Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 6, 2020

Six Degrees of Separation: from Normal People, to….

This month’s #6Degrees starts with Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which I haven’t read yet.  But whether the title is ironic or not, the obvious thing for me to do is to introduce a character who tests our ideas of what ‘normal’ might be…

Voilá! Professor Kien from Auto-da-Fé, by Elias Canetti, translated by C.V. Wedgewood.

As I wrote in my review:

Set in Vienna and Paris, the story begins with a chance meeting between Professor Kien and a clever little boy.  The boy has inadvertently stood between Kien and his view of the books in a bookshop.  The professor goes for walks early in the morning before the bookshops open so that he won’t be tempted to buy any more – he already has a library of 25,000 books and anyway, the books in the bookshops are inferior and not worthy of him.

He himself was the owner of the most important private library in the whole of this great city. He carried a minute portion of it with him wherever he went. His passion for it, the only one which he had permitted himself during a life of austere and exacting study, moved him to take special precautions. Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase. Fortunately, the great number of the book shops did not open until after eight o’clock. (p11)

But still, he’s not happy to have his view obstructed.

Of course, we booklovers might regard this passion for books as perfectly normal… as is the Professor’s interest in Sinology, which brings me to a book set in China…

Australian author Nicholas Jose lived and worked as an academic in China in the 1980s and wrote his superb novel Avenue of Eternal Peace back in 1990.  I see in my 2019 review that I read it just as the Hong Kong protests over the Extradition Bill were ramping up.  How right they were to be concerned: while the rest of the world is preoccupied with events in America, the Chinese have passed a new security law that threatens the Rule of Law and the human rights of defenders.  This is a very worrying development for Hong Kong…

A search of my own posts reveals that there are about 140 posts that discuss human rights in one way or another, many of them by Indigenous authors.  One of the most well known books won the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Human Rights Award for Literature… it’s Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1988) by Ruby Langford Ginibi.  As I said in my review:

It is studied in schools and universities as a record of rural and urban indigenous life in an era of significant change but it is read and enjoyed as a great story: wise, funny, poignant and frank about the difficulties of indigenous life as well as Langford’s own mistakes.

There’s nothing funny about breaches of human rights, yet some Indigenous writers have created superb black humour out of Australia’s Black History.  One that I referenced just recently in my post announcing Indigenous Literature Week in July is Marie Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act (2014).  As I said in my post, if the editor of The Age had read Munkara’s novel or even just read my review, he wouldn’t have said such foolish things in the middle of the #BlackLivesMatter phenomenon. If I had my way A Most Peculiar Act would be on school reading lists all over the country because I regard it as essential reading for all Australians.

If I search ‘essential reading’ in my posts, *chuckle* I come to the conclusion that I have used this term rather a lot.  But still, Journalism at the Crossroads, which Margaret Simons wrote in 2012, is even more essential now.  She wrote it before the election of That Dreadful Man in America, and before anyone knew how much damage his use of the term ‘Fake News’ could do.

Margaret Simons has another book currently in the marketplace, one which demonstrates the value of long-form journalism in the form of Quarterly Essays.  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by current affairs at the moment, but the planet is no less important today than when Greta Thunberg brought everyone out on the streets, and Simon’s essay Cry Me a River, by (Quarterly Essay #77) about our own patch of the environment along the Murray-Darling River, is important too.

So that’s my #6Degrees: from domestic issues to issues of national importance!

Next month’s book is with What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt.

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 6, 2020

The Schoonermaster’s Dance, by Alan Gould

Keen to support both authors and bookshops, I’ve just bought Chris Flynn’s Mammoth and Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron, which caused a minor crisis on the A-G Australian authors section of the TBR.  No room.  I was sorely tempted to read one or other of them right away, but The Schoonermaster’s Dance waved at me, reminding me that I’d shelved it back in 2013 after a successful hunt for Alan Gould’s backlist after I discovered The Seaglass Spiral.

So here we are, and what an absorbing book it is, offering much to think about besides the obvious theme of obsession.

Forty-something Sarah Tilber is friends with Jenn, and has been since their schooldays in England.  The story of how Sarah’s obsession with her ancestor Charles Harling Tilber gets out of hand is narrated by Jenn… who learns most of it through Sarah’s letters and postcards and the occasional visit.  Jenn is the wife of a schoolmaster in England, and Sarah is the wife of a librarian in Canberra.

Or was.  The story begins with Sarah’s mystifying disappearance.  Her father’s death severed her sense of connection to things, and so she left her job at the NLA (where she was a librarian too); she left Kieran, her kindly but claustrophobia-inducing husband; and she set off on a lengthy odyssey to find the traces of this long-dead great-uncle.  And somehow, with the circumstances unknown, she disappears in July 1990, somewhere between the border of Peru and Chile.

Jenn, who mourns her still, tells Sarah’s story to ensure that her friend has a presence in this world.  Sarah had no children (and seemed not to like them much either) and nothing remains of her possessionless life except—like her ancestor—in the traces of other people’s lives.  So in the same way that Sarah was wholly absorbed in ‘establishing’ the fact of Charlie Tilber’s life, so too is Jenn, using the same word ‘establish’ to assert the importance of her narration of Sarah’s life.  Despite her misgivings about her friend’s absorption in the past life of an ordinary person, Jenn has taken on the same behaviour.

CHT (as Sarah often abbreviates him) was a man who spent his life at sea, and died alone in an aged care home.  But by a series of lucky events, Sarah meets a man who served on the same ship as a boy, and this creates a sense of connection to the great days of sail.  A newspaper clipping about a tragic voyage exists, and Sarah uses this to imagine reasons for the haunting that seemed to have been part of CHT’s melancholy persona.  The tragedy also enables Sarah to invest her great-uncle with a kind of tragic hero status.

Jenn, describing this situation, notes that her friend is detached from the present and the real people in her life (not just Kieran the hang-dog husband but also an uncle, a sister and some nephews in England).  The way that she seems wholly absorbed by the past becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the obsessive amateur sleuthing that goes on among many family historians.

Gould illustrates the pointlessness of this obsession with a telling moment.  Sarah visits Jenn in school where she teaches along with her husband, and in the library Sarah immediately locates an atlas.  She uses it to demonstrate that CHT can be located at a given moment in time on the latitude and longitude of an ocean, because of her research in his ship’s logbooks, which she has committed to memory.  Gould could have been writing about me when he describes how this obsession tests a friendship.  Sarah talks about nothing else, except for very occasional brief moments when she remembers to be polite.  The Schoonermaster’s Dance purports not to be a book about Jenn, but the reader can deduce that there must have been events in her own present, living family that would have merited the interest of a real friend.

Jenn doesn’t just feel a bit neglected by Sarah’s lack of interest in her and her children, she resents the demands that Sarah makes.  The long letters and postcards about CHT require Jenn to be interested in CHT too; she has to read it all, respond to the letters and remember it.  (If you have a friend interested in FamHist you will know that it is fatal to admit that you’ve forgotten some aspect of their, a-hem, fascinating research, because you will be told about it in excruciating detail all over again.)

Jenn needs to set boundaries to deal with the demands that Sarah places on her, but she doesn’t know how… and this is something that’s been on my mind a bit lately because a Facebook Friend posted the graphic below.  There was a time in my life when I realised that I was dealing with someone who had a serious personality disorder, and somewhere online I found not only an eerily accurate picture of her behaviour but also strategies for how to deal with it.  It saved my sanity at the time.

Well, Jenn needs to set those boundaries so that she can escape from Sarah’s obsession, but when Sarah visits her, Jenn ends up leaving her husband alone altogether, even (chastely) sleeping in the guest bedroom with Sarah so that she can listen to her friend go on and on and on about CHT.  Jenn even gets drawn into it a bit, though that was probably the wine they shared.

What Jenn eventually realises is that Sarah’s behaviour is triggered by a kind of faith that it will matter somehow.  As if finding significance in her great-uncle’s life, will do the same for hers.

‘I don’t know what I will come to, Jenn,’ she said, after an interval of silence.
‘Is that Charles Harling Tilber or Sarah Tilber?’ I asked.  I raised myself on my elbow and tried to make out her face against the whiteness of the pillow.  It was indistinct, a darkness around the eyes, whose expression I could not distinguish.
‘Both,’ the indistinct patch replied, and we were silent for some minutes.
Again I could have tried to introduce the subject of my own feelings.  Instead, I said, ‘It is about belief though, isn’t it? Belief that when you have turned the data into a retrieved presence, it will matter somehow.’
She wouldn’t answer. (p.197)

Well, we all want to feel significant.  Yet most of us are not, except to our family and friends.  What Gould seems to be saying is that, yes, there can be traces of a life that otherwise left no issue (children, possessions, creative endeavour) but that the pursuit of them leads to nowhere.  In Sarah’s case, to oblivion, because her journey ends in her own disappearance.

In the aftermath of Sarah’s disappearance, Jenn dislikes herself for her irritation with Sarah.  She arranges the final missives from Sarah in a particular way almost as an act of contrition:

…I believe my ordering represents the emotional truth of how far my friend was successful in ‘inhabiting more than her own time’, and the degree to which, alas, she was also deluded into thinking this was entirely possible.  And it also expresses my own perplexity at her loss, my unhappiness that Sarah’s life seems to end with her energies, her intelligence, her pursuit of truth, somehow misused. (p.230)

Gould’s writing is as always a joy to read.  This is Sarah, in a letter describing one of her sources to Jenn:

Nina Kovacs Musson is now a fond old lady in her early seventies with a very brown, lined face framed by short straight hair which has the soft colour of a cambric pillowslip.  She is slim and sits in a chair with a willed uprightness.  Her voice shows evidence of some rigorous elocution lessons early upon her arrival as a refugee in Australia, though I could detect the trace of her mid-European accent behind it.  Her husband, a semi-retired sheepfarmer, is equally deep-tanned, white-haired, and, for all that he remained out of our way, he did so with a kind of ‘suave tweediness’.  He is as patrician as Australians get, and she has the aspect of a middle-European of ‘good family’, sharpened by those lessons in the proper speaking of English.  (p.213)

This wonderful book is long out of print, but there seem to be copies at eBay and AbeBooks, or you could be lucky like I was, at Brotherhood Books.

Author: Alan Gould
Title: The Schoonermaster’s Dance
Cover illustration and design by Darian Causby, Harper Collins Design Studio
Publisher: Flamingo, Harper Collins (Australia), 2001 (first published 2000)
ISBN: 9780732266547, pbk., 269 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from BrotherhoodBooks.

 Indigenous Literature Week 2020 at ANZ Litlovers 

Cultural warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some references in this blog include images or names of people now deceased.

For information about ILW 2020, click here.


Thanks to everyone who is participating in 2020 Indigenous Literature Week – I hope that hosting this celebration helps to make more people aware of indigenous writing!

You are welcome to add your review/s early (or late). I will be monitoring this page until the end of July.

When you are ready to share your reviews, please use comments below:


  • your name & the name of your blog (if you have one) and the URL where your review is posted (your blog, or your GoodReads or Library Thing account).

(Please do not add Amazon consumer reviews because they generate intrusive Amazon ads and I don’t care to support Amazon advertising).

