Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 24, 2020

Father of the Lost Boys, by Yuot A Alaak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 24, 2020

Sensational Snippets: Drawn from Life, by Stella Bowen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 23, 2020

A Universe of Sufficient Size, by Miriam Sved

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

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

And then the notebook announces its presence…

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

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

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

Statue of Anonymus, Budapest (Source: Wikipedia*)

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe, OTOH, is hovering near her grandmother…

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

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

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

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

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

Find out more about the author at her website.

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

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



Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 20, 2020

2020 ALS Gold Medal shortlist

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

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

Element by Jordie Albiston (poetry)

Nganajungu Yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green (poetry)

There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett, see my review

Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany, see my review

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, see my review

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


You can still buy tickets for future YVWF events:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2020

Auckland Writers Festival: free online broadcasts

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

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

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

Week 2 was also hosted by Paula Morris, and featured

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

Week 3, again hosted by Paula Morris,  featured

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

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


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

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

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

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

Or catch up later:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2020

The Glebe Point Road Blues, by Vrasidas Karalis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Melissa!

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

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 17, 2020

The Glass-Blowers, by Daphne du Maurier

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the blurb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rather freeing, really. (p.69)

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

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

I responded that I had done little enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available from Fishpond: A Treacherous Country

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2020

The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I will,’ Henry says.  (p.715)

(If only he had.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 13, 2020

2020 ABIA Book of the Year winners

The 2020 ABIA Book of the Year winners have just been announced.  Winners are in bold.

Literary Fiction Book of the Year
Damascus, Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
The Weekend, Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), see my review
The Yield, Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House Australia, Hamish Hamilton), see my review
There Was Still Love, Favel Parrett (Hachette Australia, Hachette Australia), see my review
Wolfe Island, Lucy Treloar (Pan Macmillan Australia, Picador Australia), see my review

Small Publishers’ Adult Book of the Year
Feeding the Birds at Your Table: A guide for Australia, Darryl Jones (NewSouth Publishing NewSouth)
Kindred, Kirli Saunders (Magabala Books, Magabala Books)
Paris Savages, Katherine Johnson (Ventura Press, Ventura Press), see my review
Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta (Text Publishing, Text Publishing)
The White Girl, Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press, University of Queensland Press), see my review

General Fiction Book of the Year – proudly sponsored by Booktopia
Bruny, Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), see my review
Cilka’s Journey, Heather Morris (Echo Publishing, Echo Publishing)
Good Girl, Bad Girl, Michael Robotham (Hachette Australia, Hachette Australia)
Silver, Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
The Scholar, Dervla McTiernan (HarperCollins Publishers, HarperCollins Publishers)

Biography Book of the Year – proudly sponsored by BorrowBox
Born-Again Blakfella, Jack Charles (Penguin Random House Australia, Viking)
Tell Me Why, Archie Roach (Simon & Schuster Australia, Simon & Schuster)
The Prettiest Horse In The Glue Factory, Corey White (Penguin Random House Australia, Hamish Hamilton)
When All is Said & Done, Neale Daniher, with Warwick Green (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia)
Your Own Kind of Girl, Clare Bowditch (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)

General Non-fiction Book of the Year – proudly sponsored by The Copyright Agency
Against All Odds, Craig Challen and Richard Harris (Penguin Random House Australia, Viking)
Banking Bad, Adele Ferguson (HarperCollins Publishers, ABC Books)
Fake, Stephanie Wood (Penguin Random House Australia, Vintage Australia)
Kitty Flanagan’s 488 Rules for Life, Kitty Flanagan (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse, Jess Hill (Black Inc., Black Inc.)

Illustrated Book of the Year
Australia Modern: Architecture, Landscape & Design 1925–1975, Hannah Lewi and Philip Goad (Thames & Hudson Australia, Thames & Hudson Australia)
Ben Quilty, Ben Quilty (Penguin Random House Australia, Lantern Australia)
The Lost Boys: The untold stories of the under-age soldiers who fought in the First World War, Paul Byrnes (Affirm Press, Affirm Press)
The Whole Fish Cookbook, Josh Niland (Hardie Grant Publishing, Hardie Grant Books)
Three Birds Renovations, Erin Cayless, Bonnie Hindmarsh and Lana Taylor (Murdoch Books, Murdoch Books)

