Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from Read the Nobels, and retrieving some from my journals.

To see my progress with completing the Read the Nobels Challenge, see here.

The Aunt’s Story, by Patrick White, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1973

It was inevitable that I would have to ‘fess up to my early reviews of Patrick White’s novels.  I don’t have all of them, but my journal holds my thoughts about The Aunt’s Story; A Fringe of Leaves, The Tree of Man, and The Vivisector, and I read them all round about the same time when I started collecting his books in 2005-6.  Alas, whatever I had learned about Patrick White at university was lost in the mists of memory, and this reading all took place before my epiphany about PW.  I can date this epiphany to June 2009 when, reading Voss for the first time, I discovered a Wikipedia page about Modernism, and used it to explain to myself what PW was doing with his writing and why he was awarded the Nobel Prize.  No such insights inform my 2005 thoughts about The Aunt’s Story, and to make matters worse, I listened to it as an audio book which is not the ideal way to come to grips with a complex novel.  Anyway, FWIW, here it is.

7th September, 2005

Cover by Sidney Nolan

I first read The Aunt’s Story years ago, perhaps when I was at university, and my recollection was that it was more accessible than The Tree of Man.  Perhaps so, but not as an audio book?  I really liked Part I, which retraces Theodora’s childhood and girlhood, but Part II in the Hotel Jardin d’Exotique, and Part III in America was very hard to follow.

BEWARE: SPOILERS (though anybody reading PW for the plot is going to be disappointed).

It begins when Theodora Goodman, unmarried aunt to Lou, which is a role she likes, is finally liberated by the death of her tyrannical mother.  White is savage in his portrait of this domineering woman, who openly preferred her daughter Fanny, who is pretty and vacuous but marriageable to Frank Porritt, a dull but comfortable farmer. Theodora’s father likes his older daughter, and others, such as the travelling salesman, see her interesting personality too, but she is too stubborn to play flirting games with Huntly, and her teacher fears for her future.

Released from her mother, Theodora travels and meets an oddball cast of characters in France.  There’s Katrina Pavlou, an American divorcée, a Russian military type, a disagreeable Englishwoman.  Are these characters real?  They reinvent Theodora to suit themselves, e.g. the Russian gent calls her Ludmilla, after his sister, but the conversations are bizarre.

The hotel burns down, and somehow Theodora ends up roaming around in the backblocks of America, where she is taken in by a poverty-stricken family until finally she taken away to an asylum.

What is White on about?? Is it spinsterhood that leads to madness, or eccentricity?  Or is Theodora’s determination to be herself that alienates her from the shallowness of ‘normal’ life?  I don’t know, and from what I’ve seen of website reviews, I am not alone. [BTW Goodreads didn’t launch till Dec 2006, and Library Thing not until August 2005, so I think that this reference is to a now defunct ABC website titled ‘Why Bother with Patrick White?’]

But I loved Part I.  Scathingly funny and brilliant imagery.  I shall try to read it again one day.

I finished reading the book and journalled it on the 7th of September, 2005.

It so happens that working my way through the Nobel reviews that I have in my journals and reaching The Aunt’s Story coincides with my reading of David Marr’s Patrick White, a Life. It’s a brilliant biography, and like all good literary bios, it analyses the influences on the novels and delves into the experiences from which they derive.  Marr tells me that PW was in Britain when he decided to cut himself free from his mother’s ambitions… he had allowed her to think that he concurred with her plan for him to work in the diplomatic service so that he could go to Cambridge, but he wanted to be a writer.  This internal drama is explored repeatedly in his writing: heroes are escapees who abandon lives laid down for them.  As Theodora does.

Another gem from Marr is that PW was bored by a single PoV, he liked to lose himself by writing the PoVs of a number of characters, and ‘acted them’ at the typewriter.  (Hence the bizarre cast of characters in the Jardin d’Exotique.) But also…

…one of the fundamental assumptions in White’s work is that all we value — society, relationships, even fortunes — are sliding into decay.  The familiar situation of most of his novels is the lone figure seeking fulfilment in a world drifting towards ugliness and violence, loneliness and poverty.’ (p.151)

Marr also explains that the catalyst for The Aunt’s Story was a painting he’d bought from his then lover Roy de Maistre.  It was called ‘The Aunt’ and was painted after Roy had visited the site where one of his relatives had been killed by a buzz-bomb late in the war. 

On a heap of rubble he found a photograph of the dead woman’s mother and from this grim souvenir he painted the portrait of a woman in full Edwardian dress but with a face entirely blank, as if her clothes were on a tailor’s dummy.

The image of ‘The Aunt’ fused in White’s mind with a long-planned novel about a wandering spinster going mad in a world on the brink of violence. (p.237)

Theodora was based on PW’s godmother: they were both women who thought a great deal but said very little; each was a distinguished creature in spite of her dowdiness and ugliness.  Theodora’s horrible mother is based on Elizabeth Morrice, the first person to fire his literary imagination. That seems an unkind reward for introducing him to Hamlet, but there you are, that was PW. And Elizabeth Morrice had condemned her daughters to spinsterhood with her snobbery.)

As for Part II of the novel which I found so strange, this is what Marr has to say about Theodora already a little mad in the Jardin d’Exotique:

In this odd garden, Theodora becomes the people she encounters.  The writing shifts from the present to the past, from lives lived to lives imagined by the exiles in the hotel.  Theodora Goodman discovers, invents and enters their lives, drawing on her small store of experience and a deep well of imagination. These are the hallucinations of a lonely traveller, but also a picture of White’s technique  as a writer.  A name, a glance, a snatch of conversation overheard leads her into these vividly imagined existences.  So it was with White, his imagination stimulated by a face in the street, tiny details of gossip, odd names discovered in a newspaper.  ‘How many of us,’ she asks, ‘lead more than one of our several lives?’

White drew into the jardin exotique the cross-currents of pre-war Europe. The German Lieselotte was a ‘figment or facet’ of himself born out of his experience in a world falling apart.  ‘I had lived in London through the ‘Thirties, through the Spanish Civil War (certainly only at a distance), I discovered Spengler, and became fairly intimately involved in Hitler’s War.  All those experiences contributed to Lieslelotte’s remark, ‘We must destroy everything, everything, even ourselves.  Then at last when there is nothing, perhaps we shall live.’ (p.240)

You can see in my review that I had glimpsed that characters in Part II were inventing themselves, but it hadn’t dawned on me that Theodora was inventing them…


  • The Aunts Story, by Patrick White, read by Deirdre Rubenstein, ABC Audio, 9781489488220, source Kingston Library
  • The Aunt’s Story, by Patrick White, Penguin Books, 1962, ISBN 9780670001064, personal copy
  • Patrick White, a life, by David Marr, Random House Australia, 1991, ISBN0091825857, personal copy, purchased second-hand from Diversity Books $25

I don’t read much in the way of Literary Criticism these days, but I’m pleased that this book made its way onto my shelves.

Cyclone Country, the Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature, is fascinating, not least because this study of cyclones in our stories articulates so clearly why Australian literature matters to us so much.

Spicer is a cultural historian, and in his Introduction he explains why the catastrophic storm is more than emblematic of the expulsion from Eden.  Cyclones unbalance the way we relate to our world: we tend to take the place we live in for granted.  We also like to think that life has meaning but a catastrophe upsets that belief.

The ancient Greeks made sense of unpredictability through their belief in fate:

The ancient Greeks believed that the Fates eternally wove the threads of our destiny into the fabric of an ongoing text narrative of life.  If a thread was cut, that only marked the end of one narrative thread, while the fabric of humanity’s narrative continued to be woven.  The death of any individual might affect destiny, but it was not the end of destiny.  Their fate was merely the product of those mechanisms of destiny begun by their ancestors and it would, in turn, be part of the destiny of those in the future.  (p.19)

Perceived like this, catastrophe

… might not be a sign of disorder or that our lives are undergoing a radical reversal: instead, perhaps catastrophe is woven into the tapestry of our fate as part of an ordered universe. Perhaps drastic events can reveal and confirm, through construction rather than destruction, the existence of another, alternative ordering of life. (p.19)

It’s easy for me to acknowledge this from the comparative safety of suburban Melbourne.  Here, although there are an occasional, isolated destructive weather events, large-scale disasters occur beyond the metropolis.   But in Northern Australia along the coast, cyclones have been making landfall for millennia, and our post-settlement history is full of examples of catastrophic storms and floods wreaking total destruction on towns, cities and landscapes.  Our literature reflects that reality.  In trying to make sense of the inexplicable, the literature of trauma derives from the human need to tell and re-tell what happened.

These stories integrate the cyclone as part of the place with which we identify.  Place is part of our sense of identity, physically and mentally and it’s not just scenery, we inhabit it.  Spicer argues that there is a terroir in literature just as there is for wine and cheese.  And I would argue that Australians care about this terroir in story-telling, even if we don’t consciously know it.

Queensland in fiction has been rendered on the one hand as a tropical paradise, and on the other as a hell on earth.  These dualities of light and dark, intense beauty and moody drama find their way into novels, short stories, poetry and memoir, and for Spicer (who is from Queensland) the literature expresses the state’s sense of difference and rejection of cultural uniformity. Thea Astley has this to say:

It is a sense of difference, she argues, that has developed over the years for various reasons, such as ‘the isolation of the place, the monstrous distances, the very genuine suspicions of political neglect. (Being a Queenslander, by Thea Astley, 1976, p 252).  Associated with those factors is a refusal to conform. (p.35)

Spicer says that these differences are not now as pronounced, but argumentatively they are still buried in the Queensland psyche.  

Whereas early Australian literature centred on the bush, because that’s where most people lived and worked, now — according to Philip Drew in The Coast Dwellers (1994) — it is ‘the coast, not the outback that is central to the Australian imagination’.  Tropical coastlines, however, are routinely subject to cyclones.

The cyclones of North Queensland have often been the catalyst for character transformation in our stories, from Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm (1973), to the apocalypse and epiphany in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006) (which I read before starting this blog but you can read about it here).  While Virginia Woolf evokes place with the gloomy pessimism of English weather, storms in Thea Astley‘s tropical Queensland settings reveal characters trapped within the whirling vortexes of circumstances, teetering on the edges of their own personal cyclones. 

I had already read Vance Palmer’s Cyclone in advance of receiving Cyclone Country, but I put Spicer’s book aside to read Ian Townsend’s The Devil’s Eye from my TBR because I saw that it was listed in the appendix.   There’s another novel in his list that attracts my interest: The Prelude, by Kate Helen Weston, which in 1914 was the earliest known Australian novel featuring a cyclone.  Alas, it looks Very Hard To Get.  (There are also some children’s books featuring cyclones that I’ve read: Nim’s Island (1999) by Wendy Orr; Crocodile Attack (2005) by Justin D’Ath; and Wreck! (1997) by Allan Baillie.  Without the benefit of Spicer’s book, I had stumbled on these titles as resources for a popular Year 5 & 6 unit of work called Extreme Holidays which if you are so minded, you can still find on my professional LisaHillSchoolStuff blog.)

