Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2022

The Restorer, by Michael Sala

Newcastle author Michael Sala made a splash with his debut novel The Last Thread (Affirm Press, 2012).  It won the NSW Premier’s Award for New Writing 2013, and the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Pacific Region in the same year.  That success was followed by The Restorer (Text Publishing, 2017), which in 2018 was longlisted for the Miles Franklin, and nominated for both the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, and the ABIA Small Publishers Book Award.  The novel is a tense portrait of a dysfunctional family…

The book is set in 1989.  That was the year when the Berlin Wall crumpled under the onslaught from ordinary people; when the Chinese pro-democracy movement was crushed in the massacre in Tiananmen Square; and when the Newcastle earthquake killed thirteen people, hospitalised 160, and made 1000 people homeless. Allusions in the novel to these tectonic events suggest the complexities of ‘restoration’: East and West Germany were subsequently restored to unity with some fractures remaining even now; the Chinese government restored a widely condemned and uneasy order in China over the bodies of the protestors; and the earthquake created the imperative for restoration even though things could never be the same, not least for the injured and bereaved.

Sala’s novel mirrors these events. Maryanne tries to ‘restore’ her family, to bring them back together after separation but she finds that their shared history doesn’t mean they have enough in common to thrive.  Her authoritarian husband Roy tolerates no dissension and enforces his will with violence; and efforts to restore the family to its earlier days cannot make things the way they were.

The story is told through three voices: Maryanne, vacillating between standing up to her husband and letting her love for him take precedence; her daughter Freya whose coming-of-age is marred by the constant conflict at home and her own risk-taking behaviour; and — bookending the novel — Richard, a gay neighbour, who performs the role of the bystander who defers intervention until its too late. It’s relevant that he’s gay because it demonstrates Roy’s ridiculous jealousy and inability to trust his wife.

There’s little backstory to explain why Roy is as he is, but the scenes featuring teenage boys and their sense of entitlement are an indication of how misogyny is reinforced by the prevailing culture.  There’s a teacher who tries her best to intervene, but most of their worst behaviours do, of course, take place out of sight, and anyway, she’s powerless. These boys appraise the girls’ bodies, they objectify them as sexual beings available for their use, and make insulting remarks and humiliate the girls as a way of establishing their own status among the other boys.  This characterisation is a vivid portrait of the way Roy’s hyper-masculinity has been formed.

Newcastle, or the part of it depicted in the novel, is shown to be the kind of place that predetermines fate by postcode.  It’s not just that the teachers have the hopeless task of trying to engage students with no ambition except to leave school, it’s also that shoplifting, drug use and alcohol abuse are routine.  Suicide and murder are not uncommon either, and these elements heighten the tense atmosphere and the sense that a violent conclusion is inevitable.

The book was published five years ago, but its relevance to issues of domestic violence is just as relevant today.

Author: Michael Sala
Title: The Restorer
Cover design by Sandy Cull, gogo Gingko
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925355024, pbk., 342 pages
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind $3.00

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 17, 2022

Meet an Aussie Author: Nathan Hobby

With the online launch of The Red Witch, a Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, later today, (see the link below) this is a good time to introduce the author!

Nathan Hobby is an author, academic librarian, and honorary research fellow in the School of Humanities at the University of Western Australia. He grew up writing science fiction and then literary fiction, culminating in his post-apocalyptic novel, The Fur (Fremantle Press, 2004), winner of the TAG Hungerford Award.  (It’s on my TBR).

After writing an unpublished novel about a biographer for his Master of Arts in creative writing, Nathan turned to biography. He wrote about the early life of Katharine Susannah Prichard for his PhD thesis, before extending it to the full length Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard celebrating its official publication date today.  It’s published by Melbourne University Press under its prestigious imprint Miegunyah Press.

As you know from my review, this literary biography is an outstanding example of its kind.  Nathan says that he is an admirer of the late Hazel Rowley’s biographies and with the publication of The Red Witch he is IMO in company with Australia’s most preeminent practitioners of the art.  I (a-hem) just happened to mention this today when visiting my library and they were hunting through the catalogue to check that they had it on order as I left…

What made Nathan choose KSP as his subject? He says that he was drawn to her by the drama and tragedy of her life. She seemed the sort of person he could live with for years, and that turned out to be true.

Does he have a favourite novel or short story?  I’ve read and reviewed most of KSP’s novels now, but he’s chosen one I haven’t yet read.

Wild Oats of Han (1928) is at least my pick for her most underrated book. I think it’s so charming, a wistful portrait of childhood with some of her most beautiful writing.

Nathan lives in Perth with his wife Nicole and young children Thomas and Sarah.  Here are his answers to my questions:

  1. I was born… in Port Hedland, an iron ore town in the north of WA. We left when I was two.
  2. When I was a child… I loved the bush around where I grew up in Allanson near the WA coal mining town of Collie.
  3. The person who encouraged / inspired / mentored me… there were so many amazing teachers, including my year 7 PEAC teacher Jill van de Ruit and my year 9-10 English teacher, Stewart Douglas. Also, my childhood church pastor, Andrew Lansdown, an accomplished poet and the first writer I knew.
  4. I write in… university libraries, before Covid – now, at home or even in the car parked by the river.
  5. I write when… there’s a free moment.
  6. Research is… central! Sometimes a thrilling quest, sometimes a hard and necessary slog.
  7. I keep my published works in… a little row near my desk.
  8. On the day my first book was published, I … had a memorable launch at Clancy’s Fish Pub in Fremantle in July 2004, filled with family, friends, and colleagues.
  9. At the moment, I’m writing… an essay about my great-grandfather, who shot a man in the leg on an outback station to defend a woman and was let off, only to die of cancer weeks later.
  10. When I‘m stuck for an idea / word / phrase, I… skip ahead, usually.

To give Nathan the last word, here’s his advice for aspiring biographers:

There’s a tension between wanting to record everything about your subject and needing to create a book which will have a readership. I recommend choosing the latter and leaving the excess information for the archive.


To join us at the online launch – just set a reminder on your phone and click the link below.  No need to register or install anything.
Tuesday, 17 May 8:00pm AEST (6:00pm AWST)
Video call link: https://meet.google.com/sjt-nvhb-axc

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 16, 2022

2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards winners

The winners of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced tonight.

The winners are in bold. Congratulations to all the authors, editors, and publishers!

Book of the Year

Still Alive by Safdar Ahmed

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

Dark as Last Night, by Tony Birch

The Kindness of Birds by Merlinda Bobis, see my review

The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon

The Dogs by John Hughes, see my review

Pushing Back by John Kinsella

The Performance by Claire Thomas, see my review

Highly Commended

Love Objects by Emily Maguire, see my review

The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

Believe in Me by Lucy Neave, see my review

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

Hold Your Fire by Chloe Wilson

The New Animal by Ella Baxter

Friends & Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford

Low Expectations by Stuart Everly Wilson

Night Blue by Angela O’Keeffe, see my review

The Archaeology of a Dream City by Monica Raszewski

Highly Commended

The Magpie Wing by Max Easton

Love & Virtue by Diana Reid

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non Fiction

Leaping into Waterfalls by Bernadette Brennan, on my TBR

Black and Blue by Veronica Gorrie

The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar

The Winter Road by Kate Holden

The School by Brendan James Murray

Rogue Forces by Mark Willacy

Indigenous Writers Award

After Story by Larissa Behrendt, see my review

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller

Bila Yarrudhangglangdhuray, River of Dreams by Anita Heiss, see my review

True Tracks by Terri Janke, on my TBR

The Boy from the Mish by Gary Lonesborough

God, the Devil and Me by Alf Taylor

People’s Choice Award

The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon

Click here to see all the other award categories.

As regular readers know, I’m not great at keeping up to date with the current affairs journals that I subscribe to so I’m only a spasmodic subscriber to literary journals.  The revival of Giramondo’s Heat Literary journal after an absence of ten years, however, is an ‘event’.

What follows is from the Heat Website:

About HEAT

HEAT is a controlled intensity. Noise is our enemy, and rubbish, and imposture. We stand for a simple integrity. And for writing which is committed, passionate, innovative and adventurous.

HEAT is a distinguished Australian literary journal renowned for its dedication to literary quality, and its commitment to publishing innovative and imaginative poetry, fiction, essays, criticism and the hybrid forms.

The first issue of HEAT was published in July 1996, in the wake of the Demidenko Affair, in which an Australian author of English background posed as Ukrainian in order to gain credibility for her Holocaust-inspired novel. The anger provoked by this hoax accounts in large part for the magazine’s name, and a commitment to the publication of genuinely diverse writing.

The aim of the magazine has always been to publish innovative Australian and international writers of the highest standard. Fifteen issues were published in the first series, from 1996 to 2000, with internal design by Toni-Hope Caten and covers by Harry Williamson. It was followed by the new series of HEAT, designed by Harry Williamson, with twenty-four issues published between 2001 and 2011. The editor for the first two series was Ivor Indyk. (Source: Heat)

And now we have Series 3…

HEAT Series 3 Number 1 (February 2022)

The first issue comprises:

  • Only one refused  non-fiction by Mireille Juchau (a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece which you can read online, click the link).
  • Special Stuff, a chilling piece of dystopian fiction by Josephine Rowe (who I learn from the intro is in New York researching a new novel, hurrah, I loved her novel!)
  • Five Poems, a themed group of moving poetry about losing parents, by Sarah Holland-Batt.  Update, the next day: I had wondered if there was a personal dimension to this group of poems but hesitated to suggest it.  This article at The Guardian confirms that Holland-Batt was grappling with her father’s last years with Parkinson’s Disease. (The article is not paywalled, but you need to register to read it.)
  • Brief Lives, fiction featuring a group of strangers holed up in what they hope is a refuge against bushfire, by one of my favourite authors, Brian Castro.  As usual, he made me laugh despite the dire situation of his characters.
  • Death Takes Me (trans. Sarah Booker and Robin Myers) , fiction by Cristina Rivera Garza. TBR

HEAT Series 3 Number 2 (April 2022)

The second issue comprises:

  • Ludic Literature, an essay by British novelist Helen Oyeyemi about playfulness in writing. Yes, I had to look up ‘ludic’, it just means ‘playful’, and if Gingerbread is anything to go by, that’s Oyeyemi’s style.
  • Unlock to Ride by another of my favourite authors, New Zealand writer Pip Adam.  I saw e-scooters for the very first time in Auckland, where they make perfect sense in the hilly terrain. The piece is, of course, about more than e-scooters.
  • Min-Min is a piece of flash fiction from the winner of the 2018 Patrick White Award Indigenous poet Samuel Wagan Watson.  It features a man like an animal caught in the headlight of something unstoppable…
  • Sit Down Young Stranger is a change of scene for Luke Carman whose collection An Elegant Young Man was set in Western Sydney.  Set in the Blue Mountains and featuring a young musician in distress, it showcases his skill in creating atmosphere.
  • Three poems from Melbourne poet Michael Farrell — though the middle one looks more a three page paragraph to me which just goes to show that I know so little of contemporary poetry that I don’t even have the vocab to describe it.  I have a new book called Actions & Travels: How Poetry Works which I am hoping will address this and my other deficiencies in respect of appreciating modern poetry.  Apropos of appreciating poetry, Sydney poet Felicity Plunkett quoted Alice Oswald today in her Twitter feed, and I’m quoting it here just because I want to remember it:

Poetry is danced language which means, when you’re writing it or reading it, you mustn’t rush to the end to find out what it means, but every line, every phrase, every word is an end in itself.

  • Allen, by a writer unknown to me: Ren Arcamone, a Sydney writer currently in Iowa.  This is a taster, which I really hope is going to make its way into the novel she is working on:

Phil and I have a make-believe housemate — we call him Allen.  Allen is a real jerk.  Allen never cleans the bathroom, leaves the fan when no one’s home, and only half-empties the dishwasher.  Allen lets the laundry stay out on the line so long that all our jeans are sun-faded, and he alone is responsible for the murder of our beloved houseplant, Fernie Sanders.  He never vacuums.  He never takes the dog for a walk. (p.77)

Heat Series 3, edited by Alexandra Christie, Giramondo Publishing.

  • Number 1:  February 2022, ISBN 9781922725004, pbk., 102 pages, artwork by Ben Juers.
  • Number 2:  April 2022, ISBN 9781922725011, pbk, 92 pages, artwork by Naminapu Maymuru-White

You can subscribe to Heat here, or find individual issues in good bookstores.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2022

The Yellow Bird Sings, by Jennifer Rosner

During the lockdowns, in an effort to support my favourite booksellers, I bought a whole lot of (mostly Australian) books that I wouldn’t normally buy.  I’m gradually working my way through them and sad to say, quite a few were very quickly abandoned and sent off for recycling.  Commercial fiction is what it is, and I don’t regret my purchases because booksellers need to sell enough of what’s popular in order to be able to stock less profitable titles. Plus, as with cafés and restaurants, booksellers can’t afford to be left with unsaleable stock… commercial fiction needs to be sold when it’s newly released before along comes The Next Big Thing.

The Yellow Bird Sings by US author Jennifer Rosner was one of these lockdown books, purchased in June 2020.  Set in Poland in 1941, it’s a story of flight from the Nazi genocide, so since there’s some tawdry Holocaust fiction around at the moment, I set my bar by the generally favourable reviews in the Jewish Chronicle and by the US Jewish Book Council.

Their reviews suggest that people like it because it is what it promises to be, a powerfully gripping and deeply moving novel about the unbreakable bond between parent and child and the triumph of humanity and hope even in the darkest circumstances.  It’s very well written and it doesn’t sanitise the fact that the Nazis had plenty of anti-Semitic support in Poland, whatever they may be saying about that now.  Even the ‘good’ Poles who give refuge to Róza and Shira in their barn are hostile at first, and have dubious motives for allowing them to stay: the farmer Henryk rapes Róza every day.