Audiobook of the Year
Fake: A Startling True Story of Love in a World of Liars, Cheats, Narcissists, Fantasists and Phonies, by Stephanie Wood (Penguin Random House Australia, Penguin Random House Australia Audio) Narrated by Claudia Karvan
No Friend But the Mountains, by Behrouz Boochani (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia Audio) Narrated by: Omid Tofighian, Isobelle Carmody, Janet Galbraith, Mathilda Imlah, Geoffrey Robertson, Richard Flanagan, Sarah Dale, Thomas Keneally, Yumi Stynes
The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness Through Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness, by Hugh Van Cuylenburg (Penguin Random House Australia Audio, Penguin Random House Australia Audio) Narrated by Hugh Van Cuylenburg
The Yield, by Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House Australia Audio, Penguin Random House Australia Audio) Narrated by Tony Briggs, see my review
Your Own Kind of Girl, by Clare Bowditch (Audible Australia, Audible Studios) Narrated by Clare Bowditch

The Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year – proudly sponsored by Simpsons Solicitors
Being Black ‘n Chicken, and Chips, Matt Okine (Hachette Australia, Hachette Australia)
Call Me Evie, J.P. Pomare (Hachette Australia, Hachette Australia)
It Sounded Better in My Head, Nina Kenwood (Text Publishing, Text Publishing)
Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta (Text Publishing, Text Publishing)
Your Own Kind of Girl, Clare Bowditch (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)

International Book of the Year
Fleishman is in Trouble, Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Hachette Australia, Wildfire)
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett, (Bloomsbury Publishing, Bloomsbury Publishing)
The Testaments, Margaret Atwood (Penguin Random House Australia, Chatto & Windus)
Three Women, Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury Publishing, Bloomsbury Circus)
Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens (Hachette Australia, Corsair)

Book Retailer of the Year
Harry Hartog Bookseller
QBD Books

Bookshop of the Year
Books Kinokuniya (Sydney)
Fullers Bookshop (Hobart)
Mary Martin Bookshop (Port Melbourne)
Readings Carlton (Melbourne)
Riverbend Books (Brisbane)

Publisher of the Year – proudly sponsored by Media Super
Allen & Unwin
Hachette Australia
Penguin Random House Australia

Small Publisher of the Year – proudly sponsored by Ovato
Magabala Books
NewSouth Publishing
University of Queensland Press

Congratulations to the winners of the two Hall of Fame Awards, Helen Garner as the recipient of the Lloyd O’Neil Award for outstanding contribution to the industry and Erica Wagner as the recipient of the Pixie O’Harris Award for exceptional contribution to Children’s Literature. Congratulations also to Hazel Lam from Harper Collins as the recipient of the 2020 Rising Star Award – an award that recognises emerging talent in the industry.

Click this link to see the shortlists for other categories and find out more at the Awards website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 12, 2020

2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards winners

Across the ditch they’ve announced the winners of the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.  Winners are in bold.


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

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

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

Halibut on the Moon by David Vann (Text Publishing)


Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy (Auckland University Press)

How to Live by Helen Rickerby (Auckland University Press)

Lay Studies by Steven Toussaint (Victoria University Press)

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


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

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

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

McCahon Country by Justin Paton


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

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

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

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 12, 2020

2020 Miles Franklin Award Longlist

With thanks to Perpetual, here is the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist:

  • The White Girl by Tony Birch, University of Queensland Press, see my review
  • Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng, Text Publishing, see my review
  • Islands by Peggy Frew, Allen & Unwin
  • No One by John Hughes, UWA Publishing
  • Act of Grace by Anna Krien, Black Inc., see my review
  • A Season on Earth by Gerald Murnane, Text Publishing, see my review
  • The Returns by Philip Salom, Transit Lounge, see my review
  • Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany, Text Publishing, see my review
  • The Yield by Tara June Winch, Penguin Random House, see my review
  • The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, Allen & Unwin, see my review

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There are some surprises here, but overall, it’s a good list.  Will it be Gerald Murnane’s long overdue year?

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers.

The shortlisted finalists will be revealed on 17 June 2020 and the winner announced 16 July 2020.

You may have thought that yesterday’s posts from the inaugural Yarra Valley (online) Writers Festival was all there is, but no, the organisers have also set up Sunday Sessions for May and June featuring all kinds of interesting speakers.  If you want to purchase a ticket for the remaining sessions, click here and scroll down past yesterday’s program.  Future sessions include:

3pm Sun 17 May          The Politics of Our Words | Guy Rundle (Crikey, Meanjin), Rick Morton (The Saturday Paper) with Kerry O’Brien (Walkley Award for outstanding leadership in journalism)  with Peter Wilmoth

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

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

Today, May 10th, is about ageing.  It’s titled Getting On: The Griffith Review and it features Donna Ward  (She I Dare Not Name), Charlotte Wood (The Weekend), Ailsa Piper (THE ATTACHMENT: Letters From A Most Unlikely Friendship) & Ashley Hay (Editor – Griffith Review).

