Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 2, 2023

2023 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards longlists

The 2023 Ockham New Zealand longlists have been announced.

To read more about the longlist, visit The Spinoff.

Fiction

I haven’t read any of these yet, but I have Catherine Chidgey’s The Axeman’s Carnival on order at Benn’s Books, because I love her books (see here) — and I will definitely be getting a copy of Lloyd Jones The Fish because I’ve liked everything of his that I’ve read. (See here).

But why, oh why, is it so hard to get NZ titles here in Australia?!

Better the Blood by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster)

Chevalier & Gawayn: The Ballad of the Dreamer by Phillip Mann (Quentin Wilson Publishing)

Down from Upland by Murdoch Stephens (Lawrence & Gibson)

Home Theatre by Anthony Lapwood (Te Herenga Waka University Press)*

How to Loiter in a Turf War by Coco Solid (Penguin, Penguin Random House)*

Kāwai: For Such a Time as This by Monty Soutar (Bateman Books)

Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques and other stories by Vincent O’Sullivan (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders (The Cuba Press)

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

The Fish by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, Penguin Random House)

General Non Fiction

Illustrated Non fiction

Poetry

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 2, 2023

Up We Grew (2004), by Pamela Bone

I’ve been remiss with this book: Jennifer from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large very kindly sent me Pamela Bone’s Up We Grew, Stories of Australian Childhoods back in 2019 after I commented on her review.  I should have read it long ago.

Pamela Bone (1940-2008) was a much loved Melbourne journalist who died some years ago now.  Readers admired her because she had a heart, she had integrity and she brought us stories of the wider world that raised our awareness of privilege and disadvantage.  Amongst many awards and honours she was in 2001 inducted into the Victorian Roll of Honour for her work on human rights.

Up We Grew is an exploration of resilience in children, an issue that was clearly bothering Bone as she witnessed the changed interpersonal world of her grandchildren.  Writing nearly 20 years ago in 2004, she was observing the behaviour of children who would in the 2020s become adults, and she was curious about why some children in difficult circumstances are resilient, while others struggle to cope with life.

Her research included interviews with adults reflecting on their childhoods, beginning with her own in the NSW Riverina town of Finley though it’s not an autobiography.  Bone wanted to retain some privacy and to respect the privacy of others.  But enough is revealed for the reader to know that they were poor. They lived in a garage, not a house, because their father was irresponsible with what money he earned.

School was a torment of embarrassment because their poverty was so noticeable to the other children.

There are undoubtedly worse things than having to face the teacher and tell her that yet again, you have not brought the items needed for the sewing class, but at the age of eleven, I could not imagine them.  Half a yard of Cesarine, a packet of crewel needles, and a spool of Silko thread were required.

‘Tell her you’ll bring them next week,’ my mother said. ‘I told her that last week,’ I said.

‘Well, I can’t help it; I’ve got no money till payday.’

I went, like a snail, unwillingly to school. In the doorway of Close’s china shop I sat down and cried. Mrs Todkill would roll her eyes, the other girls in the class would snigger self-righteously.  Oh Pam Bone, they’d say.  Crewel needles, cruel girls. (p. 74)

In the event, the kindly teacher gave her the material, but that didn’t make the shame go away.

Bone interrogates how she transcended this disadvantaged background:

When I was a child I slept in a shed, and wore the summer tunic to school in winter.  I failed my Intermediate Certificate.  Today I live in a nice house in a good suburb, have holidays in Europe and my name on an honour roll in the state parliament.  I give speeches at private schools to which as a child I could never have dreamed of going (suppressing resentful feelings because these private school girls are so very nice and treat me so courteously, and it is not their fault that they were born rich and I wasn’t.) My four daughters have seven degrees between them.  My grandchildren have bedrooms full of toys, computer games and books, and learn piano, tennis, swimming, hockey and ballet.

How did I get from there to here? Is my story almost typical of the generational upward mobility that has taken place in Australia in the last half a century? People are so rich now, compared to then (though inequality is worse). (p.2-3)

Feminism, she writes has been recognised as the biggest social change of the twentieth century. 

I had long assumed it was my generation, the generation of women who forced the changes who had borne the brunt of the changes.  I’m beginning to think it has been the next generation, my children’s generation, who felt the effects most; it was they who had to live in those families in which the women, their mothers, were desperately trying to assert an independent identity and the men, their fathers, felt threatened and bewildered by this revolution which was not of their choosing, and reacted badly to it. (p.167)

I’m not so sure about that… For some, it was more of a problem to deal with the resentment of their own mothers who did not get to have fulfilling careers and independent identities. Some of these mothers were jealous of their daughters’ freedom from child-bearing and their access to education.  They were envious of the confidence and self-respect that comes with earning your own money.

The stories in Up We Grew are not representative, they are anecdotal, but they range across the spectrum. Bone’s adult subjects were the children of migrants including Holocaust survivors; the children of families as poor as hers were; Indigenous children; the children of drunks and drug addicts; and children in care.  She observes courtroom custody battles. Some famous people reveal their childhoods: Michael Leunig, June Factor; some politicians for some of these children.

Most, though not all of them, are stories of poverty and disadvantage, and yet these were not always unhappy childhoods and Bone gives examples of those who did not let their childhoods define them.

The book takes a darker tone towards the end, with a chapter about the Stolen Generations and the complexity of the situation for vulnerable First Nations children.  There is also a sobering chapter about failed parenting. Bone makes the observation that although there’s nothing new about some children growing up in homes of addiction, in the past it was usually a drunken father causing the problem and there was usually one responsible parent — the mother — to provide care and protection. Today, whatever the reasons or excuses might be, some children grow up in homes where both parents are addicted, feckless and irresponsible. Difficult decisions have to be made about who should care for these children.

In the wake of the pandemic, it’s clear that a great many young people in our society are not resilient, and some of the most privileged in our society complained the most.  Pamela Bone doesn’t have a solution for the decline in resilience and neither do I, but it seems to me that it’s a problem that must solved, because individually and collectively, we’ll all be better off if it is.

Author: Pamela Bone
Title: Up We Grew, Stories of Australian Childhoods
Cover design: Kate Mitchell
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, 2004
ISBN: 9780522851182, bk., 248 pages
Source: Gift from Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large, thanks Jennifer!

Image credit: 1950s ad for Cesarine: https://archive.org/details/1950-advertisement-for-cesarine-fabric

The Republic of False Truths is a sprawling novel that comes from a place of deep despair and frustration. Its author, Alaa Al  Aswany (b. 1957), was a founder member of the Kefaya political movement which gave rise to the failed 2011 Revolution in Egypt and in this, his latest novel, hopelessness bleeds through on almost every page. Sympathetic characters are few and far between in this fierce satire where one of the characters expresses a view perhaps held by Aswany himself: Essam is bitterly contemptuous of his fellow Egyptians.

What devil had whispered in the Egyptians’ ear and driven them to behave completely contrary to their nature? Egyptians knew nothing about revolution.  They didn’t understand it and if they got caught up in it, they quickly deserted and came to hate it. When he saw on the television people dancing in the streets out of joy at the toppling of Mubarak, he was possessed by rage.  He was less upset at losing his position than he was at the self-deception of the Egyptians.  He would have liked to write an article in which he’d say, ‘O Egyptians, read the history of your country and the history of revolutions around the world before you begin driving your youth to their deaths to no avail! There are peoples who are revolutionary by nature, but you, O Egyptians, were not created for revolution and it was not created for you.  Not one revolution in your modern history has succeeded.  Every revolt of yours against authority has failed and things have got worse. (p.223)

As you can see from that excerpt, Aswany’s style is declaratory.  This is not the only speech-like explanation in the novel. But Essam has good reason to be cynical: in his youth he was involved in a failed Socialist uprising and suffered terribly for it in the same prison currently being used to torture the dissidents. The author is on a mission to make his readers understand that youngsters — dancing in the street at what they think is the achievement of their aims — have no chance against vested interests in Egypt.  The novel follows the same trajectory as real life: in the wake of Mubarak’s resignation, wealthy and influential Egyptians are called to a meeting where they rig things so that the Muslim Brotherhood win the ensuing election and things are worse than before.

Aswany’s skill is in managing the narrative tension in a novel where the blurb gives away the ending even to those who weren’t paying attention in 2011. He achieves this by humanising a representative array of characters whose roles are revealed in different ways.

The novel begins with General Aswany, a pious Muslim who completes his morning devotions and domestic routines over five pages — and then goes to work where he supervises the torture of a prisoner under interrogation.

(So from the outset, the reader knows that the author is not going to shy away from sickening violence.)

The naïve voices of the idealists challenging this regime are those of two students who overcome their shyness by corresponding through email. Aimaa and Mazen share their excitement about the impact of their peaceful protests, never realising until too late that they do not have majority support behind them.  Corruption, nepotism and religious conservatism are too firmly entrenched for them to bring enough others with them.

Filial duty is another inhibiting factor.  Aimaa’s mother is terrified of the risks, while Mazen is more confident of success so is less concerned about the potential impact on his family.  Danya — the much loved daughter of General Aswany — is coerced, time and again, into abandoning her idealistic principles because of the risk to her father’s status and reputation.

Tahrir Square during 8 February 2011.jpg

Demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on 8 February 2011 (Wikipedia)

The wealthy aristocrat, Ashraf, is more concerned about his affair with his domestic servant Ikram, and he’s usually too stoned to care.  It is only when one of the students pleads for refuge at his door that he begins to take note of the government’s increasingly violent reprisals against the chaos in Tahrir Square,  He uses his money and resources to provide support but his wife Magda holds some trump cards of her own to sabotage his activities.

Cartoonish characters add colour: apart from General Aswany, there is Sheik Shamal, a hypocritical proselytiser for the Godliness TV channel, and Nourhan whose Islamic credentials grow in tandem with her fat salary as a TV presenter.  These two are enlisted by General Aswany to use their substantial fortunes to sway public opinion away from the protesters.

But of course as well as the soft weaponry of a compliant media, there’s also heavy armoury. There are graphic scenes of violence in this novel and the hopelessness of anyone being brought to justice over the government’s betrayal of human rights, is shown in the demoralising trial of Khaled’s killer.

The sex scenes are risible but mercifully few.  (Absurd male fantasies about women enjoying male pleasure when they’re not having a good time themselves. As if.)

Alaa Al Aswany is a literary superstar in Egypt but has been living in the US since being sued by military prosecutors in Egypt for “insulting the president, the armed forces and judicial institutions”.  His other novels — all of them uncompromising in their criticism of Egyptian politics and government — include The Papers of Essam Abdel Aaty (1990); The Yacoubian Building (2002); Chicago (2007); and The Automobile Club of Egypt (2013), which I reviewed here.

A word about the uncredited cover design…

Flag of Egypt.svgThe cover is a clever design, evoking different perspectives and people turning from away from each other. The palette uses the colours of the Egyptian flag, but the images are designed so that even the skin colour of the blushing woman wearing the hijab is pitch perfect, as you will see when you read within the novel about their humiliation under interrogation. But Faber doesn’t credit its designer.  It could have been done by AI for all we know.


It’s not possible to read this book without remembering the current uprising in Iran and the Tik Tok generation’s optimism about achieving change.  Do read this article about the current situation, which has eerie parallels with events in The Republic of False Truths. The Iranian situation seems to have drifted off the pages of our media.  It’s even off the radar at The Guardian which has a dedicated section about the Middle East in its World menu.