Notwithstanding that, it’s still Holocaust Lite. The reality of the Holocaust was that the unbreakable bond between parent and child was broken for millions of parents and children.  If you follow the Twitter feed of the Auschwitz Museum as I do, you see the faces of parents and children who perished in the Holocaust every day.  Some days, it’s almost unbearable to witness this photographic record of the people who were murdered…

From today’s @AuschwitzMuseum Twitter feed, this little girl is Iboja Berger.  By coincidence, she was interested in music just like Shira is, in Rosner’s novel.

Image

14 May 1936 | A Hungarian Jewish girl, Iboja Berger, was born in Mohács. In 1944 she was deported to #Auschwitz and murdered in a gas chamber. Source for text & photo @AuschwitzMuseum 14 May 2022

There was no triumph of humanity and hope even in the darkest circumstances for millions of Jewish parents and children.  There was no sentimental ending for them at all.  Yes, there were survivors, and there were stories of incredible luck, and there were reunions that defied the displacement that amplified the losses in the chaos of the postwar period.  Rosner says in the Author’s Note that the catalyst for writing this book, presumably with the best of intentions, was that she met a survivor who’d been hidden in an attic as a child and had had to be silent all the time.  She subsequently met others with the same experience and soon found herself immersed in a new project involving silence, separation, loss, and, above all, love. 

But survival was not the reality for most people caught up in the evil of Nazi Germany.  What bothers me about this genre of ‘Holocaust survivor’ novels is that they convey the implicit message that enough determination and love could make the difference, and that’s a false view of history.  It glosses over how ruthlessly efficient the Nazis were and how widespread it was for populations to turn away, to refuse to help and to denounce hidden Jews.  Anne Frank was hidden in an attic and her story, told in her own words, is also about silence, separation, loss, and, above all, love.  She didn’t survive.

Survival was a matter of luck.

The Jewish Chronicle explores the current fictionalising-of-Auschwitz publishing phenomenon in this article. Even-handed, the article offers a continuum of opinions, from those who are ‘comfortable’ with it, and those who are very angry about it.  I read The Yellow Bird Sings because I’m somewhere in the middle: I believe that literature can have an educative function and offer insights about the Holocaust, just as it can about any other aspect of history.

I’d like to be able to recommend novels which succeed in doing this, but The Yellow Bird Sings wouldn’t be on my list.

Author: Jennifer Rosner
Title: The Yellow Bird Sings
Publisher: Picador, 2020
ISBN: 9781529032437, pbk., 294 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Bookstore $29.99

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 11, 2022

True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey

UQP 1st edition with dustjacket

As regular readers will know, it was this month’s #6Degrees that prompted me to read Peter Carey’s award-winning True History of the Kelly Gang.  For ages I have had two editions of this novel on my TBR in my collection of Booker Prize winners. I bought the US first edition first, but I waited patiently until an affordable true first UQP edition came my way.  It doesn’t have the dustjacket, but as you will see, I like it better the way it is.

The Margaret and Colin Roderick Award, which recognises the best Australian book of the year that deals with any aspect of Australian life, was first to recognise True History of the Kelly Gang in 2000, the year of its publication by UQP.  Prestigious as that award is, it was swamped the following year in 2001 when True History won the Booker, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book Overall, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.  In 2002 it was nominated for the Dublin IMPAC award and it won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger for Roman in 2003.

UQP 1st edition, (hardcover protected by mylar film)

The reason I prefer my (still pristine) UQP first edition without its dustjacket, is because it feels more authentic.  The novel purports to be thirteen parcels of undated, unsigned, handwritten papers then held in the Melbourne Public Library, and written in the hand of the real life bushranger Ned Kelly (1850-1880).  This unadorned edition looks just the way those uncut papers might have looked had they been bound together in the 19th century when dustjackets were not a thing…

1st US edition (Knopf)

However, reading the jacket blurb of the US first edition published by Knopf in 2000 offers an interesting frisson for the Australian reader.  It goes like this:

Out of nineteenth century Australia rides a hero of his people and a man for all nations, in this masterpiece by the Booker Prize-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs.  Exhilarating, hilarious, panoramic, and immediately engrossing, it is also — at a distance of many thousands of miles and more than a century — a Great American Novel.

A Great American Novel?? True, Carey has lived in the US since 1990, but that doesn’t necessarily make him American and True History has nothing to do with America.  (Except that some of the outlaws want to escape to it.)  In fact, it looks as if Carey isn’t much interested in writing ‘American’ novels.  He didn’t set a novel in the US till he’d been there for 20 years (Parrot and Olivier in America, 2010, see my review). After that The Chemistry of Tears (2012) was set in London, (my review here) and then there was A Long Way Home (2017) which brought him back to an Australian setting, see my review). So it seems a bit rich for anyone to claim True History as a Great American Novel… until you read on and see what the Knopf blurber is doing.  It’s an appeal to an American audience using a well-worn trope in US literature and film: the idea of a hero against the authorities, in a novel with all the force of a classic Western.  

But just as it would be a mistake to read this novel as a semi-factual fictionalisation of Ned Kelly’s life, it would also be a mistake to read this as a mere tale of Goodies and Baddies.  Carey is too interesting a novelist to write an apologia – where would be the authorial challenge in that?  Carey’s Ned Kelly is more complex, more slippery than his folkloric image.  He portrays himself as a man trapped into a life of crime by his circumstances almost as if it were inevitable.  He is a man who tells his unborn daughter and purported reader that he is a man more sinned against than sinning, but he’s not a good judge of character at all.  In his justifications for murder and armed robbery he is a poor judge of his own character, and he’s a poor judge of the people around him too. That’s one flaw in his character that causes his downfall, because he never sees betrayal coming.  The other flaw in Carey’s Ned Kelly is that he fails to understand that even amongst people equally desperate and oppressed, murder is unconscionable.  The lives he has taken do not weigh heavily on his conscience.  Sometimes, it is what he does not say in this long, carefully crafted letter to his daughter that is most telling.

Yes, this epistolary novel is written by an ungrammatical hand with a poor grasp of punctuation, but it is crafted to be coherent, sequential and comprehensive. And its most consistent feature is that Ned always blames someone else for his predicament…

Ned doesn’t realise until it’s too late that it was his mother who set him on the path to major crime by apprenticing him to bushranger Harry Power.  He doesn’t learn that she paid Power to take him, a lad of only 15, not until she sends him back to Power’s brutality after he’d made his escape.  He makes one wrong judgment after another about his mother’s lovers, and he’s wrong about the loyalty of other members of his family and his gang members too.  He’s horribly wrong about his lover Mary Hearn as well, but he still trusts her even after she makes off with his money.  It’s not even clear that the unborn child is his.

(In the real life historical record, Kelly did not have a lover or a child.  He was only 26 when he was hung, and had hardly had a life at all, even by the life expectancy standards of his era.)

Most crucial to the Ned Kelly myth is that he avoided capture for so long because he had won the hearts and minds of the poor and oppressed — and this is where close reading shows Carey’s skill in constructing this tale.  Kelly’s quest for redemption in his daughter’s eyes slips up here and there, when he demolishes his own myth because it’s so critical to him that he should blame others for his fate. His narrative shows that early on in his career a member of his own family had claimed a reward for dobbing him in.  And even before there were tempting rewards for his betrayal, he admits that there was resentment against him because the police harassed his family, friends and mere acquaintances on his account.  He says they were gaoled on trumped up charges because of their association with him.

Doubts about the extent and reliability of his support network is suggested by his admission that he’s vulnerable to betrayal when he’s hiding away in the Warby Ranges:

If you will lead men you cannot be away from them no more than from a dairy herd or to put it another way when no rooster is present the cockerels will grow their combs till they’re red and flapping across their beady eyes for once their leader is absent they exercise their own judgement setting plans in course they would never dream of if their Captain were up front. (p.261)

‘Their Captain’?  As the novel reaches its conclusion we see that Kelly’s self-aggrandisement has warped his judgement.   Writing his ‘history’ to denounce police corruption, he valorises his efforts, describing himself as Napoleon writing at his table before going into battle.  Fatally, he fails to see that Curnow, a schoolteacher taken hostage in the Glenrowan Pub, is buttering him up in order to gain his trust and make his escape.  Curnow quotes the St Crispian’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V where Henry rallies the troops just before the Battle of Agincourt when they were outnumbered five to one. Kelly claims in his moment of hubris that even if the meaning were not clear they cd. see a man of learning might compare us to a King.

Kelly’s letter is really more of a memoir, one which suffers from subjectivity more than most.  It is in fact one of a number of attempts to ‘set the record straight’. (In real life, he wrote what is known as the Jerilderie Letter which shares some of the insights into his character with Carey’s novel). Kelly has misinterpreted a newspaper report that the government will hold an enquiry into any reliable allegations into police behaviour: he takes that as a promise that his mother will be released from her gaol cell where she is doing time for Aiding and Abetting Attempted Murder.  He sends his account of things to a newspaper for publication and is outraged that the newspaper publishes only a summary.  His indignation again clouds his judgement, and there is a ludicrous and risky attempt to get his allegations printed in Jerilderie.

It’s not until near the end of the book that Mary is involved in writing this splashed and speckled history.  In Parcel 10 we see in Ned’s account that Mary Hearn was an active conspirator in plans for robbing the Euroa Bank — or alternatively, (unwittingly, or by design if he hasn’t really forgiven her for abandoning him) that Kelly was testifying against her. (That would be a good reason for her to scarper off to America.) But her additions to Ned’s account offer a hint that she might have been wanting to take credit for the planning.  Mary keeps a scrapbook of press clippings about all the gang’s exploits, and Ned mentions her annotations about the robbery in a clipping from The Morning Chronicle of December 11, 1878…

Dear daughter you know I never had no proper education at Avenel I would have to be there with my sixpence each Monday morning except when my father were in the lockup and then my mother must be granted a CERTIFICATE OF DESTITUTION. From the time we went to Greta I had no school at all so there are much better educated men than me to write the story of our robbery and you may study this account as a fair example.  Yet not one of those scribes was sufficient for your mother’s taste as you will note from her comments on the sides.  Heres my cutting and theres your ma she sits watch on these sentences like a steel nibbed kookaburra on the fences in the morning sun. (p.290)

Kelly’s other ‘editor’ was Curnow.  The novel is bookended by introductory and concluding explanations of its provenance.  At the beginning we are told that the informant responsible for the final shootout did not take part in looting souvenirs afterwards and yet had in his possession a keepsake of the Kelly Outrage, and on the evening of the 28th, thirteen parcels of stained and dog-eared papers, every one of them in Ned Kelly’s distinctive hand, were transported to Melbourne.  

But at the end of the novel in a (purported) pamphlet tells a different story:

If this lack of lasting recognition disappointed him, he never revealed it directly, although the continuing, ever-growing adoration of the Kelly Gang could always engage his passions.

What is it about we Australians, eh? he demanded.  What is wrong with us?  Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli?  Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse-thief and a murderer? Must we always make such an embarrassing spectacle of ourselves?

In private, his relationship with Kelly was more complicated, and the souvenir he carried from Glenrowan seems ot have made its own private demands on his sympathy.  The evidence provided by the manuscript suggests that in the years after the Siege of Glenrowan he continued to labour obsessively over the construction of the dead man’s sentences, and it was he who made those small grey pencil marks with which the original manuscript is decorated.  (p.350)

Carey’s Ned Kelly is a complicated man who defies both demonisation and folk hero status. This is a very fine novel indeed, and it was a worthy winner of all its awards!

Update, later the same day: I did wonder how readers not from Australia would react to True History so it’s a pleasure to link to Marianne’s blog for her review.  Marianne lives in Germany but has also lived Belgium, England and the Netherlands!

PS Further Thoughts since Cathy’s comment (below)…

Cathy’s comment triggered the thought that despite his infamy not much is really known about Kelly the man which left Carey free to create an entirely new character.  The character that he crafts — aspects of which can be deduced from the real life Jerilderie letter and which I’ve already noted above — is an example of the amoral self-aggrandisement which can lead any man to believe that he can achieve great things… Thus we see Kelly claiming that the police are in a drama writ by me. 

But the novel also shows that (as in real life) Kelly was not representing a great cause.  His cause was always all about him and his resentments; it was not about making substantive reforms to benefit his society.  Kelly’s allegations in real life and in the novel were that his actions were in self-defence and that the police and judiciary were corrupt, part of British oppression of the Irish transplanted to the colony.  But Carey’s Kelly is no Garibaldi, gathering support for a great cause from common people across the country and creating an army willing to die for that cause. He was no Peter Lalor either.  Carey’s Kelly alludes scornfully to the Eureka Rebellion in 1854, (when he and the real life Kelly were four).  He says that it achieved nothing — which is simply not true since the Eureka miners achieved adult male suffrage with no property qualification and the eventual election to Parliament of their leader Peter Lalor.  The real life Kelly had the vote. So did all the other adult males in his company.  And that must be so for Carey’s characters as well.

Yet in his last days at Glenrowan Carey’s Kelly believes he’s gathering an army of supporters, sharing his resentments and led by him in the persona of Napoleon and revered as a Shakespearean King. These delusions of grandeur make him think that this ‘army’ is forging his (in)famous armour when in fact there were only the four of them in the Kelly Gang, and these other men refused to wear the armour because they couldn’t see or move freely to shoot.

Nevertheless, in the 21st century, when we have had a federal government steadfastly refusing to legislate for a corruption commission, we can perhaps hear the plaintive cry of a man who did not know that his quest should have been for legislative reform that created a mechanism to report on police and judicial corruption.

