Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 24, 2016

The God of Spring, by Arabella Edge

The God of SpringThe God of Spring has been on my TBR for ages… I bought it because I was so impressed by Arabella Edge’s first novel The Company, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and won the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in the Southeast Asia/South Pacific region.  The God of Spring has turned out to be even better than I expected and I am cross with myself for leaving it so long to get round to reading it.

The novel, set in Restoration Paris in 1818, is the story of a great painting, The Raft of the Medusa, but it is also a study in character.  Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) was – in real life and in this novel – a young man taking advantage of his uncle in more ways than one.  His father wanted him to go into the family business, but he fancied himself as an artist and charmed his uncle into becoming his benefactor so that he could live a congenial life in a mansion, buy the very best in artist’s equipment and supplies, mooch about in Rome despising the work of neoclassicist artists, and cuckold his uncle into the bargain.  When the novel opens Théodore is obsessed by his torrid affair with his aunt Alexandrine and suffers only desultory pangs of guilt over it; he is also supercilious towards his frivolous neighbour Horace who is cheerfully painting exactly the sort of insipid paintings that the restored court desires.   Théodore – having won at the age of only 21 a Gold Medal at the Salon for his painting The Charging Chasseur, – feels pressured to paint something equally impressive because he feels it is his destiny … but inspiration, alas, has deserted him.

The Raft of the Medusa (Wikipedia)

The Raft of the Medusa (Source: Wikipedia)

However, by chance he hears the story of the shipwreck of the frigate ‘Medusa’ and when he seeks out the two surviving witnesses to the catastrophe he realises he has found his subject.  From a third person narrative revealing Théodore’s attitudes and motives, the story reverts to the near past through the third person narrative of Savigny, the ship’s doctor.  The reader learns the details of this celebrated shipwreck and the loss of 150 souls, abandoned on a makeshift raft off the coast of West Africa when the Medusa sank.  Savigny, who initially documented the emerging social conflict on board out of idle interest, not only reveals the incompetence, stupidity and venal irresponsibility which led to the loss of the ‘Medusa’, but also the perfidy which led to those on the raft being cast off to fend for themselves.  This part of the novel is utterly unputdownable.

Alongside this compelling drama and the emerging realisation that there is more to be told about how the surviving fifteen clung to life is the delineation of an intriguing character.  Théodore moves from one obsession (Alexandrine) to the other (telling the truth of the shipwreck in his art), and as he undertakes the heroic endeavour of capturing this catastrophe in paint, he learns about himself.  He realises that his desire to break off his amorous obsession is partly because he wants an intellectual partner and he wants the companionability of a wife.  He comes to understand that by hosting the survivors at his home he has imprisoned them in their victimhood.  He discovers that he has underestimated Horace, and his attitude to Alexandrine alters entirely, in an unexpected way.  He also learns that there is a price to be paid for learning the truth of events.

As The Raft of the Medusa takes shape, Théodore also becomes the artist he wants to be.  Some of the details of his research make grim reading, but the description of how this artist created numerous studies for his painting and made decisions about colour, texture and style is fascinating.  Especially interesting was the process by which he decided which moment of the drama he would convey: the betrayal of abandonment; perfidy aboard the raft; the loss of all hope; or the moment of rescue at last?

Ultimately, Théodore learns that it is not celebrity that he craves, but rather the satisfaction that there are some who actually understand what he was trying to convey in his painting.  There is a striking irony that the one person who interprets the work as it should be interpreted, is one complicit in betrayal himself:

‘You have made a shipwreck which isn’t for you.  This catastrophe is not ours.  And you have compelled me to participate in an experience which is not to my liking’. (p. 315)

The God of Spring is just the kind of historical fiction I like.

Author: Arabella Edge
Title: The God of Spring, a novel
Publisher: Picador, 2005
ISBN: 9780330422062
Source: personal library.

Available second-hand from Fishpond: The God of Spring and there was also a copy at Brotherhood Books on the day I looked.  You could also try your library.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2016

The Bones of Grace, by Tahmina Anam

The Bones of GraceI very nearly abandoned this book, more than once.  Only the fact that I had been so impressed by its predecessor The Good Muslim stayed my hand.  And now that I’m finished it, all 407 pages of it, I remain unconvinced that reading it was a good investment of my time.

The Bones of Grace is third in a trilogy, but in shifting the focus away from the post-war impact of the 1971 war of independence in Bangladesh, author Tahmina Anam seems to have lost her way and succumbed to writing an overwrought romance.  The book begins with a tedious rehash of a Boston love affair between a half-hearted palaeontologist called Zubaida Haque (who is adopted) and an American called Elijah Strong.   The narration is made even more irritating by the form chosen: almost all of this novel is Zubaida’s ‘older-and-wiser’ letter to this Elijah and she keeps addressing him by name.

Anyway, Zubaida goes off to a dig to find the fossils of a prehistoric whale (which she refers to incongruously as Diana).  This whale, the Latin name of which now escapes me, is supposed to prove a back-to-front evolution, i.e. that there were creatures in the fossil record that were land animals which then adapted to the sea.  This quest is, – yes, you guessed it – symbolic of Zubaida’s fossicking around on a quest to find herself, with the post-war identity of Bangladesh thrown in for good measure.

The dig goes wrong, and (as we knew it would) the fossil record remains undisturbed along with the bones of ‘Diana’.  Zubaida goes home to Dhaka in Bangladesh to marry her childhood sweetheart Rashid because that’s what the weight of parental expectations demand. But, surprise, surprise, she is discontented, and she ends up assisting a British activist to make a doco about the exploited workers of a shipwrecking business.  There the discovery of a piano is enough to rekindle her contact with Elijah, and he flies over to Bangladesh to play the piano inside the doomed ship.  (I’m not making this up).

(At one stage Zubaida, still writing her epistle to Elijah, shifts the narration a gear to allow a worker called Anwar to tell his story of degradation and despair in the first person. It’s a clumsy device but it is revealing about the human costs of development in countries like Bangladesh).

On the day I looked the population of Bangladesh was 156 million, but despite these odds, Zubaida meets up with people who lead her to the discovery of her identity.  Along the way she discovers insights about her adoptive parents (a freedom-fighter turned businessman and a human rights lawyer).   But the novel descends into soap opera when All is Revealed and my cynical heart makes me think that the fictional recipient of this dross might have thought himself well out of it.

The most annoying thing about the novel was that it seemed so western.  For all its evocative setting (mostly) in Bangladesh it was a novel preoccupied by the kind of navel-gazing that plagues western literature.  The central character is tortured by her origins, wasteful of an expensive education and a disappointment to her family. She can’t choose between two very nice men, and hurts them both.  She thinks a lot of thoughts about Bangledeshi ways that she despises, but she doesn’t articulate them.  When she’s having a meltdown she simply abandons people who were relying on her, and then feels guilty about what happens next.

I was very disappointed indeed.

Aamer Hussein at the Guardian found more to like than I did.

Author: Tahmina Anam
Title: The Bones of Grace
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925355017
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: The Bones of Grace

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 18, 2016

Desert Island Books, a survival guide

WildlightA little while ago I received a request that was dear to my heart: Robyn Mundy (author of Wildlight) is planning a sojourn on Maatsuyker Island.  She and her husband are going as volunteer caretakers and weather observers, and (as you know if you took my advice and read Wildlight) they will have no access to email or internet.  Naturally, she needs books to read, and she asked me to suggest 15 contemporary novels that I would wish to read if cast away on a remote island for 6 months.

This got me thinking about criteria for selection.  Clearly Desert Island Books must be able to withstand re-reading, and they need to be long enough, at least, to last the distance.  But there’s more to it than that….

I’ve always said that Ulysses by James Joyce is my Desert Island Book because I’ve read it four times and each time I’ve found new and interesting aspects to it.  Robyn needs a book that is similarly intriguing.

Recommendation No 1: The Weaver Fish by Robert Edeson.

But over a period of six months, my moods would change, n’est-ce pas?  I would have at least one row with The Spouse, maybe more, or I would get fed up and irritable about the weather, or I would regret the whole deal and want to come home.  For those days I would need something to take me out of myself, something to give me a bit of perspective, something to restore my equanimity.

Recommendation No 2: Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S.A. Jones

Robyn is obviously more at home in remote windswept rain havens than I am, but even she must surely get nostalgic for the hustle and bustle of urban life.  She needs a book to discourage such hankerings, she needs a book that will make her count her blessings that she’s away from the indifferent streets of the city.

Recommendations No 3, 4 & 5: The Good Parents by Joan London and Just_a_girl, by Kirsten Krauth and The Neighbour by Julie Proudfoot.

It rains a lot in Bass Strait.  And it’s cold.  Robyn needs a book that will take her to balmy summer skies and warm her inside and out.

Recommendation No 6: Carpentaria by Alexis Wright.  (I don’t have a review of it because I read it before I started blogging. But there are heaps of reviews at Goodreads).

She’s going to miss her family.  Best to have a book that reminds her how annoying families can be:

Recommendation No 7:  Life in Seven Mistakes by Susan Johnson.

I don’t know anything about the indigenous history of Maatsuyker Island… Wikipedia is silent on the matter.  But given its position so close to Tasmania, it seems highly likely either that it was inhabited or that it was visited by Tasmanian Aborigines.  Mudrooroo’s novel is the only one I know of by a Tasmanian Aboriginal, so although his Aboriginality is contested, I think his book is well worth reading anyway:

Recommendation No 8: Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World

But in case a copy of that is hard to find I’m also going to suggest a Tassie author who has fictionalised some real events in Tasmania’s indigenous history…

Recommendation No 9: The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson

If I knew I were to be marooned far from an art gallery, I think I’d be taking some big coffee table art books to look at while away.  Since Robyn’s asked for novels:

Recommendations 10 & 11: The Profilist by Adrian Mitchell and The Longing by Candice Bruce.

Will Robyn miss going to the gym?  Maybe she can adapt to her environment as Joe does for parkour?

Recommendation No 12: Leap by Myfanwy Jones

Hmm, this list is looking a bit serious.  Something witty to remind Robyn what a crazy world we live in?

Recommendations No 13 & 14: N by John A Scott and The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly

Last not least, I’m going to suggest something good for a laugh.  I haven’t read it yet though it’s on my TBR, but on previous form and from the reviews at Goodreads I know that this farce will raise a chuckle:

Recommendation No 15: Our Tiny Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan

If I may cheat a little and recommend a couple of NF titles too:

A lovely bio of a woman who used her time in remote WA for botanical illustration:  Georgiana Molloy, the mind that shines by Bernice Barry,  and because I’d miss my dog terribly, Dogs In Art (expanded edition) by Steven Miller.