  • If you don’t have a blog or a GoodReads/Library Thing account, then please share what you thought about the book you read in the comments section at the bottom of this post.
  • Or, if you’d like to write a review of greater length, contact me at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom about writing a guest review to be hosted on the ANZ LitLovers blog.

I will gather these links to generate a list which will be added under the headings below on this page. I will also add any new titles that crop up to the permanent Indigenous Reading List.

PS If you haven’t signed up to participate yet, or want to know more about ILW, click on the link at the top of this page.

2020 Reviews (in alphabetical order by author)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors

Ida West, a Tasmanian Aborigine, born on the Cape Barren Island Reserve


Maori Authors


And from elsewhere…


Further reading

Cultural warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some references in this blog include images or names of people now deceased.

Due to COVID_19, the National NAIDOC Committee has decided to postpone NAIDOC Week 2020 (5 July – 12 July) in the interest of safety for Indigenous communities…


Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers is a virtual event that has always been about encouraging Australians to read and learn from Indigenous authors…


ANZ LitLovers will again be hosting Indigenous Literature Week in July (5 to 12 July), to celebrate all forms of Indigenous Writing.

I hope that many readers will join in and read a book by an Indigenous author.  But even if you don’t have time or opportunity to do that, at least you can read the reviews.

This week, there was a newspaper editorial that asserted that Australia did not have a legacy of slavery like America.  Clearly, that editor had never read Not Just Black and White, by Tammy Williams and Lesley Williams, which won the David Unaipon Award in 2015 and told the history of Indigenous people being legally unable to withdraw from work for which they were unpaid. Nor had he read Marie Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act (2014) which refers to the Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918 which authorised Indigenous people being taken from their families and re-named; being educated in a way that facilitated their exploitation; being forced to work without wages; having their movements and relationships restricted; and having stolen from them, their human rights to their language, religion and culture.  While Australia did not have private ownership and trade in human beings as America did, only the most narrow definition of slavery could justify that editor’s assertion.

  While I would be the first to say that no one can read everything that’s published, it doesn’t take long to read reviews of Indigenous literature which clearly explain these issues.  And I would have thought that every journalist who has the temerity to comment on Indigenous issues would make it their business to keep up.

Educating ourselves about Australia’s Black History is not an optional extra.  It is a moral obligation.

Reading the reviews of Indigenous-authored books that have been featured during Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers every year since 2012 is not the only place to start educating yourself, but it’s an easy place to start because the reviews lead to the authentic, authoritative voices of Indigenous authors.

While I would like Australians to participate by reading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature, participants are welcome to join in reading indigenous literature from anywhere in the world, from Canada to Guyana, from Native American to Basque to Pashtun or Ixcatec. (For a list of indigenous people of the world, see this list at Wikipedia.) As to how we define indigenous, that’s up to indigenous people themselves.  If they identify as indigenous, well, that’s good enough for me, (and if you want to see how foolish it is to label people, see the first quotation here.)

Thanks to contributions from a fantastic bunch of participants in previous years of ILW the reading list is now extensiveFor reasons of space and time and personal preference my reading list is mostly literary fiction titles by indigenous Australian and New Zealand authors but participants are free to choose any form —short story, memoir, poetry, biography, whatever takes your fancy!  The permanent link to my reading list (and to other useful reading lists) is on the ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List in the top menu. (There is a list of Indigenous Women Writers there too.)

Thanks to all those who joined in last year and have encouraged me to host the week again.


  • If you’d like to participate simply say so in comments below.  Tell us what you think you might read in the comments box to help spread awareness of what’s available. .  You never know, you might encourage someone else to try the book too! (You can always change your mind later if you want to).
  • Bookmark the page for Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers 2020 so that you can use the comments box there either
    • to provide the URL of your review on your blog, your Goodreads page or your Library Thing page, or
    • to share your thoughts as a comment and then I’ll add it to the reading list.
  • If you would like to write a guest review of your book for ANZLL I will happily host it here too.

From the TBR I plan to read these titles from Australia:

  • On A Barbarous Coast by Craig Cormack and Harold Ludwick (a Bulgun Warra man);
  • Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina (from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region);
  • Benevolence by Julie Janson (a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Nation);
  • Tripping with Jenny by Mudrooroo a.k.a. Colin Johnson (published posthumously, see my obituary);
  • Australia Day, by Stan Grant (a “self-identified Indigenous Australian who counts himself among the Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Dharrawal and Irish”); and
  • (on reserve at the library), The Wounded Sinner by Gus Henderson, (whose people are from the Flinders Ranges region in SA)

and from New Zealand (if I get time)

  • The Matriarch (The Mahana Family #1) by Maori author Witi Ihimaera

Most of the above titles can be purchased, but publishers don’t generally make it easy to find (or find out about) indigenous writing.  I find the most useful sources for indigenous titles are

  • UQP – use their Browse Books menu to find David Unaipon Award winners, titles from the Blak & Bright Festival, and Black Australian Writing;
  • Wakefield Press – choose browse by category from the top RHS side of the home page (under the search box).  Not all these titles are by indigenous authors so choose carefully;
  • and indigenous publishing houses Magabala Books and Jukurrpa/IAD Press

(There is, of course, AustLit’s Black Words, but there’s not much point in me supplying a link to a subscription-only resource.)

PS Please use the #IndigLitWeek hashtag on Twitter.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 2, 2020

No Small Shame, by Christine Bell

It’s just a coincidence, but Theresa Smith has just published an author talk with Sandie Docker that discusses ‘the power of feel-good-fiction’, and today I finished reading a book that fits into that category.  Christine Bell’s No Small Shame is a book with a ‘feel-good’ ending, but it also deals with issues that haven’t gone away since the historical period in which the novel is set.  The central character is torn between love, pity and duty; she has to deal with religious prejudice; and her choices are constrained by grinding poverty, lack of education, gender inequality, and her responsibility to her children.

Sandie Docker believes that

…at its heart, feel-good fiction can transport us from our own worries and remind us that there is hope. It leaves us feeling that love will prevail. That with friends by our side we can cope with anything. That life is a joyous gift to cherish. Feel-good fiction can take us away from our own problems, snuggle us up in a warm literary hug, and remind us that no matter what’s going on, there is promise. Promise that we will find our way through.

At a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges not only on a personal scale, but globally, the need to be reminded of the good in humanity, the beauty within our own lives, the love that exists between partners, or friends, or families, is tangible.

No Small Shame, despite its flaws, ends on a satisfying note of hope.  It’s a love story with a feisty Scots heroine against the backdrop of WW1 and the tragedy of ruined men in a land not made fit for heroes at all.  What is well done is the realistic portrayal of the tug between love and duty; the way hope and forgiveness can betray common sense, and the authentic depiction of poverty in the early 20th century…

I remember a weekend away in a miner’s hut in Woods Point many years ago.  It had what seemed like a romantic simplicity: a one-roomed shack with a dirt floor, no running water and no electricity, but the simplicity would have soon worn very thin for me.  The shack was untouched since the days when this novel was set: when water had to be fetched and heated for a once-weekly bath; when a woman had two dresses only; when pullovers were reknitted with supplementary yarn scraps to fit a growing child; when you grew your own produce or you went without; and when being born with any kind of disability was a disaster for a farmer’s son in the backblocks.

Mary O’Donnell, born into a Catholic mining family, endures this life when her family migrates from Scotland to Wonthaggi in Victoria, where her father works in the State Coal Mine (now a tourist attraction, the only historic coal mine experience in the Southern Hemisphere).  As a teenager in Bothwellhaugh, Mary had fallen for the handsome dreamer Liam Merrilees, and her family joins his in Australia in search of a better life.  She dreams of education and a career as a nurse or a teacher; he doesn’t know what he wants except that he doesn’t want to follow his father down into the mine.  And by the time she meets up again with him in Wonthaggi, he has lost any interest in her.  He just wants to get away from the dreariness of his life.

Mary’s on-off inconclusive responses to his diffidence are far too long-winded and repetitive, and since the reader already knows from the blurb that there’s an unexpected pregnancy and a reluctant Liam for a husband, by the time we reach page 114 when he gets drunk and they finally do the deed, it comes as an anti-climax.  But the novel improves: trapped into marriage Liam takes off to enlist at the first opportunity, leaving Mary to escape her bullying mother by taking refuge on a friend’s farm—where she soon learns how awful marriage can be because Frank Sloy is a brute and her friend Winnie is a slattern.  It is only when tragedy strikes that Mary gets back home, (and no, it’s not the tragedy that this period of history would make predictable).

So things look bleak for Mary but a friend offers help, and life looks up when she gets to Melbourne, discovers kindness in a boarding-house, and starts on an apprenticeship that could lead to financial independence.  A neat twist in the tale shatters all this hope, and the rest of the novel is an absorbing portrayal of the dilemma in which many women found themselves.  Though some of the characterisation relies on stereotypes of saints (e.g. the landlady Pearl) and sinners (e.g. Mary’s mother Maw), the characterisation of Mary is excellent, especially the portrayal of her complex emotions.

BTW The author must have been astonished to find that her book which in passing references the Spanish Flu, hit the shops at the same time as the pandemic!

Author: Christine Bell
Title: No Small Shame
Cover design: Christabella Designs
Publisher: Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press)
ISBN: 9781920727901
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $32.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 31, 2020

Rise and Shine, by Patrick Allington

Back in 2010 when this blog was still very young, I reviewed Patrick Allington’s first book, Figurehead which had been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award.  It remains in my memory as an outstanding novel which tackled some complex moral issues in an entertaining way.  (Which is mostly what I like my books to do).

Ten years later comes Rise and Shine which—though set in a dystopean world after an apocalypse—again wrestles with complex issues.  Amongst other things, it’s about leadership, and how it can lose its way, even when it’s motivated by the common good.

‘Rise’ and ‘Shine’ are two cities on what’s left of the earth after the catastrophe which left it bereft of animal and plant life, and subject to toxic rain.

No one who survived could really say whether it was a single big catastrophe, or a series of smaller messes, or if it was just the slow grind of excess.  Probably it was all of that.  Maybe Russia dropped a bomb on San Francisco.  Maybe it didn’t.  Maybe the Nile became poisoned.  Maybe it didn’t.  Maybe the last of the ice caps turned yellow.  Maybe they didn’t.  Maybe Vitamin C turned out to be carcinogenic. Maybe it didn’t.  Governments of all brands, the UN, the anti-UN, the World Bank, FIFA all spoke loud and long about what needed to happen, but by then no one could tell information from lies.

The details hardly matter now.  The earth, pushed past its limits, began to eat its own.  Most of the eight billion victims died over a period of a few months.  Quickly, slowly: these things are relative.  Living another day, and another, depended on who you were and where you were. (p.1)

Drones and robots have established that there’s nothing left in the barren landscape, only these two cities, founded by the charismatic Barton and Walker and their four offsiders, Cleave, Hail, Curtin and Holland.  Thirty years after they found each other in extremis, they are still alive, though sick, in the way that everyone is.

