care of damaged young children.  And inevitably, some of those who had access to these vulnerable children took advantage of them in the worst possible way.

(It’s an entirely different scenario, of course, but there are awful stories about children evacuated from the Blitz who were placed with people who had no idea how to care for traumatised children and some who exploited them as domestic help or worse.)

By making contact with Lien who was by then in her 80s, Bart Van Es was able to discover her childhood journey from loving home to the insecurities of not really belonging anywhere.  The memoir is not really a story of the Holocaust though Lien lost her entire family to Auschwitz.  It is the story of how with research, documents and mementoes and sensitively conducted interviews, Van Es was able to retrace Lien’s movements from one family to another, across a network of safe houses.  As you might expect, because she was only a little girl, she had blanked out the memories of being taken from place to place, of running and hiding, and — like many a fostered child — longing to be returned to one family where (under the circumstances) she had been quite happy when she had been removed to somewhere else.  But also, because she was only a little girl, she was also not aware that even the kindliest of her foster parents found the strain of caring for extra children, especially during The Hunger Winter of 1944-5, was a burden that was sometimes hard to bear.

Along the way, Van Es confronts some disquieting truths not just about anti-Semitic Dutch collaboration with the Nazis, but also how they failed to care for the orphaned children after the war, and did not adequately acknowledge the bravery of their saviours.  As elsewhere in Europe, there were many who, postwar, appropriated houses and property and refused to give them back.  These people perhaps did not have the genocidal intent of the Nazis, but they were only too enthusiastic about deporting Jews out of their country and reaping the proceeds afterwards.

Nevertheless, The Cut Out Girl is not a bitter book.  It concludes on a note of reconciliation and hope, and it was lovely to read that Lien was ultimately able to build a satisfying life — as a social worker, helping troubled children…

For more scholarly thoughts than mine, visit this review and this one.

Author: Bart Van Es
Title: The Cut Out Girl, a story of war and family, lost and found
Cover design: designer not acknowledged but images are from the author’s own collection and from Shutterstock
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK, 2018
ISBN: 9780241978726, pbk, 281 pages
Source: Kingston Library


I’ve always been a unionist because I believe that people can have power collectively that they cannot exercise as individuals.  I belonged to the Australian Education Union (under various different names) throughout my career, and I joined the Australian Society of Authors soon after I had my first paid article published, long ago in 1987.  And it was because I was a member of the ASA that I have a copy of a great literary treasure: the last print edition of The Australian Author, 1969-2018, Vol 50 No 2.  It is a treasure not because it is the last, but because it is a commemorative edition, featuring selected reprints of articles by a pantheon of great Australian authors, from the birth of the ASA over half a century.

This collection is a ‘dip-into’ sort of book.  It lives on my desk and I dip into it when the computer is booting up or otherwise playing with itself.  I get half way through it, and then revisit earlier essays, I’ve muddled around in the later essays and not yet got to the middle.  Some of the pieces appeal to my sense of history: as a long term recipient of both CAL* and ELR* who pay me money for my books that are in libraries and get photocopied, I find it fascinating to read Colin Simpson’s 1969 argument for why these schemes to support authors should exist and how they could work. The essay has a postscript stating that the proposal to introduce PLR* was vetoed by the Gorton government but the ASA was not taking ‘No’ for an answer.

PLR was eventually introduced by, you guessed it, the progressive Whitlam government in 1975, and the collection includes a stirring speech from April 1975 entitled ‘Australia’s need for better writers who are better off’ by then Prime Minister The Hon. E. G. Whitlam QC, MP.  Addressing the ASA, he stated that PLR is not a privilege or a benefit but a right, and he concluded by reminding the audience that it was crucial to guard and preserve it because it was not invulnerable to attack.  Authors who were paying attention will know that

As a result of the Administrative Arrangement Order introduced on 5 December 2019, the functions that were previously the responsibility of the Department of Communications and the Arts have been transferred to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications as of 1 February 2020.

The ASA will no doubt be eyeing this development with concern, and they will be using member contributions to defend authors’ rights.  If you are a writer, whether you receive rights payments like this or not, you ought to be a member of the society…

Anyway, what prompted me to take up my pen, so to say, was not to spruik membership of the ASA, but having revisited Barbara Jefferis’ essay ‘The people novels write’, from July 1969.  Though she was the author of eleven books, I haven’t read much of Jefferis’ oeuvre, only Three of a Kind though  I have a novel called Solo for Several Players which I tracked down a couple of years ago.  (I just love the white gloves in that cover image!!) So this essay in The Australian Author is a treasure, and it shows what a very insightful writer she was.

Her topic is the creation of character and the public misapprehension that characters are based on real life people.  She begins like this:

There was a time, and not very long ago, when every novel had a line in the front which said, ‘All the characters in this book are entirely imaginary, and have no relationship to any living person.’ Nobody believed it.

Fashions changed and the line was dropped, but novelists still violently deny that they are drawing characters from life.  Nobody believes them.  And yet there’s nothing that irritates the working novelist more than his non-writing friend’s suggestion that he ought to put old so-and-so into a book.  It irritates him because it shows him that his non-writing friend hasn’t the least idea what he’s up to in his book.

Whatever you take a novel to be—a mirror held up to life, a prose fiction of 50,000 words or more, or the non-poetic statement of a poetic truth—the one sure thing is that a novel is a piece of art, and art is not life.  Homo fictus, as E M Forster has said, is a totally different species from Homo sapiens.  (p, 14)

I love her testiness about this, especially her application to critics of the term ‘non-playing coaches who write at such length about technique [and] are often nearly incomprehensible to the practitioner‘.  She explains how they are obsessed with stance and swing and follow through, or with structure, and she debunks the lot of them:

I don’t believe that there is a proper way of constructing a novel, a proper way of making character, a proper point of view from which the novelist must see his characters, or indeed a proper way of doing anything else that the author does.  (p.15)

Jefferis says there are two kinds of sub-species of the species Homo fictus: ‘Dial-plate people’ or ‘Endogenous people’ and they are either built up from the outside’ or they grow from within’.  

The dial-plate novelist uses a lively talent for recreating life’s surface textures, using a powerful visual imagery supported by idiosyncrasy and mannerism to create a vivid illusion of life. (p.16)

She cites Dickens, Scott, Wells and Galsworthy and acknowledges that good and lasting novels can be written this way but she doubts that great novels can.  (Of course we today are all noticing that all four of her examples are men, just as we noticed that her working novelist from the introductory paragraph featured the male pronoun.  You may have noticed that whenever I refer to a novelist in general rather than a specific novelist, my novelist always defaults to the female pronoun. This is not a criticism of Jefferis.  She was writing in 1969.  But we have moved on.)