See also Janine’s review at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

Author: Alaa Al Aswany
Title: The Republic of False Truths
Translated from the Arabic by S R Fellowes
Publisher: Faber 2021, first published in Arabic in Lebanon in 2018
Cover design by Faber (whatever that means),
ISBN: 9780571347605, pbk., 452 pages including a glossary
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings

Image credits:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 31, 2023

Aussies & Kiwis on the 2023 Dublin Literary Award longlist

Thanks to Claire at Word by Word for the news that the Dublin LitAward has been announced. As usual I have tried to identify the nominees from Australia and New Zealand, but if I’ve missed any, please let me know.

The shortlist will be announced on 28th March, and the winner on 25th May. For more information, visit the award website. Novels are listed in alphabetical order of the title, with Aussie and Kiwi titles in bold.

Claire at Word by Word has posted a similar list, and she has reviewed some that I haven’t. She also has links to the comments from the nominating library and the judges’comments. Visit her blog here.

Title, and link to my review if there is one.Name of author
56 Days   Catherine Ryan Howard 
912 Batu Road Viji Krishnamoorthy
A Particular Madness Sheldon Russell 
After Story (see my review)Larissa Behrendt (Aust)
All’s Well Mona Awad
An Unusual GriefYewande Omotoso
Bad Girls Camila Sosa Villada tr. Kit Maude
Bitter Orange Tree  Jokha Alharthi tr. Marilyn Booth
Bodies of Light (See the review at Readings)Jennifer Down (Aust)
Bolla Pajtim Statovci tr. David Hackston
Bone Memories (See my review)Sally Piper (Aust)
Brisbane Eugene Vodolazkin tr. Marian Schwartz 
Burntcoat Sarah Hall 
Case Study Graeme Macrae Burnett
Cloud Cuckoo Land Anthony Doerr 
Cold Enough For Snow (see my review)Jessica Au (Aust)
Crossroads Jonathan Franzen
Daughter of the Moon Goddess Sue Lynn Tan 
Devotion See Theresa Smith’s reviewHannah Kent (Aust)
Em Kim Thúy  tr. Sheila Fischman 
Falling is like FlyingManon Uphoff tr. Sam Garrett 
Fight Night Miriam Toews 
Four Treasures of the Sky Jenny Tinghui Zhang 
Glory (abandoned at p.90 of 403)NoViolet Bulawayo 
Grand Hotel Europa Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer tr. Michele Hutchison
How High We Go in the Dark  Sequoia Nagamatsu 
Iron Curtain: A Love Story See Bookstalker’s reviewVesna Goldsworthy 
Kurangaituku See Aly’s reviewWhiti Hereaka (NZ)
Late Summer Luiz Ruffato tr. Julia Sanches
Lessons in Chemistry Bonnie Garmus 
Loose TiesYara Nakahanda Monteiro tr. Sandra Tamele 
Love in the Big City See Stu’s review Sang Young Park tr. Anton Hur 
Love Marriage  Monica Ali
Love Novel Ivana Sajko  tr. Mima Simić 
Lovelier, Lonelier Daryl Qilin Yam
Magma See Kim’s review at reading MattersThóra Hjörleifsdóttir, tr. Meg Matich 
Marzahn, Mon Amour See Stu’s review Katja Oskamp tr. Jo Heinrich 
Matrix See Brona’s reviewLauren Groff 
Nettle and Bone T. Kingfisher 
Of Fangs and Talons Nicolas Mathieu tr. Sam Taylor
Open Your Heart Alexie Morin tr. Aimee Wall 
Paradais See Stu’s review Fernanda Melchor tr. Sophie Hughes 
Scattered All Over the Earth See Stu’s review Yoko Tawada tr. Margaret Mitsutani
Sea of Tranquility Emily St. John Mandel 
She’s a killer See Aly’s reviewKirsten McDougall (NZ)
Silent Winds, Dry SeasVinod Busjeet 
Small Things Like These (see my review)Claire Keegan 
Song for the Missing Pierre Jarawan tr. Elisabeth Lauffer 
Sons of the People: The Mamluk Trilogy Reem Bassiouney tr. Roger Allen 
The Anomaly  Hervé Le Tellier tr. Adriana Hunter 
The Antarctica of LoveSara Stridsberg tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner 
The Bones of Barry Knight Emma Musty
The Book of Form and Emptiness Ruth Ozeki
The Clockwork Girl Anna Mazzola 
The ForestsSandrine Collette tr. Alison Anderson
The Good Women of Safe Harbour Bobbi French
The Island of Missing Trees (on my TBR)Elif Shafak
The Lincoln Highway Amor Towles
The Magician  (see my review)Colm Tóibín
The Masterpiece Ana Schnabl tr. David Limon 
The Morning Star Karl Ove Knausgaard tr. Martin Aitken 
The Sentence; A Novel Louise Erdrich
The Trees: A Novel Percival Everett 
The White Bathing Hut Thorvald Steen tr. James Anderson 
The Wonders Elena Medel tr. Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead
Time Shelter Georgi Gospodinov tr. Angela Rodel 
Tomb of Sand (see my review)Geetanjali Shree tr. Daisy Rockwell 
What Strange Paradise Omar El-Akkad 
Where You Come FromSaša Stanišić tr. Saša Stanišić 
Young Mungo Douglas Stuart

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 30, 2023

The Men of the Burma Road (1942), by Chiang Yee

Serendipity…

This week while browsing the online catalogue at Diversity Books, I stumbled on a remarkable short novel featuring an unfamiliar aspect of WW2 history.  It was written by a Chinese author living in London in 1942.  (Reading it now coincided nicely with Chinese New Year.)

Amongst other more catastrophic travails, 1942 was a difficult time for publishing in Britain and Europe.  In Occupied France, stories to encourage resistance to the Nazis were published and distributed underground, and I have previously reviewed the most famous of these, Le Silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea) by “Vercors”. In Britain there were wartime restrictions on paper and materials, and there was a labour shortage because most men had joined the armed forces.  There was also heavy censorship and the Ministry of Information had a Literary and Editorial Division led by Graham Green that prepared morale-boosting publications.  I have also reviewed wartime editions of I, James Blunt, by H V Morton and my father’s copy of John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, which were produced under these conditions.

The flimsiness of the paper and covers of those wartime books makes me suspect that my postwar Sixth Edition of The Men of the Burma Road was the first edition to be published in hardback with a coloured dustjacket.  This slim novella was first published by Methuen in July 1942, and it went into two further editions by the end of the year.  The fourth and fifth editions came out in 1943 and 1944, and my sixth edition in 1946.  Its yellow boards are imprinted with blue Chinese characters with the title in blue on the spine.  The dustjacket is on gloss paper, it has hand-drawn maps of Burma and China on the endpapers, and the book itself is illustrated with B&W line drawings and has eight full page illustrations on gloss paper as well.  This would be an expensive little book to produce even now and it seems unlikely to have been produced in this form under wartime conditions.  (The British Library appears to have the first 1942 edition, but I don’t like to pester them to find out if I’m right.)

But why would a little book about the Chinese building a road to Burma be so popular that it went into six editions?

While fossicking around online, I checked out the Wikipedia page on propaganda and came across the information that American wartime films were made to help people understand allies such as the Greeks, to allay their mistrust of the USSR and to dispel their bigotry against the Chinese.  It seems likely that a little book about an heroic Chinese wartime undertaking had the same purpose.

It seems to have been forgotten now that these nations were our allies against the existential threat of the Axis powers. It’s also forgotten by many that WW2 began not in 1939 but in Asia in 1937 when the Japanese attacked China.  Wikipedia acknowledges this in the last line of this paragraph.

The Nanjing Massacre or the Rape of Nanjing (formerly romanized as Nanking) was the mass murder of Chinese civilians in Nanjing, the capital of the Republic of China, immediately after the Battle of Nanking in the Second Sino-Japanese War, by the Imperial Japanese Army. Beginning on December 13, 1937, the massacre lasted six weeks. The perpetrators also committed other war crimes such as mass rape, looting, and arson. The massacre was one of the worst atrocities committed during World War II. (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove hyperlinks and footnotes.)

By 1940 all China’s ports were in Japanese hands and a new route was needed to transport British and American arms and supplies to Chiang Kai-shek’s forces in China. The Men of the Burma Road is the fictionalised story of the construction in 9 months of 700 miles of road  from China’s wartime capital Chungking (now Chongqing) in Southwest China to Lashio in Burma (now Myanmar). This astonishing effort was accomplished by peasants without heavy machinery or modern equipment.  They didn’t even have a plan.

The Burma Road

Chiang Yee’s book is dedicated to

Hsiao Ch’ien who witnessed the completion of the Burma Road and to those who gave their lives to the road.  Their labour and sacrifice will not be in vain.

Chiang Yee (1903-1977) was a poet, author, painter and calligrapher who had been living and working in Britain as an academic teaching Chinese since 1933.  As you can see from the list of works at Wikipedia, he was a prolific author, producing a series of books called ‘The Silent Traveller in...’, the first being The Silent Traveller: a Chinese Artist in Lakeland, followed by The Silent Traveller in London, … the Yorkshire Dales, and … Oxford, (written after Yee’s flat was destroyed in the Blitz and he moved to Oxford.) After the war, the series included Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Japan. Travel writing, pioneered by H V Morton in the mid 1920s, was then in its infancy and Yee’s books were well-received because they offered a unique perspective.

(AbeBooks, BTW, has a first edition of The Silent Traveller in London (1937) for US$1,250.00).

The Men of the Burma Road appears to be Yee’s only venture into fiction, though he also wrote some books for children.  In simple prose of great restraint, Chiang Yee uses the story of two peasants, Old Lo and middle-aged Li to show how they came to join hundreds of other peasants building this crucial road.

Old Lo is a crusty old conservative with a quick and obstinate temper, who tends his three acres in fulfilment of a Confucian duty to his father’s dying wish.  He resents the government’s new requirement to educate his children and he looks forward to the day when his son Tieh-ming can join him in the rice fields learning how to be a farmer. He’s not happy that his older son Kan-Ming has joined the Provincial Army, and worse yet, his daughter Hsiao-lien has married a fellow-soldier against her father’s wishes and lives in Nanking.  Everything is changed now, he says, and youngsters do not respect their elders nor obey their fathers very much. His wife, who is ignorant in the true and generous sense of the word, has no concept of life beyond her village.  She is afraid to travel to see her family but she does not actually know what a train is.

Brother-in-law Li is more sanguine than Lo.  He’s proud of his daughter Hsaio-mei’s newly acquired literacy, and he boasts about how her teachers persuaded his wife to go to school too and now she keeps the books for the farm.  He’d like to learn to read and write himself, but he’s too busy with the farm.

But eventually the effects of war come even to this isolated outpost. The government needs to acquire their cherished land to build the road. Lo is adamant that he will not part with it, and it takes a great personal tragedy for him to change his mind. But when he does, he refuses government compensation for his land and his dedication to the road is absolute.  With Li, and the remnants of their families, they give up everything they have and work in dreadful conditions. Like the real-life workers on this road, they experience the dangers of road- and bridge-building in this treacherous terrain. There are fatal accidents while constructing the road over river rapids; there are deaths in perilous floods and landslides caused by dynamiting, and people also die from diseases such as malaria, far from any medical help.

There are propaganda elements to this simple tale.  Yee reproduces rumours about fanatical Japanese soldiers being very foolish men, with no will of their own, and he idealises the noble labour and sacrifice of simple peasants all doing their little bit.

