Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 18, 2018

The Day They Shot Edward, by Wendy Scarfe #BookReview

The Day They Shot Edward is a perfect little novella, set in 1916 when the First Conscription Referendum was tearing Australia apart.  It is told from the perspective of a little boy called Matthew whose naïve observations portray family life at a difficult time in history.

A small cast of characters convey the conflict.  Matthew’s teacher at school bullies her class into contributing to the war effort.  Matthew, who has a horror of killing things – even the yabbies that he catches in the pond – runs away when, for once, he has a farthing given to him by his mother’s ‘friend’ Edward but is honour bound not to contribute:

Matthew had no money.  By turns he begged his mother, Gran and Edward for a penny but they all refused.  His mother said that there were no extra pennies in a house without a breadwinner.  Gran said that she was Irish and saw no reason why she should contribute to the ego of any woman loyal to the Empire.  Edward said that he would give him a penny but not to contribute to the war because it was a capitalist war in which poor people suffered for the rich.

When he asked Edward who the poor people were, Edward surprised him by saying: ‘Families like yours and mine.  We’re the poor.  We’re the little people.  We creep around on the ground or pull the chariots while the rich people ride’.  (p.20-21)

Matthew doesn’t understand that he is poor, because apart from the daily boredom of school, his life is rich with activity and he revels in the love of his grandmother and the affection of Edward.  And while the boy has an instinctive distrust of a man in a brown suit who is always hanging around and asking questions, he certainly doesn’t understand that Edward is under surveillance for his political activities.

The blight on Matthew’s young life is his father, confined to a sealed off part of the house because he has a highly contagious lung disease.  This portrayal of how TB was managed in poor families is shocking to the modern reader: Matthew’s mother Margaret is responsible for the care of a living corpse, keeping everything he touches separate in order to protect Matthew from the infection, but unaware of the little boy’s terror of the hacking cough and the blood-stained detritus of the illness.  The reader sees this poor man only through Matthew’s limited point-of-view, but becomes aware through the course of events that Margaret deals with the stress of this situation by flirting for a suitor in advance of her husband’s death.  She wants one that will restore her to the social position she had before her hasty and now disastrous marriage and has no concern for whether her choice would make a good father for Matthew.  Scarfe portrays this woman in all her complexity: Margaret is utterly self-absorbed and quite heartless, and yet she never loses the sympathy of the reader because of the burden she bears and the fact that she receives no welfare assistance from any source.  When the last remnants of her annuity is gone, the family will have nothing so an advantageous marriage is, in fact, her only solution.

Through snatches of conversation that Matthew overhears and only partly understands, the narrative tension rises as the authorities close in on Edward.  Inevitably Matthew overhears secrets and a betrayal occurs.  Even though this is foreshadowed by the title of the book, it still comes as a tragic conclusion, only partly alleviated by Matthew’s discovery of music as balm for the soul.

At only 124 pages, The Day They Shot Edward is a vivid picture of Australia just over a century ago but a world away from how things are now.

PS That striking cover design is by Liz Nicholson from designBite.

Author: Wendy Scarfe
Title: The Day They Shot Edward
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2018, (first published by Spectrum, (1991,1992), with a revised edition by Seaview Press, 2003)
ISBN: 9781743055199
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond The Day They Shot Edward or direct from Wakefield Press


I am indebted to a Sydney author called  Assaph Mehr at Goodreads, for some crucial information about the antecedents of All the World’s a Stage by Boris Akunin.   In his review of this book, and of the whole series so far, Assaph explains that

Each novel is written as a different type of mystery. Akunin set out to rectify the low-brow reputation of the mystery genre in post-USSR Russia by writing worthy literature and exploring the wide gamut of sub-genres. Each novel is therefore excellently written as a different type of detective case. While there is continuity in the protagonist’s life between the novels, each is very different in themes and tones.

So this explains why a crime novel is shortlisted for the new EBRD Literature Prize for Translation!

A Russian reviewer called Anna Stargazer also had this to say:

It’s too bad how foreign language translations did not work for this one. All non-Russian readers seem to say that they couldn’t differentiate between the characters. If one reads in Russian, it’s impossible not to: every character’s stage name means something obvious, and you just can’t help seeing every one of them with your mind’s eye. (Masa’s stage alias “Gazonov”, for one, is hilarious – but the hilariousness is entirely untranslatable even if there are footnotes and whatnot.)

Also, the book is written in a beautiful Russian language. (Akunin’s writing style is always–well–good, but this work seems to have received some special treatment. New editor, perhaps?)

Well, forewarned is forearmed, and so I Googled quite a few of the names in order to try and appreciate what Anna calls the novel’s hilariousness.  Google Translate told me that Gazanov means ‘lawn’ or ‘grass’ – and ‘grass’ in English can mean a police informer, which is what the sleuth’s offsider Masa is supposed to be when he infiltrates the cast, though whether this euphemism works the same way in Russian I do not know, and Anna Stargazer doesn’t say.   But this approach did make reading the book more laborious, not something every reader is going to want to bother with, and I gave up on it in due course.  (And got by just fine, as far as differentiating the characters was concerned).

Nevertheless, a little research did reveal some interesting aspects of Akunin’s style.  He obviously researches the era of his novels carefully, and readers who know their Russian history and literature will enjoy his allusions.  This paragraph is an example.  The sleuth, Erast Petrovich Fandorin, is in Moscow, and there has been a murder in a theatre, and he is intrigued, hoping to be asked to help solve the case:

Many aspects of this event appeared phantasmagorical. Firstly, the bloody drama had unfolded not just anywhere, but in a theatre, before the eyes of a large audience. Secondly, the show had been an extremely jolly one – an adaptation of Pushkin’s Tale of Tsar Saltan. Thirdly, the audience had included a real tsar, not of the fairytale kind, whom the killer had left untouched. Fourthly, the theatre had been so well guarded that no one could possibly have infiltrated it, not even Pushkin’s hero Gvidon when he transformed himself into a mosquito. Viewers had only been admitted on the basis of individual passes issued by the Department for the Defence of Public Security – the Okhrana. Fifthly, and most fantastically of all, the terrorist had actually been in possession of such a pass, and not a counterfeit, but the genuine article. Sixthly, the killer had not only managed to enter the theatre, but also to carry in a firearm …  (Kindle Locations 125-132).

Bilibin’s Flight of the Mosquito (illustration for Pushkin’s Tale of Tsar Saltan) (Wikipedia Commons)

I started off discovering that Pushkin’s Tale of Tsar Saltan involves three sisters, one of whom gets to be a tsarina and the other two get to be jealous. So they chuck the tsarina and her baby into the sea but they are rescued by an enchanted swan.  The baby Gvidon grows up and with the help of the enchanted swan [ah-ha!] changes into a mosquito, flies back to the palace and stings his aunt in the eye.

The other point to note is that this crime takes place in pre-revolutionary Russia because there is a Tsar present in the audience – and the narrator points out that it’s odd that the murderer wasn’t after him.  That’s odd because Russia was full of revolutionary fervour at the time and it was not all that long ago that there had been multiple assassination attempts on the life of Alexander II.  And that is why the theatre was subject to the security procedures put in place by the Okhrana – the much feared secret police force in Tsarist Russia.

Kiev Opera House where Stolypin was assassinated

Based on actual events in 1911, the murder victim is Pyotr Stolypin.  Wikipedia tells me that the pro-monarchy Stolypin was a statesman who tried to stave off revolutionary fervour through major reforms including agrarian reform.  The Tsar put a stop to the judicial enquiry into the assassination and a Leftist revolutionary called Bogrov was too promptly hanged, giving rise to rumours that those who were against Stolypin’s reforms were behind the assassination.

Readers who know all this (or like me, discover it thanks to Google) will not be surprised when Fandorin doesn’t get to investigate Stolypin’s murder, but becomes involved in a classic melodrama-mystery instead.  But like a soppy adolescent he falls for a lovely actress called Elisa Altairskaja-Lointaine – considerably younger than Fandorin, but this is no problem (he thinks) because he believes in a theory of three ages of man:

She was upset.
‘As old as that. I didn’t think you were more than forty-five!’
This was a painful subject for Erast Petrovich, but he had prepared well for it. ‘A man has three ages, and their link to the number of years he has lived is only relative. The first is the age of the mind. There are old men with the intellectual development of a ten-year-old child, but some youths have a mature intellect. The older a man’s mind is, the better. The second age is spiritual. The supreme achievement on this path of life is to reach wisdom. It can only descend on a man in old age, when the vain commotion has receded and the passions are exhausted. As I see now, I still have a long way to go to get there. In the spiritual sense, I am younger than I would like to be. And finally, there is physical age. Everything here depends on the correct use of the body. The human organism is an apparatus that is amenable to endless improvement. The wear and tear is more than made up for by acquired skills. I assure you that now I have much better control of my body than I did in my youth.’  (Kindle Locations 5629-5638).

LOL whether you find this convincing may well depend on your age and your gender…

This Fandorin, who has established himself in the previous novels of the series as a sleuth every bit as good as Sherlock Holmes and with a moustache at least as impressive as Poirot’s, is distracted both by love and by a string of red herrings – which will either confuse readers too, or lead to them performing a readerly equivalent of an audience at a melodrama, yelling at the bemused principal to alert him to the presence of the villain hiding in clear view.

Does All the World’s a Stage rescue this genre from its ‘lowbrow reputation’?  There are lots of allusions to classic literature, from Pushkin to Chekhov and Tolstoy, but I think that perhaps it’s the commentary about society and politics that give the novel a sharper edge.  Fandorin occasionally expresses opinions that may apply just as much in modern Russia as they did in Tsarist Russia:

… ‘The “classic member of the intelligentsia” is a b-being who is harmful, even ruinous, for Russia! The estate of the intelligentsia might seem likeable enough, but it possesses a fatal flaw, which was noted so accurately and mocked by Chekhov. A member of that estate is capable of bearing hardships with dignity, he is capable of maintaining his nobility in defeat. But he is absolutely incapable of winning in a battle with a boor or a blackguard, who are so numerous and so powerful here. (Kindle Locations 2027-2030).

‘Mark my words, if Russia is destroyed by anything, it will be exclusively by loutishness! A lout sits on another lout and drives a lout along! Nothing but louts from top to bottom.’ (Kindle Locations 2752-2753).

‘…In this country the success of any large-scale initiative requires support from above and from below. From the clouds up above …’ – Andrei Gordeevich pointed to the towers of the Kremlin, visible through the window at the end of the room – ‘… and from underground …’ – he jabbed his finger down towards the floor. ‘The powers that be permit you to do business. And nothing more than that. But if you want that business to make progress, you have to turn to the unofficial power. In our state, which is so clumsy and inconvenient for business, the unofficial power helps to lubricate the rusty gearwheels and trim the rough edges.’ (Kindle Locations 3538-3543).

As Erast Petrovich listened, he wondered why, here in Russia, in all ages, the most important requirement for the success of any venture was ‘good relations’. It must be because the Russians regarded laws as irritating, arbitrary obstructions invented by a certain hostile power in its own interests. And that hostile power was called ‘the state’. There was never anything rational or benevolent in the actions of the state. It was an immense, sprawling, vicious monster. The only salvation was that it was also half-blind and rather stupid, and every one of its greedy gullets could be fed. Without that, it would be absolutely impossible to live in Russia. Establish good relations with the gaping, toothy maw closest to you and do whatever you like. Only don’t forget to fling chunks of meat into it on time. That was the way things had been under the Rurikoviches, that was how things were under the Romanovs, and that was how things would remain until relations between the general population and the state changed fundamentally. (Kindle Locations 3561-3568).

Well, I found the plot mildly diverting (but I did get bored in places), and the political commentary was mildly interesting (but not especially new to me).  At the end of the day it’s a detective story with a string of murders, and that’s just not my favourite kind of book to read.

So, on to my next book for the EBDR Translation Prize shortlist –  as soon as it arrives from overseas!

PS With just one flaw (‘dual’ instead of ‘duel’, which the editor should have fixed) I thought the translation was fluent and highly readable.

BTW I’ve discovered via Goodreads that the Kindle edition lacks illustrations which enhance the book, which is a pity because the cover illustration is gorgeous.

Author: Boris Akunin
Title: All the World’s a Stage (Erast Fandorin Mysteries) (Весь мир театр)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2017, first published 2009
Purchased for the Kindle from You Know Who.