‘Endogenous’ people turn up in novels written from the ‘inner workings’ of the novelist’s mind.

He rarely if ever has to give you a physical description of his characters.  He doesn’t depend on a hooked nose or flaming red hair or tricks of speech or manner to ‘set’ his character in the reader’s mind.  He goes about it in a much harder and more rewarding way, trying, by everything his character says and does and thinks, to make the reader discover for himself what sort of person this character is.  (p.16)

(Yes, the ‘reader’ is male too, but let’s not get distracted.)

Living people, says Jefferis, are useless to the novelist.  Living people are too many-faceted, too complex, too crazy and too unpredictable’.  She cites Henry James telling us that Life is all inclusion and confusion.  Art is all discrimination and selection.’ Jefferis agrees, and she says that what novelists do is to choose half a dozen of the more significant and spectacular facets  and to ignore the rest.

(This is perhaps why poor old Horace Walpole was upset about his characterisation in Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale.  Maugham chose some idiosyncrasies and exaggerated them, and didn’t use the aspects of Walpole that had formed their friendship over many years.) George Eliot, Jefferis tells us, was very indignant when accused of drawing Adam Bede from life, quoting her as saying ‘No-one who is not an artist knows how experience is wrought up in writing in any form of poetry.’ 

The reason Jefferis differentiates between the good books of the ‘dial-plate’ novelist and the great books of the ‘endogenous people’ type is that whereas the dial-platers may well get their characters by ‘pruning their friends’, the inner-workings novelist gets his ideas from himself.

He is the only person he can know anything about positively and from within.  He has to be the source of all characterisation built on personality rather than surface characteristics.  If you agree that drama consists of passion and not of incident, then the whole stuff of fiction is there inside him.  It’s inconceivable that he should ever want to portray an emotion that he himself has never felt, or the simple reason that there’s no way of his conceiving it.  All he is doing is drawing on his own past emotional experience, but changing the circumstances, the people, their sexes, changing the impact, changing the emphasis to create a fictional person who will act in unison with the other elements of the book to make a whole that expresses something of the author’s personal view of life.’

If he has drawn well, people will think they recognise their bosses and their brothers and their aunts, but all they are really seeing is a piece of the author’s personality and experience altered, extended and manipulated to work for him.  (p.17)

(Which might be why books written by very young writers with little experience of life’s slings and arrows can tend to be a bit unsatisfactory, and why most authors get better and better at their craft as they age.  It might also be why authors who are not really very nice people could be terrific at creating horrible characters!  I once wrote a short story where the characters’ identities were not revealed until the very end, the one telling the other exactly what she thought of him, in the kind of adolescent street language that I have never used out loud in public, much less in any professional context.  The one dishing it out was the teacher, giving in to her rage and frustration with the student.  I was too embarrassed to hand in that little fantasy for assessment, but it felt great to write it!)

Fresh from reading one book which I didn’t really make sense of and in the throes of reading another that’s stretching my recalcitrant brain, I was also interested in what Jefferis has to say about how it is never easy to express a complex thought in simple words.  It’s very much easier to tart it up with trick inversions and fancy polysyllables so that nobody is absolutely clear about its meaning.  She concludes by quoting Cecil Day Lewis explaining that a novelist can’t recycle what has been done before because one has only learned to get the better of words for the one thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which one is no longer disposed to say it.’

(And if I may digress again, do notice how that lovely soon-to-be-obsolete impersonal pronoun ‘one’ is genderless.  Why are we disposing of it, when it is so perfect for its purpose???)

But (back on track)…

I do think it’s fun to play in the sandpit that has trick inversions and fancy polysyllables.  I don’t mind if I don’t always understand what’s going on.  Bill from The Australian Legend expressed exactly how I felt about a book we’d both read: I’m sure I didn’t make much sense of Hollow Earth but I certainly enjoyed reading it.

Barbara Jefferis was a real gem.  I must read the essay by Ruth Park soon!

* CAL is  administered by the Copyright Agency Limited.  It monitors photocopying in educational institutions and pays authors on the basis of the usage rates per item.  ELR is the Educational Lending Right and PLR is the Public Lending Right.  They monitor which books are in educational libraries and public libraries and they pay authors on the basis of the number of copies held in the library, on the principle that a book gets read multiple times in libraries and each copy is a sale foregone by the author.  While for many of us these amounts are not huge, there was one memorable year when my Indonesian teaching resource books were bought and used by every Australian school teaching that language, and I bought my very first-ever brand new car with the proceeds.

Contributors: see the cover image
Title: The Australian Author, 1969-2018, Vol 50, No 2
Featured articles selected by Emily Banyard
Published by the Australian Authors Association, Ultimo

Availability: scour the Op Shops for this one!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2020

Hollow Earth, by John Kinsella

John Kinsella (b.1963) is a well-known Australian poet, essayist, critic and novelist, but Hollow Earth is his first venture into science fiction.  This is the blurb:

Fascinated by caves and digging holes since childhood, Manfred discovers a path through to another realm via a Neolithic copper mine at Mount Gabriel in Schull, Ireland. The world of Hollow Earth, while no Utopia, is a sophisticated civilisation. Its genderless inhabitants are respectful of their environment, religious and cultural differences are accommodated without engendering hate or suspicion, and grain, not missile silos are built. Yet Ari and Zest accompany Manfred back to the surface world. ‘Come with me and see my world.’

So begins an extraordinary adventure in which the three wander the Earth like Virgil’s Aeneas, Ari and Zest seeking re-entry to their own world. The Hollow Earthers are shocked at the cruelty and lies of the surface world, the dieback spreading through the forests. Yet they are seduced by the world’s temptations.

Kinsella’s parable draws on a rich tradition of Hollow Earth literature and science fiction including Bradshaw’s The Goddess of Atavatabar (1892). With strange beauty, its alluring trajectory vividly captures our 21st-century world in crisis. Like Manfred, we are often blindly complicit in the earth’s downfall. ‘Happiness is under our feet.’ sings the narrator in this passionate, layered and compelling new novel.

