Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2020

A Jealous Tide, by Anna MacDonald

This exquisite short novel was just what I needed after the chaotic experience of reading Sjon’s Codex 1962.  A Jealous Tide is Anna MacDonald’s debut novel, but it doesn’t read like one, it reads like the work of a writer at the top of her game after spending many years perfecting her craft.  She writes with a painterly eye, immersing the reader in the twin landscapes of urban Melbourne and riverside London, and the author’s wide reading and deep cultural knowledge enhance the book with the unexpected pleasure of allusions to intriguing books, artworks and music.

The unnamed narrator is not a flaneur, but she walks urban streetscapes with an observant eye.  Incurably restless, she walks the streets of South Yarra in Melbourne while she waits for her departure to London.  Despite the urgency to prepare for her journey, she feels an irresistible yearning to walk:

During the afternoons, as daylight yellowed and began to fade, I would give in, walk out, and close the door behind me.  Most days, I turned towards the river.  If there was enough light, from Herring Island jetty I moved upstream,  keeping pace with the incoming tide, walking past school playing fields where rowing crews levered racing boats from the water; where young boys outfitted as cadets qui-iick marched and dreamed the turf beneath their feet to desert, reimagining the far bank as a foreign shore, and the bagpipe band blew ‘Scotland the Brave’ into the creeping dark.  Often, I passed fishermen setting up on the low bank before MacRobertson Bridge.  As I headed out, they’d be unfolding their campstools along the edge of the river. It became a habit of mine to slow here, and watch, as one man after another secured bait to a hook, looked back over his shoulder before casting, waited for the metallic fizz of the line as it shot out from the land, across the water, and then paused, listening for the plop and bubble-rush of the sinking lure before settling onto his stool to wait.

On those days, I would walk far enough to leave the  sounds of traffic and after-school games behind me, into the steep wooded banks of Hawthorn and Abbotsford, where currawongs  cried in the dying light. Then, when evening had laid its mourning ribbons over the river and house lights began to pierce the darkening hills, I would turn and head for home.  Often as I walked back along the high bank, I could hear the rhythmic slap of a lone oarsman keeping time in the water below me. (p.3)

Yes, I knew by page three that I was going to love this book.  (In the beginning, The Spouse and I lived in two houses, alternating his and mine, and his was in Hawthorn, overlooking this very river.)

The narrator’s research project revolves around the imagery of water in the novels and essays of Virginia Woolf, but in London, it becomes something else.  Walking beside the Thames along the Hammersmith Bridge, she stumbles on a plaque, which reads:

Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood R.A.F. of Bloemfontein South Africa dived from this spot into the Thames at midnight, 27 December 1919 and saved a woman’s life.  He died from the injuries received during the rescue.

She begins to spend her days in the British Library researching deaths by drowning, suicides, and survivors of shipwrecks at sea, and gradually her obsession takes her to a more dangerous alienation from reality.  The first person narration interweaves with the third person omniscient as the stories of the rescuer and the rescued absorb the narrator’s thoughts. The reader begins to fear for her with the same sense of looming tragedy as for Lieutenant Wood and the woman, who like Virginia Woolf is to weight her pockets with stones.

The evocation of women waiting in terror for news of their loved ones in World War 1 is vivid.  The woman who would unwittingly cost Lieutenant Wood his life dreads the reluctant messenger—that too-young boy thinking only of taking off, waiting to flee as soon as he has delivered yet another telegram to a devastated recipient:

…most of the day and night, she lets her eyes rest, unseeing, on the grate.  The woman wills her mind not to wander.  She makes of it a dead weight, which anchors her to that room with its fireside chair.

The woman makes herself dull.  She lets the flames blunt the impetus toward thought.  By a violent act of will she refuses to allow herself to look either forward or back until it becomes a habit to leave her mind blank, to give all her attention to the tending of the fire, the boiling of the kettle, the warming of the pot.  (p.98)

As we wonder whether the woman valued the life restored to her, we wonder too about what kind of life her rescuer might have had, had he survived his heroic act.  We witness with a sense of dread his fractured mind target his unsuspecting fellow boarders in the sitting room:

And all the while the long fingers of the leafless planes creep further and further into the room.  They part the flames in the fireplace, send sparks like rapid fire up the chimney and emerge supple and unscathed, preparing to count off the ghosts, the reflected room’s inhabitants, one by one by one.  Those fingertips run through the lieutenant’s hair, send a shudder down his upright spine.  They hold the curtains back on either side, force the unveiled window wide.  Then they move around the reflected room, heartless as a senior officer pointing to a map.  Giving instructions to his company to target the already weakened positions here, here, here.  And here.  (p.115)

I can’t read that passage without a feeling of renewed horror at the damage done to human minds by warfare.

This novel is spell-binding. I can’t put it better than the blurb:

In this mesmerising début novel, Anna MacDonald finds a language of perpetual motion for an almost static experience of interior life. Lyrical, lilting, and melodious, her gentle words rise into rhythms that surge forth, then break and recede, leaving treasures in their wake. Hers is the poetry of alienation embodied: corporeal and sensory, spatial and recursive, making magic from a tilt of the head, a turn of the gaze, a stride, a halt, an interplay of gesture and orientation. In her dizzying proliferation of spirals and orbits, trajectories and bearings, her every sentence is a search for traction on a world that bewilders anew with every daily revolution.

A Jealous Tide is a clear candidate for my annual Best Books of the Year.

Author: Anna Macdonald
Title: A Jealous Tide
Publisher: Splice, UK, 2020
ISBN: 9781916173071, hbk.,194 pages
Review copy courtesy of Splice

Available at Fishpond: A Jealous Tide, direct from Splice and the usual online sources.  (According to the press release, the paperback is due for release in 2021 but it also gives the hardback release date as October 2020 when the Book Depository and others say it was published back in July, so who knows?  Publishing is a bit disrupted at the moment, and so are local supplies of books published overseas.  Do not be deterred, make an effort to get  a copy of this book, and in Australia, start your enquiry at the Paperback Bookshop.)

Image Source: London Remembers:


As readers know, I am a real fan of the annual Seizure Viva La Novella competition.  You can read the history of this prize at the Seizure website, but the prize is basically publication.  With support from the Copyright Agency Fund the winning entries are developed through the process of contracting, manuscript development, author support and editing, through to print and post-publication promotion.  They’ve had fantastic judges because I’ve read nearly all the winners and never been disappointed.

Well, this year Seizure introduced something new: you could pre-order the two winners beforehand.  How could I resist?

And with the ink barely dry on the announcement of the 2020 winners, there the books were in my post office box this morning!

Late Sonata is by Brian Walpert. His website tells me that he is a poet, fiction writer, scholar, essayist and editor.

His work, encompassing seven books,  is characterized by an interest in marrying intellect to feeling, often employing as one reviewer observed, “the language and the prism of science and philosophy to try to rein in and explain the vicissitudes of life.” His work is notable for its interest in structure and for a compression that rewards multiple readings.

The judges praised Late Sonata

…for its “seamless melding of the emotional and the intellectual, its brilliant evocations of music and literature and a structure that offers both suspense and humour,” characterizing it as “remarkable for its polish and sophistication.”

This is the blurb:

With his wife suffering from Alzheimer’s, Stephen reluctantly edits her final book, a study of Beethoven’s sonatas, even as he still grieves the loss of their son.

Each day he escapes into his own work: a novel about an experimental treatment that reverses ageing. But when he discovers in his wife’s papers a clue to an unwelcome secret, Stephen is forced to confront his past and reconsider the truths about his family.

Bryan Walpert’s novella is an intimate portrait of marriage, infidelity and the legacies of memory.

Lana Guineay’s novella is called Dark Wave. Her website tells me that she’s a freelance writer and editor based in Adelaide.

Her fiction has appeared in Going Down Swinging, Anthology of Australasian Stories, and the 2019 Swinburne Microfiction award, and she also edited Wake, an anthology of poetry and short stories.  Previously Senior Editor at ASOS Australia (a fashion site), she’s written for The Guardian, Yen magazine, Junkee, The Adelaide Review, and Right Angle Studios. She also works with brands across editorial, digital marketing, and content direction.

This is the blurb for Dark Wave:

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

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

The striking artwork for these two novellas is by Sam Paine. As you can see from his home page his distinctive style has featured on all these Viva La Novella winners’ covers … including the cover for the Stella shortlisted novel The Fish Girl.

If you’re looking for something to read for Novellas in November, here they are, available for a song ($6.99, I kid you not)  from Seizure Online.




Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 23, 2020

2020 Carmel Bird Literary Award winners

The 2020 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award winner was announced today, and the winner is:

*drum roll*

Apologia, by Michalia Arathimos who I profiled in Meet a Kiwi author in 2017.  (You might remember that I reviewed her novel Aukati)

The following comes from the press release:

The prize judge Justin Wolfers described Arathimos’ collection as ‘an accomplished work of nuanced storytelling which varied and always searching and striking narratives. Really beautiful.’

Author Christos Tsiolkas declares Apologia, ‘a treasure’ and says Arathimos has ‘a born writer’s talent for creating captivating stories and lives.’

Two finalists were also announced: Katerina Cosgrove and her novella Zorba The Buddha described by Lee Kofman as ‘urgent and riveting’ and Brooke Dunnell for her short story collection Female(s and) Dogs which Wayne Marshall says ‘light a firecracker beneath the sleepy veneer of suburbia’.

Arathimos receives $3000 in prize money, and Cosgrove and Dunnell both receive $1000 each.

Apologia by Michalia Arathimos

Michalia is a Greek writer who has published work in The Lifted Brow, Westerly, Overland, Landfall and elsewhere. Michalia is Overland’s fiction reviewer. Her novel Aukati was published by Makaro Press. Michalia is the Writer in Residence at Randell Cottage and will hold the Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship in 2012.

Purchase here.

Female(s and) Dogs by Brooke Dunnell

Brook is a Perth writer whose short fiction has been published in Best Australian Stories, Meanjin, Westerly, and other journals and anthologies. Her work has been recognised in a range of competitions including the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize 2017 and the Bridport Short Story Prize 2019.

Purchase here.

Zorba the Buddha by Katerina Cosgrove

Katerina is the author of two novels, The Glass Heart (Harper Collins) and Bone Ask Sky (Hardie Grant), as well as prize-winning short stories. Bone Ash Sky was a finalist for the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. Her works have been translated into multiple languages and made into a podcast. Katrina has been the recipient of Australia Council grants and residencies in Australia and overseas. She has Co-Judging the Mark and Evette Moran Nib Award for Literature from 2014 and the Australia remade poetry competition in 2019.

Purchase here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 23, 2020

Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan, winner of the Booker Prize in 1998

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan, won the Booker Prize in 1998.

January 1, 2003

Shakespeare used to use Venice as a setting for wickedness and corruption because Italian cities were fair game and a beaut contrast to the respectabilities of England. McEwan has used Amsterdam as a place of freedom to do dreadful things with drugs and state-sanctioned deaths, and to deliver a shocking finale to this very entertaining book.  A reviewer called Kirkham on Amazon dismissed this book as ‘middle-brow fiction British style – strong on the surface, vapid at the centre’, but I don’t agree.

Molly Lane dies, and her lovers meet at her funeral. Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday are great friends, united in their dislike of Molly’s husband, George, who’s stuffy and pretentious. They also loathe Julian Garmony, Foreign Secretary and likely claimant to the Prime Ministership.