Cleave lives in self-imposed isolation, and is the Chief Scientist in Rise.  With the assistance of Malee, who collects and analyses information for her, Cleave interprets data for toxicity, pathogens and salinity in the precious water supply, and she observes the environment far and wide for any signs of emerging plant or animal life.  So science has been elevated to an important and respected position in this society.

Curtin is the Chief Medical Officer, tasked with keeping the population alive. But increasingly her time is focussed on the health of Walker, attending to his tumours and sores.  Minions help him dress in garb that conceals his wasted frame, because it is important that the figurehead looks the part.  But Walker thinks it’s more important that she attend to others.  This is a society whose leader is focussed on the common good.

Hail is Walker’s Chief of Staff, an ebullient man who deliberately provokes Walker each day because that is what brings out the best in him.  The dialogue and black humour between these two (as in Figurehead) is brisk and lively and whisks the plot along.  Irritating as Hail is, he is good at reading people and managing them.

Barton—the bravest of them all—and the leader of Shine, is off-stage in the early part of the book.  Thirty years ago when she and Walker conceived a survival plan, she had said that they would need an enemy to make it work.  She offers to lead that enemy, and so evolves a perpetual war between the cities that, bizarrely, is their means of survival.  Holland (who goes to war ‘miked-up’), is the commander of the Walker forces, leading elaborately staged engagements with the forces from Shine.  Film of these engagements is broadcast at meal times, to satisfy the citizens’ need to be moved by human suffering.  Despite the graphic footage, no one is actually meant to die…

Each film ends with the message ‘Let’s be tender’, warning citizens against violence because they can see the suffering on screen.  (They can’t avoid it.  It’s everywhere.)

So this society is built on disinformation—and the credulous (who enjoy these films) believe it all and shout down any opposition.  Geraldina has some hesitant doubts… She tells her husband Flake that Imma from the office has seen the amputee from ‘The Battle of Bare Hills’ walking around in plain daylight on his own two feet, and that Imma says that the films aren’t real.

‘All that blood and still she doesn’t believe what her own eyes tell her.’ […] If the war wasn’t real, none of us would care.  That’s basic biology, right? Right? If none of us cared, we’d all be dead.  I mean, what on earth is she talking about?’

Geraldina promptly acquiesces.  (Flake sneaks off to the equivalent of a porn shop for a close-up photo from ‘The Battle of Sergeant Sala’.)

There’s another droll sequence in which journalist Ajok (skilled in the art of smiling and not asking awkward questions) interviews Walker (equally skilled in detecting her next move). The interview is a PR event for the upcoming peace talks between President Heelton of Rise and President Rant of Shine.  Everyone knows the talks will be inconclusive. It’s a Catch-22 situation: Rise is insisting (and has for the last thirty years) that there must be two meals a day, so by definition there must be films of battles to satisfy this hunger.  I couldn’t help thinking of American presidential rallies when I read about the bunting and bands that accompany the arrival of the two puppet presidents…

As the novel progresses, it becomes unputdownable.  Surveillance systems go into hyperdrive when the status quo is threatened and the suppression of dissidents reminds us of Orwell and Huxley.  Written long before COVID_19 was on the horizon, Rise and Shine is a reminder to beware of autocratic saviours whose mantra is the common good…

Author: Patrick Allington
Title: Rise and Shine
Cover design by Scribe, artwork: Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 17 by Hilma af Klint
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2020
ISBN: 9781925849769, pbk., 233 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe

Available from Scribe and all good bookstores

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 29, 2020

Melting Moments, by Anna Goldsworthy

‘Melting Moments’ are super-sweet biscuits, which are totally delicious but cloyingly sweet if you eat too many of them.  They are a good metaphor for Anna Goldsworthy’s venture into writing fiction.

Ruby Jenkins marries in patriotic haste during WW2, because that’s what women did in those days.  (Or so this book would have you believe).  She has been to charm school, learned the importance of having a feminine presence, and is ready to please a man because that’s how things are.  (Or so this book would have you believe.)  She has a tiresome caricature of a mother-in-law, who conforms to all the stereotypes, because that’s how mothers-in-law were.  (Or so this book would have you believe.) And eventually, she has a Whitlam-era daughter, who rebels against conservative norms and has A Life of Her Own.  (Or so this book would have you believe.)  On and off, Ruby questions her missed opportunities, which mostly revolve around men (and not, for instance, on whether she might have taken advantage of the Whitlam reforms to get herself the education that she missed out on, and then take up the late-start career that launched so many of us into independence and self-fulfilment).

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique aside, we all know women who did not conform to these stereotypes, and Melting Moments would be a much more interesting novel if the characterisation cast a wider net to include them.

(My late MIL, born in 1924, for instance, was at Monash at the same time as The Spouse, and graduated with her Bachelor of Social Work in 1978, thanks to Whitlam who gave women these opportunities by making university free. I should add that she had left school early to go to work, not because her family was hard up, but because of the shortage of manpower during WW2.)

There is a novel waiting to be written about the tectonic shifts in social norms that took place in the sixties and seventies.  The relationship between mothers who missed out and daughters who didn’t is also well worth exploring in fiction.  But the relentlessly domestic Melting Moments is not that book.

Nobody else thinks so.  See

I wonder what Accidental Feminist Jane Caro would think about our era being characterised in this way.  I wish she would review this book…

Image credit: Melting Moments biscuits: Australian Women’s Weekly Food,

Author: Anna Goldsworthy
Title: Melting Moments
Cover design by Sandy Cull
Publisher: Black Inc, (Schwarz Books), 2020
ISBN: 9781863959988
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 28, 2020

The Cockroach, by Ian McEwan

Books comes into our lives in all sorts of ways: The Cockroach, if I keep it on my shelves, is always going to remind me of Australia’s 2020 horror bushfire season.  I don’t remember how I heard about a struggling bookshop called Candelo Books in Bega, NSW, but my heart went out to them and I rang them up and ordered some books.  I don’t imagine that my $65.68 made much difference in the overall scheme of things, but I am very pleased to see that they are still trading, even with COVID_19 adding to the woes of retailers all over the world.

And I’m also pleased that I have taken Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach off their hands because I suspect that whatever prospects there were for selling it in 2019, in post-Brexit 2020, only the most loyal of McEwan’s fans are likely to be interested in it.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a cockroach which morphs into a cynical populist prime minister of Britain.  Like Kafka’s infinitely more thoughtful Metamorphosis in which Gregor Samsa wakes one day to find he has inexplicably become ‘monstrous vermin’, so too McEwan’s Jim Sams initially struggles for control of his new body.  But, being clever but by no means profound, he doesn’t reflect on his life, his relationships, his responsibilities and his incapacity to fulfil them, as Gregor does.  He is the most powerful man in Britain, and though completely unfit for the job, he sets out to deliver to the British people the stupid transformation of their economy that they voted for.  The word ‘Brexit’ isn’t mentioned—the catastrophe cynically put in place by the prime minister who had called the referendum resigned immediately and was never heard of again—is about an economic system called Reversalism, in which employees pay to work, and are subsidised for consuming. The reverse flow of money offered the enticing prospect that the entire economic system, even the nation itself, [would] be purified, purged of absurdities, waste and injustice. 

In a brilliant coup, the Reversalist press managed to present their cause as a patriotic duty and a promise of national revival and purification: everything that was wrong with the country, including inequalities of wealth and opportunity, the north–south divide and stagnating wages, was caused by the direction of financial flow. If you loved your country and its people, you should upend the existing order. (p.29)

There’s really not much more to say.  For me, the satire wore thin well before the end of Part Two, and there are four parts, mercifully concluding at a hundred pages.

You will find many more enticing novellas over at Madame Bibliophile Recommends who is running her annual Novella a Day in May…

Author: Ian McEwan
Title: The Cockroach
Cover design by Susan Dean
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, (Penguin Random House UK), 2019
ISBN: 9781529112924
Source: personal library, purchased from Candelo Books, Bega NSW, $16.99


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 25, 2020

An Equal Stillness, by Francesca Kay

I’m in the habit of reading something from the non-fiction shelves during the day, and a novel at night, and so when memory stirred as I was reading Stella Bowen’s autobiography Drawn from Life, I hunted out Francesca Kay’s An Equal Stillness from the TBR.  This novel explores the same dilemma in fiction that featured in real life in the Sensational Snippet that I posted from Bowen’s book.  As the bookcover blurb says: Artist, lover, wife, mother: can one woman be them all? To be more specific, how do women reconcile being a loving, supportive spouse with the need to advance their own careers, especially if they have a special gift?

An Equal Stillness is a novel but it reads like an intimate biography, charting an artist’s professional and personal life from a close perspective.  It’s clear-eyed and not blind to the subject’s faults, but it’s gentle and not quite detached.  It’s not until the very end of the book that the reason for this is revealed, though some readers may guess it beforehand.  What they may also not guess is that this is not a fictionalised retelling of a real artist’s life… Jennet Mallow is an entirely fictional creation and using the form of a biography is the author’s way of making the story convincing.

Jennet was born in England’s north, in the fictional village of Litton Kirkdale in the upper valley of the River Aire, to a mother disappointed by life.  Lorna wanted to escape her parents, and—this is not quite as cynical as it sounds—she married, fully expecting the man to die on the battlefields of WW1.  Her father had died when she was 13, and her brother had died at Ypres.  The people she loved had died, and she expected that Richard would die too.  But he didn’t, and he didn’t want to stay in the army despite his family’s traditions.  He retreats to a quiet, humble life as a cleric, with a wife frustrated by his lack of ambition and their dull domestic life.

Somehow, from this blighted family, Jennet becomes an artist of renown. As a child she made art in a hidden space behind her bed, and untaught, she wins a scholarship to an art school in London in 1945.  Thriving in the cultural milieu she marries another artist, David Heaton, older than her and already becoming successful.  But before long she gives birth to a son called Ben, and her art takes second place to domestic life.  When they go to Spain because they are fed up with dreary postwar England, she—pregnant again—is content with her role:

Those first few months in Santiago stayed in her mind as a time of happiness, and they mark the start of her most fecund periods as an artist.

There was money enough to live on but not to spare.  David’s, then, was the lion’s share of the expensive art materials.  This was fair, Jennet conceded; she had made nothing from her painting but David had, and was on the brink of making more.  His professional world encompassed dealers and collectors; she was nowhere near this stage.  But in Santiago she had time, now that Ben could play on his own or guarded by adoring girls, and space, in the cool square room she shared with David.  Although his nearness could be intimidating and his critical presence sharp, Jennet felt free enough to paint again for the first time since Ben was born.   To start with she let David keep the canvas — it was pricily shipped out to him by a colleague at Stockwell — and instead made use of whatever she could glean: cardboard, bits of broken boxes, driftwood.  On these she painted the green jug they used for wine, a blue bowl full of lemons, the upturned hulls of fishing boats, the slither of a net of anchovies and, over and over again, the sea in all its nuances as she saw it through her upstairs window.  (p.71)

Expats join them, and David begins drinking heavily.  But when he goes back to England for an exhibition of his work, he takes something of hers with him, almost as a kindly afterthought.  Unexpectedly, Jennet’s work is taken up by an influential art dealer called Patrick Mann.  He visits, and he encourages her.  But the drudgery of children and keeping the household going after the birth of twin girls Sarah and Vanessa gets harder… even as the urge to create gets stronger.  The issue of women’s dreams and ambitions being subservient to a man of lesser talent looms larger in the novel but Jennet loves David despite his flaws, and they move back to England primarily because of his drinking problem.