In Chapter Two, ‘The Naming of the Disaster’ Spicer begins with stories of Aboriginal groups that reflect their intimate relationship with weather and seasons, including cyclones. There is also a profile of Clement Wragge (1852-1922) who was the first person to assign names to cyclones so that ‘people who encounter them or suffer by their conditions may, therefore, the more readily associate their experience attaching to any particular storm.  All too soon, however, he had worked his way through the Greek alphabet for cyclones, and the Hebrew alphabet for colder storms from the south.  Before long he was assigning gender, personality and character to cyclones, oblivious to the fact that he was trying to impose order on ‘his’ storms’ as if he owned them.  His system didn’t survive his retirement, but naming persisted and this is because unique characteristics such as moving along a track, and changes in size, shape and wind speed, while still preserving their identity, give cyclones ‘the impression of definite entities’.  

Naming is more than labelling, it an attempt to explain something monstrous that threatens lives and property.  And in fiction, cyclones provide a structure comprising birth, growth, adventure and death, with characters drawn into this vortex.

Ensuing chapters analyse in detail the works I’ve already mentioned and others:

Ch 3: ‘Big Wind, he waiting there’: Vance Palmer’s Cyclones of Apocalypse and Their Power of Revelation;
Ch 4: ‘Touching the edges of cyclones’: Thea Astley’s Cyclones of Revelation;
Ch 5: Threading the Eye of the Cyclone: Elizabeth Hunter’s Epiphany in Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm;
Ch 6: Earth Breathing: Susan Hawthorne’s Cyclone Within;
Ch 7: The Apocalypse and Epiphany of Cyclone in the Land of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria. 

I was especially interested in Vance Palmer’s Cyclone and the Astley novels because they are what I have most recently read.  Inevitably there were aspects of these novels such as the symbolism in Cyclone that had escaped me entirely, but since I’m not a scholar, I don’t feel too bad about that!  It was interesting, however, to learn that Palmer had written three short stories that were precursors to the novel… but he had been so affected by the death of a friend in a cyclone in 1934, that it was not until many years later that he could write the character of Randall into the book.  The two Aboriginal characters who sail into the path of the storm were based on Annie and Adelaide Pitt who drowned while trying to swim ashore after a cyclone, and the altercation between the unemployed men and the vigilantes at the showgrounds derives from the real-life ‘Battle of Parramatta Park’ in 1932.  (You can read a police account of this event here but needless to say Palmer with his political sympathies paints a different picture altogether in the novel.)

As Karen Lamb pointed out in her biography Thea Astley Inventing her Own Weather, weather is an oppressive and hostile force in Astley’s fiction. Spicer expands on this with examples of how her characters are brought out of the eye of storms to that very edge.  Symbolic storms enclose and divide them in a universe that makes little sense. For example,

Vinnie Lalor in A Descant for Gossips (1960) shares with Elsie a sense of being on the edge of things and an intense consciousness of self, of being an island in the sea of humanity.  Vinny, Moller and Helen all shelter on this island as a storm of malice, rumour, carelessness and squalor masses around them, encircling them and eventually destroying them. (p.85)

Cyclones make an actual appearance in It’s Raining in Mango (1987); in The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996) and A Boat Load of Home Folk (1968).  Of these I’ve only read Rainshadowwhere…

…it is the destruction of the Aboriginal mission at Hull River in 1918 by a severe tropical cyclone that precipitates the forced transfer of these people to Doebin Island. [Palm Island]. […] These cyclones are not just catalysts for events but metaphors of the destruction and displacement that typifies the nature of life on an island where physical and psychological discontent and violence become rife. (p.86-7)

Cyclones in Astley’s fiction are within as well as without. 

The chapter about Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria is fascinating.  I read it back in 2006, and TBH I didn’t really get on with it very well.  I noted that there were a circularity in the structure but I didn’t connect that to the cyclone from which the prophet Will Phantom emerges, I thought that the swirling tide of words was a discursive style that emulates Indigenous storytelling.  But as Spicer points out, the world created is one of cyclical patterns embodying the cyclonic spiral weather systems of the setting in the Gulf of Carpentaria.  The ancestral Rainbow Serpent from the Dreaming is not only associated with water, rain, floods and storm, it also shapes and reshapes the landscape as cyclones do.

These patterns are inherent in the Aboriginal concept of time, which is cyclical rather than linear, spatial rather than temporal (Strange, 1997, p247).  Wright’s concept of time in Carpentaria is a very different concept  to the Western concept of time as linear and chronological because in Aboriginal time, ‘there is no linear procession of generation and events, rather like a recurring cycle of existence’  (p.136)

Spicer acknowledges that this is not an easy novel to approach because its style and its content defy pre-conceptions. (It was reassuring to see that Wright herself agreed that potential readers often find her work challenging.  I was not alone in struggling with it!)  This chapter offers a very detailed and insightful analysis and is one that I will return to when I get round to re-reading Carpentaria.

I’m saving the chapter about The Eye of the Storm because I’m about half way through David Marr’s bio of Patrick White and I want to wait until I’ve read about the genesis of the novel and the influences on PW when he was writing it.  (I skipped the chapter about Susan Hawthorne’s poetry because I do novels here, not poetry.)

A final chapter which draws these threads together is titled: ‘The Word Becomes the Cyclone: Revelations of the Literary Storm’, and there are two appendices of works featuring cyclones, one listing fiction and poetry set in Queensland, and the other listing international novels and poetry. There’s also a bibliography and an index.

Any serious student of Australian literature would find this book very useful indeed!

Author: Chrystopher J Spicer
Title: Cyclone Country, the Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature
Foreword by Stephen Torre
Publisher:  McFarland & Company, North Carolina, 2020
ISBN: 9781476681566, pbk., 202 pages including appendices, a bibliography and an index
Review copy courtesy of the author

Available from Fishpond: Cyclone Country: The Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature and other good bookshops.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2020

2020 Word for Word Non-Fiction Festival, 21/11/20


Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

As with so many other things this year, the annual Word for Word Non-Fiction Festival is a bit different.  It’s not being held at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre: the program is live-streamed and so I was able to ‘attend’ a number of events.  This year’s theme is ‘Life-changing’.

First up was the Australian launch of The Mutant Project by Eben Kirksey.  This is the blurb for the event:

As scientists elsewhere start to catch up with China’s vast genetic research program, gene editing is fuelling an innovation economy that threatens to widen racial and economic inequality. In doing so, it’s also raising questions about science, health, social justice and what makes an ethical and fair society. Join American anthropologist and Deakin University Associate Professor Eben Kirksey live from the US for the exclusive Australian launch of his new book The Mutant Project, which goes inside the global race to genetically modify humans.

In conversation with Alicia Sometimes.

Alicia Sometimes is a writer, broadcaster, poet and science enthusiast, and she characterises this book as ‘exciting’.  Popular culture has explored gene editing in multiple ways such as film, so most people are aware of it.  She began by asking Kirksey how he became interested in it.  He ‘came of age’ as a student in the 90s amid the nature v nurture debate, and he just happened to be in Hong Kong speaking about the ethics of gene editing when the story broke about what the Chinese were doing with it…

From his hotel room, Kirksey searched for information about this story and found Dr Ha featuring in You Tube videos which claimed that two healthy baby girls were born, no different to us except for one gene which had been edited to make them resistant to HIV. But as the story unfolded it was found that in fact these children were not healthy and the claims made by Ha on the videos were misleading.  As the story progressed, Ha was demonised as Dr Frankenstein, so Kirksey wanted to tell his complicated story and the story of the twins.

Asked how parents dealt with all this, Kirksey talked about the stigma of HIV in China and how it leads to job losses and no prospects of marriage.  The HIV positive parents who signed up for the program wanted children but wanted to avoid them having HIV so that they didn’t suffer discrimination as they had.  But in China, they could not access alternatives as Australians or Americans could. They were informed people, not dupes, but their story is about being ‘on the edge’ of secrets about the research.  The book also explores the ethics of de-regulation… which in this experiment involved the design of the experiment to ensure the safety of the children; the lack of testing (conducted ethically so as not to infect them) to see if they really were immune to HIV; and a scientist more interested in publicity than the health of the children.  The Mutant Project is really a book about the ethics of it all.

The conversation moved on to the topic of inequality and how race and class impacts on who can access gene therapy.  (There are instances of gene editing being beneficial.)  He didn’t address the US health care system and the failure to provide universal health care, but he talked about the costs of gene editing being so astronomical that it doesn’t just affect the capacity of individuals to access it but also costs to governments (like ours, funding Medicare).

There’s also the issue of genetics being used in eugenics: gene editing can be used to erase difference — which implies that disability should be eradicated and humanity should be homogenised, so that everyone is ‘normal.’

One snippet worth mentioning is the problem of privacy when it comes to genetic data.  Many people do one of those ancestry gene tests has that data stored somewhere in other countries that don’t have privacy protections, and if these are matched up with other data, that brings up the risk, for instance, that you might not get health or life insurance because some other member of your ‘genetic family’ has some gene that leads to illness or disability.

Alas, either my internet or theirs was misbehaving so I missed segments, which made it hard to follow the conversation well enough to share it here.

My next session was Becoming Older, and this was the blurb:

As we are living longer, what is it that we expect from our later years? How can we help our elderly loved ones reach safe harbour at the end of their lives, happy and living the best life possible? Join Jean Kittson (We Need to Talk About Mum and Dad) and Robert Dessaix (The Time of Our Lives) for an in-depth discussion of the practical and the philosophical implications of ageing, for both ourselves and our loved ones.

Panel discussion with Hannie Rayson.

Sue at Whispering Gums has already written up a conversation about The Time of Our Lives so here I’m I focussing mainly on Jean Kittson’s book.  Although our time for caring for elderly parents is now over, I know that many people of my generation are struggling with this stage of life, so I was hoping to pick up some wisdom to share!

Kittson talked about the different designations of ‘old’.  In some countries being in your forties is old, because poverty and disadvantage means that that age group is nearing the end of life, which for us in privileged countries is somewhere the other side of 60 or more.   She says we live in an ageist society, and she picks people up on it when they make assumptions based on her age.  But the situation is of course very different for her parents who are in their nineties now.

Hannie Rayson said that she valued the practical advice in Kittson’s book, but that she hadn’t realised that what she also needed was a non-judgemental friend to be on the same journey — this book is that friend. (This made me wish I’d had it when I needed it!!)

Kittson asserts that old people are not a burden, and that their wishes should be at the centre of decision-making and that the way they are so often treated with impatience and disdain means they need an advocate.  She understands, for example, that older people do get ‘left behind’ with IT and increasing requirements that we use it can be really difficult.  (I could relate to this: Q-scanners to check in for potential contact-tracing at restaurants are not much use if you’re not in the habit of taking the phone with you (or if you don’t have a smartphone, which many older people don’t.)

The whole concept of being a burden, to everyone including the government, Kittson says, is offensive.  Honouring your mother and father is a ‘commandment’, and separating them from community and putting them all together in aged care is not something any of us would like.  (There was a brief discussion about how baby boomers are not going to tolerate it, but the ideas seemed like fantasy to me).

