Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2021

2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize Shortlist

2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize shortlist has been announced.

The shortlist for the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize – Adult Category is:

The ARA Historical Novel Prize winners will be announced at the HNSA virtual conference on 22 October 2021

Links on the titles go to the publisher’s website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2021

Past Life, by William Lane

Hunter Valley author William Lane is the author of four previous novels, Over the Water (2014), The Horses (2015), The Salamanders, (2016) and The Word (2018). (Links are to my reviews).  What I like about his novels is that they are all entirely different to one another, though all of them deal in some way with a character who is not emotionally ready for relationships.

His new novel Past Life ventures into territory not much explored in Australian fiction.  Both Melbourne and Sydney have substantial Russian communities, but in my reading experience, they don’t feature much in our literature except in Cold War stories, such as John Tesearch’s Dinner with the Dissidents.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across any Australian novel that features the experience of Russians during WW2.

In Lane’s novel, the fraught relationship between lovers who fought on opposite sides bleeds through into the next generation.   Of German origin but living in Russia, Friedrich had found himself working as an interpreter for the invading (and then retreating) Germans, while his lover Julia fought with the Soviet partisans.  When the story opens in the more recent past, Friedrich, who lives in a shed on the back of a Sydney property owned by a Russian émigré called Sophie, is a writer who fell foul of the Soviet Union.  He becomes friendly with Anna, the adopted daughter of Sophie, and tragedy ensues when he realises who she really is.

In evoking the childhood emergence of Friedrich the writer, Lane shows the tragedy of Soviet repression of the creative arts.

Not long after that the class was asked to write a story.  The children had not done this for some time, and at first collectively struggled — except Friedrich.  Having started his story in a bored mandatory way, suddenly he could not stop.  The words welled up inside him and immediately paired with the outer world. Strings of words might be shining beneath the paper in secret writing.  The smell of the desks, the brush of the boy’s arm beside him, his mother moving about between the desks — it all went in as he wrote, while whatever his self could contain streamed through.  Having reached the end of one thought, his mind pulsed and out came another.  He wrote alongside himself, the train of words pulling him from the everyday.  Friedrich did not hear his mother speak, did not feel her tap on his shoulder.  He was speaking to himself from another world, and his little current self was copying down the words as if by dictation, and he was not at school, and there was no clock, and it was not really he who was writing. (p.209)

To think that the miracle of this impulse to write was stymied for so many writers in the Soviet era is really very chilling.  As you can read at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, it’s difficult to know how much was hidden or lost. Judging Friedrich as a traitor seems a bit simplistic when we consider the damage done to his creative spirit…

Anna is a photographer, immersed in a long-term project to photograph the orchard on Sophie’s property.  She has had a difficult relationship with Sophie, and her creative ambitions were nurtured by a teacher, Miss Glass.  When the mother-daughter relationship fractures because Sophie doesn’t approve of Anna’s friendship with the adventurous Lisaveta, Anna goes to live with Miss Glass, but soon finds herself constrained there too.

When the novel moves on to the next generation, it’s not immediately clear how the lovers Iris and Robin are connected to what has gone before, but they share the experience of love and loss.  When Robin begins his research for a book about Friedrich, he begins with Operation Barbarossa, an unfathomable experience in scale and brutality, and in itself responsible for damage inflicted on every person born into the invasion of the East or its wake.  Iris is an artist, and Robin’s poems are a catalyst for her paintings:

Robin began to read her the poems he wrote; in response, she embarked on several new canvases.  When he wrote, and she painted, they were holding open a wound, and letting the words and images run freely.  The longer they could keep the wound open, and prevent what flowed from coagulating, the more material they had. (p.243)

In an interview at Female, Lane expresses his hope that readers will understand that Past Life is

…not only about intergenerational trauma, but intergenerational healing. And if the reader can find poetry and beauty in the actual writing, then how the material is treated becomes the message. In my stories the focus is not so much on a message, as on an aesthetic.

There’s a profile of William Lane at In Their Own Write.

Author: William Lane
Title: Past Life
Publisher: Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2021
Cover and book design by Peter Lo
ISBN: 9781925760781, pbk., 267 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge, with thanks to Scott Eathorne

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 23, 2021

2021 Voss Literary Prize longlist

The Long List for the 2021 Voss Literary Prize has been announced:

Robbie Arnott, The Rain Heron (Text Publishing), on my TBR

Trent Dalton, All Our Shimmering Skies (HarperCollins)

Kate Grenville, A Room Made of Leaves (Text Publishing)

Erin Hortle, The Octopus and I (Allen & Unwin), see my review

Julie Janson, Benevolence (Magabala Books), see my review

Gail Jones, Our Shadows (Text Publishing)

Amanda Lohrey, The Labyrinth (Text Publishing), winner of the 2121 Miles Franklin Award, see my review

Vivian Pham, The Coconut Children (Penguin Books), abandoned

Mirandi Riwoe, Stone Sky Gold Mountain (University of Queensland Press), on my TBR

Nardi Simpson, Song of the Crocodile (Hachette Australia), see my review

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The Voss Literary Prize is an award dedicated to the memory of Vivian Robert de Vaux Voss (1930-1963), an historian and lover of literature from Emu Park in Central Queensland who studied History and Latin at the University of Sydney and modern languages at the University of Rome. His will stipulated that a literary award be established to reward the best novel from the previous year.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 22, 2021

Underground, a graphic novel by Mirranda Burton

It’s always interesting to see the next generation/s ‘discovering’ the history that we ourselves lived through.  Graphic artist Mirranda Burton was born in 1973, the year after Australia ceased conscription for the Vietnam War, and as it says in the introduction, it was not until 2011 when she was artist-in-residence in the former studio of artist Clifton Pugh at Dunmoochin in Victoria, that his activism against the Vietnam War triggered her interest in finding out more.

Loosely based on historical fact, the resulting book is Underground, a graphic novel with the advantages and limitations of the format.  The advantages are that it will appeal to those who love the format, and to younger readers, especially those known in education circles as ‘reluctant readers’.  The art work is vibrant and dynamic, and the size of the book (18x26cm) means that the text is clear and easy to read.  (Which was not the case when I tried to read the Vintage edition of Persepholis, by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Mattias Ripa).

One of the disadvantages, however, is that simplified text in this format can lack nuance, as for example on page 5 where we see in a text box about Clifton Pugh’s first wife Marlene that in 1952:

Marlene Harvey was only nineteen.  There were rumours that she was a gangster’s moll and carried a gun under her breast.

On page 7, we see that

Despite the rumours, Marlene didn’t carry a gun.  More often than not, there was an orphaned marsupial in her handbag.

But there’s nothing to refute the suggestion that she had been mixed up with gangsters or the other negative connotations of the rumour.

Similarly, nuance is lacking on page 16 in the section about exemptions from National Service. We read that

First Nations Australians were not eligible for registration and were not drawn from the ballot, as the government did not recognise them as Australian citizens.  It is estimated that around 300 First Nations Australians volunteered anyway.

It is true that the first ballot for National Service in 1965 was before the 1967 referendum which changed the Constitution so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be counted as part of the population and the Commonwealth would be able to make laws for them.  But that reason could not have applied as a reason for exemption after 1967.  Furthermore, ‘First Nations Australians’ implies those from the Torres Strait Islands as well as Aborigines, but Torres Strait Islanders were not exempt. The reason why they were not, and Aboriginal people were, was because the DNLS (Department of Labour and National Service) held that…

“…it would be impossible to trace and oblige young Aboriginal men to register, as many of them did not know their birthdate. Not all States kept birth records of Aboriginals, and each defined Aboriginality differently. Aboriginal Australians could, however, volunteer for national service. The National Service Act did not refer to Torres Strait Islanders. As their dates of birth were usually recorded, the DLNS considered them liable to register but was lenient towards those who did not, for it considered that the scheme was insufficiently publicised in the Torres Strait Islands.” No action was taken against non-registering Torres Strait Islanders before September 1967. (Australian War Memorial Appendix: The national service scheme, 1964-72).

The other issue that arises from this particular scene in the novel is that the illustration and the dialogue imply that Indigenous people volunteered solely because there were few other employment opportunities.  Having read Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia by Allison Cadzow and Mary Anne Jebb, I know that this is indeed one of the pragmatic reasons why they volunteered. But it is not the only one: there are complex reasons why they served, and there is also a simple reason: Indigenous people love their country, and want to defend it.  Even if we think that the Cold War ‘domino theory’ threat to Australia was fanciful, that does not mean we should fail to acknowledge the patriotism of Aborigines who volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War. You can read more about this in my review of Our Mob Served, or better still, read the book.

The main problem with Underground, is that its focus is primarily on Jean McLean as convenor of the Victorian Save Our Sons movement, with two other perspectives on the war little more than add-ons. There is a brief acknowledgement of the other women who were active in the SOS in the chapter about ‘The Fairlea Five’, but other than a brief reference in the notes at the back of the book, Underground makes no mention of the other SOS branches around Australia which were very active as well.  The book also has little to say about the other grassroots activist organisations which worked tirelessly to end conscription and Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War, often at great risk to themselves.  It is dismissive of Gough Whitlam who as prime minister ended National Service when elected in 1972.

While Jean McLean played a important role in the Save Our Sons movement, Underground valorises her contribution at the expense of others equally brave and equally dedicated to the cause.  Underground also implies that SOS was very influential in achieving its aims, but this claim is contested.  As I read in Carolyn Collins’ authoritative history Save Our Sons: Women, Dissent and Conscription (see my review) there is disagreement about the impact of SOS, with opinions ranging from the belief that their contribution was vastly underestimated to suggesting that they were just one of a number of groups involved in the anti-conscription campaign. 

I hope that any teachers using Underground as a student resource have the background knowledge to clarify some aspects which could be misleading. It is a novel, and novelists don’t have the same responsibility to the verifiable truth as historians do.  But students studying this topic need to be made aware that this book has a partisan perspective which needs to be balanced by other texts.

