Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 4, 2021

Pietà, by Michael Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Pietà by Michelangelo – Image: Michelangelo’s Pieta 5450.jpg, CC BY 2.5,


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 2, 2021

Vale Kate Jennings (1948-2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 1, 2021

The Watermelon Boys, by Ruqaya Izzidien

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

This is the blurb:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 30, 2021

Sensational Snippets: Becoming a Bird, by Stephanie Radok

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

Mazel tov, dear daughter!”

Mazel tov, may we enjoy good fortune!”

Mama smiles too but not at me.

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

“No problem, boys will also come… .”

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

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

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

Wikipedia confirms that this ostracism was literal:

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

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

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 28, 2021

Murmurations, by Carol Lefevre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bleak landscapes seem malevolent:

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

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

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

But now it is she who is couch-surfing:

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

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

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

See also Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

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

Image credits:

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

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


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 27, 2021

Land of Big Numbers, by Te-Ping Chen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 26, 2021

2021 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards winners

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

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction

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

Multicultural NSW Award

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

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize

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

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

For prizes in other categories, visit the awards website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2021

As Swallows Fly, by L.P. McMahon

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do you fix all these people? Malika asked.

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

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

‘What happens there?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I am very able to do this.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2021

A History of the Great War, a novel, by Peter McConnell

This week, in the same week that President Biden announced the withdrawal of troops from the 20 year conflict in Afghanistan, The Conversation drew attention to an interesting phenomenon: a marked decline in attendances at Anzac Day dawn services.  Whatever the reasons for this might be, I like to think that thoughtful Australians are still taking time to reflect on war, its effects and its aftermath, as well as why, how and whether the nation should get involved in warfare.  It is after all, one of the most solemn decisions that a nation can take.  It should always be a last resort if undertaken at all.

A History of the Great War is a novel, not a work of non-fiction.  Conceptually, it’s a work that traces the way the two world wars impacted on the lives of women who lost loved ones from two generations of the family.  Ida’s fiancé Ralph Mitton comes back from The Great War a changed man… he has numerous operations to remove shrapnel from his legs and is in constant torment from the damage to his nerve endings.  Despite his efforts to take up employment, he can’t ever really work again because of his bad temper and excessive drinking.  But they marry anyway, getting by on his pension and on her exceptional needlework.  They have two sons, one of whom dies in the Second World War.

There is nothing unusual about such a story.  Such tragedy was not uncommon for numerous families whose lives were changed irrevocably by the world wars of the 20th century.

Set in the Victorian regional town of Bairnsdale, McConnell’s A History of the Great War is a history, one that is often not told.  Its omission from the national narrative is a mystery in itself, in a land where memorialisation of the Anzacs is an industry as well as almost an obligatory responsibility whether one feels ambivalent about it or not.  The novel is written in 3rd person from Ida’s point-of-view, but with almost no dialogue.  The text, however, uses words and expressions from her way of speaking that place her in in the generation born in the late 19th century, who came of age when World War 1 broke out.  This style of expression leads me to suspect that the novel is someone’s intimate family memories turned into a novel.  You can almost hear an old lady relating these memories over a cup of tea, sepia photos of her loved ones looking down from the mantelpiece…

Mrs Mitton’s parents were farmers who had lived in the district most of their lives.  They had come out from England in 1869, hoping to better themselves in Australia.  At home they were poor folk, her father a farm labourer and her mother a servant girl in the town of Little Dunmow.

They had selected a block in East Gippsland and her father had cleared every last tree himself with an axe in years of back-breaking labour.

Ida remembered him as a thin, stooped man with a grey moustache, worn out by his endless struggle to make a go of the farm, but gentle and kind-hearted.  He had a great love of horses and to the end of his days spoke with a soft Essex accent.  (p.21)

Ida is not a fully fleshed character in the way that one might expect but she is not intended to be. We see little of her interactions with other characters, or her daily labours, and we know little about her private thoughts.  What we see is what we would today call ‘self-talk’: the way she suppresses her fear for her loved ones, her grief, and her loneliness by internalising the notion of duty, as she has been taught to do, and which becomes the expectation for all women in this era. But still, Ida comes alive, because we see her back story.  She is a country girl, smarter than most but doing a soul-destroying job in retail because her family can’t afford to send her to university.  Ida is rather plain, but attractive enough for Ralph to choose her rather than the other girls at the dance because she isn’t ‘forward’ or ‘showy’.  Their courtship is related in some detail (about a third of the novel) and Ida’s gratitude in being chosen by such a handsome young man has the authenticity of someone’s long-cherished nostalgic memories of youth.

The plot follows a predictable trajectory without anything much in the way of narrative tension.  In telling this history of a tumultuous era, there are no great moments of drama.  The stoicism and way of thinking that marked this generation is conveyed like this:

Ralph, needless to say, decided to enlist.  It was expected of him at the Shire Office and besides, being young and adventurous, he wanted to go.

Ida’s heart turned cold when he told her, but she said nothing to dissuade him.  That would not have been right.  It was the duty of Christian men to bear arms and serve in the wars.

Their marriage was postponed until he should return.  At that critical moment the Empire needed all its sons and daughter to rally with brave hearts.  It was not a time for selfish, private concerns.  (p.79)

There is a simplicity about the prose that feels as if it’s an authentic retelling of a survivor’s long life.  Without embellishment, the reader sees a plain and simple woman making the best of things despite tragedies that would have crushed a lesser woman.  A History of the Great War is an empathetic portrait of a life blighted by war.  It’s a book that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned.

A History of the Great War is beautifully presented.  Published in hardback, it was designed by Peter Lo, with a pitch-perfect dust-jacket, plus endpapers featuring a sobering sepia photo of huge crowds at a war memorial.  The design also includes a reproduction of a handmade quilt, best described by blurber Chester Eagle:

‘The soul of the book is Ida’s tapestry, onto which she stitches every image of importance from the years of her century, gently correcting the madness of “great events” with her own infinitely modest appraisal.  World history seems small beside the statement Ida wrings out of huge disasters and tiny joys.’

I finished this book with a sense of great respect for women like Ida.

You can read other brief reviews at the publisher’s website.

PS One of my favourite authors Amanda Curtin, has posted five recommended titles to read at Windows into War on her blog Looking Up Looking Down.  The books she suggests all encourage empathy and compassion, and it’s perhaps not surprising that they are all also stories of love…

Author: Peter McConnell
Title: A History of the Great War, a Novel
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2008
ISBN: 9780975022887, hbk., 237 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Transit Lounge.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 23, 2021

Locust Summer, by David Allan-Petale

Locust Summer was shortlisted for the 2017 Vogel, and was IMHO unlucky not to win it, because it’s a very fine novel indeed.

This is the blurb:

On the cusp of summer, 1986, Rowan Brockman’s mother asks if he can come home to Septimus in the Western Australian Wheatbelt to help with the harvest. Rowan’s brother Albert, the natural heir to the farm, has died, and Rowan’s dad’s health is failing. Although he longs to, there is no way that Rowan can refuse his mother’s request as she prepares the farm for sale.
This is the story of the final harvest – the story of a young man in a place he doesn’t want to be, being given one last chance to make peace before the past, and those he has loved, disappear.

So often, we hear young people exhorted to ‘follow their dreams’ … but for families in remote farming areas of Australia, this advice can tear families apart.  When Rowan Brockman left the family farm to become a journalist, he was not the heir, he was ‘the spare’ but his decision to find a future elsewhere alienated him from the family anyway because of the gulf between his lifestyle and ambitions, and theirs.

I’m a city girl: I would be the last person on earth to be interested in the intricacies of farming, so I feel as if this book which subverts the typical farm story was written just for me.  Rowan the journo is just as ignorant as I am about what’s involved in harvesting a wheat crop, and by writing the novel from the urban perspective of a man out of his comfort zone, the author has conveyed the tension of those days without labouring the point.  There is a not-negotiable deadline that has to accommodate unexpected rainfall, not to mention conflict amid the team.  Rowan is the inexperienced intruder but he’s part of the family that owns the land so his status is ambiguous.  He has inappropriate clothes, soft hands and aching muscles which make him the subject of some mockery amongst the men.

