Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 23, 2017

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, by Ali Alizadeh

I loved every word of this spellbinding book, which kept me captivated to the last page even though I thought I knew what the ending must be.

(I had a conversation with The Spouse this morning about how we came to know the story of Joan of Arc: did we read it in The Victorian Reader, Fifth or Sixth Book?  Or The School Magazine that came once a month? Was it one of those Annuals that we used to get each year at Christmas?)

[Edited a bit by me to reduce its length and the number of links & footnotes] Wikipedia summarises her  life like this:

Joan of Arc (French: Jeanne d’Arc), 1412-1431), nicknamed “The Maid of Orléans” (French: La Pucelle d’Orléans), is considered a heroine of France for her role during the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years’ War and was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint. Joan of Arc was born to Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romée, a peasant family, at Domrémy in north-east France. Joan said she received visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria instructing her to support Charles VII and recover France from English domination late in the Hundred Years’ War. The uncrowned King Charles VII sent Joan to the siege of Orléans as part of a relief mission. She gained prominence after the siege was lifted only nine days later. Several additional swift victories led to Charles VII’s coronation at Reims. This long-awaited event boosted French morale and paved the way for the final French victory.

On 23 May 1430, she was captured at Compiègne by the Burgundian faction, which was allied with the English. She was later handed over to the English and put on trial by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais Pierre Cauchon on a variety of charges. After Cauchon declared her guilty she was burned at the stake on 30 May 1431, dying at about nineteen years of age.

This trial was later debunked and Jeanne was declared a martyr, and she was canonised as a saint in 1920.  (The Catholic Church doesn’t rush into things, it seems).

Ali Alizadeh’s Jeanne d’Arc, however, is not quite the saintly Joan of my childhood memory.  She is much more interesting, provocatively so.  And although The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc is fiction, it is, according to the blurb, based on rigorous study of the historical material. 

When the story opens Jeanne is a vulnerable captive, escorted into a dank cell by men waiting only for nightfall to violate her famed virginity.

Two more men enter, tense and compact.  Steel helmets and poleaxes.  In between them, another person.  Being escorted by the guards.  Being held by her wrists.  She’s shorter than the room’s other occupants.  A young woman.  Filthy face.  Her dark hair, a shoulder-length mess. Barefooted.  Brought into the space unwillingly.

The guards take her to the centre of the cell.  The captain with the key orders something in a foreign language. The other men avoid looking at the woman, continue to grip her wrists.  She’s dressed like a man, in black tunic and black leggings.

The captain exits.  The soldier with the spear glances at her.  Her eyes are closed. The soldier’s fists tighten around his weapon. He grunts a phrase, puerile, forceful.  Her lips tremble.  One of the prison guards grins, stops grinning when the captain marches back in.  (p.3-4)

As a condition of perpetual imprisonment rather than burning at the stake, she is forced out of the tunic and leggings which to some extent had protected her against sexual assault.  She is shackled by the ankles and left alone to cry.  Later, visited by a curious English noblewoman, she begs to be placed in the custody of nuns not soldiers:

Please, countess.  I’m not safe in here.

Oh come now, dear.  Life in a prison cannot be worse than death by burning, can it?  (p.22)

The English of this story are brutish and cruel, and their invasion of France is depicted through a postcolonial lens as part of early Imperial ambitions.  (As if there never was a Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066.  But I suppose Britain as the most successful imperial power in history is inevitably fair game).  But the French themselves are shown to be culpable: their infighting over the right to the French throne made them vulnerable to the technological superiority of English weaponry and the discipline of their soldiers.  Nevertheless the statistics are shocking: 7000 died at the Battle of Vermeuil and the population of France was reduced from between 17-20 million to 10 million over the course of the Hundred Years War.

What is striking about this version of Jeanne’s story is her anguish about the forbidden love she yearns for – her church proscribes same-sex relationships on pain of death.  Jeanne is a good Catholic, but she is also intensely human, as indeed she must have been.  Anyone reading this today can only weep for same-sex lovers of the past who braved their love when at risk of such terrible penalties.  But as Alizadeh makes clear,  the Jeanne that he has created has a religious belief which meant that she feared eternal damnation as much as earthly punishment.  Because she hears voices, she believes she has a relationship with God and she desperately wants to believe that the love she feels for a woman is not sinful.  It is unbelievably poignant.

Because this work of fiction is contemporary, the author overtly acknowledges the problem of authenticating these voices which are crucial to the legend:

Everyone has heard about her Voices, and we know nothing about their reality.

I’m sure they’re real.  (Real like yours, my love.)  But can one ever be certain?  That it was Saint Catherine and not a demon or an imaginary thing.  Informed by psychology, psychiatry and neurology, theorists peddle their theses.  Epilepsy is the latest fad, but she never had a seizure.  And it is known that one should not trust historical records and religious beliefs.  So what can be said about her Voices?  A dialogue with a deity or a deep internal monologue?  Supernatural voices that reverberate eardrums, or true, inaudible voices in the mind’s intangible ear?  (p.93)

In this passage you can see the narrations shifting between first person narrative of Jeanne and the author’s voice.  I like this: it brings Jeanne alive and makes her a vivid character and not just an historical figure.  For her, there is no doubt about the reality of the voices but there is the added dimension that the voices might be demonic and not heavenly.  For the 21st century observer, there are contemporary theories that deny the mystical.   The historical record is undeniable: but were Jeanne’s victories miracles, or was it that she spooked the English because – with a similar belief system – they thought she was a sorceress and this affected morale?

The Voices are always Italicised and set apart in a layout evocative of poetry.  These, we assume, are the author’s invention.  They are beautiful, but often ambiguous.

The intriguing narrative voices don’t stop there.  As in the first excerpt that I quoted above, there is also a third person narrative which is direct and authoritative… especially in the beginning when the ins and outs of the Hundred Years War is explained with reader-friendly clarity and also a poetic sensibility.  The reader take these on trust: it sounds historically accurate.  Most of us, after all, know nothing about the Hundred Years War.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc is going to be one of my best books of the year.

Jonathan Shaw has written a superb review, make sure you read it too.

Author: Ali Alizadeh
Title: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336405
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available from Fishpond: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc
or direct from the publisher


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 22, 2017

Forty South Short Story Anthology 2017

Every year, Forty South Publishing sponsors The Tasmanian Writers Prize,  a competition for stories of up to 3,000 words on an island, or island-resonant theme.  It’s open to residents of Australia and New Zealand, with a cash prize of $500 and publication in the Forty South Short Story Anthology.  It’s a hotly contested competition which often unearths writers of great talent.

This is the Peter Grant’s blurb from the 2017 anthology:

“Those of us who live in this heart-shaped island of Tasmania often experience a restive contentment. We sense an internal tide, sometimes tugging at us to leave in search of more, sometimes flooding us with an ache to return. This dynamic tension can be a powerful generator of creativity.

Like the peasant at the edge of the court, we recognise the fragility, folly even, of those cloest to the throne. We see clearly that even at the glittering , crowded centre nothing will suffice.

So we return to our fringe, wiser perhaps. But there is a melancholy here, a sense that – like the Irish – our island’s troubles will continually resurface.

You will find in this anthology an exploration of these elemental themes. There is promise, and love, and a simplified life, certainly. But alongside these there are sometimes secrets, loss, enmities, and violence. Thankfully there is humour too.”

This year’s winner is Jennifer Porter, whose story The Reverend is set in Hobart Town in 1822.  The Reverend of the title ministers to the motley congregation of convicts and their gaolers, and on this day, the Reverend has a solemn duty which will haunt him for all his days to come:

Jacob Scholls – such a red-faced runt as an infant, sixteen years before.  His mother, narrow-eyed and wide-hipped, his father a reedy man with a limp and sharp chin, not long freed.  There were so many to feed already, and here was another.  But I wet his head and said the holy words and his mouth let out a howl, as if he knew what was to come, as if he knew of life’s ultimate betrayal.

I brace myself against the bench before me, the same one I use as a pulpit when there is too much rain to conduct service outside.  I pronounce the sentence, and beneath the churn of scurried indignation from the galley, comes a long low bellowing, like the wail of a cow newly kept from her calf.  It is the narrow-eyed woman, his mother.  Scholls stands tall, as if bracing for a gale and looks toward his father, a mirror of calm dignity.  I think of the fellows with whom I mix, government officials, often unruly with drink, failing in their duty to family and office, and I know that many would sink to their knees if faced with such a fate. (‘The Reverend’, p.3)


Amongst the finalists is a name well-known to readers of this blog.  The author of 8 States of Catastrophe and a collection of short stories called Flame Tip, Karenlee Thompson has written numerous guest posts, mainly reviewing short story collections with a writerly eye.

Finalists (I haven’t read them all yet)

On the Ebb Tide by Margaret Dakin (QLD): a tale of grief and regret, memories triggered by finding an old tin

The Church of Lost Objects by Penny Gibson (VIC): a wife is tormented by a handwritten envelope addressed to her distant husband

Matchbox Beetles by Annabel Larkey (TAS): a story of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship

The Rasp of a Hungry Flame by Carmel Lillis (VIC)

Liberty by Ruairi Murphy (TAS), another story set in colonial Hobart, focussing on the journey to homelessness

Wash-up by Melanie Napthine (VIC)

Tybee Bomb by William Stanforth (VIC)

Alice … Incomplete by Karenlee Thompson (QLD)

The Tartan Factor by Polly Whittington (TAS)

Tears of Chios by Lynette Willoughby (SA)

Karenlee’s story ‘Alice … Incomplete’ is achingly sad.  The blue ribbons given to Alice by old Mr Carlisle next door betray his ‘agenda’, and the motif of feeling ‘blue’ distils the damage done by the betrayal of innocence.

Sometimes Alice dreamed of her father, interchangeable with Mr Carlisle, indistinguishable in his caresses and whispers.  Her efforts to dismiss the dreams were stymied by Aunt Sondra’s knowing stares.  Her father’s sister would talk to her about memories which should remain buried.  Men are men, she whispered.  She seemed angry with Alice, constantly reminding her that every girl has responsibility over her own body.  Aunt Sondra had rivers grooved into her upper lip which became more pronounced when she sniffed and pursed, something she did regularly when Alice’s father entered the room. (p.86)

I loved the allusions to Lewis Carroll’s Alice and to Blue Alice and The Cypriot paintings in the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art.

