Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 19, 2018

Poor Man’s Wealth, by Rod Usher #BookReview

Sometimes I come across a gem of a book like this and I think, how did this one pass me by when it was first released? Rod Usher is an Australian author who now lives in Spain, and I stumbled on Poor Man’s Wealth in the library.  It turned out to be just the perfect book to read to offset the bleakness of The Story of a Brief Marriage and my only hesitation in recommending it is that you may have difficulty finding a copy.

I picked up the book because Rod Usher’s name was vaguely familiar to me: it’s probably because he was once the literary editor at The Age newspaper.  But Usher is an elusive author, and the most I could find out about him was at this exuberant post at Carol Kean’s blog.  Never mind, this novel speaks for itself, and this book will resonate with anyone who cares about the fate of small towns around the world, places being depopulated because in our crazy globalised world, there is not enough work for young people in rural areas, causing an exodus to cities.

Here is the blurb:

Part fable, part love story, part comi-tragedy, Poor Man´s Wealth is narrated, somewhat unreliably, by El Gordo–the Fat One. He is the mayor of Higot, a dusty village in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country under military rule. He and the secret Marisol Committee–a group of local councillors–dream up a plan to save the village from economic death and the exodus of its young people, especially now that tobacco–their one source of income–is a suspect crop. They start a hoax. El Gordo, whose charming English comes via a library bequeathed to him, argues that the hoax which so changes the life of Higot is no more a deception than, say, the Loch Ness Monster, Ireland´s Blarney Stone, the Colossus of Rhodes… Can they pull it off and attract tourists to unattractive Higot? Will the hunchback Bartolomeo, a sex scandal involving a bicycle, or the military junta blow the hoax apart, see its perpetrators ‘disappeared’? El Gordo takes the reader on a joyous, witty and wise journey through the travails of his village…and his heart.

The characterisation is so vivid that you can’t help but become invested in their fate, you find yourself cheering the love story on from the sidelines, and the plot is so cunningly constructed it will leave you guessing right up to the end.

Although Usher subtly tackles the corruption of the junta and the anxiety it evokes even in an out-of-the-way place like Higot, and there are sly asides about English class consciousness, the tone is comic throughout.  El Gordo’s lack of confidence in himself, his naïveté about so many things, and his stumbles with the intricacies of the English language render him a most lovable narrator:

Marisol Ruiz is not what you English speakers call a chicken of the spring (p.2)

When he had finished the last of the empanadillasGunther looked at his watch and said we should get down to brass business. (p.95)

At the Bar Vals, Enrique Ruiz, a cousin of Marisol in Juar, rented a machine with an arm that picks up a record and plays it.  Only one or two of our songs, the rest what Enrique calls American, which he says is the music young people will pay to hear.  I have listened to some of these songs and I am still not convinced the language is truly English.  (p.121)

I quickly told her I had come to do some tidying in my office and to receive some official visitors.  I am not sure which surprised her more.  Upstairs I moved various columns of papers to leave two chairs empty.  Footsteps could be heard coming up as I scrummaged in the cupboard for the framed photos all mayors must have on the wall.  (p.175)

El Gordo’s adventures with English verse are cheeky.  (An English expat called Mister Giles had made him a bequest of his library).  At a crucial moment in… um… #NoSpoilers! a promising relationship … is saved by the rhythm of the poem ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix‘ by Robert Browning:

I still do not have much more idea of what it means than when Mister Giles first read it to me but, as he said then, I got the thrust of it.

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.  (p.92)

Later on, a verse that comes to mind was one confirming the life I was now living rather than flavouring it with someone else’s sensations:

Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.

As I was swimming into half sleep I considered translating the lines of Mister Donne for #NoSpoilers! <snip>, a cheeky way to teach her the English words of placement. (p.204)

Rarely does one chuckle when reading a book that shows us the marginalised, the poor, the powerless and even the Black Dog of depression.  I do not want to give this book back to the library!

Author: Rod Usher
Title: Poor Man’s Wealth
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, 2011
ISBN: 9780732294519
Source: Kingston Library

Look out for a second-hand copy from Fishpond: Poor Man’s Wealth and yes, if you’re quick Brotherhood Books has one for $7.00.  The only thing that stops me buying this for myself is that I want someone else to be able to enjoy it #TruthBeTold but such altruism may not last.  However, (I hate to say this because you know how I hate The Big Behemoth) you can also get a Kindle edition for $14.00.

It took a while for me to recover after coming to the devastating end of this extraordinary short novel.  I knew what was coming – it is called The Story of a Brief Marriage after all – and from the very first pages when Dinesh, a Sri Lankan evacuee during the Sri Lankan civil war, moves across a blasted landscape with a gravely injured child in his arms, I knew this story could not end well.  But it is so exquisitely crafted, and the character of Dinesh so powerfully wrought, that the reader comes to share his tentative hopes.

Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, The Story of a Brief Marriage is Anuk Arudpragasam’s first novel.  It tells the story of how Dinesh, over the course of a day and a night, moves from a state of numb acceptance of having lost everything, to a hesitant awakening.  The story begins in a refugee camp, one of many which has formed as the civilians try to flee being caught between government forces and what is always referred to as ‘the movement’, which I take to mean the Tamil Tigers.  As the conflict draws in, the refugees are crushed towards the coast, and although Dinesh seems not much more than a boy, there is a constant risk that – if he isn’t killed by the shelling – as an able-bodied male he will  be captured and enlisted to fight for the movement.

‘Able-bodied’ is a relative term.  He has not slept for days, and he has not eaten.  He shed no tears when his mother was killed. But he is strong enough in body to help with bringing the injured to what little help is available.  This is the confronting first paragraph, indicative of pages that made me put the book aside sometimes, to walk outside in the garden to hear the carefree laughter of the children next door:

Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was now about to lose his right arm.  Shrapnel had dissolved his hand and forearm into a soft, formless mass, spilling to the ground from some parts, congealing in others, and charred everywhere else.  Three of the fingers had been fully detached, where they were now it was impossible to tell, and the two remaining still, the index finger and thumb, were dangling from the hand by very slender threads.  They swayed uncertainly in the air, tapping each other quietly, till arriving at last in the operating area Dinesh knelt to the ground, and laid the boy out carefully on an empty tarpaulin.  His chest, it seemed, was hardly moving.  His eyes were closed, and his face was calm, unknowing.  That he was not in the best of conditions there could be no doubt, but all that mattered for the time being was that the boy was safe.  Soon the doctor would arrive and the operation would be done, and in no time at all the arm would be as nicely healed as the already amputated thigh.  (p.1)

(I could not read this book at night at all. I read Rod Usher’s light-hearted Poor Man’s Wealth instead.  More about that later).

It is in this calm, detached tone, that Arudpragasam relates a story that most of us cannot possibly imagine, even though we see images from war zones on our TV screens all the time.   As the shelling of the camp continues, an old man approaches Dinesh, asking if he will consent to marry his daughter Ganga.  Because the story is always narrated by an apparently indifferent narrator but from Dinesh’s traumatised perspective, the reader can only try to comprehend the reasons for this strange offer from this unemotional, weirdly detached ‘logic’:

Whatever she and her father were in disagreement about, Ganga was right that getting married would make no great difference to her safety.  The two of them could always just pretend to be married if it made a difference to how the soldiers treated her, and the chances were good that they would do with her what they wanted in any case, regardless of her marital status.  Why Mr Somasundaram was so anxious for them to get married, then, if this was how things stood, was a little difficult to say.  It was possible naturally that he just wanted to see his daughter married before he died, so he could know she wouldn’t be left alone if he didn’t survive, but this was implausible too since getting married now, he must have known, would more likely hurt Ganga’s prospects than help.  Most probably they would both be killed before the fighting was finished, but on the off chance that she survived while he died she would be forced to live out the rest of her life a widow, whereas if she stayed unmarried there was a chance at least that she could find a husband by herself later on. Getting married was not necessarily in Ganga’s best interests, therefore, and if Mr Somasundaram wanted her married it could not have been for her sake but his own.  Probably it was something he wanted only so he could be free from responsibility for the last member of his family, so that no longer being responsible for anyone, he’d be able to dwell on his shame alone at last and in peace.  (p. 45-6)

Mr Somasundaram’s shame is that he failed in his duty to keep his family safe.  The power of this novella is that it is that calm dispassionate narrator’s logic which makes it so compassionate. When we read that Mr Somasundaram should not be absolved from guilt even in the circumstances of a world that had been unfair to him because it had removed all possibility of him being able to fulfil the responsibility he had undertaken, we refuse to accept this ‘logic’.   It sounds like a heartless politician or a complacent armchair philosopher.  We reject it.