Susan from ‘A Life in Books’ recommended The Tobacconist to me after I read Robert Seethaler’s debut novel A Whole Life.  (See my review).  I reserved it at my library and it came in promptly – too promptly, in a way, (though I shouldn’t complain), because I didn’t really want to read another melancholy book about the impact of WW2 on ordinary people in Austria quite so soon.  That might have coloured my perception of the book a little…

Still, it’s a very fine book.  Once again it features a country lad, born and raised far away from events that were shaking up Europe but affected by them all the same.  But everything soon changes when his mother sends 17-year-old Franz to Vienna.  The source of her funds disappears along with her lover into the local lake, and so Franz goes to work with a tobacconist called Otto Trsnyek, a one-legged veteran of the First World War.

At first Franz’s priorities centre around girls, and love, and when he makes the acquaintance of Sigmund Freud, that is who he talks to about love because for Otto, love was over a long time ago and he has no advice to give.  The mood of these early pages of the novel is like many a bildungsroman as Franz discovers the charms of a good-time-girl called Anezka, but before long it darkens – because the novel is set not long before the Anschluss of 13 March 1938, in which Nazi Germany annexed Austria.

Soon there are indications that ‘life ain’t no fairytale’ and as Franz begins to revel in being thought a friend of the famous Freud, he becomes more aware of dangers which had seemed no more than talk.  He has become fond of Otto (who has Jewish customers) and is outraged when the butcher next door daubs anti-Semitic slogans in pig’s blood on Otto’s shop window.

The novel is narrated by a third-person narrator from Franz’s perspective, but there is also correspondence between Franz and his mother in the faraway village of Nussdorf am Attersee in the Salzkammergut region.  This correspondence starts as an exchange of postcards, each one prefaced by a brief description of the picturesque sights.  Franz sends a postcard headed Postcard of Schönbrunn Palace gardens, lamplit and sugar-frosted with snow, and his mother sends in reply a Postcard of the Attersee, green and shimmering like a jewel, clearly taken from a an aeroplane or Zeppelin. But as things become more difficult these picture-postcard images of a lovely city have become a lie, and so Franz initiates an exchange of letters instead, although he tells his mother it’s because the things I want to write won’t all fit on a single postcard and he makes only veiled references to politics:

These are strange times right now. Or perhaps the times were always strange and I just didn’t notice. (p.149)

We realise from allusions in Mama’s reply, that the evil has reached even their remote village too:

Thank you so much for your letter.  You wrote so beautifully, and I was really pleased. The weather is warm here.  The Schafberg has a friendly look and the lake is silvery or blue or green, according to its mood.  They’ve planted big swastika flags on the bank.  They reflect in the water and look very correct.  In fact everyone is very correct all of a sudden, running around with important faces.  Just imagine, Hitler hangs on the wall even in the restaurant and the school now.  Right next to Jesus.  Although we have no idea what they think of each other.  Preininger’s lovely car has been confiscated, unfortunately.  That’s what they call it these days when things disappear and reappear somewhere else.  The car didn’t go very far, though.  The mayor drives around in it now.  Since the mayor became a Nazi, he’s finding a lot of things easier to do.  Everyone wants to be a Nazi all of a sudden.  (p.155)

What Franz in his naïveté doesn’t realise, is revealed through the thoughts of the postman.  There is an army of censors in the basement of the Vienna Post Office, scrutinising every bit of correspondence.  We see his coming-of-age when he goes searching for Otto after he has been arrested.  He refuses to take no for an answer and gets beaten up.

Freud, of course, is at risk too.

The Tobacconist is a sobering tale.  In A Whole Life Andreas Eggar has a hard life indeed, but he lives to see his old age.  The Tobacconist offers no such consolations.

See also Susan’s review at ‘A Life in Books’. 

The translation is excellent!

Author: Robert Seethaler
Title: The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant)
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Publisher: Picador, 2016
ISBN: 9781509806614
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 15, 2018

Library Lovers Day at Brighton Library

Yesterday was Library Lovers’ Day, an initiative of the Australian Library and Information Association.  And appropriately, I went to an event at Brighton Library featuring an author who has written an homage to libraries…

(First, a word about the building. The Brighton Municipal Offices building is a stunning piece of architecture, opened in 1961 and designed by Grant Featherston (1922-1995), a leading Australian industrial designer who is, IMHO, remarkable for having designed an attractive building amid the otherwise deplorable monstrosities of the 1950’s and 60s.  The library inside it was refurbished with a grant of $315,000 via the State Government’s Living Libraries Infrastructure Program. I mention this because government investment of that kind of money in libraries is a rarity.  Around the world, libraries are closing.  I hear about it happening in the US and the UK all the time.  But here at Brighton, the library has been upgraded for contemporary usage, so we met and mingled over champagne and nibbles and then moved to a beaut new wide open space specifically designed for library events.)

So. Things got under way with everyone in a fine mood.  I have to mention that I was among the youngest members of the large audience, but that may have been because it was Valentine’s Day, a commercial event never celebrated chez moi. There was a welcome from the head honcho of the library whose name I unfortunately missed, and then Sian Prior (author of Shy, a Memoir which is waiting patiently on my TBR) began chatting with Stuart Kells about his latest book, The Library, a Catalogue of Wonders. 

I haven’t read it yet, so here is the blurb:

Libraries are filled with magic. From the Bodleian, the Folger and the Smithsonian to the fabled libraries of middle earth, Umberto Eco’s mediaeval library labyrinth and libraries dreamed up by John Donne, Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Stuart Kells explores the bookish places, real and fictitious, that continue to capture our imaginations.

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders is a fascinating and engaging exploration of libraries as places of beauty and wonder. It’s a celebration of books as objects and an account of the deeply personal nature of these hallowed spaces by one of Australia’s leading bibliophiles.

I had been half expecting some sort of slide show, featuring gorgeous libraries of the world, but it’s not that kind of book.  It’s more about the human drama of libraries, with gossip alongside anecdotes about the history of libraries.  And the conversation strayed over all sorts of interesting things…

Stuart talked, for instance, about ‘oral libraries’, and the need to protect them.  What he meant by that was that throughout human history oral storytellers have enabled the transmission of ideas, history, myth, legend and religious belief.  Here in Australia, indigenous story telling from an oral culture is threatened and needs to be protected just like other libraries do.  Mention was also made of the current ABC dismantling of its sound and reference libraries and what a loss that is going to be, especially since they’re not going to digitise all of it.  That loss of a library is not a threat, it’s already happening.

But while we booklovers might deplore these threats to books, these issues are contested.  Kells’ agenda is to highlight these matters, so that people become aware of them before it’s too late.  The digital age means that many libraries are going digital, and some schools have no school library as such.  I’ve seen it myself at the selective-entry Nossal High School, and it was the saddest thing: a beautiful architect-designed space, with no books in it – and no people either. Some people think that the era of the book is over…

At the conclusion of the talk amid the thankyous, it was suggested that if Stuart led a guided tour of world libraries, that most of us in the audience would sign up for it.  I turned to the young lady next to me and said that I would, and she said that it had never occurred to her to include libraries in her sightseeing.  She’d been to Dublin, and never seen Trinity College Library and The Book of Kells!  I didn’t dare ask if she’d been to our very own State Library of Victoria with its stunning dome and glorious reading room…

It would be remiss of me on Library Lovers’ Day not to mention my local library.  Browse through my posts and you will find countless references to Kingston Library as a source for the books I read.  It’s a wonderful library, providing a wide range of books, videos and music to suit every taste – including mine (which is not always the case in other nearby libraries).  The staff are friendly and helpful, they run beaut book events, they display all kinds of tempting books that interfere with any reading plans I might have, and they organise inter-library loans for me when they don’t have a book I want and can’t afford to buy.  They have a lively website where I can search the catalogue, renew or reserve books and even put in a request for books I’d like them to buy.  I still find it amazing that I can do all this online!

Sian Prior said that there are two things that libraries offer, and we should cherish them: a sense of community, and serendipity.  Serendipity – that sense of delight when you stumble on something that turns out to be a book you love –  doesn’t just happen by accident.  It happens in a library where you have a skilled acquisitions librarian, and a team who know how to display books so they will be found.  And the sense of community doesn’t happen by accident either:  I have membership at other libraries too, and I use them, but my local one is where I belong.  They know me, and I know them, and my library is an essential part of my life.

Are you a #LibraryLover?  Do tell me about your library and why it matters to you!

PS Thanks to Lynda Hayton, the Customer Service Librarian at Bayside for organising this event and keeping me up to speed with other forthcoming events like the Bayside Lit Festival – more about that in due course!

There is always more to Orhan Pamuk than the words on the page, and The Red-Haired Woman is no exception.  Nominated for the EBRD Prize for Translation,  at 250-odd pages it is shorter than his recent novels but equally thought-provoking.  Turkish politics isn’t often on my radar, but even I have noted with some dismay that recent elections have seen Turkey abandon some key aspects of democracy in favour of more authoritarian conservative rule.  The Red-Haired Woman uses a provocative study of father-son relationships to show how sons (symbolising democracy in Turkey) can only learn to be themselves, when they resist the power of their fathers (symbolising autocratic government).

Ancient story-telling underpins the novel.  There is the Persian epic, the Shahnameh which features Rostam and Sohrab, the father killing the child, and then there is (thanks to Freud) the more famous  Oedipus of Sophocles, the son killing the father.  The central character, Cem, who narrates most of the novel, becomes obsessed by these stories because of events in his own life, and in adulthood he trawls the great art museums of the world looking for works of art which depict these immortal stories.

Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation, what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life. (p.156)

Ivan the Terrible and His Son 1581 (Ilya Repin, 1885) (Wikipedia)

Cem is disappointed to find that depictions of Oedipus don’t focus on the moment when he kills his father but instead on when he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, as in Oedipus and the Sphinx painted by Ingres and also by Gustave Moreau.  But in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, he is utterly absorbed by a 19th century painting by the Russian artist Ilya Repin, depicting the moment when Ivan the Terrible kills his son in ways familiar to him from ancient Persian representations of Rostam and Sohrab.

The way the father – and king – having killed his son in a moment of blind fury, now clasped the bloodied body, horror and remorse etched on his face; the way the son – and prince – lay supine in his father’s arms: these were all familiar features.  This murderous father was the merciless czar Ivan IV, founder of the Russian state, subject of Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible, and a favourite of Stalin’s.  The brutality and remorse emanating from the painting, its stark simplicity, and its single-mindedness were uncannily reminiscent of the ruthless authority of the state.

I felt that same intimately familiar and intimidating fear of authority as I looked up at Moscow’s dark starless sky that evening.  Ivan the Terrible seemed both regretful of what he’d done and also full of boundless love and tenderness toward his son.  (p.156)

I think that this otherwise irrelevant reference to Stalin is a clear warning about the dangers of Turkey’s internal politics, following on from just a few pages before this, when Pamuk refers to the ways in which Prince Oedipus and Sohrab both collude in treason.

Their search for lost fathers had cast both Oedipus and Sohrab far from the cities and lands to which they belonged, into places where, vulnerable to exploitation by their countries’ foes, they ended up traitors.  In both stories, loyalty to family, to king, to father, and to dynasty is placed above loyalty to nation, and the protagonists’ treasonous predicaments are never emphasised.   Still, in seeking out their  respective fathers, Prince Oedipus and Sohrab both ultimately collaborate with the enemies of their own people.  (p.153)

In the veiled voice of his character Cem, Pamuk seems to be suggesting that by relinquishing power to an authoritarian paternalistic government – because it fears the disintegration of the Middle East around them – the Turkish electorate is colluding in actions that will ultimately damage the nation:

It seems we would all like a strong-decisive father telling us what to do and what not to do.  Is it because it is so difficult to distinguish what we should and shouldn’t do, what is moral and right from what is sinful and wrong?  Or is it because we constantly need to be reassured that we are innocent and have not sinned?  Is the need for a father always there, or do we feel it only when we are confused, or anguished, when our world is falling apart? (p.147)

Of course The Red-Haired Woman can also be read – without any of these allegorical meanings – as an intriguing mystery about fathers and sons (including a very surprising twist at the end!)  Cem develops a relationship with a well-digger as a substitute for an absent Left-wing father who was captured and tortured by the authorities but also subsequently chose to abandon his family.  When Cem’s marriage turns out to be childless, he works obsessively in a business that he recognises as a substitute for the child he can never have.  He even names it Sohrab. (This business is a construction company, BTW, which gives Pamuk the opportunity to explore other issues he’s written about before: urban overdevelopment, consumerism, the destruction of old communities and the ever-present problem of modernity in the Middle East.)  The red-haired woman of the title is a mysterious presence in his life after he has a brief liaison with her as a teenager, and a crime also haunts the novel  almost right to the end.  But readers who tackle the novel just at plot and character level will find, I think, occasional jarring sequences that seem out of place unless seen as part of the allegory that brings the structure of the novel together.

Stu from Winston’s Dad has also reviewed this novel. 