Author & illustrator: Mirranda Burton
Title: Underground, Marsupial Outlaws and Other Rebels of Australia’s War in Vietnam
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781760631475, pbk., 272 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2021

Signs and Wonders, by Delia Falconer

Readers may remember that I featured the author Delia Falconer and her new book of essays Signs and Wonders after the Melbourne Writers Festival was cancelled, alerting you to the book’s forthcoming release.  What I didn’t know then was that Signs and Wonders is a stunning book, and it is is going to walk off the shelves when it’s released in October so if you don’t want to miss out, best to pre-order a copy now.   I don’t like to promote FOMO but booksellers are already warning us about both shortages of Christmas stock and expected delivery delays due to pressure on Australia Post because of the explosion in online sales.  Signs and Wonders is exactly the kind of book that’s a perfect Christmas present for the hard-to-please, so don’t be disappointed…

There are thirteen essays but it will come as no surprise that I opted to read ‘The Disappearing Paragraph’ first. This fascinating essay explores the impact on thinking of the way print has been altered in the age of screens.  It begins like this:

A new breath.  A macro-punctuation mark.  A flash of lightning showing the landscape from a different aspect.  A collection of sentences with a unity of purpose.  A new neighbourhood made up of ‘streets’ of sentences.  These are some of the ways writers have described the work of the paragraph.  And yet, among the many unsettling phenomena of our age, I have noticed that paragraphs have been disappearing — at least paragraphs as I once knew them.  This may not amount to much amid the greater unravelling of our world but it is a significant disturbance within my own small literary ecotone.  (p.155)

Falconer learned to type as I did, on a typewriter, (though hers was electric, and the one at the State Film Centre where I worked, was not. ) But before that, as I did, she had absorbed the small visual rhythms of paragraphing by reading everything that came my way as a child.  (For me, my grade 6 teacher Mrs Sheedy who was a stickler for writing conventions,  reinforced the message with a red pen.) But now paragraphs are often not separated by the conventional indent, but by a double-line space.  You see it here in this and all my reviews but it’s also emerging in books.  When I inspect my current TBR of books for review, three of the seven use double-line spaces.  The publishers aren’t consistent: Emily Bitto’s Wild Abandon (A&U) has double-line spaces but also from A&U, Nellie, the life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba by Robert Wainwright, doesn’t. Upswell publications The Dogs by John Hughes and Belinda Probert’s Imaginative Possession have double-line spaces, but Monique Truong’s The Sweetest Fruits has conventional indents.  So does Transit Lounge’s The One that Got Away, Travelling in the Time of Covid by Ken Haley, as does The Dancer by Evelyn Juers from Giramondo.  And even Delia’s own book isn’t consistent with itself: ‘Terror from the Air: Fire Diary 2019-20′ has double-line spaces, but ‘The Opposite of Glamour‘ has conventional indents.  What’s going on?

Does it matter?

Mainz Psalter detail, 1457 Gutenberg

The conventional indent came into use with the printing press:

…printers developed the convention — as it has come down to us — of beginning paragraphs on a new line, leaving an indent space for illustrators to fill with an ornament or illuminated capital.  When these embellishments were abandoned, the space remained: a little shelf for the eye and mind to get a purchase on, before the new paragraph began.

Falconer’s delicate sense of humour can be seen in her thoughts about the Victorian paragraph:

Perhaps no one loved paragraphs as much as the Victorians, who built their long, cadenced sentences into these substantial units of thought, which built in turn into chapters, so that when you look at the dense pages of their novels they seem to bear all the purpose and momentum of an empire.  Their paragraphs were like their thick-legged chairs or large shiny jardinières; they furnished a book so that it felt comfortingly solid. (p.158)

And we who went to school in the 20th century enjoyed this inheritance, recognising paragraphs as ‘natural’ markers of the flows of thought.

The double-line space between paragraphs, Falconer tells us, creates a significant interruption in the longer flow of a section.  So what’s happening when the brain registers a more liberal use of spacing, which puts a line of empty page between each paragraph? It’s one thing when it happens in poetry, but what about in novels?  It was extravagant, expressive and irregular in 1976 when Michael Ondaatje used it in Coming Through Slaughter (the story of New Orleans cornet player Buddy Bolden), because it announced visually that these were glimpses as curated and partial as the photographer Belloq’s portraits of Storyville sex workers, which also feature in the novel. 

Most thrilling of all, Ondaatje would sometimes even throw a single-line riff — like Bolden’s loud trumpet blasts as he went mad during a 1907 jazz parade — across the middle of a blank page.  (p.162)

But now, says Falconer, and my sense is that she’s right, what was innovative has become routine.  The double-line break is not unusual any more.

I’m seeing this shift to systematically placing double-line spaces between paragraphs so often in novels and essays now that it’s made me wonder: what if it’s crept up unnoticed in literary prose like the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?  Or, to cast about for another metaphor, what if the old internal structures of writing we are used to are like a sea creature’s shell, giving shape to the soft creature inside them; and those inner partitions, under some unseen pressure akin to the rise of acids in seawater, have been quietly dissolving and rearranging themselves?  Or what if — to take the more positive views — we’ve been evolving as readers to no longer require runs of indented paragraphs that thread themselves, one after another, into arguments or long sections? (p.163)

It’s hard to know what effect these text blocks have, but I’ve read some research by neuroscientists that shows different patterns of thought are emerging and, more worryingly, there are lower levels of comprehension of text on screen rather than in print.  I don’t remember if they controlled for different layouts and arrangements of text, but I do remember that they concluded that young people reading on screen are less able to process longer pieces of text, as in, say, the Victorian novel or medical textbooks.

I’ve focussed on this one essay to give you some idea of the delights in store.  Others that were utterly absorbing were ‘Coal: An Unnatural History’; ‘Terror from the Air: Fire Diary 2019-20’; ‘The Opposite of Glamour’; and ‘Good Neighbours’ which, in telling the story of the seal that made its home on the beach in an inner city suburb of Sydney, ranges far and wide as it traverses the controversy over how best to care for it.  I was surprised by the hostility I felt toward local self-appointed wildlife experts and by their confidence that they knew what was best for this animal they were claiming as a neighbour, she writes, and I found myself nodding in agreement at I sometimes wonder if there are more ‘wild’ animals circulating in these multiplying shared videos than there are in the world off-screen.  

I love the way these essays are a window into the thoughts of a wise and thoughtful person, and the links between literature and current natural environment issues is brilliant, as for instance when Falconer links the worldwide decline of oysters with John Steinbeck’s metaphor of the flatworm in Cannery Row.  But Falconer is under no illusions about the power of the pen to change things.

The fact is that for every book concerned with the fate of the world, there are a hundred, a thousand, films and books and ‘lifestyle’ television programs, and advertisements, and magazines offering a parallel world of infinite abundance.  In this parallel universe, time exists on a different scale.  Nothing is permanent, not even ruin, because things can always be ‘made over’ — properties flipped, ugly ducklings zhoozhed, dream homes located somewhere.  In glamour’s alternate reality, surfaces always gleam.  Decisions are never moral, but only ever aesthetic.  Nothing is unobtainable, if you can pay enough.  Meanwhile, those who attain glamour are ‘winners’, above the ruck in their gilded sphere, while those who don’t are ‘losers’. In this compelling fantasy version of our planet, long-term catastrophic damage is invisible, hidden by perpetual motion and glossy fluidity.

Glamour, I think, may be our most powerful and fatal fiction, the one that kills us all. (p.143)

The only essays I haven’t read are ‘Coronavirus Time: Diary’ and ‘Covid Walking: Diary.’ Like everyone else in the entire world, I have my own experience of the pandemic, and when I read, I just don’t want to think about it at all.  It’s my Time Out.

Image credit:

You can pre-order the book from Readings and other good bookstores.  You can also register at Readings to hear Delia talk about Signs and Wonders, online.  (I’ve already booked in.)  A big bouquet to Readings for the wealth of online events they are supporting — don’t wait for Love Your Bookshop Day in October — you can show your thanks and support to them and other indie bookstores doing it tough in Lockdown by buying your books from them: support Australian indie booksellers!

Author: Delia Falconer
Title: Signs and Wonders, Dispatches from a time of beauty and loss
Publisher: Scribner (Simon and Schuster), 2021
ISBN: 9781760857820 (pbk., 290 pages
Source: review copy courtesy of Scribner

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 20, 2021

Book Giveaway: The Sweetest Fruits, by Monique Truong

Here’s another giveaway offer from new publishing venture Upswell Press.

You will remember my post about the Mildura LitFest, in which I shared the news that readers can subscribe to this year’s list of three books which include The Sweetest Fruits by Vietnamese-American author Monique Truong. The Sweetest Fruits is scheduled for publication by Upswell on September 20th.

About the book:

With brilliant sensitivity and an unstinting eye, The Sweetest Fruits illuminates three women’s tenacity and their struggles in a novel that circumnavigates the globe in the search for love, family, home and belonging.

In The Sweetest Fruits, three women, Rosa, Alethea, and Setsu, tell the story of their life with Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904), a globetrotting Greek-Irish writer best known as the author of America’s first Creole cookbook and for his many volumes about the folklore and ghost stories of Meiji Era Japan. In their own unorthodox ways, the three women are also intrepid travellers and explorers. Their accounts witness Hearn’s remarkable life but also seek to witness their own existence and luminous will to live unbounded by gender, race, and the mores of their time. Each is a gifted storyteller with her own precise reason for sharing her story, and together their voices offer a revealing, often contradictory portrait of Hearn.

About the author:

Monique Truong is the Vietnamese American author of the bestselling, award-winning novels The Book of Salt, Bitter in the Mouth and The Sweetest Fruits. She’s also a former refugee, essayist, avid eater, lyricist/ librettist, and intellectual property attorney (more or less in that order).

Praise for The Sweetest Fruits:

See the review at The New York Times  and other reviewers at Truong’s website.

HOW TO ENTER
Interested? Please add your name to the comments below, and I’ll draw the winners at the end of next week.  All entries from readers with an Australian postcode for delivery will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner. (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met). Your postal address will be forwarded to the publisher who will then send you the book.

Good luck everybody!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2021

Psynode, (Orphancorp #2), by Marlee Jane Ward

Psynode (2017) is the follow-up to the award-winning Welcome to Orphancorp, (2015) by Melbourne author Marlee Jane Ward, (reviewed here).  That the title of the final of this ‘technopunk thriller’ trilogy is Prisoncorp (2019) bodes ill for the central character Mirii, who had in Book one, escaped from dehumanising slavery in a brutal system designed to achieve compliant child workers, and now in Book Two is on a quest to rescue her friend Vu. This is a very dark dystopian YA series, with uncanny resonances in the modern world.