Clive’s a successful composer, struggling with writing a Millenium Symphony. (How long ago the Millenium fuss seems now!) He’s not avant-garde, he’s got pretensions to Beethoven. McEwan mocks him a bit, because he’s popular and therefore probably lowbrow, but he paints an interesting picture of the artist at work. Clive is at pains to shrug off the ‘creative genius must-not-be-disturbed while in seclusion’ tag. He makes time for his friends and he schedules his responsibilities to fit in around his composing efforts. But clearly something is not quite right because the deadline looms (as the Millenium did) and the work’s not finished. Clive finds he has to get some peace and quiet and takes himself off to climb in the Lake district and allow the muse to come…

The trouble is, that he is interrupted, even there. He’s had a row with his mate Vernon, a not-very-successful editor of a newspaper which is struggling to compete with the cut-throat world of English tabloid ‘journalism’. He is at war with the ‘Old Grammarians’, a pun to show their links to both the old public schools and the old ways of writing – he wants to do upmarket tabloids, with feature articles on ‘Siamese twins in local government’. There’s a very funny comment on this type of writing in which the editor discusses revamping their columns with the team, suggesting that they hire

‘someone of low to medium intelligence, possibly female, to write about, well, nothing much. You’ve seen the sort of thing. Goes to a party and can’t remember someone’s name…. Twelve hundred words.’

Navel gazing is deemed too intellectual, what they want is ‘navel chat‘ and the topics they brainstorm are hilarious:

‘Can’t work her video recorder’. ‘Is my bum too big?’ ‘Buying a guinea pig’. ‘His hangover.’ ‘Her first grey pubic hair’. ‘Always gets the supermarket trolley with the wobbly wheel’. ‘Always losing biros’. (p129).

(I think of this excerpt often when I scan today’s papers, and every now and again I email it to the editor, with so far no impact whatsoever, but I live in hope…)

Anyway, Vernon has some compromising photos of the loathsome Garmony. Taken by Molly, they capture him in his pathetic cross-dressing. These photos are the subject of major debate even before publication – with injunctions in court, rival papers sneering at their use and so on. Clive tears Vernon apart because the freedom to be a cross-dresser is one of the freedoms they fought for in the 70s. Vernon wants to bring down Garmony because he’s a racist, a hypocrite, and a ‘scourge of immigrants, asylum seekers, travellers, marginal people’ (p73) but Clive believes that ‘if it’s ok to be a transvestite, then it’s ok for a racist to be one. What’s not ok is to be a racistif it’s ok to be a transvestite, it’s ok for a family man to be one too.’

Up in the mountains, Clive can’t shake off this row and the angst it causes him, and for a while it threatens to block the muse there too. Inspiration eventually comes, but so too does a rapist intent on harming a solitary female hiker. Clive sees the start of the violence, but – in the service of his ‘art’ – does not intervene.

When Vernon hears about this he is outraged, and when he is sacked over the photo fallout, he decides to avenge himself. Here the story becomes grand farce, as the two friends meet up in Amsterdam to poison each other. Clive is livid because the finale of his new symphony is no good. It’s derivative and unfinished because Vernon intervened and called in the police about the hiker, just in the last couple of days that Clive needed to finish off the composition. Not everyone likes the shocking ending, but I think it works. A reviewer on Amazon calls it Jacobean, something I should have picked up myself, considering my degree in Eng Lit at Melbourne University, where we studied Jacobean plays in some detail. Amsterdam is (in my opinion) a morality play where reprehensible characters get their comeuppance in a ‘tragedian bloodbath’.

There is much delicious satire in this book, such as the description of Clive’s mansion in its various incarnations as a flower child’s pad (p45) and a composer’s hideaway, still holding the detritus of the passing years. It’s quite clear (p64) that Clive is a very wealthy, comfortable snob and slob! He sneers at modern music (p22) and writes the kind of stuff the public likes (p23) – but there’s also a lovely passage which resonates with anyone creative about how the muse comes on p84.

There’s also an interesting thread about euthanasia. Molly dies a ghastly undignified death from some horrible disease that prevented her not only from caring for herself but also from tidying up her own affairs (which was how the photos got into Vernon’s hands). Appalled by this, Colin and Vernon made a pact to ‘help each other out’ if ever either one should be unable to fend for themselves, and it looks here as if McEwan is making a strong case for trusting someone with power of attorney to end the suffering of the terminally ill. However, considering how things turn out between Colin and Vernon, McEwan’s view seems to be that even the best of friends can’t be trusted with the power of life and death over another.

I finished reading this book and journalled it on New Year’s Day 2003.

Long term readers of this blog will remember Lisa Lang’s Vogel award winning novel Utopian Man(2009) which was about E W Cole.  Tonight I had the pleasure of hearing about a new book featuring this fascinating man: Under the Rainbow, The Life and Times of E W Cole.

Under the Rainbow is the fifth book by author and former diplomat, Richard Broinowski. It’s a profusely illustrated book about this iconic Melbourne figure, E W Cole, (1832-1918) whose life offers an opportunity to celebrate Melbourne’s vibrant early cultural life and him as one of the key innovators who created it. Best remembered for his Funny Picture Books and his sense of the absurd, EW Cole was a marketing genius and businessman who came from nothing.

This is the blurb:

Under the Rainbow is the life story of E.W. Cole, a colourful and much loved figure of 19th century Melbourne. Best remembered for his Funny Picture Books, his sense of the absurd and his marketing genius, his wonderful arcade was the first ‘department store’ in Melbourne, replete with a live orchestra, an aviary and monkeys alongside books, ornaments, art, curios and tearooms. But there was more to Cole than his merchandising prowess- he scandalised the clergy with his sacrilegious views about Christianity, campaigned passionately against the White Australia policy, and advocated education for all.

Cole’s journey from an impoverished sandwich seller on the streets of London to owner of one of the most memorable establishments of early Melbourne is remarkable. His passion for learning, insatiable curiosity, and enduring faith in the essential goodness of humanity make him a figure worth celebrating. More than 100 years after his death, Cole’s story is a timely reminder that a little bit of goodness can go a long way.

The talk began with Broinowski telling us about Cole’s background, which was disadvantaged to say the least.  One of the challenges of this book was that not everything is known about Cole, because his was the sort of background that’s not well-documented.  So Broinowski has speculated freely about what might or might not have been.  What is clear is that the well-known part of Cole’s life began when he heard the siren call of gold…

Once he got to Melbourne, it wasn’t the Gold Rush that made Cole a cultural figure in Melbourne in the late 1800s.  He tried mining, and he worked as a builder’s labourer and had other menial jobs, but made no money until he got a barrow and sold pies in the inner suburbs… One day a woman sold him 10 bob’s worth of books as a job lot, and this was the catalyst for him to turn his pie shop into a mini book arcade.  As its success grew, he upgraded it into the huge arcade for which he was famous.  Everyone who was anyone went there — he was even visited by writers Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain during their travels to Australia.  He had a genius for self-promotion, including advertising for a wife (which caused a scandal).  But he got one, Eliza Jordan, who came from Tasmania… and she turned out to be very intelligent and took over the management of the arcade when he went on buying trips to the UK.

Cole was a good employer, but he avoided conflict.  Eliza was much tougher than he was and she sacked some staff when he was overseas.  He was a tender man, a good husband and father, who suffered tragedy when his child Ruby died of scarlet fever.

Coles Book Arcade wasn’t just a bookshop though it had one of the largest stocks of books in the world. There were monkeys, and all kinds of miscellanea, and a band that played in the basement — and you didn’t need to buy anything, he welcomed browsing.  Definitely it was a place to see and be seen.  He also published his own books, (including some that he plagiarised), but the ones for which we remember him best are the Coles Funny Picture Books.  They were reissued fairly recently (and you can read them at Project Gutenberg.)

Cole was an autodidact, and an idealist, but was endlessly curious about topics as varied as evolution, religions, and future inventions.  He was, for example, furiously against the White Australia Policy, and spoke against it when he visited Japan.

He made prophesies for the Third Millennium, predicting flying machines, international networks of railways, rights of women, equality of all the races, education of the masses, and great agricultural production so that there is food for all.  He had many idealistic visions of the future, but he didn’t predict the terrible events of the 20th century (fascism, the Holocaust).  Broinowski says Cole was an optimist and so is he, so he hopes that more of Coles’ predictions might come true as time goes by.

Broinowski’s main motive in writing the book was to offer students an interesting history of Victoria.  All schools are going to get a free copy of it, and there will be an education kit: he wants children to know their own history!

You can purchase the book at Readings, click here.

Many thanks to Christine Gordon from Readings for organising and hosting this event.

It was Bismarck who said that ‘politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best’.  Well, the two women I most admire in Australian politics are exponents of that art: Penny Wong, who, as I read in Margaret Simons’ recent biography Penny Wong, Passion and Principlesays that you can’t achieve change unless you’re ‘in the room’, even if that means that sometimes you have to settle for less;  and Lowitja O’Donoghue, whose steely determination to represent Indigenous people changed Australia for the better, even though there is still much more to be done.

Stuart Rintoul’s biography traces the story of this remarkable woman’s life, tracked alongside significant events in Australia’s Black History, rendering the biography also a refresher course for those who lived through these events and an education for younger readers who did not.  The book begins in 1979 with the desert burial of Lowitja’s mother Lily, who was Anangu, a Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara woman.  Lowitja barely knew her, because in 1934 at the age of two, she and her sisters and brother were taken to a mission at Oodnadatta by her white father Tom O’Donoghue, who subsequently left the area and married a white woman. Rintoul spends 29 pages on this man, but fails to shed light on what kind of father could do such a thing.  Ultimately, he seems wholly irrelevant. Lowitja has no memory of him at all.

So Lowitja grew up separated from her family, her culture and her language, and when she was finally reunited with her mother thirty years later, they could not communicate.

They stood mute in front of each other, not able to speak the same language, Lowitja’s mind full of questions that would never be asked because she could see the pain sweep across her mother’s face, and decided there and then to cause her no more suffering. (p.4)

By the time they met, in an awkward reunion where the gulf was wide, Lowitja had become a fully qualified and respected nurse and an activist.  At sixteen, she had left the loveless Colebrook Home, not allowed to continue her education but dispatched instead to domestic service as a nanny to the Swincer family.  However, it was when she was attending church that there was a life-changing moment:

Lowitja’s potential became a topic of conversation between Joyce Swincer, a nurse before she married, and Alice Tuck, who says to Lowitja one day after church, ‘You want to be a nurse, I hear.’

‘Yes, I do,’ Lowitja replies.

‘You can start now,’ Tuck says, and changes the course of her life.’ (p.85)

It wasn’t that simple of course, and there were hurdles to overcome.  When she went to withdraw her wages held in trust at the United Aborigines Mission office, where she had £40 to buy new black shoes and stockings, she was told she couldn’t have it.  She had to wait until she was 21, they said, and in the meantime a preacher would escort her to the shops to buy what she needed.  At sixteen she stood on her dignity and refused to submit to that.

She turns on her heels and never goes back.  She buys what she can afford from the money that has been paid to her, borrows a uniform, and then buys more as she can afford it: ‘Every day, I’d be in the laundry washing what I had on, so that I’d have something for my next shift.  I’d be in the laundry and borrowing clothes, until I was paid enough to eventually have my own uniforms.” (p.87)

Lowitja’s qualities of steely determination and integrity were needed time and again.  Sometimes, patients refused to let her nurse them.  She didn’t make an issue of it, but used it to become so good at her job that she was beyond criticism, as the references that Rintoul quotes attest.

From the beginning, she is driven by the conviction that as an Aboriginal woman, ‘I needed to be better than the others to be seen as equal.’ (p.88)

In training at the South Coast District Hospital, she earns the nickname ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ because the mission had taught her that dancing and drinking were sinful.  Still, despite her reputation as a hard-working, dedicated and skilful nurse, the Royal Adelaide Hospital refused to let her complete her final two years at a major teaching hospital to become fully qualified. The matron Kathleen Scrymgour, was a trailblazer for women in the nursing profession, but that didn’t extend to Lowitja and she was told to go to Alice Springs and nurse [your[ own people.  Lowitja had never been to Alice Springs and she didn’t know the Indigenous people of that area at all.  This racism, however, was the catalyst for her to join the Aborigines Advancement League, which provided the forum for this and other injustices to be made public in the Adelaide News, and Matron Scrymgour relented.  At 22, Lowitja became the first Aboriginal person to nurse at the Royal Adelaide.