Contact Fullers Bookshop in Hobart to buy a copy of the anthology.

Editors: Peter Grant, Margaret Johnson and Fiona Stocker
Title: Forty South Short Story Anthology 2017
Publisher: Forty South, Tasmania, 2017
ISBN: 9780648106357
Gift of Karenlee Thompson


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 20, 2017

the honeymoon stage – Oscar Schwartz PLUS bonus poet interview

Thanks once again to Tony at Messenger’s Booker for permission to reblog this poetry review and interview:)

Messenger's Booker (and more)


Through the process of reading, reviewing and interviewing Australian poets I have come across a range of styles, genres and approaches. Interviews have varied from Bruce Dawe not using computers (and getting his wife to type short replies) through to the in-depth engagement of experimental Holly Isemonger.

The poems themselves have taken various forms, including traditional sonnets, street poetry, experimental and digital. I can assure you that there is a vibrant community of young emerging poets in Australia using numerous tools to present their work, not everything is available in a bound paper book!

Giramondo Publishing has recently released Oscar Schwartz’s collection “The Honeymoon Stage” and describes it on the back cover as:

“…a collection of poems written for friends on the internet over a five-year period. These friends were spread across the globe, and most of them the poet had never met, and will never know. Poetry was the…

View original post 1,752 more words

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2017

Echoland, by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartett

Echoland is Per Petterson’s first novel, published in 1989 in Norway, but not translated into English until now.  It is the story of a twelve year old boy confronting adolescence and all the emotional and hormonal turbulence that goes with it, exacerbated by unexplained tensions within his family.

Petterson doesn’t write long books, but this one is shorter still at only 132 pages. Yet it has a powerful impact on the reader, partly because of what we recognise as Petterson’s trademark spare prose on display here in his first novel, but also because of the preoccupation with death and alienation.  Arvid is on a beachside holiday with his family in Denmark, staying with his grandparents, but it is no idyll.  There is friction of long standing between his mother and grandmother, and his father is drawn into it because he failed to offer the support that was needed when it was needed – and it’s too late now.

This author doesn’t make things explicit in his almost plotless books, but careful reading between the lines can bring some strands together.  Arvid’s mother ‘went away’ without explanation as a young woman; and Arvid is noticeably not Norwegian in appearance.  His Italian colouring provokes comment almost straight away when he meets and makes friends with Mogens, who turns out to be as much interested in Arvid’s older sister Gry as he is in Arvid.  Perhaps the Italian genes are from the Neapolitan ancestor who in 1874 migrated to Norway, and perhaps they are not.  What matters to Arvid is that they make him different, and different to his sister too, who has blonde hair and brown skin.  Sometimes he embraces this difference, declaring to the stranger on the ferry that he’s Italian, and he sings the Italian song Come Prima about first love that is his mother’s constant refrain, but he doesn’t understand the words because he doesn’t know Italian.  Sometimes he yearns to belong.

There are many things that Arvid doesn’t understand, but the one that vexes him most is the hostility between his mother and hers.  He doesn’t understand why his mother cries every time they visit his maternal grandparents, not making the link between his grandmother’s judgemental religiosity and the rural conservatism that made the tango a forbidden dance during the war.

The silences in this family make Arvid’s preoccupation with death more difficult for him.   His great-grandfather committed suicide, this tragedy commemorated by a plaque outside the cemetery, reading By his own hand.  Arvid lost his faith when he prayed for a small sibling to survive and God failed him, and no one ever talks about this.  He’s curious about his uncle Jesper’s death at sea too, but grief is suppressed in this household and no one ever explains to him what happened.

Arvid undertakes the kind of activities you’d expect him to: he roams increasingly further away from his grandparents’ home; he goes fishing with his mate Mogens, he spies on lovers that he sees among the dunes and he is moody and preoccupied.  But as the book progresses the reader sees him yearning for the adventure he’s read about in his favourite book, and taking risks of one sort or another while claiming that he can take care of himself.  The narrative tension rises as these risky behaviours increase in intensity:  he teases a raging bull, he jumps into the sea to overpower a huge cod he’s caught, and he rides no-hands on his bike on roads he doesn’t know.  He doesn’t think he’s immortal, but he thinks he’s powerful like the eagle after which he is named, and he thinks he ‘has time’ because he thinks that he won’t die until he’s the same age as Jesper.

Echoland is a coming-of-age novel with a shocking denouement.

PS The translation by Don Bartlett is flawless.

Author: Per Petterson
Title: Echoland
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Publisher: Harvill Secker, 2016, first published as Ekkoland by Forlaget Oktober, 1989
ISBN: 9781846554490
Source: Bayside library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2017

Finnegans Wake, (Folio Edition) by James Joyce #12 Chapter 11

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Have I mentioned before that reading the crib about Chapter 10 in A Skeleton Key to “Finnegan’s Wake”: James Joyce’s Masterwork Revealed (by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson) was daunting?  That’s nothing!  This is what Tindall has to say about Chapter 11 in A Reader’s Guide to “Finnegans Wake” :

Earwicker’s apology in the third part and closing time in the fourth are clear enough – as simple as anything around here; but the stories in the first two parts are the obscurest part of the Wake. Joyce himself (Letters, III, 422) called his story of the tailor a “wordspiderweb”.  Nothing more intricate or more forbidding to assurance and comfortable reading.  The reader – if I may change metaphor in midweb – finds himself, in the tale of the sailor, all at sea, or when landed now and again, unable to see the wood for the trees or even the trees in the wood.  The causes of confusion are plain.  Now in the period of deepest sleep, we dream of drunks, whose exchanges, even in periods of lighter sleep, might tax our sobriety.  The problem is who among those drunks is telling the story of the sailor and who the story of the Russian General.  (Tindall, p.188)

Ok. Nicely discouraged, I took notes…

The chapter is set in the pub, with Earwicker presiding at the bar, and the radio is blaring. There are four parts:

  1. The Sailor and the Tailor (twins of a sort) have a quarrel.
  2. So do Buckley (Butt) and a Russian General.
  3. Earwicker makes an apology and a boast.
  4. It’s closing time at the pub: the drunks go home and Earwicker has a fall.

There are lots of interruptions, including calls for drink, pauses for giving change to the drinkers, visits to the urinal and gossip about the host.  There is Pidgin English (which Tindall reminds me is the language of business) and (apparently) the Days of the Week in Finnish ( never found them).  There are many refrains, including from Do Ye Ken John Peel, Take Off that White Hat and The Charge of the Light Brigade.  This is one example from p.334 in Penguin Kindle Edition, line breaks are mine:

Yes, we’ve conned thon print in its gloss so gay/how it came from Finndlader’s Yule to the day/
and it’s Hey Tallaght Hoe on the king’s highway/ with his hounds on the home at a turning.

[I didn’t mention, did I, that my computer’s CD player has *pout* died, and I can no longer play the Naxos recording of FW, to give me the rhyme and rhythm of refrains like this.  The Offspring was supposed to come this week and upgrade everything to Yikes! Windows 10 and all new architecture, but he has succumbed to the flu so I am bereft.]

Campbell is more helpful in this chapter.  He says, first of all that:

The setting is the tavern of HCE [ a.k.a. Earwicker].  The radio is blaring, and the customers are pushing each other about, swapping yarns, and drunkenly joking.  It becomes gradually apparent that all the yarns and radio broadcasts taken together add to something like the ancient story of the shame of HCE [i.e. the accusations of his indecent assault of the two girls in the earlier chapter].  The yarns cut across each other, and yet carry forward the inevitable tale. (Campbell, p195)

And he also says that there are nine interwoven strands which I’m paraphrasing and adding to here:

(A) A Tavern Brawl underlying the entire action;
(B) The story of a Norwegian Captain and his enquiries concerning a Tailor in the town and a suit that he’s ordered.
(C) A (very obscure, very grubby) radio skit of the brothers Butt and Taff with a punchup and then a reconciliation between them
(D) Butt’s tale of his shooting the Russian General (another manifestation of Earwicker) at the Battle of Sevastopol, which Tindall says is another representation of a son killing his father.

During the intermissions there are news reports:

(E) The Steeplechase
(F) A TV account of four Mullingar Events (but see below* re Tindall and the invention of TV)
(G) An account of the Annihilation of the Atom
(H) A radio review of the Dismemberment of a Hero, and

an endless Tale of a Tub recounted by the host himself.

Thus armed, I read the chapter. 58 pages of total confusion!

This is the first couple of paragraphs:

It may not or maybe a no concern of the Guinnesses but.

That the fright of his light in tribalbalbutience hides aback in the doom of the balk of the deaf but that the height of his life from a bride’s eye stammpunct is when a man that means a mountain barring his distance wades a lymph that plays the lazy winning she likes yet that pride that bogs the party begs the glory of a wake while the scheme is like your rumba round me garden, allatheses, with perhelps the prop of a prompt to them, was now or never in Etheria Deserta as in Grander Suburbia, with Finnfannfawners, ruric or cospolite, for much or moment indispute.

Whyfor had they, it is Hiberio-Miletians and Argloe-Noremen, donated him, birth of an otion that was breeder to sweatoslaves, as mysterbolder, forced in their waste, and as for Ibdullin what of Himana, that their tolvtubular high fidelity daildialler, as modern as tomorrow afternoon and in appearance up to the minute, (hearing that anybody in that ruad duchy of Wollinstown schemed to halve the wrong type of date) equipped with supershielded umbrella antennas for distance, getting and connected by the magnetic links of a Bellini-Tosti coupling system with a vitaltone speaker, capable of capturing skybuddies, harbour craft emittences, key clickings, vaticum cleaners, due to woman formed mobile or man made static and bawling the whowle hamshack and wobble down in an eliminium sounds pound so as to serve him up a melegoturny marygoraumd, eclectrically filtered for allirish earths and ohmes.

 Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition pp. 309-310).