Perhaps the worst job on a farm is mending fences.  And though our morning tour hadn’t revealed a busted wire or a loose picket, Sterlo set me to work pinching in a new section of livestock fencing near one of the gates linking our paddocks to the neighbouring Chambers’ property.

‘See how those office hands stand up’, he said, handing me a pair of pliers and a hammer.  ‘I’ll roll it out, you fix it to the posts.’

By lunch my fingers ached with arthritic tension, and by knock-off at five they could barely make the fists I wanted to shake at the whole blasted place.’ (p.27)

As Sterlo tells Rowan when he takes an unauthorised break, it doesn’t matter if he just helps his mother to take care of things, but if he’s going to be part of the team ‘This is no place for passengers’.   Rowan’s pride won’t stand for that but one careless moment means he nearly ruins the crop; another moment of stupidity nearly costs him his life (and kept me reading well into the night.)

Rowan came back for his brother Albert’s funeral, but did his grieving in Perth, leaving his parents to manage on their own.  He is shocked to see the deterioration in his father’s health when he reluctantly returns, and after years of his neglect, his mother—with whom he has a fraught relationship—isn’t tolerant of any interventions he might want to make now.  Rowan doesn’t fit in at the pub, and there’s a girl he once fancied who isn’t about to change her life because he’s come back. He doesn’t understand—and more importantly, takes for granted—the long-term loyalty of the team leader who stepped up and took Alby’s place.  His mother thinks he deserves the punch he gets when he offends this crucial member of the team.

There are other aspects to the novel: a belated coming-of-age; Rowan’s at-risk position at the unsentimental newspaper in Perth; conflicting ideas about selling the land to a university for research with implications for employees who’ve worked it for years; and the complex emotions that bedevil families on the land.  Not everyone loves it—some make sacrifices to make a go of it out of love—but abandoning it for whatever reason invites judgement from others and guilt from within.

Locust Summer is an absorbing novel that I found unputdownable, and I look forward to reading more from this author.

There is a sample chapter at the publisher’s website, and book group notes and an author interview too.

Author: David Allan-Petale
Title: Locust Summer
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2021
Cover design: Nada Bacakovic (thanks, Twitter!)
ISBN: 9781925816365, pbk., 240 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

Available from Fremantle Press and all good retailers.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2021

Tussaud, by Belinda Lyons-Lee

Gothic historical novels are not usually my thing, but there’s a lot to like about Tussaud, the debut novel of Belinda Lyons-Lee.

As you can tell from the cleverly designed cover art, the title alludes to Marie Tussaud who was famous for making death masks of victims of the guillotine in revolutionary France.  I first read about her in one of those children’s annuals that I used to receive at Christmastime.  I loved reading them… brief snippets about all sorts of topics but often about heroic women. I read about Marie Curie, Nurse Cavell, Florence Nightingale, and yes, Marie Tussaud—who made a career out of creating wax portraits of celebrities such as Jean-Jacques RousseauBenjamin Franklin and Voltaire, and was then forced to immortalise the dead during the Reign of Terror.

Belinda Lyons-Lee’s story which is based on these real events begins in the aftermath.  Still traumatised by her own brush with death because she’d been judged a royalist, Marie agrees to go to London with Philidor as side-kick to his automaton shows.  She knows he is a charlatan, but it’s a chance to make a fresh start in safety and to make a home for herself and her two boys.  It is her job to make the wax models, and Philidor’s to automate them, bringing the dead back to life.  But from the start they have very different perceptions about who will have control: creative control; control of the money; control of the publicity, and control of managing the show itself.  Philidor’s refusal to listen to Marie results in catastrophe on their first night because he doesn’t understand that wax can’t be exposed to light and heat for too long.  ‘Marie Antoinette’ melts because the show goes for longer than the stipulated hour.

This disaster, however, is the catalyst for the Gothic elements to enter the story.  The eccentric Duke of Cavendish hires the pair, stipulating bizarre conditions and a contract which compels them to create an automaton to his strict instructions.  In return, he provides the venue for their new show underneath his mansion at Welbeck Abbey, amid fifteen miles of tunnels and rooms, including a ballroom.   Before long, Marie is doing the things that characters do in Gothic novels, which is not to say that these things are clichés, it’s to say that the author has the atmospherics right.  Marie goes wandering about in the dark within a labyrinth of gloomy corridors and locked doors; she hears strange sounds and sees glimpses of people who ought to be elsewhere; she discovers peculiar things and notices items persistently awry; and—without letting curiosity get the better of her because she’s not that kind of woman, she takes up a quest to find out who Elanor was and why the Duke wants to reproduce her in wax.

Marie is a strong and purposeful woman, who takes no nonsense from anyone.  She anticipates blackmail, and replies in kind.  (This is not so hard to do since all the men, with the exception of her Uncle Curtius who taught her the trade) are lecherous sleazes with not only the kind of behaviours that #MeToo has led us to expect, but some novel variations on the theme.   All this reaches a very satisfying conclusion, leaving the reader to ponder the question alluded to on the front cover: What if we could cheat death itself?  This is the same question that underlies Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun

Just for fun, you might enjoy visiting these sites:

Author: Belinda Lyons-Lee
Title: Tussaud
Cover Art by Josh Durham/Design by Committee
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2021
ISBN: 9781925760620, pbk., 352 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2021

Growing Up Disabled in Australia, edited by Carly Findlay

Growing Up Disabled in Australia is the most recent in the Growing Up in Australia series, and like the others, it’s illuminating.

My disabilities may limit the length of my life but not its value or its fullness. All lives are marked by grief and joy in equal measure. Nobody loves without suffering and nobody knows gladness without pain. My life is not unique for that, and no more tragic than anyone else’s (at worst a tragicomedy). There are forms of happiness availability to me that I would have never known about if I wasn’t disabled. And I am happier now than ever before. I am living deeply, and fiercely, and without reservation. (Et Lux (also, light), by Robin M. Eames, p.112)

Readers may recall that I reported on an author event about this book in which I mentioned that the book is based on ‘the social model of disability.’ However, I misrepresented what that is: it means more than including physical, mental and social disability.

‘The social model sees “disability” in the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment  filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers.  It therefore carries the implication that the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environments must change to enable people living with impairments to participate in society on an equal basis with others.’ (People with Disability Australia, cited on p xi.)

One of the most striking examples of this was seen on our televisions when Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John took his place in Federal Parliament.  Parliament House in Canberra was opened with great fanfare in 1988, seven years after the International Year of the Disabled in 1981.  Senator Steele-John uses a wheelchair.

This is a building that was built in 1988 and at the time they were patting themselves on the back for the number of accessible toilets they put in the public areas.  But not a single piece of the working areas of Parliament House was built to be accessible, even by 1988 standards.  When a man who used a wheelchair, Graham Edwards, was elected to the House of Representatives, they changed an office for him but nobody thought to change anything on the senate side of the building.  Because again the thinking was, ‘Oh, that’s an anomaly, it will never happen again.’ (‘You Are Enough’ p.80)

As Steele-John says, there’s an unwarranted assumption that disability is an aberration, which leads to changes being deferred (or more often, not even thought about) until they have to be implemented.

There are 47 contributors to the anthology. In the Introduction, Findlay explains that she took…

…an intersectional approach when selecting the work.  The people in this book are disabled, chronically ill, mentally ill and neurodiverse, and inhabit the city, regional and rural regions and Aboriginal communities.  They span generations—some are elders and some are still growing up—and genders, cultures and sexualities. (p. xi)

Not only that: these contributors vary in their attitude towards being included in the disabled community.  Not everyone in the book sees disability as part of their identity, but some are waving the pride flag loudly; both responses are valid.  For some, diagnosis and a label is the key to getting the help you need; for others it’s just not part of who they are.

But diagnosis can be exhausting, and hideously expensive and it can take years.  