Publishing details for nearly all the books are on my review pages.  Just click the links.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 16, 2016

2016 Rare Books Week

It’s Rare Books Week here in Melbourne, and today I went along to a very interesting session about Caring for your Collections.

As I may have mentioned here before, I collect Booker Prize winners in first edition hardback, and also Miles Franklin winners.  (Recently some Miles Franklin winners have been published only in paperback so they’re not as collectible as the others.)   The collection isn’t complete: some of them I have only in paperback until I track down an affordable hardback, and some I don’t have at all.  (If you look closely at the photos you can see slips of paper where my wishlist titles are).  But I do enjoy the hunt, especially since I have to keep within my budget.

I also collect some of my favourite authors – David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Richard Flanagan, Patrick White, Alex Miller  – and you can see some of those in the blog header.  Whether these books have any great monetary value or not, I’m very fond of my collections and so of course I want to take care of them properly…

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Checkpoint Charlie 2012

Checkpoint Charlie 2012

p1A hobby of more recent years is scrap-booking: I make scrapbooks of my travels and my family life.  Like many people I discovered that those oh-so-convenient sticky plastic photo albums of the 1980s were ruining my photos, and so I have gradually been putting them all into new albums where they won’t deteriorate.   I’ve also made special albums like the ones celebrating the life and achievements of my parents, The Offspring’s school days, and so on.  In the process of teaching myself to do this, I’ve learned a bit about using materials that won’t deteriorate, but I discovered today that there is more to learn.

The speaker at today’s event was Belinda Gourlay who is a conservator for the Melbourne Museum, and her talk covered caring for paper-based collections, books and photographs.  Her topics included handling, storage, storage environments, framing and restoration after disasters such as flood or fire.

She began with a brief explanation of the work they do as conservators, and it is obviously more complex than it might look at first.  They don’t just conserve the books, they also document what they’ve done, with a record of the item both before and after conservation, what materials they used and so on.  It sounds like fascinating work – who knew you could have a career doing something so worthwhile?

Anyway, she began with discussing works on paper: anything from letters to labels on bottles, and dealing with papers made from all kinds of fibres from plants to linen and nowadays also recycled paper.  Conservators also need to know what kind of inks have been used: pens, ink, modern copying processes, paints, pigments, dyes, and oil-based or water soluble.   She showed us the component parts of a book too, and discussed the materials used for the book boards (#technical term for book-covers) which can be wood, leather, fabric and card.

Books are of course designed to be handled, they’re not static objects, but if you have precious books you ought to be careful with them: don’t force them open to 180° if they don’t like it.  Put rolled up towels or fabric ‘sausages’ underneath them at their edges so that they are supported – or you can make book cradles if you are so minded.  Never remove a book from the shelf by its cap (i.e. from the top).  Push the books on either side of it out of the way and hold the book by its strongest part, the centre of its spine.  Avoid dragging heavy books across a table and don’t carry stacks of books or books that are open.  Books should always be stored either upright or flat, not slightly tipped to one side which will damage the spine and the boards.  Very large books or fragile books should be stored flat, not more than three in a stack…

Photos are tricky beasts.  I think most people know by now that if you print your own photos at home you are storing up disappointment for future years because the ink will fade and the cheap photo paper will deteriorate.  As you know if you’ve ever seen very old photos, the image-forming materials used are critical: she mentioned gelatin and albumin amongst others but primary support materials – which can be paper, glass, metal, plastic film and fabric – also affect how well a photo will last.  Sometimes we come across photos attached to secondary materials such as backing cards, window mounts, album pages, hinged cases and frames and any of these can cause heartbreak if they are poorly constructed.

The causes of deterioration can be temperatures too hot, too cold or too unstable, and humidity can cause mould.  Pollutants mess up photos, and so does exposure to light, pests and physical damage.  “Inherent vice” is the term used to describe the way the item was made: if it’s poorly constructed (e.g. gelatin photos) or was poorly processed, it’s not possible to control in the way that external factors can be controlled.  Deterioration can only be slowed down.

Handling photos carefully is just common sense: don’t touch the image area, hold the photo by the edges.  If you must label them, use a 2B soft graphite pencil, place the photos face-down on a clean hard surface and press very lightly.  Avoid working around food, drink, textas and pens, and make sure hands are clean and/or wear Nitrile gloves.  (You can buy these from Bunnings).  Don’t remove mounts or housings, and be careful moving things around so that you don’t drop a whole pile of photos in a muddle on the floor.

For storing things properly you need archival quality materials.  Belinda suggested the National Archives of Australia website as a resource but if it gives advice about what to use and how to use it, I couldn’t find it.  Archival Survival and Gaylord are much more user friendly IMO.  They have all kinds of mountboard boxes, plastic pockets, folders and sleeves and you can expect that their products are acid and lignin free, with no metal particles or plasticisers or bleeding colorants.

Other things to know:

  • Avoid using PVC materials, use PE (mylar) or PP.  (I forget what these acronyms mean but anyone selling you materials will know).
  • Avoid laminating photos.  Use photo corners and no sticky tape!
  • Use good quality paper bookmarks.
  • Don’t use sticky notes (oops, I do, in paperbacks…)
  • Don’t store newspaper clippings or pressed flowers inside books.
  • Remove paper clips (they rust onto the photo or document), blu-tak, sticky tape or rubber bands if possible without damaging the item.
  • Make sure that photos are not in contact with the glass of a frame.  Use spacers or a mountboard to keep them separate.
  • Acrylic glazing is actually better than glass, and it can have UV filters to protect a precious photo even more.
  • Store your treasures away from damp, in very dry or hot places e.g. near heaters, or in sunlight.  Watch out for insects and pests but don’t use mothballs.  Vacuuming and dusting is the way to go!
  • In the event of a disaster: handle things as little as possible.  Get them dry and into protective containers and then get them to an expert – most things can be salvaged!

All in all this was a most interesting session, and amazingly, it was free, as are all the events for Rare Book Week.  Many thanks to all the organisers and sponsors, and of course to the presenters as well.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 16, 2016

Long Bay, by Eleanor Limprecht

Long Bay 1909 (Source: Wikipedia, from the Randwick Library Local Studies Collection)For most Australians the name of Long Bay is familiar only from news reports about hardened criminals. Its proper name is The Long Bay Correctional Complex, a.k.a.Her Majesty’s Australian Prison Long Bay and I was surprised to learn that it houses minimum security inmates, male and female, as well as the notorious maximum security prison.  You can see from the photo how forbidding it looked in the 1900s, round about the time that Rebecca Sinclair started her three years Hard Labour, convicted of manslaughter for having performed an abortion on a woman who subsequently died.  It is her story that is fictionalised in Eleanor Limprecht’s compelling novel…

Long BayThe novel is bookended by Rebecca’s time in prison but it is the backstory that I couldn’t put down.  Rich in period details but narrated in the present tense to create a sense of immediacy, the book brings Rebecca to life as we learn the extraordinary events which led to her imprisonment.

She was born into poverty in pre Federation Sydney, where her father had died when she was small.  Her mother Lizzie is too proud to accept charity and has supported her six children with fine needlework, but they are often still hungry.  One by one they all leave school as soon as they can, the girls helping with the sewing and minding Ruby who at fifteen still has the mind of a child, and Louis losing a succession of jobs for reasons as colourful as his clothes.  Helen dies of a cough that will not shift.

For women, there were few options to escape this drudgery.  Lizzie won’t accept the money that Violet makes in her gaudy clothes because it is sinful money, while Amy marries into a comfortable home where the only liability is her philandering husband.  And fatefully, Rebecca meets Don Sinclair, a charming man with a bit of money to splash around.  It would spoil the story to tell much of it: suffice to say that a time comes when Don thinks that the work his mother does in her ‘private hospital’ is easy money, and that Rebecca’s need to support her child makes her too weak to withstand him.

The real strength of this novel is the characterisation of Rebecca, a flawed woman who makes too many compromises.  She realises early on that she has made a mistake with Don, but she is trapped by her pride and her unwillingness to retreat home into poverty.

As he speaks, as night falls, the ruse becomes clear to her.  The lies grow together like the links of a chain.  It is as if he is an ironmonger, holding their marriage to the fire, melting it down and hammering it into something unfamiliar.  Something dreadful and heavy, clasping her.  A weight she could spend a lifetime trying to shake free. (p.197)

Women were so very much at the mercy of men in those days.  Lizzie depends for work on the man who brings her piece work; the women in the garment factory can be sacked or have their pay docked for the most trivial of reasons.  When Amy’s drunken husband John tries it on with Rebecca on the night of his wedding, it is she who feels shame.  When Lizzie’s loneliness and failing eyesight makes her accept a man who comes courting, it’s her vulnerable daughter Ruby who has to be got rid of into an asylum, because he doesn’t like her.  And perhaps worst of all, in the years before birth control, is the way women’s bodies betrayed them with unwanted pregnancies

They are coming out of the woodwork, these women, knocking at Nurse Sinclair’s door, writing letters, putting advertisements in the paper to try to find her.  They have six children already and the husband has lost his job, or they are not married and their family will put them on the streets in shame, or they are servants and the master has taken liberties, taken advantage, kicked them out when the consequences might no longer be hidden.  (p.144)

This a fine novel.  It breathes authenticity but it wears its research lightly.  My only quibble is with the ending, which didn’t quite mesh with the unsentimental tone of the novel overall.  But perhaps because I had become fond of Rebecca as a character, I found myself feeling quite pleased about it all the same…

PS Sue at Whispering Gums enjoyed it too.

PPS And see an interview with Eleanor Limprecht at Adventures in Biography, thanks for the link Michelle!

Author: Eleanor Limprecht
Title: Long Bay
Publisher: Sleepers Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9780987507044
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $24.95

Also available from Fishpond: Long Bay
and other good bookstores.