All I can say about that is that I can make no sense at all of the second paragraph but that (primed by my pre-reading) I can see that the tolvtubular high fidelity daildialler with its supershielded umbrella antennas for distance is the radio blaring.  And that’s what a lot of my reading of this chapter was like: decoding small bits of it, but making no sense whatsoever of the plot or its sequences without the help of my trusty guides.  Here’s an example that got my attention because of its relevance to the present day, but I’d never have known it without the translation beforehand:

Campbell, p 223 Finnegans Wake, Penguin Classics Kindle Edition p.346
How successful American businessmen are making resolutions never to grow old or raise salaries or become spiritually complicated or donate money to encourage philosophy. How Old Yales boys is making rebolutions for the cunning New Yirls, never elding, still begidding, never to mate to lend, never to ate selleries and never to add soulleries and never to ant sulleries and never to aid silleries with sucharow with sotchyouroff as Burkeley’s Show’s a ructiongetherall.

There’s a six-page paragraph that doesn’t make it any easier either.

My admiration for the illustrator of the Folio edition grows, though he says entirely different things about this chapter because he’s chosen to illustrate the last part of it, possibly because it’s the easiest to interpret…

This is closing time in the tavern: the landlord, Earwicker, has drunk his customer’s leftovers, sucking up ‘whatever surplus rotgut… was left by the laze lousers in the different bottoms of the various different replenquished drinking utensils’.  Earwicker’s manservant, Sackerson, is holding the key to the tavern door: ‘Ere the sockson locked at the dure.  Which he would, shuttinshore.  And lave them to sture.’ Finally he calls out, ‘Tide, genmen, plays’ (‘Time, gentlemen, please’).  The group of customers ‘all pour forth’ from the tavern.  Each of the four singing old men (‘the fore olders’) are walking out of the frame in different directions: ‘North’, ‘Soother’, ‘Eats’ and ‘Washte’.

There is also a strip of sixteen composers’ portraits across the top of the illustration, brought into the text in the form of wordplay.  The first three, from left to right, are Rossini (‘rosescenery’), Haydn (‘haydyng’) and Meyerbeer (‘mere bare’). (John Vernon Lord, Notes to the Illustrations’ in the Folio edition of Finnegans Wake, p xxxiii).

Was Beethoven mentioned somewhere in this chapter?  I didn’t find it if he was…

Here’s the picture on Pinterest, though I can’t tell whether it’s a Folio Society Pinterest page or whether the person who posted it there has breached copyright.

PS There are two more of those 100-letter thunder claps.  (I think) Campbell says that this one (on p314 of the Penguin Kindle Edition) refers to HCE’s fall :


and this one (on p332 of the Penguin Kindle Edition) takes place at the consummation of a marriage between Hanigan and Hunigan (I think!) but I have no idea who they are because as usual in FW identities are shifting all over the place.

whackfalltherdebblenonthedubblandaddydoodled and

These thunderbolt words form the left and right hand frames of the illustration in the Folio edition, to see it, click the Pinterest link above.

*Far be it from me to argue with Tindall who has been so helpful, but I think he might be wrong about the timing of the invention of television.  He notes, on more than one page, that Joyce seems to be making allusions to “teilweisoned” broadcasts of programs and “verbivocovisual” TV which often offends eye and ear alike.  But Tindall says, there was no TV at the time of Earwicker’s dream or Joyce’s writing.  (p.197) I’m not so sure.  I don’t know exactly when Joyce wrote this chapter or exactly where he was in different years after he left Dublin for Europe, but I know that FW was first published in 1939 and Wikipedia tells me that the history of TV begins in the late 19th century, that there was a demonstration of a crude TV by Rignoux and Fourrier in Paris in 1909 and a more impressive demo by Baird at Selfridges in London in 1925.  Who’s to say that Joyce didn’t know about these demonstrations and decided to use the concept in FW, eh?

So on to Chapter 12 – and it had better be easier than this one!

*Any numbers when quoting from FW refer to line numbers in the text so that readers can find their way whichever edition they are using.


A Reader’s Guide to “Finnegans Wake” by William York Tindall, Syracuse University Press, 1969; and

A Skeleton Key to “Finnegan’s Wake”: James Joyce’s Masterwork Revealed, by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, Collected Works Edition, New World Library, 2005

Finnegans Wake (Modern Classics) read by Jim Norton with Marcella Riordan, Naxos AudioBooks 2009

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics), introduction by Seamus Deane, Penguin, 2015.  (I’m using the Kindle edition ASIN B00XX0H95S, just to make quoting easier because typing the text is such a provocation to AutoCorrect).)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2017

Death of a She Devil, by Fay Weldon

Maybe if you weren’t there, reading Fay Weldon in the 1980s, you just won’t ‘get’ this sequel to her most famous novel, Life and Loves of a She Devil…

I don’t mean that you can’t follow the novel.  It’s decades since I read SheDevil#1 and I’d forgotten the detail of it but Weldon provides all you need to know in SheDevil#2.  I mean that for women of my generation the novel will evoke memories of all kinds of feminist battles large and small and the sense of excitement that came with yes, changing the world.  Today we can’t use the term The Sisterhood without self-mockery, but back then we knew we were working with women across a yet-to-be-globalised world, and we knew with a sense of empowerment that we were not alone.

And we were all very serious about it.  We were reading such serious stuff about feminism.  We were reading The Female Eunuch and The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique and Damned Whores and God’s Police et al, and Fay Weldon came along and made us laugh about ourselves and the patriarchal society we lived in by skewering everything we held sacred.  We loved her then, and even though some of us stopped reading her novels when they were bitter and twisted after her marriage breakdown, (almost as if we expected that not to hurt because she was an iconic feminist) she still has a place in the hearts of women of my generation.

And now Death of a She Devil.  Ruth Patchett (the She devil) like her creator is getting old and as the fight goes out of her, she worries about handing on the reins of her feminist empire to the young.  It’s no coincidence that her would-be usurper Valerie Valeria is a brash PR from Australia: Britain is full of energetic young imports making the place barely recognisable to people born before the war.  (I myself have two – sometimes three – Aussie-born expat nieces living and working there for a start). Valerie is boundlessly confident: she bullies Ruth into agreeing to a bizarre ‘World Women’s Widdershins Walk’ to celebrate the equinox, the founding of the Institute for Gender Parity and Ruth’s 85th birthday, and she thinks breezily that she can manage this major event because she took Event Management as part of her degree.  Experience and expertise no longer necessary, you see, as long as you have mastered Spin and look smart and purposeful in your skimpy cashmere cardigan.

It’s also no coincidence that another would-be usurper is the She Devil’s estranged grandson Tyler, resentful but clueless.  Despite his qualifications, he can’t get a job because women are now exerting the exclusionary power that blokes used to wield.  In characterising Tyler, Weldon skewers the resentful male we have all encountered, and though you have to do some thinking for yourself to see it, she has a go at gendered abortions in China and India while she’s at it.

It had been his great misfortune to have been born a boy.  Even his mother had wanted to abort him because he was the wrong sex.  All along the way girls had it so much better than boys.  It had begun in nursery school: if you ran around and shouted and rolled on the floor they said why couldn’t you be more like a girl and offered you Ritalin to keep you quiet.  (p. 246)

In this absurdist world, maternal favouritism is for girls:

Of course his mother favoured girls, girls didn’t get ill, have autism or get acne; they passed exams, got to college, got jobs, wore nice dresses, went shopping with their mums, chewed men up and spat them out.  He worried about his sisters; they confused ‘nasty’ with ‘strong’. They’d never find anyone to commit, because who’d ever want to? Women ruled the world.  Men were second-class citizens and he was fed up with it.  (p. 247)

Of course he can’t get a job.  From the Institute of Gender Parity in the (ironically phallic) High Tower, Ruth and the rest of her ageing board employ only all-female companies:  Trans & Co Bandsters, Femina Electrical, Luxuriette Caterers, and Amethyst Builders.  Though this policy does cause problems when Ruth’s husband dies and the Board meets to organise a funeral:

The no formal funeral matter having been decided (there were no all-female firms in the area, anyway, the excuse apparently given was coffin-bearers in the age of obesity had to be extra strong, which meant male)… (p.227)

Oh yes, and a problem with a mouse requiring collaborative decision-making gives Weldon a chance to skewer Australian refugee politics at the same time.

Such a lovely morning! Valerie said she was sorry to be so late with the coffee.  Femina Electrical had reported that a mouse had got into the wiring for the platform lights and they needed to know what her views were on humane killing.
‘What are your views?’ asked the She Devil.
‘Australian,’ replied Valerie.  ‘Just get rid of it,’ and they both laughed.

Readers won’t ‘get’ these barbs unless they are keeping up with things, but Weldon takes no prisoners.

Here (contrary to some critical interpretations I’ve seen) Weldon is mocking the valorisation of a binary view of the world among hardline feminists:

The She Devil wondered if she had the will to resist the rise and rise of Valerie Valaria.  The girl was bright and energetic, a force to be reckoned with, but she seemed incapable of realising that though gender might be on a sliding scale, men were still born bigger, stronger and less empathic than women: if women gave way to biological imperatives, the patriarchy would come surging back.  The price of liberation was eternal vigilance.  Too much accommodation of the male principle was dangerous: male/female apartheid was the only way ahead. (p.174)

But *chuckle* perhaps Ruth is right to be wary of Valerie and her modern interpretation of feminism…  Along with The Ministry for Women and Other Minorities on Valerie’s guest list, there are Mumsnes and De-GenderNow because modern feminism should be progressive and inclusive and bring the blokes back under the umbrella.

Valerie was able to explain, quite poetically and to the satisfaction of most of the Board, why it was appropriate to invite men to a celebration of forty years’ pursuit of gender parity.  The She Devil and Ellen abstained from voting on this, the She Devil still muttering that it was the thin end of the wedge… parity was initially about pay: no one had anticipated such a change in gender attitudes that men would demand parity with women.  But again the effort of arguing defeated her.  She was tired.  (p.197)

As if.  If only, as if.  Let me know when men demand parity with feminised workforces in childcare, education and nursing and I’ll write a book about it myself…

I’ve seen some humourless and occasionally anguished commentary about Tyler’s gender transition to Tayla and I’ll just say this: IMO Weldon is not poking fun at the very serious matter of gender identity disorder (gender dysphoria).  As she did in SheDevil#1 when Ruth has surgery to transform herself into her romance novelist rival for her husband’s affections, she is mocking the idea of transforming the self to fit the preconceptions of others who have phony values anyway.  In SheDevil#2 she is mocking the idea that transforming the self to fit the prevailing society could make the modern economy any fairer to young people not getting a proper job, and she’s taken it to its ultimate absurdity.  It’s an absurdist novel.