Doctors in Australia aren’t taught much about connective tissue disorders, so nobody knew what to do with me.  Without a diagnosis I couldn’t access support or treatment.  Without support and treatment, my disability degenerated to a point of crisis.  I lacked coping strategies.  I didn’t connect with the disabled community because I didn’t know that the disabled community existed.  I didn’t think of disability as an identity category or an axis of marginalisation.  I couldn’t even begin to fathom the idea of disability pride, because I was still thinking about disability in terms of pain and suffering, rather than community, resistance and radical survival. (Et Lux (also, light), by Robin M. Eames, p.110-111)

There are essays, poems, letters and even graphic art; some are comic while others are angry or poignant.  ‘Don’t Have a Bird’ by Sandi Parsons is addressed to her sister, who had cystic fibrosis, and it begins like this, reminding the reader that being able to participate in rites of passage is an expectation that everyone would like to share:

There are so many rites of passage you’ve already missed out on, and the school ball is destined to become another item on that every-growing list.  You try to delay the inevitable until every breath from your lungs sounds as if cystic fibrosis is cackling through you. So, with a resigned air, off to hospital you go.

Although you’ve been denied the opportunity to attend the ball, no is prepared to give up the ritual altogether.  Instead, your sister Mel, your mum and I, arm ourselves with my ball dress, a curling wand and a bag of makeup.  Together we crowd into your hospital room.

We giggle while we do your makeup and curl your hair, then, when you’re finally dressed, we start our photoshoot.  You shine with happiness. As the chief photographer I have a most important task: to make sure your bare feet never appear in any of the photos to spoil our carefully crafted illusion. (‘Don’t Have a Bird’, p.113.)

This story also offers one of the most beautiful moments in the book:

I plonk myself onto the couch and force my face into a blank expression.  I look you dead in the eye before I speak.  ‘I’m not inviting you to my wedding.’

Your arms fold defensively across your chest as you glare at me.  ‘That’s not very nice.  Why not?’ You are so indignant it’s a struggle not to laugh.

‘Because bridesmaids do not get invited.  They are expected to be there.’

You squeal with delight.  (‘Don’t Have a Bird’, p116).

I was unprepared for the cruelty of school-girls in ‘Dressing to Survive’ by Jessica Newman-Marshall.  I hope those bitches read about themselves in this book and that shame overwhelms them for a good long time.

Isis Holt, in ‘Surprising Myself’, talks about the importance of humour: I think it is so easy to treat disability as something serious and taboo but when it comes to family and people who truly understand the nature of your condition and the way you feel about it, humour makes conversation easier.’  

Emma Di Bernardo addresses the issue of resilience:

Resilience is not a virtue you’re born with.  Unlike disability, it’s not congenital.  Unlike mental illness, it’s not genetic.  It’s not diagnosable and it’s not prescribed.  It’s sure as hell not on the PBS.  It’s something you learn in the face of adversity.  Growing up disabled means you experience adversity—whether physical, mental or social. (‘Umbrellas in the Rain’, p.213)

There are so many powerful pieces in this anthology, the best thing I can do is to recommend that you get a copy and read it for yourself.

Editor: Carly Findlay
Title: Growing Up Disabled in Australia
Publisher: Black Inc., 2021
ISBN: 9781760641436, pbk., 308 pages
Source: Bayside Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 15, 2021

Sincerely, Ethel Malley, by Stephen Orr

Sincerely, Ethel Malley is Stephen Orr’s tenth novel and I’ve read and reviewed all but one of the others, so I can confidently say that this is the best one he’s ever written.  It works on so many levels: it’s a great story in its own right; and it has wonderful characters used to explore enduring themes like courage, fortitude and integrity as well as loyalty and trust within friendships and family.  The transformation of the central character and narrator is both entirely credible and wondrous.  But then there are questions which emerge from the book as a whole: what is truth and and who gets to tell it? who protects the individual against the power of the press?  what is lost when it is so difficult to do anything worthwhile in a conservative milieu? why is tradition so mercilessly hostile to modernity?  how and why does a culture drift into mediocrity? and anyway, what are the arts and why do they matter ?

This remarkable novel is a fictionalisation of the notorious Ern Malley literary hoax.  Although it’s not at all necessary for enjoying the novel, for those not familiar with the hoax, it’s well worth reading up on this at Wikipedia because it’s a significant element of Australia’s literary history which influenced the trajectory of modernist poetry in Australia.

Briefly, what happened was this: in 1943, two conservative Sydney poets, James Macauley and Harold Stewart,  rivals of the precocious Max Harris and not best pleased about the success of his modernist literary magazine in South Australia, cobbled together some random texts and submitted it for publication as modernist poetry. Harris fell for the hoax and in 1944 published the poems in a special edition of the magazine, with a Sidney Nolan cover and a brief bio of the poet: ‘Ern Malley’ who had died young, leaving the poetry to be discovered amongst his effects by his sister Ethel.  The hoax was subsequently revealed and Max Harris was tried and convicted for publishing poems that were ‘obscene’.  Angry Penguins folded in 1946, but by the 1970s those same poems were regarded as good examples of surrealism, and in what I can’t resist calling ‘poetic justice’ today they are read more often than anything written by Macauley or Stewart.

(The excerpts from the poems that are quoted in the novel show just how this could indeed be so.)

Set in 1943-44, Sincerely, Ethel Malley tells Ethel’s story, and she is a brilliant creation.  From her bemused discovery of the poems to her naïve uncertainty about what to do with them and her subsequent contact with Max Harris via a local ‘expert’, she becomes a warrior on behalf of her brother when the storm about authenticity of the poems erupts.  When the newspapers get hold of the story, it becomes the talk of the town in sleepy wartime Adelaide.  Denying the existence of Ern soon becomes a case of denying her existence too, and ever the loyal sister, she sets about demolishing the doubts.

Max Harris’s girlfriend Von is jealous of Ethel, because Ethel has something Von can’t compete with.  Ethel is a salt-of-the-earth, uneducated woman who—like her brother Ern—is of the sort routinely denied the chance to reach her potential by poverty, family tragedy, and an education system that in those days petered out early for people of her class.  But the way she so quickly grasps what modernism is about, eclipses Von’s understanding of Max’s ambitions.  Ethel can extrapolate from her growing understanding of modernism to discuss not only poetry, but also modernist art by Willian Dobell and drama such as James Joyce’s Exiles, and Max enjoys conversation with her.  Stephen Orr is a teacher, and he knows the way that the most unexceptional student can blossom given the right teaching at the right time.  That’s what Max, for all his flaws (and his doubts) does for Ethel.  Her remarkable intelligence blooms.

I walked up the hill, in the back door of the art gallery, past the Impressionists, Conder, Streeton, and all the others who were happy painting Australia as it looked.  Anyone could do that.   But how it didn’t look? I shouldn’t have ever doubted Mr Nolan.  Now, I knew, we needed him and his Malley-like landscapes. I wondered if he’d suffered the same outrages. (p.222)

But good as it is, Sincerely, Ethel Malley is not just an entertaining historical novel and a literary hoax.  It is also a novel of our time.  When Ethel and Max encounter Rus Nielsen at Speakers’ Corner, Orr uses it to raise the issue of toxic populism:

[Max} returned to Nielsen and said, ‘Rus, it seems you’ve already made your mind up.  You hate people who love culture because you don’t understand it yourself.  And instead of trying to (these things, like anything worthwhile, take some effort) you find it easier to destroy the people involved, to laugh at them, to call into question their motivations. And like Hitler, you agitate people into a frenzy, telling them it’s okay to hate what they’ve always hated, because it’s somehow different, and we can’t tolerate difference, can we, Rus?’

Max, my hero, again. ‘Ethel, there’s no use buying into it, this idiot knows what he’s doing.  If you people choose to go along with it, so be it.  You’ll get the society you want, but in the end, might not like it.’

‘So that’s my fault?’ Rus said.  ‘A little bit arrogant, wouldn’t you say?’

‘See, tactic number one.  Identify the enemy and characterise as a moral danger.’

‘Now you sound ridiculous’.

‘Use of emotive language.  Short, simple words.’

‘What, you writing an essay about me, Max?’

‘Reduce everything to imperatives.  Black and white.  Are you with us or against us?  No complexity in any argument.  That’s another thing Hitler does.’ (p.218)

And of course you can substitute the name of a former American president and see what Stephen Orr is getting at.