The crowd moved in a huge procession to the spot where the road was to begin, each person carrying a small bundle of possessions on his back.  The authorities had provided a large quantity of long-handled hoes, mattocks, pickaxes, large baskets and other primitive native tools.  There were very few mechanical tools, for machinery was difficult to transport to such a remote inland region, particularly in war-torn conditions; most of the farmer-labourers would in any case not have known how to handle them, and besides, the government needed its limited supplies for more important work at the front and in the factories. (p.59)

No one complains when those breaking stones cause fragments to injure others; and no one voices the lack of satisfaction to be had compared to ploughing and cultivating their own land.  When in the novel characters die, as 3000 real-life workers did within eight months, there is no time to grieve.

Though the Chinese, by comparison with Western nations, are not a very musical race, they sing patriotic songs as they work.  Yee takes the opportunity to express his pride in his native land after centuries of humiliation.

…these great outbursts of song across the wide spaces and great heights of Yunnan did not sound harsh but extremely impressive.  Perhaps there had never before been heard, in that remote region, such a huge noise.  Not even the roar of tigers could have outdone it.  Now from peak to peak the echoes rang, and the sound rolled into the valleys.  It seemed that the wild beasts must have stood still to listen and the chattering birds have ceased their flights.  It wa a cry to tell the world that a new nation was in being. (p.63)

Everyone works amicably and efficiently.  

From daybreak to evening they moved on, foot by foot, yard by yard, without rest or recreation. (p.60)

And while Lo’s (nameless) wife does her share of the stone-breaking, there is no mention of how presumably she and the other women did the cooking as well.  This omission extends to the title, which mentions only the men of the Burma Road, not the women.

Writing this short novel during the war years, Yee offers no sentimental ending, but there is hope.

Trove carries a 1940 report of this road-building in the Burnie Advocate. An American observer had his hazardous journey interrupted occasionally while peasants cleared landslides with their bare hands. He pays tribute to them and to the few Europeans living along the road: American aviation instructors, a missionary, and, on the border, a ‘political officer’ (i.e. a spy).

The Hong Kong China Daily reported on the story of this road on its 80th anniversary. It features memories of children as young as eight who worked on the road.

PS, the next day: With thanks to Linda Jaivin, here’s a link to Ten Questions for Authors: Chiang Yee and His Circle: an interview with Paul Bevan, Anne Witchard, and Da Zheng on Chiang Yee and His Circle: Chinese Artistic and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1930–1950, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2022.

Author Chiang Yee
Title: The Men of the Burma Road
Publisher: Methuen, London, sixth edition 1935, first published in 1942
Cover image and other illustrations by the author
ISBN: none, hbk., 88 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Diversity Books $17.10

Picture credits: Map: By SY – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66476200

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 29, 2023

Book Reviews, and ChatGPT

Just recently, I read a thought-provoking article in Inside Story by my favourite journalist Margaret Simons, about ChatGBT.

ChatGPT is an AI writing tool available on the web for everyone to play with for free. Symons writes that schools and universities are in a panic because it can apparently write pass-standard essays in seconds. She goes on to experiment with using it for journalism, playing with so-called lifestyle journalism topics and moving on to asking it to write opinion pieces à la the well-known polemicists who write trash for The Melbourne Daily Astonisher and its bedfellows in the Murdoch Press.  She discovers that it can’t come up with anything new or original because it can only harvest from what’s already on the web, and concludes that real journalism has nothing to fear, for two reasons:

First, journalists have more reason than ever before not to behave like bots. Only their humanity can save them.

Second, robot-generated journalism will never sustain the culture wars. Fighting on that arid territory is possible only for the merely human.

Intrigued, I signed up to ChatGPT, and asked it to write a book review of a book I’ve just bought: Treacle Walker by Alan Garner. This is what it came up with:

“Treacle Walker” by Alan Garner is a short story that explores the themes of memory and identity through the lens of a young boy named Tom. The story is set in a small village in the English countryside, and it delves into the mysterious past of the village and its inhabitants. The writing is evocative and atmospheric, painting vivid imagery of the landscape and the people who live there. The story is also deeply emotional, as Tom grapples with the loss of his grandfather and the secrets that are hidden in the village. Overall, “Treacle Walker” is a powerful and thought-provoking work that leaves a lasting impression on the reader.

A bit short, and although I’ve only read the back-cover blurb of the book, I think the boy is called Joseph, not Tom.  But it’s perfectly adequate, I suspect, for those Goodreads reviews for free books given in exchange for honest reviews…

So then I tried asking it to write a review for a book I had read, and reviewed:

“True History of the Kelly Gang” by Peter Carey is a novel that tells the story of the infamous Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly. Written in the form of a memoir, the book is written from Ned Kelly’s perspective and is a fictionalized version of his life. The book is a masterful blend of historical fact and fiction, and it offers a unique and nuanced portrayal of Kelly. The writing is both poetic and raw, capturing the harshness of life in the Australian bush and the struggles of the Irish immigrants who settled there. The book is also a commentary on issues such as class, power, and the nature of masculinity. Carey’s prose is inventive, and the story is filled with vivid characters and memorable scenes. The book is a powerful and thought-provoking work that is both an entertaining read and a valuable contribution to the literary canon. It is a must-read for fans of historical fiction, Australian literature and for those who want to gain a deeper understanding of one of the most iconic figures in Australian history.

And then this one, one of the most visited reviews I’ve ever published:

“Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1835” by Lyndall Ryan is a comprehensive and well-researched history of the Indigenous people of Tasmania. The book covers the period from 1835 to the present day, and it provides a detailed account of the various policies and actions that have been taken against the Tasmanian Aborigines by the colonial government and later by the Australian government. Ryan’s writing is clear and objective, and she draws on a wide range of primary and secondary sources to support her arguments. The book is also rich in detail, providing readers with a deep understanding of the complex issues that have shaped the lives of the Tasmanian Aborigines over the past two centuries.

The book is also a powerful critique of the past and present policies and actions of the government towards the Indigenous people of Tasmania and how they were affected by it. Ryan’s work serves as an important reminder of the atrocities and injustices that were committed against the Tasmanian Aborigines, and it is a call to action for continued efforts to address the ongoing challenges that they face.

Overall, “Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1835” is an important and timely work that will be of great interest to scholars, students, and anyone interested in the history of Indigenous peoples, Australian history and the ongoing struggle for social justice.

By now I was on a roll. I couldn’t resist asking it to write a review of a book on school reading lists and one that (to put it mildly) I disliked: Jasper Jones, and I didn’t even need to name the author.

“Jasper Jones” by Craig Silvey is a coming-of-age novel that tells the story of a young boy named Charlie Bucktin living in the small Australian town of Corrigan during the 1960s. The novel explores themes of racism, class, and violence through the eyes of Charlie, who becomes embroiled in a mystery involving the town’s outcast, Jasper Jones.

The writing in “Jasper Jones” is powerful and evocative, capturing the atmosphere and emotions of small-town life in the 1960s. The characters are well-developed and relatable, and the novel’s pacing is well-done, keeping the reader engaged throughout the story. The book is also a commentary on the issues of racism and classism, which still exist in the society today.

One of the novel’s strengths is its ability to capture the innocence and confusion of adolescence, as Charlie grapples with the complexities of the adult world. The book is also a powerful exploration of the power of friendship, as Charlie and Jasper’s bond helps them navigate the challenges they face.

Overall, “Jasper Jones” is a thought-provoking and emotionally powerful novel that is both entertaining and enlightening. It is a great read for anyone interested in coming-of-age stories, Australian literature, and the exploration of themes of racism, class, and violence. It is a must-read for fans of literary fiction and will appeal to readers of all ages.

Well, that makes an interesting contrast with what I had to say about it

What do you think?  Is it time for AnzLitlovers to put away her pen?


PS This is what I got when I asked ChatGPT to write an article about itself.

GPT, short for Generative Pre-trained Transformer, is a state-of-the-art language model developed by OpenAI. It uses machine learning algorithms to generate human-like text based on a given prompt or context. GPT is trained on a massive amount of text data, including books, articles, and websites, which allows it to understand and respond to a wide range of topics and styles of writing.

One of the key features of GPT is its ability to generate text that is highly coherent and grammatically correct. This makes it useful for a variety of tasks such as language translation, text summarization, and question answering. Additionally, GPT can be fine-tuned for specific tasks, such as writing poetry or composing code, by training it on a smaller set of data specific to that task.

GPT has also been used for creative writing, such as writing fiction, it can generate coherent, interesting and even captivating stories, it can also generate poetry, song lyrics and even screenplays. GPT’s ability to generate text that is coherent and grammatically correct makes it useful for applications such as chatbots, automated writing, and even content generation for websites and social media.

However, GPT’s text generation capabilities also raise some concerns about its potential impact on the job market, particularly in fields such as journalism and content creation. Additionally, GPT’s ability to generate text that is highly coherent and grammatically correct can also make it difficult to distinguish between text generated by GPT and text written by a human.

Despite these concerns, GPT and other language models like it represent a significant step forward in the field of natural language processing. As the technology continues to evolve and improve, it has the potential to revolutionize a wide range of industries and improve our ability to understand and interact with language.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 28, 2023

Meet an Aussie Author: Philip Salom

Photo credit: Meredith Kidby

Like many others, I discovered the novels of Philip Salom when Waiting was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2017.  The Returns was also shortlisted in 2020, which prompted me to track down his early novels Playback (1991) and Toccata and Rain (2004), both published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press.

Since Waiting, (Puncher and Wattman), Salom’s novels — The Returns (2019), The Fifth Season (2020) and Sweeney and the Bicycles (2022) — have been published by Transit Lounge with great covers by Peter Lo and Josh Durham/Design by Committee.

All these novels have attracted wide-ranging acclaim as you can see from the award lists at Wikipedia. Toccata and Rain was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and the WA Premier’s Prize for Fiction, and Playback won the WA Premier’s Prize for Fiction. In 2016, Waiting was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Prize and in the following year, for both the Miles Franklin and the Prime Minister’s Award. The Returns was shortlisted for the 2020 Miles Franklin Award and the Queensland Premier’s Prize, and The Fifth Season was longlisted for the MF too. You can see my reviews of his four most recent novels here, including his latest release Sweeney and the Bicycles (2022).

 

Salom’s oeuvre, however, also includes award-winning collections of poetry, both national and international.  He has won the Commonwealth Poetry Book Prize in London (twice), the Western Australian Premier’s Prize (twice) and the Newcastle Poetry Prize (in 1996 and again in 2000). Philip has also been recognised with the prestigious Christopher Brennan Award, a lifetime award for poetry ‘of sustained quality and distinction‘. His collection The Well Mouth was named a Sydney Morning Herald Book of the Year, and Adelaide Review Book of the Year.  Salom has also written collections through his heteronyms: The Keeper of Fish by Alan Fish, and Keeping Carter by MA Carter. In 2015 Philip published the poetry trilogy Alterworld which includes Sky Poems, The Well Mouth and the new section Alterworld.

After Sweeney and the Bicycles, I contacted Philip to see if I could persuade him to be featured in Meet an Aussie Author, and he has very generously provided answers to my questions here:

I was born … in Bunbury, WA. I became a farm boy and grew up around cattle and dogs and cats. On the land, with farm work whether I liked it or not. I liked it.

When I was a child … I imagined being a Test cricketer, or a racing driver, or an artist. Not a farmer. Not even a writer. But I was a huge reader.