There’s an interesting interview with Weldon at The Guardian and reviews at

Author: Fay Weldon
Title: Death of a She Devil
Publisher: Head of Zeus, UK, 2017
ISBN: 9781784979607
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Death of a She Devil

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2017

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel

I’ve picked this book up a couple of times at the library and put it back, because I don’t usually read short stories – the novel is my choice of form (though I like novellas too).  But I brought the book home this time because I wanted to read the title story with its very provocative title…

Without giving too much away, the story goes like this: it begins with what is presumably a quotation from a doorstopper at No 10 Downing St, where Margaret Thatcher announces the landing of British troops on the Falkland Islands, and airily dismisses a reporter’s question about the prospect of declaring war on Argentina.  On the next page, the story proper begins, like this:

Picture first the street where she breathed her last.  It is a quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees: a street of tall houses, their facades smooth as white icing, their brickwork the colour of honey.  (p. 207, the title story is the last in the book).

So.  A middle-class narrator is wittering on about her nice middle-class suburb where nothing much happens, on a day when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after some minor eye surgery is due to be released from a private hospital down the road. The normally quiet street is awash with media and the locals, who we are advised include some intelligentsia and gosh! even some closet republicans, gather on the streets where the dissidents find each other and voice their loathing for Thatcher.  The narrator joins in, until she has to go indoors to wait for a tradesman called Duggan to mend her boiler.

When a man arrives on her doorstep she lets him in, only to discover that he is not the expected tradesman; he is a man who has tricked his way into her house so that he can set up an observation post from her window to events below.  Polite in a nice middle-class way, she acquiesces because she feels that it’s her fault:

He stood back from the tall window, mopping his face; face and handkerchief were both crumpled and grey.  Clearly it was something he wasn’t used to, tricking himself into private houses.  I was more annoyed with myself than with him.  He had a living to make, and perhaps you couldn’t blame him for pushing in when some fool of a woman held the door open for him.  (p. 216)

Making conversation, and misunderstanding his purpose, she asks him how much he’ll be paid for a good shot:

‘Life without parole,’ he said.
I laughed.  ‘It’s not a crime.’
‘That’s my feeling.’
‘It’s a fair distance,’ I said. ‘I mean, I know you have special lenses, and you’re the only one up here, but don’t you want a close up?’
‘Nah,’ he said. ‘As long as I get a clear view, the distance is a doddle.’
… he grunted, and applied himself to unstrapping his bag, a canvas holdall I supposed would be as suitable for a photographer as for any tradesman.  But one by one he took out metal parts which, even in my ignorance, I knew were not part of a photographer’s kit.  He began to assemble them; his fingertips were delicate. (p.217)

This provocative story in a collection that is, according to the blurb bracingly transgressive, asks the question, what would you do if you had an unexpected opportunity to facilitate the assassination of a much-loathed politician?  Of course, the assassin might kill the narrator too if she got in his way, but she still has some choices.  Risk martyrdom by screaming out a warning?  Try to dissuade, stay silent, or encourage?  Be friendly and hospitable, or be sulky and hostile?  Tell about a possible escape route, or say nothing?

In an era when so-called civilised societies have unleashed vitriol on social media so that we all know about how much visceral hatred there is for politicians, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher exposes this hatred within the quiet streets of London.  The positioning of Thatcher’s casual rebuttal of an important question from a journalist suggests that any one of us – given a cause for grievance – might succumb to approving of terrorism.  Take the story out of 1983 and apply it to contemporary people and events, and you can see what she is getting at…

PS These crisp short stories show that Mantel can not only write big baggy fictionalisations of historical events as in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, but also has mastery of the short form on contemporary issues.  I liked the dark  humour of her early work too…

Author: Hilary Mantel
Title: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Stories
Publisher: Fourth Estate, 2014
ISBN: 9780007580972
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2017

AALITRA Symposium, Translating Australian Literature, 16/9/17

AALITRA-logo-image-file1.gifYesterday I attended the annual AALITRA Symposium here in Melbourne at the Boyd Library in Southbank, and had a most interesting time.  The event was very well attended and arriving just shortly before it started, I was lucky to get a seat.  I think some people must have come without booking in beforehand, and who can blame them, this is always a beaut event for anyone interested in translation, and – thanks to the Copyright Agency, it’s free.

The program featured Alice Pung in conversation with Leah Gerber from Monash about Pung’s experience of literary translation.  There was some preliminary discussion about the past practice of labelling books as ‘ethnic literature’ or ‘migrant literature’ which had a kind of silo effect along with assumptions about a set of tropes that distinguished it from ‘Australian literature’.  In this context Pung made an interesting remark about Anh Do’s book The Happiest Refugee: A Memoir  which she said is popular with people who are anti-refugee because he is seen to be a ‘grateful’ refugee.  But the main focus of the discussion was about the relationship between translator and author….

Alice Pung’s book Unpolished Gem has been translated into ItalianGerman and Indonesian, and her experience with the translator was different with each.  She had very little contact with the Indonesian translator Francesca – indeed so little that when Pung commented that she hadn’t even been given the surname of this translator, she was surprised to have it explained that it is quite normal to have just one name in Java.  But she developed a closer relationship with her Italian translator Adele D’Arcangelo, who, she said, had seen parallels between Italian and Australian culture that Pung herself had not identified, in particular that Pung’s ethnicity is regional in the same way that Italy’s is.   The discussion about the German translation branched off into a discussion about American editions, which – with audience input – became quite critical of the American penchant for insisting on inappropriate changes to suit an American audience.  Pung said, for example, that some of her US YA readers had picked up on changing the emergency phone number from the Australian triple 000 to the American 911, and had commented in social media forums that they knew this number was wrong in Australia.

Worse than this, however, was that while none of the translations into other languages required an introduction about the Vietnam War or a family tree, the American one did because, it was said, American publishing has not kept up with attitudinal changes elsewhere.  They still assume that their readers are too ignorant to know about events and cultures outside the US, and Pung was quite indignant about the assumption that American readers don’t know about the Vietnam War in particular since the US had been one of the belligerents and indeed it is called the American War in Vietnam.  If she wanted to be published, she had to agree to these changes, but, she said, it turned the story into a ‘refugee story’ instead of the family story that it is.  Gerber closed this discussion with a thought-provoking reply to a question about the ethics of ‘domesticating’ or ‘foreignising’ a text: she said that the point was to make the book accessible, and that it’s not an ethical issue…

Karen Viggers is the author of three books which have had more success in translation than here in Australia.  Her books have been translated into French, Italian, Norwegian, Slovenian and Spanish; and they have been very successful in France, selling more than 400,000 copies to date and winning a French Award. The Lightkeeper’s Wife (La Memoire de embruns) was on the French National Bestseller list for more than 32 weeks.  She compared the elegant French covers with Australian covers designed to get the books into K-Mart even though they misrepresent the books and may lose readers who dismiss them as commercial fiction.  She also talked about the difference in formats, where in Australia books come out in C and B formats, while in France there’s a large format edition and then a poche (pocket) mass market edition.

Interestingly, Viggers had had very little contact with her translators, and had in fact seen a query on social media from her Slovenian translator about what something meant, when she had offered to be available for any queries and would have preferred to have been asked directly. She said that as a result of her success in France where she has had media tours and so on, she had brushed up her school French and included pages in French on her website out of respect for her French readers.

One of the translators in the audience asked whether Viggers thought the translator’s name should be on the front cover (she said she didn’t mind) and this triggered quite a bit of discussion (and long-winded ‘questions’) about acknowledging translators!  I was therefore quite amused when later, in a private discussion over wine and nibbles in the break, an older translator was quite dismissive about young translators wanting to be acknowledged.  He seemed quite surprised when I said that as a reader I wanted to know who the translator was, and that there were some books that I would read because they had been translated by a translator I admired.  (Margaret Jull Costa, for one.  She never translates anything that’s not a great book to read and her translations are flawless.  Aussie Will Firth for another, because he translates politically astute books from Eastern Europe.)

And then, the highlight of the event for me, was Lily Yulianti Farid in conversation with Paul Thomas of the role literary translation has in spreading cultural knowledge between Indonesia and Australia.  I know Lily from my session at the Bendigo Writers Festival where we talked about her short story collection Family Room, (see my review). It was translated polished up by John McGlynn since Lily speaks perfectly good English but wanted to be sure she hadn’t made any errors. Paul Thomas’s academic area of interest is in cultural exchange and he thinks that Australia’s most interesting relationship is with our nearest neighbour, Indonesia.  Since Indonesia’s independence Australia has needed to work on this relationship independently of the US and UK, and we need to have a cultural relationship as well as a political/economic one.

Well, in 1946, the now defunct newspaper The Argus said that Australia should flood Indonesia with translations about ourselves, but *chuckle* in response to Menzies’ suggestion that Indonesian should be taught in Australian universities, Indonesia flooded us with books – 16,000 of them!  Alas, even today, a mere trickle of Aussie books have been translated into Indonesian.  A sort of canon of Australian authors includes Thomas Keneally, Sally Morgan, Christopher Koch, Alice Pung, Peter Carey and Randa Abdel-Fattah plus some short stories in anthologies for Australian Studies in Indonesian universities.  Lily acknowledged that Indonesians are much more interested in European literature, and that didn’t change even when Patrick White won the Nobel Prize.  (That concurs with my own observations in bookshops in Yogyakarta: heaps of translations of British classics (Austen & Co) and also British crime fiction.  I myself bought some Agatha Christies so that I could practice my reading in Indonesian with books where I already knew the plot.)