I loved the way this novel played with its core mystery: what, and who is real in this story?  Sincerely, Ethel Malley is going to be one of my Best Books of the Year, and it’s destined for shortlists everywhere, I am sure of it.

To learn more about Sincerely, Ethel Malley, you can Join Miles Franklin longlisted novelist Stephen Orr and critic Simon Caterson, author of Hoax Nation, to talk literary hoaxes and all things Ern next Thursday April 22nd.  The event is hosted by Readings.  Book here.

Update 22/4/21 What a pleasure it was to hear what Stephen and Simon had to say.  Jo Case was an excellent host, contributing thoughtful conversation starters (and clearly very familiar with the book because she edited it!)  I think I’m about to add to my TBR with the book that Simon wrote, because of the discussion about the three types of hoaxes:

  • Impostors: writers who claim to be from a different culture, pretending to have an identity that’s not their own.  Norma Khouri is an example of this, cashing in on interest in ‘honour killings’;
  • Trojan Horses: stories that purport to be ‘just a story’ but carry a subliminal message.  Go Ask Alice is an example of this.  Authored by ‘anonymous’ it claims to be the edited diary of a teenager, but it’s really a didactic novel about the evils of drug-taking;
  • Time Bombs: hoaxes that are set up to be revealed in the course of time, with the aim of exposing gatekeepers such as critics and publishers as flawed.  Apart from the Ern Malley hoax, there is also the famous example of hoaxers sending a chapter of Patrick’s White The Eye of the Storm to publishers, who rejected the Nobel Prize winner’s manuscript.

It was interesting to see that Stephen has a more tolerant view of such hoaxes, whereas Simon admitted to being more censorious, but both agreed that it’s different if the intention to deceive is not intended to hurt.  FWIW I think that what Macauley and Stewart did was spiteful and cruel.

I might also be chasing up a copy of Michael Heyward’s The Ern Malley Affair…

Image credit: The Ern Malley edition of Angry Penguins. Featured on the cover is a Sidney Nolan painting inspired by lines from Ern Malley’s poem Petit Testament, which are printed on the cover, bottom right: “I said to my love (who is living) / Dear we shall never be that verb / Perched on the sole Arabian Tree / (Here the peacock blinks the eyes of his multipennate tail)”. The painting is now held at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. Public Domain,

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: Sincerely, Ethel Malley
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2021
Cover design by Liz Nicholson
ISBN: 9781743058084, pbk., 441 pages
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2021

The Thinking Reed, by Rebecca West

This week it’s time for the #1936Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

1st edition hardback cover

For my contribution, I’ve chosen The Thinking Reed, a novel published in 1936 by Rebecca West (1892-1983).  Like The Return of the Soldier (1918, see my review) The Thinking Reed is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  It’s cited because it sensitively examines the limitations of the life led by many middle-class women during the 1920s and it highlights the disintegration not only of a class but an entire way of life.  The 1936 first edition was published by Hutchinson & Co (London) and 1001 Books says that it remains an important and thoughtful exploration of relationships, class, and marriage for today’s reader.  

Last year I read West’s A Train of Powder (see my review) which is a collection of essays that includes her famous reportage of the Nuremburg Trials, and perhaps it was the seriousness of those essays that suggested to me at first that The Thinking Reed was just a rather shallow story of a woman with ‘man trouble’.  The novel begins with Isabelle, a wealthy American widow, who has come to France to make a new start, and has found herself trapped in a relationship with a disagreeable man, when she would rather be with someone else.  In the process of getting rid of him, she makes herself disagreeable to the object of her intentions, and in her disappointment, she impulsively marries someone else.  But as the story progresses through the fortunes of Isabelle Torrey and her French husband Marc Sallafranque, West satirises the vacuous emptiness of the lavish 1920s lifestyle.  Which, as the end of the novel signals, was about to collapse because of the looming Depression.

I am pleased to say that my first impressions were wrong.

The title is a quotation from the French mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer and Catholic theologian, Blaise Pascal, describing the temperament of man and the nature of his existence:

“Man is but a reed, the feeblest one in nature; but he is a thinking reed.”

The third-person limited narration is from Isabelle’s point-of-view, and she does a great deal of thinking indeed.

Her competent, steely mind never rested. She had not troubled with abstract thoughts since she had left the Sorbonne, but she liked to bring everything that happened to her under the clarifying power of the intellect. For she laboured under a fear that was an obsession. By temperament she was cooler than others; if she had not also been far quicker than others in her reactions, she might have been called lymphatic. But just as it sometimes happens that the most temperate people, who have never acquired the habit of drinking alcohol, or even a taste for it, are tormented by the fear that somehow or other they will one day find themselves drunk, so Isabelle perpetually feared that she might be betrayed into an impulsive act that was destructive to such order as reason had imposed on life. Therefore she was for ever running her faculty of analysis over in her mind with the preposterous zeal of an adolescent running a razor over his beardless chin.  (The Thinking Reed. Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, Location 26).

In fact, by chapter 10 Isabelle chastises herself for thinking too much.  These days we would say she is overthinking things.


For this reason she knows that André de Verviers, is not Mr Right.  Although they enjoyed a splendidly passionate attraction to each other for about a week, he is given to impulse, destruction, unreason, even screaming hysteria and he flies into jealous rages.  Since he is one of those men who can’t imagine the possibility that a woman doesn’t want him, nothing she can say fends him off.  (We’ve all met one of those.  In my experience a well-aimed stiletto heel in the offending shin works wonders).  Isabelle, however, eventually reasons that it is her calm and reasonable behaviour that he is attracted to, and therefore the way to discourage him is to embarrass him by creating a public scene, dumping his flowers in the courtyard of his apartment and screeching at him (even though he isn’t there).

Alas, Lawrence Vernon (the one she wants) witnesses this scene, and is disapproving.  Not because of what she did, or the reasons she did it, but because he is embarrassed by it.

After all, he was not quite what she wanted. He had understood and accepted all she had told him; he knew that she was the same sort of person as himself, that she had fallen into the hands of the enemy and had suffered outrageously and had taken what means she could to free herself. But he was not going to tell her that he loved her and wished to marry her because he belonged to the vast order of human beings who cannot be loyal to their beloved if a stranger jeers. (Loc. 701)

So on the rebound, she marries Marc Sallafranque, a wealthy but not very prepossessing industrialist.  Which turns out to be not the mistake the reader might be expecting. Through the twists and turns of the plot, West shows Isabelle’s attraction to men who share her disgust with the decadent life of the rich.

…what are called nice people aren’t nice at all. They’re very nasty. They’ve got an unfair proportion of the world’s goods, and only a few wipe out that unfairness by what they do with their good luck. The rest of them want more, and they don’t care how they get it. They’ll close their eyes to any vice on the part of anybody who’s rich and who has a comfortable house they can go and stay in, or who can give them tips on the Stock Exchange. They are complete parasites, who can’t earn their keep. (Loc 4813)

West is not afraid to sheet home blame where it lies.  She is not surprised that she has been forgiven her unforgivable behaviour by her friend the Russian émigré Princess Luba, because…

…having been able to forgive God for the miseries He had brought on her through the medium of history, [Luba] could scarcely be hard on her fellow creatures, who had so many more excuses for their misbehaviour. (Loc 3761)

So much of this novel is laugh-out-loud funny. After a crisis which leads to depression, Isabelle goes to a French clinic:

She therefore mentioned her depression to the doctor in charge, a short, sensible-looking man with a beard, in the hope that he might suggest a change in her regime. But he answered her chiefly in abstract nouns, of which she had often noticed there were more in general circulation in France than in any other country, and she saw that she had fallen into the hands of one of those modern doctors who have strayed too far from aperients in the direction of the soul. He gave her no helpful prescription, but spent every day a longer period in her room, using more and more abstract nouns, until his conversation seemed to have broken all links with reality. But she grasped that this was not the case the afternoon he led her to the window and pointed out that, even as in the garden below the delicate blossoms of spring had given place to the roses of summer, so youth and its illusions gave place to maturity and its deeper, richer, and, he could swear, more delicious experiences. His voice throbbed, and she recalled with embarrassment that, whereas in England and America a beard usually means that its owner would rather be considered venerable than virile, on the continent of Europe it often means that its owner makes a special claim to virility. (Loc.3816)