The story of her rise and rise to become the chair of ATSIC with a budget of $1 billion, to be ‘in the room’ with Paul Keating and the Cabinet to negotiate native title laws in the wake of the Mabo decision, and to be honoured with awards such as Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Australian of the Year, National Living Treasure, and Companion of the Order of Australia, is astonishing.  The biography conveys little of her emotional life and does not harp on her personal pain, but it’s there between the lines.  At Colebrook she took care of a baby called Doris, but decided that she herself would never have children.  And there is a world of pain in these words Rintoul quotes from a Film Australia interview in the 1990s:

Sometimes the missionaries allow church families to take Colebrook children into their homes for the school holidays.  When they show affection, Lowitja pushes them away: ‘They wanted to hug and kiss you and tuck you in bed and kiss you goodnight and that sort of stuff,’ she will recall.  ‘I just didn’t like it at all.  Shied away from it and didn’t really want any part of that.’ (p.75)

What shines through this biography is Rintoul’s admiration for an indomitable woman whose story is an inspiration to all Australians.  She was attacked from all sides, including by her own constituency, but she never wavered.  That girl who wouldn’t be patronised over her right to access her own money, steered her way through the corridors of power as an adult, all the way to forums in the United Nations.  Though she saw some of what had been achieved sabotaged by John Howard as Prime Minister, her legacy is profound.  The Lowitja Institute is a classic example of her approach: it’s a research organisation built on the priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and you can donate to it here.

My favourite photos from the collection in the middle of the book show the jubilation when the 1993 Native Title Act passed the Senate, and the moment on the occasion of the 2008 national apology to the Stolen Generations when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd took Lowitja’s hands in his and said,’ A long time coming, Lowitja.  Sorry us whitefellas are so slow.  But we finally got there.’ This moving photo is credited to Gary Ramage from Newspix so I can’t share it here, but you can see it (of all places) at the China Daily.

Highly recommended.

Author: Stuart Rintoul
Title: Lowitja, the authorised biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760875602, hbk., 380 pages including Acknowledgements, Notes and an Index.
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin. RRP $45.00

Available from September 29th.  Pre-order at Fishpond: Lowitja: The Authorised Biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue and your local indie bookshop.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2020

Jacqueline Kent in conversation: Vida, a woman for our time

Thanks to the Victorian Women’s Trust in partnership with Readings Bookshop in Melbourne, I was able to attend a virtual launch of Jacqueline Kent’s new book, Vida, a Woman for our Time.

Introduced by Chris Gordon the program manager for Readings, and interviewed by Mary Crook from the Victorian Women’s Trust, Jacqueline was an entertaining speaker and has certainly made me want to read the book for more.

Mary talked about common it was for history to ignore women’s contributions, either before or after colonisation.  She mentioned the work of feminist historians in the 1990s and amongst others (whose names I didn’t catch) mentioned specifically Janette Bomford who wrote the first bio of Vida: That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman: Vida Goldstein. (Melbourne University Press, 1993).  Asked about her motivation for her own book, Jacqueline Kent explained that she wanted to write a popular bio to make Vida’s story more well-known.

What were Vida’s most enduring qualities?  Jacqueline nominated clarity: Vida was a clear speaker and thinker and she was very focussed about what she wanted to do and how to achieve it. She also had determination, as exemplified in the cover photo on the book, and she had elegance of mind as well.  She was never brash, but was always calm and quiet.  Mary Crook also suggested Vida’s steadfastness and her intellectual span.  She was highly intelligent and able to hold her own in debates on free trade and also international relations during the conscription debates.  She had wit and grace, despite the unbridled scorn and derision to which she was often subjected, able to maintain her composure despite great provocation.

Vida and her mother Isabella had a special mother-daughter relationship. A daughter of the western district, Isabella was an activist too, and was Vida’s role model.  She passed on her values about equality to her daughter, and Vida also learned practical organisation from her mother.  They worked together on the 1891 monster petition that demanded that woman get the vote, including door-knocking together when Vida was only 22.  Isabella was also active in the campaign for a women’s hospital.  Along with Constance Stone (and someone else whose name I didn’t catch) she was involved in fund raising because there was no hospital for women, and this was a time when the average woman had seven children.  Through what was called the Shilling Fund, they succeeded in raising £3000 and getting a £250 grant from the government.

Vida’s activism extended across many fields.  She started the Woman’s Political Association, started two newspapers, and was active in a variety of committees e.g. on behalf of women in prison, (including a campaign to have women warders).  She started the WPA (Women’s Peace Army) during the war and fought against conscription, playing a key role in defeating the plebiscite.  But she also did practical things like looking after women when their men were away (because it was often months before they received any money from their husbands).

She was the first woman in the British Empire to nominate for parliament, which she did five times, but was unsuccessful.   Many commentators say she wasn’t successful because she did not join a political party.  But the reality is that they were not exactly clamouring to have her join them, so she had no choice but to be an independent.  Also, she believed—even in 1903 at a time when the major parties were in a state of flux — that all the parties were organisations were of men, for men, and there was no place for her within them.  She judged that they were about maintaining the status quo and had no appetite for reform.

Her energy in her later years was extraordinary, travelling all over Victoria, and then the world when she went to the US and the UK to help with the suffragette campaign. At first she disapproved of their militant tactics but became more of a feminist separatist when she saw how brutally they were treated.   She was an impressive orator.  She drew crowds wherever she went, including a crowd of 10,000 at the Albert Hall in London.

Jacqueline told a couple of amusing anecdotes from the book, so I’m looking forward to getting a copy soon!

You can purchase the book at Readings, here.
Also, check out the excellent work of the Victorian Women’s Trust.

Wendy Scarfe is the author of Hunger Town, (2014, longlisted for the Kibble Award), and The Day They Shot Edward, (2018) and I featured her in Meet an Aussie Author in 2015, but until I read this updated edition of A Mouthful of Petals: Three Years in an Indian Village, I had not really grasped what a remarkable woman she is.  I wonder, when the good folk of Warrnambool encounter her in the shops, do they realise who she is?

My image of Wendy is based on an elegant publicity portrait, so it’s difficult for me to imagine her living in the squalor of an Indian village in the 1960s.  But that’s what she and her husband Allan did, for three years, and A Mouthful of Petals is the story of their sojourn.  This is the blurb:

A Mouthful of Petals is a nonfiction account of three years working in an Indian village in 1960. Previously published, it became a minor classic among good Samaritans, particularly in Britain, and was reviewed by The Times, New Statesman and such like.

At the invitation of India’s venerated political leader and activist Jayaprakash Narayan, Wendy and Allan Scarfe, two dedicated but far from solemn young Australian teachers, travelled to the remote village of Sokhodeora in Bihar in 1960. They had been asked to take charge of the educational activities of his ashram, but over the three years they lived there, their activities extended far beyond that.

This humane and important book recounts their efforts in helping local people counter the misery, poverty and ignorance that afflicted so much of the region. By the time they left, the Scarfes had succeeded in teaching both children and adults much that would help them to lead better and fuller lives. And they left behind, for the young at least, something to hope and work for.

This new edition of A Mouthful Of Petals includes an account of Wendy Scarfe’s return trip to Sokhodeora during a famine in the late 1960s, and how those who live in Bihar state fare in the early twenty-first century.

So the book is not your usual travel book, but like the best of travel books it takes the reader into a different world.  This is a world in marked contrast to the images we see of an increasingly prosperous India today: Britannica tells me that with its well-developed infrastructure and diversified industrial base, India has made astonishing progress since independence.  It’s now one of the wealthiest countries in the world by some reckonings; and it’s home to three of the biggest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world, (Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi).  From its massive population it draws on a huge pool of scientific and engineering personnel to be among the world’s preeminent hi-tech centres of IT and software; and it’s a world leader in cultural exports of music, literature, and cinema.  But the country’s population is still mostly rural, and India’s rapid agricultural expansion still depends on a work force still living in poverty.  Literacy is still a long way from being universal and there is a depressing gender disparity too.

A Mouthful of Petals takes us into that world of grinding poverty and ignorance.  Allan and Wendy put their social justice principles into practice in the village of Sokhodeora in Bihar in 1960, travelling there to set up an experimental rural school, develop the curriculum, and organise the infrastructure.  But they ended up doing much more than that: running night classes; offering family planning advice and resources; doing rescue feeding for starving children; adding shark-liver oil to the kindergarten daily milk supply to cure malnutrition sores; installing lavatories; dealing with exasperating caste issues; and in a village where even matches are a luxury, even setting up the village radio.

‘Wendy sister, Allan brother, what can you do about it if the man on the radio tells lies?’

‘What do you mean?’ we asked in some astonishment.

‘He said it was going to rain today but it hasn’t rained at all.’

So there was no doubt of the radio being educational.  (p.98)

They adopt a little girl called Vidya and suffer guilt when she thrives amid other babies barely clinging to life.  And they are not alone in feeling intense frustration when ignorance makes the situation even worse than it needs to be:

Sokhodeora people were accustomed to eating so little that contained iron — a handful of miniature spinach for a few weeks of the monsoon, a tiny pea grown in the rice crop.  At one time the Ashram Management Committee, for the sake of getting the Maternity Hospital open again, employed a midwife, Shrimati Medulsa, when no doctors answered the advertisements in the Patna papers.  This brisk, dynamic tireless woman, supporting her husband while he underwent leprosy treatment, used to take Wendy on her lightning progresses through the village, regaling her with a stream of impatient comments:

‘Look at these women, Wendy sister.  They’re pregnant and they won’t eat any green vegetables.  They’ll all be anaemic.  I tell them to eat green vegetables and they don’t take any notice of me.  They’re so stupid.  What can you do with them?’

What could be done?  Their monotonous diet of race, dal and spices, twice each day, was responsible for so many casualties: adults with no resistance to disease, children going blind for lack of vitamin A, children deprived of protein during their growing period becoming spindly of body and inactive of mind, toddlers catching dysentery and developing rickets when weaned straight onto the family diet.  We wrote many long letters of appeal for foodstuffs but only one was rewarded.  (p.141)

That response came from an American charity called Meals for Millions.  It eventually merged with Freedom from Hunger (see here) and it provided a three-cent meal using protein that was wasted or fed to animals.  The advantage of this product was that it overcame the reluctance to eat something unfamiliar.  It was a powder that could be mixed into the usual diet whatever it was.  (Though amusingly, it was hungry children who were brave enough to try it first and shamed the adults into tasting it.)  The story of little Shova on the brink of death is heartbreaking, but the before and after photos are beautiful to see.

I was rather saddened to read about Jayaprakash Narayan’s speech outlining Gandhi’s vision of a non-violent social order:

From the theme of internal peace he proceeded to the destructiveness and immorality of nuclear weapons, outlining a role that India might play in securing international disarmament and love between men. (p.131)

Well, we all know what happened to that.

Though A Mouthful of Petals is a serious book, there are light-hearted moments.  When Wendy sets up the kindergarten, she makes it attractive with whitewash decorated with painted animals and illustrations from nursery stories.

There were, for instance, the three bears, Michaelovitch, Alexandrovna and Mihaelovitch chasing Goldilocks Nastasya, a result of the fact that the only cheap, well produced and beautifully illustrated nursery books in Hindi we had been able to find, had been printed in Moscow.  (A friend sixty miles away in Gaya who sought our advice in setting up a kindergarten was alarmed that we might be indoctrinating our pupils, but for us The Three Bears did not seem excessively political.  (p.77)

My favourite moment in the book is when Mahadev discovers the exhilaration of reading.

‘On his fifth journey the sailors broke a roc’s egg and ate the young one,,’ related Mahadev, ‘and then the parent birds threw rocks from a mountain on their ship and broke it.  But Sinbad got to some place and he met an old man’ — broom under one arm he followed Wendy from our workroom into the kitchen —’and he carried him on his shoulders across a river, only for kindness, and then he couldn’t get him off.’

‘You listen to this bit—’ he broke off.  With almost trembling eagerness he opened The Arabian Nights in which his finger had kept the place and read slowly and blunderingly to her.