Dinesh marries Ganga in a simple transaction devoid of all ceremony save the tying of her mother’s thaali around Ganga’s neck, and then begins the bittersweet story of Dinesh’s tentative steps towards looking after her and getting to know her.  He thinks it might perhaps be possible to make love before they die, but moments of respectful tenderness leads instead to unexpected release of a different kind.  As the pages creep towards the end of this short novel of only 193 page, the tension becomes almost unbearable.

Colm Tóibín calls The Story of a Brief Marriage ‘one of the best books I have read in years’, and so do I.

Author: Anuk Arudpragasam
Title: The Story of a Brief Marriage
Publisher: Flatiron Books, 2016
ISBN: 9781250075277
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $17.98

Available from Fishpond: The Story of a Brief Marriage


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 18, 2018

Common People, by Tony Birch #BookReview

This collection of 15 short stories by Tony Birch brings us stories of the everyday as it is lived by marginalised people.  The title is ironic, because although it implies that these people are all around, often unseen, they are nonetheless remarkable.

The first story, ‘Ghost Train’ is confronting.  Two single mothers, Marian and Lydia, drive to a remote site in the country for a cash-in-hand meat-packing job which turns out to be in an off-the-grid slaughterhouse.  Marian is wearing a skimpy T-shirt featuring an image of Barack Obama, and on the way to the job she cops some good-natured ribbing from her friend who thinks that the gift of a T-shirt is an inadequate recompense for sleeping with a wife-cheating loser called Justin.  But Marian says she likes it:

Marian ran a fingernail across the word HOPE below the president’s face.  ‘I don’t care.  I love the T-shirt, and the message.  It’s saying, you know, don’t give up. Hope!’ 

‘Are you serious?’

‘Yeah.  There’s nothing wrong with hope, Lydia.  Just because you’ve given up on the world, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to. (p.3)

Marian and her T-shirt are smeared with blood by the time they leave, one hundred and fifty dollars cash each in their pockets.  But Lydia’s day hasn’t done anything to restore any sense of hope because her heart is aching along with her shoulders.  She saw something really grisly when she slipped away from her work and went the wrong way to the toilet.  In the last shipping container they are processing the carcasses of animals that none of us would knowingly eat.  And the manager judges correctly that a guarantee of future work will ensure her silence.

Birch doesn’t romanticise the marginalised: Marian makes assumptions about a Vietnamese woman and is rude about her, within her hearing because she assumes she can’t understand English.  Rose gets a quiet form of comeuppance at the end of the story, which I really liked.

The second story ‘Harmless’ features a 13-year-old loner who takes an interest in a gentle misfit known to all as ‘Harmless’.  People in the community…

… would sometimes offer him help, but Harmless didn’t want help, and let them know without speaking a word.   He used to sleep nights in the bandstand in the middle of the park, except on cold and wet winter nights, when the police would drive by and insist he take up their offer of a bed, a blanket and a hot meal.  (p.15)

Some hard boys from the city beat him up, and that was the trigger for Harmless to make a home for himself in an abandoned timber shack and that is where the narrator goes for help when she finds a girl in trouble.  The town wants to make a heroes of them, but Nan wouldn’t hear of it.  She told me that no good could come from making a public spectacle of myself.  

Readers need to pay close attention to the characterisation in these stories.  This narrator is being brought up by her grandmother, and there’s a complete absence of any other family, though there’s a kindly garage owner who sells them a second-hand bike, and the policeman subverts the stereotype of the heartless copper by negotiating with Harmless for help that he is willing to accept.  (A much less benign copper features in a later story ‘Colours’.)  The husbands in ‘Ghost Train’ have shot through, and the other men are all hard cases which adds to the sense of menace.  The stories don’t feature ‘picket-fence’ families at all, except in ‘Sissy’ where the nuns arrange a holiday for a girl who’s never seen the sea.

A car turned into the street, a rare occurrence in the neighbourhood.  A couple of boys who’d been playing with a rusting three-wheeler bike chased the car as it slowly moved along the road.  Miriam dropped her cigarette and ground it under the heel of her shoe.  The car stopped in front of their house, a powder blue sedan that shined like new.  It was a small car, Sissy noticed, a two-door without a back seat.  She didn’t know anyone who owned a car and Sissy had never ridden in one.  She raised herself slightly out of her chair to catch a glimpse of the driver.  The passenger side window was so clean and shining all she could see was her mother’s apprehensive olive-skinned face reflected back to her.

The car door opened and a woman got out.  Although it was a hot morning she wore a mauve-coloured woollen suit and a straw hat with matching mauve flowers sewn into the brim, shading her pale skin.  She was so white Miriam was certain the lady was ill.  The woman walked around to the front of the car but remained on the road.  Miriam stepped onto the footpath and half curtsied before realising the stupidity of her action.  (p.136)

This story is especially poignant for the way we see an Indigenous single mother reacting as any parent would to the idea of letting her child go away for two weeks with people she doesn’t know, and then accedes to the offer because the opinion of the nuns at Sissy’s school clouds her own better judgement.

My favourite story is ‘Frank Slim.’  The people in these stories don’t access the services that middle-class Australia takes for granted, and a brothel-madam who’s paying protection money to the police doesn’t have any expectation that they might help when she is menaced by a very unsavoury character.   She also rejects the idea of any help from Welfare when one of her ‘girls’ shoots through, leaving her 12-year-old son behind.  But Viola has her own solutions to these problems, and her own ‘community’ doesn’t let her down.

There are not many authors who can override my preference for the novel with a collection of short stories, but Tony Birch is one of them.

PS That arresting cover design and illustration is by Josh Durham from Design by Committee.

Author: Tony Birch
Title: Common People
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2017
ISBN: 9780702259838
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Common People


A Whole Life is an unusual book to be an international bestseller.  It’s a very quiet book, a kind of elegy for a very quiet, solitary man.  I’ve seen it compared somewhere to Stoner by John Williams but although their principal characters share the same stoicism there isn’t the same sense of a life subordinate to self-sacrifice.  Stoner, a college professor, gives up the love of his life because in America at that time divorce would have destroyed not only his career but also hers – and that sacrifice would change them both in ways that would harm their love.  But (without in any way diminishing the integrity of either character), it seems to me that in A Whole Life Andreas Eggar is more of an Everyman.  He leads a much more humble life, he has very few choices, and he loses the love of his life through a natural disaster not through any noble self-sacrifice.  Seethaler’s novella is more about the quiet heroism of an ordinary man just getting by in a world that doesn’t care about him at all.  He represents any man who somehow survives an awful childhood without having his spirit broken, who plods through schooling that’s irrelevant to his needs and then drifts through low-paid casual work, and who serves his country in a war he doesn’t understand and is then punished for being on the losing side.  And he doesn’t even have the joys of family life because of the way fate served him.

A Whole Life starts in 1933, a date that many of us associate with Hitler’s rise to power, but the remote mountains of Austria are far away from the shrieking demagogue.  The village where Eggars arrived as a child in 1902 was still farming by hand with axe and scythe, and cars and tractors have not yet replaced the horse and cart.  The story begins with a curious episode that juxtaposes Death and Love on a day that Eggars will never forget.  He was rescuing a near-comatose goatherd from a lonely death on the mountain when the goatherd got up off the stretcher and ran away from the Cold Lady of Death, never to be seen again.  Afterwards, taking a restorative drink at the inn, Andreas then sees a lovely young woman:

All his life Andreas Eggar would look back on this moment, again and again: that brief  smile that afternoon in front of the  quietly crackling guesthouse stove. (p.8)

Episodes from the past fill in the backstory but don’t seem to disrupt the chronology because even though progress comes to the valley there is a pervading sense of timelessness.  The calm, measured prose reports on joy and tragedy with equal poise, rendered exquisitely in this translation by Charlotte Collins.  Things are like this, it seems to say.  They always were, and they always will be.    So we learn that after a brutal childhood at the hands of his uncle, Andreas left home with little skill or education, and a limp.  But he is immensely strong, and he has a quiet, stubborn confidence in himself.  He gets by with labouring jobs, sleeping rough in barns and sheds because he likes his own company.  He is self-sufficient because his needs are few, and the story of how he gets the money to woo and wed his sweetheart is as poignant as anything you may read in contemporary fiction.

Tragedy strikes, and Eggars is on his own again when the war reaches their hamlet.  The book records his mild surprise when he is eventually conscripted when he had previously failed the medical, but does not labour the point.  The reader understands what Andreas does not: that Germany is losing the war.

