I bought Sofia Petrovna after reading Judith Armstrong’s article ‘Hidden Women of History: Lydia Chukovskaya, editor, writer, heroic friend’ in The Guardian, and I’ve read it now for the 1965 Club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.  Although the novella is a rare – possibly unique – example of fiction written about Stalin’s Great Purge (1936-1938) when it was actually happening, it was of course not published at the time.  Chukovskaya (1907-1996) kept it hidden until after Krushchev’s Thaw in 1956 when the story was first circulated in Samizdat (manuscript form). Official publication faltered, however, in 1963 when it was decided that the book contained ‘ideological distortions’.  An unauthorised copy in English was published in Paris in 1965 (which makes the book eligible for the 1965 club) but there were changes made without the author’s permission and the title The Deserted House was absurd, given that the titular character lives in a communal house and her disagreeable co-tenants contribute to her travails.  An American publisher subsequently restored the text and the original title, giving us the form of the novella as it is today, and it became legally available in the USSR in 1988.

The European Classics edition that I have includes the Author’s Note, written in Moscow in 1962, before the Soviet publishers lost their nerve, and an Afterword, which is an excerpt from Chukovskaya’s The Process of Expulsion, which tells the story of her expulsion from the Soviet Writers Union in 1974.  What she does not say in either of these additions is that the work is drawn from her own experience: her husband Matvei Bronstein was arrested on false charges during Stalin’s Purge and for years Chukovskaya had no news of him and did not know that he had been tried and executed in 1938.

This is the blurb:

Sofia Petrovna is Lydia Chukovskaya’s fictional account of the Great Purge. Sofia is a Soviet Everywoman, a doctor’s widow who works as a typist in a Leningrad publishing house. When her beloved son is caught up in the maelstrom of the purge, she joins the long lines of women outside the prosecutor’s office, hoping against hope for good news. Confronted with a world that makes no moral sense, Sofia goes mad, a madness which manifests itself in delusions little different from the lies those around her tell every day to protect themselves. Sofia Petrovna offers a rare and vital record of Stalin’s Great Purges.

Sofia is an ordinary woman, compliant with Soviet life, and resigned to the discomforts of communal living, though she would like her adult son Kolya to have his own room. Other people had been moved in a long time ago during the famine years at the very beginning of the revolution, and she and Kolya have only his old nursery while a policeman and his family have her husband’s study and an accountant and his family have the dining room. Since her husband’s death she has taken up work as a typist, and she enjoys the modest status of being in charge of the other women:

…the typing pool was even better, more important somehow.  Now Sofia Petrovna was often the first person to read a new work of Soviet literature, some story or novel, while it was still only in manuscript form; and although Soviet stories and novels seemed boring to her—there was such a lot about battles and tractors and factory shops and hardly anything about love—she couldn’t help being flattered.  (p.4)

But before long, disaster strikes.  Kolya, a rather pompous young man much given to lecturing his mother about Soviet ideology, takes up work as an engineer in Sverdlovsk, is featured as a ‘shockworker’ in Pravda, and even sends his mother a ‘cogwheel’ that he is so proud of designing… but news comes from his friend Alik that he has been arrested.  Sofia’s life spirals downward into disaster…

She spends days and nights queuing in the bitter cold to try to learn his fate, and only after months does she find that he’s been tried and sentenced to ten years in exile, in a destination unknown.  Like all the other hapless relatives of Stalin’s victims, she is convinced of his innocence and believes that all will be well when the authorities realise their mistake.  Even when the purge infects the publishing house and her innocent friend Natasha is denounced and sacked along with other staff, Sofia clings to her faith in Soviet justice.  The incompatibility of this confidence with her belief in her son is fatal.  As Chukovskaya says in the Afterword, the novella shows that society had been poisoned by lies as completely as an army might be poisoned by noxious gases.

For my heroine I chose not a sister, not a wife, not a sweetheart, not a friend, but that symbol of devotion—a mother.  My Sofia Petrovna loses her only son.  I wanted to show that when people’s lives are deliberately distorted, their feelings become distorted, even maternal ones.  Sofia Petrovna is a widow; her son is her life.  Kolya is arrested; he is sentenced to hard labour; is called an ‘enemy of the people’. Sofia Petrovna, schooled to believe newspapers and officials more than herself, believes the prosecutor when he tells her that her son has ‘admitted his crimes’ and deserves his sentence.  Sofia Petrovna knows full well that Kolya has committed no crime, that he is incapable of it, that to the depths of his being he is loyal to the party, to his factory, to Comrade Stalin personally.  But if she is to believe in herself, not in the prosecutor and the newspapers, then… then… the universe will collapse, the earth give way beneath her feet, the spiritual comfort in which she has so comfortably lived, worked, rejoiced, turn to dust… Sofia Petrovna tries to believe in her son, and in the attempt goes mad. (Afterword, p. 112)

While Chukovskaya makes no claim for her novella as great literature, it seems to me that Sofia Petrovna does what literature ought to do.  It took great courage to write this story and to keep it safe for decades, but more than that, the novella does what cannot be done when wiser after the event: it comments on the contemporary situation by recognising the tragedy of an individual as an emblem of the wider society.  Its power lies in that it was written before Stalin was denounced, when the Terror was raw and ongoing.  The author, nursing her own distress about her husband’s unknown fate, extrapolated a more profound truth from her own cruel experience: the evil done to individuals degrades the entire society.

Thanks to Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for hosting the 1965 club!

Author: Lydia Chukovskaya
Title: Sofia Petrovna
Translated by Aline Worth
Emended by Eliza Kellogg Klose
Publisher: Northwestern University Press, Illinois, 1988, 120 pages, first published in 1965 in Paris as The Deserted House.
ISBN: 978010111509
Source: personal library, purchased from The Book Depository, $24.14

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 21, 2019

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

The (Orange/Bailey’s) Women’s Prize for Fiction can be a bit uneven but there’s always something appealing to add to the shelves from the longlist. I’ve read two from the 2018 nominees, (Elmet by Fiona Mosley and A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert) and I still have on the TBR H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker; and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy.  But I didn’t buy the eventual winner – I’d read two by Kamila Shamsie and while I liked them well enough, I didn’t think they were great.  It wasn’t until I was browsing the shelves at The Grumpy Swimmer in Elwood that I remembered the rave reviews…

Some of the blurbers in my edition of Home Fire refer to its roots in Sophocles’ Antigone, but I am here to tell you that you don’t need to know anything about that.  I read Antigone when I was doing Classic Greek and Roman Lit at university, but I couldn’t remember much of it except that its theme is the conflict between love and the power of the state, and (as you’d expect with Greek tragedy) it all ends badly.  By the time I was thoroughly engrossed in Chapter One of Home Fire, I had forgotten all about Antigone

The story begins with Isma enduring a humiliating interrogation at Heathrow.  After years of mothering her orphaned twin siblings, she is free because they are old enough to look after themselves and she is on her way to do her PhD in America.  The interrogation is so long that she misses her flight.  It turns out that the reason that airport security is so interested in her, is because her father Adil Pasha was a jihadi.  Every member of his family is always subject to scrutiny.

Yes, by coincidence Home Fire follows Charlotte Grimshaw’s treatment of this same theme of surveillance of Muslims in Mazarine. (See my review)

That scrutiny is irritating enough, considering the family was innocent of any connection to Adil’s activities and knew nothing about it until after he died en route from Bagram to Guantanamo Bay.  Only their aunt, Adil’s sister mourns him and yearns to have his body for burial.  But when Parvaiz naïvely runs away to join ISIS, for his sisters in London who’d attributed his secretive behaviour to having a girlfriend, the years of living carefully under the radar as loyal Brits count for nothing.  Isma’s anguish is revealed via Skype:

‘You selfish idiot,’ she said.  This was easier to contend with – he rolled his eyes at Farooq [the ISIS recruiter], placing two fingers against his temples to mime a gun firing into his brain.  ‘Watch your manners, brother.  We have company.’ She swivelled the phone, and two man were standing in their living room, everything surrounding them as familiar as his own heartbeat.  ‘Say hello to the men from the Met,’ Isma’s voice continued, conversational.  ‘They’re going to turn our house and our lives upside down.  Again.  Do you have anything you want to say to them?’

He was conscious of the three men on the balcony watching him, waiting to see his response to the news that the police knew where he was and now there was no going back. (p.163)

Reading Parvaiz’s appalled discovery that what he had been told about a beautiful future under ISIS is all lies, makes one wonder how many of those who’ve run away to Syria were equally naïve.

But, in Australia, as elsewhere, an awareness of ISIS duplicity doesn’t solve the problem of repatriating naïve young people, (or rehabilitating the diehards).  (Or even, in the wake of the fall of the caliphate, rescuing their hapless children).  In Shamsie’s novel Aneeka seduces the son of a tub-thumping Home Secretary in the hope that he can be persuaded to let Parvaiz come home.  What starts out as manipulation becomes real love between them, testing Eamonn when he realises what she wants of him and that he has to choose between his love for her and his love of his father,  (whose career couldn’t withstand any softening of his rhetoric).  Karamat Lone is a cleverly drawn character: a Muslim of Pakistani origin, he has risen to the heights of power by exhorting fellow Muslims to fit in.  In a speech at his alma mater, his words are eerily familiar to us here in Australia:

‘There is nothing this country won’t allow you to achieve – Olympic medals, captaincy of the cricket team, pop stardom, reality TV crowns.  And if none of that works out, you can settle for being Home Secretary.  You are, we are, British.  Britain accepts this.  So do most of you.  But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourself apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties.  Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours.  And look at all you miss out on because of it.’ (p.87-88)

Asked by Eamonn if she is harassed because of her hijab, Aneeka (showering at home after a man spat at her on the Tube) tells him about the impact of his speech:

‘If you’re nineteen and female you’ll get some version of a hard time for whatever you wear. Mostly it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to shrug off. Sometimes things happen that make people more hostile. Terrorist attacks involving European victims. Home Secretaries talking about people setting themselves apart in the way they dress. That kind of thing.’ (p.90)

And she challenges Eamonn to think about his own response:

‘What do you say to your father when he makes a speech like that? Do you say, Dad, you’re making it OK to stigmatise people for the way they dress? Do you say, what kind of idiot stands in front of a group of teenagers and tells them to conform? Do you say, why didn’t you mention that among the things this country will let you achieve if you’re Muslim is torture, rendition, detention without trial, airport interrogations, spies in your mosques, teachers reporting your children to the authorities for wanting a world without British injustice?’ (p.90)

Home Fire invites consideration of these timely issues.  It is, unashamedly, a political novel, and Elle at Elle Thinks responds to critics who have the luxury of thinking that politics doesn’t matter.

See also Nancy’s thoughts at Nancy Elin at Ali’s at Heaven Ali.

Highly recommended.

Author: Kamila Shamsie
Title: Home Fire
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2018, first published 2017
ISBN: 9781408886793
Source: personal library, purchased from The Grumpy Swimmer, Elwood, $19.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2019

Nora Heyson, Light and Life, by Jane Hylton

As most Melbourne art lovers know, there is currently an exhibition at the NGV (Federation Square) of the art of father and daughter painters Hans Heysen (1877-1968) and Nora Heysen (1911-2003).  The exhibition runs from March 8th to July 28th 2019, but I haven’t been to see it yet.  (I’m waiting till the worst of the train disruptions are over…it will be great to have all the new infrastructure completed, but the April works are testing the patience of commuters a bit!)

However, when I get there, I will enjoy it all the more due to two lovely books that I borrowed from Bayside Library.  Every week, one of the four branches of the library hosts Book Chat, the idea being that you just turn up and chat about whatever it is you’ve just read.  It’s an enjoyable way for booklovers to meet each other and share their reading, and the added bonus is that at the end of each session, the librarian introduces some books that might be of interest.  That’s how I came to borrow Nora Heysen, Light and Life and Selected Letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen (the latter of which I aim to review in due course).

I read Nora Heysen, Light and Life first.  It was first published by Wakefield Press to coincide with the exhibition held at Carrick Hill from April 1st to June 28th 2009.  The book is a generous size (285 x 215mm, not quite A4) and printed on fine glossy paper so the reproductions of Nora Heyson’s paintings can be seen in close detail.  There are four chapters, all profusely illustrated with photos and reproductions of her work, about Nora’s early years in Adelaide; her life in London; her return to Sydney and then her work as a war artist in WW2; and her final years in a home of her own.  The book also includes notes, a bibliography, a timeline of her life, and acknowledgements.  Best of all, for art lovers, is the ‘Gallery’ of her paintings: 41 pages in full-size, full-colour art works, from collections all over Australia (including our NGV which has four of her works in its permanent collection at Fed Square).

Although the art world was male-dominated, Nora Heysen AM was not exactly an artist overlooked because of her gender.  When she left Australia to study in England in 1934, her work was already represented in three State collections, as well as many private ones.  She had won prizes, illustrated a book, exhibited in Sydney and her first one-person show was a critical and financial success.  However she didn’t find it easy in London where the new influences she was exposed to made it difficult to develop her own artistic identity.  To avoid working in her father’s shadow, she preferred to move ‘away from landscape to still-life and portraiture’, both subject areas that Hans Heysen visited much less frequently.  As Allan Campbell says in his foreword:

She was a remarkable woman whose artistic achievements spanned a period of some seventy-five years, and gained continued respect for her acknowledged passion and genuine dedication to her art.  Nora Heysen was a beautiful colourist, formidable drawer. superb draughtsman and skilful exponent of oil on brush; an artist who placed herself in the history books by becoming the first woman to win the prestigious Archibald Prize [ see here] and the first appointed female war artist in World War Two.