Some of the titles that were translated had a political agenda.  The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith was translated by an author whose own work was banned, and he wanted to send a message about human rights to the generals under Suharto.  Sally Morgan’s My Place was translated to show that the Australian government was open to books that were critical of Australia, and it was launched not in a bookshop but by the cultural attaché and published under the auspices of the Australian Institute.   Two titles by Peter Carey, My Life as a Fake and True History of the Kelly Gang were also chosen as part of this program and Lily, who had read the latter, said that not only did Indonesians not know about Ned Kelly, but that they knew very little about Australian literature at all. Scholarship students coming to Australia to study are told instead about barbecues and Australian slang, and that within this international network of students, Aduh! most had never read an Australian book though they might have seen one of our films.  (Because now that they have their own fledgling film industry, they are interested in how other small film makers do it.)  Apparently there has been a launch of an “Australian Corner” in Indonesian university libraries, but it hasn’t really got started yet…

Lily talked about the specifics of the Indonesian translations: their edition of True History of the Kelly Gang has no colloquialisms in it, they’re all translated into standard Indonesian.  My Place, OTOH, used an East Javan dialect in contrast with standard Indonesian to represent Indigenous voices as distinct from Standard Australian English.  She said that some concepts are difficult to translate and gave the example of ‘bushranger’ being translated as ‘bandit’ and the honorific ‘Sang’ added to it to show that there was some respect for Kelly amongst (some) Australians.  Perhaps of more significance to the marketing of Australian books is the issue of what Lily coyly called ‘dirty words’.  Australian fiction these days is full of foul language, and while post 2000 Indonesian books by women writers have more explicit sex and ‘dirty words’ there is cultural pressure on them not to do so.  So ‘dirty words’ in Indonesian translations are made milder due to these cultural sensitivities (and my guess is that some works e.g. by Christos Tsolkias would never get into the country).

But when it comes to planning literary festivals for Indonesian audiences, (and Lily is active in that) the interest is mainly in European and American writers.  Our best hope for promoting Australian literature to our neighbour is through the international students returning to Indonesia, they are the footprint because Australia is familiar to them.  But what Lily didn’t say because she was too polite, is that these students must surely be a bit taken aback at the relentlessly negative portrayal of Indonesia in our media, and perhaps they return home not really wanting to read our books.

Oh, and just in case some readers think it doesn’t matter: Indonesia has a population of well over 261 million.  10% of those are middle class people with middle class incomes, more than the entire population of Australia.  An Australian author breaking into that book market can make a great deal of money!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 16, 2017

On the Java Ridge, by Jock Serong

On the Java Ridge has a bit of a slow start, but once it gets going, it becomes a page turner.  The third novel of Jock Serong, it tackles Australia’s shameful refugee policies head on with a vivid tale set in the seas off the Indonesian archipelago.

There are three strands to the story…

The Java Ridge is a traditional Indonesian style boat,  kitted out with reliable fast engines and every available navigation and communication device, together with the sort of luxuries that privileged westerners expect when they trawl Indonesian coastlines looking for the perfect wave.  The boat is skippered by Isi Natoli while her boyfriend stays back in Australia to cadge some more money out of the banks to keep the business afloat.

The Takalar is a genuine Indonesian boat, tatty and unsafe, and overloaded with refugees heading for Australia.  On board is a very pregnant mother and her daughter Roya, who becomes a crucial character because she’s the only one who can speak a bit of English.

And in Canberra there is the Minister for Border Integrity Cassius Calvert, with an election imminent, delivering press releases about harsh new refugee policies to the media.   Basically, the policy offloads to Indonesia, all responsibility for providing assistance to asylum-seeker boats in distress, and they’ve outsourced surveillance to a private company called Core Resolve.

The slow start introduces what you’d expect: a bunch of surfers with distinct personalities, none of them people I’d want to add to my address book; a bunch of refugees with the kind of sad stories that sadly we’ve all heard before; and a bunch of political animals with characteristics that seem eerily familiar to anyone who’s kept a weary eye on Canberra politics over the last few years.

It’s when these worlds collide that things hoover along.  The male surfers on the Java Ridge overrule the female skipper and demand an unscheduled sojourn on the island of Dana because they are bored and want to start surfing.  The refugee boat has engine trouble and is wrecked on Dana’s offshore reef.  Nothing about the rescue is straightforward, and all that fancy gear on the Java Ridge counts for nothing when a man with another agenda hijacks the return journey.  And in Canberra, politicians and their apparatchiks who are busy with the election, are deep in denial about anything to do with refugees because they are off the political agenda: all sorted, as far as they’re concerned, and someone else’s problem.

On the Java Ridge asks the question: what happens when inhumane policies are applied to Australian vessels in distress?  Canberra assumes that the Java Ridge – because of its design – is an Indonesian boat.  With disposable refugees on board.  Far-fetched in places, the novel also confronts the reader with the question: just how far-fetched is this scenario, and why are we not in a position to answer that question?

The book reminds me of Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist in its purpose: to tackle confronting political issues in a way that’s palatable for people disengaged from politics and not willing to think much about what is done in our name.  On the Java Ridge is similarly a political thriller with literary qualities.

On the Java Ridge has had good reviews everywhere so, expecting this to be a bestseller, I checked out this week’s bestsellers at Better Reading. #ShakesHeadInDismay What a dispiriting result: not an Australian book among the top ten, and it’s no better at independent bookshops, from what I can see at Indie Bound.  But it’s No 3 at the publisher’s website behind Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt (on my TBR) and Sunlight and Seaweed by Tim Flannery.  And I can vouch for its suitability for book groups: my optometrist is discussing it this month with his group!

Author: Jock Serong
Title: On the Java Ridge
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925498394
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing.

Available from: On the Java Ridge

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2017

The House by the Lake, by Thomas Harding

Thomas Harding’s The House by the Lake is in some ways similar to Penelope Lively’s A House Unlocked which I read and reviewed back in 2009.   Lively’s book tells the stories of objects in her family’s country house that her grandparents bought in 1923, and in doing so creates a social history of her time, covering the period of rapid change in the interwar years as well as WW2.  However in one crucial respect,  Harding’s memoir of his family’s house and its people is different: whereas the Lively house always stayed in family hands, for the house by the lake in Germany there were five changes of ownership during the tumultuous 20th century.

A hundred years after Otto von Wollank’s estate had run into economic trouble after the First  World War; after the collapse of Imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, communism and reunification; after five families had fallen in love with the land, only to be dispossessed; after twelve years of being abandoned, the house at last has a brighter future. (p.357)

As you can see from the book’s cover photograph, the Groß Glienicke Lake lay right by the path of the Berlin Wall which severed the community during the Cold War.  When the house was built in the 1920s as a weekender by its first owner, it was a pretty spot, and a relaxing distance from the busy city of Berlin.  But the rise of Nazism meant that it became prudent for its Jewish owners to flee and they were lucky to make it out in time.  The house was Aryanised by the Nazis and purchased at a bargain price by opportunistic buyers, and after the war under the Soviets,  those same buyers were dispossessed when they fled to West Germany – and a Stasi informer moved in.  But on the night the Berlin Wall came down, the residents took to the wall with a sledgehammer and were able to take a swim in the lake for the first time in years.  (You can read a timeline of events at the house here.)

Over the decades the house was altered, enlarged, subdivided and trashed, and the last part of the book is about a restoration project in order to save it from demolition.  The family had previously accepted compensation for the loss of the house so it was owned by the local council who wanted to build low-cost housing there.  (You can see photos here, because this book was a BBC Book of the Week.)  So yes, this book by the great grandson of its original owners is nostalgic, as well as a quest for some kind of justice for the house as a symbol of Germany’s history.  For those not familiar with this history, the book is a journey through the century, but my interest waned as the pages went by because the people living in the house lacked presence and their personalities were suppressed by the weight of the author’s research. (Which is thorough, there are pages and pages of notes at the back of the book and copious B&W photos).

The property is now owned by the City of Potsdam which has agreed to its restoration and development as a Centre for Education and Reconciliation, and this book is part of the process of explaining the significance of the house.

The House by the Lake was nominated for a Costa Award for Biography. However, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to describe it as blurber John Le Carré does, as ‘a gripping thriller’. ..

Author: Thomas Harding
Title: The House By the Lake, A Story of Germany
Publisher: William Heinemann, 2015
ISBN: 9780434023233
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings, $35.00 AUD

Available from Fishpond: The House by the Lake


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2017

2017 Man Booker shortlist

The 2017 Man Booker shortlist has just been announced late tonight Australian time, and I’ve only read two of them.  I’m disappointed to see that only one of my favourites, Exit West made it.

4321 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan) (Hamish Hamilton),

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing) – I borrowed this from the library and couldn’t get interested in it at all.

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton) see my review.

Three titles from the US, and three from the UK, so this prize isn’t doing anything to introduce readers to authors from the Commonwealth or anywhere else.

The 2017 winner will be announced on Tuesday 17 October, but I don’t think I really care…

Update 18/917 And this article by Alex Shepherd at New Republic explains (a) why I was briefly excited to have read some of the longlist and (b) why the Booker no longer matters.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 12, 2017

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, by Anita Heiss

Anita Heiss PhD is a versatile and prolific author: she is well-known as an author of non-fiction and social commentary, commercial women’s fiction (which she calls choc-lit), YA, children’s books, and poetry.  She was co-editor with Peter Minter of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (2008) (see my review) and with the late Rosie Scott also co-edited The Intervention, an Anthology (2015) (see my review).  I have also read and reviewed her splendid Am I Black Enough for You (2012).  But I have never read her fiction, until now…

Heiss writes what she calls choc-lit with a purpose: writing to engage non-Indigenous Australians with light-hearted novels about people ‘just like herself’, modern independent women who have or want to have great careers, women who network within great friendships, women who fall in and out of love, and women who face challenges and have their share of loss, failure or success.  The difference is that her novels include characters otherwise mostly invisible in Australian fiction: Indigenous women getting on with everyday life, just like they really do in everyday life.  And as it says in the article at Precinct news, she subverts the chicklit agenda by weaving into her plots the issues that concern her and should concern all of us: Aboriginal literacy, black deaths in custody, human rights, infringements, and Indigenous artistic protocols.  These novels include Tiddas  (201); Paris Dreaming (2011); Manhattan Dreaming (2010); Avoiding Mr Right (2008); and her debut in this genre, Not Meeting Mr. Right (2007).