Sentimental EducationSentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), gets its place in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die because it is

… surely one of the greatest novels yet written, possibly even the greatest triumph in literary realism ever accomplished.  It is a novelist’s novel. (p.167)

1001 Books tells us that Flaubert was obsessed with the accuracy of every detail of social observation … the mythical master novelist devoted beyond comprehension.  The detail of the novel is also mentioned in the ‘Historical Sketches’ that follow the novel in the new Oxford World’s Classics edition, where Patrick Coleman reminds us that Flaubert’s contemporary readers were enjoying the novel only twenty years after the events he describes.  Flaubert could expect his readers to make sense of the novels historical context and to recognise the huge cast of historical figures but it’s harder for the modern reader.  I suspect that most of us will be consulting the notes at the back of this edition more than is usual, and may sometimes have need of more of them…

First published in 1869, Sentimental Education is the story of a narcissistic young man called Frédéric Moreau and his journey towards maturity.  He comes of age in yet another French Revolutionary period, the novel spanning the years 1840-1851, and beginning as the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe began to crumble under the weight of discontent from both the left and the right.  So turbulent events form the background even though Frédéric is much more interested in himself and his messy love life. Like Zola’s novels which document the state of the nation, Sentimental Education is also a very good exploration of the human heart.

The novel begins with Frédéric falling in love with a glimpse of Madame Arnaux.  He falls in love, that is, with an idea of love more so than the person, and this idealised woman-on-a-pedestal becomes an obsession. Madame Arnaux is the wife of a wily art dealer and the mother of two children, Marthe and Eugene.  At first Frédéric has no hope of forming a liaison with her because his mother’s fortune is encumbered and he has to make his own way in the world.  (Which in that era, meant forming useful relationships.) Frédéric is clever, and despite doing very little work he eventually gets through his law exams – but he doesn’t have the wherewithal to live in Paris and pursue his dream.

Frustrated ambition makes him despair.  He is, however, encouraged by his good friend Charles Deslaurier, a former schoolmate and another who must make his own way and who plans to be a lawyer.  And while he’s moping about at home in Nogent, Frédéric also becomes friendly with Louise Roque, the illegitimate daughter of a neighbour and his maidservant.  Louise is much younger than Frédéric, and the neighbourhood looks down on her, but he is kindly to her in a paternalistic way, not realising that she and her father have designs on him.


The rich uncle expected to include Frédéric in his Will dies intestate and Frédéric gets the lot. Back he goes to Paris where he spends a formidable amount on clothes, furniture, and a carriage.  He inveigles his way into the Arnaux household partly by buying artworks from Arnaux. The flaws in his character emerge as his impulsiveness leads him to make over-generous tips and buying things merely as a ruse to spy on Madame Arnoux’s whereabouts.  His vague ambition is to go into the Council of State, and his mother is keen for him to make use of a connection with the wealthy banker Dambreuse, but Frédéric wastes his opportunities because of his obsession with his would-be romance.

It’s a romance doomed to failure because in putting Madame Arnaux on a pedestal, he has made her unattainable.  He admires her virtue so much that he cannot possible seduce her without destroying the honour that he finds so appealing.  Flaubert notes that for certain men, the stronger the desire, the less likely they are to act and Frédéric’s life at this time is marked by indecisiveness at every turn.  The Arnaux marriage is ill-matched, and he listens to both husband and wife complain about each other in the hope of triggering a separation.  He comes late to the realisation that Madame Arnaux would never harm her children by a separation, and moreover, M. Arnaux still fancies his wife.

The reader watches in dismay as Frédéric’s money is frittered away, (as Frédéric’s mother would also have done, had she known about it).  Arnaux gets himself into financial strife, and Frédéric rescues him with a substantial loan secured by a meaningless guarantee.  This was money that he had impulsively agreed to invest in a publishing proposal of Deslauriers, putting at risk a friendship already strained by differences in wealth and status.  Arnaux, of course, doesn’t repay this loan and Frédéric is shamed by his broken promise to Deslauriers, but he is too embarrassed to press for repayment.

Before long, Frédéric realises that he needs to resurrect his would-be career in the Council of State and makes contact with Dambreuse to facilitate the right introductions.  This leads to the emergence of Dambreuse’s wife as another who has designs on our hero: a haughty society lady, she is in marked contrast to another who is hopeful of Frédéric’s heart, the courtesan and mistress of Arnaux, Rosanette Bron.  (She’s 29, you see, and so not only is she getting on a bit, she’s also tired of juggling lovers).

Naïve, narcissistic, headstrong and impulsive, Frédéric is a fool but the reader feels a sense of irritated pity for his folly.  Some may judge him harshly, but there’s no malice in him.  He’s just a fool, with too much money.

In Part II, his troubles multiply.  He gets into a farcical duel to defend Arnaux against allegations that he’s a crook; he still hasn’t got his money back (it was 15,000 francs) and Rosanette is pressing him for money not because she needs it but because it’s a way of tying him to her.  When he goes home to Nogent to sort himself out, his mother and Old Roque conspire for him to marry Louise.  Roque, who is quite wealthy, wants to make his daughter a Countess, and marriage to Frédéric would enable them to resurrect an old title derived from Madame Moreau’s noble ancestry.  But marriage talk and Frédéric’s own impulsive declaration of love makes him feel trapped, so he goes back to Paris.

Things look up for his romance with Madame Arnaux, so much so that Frédéric even rents a room for their liaison.  But politics begin to intrude into the novel as a demonstration strikes up outside the intended love nest, and worse still for Frédéric’s plans, little Eugene becomes very ill and Madame Arnaux thinks this is a punishment for her intended sin from an Old Testament God. A frustrated Frédéric retreats into the arms of Rosanette…

Flaubert renders the fall of the monarchy with great power.  Scenes set in salons depict intellectual torpor amid the luxury enjoyed by the upper classes.

… the pettiness of the conversation was as though emphasised by the luxury surrounding them.  But what was said was not so inane as the manner in which it was uttered, without any aim, continuity, vigour.  Yet men of some consequence were there: a former minister, the priest of a large parish, two or three gentlemen who occupied important positions in government.  They confined themselves to the most hackneyed of commonplaces.  (p120-1)

The intellectual indolence of the powerful is in marked contrast to the passionate discussions that take place among Frédéric’s younger companions from law school: Baptiste Martinon, Sénécal, Regimbart and of course Charles Deslauriers.  While a lot of their talk is just hot air fuelled by alcohol, these characters have at least a vision inspired by their respective ideologies.  The wealthy are merely interested in money, secured by any government that offers stability and social status.  Almost everyone, however, has to sway with the wind as the monarchy falls and an incompetent republic takes its place.

The introduction by Patrick Coleman goes into some depth about the significance of the title.  He explains that (contrary to common contemporary use of the word ‘sentimental) in Flaubert’s day:

an éducation sentimentale refers to a person’s initial instruction in love.  It includes the sensual discoveries of one’s sexual awakening, the emotional knowledge that comes from experiencing the force and the fragility of intimate relationship, and the worldly wisdom achieved by gaining some perspective on it all. (p. vii)

Coleman acknowledges what some will see as a flaw in this novel, a disappointment with the expectations raised by the title.  He refers to Henry James’ criticism that Frédéric is so vague in thought and ineffectual in action that even his failures fail to instruct.  Well, Frédéric does emerge at the end of the novel as a somewhat wiser man, but the narrative refuses to judge him, any more than Madame Bovary is judged in the novel of the same name.  These issues, I expect, are the subject of undergraduate essays and perhaps discussion questions among book groups reading the classics.  For myself, I quite like the tenderness with which this foolish young ‘hero’ is portrayed, and felt the same kind of tolerant dismay that perhaps his mother might have felt about his failures*. But *chuckle* I am quite sure that I would not have felt that way had I read this as an assertive young feminist, and I don’t think I would have been amused at all when I read the bit where Flaubert pokes fun at a feminist’s demands on the new revolutionary government.

*(If there is a flaw in this novel, it’s the stock characterisation of Frédéric’s mother).

While I did find some of the detail a bit overwhelming in places, this edition is a very fine translation by Helen Considine, and IMO Sentimental Education deserves its place in 1001 Books.

PS Once again, there’s an inspired choice of artwork for the cover: it’s a detail from Bazille and Camille, (1865), Claude Monet’s study for his own ill-fated version of Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur L’herbe)

Author: Gustave Flaubert
Title: Sentimental Education
Translated from the French by Helen Considine
Publisher: Oxford University Press (OUP), Oxford World’s Classics, 2016, first published in 1869
ISBN: 9780199686636
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: Sentimental Education (Oxford World’s Classics) $AUD 17.24

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 14, 2016

2016 Kibble and Dobbie Award winners

Salt CreekI am delighted to pass on the news that Lucy Treloar has won the 2016 Dobbie Award for Salt Creek, published by Pan Macmillan.  This novel is one of the most impressive debuts of recent times IMO, and you can read my enthusiastic review here.

The Kibble Award was won by Fiona Wright for Small Acts of Disappearance, published by Giramondo Publishing.  I haven’t read it, but Sue at Whispering Gums has, and her review is here.

My word, Giramondo Publishing has been popping up in the  awards lists everywhere lately!

PS Check out the discussion with Lucy Treloar at Adventures in Biography, it’s really interesting!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2016

Meet an Aussie Author: Rod Jones

Rod Jones-credit-Daniel CraigThanks to a bit of serendipity on Twitter, I have been able to persuade Rod Jones to join my occasional Meet an Aussie Author series!

Rod Jones is the award-winning author of six novels, two of which I’ve read and enjoyed.

  • Julia Paradise (McPhee Gribble, 1986, which won the Fiction Award in the South Australian Premier’s Awards in 1988; was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award; and was runner-up for the Femina Etranger Prize in Paris.  It was reissued as a Text Classic in 2013, see my review)
  • Prince of the Lilies (McPhee Gribble 1991)
  • Billy Sunday (Pan Macmillan, 1995)
  • Nightpictures (Random House, 1997)
  • Swan Bay (Random House, 2003)
  • The Mothers (Text, 2015), see my review and also this illuminating interview at the SMH.

On the day I looked at Fishpond there was a good selection of these books, new and used.  Readings is stocking Julia Paradise and The Mothers.   You might be lucky and find one or two of the backlist at Brotherhood Books too.