There are some of Nora’s war portraits in the ‘Gallery’ but I wanted to see more.  I took a look at my review of Betty Churcher’s The Art of War, but because I’d only covered Chapter One, I’d made no mention of Heysen’s work (or any other female artist) in WW2.  But when I got the book out to check, there’s a  chapter called ‘Far From The Front Line’, which is a bit misleading because along with three wonderful paintings showcasing women’s war work in the field, there’s a photo of Nora Heyson in her Melbourne studio finishing paintings she started in New Guinea.  And we know from other reading (here, and here) that just being a war zone was dangerous and confronting.  There are sections about other female war artists in Churcher’s book and I will make an effort to revisit the book with another review in due course.

Hylton notes that after a short burst of creativity on her return to her old studio at The Cedars, Nora went to live permanently in Sydney.  Away from her father’s influence, her style had changed, and she was used to living independently.  After her overseas experience as a war artist, she later spent time in Britain again with her eventual husband Robert Black, and she went with him to various Pacific Islands with him because he was a specialist in tropical medicine.  But her relationship with her father remained affectionate, and across these distances, the correspondence between Nora and her father Hans is extensive, so I’m looking forward to reading the letters.

I enjoyed Chapter Two most, with its endearing quotations from a fatherly Hans, including a note about remaining warm and not catching cold in what he considered ‘a rather treacherous locality in the early winter.’  I also chuckled over Nora’s dismissal of modernism, including a comment about sculpture described bluntly as ‘useless lumps of stone… resembling nothing on this earth.’  There’s a gorgeous domestic interior from 1935 in this chapter, which you can see here, scroll down till you see Evie in her blue dressing gown, book in hand. (From there at the NLA website I also discovered a bit about the retrospective held in 2001).  This chapter is also interesting for the way that Nora responds to criticism of her work, and her father’s advice about how to deal with it.  But you can tell from this painting reproduced in the Gallery, that the gloomy weather, money worries and the intense hard work got her down sometimes.

It’s fascinating to read the story behind the portrait that won the 1938 Archibald Prize.  The poised Madame Schumann was apparently very difficult about sitting for it, and ‘refused to sit after the first two sessions’.  When Heysen insisted, ‘there she sat. with tears rolling down her face because I was being cruel.’  And it’s astonishing to read that she produced 170 works of art – under very difficult conditions as a war artist – 152 of them held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. You can see two of my favourites at this Pinterest board*: Private Gwynneth Patterson and Transport driver (Aircraftwoman Florence Miles).

* However do they get round copyright issues at Pinterest?

Nora Haysen, Light and life is a lovely book, sensitively written and offering a superb collection of Heyson’s artworks for your enjoyment.

PS If you’re ever in South Australia, I can recommend a trip to The Cedars at Hahndorf.  It’s billed as the home of Hans Heysen but you can see Nora’s studio, and that’s where her private collection is held.

Author: Jane Hylton
Title: Nora Heysen, Light and Life
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2009, 112 pages
ISBN: 9781862548404
Source: Bayside Library Service, Beaumaris Branch

Editor: Catherine Speck
Title: Selected Letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen
Publisher: NLA (National Library of Australia), 2011, 351 pages
ISBN: 9780642277305
Source: Bayside Library Service, Beaumaris Branch

Availability: Click the links on the titles to go to the publishers’ websites.  There are also books in the Hans Heysen shop at the Cedars in Hahndorf.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2019

Mazarine, by Charlotte Grimshaw

Charlotte Grimshaw (b.1968) is one of the most high profile authors in New Zealand.  While she has yet to win a major award outside New Zealand, her books are reviewed internationally and she has been nominated for and won numerous awards at home.  I disliked the widely acclaimed Opportunity (2007) and didn’t finish it (though you should read the comments below my review to see the opinion of someone who really liked it), but I really admired Starlight Peninsula (2015) because of the interesting issues it raised. So I didn’t hesitate when I saw Grimshaw’s latest title, Mazarine, at the library…

Mazarine was longlisted for the 2019 Ockhams and my explorations at Wikipedia tell me that her intention with her last five books has been to create her own version of a Human Comedy, after Balzac – a series of linked novels and short story collections about life in New Zealand.  Well, what Mazarine gives us is a view of New Zealanders who are multicultural, cosmopolitan and widely travelled.  This is the blurb:

When her daughter vanishes during a heatwave in Europe, writer Frances Sinclair embarks on a hunt that takes her across continents and into her own past. What clues can Frances find in her own history, and who is the mysterious Mazarine? Following the narrative thread left by her daughter, she travels through cities touched by terrorism and surveillance, where ways of relating are subtly changed, and a startling new fiction seems to be constructing itself.

There is a moment mid-way through the book when the text specifically addresses this issue of a new kind of fiction.  Frances, the central character, who has a kind of face blindness affecting her ability to recognise faces, is an author. She’s had some short stories published, and she’s toying with ideas for her first novel:

Absurd that I’d told her [Angela Lang, a journalist] about my supposed novel, a project I couldn’t even begin until I’d found Maya.  A woman who couldn’t read women: how could you hang a plot on that?  A woman wanting answers to her strange, isolating illiteracy, searching for answers to a lost mother while at the same time seeking — in a sense, seeking blind — her beloved daughter, who was missing in the ether, the futureworld. Could you construct a narrative out of blank spaces, out of disconnection? (p.172)

If Grimshaw’s intent was to explore these kinds of limits on fiction, then I would say that she has succeeded.  But the novel does more than that, it touches on some significant issues, not least the impact that surveillance has had on ordinary people.  When Maya goes missing and Frances makes contact with the mother of Joe, (the boyfriend travelling with Maya), Mazarine cautions against asking the police for help.  It’s not just that an email that doesn’t seem quite right in tone isn’t likely to be taken seriously because police would say that in a digital world the missing person had been in contact.  It’s also that while Mazarine’s son Joe is an atheist, her other son Mikail is Muslim like his father Emin (who’s from Chechnya, though living in Paris).  Mikail is ‘political’ and has been living in Molenbeek, a part of Brussels which has a reputation for being a hotbed of terrorist activity.  Mazarine understands why he’s angry:

‘In my opinion it’s quite rational for Mikail to be political and angry.  I’m occasionally quite political and angry myself.  But I don’t get put on lists, stopped at airports*, hassled in the street. According to my ex-husband, Mikail was angry about the way he’d been treated by authorities since he moved to Brussels, there were some incidents where he was stopped by police, and then since the terror attacks in Paris it was getting worse, a sort of vicious cycle, distrust and resentment on all sides. Mikail isn’t easy-going like Joe, he broods, he gets upset. I’m just saying, don’t go to the police yet; let’s think about it first.’  (p.76)

*Entirely by coincidence, I’ve just started reading Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, and her first chapter features a Muslim woman who misses her flight because of a lengthy airport interrogation.

It dawns on Frances that any enquiry might trigger scrutiny that might cause harm to three innocent young people and she realises that she is actually a little afraid of the State…

… and by the State I mean the internationally linked network of surveillance that’s meant to protect us but increasingly seems as much oppressor, at least potentially, as protector. We’ve been given the impression that once a person has caught the attention of the security services, of the Five Eyes, or whatever name you give to the vast, anonymous apparatus that watches us, then even if innocent, he or she will be at risk, certainly marked indefinitely. (p.80)

And she realises that the expectation that Muslim parents report their children’s suspicious behaviour is more complex than it appears:

How many Muslim parents in the UK and Europe must be going through this, anxious about their children’s alarmingly secretive activities (yet doesn’t even the most innocent teenager delight in being alarmingly secretive), assured by all the relevant ‘anti-radicalisation’ services in the community that they can seek advice in confidence, yet knowing that as soon as they bring their children to the attention of authorities they are exposing not only the child but the whole family and community to forces that are themselves alarmingly secret, uncontrollable, relentless. It would certainly seem safer to try to correct the wayward child oneself. (p.84)

Grimshaw wrote and published this book before the Christchurch atrocity, but the questions she raises are certainly pertinent now.

However, and this is a big ‘however’,  Frances is a whiny, needy, over-thinking character who (as with Eloise in Starlight Peninsula) drinks too much so her narrative is incoherent.  (As with Eloise in Starlight Peninsula) she has an obnoxious mother, but in this novel Inez is not her birthmother, and narcissistic Frances who loves to analyse everything has a fine time wondering about Inez’s own disorganised attachment issues as causation for her obnoxiousness.  The reader can also ponder whether everybody is gaslighting Frances in order to protect Inez, but it’s quite possible that the siblings Frank and Natasha don’t exist, since Frances’s psychiatrist questions whether they do.  The other problem that readers can mull over is whether Frances really does see Nick (her Ex), who gets into her locked house and attacks her, an event which triggers her flight out of Auckland.  It seems real enough at the time, but when she subsequently sees him in London, Paris and feels watched even Buenos Aires, well, I’m not sure whether he was a figment of her overactive imagination, and I assume that was intentional on the author’s part.

This exasperating characterisation almost made me abandon the book, but of course I had to find out what had happened to Maya, and why!

See also the review at The Spinoff.

Author: Charlotte Grimshaw
Title: Mazarine
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House NZ), 2018, 278 pages
ISBN: 9780143771821
Source: Bayside Library Service, Sandringham Branch

Available from Fishpond: Mazarine

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2019

A Season on Earth, by Gerald Murnane

The image on the cover of Gerald Murnane’s A Season on Earth is immediately recognisable to Melburnians of a certain age.  A quick Google search reveals its provenance: the photo is by Neville Bowler from The Age newspaper in 1972 when the CBD in flood was front page news.  Chosen by the inimitable W H Chong for the cover image, this photo of a man alone, stranded high and dry yet apparently calm, is just perfect for this book…

As Murnane explains in the introduction, A Season on Earth has history.  It was originally published in 1976 as A Lifetime on Clouds by Heinemann – in truncated form with just two of the four sections from the original manuscript.  Indeed this the form in which I bought the 2013 Text Classics edition at the Boyd Community Library in Southbank.   I had gone to hear Murnane in conversation with Andy Griffith, who wrote the introduction.  (Although the book is now available in its entirety, I shan’t be jettisoning A Lifetime on Clouds because I like the introduction.  And I wish I’d asked Murnane to autograph it when I had the chance!)

The story, such as it is, comprises the droll activities of a character called Adrian Sherd.  What’s this? you may ask, since Murnane is so adamant in his later books that it is facile to expect characters (or plots) in fiction.  Well, A Season on Earth is Murnane’s second novel, for all that its publication is his 15th published work.  It’s a bildungsroman, and in the first section Adrian in the 1950s seems a lot like an adolescent ‘character’, one who is obsessed with elaborate sexual fantasies which take place in America.  The second section reveals his marriage to a good Catholic woman of extraordinary fertility – but like his sizzling sexual experiences in America from Part One, none of it is real.  It’s all his vivid imagination, struggling to reconcile his strict religious upbringing in a mundane suburb of Melbourne with his adolescent sexuality.  This is followed by the two sections excised from A Lifetime on Clouds: Adrian joins a religious order but discovers it’s not his vocation.  As we learn in Part Four, it’s writing that is his vocation, and the whole book has been about his intellectual and emotional journey towards a creative life.

But I’m minded here to quote the New York Times, cited on the Text Publishing website because it describes exactly how I read Murnane.  When I first read his fiction it was new to me and I tried to make it fit into my experience of reading.  I don’t do that now:  I let my mind wander where it will, as suggested by the NYT:

‘Reading Murnane, one cares less about what is happening in the story and more about what one is thinking about as one reads. The effect of his writing is to induce images in the reader’s own mind, and to hold the reader inside a world in which the reader is at every turn encouraged to turn his or her attention to those fast flocking images.’

Since A Season on Earth is an early work, reading it is less like having images triggered by the text and more like a ‘story’.  The reader is never in doubt about what’s real and what’s not, even though Adrian himself has difficulty separating his fantasy life from the real one.  Nevertheless some of the images are catalysts for a good chuckle:

After he had set the table for tea, Adrian read the sporting pages of The Argus and then glanced through the front pages for the cheesecake picture that was always somewhere among the important news.  It was usually a photograph of a young woman in bathers leaning far forward and smiling at the camera.

If the woman was an American film star he studied her carefully.  He was always looking for photogenic starlets to play small roles in his American adventures.

If she was only a young Australian woman he read the caption (‘Attractive Julie Starr found Melbourne’s autumn sunshine too tempting to resist.  The breeze was chilly, but Julie, a telephonist aged eighteen, braved the shallows at Elwood in her lunch hour and brought back memories of summer’) and spent a few minutes trying to work out the size and shape of her breasts.  Then he folded up the paper and forgot about her.  He wanted no Melbourne typists and telephonists on his American journeys.  He would feel uncomfortable if he saw on the train one morning some woman who had shared his American secrets only the night before.  (p.16)

This image (nothing like what came to be known as a Page 3 Girl), and its innocence despite Adrian’s smutty intentions, led my mind to the highly sexualised images that surround us every day now.  Goodness only knows how hormonally-challenged young men negotiate it all!

The sequence in which the young Adrian is dazzled by the pageantry of the coronation in 1953 and works it into his fantasy with Lauren and Rita and Linda in the Bluegrass Country of Kentucky is laugh-out-loud hilarious.  They plan a little surprise for him and Lauren and Linda emerge from behind the bushes in brief two-piece bathing suits that dazzled him. The fabric was cloth-of-gold studded with semi-precious copies of all the emeralds and rubies and diamonds in the crown jewels. 

