It was Day two of the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival today, and I’ve ‘zoomed’ it to listen to all day, while doing other things.  The highlights of the day for me were revisiting Pip Williams talking about her novel The Dictionary of Lost Words with Gillian O’Shaughnessy; hearing Julia Baird talking about her work Phosphorescence with Will Yeoman; and the conversation between Jane Caro, author of Accidental Feminists and Dr Robert Isaacs OAM, talking about his new memoir Two Cultures, One Story.

Jane Caro began by listing the achievements of this extraordinary man, and then he read from the opening pages.  We heard that, as a member of the Stolen generations, he began his adult life at seventeen when he was shown the door of Clontarf Boys Town and told never to come back — a life event that would have seen many young men go dreadfully stray — yet this treatment was followed by years of dedicated work on behalf of his people, and despite brutal treatment by the church, he still retains a strong faith.   He spoke very little about the hardships of his life, and credited Clontarf with giving him an education that has enabled his achievements.  He became one of the most influential bureaucrats in West Australian Aboriginal affairs, with an indefatigable determination to achieve his aims, starting ‘at the top’ whenever he had to!

Isaacs is now retired, but among his achievements include working in Aboriginal housing, establishing the state’s Aboriginal Medical Service, and becoming the first Aboriginal person elected to local government as a councillor for the City of Gosnells, eventually serving as deputy mayor.  He was named West Australian of the Year in 2015 and was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2016.  Isaacs is an Aboriginal Elder from the Whadjuk-Bibilmum Wardandi Noongar language group.

I have ordered the book and will write a proper review when I’ve read it.

Many thanks to the festival for making this excellent session accessible.

One of the interesting aspects of the way readers have responded to the pandemic is that some were so discombobulated that they said they couldn’t read at all; some resorted to ‘comfort reading’; some devoured books about plagues such as Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks and The Plague by Albert Camus; and others like me went out of their way to escape into other times and places where pandemics had no place.  So I am not quite sure what motivated me to buy a recent release from poet, novelist, academic and artist Véronique Tadjo from Côte d’Ivoire…

In the Company of Men is, in the words of blurber Christopher Merrill:

A spellbinding narrative about the roots and ravages of an Ebola outbreak and a reminder that deadly new diseases spreading from humankind’s encroachment on the natural world recognises no borders, political parties or faiths…essential reading.

Anyway, the book arrived from Readings, and it went on top of the T pile that has burst its banks on the shelves, and in a feeble attempt to stave off the threat of the pile toppling onto the floor, I took the first book from the top and started reading without really intending to read it now.

Sometimes, it’s really good to be wrong about things, and I’m glad I didn’t defer reading In the Company of Men.  Yes, there are distressing scenes, but they are not the entire focus of the novel, which is more about the issues that arise when highly transmissible diseases spread out of control.

Still, it’s confronting to read in Chapter II about the innocence of two boys larking about in the forest, who hunt and kill a bat and eat the bushmeat over a log fire, and are at death’s door a month later.  Most confronting of all is the response of the nurse:

He said to the father: “Whatever you do, stay away from your children.  Don’t touch them, don’t dry their tears.  Don’t take them in your arms.  Keep your distance from them. You’re in serious danger.  I’ll call in my team.” He scribbled a brief report in his notebook and hurried away to alert his superiors.  But the mother didn’t budge from her children’s bedside.  She wept as she caressed their faces and gave them sips of water to drink. (p.6)

This novella was first published in 2017 in the wake of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014-16).  Although there had been outbreaks of catastrophically infectious diseases such SARS (2003) in China and MERS (2012) in the Middle East, for most of us the horror of this scene is something that happened somewhere else.  But now we are all familiar with reports of people dying alone, or nursed without human touch by people shrouded in plastic.  We have seen the grief of those unable to hold their loved ones and comfort them as they die.  We have learned that risking infection is not a matter of personal choice; preventative behaviours are mandated by law.

The novel, however, is not just a melancholy narrative about suffering and grief.  It explores the way people respond to events like this.  Part of the novel is narrated by Baobab, the first tree, which keeps the memory of centuries gone by, whether bruised or blessed by the gods.  It witnessed the damage done to nature and the way mankind has altered the equilibrium of the world.  It witnessed the way the rest of the world did it best to stay away while the epidemic wreaked devastation on Africa, a cradle of untold suffering.  It saw courage too, men, women and children determined to fight for their own survival and that of others […] people who did not think twice about offering help. The narratives also include an exhausted doctor, haunted by the death of a child; and a nurse who recognises that it’s women who are the worst affected […] because it usually falls on them to care for the sick and they’re the last to leave home and seek treatment.  She makes the connection between government choices and her ability to practise her profession:

I can’t say exactly how it happened.  How it was that my colleagues and I slowly, gradually, let our standards slip.  We started to compromise.  We began turning a blind eye to negligence.  We had no choice but to let our patients know that there was no more cotton wool, no more alcohol disinfectant, no more syringes, no more suturing thread.  It was up to them to buy those things, to send their family members to the nearest pharmacy in order to get what was needed.  At the same time, we knew perfectly well just by looking at them that they’d never be able to pay for even half of it.  They’d go to the pharmacy, but once they got to the cash register, they’d end up buying just the minimum, or just the cheapest items.

We took to the streets, staging public protests in order to force the government to adopt reforms.  All in vain. (pp.47-8)

Here in Australia at the advent of C_19, we were shocked to learn that we did not have enough ventilators and that we might not even have enough beds.  We no longer had the capacity to manufacture vaccines.  We were unprepared, we did not have what we needed, and there were delays in getting supplies.  After years of economic rationalism, it was the same all over the world.  The death rate in America, the richest country in the world, shocked us too.

In the Company of Men shows us that it’s not just rich, arrogant populist leaders who make decisions that exacerbate the crisis.  The gravedigger’s narrative shows us that India’s problems with cremation were foreseeable. It also shows us that there are men of great courage risking their own lives to try to protect the lives of others.

After the epidemic was officially declared, burials were undertaken by teams from both the government and the Red Cross.  But there was never enough manpower.  Sometimes it took several days before the bodies were picked up, increasing the risk of infection for the family members.  I heard that staff was being recruited and trained.  When the centre opened in this neighbourhood, I didn’t hesitate, I applied and got the job.  My mother didn’t approve.  I reminded her that I was available because the university had closed.  I explained to her that if we young people didn’t answer the call, the epidemic would never end.  I made it clear that it wasn’t because of the money I’d be earning that I had offered my services.  I love my country.  (p.52-3)

The novel shows the fierce desire to die at home; the panic; and the refusal to believe or cooperate with government messaging.  It shows the fear of contact with victims — and ostracization even after they have recovered. It explores the ethics of prioritising frontline workers for treatment; the problem of science versus traditional medicine and the need to use any strategy to persuade the reluctant to comply. And all the reactions we’ve seen in the media are foreshadowed: denial of the danger; downplaying the risks; delays in action; and faulty assumptions about the virus.  Closed borders and health checks and a slow and clunky bureaucratic response.  Lockdowns and outrage about the loss of personal freedoms.  Politicians obfuscating, taking credit for things they haven’t done, and making political mileage out of the situation.  The fractured families and the orphans.  The pleas for euthanasia.

And then there’s the reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to invest in vaccine development unless there’s an actual market, in other words money to be made through the research and development of all these scientific methods.  

We continuously have various epidemics breaking out in one part of the world or another.  Which areas of research are the most promising?  For financial reasons, certain vaccines that have been developed have never made it to the crucial trial phase.  We have the ability to prevent Ebola from resurfacing, but does humanity truly have the will to make this happen? (p.109)

There are various initiatives to encourage university students and parliamentarians to read significant books.  I wonder what the impact would have been if In the Company of Men were mandated for reading by decision-makers.  Less complacency perhaps?

Author: Véronique Tadjo
Title: In the Company of Men (En compagnie des hommes)
Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen
Cover design by John Gall
Publisher: Other Press, 2021, first published 2017
ISBN: 9781635420951, pbk., 146 pages

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2021

2021 ALS Gold Medal Longlist

I’m delighted to see books I loved on this longlist!

The ones I’ve reviewed are Revenge; The Labyrinth; and The Fifth Season. The Rain Heron and Song of the Crocodile are on my TBR.

It’s been interesting to see how quickly some LitFests have abandoned the digital option.  Forgetting altogether that digital options make festival attendance possible for people living with disability, festival organisers have rejoiced in the joy of f2f attendance and jettisoned accessibility for others who can’t attend in person.  While this is disappointing for booklovers like me who enjoyed 2020 festivals in Edinburgh, Auckland and Adelaide, it’s more than disappointing for disabled people.  I did not realise how much this mattered until I read Growing Up Disabled in Australia, edited by Carly Findlay.  I would like to see funding bodies make it a condition of the grants they make to festivals, that virtual attendance be routinely offered…

The Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, however, offered a 3-day Virtual Pass to all their events on their main stage.  This option meant that there were a couple of events that I couldn’t attend, but the compensation was a wealth of interesting sessions that I might not have selected if I had had the choice.  It would not have occurred to me to buy a ticket for book club discussions of a book, but it was excellent.

The book under discussion was Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Living on Stolen Land.  This is a call to and a guide to action for anyone interested in decolonising Australia.  This is the blurb:

Living on Stolen Land is a prose-styled look at our colonial-settler ‘present’. This book is the first of its kind to address and educate a broad audience about the colonial contextual history of Australia, in a highly original way. It pulls apart the myths at the heart of our nationhood, and challenges Australia to come to terms with its own past and its place within and on ‘Indigenous Countries’.