Author: Orhan Pamuk
Title: The Red-Haired Woman (Kırmızı Saçlı Kadın)
Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House Australia), 2017
ISBN: 9781926428826
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookshop, $32.99

Available from Fishpond: The Red-Haired Woman

I read this goldfields memoir for the week (15-21 January) dedicated to the first generation of Australian women writers hosted by Bill at The Australian Legendbut I’m not convinced that we can include Ellen Clacy amongst the honour roll of Australian writers, because she was English, and only here in Australia for a very few months. Wikipedia has this (and not much else) to say:

Little biographical information is available about Ellen Louise Clacy (née Von Sturmer).
The information that is available indicates that her life was less “proper” than it appeared in her most well-known work.
Born in 1830 in Richmond, Surrey, England, one of 5 children of clergyman Frederick Sturmer and Mary Norris.
In 1852 she travelled to Australia with her eldest brother to seek their fortunes on the goldfields of Victoria.
Clacy returned to England by ship without her brother a couple of months after arriving in Melbourne, and gave birth to her daughter Ellen Louise Clacy on board ship during the return journey.
After her return from Australia, Clacy began writing under the pseudonym “Cycla”.
In 1854, she married Charles Berry Clacy, a merchant’s clerk and mining engineer.
There seems to be some indication that she was abandoned by her husband, and she was said to support herself by writing articles for newspapers.
Ellen Clacy died in London in 1901.

Whatever about Clacy’s respectability, according to a source at Goodreads, her journal is a key resource for historical novelists, and it’s certainly interesting to read a woman’s perspective on the Gold Rush.  She has a wry style, as you can see from her thoughts about the row boat from shore to ship:

Everything was ready—boxes packed, tinned, and corded; farewells taken, and ourselves whirling down by rail to Gravesend—too much excited—too full of the future to experience that sickening of the heart, that desolation of the feelings, which usually accompanies an expatriation, however voluntary, from the dearly loved shores of one’s native land. Although in the cloudy month of April, the sun shone brightly on the masts of our bonny bark, which lay in full sight of the windows of the “Old Falcon,” where we had taken up our temporary quarters. The sea was very rough, but as we were anxious to get on board without farther delay, we entrusted our valuable lives in a four-oared boat, despite the dismal prognostications of our worthy host. A pleasant row that was, at one moment covered over with salt-water—the next riding on the top of a wave, ten times the size of our frail conveyance—then came a sudden concussion—in veering our rudder smashed into a smaller boat, which immediately filled and sank, and our rowers disheartened at this mishap would go no farther. The return was still rougher—my face smarted dreadfully from the cutting splashes of the salt-water; they contrived, however, to land us safely at the “Old Falcon,” though in a most pitiable plight; charging only a sovereign for this delightful trip—very moderate, considering the number of salt-water baths they had given us gratis. In the evening a second trial proved more successful, and we reached our vessel safely. (Kindle Locations 43-39)

I was intrigued that she had so little to say about ‘crossing the line’.   I was a rather prim and proper little girl when my family crossed the Equator on board the Stirling Castle, and I remember the raucous hijinks vividly.  There was a Captain Neptune and his crew, shaving foam was sprayed about, and while the ladies only got tipsy, the men got rather drunk (something I had never seen before).  To be given a certificate like mine (at right) passengers had to submit to being chucked into the swimming pool, but children were (mercifully) exempt.  What makes me suspicious is that Wikipedia tells us – and you can see from the drawing by Jules de Caudin below – it’s an ancient ceremony that would almost certainly have taken place aboard Clacy’s ship, which strangely, she fails to name.  Were there some hijinks that Miss Clacy cares not to share, I wonder?  Is her evasiveness about which ship it was something to do with the illegitimate daughter born on her return journey? 

Line-crossing ceremony aboard Méduse on the first of July 1816, by Jules de Caudin

Poor Ellen, she was not very impressed by Melbourne.  Our pier wasn’t up to expectations, Despite having been warned that accommodation is at a premium because of the Gold Rush, she’s not at all grateful to have a roof over her head… there were too many dogs, and revolvers were cracking in all directions until daybreak. OTOH she writes with some understanding about the reasons for the exorbitant costs of transporting goods by dray… not just carters taking advantage of the rush to the diggings but also because of the dreadful roads, the inevitable damage to the dray and sometimes, the fate of horses that were stuck in a swamp.  She’s also well aware of the danger of bushrangers, but fairly sanguine because her fellow travellers had provided themselves with weapons, (though she did think that firearms might attract rather than repel attention).  And no Melburnian can fail to be intrigued by her descriptions of places such as Flemington that are suburbs now but were outposts of civilisation then.

Flemington is a neat little village or town-ship, consisting of about forty houses, a blacksmith’s shop, several stores, and a good inn, built of brick and stone, with very fair accommodation for travellers, and a large stable and stock-yards.  (Kindle Locations 323-324).

(On my Kindle edition, I can see that this excerpt has been highlighted by other readers too).

The journey, mostly in pelting rain, offered little in the way of consolations until they reach Mt Macedon:

Mount Macedon became more distinct, and our proximity to a part of the country which we knew to be auriferous, exercised an unaccountable yet pleasureable influence over our spirits, which was perhaps increased by the loveliness of the spot where we now pitched our tents for the evening. It was at the foot of the Gap. The stately gum-tree, the shea-oak, with its gracefully drooping foliage, the perfumed yellow blossom of the mimosa, the richly-wooded mountain in the background, united to form a picture too magnificent to describe. The ground was carpeted with wild flowers; the sarsaparilla blossoms creeping everywhere; before us slowly rippled a clear streamlet, reflecting a thousand times the deepening tints which the last rays of the setting sun flung over the surrounding scenery; the air rang with the cawing of the numerous cockatoos and parrots of all hues and colours who made the woods resound with their tones, whilst their restless movements and gay plumage gave life and piquancy to the scene. This night our beds were composed of the mimosa, which has a perfume like the hawthorn. The softest-looking branches were selected, cut down, and flung upon the ground beneath the tents, and formed a bed which, to my wearied limbs, appeared the softest and most luxuriant upon which I had slept since my arrival in the colonies. (Kindle Locations 418-427).

Meeting other travellers with tales of robbery and murder makes them more cautious.  Their leader abandons the journey to return to Melbourne, but not Ellen.  She was certainly not averse to risky adventures!  They continue to camp out rather than succumb to the enormous prices at the inns they pass: she lists their charges in detail.

(Which made me realise.. despite the difficulties and discomforts, Ellen must have been taking notes or keeping a journal throughout the trip).

They are encouraged by successful diggers returning to Melbourne for a spree (though Ellen feels obliged to make disapproving remarks about them wasting their money).  Two of their party illegally buy mining licences from the men, and Ellen (writing before the Eureka Stockade in 1854) goes into considerable detail about how the tax operates and the fines for not having a licence.  She also retells an anecdote about a digger successfully evading capture, (and later on, when they are at Forest Creek reports on major unrest about a rise in licence fees).

After a journey of eleven days, they finally arrive at Bendigo (now an easy two hour drive from our place, less than that from the northern suburbs of Melbourne:

…the diggings themselves burst upon our view. Never shall I forget that scene, it well repaid a journey even of sixteen thousand miles. The trees had been all cut down; it looked like a sandy plain, or one vast unbroken succession of countless gravel pits—the earth was everywhere turned up—men’s heads in every direction were popping up and down from their holes.  (Kindle Locations 599-602).

I can understand why this book is so valued by writers of historical fiction.  Clacy writes vividly about the diggings and its dangers, the lawlessness and mob justice, as well as the profiteering and the money to be made from the stores that supply food, equipment, clothing and of course liquor.  Providing lodging is profitable too.

A new style of lodging and boarding house is in great vogue. It is a tent fitted up with stringy bark couches, ranged down each side the tent, leaving a narrow passage up the middle. The lodgers are supplied with mutton, damper, and tea, three times a day, for the charge of 5s. a meal, and 5s. for the bed; this is by the week, a casual guest must pay double, and as 18 inches is on an average considered ample width to sleep in, a tent 24 feet long will bring in a good return to the owner. (Kindle Locations 664-668).

(She also details the agreement forged by their party to make sure that costs and profits are shared).

After all their efforts, their party is initially not very successful at Eagle Hawk.  Prematurely, as it turns out, one returns to employment in Melbourne, the other is robbed on the road of what little he had and had to borrow his passage home to England.  But a stroll in the bush on the Sabbath ends in disaster and they are lucky not to be utterly lost.

More than once Clacy makes anti-Semitic remarks, but she is alert to the social problems that arise on the diggings.  En route from Iron Bark they come across an orphaned child aged about ten making a meagre living for her sick grandfather by making diggers’ veils and candles.  When he dies, they take Jessie into their care.  When they fall prey to bushrangers on their return journey to Melbourne, it’s young Jessie who proves her worth and enables their rescue!

Clacy also writes brief chapters about Ballarat and Geelong (which meets with her approval more than Melbourne does, though apart from its lawlessness she has more to approve of by the time she returns to Melbourne in October). She writes about Bathurst via Sydney which is now one of the finest cities that our colonial empire ever produced and also Adelaide, (which meets her approval since it wasn’t settled by convicts) but she doesn’t give her sources for what she knows, writing only that it would be useless to enter into fuller particulars of the diggings of New South Wales. Panoramas, newspapers, and serials have made them familiar to all. (Kindle Locations 1630-1632).

She provides a summary of the climate, and descriptions of flora and fauna, briefly mentions the controversy over transportation and the efforts of Caroline Chisholm to support unaccompanied females, and concludes her book with a lengthy analysis of the pros and cons of emigration.

However, she also tells a sobering tale about the ruin of a young lady called Mary, victim of a shipboard romance en route to meet up with her brother and a villain’s unfulfilled promises to marry her when she is pregnant after one evening together alone. 

To describe her agony would be impossible. Day after day, week after week, and no tidings from him came; conscience too acutely accounting to her for his faithlessness. Then the horrible truth forced itself upon her, that its consequences would soon too plainly declare her sin before the world; that upon her innocent offspring would fall a portion of its mother’s shame. (Kindle Locations 1550-1552).

Knowing, as we now do, Clacy’s own personal history, it’s hard not to draw conclusions from this anecdote.  Although ‘Mary’s’ child dies, and she casts herself into some raging river, and Mary’s brother dies in his pursuit of justice for his sister, the irrelevance of the story is striking, and – given the mores of the time – its subject matter may well have limited the publication and marketing of her book for ‘respectable’ households. Clacy must have known that including a salacious tale was risky, so she must have had a reason for inserting it.  When later on she concludes by informing her readers that she is to be married herself to a man named only as Caro Sposo (dear husband) without any mention of how she met him or the wedding or anything else about him, well… poor Ellen, it would have been very difficult for a clergyman’s daughter to return to England with an infant but no husband, so who would blame her for inventing one?

Author: Ellen Clacy
Title: A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53
Publisher: Project Gutenberg 2009, first published 1853, publisher unknown.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2018

The Beat of the Pendulum, by Catherine Chidgey #BookReview

As promised, this is a follow-up review to my first thoughts about Catherine Chidgey’s The Beat of the Pendulum. which is longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.  This ‘found novel’ is a remarkable experiment in fiction, drawing on – or purporting to be – the language that was all around the author.  In twelve chapters named for the months of the year, a life is laid bare through language that is both impersonal (TV, radio, social media, email, SatNav) and intensely personal – her conversations with friends and family, apparently recorded on her iPhone.

The first chapters of the book are engaging because of the challenge of interpreting a cacophony of words.  There are no markers to guide the reader as to context and many of the slabs of text comprise, as life does, multiple voices.  On the very first page, Catherine, who we are led to believe is the author herself, is talking to her mother and to her baby at the same time, and her mother is talking to Catherine and to the baby.  But it gets more complicated when there are not only more people talking at the same time but also references to media, which sometimes bleeds into the conversations and is responded to, but is sometimes just background noise.  I was fascinated by these early chapters, and also very impressed by the skill with which they had been constructed.

But as the book progressed and I became familiar with the ‘characters’ I also became intrigued by other issues, the most obvious of which is privacy.  Every author draws on life experience to construct fiction, but The Beat of the Pendulum explicitly uses the people in Chidgey’s life as material for the book, presumably with their permission (but maybe not always).  One of the aspects I wondered about was how this impacted on the conversations she had.  Surely there were times when she was asked (or told) to stop recording, or chose herself to stop it, but just as we all modify our communications in the presence of outsiders of one sort or another (e.g. neighbours in the garden next door) surely those who were conscious of that iPhone felt constrained at times?  What does it do to a marital relationship?