Of all the pages in this melancholy book, the story of Andreas’ time as a Russian prisoner of war is the most grim.

Helmut Moidaschl was the first in a long line of people Egger saw die in Voroshilovgrad.  The very night they arrived he was seized with a heavy fever, and his screams, stifled by the shreds of his blanket, filled the barracks for hours.  The next morning they found him lying dead in a corner, half-naked, doubled over, both fists pressed against his temples.

After a few weeks, Egger stopped counting the dead.  They were buried in a little birch wood behind the camp.  Death belonged to life like mould to bread.  Death was a fever.  It was a crack in the wall of the barracks and the winter wind whistling through.  (p.86)

He spends six years in Russia, and comes back to a different world.  His old employer had gone bankrupt just after the war.  There are new buildings, there are shiny new cars, and day-trippers and holiday makers throng to the ski-slopes.  He accepts all these changes with silent amazement and takes on work as a guide.  He has an opportunity to meet with his hateful old uncle, and acquits himself with dignity.  He makes no complaints.

But he is always alone, and silent, and private.  He makes no mark upon the world.

Author: Robert Seethaler
Title: A Whole Life
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Publisher: Picador, 2015, first published as
Ein ganzes Leben in 2014.
ISBN: 9781447281894
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: A Whole Life

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 15, 2018

Mr Hogarth’s Will, by Catherine Helen Spence #BookReview

Over at The Australian Legend, Bill is hosting a week (15-21 January) dedicated to the first generation of Australian women writers which he defines as those writers who came before the 1890s and the Sydney Bulletin ‘Bush Realism’ school, although many of them continued writing into the first part of the 20th century, though as he notes, most Australian writing before 1850 consists of letters and journals and novels only began to be published after that. What to read for this ‘week’ was an easy choice for me, because I’ve had Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865) on my TBR since Sue at Whispering Gums recommended it to me, and it has turned out to be utterly absorbing reading.

Catherine Helen Spence by Maude Gordon c 1900 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) migrated to Australia in 1839 aged 14, in the wake of her father’s financial difficulties, and as Dale Spender notes in the introduction, Australia turned out to be the right place for the restoration of the family’s fortunes.  As Luke Slattery showed in his novel Mrs M, Australia’s egalitarian ethos in the colony enabled social mobility even during the convict years whereas enduring class consciousness and snobbery about family ancestry in British society solidified divisions which could not be transcended.  There was no way ‘up’ but there were plenty of ways ‘down’, the most obvious of which was financial embarrassment (as we see in the novels of Dickens).

But as Mr Hogarth’s Will shows with striking clarity, there were structural reasons for a decline in family fortunes.  Inheritance law and custom meant that amongst the propertied classes, an eldest son inherited almost everything, while second and successive sons went into the military or the cloth or failing that, disappeared into some sort of administrative role in the far away colonies.  Going into business was not gentlemanly.  It was not done.  And the absence of all these eligible young men in faraway places meant that there were numerous young women educated for the prospect of marriage but with little chance of achieving it. For them, if an inheritance annuity was not forthcoming, the only employment option was to be a governess.

Which is what happens to Jane and Alice (Elsie) Melville in Mr Hogarth’s Will.  The eccentric Hogarth, despite the remonstrances of his lawyer, made a Will which effectively disinherited them so that they would not be courted for their fortune, and left his estate to a formerly unacknowledged illegitimate son called Francis.  It was Mr Hogarth’s intention that the young ladies should be independent and work for their living, but he has not had them educated with what was essential to become governesses to other young ladies.  These subjects were called The Accomplishments’ (playing piano, singing, drawing, painting, needlework, French &c); he has had them taught the ‘mannish’ subjects of Latin and Greek, mathematics, agricultural chemistry and mineralogy.  Admirably educated for teaching boys, or for book-keeping, accountancy or other administrative work, Jane searches for work everywhere but the doors to employment are closed because of her gender.  Alice, meanwhile, is that staple ‘delicate’ young woman of 19th century literature.  Sweet, pretty and fragile, she feels the loss of their middle-class expectations more keenly than the plain and practical Jane, i.e. Alice weeps a lot and goes into a decline.  Alice has grown up having allowances made for her ‘delicacy’, so in their present change of circumstances all that is expected of her is that she should try to do something not too taxing such as needlework or writing sentimental poems.  Stoic Jane shoulders this burden willingly but things seem all the harder for her because she is confronted with the reality while sheltering Alice from it.

Former friends, neighbours and a potential suitor pity and patronise Jane and Alice, but no one offers them any help. Things come to such a pass that the only accommodation they can afford is in a working-class district of Edinburgh with a returned colonial called Peggy who is supporting a brood of orphaned nephews as a washerwoman.

Mr Hogarth’s Will, to add insult to injury, includes a clause that prevents Francis from helping Jane and Alice in any way, specifically prohibiting marriage and ensuring that the money goes to charity if any of the conditions are breached.  And as you would expect in a 19th century Cinderella novel, Francis falls in love with one of these girls that he is forbidden to marry. The other attracts the attention of a colonial called Brandon who,  anticipating the #MeToo hashtag controversy, has come to their disapproving attention via Peggy’s story of his ‘inappropriate’ behaviour back in Australia.

Mr Hogarth’s Will is not, despite its romantic entanglements and happy resolution, a soppy romance.  The plot is absorbing over the full length of the book because the girls’ problems seem insurmountable and this novel is an early example of feminist realism in an entertaining package.   Spence was on a mission to expose the structural problem of female unemployment and the poverty of single women.  In an extended dialogue between Jane and Mr Rennie at the bank, Jane tackles his refusal to give her work.  She demolishes all his reasons, notably that her presence would distract the young men from their work, that women can’t be trusted with confidential information, and that employing women reduces employment for family men supporting families.  And when he expresses sympathy for their difficult circumstances, she has a swift rebuttal because her search for work has taught her that she is just one of many others, all competing for the same poorly paid work that offers little hope of advancement or any chance of improvement in their circumstances:

… ‘You know there are enormous numbers of single women and widows in this country who must be supported, either by their own earnings or by those of the other sex, for they must live, you know.’
Mr Rennie smiled at Jane’s earnestness.
‘You smile, “on ne voit pas la necessité”*, said Jane.  “I dare say it would really be better for us to die.’
‘I am sure nothing was further from my lips than either the language or the sentiment.  I think your case especially hard – especially hard.’
‘I thought it was, till I heard of these numerous applications; and the sad thing to me is, that it is not especially hard…’ (p.39)

*”We do not see the need”.

Australian $5 note (Source: Wikipedia, this use compliant with RBA restrictions)

Along the way, Spence also pokes fun at British condescension about colonists; satirises the publishing industry and its formulaic products; and includes some (mercifully not too long) rants about politics (and her pet project, proportional representation).   These political opinions are digestible within the novel because they are delivered in dialogue by a lively cast of characters – and they have historical significance today because Spence’s career went on to include standing as the first female candidate for parliament in 1897 and being a potent activist for social, economic and electoral reform.

Australian 10c stamp (1975) (Source: Wikitree, Notable Australians)

Catherine Helen Spence was honoured on the Centenary of Federation $5 note, and she was also commemorated on a 10c stamp in 1975.  Miles Franklin named her as the  “Greatest Australian Woman” and on Spence’s 80th birthday she was named as a “Grand Old Woman of Australia’.  The Art Gallery of South Australia apparently has a posthumous portrait painted by her protégé Margaret Preston (known at that time as Rose McPherson), but all my attempts to find it using their collection search function have failed.  But if Wikitree: Notable Australians is correct, and the Preston painting was used as the source for the stamp image, it makes her look like a sour old woman compared to the painting by Maude Gordon, which portrays her a lively personality with twinkling eyes and an amused smile. Which is much more in keeping with the witty style and clever humour of Mr Hogarth’s Will.

Thanks for the recommendation, Sue!

Update 17/1/18 Thanks to Katherine Burton at the NLA who did a search of this series for me, I can now tell you  the following titles were published as part of the Penguin Australian Women’s Library:

  • The Peaceful Army edited by Flora Eldershaw (1988)
  • Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence (1988)
  • The Fortunes of Mary Fortune by Mary Fortune (1989)
  • Kirkham’s Find by Mary Gaunt (1988),
  • The Letters of Rachel Henning (1988)
  • Mo Burdekin by Sarah Campion (1990)
  • Sisters by Ada Cambridge (1989)
  • Jungfrau by Dymphna Cusack (1989)
  • The Penguin Anthology of Australian Women’s Writing (1988)

The rest of the titles are about women’s writing but not, as far as I can tell, actually reissues of titles or collected works from the period.  A bit of a lost opportunity IMO.