Author: Peter Carey
Title: True History of the Kelly Gang
Jacket design by Chip Kidd, jacket painting: Landscape (detail) 1947 by Sidney Nolan
Maps and other images not credited.
Publisher: Borzoi Books, Knopf, 2000
ISBN: 9780375410840, hbk 1st edition, 352 pages
Source: Personal library.

This month’s #6Degrees starts with Peter Carey’s award-winning True History of the Kelly Gang.

I swore I would read True History in time for #6Degrees because it’s been on my TBR for years and years — but *smacks forehead* I forgot until I saw Kate’s #6Degrees on Saturday.  So I started it that afternoon and I’ve just finished it today.  My review is coming!

Among numerous other awards True History won the Booker, but although it was nominated, it didn’t win the Miles Franklin.  So who did?

It was Frank Moorhouse’s Dark Palace — second in the Edith Trilogy which traces an Australian woman’s career in the League of Nations.  Books 1 & 2 are Grand Days (1993) and Dark Palace (2000) while Cold Light (2011) covers her postwar return to Cold War Australia. I have enthused about this trilogy in #6Degrees before, but only Cold Light is reviewed on this blog.

Since ANZ LitLovers only got going in 2008, the Edith Trilogy is not the only series I’ve only partially reviewed.  I’m rather glad, however, that I don’t have a review of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, first of her Colonial Trilogy, because as I consult my reading journal I see that I had a somewhat naïve response to it.  In 2020 when I reviewed Searching for the Secret River I was still enthusing about it, and I’d done the same in 2009 when I reviewed The Lieutenant but if I read The Secret River today, in the light of all the Indigenous writing I’ve encountered, I think I would react differently. By the time I read Book 3, Sarah Thornhill, I had a different view of the representation of Indigenous people and I was deeply unimpressed by Grenville’s risible depiction of redemption for her characters.

But that’s why we read, isn’t it?  Sure, we read frivolous novels and other forms of comfort reading, but we also read to be introduced to new ideas and to have our existing perceptions challenged. So far in 2022 I’ve read more than 20 books published this year and nearly all of them raise social issues that matter.  A standout amongst these is Other Houses, by Paddy O’Reilly which is a vivid depiction of a disadvantaged young couple trying to get ahead without anything in the way of support and are confronted by problems not of their making.

That title reminded me of another book, with almost the same title.  Other People’s Houses, however, has a different focus.  It’s not a novel, it’s the memoir of Australian publishing icon Hilary McPhee.  While the ‘other house’ of the title refers to McPhee’s time in Jordan when she was ghost-writing the (never published) story of a prince, the book was for me, more of a cautionary tale about a woman of a certain age negotiating an abrupt change in her personal life. (Which is what eventually happens to many women.)

And that reminds me of Ruby J Murray’s terrific novel The Biographer’s Lover.  It tells the story of another would-be biographer who is commissioned to write the life story of a neglected woman artist.  To quote my own review:

… biography is a slippery art.  Some members of the family are garrulous but ultimately unhelpful, while others are evasive and won’t even agree to be interviewed.  There is more to Edna’s experiences and preoccupations than the desired image of her as an artist neglected because of her gender.  In Nathan Hobby’s review of this novel, he describes the biographer’s purpose: a quest for the truth of the subject’s life, often involving the recovery of lost letters or diaries — but here the letters are embargoed and diaries don’t exist.  Victoria wants her mother’s life told through her artworks, and she puts up road blocks to steer the biographer in the intended direction.

That mention of Nathan Hobby brings me of course to his recently published biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Red Witch.  As you can see from my review, it’s a LitBio that lived up to all of my expectations, and you can join me for the online launch next week.  It’s free, you don’t need to book in, and you don’t need to download anything.  Just put the link below into your diary and click it when the meeting starts.

Online launch – The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard
Tuesday, 17 May 8:00pm AEST (6:00pm AWST)
Video call link: https://meet.google.com/sjt-nvhb-axc

From a purported autobiography of a murderer valorised as a folk hero, to a masterful biography of an Australian literary icon, that’s my #6Degrees for this month!

Next month’s starter book is a book by an Australian author shortlisted for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction – Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason.

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 8, 2022

Bad Art Mother, by Edwina Preston

Ten years ago I read Edwina Preston’s debut novel The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer and enjoyed it as a lively mystery with a social heart.  Preston, however, is a multi-talented writer and musician with many irons in the fire so it’s been a while between novels, but Bad Art Mother was worth the wait.  I loved this book.

The characters are loosely based on well-known Melbourne identities from the mid C20th century Heidi Circle. This milieu included the art dealer and restaurateur Georges Mora and his artist wife Mirka; the artist Joy Hester; and the art patrons John and Sunday Reed.  Owen’, the ‘bad mother’s’ son in the novel, is based on Sweeney Reed, who was the child of Joy Hester and the artist Albert Tucker but he was adopted by the childless John and Sunday Reed.  Readers do not need to know the emotional and sexual entanglements of this Bohemian milieu to enjoy the novel, though it is nice to know the art of Mirka Mora so that you can imagine the mural that makes an appearance on the walls of a restaurant. (See here for the one she did for Melbourne’s iconic Flinders St Station.)

This is the blurb:

Good mothers are expected to be selfless. Artists are seen as selfish. So what does this mean for a mother with artistic ambitions?

Enter: frustrated poet Veda Gray, who is offered a Faustian bargain when a wealthy childless couple, the Parishes, invite her to exchange her young son Owen for time to write.

Veda’s story unfolds as an adult Owen reflects on his boyhood in the Melbourne suburbs, and in the vibrant bohemian inner-city art world where his restaurateur father was a king. Meanwhile, the talented women in his orbit – Veda; Mrs Parish, wife of an influential poet; muralist and restaurant worker Rosa – push against gender expectations to be recognised as legitimate artists, by their intimates and the wider world. And almost-aunt Ornella, who declares herself without an artistic bone in her body, is perhaps the closest thing Owen has to a traditional mother. As Owen is encouraged to ‘be a man’, he loses something of himself, too.

Blending wit and pathos, love and fury, ambition and loss, this is an extraordinary novel of love and art, set in the Melbourne milieu of Georges and Mirka Mora, Joy Hester, and John and Sunday Reed.

Owen narrates most of the story, acknowledging right at the start that his memory may not be reliable.  He claims to remember his birth, and addressing ‘almost-aunt’ Ornella, he admits that she doesn’t think it’s possible to recall things from such an early age. (My earliest memory is from between 14 and 18 months old. This is apparently early: research shows that the average for recall of memories start at about two and a half.)

But Owen remembers that he became his mother Veda’s enemy when he was mobile enough to rip pages out of books left on a couch or stored on the bottom shelf of a bookcase.  And we see from the other narrative strand — Veda’s letters to her sister Tilda — that needing to be alert to Owen’s whereabouts limits her to writing only a word or two and it hampers her reading.

The ‘wild’ of Park Orchards is beneficial for Owen, who totters in from the outdoors, tumbleweeded and sunburnt, to eat large portions of bread, dripping, apples from their own trees &c.  And that is before lunch! I am not quite so blasé, however, as to forget ponds, dams, disused mineshafts… In fact, I cannot even read contentedly, for I must look up and spot Owen continually, and then put things down (pages flutter, place is lost) to run over and check he is indeed behind that tree and hasn’t crossed some boundary line, past which reside snakes, bunyips, men with shotguns… (p. 36)

Yes, she exaggerates, but all parents know how small children sap concentration even on mundane tasks.  How much more exasperating it is for anything requiring thought and imagination.  Veda, no longer needed at her husband Jo’s restaurant now that it’s a going concern, misses the company of a working life… and when the childless Parishes offer to have Owen, she accepts not only because she’s trapped into it by Mr Parish’s offer to be principal investor in Jo’s new art gallery next to his restaurant, but also because the deal gives her time to work on her poetry.

Veda confesses this only to her sister in her letters, but these letters are now in the public domain since they were published posthumously by Owen’s girlfriend.

You are right when you say that mothers get too caught up in their children.  You are probably right too when you say that, when I have more children, I will be less anxious.  But I am not sure I will have more children.  And Owen is so small.  And what sort of a mother gives her child away to another woman?  I feel sure that, were I to confide in anyone other than you — if I were to tell any woman of this arrangement — I would become a very suspect creature indeed.

And yet, there is another part of me that feels guiltily, horribly relieved. Because for two days I will be spared the grizzling, the whingeing, the feeding, the playing, the interruptions, the soiled clothes and the soiled floor and the soiled table, the crying — the endless endless crying — when I just want to slam the door on the room but must sit and rock and pat and soothe and meanwhile the clock ticking ticking ticking… (pp.49-50)

Owen does have two parents, but Papa is a workaholic who is never home because he’s busy with his restaurant.  Gender expectations of that era mean that it’s his wife who’s supposed to manage the home and look after any children.  And any career aspirations she might have are always going to be subordinate to the needs of the family.

Mr Parish is a poet, and is influential in the Bohemian arts world, including publishing.  Veda is so underconfident about the merit of her poetry that she hesitates even to mention it.  He is an intimidating man.  Owen describes Mrs Parish as a browbeaten housewife who eventually finds her niche in Japanese flower-arranging, and he is delighted when she goes to Japan to learn to be a master.  Besides Ornella, who despite her gruff personality, provides routine, clean clothes, proper meals and bedtime stories, the other important person in Owen’s life is Rosa, who paints the mural in Papa’s restaurant in St Kilda so that it becomes famous.  This was in the sixties, when these ideas were new, and a mural on a wall could attract customers.  But the sixties were not then a good time for women.  Veda fights a long and draining battle to have her poetry published.  While Papa encourages her by supporting her financially, he doesn’t understand her work or take any interest in it.

The publishing world isn’t interested in women’s poetry either.

The poems seem to be about things poetry shouldn’t bother with.  Small things, domestic things.  (p.56)

Veda’s frustration erupts in a transgressive poem that expresses her disdain for publishers: it’s an allusion to an acrostic sonnet by Gwen Harwood and it causes a massive scandal, the financial collapse of the bookshop that published her book, and the tragedy that haunts Owen’s life.  But Veda’s struggle for time to write and for recognition for her work didn’t make me think of Gwen Harwood, mentioned only in a note at the end of the book, it made me think of Anne Elder whose poetry I discovered in her posthumous collection The Bright and the Cold, and whose bio, The Heart’s Ground I reviewed here.

Bad Art Mother is excellent reading, witty and clever and wise.  Highly recommended.


The Heide Museum of Modern Art features most of the artists of the period, and occasionally, for some exhibitions it opens the private rooms  where the Reeds lived. The modernist building — designed as a gallery to be lived in — was designed by David McGlashan in 1963 to replace the original weatherboard farmhouse which they had renovated in French provincial style.  The gardens are open all year round.

Author: Edwina Preston
Title: Bad Art Mother
Cover design by Duncan Blachford
Cover art: Die Hämische (The Malicious) by Egon Schiele, Wien Museum
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781743059012, pbk., 317 pages, also available as an eBook.
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

 

Black Inc Books is not just a Melbourne publishing house; it is an advocacy phenomenon, producing the ground-breaking Growing Up… in Australia series which includes

  • Growing Up Asian in Australia, edited by Alice Pun (2008)
  • Growing up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss (2018, see my review)
  • Growing up African in Australia edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke (2019, see my review)
  • Growing Up Queer in Australian edited by Benjamin Law (2019)
  • Growing Up Disabled in Australia edited by Carly Findlay (2021, see my review);
  • Growing Up in Country Australia edited by Rick Morton (2022, reserved at the library) and
  • a compilation issue titled Growing Up in Australia (2021)

This series celebrates diversity in all its forms, and is notable for the way each anthology of short memoirs gives voice to a wide range of identities and experiences.  But one thing they all have in common is that while all the contributors are shown to have agency in their own lives, none of them had a choice about their circumstances, which arose from genetic inheritance, accident or illness, or the decisions of their parents.

Growing Up Disabled, We’ve Got This, Stories by Disabled Parents is a companion piece to Growing Up Disabled in Australia.  But it offers a slightly different perspective because although some of these parents acquired a disability later in life after their children were born, many of these contributors despite an existing disability chose to fulfil their yearning to be parents and to exercise their right to do so.  For them it was a pathway that was difficult but worth it.

What reading this collection makes clear is that the judgements of others made things more difficult than they needed to be.  Sometimes this was because their choice to have a child was questioned, in a way that it never would be for would-be parents without a disability.  And sometimes implicit in the question was the hurtful assumption that the risk of having a baby with the same disability was not one that anyone would want to take.

Being a disabled parent is a rebellious act.  Disabled people should have the same right to parent as anyone else, but often when we decide to start a family we are met with judgment and discrimination.  We are questioned rather than supported.  We have to push up against the medical system, which is particularly problematic for disabled people.  And we have to confront how ableist society’s model of parenting is, even in the twenty-first century.  (From the Introduction by Eliza Hull, p1.)

Eliza Hull is the creator of the ABC audio series We’ve Got This and if you haven’t already come across it, I recommend listening to the whole series.  Some of the participants in the series are featured in the book, and tell more of their story.  Carol Taylor, for example, is a lawyer, fashion designer and artist, and her disability-led fashion labels have been featured at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Festival.  Which is a long overdue acknowledgement that disabled people are just as interested in looking good as anyone else. A quadriplegic since a car accident on her honeymoon, Taylor is also the mother of D’arcy, now fourteen, and despite her occasional doubts, he doesn’t think having a disabled mother is in any way different to any other parent-child relationship.  

It hasn’t impacted negatively on his childhood.  In fact, he credits it with teaching him the importance of patience.  He understands that Mum gets frustrated when she can’t do things independently and hates asking for help.  He has more empathy than other kids; he says he tries to always imagine what it must be like ‘in my wheels’.  He believes having a parent with disability has enabled him to always see the good in other people and never judge a book by its cover.  But don’t be fooled into thinking he walks around with a halo: like most fourteen-year-olds, he still has mum chasing after him at high-speed reminding him to pick up after himself and keep his room tidy.  (pp.192-30

You can hear Darcy speaking for himself about this in this podcast episode of We’ve Got This: From the Mouths of Babes. 