This title speaks to many First Nations’ truths; stolen lands, sovereignties, time, decolonisation, First Nations perspectives, systemic bias and other constructs that inform our present discussions and ever-expanding understanding. This title is a timely, thought-provoking and accessible read.

There is no part of this place
that was not
is not
cared for
loved
by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander nation
There are no trees
rivers
hills
stars
that were not
are not
someone’s kin

The panel was ably hosted by Megan McCracken and consisted of five members of book clubs (including one who called herself a ‘lapsed’ book club member).  They were invited to share their responses to a book which directly addresses non-Indigenous people and is deliberately confronting.

They began by considering Kwaymullina’s artwork on the front cover, which is critical to the first words of the book:

This story begins
with the tree on the cover
which shows futures

The roots go deep
down into the ground
because just futures
must be grounded in respectful relationships
with Indigenous peoples

The panel suggested that it’s not just that visual culture is important for Indigenous people, it’s a political statement, and it’s beautiful.  (So that encourages people to pick up the book and look at it.) It shows the connection between heaven and earth and there’s also a human form behind the tree.  But the title with the word ‘stolen’ on the cover is direct and confronting, and it is indicative of the book which is deliberately declarative.  One panellist said (in contrast to a reviewer who was quoted by Megan, who described the book as “gentle”) it felt like ‘a slap’ — not a violent one, but a wake-up call that sets the tone from the outset.  There is no ‘wriggle-room’, if you are not Indigenous, then you are told who you are, you are a ‘Settler’.

Those who are not Indigenous to this land
are Settlers
This does not mean
being part of peaceful settlement
It means
being part of settler-colonialism
a form of colonisation
where invaders came
and never left
Not like the places
where the colonising nation-states of Western Europe
established outposts
upended ancient governance structures
oppressed the peoples
stripped the land of wealth
but ultimately
went away (pp.3-4)

Settler-colonists never went away.

The panellists were unanimous that the manifesto is all true and uncomfortable to read and you can’t escape from your own racism. This is achieved partly by the verb tense: it directly addresses the individual reader, not a collective, and it repositions the power, taking it from the Settler and giving it to the Indigenous speaker (who is also a woman).  The structure of the lines that travel down the page to one word, shapes attention to the politics of it.   One panellist  felt that some people would reject it, and refuse to read it.

Asked if they thought the book achieved its aims, panellists agreed that it would, because it’s short, and the message is not lost in a longer narrative.  Every word has weight.  It’s also very suitable for younger readers who might be used to shorter texts and wouldn’t wade through something longer.

The poem titled ‘Behaviours’ describes common Settler behaviours:

  • the ones who talk the talk but don’t actually do anything;
  • the saviours who like to ‘rescue’ but are not interested in decolonisation
  • the discoverers, for whom Indigenous worlds only exist once they are recognised and/or appropriated by Settlers; and
  • the changemakers, who are unobtrusive supporters who step off stages and out of spotlights to offer support to Indigenous people to enter the places from which they’ve been excluded.  They don’t claim credit for Indigenous success because it doesn’t belong to them.

Change-makers understand
that colonisers occupy space
and decolonisers yield it (p.47)

Megan asked the difficult question here, and as you’d expect, all the panellists wanted to be changemakers, but there was a lively discussion about how to do it.  The last poem is titled ‘Ask how not what’ which offers guidance for respectful processes but as one of the panellists noted, this is about Indigenous ownership of projects and initiatives.  Unlike one of the panellists who worked with Indigenous women in prisons, we’re not all involved in such activities, and may not ever have the opportunity to have responsibility for, or input into them.

We do however, have other opportunities and responsibilities.  ‘Humility’ means taking responsibility for your own learning/doing your best/to be as informed as possible; ‘Listening’ means understanding silences and to call out barriers/of settler-colonialism/that prevent/Indigenous voices from speaking.  ‘Bias’ tells us to…

Seek out the works
of Indigenous authors
playwrights
dancers
singer
Elders
communities
Not one story
not two
all of them
It will take
hundreds of stories
many years of listening
to create change  (p.41)


One way to do that is to join Indigenous Literature Week here at ANZ LitLovers during NAIDOC Week in July.

Many thanks to the festival for making this excellent session accessible, and congratulations to the panel!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2021

Night Blue, by Angela O’Keeffe

If you’re about my age, you’ll remember the brouhaha* over the purchase of the Jackson Pollock painting, ‘Blue Poles‘.  It was purchased by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam for $1.3 million dollars, now only the price of an ordinary suburban house in Melbourne or Sydney, but back then in 1973 it was an enormous sum of money.  The National Gallery of Australia hadn’t even been built, but it had a budget for collections, and Gough himself had to authorise the purchase because the cost was over the $1 million threshold.  And #understatement there was uproar…

Blue Poles (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia tells me that

The painting has become one of the most popular exhibits in the gallery, for both its value as a major work of 1950s abstract expressionism, and its significance in Australian politics and history. Estimates of the painting’s present value vary widely, from $100 million to $350 million, but its increased value has at least shown it to have been a worthwhile purchase from a financial point of view.


This painting, a potent symbol of our cultural history, now has another claim to fame: it’s the narrator of a strange, mesmerising novella by Sydney author Angela O’Keeffe.

The book is an amazing feat of imagination.  Consider: how can an author tell the story of a painting, narrated by that painting?  (Assuming you can conceptualise the idea of a painting having the capacity to narrate its own story anyway).  What does it know, in order to relate its story? The first conception of itself in the artist’s mind?  The gradual emergence of the work from the materials used? Its exhibition, its storage, its transportation, the places where it hangs before it reaches its final destination?  Scraps of information about its owners, the people who view it, the guards and the guides who say things in its presence, or whose behaviour enables inferences to be made?

But then there’s the indefinable essence of the painting, the question of what it means to the artist who created it, and the ones who trade in it; finance and buy it; think it’s important for Australians to have it and those who think that Whitlam should have bought Australian art instead.  There’s its place alongside Indigenous art which has a history going back for millennia.  ‘Blue Poles’ is a huge painting, 2.1 m x 4.86 m.  It’s not possible to ignore.  But what does it say about us, that it has such a prominent place in our national gallery?

Part 2 of the novella is narrated by Alyssa, who is an assistant restorer of the painting.  She’s too young to comprehend the sense of betrayal, loss and lifelong disillusionment that The Dismissal caused, but she does understand that her father was hurt by the ousting of the man who made such a profound statement about the importance of art.  She also understands that politics is not as irrelevant as might be supposed by some.

Alyssa is doing her PhD on the women in Pollock’s life: Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler. Alyssa is a feminist, who’s convinced that these women, like other women artists throughout history, were overshadowed by Pollock’s fame.  She thinks he wasn’t worthy of that fame, and she’d like to find something that ‘proves’ that.  She knows that there are footprints visible in the first layers of paint. In her narrative, she addresses the painting…

Are you aware of it?  It is mostly obscured by layers and lines of paint.  My friend told me about it when I first got the job in the storage room.  She knew exactly where in you it was situated, but I would never let her tell me.  I wanted to find it for myself.  But in all the times I visited you I never did.

I believed that finding that footprint would prove that Jackson was unfit for the status he’d acquired — prove it to me, that was.  You see, the new freedom that I carried around was underpinned by a belief that women artists were historically undervalued, under-recognised.  It’s impossible to deny it.  But just because a thing is true doesn’t mean that the way you go about proving it — that is, the dogged obsession that becomes like a tic — is the best way.  I knew all along that finding that footprint was no proof of anything other than that Jackson painted shoeless.  From the start, there was nothing rational about that search. (p.73)

These meditations on art, artists, gender, politics, the purpose and meaning of her research, and her personal life have an intimacy that is irresistible.  One of her disappointments is conveyed so vividly that readers will feel her devastation too.

Night Blue is one of the most interesting works of fiction that I’ve read so far this year, and it’s a real treat for those who love fiction about art and artists.

*I had never heard the word ‘brouhaha‘ until Margaret Whitlam used it (in a different context).  It’s one of my favourite words to express my opinion of the tabloid journalism which plagues our news services these days.

Author: Angela O’Keeffe
Title: Night Blue
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2021
ISBN: 9781925760675, pbk., 141 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available direct from Transit Lounge and good bookshops everywhere

Image credit: Blue Poles (digitalization of Blue Poles (original title: Number 11, 1952), an abstract painting from 1952 by the American artist Jackson Pollock, Wikipedia) “By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35971938”

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 13, 2021

From a Low and Quiet Sea, by Donal Ryan

This stunning novel was recommended to me by Becky from Becky’s Books and it was only after I’d read it and sorted my thoughts that I discovered that Kate from Books are My Favourite and Best had reviewed it too…

Written in three entirely separate narratives brought together in a concluding chapter, From and Low and Quiet Sea tells the story of three men unknown to each other.  Farouk is a doctor who fled ISIS in Syria; Lampy is troubled young Irishman with a broken heart; and John is a chancer who made an art form of bearing false witness against his neighbours.  His narration is told first person, as a penitent seeking absolution for a wicked life.

The author’s choice to place Farouk’s tragic story first makes Lampy’s heartbreak seem initially to be less calamitous.  Being dumped by a girlfriend and having a lack-lustre job with no future is a commonplace, but in Ryan’s compassionate hands the reader sees that grief, no matter how it’s caused, is devastating.  Both Farouk and Lampy struggle to articulate their feelings and can’t ‘move on’ at the pace that life so heartlessly seems to demand.  Their losses and the hopes they refuse to discard are always in their thoughts.  In Lampy’s case, this failure to attend to the here-and-now is catastrophic; for Farouk, it impacts on his chances for resettlement and his relationships within the refugee camp.