So, in echoes of well-intentioned colonists of earlier eras who took the naïve by ‘invitation’ to see a different world, we see Manfred escorting Ari and Zest around the surface world.  In short chapters of often only a paragraph or so, Kinsella depicts a different way of thinking about so much that is the norm for us:

Our bodies function the same way yours do.  Skin colour — you object to our skin colour being the colour of leaves, of grass? Of soil?  Of rock? Of water? What is it with you, that you are so out of tune with your surroundings that you differentiate between a person and the world they are part of? (p.41)

Some chapters are devastatingly short, just a single line on an otherwise blank page:

Zest took a liking to codeine, Art to ephedrine. (p.47)

While another amplifies this motif:

Alcohol, not manufactured but manifested through natural processes of fermentation, was not part of Hollow Earth’s sensual register, for it had no effect beyond poisoning if taken in excess and was only used as a preservative.   Manfred had warned them that consuming alcohol on the surface would affect them, and would have consequences.  So when they found the minibar, the temptation proved too much and Ari and Zest swallowed three miniature bottles of scotch and vodka (he wasn’t sure who ended up with which) in rapid succession, which set off a chain reaction that had far-reaching consequences for their sense of self-worth and their understanding of their own ontologies.  They didn’t act drunk, in a surface sense, but had deep crises of purpose, belonging, and identity.  There was nothing uplifting and then depressing about it — it was all depressing and depression.  (p.59)

Kinsella doesn’t go out of his way to depict an imagined world full of hi-tech gadgetry or a landscape of diaspora.  Rather, he simply alludes, for example, to a future where there are different forms of communication now that the World Wide Web is obsolete, (though pleasingly, there is still a bookshop, at least in Cork).  But in general there is nothing to laugh about on the surface, it is a world written with disturbance, and although below is no Utopia either, Ari and Zest are peeved about the way Manfred has misrepresented his world: they want to know why surface dwellers had starved each other to death…

They continue to do so across the surface of the globe, Manfred admitted.  It’s lousy with cruelty.

You have been selective in telling your stories, Manfred. You have lured us here with promises of insights that would help other Hollow Earthers on our return.

But you can belong here, said Manfred — through you humanity can realise it does not hold exclusive rights over existence.

So you’re using us? (p.61)

(I have to confess to using line breaks for this dialogue.  There are no quotation marks in the text and the dialogue beats back and forth all within one paragraph.  It works fine in the book, but I’ve altered it in the excerpt for clarity because here it’s out of context).

The sense of a climate crisis which has besieged us this summer is predicted by Kinsella’s characters in this book (which was published in our previous spring):

Yesterday we saw an island full of birds and flowering hedges, and now we look across the harbour, out to the island, and it is burning all over.  Now we hear those fires are out of control.  Are we in your ‘summer’ now?  You said it wasn’t legal.  You make rules you don’t live by?’ (p.76)

They are baffled by the way people go about their daily business, knowing the threat of nuclear conflagration is ever-present, and it’s hard not to share their conclusion that the surface world is a psychosis.

The novel lost me a bit in the middle: I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on all the time because the trio were on drugs as they made their way from Ireland to Perth, for reasons that didn’t make much sense to me except that they were looking for the entry point back to Hollow Earth.  (For some reason, they could not return the way they came). However, it’s quite clear that the confusion is intentional:

When was this on the timelines of their time together on the surface?  They did not know and neither do we.  We might be flashing back, or jumping ahead of ourselves.  But I think we are there now , with them.  Knowing little, but enough to satisfy ourselves that we know something. (p.159)

Something clicked into place when I came across the allusion to Brendan the Navigator’s shipwreck scenario. I think it explains the connection to Ireland as well.  This is from my review of Navigatio by Patrick Holland:

Irish immram flourished during the seventh and eighth centuries. Typically, an immram was a sea-voyage in which a hero, with a few companions, often monks, wanders from island to island, meets other-world wonders, and finally returns home. The story of Brendan’s voyage, developed during this time, shares some characteristics with immram. Like an immram, the Navigatio tells the story of Brendan, who, with some companion monks, sets out to find the terra repromissionis sanctorum, the Promised Land of the Saints or the Earthly Paradise.  (See Wikipedia).

Alison Croggon’s novella of the same name is a subversive feminist tale that also has its genesis in the story of Saint Brendan of Clonfort, but its fragmentary shape is more like that of Hollow Earth, and Croggon like Kinsella is a poet.

If you’re the kind of reader who gets frustrated by quotations from Virgil in Latin, maybe this is not the book for you.  OTOH Google makes this one easy: It turns out that this fragment:

et quacumque viam dederit fortuna sequamur

comes from The Aeneid, Book 11, v. 128): and it was translated by Jules Verne in (yes, you guessed it, Journey to the Centre of the Earth) as

And whatever route fortune gives, we shall follow.

But this reminded me of my adventures with Finnegans Wake. Norwegian? Bits of Spanish?  The last line in Latin, something to do with a huge monstrous shepherd??

Hjyterspectal faspberryt crysstel pasiblid, ø pesyhü lossést
≠ gyttynnm haster berrt larr larr larr rest haster larr larr larr
haster gyttynnm ø gyttynnm haster berrt larr larr larr rest haster
larr larr larr haster gyttynnm = ‘Immanis pecoris custos, immanior
which is not to say such an image cannot be cast, because it can.

There are other books mentioned in the Acknowledgments but not FW so I must have got that wrong…

Though it seems to me that Hollow Earth is not much like any SF I’ve ever come across, Bill at The Australian Legend describes it perfectly as the science fiction novel you might expect from a poet.  He reviewed it here.

Author: John Kinsella
Title: Hollow Earth
Cover art by Stephen Kinsella, cover and book design by Peter Lo
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019
ISBN: 9781925760279, 268 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Transit Lounge and from Fishpond: Hollow Earth

This month’s #6Degrees starts with another book I’ve never heard of:  Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.  (I’m not doing too well with these lately!)

So I thought I’d go completely off-piste, and just choose a book by another author with a hyphenated surname.  I looked for the first one in my list of authors and came up with A Girl Made of Dust, by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi.  This is a semi-autobiographical novel by an author who, like some of the characters in her story, moved to the safety of England in 1983 when Israel invaded Lebanon.  She has written the novel from the perspective of an eight-year-old, but overcame my resistance to child narrators with a vivid story.  This point-of-view enables the portrayal of the baffled dismay that many of us naïvely feel about religious hatreds, and, sadly, it also shows us how children adapt to living in war zones, and have no concept of living in peace.