Psynode has been calling to me ever since I started gathering together my pile of (nearly all Australian) novellas for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy at 746 Books.  (An Island by Karen Jennings sneaked in there because it was longlisted for the Booker and had just arrived from Benn’s Books. Some of my books are not very good at waiting their turn.)  Psynode was in my novellas pile because it’s only 177 pages long.  It’s quick to read; I romped through it in a couple of hours this morning.

It was written only four years ago, before the explosion of Covid-induced online shopping.  As I read Mirii’s brutal initiation into work as a warehouse picker for Allnode, I found myself thinking of what I’ve read about work conditions in Amazon warehouses, and wondering about the experiences of the Woolworths packers who’ve been bringing me my groceries in Lockdown.  Mirii has demanding targets to reach, and what she soon discovers is that while the penalty for failing too many targets is instant dismissal, achieving them only reduces the time she’s allowed to achieve them.  It’s a horrible work environment:

‘Valued Allnode employee, number 2702575.  Your performance is at minus 1.5 points.  This places you in the top six of your intake and in the sixtieth percentile overall.  Please ensure your targets are met on a continuing basis in order to retain employment.  Your current employee balance is as follows.  Eleven-point-three-three hours of Resource Location, Logistics at twelve dollars and seventy-five cents an hour, minus tax rate of four dollars and three cents an hour is ninety-eight dollars and seventy-nine cents.’

Rad, I’m freaking rich!  All those hours gritting my gums and climbing the frame, and you know, only the complete and utter destruction of my body and limbs, but I’m almost a hundy richer.

‘Cept it doesn’t stop there.

‘Minus uniform rate of sixty-seven dollars and thirty-four cents.’

Wha?

‘Minus seven days housing rate in advance at seventeen dollars and twenty-four centres per night—’

‘Hey!’

‘Minus employee rations at six dollars and one cents—’

How much?

‘Minus power consumption of point seven kilowatts at three dollars and sixty-six cents per kilowatt—’

Excuse me?

‘Balance total for Employee 2702575, Mahoney, Miriiyanan: minus ninety-six dollars and thirty-four cents.’ (p.50-51)

Why does she work for them?  Not to ‘make a buck’, obviously.  It’s because she hopes to be able to do some ‘shifty corporate espionage’ so that she can find out what’s happened to her friend Vu. #SpoilerAlert: The commodification of human beings reaches a new low in this story.

The plot is taut and filled with tension as the human products of late-capitalism take part in an uneven power struggle.  Along the way Mirii has both help and hindrance from friends in the same underclass as she is, and someone from the privileged set has to choose what to do when ethics conflict with family loyalty.

It is very bleak.  And given what we know about the use of slave labour and the commodification of humans in the Nazi death camps, it is all too credible.

Nancy Elin reviewed it too, when it was shortlisted for the Aurealis Best YA Novel award.

Author: Marlee Jane Ward
Title: Psynode (Orphancorp #2)
Cover design by Xoum
Publisher: Seizure, 2017
ISBN: 9781925143928, pbk., 177 pages
Source: personal library, purchased direct from Seizure Online

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2021

The Promise, by Damon Galgut

Sometimes, the library gods smile on us.  We read so many enticing reviews from our blogging friends that they exceed the book-buying budget and so we reserve the books at the library.  And then we wait for ages, and lo! the reservations all come at once.  Meaning that reading plans, such as they are, have to be put on hold so that the pile of books can all be read before the due date.  Not a bad problem to have, but still… The Promise, however, which I reserved after reading Joe’s compelling review at Rough Ghosts, came in on reserve for me, one day before the announcement that it’s on the Booker Prize shortlist.  Today there are 19 reserves ahead of a would-be borrower for this remarkable book.  I’ve read it as promptly as I could so that others can have the pleasure of reading it too.

The Promise is not only a very engaging story penned by a master storyteller, it also offers great riches for readers who are alert to passing allusions.  Even the surname of the white family that is central to the story has meaning: ‘Swart’ is an Afrikaans surname meaning ‘black’, and the word ‘swart’ is also an archaic form of ‘swarthy’, so for a story that begins in South Africa under apartheid where skin colour determined every aspect of life, Galgut has employed ironic naming for these racist characters.  Also, the origin of the surname in England comes from a family seat as Lords of the Manor of Sward in Cornwall, and the Swart family of The Promise certainly regard themselves as lords of their estate in Pretoria, as did landowners throughout South Africa in the apartheid era.

…the person in the room isn’t Ma.  It’s Salome, of course, who has been here on the farm forever, or that’s how it feels.  My grandfather always talked about her like that, Oh, Salome, I got her along with the land.

Pause a moment to observe, as she takes the sheets off the bed.  A stout, solid woman, wearing a second-hand dress, given to her by Ma years ago.  A headscarf tied over her hair.  She is barefoot, and the soles of her feet are cracked and dirty.  Her hands have marks on them too, the scuffs and scars of innumerable collisions.  Same age as Ma supposedly, forty, though she looks much older.  Hard to put an exact number on her.  Not much shows in her face, she wears her life like a mask, like a graven image. (p.18)

A graven image who is unseen.

She was with Ma when she died, right there next to the bed, though nobody seems to see her, she is apparently invisible.  And whatever Salome feels is invisible too. (p.19)

Ironies abound in The Promise.

The Promise traces the fate of five main characters, linked by a sequence of funerals.  The story begins with the death of Rachel Swart from cancer in 1986.  13-year-old Amor, sent away for the last phase of her mother’s illness, is recalled for the funeral, and collected by her aunt Marina who is hungry for drama and gossip and cheap spectacle. Tannie Marina is outraged that Ma has betrayed the whole family by changing her religion, to going back to her old religion.  To being a Jew! 

Religion has never been a force for good in South Africa.  Believers have cherry-picked the Bible for scripture to support apartheid, and post-apartheid, false traditional beliefs have hindered efforts to contain HIV. These beliefs and other forms of denialism — notably by President Thabo Mbeki— have led to South Africa having 7.5 million people living with HIV, the highest in the world.  A tsunami of suffering that Amor cannot hope to ease in her work as a palliative care nurse.

Unconscious of the fact that apartheid routinely separates Black South Africans in death, Manie Swart is distraught that his wife’s decision about religion means that they will not be buried together in the same family plot.  At the funeral service we see the divisions in society laid bare.  Salome, the servant who nursed Ma in her last days, did all the jobs that people in her own family didn’t want to do, too dirty or too intimate, is not present.  It doesn’t occur to anyone that she should be there, so she offers up a prayer for Rachel in the privacy of the shack she lives in.  Whatever god Salome and her disenfranchised fellow-Blacks have been praying to over the long years of thankless servitude, he hasn’t been listening.

The shack is not Salome’s home, it’s the subject of the broken promise that weaves its way through the novel.  On her death bed, even though she must know that South African law prohibits Black ownership of land, Rachel makes Manie promise to give the shack to Salome.  But this promise is overheard only by Amor, and Amor — who is ‘not quite right’ since she was struck by lightning — isn’t taken seriously by anyone.  (And her father’s promise to her, not to send her back to the hostel after the funeral, even though a Christian never goes back on his word, isn’t kept either.)  In a family whose decline and fall mirrors the state of life in South Africa, Amor is the one who exiles herself as soon as she can, leaving Pretoria as soon as she is old enough, trying to make reparation for injustice by nursing HIV patients in palliative care.

Biblical symbolism pervades the novel.  Amor remembers when her mother extracted the promise from her father:

She sees the picture still, her parents tangled together like Jesus and His mother, a terrible sad knot of clutching and crying.  […]

She’s sitting in the spot she likes, between the rocks, at the bottom of the burnt tree.  Where I was when the lightning struck, when I nearly died.  Pow, white fire dropping out of the sky.  As if God pointed at you, Pa says, but how would he know, he wasn’t here when it happened.  The wrath of the Lord is like an avenging flame.  But I didn’t burn, not like the tree.  Except for my feet.  (p.20)

For Manie, carrying Amor down the hill afterwards, it was like Moses descending the mountain, it was the afternoon the Holy Spirit touched him and his life changed.  Save her, he pleads. Save her, Lord, and I’ll be Yours for ever.

Amor remembers it differently, as the reek of burnt meat on the air, like a braaivleis, the stink of sacrifice at the centre of the world. (p. 27)

As we can see from the jaunty, often sardonic narration like a gossipy Greek chorus, these riffs are a satire on Afrikaaner religiosity. Anton Swart, the firstborn, the only son […] is anointed to what he doesn’t know but the future is his.  He deserts from national service after a crisis of conscience because he shot a Black woman, and slouches towards Bethlehem in the Free State. He thinks that the death of his mother is some kind of atonement for the death of the innocent woman he shot.

Manie slaughters a lamb for the funeral, cutting its throat, a small flowering of violence in the midst of this helplessness, oh it felt good.  

So people will pity themselves, soaked in sadness over what they’ve lost, with no awareness of other losses close to hand that they have brought about. (p.60)

The minister officiating at the funeral breaks his glasses and his driver deserts him, prompting him to liken his travails to those of Job:

Thou art forsaken in the hour of thy need, Alwyn, where is thy succour now?  It is only the just man who is tested, remember! (p.64)

Alwyn Simmers emerges as a man who isn’t a just man at all.

Middle daughter Astrid — who so casually appropriates her dead mother’s bracelet the way colonisers appropriated land — seeks absolution for her adultery in confession, having taken to Catholicism easily.

Her new faith, which she experiences as a kind of waterproof garment she’s buttoned down over herself, doesn’t stop her acting on her fears and desires, but it provides a way of washing them off afterwards. She will receive her penance and the karmic clock will be set again to zero and she will swear to the priest that she will follow his instructions, that this is the last, last time she will ever stray, and she will deeply mean it. (p.171)

The Swarts of this novel are a kind of collective Everyman.

For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family, oh no, they resemble the family from the next farm and the one beyond that, just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans, and if you don’t believe it then listen to us speak. We sound no different from other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in.  Something rusted and rain-stained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.

But don’t say we never change! (p.221)

They don’t change enough to bring themselves to offer the one small bit of justice that they could provide, by keeping the promise.