‘Isn’t that wonderful?” she responded.

‘This is the first story I have ever read like this,’ he commented and went on reading. In the end she had to break his rapt enthusiasm.

‘How about finishing the sweeping, Mahadev, and telling me afterwards?’

He emerged with a start from another world that we had gleaned from Patna, Lucknow, Bombay and Delhi for our school library.  It is doubtful whether the intoxication of his breakthrough to the printed word could ever be conveyed to Westerners who have all been to school. (p. 57)

Indeed.  But this inspiring book gives some hint of it.

Authors: Wendy Scarfe and Allan Scarfe
Title: A Mouthful of Petals: Three Years in an Indian Village
Publisher: (new edition) Wakefield Press, 2020, first published by William Heinemann 1967, revised edition published by Seaview Press 2011
ISBN: 9781743056844, pbk., 275 pages, 22 greyscale photographs
Source: personal library, purchased from Fishpond: A Mouthful of Petals: Three years in an Indian village $28.92

You can also buy A Mouthful of Petals direct from Wakefield Press, or your local Aussie indie bookstore.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2020

2020 National Book Awards Longlist for Translated Literature

The 2020 National Book Awards Longlist for Translated Literature have been announced, and Iranian-Australian Shokoofeh Azar is in the running!

The following is from the press release on the NBA website.  I’ve quoted it in full because I like the way they have written it.  It’s not about the prize, it’s about the books and the way they summarise them makes me want to read them all.

The National Book Foundation today announced the Longlist for the 2020 National Book Award for Translated Literature, a fifth Awards category that was added in 2018. The Finalists in all five categories will be revealed on October 6.

Ten novels originally published in eight different languages comprise this year’s Translated Literature Longlist: Arabic, German, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Spanish, Swedish, and Tamil. One of the authors, Perumal Murugan, was Longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2018. The authors and translators on the list have been recognized by numerous international prizes, such as the International Man Booker Prize, the Stella Prize, [that’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree], the August Prize, the Akutagawak Prize, the German Book Prize, the Colombian Biblioteca de Narrativa Prize, and the Languages Festival Samanvay Bhasha Samman for writing in Indian languages.

Two titles focus on animals, though from different perspectives. Perumal Murugan returns to the National Book Awards Longlist with an animal protagonist in The Story of a Goat, translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman. Following the lifetime of Poonachi, a small black goat, Murugan’s novel is grounded in stark realism and evokes empathy for the struggles and instability its central figure endures. Set on Colombia’s Pacific coast, The Bitch by Pilar Quintana is a portrait of a woman wrestling with abandonment, love, and her need to nurture. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, the narrative follows the main character’s adoption of a dog that disappears into the jungle; when the dog returns, she nurses it to health but when it flees once more, there are brutal consequences.

Two novels reflect on violence and its effects on victims, society, and the future. Written by Adania Shibli and translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth JaquetteMinor Detail is split between two interrelated narratives, the latter half following a young woman’s search to discover more about the tragic murder of a Palestinian teenager in 1949, who died the day she was born. In Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, a witch’s murder is at the epicenter of the novel. Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes and shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize, Hurricane Season connects a series of narrators who guide the reader through their shared reality of pervasive violence.

The two debut novels on the list focus on the inner emotional life of their narrators. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo and translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang has sold over a million copies and has been translated into twelve languages, signaling the relatability of the everywoman main character, whose life of frustration and submission is recounted to the male psychiatrist her husband sends her to. Translated from the German by Anne PostenHigh as the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann explores the emotional life of an oil rig worker whose bunkmate fell into the sea and drowned, setting off a chain of events that force his reckoning with the exploitation of natural resources.

The two novels translated from the Swedish focus on families and complex webs of emotions. The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, is a study of loss that brings the myth of Athena to Sweden. Twelve-year-old Anna’s father is committed to a psychiatric hospital, and when the assimilation efforts with the foster family do not work out, she is institutionalized as well. Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s The Family Clause, translated by Alice Menzies, provides insight on one family across a span of only ten days, during which relationships change and memories are brought to the surface.

Two novels on the Longlist have ghost narrators. Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar is narrated by the ghost of Bahar, a thirteen-year-old girl. Brought to English from the Persian by an anonymous translator, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree centers the Islamic revolution and interweaves the conflict with the lives of a family and their place in a tumultuous world. In Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri and translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles, ghost narrator Kazu visits the park in which he last lived as a homeless man. As the book unfolds, the reader learns more about his earlier years and the ways in which Japan’s modernization pushed many to the margins of society, where they were subsequently ignored.

Publishers submitted a total of 130 books for the 2020 National Book Award for Translated Literature. The judges for Translated Literature are Dinaw Mengestu (Chair), Heather ClearyJohn DarnielleAnne Ishii, and Brad Johnson. Judge’s decisions are made independently of the National Book Foundation staff and Board of Directors and deliberations are strictly confidential. Winners in all categories will be announced live at the virtual National Book Awards Ceremony on November 18.

The only thing that bothers me a little, is that none of the small indie publishers that are preeminent in the world of translated fiction are on the list.  The big conglomerates are, but there’s nothing from Open letter, Pushkin Press, Glagoslav, Hispabooks, or Peirene Press, much less any of the Aussie indies increasingly bringing us translated fiction, i.e. Giramondo, Scribe and Text.  I’m guessing that the cost of entry may be a factor.

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, won the Booker Prize in 1997.

February 2nd, 2001

This book caused a bit of a storm when it won the Booker in 1997. Some people really disliked it. I loved it, especially the wordplay and the private language of the twins. They way they pick up and distort words and phrases from the adults around them can be very funny at times, as when they turn Baby Kochamma’s stern warning to be ‘Ambassador of India’ at the airport into ‘Ambassador E. Pelvis and Ambassador S. (stick) Insect’. At other times this wordplay shows a dawning awareness of the grim and heartless world of adults, as when an angry parent’s ‘later’ delivered ‘meaningfully’ becomes LayTer, a horrible, menacing, ‘goose-bumpy’ word.

Of all the adult characters, only Ammu is sympathetically drawn, and even she is selfish in risking her family with forbidden love for an ‘Untouchable’. Velutha is depicted as a kindly man, ambitious for an ‘Untouchable’ but we never really see inside his head. Chacko, a foolish Anglophile and bully, would be comic if he were not so cruel and self-deluded; he still loves the idea of Margaret as his wife (because she’s English) even after she divorced him because of his laziness and selfishness. Baby Kochamma is a viperous old woman keen to stir up trouble for everyone and anyone, and so protective of her family’s reputation that she invents murder and rape to convict Velutha. (Not that there’s any need for a trial. In Roy’s India police can deliver a fatal beating with impunity, it seems.)

(My favourite character was actually Baby Kochamma, wicked old crone that she was. Her malevolence permeates every event; she’s only happy when others are down for she needs to feel morally superior to survive. Bossy, opinionated, disagreeable in every way – she’s a wonderful invention!)

As the story is revealed, we become aware that Estha has become an elective mute because it was his word that denounced Velutha, his friend and adult playmate. Baby Kochamma blackmails him into agreeing that the children were abducted when in fact they were running away from angry adults – trying to teach them a lesson and intending to come back when the adults ‘begged’.

With the theme of forbidden love, there are numerous taboos broken. Chacko marries an English girl to the dismay of both families. Baby Kochamma nurtures a fruitless love for a Catholic priest for a lifetime. Ammu falls for Velutha, though it’s just for sex and they both know it; and as adults Estha and Rahel have an incestuous relationship. Then there’s the dirty old man who abuses little Estha at the pictures, to the irony of the wholesome Sound of Music on screen.

So nobody has a happy love life – all yearn for the forbidden, and suffer for it. A tragic theme but not a tragic book. It’s too playful for that and the language is rich and powerful, never sordid or gloomy. It’s as if Roy says: bad things will happen; the god of small things will have his way, but life goes on – and people do as they will in surviving it.

It’s clear that Roy doesn’t like the caste system, but she interprets it as part of the inheritance of exclusion and snobbery that came with British rule. It’s also part of the way women wield power when they are otherwise powerless. Roy seems to love India too much to be appalled by it and is content to bring it to world attention and leave it to others to express opinions about it.

Highly recommended and a terrific book for book groups.

I finished reading this book and journalled it on 3.2.2001

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 15, 2020

The Application of Pressure, by Rachael Mead

I hesitated over buying this book.  I never watch those reality programs about first responders such as paramedics, not because I’m squeamish, but because I’d rather not wallow in the sordid side of life.  (I don’t read or watch True Crime for the same reason).  But Rachael Mead’s debut novel about the lives of paramedics cut through those reservations, not least because of the blurbers recommending it: Pip Williams, Peter Goldsworthy and Steven Armstrong among them.

Early in the book, the twin meanings of the title become clear:

Back in training, they learned a couple of ways to work out if someone is truly dead to the world or if they’re faking.  One is to rub knuckles really hard against their sternum.  It’s not pleasant.  The other is to press a pen into the bed of a nail cuticle.  This is equally unpopular.  Both the sternum rub and a nail-bed press will make anyone  who’s conscious flinch, even if they’re determined — for whatever bizarre reason — to play possum.  (p.14)

(Why anyone would do that, becomes clear as the novel continues).

Along with doing CPR to restore a beating heart, ambos (who we learn must never be called ‘ambulance drivers’ because they are much more than that) apply pressure to various parts of the body, but they are also subject to intense pressure themselves.

This is the blurb:

For paramedics Tash and Joel, a regular workday is like a supercut of the worst days of other people’s lives. They maintain their sanity through a friendship built on black humour, but as the constant exposure to trauma takes its toll, both, in different ways, must fight to preserve their mental health and relationships – even with one another. How much pressure can they handle, and what will happen when they finally crack?

With each chapter revolving around an emergency — some frightening, some moving, some simply funny — Rachael Mead digs beneath the surface of gore and grit to lay bare the humanity of emergency services personnel and their patients. This breathtaking novel reveals not only the trauma of a life lived on the front line of medicine, but also the essential, binding friendships that make such a life possible.

The novel is episodic, alternating Joel and Tash’s experiences (supplemented by narratives from some of the other ambos), from the early days filled with hope and fear, over twenty years to trauma, disillusionment and determination to carry on.  Some of the episodes are very graphic, (there are no joyful baby births) but there is an authenticity about the story that derives from the author’s marriage to a paramedic. From the claustrophobic home of a hoarder to the South Sudanese extended family who subvert expectations in a McMansion, the range of incidents is both depressing and uplifting.  There are moments of tense drama too when the ambos are attacked and have to deal with the danger on their own until the police arrive.

An impressive variety of obscenities come screaming at them down the length of the dark hallway.

Joel is still collecting himself outside the bathroom when the house falls silent — but for the sinister sound of a cutlery drawer being wrenched open.

The light spilling through the bathroom door into the passageway is just enough for Joel and Tash to make out Lucy’s slight figure sprinting from the kitchen into the hall, a carving knife brandished overhead.

‘Run!’ Tash drops the kit.  Adrenaline and instinct take over.  They bolt for the front door, Tash slightly ahead.

In theory, Joel knows there is a small orange duress button on his radio that automatically calls for urgent police attendance.  In practice, he’s damned if he can find the bloody thing in the dark while running full-pelt for the ambulance with a knife-wielding psychopath at his heels.  (p.15)

The cumulative effect of incidents like this bring challenges to their relationships, but the author has wisely resisted the temptation to segue a friendship of many years into a love story.  The dialogue between these two is laced with dark humour, and there’s a witty chapter in which Tash and Reuben, (replacing Joel who’s on leave) try to get as far through the shift as possible talking only in film quotes…

… but over the past few months, she’s seemed preoccupied.  Like tonight, I hit her with ‘Hope for the best, plan for the worst’ from The Bourne Ultimatum as we saddled up for the first job and I got nothing, just a tight-lipped smile.  I know for a fact she loves the Bourne films because she stumped me one of the first times we played this with ‘What’s the French word for ‘stakeout’ from The Bourne Identity while we were waiting in the ambulance for some takeaway… (p.212)

(I’ve never seen the film, but I’m guessing this is a play on words based on the American ‘take-out’ for ‘takeaway’?)