I’m always fascinated by the way authors answer these ten questions so differently…

1.  I was born in The Haven, a home for unmarried mothers in North Fitzroy. I was adopted at six weeks.
2. When I was a child I wrote not very much. I was a reader, though. I’ve always loved being in that trance state.
3. The person who encouraged me to write was Gwyn Dow, my Education lecturer at Melbourne University. I gave her a new chapter of my first novel every fortnight instead of having to read the dull textbooks about pedagogy.
4. I write in a large, sunny, north-facing room at home. I treasure my solitude and give short shrift to persons from Porlock.
5. I write when I wake in the early mornings, when my thinking is still close to the urgent truth of dreams.
6. Research is not really my thing. Dance first, think later. Beckett said something like that.
7. I keep my published works in a bookcase in my study. I’ve also stored copies of overseas and foreign language editions with my papers and manuscripts at the State Library of Victoria.
8. On the day my first book was published, I lay on the front lawn and gazed up at the sky. The world felt different. It was the very beginning of summer.
9. At the moment, I’m writing a novel set in Paris in the 1970s. I might even finish it one day.
10. When I’m stuck for an idea, I await with impatience the cocktail hour.

Ah yes, it’s amazing how a cocktail can stimulate the imagination!

Thanks, Rod, for participating.


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Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 12, 2016

2016 WA Premier’s Book Awards shortlists

THE WA Premier’s Book Awards have been announced.  You can see the categories and prize money at the State Library of WA website:


Allinson, Miles Fever of Animals Scribe Publications (2015), see my review
Bradley, James Clade Penguin Books (2015)
Harrower, Elizabeth In Certain Circles Text Publishing (2014), see my review and a Sensational Snippet
Harrower, Elizabeth A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories Text Publishing (2015)
Jones, Gail A Guide to Berlin Vintage Books (2015)
Kinsella, John Crow’s Breath Transit Lounge (2015)
London, Joan The Golden Age Vintage Books (2014), see my review and a Sensational Snippet
Midalia, Susan Feet to the Stars and Other Stories UWA Publishing (2015)
Ryan, Tracy Claustrophobia Transit Lounge (2014), see my review


Atkinson, Alan The Europeans in Australia: Volume 3 – Nation UNSW Press (2014)
Bungey, Darleen John Olsen: An Artist’s Life ABC Books, an imprint of HarperCollins (2014)
Garner, Helen This House of Grief Text Publishing (2014)
Niall, Brenda Mannix Text Publishing (2015), see my review
Sayer, Mandy The Poet’s Wife Allen and Unwin (2014)
Starke, Ruth and Hannaford, Robert My Gallipoli Working Title Press (2015)
Ward, Biff In My Mother’s Hands Allen and Unwin (2014)


Dougan, Lucy The Guardians Giramondo (2015), see Tony’s review at Messenger’s Booker
Holland-Batt, Sarah The Hazards University of Queensland Press (2015)
Kissane, Andy Radiance Puncher & Wattmann (2014)
Maiden, Jennifer The Fox Petition Giramondo (2015)
Malouf, David Earth Hour University of Queensland Press (2014), see Tony’s review at Messenger’s Booker

WA History

Bolton, Geoffrey Paul Hasluck: A life UWA Publishing (2014)
Erickson, Dorothy Inspired by Light & Land: designers and makers in WA Western Australian Museum (2015)
Morgan, Ruth A. Running Out? Water in Western Australia UWA Publishing (2015)
Newstead, Adrian The Dealer is the Devil: an insider’s history of the Aboriginal Art trade Brandl & Schlesinger (2014)
Taylor, John J. Between Duty and Design: the architect soldier UWA Publishing (2014)

Young Adults

Croggon, Alison The River and the Book Walker Books (2015)
Groth, Darren Are You Seeing Me? Random House (2014)
Hayes, Nicole One True Thing Random House (2015)
Lawson, Sue Freedom Ride Black Dog Books, an imprint of Walker Books (2015)
Lomer, Kathryn Talk Under Water University of Queensland Press (2015)
Zorn, Claire The Protected University of Queensland Press (2014)

WA Emerging Writers

Davis, Brooke Lost and Found Hachette Australia (2014), see Karenlee Thompson’s review
Glickman, Ray Reality Fremantle Press (2014)
Maling, Caitlin Conversations I’ve never had Fremantle Press (2015)
Shah, Sami I, Migrant Allen and Unwin (2014)


Decent, Campion Unholy Ghosts Australian Script Centre (2014)
Lui, Nakkiah Kill the Messenger Belvoir (2015)
Miller, Suzie Dust Stage Play Black Swan Theatre Company (2014)
Murray-Smith, Joanna The Divorce Currency Press (2015)
Philpot, Lachlan The Trouble with Harry Oberon Books (2014)
Sewell, Stephen Embedded The Yellow Agency (2015)

Digital Narrative

Breeze, Mez A [[Non]] Guardian Age
Crisp, Ben Stasis: 7-118
Dena, Christy Magister Ludi
Powell, Dimity The Chapel of Unlove
Reiter, David P. Timelord Dreaming

Children’s Books

Balla, Trace Rivertime Allen and Unwin (2014)
Barnard, Simon A-Z of convicts in Van Dieman’s Land Text Publishing (2014)
Caisley, Raewyn and Blair, Karen Hello From Nowhere Viking (2014)
Graham, Bob How the sun got to Coco’s house Walker Books (2015)
Kwaymullina, Ezekiel and Morgan, Sally We all sleep Fremantle Press (2015)
Lester, Alison and Honey, Elizabeth Our Island Viking (2014)
McKinlay, Meg A single stone Walker Books (2015)
Metzenthen, David and Camilleri, Michael One minute’s silence Allen and Unwin (2014)
Millard, Glenda The Duck and the Darklings Allen and Unwin (2014)
Pignataro, Anna Being Agatha The Five Mile Press (2015)

PS Things are a little busy on the domestic front chez moi, so readers, if you have reviewed any of these books, please add the URL in comments below and I’ll add them.

ILW 2016

As we come to the end of Indigenous Literature Week 2016 at ANZ LitLovers, now in its fourth year, I would like to thank all those who showed their support for NAIDOC week by reading, reviewing, blogging, commenting, tweeting and/or advertising this event in social media.

This year’s readers were

These readers have contributed:

  • 13 reviews of indigenous Australian writing
    • 5 works of fiction (4 novels and one short story):
    • 4 non-fiction books
    • 4 books of poetry
  • 2 reviews of Maori writing, both fiction;
  • 2 feature articles about indigenous writers; and
  • 2 reviews of First Nations books from elsewhere in the world

My aim in hosting an Indigenous Literature Week  is to encourage people to seek out and enjoy the books that indigenous authors have contributed to Australian and New Zealand literature, but I am also very interested to read books by indigenous authors from other places around the world and so I want to say a special thank you to Stu from Winston’s Dad and Marilyn from me, You and Books who brought us reviews of books from the First Nations of Canada and the Basque Region of Spain.

The reviews readers have contributed have all been added to this site’s database of indigenous reading resources.  This database continues to grow – including everything from children’s books to YA; from memoir to history: and fiction of all kinds.  The reviews which readers have so generously contributed is what makes this a marvellous resource – it’s not just a list of titles, it’s word-of-mouth recommendations.  Those who have contributed to it will be pleased to know that there are two universities that I know of, that link to this database as a resource for students.

I would also like to thank publishers Allen and Unwin for their support with one of the books for review for this year’s ILW.

I will be monitoring the reviews page until the end of July and will add any additional reviews to the database using the comments box on the reviews page.

I will also be updating the database of indigenous reading resources when new books come to my attention.  You might like to bookmark this page because you can also use it to access links to

Thanks again, everyone!

PS NAIDOC and #IndigLitWeek coincided with the welcome news that Australia has just elected its first-ever female member of the House of Representatives.  I heard Linda Burney speak on the night of the election and what an impressive role model she is!

The Northern Territory Writers’ Centre has announced the shortlist for the Chief Minister’s Book of the Year, presented biennially.

The awards are part of the search for the Territory Read NT Book of the Year, and are funded partly by the NT Chief Minister and partly by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.  The total prize money in 2016 is $9000.

There are three categories

  • Chief Minister’s Book of the Year Award, for a published book across all genres by an NT resident.
  • Best Non-Fiction, for a prose work other than fiction. Includes biography, auto-biography, creative non-fiction, history, philosophy and literary criticism by an NT resident.
  • Best Young Adult or Children’s Fiction, for a published book in either genre by an NT resident. In the case of picture books, prize money will be split between the author and the illustrator.

For some reason, they don’t publish a shortlist for Non-fiction or Children’s fiction…

The shortlisted titles for Book of the Year are:

The winners of the Territory Read Awards will be announced on 27 July at the State Library of Darwin.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 9, 2016

I’ve Been Thinking About You Sister, by Witi Ihimaera

ILW 2016For my last book of #IndigLitWeek I had been planning to read The Dream Swimmer, No #2 of the Mahana Family series, by Maori author Witi Ihimaera. I thought I was resigned to not having No #1, The Matriarch, but then I discovered that Bayside Library has a copy, and so I shall pursue it there.  But not this week: I already have five library books that have come in from reserve all at the same time, and The Matriarch is a long book.  I want to do it justice, so I’ll chase it up some other time.  In the meantime, however, there is just one lonely looking review of Maori writing for #IndigLitWeek 2016 – what to do?

I've Been Thinking About You SisterWell, I found an intriguing short story by Witi Ihimaera instead.  It’s called I’ve Been Thinking About You Sister, and it offers a lot to think about…

It begins in an unusual way.  Written in the tone of a memoir, it explains how the narrator is feeling fraught because he’s been approached to write a short story for an anthology but the publisher wants him to write the kind of story he used to write thirty years ago.  The narrator is a bit indignant about this: apart from the fact that the world has become a different place he’s become an professor of English, into post-colonial discourse, Freire, Derrida, and The Empire Writes Back.  When the publisher pursues him to write something suitable for the gentle reader and no politics, thank you, the narrator is cross.  He’s worked hard to become an indigenous writer of some distinction… not afraid to engage the complexities of race, identity and representation and examine the polarities that existed between majority and minority cultures.

But he gives in.  He writes the story.  A seemingly simple story of the narrator’s mother, still grieving the loss of her brother Rangiora who died in WW2.  And how, in her seventies, she decides to take off for Tunisia to visit his grave. How his father is dubious about the whole idea, and how she is dubious about him coming too because of his dodgy hip.  And how the anxious children call on friends and family around the world to keep an eye on things to make sure that the elderly couple don’t miss their plane connections.  Things go wrong, and a good Samaritan helps them out.  The story concludes with this mother’s poignant wish to bring her brother’s body home, only to be told by the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Maori Affairs that the Maori Battalion had made a collective agreement that all the boys who died on the battlefield should stay together in the country where they had fallen.