*chuckle* It’s not hard to imagine Chidgey’s friends, family, students, colleagues, acquaintances and hapless individuals who encountered her during this year, scrambling through the book to find themselves within its pages.  But the detached reader such as myself realises early on that these 494 pages are not only – of necessity – only part of a life, snippets extracted from a morass of language over 365 days 366 days, (it was a Leap Year) – but they are also filtered.  There is some discretion impacting on the author’s choices.  For example, there is mention of an exasperated Catherine accidentally leaving her impatient criticisms on a doctor’s voicemail, and there are scraps of the frustration every mother feels about an intransigent baby – but there is no blazing row with the husband.  The ‘Catherine’ of this book – which is explicitly named as a novel – is a Facebook Catherine, happily ‘oversharing’ the way that people do on social media, but retaining some aspects of life as private.

On February 14th we see that Catherine and Alan receive Valentine’s Day cards from their multiple cats, and we see how later that month on Feb 29th, (i.e. it’s a Leap year) a forgotten anniversary is festering, but we are never privy to the intimate words of love or passion between a husband and wife.

So you know how you forgot our wedding anniversary, when I made you a thoughtful bespoke special card, and –
I’m not liking where this is going.
– and so you were going to pick a bunch of hydrangeas for me, but you forgot to do that too?
Well, you told me that I was going to.  And I forgot.
I thought you could do that today.  To make up for it.  Because today’s an extra day.  A bonus day.  (p.66)

The novel is self-conscious about the writing life.  Reviewers are almost warned off by angst-ridden conversations about the terror that reviews can arouse.  There is nonsense about how all the ‘good reviews’ might be ‘used up’ by the time her book is under scrutiny.  There is delight about The Wish Child being longlisted for the 2017 Ockhams – and a droll sequence about not wanting to brag on her Facebook account so getting her husband to announce it on his.   Discussing another writer’s book, Catherine (or maybe her writing buddy or a colleague at the university, or maybe one of the members of a book group) talks about the author ‘using’ her relationship for a story and possibly upsetting her parents, and then there’s this:

I kept thinking that too, but that’s the nature of memoir, isn’t it.
You’ve got to hurt somebody.  (p.61)

Is that why The Beat of the Pendulum is a novel and not memoir?  I checked the publisher’s website to see if there were book group questions for this book, but no. Yet surely this is a book just teeming with questions for discussion…

The issue of oversharing is, I suspect, a generational thing.  My mother’s generation were coy about naming any ‘abdominal surgery’ they might have, and once, only once, did my mother ever say anything about her multiple miscarriages.  My generation is less coy in face-to-face conversations with friends but still tend to be reserved with work colleagues, male friends and certainly with Facebook.  But our generational successors have produced a flood of ABC articles and a growing catalogue of tell-all memoirs about the most intimate health and body issues. Well, there were aspects of The Beat of the Pendulum that others might find courageous, but I found distasteful.  Get over yourself, Lisa, I kept telling myself, it’s just your English genes reasserting a sense of reserve, but no, I am just not interested in other people’s bodily functions and that’s that.

What I was very interested in, because it’s so close to the bone for me, was the progression of Nana’s Alzheimer’s Disease.  My MIL has Alzheimer’s and I am seeing at close quarters how different it is to dementia.  Even when my father had ‘advanced’ dementia, we could have sensible conversations, he could still beat me at Scrabble and follow the short stories we read together and he could predict whodunit when we watched Death in Paradise and Father Brown. But what we see in The Beat of the Pendulum over the course of the year is the deterioration into intensely frustrating behaviours, not just the painful business of forgetting words, people and events, but also causing conflict, guilt and sorrow when Nana agrees to a change of room, replays the conversation about it endlessly and then, when settled in, rejects it and says (angrily and interminably) that she never agreed to it.  This reminded me of an old gent in the room next to my father who was always telling me about how his son had stolen all his money, brandishing his bankbook to show me the missing thousands, which of course his son had had to use to pay for the deposit on his father’s room.  That must have been so painful for the son, to have to deal with this accusation every time he visited.  Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease indeed.

The Beat of the Pendulum is still not in stock at Readings, but it’s now selling for under $30 at Fishpond and Booktopia has it too.  If I were running any kind of creative writing class it would be the book I’d make compulsory reading for my students because it’s not just innovative, it raises so many issues about what can or should be done with fiction.  It should be a contender for the Goldsmith’s Prize, assuming it’s eligible…

Meanwhile we wait to see if it’s shortlisted for the 2018 Ockhams!

PS Many thanks to Alys on the Blog for the review which made me really want to read this book!

Author: Catherine Chidgey
Title: The Beat of the Pendulum
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781776561704
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $29.89

Available from Fishpond: The Beat of the Pendulum

There is a moment (at 6:10) in Michael Cathcart’s interview with Bronwen Hickman, the biographer of Mary Gaunt (1861-1942), when he mentions that the biography derives from Hickman’s Master’s thesis – and then apologises because, he said, he’d been asked not to mention that, ‘because publishers like to pretend that master’s theses don’t become books’.  This is presumably because of a concern that potential readers might think the book would be too academic – and I can certainly think of some theses-turned-books that are.  But I’m going to mention the book’s origins too, because Mary Gaunt, Independent Colonial Woman is a superb example of extensive research being turned into a highly readable, unputdownable biography.  Bronwen Hickman is a born writer and the book is a model for other biographers to follow.  It’s in the same league as Brenda Niall’s biographies.

As you will know if you read my post about Mary Gaunt’s articles in Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, (Facsimiles from Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia), I discovered Mary Gaunt via Bill at The Australian Legend hosting a ‘week’ devoted to the first generation of Australian women writers.  It was only from poking around on the internet that I discovered how interesting this woman was, and more importantly that there was a biography about her.  It was Michael Cathcart’s interview that made the bio irresistible, and I found a copy at Bayside Library.

Mary Gaunt was such an amazing woman!  Despite a mother more interested in the proprieties, Mary was one of the first women to attend the University of Melbourne, starting (but not completing) an arts degree.  She was ferociously independent and she wanted to earn her own living as a writer instead of getting married.  And that was just as well, because when she eventually did fall in love and marry, her husband shortly afterwards died of an appalling brain disease, and she had to support herself.  She took herself off to London and wrote articles and stories drawing on her life in the colony, and then – in an era when women did not travel alone – she took herself off to Africa and to China and to Jamaica and wrote books and articles about that.  She was incredibly entrepreneurial, and although her travels relied to some extent on introductions and a middle-class way of getting about, she was brave too.

Yes, as I noted in my previous post, Gaunt was a product of her times.  She was racist and patronising about people of colour, and having eschewed marriage for herself, she wrote novels with romantic happy endings.  But she also wrote travel articles that illuminated issues like Chinese foot binding, and her novels treat some serious themes like men being press-ganged into naval service, and slavery in Jamaica.  She was also not afraid to offend: she wrote about unmarried liaisons and about plantation owners fathering light-skinned sons by their slaves.

Her adventurous life did not end well.  She was caught behind the lines during WW2 and had to flee her home in Italy for France but became trapped there under the German Occupation, dependant on an allowance from the US Vice-Consul because she could not access her English bank accounts.  Elderly by then, and frail, she died in 1942, leaving an extraordinary legacy of works: twenty-six books – novels, history and travel books.  But until the advent of electronic resources like Project Gutenberg, and a reprint of Kirkham’s Find in 1988,  most of them were unavailable to modern readers, apart from incomplete sets in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria.  So I was luckier than I knew, to find Gaunt’s writing in Australia’s First Century 1788-1888.

PS I was disappointed to find that although Hickmen says that Mary Gaunt’s name was added to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2002, I couldn’t find it with a search on their website.  In fact, I couldn’t see any women from the literary community there, not even Di Gribble or Germaine Greer. If it weren’t for Wikipedia, (which is always vulnerable to interference) there appears to be no online record of these women’s’ presence on the Honour Roll.  Which makes me wonder, what is the point of it?

Author: Bronwen Hickman
Title: Mary Gaunt, Independent Colonial Woman
Publisher: Melbourne Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781922129369
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Mary Gaunt – Independent Colonial Woman

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 9, 2018

The Thing About December, by Donal Ryan #BookReview

Loneliness covers the earth like a blanket. It flows in the stream down through the Callows to the lake. It’s in the muck in the yard and the briars in the haggard and the empty outbuildings are bursting with it. It runs down the walls inside of the house like tears and grows on the walls outside like a poisonous choking weed. It’s in the sky and the stones and the clouds and the grass. The air is thick with it: you breathe it into your lungs and you feel like it might suffocate you. It runs into hollow places like rainwater. It settles on the grass and on trees and takes their shapes and all the earth is wet with it. It has a smell, like the inside of a saucepan: scraped metal, cold and sharp. When it hits you, it feels like a rap of a hurl across your knuckles on a frosty winter’s morning in PE: sharp, shocking pain, but inside you, so it can’t be seen and no one says sorry for causing it nor asks are you okay, and no kind teacher wants to look at it and tut-tut and tell you you’ll be grand, good lad.

But you know if another man stood where you’re standing and looked at the same things he wouldn’t see it or feel it. (p.44)

Johnsey Cunliffe has lived in his rural Irish village all his life.  But his grief-stricken mother died not long after his father succumbed to cancer, and now Johnsey – naïve, inexperienced and easily rattled by official documents or unfamiliar situations – is all on his own.  The novel traces a year of his life, month by month, culminating in a devastating conclusion that seems inevitable from the outset…

Each chapter begins with Johnsey’s memories of the cycle of farm life, often described with humour that suggests that Johnsey is not as simple as he seems:

January was lonely and slow and drawn out as a rule, no matter what Mother said about it.  The first day of February is the first day of spring, Daddy used to say, as if you could dictate to a season when it was to start.  More would contend spring began in March, but the way Daddy used to say it, looking up at the sky as if to see if God was listening, to remind him to send the new season, his words would nearly make the world warm up. (p.29)

But Johnsey has been over-protected by his parents and now his employer exploits his hard work and determination, by taking advantage of a new law exempting lads without their full faculties from the minimum wage:

Johnsey wasn’t exactly sure what faculties were but he knew there were no bits missing off him on the outside, so it must be something inside him that Packie thinks is not right and stops him from getting the minimum wage.  (p.32)

As an only child inheriting land and other assets passed down through generations, Johnsey doesn’t depend on this work for an income, but work has been part of his routine and it offers human contact:

The day dragged on and on like Tuesdays often do – it’s a nowhere day, Daddy used to say – it’s not the start of the week or in the middle or the end, it’s just the long day before the hump.  The hump is Wednesday.  Wednesday always used to make Johnsey think of a little bridge that you have to run over to get from one end of the week to the next.  Johnsey’s weekdays were nearly all the same: up in the morning, in to work, lunch in the bakery, back to work, finish work, get dog’s abuse on the way home from work, try not to cry, home, eat the dinner, look at television with silent Mother, up to bed, read his book, fall asleep thinking about Daddy, or girls, or hearing back his own thick words, and off we go again, dead tired and full of emptiness. (p.33)

That ‘dog’s abuse’ is the regular bullying he’s had from Eugene Penrose and his gang ever since they left school. If February with his mother’s death heralds Johnsey’s annus horribilis, it is April which is the cruellest month because the local thugs led by Eugene Penrose and a vicious ‘townie’ take advantage of the fact that there is no one to look out for Johnsey any more, and they beat him so badly that he ends up in hospital with a broken arm and ribs, and a detached retina.  And that is how he comes to meet the nurse Siobhan with the Lovely voice and ‘Mumbly Dave’, also laid up with a broken body and temporary blindness after a fall off a ladder.

The Thing About December is actually Donal Ryan’s first novel, published now after the success of The Spinning Heart. (See my review). But it treats the same theme: Ireland’s massive cultural change in the wake of economic growth.  The Thing about December is set before the economic bubble burst, when the rush for development inflated the price of land.  That (and some dodgy rezoning) means that the ‘orphan bachelor’ (as Johnsey is tagged by the newspapers) is sitting on land worth millions, but he doesn’t want to sell out of loyalty to his father’s memory and the generations that have gone before him.  With the land rezoned, and Johnsey’s parcel crucial to a major development, everyone in the village is greedy to reap the benefits.  Readers must make up their own minds about the sudden friendship of Siobhan and Mumbly Dave…

The Thing About December is a fine book.  The narration is brilliant, shifting between Johnsey’s introspections – so much more articulate in his head than he can ever convey in words – and an empathetic narrator who sees everything from Johnsey’s point-of-view.  Mother is a silent wraith but Daddy is still alive in Johnsey’s head all the time.  It’s a very effective technique.

Highly recommended.

Author: Donal Ryan
Title: The Thing About December
Publisher: Transworld, 2014
ISBN: 9780552773577
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: The Thing About December

The Power of Good People is a refugee story with a difference, because – as the title suggests – it shows how ordinary everyday people can make a difference, often without realising it.