She does no better with a German doctor who enthuses about the medicinal qualities of mountains:

 She found herself quivering with rage. What right had he to feel that he was doing anything that ought to be done, taking notice of anything that ought to be noticed, when he was merely indicating that, in the same world where she and a great many unhappy people found themselves, there was also a mountain? In point of fact, the Hüpfenstrudelalp had probably not looked down on any great amount of human emotion, for the valley beneath, being infertile and poor in timber, had hardly been settled till the English began mountaineering in the middle of the nineteenth century. It had probably been witnessing joy and sorrow for about as long as the local railway station. (Loc.3899)

Isabelle went early to the doctor’s room, to tell him that she was leaving that night, and when he objected, she reminded him that he had promised her that the mountains would give her peace, and firmly assured him that they had. She perceived at once that she had been right in supposing this to be a proposition which he would not find in his heart to dispute, any more than the French doctors had found themselves able to frustrate her intention of returning to a lover; but he was unable to disguise a certain amount of regret that the mountains had acted quite so promptly on one of his wealthiest patients. (Loc 3980)

West’s wit ranges far and wide, unbothered by contemporary reluctance to assign national characteristics:

Marc lit a cigar and began one of those conversations with the wine-waiter which Frenchmen enjoy as Englishmen enjoy talking about cricket. Nothing is learned thereby. Both parties know before they begin that 1914 and 1917 were good for red Bordeaux and nothing remarkable for white, but 1920 was good for both, and that the last time Harrow beat Eton was in 1908. It is a refined and allusive way of satisfying the same need that is met by chewing gum, and it does no harm. (Loc 4297)

Nor does West refrain from droll allusions to sex!

She would not be afraid of those embraces which had so often reminded her, as she lay submerged in their tossing darkness, of the backgrounds of Delacroix’s vaster pictures, of crimson curtains hanging from huge marble pillars whose capitals were lost in rich opacity, of stacked lances and jewelled and hieratic helmets, of immense fruits and iridescent serpents. (Loc 4238)

But she is occasionally romantic too:

“Well,” he said, “I thought we might go down into the town and choose a present for you, just to mark your homecoming. Something from Carrier’s, I thought.”

“Oh, my darling, how lovely!” cried Isabelle. “You know how greedy I am, and it is so pleasant to come back to all those town-things after all that milk and white enamel in the clinics.” She said to herself, “It is not going to be quite so easy to forget, after all.” Then she cried out, alarmed in case she had betrayed her thought, “But why are you looking so miserable, Marc? What has suddenly come into your head?”

“Only that I have done my best, and it is not good enough,” he said.

“What do you mean? It is a charming idea, and I am delighted.”

“No, that is not the point,” he said. “The point is that what I am offering you costs only money, and I have plenty of that. Whatever you choose, I will hardly feel it. I wish I could give you something that meant I must scrape and save and go without sleep to pay for it. That would be a real present. But that’s the one thing I can’t afford to give you.”  (Loc 4064)

Romance between a husband and wife… and the satisfactions of marriage!  The Thinking Reed turned out to be much more than I had thought it would be.
(PS Some readers may remember that Australian polymath and former politician Barry Jones published his autobiography A Thinking Reed some years ago.  Alas, it’s still on the NF-TBR, where it’s been since he autographed it for me at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival in 2006. I’ll get to it one day, though I doubt it will be as wickedly funny as Rebecca West’s.)

Author: Rebecca West
Title: The Thinking Reed
Publisher: Open Road Media, 2010, first published 1936
Purchased from Amazon for the Kindle.

Image credits:

1st edition hardback cover: The Thinking Reed by Rebecca – Pseud. Of Cicily Andrews WEST – First Edition – 1936 – from Alphabet Bookshop (ABAC/ILAB (SKU: 8607) (

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2021

Doctor Pascal, by Émile Zola, translated by Julie Rose

It was a disappointment when, back in 2016 when I read the last of Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart series, Doctor Pascal was not available in a modern translation. I ended up reading a 2012 Virago Press Kindle edition which was translated in 1898 by Mary Jane Serrano (c. 1840 – 1923).  Serrano was primarily a translator of Spanish but she also translated from French and Portuguese, and I read her translation in preference to the 1894 edition translated by Ernest Vizetelly or the Elek edition translated by Vladimir Kean in 1957.  It really is quite remarkable that it has taken so long for a modern translation to become available but Oxford World’s Classics has at last completed its project to publish the entire Rougon-Macquart series in modern translations, and Doctor Pascal is now available translated by Julie Rose with an accompanying introduction and notes by Brian Nelson.

Australian Julie Rose is a world-renowned translator of French literature.  She is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres and has translated Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, as well as works by Dumas, Moliere, Racine, and Marguerite Duras.  (See Australians lead the way in French translation (  You can see the difference in style from Serrano in this excerpt:

Ah, those abominable papers! she saw them at night, in her nightmares, revealing in letters of fire, the true histories, the physiological blemishes of the family, all that wrong side of her glory which she would have wished to bury forever with the ancestors already dead! She knew how it was that the doctor had conceived the idea of collecting these documents at the beginning of his great studies on heredity; how he had found himself led to take his own family as an example, struck by the typical cases which he saw in it, and which helped to support laws discovered by him. Was it not a perfectly natural field of observation, close at hand and with which he was thoroughly familiar? And with the fine, careless justness of the scientist, he had been accumulating for the last thirty years the most private data, collecting and classifying everything, raising this genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquarts, of which the voluminous papers, crammed full of proofs, were only the commentary.    (Doctor Pascal, translated by Mary Jane Serrano, 1898, Chapter 1, Kindle Location 204) Ah! She saw those abominable files, at night, in her nightmares, setting out in letters of fire the true stories, the physiological defects of the family, the whole seamy side of its glory that she would have liked to bury once and for all, along with the ancestors already dead! She knew how the doctor had got the idea of putting those documents together when he first embarked on his great studies on heredity, how he’d been led to take his own family as an example, struck by the recurring cases he noted in it and which supported the laws he’d discovered. Wasn’t it a perfectly natural field of observation, one right there in front of him, which he knew all about firsthand? And with the robust disinterestedness of a scientist, he had spent the last thirty years accumulating the most intimate information on his nearest and dearest, gathering and classifying everything, drawing up this Rougon-Maquart Family Tree, of which the voluminous files were merely a commentary, stuffed with proofs. (Doctor Pascal, translated by Julie Rose, 2020, Chapter 1, p.16-17

Likewise, you can see how much more readable the modern translation is in this excerpt from Chapter 2.

… Dr. Pascal had only one belief—the belief in life. Life was the only divine manifestation. Life was God, the grand motor, the soul of the universe. And life had no other instrument than heredity; heredity made the world; so that if its laws could be known  and directed, the world could be made to one’s will.  In him, to whom sickness, suffering and death had been a familiar sight, the militant pity of the physician awoke.  Ah! to have no more sickness. no more suffering, as little death as possible! His dream ended in this thought  – that universal happiness, the future community of perfection and felicity, could be hastened by intervention, by giving health to all.  (Doctor Pascal, translated by Mary Jane Serrano, 1898, Chapter 2, Kindle Location 457) … Doctor Pascal had only one belief: the belief in life.  Life was the sole manifestation of the divine.  Life was God, the great engine, the soul of the universe. And life had no instrument other than heredity, heredity made the world; which meant that, if you could only understand it, harness it so as to control it, you could make the world however you liked. Because he’d seen sickness and suffering up close, a doctor’s militant compassion was stirring inside him.  Ah, to stop people getting sick, stop suffering , to keep people alive as much as possible.  His dream ended in the thought that you could spur on universal happiness, the future city of perfection and bliss, by intervening and ensuring health for all.  (Doctor Pascal, translated by Julie Rose, 2020, Chapter 1, p.16-17

But, as I have said so many times before when lauding this OUP series, it is not only that the new translations don’t betray Zola’s work with self-censoring excisions and abridgements or inaccuracies.  It is not only that contemporary translations avoid the florid prose of the 19th century Vizitelly editions or the dated expressions in the Elek editions.  The OUP series all come with introductions that set the series and the individual title in context.  Brian Nelson, Professor Emeritus of French Studies at Monash University and  author of, amongst other works of literary criticism, Émile Zola a Very Short Introduction (2020) has done eleven of these introductions and I credit the one he wrote for The Ladies Paradise as the catalyst for my entire Zola Project.