It’s a lovely story, but *chuckle* it’s not a simple story at all.  There’s the title, for a start: it’s an allusion to the spiritual beliefs of the Maori.  The story begins with Rangiora, who has been dead for over half a century, coming back for the last waltz with his sister, because he’s been thinking about her.  He’s not resting in peace, because he hasn’t been buried according to custom and ritual. (Those stones on the brooding cover design are an allusion to a burial practice).  And then there’s the ending.  You don’t need to know much WW1 history to know that the decision to bury the Fallen where they lay was taken by military authorities, not in accordance with any whimsical ideas about mateship but for economic reasons.

In between we see the power of Maori culture and ideas about family responsibilities.  Mother is a strong-willed woman but her family still has a responsibility to look after her welfare, wherever she is in the world.  And we see that although they can rustle up the money for this journey, it has to be done on the cheap.   Complying with the instructions of the condescending publisher, these matters (and others) are not made explicit: it’s not overtly political.  But by including the narrator’s peeved introduction, Ihimaera has made sure that his readers will be looking to see if this innocuous little story offers more than meets the eye…

‘I’ve Been Thinking About You, Sister’ was first published in The Best New Zealand Fiction: Vol 4, Fiona Farrell (ed.), 2007.

Author: Witi Ihimaera
Title: I’ve Been Thinking About You, Sister
Publisher: Random House New Zealand, 2013.
ASIN: B00CL28YZI (Kindle Edition).
Source: Personal library, purchased for the Kindle $2.99

You may be able to pick up a second hand copy of  The Best New Zealand Fiction: Volume 4 (Fishpond), otherwise, I’m afraid there’s only Amazon, as far as I can tell.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 8, 2016

A Most Peculiar Act, by Marie Munkara

ILW 2016
A Most Peculiar Act Thanks to Sonia who posted a comment during Indigenous Literature Week in 2015, I have had Marie Munkara’s novella A Most Peculiar Act on my radar for a while, and I was lucky that with great timing for #IndigLitWeek & #NAIDOC it came into the library this week.  Set during WW2 in the prelude to the Japanese bombing of Darwin, it’s only 169 pages long, but this witty satirical novel certainly packs a punch…

The ‘peculiar act’ referred to in the title is the Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918, and in what amounts to a stroke of political and literary genius, Munkara has structured her novella around clauses from this act at the beginning of each chapter of the book.  So Chapter 1, titled ‘Horrid Hump’ alerts the reader to the provisions of Part 1 of the act, establishing that there will be a Chief Protector appointed by the Administrator of the Northern Territory and that it shall be the duty of the Chief Protector –

(f) to exercise a general supervision and care over all matters affecting the welfare of the aboriginals, and to protect them against immorality, injustice, imposition and fraud.

And then with high farce the reader is introduced to the man who fulfils this role:

Although he never lacked in enthusiasm, Horatio Humphris (Horrid Hump to every one else) was a man with ambitions that far outweighed his capabilities. […] He didn’t get the fact that his appointment had nothing to do with skill or intelligence but everything to do with sticking him in a place where his ineptitude wouldn’t make too much impact on the machinations of the public service. […] everyone knew that if there was one thing you could rely on Horrid Hump to do it was to b—— things up.  So the rationale behind his appointment was that he wouldn’t be able to b—— up a situation that was already b——ed.  (p.9-10)

(Yes, there is a bit of lively language in this book, and since this is a family friendly blog I don’t reproduce language that may offend – but it is very funny!)

Well, to say that Horrid Hump fails miserably to protect the Aborigines in his charge is an understatement.  The duty of his patrol officers is to make these Wards of the State assimilate i.e.

be persuaded by whatever means were at hand to embrace the ways of Europeans who had arrived uninvited in their country a few hundred years before, bringing with them a whole new way of life that the poor blacks were expected to emulate. (p.14)

These patrol officers – whose pastimes were primarily gambling, fornication and binge-drinking – had a grand old time assigning new whitefella names to assist in the assimilation process.  No more jaw-breakers like Arripiatunwangu and Wurrawunapungala to tie their tongues into complicated macramé knots.  No, henceforth the Wards of the State were known as Chisel Teeth and Hammer Toe, Fuel Drum, Shoelace and Rawhide.  Sixteen year old Sugar wanted to keep the name she’d had all her life. Dhurrpu, but she wasn’t allowed to.  It was no comfort that in time Ralphie, the most empathetic of the patrol officers came to realise that to destroy language was to destroy the fabric of an ancient civilisation.

The Ordinance at the beginning of Chapter 2 reminds the reader that the Chief Protector was obliged to provide, as far as practicable, for the supply of food, medical attendance, medicines, and shelter for the sick, aged and infirm aboriginals, but that’s not Sugar’s experience when she gives birth to twins.  Part IV of the Ordinance prohibits giving Aborigines any access to alcohol, but heavy drinking is the norm for whitefellas.  Ralphie, however, isn’t sacked for that, but rather for his conquest of Rosie the Stiff Gin because Horrid Hump abhors the idea of relationships between black and white.  Subsequently an attraction forms between Sugar and Ralphie but their feelings had always been kept safely in the shadows of their hearts where rejection or hurt wouldn’t find them and where regret was now creeping in to twist the knife a little more.  (p79)

Aboriginal culture is not romanticised.  Most readers will flinch when they learn that twins were bad news in Aboriginal culture and it was custom to kill them both.  Sugar solves the problem by leaving one behind in the hospital for further treatment, but inevitably she loses them both to the white culture of taking Aboriginal children from their mothers – in overt defiance of their own Ordinance that makes it an offence for any Aboriginal to be removed from the boundaries of a reserve of aboriginal institution.

How could a baby be taken from right under your nose and given away like a puppy (free to good home, just like that, no please or thank you) by the very ones who could throw you into the clink for stealing a blanket?  Sugar just couldn’t work it out.   (p.110)

A Most Peculiar Act has a similar style to Munkara’s debut novel Every Secret Thing (see my review).  It is a picaresque collection of incidents, each one pitched at satirising the provisions of this ‘most peculiar act’.  It is ribald, mocking, sometimes slapstick and always rich in biting sarcasm.  Occasionally the author’s clear voice can be heard as when Horrid Hump’s view that there was no place for primitive cultures is described as a frighteningly blinkered view shared by many others at the time and a belief that still persists to this day.  

If this novella has a flaw, it’s that there are so many Aboriginal characters who are not fleshed out and made memorable in the way that the white characters are.  Apart from Horrid Hump and Ralphie, there is also Drew Hepplewaite, an appalling racist who tricked her way into being appointed as a patrol officer before it was discovered she was female; and Penelope, the Administrator’s wife,  who is having an affair with Chou Chou, her Chinese personal attendant.  Only Sugar is a fully developed Aboriginal character, learning the hard way that passive resistance is the best way to handle the irrational provisions of that ‘most peculiar act’. 

It is a very satisfying moment when Sugar finds herself on a level playing field with her oppressors.  In a moment of supreme irony, Chou Chou, sheltering from the Japanese bombs, complains that none of them want to have to submit to a strange new culture…

The cover design is by Tracey Gibbs and the cover artwork is by Julie Dowling from the Badimaya language group in Perth.  Yu can see a profile of Marie Munkara at Deadly Vibe.

Author: Marie Munkara, of Rembarranga descent
Title: A Most Peculiar Act
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781921248849
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Magabala Books where there are teacher’s notes and you can also buy it as an eBook, and from Fishpond: A Most Peculiar Act

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 7, 2016

Vale Cory Taylor (1955-2016)

I am sad to report the news that Cory Taylor has died, aged 61.  She was a brave woman, facing her impending death by writing about in a book called Dying: a Memoir.  This is not a book I can read at the moment, it’s too soon for me after the death of my mother, and I’m still too raw about the topic, but Dying: a Memoir has been hailed as a remarkable gift and I think it will be one of those books that everyone needs to read at some time.

Cory Taylor burst onto the literary scene in 2011 with Me and Mr Booker which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Pacific Region.  This was followed by My Beautiful Enemy (see my review) a book which remains in my memory as wise, thoughtful, and oh yes! exploring something different about Australian life in wartime.  It was (and is) a book that changed my mind about things, a book which actually affected the kind of person that I am and the attitudes I have.   That is a grand legacy, I think.

I hope Cory Taylor’s friends and family can take some comfort in knowing that there is a vast army of readers out there who feel bereaved by the loss of this remarkable author.  We may never have met her, but she lives on in our hearts and minds because of the books she wrote.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 6, 2016

Tu, by Patricia Grace

ILW 2016TuTu is the sixth novel of Māori author Patricia Grace, and it’s quite different to her other novels I’ve read, which have all been firmly grounded in New Zealand.  It’s the story of three brothers who go away to war, and of a girl who matters to all of them.

Most of the novel is narrated by Tu, responding in his later years to the questions of his nephews Rimini and Benedict.  The novel is bookended by his letters to them, with his war diary set in Italy in between, along with the back story of his brother Pita in New Zealand.

Tu is much younger than his brothers Pita and Rangi, and he bears the burden of being the chosen one.  When their father returned from WW1 he was a damaged man, and his violence blighted their youth.  Pita stayed home from school to protect his mother, making his employment prospects even more difficult in a society where discrimination against the Māori was the norm.  Quiet, thoughtful and an intensely private man, Pita is nothing like his knockabout brother Rangi, but both of them are determined that Tu will win a native scholarship, get an education and become the hope of the family.   This sense of family responsibility amongst the Māori is a motif which recurs after their father dies and the family moves to Wellington: the boys share their earnings to augment their mother’s war widows pension, a pension which was inexplicably half the amount paid to Pakeha women.

The coming of war brings issues of identity to the fore.  For many young men, enlistment meets a desire for independence, travel, and a sense of purpose.  But the general question of whether New Zealanders should fight for a British cause far from home becomes more personal for the Māori.  Should they fight for the people who colonised their country and systematically disadvantaged them thereafter?  Would the formation of the Māori Battalion bring them some long overdue respect? These existential questions don’t trouble Rangi much: he joins up…

Between the chapters of Tu’s war narrative, is the third person narrative of Pita, struggling to come to terms with masculinity.  He has a paternalistic view of women, is protective of his sisters, and judgemental about women who wear makeup.  (This paternalism is irritating to a 21st century feminist, but it was authentic in that period).   But Pita is attracted to Jess, a Pakeha who works in the local cake shop, and she is attracted to him.  The boys in this family, however, expect to live at home until they marry and when they do so it will be with the approval of their family.  He knows Jess is not for him.  He is meant to marry Ani Rose, and every time he is with Jess it feels like a betrayal, not only of Ani Rose but also of his family and his culture.  He resolves his ambivalence by caving in to the pressure to enlist, because he feels the unspoken criticism that a young man like him should not be doing work that could be done by old men and women, he should be a warrior.