From there the novel becomes a bit like a soap opera with infidelities that morph into catastrophe, but there is a truth about these kinds of lives, and the writing about art is superb. What is also superb is the attention to the compromises Jennet makes with herself:

…there was, even in the hardest day, the promise of reward. As the diver groping though the murk sustains himself with images of pirate’s gold shining through the dark bones of a shipwreck, so Jennet clung to the prospect of the time she set aside for work.  She used to play a private game: points scored for no mishap or time saved by some cleverly cut corner; five points if Sarah did not spill her drink, eight if Vanessa’s sheet was dry, ten if the preparation of a stew today would do for soup tomorrow.  An extra minute earned for every point, on a good day a whole hour won to add to those she let herself spend painting.  Mabel Harris was part of this private deal as well; the money Jennet paid her was justified if it bought time for work, which in its turn would earn enough to generate more time.  That the argument was circular she knew, but she saw no way to break it, unromantic and prosaic as it was.  The notion of an artist starving willingly for art might make good fiction, but it was never Jennet’s.  Jennet was a realist, saddled with three children who had not chosen to be born and must be fed and clothed and shod, and a husband who did not always want to share the burden.  These were not ideal conditions for an artist.  But, however sorely it was tried, Jennet kept her faith in herself, quietly, doggedly and in the meantime cooked three meals a day and cleaned her little house, painting in every spare second she could find.  (p.144)

An Equal Stillness won the Orange Award for New Writers in 2009.

Author: Francesca Kay
Title: An Equal Stillness
Publisher: Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books, 2009 (first published in 2009 by Weidenfled & Nicolson)
ISBN: 9780753825655, pbk., 324 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings $22.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 24, 2020

Father of the Lost Boys, by Yuot A Alaak

Father of the Lost Boys is the true story of Mecak Ajang Alaak, a teacher who led 20,000 of the Lost Boys of South Sudan to safety during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1987-2005).  This memoir is written by his son, who came to Australia with his parents as a refugee in 1995.  This is the blurb:

During the Second Sudanese Civil War, thousands of South Sudanese boys were displaced from their villages or orphaned in attacks from northern government troops. Many became refugees in Ethiopia. There, in 1989, teacher and community leader Mecak Ajang Alaak assumed care of the Lost Boys in a bid to protect them from becoming child soldiers. So began a four-year journey from Ethiopia to Sudan and on to the safety of a Kenyan refugee camp. Together they endured starvation, animal attacks and the horrors of landmines and aerial bombardment. This eyewitness account by Mecak Ajang Alaak’s son, Yuot, is the extraordinary true story of a man who never ceased to believe that the pen is mightier than the gun.

The book begins with the story of an idyllic childhood in the village of Majak in Sudan.  It is 1952 and Ajang is born into a Dinka life where family is paramount and the foundation upon which the tribe stands.  He turns out to be gifted and the elders ensure that he gets a good education, ultimately attending Rumbek Seconday School—the best school in South Sudan—because they hope he will make a terrific translator for them in their negotiations with the Anglo-Egyptian rules that govern Sudan.  However, in 1963, when he is nineteen and in his second year there, war erupts between north and south.   The school is regarded as a breeding ground for future leaders of the south and it is shut down, but Ajang and his fellow students walk for over three months through a barren landscape to Ethiopia, where the UN accepts them as refugees and after two years Ajang is able to finish his education with distinction.

When a peace agreement is reached in 1972, he returns to his village, and soon after he begins a career in teaching at the Rumbek Secondary School where he had been a student.

He has a burning desire to educate every boy and girl in the country.  His belief in education is almost religious.  As he sees it, education is the only solution to the problems that his people and his country face.  He has hope for the future of his people and country.  His dream is to build hundreds of schools, technical colleges and universities across South Sudan. (p.19)

It was not to be.  In 1983, trouble erupts again.  The Islamic north imposes Sharia Law and Arabic on the south.  The south rebels, in protest against a religion they reject and a language they don’t understand.  Ajang is away in Khartoum at the time, organising supplies for southern schools, but Yuot, his mother and siblings escape the fighting on foot, surviving the journey because uncles help with carrying the young children.  They hear nothing of Ajang for three years, and then learn that he is a political prisoner in Malakal in the Upper Nile.  Five months later, they hear a radio report that he has been executed.

Yuot is only seven, but he now carries his father’s legacy.

To the other children in the village, I cease to be one of them.  I become the boy whose father has died.  I begin to wonder what I have done to deserve this, but really don’t have time for self-pity.  I must take care of my family, do whatever it takes to defend them.  My spirit is strong, my age and size irrelevant. (p.25)

While the memoir is primarily an homage to his heroic father, his mother Preskilla is also an amazing woman.  She is courageous and enterprising, somehow keeping the remnants of her family together in circumstances that would crush a lesser spirit.  Even when the report turns out not to be true and Ajang is restored to them, the situation is still desperate and she is the one who enables their survival because she is the one who adapts to a different life and learns to make saleable goods so that they can eat.

Yuot’s own experience as one of the Lost Boys dragooned into becoming a child soldier is only a small part of this book.  But an incident with his commander, a seasoned fighter who is also a conservationist and refuses to shoot a pride of lions, teaches Yuot that all kinds of people must drop their dreams, hobbies and ambitions to pick up a weapon.  Each must do what each must do.  Our dreams must wait.  His experience in Nairobi, when the family makes it to the comparative safety of Kenya, teaches him more about human nature when they encounter corruption and thievery, and yet more threats to his father’s life.

It is hard not to feel emotional when reading that his faith is restored on arrival in Australia after a long and arduous process of being accepted as a refugee.  They are met at Adelaide airport by their hosts Rachael and Scott:

Through their loving hugs, I feel the heartbeat of a great nation.  I feel the welcome of millions.  That hug, so readily given, helps to restore my faith in the goodness of people.  For much of my life, I have known nothing but war. I have seen rivers stained with the blood of my people.  My country’s government has tried to exterminate me numerous times.  As a refugee, I have been invisible to the world.  Yet now, in a land far from my own, I feel love.  These are strangers.  We are not the same.  Not of the same heritage, not of the same culture.  We speak different languages and we are not of the same colour.  But humanity binds us all. (p.190)

This memoir is a life-affirming story, which proves yet again that so many refugees have courage and initiative that—quite apart from any humanitarian motives—show how much the fortunate West has to gain in opening its doors.  In the Epilogue, Yuot tells us that he and his siblings are all married with children, and own their own homes.  Yuot studied geoscience and engineering while Bul studied engineering and management, and both of them work in the mining industry, Yuot in WA and Bul in Tasmania.  Athok has a degree in banking and international finance and lives in South Australia, where their parents still live in the family home in Adelaide.  After working odd jobs to make ends meet, Preskilla trained as a nurse and worked in aged care for 20 years, while Ajang worked as an activist on behalf of the Lost Boys, and as a result of his efforts, tens of thousands of South Sudanese refugees have been resettled in Australia and many others have been accepted into the USA, Canada and many European countries.  Ajang was able to return to South Sudan to oversee the conduct of the referendum on independence where he witnessed the exercising of democracy in a land devastated by war.  

Yuot’s short story ‘The Lost Girl of Pajomba’ was anthologised in Ways of Being Here (Margaret River Press, 2017).   Father of the Lost Boys is his first full-length work and was shortlisted for the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award.

The book includes maps to help the reader with orientating the action of the journeys across Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. There is also a glossary and an Author’s Note as well as Acknowledgements.

Author: Yuot A Alaak
Title: Father of the Lost Boys
Cover design by Nada Backovic
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925815641, pbk., 230 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press.

Father of the Lost Boys is due for release on June 1st, but you can pre-order it from Fremantle Press.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 24, 2020

Sensational Snippets: Drawn from Life, by Stella Bowen

I am reading, thanks to the generosity of the author Amanda Curtin who lent it to me, Drawn from Life, by Stella Bowen (1893–1947), a book that I discovered when I was reading Je Suis Parisienne, Remarkable Women in France 1880-1945 by Rosemary Lancaster.  I am liking this amusing, self-deprecating autobiography so much that I do not want to give it back, and have ordered a copy of my own.  This is just a sample of the wit and wisdom of this wonderful artist, whose writing style suggests that she could well have made a career as a writer as well.

This excerpt comes as Bowen is looking back on her life with husband Ford Madox Ford.  At this stage of the narrative, he has not yet betrayed her, and she has not yet had to set up again on her own with her daughter Julia.  But she is acutely aware that her own ambitions as an artist have taken second place to his career, and she is smart enough to recognise that the causation of her looming predicament is tied to the limitations of women’s roles in society:

It is platitudinous to say so, but being a woman does set you back a good deal.  You begin longing for a satisfactory emotional life even before you are grown-up, and this occupies an unreasonable amount of your thoughts and energies.  When at last the emotional event comes, you put into it everything you have got.  Afterwards you begin to grow up and to see more of the sky than can be filled by one person, but if by then you have given your life into that person’s keeping, you will have become bound and entwined in every detail of your being, and will have developed simply into a specialist in ministering to his own particular needs. Perhaps you never intended to devote your life to this kind of specialisation, but society, and your own affections, and the fear of loneliness that besets us all, may keep you at it.  And you will very likely find that it suits you well enough,  But beware; unlike other specialists you will receive no promotion after years of faithful service.  Your value in this profession will decline, and no record of long experience, or satisfaction given, will help you if you want to change your job.  By the time you are forty, you will probably have got your children through babyhood and provided your husband with all the emotional excitement he is going to get out of being in love with you. Teachers will step in to educate your children, and sirens to educate your husband, whose own career will be just beginning to expand.  There remains the housekeeping, your social life, and possibly a profound friendship with your spouse, but this is definitely less than what you have been accustomed to.  Can you make a life of it?

If the home and the children were unconditionally your own, and the social structure of your life did not depend on the most fragile of bases—a human relationship—one might demand that you should make a life of it.  One can’t have a home that is safe and comfortable without some woman devoting herself to making it so.  Perhaps it is a luxury trade, but even so—it deserves a safer foundation than can be provided by tying some poor devil of a man to the domestic wheel by all the traditional trickery of virtuous womanhood.  A desperate plight for both, with a bad money system at the bottom of it, which leads to the clumsy and humiliating absurdities of the divorce laws.

(Drawn from Life, by Stella Bowen, Virago (Penguin), 1984, (first published 1941)
ISBN: 0860686558, pp.140-141)

Thanks again to Amanda, who blogs here. You can read my reviews of all her books here, including the most recent one, Kathleen O’Connor of Paris which was her reason for researching the expat artist community in Paris, with this wonderful book.