Co-written with his sponsor and mentor Alison Corke, Para Paheer tells of his long and circuitous path from the horrors of the civil war in Sri Lanka to safety in Australia, but his harrowing life seems not to have crushed his spirit.  After a short introduction by Alison Corke, and a 14 page explanation of the history of the civil war, Para begins his life story in a small village where his family lived in grinding poverty.  What is remarkable is the number of people who helped this bright boy to complete an education that would otherwise have been denied him.  From the girl who risked social sanction by lending him a bike to get to classes on time, to the teachers who gave him free classes, to an aunt who lent the family clothes for special occasions, and an uncle who gave the family money… none of these actions addressed the structural poverty that affected the family, but one by one, they were incremental actions that led to university and the prospect of employment in a real job.

Unfortunately it was a dubious kind of help that caused trouble for Para when he was at university.  He was given accommodation by activists who were in opposition to the government, and he became President of the Student Union.  Student activism made things uncomfortable for governments in Australia in the 1970s but it led to great things: the end of the Vietnam War and numerous social reforms for example. But in Sri Lanka during a Civil War, Para’s innocent extracurricular activities led to a chain of events that are harrowing indeed to read.  His ‘history’ at the university followed him everywhere he went, so that just getting to his work as a teacher through endless checkpoints was a daily ordeal, and inevitably he was picked up one day, interrogated, and tortured.  Suffice to say that he needed surgery when finally he escaped Sri Lanka.

Good and generous friends and family helped him to escape to India with his young wife and son, but there they were in constant danger of being repatriated to Sri Lanka.  The civil war had ended but the atrocities against Tamils had not, and finally Para decided that the best thing to do was to seek asylum somewhere safe.  And not knowing that Australia’s refugee policies have more to do with electoral success in western Sydney than the UN Convention on Refugees to which Australia is a signatory, he set off in a rusty old boat, hoping that Jayantha and Abi could join him once he was settled.

The story of this journey is distressing to read.  Para made friends with some of the others, so the reader knows some of the names and stories of those who drowned when the boat sank.  One death, within a hair’s breadth of rescue is particularly harrowing.  To learn that there was a nearby fishing boat that turned away is shocking, an action that the Australian coroner described as ‘callous and irresponsible’.  But Para is profuse in his thanks to Captain Brzica of the LNG Pioneer whose leadership enabled a difficult and dangerous rescue over two days: this tanker was the equivalent of six storeys above the water but they managed to haul aboard nineteen people who had been in the water for hours and hours and then treat them for hypothermia, exhaustion and malnutrition.  Para thanks Australia’s RCC (Rescue Coordination Centre) who remarkably made sense of a string of numbers that a befuddled Para – the only English speaker on board – read out from the cabin to an operator called Cindy – and somehow they decoded the latitude and longitude necessary to locate the sinking boat in an area spanning 74 million square kilometres.

I don’t know how they managed to figure out where we were,’ Para remarked.  ‘We were a tiny boat in the middle of a vast ocean, there were no other ships in sight, I was not able to give them much information and my English wasn’t good.  The satellite connection was terrible and kept dropping out, but somehow they did it.  They were amazing.’  (p.223)

Bouquets to Cindy and the team from RCC, and also to the anonymous Taiwanese interpreter who managed to persuade that fishing boat to turn back and help!  (The transcripts from the inquest show just how difficult this was).

Those of us who keep an eye on these things know that for Para, setting foot on Christmas Island was just the start of a long and demoralising process, and I leave you to read the story for yourself to find out about his struggle to be reunited with his family.

What I should comment on, however, is how well this book is written.  I have read quite a few refugee memoirs now, but this one is gripping, and it’s amazing to think that it all began with a kind-hearted gesture – Alison Corke becoming a pen pal to a refugee in a detention centre. You can read about this amazing woman here, but really, I recommend that you read the book.

Author: Para Paheer with Alison Corke
Title: The Power of Good People
Publisher: Wild Dingo Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780648066323
Source: Bayside Library.  (Wild Dingo Press sent me a proof copy, but I don’t read proof copies)

Available direct from Wild Dingo Press (where it is also available as an eBook) and from Fishpond: The Power of Good People: Surviving the Sri Lankan Civil War


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 8, 2018

A new translation prize, and a new shadow jury!

If you subscribe to Stu’s blog at Winston’s Dad you will know that there is a New EBRD prize set up by the European bank of Reconstruction and Development.  It’s for fiction translated to English from the 40 countries that the EBRD works with.  This is a great boost for translated fiction, and so Stu (a.k.a. The Ambassador for Translated Fiction) and I have formed a small Shadow Jury to bring you our reviews of the shortlisted titles and (of course) our opinion about which one the winner should be.

As you can see from the EBRD website,  the chair, Rosie Goldsmith, has high hopes for the prize:

Already I can predict this prize is here to stay. It’s different and it’s important. Our entries came from Armenia to Albania, the Baltics to the Balkans and beyond. This prize has broadened my mind and also my definition of the novel. We’ve read a Turkish feminist road novel, a love story from Beirut, a memoir from Morocco, a black comedy from Albania and a rollicking Russian satire – just a few of our entries, from established writers to those who deserve to be: the standard of storytelling and of translation is excellent and our winners will blow you away.”

Stu has reviewed three of the shortlisted books already, and I’ve read one with more on my TBR.

Here are the six shortlisted titles.  Links on the titles are to Stu’s reviews, and I’ll add mine as we go along.

  • All the World’s a Stage by Boris Akunin (translated by Andrew Bromfield from Russian, Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • Belladonna by Daša Drndic (translated by Celia Hawkesworth from Croatian, Maclehose/ Quercus),
  • The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson from Albanian, Penguin), see my review
  • The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Ekin Oklap from Turkey, Faber & Faber), Update 12/2/18, see my review
  • Istanbul Istanbul by Burhan Sönmez (translated by Ümit Hussein from Turkish, Telegram Books), and 
  • Maryam: Keeper of Stories by Alawiya Sobh (translated by Nirvana Tanoukhi from Arabic, Seagull Books).

I’m currently reading the Pamuk because I started listening to an abridged version on BBC4 from the Reading Europe Programme and I decided I wanted to read the real thing.

More soon!

PS (from the EBRD website, underlining mine:

The first prize of €20,000 will be equally divided between the winning author and translator. Two runners-up and their translators will receive a prize of €1,000 each. The three finalist books will be announced in early March 2018.

The winner will be announced in London at an award ceremony at the EBRD’s headquarters at One Exchange Square, London, on 10 April 2018, to coincide with the London Book Fair.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 7, 2018

Life in the Garden, by Penelope Lively #BookReview

My mother was not a great reader, but she was a keen gardener across three continents and Life in the Garden would have been the perfect birthday gift for her.  Penelope Lively is a great raconteur and this memoir of her own life in gardens is nostalgia reading for any of us with memories of English gardens and of creating our own gardens, wherever they happened to be.

Lively thinks that there is a genetic element to being a gardener, and that it passes through the female line.  She tells us about her grandmother’s garden in Somerset, her mother’s garden in Cairo where she spent her childhood, and then about her own two gardens in Oxfordshire and her current small urban garden in London.  There are hints, here and there, that although her mind is as sharp as ever, Lively is getting on a bit, something I’d rather not think about because she has been part of my reading life ever since I discovered Moon Tiger, which won the Booker in 1987.  My mother was lucky to spend her last years with the garden she had created on the Gold Coast; I don’t think she would have thrived if, like Lively, she’d had to downsize to a small courtyard garden.

Like my mother – who loved it when I came up during term holidays and took her for short expeditions to the nearest Bunnings Garden Centre – Lively can’t help but be captivated by the marketing of new plants.  In the chapter ‘the Fashionable Garden’, she traces the history of garden fashion, noting that

These days, garden fashion is dictated by television gardening programmes, by garden journalism, by what is available and conspicuous in garden centres.  Both television and garden centres are relatively recent dictators – neither was around when I first took an interest in gardening in the 1960s.  But we have always gardened according to the written word, and some very persuasively written words at that.  In the early part of the twentieth century, and back in the nineteenth, writers were the garden gurus of the day.  Not usually fiction writers, but devoted gardeners – maniacal gardeners indeed – who turned themselves into writers in order to spread the message. (p.81)

There is a marvellous book called Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama (reviewed here at the NYT) and what I always remember when I’m in any of those splendid formal gardens in Europe, is that they were designed not just to impress, but also to reinforce with symbols the power and authority of the autocrats who flaunted them.  This lives on, it seems, in the way that some plants have been social indicators – even the type of rose in your garden can be an indicator of class in England!

Lively talks at some length about how the great gardens of England and their smaller 19th century offshoots relied on an army of labouring gardeners not affordable today.  Today these gardens are often open to tourism, where Lively chanced upon a postcard that evokes that earlier era:

These are the gardeners, posed for a formal portrait – seventeen of them, one row seated, one row standing, and flanked at one side by a lad of maybe twelve, and at the other a white-bearded figure in his seventies.  All wear hats – flat caps for the most part.  Shirt and waistcoat seem to be de rigueur: all but one of the seven seated figures at the front wear aprons.  Those standing behind are posed with hoe, spade, rake, shears while the sitters are neatly framed by two long-spouted watering-cans.  They inspire confidence, these gardeners; formally dressed, business-like.  You feel that Hestercombe would have been well serviced.  One of them must be the head gardener, a figure of authority and who would have had considerable expertise.  Scottish?

A garden of that order will not be serviced by seventeen men today.  But one must remember that garden work, just like housework, has been turned on its head by modern appliances: the strimmer [whipper-snipper], the electric hedge-cutter, the rotovator.   (p.161)

Hestercombe today employs six gardeners, three with horticultural training and three trained in countryside management but most English people manage their own gardens as we Aussies do. (Though many of us in our street have someone to do the lawn.  With the decline of manufacturing in this country many people lost their jobs and took up franchises with their retrenchment benefits.   Hiring these people, and the ones who do cleaning, window-washing and so on, is the least those of us still with proper jobs can do, IMO, not that a nice gift at Christmas makes up for them not having superannuation and sick leave…  I really don’t like the modern economy.)

Ah… you can see that I am digressing, as Lively does.  Reading Life in the Garden is a bit like being in the company of an old aunt (if I’d ever had one) and the digressions are as interesting as the case in point.  Still, I should not forget to tell you that Lively also quotes poetry and prose about gardens and explores how writers use gardens to set atmosphere, the rhododendrons in Rebecca being the most famous example.  In the chapter on ‘The Fashionable Garden’ she quotes Jane Austen in the age of Capability Brown, mocking the obsession with ‘improvement’ in Mansfield Park: 

‘I wish you could see Compton,’ said he; ‘it is the most complete thing! I never saw a place so altered in my life . . .  The approach now, is one of the finest things in the country: you see the house in the most surprising manner. I declare, when I got back to Sotherton yesterday, it looked like a prison – quite a dismal old prison.”

‘Oh, for shame!’ cried Mrs. Norris. ‘A prison indeed? Sotherton Court is the noblest old place in the world.’

‘It wants improvement, ma’am, beyond anything. I never saw a place that wanted so much improvement in my life; and it is so forlorn that I do not know what can be done with it . . . I must try to do something with it . . . but I do not know what. I hope I shall have some good friend to help me.’

‘Your best friend upon such an occasion,’ said Miss Bertram calmly, ‘would be Mr. Repton, I imagine.’

‘That is what I was thinking of.  As he has done so well by Smith, I think I had better have him at once. His terms are five guineas a day.’

‘Well, and if they were ten,’ cried Mrs. Norris, “I am sure you need not regard it. The expense need not be any impediment. If I were you, I should not think of the expense. I would have everything done in the best style, and made as nice as possible.’  (p.96)

In the thirty-odd years I’ve had my current garden, I’ve fallen for fashion fads.  Under the delusion that it would be maintenance-free, I’ve had an all native garden, a surfeit of ‘mission-brown’ garden furniture, an all-the-same-colour garden and even a rockery, which like Lively I came to regret because of those weeds that make their homes in it.  Have you, dear reader, succumbed to design ideas from Burke’s Backyard, Gardening Australia, or those garden-makeover shows?

I’ll finish up with Lively’s wisdom about timelessness in the garden:

We garden for tomorrow, and thereafter. We garden in expectation, and that is why it is so invigorating. Gardening, you are no long stuck in the here and now; you think backwards, and forwards, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next. (p.4)

I can’t end without a rejoinder to her claim that the English are the best at gardens!  This is my garden last January, some plants struggling a bit after a scorcher, and a tad overgrown because it’s too hot to get out there and tidy up – but lush and gorgeous all the same.