So here I am, set up and ready to go, with a cup of tea and a Tim Tam to sustain me…

This is the blurb for the Griffith Review:

In a world where seventy is the new fifty, old age isn’t what it used to be.

As the proportion of older Australians continues to rise, the lived experience of everyone, be they in care or looking after an aged relative, will be intertwined intimately with the phenomenon of longer lives. But longevity brings with it urgent issues: postponement of retirement, the question of financing extended life, how to forge a society that can accommodate the needs of a majority older population with the dynamism of the young.

Edited by Ashley HayGriffith Review 68: Getting On takes a timely look at the question of how we age successfully – as individuals, as a society, as a population.

Ashley Hay, editor of the review, introduced the session and the speakers.  She began by asking what drew the panel to this topic.  Charlotte Wood wanted to write a ‘funny book’ after The Natural Way of Things, and she (as she said in yesterday’s session) wanted to imagine what it would be like to be a woman older than she is now.  The characters have to face up to things about themselves and one of the themes is self-delusion.   Ashley picked up on this idea of not being able/willing to imagine what it would be like to be older, which is a kind of magical thinking.  Wood says that all the women in her book are aspects of herself, not of friends around her.  She thinks we’re afraid of the ‘mirror.’  

Ashley then asked Donna Ward about her piece structured as a medieval book of hours, how life is a little like a prayer. She talked about the structure of a book of hours over the course of a day, and she wanted to take a day in her life and look at it in terms of the book of hours, invoking the grand circle of life, a reminder that in every day there is an entire circle of time.  You can think large or small within that framework.  So her essay follows a day in her life starting at dawn and progressing into a major event which was the  death of her parents.  She says that it’s very common for people not to know how to handle it when both their parents have died, they then don’t have a real close model of how to live.  If they die young you have to wing it, and even when they die in old age, it’s still a jolt.  Ward’s new book, She I Dare Not Name, is also a meditation on life.  She discussed how there are taboo words.  Words are important: spinsters who had been regarded as young and desirable prior to the 16th century, but then dictionaries made ‘spinster’ into a word that meant past marriageable age.  The word spinster is apt for her own life, an uncoupled life, because the word ‘single’ often means that one has once been married or coupled at some stage.

Ailsa Ward talked about widowhood… it’s a ‘hard’ word but she’s claimed it.  Maybe it’s a desire to ‘own the truth’.  A single word like ‘isolation’ which she used in her essay to say ‘we can’t grow in isolation’, can change in meaning, as it has during COVID_19.  She finds the metaphor of a tree useful because of the different stages of life and the changing relationships which mean a word might need to be taken out of vocabulary.  Ashley asked about ageing as a process of epiphany.  Ailsa talked about her role model of widowhood: a woman called Isla (sp?) who was feisty and energetic even into her 90s, and she would like to be like that.

Charlotte Wood was interested in why so many people are frightened of ageing.  Pain, maybe living alone, and being seen as not their full self, being diminished. She doesn’t think she’s afraid of death.  But she thinks that we are afraid of being robbed of the richness of who we are. But that’s not about being old, that’s what the culture confers on the ageing.  We aren’t disgusted by the dependence of babies, but we fear dependence in old age. She reminds us that psychologists say it’s not what happens to you, it’s what you make of it.  She thinks we are really deluded by the idea that everything is so great for the young, when many of us are happier and healthier and wealthier than we were then.

Ashley asked Donna about She I Dare Not Name,  could it have been written any earlier?  Donna said the book is about confronting herself in the mirror and a photo shoot brought home to her how much her face, skin and hair had changed in 15 years since the previous shoot.  She’d tried to write a book praising the single life when she was 40, but it didn’t work because she tried to spin a feminist slant on it, and she was afraid of fierce feminist friends who would disapprove of it.  She now thinks that her uncoupled life is as rich and as challenging as any other kind of life, but back then she was so intimidated by their response.  Their lives were different: they were single but had lovers and children and they were quite cruel, she says, in her response to her.  She found that sociological research comparing married people with single people lumped all kinds of single people together, makes no sense.

The pandemic had seemed like familiar territory because she was used to being alone.  At first friends rang her four and five times a day and she was touched by that, but it seemed as if her world had become ‘noisy’ because everyone else was doing ‘backyard projects’ like she was.  She got caught up in the panic a bit, but she finally felt settled when the world around her became quiet in the way that her life was.  It feels too soon to make sense of it all,  but she thinks that there has been a global readjustment in the way that people live.