They moved on to discussing family dynamics.  There are ‘six hilarious categories’ of people looking after their parents.  The CFO is the Chief Family Officer, normally a daughter, who does all the hard work and makes sure everything gets done.  The FIFO lives interstate, or far away from making any helpful contributions.  This person visits irregularly, bangs the drums, upsets everything and everyone with criticism and then departs again.  There is always a Bad Sibling.  Kittson gave the example of one who was the executor of the mother’s Will, ringing the solicitor for a copy of the Will within a scanty five minutes of the death.  And there’s a WTF, the Walkie-Talkie family member, who ‘talks the walk’ with emotion and drama but doesn’t always make the right decisions.  Family dynamics is one of the hardest things.   Amen to that.

There was also discussion about the need to have a handle on all the paperwork and the need to be prepared with Power of Attorney and Advanced Care Directives sorted out well before they are needed.  Kittson recommends getting help from experts when it comes to the finances because it is so complex and potentially disastrous.  I second that advice: the consultant I used saved us $30,000 on the cost of flying my father down to Melbourne by air ambulance: that’s the difference between using a private charter company and the Royal Flying Doctor Service, but it had never occurred to me to get a quotation from the RDFS because I didn’t know that they did that kind of work.  (And they were brilliant.  My father always hated flying, but he had a great time and really enjoyed the journey!)

Most people say that the hardest thing to deal with is the resistance of parents when they’re trying to do the right thing… and this is where my internet cut out again! It was so frustrating… but then the stream came back just in time for Kittson to explain that her father had an imaginary friend called Bert who would ring up and cancel doctor’s appointments!

We Need to Talk about Mum and Dad sounds like essential reading for almost everyone.

My last session for the day was focussed on foreign affairs.  This is the blurb:

Australia has long been tied to the United States by shared values. Recent times have seen an undeniable shift in the relationship, both politically and culturally. As the US faces challenges to its dominance as a world superpower, it needs this alliance more than ever. Join us for this panel discussion with  editor Jonathan Pearlman, demographer Liz Allen (The Future of Us), academic and activist Dennis Altman (Unrequited Love) and moderated by ‘An American In Oz’ Sara James, as we ask – fresh off the US election – how will the result impact us?

There was, of course, discussion about the election debacle in the US. I am a bit over this, and there was some self-indulgent talk about the personal life of one of the speakers, which had nothing to do with the topic of the American alliance or our cultural relationship with them, so I waited impatiently for the session to get back on track.

And it did.  Dennis Altman talked about being in the US during the election of 2016 when even on the night results were announced the sense of foreboding was palpable.  The title of his book links his experience with Australia’s as a nation: we want to believe that our security depends on the US and it’s inevitable that we’ll be disappointed because we are not important to them.  Even Obama’s new 600-page account of his first term of office doesn’t mention any of our political leaders and is an indication that we are not very relevant to their concerns.  (Later, a suggestion that there were things the US could learn from us was dismissed as nonsense.  They have a dysfunctional, expensive health care system but they are not interested and never have been in learning from Australia’s universal health care system).  He says we need to look at the US not from the vantage point of ‘little brother’ but rather to view them as another foreign country, and we need to balance that with greater interest in the region we live in.  It was inevitable that there would be a big focus on the 2020 US election, but we should have had more focus on the election in Indonesia.  (Our trade with Indonesia is almost non-existent and theirs is a market with a middle-class that is now greater than the entire population of Australia.  It’s in our interests to do better.)

Pearlman (who edits the Australian Foreign Affairs journal which I write about here from time to time), talked about how when Our Esteemed Leader announced the enquiry into the origins of C-19, (which now appears to have been not in China but in Italy and perhaps in wider Europe) he was in contact with the US but not with any of our region’s leaders.  Yet Pearlman notes that the US is withdrawing from our area, and there is no guarantee that despite the rhetoric they won’t disengage further.  So we need to find new partners and new friends in Asia — and because none of them are as powerful as the US, it will need to be a coalition of partners such as India, Japan and so on.  Can they replace the alliance with the US?  That’s discussed in the most recent edition of the AFF journal which I haven’t read yet.  There are huge risks if we don’t reorient our foreign relations because China is changing the power balance and causing all sorts of tensions in our region.

A question came from the audience: we take a lot of our cultural ideas — especially pop culture — from the US so if we shift our focus to our region, will that change our cultural ideas?  Altman thought it would be a good thing if it did because culture should change and adapt. (He didn’t mention the language barriers, though later the problem of Australian disinterest in Asian languages was raised.)  Instead Altman transitioned from this question to discuss the government’s focus on military issues at the expense of foreign aid in our region, when our neighbours are more concerned about our position on climate change than these security matters which get so much attention.

Will much change with Biden?  Altman is pessimistic because the president doesn’t have a majority in the senate and will be frustrated in a lot of his policies.

The internet cut out again just as the discussion started about the pernicious disinformation in this US election cycle, and how bold it was.  It was time to give up.

I have two more sessions tomorrow, and hopefully I’ll have better luck then!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2020

The Devil’s Eye, by Ian Townsend

The Devil’s Eye has been lurking on my TBR since 2008, but I was prompted to read it now because, like Vance Palmer’s Cyclone,  it’s listed as a novel featuring a cyclone in a book of LitCrit that I’m reading: Chrystopher Spicer’s Cyclone Country, the Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature.  Longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2009, The Devil’s Eye is based on a real event: the 1899 catastrophic cyclone Mahina, which with a death toll of over 300 is still the deadliest tropical cyclone in Australian history.

This is the blurb:

It is 1899, and one of the fiercest storms in history is brewing – a hurricane named Mahina.

To a remote part of the Queensland coast come the hundreds of sails of the northern pearling fleets, and a native policeman trying to solve a murder. Nearly two thousand men, women and children are gathering around Cape Melville, right in the path of the storm that is about to cause Australia’s deadliest natural disaster.

Based on real events, this is the story of an unstoppable force of nature and the birth and death of an Australian dream.

The structure mirrors the way that 19th century weather forecasting across the vast distances of North Queensland was fragmentary and hampered by poor communications.  So it takes a little while to bring together the fractured threads of the narrative…

Centred on the pearling industry when pearls were an unpredictable by-product of collecting mother-of-pearl shell, a.k.a. nacre which was widely used at the time to inlay cutlery, jewellery boxes, buttons and jewellery — the novel brings together these issues:

  • The illegal pearl industry.  Shells and whatever’s inside them belong to the boss, but pearls get found and sold illegally to offshore buyers, obviously for less than they are worth, but the pearler gets a healthy ‘bonus’ instead of just his pay for the day.  Two characters are employed in the risky business of spying out these illegal transactions.   One of these is dead, or might be, but whether he is or not, he’s triggered an ‘investigation’ by the Native Police because he is said to have been speared.
  • Frontier conflict: the characters of Dr Walter Roth, Chief Protector of Aborigines, and Constable Jack Kenny, a Native Policeman, are alert to the irony that Roth’s job is to protect the Aborigines, and Kenny’s is to ‘pacify’ them.
  • Romance, and its complications: Maggie marries a pearler, dislikes his long absences at sea and decides to live on board with him and their baby Alice.  This leaves her father, the Chief Resident alone and frail on Thursday Island, so the unmarried older sister Hope is (as was common in those days) the obvious choice to be his carer.  But Hope has accepted an impulsive declaration of love from Kenny, from a difference social class and not in a position to support her. There are more complications than this spoiler-free summary, but the racial dilemmas introduce another interesting thread.  (The novel is rich in issues for book groups to discuss.)

There’s also an intriguing reference to a book called The Last Lemurian, which turns out to be a ‘Westralian Romance’ from 1898 by G. Firth Scott.  I discovered it at Project Gutenberg Australia, and scanned it to see why Constable Kenny would lend Hope his sister’s copy of it.  I hasten to say that I haven’t read it, and don’t intend to, but was fascinated to find this bit as I scrolled down the pages:

“All those shrivelled mummies were once vigorous men, like you and I. But she has sucked their life out of their bodies until they have become the wizened-up imps we know. Many of them may have come here as we came, in search of gold and wealth. How many bushmen have disappeared without leaving a trace behind them? Think of it. They may be among that swarm.”

His eyes glistened horribly as he spoke, and I reached out and took him by the hand.

“Go on with your story,” I said quietly. “Never mind the other part.”

“I was to be one of them, and should have been by this time, perhaps, had you not been at hand to save me. You have gained what I have lost, and it is the only card to play against her now. And since then you have done it again. Here. Just now. For since we were carried into this infernal place, she has once more drawn my vitality out of my being and made me the slave of her will—till you broke through her spell—and here am I; my God, what a fool!”

He sprang to his feet and flung away the gleaming yellow robe he was wearing.

“Take it off!” he shouted. “I had to make you wear it so that you should become impregnated with its properties and yield yourself to her wretched wiles. Take it off; it is bewitched.”

“Nonsense, man, nonsense,” I exclaimed. “How can a robe like this influence me? Besides, these sleeves are handy to hide my revolvers, and I may want to use them on the lady before I am through.”

What on earth was Kenny thinking of, eh?  And why has Townsend introduced this obscure thread?  I don’t know, but I do know that I wouldn’t have been able to identify it when The Devil’s Eye was published in 2008, because it wasn’t digitised at Gutenberg till 2011!


Woven through the events that bring these characters together are ominous references to the weather.  Humidity, dry lightning, unnaturally still seas alternating with whippets of wind, and a dawning awareness that a big storm is brewing.  And when it comes, it is horrendous.

In keeping with Spicer’s thesis about re-evaluation and renewal, there is this conversation at the end.  (I’ve substituted markers for names so that #NoSpoilers you can’t tell who survives and who doesn’t):

[He] looked along the beach, so calm now.  Apart from the wreckage, and the graves, and the torn and dead trees of course, not to mention the stench… well, perhaps one could guess that something terrible had happened here a month earlier.

‘Here we are,’ said [he]. ‘Back where we started.’

‘All good stories end where they start,’ said [his companion]. ‘You notice that? They start with a question, say, “Why does the porcupine have spines?” And then, after examining the essence of the porcupine and learning something of its character, the story comes to its conclusion — “and that’s why the porcupine has spines”.’

‘Why does the porcupine have spines?’ asked [he].

‘It doesn’t really matter.  When we return to where we were, we see it differently, having learned something new.’ (p.351)

Well, if there’s one thing we have all learned from the disaster that is 2020, it’s that now we know what really does matter…

Author: Ian Townsend
Title: The Devil’s Eye
Publisher: Fourth Estate, (Harper Collins), 2008
ISBN: 9780732283667
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $27.99

Availability: out of print, but if you’re quick there are three copies for $7-8 at Brotherhood Books. and it appears to be available for a Kindle at Amazon.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 18, 2020

2020 Barbara Jefferis Award winner: Lucy Treloar

I am so pleased to share the news that Lucy Treloar has won the 2020 Barbara Jefferis award for her superb novel Wolfe Island.

There are many things to love about this novel, but what I really like is the representation of its central character Kitty Hawke as a powerful, independent older woman in control of her own destiny.  This is, I suspect, the reason why the novel won an award for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”.

The book has been nominated for numerous awards, and now, at last, it’s a winner.

Read my review here.

You can buy a copy from Fishpond Wolfe Island or your favourite indie bookseller.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 18, 2020

2020 Voss Literary Prize shortlist

The shortlist for the Voss Literary Prize has just been announced.