Author: Catherine Helen Spence
Title: Mr Hogarth’s Will (first published in Australia as Uphill Work but Mr Hogarth’s Will in Britain)
Introduction by Dale Spender
Publisher: Penguin Australian Women’s Library, Penguin Australia, 1988, first published 1865.
ISBN: 9780140112337, 439 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Diversity Books, $6.00

Don’t even think about buying it new: all I could find at Fishpond or The Book Depository were very expensive ‘heritage series’ or scholarly editions.  But Fishpond does sometimes have second-hand copies: if you search for it there, scroll down the results until (if you are lucky) you see one tagged New and Used… on the day I looked there had been one at $16.99.  Other places to look for second-hand copies are Brotherhood Books and Diversity Books and also AbeBooks.  But do be careful: Mr Hogarth’s Will was originally published in three separate volumes, and the listings don’t always make it clear whether you are getting the whole book or not.

If you can bear it, you can read Mr Hogarth’s Will as a pdf courtesy of Sydney University.  But don’t print it out, the novel is 439 pages long!

Or try your library…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 12, 2018

Heloise, by Mandy Hager #BookReview

Heloise, Mangy Hager’s first work of fiction for adults, has been longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and it turned out to be interesting reading, though *chuckle* perhaps not in the way that its author intended it to be.  It is a retelling of a story many already know: the doomed love of the famous 12th century French lovers whose letters have come to exemplify passion and romance for a thousand years.  Hager’s novel, the blurb tells us, offers a plausible interpretation of the known facts and a vivid imagining of the gaps in the lives of the philosopher and theologian Peter Abélard – who was compelled to be celibate by his position as a secular canon – but who seduced his younger pupil-scholar Héloïse d’Argenteuil who subsequently became his not-so-secret wife and then a reluctant nun. Both of them paid a terrible price for their forbidden love, which makes for a good story even if you already know its outline.  But what made it interesting for me was its problematic aspects…

In order to discuss this, it is necessary to reveals elements of the story, so be warned:


The novel is written entirely from Heloise’s point-of-view, tracing her rescue from an unhappy foster-home to her uncle’s Fulbert’s care and placement in a convent at Argenteuil, now a suburb of Paris.  There she gains access to education from the Jewish convert Saris, learning Latin and Greek and exploring the works of Ovid and Virgil.  But when the convent is closed due to political manoeuvring, Heloise takes shelter under her uncle’s roof in Paris, and pining for her lost education opportunities, she discreetly attends male-only lectures by the famous teacher Abelard.  Highly intelligent, Heloise is frustrated by the restrictions on education for girls in this medieval era and is delighted when her uncle allows Abelard to take lodgings with him and to teach the teenage Heloise.  They enjoy intellectual word play and robust discussions, but eventually the first of the problematic incidents takes place.  Their mutual attraction and shared passion leads to him forcing himself on her.  In this novel, although she loves him and he loves her, it is unquestionably rape.

And she forgives him.

It turns out that she has quite a lot of forgiving to do.  Hager’s Abelard is selfish, arrogant, domineering and impulsive, and eventually Heloise comes to realise that what she interpreted as concern for her welfare, was more likely protecting his own interests and safety.  But – fascinated by his mind and convinced of his intellectual legacy – she forgives him for hiding her away with his family when she is pregnant, (and failing to protect her, in her innocence, from that).  He fails to protect her from her enraged uncle’s fists as well, and the violence of Fulbert’s fury almost kills her, but oh yes, she forgives him too.

Heloise forgives Abelard for neglecting her for months while he is busy with his career, failing to write and to visit, leaving her in a state of constant anxiety about his fate and hers.  But when he eventually does turn up, forcing himself on her a mere three weeks after the birth (ouch!) she is so delighted that he shows some interest in his son that she overlooks it all, going on to forgive him for lying to her about the fate of this infant son so that she doesn’t see Astrolabe again until his adolescence; for making her go through a sham secret marriage; and for finally forcing her to take the veil though she has consistently rejected that option because she cherishes her independence. And not until very late in the novel does Heloise ever contemplate career options for Abelard that would have enabled them to be together.

So when I encountered these problematic aspects of the novel that portray Abelard in a less-than-flattering light, and Heloise’s loving letters are quoted in the wake of behaviour that most of us would consider unforgiveable, and all this reprehensible and unloving behaviour is excused by a diagnosis of Abelard’s ‘mania’ (this, made a thousand years after the man has died) and the very young Heloise has the wisdom to be understanding about it, well – handicapped by not knowing which aspects of the novel are based on solid research and which are plausible interpretations or a vivid imagining of the gaps – my ‘credibility antennae’ start to quiver.

I don’t want to read a novel like Heloise only to have to spend my time tracking down the authenticity of the research on which it’s based, but what on earth is a card-carrying 20th century feminist to think about this? Heloise as befits a somewhat rebellious personality has her moments of doubt, but they are always resolved with forgiveness and understanding.

Here’s an example, when in a moment of crisis, a stanza from one of Abelard’s poems torments her:

Be my spirit for me… This phrase tolls on while every wrong he ever did her unfurls like a court roll in her head.  His bodily force, his vanity, his total absorption with himself, his insistence on marriage and that she take the veil, the stealing of her son…

Be my spirit for me… And yet, and yet… had he not also marvelled at her mind and shared the tools to open it?  Had he not woken the woman in her and enabled that fleeting glimpse of Heaven? He rarely talked down to her; he listened and valued her input into his works.  He may be a man with many failings, no doubt of that, but is not everyone imperfect?  Surely this is the lesson of Adam and Eve?  Godlike perfection may be the ideal to strive towards, but in the garden somewhere will always lurk a snake.  (p.235)

Maybe that is really how it was, but all the same, it’s a strange message to send to a contemporary readership, especially in the wake of issues raised in this post by WA author Rashida Murphy.

PS The church infighting about obscure matters of theology is, I guess, necessary for the storyline, but I found it detracted from the narrative drive.

But for an entirely different reaction to mine, do listen to this podcast at Radio NZ.  Elisabeth Easther is almost breathless in her enthusiasm and she shares none of my misgivings at all!

Alys on the Blog has a fine review as well.

Author: Mandy Hager
Title: Heloise
Publisher: Penguin Random House New Zealand, 2017
ISBN: 9780143770992
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $30.50 AUD

Available from Fishpond: Heloise

Season of Migration to the North (1966) is not the first book I have read from Sudan, but it is unquestionably the most famous one.  It is featured in some editions of 1001 Books; it was named as the most important Arabic novel of the 20th Century by the Arab Literary Academy in 2001; and its author Tayeb Salih (1929-2009) was considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize.  Given a second life in 2009 when Season of Migration to the North was reissued for the influential NYRB Classics series, the novel was first brought to my attention by enticing reviews at Reading Matters, and Intermittences of the Mind, and then it was included in Radio National’s (now defunct) Africa Reading Club.  And although it is a difficult book to make sense of, it is well worth reading for those of us who would like to understand more about the culture of the growing Sudanese community in Australia.

When I say that it is a difficult book ‘to make sense of’, I don’t mean that it’s hard to understand what’s happens in the novel.  The plot is reasonably straightforward: in the 1960s, in an unsettled period in his home country of Sudan, an unnamed narrator returns home to his village.  He has been studying literature in the UK, and he is hoping to make a difference in his newly independent homeland.  He expects to find everything much the same in this small village where everyone knows everyone else, and spends his first days at home revisiting the places of his youth, catching up with relations and renewing old friendships.  But he soon discovers a recent arrival to the village, an enigmatic stranger called Mustafa Sa’eed, and to his astonishment one day this man starts reciting English war poetry in a perfect English accent.  It turns out that he had studied abroad too.

Eventually, in a story within the story,  Mustafa comes clean with the dirty secrets of his hidden past.  In England he had become a notable economist, destined to help his country emerge into nationhood, but – resentful of the way he was constantly exoticised by women – he pandered to their Oriental fantasies, with disastrous results.  Reinforcing the stereotype of the ‘Dangerous Black Man’  he murders one of these women,  but he is given only a light sentence in a bizarre trial reminiscent of the trial of Meersault in Camus’ The Outsider.  He is not really on trial for what he has done, he is on trial for being disassociated from the culture in which he finds himself, and for his lack of emotion.