Behind them came Rita, draped in a replica of the coronation robe itself.  And when the other two lifted her train he saw just enough to tell him that under the extravagant ermine-tipped robe, she was stark naked.  (p.22)

A-hem.  Perhaps not every one might be amused…

Adrian’s grasp of religion is laugh-out-loud funny too:

The examination of conscience was supposed to be a long careful search for all the sins committed since your last confession.  Adrian’s Sunday Missal had a list of questions to assist the penitent in his examination.  Adrian often read the questions to cheer himself up.  He might have been a great sinner, but at least he had never believed in fortune tellers or consulted them; gone to places of worship belonging to other denominations; sworn oaths in slight or trivial matters; talked, gazed or laughed in church; oppressed anyone; been guilty of lascivious dressing or painting.

Adrian had no need to examine his conscience.  There was only one kind of mortal sin that he had committed.  All he had to do before confession was to work out his total for the month. For this he had a simple formula.  ‘Let x be the number of days since my last confession.’

‘Then the total number of sins = 2x/5 + 4 (for weekends, public holidays or days of unusual excitement).

Yet he could never bring himself to confess this total.  He could have admitted easily that he had lied twenty times or lost his temper fifty times or disobeyed his parents a hundred times.  But he had never been brave enough to walk into confession and say, ‘It is one month since my last confession, Father, and I accuse myself of committing an impure action by myself sixteen times. ‘ (p. 28)

I defy anyone to read Adrian’s use of moral theology in order to reduce his total to a more respectable size without doubling up in laughter.

Although I’m delighted to have the full version of this book to read, I can understand why Heinemann pruned it so drastically.  Part Three, where Adrian goes to a seminary to prepare for the priesthood is also droll, but the satire relies on some knowledge of the practice of Catholicism as it was in the 1950s, and, IMO it works especially well for readers who can detect in it, Murnane’s future interest in images and landscapes.  I suspect that an editor, not knowing what was to come from this author, might not have recognised some significances in Parts Three and Four.  (And worried, maybe, that it was too ‘Catholic’ for a general audience?)  All the same, excising Parts Three and Four not only ruined the story, because readers got only half of Adrian’s character, but it also deprived readers of some comic gems.

For example, when Adrian’s aunt tells him to have a special devotion to Our Lady, Adrian organises a sacred beauty contest.  He harvests a pile of images of the Madonna from books and holy cards:

He tried not to think of it as a beauty contest—he knew that Catholics were advised not to take part in such things.  And he had never forgotten that a bishop in America once excommunicated a young woman for appearing in the Miss Nude Universe Contest.

Adrian’s competition was not judged according to physical beauty, although the winner would have to be graceful and pretty.  He intended to find among his pictures of Our Lady the one that would most arouse his devotion. After he had decided on the winning picture, he would take it to Blenheim [the seminary] and paste it inside the door of his room.  Each time he left the room he would glance up at the picture and carry away the beautiful image of Our Lady in his mind.  She would inspire him in his work and study just as the image of Denise McNamara had inspired him in the old days at St Carthage’s.  [Denise McNamara is the girl he ‘married’ in Part Two – without ever having plucked up the courage to speak to her.] (p.259)

Adrian tests out his four finalists to see which was best at protecting his ‘holy purity’ while he watches what he thinks is a raunchy film.  (This is the Fifties, remember, when Hollywood had strict rules about depicting ‘bedroom scenes’.) And significantly, for readers of the mature Murnane, the winner protects him by conjuring a landscape that offers no temptation.  Further on, Adrian reads a book called Elected Silence by the American Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton. This classic autobiography of redemption, about the conversion and vocation of a sinner, is transformed by Adrian into film scenes, accompanied by a mighty orchestra playing the climax of a gem from the classics such as Overture 1812 or Capriccio Italien.  On the train to Blenheim he realises that non-Catholics had their own version of history and he sees events in history in images.  On the northward journey it is dark after they change trains at Albury, and it is not until Part Four when he comes home to be a writer, that he sees the vast plains of western NSW, and the reader remembers how Murnane’s fascination with vast empty spaces becomes the fiction entitled The Plains.

In Part Four, I was much entertained by Adrian’s public service stint in the Department of Education.  For those of us old enough to quake in terror when each term the Education Gazette announced which ‘temporary’ teachers were to be shunted about all over the state, it is intriguing to learn that there was actually no system to it at all.  Adrian devises his own.  Fascinated by landscapes he selects destinations in rural England, based on these Victorian rural schools having the same name as the ones in his map of England (such as Macclesfield, Malmsbury, and Mortlake).  He is sure he is doing these hapless teachers a favour when he matches the most deserving cases who are teaching in colourless Australian places (in Melbourne suburbs such as Brunswick, Coburg and Maribyrnong) to greener(!) places such as Horsham.

Every day he could send two or three young men and women on long arduous journeys that would bring them at last to idyllic English landscapes. (p. 388)

Later on, he modifies his system to give some of the young men a taste of the solitude and hardship that his favourite poet had endured, sending

a few complacent young men to one-teacher schools with names that seemed the Australian equivalents of the remote places mentioned in A Shropshire Lad: Peppers Plain, Big Hill, Clear Lake, The Cove, Mosquito Flat. On fine spring days when he crossed the crowded lawns of the Treasury Gardens, he envied the young temporaries in their distant schools, surrounded by the raw material for whole volumes of poignant, lyric poetry. (p.440)

Images of Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright are inevitably triggered by this droll sequence…

Is it necessary to have read Murnane’s other books first? I would say not at all, merely that it is enhanced by familiarity with his oeuvre.  A Season on Earth is well worth reading in its own right, and although much of it is a very funny comic novel that pokes fun at Catholic guilt, it is also a poignant portrait of a lonely individual trying to come to terms with being different in a world regimented not just by his religion but by a conformist society.

There is so much more that I could share, but I will stop now, and recommend only that you beg, borrow or steal yourself a copy as soon as you can.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: A Season on Earth
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 485 pages (first published in truncated form by William Heinemann as A Lifetime on Clouds, 1976)
ISBN: 9781925773347, hbk 1st edition (RRP $39.99)
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available including as an ebook direct from the publisher, from Fishpond: A Season On Earth and from all good bookstores.


I’ve just discovered that Bloglovin’ has been copying my entire posts for their so-called Reader – which is an unambiguous breach of my copyright.

I don’t usually mind people reblogging my posts, as long as they’re not doing it solely to draw people to their sites, and as long as they comply with the ASA (Australian Society of Authors) rule about 10% (see the yada-yada in the RH sidebar, down at the bottom.)
But I object very strongly to third parties copying my reviews in total. Presumably, they are doing this to make money, out of my content.

I’m not the only one: Ashley at Nose Graze doesn’t like it either, and I’m adopting her solution which is to change the settings on my blog so that RSS feeds only access a summary, not the entire post.

That might inconvenience some readers, I’m sorry about that.

I’ve never thought about it before, but my cookbook shelves are a glimpse into the way I’ve lived my life. The oldest ones are recipe books for a beginner cook wanting to do it well: they include the CWA cookbook and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, plus Margaret Fulton and the Women’s Weekly Cookbooks. Recipe books from the 80s reflect my ‘earth mother’ phase, when I made everything from scratch.  They also represent a long period of time when I was a vegetarian, mainly because I was (still am) opposed to factory farming.  This phase led me to branch out into recipes from all over the world with recipes for Italian, Chinese and Asian cooking, and when The Spouse came into my life and we began to travel overseas, things became more adventurous so that now there are books of Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern cuisine.  The recipes became more complex too, influenced in part by MasterChef, but also by the restaurant scene here in Melbourne.  You can see this in some of the foodie books I’ve reviewed here on my blog, with pride of place going to my efforts to reproduce a recipe by Heston Blumenthal. 

At first glance, Magic Little Meals belongs back in my ‘1980s earth mother’ phase.  It’s not a glossy ‘food-porn’ book.  It’s only 200m square, and although it’s profusely illustrated, the stylist has concentrated on the food and the ingredients rather than the décor.  But it’s actually a profoundly contemporary book because it addresses a concern that so many of us have…

We have had a terrible year in the kitchen garden.  We harvested barely enough tomatoes to fill a pudding bowl, our beetroot failed altogether, and as I write there are two – just two – eggplants finally emerging from plants that had many flowers but otherwise had failed to fruit at all. Our only success has been the pumpkin vine. The reason for this debacle is that the weather has been profoundly affected by climate change, and we hadn’t changed our practice to accommodate it.  And not one of our numerous gardening books has any advice, and the ABCTV’s Gardening Australia has been no help at all.  If there is anything on their website about how to handle extreme weather situations, I can’t find it.

But Magic Little Meals is all about growing your own food for the table, and it is written with a keen sensitivity to the way the world is now. It’s the only book I’ve ever come across that has practical tips for protecting the vegies during those extreme heat waves.

Lolo, who as a child lived through the Dutch famine of 1994-45, knows the importance of food:

While war raged, I lost contact with my family after a children’s transport took me to an eastern province. Here, foster parents increased my weight by 50% in four months. Growing one’s own food was the rule there, one of many life lessons learned during that period.

But good land is the key. In Australia I grew my first fruit and vegetables. I worry about the speed at which the Australian environment is being logged, mined out and sold off to make the nation grow. With partner Burr Dodd I planned how to revegetate South Australia by 2050. The result was the movement known as Trees For Life.

I wrote about my gardening experiences for my grandchildren to prepare them for possible food shortages. One Magic Square: Grow your own food on one square metre and its companion Outside the Magic Square: A handbook for food security are still in print. [Click the links to go to the Wakefield Press website.] This present volume, written with Tori Arbon, is a response to readers’ requests. It completes the unintended trilogy. May these books continue to inspire people to recognise that good food comes from good soil and that widespread growing at home can perhaps save the planet.

As I took Amber for her walk today, I noticed yet again how new housing developments in our street have reduced the space for gardens.  When I moved here in 1979, all of the houses built in the frugal fifties had a front and back garden, the front used for ornamentals, and the back for play space, the vegie patch and the washing line.  But now? The two story townhouses built diagonally behind us have only a pocket-handkerchief front garden with a patch of lawn smaller than a bed sheet, and a strip of land at the back where they *sigh* have planning permission to plant bamboo. There are growing numbers of McMansions housing families of just four: these are built right to the edge of boundary fences, with barely enough room for a single tree.  This is typical of the way styles of urban living now make people dependent on buying all their food, but the other result of urban expansion is that some of our best arable land is being swallowed up by outer-urban housing.

I remember my mother saying of England that she never again wanted to live in a country that couldn’t feed itself.  Could Australia ever be reduced to relying on imports?  Lolo Houbein asks, what if China, currently exporting to Australia, can’t feed its billions in the future?

There are things that we can do.  Magic Little Meals asks for no more than one square metre of land, and has tips for growing food in pots on balconies too.  Their best tip for apartment dwellers is to

ask neighbours whether you can all grow one or two different vegetables and do swaps.  One climbing tomato could provide enough for 8 people; on cabbage could be quartered.  As for one zucchini plant… you’ll find out! (p.3)

There are five parts to this book: after the introduction, each chapter in Part One depends on a freshly picked vegetable from your garden with growing notes provided for each vegetable. Part Two is about making food interesting with herbs and spices. Part Three, ‘Kitchen Mysteries Unwrapped’ is for novice cooks to learn the basics and the secrets of preserving a glut.  Part Four is about growing and eating your own fruit: for us that’s just citrus trees and olives, but the advice applies just as well if you are buying fruit when it’s in season.  (Cheap strawberries, the little ones that supermarkets don’t want) when quartered and dried are delicious with winter cereal!) Part Five, is about the health and community values of taking an holistic approach to the food you eat. It is this part that has a whole section called ‘Vegetables to Grow in Very Hot Summers’: it explains about the pollination problems we had and how some plants with exposed fruit like eggplant, tomato and capsicum ‘stand still’ through heat waves.

There are other really useful aspects to this book: one of the most important is that the recipes are for 1-2 persons.  You can easily double them to make meals for four, but how often do you find that the recipe for four in the other cookbooks ends up with three serves being eaten by two people and the one-serve leftover in the fridge ends up being thrown out?  This is terrible from a food waste point-of-view, but recipes don’t always halve very well, e.g. when it uses only one egg.

So, what are the recipes we’re going to try?

  • Pumpkins (obviously).   Ever heard of cooking pumpkin vine tips?  No, nor had I.  It turns out that there’s some pruning you’re supposed to do, and you can cook the tips with fennel and coriander, and finish them off with coconut oil, olive oil or pumpkin oil. (Ever heard of that?  I hadn’t.  Google tells me there are all sorts of claims for its health benefits.  But it appears to be expensive: about $25 for 250ml.) There’s a recipe for unripe pumpkin soup too.
  • Eggplants (obviously, unless the possum gets them).  I’ve tried a couple of recipes for Baba Ganoush, and I’ll try this one too.  All of them have the same ingredients, it’s all in the proportions.  I yearn to make one as good as our friend Zeina does, but she doesn’t use a recipe!
  • Speedy celery salad: our celery are newly planted right now, but it won’t be long before we have heaps. I like the addition of Moroccan spice mix to this recipe.
  • Capsicums: we are still getting a few fingerlings from a heritage capsicum plant, and they tend to get wasted because we don’t use capsicums all that much. So the Hungarian Goulash Vegetarian might be just the thing, especially since it apparently tastes even better the next day.  White beans substitute for the meat in the traditional carnivores recipe.
  • Spicy Beetroot stems.  Who knew?  These can be steamed with garlic, onions, mustard seed and other spices. The recipe calls for a dollop of yoghurt but that’s no problem because I make my own.  (Kitchen Warehouse sells a set-and-forget yoghurt maker that makes it ridiculously easy.)
  • Finally, potatoes, when we have them next season: I’ll have a go at Boxty: it’s an Irish recipe, sort of like a cross between a pancake and a rosti.