I can’t find the date that the winner will be announced but in previous years it was announced in December.  For more info see their website.

The shortlisted novels are:

Alex Landragin, Crossings (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Andrew McGahan, The Rich Man’s House (Allen & Unwin)

Mohammed Massoud Morsi, The Palace of Angels (Wild Dingo Press), see my review

Meg Mundell, The Trespassers (University of Queensland Press), see my review

Carrie Tiffany, Exploded View (Text Publishing Company), see my review

Tara June Winch, The Yield (Penguin Random House Australia), see my review

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Previous winners were:

  • 2014 The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane
  • 2015 In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower
  • 2016 The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky
  • 2017The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn
  • 2018 The Book of Dirt by Bram Presser
  • 2019 The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from Read the Nobels.

To see my progress with completing the Read the Nobels Challenge, see here.

The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1962

First edition, Viking Press, 1961 (Wikipedia)

Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to share these old reviews from my reading journals… like last week’s one for Steppenwolf, this one is a disappointment to me.  It tells me hardly anything about the book, and I can’t redress that with a citation from 1001 Books To Read Before You Die because although Steinbeck is listed, they recommend just three of his novels to read: Cannery Row; The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men.  The best I can do is refer you to the article at Wikipedia, though you should avoid the plot summary if you haven’t already read the book.

28th November, 1999

I’m sure I’ve read this before; bits of the plot seemed familiar, but it didn’t seem like an old friend revisited.  I could never really get fond of the central character, Ethan Hawley, and the dialogue reads too much like a film script.

Steinbeck, of course, is a great writer, and one of my favourites.  But I’m not intimidated by greatness, and I think this book is an example of a great theme (moral corruption easing in, in little ways) presented less well than it might be, by a writer meeting a deadline, paying a big bill, or simply getting old.  It reads as if Steinbeck conceived the film before he made it into the book because what’s missing is his best strength, the power to describe the everyday in lasting images.  It’s corrupted here by dialogue, with Hawley talking to his groceries as if they were people.  Funny on film, less effective on the page.

Here’s the scene where Ethan (Donald Sutherland) ticks off the Boston baked beans, it starts at 1:56:

I finished reading the book and journalled it on the 28th of November, 1999.

Reading the Wikipedia article now, and the Literary Significance and Criticism section in particular, I see that my reaction is was not entirely naïve.  In 1983 a critic called Carol Ann Kasparek…

…condemned the character of Ethan for his implausibility, and still called Steinbeck’s treatment of American moral decay superficial, although she went on to approve the story’s mythic elements.

But Edward Weeks of the Atlantic Monthly has a very different view of the dialogue to mine, writing that…

“His dialogue is full of life, the entrapment of Ethan is ingenious, and the morality in this novel marks Mr. Steinbeck’s return to the mood and the concern with which he wrote The Grapes of Wrath“.

And *ouch* it was this particular book that was cited at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 1962.  Secretary Anders Österling remarked specifically on five books from 1935 to 1939 and then addressed the issue of Steinbeck’s later work:

In this brief presentation it is not possible to dwell at any length on individual works which Steinbeck later produced. If at times the critics have seemed to note certain signs of flagging powers, of repetitions that might point to a decrease in vitality, Steinbeck belied their fears most emphatically with The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), a novel published last year. Here he attained the same standard which he set in The Grapes of Wrath. Again he holds his position as an independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad.

Saul Bellow also admired the book, saying:

“John Steinbeck returns to the high standards of The Grapes of Wrath and to the social themes that made his early work so impressive, and so powerful.”

OTOH, like me, there were apparently many reviewers in America who were disappointed.

A few years later Peter Lisca called Winter “undeniable evidence of the aesthetic and philosophical failure of the [Steinbeck’s] later fiction”.

Apropos a comment made by Becky Lindros from Becky’s books on last week’s Review from the Archive, about how the reading of books can change over time, Wikipedia notes changing reactions to The Winter of Our Discontent after Watergate:

In letters to friends before and after its publication, Steinbeck stated that he wrote the novel to address the moral degeneration of American culture during the 1950s and 1960s. American criticism of his moralism started to change during the 1970s after the Watergate scandal; here is how Reloy Garcia describes his reassessment of the work when asked to update his original Study Guide to Winter: “The book I then so impetuously criticized as somewhat thin, now strikes me as a deeply penetrating study of the American condition. I did not realize, at the time, that we had a condition,” and he attributes this change of heart to “our own enriched experience”.

I’ll leave the last word to Professor of literature and Steinbeck scholar Stephen K. George:

“With these authors [ Saul BellowBrent Weeks, and Ruth Stiles Gannett ] I would contend that, given its multi-layered complexity, intriguing artistry, and clear moral purpose, The Winter of Our Discontent ranks in the upper echelon of Steinbeck’s fiction, alongside Of Mice and MenCannery RowEast of Eden, and, of course, The Grapes of Wrath“.

Image credit: cover image: By Source, Fair use,

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2020

Author Talk: Philip Salom in conversation with James Ley

As regular readers will remember, I read and reviewed Philip Salom’s new novel The Fifth Season just a little while ago but it was too good an opportunity to pass up when I heard about an author talk featuring Philip.  I discovered his books when Waiting was shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin, and was not surprised when The Returns was shortlisted last year too.  (I have recently acquired his two early novels so that’s a treat in store.)  Yes, one of my favourite writers.

James Ley is a Melbourne essayist and literary critic, and a former editor of the Sydney Review of Books.  The Fifth Season is Philip’s fifth novel.

Ley began by noting that Philip is on ‘a bit of a creative roll with his witty intelligent novels.  He characterised Salom’s writing as playful and observant, and having a lot of ideas.  Salom has a good eye for minor characters.

But he found The Fifth Season hard to characterise: it’s sort of crime, sort of mystery but then it’s neither.  How would Philip place it?

His answer was enigmatic: ”Strange?”

He said it was a hard question.  When he’s writing, he never establishes a frame or genre.  He develops an impulse and the writing makes its own way.  In this novel there’s a bit of meta fiction, exploring fact and fiction and mixing them up.  There are observations from the real world — you can Google them — but they are interspersed with entirely fictional aspects which have equal status with the factual elements.  It is a realist kind  of writing, but it’s not a memoir, even though Jack the character is a writer too, and some of the things he’s done are things that Salom has done himself.

Ley can’t think of any other book that does the same kind of things though there are elements in it that we have become used to, such as drawing attention to its being a novel through its metafictional elements and including autofiction like Knausgaard does.  [LH: Though mercifully not at all like Knausgaard does.] Yet The Fifth Season looks like a novel and reads like a novel.

Philip talked about writing about the self at a distance.  It’s not ‘safe’ art, it occupies an area of strangeness which offers the reader a place to go to that isn’t real, between naturalism and realism where you can do strange things and break the rules of writing if you want to.  In this kind of writing you can bring readers to thought experiences and feeling experiences where they are freed from themselves by the distance.  You can’t do with novels that are entirely realist.

Ley noted the use of doppelgangers in the novel, used in a really original way.  They’re not just characters, they’re also text elements because Philip has incorporated parts of his own earlier works into this one, actually integrated into it.  (I remember my baffled excitement when I discovered this as I read the book).  Writers reference other books all the time, but Philip has been able to use chunks of another book because it’s his own book.  That many people who read it will never know that he’s done this is one of those writerly jokes that he really enjoys.

All the characters have an absent double.  Jack’s double is a writer who lived in the house before he did, but disappeared.  Sarah’s sister is a missing person.  The visual artist (Sarah) and the literary artist (Jack) both deal with psychological questions of identity,

The book is about real missing people with no back stories because they’re missing and nobody knows why or how.  But through writing or art work, Salom is also feeding the ghost, the place within us that has no answers, that haunts our existence.  We feed it all the time but it’s remorseless and never stops haunting us.

I hope I’ve understood this next aspect of what Salom has to say about how doing things forms our identity:

In all our lives if we take up something as a practice, it will be distilled into our being and bring us closer to an identity which is philosophically closer to the experiences you have every day.  With writing, for example, you may be writing the things you don’t know or only know subliminally but the idea or thought can come through into the work just because it is being done. (I call this, not knowing what I think until I write it). Practice (in any kind of activity) can bring those moments into whatever work you are doing and that becomes part of your identity.  After creating such a work the artist loses his insights because they’re within the work but they may be transmitted to the reader or the viewer of the work.  And a book may have those insights even if some readers are not aware of it.  Writing novels is a way of writing strangeness.

Ley asked if Salom ever withheld certain things from his reader? Yes, he does, because he likes to create open-endedness.  In The Fifth Season Sarah rails at the use of the word ‘closure’ because there isn’t any. There can’t ever be, not even if she found her sister.  As a writer, he says,  you have to resist closure.

(Ley (playfully, I thought) said that you can still have reinvention, and referenced the way Sarah’s paintings get painted over in the novel.)

It was important, Salom said, to depict ambiguous grief — ambiguous because people have nothing concrete to grieve over when a person is missing, they don’t even know that the person is dead.  And while those searching interrogate every last moment they had with the missing person, for clues, self-blame and guilt, it’s quite possible that the person chose to go missing and wanted to get away, maybe from the very people grieving her absence.  In the novel Sarah by obsessively searching and painting her sister’s portrait everywhere, partly as her own art practice, makes that absence very complicated.  Similarly, Simon is full of ambiguities: he’s in a fugue state, escaping to a writers retreat, and there are hints about his health.  The reader never knows whether he is dying or writing about dying.  We don’t really know and are not meant to know.

Salom says that to write is to distance yourself from yourself, just by doing it.  It’s a paradox.  (And it’s also an addiction, but not usually a damaging one.)

Ley brought up the issue of writing about people who’ve been completely effaced, i.e. the Somerton Man, who was a real man  found in 1948 on a South Australian beach but to this day no one really knows who he was.  All evidence had been removed so it’s impossible to know who he was.  The Isdal Woman in Norway was the same, again no evidence as to who she was, and her identity was totally erased, and the Gippsland Man was a similar case.  There are many like this: a blank slate, one which fascinates not just him but everyone.

Missing people have a back story but no future story.  Erased people have no back story.  The pathos in this situation also has potential for wonderment.  It’s not all entirely tragic: Salom likes to hope that people who are missing want to be. There are 38,000 people who go missing in Australia and while every year many are found, they are replaced by others. It’s extraordinary, when you think about it.

Ley asked about the title, and the answer turned out to both simple and complex.  Salom is ‘a farm boy from WA’ where there are four seasons which govern life on the farm and must be planned for.  The four seasons also correspond to the four ages of man: childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age  — the seasons of life.  Similarly, these four seasons replicate elements of quaternity, the square, the balance, the form, and the continuum, and what we expect of life is a continuum.  So the four seasons relate to our expectation that there is this continuum and that we know where we’re going.  The fifth season, therefore is a meta of the seasons, a season above below beside and outside of the four seasons that we all know.