There is a strong sense of place for those familiar with Adelaide and the surrounding hills, and I liked the inclusion of a gay ambo as just one of the staff.

This is a compelling debut novel.  I couldn’t put it down.

Author: Rachael Mead
Title: The Application of Pressure
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925972634, pbk., 280 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $29.99

Available from Fishpond: The Application of Pressure or your favourite indie bookshop.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 15, 2020

2020 Voss Literary Prize longlist

The longlist for the Voss Literary Prize has just been announced.  It’s a varied list, with some of my favourite novels up for the prize.

This prize, established only in 2014, has been awarded to some wonderful books, reflecting the expertise of the judges who award it.  This (lightly edited) is from their website:

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. The executors of the estate have appointed the Australian University Heads of English, the peak body for the study of English at Australian Universities, to oversee and judge the award. The award for the best novel from will be announced in December at the annual meeting of the AUHE.

The nominations are:

Steven Carroll, The Year of the Beast (Harper Collins Publishers), see my review

Alex Landragin, Crossings (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Wayne MacAuley, Simpson Returns (Text Publishing), see my review

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

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

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

Kate Richards, Fusion (Penguin Random House Australia)

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

Lucy Treloar, Wolfe Island (Pan Macmillan Australia), see my review

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

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Previous winners were:

  • 2014 The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane
  • 2015 In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower
  • 2016 The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky
  • 2017The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn
  • 2018 The Book of Dirt by Bram Presser
  • 2019 The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton
Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2020

Dolores, by Lauren Aimee Curtis

After reading two chunkster novels in a row, I’m enjoying some compact novellas.  Dolores is nominated for the 2020 Readings prize, and was shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the NSW Premier’s Awards.

It’s a bleak coming of age for the central character Dolores.  That’s not her real name, it’s how the nuns re-name her when they take her into the convent.

Dolores, the nuns had said. It was a name that referred to aches and pains.  Our Lady of Sorrows.  (p.1)

She was sixteen, and with a mouth full of crooked teeth, when she tried to smile, she looked as though she were being pinched by small, hidden hands.  So they named her well: it wasn’t her name, but it’s what she should have been called.

The convent is in Spain, and Dolores has made her way there from far away in an unnamed place where it is winter in June, to deal with a problem known only to her and to Angelo, the boyfriend that pimped her to his friends and abandoned her when the inevitable happened.  The story alternates between her progress at the convent, where the nuns are hoping for new young nuns to take their places as they die off, and back to the months before her arrival when she was newly discovering her sensuality.

The prose is disconcertingly spare and unemotional, which makes it all the more powerful when Dolores finds that it’s not only young men who want to exploit her.

Discipline in the convent is strict.

Inside in the convent, on the wall in the dining room, there is a large sign that reads ‘Silentium.’  The rule is strictly enforced. If necessary, the nuns speak using coded gestures of the hand.  They motion for soup or for extra bread.  Any unnecessary noise is considered vulgar.  The sound of a spoon hitting the side of a bowl.  Heavy footsteps in the corridors.  The legs of a chair dragged across the floor.  Once, when Dolores accidentally slammed the large wooden door on her way into the dining room, some of the nuns dropped to their knees.  Pure horror flashed across their faces.  It was as if a bomb had fallen from the sky.  One nun stood frozen in the middle of the room with her hands covering her ears. (p. 51)

The routines, however, seem to provide some solace for Dolores, though there is no insight into her feelings.  She does her chores, she says her prayers and outside, where talk is permitted while they work, she listens to the gossip, just as she used to listen to her mother gossiping with a friend.  She witnesses the contradictions of the enclosed life where she is briefly displaced as the ‘pet’ of the Mother Superior by the arrival of a beautiful, wealthy novice, only to have her place restored when one of the other novices attacks in a jealous rage and the beautiful one departs in an expensive car.  And all the while, concealed by the loose clothing the nuns have given Dolores, the baby is growing, unknown to all.

We like to think that the shame of teenage pregnancy is long past in liberal societies, but though lightly sketched Dolores shows us that a conservative religious family can instill a fear so great that a vulnerable girl would rather escape into the unknown and face her future without them.  Yet despite the passivity with which she accepts her fate at the convent, she remains the girl who took the initiative to wangle an airfare and then vanish from her unsuspecting relations in Seville.

So I should not really have been surprised by the ending!

Author: Lauren Aimee Curtis
Title: Dolores
Publisher: Wedenfeld & Nicolson, 2020, first published 2019
ISBN: 9781474612517, pbk., 130 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings


This short novella is only the second I’ve ever read by a Chilean author.  The first was Nancy by Bruno Lloret, translated by Ellen Jones and published here in Australia by Giramondo as part of their innovative Southern Latitudes series. The Private Lives of Trees is likewise published by a university publishing house, the University of Rochester in the US. It is, as they say at their website, one of only a handful of publishing houses dedicated to increasing access to world literature for English readers— though I do think the situation has improved greatly in recent years since book buyers are no longer limited to what’s in stock at a bricks-and-mortar store with a range limited to what a bookseller thinks might sell.  Today readers interested in translations unite across the world to order online, sometimes direct from the publisher, as I did with this book which was purchased as part of the First 25 promotion at Open Letter Books (50% off the first 25 books that they published).

The Private Lives of Trees is a book that needs to be read in one sitting, which is easy because it’s only 98 pages long.  It’s the story of a young professor of literature named Julián who has the care of his step-daughter Daniela while his wife goes to art class.  Julián is in the habit of telling Daniela an ongoing bedtime story about two trees, and in his spare time on Sundays he’s working on a novel about a man who takes up bonsai.  But the night on which this story takes place, things are different.

Verónica is late home.

We’ve all been there.  Whether the one who is a late is a husband, a lover, a parent, a friend or a child, it’s stressful and it gets worse as the time goes by.  By turns anxious and dismissive about the late return, conjecturing about possible reasons benign and otherwise, catastrophising, and then castigating ourselves for being melodramatic, we vacillate from one emotional state to another, and nothing is resolved until either the loved one comes home… or doesn’t.

While he waits, Julián tells Daniela her story…

Right now, sheltered by the solitude of the park, the trees are commenting on the bad luck of an oak—two people have carved their names, as a symbol of their friendship, into its bark.  ‘No one has the right to give you a tattoo without your consent,’ says the poplar; the baobab is even more emphatic: ‘The oak has been the victim of a deplorable act of vandalism.  Those people deserve to be punished.  I will not rest until they receive the punishment they deserve.  I will traverse earth, sky, and sea in their pursuit.’

The little girl laughs hard, without the least sign of sleepiness.  And she urgently, anxiously, asks the inevitable three questions, never just one, always at least two or three: ‘What’s vandalism, Julián?  Can you bring me a glass of lemonade, with three spoonfuls of sugar?  Did you and my mother ever carve your names into a tree, as a symbol of your friendship?’ (pp. 16-17)

I love this.  It reminds me of the daft sagas I was told as a child, and which in turn I told to my own child when he was small, and to my junior classes when we had five minutes to spare.  Like Julián, I sometimes lost the thread of an ongoing story and would be taken to task for it, and like him I had to improvise hastily to patch over the error.

Daniela sleeps, waking again at midnight as she usually does and nodding off as the next instalment of her story unfolds.  Julián, meanwhile reflects on how he met and wooed Verónica over the classic Mexican tres leches cakes that she sells, and about the relationship they have with Daniela’s father Fernando.  But his concern escalates as the night wears on, and he begins to imagine Daniela in a motherless future, at fifteen, twenty, twenty-five and thirty.  He wonders what she will think of the novel that he hasn’t written yet.

And he wishes he had written his novel so that he could be reading it now.

The Private Lives of Trees is economical.  Without needing to be told, readers understand that for Julián, having a novel to read would be a welcome distraction from his mounting anxiety.  As the pages turn we read about his doubts and his lack of self-confidence, and we come to like him very much, especially his self-deprecating humour:

Last week Julián turned thirty years old.  The party was a bit odd, marred by the gloominess of the guest of honour.  In the same way that some women subtract years from their real age, he sometimes added a few years on and pretended to look at the past with a tinge of bitterness.  Lately he has started to think he should have been a dentist or geologist or meteorologist.  For now, his actual job seems strange: professor.  But his true calling, he thinks now, is to have dandruff.  He imagines himself answering that way:
‘What do you do?’
‘I have dandruff’. (pp. 23-4)

(Wikipedia says that he says of his career:  “I wouldn’t choose to be a writer. Actually I don’t think I ever chose it, I was just undeniably worse at other things.”)

This is a lovely book that triggered all kinds of thoughts and memories, not just the ones I’ve chosen to share here…

The translation by Megan McDowell is flawless.

Author: Alejandro Zambra
Title: The Private Lives of Trees
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Publisher: Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester, 2010, first published as La vida privada de los arboles in 2007
ISBN: 9781934824245, pbk., 98 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Open Letter Books, University of Rochester.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2020

The Labyrinth, by Amanda Lohrey

In her fascinating new novel, Amanda Lohrey returns to the (fictional) small coastal town of Garra Nalla which featured in her novella Vertigo (2008, see my thoughts here).  But unlike Vertigo‘s young couple swapping high house prices in Sydney for what they think is a pastoral idyll, the central character in The Labyrinth is Erica, an older woman, alone and very troubled.  Although less naïve than Luke and Anna in Vertigo, Erica shares their belief that the environment significantly affects well-being and this yearning for a salve to her misery seems to be all she has at this time. She has settled in Garra Nalla to be near her only child, Daniel, who is in prison, but she hopes that the small community will not connect her with him because his crime weighs very heavily on her.

My understanding of what this might mean has been influenced by Margaret Merrilees excellent debut novel The First Week (Wakefield Press, 2013) which explored the confusion, denial, blame, guilt and horror of a parent whose child has committed a grievous crime.  Erica, however, has moved beyond the initial distraught reaction and is trying to reestablish some equilibrium in her life while also trying to help her son whose mental health is a grave concern.  With no plans to renovate, she buys a rustic old shack built with reclaimed materials on the coastal edge, in marked contrast to the soul-destroying environment of the prison:

The metallic walls of the prison glint above the frost-covered fields.  Along the denuded mining ridge of the hills the wind turbines stand like elegant guards, their blades becalmed in the harsh light. (p. 26)

The walls of the visitors’ room are a violent mustard yellow,  On one wall there is a huge mural of crudely drawn trees and boulders in shades of muddy orange and greenish brown.  It has the quality of sludge.  Two warders escort me to a steel table, bolted to the floor, and I sit on a steel chair, also bolted to the floor.  Everything here is steel and concrete; even the air has a metallic taste. (p.27)

But Erica’s coastal retreat is no Eden.  There are vandals and louts on the beach, and she plants wattles to screen out an annoying neighbour.  Plagued by horrific dreams, she begins the task of following her son’s command to burn his books.

She makes a small ceremony of this, just doing one book a day, and like all booklovers, I know why.  Our books are a mirror of our lives and a window into our souls. Burning Daniel’s books is like annihilating him.  Later, when she employs Lexie, a young girl at a loose end who needs to save up the money to make her escape to Sydney (because there is no work for young people in Garra Nalla), she elongates the time for this task by having Lexie sort the books into alphabetical order.  Lexie is a slow and dreamy worker, but even so, there must be hundreds of these books to be unpacked from the boxes because Lexie is only up to the letter M by the time the novel ends…

Time, like different kinds of madness, is a recurring motif in the novel.  Erica grew up in an asylum where her father was the chief medical officer, and he had contradictory ideas about time:

Time is a disease of the human psyche. One of my father’s precepts.  Sane people live in the moment, they do not dwell on the past and they do not succumb to fantasies about the future.  But on other occasions he would contradict himself.  When people go mad, he would say, they step out of time because time has become unmanageable and everything is chaotic flux.  They cannot put one foot in front of the other in any meaningful way.  Nor can they make a decisive intervention in the sequence of time as measured in units by the society around them. Chronology defeats them.  One disease generates another.  The larger social disease—generates the smaller private one: a mad resistance. (p.167-8)

Two characters embody these conceptions of time: cantankerous old Ray who insists on measuring each hour of his life with an alarm clock, and Jurko’s refusal to acknowledge time at all.  An illegal immigrant who helps Erica to create a labyrinth on her property, Jurko has stepped outside society: he has abandoned family on the other side of the world, he sleeps in a tent even when he has other choices, he rides a bike and refuses to have a phone, and he disapproves of meat, sugar and restoration projects for tourism.  His eco-puritanism is annoying but he is a skilled stonemason and Erica, whose whole life has been blighted by abandonment, cares about him all the same.