Just one thing: the recipe for making your own ricotta cheese says you need unhomogenised milk.  Not so.  From 2 litres of ordinary homogenised milk from the supermarket, I use a little bit in whatever recipe calls for it, make yoghurt with about 2/3 of the rest of it, and then ricotta with whatever is left over.  And you can use lemon juice instead of vinegar if you have lots of lemons.  The recipe I use says that the only kind of milk you can’t use is long life (UHT) milk because it won’t curdle.

Authors: Lolo Houbein and Tori Arbon
Title: Magic Little Meals, Making the Most of Homegrown Produce
Publisher: Wakefield Press, Adelaide, SA
ISBN: 9781743055793
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Wakefield Press and Fishpond: Magic Little Meals: Making the most of homegrown produce


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2019

Thursbitch, by Alan Garner

I discovered the English author Alan Garner (b-1934) when my parents gave me his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, (1960) one Christmas.  I loved its English folklore and was enchanted by the fantasy.  Still, it came as a surprise to me when at teachers’ college studying children’s literature, I was introduced to Red Shift (1973).  That book didn’t strike me as one I might read to primary school children, and when I hunted them out, nor did Brisingamen’s sequel, The Moon of Gomrath(1963), or Elidor(1965), or The Owl Service (1967).  I liked them, but they were difficult books conceptually, and when I decoded the last lines of Red Shift (using the Lewis Carroll Alphabet Cipher) I would have hesitated to use the book even in a secondary school because I thought it was far too pessimistic for melancholy adolescents, even if their chances of decoding its devastating final words were slim.

Well, Thursbitch (2003) is difficult and pessimistic too.  It’s one of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition).  It shares elements with Red Shift because it plays with time, the long ago past bleeding into the present and influencing the action of the characters in both eras.  Although it’s only 160 pages long, it took a long time to read because I had to keep re-reading parts of it to make any sense of it.  It didn’t help that due to its slim size, I chose it as a ‘handbag’ book

The landscape is ancient.  Thursbitch is actually a valley, (also spelt Thursbatch) near Macclesfield in the Pennines on the borders of Cheshire and Derbyshire.  When the story begins, in our present time, a mismatched couple are climbing in difficult terrain and getting lost, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Sal is suffering from some kind of neuro-degenerative disease (maybe Motor-Neurone Disease or Multiple Sclerosis) and Ian is her long-suffering carer.  Sal is making a last-ditch effort to research standing stones, wayside markers from the past and is very knowledgeable about the geology of the landscape, though her recall of words is failing as her disease progresses.  Ian is the butt of her scorn.

In the 18th century, Jack Turner perishes in the snow.  He is a ‘jagger’, someone who harvests salt from the moorland, and through the flashbacks in the narrative the reader learns that he’s also a mystic whose pagan cult is threatened by the growing domination of Christianity. Where Sal links the ancient markings on the markers with contemporary astronomical knowledge, for Jack they are part of his rituals, and because the text weaves in and out of both periods of time, these events impact on each other.  Sal finds an inscription on ruins that are not marked anywhere on their maps: the markings are about someone freezing to death in the snow.

But it’s not at all easy to understand what’s going on because Garner’s use of dialect is uncompromising:

‘Nan Sarah.’  You’re all as I ever needed in all this world. Did you not know?’
‘You seem never suited.  Forever agate.  Like as you’ll never rest.’
‘But that’s my way,’ said Jack.  ‘I’m a jagger born, me.  I walk in my own shoon.  And the more I see the more I want to be with you.  Not some trollop else.  And if you are teeming, and you’ll keep it and take me, then I’ll be a toad with two side pockets.’ (p.32)

And the contemporary situation isn’t much easier because the action is carried through dialogue that (even with simple events like Sal refusing to use her walking sticks) doesn’t always reveal what’s going on until you’ve almost given up.  (I remember that I had to read and re-read Red Shift many times before I worked out what was going on.)

The review at The Guardian hints that it might have helped if I’d read Strandloper first.

Author: Alan Garner
Title: Thursbitch
Publisher: first published 2003
Personal copy, OpShop Find.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2019

The Aunt’s House, by Elizabeth Stead

Elizabeth Stead (b. 1932) is the author of six novels: The Fishcastle (Penguin, 2000); The Different World of Fin Starling (Penguin, 2003); The Book of Tides (2005)The Gospel of Gods and Crocodiles (UQP, 2007) The Sparrows of Edward Street (UQP, 2011) – and her latest novel The Aunt’s House (2019).  This is the blurb:

Recently orphaned, Angel Martin moves into a boarding house populated by an assortment of eccentric and colourful characters. She’s befriended by the gregarious Winifred Varnham – a vision in exotic fabrics – and the numerically gifted Barnaby Grange. But not everyone is kind and her scrimping landlady, Missus Potts, is only the beginning of Angel’s troubles. Angel refuses to accept her fate. She is determined to forge a sense of belonging despite rejection from her two maiden aunts, Clara and Elsa, who blame Angel’s mother for their brother’s death. Her Sunday visits to the aunts house by the Bay expand her world in ways she couldn’t have imagined.

Elizabeth Stead brings her classic subversive wit and personal insight to this nostalgic portrait of wartime Sydney. In Angel Martin, she has created a singular and irrepressible character. A true original.

Set in 1942, the novel begins with eleven-year-old Angel adjusting to a new life as an unwanted addition to a boarding house run by the parsimonious Missus Potts.  Her mother has just died, and her paternal aunts don’t want her because they believe her mother was responsible for their brother’s death in a car accident.  Although Stead’s book is fiction, the poignant plight of this unwanted child reminded me of Alva’s Boy, an Unsentimental Memoir by Alan Collins’.  This memoir, recalling Collins’ wretched childhood in Sydney in about the same era, is the remarkable personal story on which his novels were based. (See my review.)  Knowing that during these years there were indeed unwanted, unloved and horribly neglected children who were so ill-fed and ill-clothed, made The Aunt’s House seem even more vivid…

Like Alan Collins, Elizabeth Stead uses humour to lighten the mood, and both books feature childhood escapades as well.  But the quirky narration of The Aunt’s House is entirely different: written in third person but from Angel’s perspective, it shows us a scatty child who thinks, speaks and acts in strange ways.  People say that she is not quite right in the head, and the proximity of the Sanatorium where her mother died means that people often talk about madness, as they did in those days when mental illness was less well understood.  The other characters in the boarding house are also eccentric, and Angel is befriended both by the savant Barnaby Grange who sees the world in numbers, and by the flamboyant Winifred Varnham who dresses in exotic robes and wears a chopstick in her hair.  Part of the value of The Aunt’s House is that like the famous One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nestit encourages readers to think about the folly of labelling people and to consider instead the fluctuating borders between eccentricity and mental illness.

And in Stead’s story, Angel’s odd behaviour is protective, to some extent.  She is able to earn a little money when she’s finished her onerous chores, and she uses it to travel Sydney’s trams and to visit her aunts even though she is not made welcome.  She doesn’t take no for an answer, because despite the overt hostility of these aunts, (one more so than the other) Angel remains optimistic. She doesn’t know what it’s like to have a family but she believes fervently that she can create one.   And because she hasn’t learned the aloof behaviour that’s common on public transport, she chatters away and makes friends with the amused conductors and other people that she comes across.

Her interior life is enriched by the music she hears in her head all the time, and by art.  A visit to the art gallery is stymied when she is told that she can’t enter barefoot, but Angel uses her initiative to persuade one of her mother’s neighbours to help her out with some second-hand sandals.  She is enchanted by the colours:

O! the colours! O, the richness of it all!  Everything was so overwhelmingly beautiful it made Angel cry and the crying disturbed her because she never cried.  Angel crept from painting to painting close to the floor and in such a way she hoped she might make herself invisible or possibly part of the display.

There was one painting in the main gallery that was big, bigger than all the walls in the boarding house stuck together, and there was a seat to sit on to watch it.  Angel just sat there with tears running, like the creek in the gully, down her face with the joy of it all…O, the colours!  And the music inside her turning somersaults was loud enough for the whole place to be deafened by it and its colours poured all over the place…. O, the colours, the colours.  (p.64)

(What would this painting be, I wonder?)

A regular truant from school, Angel has educated herself with books, music and art, and her environmental awareness stretches to renaming the ocean as the nation of Mariana, after the Mariana Trench.  I found myself thinking about how best a school would teach an erratic, untamed but highly intelligent child like Angel and came back to the motto I had on my professional LisaHillSchoolStuff blog: ‘If students can’t learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn’. Of course, nobody today teaches the way they did in 1942, but a child like Angel would still be a challenge in a regular classroom. So if I were still running professional development workshops, I’d be providing excerpts about Angel’s thinking and behaviour, for teachers to discuss strategies for providing a child like her with an education that would be enjoyable and meet her needs…

However… There are three separate instances of sexual abuse in this novel.  They are very lightly sketched, and the tone of Angel’s response suggests that although these experiences have taught her to be wary, her hard-won resilience is a coping strategy.  But I do wonder, what message is conveyed when three of five males in the story are abusers?  Does this not run the risk of normalising this kind of aberrant behaviour, if it’s portrayed as something that any man will do, given a vulnerable child and opportunity?

Click this link to hear Elizabeth Stead on Radio National’s Conversations program back in 2007.

Author: Elizabeth Stead
Title: The Aunt’s House
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2019, 280 pages
ISBN: 9780702260353
Review copy courtesy of UQP


This short book is my introduction to an ancient myth from Indonesia.  It’s this month’s selection for our Indonesian book-group, and this is the blurb:

I La Galigo, the vast Bugis epic myth, is one of the most voluminous works in world literature. Set in Luwuq, the cradle of Bugis culture, the cycle tells the story of the initial residence on earth of the gods and their descendants. “The Birth of La Galigo”, the poem found herein, represents a contemporary retelling of one of the epic’s most popular sections.

Wikipedia tells us this:

Sureq Galigo or La Galigo is an epic creation myth of the Bugis from South Sulawesi, written down in manuscript form between the 18th and 20th century in the Indonesian language Bugis, based on an earlier oral tradition. It has become known to a wider audience mostly through the theatrical adaptation I La Galigo by Robert Wilson. (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove most links, viewed 13/4/19)

(What’s really nice about this Lontar Foundation edition is that it includes double page B&W stills from the theatrical performance to illustrate scenes from the story.  You can see some of these images here.)

Interesting, isn’t it, that we know the ancient myths of Greece and Rome, and increasingly we are encountering the ancient stories of our Indigenous people, but that we tend not to know the stories of our near neighbours?  It’s a pity because La Galigo is a great story. As the Introduction tells us, the original epic of about 300,000 words, is longer even than the Indian Mahabarata (200,000 words) and Homer’s Odyssey – but the episode that is best-known and loved is the story of the tempestuous relationship of Sawérigading and the princess I Wé Cudai, a union which produced the hero I La Galigo.

The tale begins with the creation of the world, which as in other classic myths, consists of the Sky, the Earth and the Underworld.  The creation of people to populate the earth comes about because the King of Destiny is challenged to recognise a fundamental truth: gods need people to worship them.

After a moment’s silence,
the King of Destiny conferred with his consort,
‘What do you think of this idea, Datu Palingé?
What if we settled our children there,
encouraged them to plant their roots on earth,
to give that barren place inhabitants?
Can we call ourselves gods at all
if there is no one in the land beneath the sky
to worship us as gods?’ (p.11)

(This lyric translation by John H McGlynn is published side-by-side, page-by-page with the Indonesian poem by Sapardi Djoko Damono, which is derived from the original Bugis version translated into Indonesian by Muhammad Salim.)

BEWARE: SPOILERS (but myths are meant to be well-known so it hardly matters)

So they send Batara Guru down to Mayapada to create and rule over the world and in accordance with the Creator’s decree, he marries his cousin Wé Nyilik Timo from the Underworld so that they can have descendants.  Three months later we know that that the predicted twins are on the way because she gets cravings of a rather unusual kind:

So many things she craved:
two-headed deer from Botillangi,
fleet-footed mousedeer from Senrijawa,
tanri flowers with roots growing in Heaven
and blooms draping into the Lower World,
twin coconuts from the sky’s edge,
rose apples from the spirit world,
ring-necked deer from Botillangi,
nutmeg from Ternate,
and deadly fish with dagger spurs from Heaven. (p.37)

Batara sends Ladunrusséreng, the king of all fowl and all the birds of the land to fetch these demands threatening to pound them into flour/should they be slowed by even the strongest wind. 

When the twins are born, the boy arrives equipped with a golden dagger and battledress, while his sister is attired as a priestess.  And in accordance with the Creator’s decree, they are immediately separated so that they don’t fall in love with each other.  But of course as in all myths of this type the inevitable happens, and Sawérigading falls for his sister Wé Tenriabeng as soon as he comes of age and sets eyes on her.  No way, he is told, in no uncertain terms and in fear of the threatened drought and famine should he break the rules, he agrees to go in search of the beautiful woman who resembles his sister instead.

There are, of course, travails to be undergone: a tree that can only be cut down with an axe from heaven, with timber that can only be assembled into a flotilla of ships in the Underworld.  Then there are seven enemies to be despatched, including the betrothed of the woman he seeks.  But alas for Sawérigading, after all that he endures, the princess I Wé Cudai doesn’t fancy him.  She overhears women gossiping about him:

“Our lady will suffer greatly
if forced to lie with a man not of this country,
to bed with a seaman with so much body hair
you could braid his back
or use it as tinder to start a fire. (p.89)

And she tells her father that she would prefer exile/ or better yet, death! rather than marry him.  Her father returns the wedding gifts, which (unsurprisingly) offends the would-be groom:

He looked as if he would explode,
felt as if shards of glass were in his eyes,
such was the feeling in his heart.
Like a wave striking the shore,
his response was immediate,
ordering his men to rip out the stakes
and tear down the wall now encircling the town.