If this excerpt has whetted your appetite, alas Drawn from Life is long out of print, but there were copies at Abebooks on the day I searched.  Alas, they are in America so, with postage, they are expensive.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 23, 2020

A Universe of Sufficient Size, by Miriam Sved

A Universe of Sufficient Size is a richly satisfying novel: it had me completely absorbed from start to finish.

There’s a brief enigmatic prologue in Brooklyn in 1950, and then the novel moves to Sydney in 2007.  Illy’s father has just died after years of dementia, but it’s the living who are bothering her more.  Her father was a thoroughly disagreeable man, and she had her mother had learned to tiptoe around his anger and his moods.  In the new calm, Illy, feeling an itchy entrapment in the responsibilities of being an only child, might now be able to persuade her frail mother into a retirement home, and she might be able to negotiate the issues that have arisen with her young adult children.  Josh is about to jettison his almost-finished degree for a far-fetched project in an open-plan office with ping-pong tables and hip American nerds.  Zoe, OTOH, is embarking on a relationship that really challenges her mother’s tolerant and accepting nature.

And then the notebook announces its presence…

On the same day Eszter moves in the notebook appears on the kitchen counter.  It is small and unremarkable, and Illy thinks at first that it must be her mother’s address book and leaves it where it is.  But some time later that afternoon the book migrates from the bench to the middle of the kitchen table, and announces its presence forcefully and directly.  A message for Illy: some offering her mother is trying to signpost.  The fact that Eszter is supposed to be napping — Illy doesn’t even know when she left her bedroom — raises the frequency of the message to a pitch only Illy can hear.

She gives in to the notebook’s demand, opening the hard brown cover just an inch to peek inside.

Handwritten Hungarian.  Neat, forward-sloping writing; not like the cramped arthritic script her mother has now. (p.5)

Statue of Anonymus, Budapest (Source: Wikipedia*)

This journal dated Budapest 1938, alternates with the Sydney narrative.  It tells the story of a group of five friends, all gifted mathematicians, but subjected to restrictions on their studies at university due to anti-Jewish laws limiting their participation in Hungary’s public and economic life.  Eszter is engaged to Tibor, Levi is keen on Ildiko, and Pali, modelled on the real life genius Paul Erdős, is an eccentric who is only interested in mathematics.  These five meet each week at Budapest’s statue of Anonymus, where they share their projects and work through conjectures together.   But the winds of war are blowing, and the group is keenly aware that when Hungary joins the Axis, they will be vulnerable to the full force of Nazi anti-Semitism.

Back in the Sydney narrative, Illy is irritated, then intrigued and finally forced into reassessing her entire family life by the contents of the notebook.  The novel is so artfully constructed that the twist in the tale is completely unexpected.

The characterisation of the family and its dynamics is excellent, and often amusing.  Here is Josh at his grandfather’s wake:

The large pastel-trimmed room where the reception is being held is full to bursting with old people, and perhaps this is one reason why Josh can’t keep his hands off his new phone.  It is so reassuringly fresh and young.  So new that almost no one else in Australia has even seen one.  He keeps running his fingers over the screen surreptitiously (he hopes surreptitiously), mentally cataloguing all the phone’s sweet contours.  The on-off switch, the volume control, headphone and charger jacks.  This inventory always leads to the smooth divot of the ‘home’ button, which he clicks to feel its satisfying clickiness, and the phone lights up in his pocket, inviting the swoosh of his index finger, a powerful left-to-right sweep to bring it alive.  Looking down at the screen he can see the top row of ‘apps’, an alluring promise of digital escape, but out of the corner of his eye he can also see his mother, and he has a feeling she is monitoring his performance today and factoring it into her decision.  And anyway, here comes one of the old people, shuffling androgynously towards him, ready to tell him what a good man his grandfather was.

He looks around for escape but all the people he knows are unapproachably grieving — grieving in a way that Josh can’t help feeling as a bit of a reproach, a bit of an accusation. (p. 25)

Zoe, OTOH, is hovering near her grandmother…

her heavy eye make-up has been cried all over her face and she holds a balled-up tissue. Overdoing it — it’s not like she had some great relationship with the old man. And Josh’s mother, grieving in her large, outward way, accosting people with teary hugs.  (p.26)

This technique of narrating the Sydney story through the perspectives of exasperated Illy, laid-back Zoe and self-absorbed Josh grounds the novel in contemporary urban life, but it’s also a marked contrast with the drama of Eszter’s journal with its risky trip to Vienna in hope of evacuating Pali to safety through the auspices of the university there.

BTW There is some maths in this novel, but you don’t need to understand a word of it.

Miriam Sved has also written a novel called Game Day, which is apparently about the pathology of an AFL club, its players and its fans, and she’s edited anthologies including

  • Just Between Us: Australian writers tell the truth about female friendship;
  • Mothers and Others: Australian writers on why not all women are mothers and not all mothers are the same; and
  • #MeToo: Stories from the Australian movement

Find out more about the author at her website.

*Image credit: By Miklós Ligeti – Self-photographed, Public Domain,

Author: Miriam Sved
Title: A Universe of Sufficient Size
Cover design:
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019
ISBN: 9781743535127, pbk., 320 pages
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan



Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 20, 2020

2020 ALS Gold Medal shortlist

The Australian Literature Society (ALS) Gold Medal is awarded annually for an outstanding literary work published in the preceding year. (There’s no money attached to the prize, but the medal is nice.)

Here are the shortlisted books for 2020.  Links on the titles are to Readings bookshop:

Element by Jordie Albiston (poetry)

Nganajungu Yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green (poetry)

There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett, see my review

Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany, see my review

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, see my review

I have to confess to being a bit disappointed by these choices.  It’s nice to see the poets there, but good as the shortlisted novels are, I wouldn’t call any of them particularly outstanding, and besides, I look to this prize to acknowledge some of the less-lauded authors of the year.  And if you browse through the 78 eligible novels from 2019 that I’ve reviewed you’ll see some outstanding novels by Carmel Bird, Katherine Johnson, Eliot Perlman, Lucy Treloar, Meg Mundell, Philip Salem, Andrea Goldsmith, Nigel Featherstone, Rohan Wilson and Simon Cleary. And they’re just the ones that I found really memorable, and that will, I think, have longevity, and I limited myself to ten.  And then there’s Gerald Murnane, of course…


The winner will be announced on Monday, 29 June during an online event featuring a talk by one of my favourite authors Anita Heiss. For more information on the prize, click here.

One more from the inaugural Yarra Valley (online) Writers Festival Sunday Sessions for May and June: this one on the topic ‘The Politics of Our Words’ featuring the former ABC and Walkley Award-winning journalist Kerry O’Brien and Rick Morton from The Saturday Paper, in conversation with Peter Wilmoth.

Wilmoth began by asking O’Brien how things had changed over his many years in journalism: Politicians, O’Brien said, were more likely to engage in the interview in the past. Over the years since Whitlam there has been a build up of the media minders, to a point where it’s become a dark science of spin.  Politicians today are so defensive—and they have been trained to pre-plan for the tough questions and to build in the message of the day rather than respond to what’s put to them with an honest answer.

Asked if he thought the change from the Old Parliament House to the new one had made any difference to this, O’Brien said that the old building offered easier access to politicians, and the new building is not like that.  It spread everything out and created enclaves, not just for the journos but also for their own members.  But the rise of spin has had a much greater impact: it’s all about manipulating the media, stage-managing the interview, and minimising any damage.  It’s not about an honest engagement with the public.

Talking mainly about TV but also about press conferences and interviews for print, O’Brien talked about the pressure on the journalist: when the politician is stage-managing his responses, the journo needs to interrupt, but it’s difficult to do that without bullying or being rude.  So it’s important for the journalist to feel confident that the viewer is reading the situation in the same way.  He says that feedback at the ABC suggests that their audience did interpret the situation as the politician being evasive. That has contributed to the base cynicism that people feel about politics.  When politicians are more concerned about looking authentic than being authentic, it’s  a form of dishonest theatre.

O’Brien is also worried about the trend for politicians to speak direct to the public without taking questions from the media.  It’s the media that keeps them accountable. [Though I would say that an effective Opposition has an important role to play as well.] The more those in government speak directly to the public without any mainstream media accountability, the more we have to fear.

Wilmoth then asked Rick Morton about a trend we see in current affairs TV: frustrated journalists — David Speers, Jon Faine and Leigh Sales — are criticised for talking over their guests.  Morton agrees that it’s very difficult because it’s the journo’s job to get answers.  He shared an anecdote about a press conference in which the PM denied something that he knew was a fact.  In a packed press conference where everyone is jostling to put their questions, it’s difficult to follow through even when the facts are to hand, and he appreciated the backup from other journalists afterwards when they inquired further about the issue.

Wilmoth raised the issue of politicians stonewalling, and cited a famous interview with Kelly O’Dwyer about the Royal Commission into the Banks.  O’Brien is pessimistic: he says that the audience expects this kind of behaviour so it has less impact.  He’s really worried that the same symptom is right through the democratic world, he believes that the media has been crucial in democracy over the years, but it has all changed.  The media is politicised now, and polarised, which is not as it was for most of his career.  In the past journos were more interested in doing their job, but now it’s about pushing an ideology.  A growing spectrum of complexity, he says, is heading in a downward direction.

Wilmoth raised the current situation: COVID_19 has mostly had bipartisanship: what impact might that have going forward? Will there be less confrontational political reporting?  Morton talked about the consensus beginning to fracture with criticisms from within the National Cabinet where previously the focus was entirely on dealing with the pandemic.  He thinks that the focus on ‘who won the day?’ or ‘who won at question time?’ or the factional brawling contributes to the problem.  [Lindsay Tanner wrote about this in his book Sideshow back in 2011.  That is a book well worth reading if you are interested in the role of the Fourth Estate in supporting democracy]. He would like his industry to focus more on the policy issues and how they impact on people.

O’Brien is pessimistic about divisiveness and the erosion of public trust.  He thinks that post COVID_19 politicians and the media will revert to type.

Wilmoth said that the ABC was at its very best during the bushfires, bringing people information that they might not otherwise have.  But a lot of other media outlets operate more as advocates rather than as reporters. He asked a Dorothy Dixer about whether the ABC was now more important than ever, and of course O’Brien said that he thought it was.  But he had good reasons: journalism is under pressure from social media, budget cuts, polarisation and so on.  He is concerned that budget cuts are weakening the ABC.  Morton talked about the pressures on the print media, and how people tend to read in silos that reinforce their existing opinions, plus audiences are fracturing into left wing/ right wing/ pro or anti identity politics and so on.  Trust in journalism has fallen through the floor because it’s attacked from the left and from the right.  It’s difficult to tackle subjects that go against the ideology of their readers.

What about long form journalism? The problem is that it attracts less of an audience, and perhaps the shorter attention span is becoming the norm.  It becomes a vicious circle when media organisations fret that they’ll lose an audience if they print long form so they don’t do it.  This is contrasted with the Tweets of [That Man in America] and this led O’Brien to be a bit alarmist, suggesting that social media in the hands of someone like Goebbels could be disastrous.  He’s very worried about America in general… Morton discussed the abusive treatment of journalists in America, and talked about their problem that they have to ‘keep a straight face’ about some of the ridiculous things that are said, and at the same time have a responsibility to refute dangerous conspiracy theories without reinforcing them with criticism.