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PS A word about the cover: in this hardback edition, the cover design by Katie Scott is just gorgeous, and the texture of the cover boards is a sensual delight… there’s a velvety feeling under the fingers, and the text is embossed.  Stunning!

Author: Penelope Lively
Title: Life in the Garden
Publisher: Fig Tree (an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House UK), 2017
ISBN: 9780241319628
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Life in the Garden: A BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week 2017

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 5, 2018

Debut Mondays: new fiction from Laurie Steed and Kali Napier

Welcome to Debut Mondays – a series where debut Australian authors have the opportunity to spruik their novel!


Photo credit: Chris Gurney

This time it is my pleasure to introduce two authors from Western Australia, Laurie Steed and Kali Napier.


Laurie Steed is a writer and editor from Western Australia. His fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in annual anthologies such as Black Inc’s Best Australian Stories, and Melbourne Books’ Award Winning Australian Writing, and also in literary magazines such as Meanjin, Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, as well as The Age newspaper and elsewhere.  He has been awarded multiple fellowships including from the University of Iowa, the Baltic Writing Residency, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, the Katherine Susannah Prichard Foundation and the Fellowship of Australian Writers (Western Australia).  He won the Patricia Hackett Prize for Fiction in 2012, and in 2014 was the first Australian Fellow selected in the history of the Sozopol Fiction Seminars held in Bulgaria. He lives in Perth, Western Australia with his wife and two young sons.

Coming up on March 1st, 2018, is the release of Laurie’s first novel: it’s called You Belong Here and it’s published by Margaret River Press in WA. (ISBN: 9780648203902) (That enticing cover design is by Debra Billson, proving once again that small indie publishers do the best covers!).

This is the blurb for the novel:

‘Come in. Press PLAY. Tell me what you like about this song. Shout out your dreams, cravings, obsessions from when the track starts, right through to the end. I’ll shout too, you, me, together, louder until we’re a wall of sound. We are trying to find things, people, places we love, and everything counts—songs, films, books, fathers, lovers, friends, and brothers.’

Jen and Steven hope to build a home unlike the chaos in which they grew up. Meeting at sixteen, they marry at eighteen. Soon they’re the parents of three young children.

Initially, the kids help keep them together until love turns to lies, and the family implodes. As they become adults, each child faces fundamental questions about love, loss, and life in the shadow of their family legacy.

You Belong Here follows a Western Australian family from 1972 – 2002, finding faith, flaws, and redemption in a raw but hopeful meditation on what it means to be a family in modern Australia.

This is a book about trust and connection. About what keeps us going, in spite of ourselves.  About a place where we belong.

Laurie’s blurbers have this to say:

‘Laurie Steed’s dazzling novel You Belong Here has a tenderness, honesty, and sense of humour that’s rarely seen in Australian fiction,’ (Ryan O’Neill, winner of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award)

‘Laurie Steed is a master at conveying relationships that could be real to any of us, writing with depth, nuance, and subtlety. A beautiful read that will make these people as real to you as your own family.’ (Les Zig, author of Just Another Week in Suburbia).

You Belong Here is not yet available from Fishpond, but you can pre-order it until March 1st directly from Margaret River Press  , or at Booktopia.


Photo credit: Katie Bennett, Embellysh

Kali Napier worked in Bangladesh on gender programs before moving home to Australia where she was an Aboriginal family history researcher for the Queensland government and a Native Title anthropologist in the Mid-West of Western Australia, the setting for her first novel The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge. It was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, as was her first manuscript — also a finalist in the QWC/ Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program.


Kali is currently an MPhil candidate in creative writing at The University of Queensland.  Apart from writing, Kali also enjoys binge-watching Outlander, sangria, and bookish events.  (*chuckle* We have some things in common, but it’s not the sangria). You can find her on Twitter @KaliNapier and Facebook @KaliNapierAuthor.

Kali’s debut novel is called The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge (ISBN: 9780733637919).  Published by Hachette Australia, it was released on January 30th, 2018.

Here she tells us about the inspiration for the book:

This novel unknowingly started its journey when I worked as a family history researcher, connecting Indigenous clients with records of who their family members were, where they came from, and how they were connected to their Country. Only when piecing together these families’ stories of trauma, secrets, and belonging from the government archive, did I voice aloud an urge to ‘write a book’.

However, their stories were not my stories to tell. At one point in my novel, Mrs Feehely, an exempted Aboriginal woman, cautions her daughter Ruby: “Those are our stories, girl. You keep them to yourself.” when Ruby shares a Dreaming story with Girlie. Girlie learns a valuable lesson about the power of stories to create connections and delineate who she did and didn’t belong to.

But as Girlie discovers, there are gaps and inconsistencies in the story of who she is. Just as there are in my own, caused by migration, estrangement, and the silencing that comes with second marriages.

I lived in the Mid-West of Western Australia in the mid-2000s, where the novel is set, and where to be considered an insider, I would have needed ‘three generations in the boneyard’. Later, I discovered that I had family connections to the Mid-West after all. My great grandfather had been a bankrupt who’d moved to Dongara during the Depression to establish a shop. This sparked the idea for my novel, as I sought to discover through fiction what my unknown ancestors’ lives might have been like. What would it have meant to have to walk away from their way of life and begin again amongst strangers? What aspects of their past would they have not been able to leave behind, carried within them? And what happens when that which they’d thought long buried catches up with them?


Debut authors of literary fiction who would like the opportunity to be featured in Debut Mondays, should read the ANZLitLovers review policy to get an idea of the scope, style and readership of this blog and if interested, get in touch using the comment box here.


Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897-1976) was an award-winning Austrian poet, playwright, screenwriter and novelist who was a protégé of Rainer Maria Rilke.  Despite this Bohemian connection and the publication of his 1941 novel The Blue Hour (Die Blaue Stunde) a.k.a. Mars in Aries (Mars im Widder) which was banned by the Nazis, he managed to keep a low profile for most of the war until removed from public position in 1944.  He had, as a redrafted reservist, taken part in the invasion of Poland, and he also made propaganda films in the early years, but he was not considered a supporter of the regime and his profile in the literary community was accordingly restored after the war.  In addition to awards received in the 1920s (the Kleist Prize and the Goethe Prize of the city of Bremen), he was also awarded the City of Vienna Prize for Literature (1951); Great Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1958), the Grand Austrian State Prize for Literature (1961), and posthumously, the Gold Medal of the capital Vienna (1967) and the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art (1968).  He was also a rather handsome fellow, as you can see from his portrait here. (Much nicer than the one in the front of the book).  However, #DuckingForCover amusing as Mona Lisa is, it is not easy to see from reading it, why he is considered such a Big Deal.

Mona Lisa was published in 1937.  Like the other books I’ve bought from Pushkin Press (which are all novellas and short stories) it takes less than an hour to read, which when you factor in the cost of postage to Australia, is best considered an expensive gourmet treat rather than value for money.  But these editions are beautifully produced: they are printed on premium paper and their covers have classy French flaps – and this one also has charming illustrations by Neil Gower.  It is the kind of book that is perfect for gift-giving IMO.

Set in 1502, the story is a comic invention that pokes fun at the fascination with the identity of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  Louis XII despatches his marshal Louis de la Trémoille to Milan to raise an army for the relief of a couple of French governors fending off the Spaniards in Naples.  La Trémoille has the King’s blessing, and his authority to extract the Pope’s blessing by force of arms if necessary, and he also has the King’s expectation that the nobility, the clerics, and the good people of Amboise in Milan will all only too happily provide everything from manpower to ordnance, not to mention the money for the expedition.  I suspect that the absurdity of these King’s Orders owes something to the author’s military service in WW1, where perhaps there too his superior officer also had fantasies about inexhaustible public enthusiasm for military folly…

[He] appeared to ponder whether he should offer La Trémoille dominion over the sun, the waters, the air and the ground they stood on, for the upkeep of which God himself was to be charged responsible (p.10)

Anyway, they set off, handicapped by a widespread lack of enthusiasm for the enterprise.  As they have also been asked to acquire reparations to offset the cost of the campaign in the form of direct payments or precious objects, jewels, costly tapestries and suchlike things La Trémoille makes a side trip to Florence, and chances upon the studio of Leonardo da Vinci.  There, in the course of a dispute about how many legs a fly might have, one of La Trémoille’s minions uncovers Leonardo’s work-in-progress, you guessed it, the Mona Lisa. The minion, a young nobleman by the name of M. de Bougainville falls in love, not with the painting, but with the enigmatic lady, and he embarks upon a bizarre quest to find her, even though he has it on good authority that she is dead.

It all ends badly, but it’s very funny all the same.  It reminded me of Michael Frayn’s Headlong (1999), another comic novel about being obsessed by an artwork.  But Mona Lisa, being so much shorter, relies for its humour on farcical conversations, Leonardo’s only-too-obvious disdain, the absurdity of Bougainville’s somewhat hysterical quest and the ironies of the fraught political situation rather than on character development.

Of course it’s not fair to be sceptical about an author’s reputation on the strength of one light-hearted short story, so I welcome recommendations of other titles that will convince me that Lernet-Holenia was a great author…

Other reviews  are at Jacqui’s Wine Journal here,  His Futile Preoccupations here; and from 1st Reading’s blog here.

Author: Alexander Lernet-Holenia
Title: Mona Lisa
Translated from the German by Ignat Avsey
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781782271901
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond ($19.40 AUD)

Available from Fishpond: Mona Lisa

The Beat of the Pendulum is such an interesting, exciting book, I hardly know how to tell you about it.  The author, Catherine Chidgey (who wrote The Wish Child) calls it a ‘found novel’, best described by its blurb:

From the author of the acclaimed The Wish Child comes something unexpected and fearless: a found novel. The Beat of the Pendulum is the result of one year in which Chidgey drew upon the language she encountered on a daily basis, such as news stories, radio broadcasts, emails, social media, street signs, TV, and many conversations. As Chidgey filters and shapes the linguistic chaos of her recordings, a set of characters emerge – her family, including her young daughter, and her husband, mother and sister, her friends, and an extended family formed through surrogacy and donation. In her chronicling of moments of loveliness, strangeness, comedy and poetry and sorrow, Chidgey plays with the nature of time and its passing. The Beat of the Pendulum is also an exploration of human memory – how we acquire it, and how we lose it. This bravely experimental and immersive work draws us into the detail, reverberation and transience of a year in a life.

It begins in January, on the first day of the year:

I think your door is open.
People sometimes hear something but they don’t hear it correctly.  How’s wee darling? Did she see the New Year in?
No no no, gentle gentle gentle with the pearls.
Is he playing hard to get?  You won’t catch him. He’s stupid but not that stupid.  Shall we put you in the chair?
She looks at everything.  I don’t know how she looks so long without blinking.
She’ll knock that off there.  That’s not going to stay there.  Try the other hand.
Some babies at that age really can’t eat.  They can still just only have bottles.  You’re a show-off aren’t you?  Yes, you’re a big show-off.  She’s keeping her eye on you, isn’t she?  That shortbread was lovely.  Did you make it?  Oh.  Well, it just tasted like homemade.  When you can buy things as nice as that – I presume you bought it – it’s hardly worth turning your oven on.
So there were lots of admirers talking about the baby paraded at lunch the other day?
Oh yes – how old is she, what’s her name?  Yes, they thought she was beautiful.  They all like to see something like that, because you know… (p.7)

We are in the immediate presence of a family… a grandmother, maybe, wearing pearls, with a baby on her lap, a baby that is reaching, grabbing, exploring her world.  They might be in a car, with the door not shut quite right.  But who is he, that’s playing hard to get?

On the next page we learn more.  We are in a retirement village or an aged care home, hearing about Gwen and Les who sit at the same dining table as the lady who we predicted correctly was Nana. She tells us: there used to be another guy there, but I don’t know whether he’s died or gone upstairs or what’s happened to him but he’s not there and nobody seems to know. And we’ve now got a lady there who doesn’t even get a joke. 

(This makes me remember the dilemma at my father’s aged care home: should I tell him that his friend in the next room had died?  It must be so awful to be surrounded by so much death, as fast as he makes a friend, they’re gone.  Dead, or moved to a secure dementia ward.   And… did they tell my father’s dining-room friends about it when he died?  Or are they still wondering what’s happened to him?)

On page 3 we learn that the mother’s name is Catherine, and that her daughter’s toenails need cutting.