From there, it was a no-brainer to revisit one of the best Australian books of recent times, Dustfall, by Michelle Johnston. Johnston’s story is framed around two narratives, both featuring doctors who have made mistakes.  As Michelle Johnston says in this interview with Amanda Curtin, there’s a world of difference between the way that medical errors and corporate errors are judged and yet the consequences can be equally fatal for individuals.  It is just coincidence but Jennifer from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large has just posted a review of Asbestos in Australia, which is a non-fiction expose of the asbestos problem and its cover-up as explored in Johnston’s novel.

The topic of medical negligence reminded me of Carl Shuker’s novel A Mistake which has just been longlisted for the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Books Awards.  As I said in my review, it’s a confronting novel, one that makes the reader think deeply about human fallibility and the impulse to blame.  I wonder why it is that social media has become so perverted as to foster such virulent forms of blaming… not much of this makes its way into my carefully curated Twitter feed, but there’s one today about bloggers tagging authors when they write a review.  What kind of people can get so judgemental about this innocuous practice?? I mean, we all did this blaming business when we were young children, but we learned to harness that impulse as we matured.  But now it is out of the box, in very nasty forms indeed, and we have to actively control what we see and hear if we don’t want to be exposed to it.

The title of Shuker’s book led me to Life in Seven Mistakes by Susan Johnson. I really loved that book, which was a delicious black comedy, woven around the phenomenon inflicted on the offspring of parents who have retired to the so-called Sunshine State: the Dreaded Family Christmas at Surfers Paradise.  Am I right in thinking that The Landing (2015) was Johnson’s most recent novel?  Is it unreasonable of me to tap my foot and pout because it’s been too long since this author has provided me with another book to read?  I admit it, I do get impatient when my favourite authors keep me waiting too long…

Talking of authors who take a long time to write, it is so sad to think that there will never be any more from Shirley Hazzard, who died in 2016.  There were twenty-three years between The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire, two of the best novels I’ve ever read.  Alas, though I’ve reviewed three of her books, you won’t find reviews of these two great novels even though I’ve read both of them twice, because I read them before starting the blog.

As discussed in comments at Whispering Gums’ post about Australian series, there are too many of these great Australian novels that I read a long time ago that are not reviewed here.  That post was a trigger for me to make my one and only New Year’s Resolution, only 31 days late, that I will read the rest of Rodney’s Hall’s Yandilli Trilogy this year.  I’ve already read and reviewed The Second Bridegroom (1991), Hall’s sixth novel and first in the Yandilli Trilogy, though it was written after Captivity Captive (1988) which is No #3 in the trilogy.  Both of the novels were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award but it was No #2 in the trilogy, The Grisly Wife, published last of all in 1993, which won Hall his second Miles Franklin. I don’t care what else comes along in the way of shiny new books (and yes, there they are, the new releases waving at me from their special shelf, I am going to read this trilogy in 2020!  (Feel free to remind me about this if the year plods along and I still haven’t done it.)

So that’s my #6Degrees: from a novel I haven’t read, to one I am determined to read at last because I know it will be great!

Next month’s book is Lucy Treloar’s beaut new novel Wolfe Island.  And yes, I’ve read it!!

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


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 1, 2020

The Electric Hotel, by Dominic Smith

I have read and liked Dominic Smith’s fiction before, but although readers interested in film may respond differently, and Smith’s writing is often very good indeed, I found The Electric Hotel only mildly interesting and vaguely disquieting.  For me, what this novel exposed was what I dislike most about the film industry: although there are fine (mostly foreign) films that I’ve admired, most of what is promoted from Hollywood caters to ever more explicit prurience and a lust for ever more dramatic scenes of spectacle and violence — including justification by inference of America’s obscene gun culture.  (Though from what I see of trailers of the film and TV series offerings from SBS, there is also a great appetite for Scandi Noir, which portrays ever more gruesome murders nearly always involving extreme violence against women).  And while today a lot of the breathtaking scenes are done with special effects, in the past it involved people in dangerous stunts that became riskier and riskier to satisfy public tastes.  Today there are still film makers making what are called snuff films and other equally unpleasant manifestations of the dark side of human nature.  An appetite created in the first place by people like Smith’s ‘hero’ who in the silent film era filmed his sister dying of consumption, his love interest naked in a bubble bath, and a stunt involving a tiger which was shot dead when it mauled a trainer who was lucky to survive.

The novel spans 60 years between 1895 and 1962, the structure framed by a Texan student of film history who in the 1960s enables the rediscovery of a film long thought to be lost.  This film, titled ‘The Electric Hotel’ was an attempt to circumvent Thomas Edison’s highly effective stranglehold on the emerging film industry, but it fell foul of his skill in issuing lawsuits against anyone using equipment for which he held the patent.  Between the first meeting of the student Martin Embry and the film maker Claude Ballard, and the finale screening of the restored film in an arthouse cinema, the story traces Ballard’s career as a salesman for the Lumière brothers, and his entrepreneurial ventures in America where he screens short films for an enthusiastic public.  The making of the feature film which gives this novel its name explores the trinity of Ballard, the film promoter Hal Bender and the mercurial actress Sabine Montrose. She betrays Ballard and breaks his heart, but he betrays her too by what happens in the final scene of the film.

IMO the relationship between these two is too frail to support a novel that is too long for itself. (You know a book is too long when you keep going to the last page to see how many pages there are to go.)  Like me, Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best found the characters lacked heart and their motivations weren’t always convincing, particularly in the case of Sabine.  Geordie Williamson in a generally positive review in the (paywalled) Weekend Australian of June 15-16 also had reservations about the characters, writing that Ballard is too passive to occupy the novel’s centre; Sabine too hard and capricious to step into the breach.  So perhaps if you are a reader who prefers character-driven novels, this book is not for you.  What I found most frustrating about it, however, was its failure to interrogate the lack of heart about the exploitation involved in those early days of the industry.  This is an omission remedied in the novel only in part by the sequences where — at considerable risk to his life, since he was a prisoner of war being used to film German propaganda — Ballard managed to capture scenes of German atrocities in Belgium in WW1.

Williamson OTOH found the novel’s raison d’être more compelling than I did:

What Smith has done, however, is to return the reader to appreciation for an art form whose primary masterpieces are lost to time.  He has, with the aid of a warm-hearted, elegantly elaborated, historically informed imagination, restored some small vanished portion of the past.