Are there readers who feel compassion for John?  It’s hard to do that when reading his narrative, noting that his repentance is triggered only by thoughts of his impending death in the confessional fine and wide, not like the upright coffins sometimes used.  Even though he had his travails, not the least the unexpected death of his much-loved and admired brother, John is a low-life, one who takes what he wants, with violence if it suits him.  It is only in the concluding pages when the threads of this narrative come together that the horror of his death is revealed… and no one deserves a death like that.  Even Lampy would not have wished it on him.

This is not a book to read in haste, and it bears re-reading well.

Author: Donal Ryan
Title: From a Low and Quiet Sea
Publisher: Transworld, Penguin, UK, PRH, 2018
ISBN: 9781781620304, pbk., 182 pages
Source: Kingston Library

 

To be honest, as I always try to be here, I don’t know what the fuss is about this novel.  Carofiglio is apparently a best-selling author in Italy.

This is the blurb:

Antonio is on the cusp of adulthood, trying to work out who to be and what to do. His father, once a brilliant mathematician, hasn’t figured much in his son’s life since the divorce from Antonio’s mother, a beautiful and elusive woman. A diagnosis of epilepsy and hope for a cure takes father and son to Marseille, where they must spend two days and two nights together, without sleep. In a foreign city, under strained circumstances, they get to know each other and connect for the first time.

Elegant, warm and tender, set against the vivid backdrop of 1980s Marseille and its beautiful calanquesThree O’Clock in the Morning is an unforgettable story about illusions and regret, about talent and the passage of time and, most of all, about love.

Three O’clock in the Morning is just another *yawn* relationship story, about a father and an adolescent son reconnecting when they’ve been somewhat estranged after the marital breakdown some years before.   Over a 48 hour period without sleep (for a ridiculous reason) they have deep-and-meaningful conversations.  They eat, they go to bars, a party and they visit a porn shop in a Marseilles for which some might feel nostalgia.  It’s not entirely plotless. Other things happen that I won’t mention in order to avoid spoilers.

It’s another book with the central message is that it’s a good idea to communicate.

It’s another book that shows that, no, we’re not very good at it.

It’s possibly a fantasy depicting the author’s yearning for a similar kind of father-son relationship, either as a father himself or as a son.  A could-have-been— should-have-been— so different version of his own or his father’s failures.

Is that all there is?  Have I missed something?

(I did notice the inclusion of a character making racist remarks about the advent of people of colour in Marseilles. Unnecessary, IMO).

(I also noticed the shame attributed to the initial diagnosis, and that there is no need to address this shaming because lo! the boy is cured.)

The reviewer at Kirkus Reviews thinks differently:

Here those dark nights arrive with shimmering, unforced beauty, filling the pages with jagged moonlight like the finest neorealist film.

A journey by foot: crisp, lean, yet quietly mournful.

You can read an excerpt here, to see what you think…

Onto the next book!

Author: Gianrico Carofiglio
Title: Three O’clock in the Morning (Le tre del amttino)
Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2021, first published in 2017
ISBN: 9781922268792, pbk., 212 pages
Cource: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 11, 2021

Love Objects, by Emily Maguire

Emily Maguire is one of Australia’s most dynamic writers: she tackles difficult contemporary topics in fiction which is engrossing, sensitive and deeply satisfying to read.

Love Objects is the story of a single woman whose independence is under threat because she has a hoarding disorder.  Nic is only forty-five, but when she has a fall, triggered by the chaos of treasured possessions in her home, she lies unable to move for days.  Help does not come until her niece Lena realises something is wrong when Nic doesn’t turn up for their usual Sunday lunch.  The ambos can barely get into the house because the corridors are stacked to the ceiling with old newspapers and magazines, and Lena, who—despite her close relationship with her aunt—hasn’t been inside the house for some years, is horrified by the state of it.  She’s appalled by the social worker’s suggestion that Nic might not be ‘allowed’ to return home, but is immediately conflicted by the promise she makes to Nic that she won’t throw anything out.  To get Nic home involves betrayal.

Lena is guilt-stricken that she didn’t know about the situation, but she has a serious problem of her own.  A casual sexual encounter with another student who she really likes, turns into a nightmare when without her knowledge or consent he shared a video of it and it went viral.  Though her face is obscured, she’s easily recognisable by a distinctive scar on her arm, and a barrage of disgusting messages and revolting comments on her phone ensue.  It turns out that this video was premeditated by a cohort of these privileged students, with cameras set up beforehand. It was carefully edited so that he can’t be identified and uploaded to a site where her appearance and performance are ‘rated’.  All sorts of problems arise because Lena is so overwhelmed and distressed by this that she keeps her phone turned off most of the time.

Maguire writes about class in Australia with discernment, and the background of this family is complex.  Lena’s college accommodation is dependent on her fulfilling the terms of her enrolment, which adds to her problems when she has to drop everything to help Nic, skipping classes and an important appointment.  Although she’s obviously intelligent, she’s not a great student, and she feels out of her depth socially and intellectually.  Aunty Nic became the mother Lena wanted to have because her home offered fun and laughter and not taking things too seriously… but as Lena finds out about the complex psychological issues involved in hoarding, she begins to realise that the hoarding is a response to some distress that she didn’t know about.  The urgency of the situation means, however, that there’s no time to unpack the psychology of her aunt’s behaviour.  The house has to pass an inspection, or Nic won’t be allowed home.

Nic’s brother Will, not long out of gaol and with issues of his own, turns up to help, but Lena’s preoccupation with the video and her angst about betraying her aunt leads to some lively dialogue between them.  The narrates segues between these three, offering depth and complexity to what’s not said and understood between them.

Love Objects is a compassionate portrait of a condition most people don’t understand and usually disapprove of.  There was an (ABC?) series about it a little while ago, which clearly depicted the safety issues and the exasperation of family members trying to help but flummoxed by the seemingly irrational behaviour of the hoarder.  What Maguire does is to show Nic’s reasoning when she finds things that have meaning for her, but wisely, she does not offer a solution.

Highly recommended.

Author: Emily Maguire
Title: Love Objects
Cover design: Sandy Cull, cover artwork Cecelia Paredes
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781760878337, pbk., 392 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 10, 2021

Becoming a Bird, by Stephanie Radok

It has taken over a whole week to read this short book because the author kept tempting me to explore the work of the artists about whom she writes so enticingly.

As you could see from the Sensational Snippet that I posted last week, Radok reflects not just on art, but on its purposes.  She travels the world (remember when we could do that?), visiting numerous museums both famous and lesser known, relating what she sees and experiences with her own art, her love of poetry, and her home in suburban Adelaide.

The chapters follow the calendar year, and are prefaced by epigraphs drawn from artists, and writers, including words from  Patrick White who introduces December, subtitled ‘Words for Home’:

The kitchen was always a great place to dance. (from Three Uneasy Pieces, Pascoe Publishing, 1987, reprinted 1988, p.15, cited on p156)

and this is followed by Sylvia Lawson:

If it isn’t happiness you can hang onto, it could be a broken garden pot, possibly worth mending, or the state of the cumquat tree. (‘How Simone de Beauvoir died in Australia’ in How Simone de Beauvoir Died in Australia: stories and essays, UNSW Press, 2002, p. 188, cited on page 156.)

January traces her earliest memories, and then February explores museums and the roles they play.

How do you define a museum?  As a place of safety, of knowledge and learning, of excess that can make us small and expand us.  A place where the past is definitely ordered even though the majority of the many objects that outlast people are stored out of sight. A place then of taxonomies, categorising and gatekeeping, selecting and ordering.  There are rules, fashions and objects, and there is the past, piled around our ankles like leaves. (p. 21)

Radok gives examples of museums which derive from some rich person’s estate, such as the Patt Rivers Museum in Oxford.  Museums like this tell the story of that collector’s world, from their perspective.  And these days, of course, there are questions about provenance, the return of some items, removal of artefacts during colonialism and so on.

In Prague, she notices that the National Gallery where art not of Czech origin is called foreign art… and this reminded me of a great day in Rome where as you can see from this quotation from my travel blog, we learned that art being ‘modern’ is relative:

From there we crossed the road to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. To us, modern art means 20th century art, but ‘modern’ in Rome means something different, and this gallery is devoted to works from the 18th and 19th century, though there are some from later on. It has works by Kandinsky, Cézanne, Modigliani, and there were many fine Italian impressionists that were unfamiliar to us. We saw Monet’s Water Lilies there, and also a charming portrait of The Bellelli Family by Degas, which is normally at the Musée D’Orsay. Most memorable was one which featured a couple seated in armchairs, with archaeological monuments growing organically out of their bodies and the chairs. It’s ambigous, becuase it depicts people supported and enriched by their ancient Roman culture – but also burdened and taken over by it. If anyone reading this blog knows the name of this work or its artist, please let us know!

(Yes, musing on my own travels was triggered by reading this book!)

Radok’s time in Prague also meant experiencing a place where some of her people had lived, including some who perished in the Holocaust.

Looking for your people, like self-knowledge, is often not smooth or clear, neither satisfying nor conclusive.  I wonder if there is too much emphasis on ancestors, if we can’t find or don’t know our ancestors are we lesser people? Do we belong to one piece of earth or to the whole planet? (p.141)

Becoming a Bird is a lovely book, but it did give me itchy feet, wanting to travel!