And so it goes on, a kaleidoscope of dialogue coming at us every which way.  Stuff that we filter out of our everyday experience is here … those Facebook ads on the edge of our consciousness.  10th January:

Do you have a novel inside of you?  Stop reading this. Start writing.  James Patterson Writing Masterclass.  Author of nineteen consecutive bestsellers reveals his tricks of the trade. I have started but I have no clue where to go from here.  I even have a second book in mind for my character.  I picture myself in front of a fireplace in a mountain cabin writing an insightful novel.  My whole life is an interesting novel.  I just lack the focus to write it all down.  (p.22)

Later on, 17th January, watching TV, with the baby in a play pen:

Did we see him leave or die or whatever?
No.  We must have missed something.  We didn’t see Leo going either.
I meant Leo.
Thurr’s bin a murr-durr. Again.
Was she a Mossad agent too?  The nanny?
She’s got the cord again!  Cords and shoes!
It’s coiling around her foot like a tourniquet.  We put you in there to be safe. Not for you to garrotte yourself.
The chick in the wheelchair doesn’t get to be much more than a token character.
She’s developed.
But we don’t see her back story or love life or house or anything.  (p.32)

26th January: Clickbait…

Meryl Streep is gone.  BREAKING NEWS.  We will miss you Meryl Streep.

And most hilarious of all, the GPS in the car, ordering the driver about and interrupting conversation and the news on the car radio – and the driver says exactly the same hostile things in response as I do!  What kind of weird world are we living in when we argue with a satellite navigator?!  How do we ever manage to think straight with this cacophony all around us?!!

The Ford Motor Company is pulling out of Japan.  Prepare to turn left after 290 metres, focussing its attention instead on China.  Take the next right.  Drive for 4.3 kilometres.  You’re over the speed limit.  Shut up.  You’re over the speed limit.  Prepare to turn left after 800 metres. What is the appeal of that kind of cricket at the Basin, do you think?  I think it’s just sitting on the grass and watching cricket.  Prepare to turn left after 300 metres, when you’ve got two great teams going at it on a sunny day.  Take the next left, then, take the next right. Take the next right, then, take the next left.  You feel like you’re part of something.  Take the next left.  Prepare to arrive at your destination after 240 metres.  No.  Arrive at your destination after 100 metres.  no.  You have reached your destination.  No I haven’t. (p.40)

This is not going to be a novel to everyone’s taste, but I like it.  I’ve only read up to the end of January but I have little sticky notes all over it, naming people as I come across them and work out their relationships.  The people are fascinating – some very strong opinions, especially about children and Donald Trump!

I’ll come back here and tell you more when I’ve finished it…

Author: Catherine Chidgey
Title: The Beat of the Pendulum
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781776561704
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $29.89

Available from Fishpond: The Beat of the Pendulum

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 1, 2018

2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards

The 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards were announced this evening, and it was nice to hear from the Premier Daniel Andrews that he thinks Victoria is the centre of writing, ideas, critical thought, and that he values the contribution of artists.  You might not agree with him, but it’s good to hear a politician barracking for the arts instead of sport for a change.

Harvested from #VPLA2018  at Twitter, the awards are:

Victorian Prize for Literature

  • Sarah Krasnostein for The Trauma Cleaner (Text Publishing)

The People’s Choice Award

  • Alison Evans for Ida (Echo Publishing)

The Prize for Drama

  • Michele Lee for Rice (Playlab)

The Prize for Poetry

  • Bella Li for Argosy (Vagabond)

Prize for non-fiction

  • Sarah Krasnostein for The Trauma Cleaner (Text Publishing)

Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction

  • Melanie Cheng for Australia Day (Text Publishing)

Prize for Writing for Young Adults

Demet Divaroren for Living on Hope Street (Allen & Unwin)

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers…

Click here to see the shortlist… and the notable omissions in what was a stellar year for Australian fiction.



Pereira Maintains was a fortuitous find on the New Books shelf at the library, and it was not until I visited Goodreads when drafting this review that I discovered it was one of the 1001 books I’m supposed to read before setting off for The Great Library in the Sky. It was there at Goodreads that I also discovered that the book was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1997, and won numerous European prizes including the Premio Viareggio (1994), the Premio Campiello (1994), the Prix Jean-Monnet de littérature européenne du département de Charente (1995), the Aristeion Prize (1997) and the Premio San Clemente for Novela Estranxeira (1997).

In my copy of 1001 Books it has the title Pereira Declares, a Testimony but I like the Canongate title better.  The novel is narrated by an unspecified narrator, each chapter introduced by and peppered with the words ‘Pereira maintains’.  Someone is reporting Pereira’s testimony, but the reader never knows who the narrator is, or who he is reporting to, or the circumstances under which Pereira came to give this testimony, willingly or otherwise.  The word ‘maintains’ suggests that Pereira is sticking to his story despite pressure to alter it.  This adds to the sense of menace as the story proceeds.

1001 Books tells me that Italian author Antonio Tabucchi has spent most of his life in Lisbon where he is a professor of Portuguese literature.  His descriptions of the city are evocative, even for someone like me who’s only been there once and only for a couple of days.

On that beauteous summer day, with the sun beaming away and the sea-breeze of the Atlantic kissing the treetops, and a city glittering, literally glittering beneath his window, and a sky of such blue as never was seen.  (p.1)

Pavement paving, Lisbon

The city is literally glittering because of what I dubbed The Perilous Paving, for which Lisbon is famous.  This paving – unique to Portugal and its former colonies – can be very beautiful though often they are just laid in alternating colours.  They are made up of thousands of small squares of shiny paving stones not much bigger than the palm of a child’s hand, and there is no pretence at laying them evenly or flat.  I discovered this as soon as I ventured outside the hotel – where the surface consisted of smooth, glassy undulating waves with the occasional missing stone presenting particular peril for anyone silly enough to wear high heels. Tabucchi’s story is set in high summer, where his protagonist is often sweating in the heat as well as in fear, but these tiles must be very slippery indeed in the rain.

The beauty of the city is a mask for what 1001 Books calls the early manifestations of Salazar’s regime.  It is 1938, with Europe menaced by Hitler and the Spanish Civil War on Portugal’s doorstep.   Salazar, the conservative, nationalist dictator who ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1968, enforced his rule with a brutal secret police and brutally-imposed censorship.  Pereira has been a crime reporter, but now – trying to keep politics out of his life – he is working for a small independent newspaper as the editor of the new Culture page (and is in fact its only contributor).   For Pereira, living with his memories of the past, when he was young, handsome and carefree, is preferable to his lonely life as an overweight and friendless widower who has heart trouble.  Lisbon’s wonderful cafés where he dines daily are his best source of solace, but he also talks to the photograph of his dead wife.

So.  Emotionally and intellectually preoccupied by death, he makes the acquaintance by chance of a young revolutionary called Monteiro Rossi.  Naïvely, because he doesn’t at first know about Monteiro’s covert activities, Pereira hires him, using his own money, to write obituaries for great writers who might die soon. (Newspapers, apparently, usually have these obituaries at the ready, because it’s hard to whip one up overnight).  Monteiro’s obits of proscribed authors include savage critiques of the regime and calls for democratic reform – obits which are of course unpublishable because of censorship even if Pereira’s boss were not a supporter of Salazar.  But Pereira pays him anyway (usually in advance) and stuffs these incriminating pieces away in a file.

The book is only 195 pages long, and it’s hard to put down.  Why does Pereira, so keen to avoid the dangers of politics, persist with Monteiro when it is obvious that he is never going to produce anything that can be published?  Monteiro’s girlfriend is imprudent: Pereira has to ask her to keep her voice down when she starts expressing opinions in the plaza.  Monteiro’s activities bring risks to Pereira that he cannot continue to ignore, yet he never withdraws his support. The answers lie in Pereira’s conversations with his dead wife, where he mourns the child they never did have because of her frailty, and in the counsel of Dr Cardoso from the cardiac clinic, a psychologist who sees what Pereira cannot see for himself, that by being obsessed with death he is denying the present in which he can – and should – play a part.

Death is the trigger for Pereira’s gradual transformation.  A shocking denouement shatters his wilful inertia and – using the power of his pen – he abandons his translations of dead 19th century French authors and rebels.  The reader would like to cheer, but there is that sense of unease because it’s not Pereira narrating this story, it’s someone else, and we don’t know who or why.

Highly recommended in an era when truth matters and we need brave people to tell it.

Author: Antonio Tabucchi
Title: Pereira Maintains
Translated by Patrick Creagh
Publisher: Canongate, 2010, first published as Sostiene Pereira, una testimonianza in 1994
ISBN: 9781847675712
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Pereira Maintains


City of the Dead is a book that made me think about all sorts of things, but I shall try not to make this review into a rant.

I have read some rather grim books lately, and I wanted to read something more light-hearted.  From my shelves I took down the ‘hilarious’, ‘enchanting’, ‘uplifting’ and ‘profoundly moving’ The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan but abandoned it after the requisite 50 pages.  I am out of step with the entire reading universe, it seems, because IMO, quite apart from its stock characters and ridiculous plot lines, this historical novel of WW2 is overwritten and tasteless.  On page two we are told that nobody is mourning the young local heir to the manor who’s been blown up in the North Sea, because he was a bully.  No fancy ideas about redemption in this novel: without a trace of authorial irony,  Mrs B brusquely implies that Edmund clearly deserved to die a horrible death.  Am I the only one who finds this offensive, even if he was a childhood bully? Have I missed an ‘hilarious’ joke here?

City of the Dead OTOH raises very interesting cases for redemption.  Can a paedophile earn redemption?  Under what circumstances can an avenger be forgiven?

My second attempt at light reading was Three Bags Full, by German author Leonie Swann and translated by Anthea Bell.   This one was said to be ‘priceless’, ‘witty’ and ‘full of  philosophical musings and profound observations’.  It features a crime in the Irish village of Glennkill, and a flock of sheep led by a ewe called Miss Maple who collectively solve the mystery.  When it took me four days to get up to page 99, I realised that I did not care who had killed the shepherd or why, because I was bored.  So much for Three Bags Full. 

For most of City of the Dead, however, it wasn’t that I didn’t care, it was that I forgot about who had done the killing and why.  The denouement, when it comes, is a bit of an afterthought.  And like all the other crime novels I have ever read, (or abandoned) the novel features a world-weary detective, alienated from friends and family, operating in a sleazy environment and possessed of an almost magical acuity when it comes to ‘reading’ people. However, I did not abandon City of the Dead because its major character is in fact a city, the city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an event which shocked the world and not because of the force of the hurricane.  Sara Gran has played with the form of a detective novel to write a very powerful novel indeed.

Let me quote from a blurber called Shots:

City of the Dead may be a post-modern take on the private eye novel, or a surreal examination of a disordered imagination, either way it is strangely hypnotic and particularly good on its evocation of the devastated city of New Orleans.’

The characters that the female sleuth meets are unforgettable. And when the gangs of youths who have been abandoned to their fate in this city of hopelessness begin to tell their stories, few readers will be able to suppress their memories of seeing panic-stricken people stuck on rooves as the waters rise around them, of the chaos of the Superdome, and of the filth and disorder and hunger.  And the failure to help each other and the spine-chilling lawlessness.

Sara Gran depicts the apocalyptic city in extremis and in its first stages of recovery.  In a bland tone, her world-weary private-eye notes the shocking inequities that separate the suburbs that survived and are thriving, from those that are struggling to rebuild and reconnect because there is no money, no support, no coordinating authority, and no hope that it will ever be anything different for the impoverished people trying to live there.  Neither she nor the people she meets expect anything else, just as they do not expect the police to help, or to do anything other than go through the motions, siphoning a suspected murderer into a 30-day period on remand and then releasing him back into the community for lack of evidence.  For the poor and the marginalised, Hurricane Katrina drowned Law and Justice along with everything else.

So, yes, this turned out to be grim reading too.  But the characterisation of Claire DeWitt is wry and amusing, and the Black youths who lead her up the garden path are witty and clever and surprisingly in charge of their lives.  I could almost see them looking convincingly threatening as they saunter through the ravaged streets in their baggy pants and oversized sneakers, their tatts a kind of code that only someone equally on the outer can read.  It takes a writer of great skill to show the vulnerability and charm of these young men and make them fully human when all we see on TV is otherwise.  I could have done without the mystical mumbo-jumbo from Claire DeWitt’s dead mentor Constance and the quotations from a real-or-imagined teach-yourself manual called Détection by some real-or-imagined detective called Silette, but it wasn’t enough to spoil the book.

I don’t know if anyone else has written a novel about Katrina.  But if someone has, City of the Dead is the standard they have to live up to.

Quite by coincidence it turns out that this was almost a readalong with Emma from Book Around the Corner.  She read and reviewed it earlier this year and intrigued, I reserved it at the library where (of course) it came in at the same time as a dozen other books and I almost didn’t finish it before it was due back.