The Ascent of Man - dvd cover.jpgWhen I read The Fifth Season, I was fascinated by the garden of broken shards in the garden of Simon’s house.  In my review I referenced the Spanish architect Gaudi, but I wanted to know where the idea came from.  It turns out that it comes from a BBC TV series that those of us of a certain age will remember: The Ascent of Man which was presented by mathematician and historian Jacob Bronowski.  I dug out my copy of the book that accompanied the program, and there it was in the chapter called ‘The Grain in the Stone’: a reference to the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Here is what Bronowski had to say about them, so that you can envisage the structures that Salom reinvents in his novel:

I could not end this essay without turning to my favourite monuments, built by a man who had no more scientific equipment than a Gothic mason.  These are the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, built by an Italian called Simon Rodia.  He came from Italy to the United States at the age of twelve.  And then at the age of forty-two, having worked as a tile-setter and general repairman, he decided to build, in his back garden, these tremendous structures out of chicken wire, bits of railway tie, steel rods, cement, sea shells, bits of broken glass, and tile of course — anything that he could find or that the neighbourhood children could bring him.  It took him thirty-three years to build them.  He never had anyone to help him because, he said, ‘most of the time I didn’t know what to do myself.’  He finished them in 1954; he was seventy-five by then.  He gave the house, the garden and the towers to a neighbour, and then simply walked out.

‘I had in mind to do something big,’ Simon Rodia had said, ‘and I did.  You have to be good good or bad bad to be remembered.’ He had learned his engineering skill as he went along, by doing, and by taking pleasure in the doing.’ (The Ascent of Man by J. Bronowsi, BBC, 1973, Australian edition published by Angus & Robertson, 1976,ISBN 0563170646, p 118-121)

You can find out more about them, and see images here.

Many thanks to Christine from Readings Bookstore for facilitating these author talks.

Buy the book at Readings!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 13, 2020

2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlist

The 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists were announced today:

Exploded View, Carrie Tiffany, Text Publishing, see my review
The Death of Jesus, J. M. Coetzee, Text Publishing
The Weekend, Charlotte Wood, Allen & Unwin, see my review
The Yield, Tara June Winch, Hamish Hamilton: Penguin Random House, see my review
Wolfe Island, Lucy Treloar, Picador: Pan Macmillan, see my review

Hearing Maud: A Journey for a Voice, Jessica White, University of Western Australia Publishing, see my review
Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, Christina Thompson, William Collins: HarperCollins
See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse, Jess Hill, Black Inc., see Jennifer’s review at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large.
Songspirals: Sharing Women’s Wisdom of Country through Songlines, Gay’wu Group of Women, Allen & Unwin
The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat: A Rodent History of Australia, Tim Bonyhady, Text Publishing

Australian history
From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting, Judith Brett, Text Publishing, see my review
Meeting the Waylo: Aboriginal Encounters in the Archipelago, Tiffany Shellam, University of Western Australia Publishing
Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform, Marilyn Lake, Harvard University Press
Sludge: Disaster on Victoria’s Goldfields, Susan Lawrence and Peter Davies, La Trobe University Press in conjunction with Black Inc.
The Oarsmen: The Remarkable Story of the Men Who Rowed from the Great War to Peace, Scott Patterson, Hardie Grant Books

Birth Plan, LK Holt, Vagabond Press
Empirical, Lisa Gorton, Giramondo Poets
Heide,π.O., Giramondo Poets
The Future Keepers, Nandi Chinna, Fremantle Press
The Lost Arabs, Omar Sakr, University of Queensland Press

Children’s literature
Catch a Falling Star, Meg McKinlay, Walker Books
Cheeky Dogs: To Lake Nash and Back, Dion Beasley and Johanna Bell, Allen & Unwin
Cooee Mittigar: A Story on Darug Songlines, Jasmine Seymour, illustrated by Leanne Mulgo Watson, Magabala Books
One Careless Night, Christina Booth, Black Dog Books: Walker Books
Winter of the White Bear, Martin Ed Chatterton, Dirt Lane Press

Young adult literature
How it Feels to Float, Helena Fox, Pan Macmillan, see Brona’s review at Brona’s Books
The Honeyman and the Hunter, Neil Grant, Allen & Unwin
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, Wai Chim, Allen & Unwin
This Is How We Change the Ending, Vikki Wakefield, Text Publishing
When the Ground Is Hard,Malla Nunn, Allen & Unwin

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 13, 2020

Virtual launch: This is not a Lie, by S.C. Farrow

With launches and author events cancelled around the country, a virtual launch is a good way to introduce new fiction to readers of ANZ Litlovers. So I am pleased to introduce Melbourne screenwriter, author and teacher of creative writing S C Farrow, who last year published a short story collection called Open Wounds. This is Not a Lie (also published by Dixi Books in the UK) is her debut novel.

This is the blurb:

The Blackhearts were based in St Kilda, Melbourne’s music capital in the early 1980s. They were looking for a new singer when a good-looking newcomer named Harry Engel turned up to audition. His blistering vocals were all they needed to rocket the band into super stardom.

Secretly gay, Joel fell for Harry hard and fast, but nothing could have prepared him for the tragedy that was about to befall them.

More about the book:

In 1984, St Kilda is the heart and soul of Melbourne’s thriving music scene. Joel Reed, a brilliant young guitarist and songwriter, followed his sister Karen to the bohemian beachside suburb to chase his dream of becoming a rock star. On the surface, it seems like Joel has got it all together. He’s in an up-and-coming rock ‘n’ roll band and is surrounded by people who want to see him succeed. However, Joel is also a high-functioning heroin addict and closet homosexual. Desperately lonely and dangerously self-destructive, he hides his true self, lives a carefully constructed lie, lest he be discovered, outed, and shunned by the city’s legion of hard rock fans.

When the band is forced to audition for a new frontman, Joel’s world is turned upside down. Harry Engel, offbeat, charming, and disarmingly charismatic, walks into the rehearsal room to audition and rocks Joel’s carefully constructed world. Joel’s never met anyone like him before – and it’s not long before he falls in love. However, there’s no way he can tell Harry how he feels. There’s no way he can’t tell anyone how he feels. He can’t do anything to jeopardise the band’s success. And so, he lives the carefully constructed lie – until tragedy strikes and threatens end Joel once and for all.

About the author 

Born and brought up in Australia, S.C. lives in the leafy green northern suburbs of Melbourne.  She has a master’s degree in creative writing and teaches creative writing at institutions across the city.   She hasn’t always been a writer: in the past she’s had some wacky jobs like a lampshade maker, cigarette girl, dressmaker, and vocalist.  She’s also done some wacky things like spending a week in a Swiss castle with the Hugh Jackman of Cuba, and climbing inside the Great Pyramid of Egypt.

​She has always been creative, which has proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Through the years, she’s been able to express her creativity in a variety of ways, through music, fine art, and even dance. However, it’s writing where she finds her greatest joy.

She is fascinated by myriad topics and uses both beautiful words and broken characters to explore the human condition and to challenge the status quo on some of society’s most widely held perceptions.  For example, she co-wrote and co-produced Killervision, (2010) a micro-budget psychological horror/thriller about a brain-injured man whose friends are being murdered one by one.

Above all, her life experience and painstaking research ensures that her work is authentic.  You can find out more about Farrow at her website.

This is Not a Lie will be available from November 28, 2020 (Dixi Books) at Waterstones,  the Book Depository, Fishpond, and Amazon UK.

Early readers at Goodreads have this to say:

  • Ayse: ‘This is Not a Lie’ is less a story about the struggle of a music band and more about a young man’s fight of finding himself when all seems lost. It celebrates being true to yourself, whoever that may be.
  • Michael K: Farrow’s writing is melodic and is among the most emotive I’ve ever read.

You can see more reviews at Goodreads,  and there’s a book trailer here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 12, 2020

Islands of Mercy, by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain’s latest novel is a foray into the mid 19th century and the quest to be your essential self amid the constraints of Victorian England.

The focus is on brave, enterprising women who take the initiative to achieve different things.  Poverty-stricken Clorinda Morrissey departs Dublin where there is no future, and sells the family heirloom to set herself up in business with a highly successful tea-rooms in Bath.  It is in those tea-rooms that the hapless Dr Valentine Ross proposes to Miss Jane Adeane, who at 6 foot 2 inches in height, is known locally as ‘The Angel of the Baths’ because she has a healing touch.  Outraged by his effrontery, she departs in a huff.  She doesn’t quite know what great things she could achieve, but knew that she and her magnificent inches would accomplish something the world would find extraordinary. 


In London, recovering from this scene (how Victorian!) at the home of her Bohemian aunt Emmeline who makes an independent living as an artist, Jane discovers her sexual identity when she falls in love with Julietta Sims, a promiscuous lesbian who has accommodated her own desire to have a family in an accommodating marriage with Ashton.  To this reader’s surprise, Julietta recommends that Jane should accept Valentine’s suit, have children, family and respectability, and then find ways to continue more satisfying relationships, as she has.

What Juliette doesn’t know, is that her Ashton is a very tolerant man who chooses not to see what goes on right under his nose.  Valentine is not at all like that, and although the reader’s sympathies are briefly engaged by his devastation after Jane’s refusal, he turns out to be a monster.  A controlling monster, and that’s just the spoiler-free half of it.  The men in this book are all disappointing in one way or another: Jane’s father is a doctor too, but he is ineffectual without her nursing skills at his side; Ashton doesn’t have enough self-awareness to see how he is being used.  (A deliberate authorial manoeuvre, I think, to provoke awareness of how behaviour such as Julietta’s is commonly perceived as unexceptional when it’s done by a man).

The men in Borneo are likewise the antithesis of the powerful Victorian patriarch.  Sir Ralph, colonising his own little patch of the British Empire in Borneo, is a buffoon, and his lover, a local called Leon, bullies and insults him while using his money to achieve his own misguided ambitions.  Sir Ralph doesn’t pay adequate attention to Valentine’s brother Edward, a would-be naturalist wanting to emulate his hero, Alfred Russel Wallace* but comes a cropper through his own folly. Leon, an expert at manipulation, blackmails Edward via a poisonous letter to London.  All the characters in Borneo are compromised, one way or another, except for Taminah, Leon’s mother.

And that, for me, is the flaw in this novel.  In seeking to elevate women of this era to an otherwise unacknowledged place in their society, Tremain has created an artificial gender divide where the men are too flawed, and the women are not flawed enough.  Valentine and Leon in particular are overdrawn, with petulance descending into real cruelty that is not entirely convincing.

* Alfred Russel Wallace, was the British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist who is famous for two things: conceiving the theory of evolution independently of Darwin (which prompted Darwin to stir his stumps and publish The Origin of Species instead of dithering about); and identifying in 1859 the line separating the fauna of the Indo-Malayan and the Austro-Malayan regions in the Indonesian archipelago. See my review of The Spice Islands Voyage, in Search of Wallace, by Tim Severin, who in 1997 recreated Wallace’s historic voyage.

Author: Rose Tremain
Title: Islands of Mercy
Publisher: Chatto & Windus, (Penguin Random House) 2020
ISBN: 9781784743321, pbk., 356 pages
Source: Bayside Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 12, 2020

The Moon is Down, by John Steinbeck


Today is Remembrance Day and so it seems apt that I share the story of this battered little book which belonged to my father.  It was published in 1942 under strict wartime conditions by the British Publishers Guild, who were co-operating in the publication of a comprehensive list of important books of universal appeal, published in paper covers at a very low price.  Today, three-quarters of a century later, the covers have parted company with the pages, but the heavy duty staples which took the place of proper binding are still holding the pages together.   My father was seventeen in 1942, and was a fire watcher and air-raid warden in London before joining the RAF later in the war when he was older.  It humbles me to think of him holding this book in his hands and recognising, as I soon did, that its message is one of hope.