Author: Stephanie Radok
Title: Becoming a Bird, Untold Stories about Art
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781743058022, pbk., 179 pages
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 8, 2021

Maestro, by Peter Goldsworthy

Peter Goldsworthy AM is the acclaimed author of eight novels, including most recently Minotaur, but Maestro is his first.  It made quite a splash, with shortlisting in the 1990 Miles Franklin award and went on to be included in the 2003 the Australian Society of Authors list of the top-forty Australian books ever published.  (Which was, BTW, a pretty good list, if the 28 which I’ve read are anything to go by).

Described in the Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature as a classic coming-of-age narrative featuring a gifted and slightly sinister music teacher whose story has dark roots in the Second World War, the novel is a bit of a rarity because it’s set in Darwin.  There are only nine with Northern Territory settings reviewed on this blog and apart from Jeannie Gunn’s We of the Never Never, I can’t think of too many more.

The climate is a constant element in the narrative.  Here is the schoolboy Paul Crabbe meeting for the first time his enigmatic piano teacher, Herr Eduard Keller.

Outside, the sound of thunder carried to us, distantly: the sound of February, of deepest, darkest Wet.  The room was stifling, oppressive, but the louvred wooden slats that formed two opposing walls remained closed, the ceiling fan stilled.  Not a whisper of movement stirred in the sticky air.

I sensed that I was undergoing some kind of test.

‘Heat,’ Keller suddenly pronounced, ‘we can withstand. A little discomfort is necessary to maintain alertness.  But noise…

He gestured in the direction of the louvred wall that faced onto the balcony—the direction of the beer garden below.

My mother smiled uncertainly and dabbed a handkerchief at her brow.  The sweat was beginning to gather, the droplets aggregating into larger drops, heavy as mercury.  Newcomers in Darwin, we had moved from the temperate South barely a month before; she found the climate unbearable.  (p.5)

Maestro, as he comes to be called behind his back, is a stranger to Darwin too, though no longer a newcomer to a city of booze, blow and blasphemy.  Paul’s curiosity is aroused from the outset by Keller’s missing fifth finger, its absence flaunted by a gold ring on the stump.  Graceless and awkward, and determined to remain aloof from the crassness that surrounds him, Keller is a hard taskmaster, never satisfied by Paul’s best efforts.  He refuses, too, to satisfy the boy’s curiosity about his Austrian origins, about the sepia photos on the piano, about the numbers tattooed on his arm although he isn’t Jewish.

It is on a Christmas visit to grandparents down south that Paul discovers Keller’s previous fame.  Keller had sent him a battered, yellowing edition of Czerny, the Opus 599 studies, with instructions to practise three studies each day.  Paul is disappointed—he’s already got that one.  But it turns out to be a generous gift: a signed first edition, 150-odd years old.  Ordered to stay indoors till his sunburn heals, Paul sets off on a quest to find out more in the library.  Hours spent researching the history of music reveals Keller’s birthdate, and a clearly incorrect date of death in 1944.  And quite by chance, he stumbles on a chilling reference to Keller’s wife, the celebrated Jewish contralto and Wagner specialist, Mathilde Rosenthal.  

The solemnity of this discovery is undercut by Paul’s startled witnessing of an erotic rendezvous between the stacks.  It’s a reminder of a more innocent time, not merely before the internet, but also before ‘the pictures’ became ‘the movies’.

Back in Darwin, Paul discovers his own lust, in the form of Rosie, and at the same time, finds a way to mask his nerdiness by joining a rock and roll band.  It’s 1968, and contrasted with the sterile and claustrophobic atmosphere of the music room, the narrative is suffused with images of fecundity.

The Wet was ending, the frogs outside my bedroom window croaking more loudly each evening in their shrinking creek, for diminishing returns.  Fruit was suddenly everywhere: in snack bars, roadside stalls, gardens.  My father couldn’t pass a shop without stopping to buy smooth-skinned pawpaws, rough, soft avocadoes, a dozen crinkled passionfruit…

He had begun planting our own garden with seedlings and treelings: banana, custard apple, mango, babaco—and his prize possession, a single precious cutting of the legendary rambutan, a gift flown in illegally by one of his patients from Timor.  (p.67)

The narrative leaps ahead by a decade, to older and slightly wiser adulthood with illusions stripped away.  It comes to most of us, but it seems harder for the talented to accept that talent may not grant the perfection of genius.

Author: Peter Goldsworthy
Title: Maestro
Publisher: angus & Robertson, 1995, first published 1989
ISBN: 9780207189326, pbk., 149 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Diversity Books, $2.00

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 6, 2021

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore

I’m over a week late with this review of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne for the Brian Moore at 100 Read-Along hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and the official Brian Moore at 100 team.  The read-along is one of a number of events celebrating the work of Northern Ireland author Brian Moore, in his centenary year. Ah well, better late than never…

Reminiscent of the grim stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners, but set in the postwar era in Belfast, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is the story of a bleak life unravelling.  Judith Hearne is in her forties, and alone.  When the novel opens Judith’s aunt has just died leaving her homeless, so she has moved into one of those dreary boarding houses that provided shelter but not much else.  She is in straightened circumstances.  She gave up her job to care for this aunt through the terminal stages of dementia for many years, and, based on what her aunt had said, had reasonable expectations that provision had been made for her.

Her aunt D’Arcy had never discussed money.  A lady does not discuss her private affairs, she used to say.  And the D’Arcys never had to look where their next penny was coming from.  There had been the house on the Lisburn Road.  She had thought that would fetch quite a bit.  And then her aunt had said that Judy wouldn’t have to worry, there  would be plenty until the right man came along and even if he didn’t.  That was a long time ago, she said that.  Ten years.  More, thirteen, if I’m to be honest about it, Miss Hearne thought.  First, there was the mortgage on the house.  And then the money we owed Dan Breen.  And the annuity she left me, it was small then, and nobody in the whole length and breadth of Ireland could on a hundred pounds a year nowadays. (p.37)

All that stands between Judith and abject penury is an annuity of £100 a year, and a small income from teaching piano.

Mrs Henry Rice is a poor host.  Although she cooks splendid breakfasts for her grotesque son Bernie, breakfast for her boarders consists only of toast and tea, with kippers at the weekend.  Judith has to buy her other meals and to make ends meet, she is often hungry.  The highlight of her week is a lavish afternoon tea with the O’Neills on Sundays, which also provides Judith with the illusion that she has a family of sorts.  The novel is written from varying points of view, and so the reader soon learns that the O’Neills dread her visits.  Mr O’Neill abandons the warmth of the sitting-room to ‘work’, Una finds study that has to be done, and while little Kathleen is too little to mind much, Shaun has to be commanded to stay and be polite by his mother (for whom this weekly penance is a Good Deed.)

Into these grim routines bursts James Patrick Madden, fresh from America and boastful of his exploits.  The brother of Mrs Henry Rice, he has come home from an artfully concealed unedifying career because he’s had a bit of luck with compensation for an injury.  While his bragging exasperates the other members of this motley household, Judith is fascinated, and he, not realising the extent to which she is hiding her difficulties, senses an opportunity to lure a potential partner into his investment plans.  She, not realising that he was only a doorman at the hotel business he says he’s in, starts to believe that the relationship she has yearned for, is about to blossom.  Her fantasies are excruciating:

But when the big trunks were opened and their trays were laid out on the bed, Miss Hearne knelt in silence on the floor, abstracted, her hands idle, her mind filled with what had happened that morning.  He had been so glad to talk to her.  And he had looked so big and stern and manly, hammering his fist on the table while he laid down the law to her.  A big handsome man with that strange American voice.

He came into the room, late at night, tired after a day at work in his hotel.  He took off his jacket and hung it up.  He put his dressing-gown on and sat down in his armchair and she went to him prettily, sat on his knee while he told her how things had gone that day.  And he kissed her.  Or, enraged about some silly thing she had done, he struck out with his great fist and sent her reeling, the brute.  But, contrite afterwards, he sank to his knees and begged forgiveness.

Judy Hearne, she said, you’ve got to stop right this minute.  Imagine romancing about every man that comes along.  (p.33)

Her desperation is such that her ‘romancing’ includes tolerating domestic violence, alongside fantasies about Mr and Mrs James Madden sailing from Southampton in the Queen Mary with a honeymoon at Niagara Falls.

As this tragedy plays out, Judith’s life spirals out of control.  It is unbearably sad to witness the way she self-sabotages what pitiful resources she has.

Like Joyce, Moore shows how his character is marooned in misery because of the stultifying atmosphere in which she lives.  Devout all her life, she has plodded through the years believing that her endurance and piety will are at God’s command and that she will be rewarded in the next life.  Her religion is a stern and unforgiving one, as exemplified by Father Francis Xavier Quigley:

…tall, ascetic, hollow white, pointing an accusing finger at his parishioners.

‘Quiet!’ he shouted, ‘And let me tell those people who just came in at the back of the Church that they’re late for Mass, that they’ve not fulfilled their obligation and that they should be ashamed of themselves.  They’d better leave now because they’ll have to come back to twelve o’clock Mass to fulfil their duty.’

Then whirled, with a swinging lurch of vestments, back to the altar.  The congregation practised silence.  But Mr Madden turned his head towards Miss Hearne and winked.  No laughing matter, Miss Hearne thought.  Father Quigley seemed like a terribly stern man.  (p.69)

Very little actually happens in this novel but Moore’s observations astutely show how Judith is paralysed by the uneventfulness of her days.  It is only when she lets go of her iron-willed self-control that the pace picks up and the novel moves inexorably towards its devastating conclusion.