Family violence survivor and disability activist Nicole Lee writes about how when she was pregnant, everything around her was sending the message that mothers like her don’t exist.  But of course they do.  Now a grandmother, she always felt like the odd one out —

— in the birth classes, the waiting rooms, at the obstetrician’s or in the baby goods stores.  I felt like I didn’t fit; there was so much stigma. Maternity clothing was limited and didn’t sit right on someone like me who was in a wheelchair.  Finding a car seat — or a cot, highchair, pram or change table — I could use independently was impossible without modifications and some creative thinking. (p.215)

Lee was pregnant in the 90s, and still remembers the hurt inflicted by insensitive behaviour.  Do shop assistants get training now, so that they listen to what’s needed rather than show what’s popular?  Do they respect the fact that the customer is the person who’s pregnant, and not some random person beside them?  Do people running antenatal classes have professional development in respecting difference?  I hope so…

While We’ve Got This is a powerful and revelatory anthology, it has moments to provoke all kinds of emotion in the reader:

While there have been so many challenges in my parenting journey, there has also been so much joy.  Those beautiful precious moments when I was whizzing around the shops with my little one on my lap.  Or flying down a ramp listening to them squeal and giggle.  Or watching my three-year old child’s surprise as they stopped at my pop’s front stairs wondering: what are these and how do I climb them? (I realised they had not seen anyone use steps before.) (Nicole Lee, p. 221)

Or…

Multiple sclerosis was not our only adversary.  John Howard’s government was determined to force single mothers to shift from welfare to work and to punish Muslims for our failure to uphold ‘Australian values.’  My PhD thesis on Muslim women and transnational feminism was years overdue for completion.  The income I earned from tutoring and freelance writing was not enough to free us from dependence on Centrelink payments.  A disabled, brown-skinned, Muslim, welfare-dependent single mother sounds like a hate figure from an Andrew Bolt column, I thought gloomily to myself. (Writer and academic Shakira Hussein, p. 196).

The audience for this book is two-fold.  Many of the contributors mentioned that they felt unseen or under-represented, and so part of the value of this book is that it speaks to them and their experience within their communities.  But books like the ones in this series are also invaluable education for readers who want to be disability allies.  We should remember that there are more than 4 million Australian people with a disability — that’s 18% of the population or 1 in 6.   Let’s change things so that whatever obstacles they face, other people’s attitudes become less of a problem.

Editor: Eliza Hull
Title: We’ve Got This, Stories by Disabled Parents
Foreword by Jamila Rivzi
Cover design by Akiko Chan
Publisher: Black Inc., 2021
ISBN: 9781760642938, pbk.,,278 pages

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 5, 2022

Hovering, by Rhett Davis

Winner of the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, Hovering is the most entertaining book I’ve read for a while, but it’s macabre and disorientating too.

Fun… because of the deadpan delivery of the absurdity of modern (non)communication but macabre and disorientating because it contests the complacent security of life in our cities.

Hovering made me think of the plaintive refrains about wanting certainty during pandemic lockdowns.  What was it, I used to wonder, that made them not understand that certainty is no more possible in a pandemic than it is in a natural disaster or a war?  Rhett Davis shows us that the planet itself rebels against mistreatment and denial of history, and that people have no choice but to learn to adjust and adapt.  He does this in a city recognisable as Melbourne but — in an echo of the unnecessary and disorientating renaming of Narrm by John Batman* —he has renamed the city as Fraser,

This is the blurb:

The city was in the same place. But was it the same city?
Alice stands outside her family’s 1950s red brick veneer, unsure if she should approach. It has been sixteen years, but it’s clear she is out of options.
Lydia opens the door to a familiar stranger – thirty-nine, tall, bony, pale. She knows her sister immediately. But something isn’t right. Meanwhile her son, George, is upstairs, still refusing to speak, and lost in a virtual world of his own design
Nothing is as it was, and while the sisters’ resentments flare, it seems that the city too is agitated. People wake up to streets that have rearranged themselves, in houses that have moved to different parts of town. Tensions rise and the authorities have no answers. The internet becomes alight with conspiracy theories.
As the world lurches around them, Alice’s secret will be revealed, and the ground at their feet will no longer be so firm.

The nearest I’ve come to this kind of disorientating experience was in one of Melbourne’s last major rainstorms.  My daily commute was usually about 35 minutes, but five times on my usual route home I was stopped by flash flooding.  I had to stop, adjust my mental map to bypass dips in the road and valleys that I’d never thought about before, and find another way. It was much harder as it got dark.  Driving backwards and forwards in suburbs I didn’t know as floodwaters blocked my way, I began to panic about whether I would ever get home.

So, how do the good folk of Fraser cope with the ad hoc rearrangement of their built environment?  Let’s turn to social media to see what’s trending…

Trending articles

  1. Latest polling reveals swing to unknown party
  2. Tupperly takes flight, injuries many: watch live
  3. You can’t say ‘you’ without ‘I’, Dr Falcon
  4. Report: Australian voters see voting like gambling, think it’s all just good fun
  5. Opinion: Klaus’s outburst costs Wrexham remaining goodwill
  6. It’s official: Instant global communication not helpful
  7. Fraser real-time smash round-up: watch live
  8. Report: Immortal Labrador puppy grown in Dutch lab
  9. Football: League boss admits he doesn’t know all the rules
  10. Opinion: There are more of us than ever and none of us know what we’re doing. (p.115)

Yes, I have a feeling that the author has harvested some of these from my Twitter feed…

Then there are descriptions of Trending videos, which are awesome in their authenticity.  Here’s No 3:

A small boy babbles nonsensically at three spaniels as if they are his friends.  He offers them coloured wooden cubes.  The dogs look at the camera with concern. (p.117)

And the trending hashtags?

#Nowords
#CRFLMemorial
#WeareallMarcomeFalcon
#LeagueVSLLeagueVSLLeague
#IfIHadADollar
#InvisibleFootball
#Fraser
#RabblesLosesIt
#FSR
#ActualWarriorsSeasonFinale (p.117)

Yes, Rhett Davis has nailed it.  As we can see, sport — which in the real life pandemic throughout lockdowns when there was no sport, nonetheless managed to consume its usual 10 minutes of news broadcasts — maintains its pre-eminence in the minds of the good folks of Fraser. Because unless what’s been rearranged is your letter-box, or your house, or your shopping centre, or your school, or your route to wherever, well, #SportRules!

#Nowords is my favourite of these trending hashtags.  It is the hashtag of choice for someone who can’t think of anything to say, or doesn’t actually care, or even disagrees with the virtue-signalling — but is terrified of being left out of the conversation.

Davis satirises contemporary communication throughout the novel.  There are SMS convos, and depictions of parallel realities in columns showing the contemporaneous thoughts and actions of the three main characters, Lydia, Alice and George.  There are hilarious files in the digital retrieval systems which are bugging their home because Alice is a ‘person of interest’ to the authorities. Cringe-worthy discussions in forums (accompanied by gifs) often descend into abuse.  There is a premier’s press release in weasel words, and there are reports from the Bureau of Municipal Disturbances. (If you don’t report your missing house within the specified timeframe, too bad for you).  Unsurprisingly, characters are doomscrolling, and walking away.

In a cunning inversion of the adolescent obsession with screens, George’s mother retreats into game-playing, 8-10 hours at a time and not bothering to eat.  This fantasy world is one where she has agency to create a natural environment.  Her son George hacks into the game, gives her a digital image of a tree they both love in real life, but she doesn’t respond.

George, I should add, is an elective mute.  Ironically, he ensures that when he communicates, people have to pay attention.  They have to get out their phones and read his texts.  He is actually communicating more effectively than anyone else in the novel. He’s also making a lot of money.  While struggling with doing a school project about his future in 15 years, he’s selling digital trees and licensing them to content creators such as game developers, design companies and architectural firms.

And Alice?  What has she been up to overseas that has attracted the attention of the authorities.  Well, #NoSpoilers, she is a radical, but *chuckle* that’s all I’ll say.

My advice is: drop everything else and read Hovering.  It’s a cert for my Best Books of the Year, and it ought to be on shortlists everywhere.

The Kulin Nation, source: Nick Carson at English Wikipedia

*For international readers: The city said to have been founded by John Batman and John Pascoe Fawkner is now called Melbourne but the traditional lands of the Kulin nation were known for time out of mind as Naarm.  The Kulin Nation is a collective of five Aboriginal nations: Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung, Wathaurrung, Daungwurrung and Dja DjaWrung.  ANZ LitLovers comes to you from Boonwurrung country.

Author: Rhett Davis
Title: Hovering
Publisher: Hachette, 2022
Cover design: Design by Committee, painting by Kenton Nelson
ISBN: 9780733645624, pbk., 289 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $32.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 3, 2022

The Hero’s Way, by Tim Parks

There’s a tendency, in the 21st century, to regard international borders as set in concrete.  It’s nice idea to believe this, as if the borders that the UN recognises, are not only permanent but also indicative of the wishes of those who live within those borders.  If people would only conform to the identity assigned by those international borders, maybe everything would be fine.  But identity is too messy for that. The most obvious example is the Kurdish people — an ethnic group from the  mountains of Kurdistan, spanning parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, all countries where Kurds suffer minority status. The lines drawn on some map don’t conform to their desire for an independent homeland which was promised but never delivered by the victorious allies after WW1.

It’s easy to forget, too, that the unity of countries we might regard as ‘established’ is comparatively recent in terms of world history.  The C20th borders of Indonesia are still being contested; India and Pakistan are still in conflict over Kashmir and Bangladesh fought a war of independence when I was a young mother.  As I learned decades ago in Form V ‘Modern European History’, the nation states of Germany and Italy were only unified in the 19th century — so we should not be surprised to learn that the unity of Italy is contested even today. What I learned at school was a simplified version of a complex history framed around two heroes, Bismarck and Garibaldi, and it is Garibaldi’s 1849 retreat from Rome during that struggle for unification that Tim Parks retraces in The Hero’s Way, Walking with Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna.  (See map.)

This very interesting book is a travel journal with a difference. Tim Parks and his Italian partner Eleonora set off to retrace the march of Garibaldi’s volunteer army, following the historic route as much as they can.  It isn’t always possible to know exactly where the route went, but it was always off the beaten track to evade pursuit by the Austrian and French armies.  Garibaldi sent out decoys and doubled back on his own tracks in order to confuse his pursuers, and this strategy of systematic disinformation meant he was always the only one who knew where they were going.  Well, the hazards a couple of hikers face are of course not comparable with the perils of a covert retreat, but now there are different dangers.  Since people rarely walk long distances these days, tracks are overgrown; there are few water fountains, wells, taverns and hostelries; and roads with no pavements are choked with hostile traffic while freeways and other developments block the route. Parks muses that in modern life the connection to place which motivated the loyalty of the volunteers no longer exists.  The sense of identity that galvanised and justified liberal nationalism is now fast becoming undone.  

Yours truly would never, I hasten to add, have undertaken the kind of travel recounted in this book.  While I also don’t like what Parks disparages as conveyor-belt tourism, with crowds and queues, as independent travellers we like to visit cities and towns by rail, stopping occasionally for R&R in a village off the beaten track. Hiking is not for me, and that’s why I enjoyed this book at a time when international travel is still so difficult.  I would never want the blisters and sunburn; the hornets, wasps and menacing dogs; nor the uncertainty about getting a meal or a bed for the night.  This is not a travel book that made me hanker for travel!

Parks is ‘on a mission’ to deal with two issues: firstly the revisionist theory that people did not really embrace Italian unity, which he says is disproven by the way people supported the volunteers.  Yes, there were traitors and deserters, and Tuscany was not the friendly place he expected, but he won hearts and minds everywhere he went.  He was the charismatic leader that Italy needed.

The second issue that Parks contests is that, contrary to popular mythmaking, Garibaldi was militarily and politically strategic.  In Arezzo, Parks muses on Garibaldi’s dilemma, how to end the retreat and their patriotic resistance into something that could lead to their goal of unification, and at the same time appeal to men to men who wanted to fight rather than endure the hard slog of forced marches.

Time and again historians criticise Garibaldi for his naivety and recklessness. ‘His eternal instinct’ ironizes David Gilmour, ‘was “When in doubt, charge with the bayonet.”‘ ‘He fought by intuition’, says David Kertzer in his excellent book on the Roman Republic, ‘guided in no small part by emotion’. Of gentle disparagement by wise scholars there is no end.  The man is made a force of nature rather than a thinking protagonist.

Why people feel the need to knock heroes off their pillars, I don’t know…

Those challenges Garibaldi faced were significant.  Backed by an uncompromising church dedicated to maintaining the wealth and status of those in power, professional Austrian and French armies pursued him and his unpaid volunteers as they retreated.  They did so in the heat of summer with their horses and donkeys and a solitary cannon across valleys and mountains where they could never be sure of a welcome. Parks is fascinated by the way Garibaldi’s leadership enabled the men to endure great hardship, but also by the practicalities.  Why, he wonders, did they often camp at monasteries where the monks could be expected to be hostile?  Because they wanted to win hearts and minds, not alienate villagers with sudden arrivals and demands for food and shelter.  The monasteries were outside the villages, they had no women to tempt Garibaldi’s men, and they had bread and wine, vegetables and fruit.  And sanitary facilities.’  Yes, think about it, 4000 infantry, 800 cavalry.

And a pregnant wife called Anita.  Alas, not much is known about Anita, but she is a strong presence in the book all the same.

Because he did not always trust the men he led, Garibaldi made sure to post guards to prevent thefts, and because discipline was essential, he imposed harsh penalties including execution.