This is a serious novel but the narration offers lighter moments.  When the loss of her mother is reinforced by Amor’s first period occurring at the funeral, Marina knows she ought to help her niece, but leaving now would be terrible, it would be like when Ockie erased the who-shot-JR episode of Dallas from the VHA player by mistake before she’d seen it.  

Anton’s novel, which begins so well, fizzles out into chaos, not unlike the disappointing state of South Africa today…

I should not complain about the publishers who brought us this remarkable book, but honestly, that cover on the Chatto & Windus edition is not just awful, it’s irrelevant.  The Europa edition is much better: the bolt of lightning refers to something that actually happens in the novel and it’s symbolic too of the cataclysmic changes in South Africa.

Author: Damon Galgut
Title: The Promise
Publisher: Chatto & Windus, 2021
ISBN: 9781784744076, pbk., 293 pages
Source: Bayside Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2021

Book Giveaway winner: Imaginative Possession by Belinda Probert

So, it’s time to draw the giveaway offer from new publishing venture Upswell Press.

This is the blurb:

Wondering how migrants can fully settle on this ancient continent, Belinda Probert bought a property in the “country” to observe things more closely and learn to garden differently.

At a time when many easy assumptions about how we live and how our society functions are being questioned there is room for contemplation of a country that is ancient, occupied for at least sixty thousand years, and young, a national federation for only twelve decades.

Belinda Probert, a migrant from England, sets out to question in words and action how well she understands the landscapes she has seen and the people that have shaped them. She takes with her a set of writers who have asked the same questions, or provided interpretations of our sense of belonging, to test their words against her own emerging views. Wondering how a nation of immigrants can fully settle here she decided she needed to buy a property in the ‘country’ so she could observe it more closely, and learn to garden differently.

Trees fell on her, ants bit her, bowerbirds stole her crops, but from the exercise she discovers much more about soil, trees, water, animals and protecting herself from fire emergencies. Driving back and forth she learns to see the ancient heritage all around us, and rural industries that have destroyed and created so much.

About the author:

Belinda Probert grew up in the Weald of Kent, wanting to be a sheep farmer. After a PhD on the Troubles in Northern Ireland she accepted a job at the newly opened Murdoch University in Western Australia to teach peace and conflict studies / social and political theory and explore her Australian family connections.

She is the author of books about Northern Ireland, gender equity, and Working Life: Arguments about Work in Australian Society.

There were six entries so the odds were good:

  1. Sarah Ross
  2. Jennifer from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large
  3. Gay Lynch (her entry is on the post for September’s #6Degrees)
  4. Fay Kennedy
  5. Michelle Scott Tucker
  6. Per Henningsgaard 

The numbers went into the random number generator at Random.org and up came No 5. Congratulations to Michelle, you need to contact me at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom before next Friday so that I can pass your postal address on to the publishers.

If you missed out this time, there’s still a current giveaway for John Hughes new novel The Dogs, and #StayTuned I have another one from Upswell Publishing coming up after that! 

 

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 16, 2021

Three Daughters of Eve, by Elif Shafak


Elif Shafak is a Turkish author who also lives in Britain.  Her novels have been nominated for the Booker, the IMPAC, the Man Asian and the Women’s Prize for Fiction.  She writes in both Turkish and English, and since no translator is credited in the edition I read, I assume that Three Daughters of Eve was written in English.

Although it was nominated for several prizes, I was disappointed by Honour (2013), a novel about so-called ‘honour killings’ but Three Daughters of Eve is better constructed and more plausible.  The settings — Istanbul and Oxford — are superbly realised, contrasting the chaotic energy of Turkey’s largest city and financial centre with the static charm of British academia’s historic heart. These settings frame a novel of contrasts, tugging at the intellect and emotions of its central character, Peri.

Peri grows up in a family rent by spiritual conflict.  Her father is a belligerent atheist while her mother is a pious Muslim. They argue constantly, sniping at each other at every possible opportunity.  Peri, whose brothers embody these conflicts, witnesses the fallout from political repression and of extreme religiosity, and longs for a middle ground, developing a naïve belief that she might be the one to bring harmony into this divided home. Though it’s a financial struggle for her family, her chance comes, she thinks, when she takes up a place at Oxford and encounters a charismatic professor whose course explores issues surrounding God.  Not the least of these is, of course, the problem of reconciling a benevolent omnipotent God with the evils of the world.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Professor Azar has a God complex.  He’s not just interested in sectarian conflict, he likes to generate it, and has deliberately chosen his students to represent different attitudes towards religion and faith.  He manipulates their activities so that those holding extreme positions have to work together, and some of the other academic staff are dubious about the psychological distress he has been known to cause.  He goes so far as to engineer Peri into joining a share house with the radical Shirin and the pious Mona, reproducing the tension and conflict from Peri’s home in Turkey as the women argue passionately about identity, Islam, feminism and modernity.

The structure of the novel hints at some dramatic conflict that impacted on these women and their professor.  Three Daughters of Eve begins with middle-aged Peri with her teenage daughter Deniz on her way to a dinner party in Istanbul.  The traffic and her tiresome daughter combine to transform Peri from a respectable woman who represses her emotions into an Amazon who takes off after a handbag thief but almost gets raped in the back streets.  With a bandaged hand and torn dress, she finally arrives at the dinner party but refuses to conform to the expectations of the guests that she tidy herself up.  The progress of this dinner party is woven through the novel, enabling Shafak to comment on male entitlement and women’s rights, the gulf between rich and poor in modern Turkey, the secular-Islamist divide, and the tension between Turkish identity and Europeanising influences such as the movement for democracy and acceptance into the EU.  But for Peri, the photo that fell from her bag brings back memories of her time at Oxford and the people who were so important in her life.

Memory and forgetting are important motifs in the novel.  At the dinner party, the physics professor raises the spectre of Turkey becoming fundamentalist like Iran.

Peri said, ‘There’s that danger.  But Iran is a society of memory and tradition.  We Turks are good at amnesia.’

‘Which do you think is preferable?’ asked Darren beside her. ‘Remembering or forgetting?

‘They both have their drawbacks,’ Peri replied without hesitation. ‘But I’d rather forget.  The past is a burden.  What’s the use of remembering when we can’t change anything?’ (p.285)

One of the other dinner-party guests, Azur, agrees, joking that he’d rather not have a memory and can’t wait to have Alzheimer’s.  But just a few pages later, after TV reports of a terrorist event and the death of a teacher has shaken the party mood,  Peri’s husband Adnan muses on the transience of memory:

‘It’s not only terrorism or the horror of it,’ Adnan said. ‘It’s how easily we get used to such news.  Tomorrow this time few people will be talking about the teacher.  In a week, he’ll be forgotten.’ (p.304)

When is it too soon to forget?

Shafak’s allusion to Turkish ‘amnesia’ could refer to many things, but the obvious one is the Armenian Genocide, whose remembrance is proscribed in Turkey.  Like the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, she was prosecuted (but not convicted) of “insulting Turkishness” in her second novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, (long-listed for the Orange Prize)  So it’s interesting to see here in this dialogue that Peri thinks there’s no value in remembering.  Perhaps the conflicts between her parents, siblings and housemates just makes her yearn for peace?

In reality, of course, none of us really has much of a choice between memory and forgetting, it just happens whether we intend it to or not.  As we know from Andrea Goldsmith’s wonderful book The Memory Trap  societies do choose, by some kind of consensus, to memorialise some events and to ignore others.  The media, as we see in Jon Mcgregor’s Reservoir 13, has a role to play in keeping memories of events in the public eye.  As individuals, we keep photo albums, scrapbooks and memorabilia, (or their digital equivalents).  But there are always events in our own lives that we forget, and others that we remember, and there are complex reasons for this.

There’s a razor-sharp moment in this novel, when Professor Azur asks his class what they would want God to say if he were actually present.  The responses vary, but are mostly about love in some way.  But Peri says that what she’d like is for him to apologise, for all the injustice in the world.

Amen to that!

Other reviews: Ron Charles at the Washington Post; Claire McAlpine at Word by Word,  and at Publisher’s Weekly 

Author: Elif Shafak
Title: Three Daughters of Eve
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2016
ISBN: 9780241288047, pbk., 367 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Eltham Bookshop, $32.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 15, 2021

No One, by John Hughes

I have all sorts of good reasons for reading this novella by Sydney author John Hughes.  I have just posted a giveaway for his new book The Dogs, of which I also have my own copy via my subscription to new publishing venture Upswell and (in a rare moment of self-discipline when it comes to the TBR) I thought I ought to read No One first.  I’ve had since it was nominated for the 2020 Miles Franklin.  And because it’s only 157 pages long, that also makes it a good flag-bearer for Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. However, now that I’ve read it, I have another good reason: I think No One is destined to be a classic of Australian literature, and people will be reading it for many, many years to come.

Yes, that’s a big call.  But Miles Franklin judges aside, there is plenty of other praise for this deceptively simple story.

and, comparing Hughes to the 2014 Nobel prize winning author Patrick Modiano,

  • George Kouvaros at the Sydney review of Books: ‘The capacity of the past to return in a manner that unravels our place in the present links No One to the work of perhaps the greatest living novella writer, Patrick Modiano.’

And that’s just the reviews that weren’t behind the paywall…

This is how the story begins:

For a long time I used to drive around the city late at night, but why I found myself in the ghost hours of that Monday morning nineteen years ago on Lawson Street I can no longer recall. Nothing remains for me but the sound—a dull thud, like a roo hitting the side of a car—and the dreamlike slowness of my realisation. I had almost driven past Redfern Park before I pulled over to the kerb to collect my thoughts. The park was empty except for a couple of men sleeping rough between the roots of a large fig. I drove a little further on so as not to disturb them. It must have been a dog, I thought. What else would have been on the road at that time of night? (p.1)

Belatedly, he pulls over.  His car, an old Volvo station wagon which he bought from a drummer who had fallen on hard times, has dings and scratches all over it, and a couple of larger dents at the front and rear. He can see a dent on the passenger side where he’d heard the thud; he’s not sure whether it’s new or if it’s been there all the time.  He drives back to Lawson St and sees what might be a bloodstain on the road.  He realises that the dent in the front panel is too high to have been made by a dog, or only a dog as large as a man or a roo.  And he has a strange sensation of being watched and held to account.

Something has happened, he didn’t deal with it at the time, and although he is uncertain about  what he might have done, now he feels responsible.  This feeling of guilt is a metaphor for Australian uneasiness about wrongs done to Indigenous people in the past.