The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me: William Hart-Smith said of my early poems: you are a poet. Reading my first collection Tom Shapcott repeated it. It was profoundly important encouragement.

I write in a dark room, the blinds down, desk lamp on. Years ago: a Salom-made log cabin with a fireplace … and a desk lamp.

I write when (a time): During my years of employment, in late-afternoon and especially at night. Now, blissfully, at any time, day or night, I want to or need to.

Research is… beautiful procrastination. For Sweeney and the Bicycles I needed more research than for earlier books. But then it was during Covid lock-down in Melbourne.

I keep my published works in … one row of our wall-length jarrah book shelves, which cost more than any book of mine has ever made from sales!

On the day my first book was published, I … had finished a poetry book in my 20s! Just. By book launch time I was 30. Veronica Brady, ‘the Marxist nun’ (her words), launched it with wonderful exaggeration.

At the moment I’m writing … my seventh and shortest novel, with fewer characters. A novel about water and light and a search for meaning and value. Earth, inlet, sky. And puzzles.

When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I … procrastinate to provoke both energy and ideas. I trust my mind. Sometimes covering my face/eyes with my hands will deliver ‘visions’ of scenes. It’s true!

Salom’s muse, Dermie, is named after the Irish poet and author Dermot Healy.

Thanks for participating, Philip!

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2023

The Boy (2010), by Dan Porat

The recent revelation that an Australian Premier wore a Nazi uniform to his 21st birthday party twenty years ago is a reminder that there is an ongoing need to educate people about the Holocaust.

Perrotet had a privileged background and was educated at private schools — where presumably he did not learn that there was nothing about the Nazis that makes them suitable for fancy dress. It’s possible, I suppose that his parents didn’t know about it, but if he hid his behaviour and/or the photos from his parents, then that means that he can’t have been ignorant of his wrongdoing. If they did know, they either failed to dissuade him or didn’t care.

But to give everyone involved the benefit of doubt, and thus to allow that for all concerned it may have been ignorance, this kind of ignorance makes me angry.  It is imperative that people understand that demonisation of The Other leads to genocide, and that celebrating cultures that perpetuate discrimination of any kind — not just anti-Semitism — is completely unacceptable.

I recommend the Twitter account of the Auschwitz Museum which — in addition to memorialising those who perished day-by-day, offers educational resources. And each annual Holocaust Memorial Day I share my Holocaust-related reading. This year the HMD theme is ‘ordinary people’:

Genocide is facilitated by ordinary people. Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed – they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group (eg, Roma, Jewish community, Tutsi).

Ordinary people were involved in all aspects of the Holocaust, Nazi persecution of other groups, and in the genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Ordinary people were perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, witnesses – and ordinary people were victims.

In every genocide, those targeted faced limited choices – ‘choiceless choices’ (Lawrence Langer) but in every genocide the perpetrators have choices, ordinary people have choices.

This year, I have read a most interesting book called The Boy, by Israeli academic Dan Porat, which interrogates the role of ‘ordinary people’ through an iconic photograph.  This is the book description:

A cobblestone road. A sunny day. A soldier. A gun. A child, arms high in the air. A moment captured on film.

But what is the history behind arguably the most recognizable photograph of the Holocaust? In The Boy: A Holocaust Story, the historian Dan Porat unpacks this split second that was immortalized on film and unravels the stories of the individuals—both Jews and Nazis—associated with it.

The Boy presents the stories of three Nazi criminals, ranging in status from SS sergeant to low-ranking SS officer to SS general. It also tells the story of two Jewish victims, a teenage girl and a young boy, who encounter these Nazis in Warsaw in the spring of 1943. The book is remarkable in its scope, picking up the lives of these participants in the years preceding World War I and following them to their deaths.

I read the prologue, which recounted the author overhearing a tour guide’s comment in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, that the exhibit photo (that is reproduced on the front cover of this book) tells a good story of the Holocaust. She told her astonished listeners that the terrified little boy with his hands raised in the air had survived.  She said that ‘After the Holocaust, he studied medicine, became a doctor and settled in New York’. This incident was the trigger for Porat to investigate the photo: its history and provenance, and the stories that surround it.

Porat wanted to  answer questions that multiplied with time. 

Did the little boy indeed survive the Holocaust? What was his story?  Who was the woman standing on the left? Was she his mother? Who was the little girl? The SS man with his machine gun, who was he? How could he make a little boy raise his hands like this? Who took the photographs? What brought them there? What […] had happened to these people before and after being captured by the camera? (p.6)

Porat conducted rigorous research, which included finding the photo’s origins in The Stroop Report.  The report — amplified by photographic evidence — was prepared for the SS chief Heinrich Himmler, by General Jürgen Stroop about his successful suppression of the Warsaw Uprising and the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. Porat then felt compelled to try to tell the story of how the five people he identified in the photo came together on that Warsaw street in the spring of 1943. 

Only some of my questions, however, found answers.  One in particular eluded me: the book does not identify the boy in the photograph.  In my opinion, such an identification is impossible.  It is also beside the point.  Is the lost life of the little boy more important than that of the little girl at the left-hand side of the photograph? Are the lives of this little boy and girl in the photograph more significant than those of children or adults outside the photo frame?  The answer is simple and absolute: no.

A far more pressing question, however, is how one set of men saw in that photograph heroic soldiers combating humanity’s dregs while the vast majority of mankind sees here the gross inhumanity of man.  (p.7)

The book goes on to weave together the story of three Nazis and two Jews:

  • the Nazi soldier, Josef Blosche, who pointed his gun at the boy; Franz Konrad, who took photographs in the ghetto, possibly including the iconic photo; and Jurgen Stroop, the general ordered to liquidate the ghetto;
  • the Jewish survivors Rivkah Trapkovits, a teenage member of a Zionist kibbutz preparing to emigrate to Palestine; and Tsvi Nussbaum, the young boy who became a doctor in New York, and whose story was described as ‘good news’ by that tour guide in the museum.

The beginning scene in Chapter 1, ‘Rising to Power’ however, is clearly the work of imagination as it recreates a moment in Stroop’s life.  I turned to the back of the book for an explanation and read the chapter ‘On photographs, History and Narrative Style’.  Parot explains that only creative engagement with the vast academic literature of the Holocaust can shed any light on why ordinary Germans turned into mass killers. He fills in the gaps, but he does not speculate as historical fiction does.

It is a controlled usage, aided by analytical tools and clearly circumscribed. I was restricted by the known historical evidence and matched the existing historical context with probabilities suggested by multiple sources and research. (p.221)

This chapter is valuable because it interrogates the ways photos are used and abused; how they can be invested with ‘iconic’ status and used inadvertently or deliberately in myth-making; and how, to make meaning from them, we need to analyse the historical context, an explanation of the photo’s origins, an account of events which preceded and followed it, and even to interpret the title assigned to it.  Because..

Not only have iconic photographs such as that of the little boy not promoted remembrance of the Holocaust or prevented other genocides, points out Barbie Zelizer*, but ‘it may be, then, that at times we have begun to remember so as to forget.’ (p.219)

As the lesson of Premier Perrotet shows us only too well…

Author: Dan Porat
Title: The Boy, a Holocaust Story
Publisher: Melbourne University Publishing, 2010
Cover design: Jennifer Carrow
ISBN: 9780522860566, pbk., 262 pages including Notes, Acknowledgements and an Index
Source: local Street Library

*Barbie Zelizer is a scholar of journalistic theory and practice and author of Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Cameras Eye (1998).

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2023

Limberlost is longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize!

A very quick post to share the exciting news that Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost is on the 2023 Dylan Thomas Prize longlist!

Congratulations Robbie!

If you want to see a review of the book that has a picture of That Boat in it, see mine here. (And yes, I did tell you so…)

  • Limberlost by Robbie Arnott (Atlantic Books) – novel (Australia)
  • Seven Steeples by Sara Baume (Tramp Press) – novel (Ireland)
  • God’s Children Are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu (Orion, Weidenfeld & Nicolson) – short story collection (Nigeria)
  • Maps Of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer (Picador, Pan Macmillan) – novel (UK)
  • Phantom Gang by Ciaran O’Rourke (The Irish Pages Press) – poetry collection (Ireland)
  • Things They Lost by Okwiri Oduor (Oneworld) – novel (Kenya)
  • Losing the Plot by Derek Owusu (Canongate Books) – novel (UK)
  • I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel (Rough Trade Books) – novel (UK)
  • Send Nudes by Saba Sams (Bloomsbury Publishing) – short story collection (UK)
  • Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire (Chatto & Windus) – poetry collection (Somalia-UK)
  • Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens (Picador, Pan Macmillan) – novel (UK)
  • No Land to Light On by Yara Zgheib (Atlantic Books, Allen & Unwin) – novel (Lebanon)
Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 24, 2023

Latecomers (1988), by Anita Brookner

As you can see from my reviews of Anita Brookner’s novels which are within the obituary I wrote on the occasion of her death in 2016, I thought I had her ‘pegged’ as an author of bitter-sweet stories of intelligent middle-class older women reflecting on their poor choices and their wasted lives.  These women were emotionally stilted, isolated from society and disappointed by men.  I admired her writing, her brilliantly perceptive descriptions and her often droll style, but I always had to be ‘in the mood’ to read a Brookner.

But…

An episode of Backlisted (about Raymond Chandler, of all people!) began as usual with the chat about who’d been reading what, and Andy Miller told the listeners about a Brookner novel I didn’t know, quite different to the others I had read:

Latecomers, he said, is an incredibly moving book about two men who came to England as evacuees on the Kindertransport. At first it seems like a book about the friendship between these two men, and about their lives and their families.  But gradually you realise that Brookner is sketching a portrait of the effect of a terrible wrench away from home and family on a whole life.  This trauma, he said, is rendered with great emotional and intellectual control.  It appears elegant, subtle and understated, but it’s incredibly ambitious.

Latecomers was on the TBR with a bunch of other Brookners that I’d found at Diversity Books.) January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day 2023, so I decided to retrieve it from the shelf…

But first, a word about another book I’ve read about the Kindertransport experience.  Years ago, at the Melbourne Writers Festival when it was at the Malthouse, I met the author of Serry and Me, Kindertransport & Beyond (2001) by Elfie Rosenberg.  She had been just eight years old when in 1939 she was smuggled out of Nazi Germany with her fifteen-year-old sister and not reunited with her parents until eight years later.  My most vivid memory of our conversation over lunch was her ambivalence.  She said that she felt that compared to what others suffered in the Holocaust, her experience was ‘not so bad’ and that it had taken some persuasion for her to contribute her story to the Write Your Story Makor Project (now run by the Lamm Jewish Library of Australia.

Kindertransport, The Final Parting, by Frank Meisler, Hamburg Dammtor station (Wikipedia)

Elfie had stayed with a kindly family in Gloucestershire, and she had the companionship of her sister, but the trauma of the separation and her parents weeping on that last night stayed with her forever.  And what she has in common with all other victims of the Nazis, is the horror that the country of her birth was implementing a monstrous genocide in pursuit of their absurd Aryan fantasy of a master race.  In what must also have been a terrible wrench for Elfie’s parents, they sent her to safety because her life was at risk.

It is this persisting trauma that Brookner portrays with such finesse.  Her characters Hartmann and Fibich bond at boarding school over their shared experience of the Kindertransport, neither of them ever to see their family again. Yet they build a successful life in Britain, going into business together, printing greeting-cards and then running a photocopier business which enables them to live comfortably. They marry, and have children, and their very close friendship means that they live in the same block of flats and socialise with each other regularly.