They then set fire to the place
and very soon the town was in flames. (p.91)

I Wé Cudai’s relatives sue for peace and an unwanted marriage to him is the price of his mercy.  Still, she sets some firm conditions,  and only in a pitch dark room, on a bed surrounded by seven layers of mosquito netting, circled by seven walls, and guarded by seven royal court officials is Sawérigading able to have his heart’s desire…

Cravings signal her eventual pregnancy – and they are equally unusual!

So many things did she desire:
twin coconuts from a distant shore;
hearts of gnats from Uriliu at the bottom of the sea;
mosquito bellies and fish from the Lower World;
and tanri flowers that grow in the Kingdom in the Sky. (p.99)

(As before, and under the same duress, the birds go out to fetch all this.)

Sawérigading is delighted when the child is born, the very image of his handsome father.  Alas, I Wé Cudai doesn’t behave in a very motherly way when the child Galigo is born.

“Put him inside a broken cooking pot
and place him on a raft.
Set the raft adrift in the river
and let it be taken away downstream.
He must not be the heir to Luwuq’s throne;
he shall not stay in this palace.
His wailing is misery to my ears!” (p.105)

Just as well Sawérigading has a concubine handy to foster the child!

Robert Wilson’s production of I La Galigo has been performed around the world, including at the Melbourne International Festival in 2006. You can see a short video of the performance here.

Authors: Muhammad Salim, Sapardi Djoko Damono and John H McGlynn
Title: The Birth of I La Galigo (I La Galigo Lahir)
Publisher: The Lontar Foundation, 2013, 117 pages, first published in 2005
ISBN: 9786029144338
Source: Personal copy, purchased in Indonesia for our book group by Halina – terima kasih banyak, Halina!

Available from the Lontar Foundation.

The Spice Islands Voyage, in Search of Wallace is the June choice for our Indonesian bookgroup but I’m reading it early because it’s hard to source and we need to circulate the library copy as best we can.

It’s more than a travel book.  Tim Severin is an explorer who specialises in recreating historic voyages, and the list of his books at Wikipedia is impressive:

  • Tracking Marco Polo (1964) – Motorcycle ride from Venice to Central Asia along the Silk Road
  • Explorers of the Mississippi (1968)
  • The Golden Antilles (1970)
  • The African Adventure (1973)
  • Vanishing Primitive Man (1973)
  • The Oriental Adventure: Explorers of the East (1976)
  • The Brendan Voyage (1978) – Sailing a leather currach from Ireland to Newfoundland
  • The Sindbad Voyage (1983) – Sailing an Arab dhow from Muscat, Oman to China
  • The Jason Voyage: The Quest for the Golden Fleece (1986) – Sailing from Greece to Georgia
  • The Ulysses Voyage (1987) – Sailing from Troy to Ithaca
  • Crusader (1989) – Riding a heavy horse from Belgium to the Middle East
  • In Search of Genghis Khan (1991)
  • The China Voyage (1994) – Across the Pacific Ocean (almost) on a bamboo raft named Hsu-Fu
  • The Spice Islands Voyage (1997)
  • In Search of Moby-Dick (1999)
  • Seeking Robinson Crusoe (aka In Search of Robinson Crusoe) (2002)

Lest you think that these adventures were merely Boys Own Adventures, here’s a snippet from The Spice Islands Voyage that suggests otherwise:

This was the other, darker side to the apparent tropical paradise of palm trees, green forests and sandy beaches through which we were sailing, and where Wallace had soldiered on for six years of field work.  During the Spice Islands voyage all of us suffered at one time or another from chills and low-grade fevers, even though we had modern medicines and, in Joe, our own doctor on board.  In Banda a small insect bite on my leg turned septic in six hours and puffed up as if I had been bitten by a venomous insect.  I felt giddy and unwell as if I had severe flu, and was dosed with antibiotics.  Leonard developed blotches on his face, and Joe was tormented by rashes all over his body. Even Yanis with his iron constitution and india-rubber physique could sometimes be seen curled up miserably underneath a scrap of sailcloth, shivering and with his eyes dull with fever.  Julia was by far the most vulnerable.  In the twelve months during which she assisted the project, she contracted one bout of typhoid and had dengue fever twice. (p.129)

The ‘Wallace’ referred to in this excerpt, is Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, and biologist who is famous for two things: conceiving the theory of evolution independently of Darwin (which prompted Darwin to stir his stumps and publish The Origin of Species instead of dithering about); and identifying in 1859 the line separating the fauna of the Indo-Malayan and the Austro-Malayan regions in the Indonesian archipelago.  Asian birds, bats and mammals are west of the line, and unique Australasian fauna are only found east of the line.  As you can see from the diagram the science has developed since Thomas Huxley named this line after Wallace, because we now know more about ancient sea levels and the continental shelves, but Wallace’s observations were still an amazing achievement.

Darwin, Severin tells us, got the lion’s share of the credit for the theory of evolution, for as the years went by he was to make fewer and fewer references to his co-discoverer, instead referring to ‘my doctrines’ (as distinct from what he dismissed as Wallace’s excellent memoir).  So eventually everyone forgot that the theory of evolution was originally introduced to a small scientific gathering in Victorian London who would have thought of it as the Darwin-Wallace theory.   ‘Survival of the fittest’ indeed…

Wallace wasn’t, apparently, bitter about this.  Severin says he came back from south-east Asia and stepped into Darwin’s shadow, deliberately and courteously.  His book, The Malay Archipelago, was the monument he preferred… However in later years when Wallace was struggling to support a wife and family, Darwin was at least instrumental in Wallace receiving a pension in recognition of his work.  Later still, Wallace also received medals, honorary doctorates and an Order of Merit so at least among scientists, his pioneering ideas have been acknowledged.  Severin’s coverage of the intricacies of this controversy is excellent.


Severin begins The Spice Islands Voyage with an homage to Wallace which explains this Darwin controversy and goes on to discuss Wallace’s background.  The seventh son of a shabby genteel family, and a bookish, shy young man, Wallace had a father who managed to lose all their money and so the young man had to find his own way in the world.  His interest in geology and botany was sparked by his work as an assistant to his brother who was a freelance land surveyor, and he funded his travels by writing and (ironically given that he was one of the first to recognise conservation as an issue) through the sale of the exotic species he collected.  But he confounds the image of the Victorian explorer which is based largely on the African model.

He did not go forward, rifle in one hand, bible in the other, on the lookout for big game or souls to save.  Nor did he seek to map the source of great rivers or to climb the peaks of the highest mountains.


… even allowing for the differences between Africa and Asia, Wallace was still an explorer of a different style. He did not advance at the head of a long line of porters, one of them perhaps carrying a tin bath on his head.  Wallace worried more about his supply of pins to stick into insect specimens than about bath supplies.  He recruited only a handful of local helpers when he needed them, and his only regular companion was Ali, a Malay assistant whom he trained to shoot and skin birds or bet butterflies. (p.10)

Wallace’s observations of the people he met were shaped by his own experience of being ‘other’. Severin says that his writing shows that he saw things from the perspective of the local people, and he did not want to be feared as a foreign devil. However, I read this book conscious that I would be discussing it with Indonesian friends, and perhaps that made me sensitive to Severin’s own writing about the ‘other’:

We had scarcely dropped our rucksacks to the ground when two men emerged shyly from the forest behind us.  I had seen them in Labi Labi among the crowd of onlookers when we came ashore from our prahu.  The taller of the two had been hard to miss as he was a muscular, bare-chested man in black pantaloons, with a stern expression, who looked as if he was auditioning for a role as a pirate.  Now he hovered at the edge of the camp-site.  He had a wooden cage strapped to his back, and in one hand a hoop of bamboo with a wooden crosspiece.  It was a bird perch on which two bright red Chattering Lories were swinging and chirruping as their name would suggest.  His companion, hardly bigger than a 13-year-old child, had a dreamy smile and was wearing such a tattered pair of trousers and tee-shirt that he might not be wearing any clothes at all.  (p.203)

I interpret this description as a reminder of the widespread malnutrition that stunted growth in Indonesia under the Dutch, and the poverty of the clothing suggests near-destitution.  But there is no commentary about that, so it serves to convey the author’s negative perceptions and Severin thenceforth refers to the first man as ‘the pirate’.  I also noticed that when recording an official’s demand for money to cover expenses the sum of 100,000 rupiah is mentioned.  Most readers will not know that this is not a vast amount:  Severin merely notes that it’s about the equivalent of two weeks’ wages, which it might well be in a place of such poverty, but the traveller paying it is parting with only about $10AUD or £5GBP.  So it seems to me that Severin sometimes lets his disappointment with the state of conservation in Indonesia spill over into presenting the locals from a limited western point-of-view, and that his judgements might not accord with other post-colonial perspectives about this.

Wallace’s first expedition was to the Amazon with a fellow enthusiast called Henry Bates, but it ended badly when they split up to follow different interests.  Wallace asked his brother Herbert to join him but Herbert died of Yellow Fever, and Wallace lost all his specimens on the return journey when his ship caught fire.  It is Wallace’s second journey to the Malay archipelago (1854-1862) that Severin recreates, comparing what he found in the late 20th century (the year before the fall of the dictator Suharto) with how things were in the middle of the 19th century.  There is a fascinating chapter about the building of a replica boat, which Severin names the Alfred Wallace, and then he visits the same places as Wallace did.  Notably, Severin compares the contemporary state of affairs from a conservation point-of-view, and in general he disapproves.  In Wahai, he comments on the free-for-all logging industry and its wasteful destruction of century-old trees; and on Ambon and elsewhere, the poaching of endangered birds brought from Aru to open market for export to collectors.  There is also a chapter about exotic species being openly traded as gourmet delicacies, and the chapter about the wholesale destruction of turtle nests for their eggs is devastating.

Severin makes only slight acknowledgement that this trading, which is so disastrous for endangered species, is part of a word-wide trade in collectible species. He mentions Singaporean bird-dealers sending parrots to Pacific countries, and the American market for cockatoos.  But the trade is more global than that, China being a major culprit in the use of exotic endangered species for their so-called Chinese medicine, sometimes witlessly used by westerners so they are complicit in the illegal trade too.  Customs officials occasionally intercept smuggled birds at Australian airports, so there’s obviously a market here as well.  It would be surprising if there were no UK or European collectors IMO, but there is no mention of this.  The reality is that people don’t smuggle endangered species unless there is a valuable market for it.  Disrupting this global trade and supporting alternative development projects is what’s really needed, and IMO it’s not impoverished people in far-flung places or their cash-strapped governments who should be responsible for doing that.  OTOH this book performs a valuable role in raising awareness about what’s going on, and perhaps other writers are best placed to discuss solutions.

What I found interesting was Severin’s commentary about the abject failure of government decrees and international convenants and the indifferent Indonesian bureaucracy, contrasted with the conservation successes of an autocratic ruler who still retains power and influence derived from traditional adat.  Even when Severin finds a place where official environmental programs are successful, Severin dismisses the success stories as being told what he wants to hear so that NGO or government funding will continue.  I’m not sure what I think about this: adventurers tend to have negative views about rules and regulations which get in the way of whatever they want to do.  (Yes, I am thinking of a prominent Australian adventurer with a penchant for pronouncements about a ‘nanny state’).  Likewise, visitors to ‘exotic’ islands also tend to take a dim view of development, preferring the places they visit to be unspoilt by sagging electricity wires and dull buildings for commerce or government.  I’m more inclined to think that people are very pleased to get electricity and other elements of development… and I think it’s much too easy to blame impoverished people for doing whatever it takes to survive in a global economy where the old ways of sustainable living have been so badly disrupted.  The Indonesian government for all its flaws has done a better job of transitioning from colonialism than many other countries have, and there has been a marked improvement in the standard of living for its people.  I’d like to see it do better, of course, and dealing with corruption along with conservation issues would be somewhere at the top of my list of priorities (along with the elimination of poverty).  But I think we should hesitate to judge because the complexities of the situation can’t be identified from short in-country visits*, no matter how well-intentioned.  It would be very interesting to see a book about the current state of affairs written by an independent Indonesian journalist.

*In the Epilogue, Severin acknowledges that for every year that Wallace had been in the Moluccas, we had spent little more than a month.  And he also says that Concentrating on Wallace’s route, we ignored areas where other environmental protection programmes were in progress.  He reminds the reader that their impressions were only gathered from a tiny sliver of the rim of Indonesia.

Nevertheless, this book is enjoyable reading.  Severin accomplishes the role of sailor, historian, popular science writer, and traveller in a highly readable narrative that shines a light on the difficulties of protecting wildlife in remote places.  I’ll be interested to see what my book-group thinks about The Spice Islands Voyage!

BTW here is a National Geographic video of the Red Bird of Paradise, which Severin was so keen to see (and disappointed in that, largely because he went during the wrong season).

Image credits:

Alfred Russel Wallace: London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company (active 1855-1922)First published in Borderland Magazine, April 1896, public domain, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Russel_Wallace#/media/File:Alfred-Russel-Wallace-c1895.jpg

The Wallace Line: By Altaileopard – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21853199

Author: Tim Severin
Title: The Spice Islands Voyage, in Search of Wallace
Photographs by Joe Beynon and Paul Harris
Illustrations by Leonard Sheil
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co., UK, 1997, 267 pages
ISBN: 9780316881753, (hbk.)
Source: Port Phillip Library Servioce, St Kilda Branch

Availability: This edition seems to be out of print, but on the day I looked, Fishpond had a used copy: Spice Islands Voyage. However, Amazon has many of Severin’s titles, though I note that a reader at Goodreads was disappointed by the lack of maps and photos in the Kindle edition.