Ashley asked Ailsa about imagining things about ourselves and who we might be.  Often (as Wood said) we avoid thinking about these things.  What was it like when she exceeded the age when her mother died and she passed this temporal marker set up for ourselves?  Ailsa said that her first temporal marker was 28 (she doesn’t know where that came from) and she felt then as if she had agency in her life, and now when she has agency she feels as if she’s 28, and when she doesn’t feel that way she feels like an adolescent and she wants her mum.  She wants that reassurance that ‘everything will be all right.’  She doesn’t like the way older people were dismissed when the pandemic arose.  The initial response was that the virus was only affecting the old, so it didn’t matter.  But now we all know that only old people can do certain things for young children, so it’s very dangerous to think like that about a whole generation of people.  It was interesting to consider how her father, despite hardships, was resilient, thought everything was ok if you have love.  Our generation has not really experienced such hardships but his was able to transcend it with an insistence that he had a lucky life.

Ashley asked Charlotte about people being able to continue to do what they do in old age, which for an author, is writing.  Can that prevent us from seeing the reality of being in a different place and a different stage of life?  Wood is convinced that we edit out what we don’t want to think about.  When authors such as she is don’t want to think about not having superannuation, they just think, well, we’ll keep writing.  But what if no one wants to read what they’re writing?  She says that we need to stand outside ourselves to discover how we would respond to it.  She thinks ageing is a live creature, not a dead zone.  Ailsa suggested that it’s important to keep curiosity and she gave examples of older relations who have adapted to using technology to stay connected.  But you need to have that curiosity to start with?  Donna thinks that an urgency arises, that there’s only so much time left to be curious and do whatever it is you want to do.

And that was a cue for the windup- they were out of time.

This was a beaut discussion — thank you to everyone at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival for setting it up.


Charlotte Wood is now one of our best known writers, with a very high profile since winning the Stella Prize for The Natural Way of Things (2015).  But I’ve been reading her novels since The Submerged Cathedral (2004) which I read before starting ANZLitLovers, while The Children (2007) and Animal People (2011) are reviewed on this blog. I thought The Natural Way of Things was an important book, but was pleased to see what I interpret as a return to form with her more subtle and deliciously complex The Weekend. So I am pleased to hear Wood talk about this novel, and am hoping to hear about what she’s writing next.

Amanda Smith from ABC radio began by talking about how each of the women characters in The Weekend is in a precarious position, whether they know it themselves or not.  Wood read an excerpt about the ageing actor Adele, who is beginning to realise how vulnerable she is, with no financial security, not even a home.  This excerpt also shows Jude and her cool panache, and the way in which these friends came together but were now drifting.  Without their friend Sylvie they don’t fit any more.  Four friends sharing two adjacent hotel bedrooms have turned into two together, and then someone left over and alone. Adele feels bereft, and poor, and alone, and is full of regrets that she has never really been asked about the things that matter to her. She is a bit self-deluded but there’s also truth in what she feels.

Amanda asked: Is friendship in one’s 30s easier than friendship as we get older?  Wood says she wrote it as a kind of cautionary self-portrait, though she was quick to say that she isn’t yet the age of the characters in the novel.  Friends when you’re younger can be a kind of movable feast, with people falling in and our of love and relationships, and then things settle down.  As we get older we discover each other’s flaws, people change differently and others resent that or don’t want any change at all.  The feeling is that people think that they really know a person, like siblings do, and there aren’t any illusions.

Amanda suggested that bookclubs are often composed of older female friends, and so The Weekend might be perfect for them, but then there are the illusions and delusions that the novel exposes that might be quite confronting for book club friends to be thinking about each other. Wood knows that some people don’t like her characters: she herself likes people who are spiky and say what they think even if it’s uncomfortable, she doesn’t want to write about people who are sweet and loving and bake cupcakes for each other.  The women in her novel are all grieving and they are less tactful than they usually are,  but they do love each other.  She’s amused by people who come up to her and whisper that they are ‘Jude’ and they’re proud of it because Jude has ‘standards’.  So there are desirable qualities in all of her characters…

Amanda asked: Why did Wood want to write about older women? Wood says that sometimes authors don’t realise why they’re writing something until afterwards.  Both Wood’s parents died in their fifties, so now she feels that she is older than they ever were.  She had thought, consciously and unconsciously that her life would be over by the same age and she had never thought about what it would be like to be 70 or 80. She found herself wondering what it would be like, to be in that age group, with tricky problems to solve.  How do people have long term friendships that survive into that age? We think that we become our real selves — but what does that mean for friendship because you need to be malleable and have the empathy to understand friends’ PoVs?