No sooner has all this been revealed than Sa’eed abruptly disappears, leaving the narrator confused and angry, because – in a breach of village traditions – Sa’eed has bequeathed responsibility for his wife and two sons to him, rather than to the wife’s father and brothers.  This infantilising treatment of a woman is one of many moments in this novel to make a feminist bristle…

There is also a much quoted episode where the men of the village gather together to drink and gossip and boast about their conquests.  Women know that many men do this behind our backs but it is always unpleasant to come across it in fiction, because it makes it harder to ignore the fact that this smutty objectification of women happens in real life (and perhaps even among the apparently nice men that we know or have to work with).  But this behaviour is not hidden in the novel.  It is overt: there is even a token woman present.  There is an obvious temptation to interpret this and other misogynistic sequences as indicative of the way a different culture openly treats women with contempt, but the issue os not addressed in the otherwise excellent introduction by Leila Lalami.  (Kim calls it out in her review, noting that the line between sexual violence and eroticism does feel blurred in places, and the book, unsurprisingly, has been condemned in the past for being pornographic).

It was not until I listened to the discussion at Radio National that I began to grasp the postcolonial purpose of the misogyny:  (see here, starting at 13:00).  Salih himself in a 1997 interview talks about how his novel was an early example of identifying Orientalism, showing how people look at each other through a haze of stereotyping of the Other and there are misunderstandings on both sides.  One of Michael Cathcart’s guests, Prof David McKinnon expands on this in his explanation of what postcolonial literature exposes: by inverting the tropes of a book like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it shows us that one culture has an apparatus for describing the means of representation of the Other  – they own the narrative and they get to tell the stories in their own terms.  So, if I understand it correctly, in this episode,  an exaggerated cast of men represent the condescending coloniser exploiting and belittling the colonised (women).  It is significant then, that the token (old i.e. desexed) woman remains silent on the matter of female circumcision; she joins in some of the bawdy talk because she thinks she is accepted by the men and can share their narrative, but when it comes to the mutilation of women’s bodies, she is silenced.  The narrative is theirs: there is no place for a narrative that the men cannot share because they do not know or understand the Female Other.  This scene exposes the way that Sudanese might delude themselves that they are accepted as equal but the truth is that Europeans do not even know about, much less understand Sudanese traditions and therefore these traditions are excluded by the dominant narrative.

The narrator is a moral contrast to Sa’eed, not only in his determination to grant autonomy to a woman who wants to remain free, but also in his awareness of shared humanity.  Early in the novel he responds to curious questions about Europe by saying:

As best I could I answered their many questions.  They were surprised when I told them that Europeans were, with minor differences, exactly like them, marrying and bringing up their children in accordance with principles and traditions, that they had good morals and were in general good people.

‘Are there any farmers among them? Mahjoub asked me.

‘Yes, there are some farmers among them.  They’ve got everything – workers and doctors and farmers and teachers, just like us.’  I preferred not to say the rest that had come to mind: that just like us they are born and die, and in the journey from the cradle to the grave they dream dreams some of which come true and some of which are frustrated; that they fear the unknown, search for love and seek contentment in wife and child; that some are strong and some are weak; that some have been given more than they deserve by life while others have been deprived by it, but that the differences are narrowing and most of the weak are no longer weak.  I did not say this to Mahjoub, though I wish I had done so, for he was intelligent; in my conceit I was afraid he would not understand.  (p.5)

But as Leila Lalami points out in the introduction, there is no rosy conciliation between modernity and tradition in the novel.  The narrator with his PhD in poetry does not fit easily back into village life, and there is irony in his attendance at a Pan-African education conference in a glitzy modern building where they meet for days and days to standardise the curriculum – when there are not enough teachers and schools to teach it.  The hopes and dreams of independence are frustrated by corruption and greed because, says Salih, the colonisers trained their replacements to think as they do.  In the Guardian obituary of 2009 Salih is quoted as saying “I have redefined the so-called east-west relationship as essentially one of conflict, while it had previously been treated in romantic terms,” and that’s certainly true.  It’s not an optimistic picture, which today, more than 50 years after the book was written, seems all the more devastating given the long postcolonial history of Sudan’s civil war and its spawn in the ongoing civil war in South Sudan.

Author: Tayeb Salih
Title: Season of Migration to the North
Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies
Introduction by Laila Lalami
Publisher: NYRB Classics, 2009, first published 1966 in Arabic, 1969 in English in the Heinemann African Writers Series
ISBN: 9781590173022
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $16.25 AUD

Available from Fishpond: Season of Migration to the North


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 8, 2018

Incredible Floridas, by Stephen Orr #BookReview

Stephen Orr is one of my favourite authors, and I have read (and reviewed) all of his fiction except for his debut novel Attempts to Draw Jesus (2002) which I have yet to find.  Although each book he writes takes us into a different Australian landscape, there are common themes:  a nostalgia for the intimacy and eccentricities of suburban life as his generation lived it in the 1960s and 70s; a preoccupation with the relationship between father-figures and sons; and the impositions of parental ambition on the next generation.

Where The Hands, an Australian Pastoral (2015) focussed on the intergenerational inheritance issues of a hard-scrabble farming family, Incredible Floridas revisits the theme of Dissonance (2012) which explored the conflicts between creative ambition and normal family life.  And whereas Dissonance is loosely based on the life of the composer Percy Grainger, for Incredible Floridas Orr has chosen a well-known Australian painter as the inspiration for his central character Roland Griffin.  By the descriptions of the artworks and the workings of Roland’s imagination, the reader can see that Roland is loosely modelled on Russell Drysdale (1912-1981).  Similarly caught in the cross-currents of post-war art, Roland finds that his landscapes with iconic figures of Indigenous people and outback battlers are being displaced by abstractionism, and at the same time in the State Gallery of SA he is disappointed by the classical paintings on display because they’re not about Australian life. Galleries have bought Roland’s paintings but no longer hang them, and the Archibald Prize rejects his latest work.  Nevertheless, in the middle of the catastrophic drought during the war years Roland takes his family into the devastated ghost towns of the interior and sketches the people doing it tough in what’s left of the towns.  He admires the optimism of the people who are hanging on and he believes passionately that he has something to contribute to urban people who know nothing of the hardships of people on the land.

But the novel is not primarily about the travails of an artist’s life.  It is more about a man whose son has committed suicide, and the inevitable guilt and what-ifs that ensue.  In some ways it is similar to Time’s Long Ruin (2010) which tackled the aftermath of a disappearance reminiscent of the disappearance of the Beaumont Children in 1966.  Incredible Floridas also explores what I described in my review as the endless, hopeless swirl of thoughts about who, and how, and why.   The guilt about what could have been prevented, about anger and discipline and careless words, the anguished recollection of unkind acts and sins of omission that all parents inevitably commit.  But in this novel, things are more complex.  It is not a case of innocents stolen away by someone evil.   Roland’s son Hal is a very difficult child indeed and he drives everyone to distraction: his parents, his sister Sonia, his neighbours, his teachers and the other children in his neighbourhood.  It is not until his late adolescence that his problems are finally recognised and diagnosed and the reader knows from the beginning of the book that it was too late by then.

The novel begins in 1962 when the tragedy has just occurred, and the rest of the novel traces events from 1944 onwards as Roland Griffin reflects on his priorities – his art, and fatherhood.  So the tone is melancholy and nostalgic, but not grim.  Memories are the everyday stuff of family life, delivered in fractured dialogue, seguing from one scene to another as Hal’s life unfolds.  Like his namesake in Hamlet, Hal is tormented by personal demons that he does not understand but unlike Hamlet he is not fatherless.  His father is often psychologically absent because Roland Griffin is preoccupied by his art, but he’s not a bad father: he just can’t sustain being there for this most difficult child when he needs to be making his living with his art.  He is out of his depth, trying to deal with Hal’s irrational outbursts of increasing savagery.  A fight at school puts a boy in hospital; he sets off fireworks on the dance floor at a Legacy dance.

His parents blame the brutal honesty of other children who know Hal is not normal, they blame the inadequacies of the school and they blame themselves.  They try to protect Hal from the consequences of his thieving and violence, and there is also kindness and understanding from their neighbour Sam and his grandmother Nan.  But as Hal’s behaviours escalate their marriage comes under increasing strain while also impacting on their daughter Sonia.  The novel shows the strain of a past era when women looked to men to be providers:

This was the problem with wives, Roland guessed.  They had no intention of letting a man return to his childhood, which, it seemed to him, was the only place wroth returning to.  They wanted them working, earning, saying sensible things, not painting, dreaming away the days, making unfunny jokes and buying ruined buildings in ghost towns.  Men had to be made sensible.  (p.140)

The title is, I think, an allusion to a poem called Le Bateau Ivre (The Drunken Boat) by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), who influenced the development of surrealism.  The poem describes of a poet trying to spread harmony and understanding through the visions of a boat lost at sea and the disillusionment when the spell breaks and there is only a sense of failure and imprisonment.