To develop the metaphor, Hughes offers two central characters, both of whom have identities to which the author has no claim.  The  driver of the car has never developed a sense of belonging: an orphaned immigrant from the Middle East, he lived in a succession of foster homes, remembering only fragments of life in Broken Hill, Cessnock and Sydney.  As an adult, he is a transient with no home, work or family to ground him.  But he is not an ‘appropriated’ Other.  He is like all of us who have come, one way or another, in the present or the past, to a country that was not our own.  And, like the characters in Modiano’s novellas that I’ve read — is troubled by fleeting, inconclusive memories, by a problem he cannot name and by questions for which there is no answer.

He meets an Indigenous woman that he dubs the poetess.  She is not a poet, but she is poetic. Like the words of a poem she is more than her utterances, and she must be ‘read between the lines.’ She is unimpressed by his futile quest to absolve his guilt, but like so many Indigenous people she is generous in educating him about a reality he cannot see or interpret.  She accompanies him on his fruitless endeavours, always cutting through his vague meditations on Australia’s colonial legacy and his meaningless gestures to atone.

There is nothing heavy-handed about any of this.  This is an example of the delicacy with which Hughes focuses our attention:

On the road behind where I had parked I had noticed what looked like a mark.  When I bent down to examine it more closely I was overcome by a momentary vertigo.  A week after I was placed in their care I was taken by my first foster parents to look at a small cave in the country south of their property near Katherine, a place my new father would often take me later when he went hunting for roos. When I turned on the torch he had given me, it seemed to me as if I had wakened a zoo full of hibernating creature come out of the darkness in which they had slept for a thousand years.  There were hands, larger than my own, stencilled in ochre, and kangaroos and crocodiles and snakes and fish, not painted onto the surface of the rock, but rather like apparitions that had come up through the rock somehow to be seen.  Everything was getting confused in my mind.  There was blood on the road: it had dried to the colour of those apparitions in the cave.  And the creature that had left it — where was it, if not an apparition itself, gone back into the road.  (p.3)

Odysseus blinding the Cyclops

The title is a sly allusion to Homer’s Odyssey.  When Odysseus is trapped in the cave by Polyphemus the one-eyed Cyclops, he tells Polyphemus that his name is Οὖτις i.e. No One.  When the other Cyclops come to the aid of Polyphemus who cries out in agony as Odysseus blinds him, they ask who is attacking him, and he answers ‘no one’ so they go away. ‘No one’ is responsible for the crime — and yet it has undoubtedly occurred.

No One is a book that rewards re-reading time and again, and I can imagine the rich discussions that senior students and book groups could have about it.  Threads of forgetting and remembering, of alienation and connection, and of guilt and atonement are woven together in a kind of dream, and like a dream, have no resolution.  A reviewer at Westerly thought it was nihilistic, but I think it’s hopeful and it suggests good will.  There’s hope in caring about our fraught history, and there’s good will in wanting to know what happened and desiring ways to redress it.

Image credit: By Rider Painter – User:Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2007-05-31, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2183756

Author: John Hughes
Title: No One
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781760800291, pbk., 157 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings $24.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 15, 2021

2021 Melbourne Prize shortlist

From the press release:

The shortlist for the $60,000 Melbourne Prize for Literature 2021 is:

  • Jordie Albiston
  • Maxine Beneba-Clarke
  • Pi O
  • Christos Tsiolkas

The shortlisted essays for the $15,000 Writer’s Prize 2021 are by:

  • Vivian Blaxell
  • Eloise Victoria Grills
  • David Sornig
  • Ouyang Yu

You can vote for the $3,000 Civic Choice Award 2021 is  open — click here — voters have a chance to win a $100 Readings Gift Voucher. There are no finalists in the $20,000 Professional Development Award 2021 — the winner be announced on November 10.  The winners in all three category will be announced on the Melbourne Prize website at an online broadcast at 6pm on November 10.


In previous years, the shortlisted essays have been available to read on the Melbourne Prize website and will presumably be published there soon.  I’ll be particularly interested to read the one by Ouyang Yu, whose prose I have read and reviewed before.  He’s one of our most interesting writers, one who should be on the radar of the Nobel Prize committee, so I’m somewhat surprised that he isn’t one of the authors shortlisted for the major prize.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2021

The Road to Urbino, by Roma Tearne

I bought The Road to Urbino when it was nominated for the 2012 MAN Asian Prize, but it wasn’t shortlisted so I didn’t prioritise reading it at the time.  (That prize was an excellent source of fine novels — the winner that year was Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists)

Despite its Italian-sounding title, the preoccupations which underline The Road to Urbino are Asian, and specifically, Sri Lankan.  It’s the story of a Tamil, Lynton Rasanagium a.k.a. Ras, who is in a British prison cell on charges of terrorism.  He has stolen one of The West’s most treasured artefacts, ‘The Flagellation of Christ’ by the Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesa, with the intention of holding it to ransom for his cause.

The narration is unusual, with two first person narrators, Ras and Alex, addressing in the second person, a character who never speaks directly.  Elizabeth, the barrister assigned to Ras, is one of Britain’s best, and as you can see in this excerpt from Part 1, Ras is replying to her questions as she tries to prepare the brief.  We do not hear her voice but can intuit her questions and responses to Ras through his replies, his observations and his inner thoughts.

‘Call me Elizabeth,’ you say, in a clipped voice, cutting me short.
The edges of your mouth tighten.
‘And let me give you these to sign, first.’
You had me two pieces of paper and point to the crosses on them.  I sign.
‘Now,’ you say. ‘We don’t have an awful lot of time.  There are just four weeks before your hearing and this charge of theft is of a serious nature. So we need to concentrate quite hard.’
Once a thief, always a thief, I think. Where have I heard that before?  The papers are calling me a terrorist.  I shake my head.  Terrorism is another matter. I know the law has provided me with your service, but actually, the only thing I’m interested in is seeing my beloved daughter again. (p.5)

Part II introduces Alex Benson’s narrative, again only in the form of his responses to Elizabeth, his observations and his inner thoughts. While Ras’s anguished narrative is designed to elicit the reader’s sympathies for the tragedy of his life, we are not meant to like Alex.  He is sardonic, cynical and flippant.  Since it’s not immediately obvious how these two strands of the novel connect, or why Elizabeth is interviewing him, this ambiguity makes him irritating too.

Gradually the pieces of the puzzle emerge.  Ras and his brother Sam came to Britain as boys after their mother was killed in the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009). Ras can’t adjust, and he leaves school without qualifications and has a succession of menial jobs along with a succession of meaningless relationships.  He marries unwisely, and when the marriage falls apart, his daughter Lola rejects him.  Into this misery comes a chance meeting with Charles Boyar from the National Gallery in London, where Ras becomes a gallery guard and can indulge his newly discovered passion for the paintings of Piero della Francesca. (Of which the National Gallery has three.)

Through Charles, Ras gets to visit Tuscany where amongst other paintings he sees the Madonna del Parto in Monterchi and ‘The Flagellation of Christ’ in Urbino which he interprets as a commentary on the indifference to Christ’s suffering by the three figures on the right and the seated figure on the left.  He sees this as an allegory for the indifference of The West to the sufferings of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and that’s what triggers the charge of terrorism…

The Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca (c1468-70, Wikipedia)

Alex’s narrative reveals that he is hopelessly in love with Charles Boyar’s wife, Delia, and has been for years.

These manifestations of loss all collide when tragedy strikes the Boyar family.

Roma Tearne was herself a refugee from the Sri Lankan Civil War, and she is acutely aware of how fragile the refugee experience can be.  When Ras talks about ‘murdering’ his daughter’s innocence when he separates from her mother, Elizabeth remonstrates with him:

‘But,’ you frown, puzzled, ‘aren’t you making too much of this?  Surely thousands of people get divorced each year and they don’t consider it murder.  Lola was a clever little girl.  She had a father who loved her: that hadn’t changed? Why the fuss?’

I glance wearily at you.  I hear your words.  Are you talking about the thousands of children who have grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters?  All living a bus ride away.  I did not have any of that, don’t you understand?’ (pp.58-9)

It’s true, and as all migrants know, you don’t have to have been a refugee to be lacking a support network, which can make a displaced family very vulnerable when things go wrong.

Update, 14/9/21 Apologies, I had some sort of technical glitch with this review, and I ended up with two versions of it, and published the wrong one.  The review should have ended with this paragraph:

It’s an interesting idea to frame a novel around a terrorist event that does not involve violence against people, but rather explores the impact of an act of ‘violence’ against a cultural artefact.  The theft of the painting in this novel reminded me about the Taliban destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, described as a ‘death’ here; and the ISIS destruction of Palmyra and other cultural artefacts in Iraq and Syria is described as a war here. Tearne’s novel does not mention these events, but her theme applies: people develop what is sometimes called ‘compassion fatigue’ and is elsewhere recognised as indifference to ongoing violence against people, but outrage surfaces when cultural artefacts are deliberately stolen, lost, damaged or destroyed.  We think of these things as ‘world heritage’, as artefacts belonging to all of us, wherever they were sourced from, and wherever they are housed.

Tearne’s novel is a razor-sharp critique of the way we in the west are protective of the rights of the individual, a concept of human rights that defined the west for decades during the Cold War.  But in truth, Tearne asserts, concern for the individual only matters for individuals in cultures like our own.  The individuals in Sri Lanka who die or are damaged do not count in the public imagination as much as a well-loved painting does.

Image credit: By Piero della Francesca, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70840480

Author: Roma Tearne
Title: The Road to Urbino
Publisher: Abacus, 2012
ISBN: 9781408703922, pbk., 338 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from The Book Depository

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2021

Book Giveaway: The Dogs, by John Hughes

Here’s another giveaway offer from new publishing venture Upswell Press.

You will remember my post about the Mildura LitFest, in which I shared the news that readers can subscribe to this year’s list of three books and thus also get a new novel by John Hughes, whose name you may remember from my post about The Garden of Sorrows. He was also shortlisted in the 2020 Miles Franklin Lit Award for his novel No One, see the review at the Sydney Review of Books and Kim’s review at Reading Matters. (I have No One (published by UWAP when Terri-Anne White was there) on the TBR, but I haven’t read it yet.) His new novel The Dogs is scheduled for publication by Upswell on September 20th.