There were other reasons he had for joining up.  There was something in him, some wrong thing that hurt people or frightened them – something stuck in his works, pulling down inside him like a stiffened claw, which he needed to take to war.  There was the mess of himself and what it did to dreams.

He needed to escape, and there was a war to escape to (p.37-8)

Although Jess is central to the narrative, she is a shadowy figure.  Pita muses on her attractive appearance, and he is uneasy about her pert and independent-minded behaviour.  He can’t reconcile Jess’s nonchalance about her family’s disapproval with his own attitudes: his Catholic moral code, his quiet pride in his Māori identity and his desire to follow traditional ways.  But the characterisation of Jess herself is muted.  Her perspective can only be inferred through brief conversations with Pita.

Indeed, the characterisation of all the women is mere backdrop.  Ma is devout, devoted and stoic. The two sisters are barely mentioned except as go-betweens for Jess, and the only time Ani Rose asserts herself is to say that she wants to marry Pita before he embarks for war rather than when he gets back.  Compared to the dynamic women of Potiki (1986), Cousins (1992), and Baby No-eyes (1998), these women are insignificant.  Perhaps it is the author’s way of exploring cultural disruption by showing how women were relegated to insignificance during war.  Ma’s role is to maintain heritage links.  The girls do war work in factories.  But they don’t have anything much to say.

Tu’s narrative of his wartime experiences in Italy will mean more to people who have been there, especially for Australians more used to a flat landscape.  In 2015 The Spouse and I stayed in a villa in Tuscany, in the little village of Monterchi.  All around us were hilltop vantage points that had been used as fortresses since time out of mind.  In WW2 there was ferocious fighting all through such treacherous mountainous terrain as the allies made their way north from Sicily and the Southern mainland, and I am proud to have known my neighbour who fought with the partisans against the Nazis as a 15-year-old.   But when you have seen the steep precipices and winding valleys yet you know that the Allies succeeded, it is still hard to imagine how they managed to dislodge the Germans.  Patricia Grace has used the infamous assault on Monte Cassino as the setting for pitched battles and there is an authenticity about this narrative that obviously derives from the sources she acknowledges at the back of the book.  But I did not enjoy reading these scenes.  (I was interested to see at Goodreads that some found these more engaging than the scenes in New Zealand, it just shows you how different reader responses can be, eh?)

The secret that lies behind Tu’s post-war life divorced from his family is all the more shocking for its tragic irony.  The reader has been focussed on Jess, and how she comes to matter to all three of these brothers so the revelation is wholly unexpected.  It’s remarkable also how well Grace manages to convey a male voice transitioning from hope, excitement and pride to bitterness, shame and despair.  She really is a brilliant author.

BTW that poignant cover photo is authentic: it’s of John Taua, the only soldier in the Māori Battalion to have been awarded the United States Silver Star for bravery.

Update: Thanks to TracyFarr who tweets as , I have learned that by coincidence, I published this novel which features some use of the Māori language, during Maori Language Week, marked every year since 1975:

This is a time for all New Zealanders to celebrate te reo Māori (the Māori language) and to use more Māori phrases in everyday life. In 2016 Māori Language Week runs from 4-10 July, the theme is ākina to reo – behind you all the way, which is about using te reo Māori to support people, to inspire and to cheer on.

You can find out more about it, as I did, at Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission) and at the NZ History website.  And Irā! you can check out the phrases of the week here.


Author: Patricia Grace
Title: Tu
Publisher: Penguin, 2004
ISBN: 9780143019206
Source: Personal library, found in an Op Shop.

Available from Fishpond:Tu

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2016

2016 National Biography Award shortlist

Today they announced the nominees for the National Biography Award.  I’m pleased to see that although my focus here is on fiction, I’ve reviewed three of them:

This year’s winner will be announced on August 8.  The winner will receive $25,000, and the nominees $1000.

Update 7/7/16  The Australian Literature Society (ALS) has awarded its Gold Medal to  Brenda Niall, for Mannix. The ALS Gold Medal is awarded every year for an outstanding literary work in the preceding calendar year.  Of interest is that (I think) this is the first time that the award has gone to a work of non-fiction. I say this because I don’t recognise any other NF words among previous winners, but that might just be because although I recognise (and have read) a great many of the award winners listed at Wikipedia, obviously I don’t know them all.

Update, later that day: No, I’m wrong…Geoffrey Blainey won the ALS medal in 1964 for The Rush That Never Ended, a History of Australian Mining, and Drusilla Modjeska won it in 2000 for Stravinsky’s Lunch. 

Thanks to Adventures in Biography for the heads-up, follow this link to find out more about this award and the shortlist.


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Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2016

Balancing Act, Quarterly Essay, by George Megalogenis

Balancing ActLike everyone else, I’m trying to make sense of the Australian election results: there’s a bigger picture here, and it’s a real shame that the first act of the ABC’s new MD is to axe the online edition of The Drum, which provided a place for intelligent opinion from outside the usual ossified media sources.

Published in March 2016, this essay Balancing Act, Australia between Recession and Renewal was written before the election and it makes interesting reading now.  As we can see, our political commentators are scrambling to deal with what amounts to paralysis while we wait to see if we end up with a majority government emasculated in more ways than one, a minority government governing either with some sort of negotiated agreement or at the whim of the independents,  or *shudder* utter chaos.  But back in March Megalogenis was reminding us of the media’s role in the national conversation that Australia has to have, about how we manage the economy in the wake of the mining boom, the birth of the Asian century and out-of-control globalisation.  We weren’t having that conversation when Abbott’s Hockey budget was shredded; it was analysed by our media as a failure of marketing, a problem they thought would be solved by the delivery of a new salesman, i.e. Malcolm Turnbull.

And now in the election results we see the results of media and political failure to read the tea leaves…

The most consistent message sent by voters to the main parties over the past decade and a half has been the demand for security. Both sides have taken this to mean border protection and bribes at the ballot box; one fist clenched against the rest of the world, while the other hand offers cash to the most aggrieved. Yet each leader that tried this was bewildered when voters could not be appeased. The truth is that the demand for security is more sophisticated than politics has allowed. We want our leaders to think for the long term; to prepare us for life beyond the mining boom. Both sides have found this in their research since the earliest days of the boom, but both have been unable to see past the next Newspoll. Something deeper is happening here than the predictable incompetence of politics. The system knows what voters are really asking for: a return to some form of government intervention in the economy. Yet this is resisted because of a misguided faith in the open economic model. The only leader who seriously tried to find a way out of the impasse was Rudd, but he lost focus after the global financial crisis. Now a Liberal prime minister is being asked by the public to redraw the line between the market and the state.    (Chapter 1, italicising is mine).

Megalogenis may have got it wrong when he wrote that voters don’t just want a return to adult government; they crave new ideas, so that the future does not seem so intimidating.  The evidence seems to be that some in the electorate just want the 1950s back again.  He may also have got it wrong when he predicted that Turnbull could retain his popularity because the public is willing him to succeed.  But he wasn’t wrong when he warned that political celebrity could be a trap.  Get it wrong, as Rudd did, and people conclude that you’re just another politician.  Our cynicism about politics is going to cost us dearly.

What Megalogenis is quite clear about is that the debate we have to have is on the role of government in the economy. Looking now at the composition of the Senate and its new constituency of the disaffected, commentators like Margo Kingston are warning that the media needs to listen to their voices instead of mocking them.  Megalogenis argues that:

The political system cannot restore public confidence without a more responsive government. And the economy won’t stabilise without a more active government. The default setting of politics in the twenty-first century – to trust in the market – has proven to be bad economics, even for Australia, the only high-income nation to avoid the Great Recession. It has left us with gridlocked cities, growing inequality and a corporate sector that feels no obligation to pay tax.  (Chapter 1).

My eyes usually glaze over when I’m reading stuff about economics, but Megalogenis makes it reasonably palatable.  I’m not (obviously) well-read in economics, but I haven’t seen an analysis before that explores the differences in the male and female economy, nor one that cuts through the hoopla about penalty rates.

Yet the urge to blame the worker has not passed. Weekend penalty rates are a favourite target. Hotels and restaurants claim more of them would open for business on Sundays if they could pay their staff the weekday rate. Perhaps, but it does not follow that the economy would be better off, let alone the young waiter whose take-home pay is likely to be cut. Household consumption is the beating heart of any economy. It accounts for more than half of Australia’s GDP, and should not be restricted without good reason. Accommodation and food services employ more than 800,000 workers. Many would be worse off without penalty rates. Their loss of spending power would need to be at least matched by greater consumption by the rest of the population to leave the economy no worse off. I can’t see it happening in the present environment. What has been holding back households since the global financial crisis is not the lack of opportunities to spend, but the debts they are carrying. A seventh day of consumption might help cafés, but the money that flows there will be offset by cutbacks on other discretionary items.  (Chapter 2, italics mine)

Chapter 3 goes on to explain the lost opportunities of the Howard era revenue boom and how stupid we have been as a nation not to have invested in infrastructure instead of frittering our revenue away on tax cuts for plasma TVs.

Howard changed the budget from being a document primarily concerned with the economy to one with a purpose that was overtly political. He taught people to expect a handout outside an election campaign, which created a permanent sense of entitlement.  (Chapter 3)

Labor under Rudd did the same, giving a pension increase even when the budget was in deficit. How could he not, given that sense of entitlement?  But what voters really want, according to Megalogenis, is for governments to stop throwing money at them and spend it instead on infrastructure.  Anyone trying to find a bed for an Aged Parent knows this is true. It’s equally true when we try to move around our cities in traffic gridlock.  And we want our regional cities and towns to have the infrastructure they need too, not just because it makes decentralisation more appealing but because it’s their right as citizens.  But sorting out our national financial problems has become such a political football that there was never any real attempt by either party to explain the problem to the electorate, and goodness only knows how it can be sorted out now, given the calibre of some of the new Senators.