Amanda suggested that none of these women have thought much about transitioning out of their stellar careers.  There’s not much in fiction about older women who are not grandmothers or matriarchs, and Wood (who doesn’t have children) wanted to explore that.  Even Wendy who has children doesn’t really have a good relationship with her children and doesn’t fit the image of older women that is often represented in the media.  The other feature that she wanted to explode was that we come to know ourselves better as we get older, when it’s not always true.  The novel shows us the transitions that men have always had to negotiate, ending a career, having a role in old age and so on.

The role of Finn, the ancient, decrepit dog, who is demented and vulnerable, derived from a fellowship at the Charles Perkins Centre in Sydney.  The fellowship is about writers being in contact with scientists and she found herself talking about her book in a way that she doesn’t normally while it’s in draft form.  Someone suggested that there should be some evolutionary biology in the novel, and she took that on board: the ageing of animals is accelerated compared to humans, so putting an animal into the novel would be an interesting thing to do.  And then a friend’s dog also called Finn had to be put down because its time had come, and she wanted to show what the future of ageing could look like, to women who think that ageing is irrelevant to them and have like most people in our society have a terror of it.   Each of the women has an epiphany to do with Finn, and he became a wonderful way of provoking confrontation among them as well, depending on their reactions to him.

Referencing The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, Amanda talked about how she likes books that conjure up a house.  They often feature in dreams (as in Last night I went to Manderley…) so what’s the role of the house?  Wood says that houses are useful for representing an essential self, but they also represent turf and territory and who rules the roost.  None of these three women characters own the house, but each of it feels a sens of kinship with it, and that it ought to be treated in a certain way and the others aren’t doing it quite right.  The pristine white sofa that Jude gave as a castoff is a catalyst for the problems that arise in this rather ramshackle holiday place, and to explore what’s old and what’s new and what can be salvaged and what should be rescued.

As I said in my intro, this is a deliciously complex book and there is much to think about.  I get the impression that Charlotte could have told us much more if there had been time.

Ok, it’s time to put my feet up and enjoy our usual Saturday night pre-dinner cocktail, so I’d better end here. Thank you to those who’ve stuck with me all encouraged me with a ‘like’ or a comment.  It’s been a long day but I’ve loved sharing it with you this way.

A final word of thanks to all the sponsors of this event and you can be sure that we will make our way up to the Yarra Valley as soon as the restrictions are lifted.

The next Yarra Valley Writers Festival session is titled How Weird Does Your Family Need to Be? Michael Mackenzie from the ABC hosted the panel, with Alice Pung, Rick Morton, and Richard Glover.

Alice Pung is the well-known author of the YA novel Laurinda, and of the memoirs Her Father’s Daughter (see Karenlee Thompson’s guest review) and Unpolished Gem (which I read pre-blog).  The other authors are memoirists too: Rick Morton is the author of One Hundred Years of Dirt, and Richard Glover is the author of Flesh Wounds. 

So, writing about atypical upbringings….

Michael Mackenzie himself had an atypical childhood.  His father was a Jew from Nazi Germany, who died just after he was born.   Families are constantly intriguing he says, and we always think that other people’s families are more normal than our own.  He began by asking Alice how she felt about the word ‘weird’: perhaps, she said, her family was perceived as ‘weird’ when they first arrived as refugees from Pol Pot’s Cambodia but her father himself felt that many things are weird.  He named her Alice because he thought Australia was a wonderland.  She told some funny anecdotes that illustrated her family’s different perceptions of everyday experiences such as sleeping outdoors for pleasure, and pick-your-own-fruit where they had to pay to be ‘labourers.

Michael doesn’t think that the word ‘weird’ appropriate for Richard Glover’s memoir, but Richard laughed and said he was disappointed by that.  He told a funny anecdote too, about his mother setting mice free after she’d trapped them, and she didn’t think that was weird at all. And his sister who was younger, had a different perception altogether because she did not experience the things he did.   Michael asked: When did you first realise your family was unusual? For him, it was when he was first told him how he was conceived, (using a turkey baster) and the reason was because the marriage had never been consummated.  His mother said that she then went back to New Guinea both pregnant and a virgin, though his father disputes the story.   His mother offered up flamboyant stories to explain why she didn’t love his father, but had married him in haste just after WW2, and again the story was comprehensively disputed by family.  Photos he was shown proved that not only was the family not ‘posh’ and there were siblings: she wasn’t an only child at all, and she had manufactured this entire past.