Hartmann appears to come to terms with his losses by denying them.  Nostalgia he thinks, is only for the securely based.

However, no man is free of his own history. Hartmann was no exception.  But in the interests of damage limitation he had struck a bargain with the fates: he would, in so far as he could, employ the maximum good will at his disposal in an effort to screen out the undesirable, the inadvertent, those shocks against which the mere mortal is powerless.  He would, he had long ago decided, be deliberately euphoric. (p.7)

He lives a life of pleasure, enjoying good food, elegant clothes and a light-hearted, optimistic approach to the future.  He has a rather ditzy wife called Yvette, who is preoccupied with the kind of domestic ambitions that were common for women in the 1950s, which suits him fine. They have a quiet, biddable daughter who produces grandchildren for Hartmann to love.

Fibich, on the other hand, suffers from chronic anxiety.  Hartmann was twelve when evacuated, Fibich was only seven.  His last memory is of his mother fainting at the train station, and this melancholy image haunts him. Where Hartmann — through his effort of will — chooses not to remember, Fibich cannot remember anything except the distress of this last moment, and an image of himself as a very small, very plump boy, engulfed in a large wing chair which he knew to be called the Voltaire, feeling lazy, replete, and secure in the dying light of a winter afternoon.

Fibich marries the undemanding Christine, who bears him a son both prodigy and prodigal but he fears the future, he is plagued by dreams, and he is troubled by his envy of Hartmann who seemed so easily to accept the world as it was.  He knows he cannot recapture his lost life, but he yearns for the essential part, the part that would have explained his character and would have furnished him with a lineage [that] was irrevocably missing. 

As a boy boarding with Hartmann’s Aunt Marie who had providently married an Englishman, he would walk the Heath with Hartmann, wondering if this life would ever end, since he knew he could not go home again. 

His terror and despair were without measure.  Sometimes, in the evening, he would forfeit his place in front of the electric fire and disappear to be sick. Aunt knew this, though it was never mentioned.  It was Hartmann who took care of him, although Fibich was adept at being sick without anyone noticing.  ‘Sit here, Thomas’, Aunt would say, as he came back, white-faced, into the drawing-room.  ‘Sit down and get warm. You are quite safe here, you know.’ She was good in that way, never got alarmed or hysterical, so that the symptom passed as he got older, although he always had a sensitive stomach and loathed unusual food… (p.31)

He always remembered her kindness, that she would put extra sugar from her ration into Fibich’s cup. 

As the novel progresses, other traumas are revealed, which puts into perspective the characterisation of the wives, Yvette and Christine.  They are of their time, Yvette’s amorousness devoted entirely to herself and the always uncertain Christine, too ready IMO to suffer in silence.  But they have back stories too: Yvette’s in anti-Semitic France is so shocking that Hartmann reassesses his retirement plans.

I wonder what prompted Brookner to tackle this theme, mid-career and almost half a century after the Kindertransports began…  Was there an anniversary event that piqued her interest? Did she meet someone with a devastating personal history? Was it whataboutery? did someone say to her, instead of writing about all those women and their discontents, what about writing about the tragedy of trauma rather than missed opportunities? Or was it that she (1928-2016) was part of that generation that lived through the war and amid the flood of postwar migration, felt the need to examine a different sort of latecomer: the unaccompanied child refugee?  Perhaps she wanted to give voice to those who suppressed their Holocaust experience because it was ‘not so bad’…

Because really, the lifelong trauma for those children of the Kindertransport was catastrophic.

Image credits:

Kindertransport, The Final Parting, one of a series of group sculptures by Israeli architect and sculptor Frank Meisler (himself a Kindertransport evacuee)  (1925-2018), Hamburg Dammtor station By Alraunenstern – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53777182

Author: Anita Brookner
Title: Latecomers
Publishers: Flamingo, (Harper Collins), 1992, first published in 1988
Cover design: detail from Basket of Flowers, by Jan van Huysum in The Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
ISBN: 9780006545224, pbk., 191 pages
Source: personal copy, purchased from Diversity Books

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 23, 2023

Maurice (1971), by E.M. Forster

Reviews From the Archive

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

The catalyst for retrieving this review at this time is that it’s Midsumma Festival time here in Melbourne. Which is, as Wikipedia tells us

an annual celebration of LGBTQIA+ arts and cultures, held annually for 22 days across January and February.  The festival began as a one-week celebration of LGBTQ+ pride in 1989. The festival has expanded over the years to a three-week event that attracts over 280,000 people each year. The festival is now one of the top five gay and lesbian arts and cultural celebrations, along with New York, San Francisco, Vancouver and Sydney.

When I read Maurice in 1997 — a novel not published in E M Forster‘s lifetime (1879-1970) because it would have compromised his freedom and ruined his career — the idea that the Victorian government would be associated with, let alone sponsor a celebration of LGBTQ+ pride would have been bizarre.  Homosexuality was still illegal in Tasmania, and the question of gay marriage was decades away. Yet I read Forster’s novel as a ‘museum piece’ because homosexuality had been decriminalised in Victoria, and in Britain. I had no idea that LGBTIQ+ rights had such a long way to go, and I thought that the easy-going circles I moved in were the norm except among the older generation.  Well, even a quick look at Wikipedia’s LGBT Rights in Victoria page shows my ignorance and naïveté.  My review reflects this, yet at the same time it reveals my dawning understanding of the torment caused by intolerance and religious mores. Maurice is the book that made me a supporter of LGBTIQ+ rights because it shows the human cost of denying them.

This is the blurb for Maurice:

“A century after its publication, it seems as relevant as ever.” –The Guardian
Maurice is heartbroken over unrequited love, which opened his heart and mind to his own sexual identity. In order to be true to himself, he goes against the grain of society’s often unspoken rules of class, wealth, and politics.
Forster understood that his homage to same-sex love, if published when he completed it in 1914, would probably end his career. Thus, Maurice languished in a drawer for fifty-seven years, the author requesting it be published only after his death (along with his stories about homosexuality later collected in The Life to Come).
Since its release in 1971, Maurice has been widely read and praised. It has been, and continues to be, adapted for major stage productions, including the 1987 Oscar-nominated film adaptation starring Hugh Grant and James Wilby.


Maurice, by E.M. Forster, first published 1971

From my reading journal, dated 12 January 1997

This is a book to illuminate another’s soul.  Published posthumously in 1971, it’s set immediately before the First World War and tells the achingly sad story of a young man’s discovery that he is homosexual.

In the circles in which I move, homosexuality is no longer an issue, except for the occasional intolerant old fossil.  Tasmanian homophobia seems a quaint aberration that will eventually go away.  And the issue is, if it is one in other circles, primarily social.

For Maurice, it is social in that his homosexuality imposes an appalling loneliness and despair of being able to love in his own world.  But for Clive (Maurice’s lover) religious issues are a torture.  He searches for support in the Bible and finds none, and he scandalises his family by refusing to take communion in the traditional show of family solidarity at their country seat.  This novel very powerfully conveys the way in which religion, British society and tradition conspire to make his impulses seem filthy and depraved — and it’s heartbreaking to become aware that numerous young men must have suffered these torments alone, with no one to support them and a terror of being found out haunting them all their lives.

All of us are afraid of exposing ourselves, our inner selves, when we explore new relationships… but Maurice shows how fearsome it must be for homosexuals who must first traverse the barriers that conceal their homosexuality from an insensitive society.

The happy ending is unconvincing [and now I realise that it was meant to be.] Maurice and his new love, Alec, become outlaws in the greenwood, (which Forster in his ‘terminal note admits no longer exists.) It isn’t just that the notion of these two (of different classes in class-bound Britain) might live happily in a rustic idyll is farcical.  It’s also unsatisfactory that a ‘happy’ ending requires them to hide. Better to live openly in France or Italy than to skulk in the greenwood.


The Midsumma Festival is more than a celebration.  It’s also a way of offering support to people still victimised by religious groups and bigots.

Author: E.M. Forster
Title: Maurice
Publisher: The Softback Preview
ISBN: Not recorded, pbk., 319 pages
Source: Personal library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 20, 2023

The Rose Leopard (2003), by Richard Yaxley

The Rose Leopard is a debut novel that’s now two decades old. The author, secondary school teacher Richard Yaxley, has gone on to have a distinguished literary career, receiving an OAM (Order of Australia) in 2011 for services to education, literature and performing arts. He writes across genres, and has won or been nominated for many awards, mainly in YA and Children’s Lit.  The following is a list of his novels from his website:

  • Harmony (Scholastic 2021; Long-listed for the ARA Historical Prize – CYA Section)
  • A New Kind of Everything (Scholastic 2020)
  • The Happiness Quest (Scholastic 2018; CBCA Notable Book for Older Readers 2019)
  • This Is My Song (Scholastic 2017; ACU Book Of The Year 2019; Winner of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult Literature; Finalist in the 2017 Queensland Literary Awards; also published in the Czech Republic by Albatros Media)
  • Joyous and Moonbeam (Scholastic 2013; Finalist in the 2014 West Australian Premier’s Awards for Young Adult Literature)
  • Spring Rain (Self-published 2011)
  • Drink the Air (Strictly Literary: Winner of the 2010 Queensland Premier’s Award for Young Adult Fiction)
  • Bloodlines (Strictly Literary 2009)
  • The Rose Leopard (University of Queensland Press 2003)

In other genres, he was also

  • Winner of the 2016 FAW NSW Walter Stone Award for Life Writing for Homecoming
  • Joint winner of the 2004 Queensland Theatre Company Expressions Play-script Competition for Heart.

That’s an impressive list of credits, but I didn’t know about any of them when I read The Rose Leopard. It looks as if it might be Yaxley’s only adult novel though he has so many books listed at Goodreads I could well be wrong about that.  The Rose Leopard is definitely not YA, there’s lots of lusty sex in it, though it isn’t overdone. Plus, it deals with some weighty themes.  This is the blurb:

Vince isn’t perfect, but his love for Kaz reveals the best of him. Their coastal farm is an idyllic place to raise their two children, and Kaz ensures that life is easy and full of fun. Here, Vince can indulge both his passions – for words and for his wife. But when an unexpected event shatters their contentment, Vince isn’t ready for the responsibilities he must face. In creating the fable of the Rose Leopard – the most beautiful creature in the world – he tries to explain to his children a universe that doesn’t always make sense. The Rose Leopard is a compelling debut novel, a poignant and often funny tale of love, grief and the transformative power of story-telling.

It’s not really a spoiler to say that this is a novel about a father coming to terms with the grief that overwhelms him when his beloved wife suddenly dies.  Narrated by the grieving husband, the first chapters memorialise the wife in glowing terms.  Though the marriage is later revealed to have had its ‘moments’, for most of the novel Kat has no flaws, and Vince’s self-abasement is overt. Their exchanges, however, bring them alive as a couple and, written in a wry style, are often amusing. But reading these first few chapters in the awareness that she is soon to die, adds to the tension.

Vince’s betrayals are soon revealed, and though they are commonplace they stain his memories with guilt and remorse.  In the meantime his small children, Alex and Sara a.k.a. Milo and Otis, are dealing with the loss of their mother without the support of their father.  We often read that grief is a personal experience and that there are no timelines or ‘approved’ ways of coping with it.  But Vince’s grief crosses over into self-indulgence when he causes a scene at the burial, refuses to visit her grave with the children, neglects their physical and emotional needs and doesn’t even get them back to school for some kind of relief from his self-absorption and irrational outbursts of anger.