I struck against, you know, unbelievable Floridas
Mingling with flowers panthers’ eyes and human
Skin! Rainbows stretched like bridal reins
Under the horizon of the seas to greenish herds!

(Arthur Rimbaud, “The Drunken Boat” from Complete Works, Selected Letters, translated by Wallace Fowlie. Copyright © 2005 by Wallace Fowlie.  Reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press at The Poetry Foundation. )

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: Incredible Floridas
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743055076
Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: Incredible Floridas


This is the first in what I hope will be a series where debut Australian authors have the opportunity to spruik their novel!

Rachel Leary, photo by Kirsty Argyle

First up are Tassie author Rachel Leary, featured in Meet an Aussie Author late last year – and Louise Allan from WA. Many of you will know Louise from her blog series Writers in the Attic.

Rachel’s first novel is Bridget Crack which I reviewed a little while ago.  The book is published by Allen & Unwin, ISBN: 9781760295479

Bridget Crack is a young working class women transported to Van Diemen’s Land.  Raised by an uncaring step-mother she is emotionally reserved, seemingly-tough and recalcitrant.  In England she married an irresponsible man, which ultimately led to her transportation to the other side of the world.  In Van Diemen’s Land she must now contend with the life of an indentured servant.  In trying to both survive and wrestle some control over her circumstances she flees from her neglectful, taciturn master’s service, only to become lost in the bush.  Here she falls in with bad company.  Matt Brady is a bushranger, a man on the run.  Alluring, but confusing and volatile she becomes increasingly trapped in his world.  Now, viewed as bushranger’s whore, how can she find her way out of the marginal, wild lands?

Captain Marshall, Bridget’s first master in the colony, is a soldier, a man from a merchant family married to a would-be aristocrat. He could possibly save Bridget, but does he have what it takes to be a hero? He, like Bridget, must come to terms with this strange new land, and who and what he is within it.  The British are here to civilise wilderness and its ‘savages’, to use this land as their God intended, and to redeem sinners and criminals.  Marshall is expected to embrace this cause, but why does he find himself increasingly uncomfortable?  Set at a time when tension between the aboriginals and the settlers is rising, Bridget Crack charts a women’s journey through wilderness and a her quest to survive the darkness of humanity.

You can buy the book from all good bookstores including Fishpond: Bridget Crack .

And then we have Louise Allan’s first novel, ‘The Sisters’ Song’,  out now with Allen and Unwin, ISBN 9781760296315. The manuscript has previously been shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle—TAG Hungerford Award and awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship.   Louise grew up in Tasmania but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her first career was as a doctor, but in 2010 she ceased practising medicine and took up writing. She has had several short stories, essays and articles published in literary anthologies and medical journals.   Apart from writing, Louise also enjoys music, photography, walking and nature.  You can find her at her website, on Facebook, at Twitter, and Instagram.


This is the blurb for The Sisters’ Song:

Set in rural Tasmania from the 1920s to the 1990s, The Sisters’ Song traces the lives of two very different sisters. One for whom giving and loving are her most natural qualities and the other who cannot forgive and forget.

As children, Ida loves looking after her younger sister, Nora, but when their beloved father dies in 1926, everything changes. The two girls move in with their grandmother who is particularly encouraging of Nora’s musical talent. Nora eventually follows her dream of a brilliant musical career, while Ida takes a job as a nanny and their lives become quite separate.

The two sisters are reunited as Nora’s life takes an unwelcome direction and she finds herself, embittered and resentful, isolated in the Tasmanian bush with a husband and children. Ida longs passionately for a family and when she marries Len, a reliable and good man, she hopes to soon become a mother. Over time, it becomes clear that this is never likely to happen. In Ida’s eyes, it seems that Nora possesses everything in life that could possibly matter yet she values none of it.

Over a span of seventy years, the strengths and flaws of motherhood are revealed through the mercurial relationship of these two very different sisters. ‘The Sisters’ Song’ speaks of dreams, children and family, all entwined with a musical thread that binds them together.

And here Louise shares the story of how she came to write her book:

My first book, The Sisters’ Song, is about two sisters, one of whom dearly wants a family, while the other dreams of being an opera singer. Needless to say, neither sister’s dreams are realised, and the story is about how each deals with their loss and grief.

There’s a quote at the beginning of my book: ‘There are some women not meant to have children, and there are others born to do nothing else.’

For millennia, motherhood and children were considered the ultimate goal of a woman’s life, and throughout history many intelligent and creative women were never given the opportunity to develop their potential. Today, we’re meant to consider ourselves lucky because we can have careers as well as motherhood, but even now a woman who chooses not to have children is considered odd.

I drew inspiration from my antecedents, creative and intelligent women whose talents weren’t encouraged or allowed to flourish, but who married young and had large families. My great-grandmother, for example, was married at 16, and by the time she was widowed at the age of 27, had six children. A few years later, she took to her bed where she made exquisitely beautiful handcrafts for the next 26 years. I used to think she was selfish, but now I see it was her way of surviving.

My grandmother had eight children, and, although the pill was available in her latter reproductive years, she wouldn’t use contraception because of her strict Catholicism. She complained with each pregnancy and mistreated her kids, and I wonder if having child after unwanted child really was the best way to serve God. She was intelligent and artistic, and I wonder how much of her mistreatment of her kids was due to frustration at not being able to use her intellect and creativity.

I pondered all of this as I wrote my story, as well as my own sometimes conflicting feelings between caring for my family and pursuing my own dreams and hopes.

You can buy Louise’s book from all good bookstores including Fishpond:  The Sisters’ Song

Debut authors of literary fiction who would like the opportunity to be featured in Debut Mondays, should read the ANZLitLovers review policy to get an idea of the scope, style and readership of this blog and get in touch if interested.


Here’s the first #6Degrees for 2018!  Hosted by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best this month’s starter book is The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith and I’ve read it, because my mother loved it.  I used to buy the latest incarnation of the series for her birthdays, Christmas, Mothers’ Days and was always pleased that McCall Smith was so prolific!

My mother also loved Pride and Prejudice. (Don’t we all?)  This set of Austen’s was my mother’s, each one quaintly inscribed with ‘Mrs Hill’.  I can’t imagine any woman doing that these days!  These books have charming illustrations by C.E. Brock (though that’s not acknowledged in the book, I had to do a Google search to find out); an introduction by R. Brimley Johnson; and were published by Readers Union, by permission of J. M. Dent and Sons, who, the verso page tells me, were the original publishers.  Wikipedia says otherwise: it credits T. Egerton, Whitehall as the original publisher…

The fiction I read these days confines art work to the covers, and often not even then.  Michelle de Kretser deserved a better cover than the one on The Life to Come.  It conveys nothing at all about the book, which explores the way that assumptions about ourselves and others impact on relationships in all kinds of ways in a muticultual society.

OTOH, the cover of What’s Yours is Mine, equally simple, and probably equally cheap to do since it also just uses text, tells you a lot about the book!

I’m also attracted by book titles, of course, but they can be deceptive.  Adrian Mitchell’s The Beachcomber’s Wife is a good title (with a great cover), and an enjoyable book on the theme of women’s lives being subservient to others, but I would never have picked up a book with a dull title like The Adventures of Augie March if it hadn’t been written by Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow.

So yes, my choices are influenced by the fame of the writer, but only up to a point.  At the end of the day it’s the words between the pages that matter, and even notable writers have their duds.  (Yes, Iris Murdoch, I’m looking at you).  That’s why I’m always open to reading debut authors.  It’s hard to choose a favourite, but a debut that I really liked from last year was Michalia Arathimos’ AukatiArathimos is writing about contemporary NZ issues of cultural identity as well as the complexities of contemporary political protest, and these issues are just as relevant to Australian readers.

Next month’s book is Lincoln in the Bardo, a book I sent back to the library after the obligatory 50 pages.  But I’ll do my best not to write a negative #6Degrees – I’d much rather write about books I like than ones I didn’t.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 4, 2018

The Earth Cries Out, by Bonnie Etherington #BookReview

My 2018 reading year didn’t start well: I ditched my first two books, one after the other.  But my first review of 2018 is a different story: The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington  is a mesmerising, captivating novel that well deserves its nomination for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Awards.