Towards the end of the book, Erica is woken by a bird colliding with her window and retrieves a word from her memory:

Kairos.  A word  from my small portion of undergraduate Greek, a word I had stored away: meaning not time, but timeliness.  By this the Greeks meant the right or opportune moment for doing, a moment that can’t be scheduled, as it is poised between beginnings and endings.  It does not submit to chronos, which is mere arithmetic: a minute, an hour, a day, a decade, the work of timekeepers. Kairos exists as a potential, a mode of improvisation, of responding to a sudden opening in the fabric of time.  No theory can enable or plan for it.  Abandon the fixed time, wait for the moment to arrive, and then act.  At nineteen I had been struck by this, had decided that this was how I would live my life.  It seemed then to be purely a matter of resolve; instead, it requires inhuman patience.  And faith.  (p.225)

This faith in the coming ‘moment’ sustains Erica in her dispiriting visits to her son.  Her days have no routine and she does things impulsively.

Jurko is one of a number of arrivals in her life who embody this concept of Kairos but he seems to be the most important one because he understands her interest in labyrinths.  In modern English the words ‘labyrinth’ and ‘maze’ are synonymous, but Erica whose childhood featured a labyrinth in the asylum distinguishes between them because she is groping towards acceptance:

I have learned that a simple labyrinth can be laid out by anyone, unlike a maze, which is a puzzle of mostly blind alleys designed for entrapment.  The maze is a challenge to the brain (how smart are you), the labyrinth to the heart (will you surrender).  In the maze you grapple with the challenge but in the labyrinth you let go.  Effortlessly you come back to where you started, somehow changed by the act of surrender.  In this way the labyrinth is said to be a model of reversible destiny.  (p.37)

Erica remembers her father’s maxim about the restorative power of building something and so she plans to build a labyrinth on a patch of arid ground, spending many hours researching ideas for it.  Labyrinths have a fascinating history and you can spend enjoyable time fossicking around online to see some of the designs she considers, see Wikipedia here:

While you’re there, check out this short video as well.  It’s a Cretan labyrinth made with 2,500 burning tealights in the Centre for Christian Meditation and Spirituality of the Diocese of Limburg at the Holy Cross Church in Frankfurt am Main-Bornheim.  Jurko would not approve of this one because it has something in the centre.  Whatever you put there will own you, he says. (So, remembering the bushfire in Vertigo and Luke and Erica’s naïveté about fire risks, I’m not sure what to make of Erica putting a fire pit in the centre of hers.)

Erica’s labyrinth is a yearning for surrender, a dream of escaping from her entrapment in a maze from which it is difficult to extricate herself.

Written in meticulously crafted prose, The Labyrinth is a deeply satisfying work of fiction which replays close reading and would be a wonderful choice for bookgroups that enjoy the literature of ideas.

Image credits:

Author: Amanda Lohrey
Title: The Labyrinth
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781922330109, pbk., 256 pages
Source: Personal library… I’m not sure which retailer this copy is from because I accidentally bought two copies, one from Readings and the other from Benns Books, and did a giveaway for the second copy!

Available from Fishpond: The Labyrinth or your favourite indie bookseller… please support Australian booksellers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 11, 2020

The Monastery, by Zakhar Prilepin, translated by Nicholas Kotar

Well, this was an interesting book, and for reasons not entirely to do with the story…

First things first: although a contemporary novel, The Monastery belongs in the category of ‘Camp Prose’, mostly known to people of my generation through the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008).  During the Cold War, we read the novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) at school (in Form IV? Form V?) — and this is now interesting in itself because it was (at least at my school) the only translated fiction on the syllabus.  Convinced as we were meant to be of the grim and unrelenting reality of the horrors of communism, we subsequently saw the film in 1970, the year that Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize.  Solzhenitsyn was there again at university with Cancer Ward (1968), and some of us even bought The Gulag Archipelago (1973-8), (but, a-hem, never got round to reading its daunting 660 pages).

For us, Solzhenitsyn’s writing was Gospel Truth, and also A Warning, and it wasn’t until 2016 when I read the Soviet era Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov, translated by John Glad (1970, available in Russia in 1978) that I began to glimpse that there were different kinds of real-life experience of the Soviet camps.  But I was still very surprised last year by Zuleikha, by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C Hayden (2015, translated 2019).  This post Soviet novel, while not airbrushing the grim realities of camp life, features a central character, who — based on the author’s grandmother’s real-life experience — finds some benefits in her life in a Soviet camp.  Which brings me to the first interesting thing about The Monastery.  As the blurb suggests, it suggests that the gulags initially had a purpose somewhat different to the common conception of them:

Founded in the 15th century on an archipelago in the White Sea, from 1923 the monastery became a “camp of special designation,” the foundation stone of the Soviet GULAG system. The novel describes a period when Solovki was being converted from a re-education camp for “socially damaging elements” into what eventually became a mass labor camp. The notion of a Utopia for “forging new human beings,” complete with a library, athletic events, and research laboratories, eventually mutated into a hell of despotism and brutality.

This concept of the gulag as redemptive reminds me of the surprising elements of Children of the Arbat, (1987) by Anatoli Rybakov, translated by Harold Shukman.  It features, to quote my own review….

…the generation born at the time of the Russian Revolution, who by the 1930s were young adults who had grown up believing in Soviet ideals. They were privileged by comparison with most people in the Soviet Union because they had better access to education and opportunity, they were in a position to see the economic progress being made under rapid industrialisation, and they were forgiving of the human cost because they saw it as an unavoidable aspect of the creation of the Soviet State which they wholeheartedly supported.  The novel charts the slow disillusionment of this generation as they begin to see the consequences of rule by terror.

In Children of the Arbat, Sasha the central character is sent into exile for spurious reasons, but isn’t bitter about it.  He believes in communism, and is philosophical about its excesses which he believes are necessary to build a new society.

Which brings me to the second interesting thing about The Monastery.  In marked contrast to the author’s profile at Read Russia, the introduction, written by an American professor of Russian, Dr Benjamin Sutcliffe from the University of Miami, invites suspicion about the author’s motives in writing it. He explains at some length that Prilepin has a problematic background, whose activities in Ukraine and elsewhere have divided his fan base in Russia, where he won the Big Book Prize (2014).  It is not often that a book begins with a profile of its author that casts doubt on his integrity.

However, Sutcliffe goes on to say that the book has its merits: it is, he says an original, moving and thought-provoking novel about Solovki, the notorious camp set up in 1923 in the remote Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea.  Like Holocaust literature, he says, the novel depicts omnipresent uncertainty and fear as Artiom, the central character is subjected to the vagaries of chance.  He is deployed time and again in less arduous work brigades through no agency of his own, only for some kind of capricious event to occur, collapsing his expectations and necessitating some kind of lucky escape from a harrowing death.  Artiom is not a counter-revolutionary, he is an everyman, a veteran of WW1 but imprisoned as a murderer who killed his father in a situation which would in Australia see him convicted of manslaughter. The story is told from his perspective so that the reader sees his memories, contradictory thoughts, his dreams and his nightmares, and unlike the characters with whom he interacts, the reader also hears what Artiom says to himself but is too prudent to articulate out loud.

We are also, alas, witness to his unpleasant sexism and his sordid relationship with Galina, the lover of the Camp Commandant.  Based on intimacy and fear, Artiom’s affair with Galina inverts the power relationship that usually goes with aggressive masculinity because he is at all times is subordinate to her power.  Even when she is as guilty as he is, both know that she will be believed and he won’t be.  She can punish him at whim, or even have him killed, and time and again he depends on her to rescue him from yet another perilous fall from grace.

Based, apparently, on archival sources and family stories of Prilepin’s great-grandfather Zakhar Petrov, The Monastery is also a coming-of-age story in which Artiom learns the hard way that his fate is capricious and that betrayal is routine.  Guards and officials share the same risks as the inmates as we see in the concluding chapters when officials come from Moscow to find out what’s going on.  They seem to be outraged by the way the intended redemption for the inmates has been distorted by idiosyncratic decision-making, greed and corruption, and shockingly brutal punishments.  Far from being a place where wrongdoers can learn to become better people, Solovki has become a place that brutalises everyone, inmates and guards alike.  These officials purport to be shocked not just by the death rate but also by the ghastly protracted ways in which inmates are killed.  But they don’t stick around to reform the situation, and the old regime is back in place under different leadership before their ship’s wake has disappeared over the horizon.

Unfortunately, the narrative flow is too often disrupted by flaws in the translation.  The book is littered with awkward sentence constructions, peculiar vocabulary and typos. Russian reviewers at Goodreads rate it very highly, so it’s fair to say that the book transcends these flaws. They are annoying, but they do not detract from a compelling plot, especially in the last third of the book when Artiom teeters between life and death and his attempt to flee across the sea involves incredible risks.  I’m not surprised that there is a TV series based on this book…

BTW It was because I read these 5 reasons to read Zakhar Prilepin’s ‘The Monastery’ at Russia Beyond that I became interested in the book in the first place.  Maybe you will be intrigued too!

PS 13/9/20: I meant to say in this review, before I got distracted by other aspects of this novel, that the notion of redemptive judicial punishment is one that strikes a chord here in Australia.  The Soviets intended Solovki as redemptive but it degenerated into an evil part of the Soviet regime.  The Brits who sent shiploads of convicts here to Australia and elsewhere were just getting rid of a problem population and dispossessing the Indigenous inhabitants to do it.  They had no thought of redemption for the people they sent here, and, given the length of the terms of transportation and the distance between Britain and the colony, the convicts had no reasonable expectation that they could be absolved and return home.  Nevertheless, the convict colony confounded all expectations and emerged as a new society.  Some of the convicts worked in the professions and skilled trades from the outset and then went into business for themselves once they had served their term.  Other convicts, once they had their ‘ticket-of-leave’, bought land and farmed it; and entrepreneurs who had the initiative to build capital from their wages, found places in the growing retail and service economy and provided employment to others.  Their sons and daughters, known as ‘currency lads and lasses’ thrived amid new opportunities.  Australia is the classic example of how people thought to be incorrigible could become respectable and valued members of society, if they were given the right opportunities.

You’d think, then, that we’d be better at rehabilitation of prisoners.  But as the novels Dancing Home (2018) by Paul Collis and Jennifer Mill’s Gone (2011) show, the perennial Law and Order agenda in elections guarantees that we’re not.

Author: Zakhar Prilepin
Title: The Monastery
Translated from the Russian by Nicholas Kotar
Introduction by Benjamin Sutcliffe
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2020, first published as Обитель in 2014
ISBN: 9781912894789, pbk.,653 pages
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications


As usual, I am really behind with my reading of the journals I subscribe to, but I was prompted to tackle just one essay in this edition of Australian Foreign Affairs because of the recent evacuation of Australian journalists from China, and Penny Wong’s conversation with Laura Tingle at the Wheeler Centre last night.  (Which you can listen to, here.  The presentation is just under 40 minutes).