Exactly like books, film can indeed be an art form, and it can also be inane, ephemeral, or worse, pandering to what’s popular but not necessarily worthwhile and may even be harmful when it perpetuates abhorrent values.  Compared to Bright and Distant Shores, which was not only a great story combining a rollicking style, an intriguing love story and food for thought about the impact of collectors on indigenous societies during the 18th century Enlightenment, The Electric Hotel IMO is merely an homage to its subject matter.  It offers no moral dilemmas for the flawed hero — or the reader — to consider.  Unlike most of the novels I read, it left me with nothing much to think about at all.

To put it another way, Smith’s idea of a lost masterpiece in film is entirely different to mine, and if the fictional melodrama of The Electric Hotel is meant to be representative of a ‘masterpiece’ I do not care at all that 75% of all American silent movies has been lost forever, as reported by Stephen Romei, in his enthusiastic review in the Weekend Review of June 1-2, 2019.  He quotes Smith as saying…

‘There’s something abut that idea of a three-quarters of a body of work missing […] I kept thinking how we would feel if that happened in literature, if a 30-year period was lost.  And so the notion of a lost masterpiece in film took a strong hold as I thought about this book.’

Sue at Whispering Gums, OTOH is a retired film historian, and her response to this novel is entirely different to mine. She found it engrossing, while Theresa Smith thought it was one of her best books of the year.  So don’t take my word for it!

PS Note to editors and authors wishing to impress with snippets of French: even beginners with the French language know that lovers and intimates do not address each other using the formal ‘vous’.  Claude (who lost his virginity to Sabine) entreats Sabine (on page 148) not to interrupt him with Vous promettez?’  Surely in multicultural Australia it’s not hard to find a French speaker who can advise on these matters?

Author: Dominic Smith
Title: The Electric Hotel
Cover design: Sandy Cull
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2019
ISBN: 9781760528621, pbk., 449 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 30, 2020

2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards winners

The 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards winners were announced today.

The $100k Victorian Prize for Literature went to a play: Counting and Cracking by S Shakthidharan & Eamon Flack (Belvoir and Co-Curious)

Category winners receive $25,000. The winner in each shortlist is highlighted in bold.

Fiction, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • Act of Grace by Anna Krien (Black Inc.), see my review
  • Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin)
  • Simpson Returns by Wayne Macauley (Text Publishing), on my TBR, see my review
  • The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassab (Giramondo Publishing), on my TBR, short stories, abandoned at page 64.
  • The Yield by Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House), see my review

Non-fiction, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us about Digital Technology by Lizzie O’Shea (Verso)
  • Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse by Jess Hill (Black Inc.)
  • Songspirals: Sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines by Gay’wu Group of Women (Allen & Unwin)
  • Tell Me Why: The Story of My Life and My Music by Archie Roach (Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • The Girls by Chloe Higgins (Picador Australia), which won the People’s Choice award.

Drama, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • City of Gold by Meyne Wyatt (Currency Press, in association with Queensland Theatre and Griffin Theatre)
  • Counting and Cracking by S.Shakthidharan and Associate Writer Eamon Flack (Belvoir and Co-Curious)
  • Them by Samah Sabawi (La Mama Theatre, in association with Samah Sabawi and Lara Week)

Poetry, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • Birth Plan by L.K. Holt (Vagabond Press)
  • Nganajungu Yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green (Cordite Books)
  • Yuiquimbiang by Louise Crisp (Cordite Books)

Writing for Young Adults, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox (Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard (Fremantle Press)
  • This is How We Change the Ending by Vikki Wakefield (Text Publishing)

Unpublished Manuscript, worth $15,000 to the winner

  • A Million Things by Emily Spurr
  • Hovering by Rhett Davis
  • In Real Life by Allee Richards

Highly commended

Hmmm, no fiction in the Highly Commended section?


Castaway: The extraordinary survival story of Narcisse Pelletier, a young French cabin boy shipwrecked on Cape York in 1858 by Robert Macklin (Hachette Australia)

The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat: A Rodent History of Australia by Tim Bonyhady (Text Publishing)

The Thinking Woman by Julienne van Loon (NewSouth Publishing)


  • Anthem by Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela (Performing Lines in association with Arts Centre Melbourne)
  • White Pearl by Anchuli Felicia King (Samuel French, in association with Sydney Theatre Company and Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta)


Archival-Poetics by Natalie Harkin (Vagabond Press)

The Future Keepers by Nandi Chinna (Fremantle Press)

Young Adult

  • Highway Bodies by Alison Evans (Echo Publishing)
  • Where the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn (Allen & Unwin)

Unpublished Manuscript

  • I’ll hold you by Jenni Mazaraki

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 30, 2020

2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards longlist

With thanks to Twitter and the Otago Daily Times, here is the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Longlist.  As usual, I’ve only read any of the fiction prize, and alas, only two of those.  But what’s David Vann doing on the list?  He’s an American author, born in Alaska, and according to Wikipedia, he’s currently working at a university in Warwick in England.

I looked up the Ockham rules:

Principal authors, illustrators and translators must be New Zealand citizens (by birth, naturalisation, or immigration) or be permanently residing in New Zealand. The Awards Administrator may request evidence to confirm that all principal contributors meet this requirement. The work of New Zealand citizens living overseas is eligible if the book meets other criteria (below) and has been published during the period stipulated for eligibility.

I dug around some more and found an article from 2017 that quoted him as saying ‘Where do I write best? I usually began the books in my home in New Zealand, which is so quiet and calm, with beautiful views to the ocean and islands.’

I noticed this week that one of the WA awards is going to be restricted in future to WA authors, and I predict that this kind of parochialism, whether well-intended or not, is going to cause similar kinds of headaches.

Anyway, here are the longlists:


The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press), see the review at Alys on the Blog

Lonely Asian Woman by Sharon Lam (Lawrence & Gibson)

Necessary Secrets by Greg McGee (Upstart Press)

Aue by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press), see the review at Alys on the blog. I read this review and put this one on my wishlist for Indigenous Lit Week because the author is Maori.