The introduction for Doctor Pascal introduces Zola as

…the quintessential novelist of modernity, understood as a time of tumultuous change.  The motor of change was the rapid growth of capitalism, with all that it entailed in terms of the transformation of the city, new forms of social practice and economic organisation,  and heightened political pressures. Zola was fascinated by change, and specifically by the emergence of a new mass society. (p.vii)

For those entirely new to Zola, the Introduction explains how the three branches of the Rougon-Macquart family represent layers of society in 19th century France, and how the series as a whole is an assault on bourgeois morality and institutions.  Zola was above all else, committed to the value of ‘truth’ in art and his belief that the writer must play a social role:

to represent the sorts of things—industrialisation, the growth of the city, the birth of consumer culture, the workings of the financial system, the misdeeds of government, crime, poverty, prostitution—that affect ordinary people in their daily lives.  (p.vii)

I can think of no living writer doing the same thing to the extent that Zola did.

If you’re not familiar with Doctor Pascal you can read my review to get a grasp of the novel, but to understand its place in the series you need to read Nelson’s explanation of the climate of ideas in France in the mid- and late nineteenth century.  Over the course of his career Zola weathered changes in the intellectual climate, from the middle decades of the 19th century when science not only acquired enormous intellectual prestige as the principal, or even the sole, model for the creation of true knowledge, to a reaction against it.  The entire Rougon-Macquart series is predicated on Zola’s belief in a ‘scientific’ form of realism which he called ‘naturalism’.  His characters act the way they do because they inherit behaviours from the inexorable laws of their physical nature.  So Doctor Pascal aims to counter the emerging distrust of science and the growing mood of pessimism during the fin de siècle.  

It’s also a very personal novel because it transposes intimate aspects of Zola’s own life.  Pascal, he says, is a surrogate of of Zola. 

Pascal may thus be seen as Zola’s double in philosophical, writerly and autobiographical terms.

Most importantly, Zola wanted to respond to critics who dismissed his work as morbid because of its dark themes.  He wanted to demonstrate his essential optimism, i.e.  a myth of catastrophe is opposed by a myth of hope. 

The translator’s note clarifies how much I missed by reading an earlier translation.  (I’ve pruned this a little to avoid spoilers.)

Both Serrano and Vizetelly cut sexual material from the text.[…] Yet even Kean, cutting nothing and writing with such uninhibited modernity, can be censorious, as when he described the doctor’s ‘sordid escapades with the first loose women he met’ in Marseilles, adding the adjectives ‘sordid’ and ‘loose’ and thereby providing a judgement Zola carefully refrains from making.  (p. xxii)

In my previous reading of Doctor Pascal, I had missed entirely a significant aspect of the relationship between MaÎtre Pascal and his disciple Clotilde.

Julie Rose thanks Judith Luna as the guiding spirit of the Zola retranslation program for Oxford’s World’s Classics, and I do too.   It’s a different book when it’s translated for our times.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Doctor Pascal
Translated by Julie Rose (2020)
Introduction and Notes by Brian Nelson (2020)
Cover illustration: detail from Sous la lampe, 1887, by Marie Bracquemond
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, OUP (Oxford University Press), 2020, first published in 1893,
ISBN: 9780198746164, pbk., 296 pages (not including the Explanatory Notes at the back of the book)
Source: Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Cross-posted at The Books of Émile Zola


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 9, 2021

Incantations, by Subhash Jaireth

Incantations is such a perfect accompaniment to a trip to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, I hope they have it on sale in their bookshop.  (If they do, Sue from Whispering Gums will be buying it.  We know from reading her blog that she gives books as thoughtfully chosen presents, and IMO it’s a safe bet that this one will be on her shopping list for some lucky person.)

Readers may remember one of my favourite books from last year was by the same author: Spinoza’s Overcoat, Travels with Writers and poets by Subhash Jaireth… well, Incantations is a book in a similar vein.  It’s a series of short meditations on artworks, most of which are portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, each one accompanied by a full copy reproduction of the work in question.  Many of them are portraits of writers, so of course I liked those ones best.

But lest you think I am too utterly predictable, I’m going to start with the first portrait, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (2009) by Guy Maestri.  Take a look at it here. Subhash titles his thoughts about this portrait ‘Melancholy, and it begins like this:

Melancholy.  It is all about the eyes.  Their absence, in fact.  The face hides them, unwilling to reveal them.  This reluctance makes their presence even more immediate; more urgent.  I am drawn to them; look for them.  But they are hidden, enclosed underneath the canopy of ridges, donning the thin eyebrows.  The eyes concealed in cave-like sockets.

Painted with thin washes of oil and glazed patiently, the portrait emits light, which is muted and borrowed from the light falling on it. (p.3)

These words encourage to reader to look carefully at the portrait, to linger over the way light illuminates it.  To consider the way melancholy drips off the painted linen like drops of dense dark honey. 

As I read my way through the book I began to think about the ways portraitists convey the identity of the sitter, and came back to this portrait.  The head-and-neck portrait fills the whole space and there is nothing to indicate that Gurrumul had one of the most beautiful voices ever recorded.  I like this artist’s confidence that we know this without needing to be told. And I like the colour palette, which like Evert Ploeg‘s portrait of Deborah Mailman (1999) signifies the relationship that Indigenous people have with the land.  The piece about the Mailman portrait is aptly called ‘Luminous’ and I like the way Subhash’s powerful words draw attention to symbols we might otherwise miss:

The hessian canvas comes from bales of wool.  It shows signs of wear and tear.  Its rough surface is stained and holed but some letters and numbers stencilled on it have survived.  They sit together with other letters and words painted by the artist.  DM is one of them, as is the word CLASS, inverted and pushed behind Mailman’s right arm.  Not far from her right shoulder, just above the six figure number, is a tiny map of Australia, stencilled in black.  It is so small that it can be easily missed, but when the eyes start looking at the numbers, it shows itself immediately.  ‘Made in Australia’ it says, and as soon as these words are uttered, history pours out of the painting.  (p.8)

Skipping ahead to the portraits of authors, I am spellbound by the one of Stella Bowen whose autobiography I read last year.  Amanda Curtin had lent me her copy which had reproductions of Bowen’s paintings including self-portraits, but I hadn’t seen the one reproduced in Incantations.  Self-portraits are fascinating because they aren’t really about capturing a likeness:

It’s a self-portrait after all, painted to examine the shape of her being.  Therefore, to capture the likeness wasn’t her main concern.  She wanted to go beyond it; to penetrate the veil of her appearance.  She wanted to find out what others saw when they looked at her, and if possible, affect their look: to make them see what she herself saw.  (p.30)

Once again, the portrait doesn’t allude to the sitter’s profession.  But nor does it interfere with what we know.  Which is why I was so surprised by Jeffrey Smart’s portrait of David Malouf (1980). It’s bizarre: Malouf is in overalls, working at a gas station.  But I’m not happy either with Robert Hannaford’s portrait of Robert Dessaix (1998), and Subhash is discontented too.  Hannaford hasn’t captured the cheeky naughtiness that characterises Dessaix, who Subhash tells us is a master trickster who knows how to have fun at the expense of his or his interlocutor’s literariness.  The portrait doesn’t capture the author’s love of books and travel, and there’s an irrelevant pot of glue on the table next to him.  So not all of the artworks are ones that Subhash finds successful.  But they are all works that he wants to respond to, with carefully chosen words that encourage the reader to look closely and to respond as well.

My favourite of them all is Jenny Sages’ portrait of Irina Baranova (Handing the baton) (2007).  Her career in ballet is cleverly alluded to: she faces the viewer, and her shoulders are covered in everyday wear, but she is in conversation with a much younger ballerina.  We do not see that face, but we know she is a ballerina because we can see the fine straps of her bodice.  Subhash meditates on what he thinks she might be saying, but I’m more entranced by her eyes, her dignity and her authority.