Her latest book, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms adds to these concerns with a departure into historical fiction which reveals aspects of Australia’s Black history.  Her setting is Cowra and the Aboriginal mission at Erambie during World War II, and the book begins by introducing Hiroshi, who is wrestling with his conscience because he feels he can’t honour his Japanese heritage as a POW in the Cowra camp.  As readers probably know, Japanese soldiers underwent harsh training to imbue in them the belief that surrender was ignoble and it was better to die than to be captured.  And in the Cowra breakout on the 5th of August 1944, many of the Japanese POWs escaped only to commit suicide rather than live with the shame of seeing out the war in the comfort and safety of an Australian POW camp.

Heiss uses this historical backdrop for a love story between Hiroshi and a 17-year-old girl called Mary whose parents decide to offer refuge at Erambie to the escapee.  And although I haven’t read Heiss’s other novels, I suspect that this novel has a harder edge than they do, because it depicts the institutional discrimination of the period, from which there was no legal escape for Indigenous people.  In this period, before the 1967 Referendum and the reforms of the Whitlam era and since, they had no choices.  Aborigines were not counted as citizens, could not vote, had restrictions on where they could live and go and who they could marry, were denied pensions and allowances, had inferior education, employment opportunities and wages, and lived on sub-standard rations in missions around Australia in constant fear that their children would be taken away from them.  (And that’s only the half of it).  So while there is disagreement in the Erambie community about providing refuge to an enemy soldier – especially among those who had family on active service overseas – respect for Elders means that there is acceptance of Banjo’s point-of-view:

‘The government is fighting the Japanese – the same government we are fighting.  We’re fighting for a better life.  I feel like I’m at war every day with all those who control our lives.  I’m sick of living in this hut without water.  I want the same wages as the whitefellas doing the same job.  I’m tired of us living in fear of having our kids taken away, while white people don’t have to worry about anything: they have enough food and they have water and electricity and get paid properly for their work.’  Banjo’s voice is not loud but it is firm.  ‘If we are at war with this government, then, to my mind, this fella and I are on the same side.’ (p.7)

Given Australia’s obsession with military history and the tragic history of Australians in Japanese POW camps, many readers will find this perspective confronting.  Heiss has created her Japanese character sympathetically as a gentle, university-educated man who never wanted to go to war, utterly unlike the stereotype of the guards responsible for thousands of Australian deaths on the Burma Railway and whose contempt for prisoners resulted in many more deaths in the camps.  In this respect Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom defies the stereotyping of Japanese in the same way that the late Cory Taylor did in My Beautiful Enemy (see my review) and for somewhat similar reasons: her love story is between people rejected by Australian society and who have complex reasons for values that are different to the dominant point-of-view.

Notwithstanding the hatred expressed in war propaganda against the Japanese, Hiroshi, holed up in an air-raid shelter on the mission, reflects that he enjoyed better living conditions and was treated with greater respect than these Aboriginal Australians were.  When Mary explains that the only way to be treated in the same way as other Australians was to renounce their Aboriginality and sever all ties with their community in order to have an Exemption Certificate, he is baffled.

‘This is crazy,’ he says, confused that a country that treated him so well at the camp could treat its own people so badly.  ‘This paper changes all that?  Changes the way people treat you and how you can behave?  But you are still Aboriginal.  A piece of paper can’t change that.’ (p.119)

BTW#1 I thought at first that it was unrealistic that Hiroshi was hidden underground in this shelter for so long, until I was humbled by the realisation that it was unrealistic that Aborigines might have had anywhere else to put him when they were living in tin shacks themselves, overcrowded and with little privacy since the mission manager could intrude at any time.  Mary is able to conceal her nightly visits to share their meagre rations by ostensibly going to the lavatory which is some distance from her home.

BTW#2 Note the use of the present tense, a subtle reminder throughout the novel that discrimination and racism is not something that has gone away.

Heiss also raises the issue of non-Indigenous responsibility to learn and find out about Indigenous issues for themselves by depicting Mary’s exhaustion at having to explain all this to an incredulous Hiroshi over many nights, over many months of the war.  This is the exhaustion that Indigenous Australians deal with on an everyday basis today, always having to educate their fellow Australians about things they should know and find out for themselves instead of expecting to be told by others:

Mary sighs.  ‘We still look the same, think the same, know the same and understand the same history that has led us to where we are today.  And that is what makes us still Aboriginal.’  She takes a deep breath, exhausted by what feels like schooling.  None of the talking will change anything about her lot, other than the man she has feelings for coming to a better understanding of who she is and the life she leads. (p.120)

BTW#3 My only demurral to this is that there is so much to know, and the journey is long.  People of my generation are doing catch-up after having learned nothing at school and nothing at university about Indigenous issues.  I’ve been reading and reviewing Indigenous authors on this blog since 2011, and I’d read a couple of books by Indigenous authors before that, but I am only too aware that there is so much that I don’t know so I really appreciate opportunities for ‘schooling’ when they come my way.

The narrative tension in the novel is driven by the reader’s interest in how this doomed relationship might be resolved, but the book is much more than a star-crossed romance.  Comic elements lighten the mood in the characterisation of the incorrigible gossip Marj and the mission manager nicknamed King Billie, and an optimistic tone is achieved despite the circumstances through episodes of loving and happy family life.  At the same time, the novel is a coming-of-age story and so we see Mary occasionally behaving like a typical adolescent irritated by her mother’s ‘interference’.

Like the recently released Terra Nullius by Clare G Coleman  (see my reviewBarbed Wire and Cherry Blossom is an emerging trend in Indigenous fiction: subversive and entertaining at the same time.  You can vote for it in the People’s Choice category of the Queensland Literary Awards here.

PS There are book group questions at the back of the book.

Anita Heiss is a member of the Wiradjuri nation of central NSW, and her mother lived at Erambie.

Author: Anita Heiss
Title: Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2017
ISBN: 9781925184853
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Eltham Bookshop $19.99

Available from Fishpond: Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 12, 2017

Book Giveaway Winner: Soon, by Lois Murphy

It’s time to do the draw for Lois Murphy’s intriguing new novel Soon, published by Transit Lounge here in Melbourne.

This is the blurb:

An almost deserted town in the middle of nowhere, Nebulah’s days of mining and farming prosperity – if they ever truly existed – are long gone. These days even the name on the road sign into town has been removed. Yet for Pete, an ex-policeman, Milly, Li and a small band of others, it’s the only place they have ever felt at home. One winter solstice, a strange residual and mysterious mist arrives, that makes even birds disappear. It is a real and potent force, yet also strangely emblematic of the complacency and unease that afflicts so many of our small towns, and the country that Murphy knows so well. Partly inspired by the true story of Wittenoom, the ill-fated West Australia asbestos town, Soon is the story of the death of a haunted town, and the plight of the people who either won’t, or simply can’t, abandon all they have ever had. With finely wrought characters and brilliant plotting, it is a taut and original novel, where the people we come to know, and those who are drawn to the town’s intrigue, must ultimately fight for survival.

Soon is Lois Murphy’s first novel,  but she has won awards for her writing, including the Northern Territory Literary Award and the Sisters in Crime Best New Talent Prize.  Soon was the winner of the Tasmanian Premier’s Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript,   This is what the judges said about it:

A dark and powerful novel that takes the reader on a journey through a disturbingly new and hostile world.  Lois’s characters carry their old ways into this new order with grave consequences if they don’t heed the signs.  Her haunting and persuasive tale which nods at the tropes of genre fiction while subverting and elevating them heralds a compelling new talent.

And here’s here’s my (no spoilers) review.

There was a lot of interest in this giveaway! The entries were (in order of receipt):

  1. familyunfazed
  2. Bill Holloway
  3. Robin Dawson
  4. Annette Marfording
  5. Karenlee Thompson
  6. Jenny Snell
  7. Fay Kennedy
  8. Travellin Penguin
  9. MST (Michelle)
  10. Catherine Davison
  11. arcticcrocodile
  12. Annette Weisz Knudsen
  13. Michelle (inthegoodbooksblog)
  14. Abby L
  15. Elisabeth Masters
  16. Glenda
  17. Rhobyn Burns

And using the random number generator at, the winner is *drum roll* number 9, MST (Michelle)

Please remember that it is a condition of entry that you contact me with your postal address for delivery of the book within 10 days of the date of this post.   So Michelle, if you don’t get in touch, using the contact address right at the bottom of the RHS menu (where I hide it from spammers in all the yada-yada about copyright) then I will re-draw to choose a new winner.

Many thanks to Transit Lounge for the giveaway copy.  If you missed out this time, here’s the link to buy your own copy: Soon


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 11, 2017

The Agonist – Shastra Deo PLUS bonus poet interview

Thanks to Tony from Messenger’s Booker for permission to reblog his poetry posts:)

Messenger's Booker (and more)


The Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize is a literary award for an unpublished poetry manuscript written by a Queensland author. The current winner has their manuscript published by the University of Queensland Press. Last month, at the Queensland Poetry Festival, the 2017 winner was announced, Rae White for the collection “Milk Teeth”. 2016 winner was Shastra Deo for her collection “The Agonist” which was launched at the Festival, and Stuart Barnes won the 2015 version of the award, I reviewed his collection “Glasshouses” and interviewed him here.

I have been fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of “The Agonist” from the publisher as well as talking the poet herself into an interview about her debut collection.

As always I will post my thoughts about the book before presenting the interview, verbatim, at the close of this post.