Penny Wong is the Shadow Foreign Minister and her essay is entitled ‘The End of orthodoxy: Australia in a post-pandemic world’.  I’ve been keeping an eye on this topic, listening to various presentations from our former PM Kevin Rudd (president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, amongst other roles) and also to Stan Grant,  arguably the best foreign policy specialist in Australian journalism.  So much of Wong’s essay confirms for me that Australia needs to get cracking on dealing with the challenges that face us, and that implies a foreign policy shift that accommodates a fast-changing Asia-Pacific.

There are three massive challenges to confront:

  • the destructive rivalry between the US and China, and Australia’s need to have good relationships with both*;
  • the decay of multi-lateral organisations that are going to need reform in order to manage the post-pandemic world; and
  • the task of recovery from COVID-19.

The essay begins with an acknowledgement that the world was already experiencing heightened disruption: Brexit, Trump, China, rising nationalism all adding to the destabilisation of a world order that had served us well since WW2.  And then along came COVID-19.  We can see Penny Wong’s humanity from this second paragraph:

There has been a shocking loss of life, with more to come.  Statistics and graphs go some way to capturing the devastation, but the images of overwhelmed hospitals, mass graves and fearful communities speak universally and powerfully.  It is a shared experience of grief.  (p.100)

And we need to remember that the second waves in Europe have only just begun, there will be more to follow, and the economic cost will be beyond anything we have seen in our lifetimes.

The breadth of economic harm is almost unprecedented.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts the worst global recession since the Great Depression.  The IMF has made an extraordinary shift from its pre-COVID expectations of positive per-capita income growth in 160 nations to predict negative growth in 170.  A surge of financial crises across the globe has already begun.

We do not yet have a sense of the full extent of the damage the pandemic may wreak in the developing world.  But the vulnerability of the world’s poorest people is patent — they will suffer more fatalities, increased poverty and greater instability.  The United Nations World Food Programme is warning of an unprecedented hunger emergency, with ‘multiple famines of biblical proportions’.  Over 265 million people will face acute hunger by the end of this year.

Our capacity to respond is affected not only by the weaker economic positions of the G20 nations and shakier balance sheets among corporates, banks and households going into the crisis, but also by a lack of global coordination.

This is the stark truth that we must confront. (p.100-101)

She goes on to note that this dramatic crisis hasn’t led to cooperation among the international community.  She puts this down to mistrust, competition, disinformation, a macho strain of nationalism, and confrontation instead of cooperation.

Wong first discusses the intensifying great-power competition — economic, military, diplomatic and ideological — between the US and China.  Our region is the focal point for these tensions.  Nationalism — along with its occasional companions xenophobia, nativism and isolationism — are exacerbating the unravelling of the global rules-based order. Wong’s tone is measured, but her listing of the institutions from which the US has withdrawn its influence and its money, is telling: most recently the WHO (World Health Organisation) but prior to that UNESCO; the UN Human Rights Council; the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, plus a war of attrition with the World Trade Organisation. She acknowledges that all these bodies need reform but says that vacating the space is rarely a successful reform strategy.  

Collective responses to common threats benefit all nations, great and small.  We saw this most recently in the cooperation that enabled our recovery from the GFC.  Yet today, facing greater economic devastation, as well as loss of life and global health risks, the pandemic is leading to increased fragmentation.  The UN Security Council could not agree that COVID-19 was a threat to international peace and security, while the G20, the engine room of our response to the GFC, has been unable to rally a coordinated economic response. (p. 107)

Australia’s interests are not the same as those of the US and China.

We need the multilateral system to set the rules by which we trade, invest, travel, enforce international boundaries, mediate conflicts, uphold human rights, deliver vital services — including health care — to those most in need, and address climate change.  Effective multilateralism ameliorates the raw power politics of the bigger players and enables us to have a say in building collective solutions to global problems.  (p.108)

Wong’s analysis of the impact on our immediate region and how our foreign policy needs to be guided by the kind of region we want: a region in which outcomes are not determined only by power, and in which there is shared support for international rules and norms, shows why Australia needs a prompt reassessment of existing policies, [not the least of which IMO is the stupidity of reducing foreign aid in successive budgets.  There needs to be bi-partisan support for a constructive foreign aid program.  Indonesia is particularly vulnerable to economic shock, and it’s central to containing financial contagion in the region. 

Wong’s expertise in foreign policy development is ably demonstrated in this essay, but her concluding remarks have a broader scope:

Navigating this [changed] world will require not only sound judgement and creativity — it will also demand a new foreign policy ambition.  It will require us to accept and fully exercise our agency.  IT will require consistency and discipline.

Most of all, it will require leadership. (p.118)

*The essay was written and published before the Australian journalists sought refuge in our embassy and were evacuated from China.

The remaining contents of this edition of AFF include examining how Australian agencies can defend against attempts to steal secrets and disrupt the workings of government and society.  This summary comes from the AFF website:

  • Andrew Davies sweeps Australian intelligence history to show how technology has transformed state-on-state espionage.
  • Danielle Cave probes how data and technology have shaped espionage in a time of crisis and beyond.
  • Kim McGrath reveals Australia’s intelligence failures in Timor and asks whether we owe more to our neighbours.
  • Anne-Marie Brady uncovers the covert influence and activities of China’s network of spy agencies.
  • Susan Harris Rimmer challenges Australia to shape the agenda of multilateral institutions.

Update 14/9/20 I’ve now finished reading the journal and found it very creepy indeed.  I lead a lo-tech life of no interest to spy agencies at all, but I still find it chilling that so much spying is going on and that a lot of what is used to collect data is made freely available by we the citizenry through our smartphones, and our tele-conferencing health and lifestyle apps.

In Australia, the intelligence community comprises not just those in the field but also those conducing analytical, technical, signals, operational and geospatial functions.

Today, all of those work is being transformed by exponential changes in cyberspace and technology.  Relatively cheap, everyday devices can be far more valuable sources of intelligence than a wiretap or a big installed in a light fitting.  A fridge that alerts someone when they need butter, cheese of ice-cream, and relays that information over the internet to them and their grocery store, provides not just an insight into their diet and the condition of their arteries, but also the potential ability to listen, watch and learn about that person all from a safe distance.  Apps on a smartphone are opportunities to learn about a person’s  habits, to listen in on their conversations, to steal their data and to understand what makes them tick — and what may make them vulnerable.  Researchers in the United States, Japan and China have demonstrated that they can secretly activate artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistants (such as Siri) by shining laser pointers at their microphones and sending them commands undetectable to the human ear.  Few people completely separate their work and home lives, and in a work-from-home environment it’s almost impossible, making the exploitation of these devices more valuable for intelligence agencies.  (p.33)

Brave new world indeed.

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  Spy vs Spy, The New Age of Espionage
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 9, July 2020
ISBN: 9781760642020
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library




Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

Last Orders, by Graham Swift, won the Booker Prize in 1996.

May 3rd, 2003

Last Orders is a lovely book. It won the Booker Prize in 1996, and was made into a terrific film with Michael Caine as Jack.

It’s a deceptively simple story. Four blokes take a day trip to Margate Pier to spread the ashes of their mate, Jack, to the sea. Multiple narrators carry the story through flashbacks to the past and commentary on present events, gradually revealing a complex network of relationships, misunderstandings and betrayals, a fragile web held together by grudging affection and respect.

There’s Ray, an insurance clerk and punter: Lucky Ray Johnson who’s had an affair with Jack’s wife; there’s Vic, an undertaker whose business is across the road from Jack’s butcher shop and there’s Lenny, a fruit-and-veg stallholder whose daughter was ‘knocked up’ by Vince. Vince is Jack and Amy’s foster child, brought up as their own when his family was killed by a doodle-bug in the war. He’s a substitute for the child-that-never-was, June, Amy and Jack’s severely intellectually disabled daughter. Amy spends fifty years of her life visiting this child who is incapable of responding to her and she can’t forgive Jack because he would rather June were dead.

In an interview, Swift says that his characters are uneducated, inarticulate Londoners who have feelings they can’t express. I think it’s true they’re pretty hopeless at expressing things, and there’s a gulf between thought and words, but also (as we thought when The Spouse and I saw the film) it was as much a problem of males being unable to express their feelings as much as a lack of education and language. Amy is best at saying what she thinks and feels…

The narrators are not meant to be trusted. Ray, for example, isn’t always honest with himself, and neither is Amy. She uses visiting June in the home as an excuse for her affair with Ray to stop, when the real reason is partly that Vince is coming back from military service in Aden and partly that she’s realised that she really does love Jack. Swift not only creates doubt about his characters in this way but also through showing that each of them sees the world through their own perspective and they don’t always have all the facts. Vic, for example, sees Ray and Amy together – he never says anything about this to anyone and jumps to the conclusion that the affair has been going on for years.

The damage done by stubbornness is a strong theme in this novel. Amy steadfastly refuses to accept Jack’s feelings about June; he stubbornly clings onto the hope that Vince will be the son he never had so that the business can become Dodds & Son. Lenny ruins his daughter’s life by insisting that she has an abortion and then when things go awry he stubbornly washes his hands of her. For years and years Ray fails to communicate with his daughter in Australia because he doesn’t know how to tell her about crucial events that affect her life. These ‘invisible people’ in the novel play an important role in the characterisation of the others, and the plot.

What binds the men together is that they are ‘drinking partners’. Swift portrays tolerance in male friendship as a kind of moral blindness, as when they conspire ‘not to notice’ that Ray has been sleeping with his mate’s wife. Some people see these characters as male stereotypes – Ray blathering on about mateship in the army and Vince being a petrol-head – but I don’t think so. Initial impressions are subverted as different layers and perspectives emerge. Vince, for example, isn’t a petrol-head – he’s used the army to learn a trade to get into business and achieve social mobility. He’s more interested in exploiting the role of the car as a status symbol than he is in performance machines; he might just as easily be selling cashmere or diamonds.

Is Amy a stereotype because we only see her through the men’s eyes? It’s only her bloody-minded devotion to poor June that casts her so stolidly in the role of ‘mother’. She doesn’t do much mothering of Vince, not even when he was little. She makes unexpected decisions as the novel reaches its conclusion, and the question of her relationship with Ray remains unresolved at the end. Stereotypes don’t lend themselves to ambiguity in this way, and I think Swift’s characterisation results in memorable personalities – quite an achievement considering how the reader has to piece things together. Just as the characters do.

I finished reading and journalled this book on 3.5.2003.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 8, 2020

Rivers, The Lifeblood of Australia, by Ian Hoskins

When I was a girl, I learned the geography of my home state with a plastic template and a box of coloured pencils.  One of the few teachers I remember from my peripatetic education was the redoubtable Mrs Sheedy, who set us the task of marking railway routes and rivers on the maps we made with the template. Woe betide you if you couldn’t mark them in the correct places without an atlas when it was time for testing.  So I grew up knowing where these features were, but also with the assumption that rivers were like railway lines, fixed and immutable.

Which, as we in Australia know, is far from the case.

Ian Hoskins begins this fascinating book with the story of an old atlas of Australia that is a revelation to him:

Most numerous of all are the thousands of thin blue lines—tremulous, organic and almost wriggling across the pages.  These are waterways of various sizes, some of them feeding into lakes, others emptying into the sea, many petering out soon after they begin.  There are hundreds of ‘swamps’ that today we would call wetlands.  Some of these have no doubt disappeared in the past 50 years with agricultural reclamation and climate change.  It is a revelation to see that the driest inhabited continent on the planet is literally covered with water, or at least its traces.  The creeks are too numerous to count and, it would seem, too numerous to name.  The rivers are identified, but there are many that are unfamiliar to me.  The atlas distinguishes between ‘perennial’ and ‘non-perennial’ rivers and streams, with the latter being far more abundant.  So the many lines and swamps represent potential, rather than actual ever-present water.  (p.5)

To reinforce the point, this text is accompanied by a full page colour photo in marked contrast to the beautiful one on the front cover, of the bone dry salt pan that we know as Lake Eyre/Kata Thanda, typifying the character of Australia’s inland as a parched, dead centre.  Hoskins reminds us that it’s also the end point for water from Queensland’s Channel Country and is periodically transformed into an inland sea.  But that aberration is never going to replace the image of a lake that isn’t a lake in my mind.  To me it’s the place where Donald Campbell set his world land speed record in 1964. We watched the newsreel on TV (click the link) and were awed by the desolation of the landscape.