Moonlight Sonata by Eileen Merriman (Black Swan, Penguin Random House), see the review at Alys on the blog

Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall (Vintage, Penguin Random House), see my review

Attraction by Ruby Porter (Text Publishing)

A Mistake by Carl Shuker (Victoria University Press), see my review

Loving Sylvie by Elizabeth Smither (Allen & Unwin)

Halibut on the Moon by David Vann (Text Publishing)


Craven by Jane Arthur (Victoria University Press)

Listening In by Lynley Edmeades (Otago University Press)

Back Before You Know by Murray Edmond (Compound Press)

Under Glass by Gregory Kan (Auckland University Press)

Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy (Auckland University Press)

Ransack by Essa-May Ranapiri (Victoria University Press)

How to Live by Helen Rickerby (Auckland University Press)

Lay Studies by Steven Toussaint (Victoria University Press)

Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean by Sugar Magnolia Wilson (Auckland University Press)

How I Get Ready by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press)


Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Mahina-Tuai, Damian Skinner (Te Papa Press)

Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance edited by Stephanie Gordon, Matariki Williams, Puawai Cairns (Te Papa Press)

Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys edited by Catherine Hammond and Mary Kisler (Auckland University Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki)

Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy by Paul Horan and Philip Matthews (Auckland University Press)

The New Photography: New Zealand’s First-generation Contemporary Photographers edited by Athol McCredie (Te Papa Press)

We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa by Chris McDowall and Tim Denee (Massey University Press)

Louise Henderson: From Life edited by Felicity Milburn, Lara Strongman, Julia Waite (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu)

McCahon Country by Justin Paton (Penguin Random House)

Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction, Vol. 1 1919-1959 by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press)

The Meaning of Trees: The History and Use of New Zealand’s Native Plants by Robert Vennell (HarperCollins)


Women Mean Business: Colonial Businesswomen in New Zealand by Catherine Bishop (Otago University Press)

Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press)

Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920 by Jared Davidson (Otago University Press)

Shirley Smith: An Examined Life by Sarah Gaitanos (Victoria University Press)

Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry by Paula Green (Massey University Press)

Finding Frances Hodgkins by Mary Kisler (Massey University Press)

Towards the Mountain: A Story of Grief and Hope Forty Years on from Erebus by Sarah Myles (Allen & Unwin)

The New Zealand Wars by Vincent O’Malley (Bridget Williams Books)

Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica by Rebecca Priestley (Victoria University Press)

Whale Oil: One Man’s Fight to Save His Reputation, then His Life by Margie Thomson (Potton & Burton)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2020

The Heart of Redness, by Zakes Mda

My recent reading of Return Ticket by Jon Doust triggered my impulse to pick up The Heart of Redness, a celebrated novel by South African novelist Zakes Mda.  In Doust’s novel, South Africa in the apartheid years is vividly depicted, and the narrator exemplifies the psychological disconnect experienced when living in a society that is fundamentally immoral.  Life as a privileged white man becomes unendurable, and he leaves, because he can.  But what if it’s not possible to leave, and if one feels a moral obligation to make a difference, even if it’s risky? People struggle with this dilemma all over the world, in regimes from the Middle East to Latin America to newly nationalist places in Europe, and yes, in Australia too, if one feels anguished about Indigenous issues or the treatment of refugees or the inaction on climate change.

Zakes Mda’s novel is set in two time frames.  It begins in the very early years of majority government in South Africa when the country was bedevilled by transition issues and the collapse of unrealistic expectations for greater equity.  But it also harks back to the 19th century when a fatal prophecy that sparked a failed independence movement and widespread starvation, led to a rift between the Believers and Unbelievers, which persists in the present day as a rift between pro- and anti-development forces in a rural community called Qolorha.  Wikipedia sums it up like this:

The Heart of Redness, Mda’s third novel, is inspired by the history of Nongqawuse, a Xhosa prophetess whose prophecies catalyzed the Cattle Killing of 1856–1857. Xhosa culture split between Believers and Unbelievers, adding to existing social strain, famine and social breakdown. It is believed that 20,000 people died of starvation during that time. In the novel, Mda continually shifts back and forth between the present day and the time of Nongqawuse to show the complex interplay between history and myth. He dramatizes the uncertain future of a culture whose troubled relationship with the colonizing force of Empire, as well as their own civil factions, threatens to extinguish their home of Qolorha-by-Sea. (Wikipedia, Zakes Mda page, viewed 27/1/20)

As 1001 Books says:

In the mid 1850s during the devastation of the British ‘scorched earth’ policies, the prophetess Nigqawuse claimed to have been visited by her ancestors who promised that if the Xhoas killed their cattle and burned their crops, the British would be defeated.  Thus began an extraordinary episode in which the Xhosa were split between the Believers, those who were determined to follow the prophesies and destroy their means of survival, and those that would not.

Mda brings this story together with a modern tale of a return to contemporary South Africa, where the promises of deliverance are now through tourism and development and the destruction of heritage rather than cattle and crops.  (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 2006 edition, p. 897)

The central character Camagu has, like Zakes Mda himself at the time of writing this novel, returned from years living abroad. As a stranger, he is able to observe events while trying not to become embroiled in the factions. Amongst the villagers, some respect his learning and his knowledge of a wider world while others despise him for abandoning his traditions and not understanding what life is really like in rural South Africa. His own personal conflicts are exemplified by his attraction to the impressive but emotionally distant Xoliswa Ximaya, just promoted to the position of principal at the high school but with ambitions to become a bureaucrat in the education ministry, and to the wild, wilful and sensual Qukezwa, who works as a cleaner at the Vulindlela Trading Store.

The conflict in the community is about the proposal to develop a casino and water playground for tourists.  The Unbelievers support this because there is the promise of jobs, and the lure of bringing ‘civilisation’ to a village that has only just got a proper water supply but still lacks electricity.  The Believers object to it because they want their traditions to continue, and they suspect that the only jobs will be the menial jobs that no one else will do.  Already they are the cleaners and the child minders at the village’s one hotel, and they don’t want more of that.  They also suspect that once the water playground is operational, they will excluded from the beach where seafood forms part of the food supply.

A play on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the title is a reference to the ‘redness’ which symbolises the colourful Xhosa traditional dress. The women use red ochre to dye the materials used, and designs feature intricate beadwork.  You can see examples here but also some drop-dead gorgeous modern interpretations here.  (They feature other bold colours but the texture of the fabric is still stiffened somehow and stripes are integral to the patterns used.)  As in Orhan Pamuk’s fiction, characters in The Heart of Redness are trapped in a dichotomy between traditionalism and modernity even in their choice of clothing: whatever is chosen places the wearer in opposition to one side or the other.  So Mda contrasts the clothing of the Unbelievers for whom progress and development means suits and ties for men, and subdued coverings for women such as Xoliswa Ximaya, while a Believer such as Qukezwa flaunts her body and happily rides bareback and bare-bodied.  Bhonco’s wife who has long conformed to the values of her Unbeliever husband strikes a blow not only for feminism when she reverts to wearing red because she likes it, but also as a symbol that supporting progress and development doesn’t have to mean parting with traditions that are valued.