Thanks, Jonathan at Intermittencies of the Mind, for the recommendation!

Author: Brian Moore
Title: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2007, first published 1955
ISBN: 9780007255610
Source: personal library

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 4, 2021

Pietà, by Michael Fitzgerald

After a run of disappointing books, none of which made it much past the first 50 pages which represent ‘a fair go’, it was a delight to settle into reading Michael Fitzgerald’s new novel Pietà.  (Readers may remember that I have previously reviewed his debut The Pacific Room from 2017.)  Quite apart from the exquisite writing, Pietà appeals to my love of art and travel, and it became one of those books that I didn’t want to finish, reminding me of that joke that’s going around about readers being vulnerable to melancholy because what they love is always doomed to end.  That’s how I feel this morning, cheered only by the prospect of another art-themed novel from Transit Lounge: Night Blue by Angela O’Keefe which features Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.

There could not be a greater artistic contrast than Blue Poles and Michelangelo’s Pietà.  There are actually three sculptures by the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo called Pietà: one in Florence, one in Milan, and the one that haunts this novel, the one in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Alas, there is a connection between Australia and this Pietà that we would rather not have.  In 1972, a young Hungarian-born Australian geologist called Laszlo Toth vandalised the sculpture, and it is this event that is woven into the novel.

In 1999 with the possibility of an apocalyptic Y2K disaster looming, a troubled young woman called Lucy takes work as an au-pair in Saint-Cloud, a wealthy commune in the western suburbs of Paris.  She is hired to look after baby Felix, whose mother is about to travel to Central Australia for six months to continue her research into the life and work of the Aboriginal artist Kumanjayi. (Six months!  I’m not very motherly, but I could not have borne to be away from my infant for six weeks, much less six months.)

But Lucy also has a task to undertake on behalf of her own mother, who has recently died.  She has a small package, carefully wrapped, which is to be delivered to the post-box in the Vatican.  The reader knows that these events are all connected because interleaved within the novel there are ‘newspaper reports’ about the vandalism written by a journalist .

However, to fulfil her mother’s last wish, first Lucy has to get from London to Europe, and so she takes work in Paris, armed only with knowledge from a mothercraft manual.  At Saint-Cloud, she overcomes her fears of inadequacy and becomes devoted to little Felix.  (She also indulges small flirtations with autonomy such as surreptitiously substituting a vegan alternative to his cows-milk formula.)  There are two attractive men in her Parisian life to tease the reader: Jean-Claude, the father of Felix, and Sébastien, a friend of theirs, a restorer of marble.  When Mathilde departs, and Lucy misses her friendship, life at Saint-Cloud becomes more intimate but also more claustrophobic.

Lucy’s homesickness is exacerbated by the Australian connections in her new life. She is disorientated when she wakes one morning to hear Mathilde singing ‘Kookaburra sits on the Old Gum Tree’ to Felix, and in her absence as the months go by, Mathilde’s postcards from Australia intensify Lucy’s longing to be home. Her experience of mothering Felix brings scattered memories of her own mother, Jude, and of the sometimes fraught relationship they had.  Her mother was briefly a nun, and retained the habit of silences from that time.  Though Lucy has her diary, excerpts from which filter into the novel and into her dreams and dreamy waking moments, the silences remain.

It was as if they were incompatible or out of sync, tuned to different frequencies, necessary irritants to each other. Even when Lucy was four months old her mother was complaining to a doctor that she was the source of a mysterious skin condition.  ‘Is it possible for a mother to be allergic to her daughter?’ her mother had asked.  And at twenty one, when Jude was dying, Lucy still felt the disavowal of that owlish stare.,  Then a sudden, inexplicable rush of love. (p.77)

Whitecaps dancing across the surface of the lake at Versailles remind Lucy of Lake Burley Griffin and a visit to Malmaison, the chateau of the Empress Josephine, brings sensual memories to the fore because Josephine—to ameliorate her loneliness in Napoléon’s absence—had planted an ‘Australian’ garden, using specimens brought to France by the explorer Nicolas Baudin.  In Josephine’s time there were kangaroos, emus and black swans among unruly gum trees, and the paintings of the park as it was bring a ‘pang for home’ to Lucy.  But the scents she was expecting are swamped by the scent of Sébastien’s cologne…

Pietà traverses Lucy’s journey to explore themes about art and the way we perceive it.  A key question is whether a damaged artwork should be restored.  Is it still itself when broken bits of marble are replaced by cleverly recreated pieces of polymer?  And today, in the era of mass cultural tourism, have we lost sight of Michelangelo’s purpose, which was at the service of religion?

The Vatican responds to the new ideology that we should not intervene if an object has been damaged by an act of violence:

…it is hard to imagine and grasp the concept that these works could be left mutilated, because they would not serve their purpose anymore — their purpose being, of course, for prayer and respect for religion. (p.230)

It is, as the journalist reporting on this issue, says:

…a philosophical conundrum that Michelangelo could not possibly have imagined when he created the work five centuries ago. (p.230)

But in our age of iconoclasm, it’s something to think about.

You can read a brief summary about the Australian connection at Malmaison at the NGV website.

Author: Michael Fitzgerald
Title: Pietà
Cover design: Peter Lo
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2021
ISBN: 9781925760743, pbk., 251 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Image credit: Pietà by Michelangelo – Image: Michelangelo’s Pieta 5450.jpg, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3667082

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 2, 2021

Vale Kate Jennings (1948-2021)

I am sad to pass on the news that the Australian poet, essayist, short-story writer and novelist Kate Jennings died yesterday in New York.

It is only a week or so since we were chatting on Kim’s Reading Matters blog about Jennings’ novel Moral Hazard, (2002) which was was the book that brought her to the attention of readers like me when it was shortlisted for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award, and the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize.  Moral Hazard also won the the Christina Stead Prize for fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Adelaide Festival Fiction Prize, and the ALS (Australian Literature Society) Gold Medal. It was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year too.  Wikipedia tells me that Moral Hazard was described as “humane and unsparing; witty, unsettling, and wildly intelligent” by Shirley Hazzard, author of The Transit of Venus.  Kim says it’s a beautiful little gem of a book and the best book she’s read so far this year.  It was reissued by Text Classics in 2015.

It is Jennings’ first novel Snake (1996) which is reviewed on this blog.  First published by Minerva, and also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, it was reissued by Black Inc Books in 2011. Snake is blistering in its feminist critique of a doomed marriage in the Riverina, and it’s deeply unsettling.

Both these novels are autobiographical in origin, as is, apparently, Stanley and Sophie, (Scribner, 2008) described at Wikipedia as a memoir ostensibly about her dogs but also about life in New York City after 9/11, politics in the US and her encounters with two macaques in Bali at the time of the 2005 bombing there.

Jennings was also a poet, a writer of short stories and a fearless essayist, and in 2010 Black Inc Books published TroubleEvolution of a Radical, Selected Writings 1970-2010.  It’s an anthology of her best work with autobiographical elements, and you can buy it (print and eBook) at the Black Inc website.  The blurb at Goodreads is a good summary of her preoccupations and her life.

In 1970 Kate Jennings, twenty-one, stunned a Sydney anti-war rally with a pull-no-punches speech that put ‘women’s lib’ on the map. Brave, impassioned and searing, the speech set the tone for the idiosyncratic career that was to follow. A few years later, she was on her way to New York, where she would make her name as a writer and enjoy a ringside seat at some of the most confronting events of our time.

Trouble collects Jennings’s best work from the last four decades. With a polemical anger tempered by a keen sense of the absurd and a fiercely independent streak, she writes incisively about politics, morality, finance, feminism and the writing life. She describes America with the keen eye of an outsider and looks back at Australia with an expatriate’s frankness.

Trouble is both an unconventional autobiography and a record of remarkable times. From the protest movements of the 1970s, via Wall Street’s heyday and dramatic collapse, to the historic election of Barack Obama, Jennings captures the shifts – seismic and subtle, personal and political – that brought us to where we are now. After four decades, Kate Jennings’ work is as exhilarating and impossible to categorise – shocking with the shock of recognition – as the day it was written.

Black Inc Books is the division of Schwartz Publishing that publishes books, and it’s worth quoting their mission statement because it’s so relevant to the Kate Jennings books they have published.

Schwartz is an organisation of unusual expertise, bound by a common purpose. Our aim is to publish writing worthy of our reader’s attention. We reject ideology in favour of integrity and rational, informed ideals. Our commitment is to a thinking Australia, to keep seeking out the raw materials from which the nation makes up its mind, providing a home for conversations that can’t happen anywhere else.

It is the media arm of Schwartz Publishing which brings us Quarterly Essay which is often featured on this blog.  I consider it essential reading, especially now that journalism in this country is in such a parlous state.  QE is a journal about current affairs which I subscribed to from its inception, except for a brief period of (fruitless) economising in the wake of the GFC.  It’s ironic then, that Kate’s essay American Revolution, the fall of wall Street and the rise of Barack Obama (Quarterly Essay #32, 2008) is one that I haven’t read… but because I am a subscriber, I can read it (and all previous QE essays) online.  And I will.