Truth be told, Parks seems a little disappointed that his historical sources aren’t more forthcoming about the practicalities.  Alas, there is no index or bibliography, but he tells us that his sources are

  • Gustav Hofstetter, a Bavarian who was Garibaldi’s aide-de-camp and kept a diary.  He had military expertise but was also a bit of a romantic ;
  • Raffaelle Belluzzi, who in 1899 collated Hofstetter’s diary with that of Egidio Ruggieri’s (both were published in the 1850s) along with letters, unpublished manuscripts and interviews with surviving participants in the march;
  • Garibaldi’s memoir (which is available in English as My Life); and
  • Despatches from the French and Austrian military leaders (which of course were not available to Garibaldi).

Parks quotes from these sources from time to time, but not excessively so.  The book has a conversational style, as if Parks is chatting about his day and it’s highly readable.  He’s not an author I’ve read before, but I can see at his website that he’s published all kinds of interesting books including a novel called Europa, which was nominated for the Booker.

However…#OneSourNote:  Harvill Secker ought to be ashamed of the way this fine book has been treated.  The binding has failed after just one reading, with pages separating from the glue, and the author deserved better proof-reading.  A ridge is breached, not breeched. You might hear a peal of giggles not a peel of them.  #NotGoodEnough.

See also this review at Inside Story.

Author: Tim Parks
Title: The Hero’s Way, walking with Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna
Publisher: Harvill Secker, (Penguin Random House) 2021.
Cover illustration by Harry Tennant
ISBN: 9781787302167, pbk., 369 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $35.00

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 1, 2022

The Islands, by Emily Brugman

Shortlisted for the 2020 Vogel Award, Emily Brugman’s novel The Islands is a striking debut.  It’s the absorbing story of a Finnish migrant family who settle on Little Rat Island, off the Western Australian coast in the Abrolhos Islands. Today this cluster of 122 islands 60km from Geraldton is home to WA’s lucrative western rock lobster fishing industry and a tourist destination famed for its exquisite coral reefs, unique wildlife, and intriguing shipwreck history. But in the mid-1950s when the novel begins, life was rugged, precarious and lonely.

The story starts with Onni Saari’s sombre realisation that his brother Nalle has been lost at sea.  Nalle was the adventurous, ambitious one, a somewhat reckless man willing to take a chance in pursuit of a fortune.  While Onni was labouring in the mines at Northampton on the mainland, Nalle had set up a rudimentary hut on Little Rat Island and become part of the small community of Finnish migrants setting lobster pots during the season, with sojourns on the mainland for the rest of the year.

Twenty-one corrugated-iron camps now lined the island’s eastern flank, from which a series of topsy-turvy jetties extended like fractured finger bones.  It resembled a small, ramshackle village.  During the fishing season, for almost six months every year, it became a small, bustling community, way out here on the verge of the Indian Ocean.  For the other half of the year, when most of the fishermen and their families moved back to the mainland, it was a floating ghost town.  There were only a few solitary types, like Latvian Igor, who remained on the island year round. (p.15)

Onni arrives in time to join the search for Nalle, but it’s called off after two days.  These men are pragmatic…

On the third morning, Onni waited again at Sulo’s boat.  He noted the slow habitual movements of the island folk.  He saw fishermen sculling out to their moorings.  Cray boats being loaded with gear.  The distant sound of motors grumbling to life, a skipper calling to his deckhand.  Onni understood that the fishermen were returning to their work.  As he waited by Sulo’s boat, he felt like a forgotten child.

Some time passed before Sulo turned up, his hands in his pockets, an apologetic look on his corrugated face.

The search was over.

And as the sun moved over the sky, and Onni allowed himself to calculate the days since Nalle had gone missing, he understood that all this searching business, those long stretches adrift on the boat, were likely for his sake more than Nalle’s. (p.10-11)

In homage to his brother’s memory, Onni decides to take up Nalle’s lease, bringing his wife Alva with him.  Although the story moves through three generations of this family, it is the characterisation of these two, Onni and Alva which is the core of the novel.  Though the lifestyle is harsh, both are entranced by the beauty of the landscape, and they feel more at home among the Finnish community than they do on the mainland.  With the island community they share stories, song and superstitions, and — never confident in English as their bilingual daughter Hilda is — they feel comfortable retaining some of their traditions.  While the men are generally taciturn, hardened by their solitary work, the harsh weather and the vodka they drink daily, the women enjoy communal activities such as saunas and shared celebrations with traditional Finnish food.  They support each other in the hardships of birth and death, but the transient lifestyle makes it hard to belong anywhere, and once children reach school age, there are other compromises that must be made.

Alva was willing herself to accept that she and Hilda would be spending much more time in Geraldton from now on.  With Hilda starting school, they would only be going to the islands during the holidays.  Perhaps it would do them good in the long run, she ventured.  Within herself, she felt unmoored, floating somewhere between Finland and Australia, somewhere between the islands and the mainland.  She didn’t want that for Hilda.  Hilda needed a more solid foundation.  It was such a transient life you lived out there, always unpacking and packing up again, closing up the camp until the next season.  In recent months, Alva had made an extra effort to make their Bluff Point house feel more like their proper, permanent home.  She had even organised for the Riihimäen glassware, gifted to her by Onni’s family on their wedding day, to be shipped over. (p.64)

A sombre sense of loss pervades the novel.  It is not just the loss of Onni’s brother and the hope that he represented, there is also the loss of belonging, which occurs twice over when the family moves east because of the economic downturn in 1975.  There is also a loss of status.  They were farmers in Finland, and not wealthy, but the lack of English provokes some disdain by disapproving mainland neighbours.  As migrants from a little-known cultural group they lack the supports larger migrant communities could sustain, and they retreat to Finnish to express the unsayable mysteries of life from the epic poem Kalevala. 

The Forging of the Sampo, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1893

Poetry preceding the novel explains the distinctive cover art. Among other snatches of poetry, song and proverbs in Finnish, Brugman references the characters’ yearning for the Sampo, a mill which in Finnish folklore brings riches forged by the god Ilmarinen from white swan feathers, the milk of greatest virtue, a grain of barley, and lambswool.  The colours, blue and white, reference the flag of Finland, and the addition of symbols in red and yellow reference the colours in the Finnish coat of arms.  It’s a thoughtful piece of design by graphic designer Alissa Dinallo.  The internal design by Simon Paterson, Bookhouse, features Finnish-inspired artwork prefacing each chapter.  (There is also a map.)

In the author’s note, Brugman acknowledges the novel-in-stories form inspired by Thea Astley’s Drylands and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. These stories include flashbacks to the Finnish origins of Alva and Onni and their search for security and prosperity after the 1939-1940 Winter War with the USSR.  The novel traces Hilda’s break away from the behaviours expected of her, and introduces her daughter, Alva’s granddaughter.  It’s a quiet novel, with lyrical evocations of both beauty and danger, but there is also restraint, as, for example, in how Nalle’s likely fate is conveyed.

It will be interesting to see what Emily Brugman writes next!

Image credit: By Akseli Gallen-Kallela – 1. Unknown source2. The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 476496, Public Domain,  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=152748

Author: Emily Brugman
Title: The Islands
Cover art by Alissa Dinallo
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781760878580, pbk., 300 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

The Well in the Shadow is one of my most treasured works of literary criticism, and I consider it a small miracle that I came by it in such a circuitous way…

It was 2020, and we were all just learning about masks.  Unprepared for any pandemic, Australia had so few of them that they were reserved for hospital staff — there weren’t even enough for staff in aged care settings.  Locked down throughout the city, while manufacturing cranked into gear, Melburnians went into action with cottage mask-making industries, and — in an effort to lure buyers to online book sales — the ever-enterprising Barry Scott at Transit Lounge Publishing offered a sexy black mask as a free gift for purchases over a certain amount…

So, scouring the Transit Lounge website for titles I didn’t have, I came across The Well in the ShadowThe blurb sounded interesting:

Award-winning Australian author Chester Eagle journeys through Australian literature offering engaging essays on the works of writers including Miles Franklin, Patrick White, George Johnston, Beverley Farmer, Helen Garner and Alexis Wright. As Eagle says in his introduction: ‘The essays are not introductory. I consider them rather as a sharing of one writer’s reflections with the thoughts of readers who are looking for something new to add to their thinking. What the fellow-writer has to offer is the insight that comes from having also been at the heart of the risky business of creating and imagining. Writers can see what other writers are up to because they face the same problems and use the same tricks.’ These entertaining essays are linked by the essential notion of what it means to be a writer in Australia, and as such offer up valuable insights into our literature and country.

The essays discuss not just those authors who are listed in the blurb… they also include Judith Wright, Hal Porter, Frederick Manning, Henry Handel Richardson, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Sally Morgan, Barnard Eldershaw, Murray Bail and Barry Hill.  Eagle’s style is chatty but also informative, thoughtful, wise and occasionally provocative.


Coonardoo, 1st edition (Image credit: Nathan Hobby)

Of particular interest to me at this time — because I’ve just constructed a new page about Katharine Susannah Prichard (to coincide with reading Nathan Hobby’s new biography The Red Witch — is Chester Eagle’s essay about KSP’s Coonardoo. Beginning with what he calls Interlude 2: ‘As far apart as ever’, he writes:

I first read Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo in 1961, and was much affected by it.  I first read Sally Morgan’s My Place in 2007 because I thought it might make a companion for, or provide a comparison with, its predecessor.  It did.  I was surprised by the way the two books spoke to each other.  I read My Place slowly, trying to find its themes, then returned to Coonardoo, only to find, as often happens, that either the book or its reader had changed. In my first reading, years ago, I had felt a great sorrow for Coonardoo, had admired Prichard’s handling of a harsh region of the country which I had never seen, but failed to notice many things about the story line which are obvious to me now.

Two essays then follow:

  • The un-loving of Coonardoo, A white woman’s version of a black woman’s life, first published in 1929
  • Sally Morgan’s My Place, An Indian discovers she’s Aboriginal; the struggle to find a way back.

‘The un-loving of Coonardoo‘ has a two-edged meaning.  It refers to the characters: the white man Hugh Watt’s un-loving rejection of Coonardoo, and also to the change in literary criticism of the novel.

(I’m not going to summarise the plot or revisit my thoughts about Coonardoo and the criticism of it here because I covered that extensively in my review.)

Eagle, noting that while KSP’s characterisation certainly isn’t shallow, she doesn’t spend much time trying to explicate the inner workings of her characters’ minds. (This comment reminded me of what I had read in The Red Witch, i.e. that KSP had given short thrift to Cyril Cook’s Freudian interpretation of her oeuvre.) But Eagle goes on to query whether Coonardoo is indeed the central character of the novel.  He notes Mollie’s rapturous response to discovering the landscape of her long-estranged father’s farm, and goes on to write…

I am inclined to think that the region where Prichard’s story is set is the heart of the book; that is, that the book’s central character is a place, an area, a setting, a harsh and violent eco-system which even the black people find hard and white people who are unaccustomed to it find atrocious. (p.138)

Jessica, Hugh’s would-be wife can’t stand it when she visits, and Mollie is…

…unsuited to station life, having next to no sympathy for, or interest in, the black people, whereas Hugh and his mother, who love Wytaliba, realise full well that any whites who live there must accept that the land is more than those who claim to own it: that is, they must accept a new creed incorporating much that the black people take for granted. The Aboriginal stockmen are every bit as good with horses and cattle as their white overseers, and the north-west knows it.  Hugh’s mother, Mrs Watt, Bessie, Mrs Bessie, Mumae, as she is variously called, doesn’t have white stockmen on the property, partly because she doesn’t need them but principally because they will interfere with the black women, and she believes, or so Prichard tells us, that the traditional way of life should be maintained as far as possible.

Bessie Watt’s regime, then, respects the earlier way of life, and in particular the black women.  The trouble, the tragedy, to use a European word, starts when she is no longer there, when she has passed Wytaliba to her son, who would seem to be the ideal person to take over, but unfortunately is not. (p.139)

(He notes, BTW, that this respect for Aboriginal custom does not extend to Coonardoo’s relationship with Warieda, to whom she is promised, and that this causes problems for them all.)

Eagle then extends this line of thinking by analysing Hugh’s shortcomings, noting how unusual it is that a highly capable woman like Bessie Watt is running a station on a male frontier.  Much more common among station owners is the racist, abusive, exploitative character of Sam Geary, a man like many others who fails to recognise that the customs, the practices and thinking, the ceremonies and rituals of the black people cannot be separated from the land. Later in the essay he writes that the stations in Prichard’s novel, such as Wytaliba and Nuniewarra, are compromises between whites and blacks.

Blacks are fed, given employment that suits them, and they’re also given acceptance, on however low a level, in return for peace and white occupation.  The quality of this settlement depends, if you care to think about it, on the humanity and decency of the whites who oversee — and control — this settlement.  (p.152)

In the light of recent scholarship and the writing of Australia’s Black History about the frontier, anyone can see that the problem with the ‘compromise’ is that it’s patronising at best, and that it offers easy potential for widespread exploitation.  Moreover, this interpretation of such unequal power relations  fundamentally denies Indigenous agency while ignoring dispossession and Black Resistance at the same time.  However, as Eagle reminds us at the conclusion of the essay, it’s disrespectful of Prichard’s achievement to forget that the book was published in 1929 when to write a book featuring an Aboriginal woman was an uncommonly bold undertaking.  