The next question was about the role of Facebook and Google: Morton noted that they are systematically hoovering up and stealing the content of journalists, and how difficult it is to make them pay for it.  At the same time, people have noticed the decline in the quality of the traditional media and won’t pay for it.  O’Brien says that he’s now reading more broadly than before because he can access it online, paying for some of it and not for others.  Obviously, that changes the dynamic of how the media functions.  He had an amusing little rant about the decline in standards of the media, and how he had abandoned some programs altogether, and gave the example of 60 Minutes which is not as it was.  He’s less patient than he was!

There was some general conversation about how there’s no time for the kind of mentoring that used to happen, and how people have moved higher up the hierarchy through the process of attrition rather than experience and expertise.  It was rather sad to hear the younger journalist feeling disheartened and demoralised about politics because everyone is performing…

Kerry O’Brien’s memoir was published in 2018.  Rick Morton’s One Hundred Years of Dirt was included in the YVWF session How Weird Does Your Family Have to Be?


You can still buy tickets for future YVWF events:

3pm Sun 24 May          Why Short Stories Have Big Impact | Sean O’Beirne (A Couple of Things Before the End), Josephine Rowe (Here Until August), Alice Bishop (A Constant Hum) & Alice Cottrell (Kill Your Darlings)

3pm un 31 May          Charcoal Sketches | Sean Dooley & Michael Veitch

If you have enjoyed these reports, consider supporting the Yarra Valley Writers Festival!

Over at Madame Bibliophile Recommends it’s her annual Novella a Day in May, and once again I am lost in admiration for someone who can keep this up, posting entertaining reviews of novellas day after day.  My little contribution is a book that’s been on my shelves for only a little while: brought to us by Melbourne’s Text Publishing, it’s Yan Lianke’s The Years, Months, Days, ably translated by Carlos Rojas who also translated four of the five novels I’ve read by this author: The Day the Sun Died; The Explosion Chronicles; The Four Books; and Lenin’s Kisses

The novella is a fable of only 97 pages, but as always with Yan Lianke there is more to it than meets the eye.  It’s the poignant story of an old man of 72, and a stray dog, living alone in a village that everyone else has abandoned because of drought.  A traditional way of peasant life and the absence of utilities like running water and electricity create a sense of timelessness.  But as Rojas explains in the brief introduction, this is a way of life still in living memory.  Famine was a fact of life in the poor rural community in which Yan Lianke grew up.  

Yan was born in 1958, the first year of The Great Leap Forward—a political campaign that was intended to jumpstart China’s economy but instead precipitated the Great Famine, in which tens of millions of Chinese starved to death in a three-year period. (p.viii)

You will never again be able to see those words ‘The Great Leap Forward’ without remembering the story of this old man, and his heroic efforts to save himself and the dog, and preserve some corn seed for the day when the villagers come back, even if he is not alive to witness it. For young people in China, born decades after the catastrophe, The Years, Months, Days is a vivid evocation of what it was like for their parents and grandparents.

In this apocalyptic landscape, there is just one corn seed, its fragile shoots requiring tremendous effort to keep it sufficiently watered and to stave off the intense rays of the sun—so strong that they have blinded the dog.   Bonded together in their battle against starvation, the man and the dog fight off other animals: hordes of rats, and a chilling episode with wolves.  Despite the Elder’s wisdom and ingenuity, each passing day is harder and harder.   When you remember that this was daily life for millions, and that millions did not survive it, it’s very confronting to read.

After the sprout grew two new leaves, the Elder returned to the village to look for something to eat.  There wasn’t a single grain of wheat in his home.  He thought that in such a large village, even if each household had only a handful of grain or a pinch of flour, this would be enough for him and the blind dog to survive this devastating drought. However, when he returned to the village, he discovered that the door to each house was locked, and there were cobwebs everywhere.  He returned to his own house.  He knew perfectly well that the flour jug had been swept clean, but he still peered inside, then reached in and felt around.  After he pulled out his hand, he stuck his fingers in his mouth and sucked on the, and the pure white taste of wheat blossomed in his mouth and surged through his body.  He took a deep breath and inhaled the fragrant scent, then went outside and stood in the street.  The sun’s rays shone down, flowing through the village like a river of gold.  In the deathly silence, the Elder heard the sound of sunlight dripping through the roof.  He thought indignantly, everyone in the entire mountain ridge has fled, and the thieves have either starved to death or died of thirst… (p.17) 

And yet…

The fable celebrates courage, compassion, a sense of duty and pride in accomplishment.

This book won Mainland China’s triannual Lu Sun Literary Prize in 2001, and is one of Lianke’s best-known books.  It’s a superb introduction to this author’s work.

Author: Yan Lianke
Title: The Years, Months Days
Translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas
Cover design by W H Chong
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017, first published in 1997
ISBN: 9781925603125, pbk., 97 pages, with an introduction by Carlos Rojas
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $19.99


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2020

Auckland Writers Festival: free online broadcasts

Round about this time last year I was gadding about in New Zealand leading up to the Auckland Writers Festival, about which I blogged at length.  This year, it was of course cancelled, but the organisers had a nimble response and the result is the Auckland Writers’ Festival Winter Series, in which you can view (for free) some very interesting sessions conducted digitally.  Click the YouTube links on the relevant week.

Week 1 was hosted by Paula Morris, (author of Rangatira, which I reviewed here) and it featured:

  • actor and writer Barbara Ewing with her about-to-be-published memoir One Minute Crying Time.  I have a copy of The Trespass, from 2001 on my TBR;
  • former Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard with Economists At War, How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose the World Wars (which was surprisingly interesting), and
  • Booker Prize joint winner Bernardine Evaristo on Girl, Woman, Other (on my TBR) who spoke vividly about being a woman of colour in contemporary Britain.

Week 2 was also hosted by Paula Morris, and featured

  • Philippe Sands, a lawyer, whose book East West Street  I read last year from London, and whose most recent book is The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive. It sounds like a most interesting book because it’s an account of the daily life of a senior Nazi and post-war fugitive, and of his wife. Sands drew on an archive of family letters and diaries, and made contact with Wächter’s youngest son, who continues to believe his father was a good man.  Morris says it reads like a thriller, so perhaps it might be made into a film one day.
  • Lisa Taddeo, author of Three Women (USA), reviewed by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best.  It’s an important book, and it was interesting to hear Taddeo talk about it, but it’s not one I plan to read.
  • Kiwi poet Ian Wedde, talking about his novel The Reed Warbler, (which has the most gorgeous cover). I’m tempted by this one but it’s not listed at Goodreads or available at Fishpond so perhaps its publication has been delayed.  I’ve emailed The Women’s Bookshop in NZ to see if they have stock and will deliver to Australia.

Week 3, again hosted by Paula Morris,  featured

  • Becky Manawatu discussing Auē, which has just won the Ockham Acorn Prize and also the Best First Book Award.  Becky is the sixth Maori to win this major award.  I’ve had this book on reserve at the library since before the lockdown…
  • Robert Macfarlane, from Cambridge with Underland: A Deep Time Journey which won England’s major environment writing prize.  He talked about how he was fascinated by what’s underneath us, and how people exploit what’s under the ground, go adventuring under there (including in the French catacombs) sounds, and how Nature in recent years has shown us with one natural disaster after another that we do not control it; and
  • Chanel Miller on Know My Name.  This is an important book about sexual assault, but confronting to read.

The fourth in this Winter series will be on next week: this info is from their website.


DEBORAH EISENBERG (United States) A master of the short story – with the requisite skills of observation, pacing, and economy – Deborah Eisenberg is dubbed a “chronicler of American insanity” by The New York Times. Her five collections include the recent Your Duck is My Duck. She teaches writing at New York’s Columbia University.

WALLACE SHAWN (United States) Writer and actor Wallace Shawn’s plays have been performed at New York’s Public Theater and the National Theatre in London with The Designated Mourner, The Fever and Marie and Bruce also made into films. Shawn’s many acting credits include Toy Story, The Princess Bride, Manhattan and My Dinner with Andre.

CAROLINE BARRON (Aotearoa New Zealand) Caroline Barron is a writer, manuscript assessor, book reviewer, and trustee of the Michael King Writers Centre. She has a master’s in creative writing from The University of Auckland, and won a NZ Society of Authors Complete MS award for her memoir Ripiro Beach: A Memoir of Life After Near Death.

Watch the livestream, at 9-10am each Sunday:

Or catch up later:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2020

The Glebe Point Road Blues, by Vrasidas Karalis

The Glebe Point Road Blues took me right out of my comfort zone in more ways than one.  It’s a book of combined prose and poetry which recreates the experience of being on Glebe Point Road in Sydney, but it’s a very particular view of that world.

For those of us not familiar with the area, Wikipedia tells us that it’s the main road through the inner city suburb of Sydney, and (unsurprisingly, since it looks a lot like Brunswick in Melbourne) it’s a boutique shopping strip with numerous restaurants and cafés.  We would, therefore, expect it to be populated by moneyed people whose spending habits can support such a plethora of eating options.   We could identify them by their ‘ironic’ clothing, i.e. shapeless, torn or ill-fitting, perhaps with a vintage item from an Opshop, but always worn with something expensive to indicate that the outfit is put together with irony, not thrift.   And we would expect that the cafés would sport one or two or lots more Helen Garner wannabees, writing their PhD-turned memoirs or novels over long slow lattes, probably on an Apple laptop (though perhaps a vintage fountain pen might suit the ambience better.)

Ok, I know, I know, I’m stereotyping in just the same way that city journalists stereotype suburbs as a wasteland full of conformists who tolerate bad coffee.  These journalists never venture out of their own postcode, but they imagine that suburbanites would happily sell their children in order to satisfy ambitions to squeeze into a microscopic inner-city terrace…   I’m afraid I can’t resist poking a bit of fun at these pretensions…

But still, Wikipedia’s image of a road full of boutique cafés and restaurants seems at odds with the people who populate The Glebe Point Blues. You’ve only got to look at the bleak cover design to recognise that.

The author, in an ‘Epilogue on Style’ calls these vignettes of lonely people narrative fragments which are exercises in intuitive realism. 

They don’t intend to present with fidelity, the factual world around us.  Realism can be a misleading concept: often it reduces events or individuals to the particulars which constitute them.  Reality however generates fiction because itself is the most blended form of human activity. (p.149)

Nevertheless, it seems to me, that a writer makes choices when he creates ‘intuitive realism’.  The focus of this work is on melancholy people transiting through, linked most of the time by only the road and the exchanges between an unidentified and oddly-detached narrator who seems to be the only stable person in the book.  He seems a little lofty.  There, but apart.  Interested in his subjects as subjects, not as people in need.  OTOH many of the people he encounters are drunk, or high, or spouting random bits of esoteric mysticism and philosophy that nobody else understands (including me).  Perhaps this breeds a sense of alienation or detachment.