My father was no fool: even at seventeen he would have recognised the book as propaganda just as I do.  But I like to think that he believed in its fundamental truth, encapsulated in these words at the end of the book:

The people don’t like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be.  Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat.  Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars. (p.90)

The story takes place in an unnamed town invaded by an unnamed occupier at war with England and Russia, further identified as Germany by references to punctuality, officious behaviour, crisp uniforms, blind obedience to orders and a reverie of the Valkyries galloping through to the clouds to the accompaniment of Wagnerian thunder.  I assumed that the setting was modelled on the occupation of the Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey but no, Wikipedia tells me that the scenario resembles the occupation of Norway by the Germans during World War II.  (If I had seen the snowy landscapes on the Viking Press first USA edition cover, I would have known better, but it hardly signifies.)

Steinbeck shows the heroic resistance of the townspeople, led by their unassuming Mayor Orden.  The occupiers arrive, assuming that their military might confers the power they need to have their orders followed.  They regard the defeated people as orderly, and they believe that they will cooperate in an orderly way and dig up the coal that the enemy requires. But Orden demurs: he tells Colonel Lanser that while the people were orderly under their own government, which has been built for over 400 years, they may not be orderly under the invader’s government.  And when Orden is told that it is in the interests of the people to prevent them rebelling, and it is his responsibility to keep them safe, he demurs again.

Mayor Orden asked, ‘But suppose they don’t want to be safe?’
‘Then you must think for them.’
Orden said, a little proudly, ‘My people don’t like to have others think for them.  Maybe they are different from your people.  I am confused, but that I am quite sure of.” (p.14)

His words are confirmed by Annie the Cook, who arcs up at the presence of soldiers on her porch, and chucks a pan of boiling water over them.  Told that he has to discipline his cook, Orden says he can’t, or she’ll quit.  Lanser threatens to have her locked up or shot, to which Orden replies that then they would have no cook.  I don’t know if censorship had suppressed reports of German reprisals in Occupied France at the time, but even so, I think most wartime readers would have known this polite German helplessness in the face of a truculent woman was a fantasy.  And indeed the tension arcs up when Alex Morden refuses to be ordered about at the mine and kills one of the Germans with a pick.  Then there are reprisals, and the reprisals escalate as the resistance turns from sullen obstinacy and minor acts of damage to more serious sabotage and murder.

The situation becomes a spiritual siege in which the conquerors grow afraid of the conquered.  

Now it was that the conqueror was surrounded, the men of the battalion alone remained silent enemies, and no man might relax his guard for even a moment. If he did, he disappeared, and some snowdrift received his body.  If he went alone to a woman, he disappeared and some snowdrift received his body.  If he drank, he disappeared.  The men of the battalion could sing only together, could dance only together, and dancing gradually stopped and the singing expressed a longing for home.  Their talk was of friends and relatives who loved them and their longings were for warmth and love, because a man can be a soldier for only so many hours a day and for only so many months in a year, and then he wants to be a man again, wants girls and drinks and music and laughter and ease, and when these are cut off, they become irresistibly desirable.

And the men thought always of home.  The men of the battalion came to detest the place they had conquered, and they were curt with the people and the people were curt with them, and gradually a little fear began to grow in the conquerors, a fear that it would never be over, that they could never relax or go home, a fear that one day they would crack and be hunted through the mountains like rabbits for the conquered never relaxed their hatred.  (p.47)

Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove unnecessary links) tells us that:

A French language translation of the book was published illegally in Nazi-occupied France by Les Éditions de Minuit, a French Resistance publishing house. Furthermore, numerous other editions were also secretly published across all of occupied Europe, including Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, and Italian versions (as well as a Swedish version); it was the best known work of U.S. literature in the Soviet Union during the war. Although the text never names the occupying force as German, references to “The Leader”, “Memories of defeats in Belgium and France 20 years ago” clearly suggest it.  Written with a purpose to motivate and enthuse the resistance movements in occupied countries, the book has appeared in at least 92 editions across the world.

You’d think that the Americans who plotted the occupation of Iraq might have read and understood the fundamental truths expressed in this little gem by their Nobel prize winning author…

Image credit: First edition cover: By Source, Fair use,

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 11, 2020

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1946

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from Read the Nobels.

To see my progress with completing the Read the Nobels Challenge, see here.

Steppenwolf, by Herman Hesse, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1946

Translated by Basil Creighton, revised by Walter Sorrell, Penguin, 1965, 1979 reprint.

I am almost too embarrassed to share the excruciating naïveté of this review, but there it is at Blogspot for all to see anyway, and those who’ve read the book may enjoy an opportunity to chat about it set me straight.  To redress my sins, I’ve added excerpts from its citation in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die which, (obviously) I didn’t own when I wrote this review.  I apologise too, for the use of the term ‘schizophrenic’… these days I would use ‘bipolar disorder’.

30th November, 2006

Hesse says in his introduction that this is the most misunderstood of his works and I can understand why. It seems to be a first person narration of a person with a mental disorder – maybe schizophrenic or maybe chronic depression – but whatever it was, I got tired of it before long.

The Steppenwolf is a man who feels himself to be half man, half wolf, and he is torn between satisfying his ‘base’ desires (exemplified by sex, dancing, jazz and generally the sort of stuff that most people enjoy but he despises himself for it) and satisfying his intellectual desires (Goethe, Mozart, solitariness and rejecting bourgeois taste).

He meets a strange girl who seems to know what’s good for him, but Hermoine is also a Herman, and a procuress to boot.  She lines up another girl for him, not to mention Pablo the jazz muso.

I know, I know, all this is a metaphor for the crisis in Hesse’s own persona, but at the end of the day, it just didn’t work for me.  At least it was short.  (And so is this ‘review’!)

I finished reading it and journalled it on the 30th of November, 2006.

From the citation in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall, A Quintet Book for ABC Books (2006 edition) purchased from the Hobart Bookshop, $45.00

Harry Haller, the protagonist of Steppenwolf, feels himself painfully divided into two diametrically opposed personas. […] Steppenwolf chronicles the tension that dominates Haller’s inner life from three distinct perspectives: his bourgeois landlady’s nephew, a psychoanalytic tract, and Haller’s own autobiographical accounts. With the help of some of the other characters, Haller gradually learns that every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms…


He determines to explore the multiple aspects of his being, experimenting with his sexuality, frequenting jazz clubs where he learns to dance the fox-trot, and socialising with groups of people whom he formerly regarded with condescension and derision. Thus he realises that these pursuits are to be valued as much as the thrill of intellectual discovery. The highly experimental, perplexing nature of the conclusion goes some way to explaining why Steppenwolf is the most misunderstood of Hesse’s works.

In addition to a brilliant and thought-provoking meditation on the tumultuous process of self-discover, Steppenwolf is a scathing and prescient critique of the complacency of Germany’s middle class amidst the escalating militarism that preceded and made possible Hitler’s rise to power.  (p.322)

Am I going to read it again?  Uh, no. But I have Siddharta and The Glass Bead Game on the TBR, both of which are listed in 1001 Books and I am going to read them in due course.

What I’d really like (and this is my not so secret real reason for publishing this) would be for someone who’s written a proper review of Steppenwolf to tell me where it is so that I can link to it from here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 10, 2020

Summerwater, by Sarah Moss

Well, this was a disappointment.  Not a dreadful, crushing disappointment, more of a wet weekend sort of a disappointment and a mild irritation that it didn’t meet my expectations and I could have spent my time reading something more interesting.  After all, if I hear about a book at the Edinburgh Festival, the first and probably only time I’ll get to “attend”, thanks to Covid and the digital pivot, I expect it to be a really good book…

Instead it turned out to be tiresome.  A succession of stream-of-consciousness narrators reveal themselves to be a bunch of narcissistic people on holiday in a dreary set of cabins somewhere in Scotland where it rains incessantly.   They’re all bored and fed-up, and before long I was as well, because their thoughts reveal them to be rather dull people. One of them goes running in the rain; one of them thinks all kinds of mundane thoughts while having sex with her husband; one of them can’t think of anything to do when her husband takes the kids out to give her a break; two of them are sulky teenagers; and one of them is a spiteful little girl who is mean to another little girl who happens to be Other, at least as far as these unhappy campers are concerned.

One way or another, all of them put themselves at risk, but in the end it’s the Ukrainians who play loud music and annoy everybody else who come a cropper.  Well, more than that, but I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone else who labours through this book in hope of some kind of climax.

There are some good aspects of the novel.  The writing is effective in showcasing the different voices and the range of hidden emotions.  There is resentment, boredom, guilt, distractibility, and failure to engage in intimacy.  Moss depicts awareness of looming dementia both felt and observed, failed ambition, stupidity and selfishness.  But it’s not illuminating.  We all know that there are people like this. An author needs more than that to make an absorbing novel.

Some reviewers make a lot out of the Ukrainians being cast as interlopers as if that makes all the others racist.  But from the outset these people behave selfishly.  They play very loud music till all hours of the morning.  This is inconsiderate behaviour that impacts on the wellbeing of neighbours anywhere, but in a peaceful place where the only sounds should be the sounds of nature, it spoils the ambience for everyone.  In the daytime, because it’s raining, and because there are the other sounds of daytime living, well, maybe fair enough though IMO it’s still un-neighbourly to inflict your choice of music on others outside your house.  But at night, when everyone’s trying to sleep, especially the families with small children, it’s really mean.  Most people would feel hostile towards such behaviour, regardless of the ethnicity of the perpetrators.

I was expecting some kind of climate-change-induced natural disaster to tidy these disparate elements into a whole.  One of the teenagers makes gloomy prognostications about climate change so it was on the author’s mind, and mine.  Plus, the title is an allusion to William Watson’s The Ballad of Semerwater which apparently derives from a legend in which the waters of a lake rise up and drown a village.  The only survivors are those who welcomed a stranger, and this fed into the possibility that Brexiteers might sink beneath the waves while refusing help from the pesky Ukrainians.  A deluge; a landslide; one of the cabins collapsing under the torrential rain so that the others have to take the occupants in?  But no, that’s not what happens.

Ah well.

To see a more complimentary review, see Melissa Harrison at The Guardian or John Boyne at the Irish Times.

Author: Sarah Moss
Title: Summerwater
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2020
ISBN: 9781529063189, pbk., 200 pages
Source: Bayside Library


I was about half-way through this bio-memoir, The Book Collectors of Daraya  when I came across a very interesting article by Katharine Murphy at The Guardian.  It’s called When Donald Trump is peddling outrageous lies, where is the line between reporting and enabling?  and (while I urge you to read the article yourself), the crux of the piece is the issue of of reporting about something that is morally wrong, untrue and/or misleading, which by so doing gives that event or opinion publicity and possible influence, which may lead to confusion, violence, civil unrest or other harm.