“The Agonist” is a book that questions the physical world, a collection…

View original post 1,851 more words

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 11, 2017

2017 DSC Prize for South Asian literature longlist

I’ve always had good reading from the winners and nominees of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.  Past pleasures have included

The ParcelThis year’s longlist looks promising.  I’ve read one, I have one on my TBR, and I’ve ordered the two that have been translated because I too rarely read books in translation from this region.  The longlist includes seven Indian writers, three Pakistani writers, two Sri Lankan writers and one American writer based in India, but authors can be based outside the region because the criteria is to explore South Asian life and culture, so the longlist includes Anosh Irani, who lives in Canada. His devastating The Parcel is the one I’ve read, so if the others are in the same league, they must be good…

  • Anjali Joseph: The Living (Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, UK), see Karen’s review at BookerTalk
  • Anosh Irani: The Parcel (Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, India, see my review
  • Anuk Arudpragasam: The Story of a Brief Marriage (Granta Books, UK)
  • Aravind Adiga: Selection Day (Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, India) (on my TBR)
  • Ashok Ferrey: The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons (Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, India)
  • Hirsh Sawhney: South Haven (Akashic Books, USA)
  • Karan Mahajan: The Association of Small Bombs (Chatto & Windus, UK)
  • K.R. Meera: The Poison of Love (Translated by Ministhy S, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, India) (on order from Fishpond)
  • Omar Shahid Hamid: The Party Worker (Pan Macmillan, India)
  • Perumal Murugan: Pyre (Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, India) (on order from Fishpond)
  • Sarvat Hasin: This Wide Night (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, India)
  • Shahbano Bilgrami: Those Children (HarperCollins, India)
  • Stephen Alter: In the Jungles of the Night (Aleph Book Company, India)

The shortlist will be announced in London on September 27th and the winner at the Dhaka Literary Festival on November 18th.   The prize is only worth $25,000 (and I’m not sure what currency that is, probably USD) but imagine the book sales in India, not to mention the rest of the world!

BTW the best place to follow this prize is the DSC page at Facebook.  They don’t clutter up your feed with an endless stream of PR like other book prize pages do, but they keep you up to date with what’s what, in this case with a link to The Sunday Guardian which has more details about the prize if you are interested.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 10, 2017

Confessions, by Jaume Cabré, translated by Mara Faye Lethem


As you know if you saw the Sensational Snippet I posted from Jaume Cabré’s Confessions, I found this 750+ page chunkster so absorbing that I spent a fair bit of my New Caledonia holiday indoors, reading it.  And I don’t regret that for a second.  It is one of the most moving novels I have ever read…

Ostensibly Confessions is about a 60-year-old Catalan academic called Adrià Ardèvol who is writing his confessions to his wife Sara because he has what appears to be early-onset dementia and wants to set the record straight before he loses his memory entirely.  His best and dearest friend Bernat has been entrusted with making sense of his handwriting and transcribing it to computer, but as the novel progresses it becomes clear to Bernat and to the reader that he will need to do more than that.  Adrià’s mind wanders from the here and now to the past and elsewhere and sometimes he loses the thread mid-sentence or uses the wrong word: this is done so brilliantly by the author that the reader, pausing to make sense of some small thing that seems disordered or confused or not quite right is reminded, just often enough, about the irreparable gaps forming in Adrià’s memory.  And here and there the font changes to Italics where we see that the cruel present is confusing him entirely.  It is heartbreaking, especially if you know someone experiencing the same disease.  But, like John Bayley’s beautiful memoir of Iris Murdoch, it shows you that there are people who keep on loving the person that was, even if they no longer know it.

Chapter one introduces the family: Adrià is the only child of an antique dealer and collector called Felix Ardèvol, and his wife Carme.  Neither of them love him.  His father is harsh, demanding and physically abusive: this father insists that the child learn multiple languages and that he must spend his childhood in study so that he can achieve his father’s ambitions.  The boy is precociously clever, and he loves to learn, but that is never enough for his father.  His mother, emotionally unavailable and unforgiveably distant insists that he learn the violin to performance standard, and she never intervenes to protect Adrià from his father’s excesses.

The study is my world, my life, my universe, where almost everything has a place, except love.  I wasn’t usually allowed in there when I ran through the flat in shorts or with my hands covered in chilblains during autumns and winters.  I had to sneak in.  I knew every nook and corner, and for a few years I had a secret fortress behind the sofa, which I had to dismantle after each incursion so Little Lola wouldn’t discover it when she passed the floorcloth back there.  But every time I entered lawfully I had to behave like a guest, with my hands behind my back as Father showed me the latest manuscript he’d found in a rundown shop in Berlin, look at this, and be careful with those hands, I don’t want to have to scold you.  Adrià leaned over the manuscript, very curious.

‘It’s in German, right?’ – his hand reaching out as if by reflex.

‘Psst! Watch those fingers! You’re always touching everything…’ He smacked his hand.  (p.4)

[You can see in this excerpt how Cabré switches the narration from first to third person seemingly at random, but of course it’s not random at all.]

Adrià’s only consolations in this loveless childhood are the maid, known as Little Lola, and his companions Sheriff Carson and Black Eagle, since at home, as Father had decided years ago, there were no medallions, scapulars, engravings or missals, and Adrià Ardévol, poor boy, had need of invisible help:

‘What are you doing here, wasting time?  Don’t you have homework?  Don’t you have violin?  Don’t you have anything, eh?’

And Adrià went to his room, with his heart still going boom-boom.  He didn’t envy children with parents who kissed them because he didn’t think such a thing existed.

‘Carson: let me introduce you to Black Eagle. Of the brave tribe of the Arapaho.’



Black Eagle gave Carson a kiss, like the one Father hadn’t given him, and Adrià put both of them, with their horses, on the bedside table so they could get to know each other. (p.16)

These toys don’t know each other because Adrià had just that day at school acquired Sheriff Carson in a swap  for a Weiss harmonica – and if his father finds out, there’ll be hell to pay.

Amongst Felix’s treasures, none of which may Adrià ever touch, is an 18th-century violin made by the master craftsman Lorenzo Storioni.  Every item in the shop and the study has its own story of manufacture and ownership, and the story of this violin, and how it came into Felix’s possession takes the reader back to its origins, beginning with Jachiam of the Muredas in medieval times, who planted the trees and treated the wood from which the violin is made.  The journey of this violin through the centuries is the story of good and evil, of the struggle to make reparation for crimes that are unforgiveable, and of the intransigence of religion and folk myth when it is used to perpetuate evil such as the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi genocide.  Adrià loses the love of his life because of this violin, but almost worse than that is that he loses his peace of mind, just like monk in the monastery, centuries before…

[Book groups could have a marvellous time discussing moral equivalences, but they say that chunksters kill book groups so I hesitate to suggest it).

Adrià spends his academic life exploring the nature of evil, never expecting that in his own life he would have to confront its intergenerational consequences for himself.  The reader never expects this either because our sympathies are engaged by the pathos of Adrià’s childhood and the difficulties he has in forming relationships.  Throughout the novel we think that he has nothing much to be confessing about.  Even when he hurts his women, it’s because he’s so inept.  It’s a disagreeable surprise to find that everyone has a price, even though we know that’s almost always true.

And even though Cabré doesn’t raise it, the provenance of the things we readers have, from valuable collector’s items to everyday consumer goods, becomes the focus for thought.  Who owned and lost or sold under duress the family heirlooms we have?  What price are we willing to pay for the ultimate piece in our collections?  And, stretching the issue further, who suffered in the making of the clothes we wear or the appliances we use?

Very thought-provoking indeed.

Author: Jaume Cabré
Title: Confessions (Jo Confesso)
Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem
Publisher: Arcadia Books, 2015, first published 2011
ISBN: 9781910050576
Source: Personal library.  I can’t remember who recommended it to me, it might have been this Guardian review.


Fishpond: Confessions

extinctionsI know, I’m late with this news, but it’s easy to lose track of the days when away on holidays…

Josephine Wilson has won the 2017 Miles Franklin Award for her novel Extinctions, and (even though I had hopes for Philip Salom’s Waiting) I am delighted because this is exactly the kind of book that should win the MF.

You can read my review here, but better still, go get yourself a copy and read the book instead.

PS We fly back to Melbourne tomorrow so things should be back to normal here on the blog ASAP!

ConfessionsI am whiling away the days here in Noumea with a wonderful book called Confessions, by Jaume Cabre.  It’s 750+ pages long, and I have no idea how I will attempt to review it in due course, but for now I wanted to share Chapter 29 because it is about a subject dear to all our hearts…

Now that his mother has died, Adrià Ardèvol is moving into his parents’ flat in Barcelona, and the time has come to take the books out of the cartons that have been forming an obstacle course in the corridors.  He calls his best (and only) friend Bernat to come and help…

He turned on the light and there was light.  And he called Bernat to come over and help him plan this ideal order, as if Bernat were Plato and he Pericles, and the flat in the Eixample the bustling city of Athens.  And thus the two wise men decided that into the study would go the manuscripts, the incunabala that he would buy, the delicate objects, the books of the fathers, the records, the scores, and the most commonly used dictionaries, and they divided the waters from below from those above and the firmament was made with its clouds, separate from the sea waters.  In his parents’ bedroom, which he had managed to make his own, they found a place for the poetry and music books, and they separated the lower waters so there was a dry place, and they gave that dry place the name earth, and they called the waters ocean seas.  In his childhood bedroom, beside Sheriff Carson and valiant Black Eagle [toys who were companions in Adrià’s lonely unloved childhood] who kept constant watch from the bedside table, they emptied out, without a second glance, all the shelves of books that had accompanied him as a child and there they put the history books, from the birth of memory to the present day. And geography as well and the earth began to have trees and seeds that germinated and sprouted grasses and flowers. (p.358)

And so they continue through the house, filling every room with books on shelves commissioned from a local carpenter.  They have a minor argument, as friends of longstanding do, about whether the laundry should have shelves or not and Adrià finally acquiesces to the idea of having someone coming in to clean and she needing a space for her mops and buckets.  (But Adrià reneges on this and Caterina ends up having to live with fine art books and encyclopedias. Visibly wrinkling her nose did her no good).

The hallways are lined with books of literary prose, arranged by language. (Adrià speaks about a dozen languages, he’s lost count). The dining room has literary essays and literary and art theory.  The guest room has religion, theology, ethnology and the Graeco-Roman world and in seven days the flat resembles the world created by a deity , complete with wild animals populating the earth i.e. books on biology.

But (and this is the bit that insisted I share it with you) there are still those childhood books:

And, seated on the dark floor of hallway one, they reviewed their melancholy.   ‘Boy, Karl May.  I have a lot of his too.’