Chapter 4 has the title ‘A recession we have to have?’  There are adult voters who have no experience of a recession and don’t know how debilitating it is for both individuals and the country.  But the risk is real.  Hooked on capital gain and reliant on the trade of one big country: this is the familiar face of Australian smugness, is now Megalogenis puts it.  At the time of writing the essay the ALP had just announced its policy to scale back negative gearing:

On top of the list of national regrets if we do fall into recession this year or next will be the role that politics played in fostering our property obsession. Every prime minister and treasurer since Hawke and Keating has indulged it with tax concessions. (Chapter 5)

Megalogenis says that the ideal time to rein things in was during the Global Financial Crisis, but Rudd didn’t do it.  Over time, that indulgence has apparently cost us dearly:

The landlord class in Australia – the number of people owning more than one property – numbered 600,000 in 1998–99. A decade later, their ranks had doubled to 1.275 million, or almost 13 per cent of individuals. John Howard gave the investor another leg up by halving the capital gains tax rate in 1999. That was the last year our landlord class declared a profit. Between 2000–01 and 2012–13, the most recent year for which statistics are available, our landlord class lost $66.3 billion, or $5.1 billion per year, more than they made in rental income. I’m pulling your leg. They didn’t lose this money. Their fellow taxpayers did, because the landlords wrote off the losses against other income, thereby reducing the total tax they paid.  (Chapter 5)

Just imagine what we could have done with that amount of money, and how spending it wisely could have reduced the ranks of the disaffected…

Chapter 6 unpacks the political reality that we have just seen in operation at the weekend.  It focusses on Turnbull; it’s a tad deferential to the messiah in the sense that it suggests he might have a vision even if he hasn’t revealed it to the electorate yet.  The essay acknowledges the political constraints within his party.  But with startling prescience, Megalogenis writes this:

Perhaps Turnbull is waiting for an election win before he reveals a new model. But events may overwhelm him. No post-war government has increased its majority in its second term, so Turnbull could conceivably be governing on a parliamentary knife-edge. And then there is the ever-present danger of another economic setback. (Chapter 6)

and this:

We don’t have the American problem of a white underclass. But we do have a prosperity gap between new Australians and the local-born. The post-war assumption that migrants to Australia will only do the work that the locals don’t want no longer applies. Now migrants are also being hired for work that the locals are not qualified for.  (Chapter 6)

and this:

On the other hand, the success of the migrant raises the risk of a local backlash, and the possibility that one of our main parties will take a detour down the American road of bigotry. If the political system couldn’t cope with the infrastructure demands of the past decade, how will it respond to a future in which a fraction of the local-born feel that they have been pushed to the margins of society? The logical answer is to dramatically increase public investment in education to ensure these local-born are not left behind. But this would require a change of mindset in the Coalition, which supports private systems over public, and the winners of deregulation over the losers. (Chapter 6)

The Quarterly Essay never fails to impress with the quality of its essays, and this one is one of the best.  Perhaps while our politicians are biting their nails to the quick they might read it, and learn something?

PS If you’re not totally over the election by now, you might enjoy this article ‘Election Myths in the Making’, by Tim Colebatch, at Inside Story, one of my favourite sources of intelligent discourse about politics.

PPS You might also want to read a politician’s response to this. #Disclosure: Clare O’Neil is my local MP and I’ve met her at an Australian Republican Movement fundraiser where she was a keynote speaker. She says:

The guiding principle for government intervention might therefore be this: governments should engage where the evidence shows they can make a difference.

And that there are five areas for action where there is consensus:

  • education
  • engagement with Asia
  • climate change
  • infrastructure
  • concern about the prospect of another financial crisis.

Read what she has to say here.

Author: George Megalogenis
Title: Balancing Act, Australia between Recession and Renewal
Publisher: Black Inc, 2016
ISBN: 9781863958110
Source: Personal subscription.

Available from Fishpond: Balancing Act: Australia Between Recession and Renewal (Quarterly Essay), from Readings, or subscribe from the QE website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2016

Gurrumul, His Life and Music by Robert Hillman

ILW 2016Gurrumul

The only way for you to experience a moment of the magic of the music I am listening to right now, is for you to listen to a YouTube video of the artist, Gurrumul, making his exquisite music.  But that will not be quite the same, for I am listening to the CD that comes with this gorgeous book by Robert Hillman, and every track seems more haunting than the last…  It is, the blurb tells me, an exclusive CD of remixed songs from his bestselling albums ′Gurrumul′ and ′Rrakala′ featuring rare remixes of the songs ′Bäpa′ and ′Gurrumul History (I was Born Blind)′ and ′Warwu′.  (The music was recorded by Skinnyfish Music, a Darwin-based company which records and promotes the work of Indigenous musicians.)

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupinguin Galiwin’ku is a Yolnu man.  He comes from Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island), off the coast of Arnhem Land, not far from Darwin.  Born blind in 1969, he plays drums, keyboards, guitar and didgeridoo, but it’s his singing that has made the world sit up and take notice.  He has a glorious voice, and he sings in the languages of his Yolnu clan: Galpu, Gumatj,and Djambarrpuynu, and in English.  He used to perform with Yothu Yindi, but then with Saltwater Band These days he performs solo.

A big, ‘coffee table’ book, this biography by Robert Hillman is a music lover’s delight.  It includes song lyrics composed by Gurrumul in English and several Yolnu languages – and it’s the inclusion of these indigenous-authored songs and poetry that qualifies this book for #ILW2016, though for copyright reasons I can’t quote them.  Gurrumul also includes interviews and photographs (full colour and B&W).  It’s a delight to read, for rarely have I come across prose which manages so well to capture the sound of a human voice:

The voice… has a surface that shimmers like the skin of the ocean, a suggestion of powerful currents underneath.  At times it fills out and floats like the clouds above the Arafura Sea.  Whatever the song calls for – this song, the next and the next – the voice can accommodate: poignance, vigour, introspection, tenderness, soaring celebration, playfulness, wonder and at times, a caressing sensuality.

And something else.  Listeners come away from a Gurrumul performance eager to speak of beauty.  But there are many beautiful voices, some at the top of the charts, some negotiating the nuances of a Schubert score.  What Gurrumul’s voice brings to his songs is a beauty wrought by a culture that has endured for millennia, holding fast to its integrity over two thousand generations.  (p.xvi)

Ancient narratives inhabit Gurrumul’s sacred songs, and

… the beauty of those songs, the beauty of Gurrumul’s singing is intimately related to the song-maps we know as ‘songlines’ that trace the path of travellers across the land, through the air, beneath the surface of the seas. (p.xix)

I would have to quote great slabs of this book for readers to understand the rich culture that Hillman explains with such clarity.  Inspired to find out more about Gurrumul by the persistence of an Afghan refugee who wanted to know this singer’s story, Hillman travelled around the world from one concert and recording session to another, and he writes this bio as a learner of Gurrumul’s culture.  Sometimes the reader recognises the author’s frustration when he doesn’t quite understand aspects of that culture because he is a white man with no Dreaming.  But learning what he could of Aboriginal culture as he went along, he travelled to Elcho Island, interviewed family and friends, musicians, colleagues and Gurrumul’s creative partner Michael Hohnen.   It is this intimacy which enables him to explain for example, how a song can readjust our ideas:

Gurrumul lifts his head and from his throat comes a torrent of song as broad as a river.  Michael, standing at the keyboard, marks the progress of this astonishing flow with the rich chords of melded strings and synthesiser.  Gurrumul is singing into the mic but he could as well be filling a cathedral with his voice; or some vast space with a broad blue sky above it.  Just at a glance, a crocodile mightn’t seem the sort of creature to conjure such a volume of emotion, such poignant yearning, but for Gurrumul the crocodile is related to the world in a wholly different way than it would be for, say, a student of reptile genera.  A crocodile has a spiritual home in creation and exerts its power through the flow of streams, through the currents in the air that surrounds it, through the mud of the riverbanks, and through the notes of the song that Gurrumul is now singing.  (p6)

Methodist hymns from the mission on Elcho Island influenced Gurrumul’s  style: it is from them that he learned to raise his voice to the rafters and it is the religious concept of hymns of praise that lies behind his songs honouring his traditional Yolnu way of life.  But he was also influenced by contemporary rock artists using strong melodies with a backbeat such as Dire Straits, Elvis Presley and his hero Stevie Wonder.  In his late teens Gurrumul was invited to join Yothu Yindi, and joined the band on its world-wide rock’n’roll adventure round the world.  He left the band after three years and returned home to Elcho Island, where the stars eventually aligned and he met Michael Hohnen from the beachside suburb of Beaumaris in Melbourne, up in the Territory running an outreach music program for indigenous people.  Saltwater Band was born, (hear a video clip here) and thanks to Michael’s persistence and determination, so was Skinnyfish Music. Yes, it does seem to be destiny…

This book is not exactly a hagiography but it’s not the kind of bio I usually read.  Hillman’s adulation for the man and his music and the creative team that made it all happen is front and centre.   So we don’t find out anything much about why Gurrumul left Yothu Yindi except that it seems to have been his family’s decision not his, or anything much about the kind of life led on Elcho Island by people who are not legendary musicians.  We don’t  learn much about his partner, his wife, or his daughter or his daughter’s mother.  We discover that school didn’t seem very relevant and that there was an early decision for him not to learn Braille – but unless I missed it, there is no discussion about Gurrumul’s literacy in any language and so we must assume that his poetry comes from the oral tradition and someone transcribes it.  This lack of education made me wonder about how his career (and his money) has been managed on his behalf.

In the chapter ‘The Poetry of Identity’ Hillman tells his readers that Gurrumul has been taught features of his culture according to age-related stages of learning and these include practical matters of survival.  His totem is revealed to him, and he has endured the rites of passage into manhood.  Some of this is frustratingly vague: I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d like to know how someone who has been blind since birth can negotiate the more perilous aspects of life in a remote community.  While Gurrumul’s dependence on his friends Michael, Mark and Penny for his career is acknowledged, it’s as if to give any hint of dependence in his indigenous life would destroy the mystique.

When Hillman interviews family, we’re not told if they are speaking Yolnu and a translator is involved.  Gurrumul himself says almost nothing because he is a very reticent man, perhaps for cultural reasons, perhaps for political reasons and perhaps because it’s his personality.

Gurrumul’s strategy when he’s cornered with a question he doesn’t want to answer is, well, not to answer it.  The same with requests that make him uncomfortable.  he keeps quiet, goes off into the Gurrumul zone. (p.198)

Perhaps, Hillman thinks, it’s because he’s self-conscious about speaking in English, a language that he hasn’t fully mastered.  An interview in Paris doesn’t produce a word from Gurrumul; Michael does all the talking for him.  A duet with Sting nearly falters because of language difficulties… but a duet with consummate professional Missy Higgins at the ARIA awards goes much better because she learns the words to Warwu in Gumatj.