The Glebe Point Blues is not like the fiction of Philip Salom, which introduces the reader to characters who are distinctive and yet familiar; they are every person you’ve ever met who doesn’t quite ‘fit in’, but you don’t care because you like them anyway. (The Returns, BTW, has been longlisted for the Miles Franklin, and rightly so.  I liked it even more than Waiting.)  Karalis’s people act in bizarre ways, but what is even more odd and somewhat distasteful is that no one seems to connect with anyone else.  Kieran, who has mental health problems, for example, reveals that he was searching for a guru, but Sydney’s cult of now and its timeless present moments means he can only remain a broken image.

In ‘The Moment’, the observer reports on a Hungarian Jew expelled from Iraq standing alone under the arches of Sydney University…

Aged seventy or more.  Grey hair, old-fashioned clothes, leather handbag.  He looks around in distress.  Tears are running down his face.
‘Memories.  Memories,’ he whispers.
A thick accent.  Middle Eastern.  Iraqi.  Gentle eyes full of dreams.
‘Nineteen fifty-three or four,’ he continues.  ‘When we fled Iraq.  All Jews were expelled then.  We had to travel through desert, mountains and marshlands to reach Israel.  For months imprisoned in our homes in Baghdad we waited for an escape to anywhere.  But even Zion was not destined for us.  We fled to Australia.’  (p.65)

Like everyone else in this collection he is lonely and melancholic and abandoned to his fate, vanishing forever in the realm of shadows, fleeting impressions and faded graffiti. 

Another Jewish refugee is from Hungary, whose hundreds of books are the only reminder of his presence after he committed suicide.  This motif of books, marginalia, poems and pages left behind after death or disappearance, hints at the hidden person who remains forever unknowable.

Second-hand books are important for the notes of their owners.  The notes and their names.  Especially the Ex Libris.  Their artwork is startling.  From another era, when the book followed the fate and the trajectory of its owner. (p.68)

Karalis is a professor at Sydney University, so it wasn’t surprising to find an academic’s critique of managerialism’s corrupting influence on the life of the mind:

‘You know,’ he replies passionately, ‘during my years here, I cam up with my most significant contribution to pure mathematics.  But unfortunately, I never wrote it down, or found the opportunity to share it, let alone to put it forward as an academic paper.
‘Why not?’
‘How could I do it with so many strategic plans and development models dominating the function of this institution?  I was seduced.  I succumbed.  Intellectual sloth numbed my mind. (p.71)

The tragedy of The Glebe Point Road Blues, is that these are the very people most in need of care and support during the pandemic, and it shows that they’re not very likely to get it, even from people who know them.

BTW to revert to the subject of stereotyping, British people come in for a bit of it in this book.  A professor is cautious, indirect — as befits her British upbringing. A drunk has an annoying British accent, an affected voice distinct over the inspiring cacophony of the pub. I’ll just note here that some of us have British accents that are not an affectation but rather a legacy of childhood and a signifier of a family that we love.  It is just as racist to insult us about it, as it is to insult someone with an accent from anywhere else.  In the circles I move in, people can speak English any way they like, in whatever accent they have, and be treated with respect. So I was surprised to see this kind of unnecessary unpleasantness in print.

Tom Lee (author of the highly amusing Coach Fitz) reviewed it for the SMH.

PS, the next day: I forgot to mention a pleasing bit of synchronicity… I was reading the poems, when I came across this, and made a note of it because I liked the image, if not the sentiment that happiness is often only fleeting:

Often happiness comes as fine needlework
on silk fabric, silver, sleek and slippery.  (p.163)

That very day, on her blog The Bookbinder’s Daughter, Melissa Beck (whose day job is teaching Latin and Ancient Greek) posted about the Three Fates and illuminated the allusion which I had otherwise missed:

In Roman myth the three Fates— Parcae in Latin Moirai in Ancient Greek— are referred to as sisters: Clotho, the youngest, is the spinner of a person’s life thread, Lachesis measures the final thread of life, and the dreaded Atropos cuts the thread of life.  Because of their absolute and unpredictable authority over all life—even Jupiter is subjected to their decisions—they are feared and rarely spoken about except in passing references.

Thanks, Melissa!

Image credit: Glebe Point Road, Wikiedia, by Adam.J.W.C. – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Author: Vrasidas Karalis
Title: The Glebe Point Road Blues
Cover and book design by Andras Berkes-Brandl
Publisher: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2020
ISBN: 9780648523215
Review copy courtesy of Brandl & Schlesigner

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 17, 2020

The Glass-Blowers, by Daphne du Maurier

This week is #DDMReadingWeek hosted by Heaven Ali and I needed very little encouragement to dig out some titles by Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989) from the TBR.  I read the Cornish novels Rebecca (1938), Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and Jamaica Inn (1936) a good while ago, and more recently though not reviewed here The Parasites (1949), and The Flight of the Falcon (1965).  Here on the blog there are reviews of Rule Britannia, (1972) and The Scapegoat (1957).  But in paperback and Kindle I have these five still to read, (the first four graphically illustrating BTW L to R Penguin’s cover design fads.)

I chose to read The Glass-Blowers (1963) because it’s the saga of an 18th century family in France during the Revolution, and it’s a persuasive refutation of the idea that Du Maurier was ‘just’ a romance novelist.  For a convincing article about the belated recognition of Du Maurier’s place in the pantheon of English writers, see this article at Five Books.

It was from the article at Five Books, that I realised that the characterisation of Robert-Mathurin Busson du Maurier in The Glass-Blowers owed something to Du Maurier’s biography, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, published just three years earlier in 1960.  According to Oxford University’s Laura Varnam:

In the preface to her biography, du Maurier says the trouble with Branwell is that he couldn’t distinguish reality from fantasy. That’s why she calls the biography the ‘infernal world’ of Branwell Brontë, (1960) borrowing a phrase from Charlotte—he was completely taken over by this imaginative life and it ruined him.


It is this story about the relationship between imagination and fantasy. He doesn’t always make the best of the opportunities he’s given and he allows himself to be taken over by his imaginative world. […] He mythologises his own failure.

Surely this is the genesis of Robert’s story as narrated by his sister Sophie?  He is his own worst enemy, as Branwell Brontë was, and he invented an entire history to mask his own shortcomings.

The novel begins in 1844 after Robert’s death when a chance meeting in Paris leads to Sophie’s meeting with his adult son, newly arrived from London and in search of his French origins.  Louis-Mathurin Busson introduces himself as the son of a man who—en route to restoring the family fortune lost during the Revolution—died tragically in 1802 after the Peace of Amiens (when Britain recognised the French Republic).  Sophie reveals herself as his aunt, and sets him straight about his illusions.  ‘Your father Robert was first and foremost the most incorrigible farceur I have ever known’ she says, and departs, promising to write to him with the true story.  Four months later, with the bulk of this novel forming her narrative, she puts down her pen…

That narrative begins in 1747 when the outsider Magdaleine Labée marries into the closed community of glass-blowers in the village of Chenu.  In time, through hard work and a willingness to learn, she earns the respect of the community, and bears five surviving children.  Each of these represents a response to the revolutionary fervour which gripped France in the 18th century:

  • Robert, the eldest, whose fanciful ambitions never match reality, becomes an émigré in London.  Just as he fails with each attempt to manage his own grandiose glass-blowing enterprises and flees to London to escape imprisonment for bankruptcy, he also picks the wrong side to support in the revolution once he’s there.  He becomes a Mr Fixit (with an invented aristocratic past) to the émigrés plotting the restoration, so when the Republic survives all attempts to destroy it, any return to France for him is highly risky;
  • Pierre is an idealistic dreamer, fond of reading the philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau.  His exasperated father sends him overseas to make his way, but he returns, penniless, but goes on to become a progressive lawyer supporting oppressed victims of an inequitable society;
  • Michel goes successfully into the family business, but, swept up in the fervour of the revolution, joins the National Guardsman and descends into savage violence;
  • Edmé, who marries for money, abandons her husband and becomes an extremist who believes that the only way to ensure the success of the revolution is to eliminate all opposition entirely; and
  • Sophie, who marries Michel’s great friend François, and as witness to it all, is the voice of reason.

Civil wars set families against one another, sometimes brother against brother, and the civil war in France was no exception. Du Maurier’s accomplishment is —as Mercè Rodoreda’s was in her novel of the Spanish Civil War, In Diamond Square,—to credibly render the experience of women during the chaos and terror.  Du Maurier also shows the impact of the civil war in the provinces., and how for the ten years of instability, progressive idealism and dreams of equality wrestled with conservative desires for the restoration of order and stability and the divine right of kings.  Sophie’s narrative is divided into four stages which represent the decade:

  • La Reyne d’Hongrie
  • La Grande Peur (The Great Fear)
  • Les Enragés (The Enraged Ones/The Fanatics)
  • The Émigré

In my search to find a translation of La Reyne d’Hongrie—which would make sense if it meant The Reign of Hunger (i.e. causation for the revolution) but it seems not to.  My French dictionary gives Hungary as a translation of Hongrie, and Google Translate persistently asked if I meant ‘reine’ for ‘reyne’ i.e. queen—I came across an introduction by Michelle de Kretser, which raises another motivation for the novel:

Pride plays its part in Sophie’s decision to disclose her family’s story. Louis will learn that his father was a bankrupt, once jailed for his debts, who emigrated to avoid a second prison sentence. He will learn that he comes from a family of “ordinary provincial folk” and that his father had no right to the aristocratic name of du Maurier. What I find interesting is that Sophie considers this rather sordid story morally preferable to the glamorous tale concocted by Robert. Half a century after the Revolution, she remains true to its spirit. It is better, in her view, to be a bankrupt than a royalist, better to be an artisan than an aristocrat. She wants Louis to know that his father emigrated because he feared the loss of his freedom, not the loss of his privileges. Her condemnation—and by extension du Maurier’s—of a corrupt and indolent aristocracy is absolute.  (Introduction to The Glass-Blowers by Michelle de Kretser, 2004, followed by 20 pages from an edition published by Little, Brown & Co*).

As Balzac showed in so many of his stories in La Comedie Humaine, Du Maurier also shows in The Glass-Blowers that the aftermath of the civil war did not heal breaches in long-standing loyalties or the breakup of families.  Livelihoods were lost, and the instability from the incessant purges made everyone uncertain and afraid.  For Sophie, it means the loss of her hard-won standing amongst the workers:

What distressed me most was that the goodwill amongst us all was lost.  Hostility, for no good reason, could be sensed in the workmen’s lodgings and on the furnace floor, and I could feel it with the women too.  The camaraderie, instilled into the workmen when Michel first took over as master of the foundry, had vanished, and whether it was conscription, or the toll of the civil war, or the limit of their wages, nobody could say — these are things that are never put into words.  (p.248)

Within her own family, there is grief over the death of one of the children, shot in the closing moments of the war; grief at the end of a family business and the traditions it represents; grief over the failed ambitions of the revolution itself; and uncertainty amongst the more fervent about what to do next.