Narrated in a poignant melancholy tone, the novel takes us to a different place and time.  Ruth Glass looks back on her childhood in the isolation of a village in the West Papuan highlands as a time of dislocation and intense loss.  Her five-year-old sister Julia has died in an horrific accident at home, and everyone feels the guilt and unspoken blame. Her parents are on the verge of divorce at the time of the accident but at her father’s insistence they go as aid workers to West Papua (then in the 1990s known as Irian Jaya).  He thinks it is a form of atonement that will heal them.  His wife Marian is too broken to defy him.  And Ruth is an eight-year-old child made older than her years by this tragic chain of events.  She is haunted by the squabbles she had with her sister and confused by the mixed messages she gets about God, atonement and forgiveness.  The silence overwhelms her.

One day the yellow house held Julia’s voice, and then it did not.  One day I was a sister, and then I was not.  One day we were in a dream world, where Julia was dead and the space where she once was became large and silent, and then we were in another country altogether – where stories and voices made their way into our house any way they could.  They heaved under the floorboards, whispered in the windows.  Creaked in the attic like a python grown too big on rats.  And I collected them all to fill that silence Julia left.  (p.11)

Along with Ruth’s letters to her grandfather in Nelson, NZ, these local stories and voices are scattered through the novel.  Ruth’s friend Susumina tells her stories of places haunted by death – which is an everyday occurrence in the village.  Ruth’s family is not alone in its grief: everyone in Yuvut has lost a loved one, to childbirth, to injury and disease, to malnutrition, AIDS or to the Indonesian regime which suppresses the independence movement with brutal violence.  The light planes – on which the village depends for transport, supplies, medical help and news – crash regularly into the surrounding mountains obscured by mist and rain.  Passengers and crew are often not found for years, though whether that will be reported in the media depends on whether they are foreigners, Indonesian transmigrasi relocated from Java, or locals.

Etherington’s mastery of narrative voice allows the reader to hear both the reflective voice of Ruth as an adult, and as a observant, thoughtful child.  This enables the reader to understand the politics of the Indonesian occupation, the tension between her parents, the dangers of diseases like Dengue Fever and Malaria, and the cruelty of some of the social mores of Yuvut such as the way they treat unmarried mothers.  But we also see a child who absorbs the culture shock, adapts to her new circumstances, and plays games including in forbidden places. She learns the language; she observes the strength of community life; she finds out who to trust.  Her letters to her grandfather describe the beauty of the plants and animals, and also express worries that she dare not reveal to her parents.

My friend Alyssa said that she did not know what her grandparents looked like when she went back to America one time.  And they didn’t know what she would look like either.  I hope I will still know what you and grandma look like when I get back one day.  It might take a long time to get back, though.  Please don’t forget what I look like either. 

In an interview with the NZ Herald, Etherington explains that the authenticity of the novel derives from her own childhood experience in West Papua, but says that her own family is nothing like the one described in the novel.  I don’t doubt that it’s true, but her portrayal of domestic hostilities is utterly convincing.

For another review, see BooksellersNZ. and Landfall NZ.

Author: Bonnie Etherington
Title: The Earth Cries Out
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House) New Zealand, 2017
ISBN: 9780143770657
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $AUD 29.99

Available from Fishpond: The Earth Cries Out and also at Readings in Australia.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 2, 2018

2017: ANZ LitLovers stats

I got this idea from Annabookbel, who does a very comprehensive series called Year in Review which made me wonder what I could discover with the data that I had.

Annabel is more organised because she has data from previous years to compare with, and she collects some data that I don’t: I record whether books are chunksters or novellas/short stories, but I don’t  record the number of pages for each book.  It would be easy enough to do book-by-book but a ridiculous amount of work to go back and do it at years end. Annabel is also much cleverer with graphs than I am! But still FWIW, this is what I could come up with, using the same data sets as Annabel where I could…

LOL Nobody’s going to be surprised to find the predominance of Australian authors, (though I was pleased to see that Indigenous authors make a quite respectable slice of the pie).  But I wasn’t expecting there to be so many from the UK and Ireland.  I think I’ve read more from Asia and Africa in previous years, whereas this year I’ve read more from the US and Canada. 

There were no surprises when I came to look at the Year of Publication.  My focus is mainly contemporary literature: I read a lot of new releases especially Australian ones, but I also try to keep up with some of the books nominated for international prizes, even if I don’t quite get to them in the year of the award.

Next up was Gender, and although I can’t get the graph to label it that way, what it shows is that in 2017 57% of my authors were male, 41% were female, and 2% were co-authored by male and female authors.  Overall, the percentage for male/female reviews on this blog remains steady over the years at 55%/45%.

It was harder to get the data to behave for the next one, which shows the heritage/diversity of the Australian authors I read. As I’ve said on my Diversity page the potential for getting this wrong is obvious: I have done my best using what’s in the public domain, but if I have got it wrong on that page, I welcome additions and corrections.  The first graph (which I have perversely named Heritage #2) wasn’t very revealing, so I did a second one, removing the ‘Australian category’.  (Though of course we claim all these authors as Australian!)

I had never thought of tracking whether I was reading familiar authors or venturing into new territory… Because I didn’t have the data at hand I decided to do this just with Australian authors and to include those authors that were making a debut in 2017.   It comes up as a nice balance!

I decided to look at non-fiction and fiction separately. 71% of my reading is fiction.

I used similar categories to Annabel: though classifying creative works of imagination in this way is a bit of an artificial exercise, the modern novel wins hands down.

I broke Non-fiction into eight categories. Lifestyle comprises cooking, gardening, healthy living and travel. Literary criticism (which I don’t usually read at all) features a lot because I read all those Very Short Introductions, which Oxford University Press so kindly sent me.

Finally, translations by country:

And by author gender: I read fewer translations this year, but the male/female ratio is stable: 69% male and 31% female.

So there it is!  I found it fascinating to do, but it has taken me all day (not counting, that is, a relaxed al fresco lunch out in the Lower Belvedere.)  Unless I can figure out a way of harvesting this data more easily in future, I’m not likely to do it again!

Thanks to Annabel for the inspiration!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2017

Archipelago of Souls, by Gregory Day #BookReview

I am very conscious that I am late to the party with this review: Gregory Day’s fourth novel, Archipelago of Souls, was published in 2015 and has already been widely reviewed – at The Weekend Australian, The Saturday Paper, at the SMH and the Newtown Review.  But having read Book #1 of the Mangowak trilogy The Patron Saint of Eels (2005)  (see my review from six years ago in 2011) I meant to read what I already had: Books #2 and #3 , Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds (2007) and The Grand Hotel (2010) … and of course I got sidetracked by other things.  It was not until Archipelago of Souls was shortlisted for the biennial 2017 Tasmanian Book Prize that I belatedly ordered a copy and discovered just how good it is.

Archipelago of Souls is an apt title: an archipelago is a group of islands that together form a whole.  Like the islands that make up Greece, and the 334 that form the island state of Tasmania.  This novel is set partly on King Island where a lone soul called Wesley Cress arrives in the aftermath of WW2.  An unwilling hero of the partisan resistance on Crete, Wes intends to live the hermit-like existence that he thinks he deserves because of events in his war.  But like the islands of the archipelago, even in the solitariness of his island home at Wait-a-While, Wesley’s soul is not alone.  And as he finds out, he is not the only one to have a troubled past.

An eccentric character called John Lascelles has plans for a Memorial Reading Room on King Island, to be built in homage to the returned soldiers.  While the community is more used to the usual memorial statue on a plinth, Lascelles is convinced that a quiet retreat for soldiers to read and write offers healing for their wounded souls.   When Wesley arrives, this reading room is no more than an idea, and he refuses to have anything to do with it.  But when he realises that he needs to explain his hostile bitterness to Leonie Fermoy, a wild child of the island with her own nightmares, he privately takes up Lascelles’ concept and writes a narrative to exorcise his demons.

The hellish narrative of Wesley’s past in Crete alternates with his recount of the present.  His brother Vern is lost during a botched evacuation as the Germans arrive, and Wesley struggles to come to terms with his own reasons for being left behind.  He also has to choose whether to align with the Cretans dealing in their own way with the invading Germans and Italians, and to work with remnants of British Intelligence that he no longer trusts.  As he makes his way southward in hope of a boat to take him back to his unit, he is up against a pitiless landscape of arid mountains as well as the shock discovery that even in this remote area there are quislings.  The novel is structured so that the reader knows at the outset that he survives the hunger and cold, but it’s how he does it, and the impact on his self-identity that makes this narrative utterly compelling.