To give the black woman such richness that she is the human embodiment of the harsh yet miraculously lovable landscape surrounding her means that Prichard had to draw on levels of awareness that had rarely entered the English novel to that time. I’m not aware of anyone having done it for the north-west of  Australia before her, and possibly since.  Prichard’s characters might not have been able to treat Coonardoo with the richness she deserves, but Prichard herself saw to it that the black woman was a worthy part of the powerful, daunting land where she lives, and manages, also, to convey that the same could be said of all the black people, so that although the title of the book moves our focus to the black, the sense of shame and failure that the book generates inside us is there because of the failure of the whites. (p.158)

Eagle thinks that the black people in Coonardoo offer an on-going but latent criticism of the whites, from the station owners to the banks which foreclose on owners who can’t keep up their payments.

The essay goes on to interrogate the plot device of Hugh’s illness which takes him from Coonardoo and any prospect of happiness.  He thinks it’s distorting, and silly. 

The whole business of Hugh’s sickness, and the arrival of Geary, offering help, are distractions from the more pressing realities of Hugh’s situation. Can he share Coonardoo with Warieda, can Coonardoo manage to give love and support to both?  Can some kind of three-sided modus vivendi be worked out? (p.149)

Now that’s an provocative proposition…


Chester Eagle died just last year, but he has left a marvellous legacy.  You can still buy The Well in the Shadow from Transit Lounge, but you can also download it for free from  Chester Eagle’s Trojan Press. He had an idiosyncratic and generous approach to publishing, and if you’d like to know how this came about, read Derham Groves eulogy.

Image credit: Coonardoo 1st edition, https://nathanhobby.com/2018/03/16/re-reading-coonardoo/#more-5078.

Author: Chester Eagle (1933-2021)
Title: The Well in the Shadow: A Writer’s Journey Through Australian Literature
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2010
ISBN: 9780980571776, pbk., 371 pages
Source: Personal library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 26, 2022

The Silence of Water, by Sharron Booth

It was so refreshing to read the restrained prose of this debut novel after the florid style of the last novel I read!

It was also refreshing to read a novel that challenges the ‘minor crime’ mythology of convicts in the colonial era and explores the longevity of ‘see what you made me do’ in excusing domestic violence.

Shortlisted for the 2020 Hungerford Award, The Silence of Water derives from the life of Edwin Thomas Salt, a real-life convict whose death sentence for the murder of his wife MaryAnn was commuted to transportation because of his defence of provocation. Provocation has a long history of being used as a partial defence to reduce a conviction of murder to manslaughter, and indeed decades ago when I was on a jury myself, the jury was directed by the judge to consider it in a case of male-on-male violence.  Provocation as a defence was abolished in Victoria in 2005, and The Guardian tells me that Queensland remains one of the few Australian jurisdictions to retain it.  (The ACT and Northern Territory have restricted its use but not abolished it entirely.) In Booth’s novel, the commuted sentence offers Salt an opportunity for a fresh start in the Antipodes…

The novel, which has a somewhat disjointed and confusing structure, begins in 1906 with Salt’s teenage descendant Fan (Frances) Johnson who knows nothing about him, much less his criminal history.  Living in Adelaide with her parents and younger siblings, she is profoundly upset by the news that her mother Agnes, has agreed to return the family to Fremantle to take care of her father Edwin.  His third wife Annie has had enough of his drinking and thrown him out, but at eighty, he’s now too frail to support himself.  Agnes against her better judgement, gives in to the emotional blackmail about duty to ‘family’.

Moving backwards and forwards in time and place, Edwin’s backstory in a respectable tailoring family in mid 19th century Britain is gradually revealed to the reader, and partially also to Fan who succumbs to curiosity about the secrets of her family.  Her mother had always maintained that the South Australian side of the family was all they had and all they needed, but Fan is a feisty girl and defiantly bonds with her ‘new’ grandfather.  Through her conversations with him she amasses tantalising information from snippets he lets fall.  Edwin is careful to hide his dark past with half-truths, but is no match for her snooping amongst his things.

Meticulously researched, the novel depicts the fragility of life in this era, especially for women.  Children don’t always survive, and soon after giving birth, Salt’s second wife Cath dies of heat exhaustion while Edwin is out drinking.

The curtains were pulled across the window.

‘Too much sun.’ Mrs Molloy [the midwife] dabbed a wet cloth on Mam’s face.  ‘We found her down the yard, asleep near the vegetable patch.’

‘For the love of God, Cath, wake up.’ Da laid another wet cloth on Mam’s hair.

Agnes squeezed Mam’s hand, but Mam didn’t squeeze back.  Instead she groaned.  Her head lolled over the side of the bed and she vomited.

‘We’ve got to get her cooled down.’ Mrs Molloy grabbed a bucket.  ‘Where’s the tub?’

‘She can hardly sit up in it, it’s too small,’ Da said.

‘The river, then.’  (p.56)

Observant readers will note that there’s no money to buy a decent-sized tub, but plenty of money for drinking.

When Da comes back alone with Mam and places her on the bed, his face is all shadows and hollows and there was a blackness in his eyes.  Agnes didn’t know a name for a look like that. 

Mam?’ Agnes spoke louder. Walter woke up and began to tremble.  Da shook his head.  In the wooden cot, Baby Cath wailed.  Agnes waited for Da to do something.

Da buckled in the middle. He lay down next to Mam and lifted her arm over him.  The baby’s crying grew harsher and deeper and louder until Agnes realised this new noise was coming out of Da. (p.57)

Book-groups will find it interesting to discuss how differing points-of-view shift the reader’s judgements.  The excerpt above evokes a sympathetic view of a bereaved Edwin without absolving him of responsibility for her death.  His fragmented memories of MaryAnn don’t let the reader forget the manner of her death either, but his descendants in the novel remain ignorant of it, or are complicit in suppressing knowledge about it.  Later, young Agnes makes harsher judgements about Edwin when arrangements are made for Baby Cath’s care; as an adult she agrees to care for him only out of a sense of duty, not affection.  Fan is shocked by the discovery of his crime and its repercussions on her fractured family, and at last tears are shed for the victim who had been forgotten for so long.

You can listen to Sharron Booth in conversation about the book with Claire Miller from Fremantle Press, here.

The Silence of Water is due for release in May 2022.

Did you know that there is free delivery anywhere in Australia if you buy two or more books from the not-for-profit Fremantle Press?  You could pre-order The Silence of Water and Portland Jones’ new novel Only Birds Above, (see my recent review) freight free!

Author: Sharron Booth
Title: The Silence of Water
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781760991340, pbk., 232 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press.

 

Australian Women Pilots, Amazing True Stories of Women in the Air is a book that came my way last year when we were finally out of Lockdown and celebrated with a few days in the beautiful Victorian town of Beechworth.  Throughout Lockdown everyone I knew was very conscious of the need to spend money in support of businesses that were doing it tough, and in my neck of the woods we take pride in the fact that loyal and supportive customers ensured that every one of the shops, cafés and restaurants in the local area survived.  However, my local area doesn’t boast a bookshop.  (That’s a wasted opportunity, imagine how much money they could make just from my purchases alone, eh?)  So I alternated my online book purchases between Readings and Benn’s Books in Bentleigh and I’m pleased to see that they survived as well.

That meant that our November sojourn in Beechworth after the Lockdown/s was the first time in nearly two years that I was actually in a bookshop. And yes, I did have a rush of blood to the head, restrained only by the fact that I had already bought (literally) hundreds of books during the pandemic.  But Beechworth Books was up to the challenge and Australian Women Pilots, Amazing True Stories of Women in the Air by Kathy Mexted was one of the books I bought there.

This is the blurb:

From pioneering and outback flights to delivering Spitfires or tackling the jungles of New Guinea, Australian Women Pilots tells of ten Australians with extraordinary stories. Women have been flying since the early days of aviation but, with a few notable exceptions, they have rarely been visible or well known. Kathy Mexted shares the feats of trailblazers like Nancy Bird Walton, Deborah Wardley, who was told by Ansett that women couldn’t be pilots, and Gaby Kennard, the first Australian woman to fly solo around the world. Others are perhaps less known, but as pilots involved with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary, the RAAF, aerial agriculture, or long-range ferrying, their stories are just as extraordinary. Packed with drama, adventure, and sometimes heartbreak, this riveting book is a salute to those women who refused to keep their feet on the ground.

My mother in uniform, 1945

Today, since it’s Anzac Day, I’m going to share the story of Mardi (Margaret Helen) Gething (1920-2005), a WW2 ATA Ferry Pilot.  Like my mother in the ATS, (Auxiliary Territorial Service) providing crucial and sometimes dangerous support to soldiers on the ground, women in the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) provided similarly crucial support to the male fighter pilots of WW2.  They were a small band of women in a male-dominated role during that time who ferried the aircraft from the production line to the airfields from which the fighters were launched for battle.

Mardi Gething, Source: Spitfire News,

Twenty-two years old, Mardi Gething was only 151 cm (5 feet) tall and she needed a booster cushion to reach the cockpit controls.  But she had a B (commercial) licence and 194 flying hours when she enlisted in 1942.  In her two years at ATA, she flew 600 hours in 26 different aircraft types, and — to the envy of every star-struck aviation enthusiast — she made 233 flights in the British hero, the cutting-edge Spitfire.  She also flew the Hurricane, the Tempest, the Typhoon, the Mustang and the Blenheim Bomber.

Born in Melbourne in 1920, as a child Mardi begged her way onto joy flights above Essendon with her siblings but wasn’t able to take to the air as a pilot until 1939.  She had graduated from Melbourne Girls Grammar in 1938 and set off for England on the SS Orford to do ‘the season’. While onboard she heard inspiring  tales of derring-do from future husband Flight Lieutenant Richard Gething who at 27 years of age had just established a long-distance record flying from Egypt to Darwin.  With war imminent, society plans were on hold and Mardi was reluctant to return home, but her parents were understandably anxious.  However, with Nancy Bird Walton* reassuring them that it was okay for Mardi to stay in England, she took lessons at the Thanet Aero Club and flew solo after just seven flying hours.

Her parents, however, then intervened, and Mardi had to continue her flight training in California.  She was home again in Melbourne by Christmas 1939, and old enough to qualify for her B licence.  Whatever plans to help with the war effort from Australia she had, they were shelved by Richard’s proposal, and she married him back in Canada where he had been posted. Once he was posted back to the Air Ministry in London, Mardi was intent on joining the ATA.  Her height didn’t meet the minimum, but when the need eclipsed the need for them to be tall, Mardi joined a team of about 60 women proving their worth to the war effort.

Richard was posted to India and she didn’t see him again for two and a half years.

Whereas combat airmen were endorsed to fly only one type of aircraft, the ATA pilots had to be adaptable, flying many types of craft, often with no prior knowledge, let alone training. And Spitfires, I learned, had different variants, all with different instructions.  The wartime rate of aircraft development meant that in no time Mardi was flying planes that were more than three times faster than the speed of the fabric biplane that she’d flown for her initial flight training. Without radios or navigational aids, the women relied on their personal knowledge of the countryside, supplemented by a paper map.

Adding to the hazards, including the risk of being bombed or caught by ‘friendly fire’, then there was the weather in Britain… Pioneer aviatrix Amy Johnson, also in the ATA, had died because she was caught in cloud over the Thames Estuary. 

Remarkably, in 1943 these women achieved equal pay, the first time women in Britain were paid the at the same rate as men.  (In the US women were paid 65% of the male rate.)

After the war, Mardi was reunited with her husband Richard, and they had two children who travelled with them to various RAF postings including in Singapore. Back in Australia after Richard’s retirement, Mardi became an award-winning gliding instructor and didn’t retire until she was 60.

It took until 2008, three years after Mardi’s death, for the women of the ATA to be acknowledged for their wartime service with a special veteran’s badge.

There is, apparently a BBC doco about the ATA, but it’s not accessible here in Australia.  But you can watch archival film of the women’s exploits:

 

You can read more about Mardi Gething at Spitfire News here.

*See my review of My God, It’s a Woman

Image credit: Mardi Gething, Spitfire News, https://www.spitfireassociation.com/single_article.php?post_id=siLajzysvuZ7qGzj0rY2dz12uiGKpeIF

Author: Kathy Mexted
Title: Australian Women Pilots, Amazing True Stories of Women in the Air
Publisher: New South Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781742236971, pbk, 272 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased at the bookshop in Beechworth $34.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 23, 2022

The Untidy Pilgrim, by Eugene Walter

Hmm, I’m not entirely sure that the book I chose for Karen and Simon’s #1954Club was actually first published in 1954.  My mother’s hardback edition of The Untidy Pilgrim by Eugene Walter, wasn’t published in 1954, it was published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in London in 1955.  It looks like a first edition, because there’s no acknowledgement of previous publication, but both Wikipedia and Goodreads tell me that it was first published by a different UK publisher, Methuen, in 1954.  (E&S merged with Methuen later on, but that wasn’t until the 1970s.) To confuse matters further, there’s a Kirkus review of it dated 1953.  Maybe that was an Advance Readers Copy?

Whatever, I am totally intrigued that my mother carted this book all around the world with us on our travels.  Many of my father’s books travelled with us, but apart from her beautiful illustrated set of Jane Austen’s novels (which are now on my shelves), The Untidy Pilgrim is the only one that stayed the distance.  It’s dedicated to Totty and to Kate, which was my mother’s nickname.  Coincidence? There are no details about the author’s personal life on his Wikipedia page. I’ll never know!

Anyway…

Eugene Walter (Wikipedia)

The most interesting thing about reading The Untidy Pilgrim, is that my discovery of its author was more interesting than reading the book.  Wikipedia tells me that Eugene Walter (1921-1998) was an American screenwriter, poet, short-story author, actor, puppeteer, gourmet chef, cryptographer, translator, editor, costume designer and well-known raconteur.  After a dreadful childhood spent partly on the streets, he seems to have become a free spirit, gadding about and living a “pixilated wonderland of a life”. 