Amelia, Vince’s very mature 15 year-old niece, is the one who restores some sense of normality.  She’s a bit idealised in the narrative, though it’s hard to say whether that’s a debut author’s inexperience or whether it’s consistent with the characterisation of Vince whose judgement is clouded.  She comes to stay because she doesn’t get on with her mother Francesca, and that suits Vince because he doesn’t get on with Francesca either, for reasons which are revealed as the novel progresses.  Amelia is a painter, though how she gets time to paint anything when she’s taken on the complexities of a maternal role will be a mystery to anyone who’s had the full-time care of two young children…

Along with the theme of grief impacting on others too young to understand, The Rose Leopard is also a tale of sibling rivalry, and the spiteful lengths to which a jealous sister will go.  Yaxley then shows the mother’s dilemma in trying to resolve the complications that arise between Kat and Francesca, and how ultimately truth will out.

The novel also tackles the challenge of explaining death to children when a parent has no religious belief. In discussion with Amelia, Vince tells her…

‘I don’t believe in any Heaven or Hell or any sort of Purgatorial waiting-room because that’s Christian and I reckon Christianity is narrative humbug.’

‘Humbug?’

‘Another word for crap.’

‘Oh.’

‘I don’t believe in any of the Eastern stuff, like passing from this life to the next, or being reincarnated as a fruit-bat or something.  I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits seeking redemption.  I think that’s all the same: it’s all fictional blarney and it’s made of lot of writers and film-makers richer than they deserve to be,  See, I don’t believe in any of that stuff.’ (pp.160-1)

But after the raw experience of seeing his wife die, he does believe that there is something besides a body, something more than just physically living.  He doesn’t like the word ‘soul’ but this whatever-it-is can be felt if not touched and is always around somewhere circling like a bird looking for a good branch.

Much to the dismay of his good mate and literary agent Big Stu, Vince hasn’t touched his writing since Kaz died, but this conversation with Amelia triggers his realisation that story-telling offers balm to his wounded psyche:

‘It’s like … like a story, I suppose — and everyone has a story, don’t they?  I mean,  everyone has a batch of stories and that’s what we are, I think — a batch of stories.  Our bodies crumple and disintegrate but our stories remain and … well, hopefully they’ll live on forever because they’re our legacy, I guess — they’re what makes it all worthwhile, don’t you think?  The stories are what really matter? (p.161)

It is story-telling that enables Vince to heal and to restore his bruised relationship with his children.

The Rose Leopard is an impressive debut which deserves more attention than it appears to have had.  But it looks as if the author has taken the advice of Big Stu who says that nobody wants to read pretentious writing — and has abandoned (Big Stu’s idea of) literary fiction in favour of writing that tells a story.

Author: Richard Yaxley
Title: The Rose Leopard
Design by Kate Barry
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2003
ISBN: 9780702233463, pbk., 249 pages
Source: Personal copy

Availability: The Rose Leopard was published in paperback two decades ago but you can still buy it as an eBook from Amazon.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 19, 2023

2023 Indie Book Awards Shortlist

The Shortlist for the 2023 Indie Book Awards has been announced.
These are the best Australian books of 2022 as selected by Australian independent booksellers.

I’m pleased to see that Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost has made the list.  It seems to have become the kind of book that readers cherish.

And I don’t know if this is a first, or I just haven’t noticed it before, but one of the shortlisted books for Illustrated NF is an exhibition catalogue from the NGV, featuring the work of Cressida Campbell.  You can see a video about her here. It’s goes for about 12 minutes and it’s fascinating because you can see how she makes the woodblocks and the prints.

Fiction

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

Horse by Geraldine Brooks (Hachette Australia)

Seeing Other People by Diana Reid (Ultimo Press)

The Seven Skins of Esther Wilding by Holly Ringland (Fourth Estate Australia)

Non-Fiction

The Book Of Roads And Kingdoms by Richard Fidler (ABC Books, HarperCollins Australia)

The First Astronomers by Duane Hamacher, with Elders and Knowledge Holders (Allen & Unwin)

Nothing Bad Ever Happens Here by Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin)

The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner by Grace Tame (Macmillan Australia)

Debut Fiction

Wake by Shelley Burr (Hachette Australia)

All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien (HQ Fiction, HarperCollins)

Son of Sin by Omar Sakr (Affirm Press), see Kim’s review at Reading Matters

Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor (Macmillan Australia)

Illustrated Non-Fiction

First Nations Food Companion by Damien Coulthard and Rebecca Sullivan (Murdoch Books)

Big Beautiful Female Theory by Eloise Grills (Affirm Press)

Cressida Campbell by National Gallery of Australia (National Gallery of Australia)

RecipeTin Eats: Dinner by Nagi Maehashi (Macmillan Australia)

Children’s

Frank’s Red Hat by Sean E Avery (Walker Books Australia)

Ceremony: Welcome to Our Country by Adam Goodes and Ellie Laing, illustrated by David Hardy (Allen & Unwin Children’s)

Guardians: Wylah the Koorie Warrior 1 by Jordan Gould and Richard Pritchard (Albert Street Books)

Runt by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin)

Young Adult

Cop and Robber by Tristan Bancks (Puffin)

The Museum of Broken Things by Lauren Draper (Text Publishing)

Unnecessary Drama by Nina Kenwood (Text Publishing)

The Brink by Holden Sheppard (Text Publishing)


Winners to be announced on 20 March

Almost everyone who writes anything about The Summer Book begins by referring to Tove Jansson as the author of the much-loved Moomin children’s stories. Well, I never read the Moomins, and like many emigrants I never had a relationship with a grandmother, beyond some correspondence which fizzled out when she died when I was a teenager. So there were no sentimental attachments for me in reading this, the first of Jansson’s novels for adults.   I bought it and read it because it’s listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, cited as a modern classic in Scandinavia, where it has never been out of print.

This is the citation:

Based loosely on the author’s own experiences, The Summer Book spans a season during which an elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter, Sophia, while away the long days together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland.  It is a magical, elegiac, quietly humorous book that slowly draws the reader into the lives of Sophia (whose mother has recently died), her grandmother, and her largely absent ‘Papa’. The colour and depth of the characterisation moves the narrative forward, despite the fact that very little actually happens.

[..]

Descriptions, such as that of the texture of moss that has been trodden on three times, are written in minute, leisurely detail and through these descriptions the reader comes to understand the special relationship between the grandmother and the granddaughter.  Jansson’s style is unsentimental and, as the book meanders through summer, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears and idiosyncrasies, allowing a deep, understated love to unfold that extends beyond the family to both the island and the season.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall, ABC Books, 2006, ISBN: 9780733321214, p631

Written in brief episodic chapters that portray an idyllic summer, The Summer Book is, however,  more than a celebration of a special relationship.  Sophia’s mother has just died, and both grandmother and granddaughter have to come to terms with that.  The father, so often noted as being absent, is grieving too.  So there is psychological tension in the narrative, and the tears that come about are not really about the event that  triggered them. This is a novel that offers nostalgia and a celebration of the landscape but it also demands reading behind the lines.

Conflict, mostly over trivial things, is a thread that weaves through the book as both adult and child learn to negotiate their situation.  Occasionally sensitive to others beyond her years, Sophia is most often demanding and sometimes querulous while the grandmother is a masterclass in resolving conflict and modelling tolerance.  She does not ‘give in’, but she most often responds by deflecting the issue, changing the subject, offering some whimsy or some common sense and only very occasionally losing patience.  She sleeps a lot, she walks with a stick, and she’s a bit forgetful.  This is an older grandmother, not like the spritely grandmas we see today in their jazzy leotards and colourful hair.

Loss underpins the story.  There are no memories of the late mother, but her absence is the reason for Sophia to be where she is.  The attention to the grandmother’s frailty is an allusion to her ageing and the loss that is to come.  There is also the loss of serenity as unwelcome development occurs nearby.  Being on an island doesn’t guarantee isolation, and both regard the owner of the new house on an adjacent island as an interloper.  There’s also the loss of innocence when Sophia undertakes forbidden activities while her grandmother turns a blind eye, and there’s an episode where they connive together to unleash their resentment about the new house.

My favourite part of the story was when, inspired by a postcard that arrives,  they created ‘Venice’ in the marsh pool:

They made pilings for the Piazza San Marco out of a lot of little wooden plugs, and covered them with flat stones. They dug additional canals and built bridges over them.  Black ants scurried back and forth across the bridges, while down below there were gondolas gliding along in the moonlight.

They conjured people to live in this little fantasy world too.

The grandmother made a Doge’s Palace out of balsa wood, but soon after a storm turns the pool into a bay and ‘Venice’ had disappeared beneath the sea. The grandmother sits up all night recreating it.

The Doge’s Palance was ready at seven o’clock, just as Sophia banged on the door.

‘Wait a minute,’ Grandmother said. ‘It’s on the latch.’

‘Did you find her?’ Sophia called.  ‘Was she still there?’

‘Yes, of course,’ Grandmother answered. ‘They were all still there.’

The palace looked much too new, not as if it had been through a flood. Quickly Grandmother took her water glass and poured it over the Doge’s Palace, then emptied the ashtray into her hand and rubbed the cupolas and walls with ashes, and all the time Sophia kept pulling at the handle and yelling that she wanted to come in.

Grandmother opened the door. ‘We were lucky.’ she said.

Sophia examined the palace very carefully.  She put it down on the nightstand and didn’t say a word.

‘It’s all right, isn’t it?’ said Grandmother anxiously.

‘Quiet,’ Sophia whispered. ‘I want to hear if she’s still there.’

They listened for a long time.  Then Sophia said, ‘You can rest easy.  Her mother says it was a perfectly dreadful storm. Now she’s cleaning up the mess, and she’s pretty worn out.’

‘Yes, I’ll bet she is,’ Grandmother said. (p.58)

The author could have added, ‘with real feeling’ to allude to Grandmother having been up all night, but the text doesn’t need it…

The translator has captured the mood and sensitivity of this novel perfectly.


I read this book for Nordic Finds month 2023 at AnnaBookBel. The irony is that I thought I’d be reading books set in snow and ice to offset the heat of an Aussie summer, but my choice meant that I was reading about summer in Finland instead!

Author: Tove Jansson
Title: The Summer Book (Sommerboken)
Translated from the Sweden by Thomas Teal
Foreword by Sether Freud, Afterword by Sophia Jansson. (Both of these are superfluous IMO)
Publisher: Sort of Books, 2022, first published in 1972
Cover design by Peter Dyer
ISBN: 9780954221713, pbk., 190 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased for #LoveYourBookShop Day from Blarney’s Books Port Fairy.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 13, 2023

Prague Spring (2018), by Simon Mawer

Although I have a tempting pile of new Australian releases waiting for me, I’m continuing my holiday reading from the TBR, with an added reason to take up Simon Mawer’s Prague Spring from 2018, because I have just bought Ancestry, his most recent one — and I really should read what I already have first, right?

There’s a review at The Guardian which recounts how in 1975 Mawer was caught in an avalanche on the North Face of Ben Nevis and had to cling to an ice ledge for 22 hours.  Whether this experience informed his ability to capture the suspense of existential moments I do not know, but while Prague Spring is not a cliffhanger, it becomes unputdownable as the pages move towards their inexorable conclusion.