Update, later the same day: I’ve just finished reading it, and taken the dog for a walk to think about it.  If you can access a copy, it’s still well worth reading even though it’s two presidents ago now, because it’s not only witty and wise and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, it’s also a reminder of the hope people felt at the election of the Obama presidency.  Weirdly, it also brought a sense to me that the last ghastly eight years of American politics was a dream nightmare and not reality.  An aberration, we would like to hope, albeit with the caveat that the Kate Jennings of this essay would have never have succumbed to wishful thinking. 

In 2017 Black Inc also published Eric Jennings’ reflections on Snake as a work that inspired him as part of its Writers on Writers series. This is the blurb about On Kate Jennings from their website:

Kate says she doesn’t know what to say about writing. When people ask, she tells them to prepare for a life of failure.

Award-winning writer Erik Jensen plunges the reader into the world of acclaimed novelist, poet and pioneering feminist Kate Jennings. Weaving in his interviews with Jennings in New York, he shows how poetry, politics and family were transmuted into her first novel, Snake – a work of art that depicts rural Australia in a funny, cutting and unforgettable way. This is a biography of a book and the life that made it.

It’s unsettling to see Kate Jennings quoted as saying that hers was a life of failure.  I hope she meant it not as a statement about her personal life, but rather, about her passionate desire to make the world a better place…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 1, 2021

The Watermelon Boys, by Ruqaya Izzidien

The review of The Watermelon Boys in the Asian Review of Books was intriguing: a retelling of WW1 from an Iraqi perspective.

This is the blurb:

It is the winter of 1915 and Iraq has been engulfed by the First World War. Hungry for independence from Ottoman rule, Ahmad leaves his peaceful family life on the banks of the Tigris to join the British-led revolt. Thousands of miles away, Welsh teenager Carwyn reluctantly enlists and is sent, via Gallipoli and Egypt, to the Mesopotamia campaign.

Carwyn’s and Ahmad’s paths cross, and their fates are bound together. Both are forever changed, not only by their experience of war, but also by the parallel discrimination and betrayal they face.

Ruqaya Izzidien’s evocative debut novel is rich with the heartbreak and passion that arise when personal loss and political zeal collide, and offers a powerful retelling of the history of British intervention in Iraq.

The novel begins well but the hectoring about British colonialism becomes wearying after a while, especially in the second half of the book.  It’s supposed to be a historical novel, not a lecture on anti-colonialism.

First novels are usually about getting something off the author’s chest, and this author has no shortage of issues with which to educate the reader.

Set mostly in Iraq but also briefly in Wales, the novel tells the story of how two young men came to be involved in the the First World War in Iraq. Ahmad joins the British Army (after first fighting on the other side for the Ottomans) because he believes British promises to liberate Baghdad from the Turkish colonisers. Carwyn, who hates the British since his father died after a truncheon blow to the head during a miner’s strike in Wales, is bullied into enlisting by his stepfather.  Both of them, like most men in WW1, would rather not be killing anybody.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

However, while the main focus in on educating her readers about the evils of colonialism on an harmonious Arabic society, there’s also the oppression of women in a patriarchal society to deal with.  A #MeToo moment segues into a brutal murder. There’s also the gendered roles in society exemplified by Dabriya, Ahmad’s wife, who is beautiful, stoic and resilient.  She is firmly ensconced in the domestic realm and in Ahmad’s nostalgic memories (which are occasionally coyly lustful).  But when her son is at risk she leaps onto horse despite the disapproval of men and gallops off to warn him. A pretty good effort if she’d never sat on a horse before, eh?

There’s a not-so-casual mention that the school that Amira might attend is the first girls’ school that Yusuf has ever seen in Baghdad.  Although there’s nothing more than a childhood friendship between them, Yusuf fancies Amira, and he doesn’t want her to be separated from him.  (One might also think that he doesn’t want her to be better educated than he is, but that’s not in the book).  She is from a wealthy Jewish family, and he is from a poor Muslim family that sells watermelons (hence the banal title), but that was no problem.  According to this novel Arabs were tolerant of Jews and Christians before invaders such as the Ottomans came along.

Resurrections are surprisingly common.  Ahmad is tortured by his memory of being unable to save a friend when they are fighting the Ottomans — it’s what prompts him to desert and hide out in peace until he changes his mind and his loyalty and joins the British. But at a crucial moment Karim turns up alive and well—and since Ahmad’s defection to the Brits, he’s now on the other side i.e. the Ottomans.  (Unless I missed it) there is no explanation for how he survived after all.

There’s also the unconvincing return from Ottoman captivity of Dawood, a wealthy Jew.  He was dragged away, the only one in his family to be taken, and the expectation is that he will have been killed.  But no, after some time, he is released, unharmed, and there’s no explanation about why or how. The friendship between Dawood and Ahmad founders because the Jews flourish under British rule and Dawood admires the work done during reconstruction. Later on, Arabs turning on Jews is attributed to the Brits rewarding them…

Further on, there’s an even more unconvincing ‘resurrection’ when Ayesha’s attacker comes back into the plot.  He’s made himself unrecognisable, and is in cahoots with the Brits after they’ve betrayed their promise.  He sabotages the Iraqi attempts to negotiate.  So how is he identified? One of the British soldiers, who’s only ever known him under his new assumed identity, calls him by his old name…

Creaky plot points such as these are not uncommon in first novels, though a good editor would resolve them, but what’s less acceptable is the way the Armenian genocide is handled. Historical novelists can invent as much as they like within reason, but they ought not to distort the truth.

So I was a bit startled by the paragraph that is dismissive of the Armenian genocide. Set in 1917, the text begins like this: With the Ottoman threat against the Armenians gone…” (underlining mine) and goes on to say that Mikhael knows he should consider himself fortunate that he had escaped the fate of the thousands of Armenians in Van, of the thousands of them now in tented camps in Bacuba.  This paragraph alluding to the fate of the Armenians is whitewash.  This is what happened:

At the orders of Talat Pasha, an estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million Armenian women, children, and elderly or infirm people were sent on death marches leading to the Syrian Desert in 1915 and 1916. Driven forward by paramilitary escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to robbery, rape, and massacre. In the Syrian Desert, the survivors were dispersed into a series of concentration camps; in early 1916 another wave of massacres was ordered, leaving about 200,000 deportees alive by the end of 1916. Around 100,000 to 200,000 Armenian women and children were forcibly converted to Islam and integrated into Muslim households. Massacres and ethnic cleansing of Armenian survivors were carried out by the Turkish nationalist movement during the Turkish War of Independence after World War I.

The Armenian Genocide resulted in the destruction of more than two millennia of Armenian civilization in eastern Asia Minor. (Wikipedia, viewed 30/4/21, edited to remove unnecessary links.)

(This genocide has finally been recognised by the US under President Biden.  Australia has still not yet done so.)

The postwar section of the novel loses control of any narrative tension.  It’s full of moralising statements such as Men who dabble in war and conquest seldom understand the value of identity… a theft that can never be undone along with pompous insertions such as It has always been lost on the coloniser that the colonised have the capacity for diplomatic transition.  (The author is so busy raising awareness of the failure of negotiations that she neglects to mention that women were not represented in the delegation at all.)

What could have been a really interesting novel about the history of British intervention in Iraq from a different perspective becomes too heavy-handed. It’s long winded, the love story is clumsy, the idealisation of pre-war Iraq is overdone and the editorialising is tiresome.

Author: Ruqaya Izzidien
Title: The Watermelon Boys
Publisher: Hoopoe Books, 2018
Cover design by e-Digital Design
ISBN: 9789774168802, pbk., 352 pages
Source: personal library

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 30, 2021

Sensational Snippets: Becoming a Bird, by Stephanie Radok

I have only just started reading Stephanie Radok’s lovely new book Becoming a Bird, untold stories about art, but I just have to share her thoughts about the value of art. In the Introduction, she writes:

Art is often seen as icing on the cake, something to distract people, the spectacle part of bread and circuses.  But it is really a place for dissent, analysis, confrontation, celebration, rapture, learning.  A place where you can do dangerous things but not be in danger, where you can be controversial and be listened to without fear of reprisal (in some countries anyway), where you can hypothesise, generalise, be specific, light, heavy, oblique, critical, precise, angry, examine the past or the future, go out on a limb and fall off, fail, fail again, stay there, or get up and keep going. Art is continually reinvented and that is why it has so much value.  You can’t pin it down and tear off its wings.  Or if you do they grow back.

[…]

There is art history, there is art theory, there is art criticism but there are also much larger stories about art that involve its vital place in our lives, for confrontation, healing, growing, enriching and expanding.  There is liberation theology, perhaps too there is liberation art for freedom and justice.

[…]

…art and culture are too important to everyone to be swallowed up by the marketplace.

(Becoming a Bird, by Stephanie Radok, Wakefield Press, 2021, ISBN 9781743058022, pp.7-8)

Yes.

Although I enjoy adventures in translated literature, I’ve read very few Yiddish translations, and those were both by men. So when the opportunity came my way, I didn’t hesitate to enrol in a nine-week online course exploring ‘Yiddish Women Writers in Translation’ presented by Hinde Ena Burstin, courtesy of the Melbourne Jewish Museum.

The story for the first week of the course is ‘The New World’ by Esther Singer Kreitman, translated by Barbara Harshav.  Narrated by a newborn girl, it relates the imagined experience of being bored in the womb and anticipating the joy which her birth will bring to her parents, and goes on to tell the —real or imagined—story of disappointment when she is born and her parents know that she is a girl.

Grandma comes in and smiles at Mama.  She looks happy—probably because her daughter has come through it all right.  She doesn’t even look at me.

Mazel tov, dear daughter!”