‘Look: Salgari.  God, no: I have twelve Salgaris.’

‘And Verne.  I had this one with engravings by Doré.’

‘Where is it now?’

‘Who knows?’

‘And Enid Blyton.  Not the strongest prose.  But I read them thirty times over.’

‘What are you going to do with the Tintins?’

‘I don’t want to throw anything out.  But I don’t know where to put it all.’

‘You still have a lot of room.’

And the Lord said yes, I still have a lot of room, but I want to keep buying books.  And my problem is where do I put my karlmays and julesvernes, you know?  And the other said I understand. And they saw that in the bathroom there was a space between the little closet and the ceiling, and Planas, enthused, made a sturdy double shelf and all the books he had read as a child went to rest there. (p362).

So they weren’t thrown out after all!

You can see why I”m spending more time loafing about with a book than being out and about doing touristy things in New Caledonia, eh?



Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 6, 2017

The Pacific Room, by Michael Fitzgerald

The Pacific RoomIt’s just coincidence, but Michael Fitzgerald’s The Pacific Room – a novel loosely based around the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson – is being published in the same year as the biographical Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa by Joseph Farrell.  It was interesting to have read the bio first, because it made RLS more familiar to me than if I’d relied on the novel alone.

The Pacific Room is not, however, primarily about RLS, though allusions to his stories are woven throughout the novel.  The book begins in the reading room of the Mitchell Library in Sydney, where PhD candidate Lewis Wakefield is researching his obsession with a portrait of RLS, painted a century earlier by an Italian artist called Girolamo Nerli.  At the Mitchell he finds a small pencil drawing, the portrait in its original guise, rendered not in oil but in pencil, in rehearsal for the real thing.

Lewis (whose first name is an alternative spelling of the middle name of Stevenson) is a man very much alone in the world.  His sixteen-year-old twin brother and parents were killed when their sightseeing plane flew into a mountain during a white-out in Antarctica.  Lewis would have been on that plane too if not for schoolboy sporting commitments; he was subsequently brought up by his Aunt Agatha and studied art history in Dunedin New Zealand where his interest is diverted from Von Guerard and Buvelot to the elusive painter Nerli.  After Aunt Agatha’s death, he takes up a position in a Sydney university, and as the novel opens he is on his way to Samoa for further research about the painting.

Lewis is also bi-polar, and in the belief that creativity can be freed by not taking his medication, he ventures to Samoa to experience a different reality.

This experiment with a different reality made me wonder if Fitzgerald was exoticising Samoan culture.  It wasn’t clear to me why shedding medication for a bi-polar condition was ok in Samoa and not in Australia.  Stevenson was able to adopt a relaxed lifestyle in Samoa because he was living in the colonial era, could employ servants and live like a lord of the manor.  Lewis is another rich westerner able to indulge himself in a place that is presented as being more accepting of difference…

Anyway…. the novel moves back and forth in time from 1892, the last year of Stevenson’s short life and the year that Nerli painted the portrait, to the present.  This is not necessarily confusing as the time shifts are always signalled in some way, with naming of the 19th century colonial characters in particular, mostly referring to them as the writer, the painter, the American wife,  the stepson and so on, but sometimes by their Samoan names such as Tusitala (‘teller of tales’); Tusiata (‘sketcher of shadows’), and so on.

In the present day Teuila and her friends are fa’afafine (‘in the manner of a woman’) and throughout the novel Fitzgerald explores gender identity as fluid and duality of personhood as in Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde.  He hints at a relationship between Stevenson and his servant Sosimo, (making more of the marital difficulties between Stevenson and his wife than in Farrell’s book).  He also plays with past and present, with events in the past bleeding through into the present, as when a page torn from Nerli’s sketchbook is passed down through the female line of Sosimo’s family.  This sketch of RLS is benign until an earth tremor smashes the glass of its frame and its spirit is released, much like the genie in the bottle, which must then be buried in order to exorcise the power which causes a restlessness of spirit.

The possibilities of relationships are central to the novel, but unresolved.  On the one hand we are told that Teuila’s parents were comfortable with the change in her gender identity because they already had two sons, and were gaining a longed-for daughter‘In our culture’, she says, ‘ it comes as naturally as breathing – opening up to the fa’afafine side, to the possibility of something more.’ But on the other hand Lewis’s driver warns him off pursuing Wilhelmina, because she and others like her at the nightclub are ‘moral degenerates‘.   And the fraught relationship between Henry and Teuila, which can apparently never result in marriage even if he does abandon Shema, who he’s been destined to marry since childhood, seemed unresolved at the end of the novel, even though I read the book twice, taking copious notes the second time.

I should say, however, that I didn’t mind being confused, because Fitzgerald’s writing is exquisite.  His landscapes are lush, and I liked the cunning allusions to Stevenson’s stories which amplify the theme of duality.

This is a sequence in which we learn about the Samoan lovers Henry and Teuila:

Until the final year at school she and Henry had circled each other like reef fish.  Then, too small to play rugby, Henry was chosen to represent his class at the annual charity concert, and it was Teuila he turned to for guidance – to sharpen his songs and sartorial style, was the official reason.  But deep down he seemed to be after one of those long slow stares that take you in, without judgement.

On Saturday afternoons, when Teuila’s mother was in town playing bingo, he allowed her to shape him like a piece of material draped across her mannequin.


He performed admirably, as it transpired, but as far as both their families were concerned that was that.  End of story.  Their destinies had already been foretold: for Teuila, a desk job at the local travel agency; for Henry, a weekly gig with a dance troupe while waiting for his naval enlistment to come through.

In the months that followed, when their families deigned to keep the two of them apart, he was the genie that only came out at night – a hallucinated, longed-for presence. During her long days at the travel agency there was rarely a time her mind didn’t rub at the image of him, and she would stretch this moment out with a cigarette, and then another, watching his imp-like shape form in the smarting haze of the roadside barbecue outside.  (p.85)

Those references to a genie, to rubbing at an image, and to his imp-like shape are all drawn from Stevenson’s story of The Bottle-Imp, a genie who promises happiness but is really a curse because the soul of whoever dies with it in his possession is forfeit to hell.

Like a novel by Brian Castro, (who wrote the blurb) The Pacific Room is one which reveals more of its secrets the more often it is read.

There are other reviews at

and an interview with the author at Booklover Book Reviews

Author: Michael Fitzgerald
Title: The Pacific Room
Publisher: Transit Lounge 2017
ISBN: 9780995359550
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 5, 2017

2017 Queensland Literary Awards shortlist

The internet here at our hotel is slow as a wet week, so this is a rudimentary heads-up about the QLD awards, and apologies for any layout problems.

Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance

  • Matthew Condon Little Fish Are Sweet (UQP)
  • Mary-Rose MacColl For a Girl (Allen & Unwin)
  • Cathy McLennan Saltwater (UQP)
  • Bill Wilkie The Daintree Blockade: The Battle for Australia’s Tropical Rainforests (Four Mile Books)

Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Awards

  • Lech Blaine
  • Mindy Gill
  • Anna Jacobson
  • Emily O’Grady
  • Bonnie Stevens

The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award

  • Melissa Ashley The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press), see my review
  • Nick Earls Vancouver (Inkerman & Blunt)
  • Ashley Hay A Hundred Small Lessons (Allen & Unwin), on my TBR
  • Hannah Kent The Good People (Pan Macmillan)
  • Heather Rose The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin), see my review

The University of Queensland Non-fiction Book Award

  • Deng Adut and Ben Mckelvey Songs of a War Boy (Hachette)
  • Richard Fidler Ghost Empire (HarperCollins)
  • Mary-Rose MacColl For a Girl (Allen & Unwin)
  • Kim Mahood Position Doubtful (Scribe), see my review
  • Cathy McLennan Saltwater (UQP)

Griffith University Children’s Book Award

  • Gus Gordon Somewhere Else (Penguin Random House)
  • Paul Jennings A Different Dog (Allen & Unwin)
  • Bren MacDibble How to Bee (Allen & Unwin)
  • Wedy Orr Dragonfly Song (Allen & Unwin)
  • Lisa Shanahan The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler (Allen & Unwin)

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award

  • Simon Butters The Hounded (Wakefield Press)
  • Cath Crowley Words in Deep Blue (Pan Macmillan)
  • Zana Fraillon The Bone Sparrow (Hachette)

University of Southern Queensland History Book Award

  • Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, Gabrielle Appleby, Andrew Lynch The Tim Carmody Affair: Australia’s Greatest Judicial Crisis (NewSouth Books)
  • Paul Irish Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney (NewSouth Books)
  • John Murphy Evatt: A Life (NewSouth Books)
  • Rebe Taylor Into the Heart of Tasmania (MUP), see my review
  • Mark Smith The Road to Winter (Text Publishing)
  • Richard Yaxley This is My Song (Scholastic)

University of Southern Queensland Australian Short Story Collection – Steele Rudd Award

  • Michelle Cahill Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo)
  • Kyra Giorgi The Circle and the Equator (UWA Publishing)
  • Tara June Winch After the Carnage (Penguin), see my review

State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection – Judith Wright Calanthe Award

  • Jordie Albiston Euclid’s Dog (GloriaSMH Press)
  • Carmen Leigh Keates Meteorites (Whitmore press)
  • Antigone Kefala Fragments (Giramondo)
  • Cassie Lewis The Blue Decodes (Grand Parade Poets)
  • Omar Sakr These Wild Houses (Cordite Books)

QUT Digital Literature Award

  • Mez Breeze Inanimate Alice: Perpetual Nomads (Beta)
  • Pascalle Burton Generation Loss (after Alvin Lucier)
  • Jason Nelson Nine Billion Branches
  • David Thomas Henry Wright with Karen Lowry and Julia Lane Paige and Powe
  • Marianna Shek Limerence

Unpublished Indigenous Writer – David Unaipon Award

  • Alicia Farmer Mai Stori
  • Lisa Fuller Mirrored Pieces

Emerging Queensland Writer – Manuscript Award

  • Anna Jacobson for How to Knit a Human
  • Janet Lee for The Killing of Louisa
  • Ben Marshall for The Fox
  • Siall Waterbright for The Coming

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