It is history that makes the conclusion inexorable.  Set in 1968 when Czechoslovakia enjoyed a brief taste of freedom under Dubček before the Soviet tanks rolled in, the novel traces the narratives of a naïve young couple of hitchhikers who stumble into trouble, and the story of an English diplomat walking a tightrope between love and duty.  Ellie and James are an ill-matched pair from Oxford, playfully choosing a route through Europe by a roll of the die, while Sam Wareham, progressing his career at the embassy, is disarmed by falling in love with Lenka — who not only has the kind of past that tests the UK-Soviet relationship, but is also sufficiently optimistic about the prospects of ‘socialism with a human face’ that she does some rather imprudent things.

Well, only imprudent because we all know what happened. Mawer’s characters do not have the wisdom of hindsight, and his omniscient narrator sometimes reminds us of that.  The presence of Soviet tanks massing on the border gives the novel a contemporary relevance not merely because of current events in Europe but also because of the protests in Iran where authorities are cracking down on dissidents with an iron fist.

Prague Spring offers an interesting contrast to the prevailing tabloid narrative about the diplomatic service ‘doing nothing’.  Without labouring the point, Mawer makes it clear that that embassies can only operate under certain constraints, and through a thread about would-be Soviet defectors he shows that those constraints can not only hamper the help an embassy would like to give but must also cover up its successes in order to be able to maintain its apparently uninvolved stance. The novel is also a vivid portrayal of the endless surveillance of the diplomats.  Lenka, who has lived under Soviet surveillance all her life, chafes under her experience of it with Sam. He OTOH is used to it and has developed a range of strategies for managing it.

Mawer’s love of the city shines through this novel.  I’ve never been to Prague, but I imagine that those who have will savour the descriptions of the historic buildings and streetscapes.  The scenes set in concert halls are particularly vivid, and the descriptions of the emotive power of music are stunning. James, an unsophisticated student from The North in England whose default position is rationality, but he is moved to tears…

Is it a lament for something innocent that is lost forever?  James tries to cling to the notes as they circle around him, but they are ephemeral, evanescent, each following the other and all dying away before he can work out what to do with them. It is the totality that matters, not the fragments; the whole complex wave equation, not the individual terms.  And as he listens, emotion creeps up on him without him being aware of it, like a thief in the night coshing him from behind. (p.236)

Prague Spring is a beautiful novel that puts the reader behind the scenes in times of mass dissent. Highly recommended.

Update, later the same day (when the power was restored!): This slide show features some of the lovely buildings in Prague.

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Image credits:

Author: Simon Mawer
Title: Prague Spring
Cover design: Charlotte Stromner
Publisher: Little, Brown, 2018
ISBN: 9781408711156, pbk., 393 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore, Hampton

Hal (Harold) Porter AM (1911 – 1984) was an Australian novelist, playwright, poet and short story writer. He’s one of those authors I’d heard about, but never read, probably because his novels were published before my adult reading life really began. His oeuvre at Wikipedia includes plentiful short story collections, and the novels A Handful of Pennies (1958); The Tilted Cross (1961) and The Right Thing (1971), but he is most famous for his memoir The Watcher on the Cast-iron Balcony (1963).  It’s subtitled an Australian Autobiography but it’s not straightforward — he is at pains to warn the reader not to believe everything he writes.

In Chapter Two, he records his vivid first impressions when the family moved from metropolitan Kensington in Melbourne to Bairnsdale in Gippsland.  Though the legend of ANZAC grows, World War 1 is far away and his preoccupations are those of a small boy, swapping sins with the other children as they swap postage-stamps and dolls. 

As he looks back on his life, he acknowledges that he appears to have catalogued Mother more than any human being.  

In the country, Mother changes. Or rather, so far as I am concerned, she appears as another kind of Mother. […] She is now a woman almost always in an apron of black Italian cloth, her blouse sleeves rolled back above her beautiful forearms which turn day by day from white to country brown, a woman labelled with the names of days. (p.57)

She is Monday when she works with the washerwoman at the outdoor copper.

She is Tuesday when they do the ironing together.

She is Wednesday when she shakes the mats and mops the fluff and hunts for cobwebs.

She is green-fingered Thursday — and at her happiest, working in her garden.

But she is different when she is Friday:

… curling-pinned, slap-dashing vivacious and deftly through domesticity so that she can dress herself up, flee from her family into the after-dinner twilight, and go shopping. (p.58)

She’s not shopping for anything essential, and nothing mundane. Porter paints a vivid portrait of an era long gone:

The baker, the bloody butcher in a nimbus of flies, the milkman, canter into Mitchell Street daily; the grocer, the fishmonger, the rabbit-oh, the John Chinaman greengrocer and fruiterer, the iceman and the egg-woman appear once or twice weekly; the knife-grinder, the tinker, the chimney-sweep, the clothes-prop man, the old clo’ man, the clothes peg gypsy and the Afghan pedlar drift through as regularly on time as the seasons, and the dust-laying water-waggon, and the ice-cream carts, and the swallows or their children which build their demi-cups of mud under the wooden shade over my bedroom window. Powdered and scented (eau-de-Cologne or Lily of the Valley), in her best earrings and gloves and dazzling polished shoes, her enamelled watch pinned to her bust, chewing a Sen-sen or a clove, Mother goes shopping… for what? (p.59)

What indeed?

Another caller, BTW is ‘Untouchable.’ He is the night-man, the dunny-man, outcast of outcasts who is never acknowledged.  He gets a whole page to himself.

Heralded by a stench and the clashing of metal doors and galvanised iron, his horses pace slowly into the street. Windows are closed.  Eyes are averted, and breaths held. As all tradesman’s horses of that era do, the butcher’s, the baker’s, the grocer’s, the milkman’s, his horses move from house to house, from tradesman’s entrance to tradesman’s entrance, without being directed.  They stop; they pause waiting for their drivers; they move on, at exactly the right moment, as though by clockwork, Calvanistically long-faced with resignation, their manes in girlish plaits, their eyelashes covered in dust.  In summer they wear straw hats through slots in which their ears protrude like hairy leaves. (p.75)

I remember being astonished and (unobtrusively, I hope) appalled by the existence of the ‘night man’ when in the 1960s I ventured to the then new suburb of Keilor to visit a school friend from my brief sojourn at Essendon North State School.  In all my travels I had never encountered such primitive arrangements, but they were emblematic of the lack of planning for rapid expansion of Australian cities. I have a memory of Gough Whitlam (Prime Minister 1972-1975) making an election promise to get the outer suburbs properly sewered, and though it seems an odd undertaking from such a high-minded politician, it probably won a good many seats!

More pleasurably, I remember as a five-year-old hitching a ride with the milkman in the village of St Agnes in Cornwall.  It was as good as a guided tour that you get today with the red buses that escort tourists round the cities of Europe.  An historian of place, he warned us with great solemnity never to go walking in the fields because they were littered with old tin mines that hadn’t been filled in properly.  (A practice that made its way to Australia during the Gold Rush as miners rushed off to the next ‘strike’.)  If we fell into one of those holes obscured by a bit of grass, he said, we’d never be seen again, and shared sad tales of children lost forever in those bucolic fields.

But truth be told, I kept out of the fields more because I was petrified of the cows.


Author: Hal Porter
Title: The Watcher on the Cast-iron Balcony, An Australian Autobiography
Publisher: Faber and Faber 1986, first published in London in 1963
ISBN: 9780571081790, pbk., 255 pages
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind

Picture credits: Sen-sen photo by Trevorteusc – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20602806

 

This is just a quick review because I am a bit preoccupied with rescuing some data from a trial software program before I lose access to it. (Because #LongBoringStory I am not going to pay for it all over again!)

Nora is, as the subtitle says, a love story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce, known to booklovers as the author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, even if they haven’t read them. Nora was selected for the One Dublin, One Book program and I won a copy of it in a giveaway for Reading Ireland Month from Cathy at 746 Books.

#Digression: Intrigued, I looked up the previous books chosen for the One Dublin, One Book program. It turns out that I’ve read or have on the TBR some of the titles chosen over the years, and a couple are reviewed on this blog:

  • 2006: At Swim Two Birds (1939) by Flann O’Brien
  • 2007: A Long Long Way (2005) by Sebastian Barry, on the TBR
  • 2008: Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, read ages ago
  • 2010: The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890) by Oscar Wilde, read ages ago
  • 2012: Dubliners (1914) by James Joyce
  • 2019: The Country Girls Trilogy (1960) by Edna O’Brien, on my wishlist

Sales must be wonderful for the contemporary authors whose books are chosen. This year’s choice BTW is an historical novel called The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes.

Ok, back to Nora

The novel is written entirely from Nora’s point of view, in first person. Blurbers suggest that the portrayal is reasonably faithful to real life, and the story traces the couple’s meeting in Ireland in 1904, and their peripatetic, often poverty-stricken lifestyle in Europe and the UK.  It shows Joyce’s determination to live by the pen, and the extraordinary impact that publication had on their precarious finances.  It also shows Nora’s loyalty in the face of (a-hem) unreasonable behaviour by Joyce, and it makes the case that she was his muse and that, without her, his masterpieces would not have been written.  Although she was an uneducated, unsophisticated woman who (under sufferance) read only bits and pieces of his work — and she never contemplated helping him with the writing even when his eyes were intolerably bad — she was intelligent and made good company when they were gadding about socially.

(I have a bio of James Joyce by Richard Ellman but I haven’t got round to reading it yet.

Nora begins with one of ‘quite a few’ explicit sex scenes, which suggests that the relationship with James Joyce began with and was sustained by physical attraction.  But since the narrative includes countless (somewhat wearying) grievances, it also suggests that there was an element of entrapment on her part.  Joyce refused to marry Nora until late in their lives together, for philosophical reasons (especially his hatred of religion in general and the church in Ireland in particular). When he did agree to marry, it was for pragmatic reasons to do with the legitimacy of his forthcoming grandchild (and his son’s concern about the inheritance.) So when Nora was utterly fed up with his drinking, his spendthrift ways, his ingratitude and his lack of concern for the family’s welfare, she could not contemplate leaving him and going back to her mother in Ireland with two illegitimate children in tow.  Apart from anything else she had no money, and taking in washing was her only source of work. She always recovered from these bouts of exasperation, and the novel makes a convincing case that though they had nothing much in common,  theirs was a solid bond.

Still, James Joyce does not come out of the novel well.  Not at all.

Nora appears to have coped reasonably well with moving around in Trieste, Zurich and Paris, but their children less so.  She had a fraught relationship with her daughter Lucia, who was only diagnosed with schizophrenia in adulthood, and the couple did not agree on her treatment.  Nora had a horror of asylums because of a childhood visit to a relation, but Joyce — with some justification since Lucia was violent — insisted.  (To read the real life story of Lucia at Wikipedia is to be reminded how primitive health care was, for people with mental illness in the 20th century.)

Joyce and Barnacle lived through both world wars, but apart from relocating from Trieste to (neutral) Zurich in WW2, these tumultuous events don’t feature much in the narrative.  Perhaps from an Irish point-of-view WW1 history is subsumed by the declaration of the Republic in 1918 and subsequent events, and Ireland was neutral in WW2.  But still, to be living anywhere in Europe in WW2 in particular is to be under the existential threat of fascism.  Still, at 400+ pages, Nora is long enough!

Kim reviewed it at Reading Matters too.