Author: Sara Gran
Title: City of the Dead, A Claire DeWitt Mystery
Publisher: Faber and Faber UK, 2012, first published in 2011
ISBN: 9780571259182
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: City of the Dead: A Claire DeWitt Mystery (Claire DeWitt)


I probably shouldn’t admit to this but I skipped a couple of the more recent Griffith Reviews because one of them was all about the Perils of Populism (and as far as I’m concerned every day that’s a Trump-free Day in the media is a good day), and one of them was all about Millennials, and (feeling fairly confident that Millennials don’t read this blog) I would rather share funny videos about them than ponder the scary world we will live in when they are running the world…

But the most recent Griffith Review #59, Commonwealth Now is a must read if you are interested in Big Picture issues that confront us as Australians. This is the blurb:

At the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in April athletes from countries that were once a part of the British Empire will battle for gold – but is the Commonwealth of Nations more than a legacy of another age?
At a time of geopolitical uncertainty, the Commonwealth is poised to play a major role as a values-based network that represents a third of the world’s population. Whether this group can exercise real power and influence will be determined in 2017. It is clear that the old empires are long gone, but in the wake of Brexit and the rise of China and India, the shape of a new world order remains unclear. Yet there is a shared history and legacy.
Commonwealth Now, co-edited by Julianne Schultz and Jane Camens, features writers from around the world who explore the contemporary experience of Commonwealth citizens – confronting new challenges, reconciling the past, creating a sustainable and equitable future, settling scores and opening new exchanges.
Contributors include: Melissa Lucashenko, Salil Tripathi, Margaret Busby, Shashi Tharoor, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Mark Gevisser, Annie Zaidi, Michael Wesley, Romesh Gunesekara and many more.

The very first article ‘Time to Mention the War, Towards a new settlement’ is by Melissa Lucashenko, of Goorie and European descent, and she shares an indigenous perspective about Aboriginal attitudes to the Queen and the Commonwealth.   The take-home message is that it’s fair to say that Aboriginal fans of the Commonwealth are not thick on the ground.  It’s the historical context that makes it clear why this is so:

Regardless of particular family histories, the incursions under the protection of the British monarch have never been forgotten.  As Aunty Lois Cook, Bundjalung elder and oral historian, says of the massacres:

“Occasionally we can put up a plaque – but hardly anyone knows that they’re there, or what happened to them… It’s like the soldiers who went to Gallipoli and perished… those beaches are sacred… and so should these places be to everyone.  They are to us”.

To non-Aboriginal people, all this might seem distant, and nothing to do with the Commonwealth.  To Aboriginal people, whose oral histories are treasured, it does not.  With few exceptions, events of the frontier still shape Aboriginal attitudes towards mainstream society and its institutions.  History might be written by the winners, but the past is recalled and discussed and analysed by the other side too, for whom it is barely past at all.  Aboriginal thinking about the Queen and the Commonwealth today is still seen on a continuum from first contact, just as an increasing number of white Australians trace their national identity back to a battle that happened on a beach on the other side of the world in 1915.  If Aboriginal Australia had a motto about out shared past it might be: Do Mention the War.  (p.15)

It is worth getting this Griffith Review #59 for this excellent essay alone, but there is plenty more.  Michael Wesley’s essay ‘Empire of Delusion’ is brilliant, and lest you think it’s all deadly serious, there is ‘Postcolonial Talkback, Fast-talking PI visits the Queen’.  In this memoir Poet Selina Tusitala Marsh tells the droll story of her performance at the Queen’s gig, the Commonwealth Day ceremony at Westminster Abbey:

She has the most recognisable face in contemporary Western history and she’s almost within my reach.  The longest-reigning monarch and I share a few things: we are both seated in Westminster Abbey (founded in 960); we share the same birthday (on 21 April 2016, I turn forty-five and will be exactly half her age, a quirky fact I thought to share but then my Samoan discretion got the better of me); and we are both wearing blue in a sea of black and beige, as observed by many an attendee afterwards.

‘My dear, how politic of you to wear the royal blue.’

‘The blue of majestic te moana nui a kiwa, the Pacific Ocean.  Why, thank you!’ (p.34)

When you watch this video, don’t miss the ending where, calm and elegant in her Pacific blue, she meets the queen, having scrambled back into her silk wrap just in time after thinking everything was all over and putting on her black puffer jacket and crimson backpack.  

I just loved reading this gently irreverent debunking of the stuffiness of royal protocol and its irrelevance to modern life.

And then there’s an essay called ‘Without Hindsight, We’re here because you were there’ by Salil Tripathi, an Indian writer based in London, who punctures the naïve ideas of that clown Boris Johnson about a post-Brexit Britain simply replacing its European trade with new pacts with Commonwealth countries.

Like a divorcee on the rebound, Britain is now desperately seeking to woo its old flame, the Commonwealth, even as its fifty-one other member-states are not exactly sure what Britain wants, and whether Britain is what they need.  They have all gone their separate ways.  Canada, for examp0le, is keen to protect the North American Free Trade Agreement, which President Donald trump wants to revise, if not tear up.  Australia and New Zealand have long seen their future in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.  (p.47)

Yes, many of us have not forgotten the way the Brits unsentimentally dumped imports of Australian butter and New Zealand lamb when they joined the EU, though it turned out to be the best thing for us in the long run.  And India would not wish to jeopardise its ongoing negotiations for a trade agreement with the EU for a pact with the UK.  This article makes the point that many people in Britain have a very limited view of the past, one that valorises British greatness in movies like ‘Churchill’ and ‘Dunkirk’ while failing to show that there were four Indian companies on those beaches, and more importantly have not acknowledged at all Churchill’s role in the Bengal Famine (1942-44) although this Wikipedia article suggests that the causes are not as straightforward as Tripathi implies.  Whatever about that, the Commonwealth, if it is to have any future at all, needs to be modest and humble in its ambitions and, it seems to me, honest about its history, starting with educating the British people to broaden their history curriculum… Shashi Tharoor makes the same point about British people having a one-sided view of their history in his essay ‘Imperial Amnesia, the messy afterlife of colonialism’ … where I was startled to read that 47% of Brits still think #GoodGrief Australia is still a colony.

There is so much else in this edition:

  • David Fettling’s discouraging essay ‘When Chifley met Nehru, Compromise in the International Order’ which compares Chifley’s inspirational support for newly independent India in 1949 with Theresa May’s short-sighted one-way vision of British investment into India, acting as if modern India is not much-changed from the Raj.  Stuart Ward in his essay ‘The Empire’s New Clothes, Come to Britain and see the crisis’ compares this with the extraordinary success of the Dutch in relinquishing an imperial state of mind’.  
  • South African author Mark Gevisser’s chilling portrait of postcolonial nations in Africa cynically retaining pre-independence Imperial laws that breach human rights, long after Britain has reformed laws about homosexuality.  He exposes the dilemma Britain faces in its new ‘civilising mission’ to have these repressive laws repealed in its former colonies.  (David Cameron suggested that British aid to these countries be conditional on reform, provoking furious rejoinders that his remarks were ‘patronising colonial rhetoric’.)  [But seriously, do we in Australia want to be part of a Commonwealth whose member states permit ‘…multiple human rights violations perpetrated against LGBT people’, including ‘torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, violations of due process rights, and extortion’?  When Nigerian athletes march past at the Games, pause for a moment to remember that they have the world’s harshest anti-gay law outside of Islamic sharia.’ ]
  • Fred D’Aguiar writes about the ongoing legacy of slavery in ‘Imagination as Emancipation, Challenging mental slavery’;
  • Jenny Hocking reminds us that the Brits still won’t hand over Kerr’s papers regarding the Whitlam dismissal;
  • and these and other essays are interwoven with poems, memoirs, reportage and short pieces of fiction.

Highly recommended!

Editors: Julianne Schultz and Jane Camens
Title: Griffith Review #59, Commonwealth Now
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925603293
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing via Brendan FredericksPR

Available from Fishpond: Griffith Review 59 or direct from the Griffith Review, where you can also subscribe or buy digital editions.

On the very last day of 2017, I received an out-of-the-blue email which really delighted me.  It was from an author-illustrator called Christine Hill who hails from New South Wales:

Dear Lisa,
I was surprised to receive an order for my book ‘The Journey of Tom Thumb II’ from a lady in the USA; upon inquiry, she told me she learned about it on the ANZ LitLovers Blog, then of course followed up through my website.

I had to use the search box on the blog to discover where I’d mentioned the book!  It was in my review of Storyland by Catherine McKinnon where I’d come across it when I’d done a bit of online research about the cabin boy Will Martin who accompanied Bass and Flinders on the historic journey which features in the novel.

Well, Christine very kindly sent me a copy of the book, and I am here to tell you that while it is a perfect book for school libraries needing enticing texts for young students of Australian exploration, it is also a genuinely lovely book which adults will enjoy too.  I wouldn’t be surprised if every tourist souvenir shop along the NSW coast between Wollongong and Lake Illawarra is stocking it!

Three things make The Journey of Tom Thumb II so successful.  Firstly, it is a genuine adventure story; secondly, the text and the paintings are meticulously researched; and finally, the paintings and sketches bring the story vividly alive.

This is the blurb:

In one short week exploring the coast south of Botany Bay, Matthew Flinders, George Bass and their servant-boy William Martin had a series of adventures. Setting out to locate a river Henry Hacking had described, they sailed too fast and too far south; their boat was dumped by the surf on the beach at Towradgi; at Lake Illawarra’s entrance they cut hair and trimmed the beards of the friendly Aboriginal people, but ended up fleeing in fear of their lives when a group of men jumped into the boat; a summer storm nearly wrecked their tiny vessel beneath the cliffs of the Royal National Park before they found shelter at Wattamolla …and when they finally ‘discovered’ the Hacking River they were surrounded by sharks!

Christine Hill’s series of paintings and sketches illustrating the story of Bass and Flinders’ journey tells of three young men having the time of their lives in a strange land, and brings to life the famous story of Tom Thumb II for readers of all ages. She is a founding member and Fellow of the Australian Society of Marine Artists, with a special interest in wooden boats, and knows the locations well – the details are beautifully captured and the images skilfully interwoven with Flinders’ own journal entries.

Although it includes brief excerpts from Matthew Flinders’ journal, the actual story of the journey is précised in crisp, contemporary prose, easy enough for capable student readers, yet it’s satisfying reading for adults too:

Towards evening the wind changed direction, allowing them to resume their northward journey.  Just before dark, the breeze they had enjoyed became gusty, to they anchored close to the cliff again.  The sky grew overcast and by ten o’clock the breeze had become a gale, making it impossible to remain where they were.  They sailed away from the cliffs before their little boat could be smashed on the rocks.  The sky was full of lightning, the waves became big seas crashing beneath the grim cliffs, and it took all the men’s strength to keep ahead of the breaking waves.  (p.16)

But for me, it is the paintings that make this little book so special.  As Christine writes in ‘The artist as detective’ at the end of the book, these illustrations involved visiting locations to make sketches and take photos, using Flinders’ journal descriptions to discover changes in the terrain – such as the dunes at Bellambi that have been replaced with a great concrete fishing jetty and car park.  She not only had to imagine how those sand hills must have looked two centuries ago, but also place figures of the men in authentic naval clothing as well as show the Aborigines they met.  As she explains, since there were of course no photos or paintings of this small boat it was also tricky to recreate an authentic version of the Tom Thumb II.  Tracking down an image of HMS Reliance was difficult too because there were no paintings to be found, not until Christine learned that the Reliance was originally called The Prince of Wales…

One of the other aspects that I like is the respectful way that Christine acknowledges that adventurous as the young men were, they were not discovering ‘an unknown land’. Her acknowledgements note that the land was actually very well-known to the local Aboriginal people – who were, and remain, deeply attached to their country.  Their ancestors have traversed and cared for this land during many thousands of years and I would like to acknowledge their history. So when you turn to the double page spread painting depicting the men ‘Heading South on the First Morning’ the composition of the painting highlights three Aborigines watching from the coast and the boat is just a tiny speck in the ocean.   She also acknowledges the fact that the men were able to communicate with the Aborigines they met at Canoe Inlet (Lake Illawarra) because they had travelled to Australia with Bennelong aboard HMS Reliance.  Bennelong was returning to Australia after visiting England with Governor Phillip and it was through the friendship with Bennelong during the long months at sea that the newcomers would have learned something of the language of the Aboriginal people. 

It’s details like this that are essential to teaching ‘honest history’ to both children and adults.

Author: Christine Hill
Title: The Journey of Tom Thumb II, Bass and Flinders explore the Illawarra Coast, March 1796
Publisher:, 2016
ISBN: 9780994470515; 35pp; full page colour illustrations and sketches.
Review copy courtesy of Christine Hill

Available from and from the State Library of NSW and at the University of Wollongong’s UniShop

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