It’s from Subhash’s ‘incantations’ that I have learned to look more closely at these portraits to enjoy them in my own way.

Highly recommended.

Author: Subhash Jaireth
Title: Incantations
Publisher: Recent Work Press, 2016
Cover images are details from artworks in the book.
ISBN: 9780994456557, pbk, 113 pages

Available from the NLA Library Bookshop

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 8, 2021

A Million Aunties, by Alecia McKenzie

So Chris start telling him bout all the museum-dem, while I listening with one ear.  I glad to see Chris looking more relax.  I worry about him the same way I feel for Stephen.  Like we is family.  And I thinking: Look at me who never have nobody.  And yet all of us here like we on some big family reunion trip. (p.179)

This ‘family’ is in Paris, exploring the treasures of its art collections.  There are nine in the group, connected by love and affection rather than biology, and each of them in one way or another is transcending some personal pain.

The catalyst for the trip is Chris’s casual remark at a dinner in New York.  The blockbuster Monet exhibition had just opened at MOMA, when he said ‘I might stop over in France and visit the Monet museums before I go to Italy.’  The trip to Italy is to see Lidia’s parents—Chris hasn’t seen them since Lidia, his wife, was blown up in a terrorist attack.

His good friend and agent and fix-it man Stephen has been the catalyst for Chris’s journey to healing.  He organises for Chris to go home to Jamaica, where he stays with Miss Della.  She could use a little extra money to repair her house which, like all the others in the street, has been damaged by the landslide.  Nurtured by comfort food and a light-filled room in which to paint, Chris finds Miss Della’s love of plants infectious and although he has never been any good at painting flowers, he begins to do so, in homage to Lidia who was a landscape gardener of public spaces in New York.

Successive chapters are narrated by different characters, each of whom has a story to tell.  A story of damage and endurance, and a journey towards acceptance and healing.  Reading this just after Noreena Hertz’s The Lonely Century is like balm to the soul.  There’s not a whiff of Pollyanna in A Million Aunties but the novel asserts that all kinds of grief can be assuaged by the love and affection of others.  And that families don’t need to be connected biologically: it’s the love and affection that counts.

There’s no pretence that forgiveness is easy.  Chris is admiring the stained-glass windows and paintings in the cathedral of Sainte-Clotilde in the 7th arrondissement when he observes a man come in to pray.  He turns away to give the man privacy, but they strike up a conversation outside on the steps.

‘I haven’t seen you here before.’ The man’s English was near perfect.  ‘Are you a member of the church?’
‘No, I’m just visiting.’
‘You’re American?’
‘Sort of. Citizen of Earth. Terrien.’
‘So, you’re religious?’
‘Not really,’ Chris said.  What was his religion?  Maybe art.
‘Me neither,’ the man told him.  ‘But it makes me feel better to come here.  I pray to get rid of the hate.’
His words surprised Chris.
‘My son.  He was gay.  They beat him up in a bar, just for that.  He died five months ago.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Chris said.  Did he have the kind of face that people needed to tell him these things?
‘So I pray for them.  And for me and my wife.  She’s still very, very angry, and it’s killing her.’
‘I hope they go to jail,’ Chris said.
‘Yes.  They will spend a long time in prison.  But it won’t bring my son back.  And we have to go on.  We have to try to understand why people do terrible things.’ (p.177)

Chris isn’t ready to try to understand.  Miss Pretty is too damaged ever to resume a normal life.  But Paul, who lost his wife and child in a country where there were rivers of blood and terrible things could be done with a machete, finds solace in carving their likeness in trees brought down in a hurricane.  Miss Vera, who notes that when a husband dies there are mourning rituals that bring some consolation but there is no equivalent ritual for when a husband abandons his wife for a new one, understands that people are admiring Paul even though they don’t know what to say.  And sometimes they say what they are feeling in unexpected ways:

…But when man run off with other woman, what is there to say, really? Him gone to a better place? The angels taking care of him?  Him in heaven now?

Still, when I put fire to all him clothes and things in the backyard, people come to look, like them doing now with the tree-dem.  And is after that that Miss Della did bring me the dry-up plant.  And she say to me, I always cutting off the bad parts of mi plants and burning them, and the next thing I know, the plant putting out new leaves and blossoms like nobody’s business, and thriving.  When she say that, I did just nod mi head. (p.154)

A Million Aunties is like the way I imagine a grandmother’s wise stories would be.

Thanks to Amanda Curtin for bringing this book to my attention.

Author: Alecia McKenzie
Title: A Million Aunties
Publisher: Blouse & Skirt Books (Blue Banyan Books, Jamaica) and Akashic Books New York, 2020
Cover design by Ion Communications
ISBN: 9781617758928, pbk., 196 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 8, 2021

The Performance, by Claire Thomas

Until today, I had never heard of theatre-fiction.  It’s a genre of fiction that

… refers to novels and short-stories that focus on theatre. Characters often include actors, playwrights, directors, prompters, understudies, set designers, critics, or casting agents. Common settings may include theatre auditoriums, dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces, or other places in which theatre is created and performed. Theatre-fiction may engage with and represent many different varieties of theatre, from performances of Shakespearean tragedy to Kabuki theatre to pantomime or marionette shows. (Wikipedia)

So Actress, by Anne Enright, which I read and reviewed last year, is a piece of theatre-fiction. I’m sure we can think of other examples, yes?

That definition, however, omits the most crucial element of theatre—the audience!  Well, now we have a novel focussed on the theatre audience…

The Performance, the second novel of Melbourne author Claire Thomas, explores the preoccupations of three generations of women watching a performance of Beckett’s play, Happy Days (1961).  (Which is not a happy play at all.  You don’t need to know anything about this play to enjoy the novel, but you may find it interesting to visit Wikipedia’s page about it.)

The three women watching the performance in the intimacy of the theatre are:

  • Margot, a successful professor of literature, who is fending off pressure for her to retire to make room for younger academics.  She loves her work and takes pride in remembering all her students so she has no intention of being moved on.  But life is becoming difficult: her husband of many years has dementia and he has started hitting her. She’s been hiding the bruises with long sleeves, but it’s 40° in Melbourne on this stifling summer night, and she’s worn a sleeveless dress, expecting that within the anonymity of the theatre, no one will pay any attention to her.
  • Ivy, a wealthy philanthropist, who is watching with a friend of hers.  She’s been given two free tickets that she could easily afford to buy, and will be attending a function afterwards at which she and other philanthropists will be charmed into granting the theatre some of her money.  She is more alert to the nuances of this charade than one might expect: she actually had a very deprived childhood and came by her wealth through a fortuitous inheritance that she was not expecting at all.
  • Summer, an usher, who is working to pay her way through her drama course.  The perk of the job is that she gets to see drama for free, but she nearly always misses the first act because she has to stay outside to deal with the latecomers.  Tonight, however, her anxiety overwhelms her: her partner April has parents up in the hills on the urban fringe, where the bushfires are burning out of control.  She knows April will want to help her parents, and she is frantic because she doesn’t know where April is right now.

All three of these women respond to moments of dialogue in the play with their own preoccupations.  Winnie, marooned on stage in a mound of earth up to her waist, prattles to her taciturn husband Willie as she works her way through her daily routine,  She takes items out of her capacious handbag, which are aides-mémoire to her life.  But life, like the mound of earth that constricts her, is closing in, and she will be buried up to her neck after the interval, so Winnie has to work hard to maintain her optimism with poignant references to happy times in the past.  This dialogue impacts on the audience in different ways, triggering thoughts and memories both banal and significant.

Margot, for example, muses about her own body when Winnie puts aside her hairbrush and spectacles, saying Old things. Old eyes.

She is pleased she hasn’t lost her ankles, that they haven’t thickened with age.  Thin ankles are a high-quality feature for the young and old.  Combined with shapely calves and slim knees, her legs were finely turned, as John [her husband] used to say.  (p.18)

But like the play itself and its meanings deeper than Winnie’s chatter, the musings of these three women have more significance than mere contemplation of ankles. Margot is also worried about her work, her husband, and her relationship with her adult son.  Ivy reflects on a traumatic incident in her earlier life and the joys and satisfactions of late motherhood.  She’s also concerned about whether the philanthropic choices she makes are the right ones.  After an awkward encounter during the interval, she reflects on the appropriateness of her own behaviour and her assumptions about people.  And on this night Summer will also have an unexpected reminder of her uncertain identity.  Her mother won’t discuss who her father was, but the colour of her own skin tells her that he wasn’t white.