Author: Nuala O’Connor
Title: Nora, a Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce
Cover design by Milan Bozic (I don’t think it’s a photo of the real Nora Barnacle but am open to correction).
Publisher: New Island, 2022, first published in 2021
ISBN: 9781848408500, 431 pages including some Book Club questions
Source: won in a giveaway at 746 Books, thanks again Cathy!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2023

The Importance of Trove, and the National Archives

As Australian readers may know, there is an impending funding crisis for Trove:

The National Library is threatening to pull the plug on Trove, its free online service that provides public access to collections from Australian libraries, universities, museums, galleries and archives. (Read more about it at The Conversation.)

Regular readers know that I am not into what has been described as Anzackery. Nor am I interested in family history, tracing back generations of people about whom nothing is known apart from their BDM dates.  But on the one and only day I attended an Anzac service, I thought of the people in the family archives.  Many years ago my first mother-in-law told me about them as we travelled to Swan Hill to visit her sister. It is through Trove that I have been able to confirm and expand on her family story.

Her family came from Western Victoria, and when WW1 was declared, her uncles and grandfather did their bit.  Trove offers free public access to The Bendigonian newspaper of 4 July 1918 — which recorded, under the headline, ‘A Patriotic Family, Father and Five Sons Enlist’, that having been repatriated after service in the Sinai Desert and elsewhere, her grandfather James didn’t pass the medical when he tried to re-enlist in 1918.  But his son Robert, aged 19, was accepted, joining his brothers: Leonard, a trooper in the Imperial Camel Corps in Palestine; Jim, with the 8th Light Horse in Palestine, and John with the 6th Battalion in France. Their brother Albert, a private in the 14th Battalion, had died of wounds near Amiens on the Western Front in May.

Imagine the anxiety of my mother-in-law’s grandmother…

Albert, when he died, had just had his 21st birthday, and the armistice was only months away. He was (would have been) the great-great uncle of The Offspring on the paternal side.

What follows — found at Trove — is a letter from Albert Victor Green (1896-1918), sent from Gallipoli in 1915.  It was published in the ‘Birchip Advertiser and Watchem Sentinel’ of 26 January 1916, under the headline ‘Letter from the Front’ presumably because a proud member of his family shared it.  It was newsy, cheerful, patriotic and optimistic — possibly influenced by censorship either at the front or at the newspaper — but the tone and the intimate details are authentic.  It’s a poignant letter to read now.

I downloaded it from Trove 26 Jan 1916 – Letter from the Front. (nla.gov.au) and edited it offline for scanning errors but no spelling or grammar has been corrected.

Letter from the Front.

The following letter has been received by us from Trooper A V Green,

‘November, 19, 1915,

Dear Brother, —I am writing a lot of letters and getting no answers to them. Well, Len*, I have got to the – front at last.  I am in the trenches 48 hours, and 48 hours out. We don’t see many Turks, as they keep their heads pretty well down, and so do we. The bullets are not too bad, but I don’t like the shells. They both fly about in all directions. I saw Jack Bridges the other day, and my mate Rube McPhee is in the hospital. I had hard luck not to see the dad* — he went through the hospital when I was in it, and just missed going into the ward I was in. I have not seen him yet; he is also at Gallipoli. There are about 15 of us here with cousins and all. Jack Bridges and all the others are camped in Shrapnel Gully, and we are camped in Monash Gully. Bill Heavy is over here, and Les Bevan is in Alexandria. I like being here. We get good tucker, and it is not as bad as some make out. A man is unlucky if he gets hit. I expect to have Xmas dinner in the trenches.

There is dug-outs all over the hills. I hope Birchip is sending a few more men to help us. I expected a periscope from Jim*, he wrote and said he was sending one. Remember me to all.

-Yours, etc.,

ALBERT VICTOR GREEN.

  • ‘Len’ is his brother Leonard, because he is still at home in 1915.  AWM records show that he enlisted with other reinforcements in 1917 and embarked for Palestine in May.
  • ‘the dad’ who ‘went through the hospital’ at the same time is his father who enlisted aged 44 in February 1915.
  • ‘Jim’ is his brother who survived the war but died of the ‘Black Flu’ in 1926.

Why does access to Trove matter?  Most of the Australian LitBloggers who give freely of their time to add to Australia’s cultural capital and its literary history have our blogs archived at Pandora which can be found via Trove.  We can’t count on the hosting platform being there forever.  We ought to be able to count on Australian archives to ensure that our work isn’t lost. (If you think this is self-aggrandisement, well, one of my reviews about the work of a significant Australian author has already been discussed in an academic tome published a few years ago.) But the Pandora archive is just one example, like the example of the story of Albert Victor Green.  You can read more about how Trove matters to LitBloggers at Whispering Gums, in an article from the last time Trove was fighting a battle for funding, in 2016.

Trove matters because it’s one of our cultural institutions, of value not just for the idle curiosity of families interested in their past, but to researchers, historians, authors and students.  You only need to browse its Twitter feed or visit its Home Page to get an idea of the treasures it offers.

To do your bit to ensure that the decision-makers understand how much funding for Australia’s cultural policy matters, contact the Minister Tony Burke MP.


Image source: Australian War Memorial

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 8, 2023

Six Degrees of Separation: from Beach Reads, to ….

This month’s #6Degrees, hosted by Kate from Books are my Favourite and Best starts with Beach Reads by Emily Henry. I haven’t read it, but the segue was easy, because…

I have just finished reading Nora, a Love Story of Nora and James Joyce by Nuala O’Connor, which I won in a giveaway for Reading Ireland Month at Cathy’s 746 Books.  The novel mentions Sylvia Beach, the enterprising American bookseller in Paris who took the risk of publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) despite the censors.  I’ve just finished reading Nora, and my review is to come, but in the meantime you can read Kim’s at Reading Matters

Nora — of course — leads to Ulysses itself, my desert island book.  We all have our favourite books which evoke fond memories and bear repeated re-reading, and I documented my last reading of Ulysses month by month in my series Ulysses, Disordered Thoughts of an Amateur. I gave the series that title because although it’s famously difficult I think anybody can read Ulysses.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it all. I certainly didn’t, and I don’t expect to next time I read it either…

Brian Castro is another author who writes books that don’t offer immediate gratification. As Katharine England says in her introduction to Drift (1994), Castro’s homage to the British experimental writer, B.S. Johnson who took his own life in 1973

if you like things in black and white – fixed premises, unequivocal answers – this book, in which everything moves and shifts and comes round again in subtly altered focus is probably not for you. (Introduction, x)

As you can see from my review, Drift is brain food at its best!

From Castro’s Drift, I am reminded of Adrift in Melbourne, Seven Walks with Robyn Annear (2021).  Revisiting my review I discover that this wonderful book has twice-fallen victim to Covid.  The Offspring gave it to me for Christmas 2021, but its arrival was late because of Covid. When I reviewed it in March 2022, I wrote that all I needed to test out the walks was a nice autumn day and a new pair of walking shoes.  I did not anticipate that though there were no more lockdowns in 2022, taking a train into the city would still be hazardous because mandates for mask-wearing on public transport were relaxed. 2022 turned out to be the most fatal Covid year for Australia, with more than 14,000 deaths, and we currently have a mid-summer seven day average of 21 deaths per day. (Source: the Guardian 7/1/23) Having had Covid once, I do not want to have it again, so walks in the city are still on hold. Oh well…

However, my own memories sufficed for me to enjoy Old Vintage Melbourne, 1960-1990 by Chris Macheras.  As you can see from my review, this photographic history covers the era from my first days in Australia, a fortuitous destination for my family because we could so easily have ended up in Canada because my father was offered a job there too. I know from my friend Joe at Rough Ghosts that Canada is a very beautiful country with much to recommend it, but I also know from his marvellous photos at Twitter that it is very cold indeed in winter, and I am very glad to have left snow behind me forever.

1960Notable Australian books of 1960 were The Irishman by Elizabeth O’Connor which won the Miles Franklin, and A Descant for Gossips by Thea Astley. We don’t know if A Descant for Gossips was short- or long-listed for the MF because *sigh* no one thought to keep this information for posterity, but I suspect it wasn’t submitted because (as you can see from my review) it would surely have won rather than The Irishman (see my review) which hasn’t aged as well as Astley’s novel which remains just as relevant today. Imagine! Astley, who went on to win four Miles Franklin awards in 1962, 1965, 1972, and 2000 would have had a tally of five!

From a contemporary New York Times bestseller, to a novel which has stood the test of time, that’s my #6Degrees for this month!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 4, 2023

On Canaan’s Side (2011), by Sebastian Barry

On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry is apparently No 4 in Sebastian Barry’s Dunne Family series, but No 1, The Steward of Christendom (1995) which introduces the character Thomas Dunne, is a play, so I haven’t read it. However, (pre-blog) I read No 3, A Long Long Way (2005) but Annie Dunne (No 2, 2002) waits on the TBR so I am reading the series out of order and need to get on with it so that I am done with the Dunne family. (Sorry about the irresistible pun).

#Digression: With whom BTW I share an ancestor called Patrick Dunne but since there must be thousands of Patrick Dunnes in Ireland, I know nothing about him at all except that he was a musician. As nearly all Irishmen were, with their fiddles and beautiful singing voices.  But perhaps he played the harp, or flute, or a cello?  I fancy him at a grand piano playing Beethoven, but that’s only because I may have inherited that gene…

Anyway…

On Canaan’s Side was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize and won the 2012 Walter Scott Prize, but although I enjoyed reading it, I got the feeling that Barry also was done with the Dunne Family.  On Canaan’s Side is indeed a lovely book, but old ladies looking back on their lives can be a bit melancholy, and this novel certainly is.

Lilly Bere has plenty to be melancholy about.  She fled Ireland with Tage Bere to America to avoid retribution for his work as one of the Black and Tans, and her daddy was able to warn them about it because he was a member of the police force before the Republic took over, i.e. he was in the business of suppressing the rebellion too.  As Alice Zeniter wrote so perceptively in The Art of Losing (translated by Frank Wynne, see my review) there are always people on the losing side in any conflict and the risk to their lives is never over even after the dust settles.  I am fascinated by societies in transition, especially after civil wars of one sort or another, because the people are sorely tested by old loyalties and betrayals, whichever side they are on.  And not just by those with vengeance in mind, but also by their own hearts.

The novel begins with the death of Lilly’s grandchild Bill, who took his life after fighting in one of America’s interfering wars.  It is, she tells us, the event that breaks her eight-nine year old heart, and it seems she has nothing to live for, other than the labour of writing down her memories.  It’s not clear why she’s doing this, because there is no one left to read it.   If there are  members of the family still living in Ireland, her life’s trajectory means that she has lost touch with them all.  She lost Tage long ago, and she’s lost touch with a bigamous husband as well.  If she had any dreams of replacing what she lost with a grand new family in America, it never happened for her.

So this is an old woman’s lamentation on the losses of her long life.  Though she lives through tumultuous times, her own life is insignificant.  She has menial work, she has no pastimes that bring her joy, and her sole satisfaction seems to be serving others, as a lover, a parent or grandparent, or a friend.  Things happen to her, but she has no agency, no capacity to take control of her life and make something of it that will bring satisfaction and contentment.

Generations of ordinary women have had lives like this: dependent on men from cradle to grave and not just for the roof over their heads.  Not just captive to the expectations for women of her era, she has a life blighted by fear of settling scores from long ago.  But even Sebastian Barry’s skill as a wordsmith can’t elevate this melancholy chronicle to become an absorbing novel…

Tony Messenger thought it should have made the Booker shortlist. 

Author: Sebastian Barry
Title: On Canaan’s Side
Cover design by Faber (and yes, you can tell)
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2011
ISBN: 9780571273638, pbk, 256 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $29.99

 

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