There are droll moments throughout the novel.  Not knowing that he has been living and working in the US for 30 years, Xoliswa Ximaya has taken on the role of educating Camagu when he says that he is on his way there to get work:

She informs him that he will be happy in that wonderful country.  She herself has lived there, empowering herself with the skill of teaching English as a second-language.  It is a fairy-tale country, with beautiful people.  People like Dolly Parton and Eddie Murphy.  It is a vast country that is highly technological.


She goes on to explain that a subway is a train that moves underground.  Very much unlike the Johannesburg-East London train which crudely moves above the ground where every moron can see it.

Before Camagu leaves he must remind her to give him a few pointers on how to survive in America, she adds with a flourish.


‘For how long were you in America?’ he asks.

‘Six months! I was at a college in Athens , Ohio.’

‘Athens, like in Greece!’ adds a woman who was earlier introduced as Vathiswa.  She is sitting next to Xoliswa Ximaya, and is obviously her great fan.  Camagu has no heart to tell her that Athens is a college town that is even smaller than the nearby town of Butterworth*.  (p.65)

Alas for Xoliswa Ximaya, finding out in front of all her admirers that her boasting is wasted on Camagu, is not the only humiliation she experiences.

Handicapped by the villagers thinking he has not been circumcised and is therefore ‘not a man’, Camagu’s role is to share his knowledge of the bigger picture with the villagers.  His experience is that the corporate world did not want qualified blacks:

They preferred the inexperienced ones who were only too happy to be placed in some glass affirmative-action office where they were displayed as paragons of empowerment.  No one cared if they got to grips with their jobs or not.  All the better for the old guard if they did not.  That safeguarded the old guard’s position.  The mentor would always be hovering around as a consultant — for even bigger rewards.  The problem with bureaucrats of Camagu’s ilk was that they efficiently did the job themselves, depriving consultants of their livelihood.

The beautiful men and women in glass displays did not like the Camagus of this world.  They were a threat to their luxury German sedans, housing allowances, and expense accounts. (p.30)

At the village meeting to decide on alternatives to the casino project, he makes his position clear:

At these meetings with political big shots, he never forgets to remind them that all the black empowerment groups in Johannesburg and other big cities empower only the chosen few.  They do not create employment for the people.  Instead, whenever these big companies are taken over by these groups, there follows what is euphemistically called rightsizing in order to maximise profits.  Thousands of workers are retrenched. These black empowerment groups do not empower workers by creating jobs for them.  Instead they lose jobs.

It is the same with the company that wants to turn Qolorha into a holiday haven.  Only a chosen few will benefit: the party and the trade union bosses who are directors.  They live in their mansions in Johannesburg and have nothing to do with the village.  The villagers will actually lose more than they will gain from the few jobs that will be created.  Very little of the money that is made here will circulate in the village.  (p.238-9)

This is the same issue explored in Marianne Dickie’s fiction: in Troppo, (2016) the Indonesian villagers were hostile to the entrepreneurial interlopers who hired foreigners at the expense of the locals, and in Red Can Origami (2019), the novel explored the tensions around mining for uranium on traditional lands in the Kimberley.  Further afield, Ak Welsapar covered the same theme of inappropriate development in Turkmenistan under the USSR in The Tale of Aypi. It is a problem worldwide.

The ending is ambiguous, as it has to be, but after so many pages of argument and counter-argument, it’s a bit frustrating for the reader.  Declaring a site World Heritage isn’t a solution that can be replicated everywhere, and it’s clear that the threat of the casino hasn’t gone away.  (After all, here in Australia, you only need to look at development in National Parks in Queensland to see just how meaningless environmental protections can be.  And there’s no sign that World Heritage status is much use when it comes to protecting the Great Barrier Reef).  The task of reinventing South Africa as a fair and just society is a mammoth one indeed.

The Heart of Redness won the now defunct Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa in 2001.

*The population of Athens Ohio was less than 21,000 in 2000; Butterworth in the eastern Cape had a population of 45,000+ in 2001.

PS I have previously read Zakes Mda’s debut novel Ways of Dying (1995). It is less artfully constructed, and despite its grim theme, a more optimistic book which celebrates the triumph of the human spirit.  See my review here. 

Author: Zakes Mda
Title: The Heart of Redness
Cover design: Sarah Delson; cover illustration by Ruby Gutterrez
Publisher: Picador, 2000
ISBN: 9780312421748, pbk., 277 pages
Source: personal library

Available from Fishpond: The Heart of Redness

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 26, 2020

A Sack Full of Memories, by Zwi Levin, as told to Joe Reich

Yesterday I attended a birthday party for one of our small neighbours.  It was just what you’d expect: a gathering of friends and family and the relaxed bedlam of a bunch of four-year-olds hurtling about, testing out the new toys and scoffing a generous spread of delicious treats.  Just what you’d wish for any child: an exciting day from which to make memories of a secure and happy childhood.

But we know that around the world and even here in Australia not all children have what ought not to be a privilege.  That’s what makes it hard to read a memoir of a childhood that was not like that at all, knowing that there are today children enduring great hardships and witnessing acts of hatred and violence.

Over the years I have read a fair few memoirs of the Holocaust, all of them testament to the indomitable will to survive, and yet each one unique in its own way.  This year, my reading has a special resonance because 2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The authors who are telling their stories now were children when they were caught up in these monstrous events.

Zwi Levin was a small boy when war broke out. And even though I thought I knew about the Holocaust, his remarkable story of survival taught me many things I did not know about events on the other side of the Iron Curtain, a curtain which shifted like a malevolent wind in the period when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact broke down and the neutrality treaty between Germany and Russia was over.

Baltic States (2006)

Zwi Levin’s mother Gitel was born in Vishey in southern Lithuania, and his father Yitzchak was from Bielsk Podlaski in north-eastern Poland.  Theirs was, at a time of arranged marriages, a love match kindled by the proximity of the two towns and a chance meeting when Yitzchak went into the haberdashery where Gitel sold buttons.  Although he came from a wealthy and illustrious family who were horrified when he married a girl ‘beneath him’ and without a dowry because she had run away from home rather than marry her family’s choice of husband, Gitel’s strength of character and determination turned out to serve her in good stead when she became sole breadwinner and protector of her two children.  And it was thanks to reconciliation with her family that she happened to be in the Soviet sector of Lithuania when Germany declared war on the USSR — because the Soviets provided transport to get civilians out of the way.