About the book:

Michael Shamanov grapples with the idea of his mother’s life and her desire to finish it. Perhaps it’s her life he has been running away from and not his own.

“The story of a life is a secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is no life at all.” — Elias Canetti

Is it possible to write about the living without thinking of them as already dead?

Michael Shamanov is a man running away from life’s responsibilities. His marriage is over, he barely sees his son and he hasn’t seen his mother since banishing her to a nursing home two years earlier. A successful screen writer, Michael’s encounter with his mother’s nurse leads him to discover that the greatest story he’s never heard may lie with his dying mother. And perhaps it’s her life he’s been running away from and not his own. Is the past ever finished? Should we respect another’s silence? And if so, is it ever possible to understand and put to rest the strange idea of family that travels through the flesh?

From the Miles Franklin shortlisted author of No One comes a haunting gem of family secrets and impossible decisions.

About the author:

John Hughes is based in Sydney. He has published six books, all acclaimed and highly awarded, including the National Biography Award and Premier’s Book Awards. His previous novels, The Remnants and Asylum were critically acclaimed, and in 2019, No One was shortlisted in the Miles Franklin Award 2020.

Praise for The Dogs:

“John Hughes’ writing is intelligent, delicate and otherworldly, his narrator bumbling, contrary and oddly endearing. A novel in which the past and the present twine, and the vastness of history crystalises in one man’s troubled here and now. 

Michael Shamanov, son of war survivors, inheritor of nameless devastation, drily humorous admitter of his own failings, is presented with a last-chance opportunity to find love and mercy as they must exist in his world – imperfectly.

A stealth manoeuvre of the emotions. Beautifully restrained, deeply moving”
— 
Peggy Frew

HOW TO ENTER

Interested? Please add your name to the comments below, and I’ll draw the winners at the end of next week.  All entries from readers with an Australian postcode for delivery will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner. (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met). Your postal address will be forwarded to the publisher who will then send you the book.

Good luck everybody!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 12, 2021

The Magician, by Colm Tóibín

I can’t help feeling a bit discontented about the latest novel from Colm Tóibín. I’ve read and enjoyed all of his novels, starting with The South in 1990, and continuing with each new release, the more recent of them reviewed here on this blog.  I loved The Master, (2004) a ‘bionov’ about Henry James —  so why I am disappointed by The Magician, a ‘bionov’ about Thomas Mann? (I just discovered this new word ‘bionov’ from Twitter: it means a fictionalised life, a biographical novel. Will the label catch on?)

The Magician is a fictionalised life of Thomas Mann, whose books I like, and Mann had a tumultuous life as did many who had to flee Nazi Germany, so at the surface level the novel makes interesting reading, though not as engaging as I expected it to be.  The focus on Mann’s repressed homosexuality is a bit overdone, and the prose is a bit ponderous here and there —channelling Mann himself? I don’t know, I can only read Mann in translation… was he ponderous in German? OTOH I really liked the segments portraying the mind of the novelist at work, harvesting and hoarding events and people in his life for his next novel.  I especially savoured this when I’d read those novels myself, that is Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus (see my reviews here) and found myself wanting to read Mann’s other fiction, and the work of Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann’s brother as well. On that level, for a reader like me, the novel succeeds.  How it travels with readers unfamiliar with Thomas Mann’s writing, I can’t guess.

However…

Having read Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile (and under-appreciated it at the time) I knew something of the Mann family, but not much about Thomas Mann’s children who  seem to have been ‘difficult’, to say the least of it, more so in adulthood. (I am assuming biographical accuracy in The Magician, which is not a given in a fictionalised life.*)  They experienced the horror of Nazi Germany displacing civilised life so trauma is to be expected, but they were tiresome, aggressively rude and socially embarrassing even before that. Their parents were remarkably tolerant both then and in later years in America, and not in ways that you might perhaps expect in a bohemian household because the Manns were not at all bohemian, they were bourgeois in their lifestyle and habits.  This strand of the novel made me realise how little Tóibín attends to Katia, Thomas Mann’s wife.  She speaks, sometimes with forbearance that can be deduced, but there’s very little about her feelings or her interior life.  Or even about how she spends her days except when she’s trying to organise their escape from Europe.

I’ve also read a very fine novel about the existential crisis faced by Thomas Mann when he was weighing up whether or not to denounce Nazism.  That book was The Decision by Britta Böhler, translated by Jeanette K Ringold.  As I said in my review:

[Thomas Mann] had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.  His was a powerful voice, and — having left Germany for Switzerland in 1933 when Hitler came to power, he had to decide how best to use his celebrity.

He has written a letter denouncing the regime to the Zurich-German press, that when published would amount to cultural suicide.   It is not just that he cannot ever go back unless things change, it is also that he is tormented by the idea that he shares the same cultural tradition as new regime, and may be tainted by it.  He’s not even sure if he can still enjoy the sublime music of Wagner, now that it’s been appropriated by the Nazis.

Tóibín’s Thomas Mann is diffident to the point of seeming indifferent in many situations where a thoughtful man, as we see in Böhler’s novel, would be tormented by cascading perils, including his own safety and that of family members remaining in Europe as it was rapidly being overrun.  But no, in Tóibín’s novel, nothing disrupts Mann’s morning routine so he continues to disappear into his study to write for four hours until lunchtime.  Well, of course, a writer (even a very wealthy, successful one) should do that, treat his work like a proper job, especially if he has something important to write about.  And, yes, the routine of work can be a welcome distraction or a solace when everything around you is chaos.  But still… in this novel Mann’s restrained response to tragedies that would crush most people seems inauthentic.  Was he really a cold fish who wasn’t distraught about his children and extended family?

Which brings me to why I feel discontented.  I was mildly disappointed by House of Names:

When an author of the stature of Colm Tóibín decides to rewrite an ancient myth, it must be because he feels he has something new to say about it, but I have to confess that I read quite a bit of this book thinking that it was a mere retelling.  Written in beautiful words, but held captive to a plot that could only be reworked in insignificant ways.

And

Tóibín’s Clytemnestra is unconvincing.  A mother who’s been used to lure her daughter to be sacrificed by her own father would surely suffer a torrent of emotions, but Tóibín’s retelling fails to convey them.  His Clytemnestra, telling the story from her perspective, is restrained by his prose.

The Magician, for me, is disappointingly the same.  It features central characters, Thomas Mann and his wife Katia, both of whom lack an authentic emotional range of responses to events. Surely writing a novel rather than a biography gives the novelist the opportunity to imagine a compelling interior life for its central characters? But Tóibín doesn’t do that.  The Magician mimics biography: it might/might not be reliable. It has no footnotes or endnotes, because novels don’t.  Unless we research, we can’t know what’s real or imagined or if/where it departs from the documented facts.  The onus is on the reader to identify if/where Tóibín is being selective for some purpose of his own.

But my discontent is more about why an author of Tóibín’s stature isn’t writing fiction of some contemporary relevance.   I don’t mean that it has to be set in the contemporary era, I mean I would like its theme or preoccupations to be relevant in some contemporary context.  I can’t see the point of rewriting a life as a novel unless there is something new to say — something that matters to us in the 21st century — something which can only be written as fiction, rather than in a biography or a Wikipedia entry.

The Magician does reveal Mann’s suppressed desire for young men and boys.  I assume this aspect of Mann’s life, revealed posthumously in his diaries, is already covered in literary biographies, but not being an expert on Mann, but rather just a reader of his books, I didn’t know about it.  Whatever about that, Tóibín doesn’t IMO do anything illuminating with it.  In a newly released Australian novel called Modern Marriage, by Filip Vukašin, the author engages in a sophisticated way with the harm that derives from repressed sexuality.  He shows how a young gay man marries because of fear of rejection by his conservative family; he shows how that decision impacts disastrously on the wife.  He shows the damage that can be done and felt, even in an apparently open and tolerant society like Australia. TóibínOTOH, doesn’t seem to invite the reader to understand anything much about Mann, not empathetically imagining how his repressed sexuality affected his relationships, not adequately exploring how exile affected him or his writing, and offering only a glimpse of how Mann’s detachment made him a poor father. (Tóibín is interested in fathers, as we know from reading Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know.)

The nearest we get to understanding how Mann’s children feel is when he receives a letter from his son Michael.

‘I am sure the world is grateful to you for the undivided attention you have given to your books, but we, your children, do not feel any gratitude to you, or indeed to our mother, who sat by your side.  It is hard to credit that you both stayed in your luxury hotel while my brother was being buried.  I told no one in Cannes that you were in Europe.  They would not have believed me.

‘You are a great man.  Your humanity is widely appreciated and applauded.  I am sure you are enjoying loud praise in Scandinavia.  It hardly bothers you, most likely, that these feelings of adulation are not shared by any of your children.  As I walked away from my brother’s grave, I wished you to now how deeply sad I felt for him.’ (p.394)

But Tóibín declines to imagine how Mann felt when he read this letter:

Thomas placed the letter under a book on his bedside table.  Later, he would read it once more and then he would destroy it.  If Katia and Erika [his daughter] found out that it had been sent and asked him about it, he would say that he had not received it.  (p.394)

Guilt, regret, shame, denial, anger or indifference?  We cannot even get a sense of colour rising to this passionless character’s cheeks…

I’ve been an admirer of Colm Tóibín for a long time, and it was his name that made me want to read this book.  But TBH, having invested time in reading over 400 pages about Thomas Mann without much return on that investment, I think I’d rather have read a biography.

* Re my reference to ‘accuracy’ above: On p.253, there is a reference to Klaus Heuser working for a trading company in ‘Dutch India’ in 1939.   Wikipedia tells me that Dutch India consisted of the settlements and trading posts of the Dutch East India Company on the Indian subcontinent. It is only used as a geographical definition, as there was never a political authority ruling all Dutch India and that Dutch presence on the Indian subcontinent lasted from 1605 to 1825. (Underlining mine.) The Dutch East Indies, OTOH is a geographical entity which was ruled by the Dutch government from 1800 until August 1945, when Indonesian nationalists declared independence which was formally recognised in 1949.  So where exactly was Heuser?  In India, safe enough while under British rule?  Or in what is now Indonesia, soon to be occupied by the Japanese after Pearl Harbour?