There is a tendency to hyperbole, as when the planning of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and tours is likened to the planning of D-Day.  There are odd omissions such as the name of Australian’s then Governor-General Quentin Bryce, and there are scraps of intuition which masquerade as fact as when Hillman describes what he couldn’t possibly know, i.e. that what is unfolding in Gurrumul’s head as he listens to BBC presenters describing the pageantry of the Jubilee celebrations (in English, a language we’ve been told he doesn’t have mastery) satisfies him maybe more than any image could.

These are not criticisms, they are observations.  This is a bio that respects Gurrumul’s culture and his privacy.  That’s how it is.

Author: Robert Hillman
Title: Gurrumul, his life and music
Publisher: Harper Collins 2013
ISBN: 9780733331169
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Gurrumul: His Life and Music

ILW 2016

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the SeaIndigenous readers please be aware that this page may contain the names of deceased persons.

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea, by Marie Munkara  is a book that will make readers very thoughtful indeed…

If there were two recent books of non-fiction by indigenous authors that I’d like everyone to read, they are Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country and this one, Munkara’s memoir of discovering her Aboriginal family.  It is raucous and funny, but it is also an unabashed picture of life in contemporary Aboriginal communities.  It’s raw, and earthy, and it flourishes confronting truths…

Of Rembarranga and Tiwi descent, Munkara was born on the banks of the Mainoru River in Arnhemland but like many light-skinned Aborigines in that period she was removed from her family when she was three.  Even though she was very small when she was taken, like most of us she had fragments of memory from her very early life, and these memories both sustained and confused her during her grim childhood as an adoptee.

It is hard to imagine this vivacious personality developing a barrier of silence around her as a survival strategy.  But she had good reason to shut down and suppress her personality.  Adopted into a pious Catholic family in Melbourne, she was burdened with constant abuse both verbal and physical from her dour ‘mother’ and she was sexually abused by her paedophile ‘father’.  Her strategy was to get an education and leave as soon as possible.  But it was not until she was 28 that she discovered by chance the baptismal card which enabled her to find her real family.

The book is written in four parts.  Part I begins with the discovery of that card  and her first confronting visit to her family.

… I am worn out by the passing parade of strange faces who have come and said hello and shaken my hand.  Although Father Fallon wrote in his letter that I had two brothers, it appears I have three brothers and a sister, Louis, Mario, JJ and Lorraine.  JJ and Lorraine are adopted.  In addition to that I have two sisters-in-law, Louis’ wife Gemma and Mario’s wife Theresa Anne, and their baby Casmira, and they all live in mummy’s place.  Aminay has assured me that the woman who is supposed to be my mother actually is and I am to call her mummy.  It is shocking news as I was expecting an older version of myself …

Because my brothers are black and I’m a few shades lighter it’s obvious we don’t have the same father so instead of asking directly about my other parents, I ask mummy where her husband is.  But everything goes silent and everyone looks around awkwardly and fidgets and then Aminay tells me he passed away and we aren’t allowed to talk about people who have died in case their spirit hears us and comes back and hangs around. I bite my tongue and anxiously scan around for ghosts.  (p. 24)

Munkara’s style is often to undercut poignant moments like these with humour, masking her emotion on learning in this way that her father died before ever she could meet him.  But jokes don’t hide her dismay about meeting her mother.  With no understanding of Aboriginal culture or kinship systems, she has barged into community life and is astounded by the chaotic lifestyle, the shambolic housing and the poverty.  And when her mother casually greets her with an offer of a cup of tea, Munkara is outraged by her impertinence because her mum can’t possibly be shoe-polish black like this.  She doesn’t cope well with any of it, and flees back to Melbourne, only to experience what she calls an omen which summons her back to her birth family.

Part 2 reprises life with her adoptive family, and it’s grim.  It was a joyless household, and whatever the old bat’s original intentions may have been, her ‘charity’ in adopting an Aboriginal child soon degenerates into hostility and abuse.  Little Marie was taught nothing of her origins, only to disdain Aboriginal people.  There were no allowances made for a small child experiencing culture shock, and her adoptive parents seemed not to understand that she didn’t speak English and could not understand what was expected of her.  Worse than that was that the Northern Territory Welfare Authorities who were supposed to monitor her welfare failed to notice signs of sexual abuse which are obvious in the archival reports that Munkara quotes.  Her one solace was books, and school was a welcome escape…

Part 3 returns to Bathurst Island.  It is a series of hilarious cross-cultural encounters and Munkara’s attempts to impose a little order within the household.  But while much of this is funny, it’s also confronting as we learn that she is afraid to eat, drink and shower because of the lack of hygiene; she is upset because her things are appropriated by other members of the family and then misused or broken; and she can’t buy fresh fruit and vegetables in the store.  On the other hand she enjoys the company of her extended family, likes learning about the kinship systems that underpin it, and has a great time rampaging about in the bush catching bush tucker.  She comes to appreciate the relaxed lifestyle and lack of overbearing rules.

The sad act is, however, that she doesn’t belong.  She realises that this family wants to take something out of my heart and make me black, just like the other family wanted to tame me and make me white. She knows that she is a disappointment and she is ashamed that she waltzed back into her mother’s life as a 28-year-old without even asking how her mother felt about it.

And while there are other mixed race people in her community. she is the only one in her family, and she is the only one who has lived an entire life elsewhere.  She comes to the conclusion that there is no stolen and there is no lost, there is no black and there is no white.  It’s just her, and she has learned to accept herself as she is – and so must they.

The death of Munkara’s mother is one of many poignant moments in this memoir, but this is not a mournful book.  There is too much high-spirited humour in it for that.  And while it shows us that reunions of the Stolen Generations is not simply a matter of matching up the records in dusty archives, it also shows us the resilience that has marked this whole sorrowful story in Australia’s history.

Highly recommended.

Author: Marie Munkara
Title: Of Ashes and Rives that Run to the Sea
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin-Random House), 2016
ISBN: 9780857987273
Review copy courtesy of Penguin-Random House

Available from Fishpond: Of Ashes and Rivers That Flow to the Sea and good bookshops everywhere.

ILW 2016Inside my Mother

For the first of my posts during Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers, I’ve decided to feature poetry, but as I’m not confident about reviewing poetry, I’ve decided that I’ll serve my readers best by providing a link to the best of reviews of this lovely new collection of poems by Ali Cobby Eckermann.

Descended from the Yankunytjatjara language group, Ali Cobby Eckermann was born in 1963, in the Kate Cocks Memorial Babies’ Home in Brighton South Australia.  Run by the Methodist Church from 1954 to 1976, it was an institution for single mothers and their babies, and for children deemed to be in need of care and protection.  In 2011, the Kate Cocks Home was one of those included in the Uniting Church Apology to mothers who were forced to give up their children for adoption.  Ali Cobby Eckerman was one of those children: taken from her mother, adopted out, and not reunited with her mother, Yankunytjatjara woman Audrey Cobby, until three decades later.

Eckermann was the first Aboriginal Australian writer to attend the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2014, and her oeuvre comprises

  • her first collection of poetry, Little Bit Long Time (Picaro Press, 2009);
  • a second collection called Kami (2010);
  • a verse story for children His Father’s Eyes (Oxford University Press, 2011);
  • a memoir Too Afraid to Cry (Ilura Press, 2012);
  • a collection of poems Love Dreaming (Vagabond Press, 2014);
  • a verse novel Ruby Moonlight (Magabala Books, 2015); and
  • this poetry collection, Inside My Mother (Giramondo 2015).

This collection is marked by sadness and a sense of an irrevocable void.  In the Author Note that accompanied the press release from Giramondo Publishing, Eckermann tells us that it was influenced by the grief she felt on the death of her birth mother and her two elder sisters, who are also her mothers.  (If you’re not familiar with Aboriginal kinship structures, click here for an overview.  IMO every Australian should have an understanding of this most fundamental aspect of Aboriginality).

It was a huge time of loss for me, as I had known these women for less than two decades.  I was thirty-four when I first found my mother and began to recover my sense of myself.  Now in their passing I became a matriarch of the family, alongside my sisters and cousins.  This time was compounded also by the passing of traditional cultural mentors and healers in the APY Lands of north-west South Australia, who had given such quality to my life.  I felt empty and scared and began the slow recovery from such profound grief by trying to articulate my feelings.

Yet listening to an Earshot program at Radio National featuring an interview with Eckermann and her warm, rich voice reading some of her poems, I was struck by her sense of calm about the tragic elements of her life.   She mentioned that her eventual meeting with her birth mother was a meeting between two women – an extraordinary situation when you think about it – and she also mentions her delight when she met someone who told her that she looked like her mother.  Since my mother’s death last year I am more conscious of the ways in which I resemble her, and so I can sense the void of growing up without knowing anyone who resembles you.  It seems like an eerie experience to me.

Not all the poems are sad because this collection is also about healing, but some are striking in their depiction of heartbreak.  In ‘Lament’ an old man cannot stop singing his song, because he is the last speaker of my mother tongue.  But in ‘The Last Cuppa’ the generations come together to tend to an old woman at the end of her life:

and she just knew that her daughter
would just know when to come to
dislodge the cup of tea grown cold
from the stiffening of her fingers

and brush her hair.

As is often the case with poetry, text layout is important.  For copyright reasons I have deliberately compressed this image so that you can’t read the poem in its entirety, but here in ‘Severance’ you can see anguish represented in the way the words are arranged on the double page layout.

when your own born child/gets/whisked/away/from/o u t s t r e t c h e d      longing/

Inside My Mother 001

For reviews of the collection, see

  • Anne-Marie Newton at Cordite: I like what this reviewer has to say about the complexity of the poet working at the linguistic crossroads of two cultures – in English but from an Aboriginal perspective; 
  • Emma Rose Smith at the NSW Writers Centre discusses the style and themes with great insight; and
  • Geoff Page at Mascara is interested in the political context of Aboriginal poetry and considers that Inside My Mother is packed with things that non-Indigenous Australians need to know or be reminded about.

I think he’s right, but it’s also a beautiful collection in its own right.

Author: Ali Cobby Eckermann
Title: Inside My Mother
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922146885
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Inside My Mother and direct from Giramondo (where there are also links to other reviews of the collection.)


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