Alice is different because the others had problematic role models, but she had a respectful relationship with her father and when she was old enough, he wanted her to remember the past accurately and for her to understand it.  But even as a very young child she knew something terrible had happened to them, because they so often remembered people who ‘too bad’ had been ‘smashed’.  Her father’s stories were valuable because their stories of suffering were examples of resilience.

Mackenzie raised the issue of Inter-generational trauma.  Rick Morton had wanted to find that the family stories of his brutal grandfather weren’t true, but they were, and he realised that his father had absorbed all this as well.  Even his mother, who has suffered much from his father’s malevolence, doesn’t hate him because she understands the origins of his brutality, but they are still entirely estranged from his father.  As an author, his intentions were to understand his father, but his father doesn’t see it that way at all.  Rick broke all the rules of their family which is never to talk about family problems, but he wanted to break the cycle of abuse.

Richard Glover doesn’t think he was as badly off as Mackenzie was because he was not living in poverty.   But his mother was not affectionate at all, and she eloped with his English teacher.  His father was crushed by this, and his alcoholism escalated.  He wasn’t capable of being a father, so he escaped to England, leaving Richard as a teenager, parentless and alone in the house.  (His teenage friends thought it was marvellous!)  Eventually his father sent Steve, a newspaper friend of his, to step into the breach, so his confused ideas about masculinity were confronted by a hyper-masculine man who wrote poetry.

Alice made the point that parenthood doesn’t change the person you are.  If people are basically selfish they don’t stop being selfish because they become parents.  Mackenzie bravely asked how her brother’s suicide had impacted her writing, and she talked about their close relationship. It was the birth of her own child shortly afterwards that helped her get through it, and it made her reassess her own priorities and made her determined to let her child be whoever he wanted to be.

During the session Mackenzie said that Twitter commentary about it showed that people felt inspired by these stories, but I’m afraid they depressed me…

And I think that means I need a break.  Too long hunched over a computer.  So I’ll skip the session with Christos Tsolkias, and I was going to skip the next one after that anyway, because I’m not interested in crime fiction.

Update, the next day: You can read Sue’s report from the session with Tsolkias here.

But I’ll be back for the session with Charlotte Wood about The Weekend. 

The next session features two Australian playwrights: David Williamson and Hannie Rayson.   I’m a little out of my comfort zone here because I’m not a keen theatregoer: I attend spasmodically when something takes my interest.  Regular readers know this: there are only seven reviews of drama here on this blog, it’s not an area where I have any expertise.  But I shall do my best…

Longevity was the theme.  The session began with an excerpt from one of Williamson’s plays but alas, there was something wrong with the sound and most of it was almost inaudible.  And then there was some footage of a garden, and then everything faltered altogether.  Ah well, these things happen, and this is a good moment to congratulate the team behind the festival because they have done a marvellous job, and none of this would have happened without them.

BTW there’s another festival in the offing, the Williamstown Litfest.  Unfortunately (for me) it’s going to be presented using Zoom which many of us do not want to use because of the hacking problems we’ve heard about, so I think the Yarra Valley’s use of a dedicated link to the live stream is a much better idea. But if you’re ok with Zoom, this is the link. 


The rain has stopped, the festival has stopped, so this is a good time to take the dog for a walk!


Well, that was a bad idea, because (a) the rain resumed and (b) so did the festival.  By the time I’d dried off the dog and made myself a restorative cup of tea, it was a lost cause.  Fortunately, I had purchased the more expensive ticket option which allows me continued access after the festival, so I can catch up later.

The next session at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival featured two authors dear to my heart.  The topic was A Place in the New World Order, and it featured Alice Robinson, author of The Glad Shout (2019) and Anchor Point (2015) and Meg Mundell, author of The Trespassers (2019)  and Black Glass (2011) and a NF anthology about homelessness, We Are Here, Stories of Home, Place and Belonging (2019), together with well-known Karen Viggers (author of The Lightkeeper’s Wife and many other titles) and broadcaster Elizabeth McCarthy from 3RRRFM.  (Elizabeth had me on her book review show once,  talking about Gerald Murnane.)

Elizabeth began by asking how working writers were coping creatively with the lockdown.  Karen is a working vet, and she’s found that she’s been less creatively inspired than she’d hoped.  For Alice, who’s just relocated from country living to apartment living in Melbourne, has found it difficult with two primary aged children at home, and her creative work has been impacted in terms of time allocated to it, and the things she can write about.  Meg has a similar situation to Alice in a way, though she’s a bit less socially isolated than before, but she’s not getting any creative writing done because of the demands on her.  She mentioned a child’s project that he needed a whole lot of help, and helping her students writing grants applications.  She’s not creatively blocked but just doesn’t have time.