I wanted to like this book more than I did.  The structure is clever, especially the artful insertion of a play script for the period of the interval, and the resonances with the Beckett play are thoughtful and sometimes wise.  But I felt vaguely discontented by another book about the interior lives of women.  This was encapsulated for me in Ivy’s thoughts about a school reunion:

…Ivy was horrified by the middle-agedness of her former classmates.  There was a woman who had been intimidatingly hip at school, and Ivy only recognised her because of the name tag she had on her chest.  Her face had fallen into hound-like dewlaps and there were sun splotches and creases all over her décolletage. She had lank boring hair and was (un-ironically) dressed in an unflattering long-sleeved blouse with bad jeans.  Very bad jeans.  And there was an inflection in her voice that was almost satirically pompous.  Ivy felt angry with her for ageing so badly.  Did you have to become so daggy? she wanted to say.  I’m very disappointed. (p.272)

I can do without the interior thoughts of women like this. I found myself liking a daggy woman who had learned that women being preoccupied with their appearance and judging that of others is stupid.

The Performance was also reviewed at The Guardian.

Author: Claire Thomas
Title: The Performance
Cover design by Alissa Dinallo
Publisher: Hachette, 2021
ISBN: 9780733644542, pbk., 292 pages
Source: Kingston Library



Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2021

The Lonely Century, by Noreena Hertz

Readers may remember that the recent Adelaide Writers Week program featured a session with the economist Noreena Hertz, discussing her book The Lonely Century and I reported on the session here.  It was such an interesting session that I reserved the book at the library and have just finished reading it.

Having ‘attended’ the session, I was familiar with the theme of the book and the propositions that it makes, and I won’t revisit that now since you can read my report, but the book was worth reading in its entirety for the additional detail.  It confirms that the book is not a piece of ‘pop’ psychology— it’s meticulously researched and cogently argued, and it also revealed to me that some of the more alarming manifestations of loneliness are not, as I had thought,  projections into the future, but are happening now.  In addition to the worrying connections between political extremism, conspiracy theories and loneliness, there’s discussion of research that shows that people are more aggressive and hostile when they are lonely because they put up a protective shell that denies the need for human warmth and company.  What is most troubling about this, is that the same research shows that visual cortex of these people is stimulated by the suffering of others.  They react to suffering more quickly, but with attention, not with compassion.  So next time the media reports on some unconscionable crime committed against a helpless victim, and you wonder as I have how could they do such a thing? consider that the offender’s brain doesn’t work the way that mine and yours does.

Not every lonely person, of course, is an affront to our sense of common decency.  The Lonely Century offers more detail about the economic costs of loneliness (billions) because of its demonstrable impact on health and wellbeing. What the book suggests is that our response to this should be to make renewed efforts to connect with the people around us.

The lonely mind acts in self-preservation, on the alert for threats rather than trying to see things from others’ point-of-view.  It also affects how we categorise the world: lonely people see the neighbourhood as unfriendly whereas the non-lonely in the same neighbourhood don’t.  When lonely people see their environment as threatening and non-caring, they have diminished empathy. That’s bad for democracy because democracy requires that different views be reconciled as it tries to meet the needs of all citizens.  Democracy needs people to be connected to the state and to each other.

When these bonds of connectivity break down; when people feel they can’t trust or rely upon each other and are disconnected, whether emotionally, economically, socially or culturally; when people don’t believe the state is looking out for them and feel marginalised or abandoned, not only does society fracture and polarise, but people lose faith in politics itself. (p.35)

Hertz has more to say about how neo-liberalism and the mantras of ‘every man for himself’ have contributed to the loneliness problem that we have.  But it derives from a perfect storm of causes, not just economic but also cultural, societal, and technological.  There’s a chapter about ‘solutions’ which use technology but mostly, they made me feel ill.  I remember when there were proposals to use robots to deliver meals in Australian aged care homes and there was outrage because people understood that for residents too frail to join others in the dining room, that person-to-person contact with a human being was crucial to mitigate the loneliness of their days.  So how do we feel about a Japanese trial of a robot friend (in concept, not unlike the one in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun) to help solve the loneliness problem of its elderly people?  (Japan has the world’s oldest population).  The PaPeRo (partner-type personal robot) uses facial recognition technology to interact with humans, and offers greetings and reminders and makes expressive gestures.  (You can see a video of how it works here). When I think of the world’s refugee problem, I can’t help but think that Japan would do better to open its ultra-restrictive immigration policy and bring young people in to solve their problem instead of wasting money and expertise on a solution as cruel and heartless as this.

And if you think this is bizarre, the top-of-the-range sex robots apparently lead the way…

(*chuckle* No, I did not do a Google search to find one!)

The chapter titled ‘The Solitary City’ acknowledged that the sense of desertion and utter loneliness of a city like London was recognised back in the 19th century by Thomas De Quincy.  But what’s different now (confirmed by shocking statistics about pervasive loneliness in the 21st century city) is the image of a rude, self-absorbed urbanite.  It’s not a stereotype.  People feel they can get away with things because anonymity breeds hostility and carelessness and the modern city is an anonymous place.  The urban privacy that people value comes at a cost, as people found during Lockdown.  People in apartments were much worse off than people in the suburbs where community thrives, and the book includes examples of architecture and design features that are hostile to people getting together.

People move faster in cities, with less time to connect even over the purchase of a coffee, and they change addresses more often, this rootlessness contributing to the problem.  Living alone is often a lifestyle choice based on a desire for independence and economic self-sufficiency, but the risk of loneliness is high.  Eating single-portion meals can feel very lonely indeed. (There’s a TV program in Japan that screens other people eating, creating the illusion that viewers are not eating their own meals alone.  I kid you not).

But there’s more to this than just how individuals feel.  Being with others, accepting differences, resolving issues, and co-existing is part of honing pro-social democratic instincts. 

For whether it is discussing, deliberating, or indeed learning how to respectfully disagree with your housemates or neighbours or partner, all these are important skills we need to practise if we are to learn one of the key tenets of inclusive democracy: that sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the greater good. (p.69)

The chapter about modern work practices was illuminating.  I knew already, for example, that work at places like Amazon is soul-destroying and stressful, but I had not realised that the constant monitoring of productivity meant that people could not even have a chat on a toilet break.  If that chat doesn’t happen at work—how’s your family, did your footy team win, what did you do on the weekend— for some people, it doesn’t happen at all.  The constant rating of performance which is so annoying for consumers is dreadful for workers: the age of surveillance capitalism is different to previous forms of employee monitoring because of its extent, the levels of intrusiveness and because decision-making has been ceded to machines.  (There are even systems which monitor workers in their own homes, maintaining surveillance on the number of key-strokes and the use of apps.)  The digitisation of the workplace means that emails are transactional not conversational, and for many, the longer commute, #MeToo, and the end of communal lunch spaces and opportunities for informal socialising means that there are few opportunities for meaningful cooperation and collaboration.  Add in longer working hours, and families are the losers.

There’s a whole loneliness economy which exists to bring people together. Commercial communities include music, writers and craft festivals; cross-fit groups and even author talks and late night shopping. But because these things cost money, and can sometimes be very expensive, there’s a risk of exclusivity.  Hertz says you can’t buy community, you have to make it, and you have to have leadership that encourages people to want to do things together.

There’s more about the omnipresence and omnipotence of the Smartphone and its destructive effects of screens on our relationships.  But we have to realise that relying on individuals to make sensible decisions about something that’s doing them harm is not enough.  Governments, business and individuals, Hertz says, need to wake up to the costs of loneliness.  It’s costing billions and posing a potent threat to tolerant and inclusive democracy. 

Author: Noreena Hertz
Title: the Lonely Century, Coming Together in a World that’s Pulling Apart
Publisher: Sceptre, (Hodder and Stoughton), 2020
ISBN: 9781529329261, pbk., 394 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Older Posts »