Here and there Du Maurier’s feminism surfaces.  When her husband suggests that the firebrand Edmé could transcend her grief that her revolutionary dreams were shattered by marrying, Sophie thinks to herself:

I thought how lacking in intuition men could be in persuading themselves that mending some stranger’s socks, and attending to his comfort, could content a woman of thirty-eight like my sister Edmé, who, with her quick brain and passion for argument, would — had she lived in another age — have fought for her beliefs like Joan of Arc. (p.287)


From the distance of centuries later, Wikipedia tells us that:

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789 and ending in 1799. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, was the catalyst violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, as equality before the law the Revolution made a profound impression on the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history. (Wikipedia, the French Revolution, viewed 17/5/20, lightly edited to remove unnecessary links & footnotes).

Du Maurier, writing in 1963, had a less sanguine view: Sophie assesses Michel and Edmé’s failed dream of a glass-house, where the workmen and the masters shared the profits like this:

Like other ideals, before and since, like the revolution itself and its spirit of equality and brotherly love, the attempt to put it into practice failed. (p.259)

Perhaps she was thinking of the Cold War, and the trashed ideals of the Russian Revolution under the Soviets…

* I traced the text back to a school in Bengal, which appears to have ignored the copyright warning at the beginning of the book:

In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at Thank you for your support of the author’s rights. [Underlining mine].

Author: Daphne du Maurier
Title: The Glass-Blowers
Publisher: Penguin, 1963, (1972 reprint)
Cover illustration: Charles Raymond
ISBN: 0140024034 / 9780140024036, pbk., 312 pages
Source: Personal library, OpShop find

A Treacherous Country is this year’s winner of the Vogel Award for an unpublished manuscript, and it’s a promising debut for its author K M (Kate) Kruimink.

This is the blurb:

Gabriel Fox, the young son of an old English house, arrives in a land both ancient and new.

Drawn by the promise of his heart’s desire, and compelled to distance himself from pain at home, Gabriel begins his quest into Van Diemen’s Land.

His guide, a Cannibal who is not all he seems, leads him north where Gabriel might free himself of his distracting burden and seek the woman he must find. As Gabriel traverses this wild country, he uncovers new truths buried within his own memory.

Authentic, original and playful, A Treacherous Country is a novel of loyalty, wisdom and the freedom to act.

When the story begins, Gabriel is in the company of a shaggy Irishman he calls his Cannibal, en route from Hobart to a failed whaling station, which his escort wants him to buy (because in forty years the whales have been harvested almost to extinction).  Gabriel has arrived from Sydney where he gambled away everything he had in exchange for some possibly useless American harpoons, only to be conned into buying a stolen horse, which is subsequently stolen from him in turn.  He seems a nice young man, but gullible to a fault, and not just because he has fallen victim to skulduggery.  He has journeyed across the world on a quest is to find Maryanne Maginn, transported some 25 years beforehand, to please the guardian of his lady love, and thus to win her hand.

As it turns out, he is deluded about that, and everything else as well.

Kruimink lives in the Huon Valley, and her familiarity with the Tasmanian landscape gives her prose a bleak authenticity:

The sun did not rise, but instead presented as the suffusion of light behind thick cloud, like a flame behind a paper screen.  There was a complete lack of shadow and variety.  Everything about me glowed with equal import or insignificance, depending upon one’s point of view, and whether one was an optimist or not.  Ringlets of fog like girls’ hair were emerging from the trees and coiling down the bank.

Nobody knows where I am, I thought.  Nobody who loves me knows where I am.

Rather freeing, really. (p.69)

Alas for Gabriel, this freedom leads him to take part in a whale hunt (which I did not enjoy reading, for the same reasons I disliked Moby Dick, but the chapter is mercifully short, which Moby Dick is not).  He barely escapes with his life.  His companion Cook does not, but back on dry land, in Mrs Heron’s modest house, Gabriel’s reflections on his experience are rather droll:

‘It must have been a distressing thing,’ she said. ‘Dear Mr Cook was a good, simple, salt-of-the-earth Christian soul.  You did very well to try and help him.’

I responded that I had done little enough.

There were some more such niceties, which I am afraid I did not pay terribly much attention to; I had already partaken of a great quantity of rum, in the whaleboat and ashore, and now the powerful twin forces of whisky and nostalgia were having a deleterious effect upon my ability to discourse.  I had made careful study of dainty Conversation for the Drawing Room: a Guide for Young Ladies and Gentlemen when my mother had given it to me, but there was no passage within dealing with how one would approach my particular situation, drunk and post-catastrophe, conversationally speaking. (p. 143)

Yes, the quixotic hero of A Treacherous Country is inclined to be pompous, even in his own thoughts.  It’s a playful narrative.

The novel seamlessly blends Gabriel’s bizarre adventures in a strange new land with more sombre thoughts about what he has left behind.  There is a striking dissonance between the assertive women of Van Dieman’s Land, and his tragic mother, confined to the attic as a madwoman because she does not conform. Everyone back in Norfolk bows to the will of Gabriel’s father, whereas Mrs Heron in Tasmania is determined to control her own fate.  And in contrast to the rigid class distinctions of England, Gabriel finds that the definitions of a Tasmanian gentleman are fluid too.

It’s a coming-of-age story with a difference!

I’ve noticed in recent years that WA publishers have been adept at picking up shortlisted titles for the T A g Hungerford Award, so it will be interesting to see if the other manuscripts shortlisted for the Vogel are also picked up by publishers: keep an eye out for The Islands by Emily Brugman; Tete by Belinda Lopez; and The Followers by Maree Spratt.

Author: K.M.Kruimink
Title: A Treacherous Country
Cover design: Sandy Cull
Publisher: ALlen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760877408, pbk., 248 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Available from Fishpond: A Treacherous Country

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2020

The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

Will The Mirror and the Light win a third Booker Prize for Hilary Mantel?  It is widely anticipated, and IMO rightly so, because her writing is IMO without peer.

I saw a rather churlish review at Goodreads: basically carping about the place of historical fiction in the zeitgeist—and cranky about a novel about Britain’s royal past in particular.  That might have been a criticism I agreed with, that there are so many important contemporary issues for novelists to wrestle with, except that The Mirror and the Light is sublime.  And it is a breathtaking study of the use and abuse of power, as relevant today as it was when Machiavelli wrote the playbook for Cromwell.

What is quite astonishing, is how brilliantly Mantel creates narrative tension when we all already know how Cromwell meets his end.  Her present-tense narrative gives the reader Cromwell’s perception of events unfolding.  Locked up in the Tower of London— mere days from his demise—he clings to hope that Henry will be merciful, as he knows Anne Boleyn hoped, right up to the last moment on the scaffold when she looked around still expecting a reprieve.  The reader feels that unreasonable hope too: perhaps Mantel will rewrite history, or perhaps she will end the book before he dies?

The Mirror and the Light begins where Bring Up the Bodies left off in May 1536.  Anne Boleyn has been executed for treason, but the schemers live on.  The Tudors have not been on the throne long enough to feel secure, and Henry has no heir.  Mary, only daughter of Catherine of Aragon has been stripped of her title as Princess since the annulment of her mother’s marriage, and so has Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth.  They are away from court, and Henry intends for them to be irrelevant.  (Ha!)

But whatever the common folk thought about that, and the Reformation, and Henry’s predilection for quelling dissent with the axe (or worse), everyone (except Henry’s rivals from the House of York) hoped that the prompt marriage to Jane Seymour would bring forth a son.

The elusive heir matters because the domestic realm yearns for stability, and stability is essential in order to hold off threats from France, Rome and Scotland.  When the country rises against Henry, besieged by papists who support Mary’s claim to the throne, there is real fear that without an heir, his only legacy will be a failing peace.

For most of the novel, Cromwell is master of his own destiny.  He’s a commoner, a blacksmith’s son, so his rise to becoming Henry’s indispensable right-hand man is breathtaking.  Plenty of people resent that of course, but he seems untouchable.  The reader is inside the mind of this most duplicitous man, always aware of his wily plans and his ability to read the mercurial sovereign.  We see that through his network of spies he knows everything that happens in the kingdom and beyond, and that he does not share what he knows.  Knowledge, for Mantel’s Cromwell, is not just power, it is also protection.

It is not written that great men shall be happy men.  It is nowhere recorded that the rewards of public office include a quiet mind.  (p.709)

And yet it’s still disconcerting when we see the first signs that the wind is shifting…

‘We have people in France we retain,’ the king says.  ‘But they are not loyal, they will turn for a halfpenny.  We have few friends in either court. ‘ He sucks his lip. ‘Especially you, you have few friends, Cromwell.’

‘If I have incurred their malice, I count it well done.  As it is for your Majesty’s sake.’

‘But are you sure about that? ‘ Henry sounds curious.  ‘I think it is because of what you are.  They don’t know how to deal with you.’

‘Likely not, Majesty,’ he says, ‘you must realise, they want me displaced, so that you might be the worse advised.  That is why they try to poison your mind against me.  Any fantastical story will serve.’

‘So you would recommend, if I hear you have exceeded your office, or that you have slacked my instructions or reversed them, I should ignore the bruit?’

‘You should speak to me before you believe anything.’

‘I will,’ Henry says.  (p.715)

(If only he had.)

It’s distracting when Henry’s suggestion that Cromwell might yet have a child because common men have vigour provokes Cromwell to think that his king is out of touch. The king does not know they wear out.  At forty a labourer is broken and gnarled.  His wife is worn to the bone at thirty-five.  I nearly missed the implication: that Henry is beginning to believe the rumours that Cromwell might marry, and close to the throne at that.

But then there is a growing accumulation of other signs that the king has changed.  He accuses Cromwell of misjudgement, he blames him, and he says, almost casually ‘No one could keep secrets from me.  It is no use to try.’ And in turn, Cromwell changes too, with distasteful ramifications:

In the next days he finds his benevolence is tested and his patience is running short.  When a spy is taken and proves resistant, he does not go along to the Tower to bribe or cajole or trick him; he values speed.  Rack him, he says: and appoints three men to take down the result.  Come to me first thing in the morning, he says, and tell me of your success. (p.771)

It is a reminder at this crucial juncture in the novel that whatever sympathies one has for Cromwell and his fate, he was a product of a brutal age.

The skill with which this story is constructed is sheer genius.  And Mantel is so deft with metaphor.  I love this one:

In Windsor, young men pass the duke’s letters around, smirking: they are all Lord Cromwell’s servants, his discepoli, flocked after him from London.  They see out the day with him, eating and drinking and talking of God and man until the candles burn down; and they see it in with him, keen as little dogs that scratch your door at first light. (p.333)

And this one, emblematic of Mantel’s attention to detail, even to the meals they eat:

It is an aromatic custard in a white dish.  He saw the gooseberries earlier, tiny bubbles of green glass, sour as a friar on fast day.  For this dish you need fresh hens’ eggs and a pitcher of cream; you need to be a prince of the church to afford the sugar.  (p.359)

Do you need to read Books 1 & 2 of the trilogy?  I was enthralled by Wolf Hall, and equally so by Bring Up the Bodies.You possibly don’t need to, but why deny yourself the pleasure?

Author: Hilary Mantel
Title: The Mirror and the Light
Cover design by Julian Humphries
Publisher: Fourth Estate, (Harper Collins), 2020
ISBN: 9780007480999, hbk., 882 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings


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