The Magican has been reviewed in all the prestige publications but they’re all paywalled.  However, I found these:

  • fellow-blogger Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes who loved it: ‘A sweeping and grand tale about a family within the context of a changing world. The politics, the art, the literature and music, the morality; this is more than a novel about the life of Thomas Mann, it is a history of the rise and fall of early 20th century Germany and the imprint this left upon its people, and the wider world’. 
  • Bookpage says that this ‘deeply researched, highly accomplished fictional narrative still makes for compelling reading’ and suggests that Mann was ‘a stoic observer of family trauma’ rather than indifferent.
  • The Kirkus Review which says it’s ‘an intriguing view of a writer who well deserves another turn on the literary stage’.   
  • The Scotsman calls it ‘a very accomplished and enjoyable novel. It reads easily, more easily indeed than Mann’s own novels. But it is so interesting and understanding [sic] that many who read it are likely to be encouraged to return to Mann’s own works or tackle them for the first time.’

Maybe that’s really all that Tóibín wanted to achieve, to encourage a new generation of readers to discover Thomas Mann, and I’m being unreasonable to expect more.

But then, there’s Roman Clodia at Goodreads who felt like I do…

Author: Colm Tóibín
Title: The Magician
Cover design: Chris Bentham
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan) 2021
ISBN: 9781760984113, pbk.,433 pages
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 11, 2021

My Forests: Travels with Trees, by Janine Burke

My Forests: Travels with Trees is an exquisite book.  It’s been my companion for a week, reading one or two essays each day, and I’m sorry to have come to the end of it.

It’s beautifully produced, comparable with books that come from the Folio Society.  The hardback cover design by Pfisterer + Freeman is graced by gilt leaves superimposed over the bark of a gum tree; the end papers are eucalyptus green; each new chapter is designated by a full page colour background image of bark; and, typeset in Bembo 12/15pt,  the papers feel soft and silky in the hand.  It would make a beautiful gift, but you’d need to be strong-minded not to keep it for yourself.

Contrary to my expectations of a book about forests, the book begins in Elwood, a beachside suburb of Melbourne.  I know it well because I used to live above the Turtle Café on the corner of Glenhuntly and Ormond Rds.  (If interested, look here: the near turret was our sitting-room, the rear turret was the kitchen from which we could see the sea, and the left hand window was our bedroom. We loved the bustle of the street life below us, and only moved when The Offspring needed a garden to rampage around in.)

Despite development, Elwood remains green to this day:

When you turn into Elwood from the Nepean Highway, you are embraced by green: the parks and the ovals entwine in flowing emerald arcs like large, protective gestures.  It’s like living in a nature reserve.  The trees assist in giving Elwood its decidedly feminine air, its gentle, verdant appeal.  Elwood is inhabited by a wide variety of trees: Eucalypts as well as Wattle, Bottlebrush, Ti-tree, Banksia, Apple, Sheoak, Moreton Bay Fig, Jacaranda, Pine, Ash, Peppercorn, Cypress, Date Palm, Silver Birch, Elm and London Plane.  (p.4)

The Yaluk-ut Weelam (‘river people’) of the Boonwurrug clans used to camp on the Point Ormond bluff which looks across to the You-Yangs near Geelong.  When Thomas Clark painted it in c1860, (see here) much of Elwood was swampland and there was an abundance of ducks, eels, tortoises, frogs, fish, shellfish, kangaroos and emus to hunt and harvest.

Several of Elwood’s mighty Eucalypts, the sentinels of the suburb, grew along the wetland’s higher ground and flourish still.  Drooping Sheoaks (Allocasuarina verticillata) provided timber needed for hunting implements and weapons.  Today, sheltered behind Point Ormond are many original plant species including Sea Box (Alyxia buxifolia), White Correa (Correa alba) and Coastal Daisy Bush (Olearia axillaris), flourishing reminders of the Yaluk-ut Weelam’s reign.

Ironically, it was the expert land management practised by Aboriginal people that made it so attractive to property-hungry settlers.  (p.6)

The chapter goes on to record the leadership of Derrimut, who not only warned the infamous Batman that other Aboriginal clans were preparing to attack him and his men, he also tried to save Batman’s son from drowning.  By 1857 when the Boonwurring and the Woi Wurrung population had been reduced to only twenty-eight people, they had been moved on further down the bay to Mordialloc, from where they would be shunted onwards as settlement extended all over Port Phillip.  Derrimut confronted William Thomas, the (so-called) Protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip, and asked him why ‘white man take away Mordialloc where black fellows always sit down’. 

From sharing aspects of her local area’s history and ambience, Burke goes on to write some of the best essays I’ve read this year.  ‘Women of the Banyan’ is chastening reading… what begins with a Hindu religious rite under India’s national tree the banyan, becomes a shocking exposé of appalling cruelty in modern India.  In Australia we quite rightly are demanding changes in the status of women, but in India, the situation is truly dire for widows.

…to be a widow in India is the worst of all possible catastrophes.  The widow is a living example of bad luck.  As Pattanaik comments, ‘in traditional Indian society, a woman’s chastity and fidelity ensured the longevity of her husband’s life.  If she became a widow, it was because she wasn’t chaste enough.  This was one of the reasons given for the practice of sati, in which a widow immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre to prove her fidelity to her dead husband.

While sati has long been outlawed, thanks to England’s imperial might in the nineteenth century, it may seem a better choice than the existence the widows are forced to endure.  There would be the terrifying moments of agony and asphyxiation on the pyre compared to a life of poverty and exclusion, where the most the widow can hope for is to die—soon.  She prays for it daily.  […]

A widow’s fate unfolds like this.  Once her husband dies, the family turns on her.  she is made to shave her head, then don a white sari, the colour of mourning, which she is expected to observe for the rest of her life.  It makes her, literally, a pariah.  She’s then kicked out of her home, usually by her mother-in-law, and abandoned by her relatives.  Violence, sometimes death, can accompany those episodes.  The women rarely have a saleable skill, let alone an education.  Older women go onto the streets to beg.  Younger widows are often pressured into prostitution.  It’s regarded as sacrilegious to remarry. (p. 149-150)

By contrast, tree-sitter Miranda Gibson in Australia, is an example of the power of just one woman.  In a chapter that begins with stories of human arboreality, Burke tells us that Miranda’s 449-day protest against clear-felling  led to a World Heritage listing and protection for the forest in Tasmania’s Tyenna Valley.  It’s fascinating to read about how she felt when she had to come down because of a threatening bushfire.

What were the sensations of arriving back on terra firma?  Miranda maintained an exercise regime on the platform, mainly yoga and sit-ups, so her muscles wouldn’t atrophy.  But returning to ground level did not provide the expected relief.  In fact, as Miranda tells me thoughtfully, that was ‘the biggest challenge.  I thought that things I’d missed, like a warm bath, would be really important.  But they weren’t.  I wanted to be back in the tree.’  While Gibson had steeled herself as best she could for the tree-sit, she didn’t have time to ready herself for coming down.  When the bushfire took off it was a case of an anxious watch and wait and then, skedaddle.  Once on the ground, Miranda felt she had landed on ‘another world’, a place she’d viewed from 60 metres up and that was ‘inaccessible.’  A kind of ‘separation anxiety’ that lasted for months.  She felt that she been ‘thrown overboard into the ocean, completely lost.’  (p.33)

Janine Burke is an art historian and curator as well as a writer, so there are forays into the world of art, with beautiful reproductions of important paintings, as well as discussions about history, myth, fairy tales and contemporary life.  It’s a gorgeous book, one that grounded me when I was feeling a tad discombobulated by current events and feeling sorry for myself because of my broken wrist.

There are links to podcasts about this book at the publisher’s website. 

Author: Janine Burke
Title: My Forests: Travels with Trees
Cover design by Pfisterer + Freeman
Publisher: The Miegunyah Press, and imprint of Melbourne University Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9780522877328, hbk., 249 pages including the index and notes
Review copy courtesy of Melbourne University Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 10, 2021

2021 Queensland Literary Awards

The 2021 Queensland Literary Awards were announced last night.

Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance

Awarded to an outstanding work, by an Australian writer, focused on documenting, discussing or highlighting a uniquely Queensland story. Prize: $25,000 

  • Biting the Clouds: A Badtjala perspective on the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897 by Fiona Foley (University of Queensland Press)

The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award
Awarded to an outstanding work of fiction by an Australian writer. Prize: $15,000

  • Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson (Hachette Australia), see my review

University of Southern Queensland Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection
Awarded to an outstanding collection of short stories by an Australian writer. Prize: $15,000

  • Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery (University of Queensland Press)

Queensland Writers Fellowships

Awarded to three (3) established Queensland authors to advance a writing project over a 12-month period. There was no shortlist for this prize. Prize: three Fellowships of $15,000 each, plus professional development support to the value of $4,500

  • Tabitha Bird for ‘The Healing Giggle of Wonder’
  • Ella Jeffery for ‘Split Level’
  • Kali Napier for ‘Preserving: Stories’

Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Awards
Awarded to two (2) outstanding Queensland writers up to 30 years of age. Prize: two awards of $10,000 plus career development support to the value of $2,500 each

  • Allanah Hunt
  • Ellen Wengert

The University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award
Awarded to an outstanding work of non-fiction by an Australian writer. Prize: $15,000

  • Amnesia Road: Landscape, violence and memory by Luke Stegemann (NewSouth Publishing)

Children’s Book Award
Awarded to a work, suitable for children up to 12 years old, by an Australian writer. This award is supported by Susan Hocking and Ian Mackie, and their family, through the Hocking Mackie Trust at APS Foundation. Prize: $15,000

  • Bindi written by Kirli Saunders and illustrated by Dub Leffler (Magabala Books)

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award
Awarded to a work, suitable for young adults aged 13 to 19, by an Australian writer. Prize: $15,000

  • Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore (Text Publishing)

Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Collection
Awarded to an outstanding collection of poetry by an Australian writer. This award is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. Prize: $15,000

  • Terminally Poetic by Ouyang Yu (Ginninderra Press)

David Unaipon Award for an Emerging Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Writer
Awarded for an outstanding manuscript by an unpublished Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writer. This award is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. Prize: $15,000, plus manuscript development and publication with University of Queensland Press

  • Ngankiburka-mekauwe (Senior Woman of Water) Georgina Williamsfor ‘Mekauwe=Tears Volume #1 Poems (Notes For Song) 1970-2020’

Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer

Awarded for an outstanding manuscript by an unpublished Queensland writer. This award is supported by Jenny Summerson through the Queensland Library Foundation. Prize: $15,000, plus manuscript development and publication with University of Queensland Press

  • Siang Lu, ‘The Whitewash’

The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award

Awarded to an outstanding book by a Queensland author, taken from eligible books entered in the Fiction and Non-Fiction categories. The winner of this award was determined by public vote. Prize: $10,000

  • Mary’s Last Dance: The untold story of the wife of Mao’s Last Dancer by Mary Li (Penguin Random House)

For more information: Queensland Literary Awards

Thanks to the State Library Communications team for a press release that was quick-and-easy to upload. 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 10, 2021

Modern Marriage, by Filip Vukašin

Modern Marriage, the debut novel of Melbourne doctor Filip Vukašin is a very contemporary novel.  It couldn’t have been written even a decade ago because it deals with issues arising from the cruelty of the 2017 same-sex marriage plebiscite; and with the business of cosmetic surgery, which in recent years has morphed from face-lifts in middle age, to routine sculpting of the human body, both male and female.  For people who subscribe to the values inherent in the cosmetic industry, the pressure to conform to the perfect body image has become relentless, while for some, the quest for perfection crosses over into other aspects of life as well.  Perfect body, perfect clothes, perfect job, perfect spouse, perfect car, perfect address, perfect child, and even a perfect nanny…

More than a domestic drama, Modern Marriage explores the fallout after a married man is found inexplicably unconscious in a gay sauna.  Klara is a cosmetic surgeon living in the plush beachside suburb of Elwood in Melbourne.  She has a thriving business with a wealthy clientele, and with her business partner Tomas, they have expensive plans to renovate it.  On the domestic front, however, things are not quite so rosy: the plans Klara and her husband Dante had for parenthood are awry, and Klara fears that Dante’s new fitness regime and muscularity are subtle signs that she should be doing more to maintain her body too.  (And of course, in her profession, she is expected to look more sculpted than she is, a problem that Tomas has noticed but not yet found a tactful way to broach the subject).

The discovery that Dante has been ‘playing away’ in the gay scene is a betrayal that brings with it fear of STD, embarrassment that she should have known, and — despite having gay friends like Tomas and his partner Alex who are planning the wedding they may not be able to have — she feels a disabling anxiety about how Dante’s conservative family will react if they find out, and she doesn’t want to hurt them with the truth.  For all the apparent openness about LGBTIQ diversity in contemporary society, Klara is forced to confront the realisation that some men remain ‘in the closet’ out of fear of family rejection and a desire to conform.

When Dante’s life support is switched off, everything falls apart for Klara.  Swamped by questions that Dante can never answer now, and missing the tender love and care of the man she had trusted, she is devastated and angry.  Surrounded by his grieving family, she has to endure the torment of a eulogy that is a lie.  Her bossy, nosy, self-important sister-in-law Rachel forces herself on Klara as a grief counsellor without having any idea of the complexity of Klara’s emotions, which manifest themselves in extreme forms of secret self-harm.  What she does to herself is distressing to read but is an authentic portrayal of how someone who seems to have it all can be all on her own in a time of crisis.

Rachel is convincingly hilarious in her awfulness and offers light relief in a book tackling serious issues.  So sure that as a psychologist she is an expert on human behaviour, she barges into Klara’s house, interrogates her, dreams up an entire crime podcast (with accompanying fame) to account for Klara’s behaviour, and then sets up a family dinner party as the kind of denouement scene that features in crime shows where the entire cast assembles for The Big Reveal. Along with her assumptions about Klara, Rachel also misreads her MIL’s reactions completely, and, confronted by her miscalculations of the situation, tries to manipulate her MIL into taking over the guilt.  This woman is a nightmare, with an uncanny ability to avoid meaningful self-reflection:

The mystery that continues to nag at Rachel revolves around being proven wrong in her hypothesis of Klara and missing the actual pathology.  What does this mean about her as a therapist, about her instincts as a sleuth?  The family couldn’t possibly start blaming her for leading them down the path of questioning Klara and upsetting her.  That would be grossly unfair.  (p.303)

Rachel is indefatigable so it takes a dramatic event to rein her script:

This isn’t how the podcast was supposed to go.  This is all wrong.  How did it all go so wrong?  Whose fault is it?  When could someone have intervened?  Like a line-up of suspects she sees Mitra, Dante, Marko… herself.

No no no. (p.310)

Oh yes, yes yes Rachel!!

Modern Marriage is an entertaining first novel that tackles serious themes without being heavy-handed.  You can read an extract here.

Author: Filip Vukašin
Title: Modern Marriage
Cover design by Lisa White
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781922419248, pbk., 315 pages
Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 9, 2021

Where the Queens all Strayed, by Barbara Hanrahan

I owe a debt of gratitude to Brenton who, in a comment from 2005, recommended the novels of Barbara Hanrahan (1939-1991) to me.  Where the Queens all Strayed (1978) was her fourth novel and for me, after A Chelsea Girl (1987) it’s the second one that I’ve read.   I keep looking out for her books (when we’re not in Lockdown, that is, and I can haunt the OpShops) and so far have amassed The Albatross Muff (1977); The Peach Groves (1980); and The Frangipani Gardens (1988).  I have yet to find the one that Brenton recommended, which was her first novel, The Scent of Eucalyptus (1973) but no doubt there is a copy out there somewhere with my name on it!

Anyway, Hanrahan was just the author that I wanted to read after the emotionally draining experience of reading The Woman in Valencia (La femme de Valence), by Annie Perreault, translated by Ann Marie Boulanger.  I wanted to read a novel featuring assertive women who took control of their lives, and Where the Queens all Strayed seemed like a title with promise.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Where the Queens all Strayed is a coming-of-age novel set at the turn of the 19th century.  Thea Hodge, aged twelve, is the narrator and though she doesn’t always understand what’s going on, she is a keen observer of her family and the people of her small community in the Adelaide Hills.  She has an older sister Meg who is the victim of her mother’s fantasy about snaring the local posh boy, Teddy Teakle.  Thea has doubts about this, because her father is from a dubious Adelaide suburb and she suspects that the Teakles, made rich by their jam factory, are unlikely to be conned into ‘marrying down’ even by Mother’s best efforts at dressing Meg in finery.  (Teddy is entranced enough, however, to cause Meg the kind of trouble that girls got into before birth control, but not entranced enough to marry her.)

But that’s not the only straying that Meg does…

The story is peopled by a collection of diverse characters, exposing the cruel and discriminatory way that people who were ‘different’ were treated in the Edwardian era.  Anyone nostalgic for ‘the good old days’ will flinch at the treatment of ‘Baby’ Pettigrew, a grown boy kept down in the Infants because he couldn’t learn, and who was beaten regularly by their creepy teacher.  Thea notices what others take for granted, such as the hunchback John Cuff having to rely on the charity of an eccentric heiress for a job and a home.  She sees that her mother has become a reluctant breadwinner because her father who ‘used to be George’  never recovers from a workplace injury and has no solace but the bottle. She’s too young to understand that Love and Mercy ‘service’ the respectable men of the town, and she’s too naïve to recognise the attraction between Meg and the sensuous but amoral Rani who plots and schemes to worm her way into one legacy or another.

What Thea’s not too young to decide is that awful as school is, she wants to follow in the footsteps of the class swot Hilda Nutter and go to secondary school, because the world of womanhood as she has seen it has made her want a different future, ‘safe’ at home where the world couldn’t get her.

‘Don’t be silly,’ [Mother] said.  ‘Life’s not like that.  You can’t stay a child forever.  And Pup and I aren’t made of money.  No, indeed, my girl.  Birdies have to leave their nests.  It’s either wedding-bells or a job.’

If I was sensible and cared about my appearance, of course they’d indulge me with extras.  There was always spon [sic] for necklets and face cream; for classes in repoussé or a stint at something commercial.  Nothing serious, mind.  A blue-stocking scared them off. (p.146)

Old Bob Cuff is a great storyteller, philosophical about his situation.  He tells Thea about being eight years old and setting sail with Mama and Papa and Governor Hindmarsh in the Buffalo. Wikipedia tells me that this voyage was in 1836, making Old Cuff a human link back to the first days of the South Australian colony.  He remembers the blacks setting fire to the hills  and how they were given a white blanket on the Queen’s birthday.  He graduated from farming the family cows to driving a coach…

He was courteous to all, exceedingly attentive to lady passengers and children, a true expert with the ribbons.  But that didn’t help him when the dog ran out at the cutting: the horses swerved, Bob came unseated, and was crushed between cliff and coach.  And turned into Old Cuff.

Who sat beside me now, and smiled.  Tragedy wasn’t so bad; you had to put up with something. It could have been worse. (p.109)

It could have been worse, he says, and recounts a grim repertoire of injury, disability and death, considering his lucky escape much better than any of those things that might have happened.

The most dismal fate, surely, was to end up nothing at all; determinedly neither one thing or another; any evidence of the peculiar cold-shouldered. (p. 110)

Hanrahan, it seems, was determined to avoid being ‘nothing at all’.  She was 23 when she moved to London in 1963, abandoning the security of a teaching job in Adelaide because, she said, “I wanted to try my life at something bigger. I wanted to get away from safety and walking with little steps.” (Wikipedia, viewed 8/9/21).  She became a highly successful painter and printmaker and she published 16 books before her death at the age of only 52.

Her legacy lives on in the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship established in 1994 by her partner, Jo Steele.

Author: Barbara Hanrahan
Title: Where the Queens all Strayed
Cover design by Jan Bryant using the screenprint ‘Autumn’ by Barbara Hanrahan
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press, 1988, first published 1978
ISBN: 9780702213052
Source: Personal library, purchased from Bookwood Melbourne via Abe books

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 8, 2021

2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize Longlists

2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize Longlists were announced today.

What follows was shamelessly pilfered from the ARA’s Facebook page…

(I went to physio today and my paw is painful so any shortcut is a good shortcut).

The Longlist for the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize – Adult Category is:

The judges also awarded two books a Highly Commended honour:

Links on the titles go to the publisher’s website.

Click here for further information about the longlisted Adult books and their authors.

Click here for information about the longlisted Children’s and YA books and their authors.

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