Great news! Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World by Michelle Scott Tucker has been shortlisted for the 2019 Ashurst Business Literature Prize.

Never heard of it?  Neither had I, but it’s worth $30,000 to the winner so it’s a prize worth knowing about.

It’s also a prize worth thinking about… why would such an award be set up?  According to the website, these are its aims:

The Ashurst Business Literature Prize aims to:

  • Encourage business and finance writing and commentary of the highest quality; writing that brings with it the richness that can come from detailed research

  • Stimulate those writers with a knowledge of Australia’s business life and to encourage their continued production of insightful, well researched books that can be easily digested by the general reader

  • Enable all Australians and the general reader to be better informed about Australia’s commercial life and its participants

  • Add another dimension to Australia’s intellectual and cultural life.

Books that are eligible for the prize include corporate and commercial literature, histories, accounts and analyses of corporate affairs as well as biographies of business people.  That description sounds a bit dry, but a look at the shortlist gives a different impression, and shows you why a prize that promotes such books is a good idea.  Click the links on the titles to see the publisher’s descriptions:

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers! (I shall be barracking for Elizabeth Macarthur, of course, and not because it’s the only one I’ve read.  It’s because I loved it.)

The winner will be announced on 15 May 2019.

PS (A-hem) And something else, that had escaped my notice when the second edition of Elizabeth Macarthur came out.  Have a close look at the cover…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2019

All This by Chance, by Vincent O’Sullivan

All This by Chance was the last for me to read of the four titles shortlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.  Like the other titles (see links to my reviews gathered in one place here) it explores what it means to tell the truth:

“They stood out for their ability to explore personal memory and collective mediation of the truth in new and provocative ways that have a lasting impact on the reader,” says the Fiction category convenor of judges Sally Blundell. (Auckland Literary Festival website, viewed 10/4/19)

O’Sullivan, who among other distinctions was Poet Laureate in NZ from 2013-2015, is of Irish heritage, but the characters in All This by Chance have a heritage that they themselves are unsure about.  The story is told in parts, from the unshared perspective and chronology of different generations, but all in third person narrative which effectively distances the characters from each other.

The story begins in postwar Britain, where a shy young pharmacist called Stephen escapes from Auckland, a place he sometimes hated, to a place he knew nothing of.  There in 1947, in London, under the benign paternalism of David Golson, he begins both his career and a puzzled engagement with a post-Holocaust world.  He meets and marries Eva, a woman without a past because she knows nothing at all about her family.  As a baby she had been adopted out from Berlin, and then sent to safety with a Quaker family in England when anti-Semitism was on the rise.  So it is a shock when the past that Eva has been shielded from emerges into their lives: an elderly aunt of whom she knew nothing has survived the Holocaust and been brought to London to be with the sole remnant of her family.

Ruth goes with them when the couple set sail for Auckland.  She is, they were warned, badly damaged by her experience, but the gulf between them is not just because of the impenetrable barrier of unshared languages.  A specialist tells them one day that they should be grateful that she remembers so little of the dreadful years in the camp.  Yet Ruth seemed to know Miss McGovern when they recognised each other on the ship, and Miss McGovern becomes a regular if not really welcome visitor in Auckland.  The genesis of their curious friendship remains unexplained for a long time, until in 1976 a Holocaust researcher panics Miss McGovern into telling Stephen their shared story.  She and her sister Irma were imprisoned because they would not renounce their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Ruth had suffered brutal and enduring punishment because she tried to help Irma in a moment of crisis.  Miss McGovern now is terrified that the researcher will trigger cruel memories which have mercifully been lost.

On the other side of the world in 1968, Stephen’s daughter Lisa lives an idyllic lifestyle in Greece.  While her brother David struggles to resurrect a Jewish identity that his parents never had, she has left all that behind.  She has a genial lover, Fergus, and she is biding her time before starting her career as a doctor.  But real life intervenes and Lisa abandons him, choosing instead to work on an African mission where her life moves towards a trajectory no one could have foreseen.  In 2001 her niece Esther will track down Fergus in the hope that he can shed light on what happened.  Now a bitter and lonely old man, he is only too pleased to have someone forced to listen to him.  And Esther, like the other characters, has to wrestle with the ghosts of the past and whether it is better to seek out the truth or to let things be.

All This by Chance is a perceptive novel, exploring the lives of people who are never sure that they belong.  Although melancholy in tone, it is not a pessimistic novel, but rather one that invites a possibility that belonging, in a world where migration is becoming the norm, might not matter quite as much as we think it does.  Tucked into an episode between Fergus and a woman called Angela, there is this:

He amuses Angela with the stories he tells her. It is weeks since he has taken her out like this.  And when she asks him, is he happy though, is he content the way things are between them, he asks, Who can ever answer that, on a particular day, in a world like ours?

‘It isn’t so difficult,’ Angela said.  But writers like Fergus, she supposes, people who think more deeply about things, you cannot expect them to see things the way others of us do.  She stretches out her hand to put it across his.

‘Take it a day at a time,’ he says.  He sees the crinkling at the corner of her eyes.  ‘We can’t do more than that.’ (p.233)

See also the perceptive review at Alys on the Blog.

Author: Vincent O’Sullivan
Title: All This by Chance
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2018, 335 pages
ISBN: 9781776561797
Source: Bayside Library Service, Sandringham Branch

Available from Fishpond (free delivery from NZ to Australia) All This by Chance


The big news in Australian bookish circles today is the announcement of the Stella Prize. It won by Vicki Laveau-Harvie for The Erratics (see more here and here) but I’ve been sitting on embargoed news that there is an Australian author whose work has been noticed on the international stage for books… Now that the announcement is official….

Some years ago the Commonwealth Writers Prize was shelved and replaced by a Short Story Prize.   What follows is from the press release about the 2019 shortlist, which this year includes a story by Australian Emma Ashworth, who wrote The Floating Garden (which I reviewed here) You can find out more about Emma here.

You might like to look at the official website first, because Emma whose surname begins with A, tops the list, and there is a link to a tantalising glimpse of her story.

Twenty-one outstanding short stories have been selected by an international judging panel to be in the running for the world’s most global literature prize. The writers – 15 women and 6 men – come from 16 countries, including, for the first time, Tanzania, Zambia, Malaysia, Cyprus, and Barbados. The youngest is 20, the oldest 80.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from the Commonwealth. It is the only prize in the world where entries can be submitted in Bengali, Chinese, English, Greek, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Tamil, and Turkish. Such linguistic diversity in a short story prize in part represents the richness of the many and varied literary traditions of the Commonwealth.

The shortlist was chosen from 5081 entries from 50 Commonwealth countries, and includes two translations into English, one from Greek and one from Malay.

Chair of the Judges, British novelist, playwright and essayist Caryl Phillips said: “ The vitality and importance of the short story form is abundantly clear in this impressive shortlist of stories from around the world. These authors have dared to imagine into the lives of an amazingly wide range of characters and their stories explore situations that are both regional and universal. Almost as impressive as the number of entrants and the quality of the shortlist, is the amount of work that the panel of judges have invested in this process. They have read carefully, debated with great sensitivity, and been mindful of cultural traditions as they have collectively reached their decision.  Compared to many literary prizes, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is still young. However, with each passing year the prize gains importance within the literary world. It offers a unique opportunity to read and think across borders, and to connect imaginations from around the globe. It has been a great honour to be a part of the judging of the 2019 prize.”

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is run by Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation. Commonwealth Writers develops and connects writers across the world and helps address the challenges they face in different regions.   The prize is judged by an international panel of writers, representing each of the five regions of
the Commonwealth. The 2019 judges are the Ugandan novelist and short story writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, overall winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Africa); the Pakistani writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif, whose novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (Asia); the award-winning author of speculative fiction, Karen Lord, from Barbados (Caribbean); the British short story writer Chris Power, author of the Rathbones Folio Prize-longlisted collection Mothers (Europe and Canada); and the poet, playwright, fiction writer and musician Courtney Sina Meredith, a New Zealander of Samoan, Mangaian and Irish descent (Pacific).

The 2019 shortlists in full:
‘The Bride’, Adorah Nworah (Nigeria)
‘Extinction’, Alex Latimer (South Africa)
‘The Blessing of Kali’, Irene Muchemi-Ndiritu (Kenya)
‘How to Marry an African President ’, Erica Sugo Anyadike (Tanzania)
‘Madam’s Sister’, Mbozi Haimbe (Zambia)
‘Miss Coelho, English Teacher’, Kiran Doshi (India)
‘Pengap’, Lokman Hakim (Malaysia), translated by Adriana Nordin Manan (Malaysia)
‘My Mother Pattu, Saras Manickam (Malaysia)
‘Resurrection’, Hilary Dean (Canada)
‘Death Customs’, Constantia Soteriou (Cyprus), translated by Lina Protopapa (Cyprus)
‘Deserted’, Erato Ioannou (Cyprus)
‘Amid the Winds and Snow’, Tyler Keevil (Canada)
‘The Night of Hungry Ghosts’, Sarah Evans (UK)
‘Love-life’, Nuzha Nuseibeh (UK)
‘Granma’s Porch’, Alexia Tolas (Bahamas)
‘A Hurricane & the Price of Fish’, Shakirah Bourne (Barbados)
‘The Ol’ Higue on Market Street ’, Kevin Garbaran (Guyana)
‘Oats’, Rashad Hosein (Trinidad and Tobago)
‘Bluey’, Maria Samuela (New Zealand)
‘Screaming’, Harley Hern (New Zealand)
‘Nightfall’, Emma Ashmere (Australia)

For author biographies and short story summaries, please visit  http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/2019-cssp-shortlist

All shortlisted stories will be published on the innovative online magazine of Commonwealth Writers, adda, which serves as a gathering place for stories and a space where writers and readers can talk across divides. The judges will then go on to choose a winner for each of the five regions.

These will be announced Thursday, 9th May 2019 before being published online by the literary magazine Granta. The overall winner will be announced in Québec City on 9th July 2019.
Last year, Kevin Jared Hosein, from Trinidad and Tobago, won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for his story ‘Passage’, which convinced the jury, chaired by the novelist and poet Sarah Hall, as “a truly crafted piece of fiction” that was “immediately and uniformly admired”. In 2017, Ingrid Persaud, also from Trinidad and Tobago, won for ‘The Sweet Sop’. The story was written specifically for the prize – and went on to win the 13th BBC National Short Story Award last year.

Keep up to date with the prize and join the conversation via: http://www.commonwealthwriters.org | twitter.com/cwwriters

About the Commonwealth Short Story Prize |

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is run by Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation. Now in its eighth year, it is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction (2000-5000 words). Regional winners receive £2,500 GBP and the overall winner receives £5,000 GBP. Short stories translated into English from other languages are also eligible.

About Commonwealth Writers

Commonwealth Writers develops and connects writers across the world. It believes that well-told stories can help people make sense of events, engage with others, and take action to bring about change. Responsive and proactive, it is committed to tackling the challenges faced by writers in different regions and working with local and international partners to identify and deliver a wide range of cultural projects. adda, the innovative online platform of Commonwealth Writers, is a gathering place for stories and a space where writers and readers can talk across the divides. http://www.commonwealthwriters.org

With thanks to Kramb and Charlotte Tuxworth at FMcM Associates

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 9, 2019

Kiwi author on the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist

I don’t usually pay much attention to the UK Rathbones Folio Prize: it was launched in 2014 as a (let’s be honest) more highbrow alternative to the Booker, but although it was in its initial phase definitely a prize for literary fiction I’ve never been very excited about it.  Since 2017 the prize has branched out to include any form of writing, fiction, non-fiction or poetry, which is how it comes about that a collection of essays by New Zealand author Ashleigh Young has been shortlisted for the 2019 prize.

Thanks to a tweet from Readings, here is the shortlist (links on titles are to Readings Bookshop):

The prize is worth £30,000.  Nominations are made by an ‘academy’ of great writers which includes Margaret Atwood, A S Byatt, Zadie Smith and Australians Peter Carey and J M Coetzee.  The winner will be announced on May 20th.

According to Wikipedia, the other 2019 nominations were:

  • Ann Wroe, Francis: A Life in Songs
  • Bob Gilbert, Ghost Trees
  • Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, House of Stone, see my review
  • Sue Prideaux, I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Freidrich Nietzsche
  • Georgina Harding, Land of the Living, on my TBR
  • Nancy Campbell, The Library of Ice
  • Edward Carey, Little
  • Chris Power, Mothers
  • Will Eaves, Murmur
  • Sally Rooney, Normal People
  • Mohammed Hanif, Red Birds
  • Zaffar Kunial, Us

These two books on the subject of handwriting were side-by-side at the library, and I read them one after the other, so I think they belong together in a review…

I read The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting first, expecting to be unconvinced, but Trubek makes a plausible argument that the handwriting many of us value so much, is doomed.  She begins the book with the example of a child learning handwriting in a classroom today.  The child initially says that she likes handwriting best because she doesn’t have to search for the letters on the keyboard, but she changes her mind later and says that handwriting makes her hand hurt.  This anecdote shows just how fast things have moved in just a few short years since the book was published in 2016:  if what I see around me is any guide, then children start school already adept with screens of one sort or another and won’t be troubled by needing to search for letters at all.  What’s more, ‘intelligent personal assistants’ that go by names like Lisa, Alexa, Genie and Siri are activated by oral commands.  There’s even a voice-command thingy on the steering-wheel of my car.  No need even to type…

Trubek’s book takes the reader through the development of writing, from the earliest cuneiform tablets and hieroglyphs, to the Roman capitalis alphabet, and a myriad of scripts through the Middle Ages and beyond.  (There are six pages of colour images, but it would have been a good idea, IMO, to include more images of these scripts, because I’d never heard of most of them.  LOL Perhaps she intended that I should use my phone to Google them?)