Born in Mobile Alabama, he was fending for himself in his late teens when WW2 broke out and he became an army cryptographer in the Aleutian Islands (off the coast of Alaska or Russia depending on exactly where he was).  He then pitched up in Greenwich Village in New York City and pioneered spontaneous performance art at the Museum of Modern Art.  He got himself to Europe on a cargo ship and lived in Paris during the 1950s, where he helped launch the Paris Review, which published his short story ‘Troubadour’ in the first issue. He interviewed people like Isak Dinesen and Gore Vidal, and went on to edit a multilingual literary journal called Botteghe Oscure in Rome.  And after that, he acted in the films of Federico Fellini and translated Italian films into English. His dinner parties were legendary, with guests who included T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Judy Garland, Anaïs Nin, Gore Vidal and Richard Wright (whose biography by Hazel Rowley in on my TBR). That’s an astonishing CV for a street kid.  How did he get an education, I wonder?

Anyway, Walter returned to Mobile in 1979, and that’s where The Untidy Pilgrim is set.  It’s a coming-of-age novel, deliberately comic, so they say, and it won the Lippincott Fiction Prize for Young Novelists in 1954.  Kirkus found that it had a vernal, rollicking charm that will seduce even the moral-minded and the University of Alabama saw fit to reissue it (with a terrible cover) in 2001, but it didn’t do much for me.

According to the description at Goodreads, Walter’s lightweight style may have been what charmed the judges because of its contrast with the southern literary tradition. That tradition was my first serious introduction to American literature at university: it was established by William Faulkner, (Light in August, The Sound and the Fury) Truman Capote (In Cold Blood, and Summer Crossing) and Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Clock without Hands and The Member of the Wedding).  Yes, it’s generally cheerless, but exploring significant themes in memorable novels often is.  Wikipedia describes the tradition like this:

Traditional historiography of Southern United States literature emphasized a unifying history of the region; the significance of family in the South’s culture, a sense of community and the role of the individual, justice, the dominance of Christianity and the positive and negative impacts of religion, racial tensions, social class and the usage of local dialects.

Walter may have been loosely satirising John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  His unnamed ‘pilgrim’ goes south to study law and work in a bank.  He talks about the commencement of a lot of voyaging for me, and I don’t mean only in Geography. He exoticises Mobile as a foreign place with banana trees and palm trees there in a profusion and lushness they never attain in Persepolis.  But when he meets temptation, unlike Bunyan’s protagonist Christian, he cheerfully succumbs.

At first he stays with his cousins the Morelands, but it’s clear that he’s not destined to stay there for long.

Mrs Moreland — Cousin Annie — is a sweet dopey woman who always looks as if she expects the plaster to fall, she looks up to the ceiling every third word; while Mr Moreland — Cousin Charlie — is a deep one, says about two words a week, makes money hand over fist in real estate.  They have these two children roughly my age: Son (I hate that boy!) and this talking-machine daughter Lola.

I had not seen any of this crew since we children were eleven-ish and twelve-ish: so much can happen in the years just after, but those are the sort of knobbly-kneed, cowlick, first-cigarette years when you’ve ceased to exist as a child, but nobody yet notices you as grown up.  My memories of spats with these cousins didn’t lead me into any hi-jinks of enthusiasm for this visit, but I was moderately pleased to see that Lola was sort of good-looking, and was happy that Son was away.

Pop had gotten me a job too — it’s an easy thing to do when every tenth person in the county is your cousin, and most of them in solid politics, or the lumber or real estate business: all of them pious on Sunday, at ease on Saturday, and out for blood the other five days of the week. (p.11)

Well, once he’s found a more congenial resting place with the eccentric Miss Nonie Fifield, he abandons any pretence of a Puritan work ethic, beds Miss Fifey’s grandniece Philine, flits off to a brief sojourn in New York without explanation to his host, gets into a fist fight with Son a.ka. Perrin and breaks his nose, and proposes marriage to Ada five minutes after her aged husband has died.

Walter’s style is to deflate pomposity and to celebrate quirkiness, but I found most of it inane.  I should have read Alberto Moravia’s Contempt also published in 1954 instead.

Image credit: By http://www.nomadmusicstudio.com/EugeneWalterHomepage.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12571338

Author: Eugene Walter
Title: The Untidy Pilgrim
Publisher: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955
ISBN: None
Source: from my mother’s bookshelves.

Having come to the end of Nathan Hobby’s superb new biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), I’ve come to the conclusion that I would have liked her very much — but I’m not sure that she would have liked me! Despite all the circumstances against her, she was brave in contesting the prevailing political climate, tenacious in pursuing her craft as an author and generous to a fault. But she fell out with longstanding friends who didn’t share her political views and I probably would have been one of those.

But I would still have bought KSP’s books.  Indeed, I still am.  Reading the bio prompted me to buy two more, so that in addition to those I’ve already reviewed, now I’ve added her last novel Subtle Flame (1967) and her second short story collection Potch and Colour (1944) to my existing Prichard TBR i.e. Working Bullocks (1926), and Intimate Strangers (1939).

The biography hasn’t convinced me that I should track down Windlestraws (1916) or Moon of Desire (1941).  Windlestraws, KSP’s first novel, was published in the wake of The Pioneers (1915) after it won a major prize but if the publishers were hoping to cash in on her success, they were disappointed because it was soon forgotten.  Moon of Desire was a potboiler, written when Prichard was short of money and hoping for a Hollywood option.  Though the biography recognises some ‘Prichardian’ elements in it and it had some favourable reviews, she herself thought it was tedious.  This is notable because she was not generally hard on her own work.  From 1940 onwards she was more likely to ascribe her setbacks to politics.  She had confidence in her own writing despite the criticism that came her way.

I mention my purchases here because, for an ordinary reader, the test of any literary biography is: is it good to read even if you’re not familiar with the author who’s the subject of the bio? And, while it’s always a pleasure to see a biographer’s coverage of books we know, does the bio work just as well when discussing the ones we haven’t read?  Does it inspire us to want to read more of the author’s work?

Nathan Hobby’s masterful biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard does all of that and more.  It’s in the same league of exceptional literary biographies as Jill Roe’s bio of Miles Franklin (2008) David Marr’s of Patrick White (1991), Hazel Rowley’s of Christina Stead (1993, revised 2007),  Karen Lamb’s of Thea Astley (2015) and Brenda Niall’s of The Boyds (2002). The Red Witch is a fine addition to the cultural capital of the nation, and Melbourne University Press has recognised that by publishing it in its prestige imprint, Miegunyah Press. As it says on their website:

The Miegunyah Press* is a special imprint of Melbourne University Publishing that publishes prestigious books of the highest printing and design quality at affordable prices. Miegunyah Press books are absorbingly original, visually grand and eminently collectable.

The Red Witch is a chronological biography, which begins by contesting some of KSP’s childhood memories fictionalised in The Wild Oats of Han (1928) and in her autobiography Child of the Hurricane (1964).  It was interesting to read later in the bio that both KSP and her son Ric Throssell lamented the time she spent on that autobiography… she felt compelled to write it in response to a PhD thesis about her work by Cyril Cook.  She’d been supportive (and flattered) by Cook’s project, dissuading him from his initial Freudian analysis of her oeuvre, and she was not expecting it to be as critical as it was.  Child of the Hurricane took ten years of her declining years and although readers liked it, it had only lukewarm reviews.  It probably wouldn’t have been published at all if not for Beatrice Davis at Angus & Robertson, who was strongly supportive of KSP’s writing and arranged reprints of her books when she knew that KSP was short of money.

Despite her status as a prominent Australian writer, KSP was always short of money. She didn’t come from wealth, and after her father’s suicide money was tight.  Her marriage to the WW1 VC hero Hugh Throssell was cut short by his suicide in 1933, and though he was the love of her life, his well-intentioned recklessness with money left her in debt.  She was reluctant to accept any pension that ascribed his suicide to the stress of wanting to provide for her, but she was dependant on a War Widow’s pension for most of her life.  And when she did have money from her writing, she gave away quite large sums.

I had a sharp intake of breath when I read that ASIO Cold War busybodies would have liked to intervene to prevent her receiving a Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship to write her masterpiece The Goldfields Trilogy.  Fortunately they didn’t know about the fellowship till it was too late because it funded the research trips which give her work such authenticity… but it makes me wonder, which other progressive writers had their work nobbled by ASIO? (There’s little doubt that ASIO nobbled the diplomatic career of KSP’s son Ric Throssell.)

As we’d expect it to, this prodigiously researched biography interrogates not only KSP’s life, working methods, political opinions, and flaws, it also analyses her work in the light of contemporary literary concerns.  It explores her representation of Indigenous Australians, drawing attention not only to her pioneering works about the Stolen Generations, frontier violence and dispossession, but also acknowledging appropriation issues and misrepresentation of the reality of Aboriginal lives at that time.  The bio analyses the tension between KSP the novelist and KSP the Soviet propagandist, recognising KSP’s intransigent loyalty to Stalin which persisted long after his denunciation by Khrushchev.

But most importantly, this biography cements KSP’s place in Australian literature, and should lead to a revival of interest in her work.

Highly recommended.


Don’t forget: I will be hosting the online launch of The Red Witch, details below.  It’s free, you don’t need to book in, and you don’t need to download anything.  Just click the link below when the meeting starts.

Online launch – The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard
Tuesday, 17 May 8:00pm AEST (6:00pm AWST)
Video call link: https://meet.google.com/sjt-nvhb-axc

Please join Nathan Hobby to celebrate the publication of
The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (Miegunyah Press).
If possible, wear something red!
You may wish to drink a glass of dry sherry (Katharine’s favourite drink) or whatever else takes your fancy.

The book will be launched by Karen Throssell, poet, memoirist and granddaughter of Katharine Susannah Prichard.
Host: Lisa Hill, ambassador for Australian literature and ANZ Litlovers blogger
Speaker: Dr Nathan Hollier, CEO of Melbourne University Publishing
Finishing with questions and discussion.


Author: Nathan Hobby
Title: The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard
Publisher: Miegunyah Press (an imprint of Melbourne University Press) 2022
Cover design by Pfisterer + Freeman
ISBN: 9780522877380, hbk, 480 pages including Afterword, Notes, List of works by KSP, Bibliography, Acknowledgements and an Index, plus B&W Photos insert
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from MUP.

*The Miegunyah Fund was established by bequests under the wills of philanthropists Sir Russell and Lady Grimwade, and its name comes from the house in which they lived.  (Some readers may remember that I have previously reviewed Pride of Place, Exploring the Grimwade Collection, edited by Alisa Bunbury.)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2022

The Signal Line, by Brendan Colley

Imagine, if you will, a vintage steam train barrelling down the disused railway lines of modern day cities, occasionally collecting confused passengers and depositing them at some bizarre destination, not necessarily on the same continent.  And imagine too, that all the observers of this phenomenon suspend all scepticism, when you’d otherwise expect them to snort in disbelief or rationalise reports of the event as drugs, drunkenness or mental disturbance.  A ghost train at large in Tasmania is the premise of debut author Brendan Colley’s The Signal Line,  which won the Unpublished Manuscript Prize in the 2019 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards.  It’s a book that requires the reader to suspend all disbelief too, and to enter into the weirdness…

It works because everything else is so real.  Brothers Geo and Wes are locked in a dispute about whether to sell the house they’ve inherited. Geo needs the money to finance his emerging career as a violist.  Wes, a detective, wants to wallow in the squalor of the house where his father died but grief also claims him because his marriage is over, and he’s not willing to let go of either the house or his wife and child.

The novel begins with Geo’s arrival in Tasmania, where he gets roped in to translate for a bunch of Italians who got on a train in Orvieto and arrived in Hobart. Hobart hasn’t had passenger trains since the 1970s,  so the officials who have to deal with them naturally think that they are deluded and they are taken not to immigration detention but to a hospital. But these Italians seem perfectly sane, and their story makes sense, except that none of it is possible.

Much like his toxic relationship with his father, Geo’s relationship with his brother has always been hostile. Much of the resentment comes from sibling rivalry about talent and hard work.  Geo, with the love and encouragement of his mother, is following his dream to play in an orchestra, an ambition which may perhaps be beyond his talent.  Wes works hard at his job, which involves family-unfriendly long hours and a negative view of the world.

The hostility arcs up the minute these two meet at the airport, and things only get worse from then on.  But Geo is an otherwise easy-going fellow and easily strikes up relationships with four people that cross his path.  Sten is a Swedish man who, for personal reasons revealed at the end of the book, has been pursuing this ghost train for 40 years, and Labuschagne is an expert in the paranormal and being able to predict the train’s next arrival time and site.  Camille and Paco are a couple of backpackers who are fascinated by the entire situation and offer to help to paint the house ready for sale in exchange for free accommodation.  Geo also has two women in his life, Alessia who’s another musician in Italy, and Audrey whose heart he broke when he fled Tasmania with no explanation.

The train, BTW, is not a benign presence.  It kills when someone gets in its way, and the police have to find a way of explaining a death that looks like a hit-and-run.  But what makes this book unsettling is not the ghost train, it’s the characterisation of Wes. The man is a bully, he likes to play power games such as withholding the keys to his father’s liquor cabinet, and he knows exactly what to do to hurt someone without risking arrest.  His wife wants to end the marriage, but she is afraid to, and is waiting for ‘the right moment’. Of course he has his own issues, they always do, but he’s still a malevolent character.

Wes’s voice rose in the kitchen.  We all turned to look.  Even Sten, who subsisted on a diet of power naps, opened his eyes.

‘I’ll bring it over —’ Wes pressed.  ‘No, I can come now.  It’s not —’.  He slammed his fist against the wall.  ‘It’s not … fine, okay, tomorrow night. I can have dinner with you and Hayden.  Why not …? Whatever.  I’m going to Sheffield.  I’ll drop it off on the way out.’ He screwed up his face.  ‘With Geo and Sten.  Fine … okay.  Goodbye.’