Meg’s book The Trespassers is about a pandemic.  How does she feel about it now?  She initially felt guilty about making a piece of art about the present situation but now she’s worried that people won’t want to read it because they’re fed up with the pandemic.  Her connection wasn’t very good so it wasn’t easy to hear her, plus she had the same problem with a dog barking that I have during my French lessons when Amber starts barking!

Does Karen feel that the pandemic is infiltrating her writing? Karen, who has older children, who bring different challenges and her life is also very influenced by the bushfires because her husband works in that field.  She finds it interesting to see how politicians have been so assertive about dealing with the pandemic, compared to their hesitancy on dealing with climate change. Her work tends to be about environment and conservation issues, and often in a rural community, but her current novel is urban.

Alice’s next work was going to be about another disaster in Bali, but she’s having difficulty trying to write about a situation that’s still unfolding.  She’s feels a bit sheepish saying that she’s trying to write about it — comparing the Australian experience to other places in the world. she feels as if in a way that despite the difficulties, her life is untouched.  Elizabeth asked: Is Australia a bit ‘sheltered’ from the pandemic, compared to other countries?  Meg talked about thinking about what she wants to do, having coffee with friends and so on, and has switched off from much of the media because it was affecting her, and feels torn between thinking that we are being over-cautious, and yet she’s basically a ‘very obedient person’.  She is wondering how we are going to re-establish intimacy when things are all over.

Elizabeth asked: How does place impact on writing?  Karen thinks that place is vital, in order to establish a connection with place for the reader.  It can be an era, a location or a whole lot of other things, but it orientates the writer and then the reader.  The place is then used to explore concepts of being human and our the impact of our actions in the world. She wants to use words to explore connection and being in that place to create a sense of being and presence.  Place is the building block that the story rests on.  Alice talked about the research she does about place… her first novel was a bush novel and the imagined town was based on a landscape she grew up in.  What was gratifying was when the publicist she had said that she’d recognised the place as familiar, and it turned out to be not far from the place that she’d based the story on.  Alice also shared a funny anecdote about trying to site a story on the Spirit of Tasmania before she’d ever seen it, and her first reaction when she saw the size of the ship was that she couldn’t fit her characters into it.  Meg shared how she immerses herself in places as a way for the reader to inhabit, and like Alice, she also feels the terror of climate change in our future.  Place is where her stories start, it always comes first.  She talked about Black Glass and I can vouch for what she said about the Melbourne she invoked there.  Even though the story was a dystopia, I could recognise my city.  And likewise, in The Trespassers, the ‘place’ in that novel felt like the ocean liners I travelled on as a child and the way the ship becomes a world of its own.  Now I know that this was informed by Meg’s own experience of coming to Australia for the first time on a boat which she helped to crew.  She’s also very interested in the idea of ‘home’ which informed the NF anthology that she edited, and sees that borders and no-go zones as impacting on the sense of belonging that people feel.

Elizabeth asked: how are social justice threads worked into the story without ‘hitting the reader over the head with it? Alice wanted to focus on that in her first novel, but had to push it to the back of her mind in order to make the story work and be appealing to readers.  She did not want to be didactic.  She says it’s a hard problem to solve, torn between making a good story to be at the forefront without the issues being overwhelming.  She thinks it’s become easier as she’s grown as an author.  Karen agrees that it’s important not to be didactic, an author needs to be subtle.  She tries to ‘hover above’ in her stories and leap in with her own opinions, and show the different perspectives of all kinds of people, carefully built into the story, gently leading readers to engage with it and think about it. But you don’t always know what your book is about until it gets written. It evolves as the writing takes place.

Elizabeth also asked about reading.  She had a ‘bad week’ when she couldn’t read anything at all.  Meg reading something by Jesse Ball (sp?) and Manhattan by Jennifer Egan, She’s reading, she laughed, not to have a nervous breakdown so she’s choosing what to read very carefully because she doesn’t want to be plunged into depression by what she’s reading.  She’s also doing some research reading.  Karen said it had been a challenging time for her apart from COVID_19 because she’s just lost her mother-in-law to ovarian cancer.  (Condolences to Karen, I know how that feels, it’s a wicked cancer.) But she’s been reading Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and well as the books by the other panellists.

PS This piece has not been proof-read because I’m publishing on the run.  Corrections to me via comments!