Anyway, all of these scripts, until the advent of mass literary, were practised by only a small minority of people.  Even among those who could read, writers were a minority subset, and most of the writing that was done was mere copying, not creating and recording new ideas.  In 19th and 20th century America, a neat and accurate hand was a sign of good character and an industrious attitude.  These attributes were very important for the type of (very boring) clerical work that was needed. But, Trubek argues, they are not necessary now.  People today have screens as an alternative.  What writing is done, uses the thumbs not a pen.  Scanners record sales and stock movements, not clerks placing numbers in columns and adding them up afterwards.  We can order digital devices to do things for us with just verbal instructions, and there are authors who dictate their entire book to a computer faithfully recording every word that is said, just the way that authors of the past dictated to a secretary.

If you are reading the above with a sense of rebellion or dismay, then it is possibly because you still ascribe certain values to the acquisition of handwriting. Just the other day I was told that I had beautiful handwriting, and I admit to feeling pleasure at this compliment.  But why is it a compliment?  Why is having good handwriting considered a virtue or a sign of intelligence?  Trubek also covers the fad for character analysis using handwriting, and the difficulties of assessing the individuality of any particular hand (as for example when judging the authenticity of a signature on a Will).  Her style is light, and not overly academic but the book has an index and footnotes.

Philip Hensher takes the opposite tack, and he makes objections to the death of handwriting that had sprung to mind as I was reading the Trubek book.  I like this one:

Here’s a thing.  You’re driving down an Indiana track when out of nowhere comes a tractor into the side of your Subaru.  Neither of you have ever been able to write anything but your own names.  The farmhand don’t be holding with them thar smart phones nor with that new-fangled Internet.  (Or he does, but the battery on your smartphone has died a death – take your pick of disastrous scenarios).  So there the two of you stand, helpless, in an Indiana field, trying to work out which way up to hold a pen and cursing the idiotic name of Dr Scott Hamilton who landed you in this mess.  (p.23)

Dr Scott Hamilton is a psychologist who said it made sense to only teach children how to sign their names in joined-up writing.  

It seems to me that there are many scenarios like this, and you don’t need to be in the backblocks of Indiana to encounter them.  (For lousy Internet reception, you only need to be on the Gold Coast, the Hunter Valley, or anywhere that they are installing the NBN for days at a time.)  I write reminders to myself all the time, on scraps of paper that I leave in conspicuous places so that I remember to collect/return library books, buy strawberries, take the dog to the vet and hang out the washing that I pre-programmed to operate overnight on the low electricity tariff.  What use is it to me to have a reminder on my laptop/desktop/phone if I am not in the same place as they are? (Which, I am mostly not, because I am mostly somewhere else, reading a book.)  What about the thoughts I scrawl on whatever paper is to hand when I’m reading in a coffee shop, on a train, or in a doctor’s waiting room?  Or when I have a speech to make, and just before delivering it I realise I’ve forgotten to mention some VIP and I hastily scribble a note in the margins of my neatly typed speech?  And how do teachers and university professors deliver their feedback to students if they can’t write on the assignment?  Would an Apple watch obviate this problem?  Can you tell it what to do, or can it tell you what to do unobtrusively, or must you shout at it the way people shout their private business into phones all over railway carriages?  (Imagine being at a funeral and your watch starts shouting about remembering to buy toilet paper and petrol on the way home!  But no, of course, you’d turn it off, and (unless you wrote a note to remind yourself to turn it back on afterwards) then you’d forget to buy the toilet rolls and to fill up the car…  Would swearing at the voice-command thingy on the steering-wheel help when you’ve run out of petrol on the highway in peak hour?)

Hensher makes the point that sometimes, in some situations, only handwriting will do.  He gives the example of condolence letters sent by the UK prime minister to the parents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.  Someone perceived, quite rightly, that a computer-generated letter with a digital prime ministerial signature would be recognised as the work of an underling, and dismissed as worthless.  So Gordon Brown handwrote a rather kind and thoughtful letter to one of the bereaved.  Who promptly took it to the newspaper because it didn’t meet her standards of spelling and penmanship.  It turns out that this was a bit mean because Gordon Brown was at that time having difficulty with his sight, but Hensher uses this example to make a wider point:

… the Brown episode shows that, sometimes, we expect people to write well.  In certain circumstances, we deplore had writing: the bad, ugly, illiterate, ill-formed writing of someone who has never practised writing, never considered that it might be a duty to write in ways which people can read and take some pleasure from.  If we expect good writing on elevated occasions, is it not reasonable to expect people to write reasonably well all the time?  It is not reasonable to think that people can write terribly, illegibly badly almost all the time and then elevate their handwriting for special purposes.  Sometimes, it clearly matters a good deal. (p.26)

(I hope I’m not the only person left in the world who sends hand-written condolence cards.)

The style of the Hensher book is a bit scatty. Some chapters consist of numbered points on a common theme rather than a considered argument.  For example, in ‘What’s My Handwriting Like?’ this is the last one:

10.  2008.  A creative-writing student tells me that she is unable to carry a notebook around with her to make notes in with a pen (for the overheard dialogue on buses, characteristic small pieces of behaviour among strangers) because she can’t write with a pen on paper.  Can’t? ‘It really hurts.’ And, by the way, the student finds my handwriting really difficult to read, so could I give all feedback in typing?  Yes, that too. (p. 37)

Hensher also has ‘witnesses’ who he’s interviewed about how they learned and use handwriting, and then there are chapters about, for example, copperplate (which is more or less what I write in, mangled somewhat by having to teach the truly awful Victorian Cursive). This chapter covers some of the same ground as the Trubek book, assigning American scripts to the ‘moral improvement’ brigade but also acknowledging that its flowing hand can be written swiftly.

BTW My Grade Six teacher Mrs Sheedy would have rapped us very smartly over the knuckles if we had lifted our pens the way this writer in this video does! If she had heard of Edward Johnston who created the sans serif font for the Underground during WWI, she clearly dismissed his ideas about unnecessary joins as heretical.

There’s also a chapter on Vere Foster (UK) and A N Palmer (US) whose less florid and more quickly executed styles you can also find with a Google search; and one on Dickens: one of the great unreadable nineteenth-century handwritings. Dickens, says Hensher, shows in his novels that he subscribed to the view that a characteristic handwriting displays a social condition and the pencil is often a harbinger of horror like the horrible letter scrawled to Old Riah in Our Mutual Friend.  There is a chapter about French handwriting which contrasts their dedication to the development of handwriting, to the 1980s and 1990s in the UK as English handwriting lessons slid further and further down the agenda. This chapter also references the German transition from the Sütterlin script called Fraktur (which Hitler liked for its Germanic purity); to the post-Hitler era when they began the Model Latin Script in the West and the Model School Script in the GDR; and finally the 1993 Simplified Model Script after reunification.  However *gasp!* it remains controversial:

The German national union of primary school teachers started a campaign in 2011 to abolish the teaching of the national cursive model nationwide. The forces of conservatism and the sixty-eight-ish forces of child-centred freedom square up against each other; the forces of nationhood and duty, impressed upon an increasingly multicultural nation, seem to many an absurd thing to hope to embody in loops and curves, or in a decision about whether your letters should join according to the Model Latin Script or not. (p.106)

But the point is well made that handwriting has always been subject to change – and that reminds me that just last week my French teacher told us sacre bleu! that in France they have abandoned the circumflex! (â ê î ô û).

There’s a chapter about the invention of Italic and the William Morris movement (which Hensher dismisses as a total absurdity and a rich man’s occupation for the original champagne socialists.  But the Morris version of Italic (though not very attractive in H’s opinion, scroll down this link to see it for yourself) gathered disciples and serious fanatics to promote it…

The chapter called ‘Ink’ reminds us that writing can be done by any number of substances:

There is also the story which comes up from time to time about a very helpful and kindly German prisoner of war in Ipswich who announced that he was a gardener in private life.  Would the town council like him to plant some bulbs?  Oh yes, please, that would be very nice, as all the town gardeners had been called up.  The POW worked very hard, to the delight of all the town.  You see, they’re not all bad, those Germans, and when the war’s over we’ll all be friends again.  They missed him a little bit when he was transferred to another camp in a month or two.  Then spring came and a vast array of crocuses came up, when it became apparent that the German gardener had planted them in the shape of a giant swastika. (p.136)

The chapter about pens shares the delightful snippet that when you are elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, you get to choose whether you sign the Book with either Byron’s pen or Dickens’ quill.  (Yes, I would have chosen the Dickens’ implement, as Hensher did.)  What will become of this illustrious Book if writers abandon the pen entirely?  I also enjoyed the chapter about the invention of the biro a.k.a. ballpoint pen, which is a reminder of what a miracle these things are compared to ink which Hensher has timed at taking 9 seconds to dry! (So I don’t really understand his compulsion to buy a new fountain pen and the trouble he had getting what he wanted at Harrods.  Except of course, that even now, as you can tell from the ads in the glossy weekend magazines, having a posh fountain pen to flourish is like having a posh watch even if you’d rather really have an Apple iWatch which probably costs more.  It’s all about prestige.)

There’s also a fascinating chapter about Proust which will appeal to aficionados of In Search of Lost Time.  I wish I’d had this to hand when I was reading Brian Nelson’s new translation of Swann in Love.  I think I might photocopy these few pages and tuck them into my copy for future reference.)

Hensher thinks that Marion Richardson is the hero of handwriting because she promoted child-centred art and writing, and made learning to write fun.  (See a sample here.)  She abandoned the pseudo-militaristic approach which culminated in Palmer and began instead with what the child can do, and what he will enjoy doing.  I wonder if this approach still holds true with kids hooked on screens from the time they are able to hold one in their chubby little hands?

The chapter called ‘Reading Your Mind’ is hilarious, not at all like Trubek’s serious analysis of the dubious ‘science’ of graphology.  For example, from Hensher’s self-confessed list of things he believes about handwriting comes #3 People who don’t close up their lower-case g’s are very bad at keeping secrets and #12: A handwriting where the crossbar of the t doesn’t touch the upright is that of an impatient person.  Hire them.  They get stuff done.  (This belief he attributes to Mrs Thatcher’s signature!)

The last chapter is lovely: it’s a plea to resurrect handwriting, and it has 10 suggestions for reintroducing it into your life, my favourite of which is #8 Write to other people.  How I miss writing to my parents, and receiving their letters in reply!


Now… the problem with reviewing two books in one post is that it makes the post rather long.  But if you’re still with me, I’m curious.  When was the last time you wrote something by hand? And what do you think:  Is handwriting dead?  Does it matter?

For the record: Yesterday I hand-wrote some thoughts about the book I was reading, I hand-wrote a brief shopping list, and I hand-annotated my hand-written recipe for spanakopita to record how many the recipe makes.  And today I hand-wrote a postcard to the neighbour to whom I lent my copy of Jane Rawson’s The Handbook asking for it back. (Do you agree with me that an SMS or a typed note would seem to be a more aggressive reminder that he’s had it for months?) Oh yes, and I also hand-wrote the publishing details of Chapter 23 of the Hensher book onto the photocopy I made which is going to be tucked into Book One of In Search of Lost Time.  

Author: Anne Trubek
Title: The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA, 2016, 177 pages
ISBN: 9781620402153 (hbk.)
Source: Bayside: Library

Author: Philip Hensher
Title: The Lost Art of Handwriting (And Why It Still Matters)
Publisher: Macmillan (Pan Macmillan UK), 2012
ISBN: 9780230767126 (hbk.)
Source: Bayside Library

Here we go again with another #6Degrees…

This month’s starter book is How to Be Both by Ali Smith, an award winning book that some readers liken to Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending Orlando. Though it’s been on my wishlist ever since it won the UK Women’s Prize for Fiction (a.k.a. Orange Prize, a.k.a. Baileys Prize a.k.a. the Prize for Changing its Name All the Time), I haven’t read it yet. No, ‘fess up, Lisa, I tried and failed to read it. Ali Smith is a bit of a hit-and-miss author for me.

I read her Hotel World ages ago and wasn’t very excited about it, but I liked her post-Brexit novella Autumn (see my review) enough to buy the second in the series, Winter.  I haven’t read it yet because I go through phases with Brexitannia.  Sometimes I slavishly read everything the Guardian has to say about it, and other times I bury my head in the sand and pretend that I don’t have a British bone in my body.  (Well, actually, if it comes to bloodlines, I have more Welsh, Irish  and French than proper Anglo-Saxon, but I am still very cross that my British passport will be useless for flitting around Europe, once the deed is done.)

Another post-Brexit novel I’ve read is Middle England by Philip Henshaw.  It’s much less melancholy than Autumn and it is more interested in portraying the kind of attitudes that’s brought Britain to this current mess.  It uses an extended family to explore different political and social views and how that causes conflict, even an almost-divorce when the spouses’ opinions don’t align.

Britain hasn’t come to civil war over Brexit, but Syria is being torn apart by political conflict.  Death is Hard Work by Khalid Khalifa (transl. by Leri Price, see my review) uses three siblings tasked with burying their father in his home town to symbolise the way civil wars wreak havoc on societal structures like the family.  What is most impressive about this book is that it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war but still manages to lighten the mood with wry humour.  I admire authors who can do that.

A book which uses laugh-out-loud humour to explore serious issues is Gerald Murnane’s A Season on Earth. I’m about half way through it now, and (I know you’ll have trouble believing this because Murnane is not known as a comic novelist) I haven’t laughed so much since I saw the last episode of the BBC’s W1A. (This TV series has been lurking within ABC iView, probably hidden there because they don’t want us to notice the likenesses with their own shenanigans.  I do hope Ita Buttrose has seen it.  Do yourself a favour and watch the series, and then you too can raise a wry eyebrow at the Director of Better or the Head of Values.) Anyway, I will do my best to review A Season on Earth in due course, but in the meantime, trust me, it is hilarious and you should get your hands on it if you can.