French journalist Delphine Minoui wrestled with this problem during the writing of this book.  As Middle-East correspondent for Le Figaro, she had come across an arresting photo with the caption ‘the secret library of Daraya’ at the Humans of Syria Facebook page and decided to follow it up.  Through the miracle of WhatsApp and Skype she was able to make contact with an amazing group of young rebels who had created a secret library in the basement of an abandoned building during the siege of Daraya.  They salvaged the books from buildings damaged during the bombardment and set up the library as a refuge from the horror of war and as a place of learning for people denied education because of the siege.

It’s clear where Minoui’s sympathies lie.  Most Western nations oppose the Assad regime and were/are supporters of the movement for democratic change — Minoui calls the conflict for what it is: a proxy war between Iraq and Saudi Arabia; between the US and Russia, plus also Qatar and Turkey.  But Minoui is not naïve and she’s not on the ground to see for herself.  The story comes filtered through her phone app and she sees only the footage and images they enable her to see.  She can interview only the people they select and all of that is through an interpreter anyway.

For her there is the question of possible connections with Islamic State in the battle against Assad, and whether she is giving them an opportunity for a propaganda coup.  She interrogates the young men — and herself — about the question of links with jihadis, and I think it’s important that this is included in the book.  Minoui asks specifically: Does the suburb of Daraya harbour, yes or no, Islamist terrorists, even if they’re a tiny minority.

The answer is that yes, there were some who infiltrated the Daraya protest group in the early days before the emergence of the Islamic State.  But it didn’t take long for their extreme views to clash with the rebels, and they gave them short thrift.

Unlike Raqqa, another rebel-controlled town stormed by the al-Nusra front and then Daesh (the latter made Raqqa the Syrian capital of its caliphate three years after the revolution began), the enclave was able to stand up to the jihadists.  Unable to gain a foothold, the al-Nusra righters eventually disappeared.  Gone for good.  But if Daraya succeeded in driving out the jihadists, it was also thanks to a unique and unbending setup: military decisions are made by the local council, and not the Free Syrian Army, as is the case with most of the other opposition-controlled enclaves. (p.55)

She comes to the conclusion that she can accept what these young men tell her.  Her faith in them is rewarded when finally a group of women raise their voices and when she finally gets to meet the young men after the siege is over.

It’s an inspiring story, about the power and necessity of words: poetry, storytelling and history, along with pop psychology that gives them strategies for coping with a hellish nightmare.  The list of favourites from the library that is included as an appendix includes The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, along with Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray.  And, given that the book emphasises the fragility of the men’s existence, it’s nice to see photos of most of them there too, profiling the role each played in the uprising and the way they have rebuilt their lives as refugees in Turkey and France.

Author: Delphine Minoui
Title: The Book Collectors of Daraya
Translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2020
ISBN: 9781529012323, pbk., 197 pages
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan

Available from Fishpond The Book Collectors of Daraya and good bookshops everywhere.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 8, 2020

Cyclone, by Vance Palmer

As I mentioned in a recent post, while I wasn’t very impressed by my previous venture into the fiction of Vance Palmer, Chrystopher Spicer’s new book of LitCrit called Cyclone Country, the Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature was the catalyst for me to try Palmer’s work again. Initially enticed by Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm being included in Spicer’s study, I decided to track down a copy of Vance Palmer’s Cyclone because it’s also discussed in the book.

Cyclone‘s blurb begins with the statement that it’s a story of conflict and tension accentuated by a brooding cyclone, and that’s exactly what the book delivers.

It’s a story of flawed relationships and mutual insecurities set somewhere along the Far North Queensland coast.  The early chapters are mainly low-level (and rather tedious) domestic drama, rather quaint in style because women of the type portrayed seem today like museum pieces.  Fay Donolly lives vicariously through her husband and children, and the only other woman sketched in any detail is a vacuous young status-seeker called Con.  Fay and her husband Brian interact with other couples: Bee and Ross Halliday, on whose boat he works, and Elsie and Clive Randall, who’s having an affair with Bee, much to Elsie’s distress.

Unfortunately the dialogue between the characters is pedestrian, and some of it is incomprehensible.  Perhaps these terms were familiar in Queensland in 1947, and perhaps some of them can be inferred from context, but some of them defied a Google search and all the dictionaries in the house:

  • we’ve been kidding ourselves that everything was segarney (p.126)
  • take such a scunner against me (p.127)
  • so much bunce (p.127)
  • you’ve cut the painter (p.129)
  • don’t crab (at me) (p.140
  • burked a fight (p.1717)

Palmer’s writing is at his best when describing the way the weather generates tension:

So many ghosts could be set walking by the threats of the wind.  All night it had been nagging at whatever was loose about the house, coming in little gusts, now from the north, now from a few points to the east, and it was this continual change of direction that fretted the nerves.  At one time it would be the spouting by the tank that was beating a devil’s tattoo, then there would come a rat-tat by the tank again as a sheet of iron worked free from the lead-topped nails.  It seemed as if the ramshackle house was being worried to pieces.  And the fitful currents of air had no coolness; they brought the restless heat of late summer with them. (p.2)

Taking his turn at the wheel, as the dawn broke over a dirty, troubled sea that ran counter to the wind, he looked ahead at the cloud-smeared forelands and thought with a nostalgic twinge of his first trip up the reef with Halliday in the old Eagle. No chance of recapturing the freshness of those winter days: they were part of a vanished dream! It had been magical weather.  Over seas so clear you could see the coral sand ten fathoms down, the boat had moved as placidly as a resting gull, and little islands took shape on the skyline as bunches of foliage or banks of snow. (p.125)

This is a pilot searching for survivors:

Now he was in the area where the full force of the storm had struck and, looking down, he felt a dark shadow pass across his heart.  Not a leaf anywhere, hardly a standing tree.  It was as if a giant scythe had swept over the timber and undergrowth that came to the water’s edge, mowing a twenty-mile swathe to the hills inland.  It brought back to him the look, the very smell of war.  Great trees had been smashed down or torn up and thrown across one another. Even the grass had been uprooted, and high above the waterline, where tidal waves had borne it, was a mass of wrack, pumice, and lumps of coral wreathed with growths of weed.  The whole sea-bed seemed to have vomited up its refuse in a violent convulsion. (p.181-2)

It’s the relationship between Halliday and the other men which offers most interest.  Halliday is not a successful businessman, but Donolly has uprooted his family from the farm where Fay felt secure, to invest what little they have in Halliday’s unprofitable business venture, ferrying cargo along the coast.  Halliday’s charisma derives mainly from his service in the war, and there’s a general feeling amongst his mates that they owe him their loyalty.

This compulsion to admire Halliday even affects Fay’s brother Tod Kellaher, even though he’s of a different generation.   So amongst his other dilemmas he feels an element of guilt in his decision to stop working for Halliday, not least because his reason is spurious.  His girlfriend Con is infatuated with Halliday, and although there’s no sign that he has any intention of leaving his wife and children for her, Tod is so jealous that he joins the other unemployed men sleeping rough at the showground rather than continue living with Fay and Brian when he can’t pay his way.  But with the annual show looming, the town’s business interests want the sussos to move on, even though it was agreed that they could stay there until the cane cutting season started.  There’s going to be violence, and Tod’s not cut out for that though his loyalty is to the men who’ve made him welcome among them.   (Tod’s ambition to be a writer who mixes with the battlers looks like an autobiographical element in the novel, especially when the newspaperman Corcoran recognises his potential and pays him for some sketches.)

With no money and hesitant to borrow any from Fay because he knows her finances are severely stretched, Tod finds his problems so overwhelming that he begins to see the cyclone as a solution:

For a while, tortured as he was by the pressure on him, the thought of the cyclone bursting over the town came as a relief.  It would smash the holiday world to fragments, wipe out the dances and picture shows, straighten out his dilemma of either spending money on Con or losing her.  And when it was over there would be work for everyone, with men being called for to clear up the destruction and a fury of activity along the waterfront as the fishermen got their boats ready for sea again.  (p.34)

All this is set against the threat of a cyclone that no one wants to take seriously.  Despite the warning signs there are those who brush off the danger, reminding others of previous warnings which came to nothing.  As I learned when I completed a week-long professional development course at the Melbourne Bureau of Meteorology, cyclones are notorious for provoking this kind of behaviour.  Because the storm’s course can be plotted and warnings issued —which turn out to be wrong because cyclones by their very nature veer unpredictably off course— people become blasé and distrustful about BoM warnings.  In Palmer’s novel, this lackadaisical belief that the storm will once again bypass the town, coupled with undeserved confidence in Halliday’s ability to read the coast and the weather, leads Brian to join Halliday’s crew in the teeth of the gale.

While the plot follows a trajectory more predictable than the average cyclone, Palmer does succeed in generating some narrative tension in the last chapters of the novel.  With chapters offsetting increasing peril at sea with anxieties back on land, the novel reaches a climax that resonates — and then promptly undercuts it with a rather lame ending.

So I am yet to be convinced that Palmer was a great writer.  But he and his wife Nettie deserve a place in Australian letters for championing a national literature during the era of cultural cringe.  As the Australian Dictionary of Biography explains:

Palmer wanted to be a great novelist and perhaps underrated his other literary accomplishments. Critical opinion consistently prefers his short stories to his novels, which are sometimes held to lack vitality and intensity of feeling. Yet they show intellectual vigour, poetic vision and breadth of social observation. The range of characters, reflecting his own varied experience, constitutes a ‘parade of contemporary Australian humanity’; his interpretations of Australian life and of what it was to be an Australian of his time made a major intellectual contribution which has been largely neglected. His stories—predominantly rural, strong on atmosphere of place and man’s relationship to Nature—displayed steadily maturing craftsmanship and guarantee his permanent prominence in the canon of Australian writing. He was proudly of the Lawson tradition but sought to link it with more sophisticated metropolitan literature.

The Palmers’ partnership was dedicated to promotion of a national literature in a period when few were interested in Australian arts and letters. They emerged as leaders of a profession only beginning to recognize itself.

Still, I don’t think you need to rush out and track down a copy of Cyclone!

Author: Vance Palmer
Title: Cyclone
Publisher: Angus & Robertson, 1947
ISBN: none
Source: personal library, purchased from Brotherhood Books

Availability: out of print.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 7, 2020

A Bookish Welcome to November: Spell the Month in Books!

I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m in the mood for some frivolity because the world is a very serious place at the moment and a temporary break is just what I need.

I got this idea from hopewellslibraryoflife who got it from Carla Loves to Read who got it from Mimosa Blossom, who got it from…. and so it goes, what a wonderful bookish world we live in!

Here are my reviews:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 7, 2020

Peony, by Pearl S Buck, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1938

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from Read the Nobels.

To see my progress with completing the Read the Nobels Challenge, see here.

Pearl S Buck (1892-1973) was not the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, (that honour went to Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf in 1909) but she was the first woman to win it for literature written in English.  However, as the daughter of American missionaries who spent most of her life in Zhenjiang, China  before returning to the US in 1935, she is best known for her writing about China.  The Nobel citation was “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces”.  Of these I have read The Good Earth (1931) in the days before I kept a blog or a reading journal, and I’ve have previously reviewed her Letter from Peking, (1957).  However, in the process of *sigh* reconstructing my Excel reading record lost somewhere in cyberspace, I came across my review of Peony, (1948) in Reading Journal #11, just in time to add it (tweaked a little bit) to Reviews from the Archive.