The initial German occupation of Poland took place while the Pact was still in force.  The Germans invaded from the west and very quickly introduced repressive measures against the Jews — including building the Warsaw Ghetto.  Thousands of Jews fled to the Soviet-occupied east swelling the population of Bielsk Podlaski, some of them fleeing further east into Russia where not all of them survived Russian suspicion that they were spies or enemy aliens. But Zwi’s family stayed where they were:

We were not fearful when the trucks rolled in.  The Russians were the new rulers, and while they had their own idiosyncrasies, such as the Communist state, they were not any more overtly anti-Semitic than they had been when they had previously ruled Poland, and they were not on the pathway to murder their Jews, unlike their Nazi allies at the time. (p.40)

So the family adjusted, as people have to do when they live in small countries buffeted by a geographical position amid more powerful nations.  And by the time Gitel’s parents in Lithuania extended a hand of reconciliation the USSR had invaded Lithuania too, and so it was possible to cross the border to visit them.  Yitzchak went first to ensure that the grandparents would accept him as a husband, and when he returned to run their fuel-supply business, Gitel went with the children.  While they were there, they visited the town of Yurburg — close to the border of what is now shown as Kalingrad on the map but was then East Prussia i.e. German territory — to see their uncles and aunts and cousins.  This family reunion saved their lives when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa, breaking the pact with the USSR by invading along a 2,900-kilometre front — which included eastern Poland.  Yitzchak, still at home and running the family business in Bielsk Podlaski, was deported to the extermination camp at Treblinka 2 and never seen again.  The entire Jewish community was exterminated.

But in a daring escape, the uncles in Yurburg commandeered vehicles and the family fled eastward, inadvertently separating Zwi from his mother and sister.

My journey was one of many across into the Soviet Union from nations like Poland and Lithuania that only days earlier had been under Soviet rule.  The Russians feared civilian deaths in the hands of the attacking Germans and wanted to rescue key workers, unarmed families and those at greatest threat.  They evacuated people, entire factories and vital equipment away from the advancing German forces.  To their everlasting credit, they did not exclude the Jews.  In parallel were those making their own way, pushing carts, trudging for miles, hitching rides on any moving vehicles.
I was part of the greatest migration the world has ever known, with an estimated sixteen million people moving eastwards away from the invading German forces in that last week of June and early July 1941.  This I didn’t know — all I knew was I was alone without my mother, sister, and, of course, without my father. (p.56)

They were within an hour or so of the German invasion.  Again, ‘luck’ intervened when they were able to board what was probably the last train from Vitebsk (in Belarus) and Uncle Yosef hauled little Zwi aboard at the last moment when he had lost the grip of whoever was holding his hand.  The Germans captured 12,000 Jews in Vitebsk and nothing is known of their fate because none of them survived.

Zwi’s journey with his uncle and two cousins took them through Minsk and Moscow and ended up deep in the USSR in Kovylkino, Mordovia about 500km west of Moscow, while his mother and sister ended up in Saransk, about 100 km further west.  A chance remark from someone who saw Uncle Yosef with his ‘three’ sons in Kolylkino alerted Gitel to the possibility that this ‘third son’ was her lost child, and miraculously they were reunited late in 1941 after being separated for nearly six months.  The oncoming winter and the threat of starvation in a place not coping with the sudden influx of refugees then took them 3,500 km further south towards Asia, to Fergana in Uzbekistan.

Zwi acknowledges that reconstructing this astonishing journey, of hardship, hunger and intense privation, was achieved with memories both flawed and authenticated by documents, and with memories and research by other members of his family. Joe Reich, his relation by marriage* and and co-author, has this to say about the process:

I am reminded that recent successful books recalling the Holocaust have been fictionalised to fill the gaps with drama, narrative, speculation and to include dialogue that cannot be verified.  Zwi has avoided all such inventions.  It is likely that Zwi and his sister Helen were the only children to survive Bielsk Podlaski, and it’s even more likely that Zwi may well be the last living survivor of that community.  Regardless of his primary wish to tell his story to his family and friends, I believe there was an obligation to share it with us, a mitzvah.  (p.238)

As Zwi says in his first chapter, he wrote this memoir because it concerns him how quickly the world moves on…

I have enjoyed living in Melbourne, for this city, which I have made my home for most of my life, has allowed me to breathe the air of freedom, to make my way among the least judgemental and friendliest people on earth, to create a home and family, to practise my beliefs; and yet I note that Melbourne has recently been displaced as the world’s most liveable city by Vienna, Austria — a decision demonstrating once more how quickly the cracks of history are smoothed over by time, and how the world forgives and forgets. Austria is the country that spawned Hitler and rapturously cheered the arrival of the Nazis; and Vienna, a city glittering with broken glass on Kristallnacht, a city whose art galleries fought to keep stolen artworks as their own, a city whose Jews were expelled or dragged to extermination camps, is now considered the best place to live on this planet. (p.2)


Apart from the vivid testimony of survivors who were there, the only surviving visual evidence of the process leading to mass murder at Auschwitz is a remarkable photo album which documents the arrival and selection process in 1944 of Hungarian Jews.  Although it is hard to look at the  faces of the people in these photos, to do so is a way of showing respect to their memory.

As survivor Roman Kent said at the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz:

We cannot — dare not — forget the millions who were murdered…
for if we were to forget…
the conscience of the mankind would be buried alongside the victims.

And it was people like these who presided over the atrocities and knew exactly what was happening…

Image credit: map of Baltic States: By NormanEinstein, CC BY-SA 3.0,

* Joe is Zwi’s ‘mechitin’, a Yiddish word that has no equivalent in English, meaning the father-in-law of one of Zwi’s married children, with thanks to publisher Anna Blay for explaining this.  (See her comment below).

Author: Zwi Lewin, as told to Joe Reich
Title: My Sack Full of Memories
Cover design: Citrus Graphics
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2019
ISBN: 9781925736267, pbk., 238 pages
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available from Hybrid Publishers, from Fishpond:My Sack Full of Memories, and all good bookstores.


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