The chapter goes on to reshape ideas about Australia’s rivers in other ways.  Hoskins tells us about the 1971 Ramsay convention, the first modern treaty to protect the interconnected wetlands of the world… and there are cases in international courts that signal that the intrinsic right to exist has been extended from animals to plants, and on to landforms and ecosystems.  He quotes the memoir in which the author Jill Ker Conway describes how her parents’ property was transformed from a patch of red dust into an Edenic garden as seeds lying dormant in the soil sprang into life.  River water also carries seeds along, spreading species—some of which are not always welcome. Willow trees romanticised in English art and poetry are weeds here, where they colonise kilometres of riverbank.

As you may remember from my review of Margaret Simon’s Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River, The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin removing water from the upper reaches of a river impacts badly on base flows needed downstream for human use and for habitat maintenance.  Hoskins describes the ideological gulf as much as the geographic divide, linking it to the historical struggle to manage the political and ecological implications of a resource that is at once indispensable, dynamic, disrespectful of human-made boundaries, and vulnerable.  

As you would expect, this first chapter covers the pre-settlement period when Indigenous people lived in harmony with the land; the ways in which early settlement emerged around waterways (that often turned out not to be permanent); and how agriculture and urban life changed hydrology in populated areas.  Readers may know some or all of this already, but Hoskins wears his expertise lightly and he writes beautifully.  As with other books I’ve had from the NLA, the book is prolifically illustrated with images from their collections, which makes the book a real pleasure to read.

From the introduction, chapters then cover the major waterways of Australia:

  • The Clarence, a transitional river
  • The Murray, a contested river
  • The Yarra, an urban river
  • The Channel Country, rivers of history
  • The Ord, dreams of northern water
  • The Molonglo, the river that became a lake
  • The Snowy, river of conflicted legend
  • The South and East Alligator Rivers, and
  • The Franklin, the meaning of wilderness.

The press release categorises the book as History/Travel, and it is, but I think it will appeal to a certain kind of traveller.  Not the kind of traveller who merely pulls up at a caravan park, deposits the children at the playground, opens a beer and commences the fishing which if all goes well, provides dinner for the BBQ.  And then moves on, none the wiser about the stories of the places visited.  This is a book for travellers who relish knowing the human and geographical history of the places they visit.  The story of the Clarence, for example, is full of interesting snippets about the days of steamer trade in the days when most of NSW’s fish came from estuaries, rather than the deep sea via ocean-going trawlers.  There’s a magnificent 1920s aerial photo of the training walls built to create a stable channel near the mouth of the river, because  Grafton, in 1862, thought of itself as a ‘future London’, and the Clarence as a tameable Thames.  But the river was recalcitrant, hampering the completion of a rail link between Sydney and Brisbane, and until the Grafton Bridge was completed in 1932, locomotives were ferried across the river on barges.  The bridge had a moveable midsection that allowed passage to large ships, but this drawbridge was dismantled in 1969 because the city had long since ceased to be a major port.

Trophy killers feature in the chapter about The Murray, and the photos include two massive Murray Cods and the proud fishermen who caught them.  There is no doubt that the Murray Cod is a delicious fish, ‘the fish as Ngarrindjeri man David Unaipon wrote in the 1920s, ‘none like it in freshwater lake or river, or salt lake or sea’.  But as Hoskins says, overfishing means there is less chance of catching one these days.

Writing in the early 1950s, T C Roughley, Superintendent of New South Wales fisheries, described earlier fishing practices as a ‘ruthless slaughter’.  Regulations were introduced, but were often flouted or unenforced so that the rivers were ‘fished without discrimination, without thought for the future.’  Cod was not the only fish affected.  The freshwater catfish population fell, and that of the trout cod—only recognised as a separate species in the 1970s—crashed.  (p.67)

The recreational fisherman has a lot to answer for, IMO.

The cod, of course, is not the only cause for grief along the ‘mighty Murray’.

Ngarrindjeri country is at one end of a string of territories along the Murray. There were the lands of the Meru, Barkindji, Latje Latje, Kureinji, Dadi Dadi, Madi Madi, Wadi Wadi, Wemba Wemba, Baraba Baraba, Yorta Yorta, Ngurraiillam, Waveroo, Jaitmatang and the Ngarigo in the mountains where the river begins to flow. Common to most was a distinctive canoe culture which reflected the usually modest water flow and the prevalence of the red gum along the floodplain river.  (p. 73)

Some of these tribal names are familiar to us because we have heard about land rights claims, but others are not.  I wonder if Mildura has signage to show that the Murray’s first ferryman was an Aboriginal man known as ‘Merriman’, an example of the adaptability of Indigenous people in the face of dramatic change?

This review gives just a hint of the treasures within Rivers, the Lifeblood of Australia.  It’s a lovely book, thoughtful and wise and full of interesting aspects of our history.  It would have made a beaut Father’s Day present but its release date is not till October 1st.  It’s the kind of book that makes a perfect gift for all kinds of people, especially now when our travel options are so limited.

Author: Ian Hoskins
Title: Rivers, The Lifeblood of Australia
Publisher: NLA (National Library of Australia) Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9780642279569. hbk., 316 pages
Review copy courtesy of NLA Publishing, via Scott Eathorne at Quikmark Media

Available from Fishpond, (Rivers), or your favourite indie bookshop.  Please support the revival of the Australian economy and buy it from an Australian supplier.


How to Talk about Climate Change, in a way that makes a difference is another book that I discovered through this year’s digital Melbourne Writers Festival. Rebecca Huntley was on a panel ably chaired by Adam Morton with Ketan Joshi (whose book Windfall, is now on my TBR), and Victor Steffensen (Fire Country).  It was a very good session, but this is a case of having to get the book and read it for yourself.

It is exactly what the title says it is.  It’s a kind of self-help book to help you learn the powers of persuasion, on the contentious issue of climate change.  It shouldn’t be contentious, because the science is clear, but the vested interests so explicitly outlined in Judith Brett’s recent Quarterly Essay (#78) titled The Coal Curse, Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future have made it so.  As Huntley demonstrated in her Quarterly Essay (#73), titled Australia Fair, Listening to the Nation, market research shows that Australians do want change.  Her book is a manual on how to achieve it.

She begins by explaining how she herself had a change of heart.  She had long been convinced of the need to tackle climate change, but the school climate strikes made her realise that it’s not just an issue of logic and facts, it’s an emotional issue.

This emotional change intrigued me.  I consider myself a highly rational person.  I’m a trained lawyer and social researcher.  I base my judgements on demonstrable evidence that will stand up to scrutiny from lawyers, good journalists, academics and Senate committees.  But this transformative moment—the moment I tipped from being concerned about climate change to genuinely alarmed about the threat—didn’t happen because I read a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) or sat through a presentation from a climate scientist about carbon dioxide levels.  I reacted to a crowd of children holding up signs in the streets, girls who were only a few years older than my eldest daughter.  Suddenly, it was personal.  (p.4)

As you’d expect, Huntley anticipates the argument that it’s up to governments and corporations to act and that our feelings are irrelevant.  Her response is that we need multiple fronts of pressure on governments and corporations, especially those that are resisting action.  To do that we need to understand our own responses—the social and psychological factors that underpin how we react.

The chapter headings outline the scope of the book:

  1. The problem with reason, or why we need to stop arguing about science
  2. Start being emotional, or the importance of feelings over facts
  3. Green girls, or what we can learn from teens on talking about climate
  4. Guilt, or my plastic coffee cup killed the green sea turtle
  5. Fear, or do wildfires change minds and votes
  6. Anger, or how to turn anger into activism
  7. Denial, or the need to be innocent
  8. Despair, or the support group at the end of the world
  9. Hope, or how to get out of bed in the morning
  10. Loss, or bury me in a carbon sink
  11. Love, or do it for the birds
  12. Conclusion: Talk about climate change, it’s the right time.

Because we are flawed human beings, social reality is messy, and it’s a fallacy to think that people who are resistant to something will change if more and more facts are communicated to them.   [At its most banal, did knowing that Brussel sprouts are good for me ever make me eat them?]  Even when communicated by popular and respected science communicators like David Attenborough, Brian Cox and others, public opinion hasn’t changed much.  The important steps now are social, political, cultural and economic.  We need to understand some basic things about human psychology to progress.

Huntley quotes J. Marshall Shepherd on ‘3 kinds of bias that shape your worldview’:

  • confirmation bias, which is that we focus on what we already believe
  • Dunning-Kruger, which is that we think we know more than we do and to underestimate what we don’t know
  • cognitive dissonance, which is the discomfort we feel when we can’t reconcile our beliefs with actions or ideas that don’t fit.

Shepherd challenges us to take an inventory of our biases and of the beliefs we use to prop them up. 

Think about where you get your information, how reliable it is and whether you only read the things that agree with what you want to think rather than the actual truth.  Then share what you’ve learned—about yourself and about the world—with other people.  (p.43)

[Yes, sage advice, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to start reading The Australian.  Their front page today about Victoria’s road map out of lockdown is a disgrace to journalism.]

There is so much valuable analysis in this book that it’s hard to convey, so I’ll concentrate on the chapter ‘Guilt, or my plastic coffee cup killed the green sea turtle’.  It begins with an amusing anecdote about the angst triggered by forgetting to bring a re-usable cup for the daily caffeine shot, and the predicted judginess in the workplace.  Huntley uses this to demonstrate the thought processes that come with feelings of guilt, including negative feelings about self, anxiety about social rejection by the peer group (‘cup shaming’) and cognitive dissonance. 

She then goes on to explain that guilt and its more painful cousin shame, can be harnessed to compel us to change our behaviour.  David Sznycer from the University of Montreal has this to say:

‘When we act in a way we are not proud of, the brain broadcasts a signal that prompts us to alter our conduct.’ He argues that guilt and shame have played important roles in our evolutionary survival by ensuring that we didn’t harm people who cared about us.  Guilt and shame helped maintain social cohesion, protecting the group dynamic so important to the survival of the herd.  In hunter-gatherer societies, for example, people relied on each other for survival.  They had to band together, share resources and protect each other from threats.  Not fitting in or not getting along with others could be a life-threatening move. (p.70)

Guilt and shame need to be differentiated: they light up different areas of the brain.  We can feel guilty about something yet still feel that we are good people, whereas shame makes us feel bad about ourselves.  In terms of the goal, getting people to alter their behaviour in the climate-change space,  it’s important to find the balance between constructive guilt and destructive shame.

Effective appeals to act on climate change have to acknowledge that we all live compromised lives, that we all make ‘bad’ choices out of necessity or lack of options.  And yet we still have a responsibility to care for the environment, change what we can and act as part of a larger group.

Constructive guilt emphasises collective responsibility as much as, if not more than, individual responsibility. (p.71)

In a later chapter, Huntley discusses the way we distance ourselves from people unlike ourselves so that we can collectively ignore the plight of nations already suffering the impact of climate change when their development has been so delayed that they have done little or nothing to cause it.  We saw this in Australia’s response to Pacific Islander nations last year, with no evidence of guilt or shame from our political representatives.  What this shows is that achieving change is a complex matter, which is why this book is so valuable.

Highly recommended.

BTW, tomorrow (September 8th 2020, 6.15pm-7.15pm) the Wheeler Centre is live-streaming an even called Breaking the Climate Stalemate. It features my favourite journalist Sally Warhaft, with Judith Brett, and Marian Wilkinson, and it’s free.  If you miss it, wait a day or two because they usually make these events available as podcasts or videos.

Author: Rebecca Huntley
Title: How to Talk about Climate Change, in a way that makes a difference
Publisher: Murdoch Books (an imprint of Allen & Unwin) 2020
ISBN: 9781760525361, pbk., 291 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from readings, $32.99

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