19th of August, 2006

First edition cover

Peony, is a deceptively simple story of star-crossed lovers divided by race, religion and class.  Written in 1948, it’s an historical novel which explores the role of women in mid 19th century China.

Peony is a bondmaid in a Jewish family who lived in Kaifeng in China in the 1850s.  In the edition I read there was an Afterword*  which confirmed that there had been Jews in Kaifeng for a very long time, and that they were well-accepted by the Chinese as they never were elsewhere.  However, according to Buck, it was this assimilation which led to marrying ‘out’ and the gradual loss of their culture and religion.

*Probably by Wendy R. Abraham, but the book was from the library so I can’t now be sure.

Although the novel is dominated by the story of Peony’s doomed love for David, the son of the house of ben Ezra, it also explores Jewish beliefs and is critical of some aspects of their religion.

There is extensive dialogue about the incompatibility of the 19th century Chinese view of the world and the fundamentals of the Jewish religion.  Through the character of Kao Lien, a Chinese Jew, Buck is quite explicit about the separateness of Jews making them vulnerable to hatreds, and he tells his daughter Kueilin that she will not be happy if she marries into that family because they are a sorrowful people and they worship a cruel god.  Kung Chen, seeking to learn more about Judaism, rejects the concept of a Chosen People and tells the Rabbi that if there is a god, he would not select only The Chosen for salvation because under Heaven we are all one family. 

#Digression, my thoughts today:

Wikipedia tells me that Buck was, in the US, a prominent advocate of the rights of women and minority groups, but I am uneasy about anything that suggests any kind of justification for anti-Semitism, or which implies that minorities are in any way responsible for the irrational hatreds of other people.  However, though it is now well-established that the German genocide targeted all Jews, whether secular or orthodox, or assimilated for generations or not, I am inclined to think that Buck was, in the immediate aftermath of WW2, searching for some kind of explanation for the Holocaust and the comparative tolerance of the Chinese.  To put it another way, her response to the horror of the Holocaust may have been to explore within the society that she knew so well, the costs and benefits of assimilation as protection against it ever happening again.

I think now that Buck in this novel was exploring the vexed question of Jewish assimilation and identity.  Hatreds that fuelled pogroms elsewhere did not occur in China because the Jews were absorbed into Chinese society, but this was at the cost of their traditions and identity.  David’s mother Madame Ezra represents orthodox separatists who feared the loss of a distinctive Jewish identity, and her intransigent refusal to modify her principles even at the cost of her son’s happiness, shows the strength of her determination to protect her family’s faith.

Buck’s interest in this issue may also have been influenced by her own experience of being in a minority faith.  She was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, so she may also have been critiquing the contrasting worlds of restrictive religions in general, in terms of how they are incompatible with a more light-hearted, humanistic approach to life:

Pearl recalled in her memoir that she lived in “several worlds”, one a “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents”, and the other the “big, loving merry not-too-clean Chinese world”, and there was no communication between them. (Pearl Buck’s page at Wikipedia, viewed 4/11/20)

I’d be interested to hear the interpretations of others who have read this book more recently…



Peony, despite her lowly status, has agency in this tale.  Ever much more than a bondmaid, she had been soothing, cajoling, and manipulating things in the household for a long time, and since she knows that David will never marry her, she schemes instead for him to marry Kuelin (who is Chinese-Jewish, representing assimilation rather than separateness).  David is torn by his duty to his strongly religious mother and her belief that he should marry Leah, the Rabbi’s daughter.  After the quarrel in which Leah loses her temper and slashes him with his sword and then kills herself, he wants to make a redemptive pilgrimage to the Promised Land.

In the event, however, the only pilgrimage made is to the Imperial Palace at Peking.  Peony goes to Kuelin’s father, (David’s father-in-law) to tell them of David’s plans, and he sets up the journey to the palace instead, unwittingly sending Peony to her doom. It is there that she attracts the attention of the Chief Steward, a eunuch, and she has good reason to fear his insinuating behaviour towards her.

His power is such that the only way she can evade him is to enter a nunnery, where she ends her days as abbess, still visiting David’s household, but now as an equal and part of the family.

As a bondmaid, Peony had few choices.  She loved David with all her heart, and spent most of her life meeting his needs and subjecting herself to a loveless life—no husband, and no children.  When he finally realised what she meant to him and offered her concubinage as a way to escape the Chief Steward, again she acts selflessly.  She did not accept because she knew his religion forbade it and he would come to feel guilty about it even if the rest of China did not.

On the other hand, she hated Leah for her beauty but also for the sorrowfulness of her religion that she brought with her.  She schemes to make David marry Kuelin instead but only because she knew Leah could never make him happy.  Again this is an observation on Judaism that may not please everyone, and the contrast between the light-hearted pleasure-loving Chinese sits oddly in the light of Mao Zedong’s revolution and the terrors of the Cultural Revolution.  Buck, writing in 1948, was not to know how nasty, brutish and dull China was to become.

Peony, by Pearl S Buck, first published in 1948, borrowed from Kingston Library.

I finished reading it and journalled it on the 19th of August, 2006

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 6, 2020

Dark Wave, by Lana Guineay

Joint winner of the 2020 Viva La Novella Prize, Lana Guineay’s debut novella Dark Wave is ideal for both AusReading Month 2020 at Brona’s Books. and Novellas in November hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at Bookish Beck.

This is the blurb from the back cover:

George hasn’t heard from his ex, Paloma, since she returned to her family home on Songbird Island in the Whitsundays. Now she’s asking for his help to uncover the mystery of who is stealing the family’s wealth, but what they discover is much worse than a case of fraud.

With luscious prose and a sumptuous setting, Lana Guineay’s debut novella is a brilliant reworking of the classic crime novel.

The crime in this case begins with embezzlement which, when fear of discovery looms, leads to murder.  The principal character, George Green, is the archetypal sad sack private investigator but there is a love interest (the beautiful Paloma) whose only flaw is that she is obscenely wealthy, and the social chasm looms wide.  Plus, George is obsessive about surfing, so he’s always ready to drop everything if there’s a prospect of a good wave.  This, as you might expect, puts a strain on his relationship.  Putting a good wave ahead of a good woman is probably not the path to True Love.

But George is still carrying a torch for Paloma so when she calls on him for help he abandons his downmarket accommodation and business premises in Bronte (a beachside suburb of Sydney), and sets off for the (mythical) Songbird Island in Queensland, owned by Paloma’s father and lush with beautiful scenery and lavish tourist accommodation.  (Think luxury-market Orpheus Island rather than family-friendly Hamilton Island).

The ins and outs of the plot are best left to the reader to discover, though I did wonder a bit about the way the mainland police acquiesce to letting the PI access evidence. Maybe I’ve watched too many Father Brown episodes where the dour police detective is forever trying to get Father Brown out from underfoot.

However, what interested me most was the plot complications of a possible cyclone.  As it happens, I am also reading Cyclone, a novella from 1947 by Vance Palmer, and I am pursuing this unlikely reading task (since I haven’t previously found Palmer to be exactly riveting reading) because I’ve been sent a book of LitCrit called Cyclone Country, the Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature by Chrystopher Spicer. While this kind of academic study is not the kind of book I usually read, I was lured into it because Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm is included in the study.  And, on a whim, because Spicer told me that Vance Palmer’s Cyclone was also included, I decided to dig up a copy and I’m currently about half way through it.

I should add that I have resolutely not even opened the Spicer book yet, but already I can see from reading Cyclone why ‘the language of place and disaster’ is an interesting topic for study.  Cyclone‘s blurb begins with the statement that it’s a story of conflict and tension accentuated by a brooding cyclone.  Half way through it, there’s a character whose dilemmas are so overwhelming that he almost wishes the cyclone would hit the town and blow all his troubles away.  So when a cyclone looms in Dark Wave, it’s more than just a storm.  It’s a complication that can wash away evidence, evacuate possible witnesses and suspects, and destroy the wealth that separates The Path of True Love.

Enough said, or I’ll give the game away!

Author: Lana Guineay
Title: Dark Wave
Cover illustration by Sam Paine
Publisher: Seizure by Brio Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781922267252, pbk., 197 pages
Personal copy, purchased from Seizure Online $6.99

You can buy the book from Fishpond, Dark Wave, direct from Seizure, or from good bookstores everywhere.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 6, 2020

Meet an Aussie Author: Rosalie Ham


Photo credit: Mercedeh Makoul

After months of lockdown, today I ventured into a real bricks-and-mortar bookshop.  With a wonderful home delivery service, Benn’s Books in Bentleigh have kept me well supplied with books to read but, as we booklovers all know, there is nothing — nothing! — like actually being in a bookshop.  (I was amused that though I have been a good customer for years and years, they took a moment to recognise me with my mask on!)

I was there on a mission to collect my copy of Sienna Brown’s Master of My Fate (which has been shortlisted for the ARA Historical Fiction prize) and to choose a couple of Christmas books for small neighbours, but of course I browsed the New Fiction shelf, just in case there was anything I’d missed in the catalogues and newsletters that come my way.  And I wouldn’t have been the only one pleased to see Rosalie Ham’s just-released sequel to her best-selling The Dressmaker there on the shelf!

I am pleased to bring you this profile of Rosalie Ham in my Meet an Aussie Author series, and my thanks go to Clare Keighery, publicity manager at Macmillan, for her assistance in contacting Rosalie.

Rosalie Ham is a Melbourne writer and teacher. I’ve read everything she’s written, starting with her debut novel, The Dressmaker, (2000) which was adapted to film in 2015 and starred Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving and Liam Hemsworth, then Summer at Mt Hope (2005), and two more, reviewed here on the blog, There Should Be More Dancing (2011) and The Year of the Farmer (2018).  (You might remember that I posted about to a Booroondara Library author event about that one…)


These are Rosalie’s answer’s to my questions:

  1. I was born….in Jerilderie, population 800, hence, my interest in what everyone else is doing, my ability to form an opinion about it and keep it to myself…or not.
  2. When I was a child…there was no TV, so my imagination is mine, it’s not formed by someone else’s interpretation.
  3. The person who encouraged / inspired / mentored me … …was actually many people who said things that I clung to. In the end, it was me who sat down and started writing.
  4. I write … firstly, in isolation. I take off to a motel, or similar, and get the synopsis down. Then I do the best I can.
  5. I write …whenever I’m alone and my imagination is floodlit and pulsing.
  6. Research is… essential, absorbing, enlightening, enriching…and most of it of no real use. But it’s huge fun.
  7. I keep my published works in … my office, on a (small) shelf. It’s rare anyone’s invited into my office.
  8. On the day my first book was published, I … drove 150ks to the nearest book shop and bought a copy. They told me I’d sold three copies. I’d never felt more elated.
  9. At the moment, I’m writing…nothing. I’ve given myself a month off so I’m cleaning out the shed and researching new lawn mowers.
  10. When I‘m stuck for an idea / word / phrase, I … read writers I’m jealous of. That usually does the trick.

I wonder which writers they are?

Thanks for participating Rosalie!

You can buy The Dressmaker’s Secret from Pan Macmillan or good bookstores everywhere.


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