The first session at the YVWritersFest featured authors I’ve reviewed on this blog: Indigenous author Tony Birch, and  ANU historian Tom Griffiths, and Alice Bishop, whose debut collection of short fiction, A Constant Hum, features stories of bushfire aftermath.

Michael Cathcart began by reminding us that the place he’s in, nearly fell to the Black Saturday bushfires, but at the last moment the wind shifted and it destroyed Marysville instead, with a loss of 39 lives.  He introduced Alice Bishop by asking her about her experience when her house was lost to the fire, which was the trigger for her book. She made the point that the effects last for many years, not just concluding neatly on a first anniversary.  Her own experience makes her memories vivid, and she wanted to depict the little details, and also the emotional experience of almost losing her life.

Tony Birch visited the area with a friend who had just lost his home in the fires, and he told the story of how they could find in the ashes was the shape of a book from his friend’s book collection, but if you picked the book up, it disintegrated in his hands.  He went home and looked at his own book collection and tried to imagine how he would feel about losing it.  So while the human losses are catastrophic, the loss of treasured personal possessions is also intensely painful.

Interlude while I go and get the dog to stop her from barking…

Tom Griffiths is an historian bringing a long-term view together with the present.  He talked about how the ancient trees were here vestiges of pre-European settlement, but, sorry. I missed some of what he said.

Alice Bishop talked about how the little moments help to make sense of bigger events.  Many beautiful stories, as well as horrific ones come out of bushfire.  Cathcart says that she doesn’t take sides in her work, except that she’s on the side of humanity and she includes all kinds of perspectives in the collection.  He asked her to read a little from her book, and she chose a story called ‘Salt Water’.

Tony Birch, now professor of writing at Melbourne, talked about how stories need to be written by people who’ve experienced fire, and how he’s noticed with COVID_19 that headlines are more alarmist (even in the quality media) than the content.  A narrow approach to these stories does everyone a disservice, but a program like Four Corners showed people dissecting their experience in a meaningful way.  Tony is interested in what news *is*, and thinks we focus on sensation and we’re obsessed with ‘visual news’ which distorts what we learn from it.  IN his opinion, the proliferation of media we have now has not improved its quality and he’s been watching it for a long time.

Cathcart asked Tom Griffiths how to reconcile the surge of public sympathy and political pressure to restore things, with the need for cultural adaptation to what’s happening.  Griffiths has great respect for people like Alice and Tony capturing what happened, and his visit as an historian to these areas was to listen and collaborate.  (They were the only ones not in hi-vis vests).  He was interested to learn about people thought they might reinvent their lives, and how might they adapt.  He was asked by an audience member how he thought this event might be viewed in history: he thinks it will be seen as unprecedented, and although the history of one disastrous fire after another is embedded in the consciousness of people who live in places like the Yarra Valley, but what was different was that the catastrophe went for days and days and seemed never to end, and that we know it will happen again.

And yet, Cathcart says, people seem not to learn.  The enquiries find someone to blame and make recommendations, but nothing really changes.  Griffith says we have to adapt, we have to grasp that we will lose material things, and we need to understand that we can still have our communities and the value of the the connections they bring.

Cathcart then asked Tony Birch about the contentious issue of Indigenous fire practice, and how we can get a sense of what it is. For him, the issue is how can we use it now.  We need to see how it is used in different ways in different places, and to see how in a changed environment a collaborative effort might work best.  It needs to be practical, and on the ground, and forward-looking, respecting both science and Indigenous knowledge.  Looking at it as a solution as a national strategy is not going to work.

Cathcart asked, should we be building in fire-prone areas?  Is it like building on a flood-plain?   Alice thought this is often a knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t keep account of different socio-economic needs and people’s needs to live in certain types of places.  It is a difficult question to be faced with after the fires: someone once asked her her mother about how she must have known their house was in a fire-prone area.  Cathcart quoted a fire captain who’d said if you live in the forest, you have to accept that your house may burn, and be prepared for it.  Alice countered that by saying that people should not be judgemental about it.

Cathcart asked, do stories about fire point to a lesson about living differently?  Tony Birch thinks so, but whether anything comes of that is another matter, and he is discouraged by political responses and the pressure of short-term solutions in a democratic society.  We need to find ways to act in a communal way, and act together.   Griffith feels more optimistic (when he’s with like-minded people) because of the school climate strikes because we need radical political change.  He’s pessimistic about federal politics.  [Aren’t we all?]  Alice and Tony feel that the power of fiction to raise awareness is really important, but it’s important to read across a range of genres [and so do I].

PS This piece is not proofread, please let me know in comments about whatever I need to amend.


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