Mazel tov, may we enjoy good fortune!”

Mama smiles too but not at me.

“Of course, I would have been happier if it were a boy,” says Mama.  Grandmother winks roguishly with a half-closed eye and consoles her.

“No problem, boys will also come… .”

I listen to all that and it is very sad for me to be alive.  How come I was born if all the joy wasn’t because of me! (p.79)

The introductory notes to this story explain that Kreitman (1891-1954) is showing the discrepancy between attitudes towards men and women, especially in the Hasidic milieu in which she was raised, where the male is valued far above the female.

We see that in Kreitman’s world a woman’s feelings of powerlessness begin very early, perhaps even at birth.  In a sense, the story is symbolic of Kreitman’s entire life: she wanted to be “born” — to be creative, to experience a full life — and from the day of her birth, she was pushed back into darkness and passivity.  (p.77)

Wikipedia confirms that this ostracism was literal:

Kreitman had an unhappy childhood. According to her son, her mother gave her to an uncaring wet nurse for the first three years, who left her in a cot under a dusty table where she was visited once a week by her mother, who did not touch her. Later, as a highly gifted child, she had to watch her younger brothers being taught, while she was relegated to menial household duties. Kreitman’s first novel includes numerous scenes depicting the main female character’s desires for education: scenes in which she waits with great anticipation for the bookseller to arrive in their town, dreams of becoming a scholar, and hides a Russian text-book from the male members of her family so that they won’t find out she is studying in secret. It is likely that these incidents reflect Kreitman’s own story.

I am looking forward to finding out more about this story and its author, and why it was chosen for the first week of the course.

Editors: Frieda Forman, Ethel Raicus, Sarah Silberstein Swartz and Margie Wolfe
Title: Found Treasures, Stories by Yiddish Women Writers
Publisher: Toronto Second Story Press, 1994, first published 1947
ISBN: 9780929005539
Source: Melbourne Jewish Museum’s short course ‘Yiddish Women Writers in Translation’, presented by Hinde Ena Burstin

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 28, 2021

Murmurations, by Carol Lefevre

Murmurations came my way when it was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.  It’s a delicate, melancholy collection of interlinked stories,—each of which could be read independently, but together they form a cohesive novella about a generation of women whose lives were constrained by the mores of the time and the isolation of urban life.  The unusual title refers to connections among the behaviour of starlings which persists no matter how large the group is, but it serves to draw attention to the ways in which urban life diminishes connections between people.  In these stories characters have only fleeting connections with each other—sometimes only gossip—and they do not support each other. They don’t seem to know how.

For me, it is the paintings which inspired the stories that are more significant.  In the author’s Acknowledgments at the back of the book, Lefevre says that these original prompts are not necessary, but a quick web search enhanced my appreciation of the deft characterisation and the landscaping of the stories.

Murmurations is not set in a specific city, or country, but in the daunting urban landscapes painted by the American artist Edward Hopper.  Noted for his reticence and habitual silence, Hopper’s flat, saturated colours, his erasing of detail, produced pictures in which absence is as compelling and eloquent as presence.  Each of these stories began as a response to one of Hopper’s paintings…

The first story, ‘After the Island’ features a doctor’s secretary called Emily, and is a response to Hopper’s 1927 painting, ‘Automat’.  This portrait of a woman alone sets the tone for the collection: her environment is bleak, and she is troubled.  It isn’t necessary to know this painting to read the story, but it’s easy to imagine Emily in this scene, mulling over her dilemma—her unwitting failure to respond to a cry for help.

Automat (1927), by Edward Hopper (*Wikipedia)

If you click through the links to view the paintings that inspired the stories, a pattern emerges.  There is tension between the characters, there is resignation and sadness, there is quiet desperation; and there is profound loneliness.

Erris Cleary, the doctor’s wife whose death troubles all the characters, haunts the collection.  Others who cross her path are not certain whether she was an alcoholic, a madwoman, an embarrassment to her husband or a victim of foul play.  Each of them fails to connect, not through malice, but through the exigencies of daily life.

The bleak landscapes seem malevolent:

She had hated this place from the start, hated its weather, and the way people talked, hated its ugly houses. and the shapes of the trees; she hated the way locals stuck together, the way they were always reminding you that you didn’t belong, that you would never be one of them, however long you stayed; she hated when they banged on about the natural beauty of the place when honestly it was bleak, and much of it rundown, and all of it desperately behind the times.  What she dreaded most, she’d said, was being stuck here until she was old, or dying and being buried here, trapped forever in its cold and hostile soil. (‘Evening All Afternoon’, p.39)

The saddest story is Jeanie’s.  She is homeless after her marriage failed, and it failed because she tried to make a life for herself instead of fulfilling the role her husband expected her to play.  He didn’t love her when he married her—he just thought she would make a good wife, and one day, he thoughtlessly tells her this, along with a very belated announcement that now, he thinks, he does love her.

Jeanie saw herself floating up the aisle, sacrificial under the mist of her veil.  As she had stood beside Rob at the altar she had felt as if the two of them were lifted up together into a high place, ‘a sacred mountain’, she had said to herself at the time.  Now she saw that she had been as alone on the mountain as under her veil, and she felt a vengeful desire to punish Rob. (‘The Lives We Lost’p.66)

But now it is she who is couch-surfing:

Once it becomes clear that you are not a guest but something less transitory, camping in someone else’s home is like the Chinese water torture.  Drip drip drip.  Jeanie and Sue have exhausted the conversations about places and people they knew as children. Drip drip drip.  Jeanie has emptied her sympathy over Sue’s acrimonious divorce, and the rejecting behaviour of her ungrateful children.  Sue has listened to Jeanie explain how a life that once seemed so solid has evaporated.

Neither cousin understands what the other is saying.  Though they speak the same language, words, sentences, turn opaque when they attempt to describe their lives.  (p.67)

This slide show below doesn’t name Hopper’s paintings, but it’s an impressive overview of a great American artist, and it suits the mood of the collection.

See also Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

You can find out more about Carol Lefevre at her website.

Image credits:

  • Automat: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9255012
    Wikipedia’s “Fair use rationale’ for Automat (painting): The image linked here is claimed to be used under fair use in Automat (painting) since:
    The artwork is only being used for informational purposes.
    The JPEG is of lower resolution than the original and copies made from it are of inferior quality
    Its inclusion in the article adds significantly to the article because it shows the subject of the article
    This is a reproduction of an old piece of art.
  • The ’40 Most Famous Edward Hopper Paintings’ slideshow is from the Edward Hopper website.

Author: Carol Lefevre
Title: Murmurations
Cover design by Deb Snibson, MAPG
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925950083, pbk., 108 pages
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 27, 2021

Land of Big Numbers, by Te-Ping Chen

The authorship of Land of Big Numbers is not what I expected. It was my mistake: I’m always keen to read female authors from China when so very few come our way… but by the time my library reserve arrived I had forgotten the detail of the January review in the Asian Review of Books, and I thought the author was Chinese.  She is not.  She is American born and educated, and a journalist who spent some time in China as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.  So these short stories, good as they are, are written through the prism of an observer.

I am slightly wary of “cold war” stories.  I lived through the first Cold War when we were fed a diet of books and films that were always critical of the USSR, and it was not until 2003 when I saw the film Goodbye Lenin! that I realised that nostalgia for a time of national pride plus economic and social security was a real phenomenon in the New Russia, though how widespread that might be remains a mystery to me.  In 2011 I read A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck and saw a different side of the postwar USSR… it was a country so devastated by WW2 that, contrary to the rhetoric, its people were fearful at the prospect of any further warfare. Then in 2017 I read Return to Moscow by former diplomat Tony Kevin which forensically dissected the resurgent cold war narratives that are now a feature of everything we read and hear about Putin and Russia. Yes, Russia and its leader are problematic.  But what else do we need to know about it, and how does it help anyone  when the media sponsors a one-sided narrative that makes no attempt to understand their perspectives?

I also grew up during the isolationist phase of Communist China, and then saw the enthusiasm with which the West welcomed doing business with China after it embraced capitalism.  And now we see the same cold war rhetoric being applied to everything we read and hear about China, and for the same reason: economic and military rivalry between Big Powers.  The overt disdain for their political system is also new.  Yes, it is indeed problematic and so is their record on human rights, but those issues—even the butchery at Tiananmen Square— were brushed under the economic carpet until China started flexing its muscle in our region.  You don’t need a vivid imagination to recognise why President Biden is bringing his troops home from ventures in fruitless wars; he wants US defence forces on call in the Indo-Pacific.  And, it seems, so do we. The drums of war might be beating though there are some who see the importance of avoiding it.

Do the reasons for any confrontation meet the principles of a just war?

So I approached this book with an awareness of its propaganda value.  Chen’s stories expose aspects of China that reinforce the negatives.  The first story, ‘Lulu’, features twins: a sister who lands in serious trouble with censors for her social media reports about protests, while her brother, less academically gifted, becomes a success in the gaming industry.  The parents are dismayed by the unwanted attention brought to them, as are the parents in the titular story, ‘Land of Big Numbers’ when their ambitious son embezzles money for the stock market.  The father—quiescent and prudent for decades since his time as an activist at Tiananmen Square—and his wife—resigned to their situation after authorities denied him a means to earn a living—are highly anxious that new disaster will befall them when the government department Zhu Feng works for, finds out about the missing money.