He replaced the receiver, and we glanced away.  He came into the sitting room and dropped into the recliner. (p.159)

That’s an economical way of depicting a very troubling character, and the way the listeners all look away.

Music is a strong motif throughout the novel.  It becomes a demanding taskmaster, a solace and a peacemaker.  A tattoo artist even uses it to mitigate pain…

You can read an excerpt from earlier an draft of this novel in the Griffith Review.  It’s written in the third person, whereas the novel is a first person narrative, which gives it greater immediacy.

The Signal Line is published by Transit Lounge and is due for release on May 1st.

Author: Brendan Colley
Title: The Signal Line
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2022
Cover design by Josh Durham/Design by Committee
ISBN: 9781925760941, pbk., 304 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens (2017), the Prix Landerneau des lecteurs (2017), and the Prix littéraire Le Monde (2017), The Art of Losing (L’art de perdre) by Alice Zeniter was recommended to me by Stu at Winston’s Dad where he speculated that this novel was the French version of Windrush fiction. The novel is a meditation on loss for three generations of a family of French-Algerian heritage — a family that has heritage in both countries but belongs in neither.

Bookended by Naïma’s reluctant quest to interrogate her family’s roots, The Art of Losing is the story of her grandfather Ali who became a refugee in France in the tumult of Algerian independence, and her father Hamid who remembers nothing of Algeria and who has reinvented himself in France.  Naïma, who never knew her grandfather, has grown up knowing nothing of their family or its history, primarily because of her father’s shame.  Hamid learned early on never to mention the year of his arrival as a child in France because that year identifies him as one of the despised Harkis.  Wikipedia explains the reason for that intergenerational shame:

Harki […] (a group of volunteers, especially soldiers) is the generic term for native Muslim French who served as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962. The word sometimes applies to all French Muslims who supported French Algeria during the war. The motives for enlisting in the Harkis were mixed. They are regarded as traitors in Algeria and thousands were killed after the war in reprisals despite the Évian Accords ceasefire and amnesty stipulations.

The Art of Losing is partly about being on the ‘wrong side’.  A contemporary analogy might be the plight of Afghanis: those who were on the ‘wrong side’ when the Mujahidin ‘liberated’ Afghanistan from the Soviets, or on the ‘wrong side’ when the Taliban took over, or on the ‘wrong side’ when the Americans ‘liberated’ the country from the Taliban, or on the ‘wrong side’ when America and its allies abandoned Afghanistan and the Taliban took over again.  Being on the ‘wrong side’ can be a legacy of colonialism, as it is in this novel, but it happens in all kinds of conflicts including the current civil wars in Yemen and Ethiopia. Whatever happens, there will be people on the ‘wrong side’ amongst the refugees.  Like the characters in The Art of Losing they will have chosen the losing side.

Ali was doing well in his village under the French.  His ambitions were limited, but as a wealthy owner of an olive grove he had a secure income, a home that surpassed his expectations, and power and status in the village.  When the independence movement emerged in the 1950s, his brother supported the FLN (National Liberation Front) but Ali sided with the French.  Branded a traitor in 1962, he took refuge in France, and was considered ‘lucky’ by some because he is able to take his family with him.

France permitted immigration of the people of Algerian heritage along with the ‘pied-noirs’ i.e. people of French heritage born in Algeria, but the welcome and resettlement options offered to these different populations varied. For two years Ali and his family were segregated in the Rivesaltes Refugee Camp under deplorable conditions, and were sent after that to a forest work camp, where the housing was marginally better but schooling for the children was haphazard.  It is not until they were resettled in a tiny apartment in Normandy that the eldest boy Hamid received a proper education.  He was a bright boy and grew up to become estranged from his family.  In Paris after his baccalaureate he reinvented himself as French, married a French woman and refused to engage at all with his Algerian heritage.  In the present day his daughter Naïma takes no interest in it either, until her work in an art gallery requires her to visit an ageing Algerian artist called Lalla.  Filled with justifiable fear that hatreds are still smouldering in the village, she defers getting a visa…

The novel, however, is about much more that the plot outline.  Zeniter doesn’t just illustrate the racism and discrimination in France, it also shows the barbarity of the conflict in Algeria; the racism of Algerians against the Blacks; the sexism of a patriarchal society; the conflicts within the refugee camps and the way that Algerians in France preyed upon each other.  There’s a very moving scene when Yema — struggling to make a home in the cramped Normandy apartment where with smiles, brochures, promises and loans they are pressured to buy insurance, a car, a vacuum cleaner, and encyclopaedias and where the cherished objects to be used every day have become curios — is conned by a saleswoman who exploits her nostalgia.

During the day, while Ali is at work and Hamid is at school, a different type of rep calls, usually women who know that the husbands are not home.  Most are Algerian women, ‘city types’, which, to Yema, means that they don’t wear the veil, that they wear make-up or even smoke cigarettes.  In their sample cases, they carry striped fabrics and silver jewellery of the sort she had back in the village. Yema talks to them about all the things she left behind.  The women shake their heads sympathetically, and suggest that, maybe, if she were to buy a few beautiful things it might help her to ‘heal’.  At first, she politely refuses: she does not want to spend Ali’s money without his knowledge.  But one day, one of the women comes back and says:

‘I know that you’re not vain.  But when I got these, I immediately thought of you.  ‘These are very special jewels.  They come from Mecca.’

And so Yema goes into the bedroom and takes a few bills from the little nightstand.  After all, if they come from Mecca, they can’t be tacky.  She gives the woman half her husband’s salary for a cheap copper bracelet covered with a thin sheet of silver leaf that quickly flakes off, which leaves black and green marks on her wrists.  (p.199)

Hamid’s absence on this day is crucial to the con artist.  The boy shoulders responsibilities well beyond his years.  His mother never learns English; his father can only just get by.  So it is Hamid who reads the official letters, most just for his parents but also for others in the community.  There’s a poignant scene where Ali is summoned to the school because the teacher is indignant about him signing Hamid’s reports.

‘Yes,’ Ali says, nodding proudly.  ‘He does it all by himself.’
‘But he’s not supposed to!’ The teacher snaps.  ‘You’re supposed to sign them.’
Ali resolutely shakes his head: of course he is not supposed to.  He cannot write.  He is not about to sign his son’s neat, clean copybooks with an X.  His son is much more talented at tracing the beautiful, alien characters of French.
‘He signs them.  It’s fine.’  (p.219)

But when Hamid deliberately mistranslates for his father he is ashamed. There’s a note home about a school event he is embarrassed to have his parents attend, so he lies about its content to Ali.

It was too easy to lie to him.  Two phrases collide inside his head, moving at high speed:
He could be taken in by anybody.
He doesn’t know anything.
He considers running after him, telling him that he lied.  But what difference would it make?  Ali would not be able to check the contents of a letter by himself.  He is entirely dependent on his son.  Does his know this, Hamid wonders, is he conscious of this?  In his head, sympathy vies with disgust and contempt, and he realises, more forcibly than at any point in his life, that he is growing up too quickly. (p.208).

His father’s status as a big man in the village is gone, and Hamid does not share his parents’ pain when agrarian reforms mean that they have to sign away the title to their property back in the village.  In Paris as a young adult Hamid never tells anyone about his family or where they come from, not even his girlfriend, not for a long time.  (Mind you, there’s a droll segment contrasting the awkwardness of finally meeting first his parents, and then hers.)

Naïma, trying to draw the threads of her family’s story together, muses on the concept of ‘history’.

History is written by the victors, Naïma thinks as she drifts off to sleep.  This is an established fact, it is what makes it possible for history to exist in only one version.  But when the vanquished refuse to admit defeat, when, despite their defeat, they continue writing their own version of history right up to the last second, when the victors, for their part, write their history retrospectively to show the inevitability of their victory, then the contradictory versions on either side of the Mediterranean seem less like history than justifications or rationalisations sprinkled with dates and dressed up as history.  (p.394)

There is so, so much more to this brilliant novel, and I have barely scratched the surface.  If you want to know more, visit this review at Qantara, this one at The Observer or Stu’s at Winston’s Dad.

BTW I’ve read other books translated from the French by Frank Wynne: The Great Swindle, and All Human Wisdom both by Pierre Lemaitre, and also Public Enemies, by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, co- translated with Miriam Rachel Frendo

Author: Alice Zeniter
Title: The Art of Losing (L’art de perdre)
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne
Publisher: Picador, (Pan Macmillan) 2021, first published 2017
Cover image: Raymond Depardon, Magnum Photos
ISBN: 9781509884124, pbk., 469 pages
Source: Kingston Library

 

TBH, I didn’t plan to read this book.  I knew the story of Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s incarceration in an Iranian prison from media reports at the time, and when I saw her memoir The Uncaged Sky on display at Ulysses Bookstore, I just thought, after all this woman has been through, at least I can buy her book. Perhaps strong book sales might be interpreted as some kind of empathetic gesture.  But the next day, when I opened up the book just to browse it, I started reading.

And kept reading.  Many tasks lay neglected yesterday!

My interest started as curiosity about how Moore-Gilbert managed to stay sane through it all.  Decades ago I read Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling, (1991), his account of his four years as a hostage in Beirut, and what has stayed with me after all these years is the horror of the situation these men found themselves in; how Keenan’s friendship with fellow hostage John McCarthy sustained him; and the remarkable lack of bitterness afterwards.  I still remember how I found myself wondering about whether I had the inner resources to cope in such a situation, deprived of everything that I hold dear.

Moore-Gilbert’s answer to this is that survival depends on taking control of what can be controlled.  Her initial shock, disbelief and horror at being detained in solitary confinement for espionage in Evin Prison gave way to fighting back when she realised that the relentless interrogations and false hopes of release were never going to end. Her cooperation was having no effect.  Instead of trying to conceal her emotions, she detached from her ‘old self’ and expressed her anger and frustrations; she challenged her interrogators over their lies; and she went on hunger strikes to get improvements in her atrocious living conditions and to be allowed access to consular assistance.  In a patriarchal society and one where the Revolutionary Guard holds immense power and status, she refused to respect the men who were using her as a pawn in ‘hostage diplomacy‘.

Moore-Gilbert’s case challenges the official Australian government policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ in situations like this.  She argues that the media coverage and campaign to free her was effective, but since there is silence about what our diplomats did behind the scenes, it’s hard to know what works best in an invidious situation.  After all, there is probably no ‘best way’ to deal with regimes that have no respect for human rights and sanction the abuse of power by men who are fundamentally unreasonable.  Each case is unique.

It’s also hard to judge whether efforts to secure Moore-Gilbert’s release were compromised by her behaviour. By her own account, she was often rude, disrespectful, hostile and intransigent, making no attempt to conceal her disdain for her captors. But while some of her provocations brought much-needed improvements in the conditions of her captivity, sometimes these provocations made things worse. On more than one occasion, she was punished harshly and her captors retaliated with cruel restrictions, such as denying her phone access to her parents and worse.

Qazi Zadeh went crazy.  Every possible privilege I had gained in 2A was taken away.  My pen and paper were confiscated, I was denied the right to a shopping list and the prison guards were banned from speaking to me.  In Iran saving face is everything, and my behaviour had been affront to his pride from every possible angle. (p.290)

After several days enduring this punishment, I started to regret my drastic actions in humiliating Qadi Zadeh.  He was most certainly a dangerous enemy to have, and my rejection of him had been reckless.  Surely there were other, more sophisticated ways to communicate to him that I wanted to end things?  I had let my anger run away with me, and in doing so had dramatically shot myself in the foot.  Solitary confinement in 2A without a pen or paper and without the limited human interactions afforded to me by befriending the prison guards was unbearable, and I had no idea how much longer I would have to suffer until my circumstances yet again shifted. (p.291)

The honesty of this admission illustrates graphically that sustaining any kind of rational strategy in a situation like this, is at times beyond the capacity even of a strong woman like Moore-Gilbert. Apart from one beating, she seems not to have been physically assaulted, which she attributes to the prohibition on men touching women, but the psychological effects of prolonged solitary confinement amounts to torture.  Towards the end of her imprisonment she dared them to transfer her to the notorious Qarchak prison, and that’s where they abruptly sent her. On her arbitrary return to 2A they then denied her anti-depressants and sleeping pills so that she suffered withdrawal symptoms.  But it wasn’t just that her living conditions were sometimes made worse by her insistence on doing things on her own terms, it seems possible also that it caused delays in the prisoner-swap deal being brokered. But who can know what is the best thing to do? There is no template for dealing with people who take pleasure in tormenting their victims with false promises…

The epilogue acknowledges the struggle to adjust after her release.

I spent my first few months of freedom buffeted by an array of conflicting emotions.  At times I was ecstatic, and delighted in performing even the most mundane tasks of everyday life as I reclaimed a sense of independence and autonomy. At the same time, I felt an immense guilt that while I was now free to wake up when I liked, to speak, read and write without self-censoring and to jog uninhibited through my local nature reserve, so many of my dear friends continued to live each day on repeat in Evin and Qarchak prisons.  I was confused by the two years and three months of current affairs, pop culture and technological advancement which was missing from my memories.  And I was forced to grapple with the radical way that my imprisonment had turned the fundamentals of my life upside-down.  My marriage, my career, my relationships with loved ones — nothing was left unaffected.  Yet, at the same time, the world seemed to go on much as it always had.  It sometimes felt to me as though Iran existed in a parallel universe, or that my experiences there had been little more than an especially lengthy and vivid nightmare.  (p.399)

I don’t know whether writing this book could be a cathartic experience for its author.  One can only hope that she gets all the support she needs both now and when the glare of publicity dies down.

Author: Kylie Moore-Gilbert
Title: The Uncaged Sky, My 804 Days in an Iranian Prison
Publisher: Ultimo Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781761150401, pbk., 406 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore Hampton $34.99

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