Another book which mines overly fervent religious practice for its themes is The Atheist by Achdiat Mihardja, (transl. by R J Maguire).  Mihardja was an Indonesian author, writing at the time that Indonesia’s Constitution was under consideration because their hard-fought independence was on the horizon.  Indonesia would be a very different place and not the world’s largest Islamic democracy, had they not chosen the Separation of Powers as a key element in their governance.  This week we have seen Brunei adopt appalling Sharia Laws to oppress their LGBTIQ citizens, (and travellers need to know that these harsh laws apply even on Brunei’s airline).  While not anti-religion, Mihardja’s book exposes Sharia Law as inimical to an inclusive society, and it also shows how strict adherence to religion can cause conflict within families.

I read The Atheist with my Indonesian book group, but the book I’m reading for our June meeting is completely different.  We don’t just read Indonesian authors, we also read about Indonesia, and The Spice Islands Voyage, in Search of Wallace by Tim Severin is a travel book retracing the voyage of Alfred Russel Wallace whose publication of his 19th century travels in Indonesia famously prompted Darwin to get on with it and publish his Origin of the Species.  I’ll review it when I’ve finished it…

So that’s my #6Degrees: from a gender-bending choose-your-own plot kind of novel, to a voyage in the Indonesian archipelago!

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2019

Isinglass, by Martin Edmond

I have to confess to being baffled at first by this book… I did not understand how the book was coming together until I was almost halfway through it.   But I am here to tell you that it is worth persisting…

The reader is on familiar ground in the very brief first part, ‘Dark Point’: it recounts the arrival of the unknown man referred to in the blurb:

He did this amazing wall painting, this mural…It was a city, a Paul Klee or a Max Ernst city, a city of the mind perhaps, or of antiquity. A dream city. It was a wonderful thing. It took a few days and nights to do, beautiful days and nights. All the other men who lived in the donga watched it come clear. They loved it. And then other men in the camp heard about it too and came to look.

An unknown man comes ashore at a remote beach on the New South Wales coast. He is taken into detention and sent, ultimately, to Darwin. His captors call him Thursday after the day upon which he was found. Thursday doesn’t speak, but instead paints an enigmatic mural on the wall of his donga in the detention centre. It is a city, a dream city, and when he finishes he says a single word: Isinglass.

This latest offering from author Martin Edmond is a beautifully written portrayal of the shameful practices of the Australian gulag archipelago, and a compelling story of a man adrift in an unkind world.

The second part titled ‘Thursday’ is more enigmatic.  The narrator, in first person, is a journalist.  He tells the story of his meeting with C, a former lover, not seen for many years.  She brings Thursday to this man’s attention, and she subsequently wangles a visit to the detention centre where she facilitates the painting of the mural by the silent man.  C cares about Thursday, whereas for the narrator, the situation is more abstract, and in the course of this chapter, there are what appear to be digressions into theories which are difficult to grasp, and even more difficult to contextualise in terms of the novel’s intent.  Or so it seems, until it all falls into place as the novel progresses.

Part III is the story of Isinglass, narrated by Thursday and by good luck I have stumbled on part of this chapter at Martin Edmond’s blog.  Even if you never read the novel, I recommend you read this excerpt because it captures so perfectly the dilemma that all refugees face when they must choose whether to leave or stay.  This chapter traces the journey of Thursday’s people and the cities they subsequently build, all of which fail because it is human nature to create conflict out of religious beliefs, or the pursuit of power and possessions, or good old Mother Nature creating the chaos that enables cruelty and divisiveness to fester.

Thursday tells his story because he is a Rememberer, and it is in his description of hearing voices from the past that the ‘digressions’ from Part 2 begin to make sense.  At C’s urging, the narrator in Part 2 had bought a copy of a work called Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, by Julian Jaynes.  At the time of reading I did not know that Julian Jaynes was a real person, and that his book (which you can still buy) was influential in the development of the idea of a divided self and a ‘bicameral mind’.  The theory is explained in Isinglass and confirmed as authentic by Wikipedia:

Bicameralism (the condition of being divided into “two-chambers”) is a radical hypothesis in psychology that argues that the human mind once operated in a state in which cognitive functions were divided between one part of the brain which appears to be “speaking”, and a second part which listens and obeys — a bicameral mind. The term was coined by Julian Jaynes, who presented the idea in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, wherein he made the case that a bicameral mentality was the normal and ubiquitous state of the human mind as recently as 3,000 years ago, near the end of the Mediterranean bronze age. (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove links and footnotes, viewed 5/4/19)

Thursday’s experience is an exemplar of this theory.

We had left our old ones behind on the further shore but their voices came with us, how we did not know; but when we recovered and found food and water and places to sleep, we also found that in the night, as we gathered around the fires, the voices of the old ones came upon the wind perhaps, or from the crackling of wood as it burned, or from the cries of the birds; and they told us what we should do and how we should behave.  And if it was so that in the night we could all hear the voices of the old ones, there were those among us who heard them more clearly and more often; and among these there were some who could hear voices in daylight as well, or even see the old ones moving among us, in the pattern of light and shadow on leaves, for instance, or in the way the grasses moved on a slope above the sea.  And it was from these Hearers that the first Rememberers came; and it was from the things they heard the old ones say that the first stories were made and entered into the House of Stories, where I grew up and where I lived until the disaster came upon us.

We say in the House of Stories that, before the one in which I grew up was built, there were four cities called Isinglass; and these four are remembered in their names as the City of Waters, the City of Dust, the City of Fire and the City of the Sky; the fifth, my city, was said to have been the Last City, which would endure forever unless destroyed and if destroyed, would never come again.  (p.126)

However, the next Part, ‘Darwin’ confirms what we knew from Part 2: Thursday is in one of our infamous detention centres.  And Lee, with whom Thursday finally broke his silence and told his story, has tried to salvage his conscience by illegally sharing the recording with C.  He gets sacked, of course.  Meeting some time afterwards with the journalist, he is evasive, but eventually the reader learns Thursday’s fate.

It’s not possible to read Lee’s testimony without remembering the names and faces of real people on Manus and Nauru, and that we Australians are all complicit in their fate:

You have to understand, the department would never eliminate anyone.  But they will on occasion let people die.  They don’t care.  If you’re not one of us, you’re nobody.  (p.195)

Isinglass is a powerful novel that rewards patience and persistence.  I haven’t found any other online reviews of it yet, but I hope the book gets the attention it deserves.

Check out this interesting interview with Martin Edmond at Stuff NZ too.

PS Martin Edmond is also the author of Batterbee and Namatjira (2014) which was shortlisted for the National Biography Awards in 2016.  See my review here.

Author: Martin Edmond
Title: Isinglass
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2019, 205 pages
ISBN: 9781760800116
Source: Bayside Library

Available direct from the publisher, from Fishpond Isinglass and good bookshops everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s not yet available as an eBook.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 4, 2019

2019 Dublin Literary Award shortlist

Well, it’s disappointing that the shortlist doesn’t include any Aussies or Kiwis (see those that were longlisted here), but FWIW here’s the shortlist (links on the titles are to my reviews):

History of WolvesCompass by Mathias Enard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, see Tony’s review at Messenger’s Booker and More

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty, see the review at Brona’s Books and Nancy’s at Nancy Elin.

Reservoir 13Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, see Kate’s review at Books Are My Favourite and Best

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (reviewed everywhere and anyway, it won the Booker)

A Boy in Winter (Seiffert)A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (reviewed everywhere, and on my TBR!)

I’m off out to the theatre now but will jazz this up when I get home.

Just one translation, that’s unusual for this prize…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2019

Bright Swallow, by Vivian Bi

For people of my generation, the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976) was something that happened during our adolescence and young adulthood.  It was a socio-political phenomenon that was shielded from international scrutiny because China was closed to all but carefully vetted foreign visitors from the time the People’s Republic was declared in 1949, until 1974.  So if our generation knew about the Cultural revolution at all, we knew very little.  (And those few Lefties in the West who waved about Mao’s Little Red Book of ideology as propaganda for their cause, had no idea either.)

My recent reading of Chinese literature has given me some idea of the social and domestic implications of this period in China’s history, but nothing I’ve previously read compares with the insights from this new memoir from Chinese-born Vivian Bi.  Now living in Australia, Bi was a product of the Cultural Revolution which swung into action when she was a small child.  By the time she was fifteen and orphaned by her mother’s death, she had absorbed the ideology – and accepted (albeit resentfully) that her life and opportunities were irrevocably compromised by her father’s denunciation as a ‘Rightist’ (i.e. suspected of harbouring capitalist or traditional sympathies).  He and her five brothers had been despatched to work in remote rural regions for re-education among the peasants and she was brought up by her mother in poverty, because her father’s salary was first halved and then taken away altogether, and her mother was ‘advised to resign’ from the work force.  Her mother augmented their tiny income by providing child care for her grandchildren but teenage Bi was always conscious of her ‘bad origins’ as well as her dowdy clothes which were overt symbols of her poverty.

However, her mother had memories of a different life before the revolution, a time when she could travel, wear elegant clothes and eat well. And although Bi was just a teenager when her mother died, she inherited a taste for adventure along with remarkable adaptability and astonishing resilience.  She stayed on alone in the family home rather than submit to living with Father’s detested first wife, and she learned very quickly all the survival skills she didn’t have: how to cook the meagre rations; how to manage the stove during Beijing’s bitter winter, and most importantly – at the same time as working hard at school and achieving excellent results – she learned to save her money so that she could travel.


One of the lasting effects of Mao’s revolution was the damage it did to the bonds between children and parents, husbands and wives, teachers and students, neighbours, colleagues and siblings.  This led to many estrangements during the Cultural Revolution that endure to this day. (p.102)

Because of the restrictions on travel, Bi could only satisfy her dreams to see the world by visiting her brothers.  She had ambitions to climb mountains near the places where they lived, but her ‘official’ reasons were to visit relations who were following Mao’s instructions to work in the developing regions. In the case of her brother Yang, this meant visiting the fabled Sichuan region, on the other side of the Quinling Mountains, the natural border between north and south China, and its landscapes and culture were exotic.  But it also meant confronting her sister-in-law who had denounced her mother in an attempt to take over the prized residence in Beijing.  To Bi’s astonishment, this sister-in-law arranged a difficult visit to Mount Emei as a birthday gift for her, enabling a rapprochement of sorts.

My sister-in-law had been one of those victims.  After my mother’s death, she had tried to reconcile with our family but died before she was fully forgiven.  I was the only one who kept contact with her, because of her kindness during that visit.  Even so, I could not forget the way she had burst into our world in her belted Red Guard uniform and the class warfare she had waged against our mother.  The scars were too fresh. (p.102)

But there were more scars to come, because when she graduates with distinction from school, Bi falls victim to Mao’s 1975 ‘countryside re-education’ program for city graduates to “accomplish great things in the vast field”.  This curtailment of her travel and study plans is accompanied by a breathtaking betrayal by her father, and so we see one of the saddest lines in the book:

I didn’t hate my father, then or at any other time.  The old values of respect for one’s parents were deeply ingrained in me.  But this incident made me decide to have nothing more to do with him, and heightened my innate distrust of people.  (p.118)

To add to her dismay, this betrayal came when she had thought that at last she could transcend her “bad origins”:

From the day I was born, my family had endured one misfortune after another.  I had lost my mother and seen my family scattered to the far reaches of the country.  I had battled hunger, cold and loneliness, public scrutiny and accusations of criminal activity, accepting them as normal.  To survive, I had learnt to live by certain principles: expect disappointment; believe in resilience and self-fulfilment; and seek no help, company, or approval from others.  This had got me through adversity and I had imagined the worst was past! (p.119)

Though Bright Swallow does not mince matters in describing the cruel consequences of the Cultural Revolution, it is not a misery memoir, far from it.  The press release quotes Robert Macklin as saying ‘This is memoir writing at its finest’ and I couldn’t agree more.  It’s not just a window into the lives of Chinese migrants of this generation, it is also a real pleasure to read.  (I couldn’t put it down).

This beautifully written memoir distinguishes itself from other accounts of this period in being a story of hope.  It celebrates resilience, the power of literature, music and the imagination; and pays tribute to the people who retained the fundamental human decency that can easily disappear in adverse circumstances.

I’ll go out on a limb now, even before the 2019 winner is announced: Bright Swallow is my nomination for the 2020 Stella Prize.

The press release tells me that Bi migrated to Australia in 1990 and became a published writer.  She has received three literature grants and a residency award from the Australia Council for the Arts.  She has a PhD in literary criticism, and is the author of several novels, textbooks, short stories and translations.  She lives in Sydney.

AustLit provides this information about Vivian (Xiyan) Bi (though there is more info available for AustLit subscribers).

Xiyan Bi completed Bachelor of Arts and Masters degrees at Beijing Normal University before studying in Australia for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. She has published essays about life in Australia and in 1996 collaborated with A.D. Syrokomla-Stefanowska for the publication of A Classical Chinese Reader. Her Chinese novel Tiansheng Zuoquie [Born a Concubine] was published in 2003. She has received appointment as an Honorary Associate in the Department of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney. She has also worked as a translator of works into Chinese.

See also the review by Geoffrey Zygier at JWire.

PS The cover design is by Gittus Graphics.

Author: Vivian Bi
Title: Bright Swallow, Making Choices in Mao’s China, a Memoir
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2019, 199 pages
ISBN: 9781925736106 RRP $26.99
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available direct from the publisher (where it is also available as an eBook) and from Fishpond: Bright Swallow


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