Other stories reveal villagers dispossessed by poorly-constructed residential developments; the emptiness of the economic reality for the underclass of uneducated girls like Xiaolei who realises too late that it was foolish to expect anything; the extremes to which parental ambitions might drive a very competitive student; and the repressed memories of the Cultural Revolution that become resurgent under the influence of an hallucinogenic fruit.  A thread that runs through all of them is the generational divide between hesitant, wary parents and ambitious, materialistic children who take risks without knowing the possible consequences because the full complexity of China’s history is officially repressed.

All these stories ring true, but I ask myself, which audience do the stories serve?  What’s the agenda?  Who does the author want to remind about the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square?  To put it another way, where is the story about Chinese pride in achievements such as their space program, when they became the third country ever to launch a man into space in 2003?  I didn’t have time to read the last story before the book was due back at the library: perhaps that last story acknowledges the astonishing improvement in the Chinese standard of living and their literacy rates?  It’s not what’s in this collection that bothers me, it’s what’s not, and thus its limitations.  China is a big, powerful, bothersome player in our region and the world, and we need to understand more about what they think and believe and value… not so that we can kowtow to it, but so that there is clarity guiding our foreign policy rather than one-sided negativity buttressed by shallow popular opinion.

Other reviews are at The Asian Review of Books and the NPR, and there’s an interview with the author here.

Transparency: My views about how to have a constructive relationship with China have been partly shaped by reading Kevin Rudd’s The Case for Couragethis article in the Asia Society journal, and by my readings of the Australian Foreign Affairs Journal.

Author: Te-Ping Chen
Title: Land of Big Numbers
Design by Craig Fraser
Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster), 2021
ISBN: 9781398503366, pbk., 236 pages
Cource: Kingston Library

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 26, 2021

2021 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards winners

The winners of the 2021 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced tonight.  I have highlighted them in bold.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction

  • Father of the Lost Boys by Yout Ajang Alaak, see my review
  • In the Time of Manaroans by Miro Bilbrough
  • Womerah Lane: Lives and Landscapes by Tom Carmant
  • The Warrior, the Voyager, and the Artist: Three Lives in an Age of Empire by Kate Fullaghar
  • A Question of Colour: My Journey to Belonging by Pattie Lees and Adam C Lees, see my review
  • The Trials of Portnoy: How Penguin Brought Down Australia’s Censorship System by Patrick Mullins

Multicultural NSW Award

  • After Australia by Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Ed)
  • The F Team by Rawah Arja
  • Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore
  • The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham,(abandoned)
  • A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu
  • Throat by Ellen Van Neerven, see Brona’s review at This Reading Life a.k.a. Brona’s Books

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize

  • Travels with a Writing Brush: Classical Japanese Travel Writing from the Manyoshu to Basho, translated by Meredith McKinney
  • Imminence by Marianna Dimopoulos, translated by Alice Whitmore, see my review
  • This Tilting World by Colette Fellous, translated by Sophie Rebecca Lewis
  • Autumn Manuscripts by Tasos Leivaditis, translated by N N Trakakis
  • Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao
  • Russia Washed in Blood. A Novel in Fragments by Artyom Vesyoly, translated by Kevin Windle

Throat by Ellen van Neerven (@UQPbooks) won the 2021 Book of the Year, the Poetry Award and the Multicultural Award.  The 2021 Special Award was won by Melina Marchetta and the 2021 People’s Choice Award was won by Pip Williams for The Dictionary of Lost Words.

For prizes in other categories, visit the awards website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2021

As Swallows Fly, by L.P. McMahon

It was serendipity at the library that led me to this debut novel… that, and blurbs from three authors whose opinions I take seriously:

‘Intuitive and visceral and sharp as a scalpel.  Malika will claim a chunk of your heart.’ Kristina Olsson
‘McMahon’s rare insight and empathy make As Swallows Fly an unforgettable, compelling story of hope.’ Toni Jordan
‘A powerful, poignant and thought-provoking novel featuring an unforgettable character in Kate.  As Swallows Fly is a remarkable achievement by a debut author!’

Yes.  I agree.  And I would add, that it’s rare to find a story of hope that isn’t sentimental or nostalgic or naïve.   As Swallows Fly is firmly grounded in reality but it’s perfect for all those readers who are tired of the current onslaught of depressing books.

This is a story of two worlds that intersect when Malika, a teenage girl gifted in mathematics is brutally attacked because she dares to offer education to the other girls in her Pakistani village.  To protect her life and to give her educational opportunities not available in Pakistan, she is evacuated to a boarding school in Melbourne, where she is nominally under the reluctant short-term care of Dr Kate Davenport, a successful plastic surgeon.

The network of Catholic priests who set up the evacuation is sketched only lightly; they are not the focus of the story though it’s important to join the dots to understand the risk to Malika—whose circumstances are not unlike those of Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by a Pakistani gunman in an attempt to curtail her activism for the education of girls.  Two of these priests go missing in the badlands of north-western Pakistan, and the third risks his own life to go and look for them.  Although he must have entertained hopes about it, Father Mike does not suggest to Doctor Kate that she might be able to help reconstruct Malika’s ruined face, and she does not know anything about it until Malika eventually chooses to remove the veil that covers all but her eyes.  Malika does not know Kate’s profession until she accompanies Kate to her Saturday appointments.

‘Do you fix all these people? Malika asked.

‘I operate on many of them,’ she said, ‘to try and fix what’s gone wrong.’

‘That is a good thing,’ Malika replied. She turned her head and gazed out of the window.  ‘It is different in my village.’

‘What happens there?’

‘In the village we must live with what happens.  Even when it is very wrong.’ (p.168)

It is only after some weeks when they have had terrible news from Pakistan that Malika’s calm acceptance wavers:

They didn’t speak in the car.  At the house, Malika went to her room and closed the door.  Kate waited in the lounge for a while, pacing up and down and eyeing Malika’s door.  She hoped she would reappear, but there was no sign of her, no sound.  She decided it was better to leave her: she would emerge when she was ready, even if that wasn’t until morning.

She was watching TV when she heard the door open again, quietly—like a secret whispered.  It closed again and there was silence.  Kate found herself listening acutely, feeling rather than hearing the presence behind her.

‘You fix things, Dr Kate,’ said Malika.  You fix things very well.’ Her inhalation was loud. ‘Can you fix this?’

Kate turned.  In the doorway, Malika was standing with her head raised, her veil and hijab gone. She met Kate’s eyes, her face clear beneath the glare of the downlights.  The remote control fell from Kate’s hand. (p.184)

Readers expecting the predictable miracle of genre fiction will be disappointed.  Kate is a flawed human being, overworked and harried by demands coming at her from all directions.  Miracles are rare, and the surgeons in Islamabad are accorded the respect they deserve by this author: they have done the best that could be done without risking Malika’s life.  As one of the characters finds out, plastic surgery in pursuit of perfection is often disappointing because the desire for perfection often masks personality flaws or other underlying issues in a relationship.

McMahon paints a realistic portrait of the punishing workload that Kate has taken on in order to protect herself from relationships that life and her own mistakes have taught her to avoid.

As Swallows Fly is not a love story, but Kate has met a nice man who’s a colleague, and a widower with two children.  But her past relationships have all ended badly for the others involved, and she thinks that she’s toxic.  But she has made an effort to reconnect with her friend Lucy, who sees things in a simpler, more forgiving way:

Lucy was quiet for a moment.  ‘Kate, you’re not a bad person.  We’ve all done stuff that’s dumb, dumb or stupid.  Tell me who hasn’t.  God, there was a time when I was sleeping with two guys for a while.  But it’s in the past, and there is a locked room.  You can’t get back in; you can’t change it.  So you have to pull your knickers and bra on over the person you actually are now, take a chance, and show the world.  Or else a part of you stays in that locked room forever.’ She pointed her finger and her grey eyes looked into Kate’s.  ‘And those guys didn’t have to do what they did.’ (p.267)

The culture clash is delicately pictured.  McMahon is Professor of Nephrology at Monash University but he has worked all over the world, including in Oxford, Berlin, Newfoundland New Zealand and Pakistan, where part of the novel is set.  This gives authenticity to the settings there, and to Malik and Kate’s occasional confusion over cultural differences.  At an Italian eatery on their first weekend together, Malika gets up to return the empty plates.

‘It’s all right,’ said Kate.  ‘The waitress will take the plates.’

‘I am very able to do this.’

‘It’s her job,’ Kate began, cutting her sentence short as the girl stood and took her plate to the counter. ‘The staff expect to clear the tables,’ she explained quietly, as Malika sat down again, ‘it’s what they’re paid to do.’

Her eyes widened.  ‘Have I done a bad thing?’

‘Not at all.  I am sure the waitress is grateful.’ She paused.  ‘You seemed to enjoy the meal.’

Malika nodded. ‘It was very good. I have not tried this food before.  When I looked at Australian food on my computer, it was meat pies and chips. I am glad we did not eat that.’ (p.164)

Malika goes on to say that prefers prosciutto to ham, and it is Kate’s turn to be confused because she had assumed from Malika’s veil and clothing that she was Muslim.  She gets an even more disconcerting surprise when Malika ventures out alone to find the nearest church for Mass on Sunday.

I really liked this book.  I liked the depth of characterisation; the effective #NoSpoilers narrative tension; the authenticity of Kate’s workplace and its travails; and her lack of confidence contrasted with Malika’s self-assurance.

Highly recommended.

Author: L.P. McMahon
Title: As Swallows Fly
Publisher: Ventura Press, 2021
Cover and internal design by Alissa Dinallo
ISBN: 9781920727512, pbk., 382
Source: Kingston Library

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