Over time, as Wesley’s soul vacillates between healing and self-destruction, he learns that he, Leonie and Lascelles share the scars of motherlessness and that this has made all three averse to the risks of love.  As is appropriate, the novel doesn’t offer a quick or tidy resolution, only a hesitant fusing of a need to belong and a tentative healing through the power of words.  For, given the chance to perhaps at last find out what had happened to his brother, Wesley finds that acceptance might be the most powerful balm of all.  Knowing what happened and why, a compulsion that we see in the media so often among the bereaved when a tragedy has occurred, doesn’t bring the loved one back, and may not bring the comfort that’s hoped for.   Perhaps some deeply felt personal traumas are best kept private:

…even then, with my new sociability, and with all I had got off my chest to Leonie and then to Lascelles, I could not face exposing my story to such a public arena.  Leave me alone, I wanted to cry out, all over again.  Just leave me alone.

It was still a raw nerve that had been touched, an underwater nerve that I’ll never entirely be rid of I’m sure.  And as I went walking out to the jetty on my own that night I remember sighing deeply at the truth that no matter how far out you go, no matter how many miles from the scenes of your distress, even if you settle at the other end of the earth the ghosts that trouble you will always be there.  Like the moon and stars in the sky.  (p. 361)

Highly recommended.

Update 1/1/18 This morning I got round to reading those reviews that I mentioned above.  (Except for the paywalled one at The Oz.)  Annette Marfording’s at The Newtown Review and the anonymous one at The Saturday Paper are IMHO worth reading.

Author: Gregory Day
Title: Archipelago of Souls
Publisher: Picador: 2015
ISBN: 9781743537190
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond.




Available from Fishpond: Archipelago of Souls

I looked at last year’s post about the best books of the year before starting this, and since I still get that ‘warm glow’ when I look at my 2016 final choices, I’ve decided that my rather rough-and-ready methodology is actually quite good!  So I’m doing it exactly the same way this year:

These are the books I really liked and admired during 2017.  They are books that I read this year, not necessarily published this year.  The contenders are ANZ authors only.  If you read this blog regularly you know that I also read international authors and translations too, but for this list, well, it’s summertime here so let the sun shine on antipodean authors.  All links go to my reviews.

Fiction Longlist

I rated all of these Australian and New Zealand books 4-stars at Goodreads, and I felt a surge of pleasure remembering them when I looked at their covers at See What You Read in 2017.  (NB I reserve five stars for a work of genius such as James Joyce’s Ulysses).  Here are my books in the order that I read them… authors from New Zealand are in italics.

  1. The Dyehouse (1961, Text Classics reissue) by Mena Calthorpe
  2. Landscape with Landscape (1987, Giramondo reissue) by Gerald Murnane (5 stars)
  3. The Museum of Modern Love (2016) by Heather Rose
  4. Flame Tip (2017) by Karenlee Thompson
  5. Bloodlines (2017) by Nicole Sinclair
  6. Songs That Sound Like Blood (2016) by Jared Thomas
  7. R&R (2015) by Mark Dapin
  8. The Custodians (1997) by Nicholas José
  9. Storyland (2017) by Catherine McKinnon
  10. Asking for Trouble (2014) by Peter Timms
  11. Hinterland (2011) by Caroline Brothers
  12. The Hope Fault (2017) by Tracy Farr
  13. Waiting (2016) by Philip Salom
  14. No More Boats (2017) by Felicity Castagna
  15. Blindness and Rage (2017) by Brian Castro
  16. Heat and Light (2014) by Ellen van Neervan
  17. Who We Were (2013) by Lucy Neave
  18. Hinterland (2017) by Steven Lang
  19. The Second Bridegroom, Yandilli Trilogy #1 (1991) by Rodney Hall
  20. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, (2017) by Shokoofeh Azar, translated by Adrien Kijek
  21. This Water: Five Tales (2017) by Beverly Farmer
  22. Taboo (2017) by Kim Scott
  23. The Black Opal, (1917, A&U reissue) by Katharine Susannah Prichard
  24. The Wish Child (2016) by Catherine Chidgey
  25. Terra Nullius (2017) by Claire G Coleman
  26. Soon (2017) by Lois Murphy
  27. Lady of the Realm (2017) by Hoa Pham
  28. Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms (2017) by Anita Heiss
  29. The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (2017) by Ali Alizadeh
  30. The Life to Come (2017) by Michelle de Kretser
  31. Blessed Are The Dead, Detective Emmanuel Cooper #3 (2012) by Malla Nunn
  32. Atlantic Black (2017) by A.S. (Alec) Patric
  33. A Sea-Chase (2017, by Roger McDonald
  34. Aukati (2017) by Michalia Arathimos
  35. First Person (2017) by Richard Flanagan
  36. Bridget Crack (2017) by Rachel Leary
  37. The Book of Dirt (2017) by Bram Presser
  38. A Long Way from Home (2017) by Peter Carey
  39. The Lost Life, Eliot Quartet #1 (2009) by Steven Carroll
  40. A World of Other People, Eliot Quartet #2 (2013) by Steven Carroll
  41. A New England Affair, Eliot Quartet #3 (2017) by Steven Carroll
  42. Whipbird (2017) by Robert Drewe
  43. Sodden Downstream (2017) by Brannavan Gnanalingam
  44. Chaconne (2017) by Diana Blackwood
  45. Archipelago of Souls (2015) by Gregory Day (my last book of the year, review is coming,).

Non Fiction Longlist including Life Stories (BTW I am really mean with 4 star ratings for non-fiction.)

  1. Australian Women War Reporters, from the Boer War to Vietnam (2015) by Jeannine Baker
  2. Margaret Flockton, a Fragrant Memory (2016)  by Louise Wilson
  3. Griffith Review 55, State of Hope (2017) edited by Julianne Schwarz and Patrick Allington
  4. No Way But This, in search of Paul Robeson (2017) by Jeff Sparrow
  5. Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975, updated edition 2016) by Anne Summers
  6. Return to Moscow (2017) by Tony Kevin
  7. The Art of Time Travel, Historians and their craft (2016) by Tom Griffiths
  8. Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1988), by Ruby Langford
  9. Maybe Tomorrow (1998) by Boori Monty Prior
  10. The Art of Frugal Hedonism (2016) by Annie Raser-Rowland with Adam Grubb
  11. Can You Tolerate This? (2017) by Ashleigh Young
  12. Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters (2017) edited by Margo Neale

The shortlists

The first thing to note about the fiction list is that Australia’s preeminent authors all published books this year and any Best-of list that doesn’t include most of those books is not serious.  If you haven’t read them and don’t plan to because they’re mostly by men or some other agenda-driven reason, then, trust me,  you are missing out on some beaut books. But this wealth of terrific books does mean that a short shortlist would by definition squeeze out some very fine books indeed.  So mine is a long shortlist.

How did I whittle them down? I had to be brutal with some lovely books.  If I had any reservations about them, out they went, (though I kept Waiting by Philip Salom which should have gone because of its sloppy proofreading).  Then as in 2016 my criteria was: which books have I banged on about most to people in my f2f life?  Once again I have read 200+ books this year and I am always talking about books online, but the books that made their way into everyday conversation with family and friends had something special about them. These books weren’t just good to read, pleasurable, entertaining, or absorbing.  I earbashed f2f people about the themes and issues and insights in these books because they matter.  And I could not whittle them down to a nice tidy number.

Best ANZ LitLovers Fiction Books of 2017

  1. The Dyehouse (1961, Text Classics reissue) by Mena Calthorpe
  2. Flame Tip (2017) by Karenlee Thompson
  3. Songs That Sound Like Blood (2016) by Jared Thomas
  4. Storyland (2017) by Catherine McKinnon
  5. Waiting (2016) by Philip Salom
  6. No More Boats (2017) by Felicity Castagna
  7. Blindness and Rage (2017) by Brian Castro
  8. Taboo (2017) by Kim Scott
  9. Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms (2017) by Anita Heiss
  10. The Life to Come (2017) by Michelle de Kretser
  11. Atlantic Black (2017) by A.S. (Alec) Patric
  12. A Sea-Chase (2017, by Roger McDonald
  13. Aukati (2017) by Michalia Arathimos
  14. First Person (2017) by Richard Flanagan
  15. A Long Way from Home (2017) by Peter Carey
  16. Whipbird (2017) by Robert Drewe
  17. Sodden Downstream (2017) by Brannavan Gnanalingam

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Best ANZ LitLovers Non Fiction Books of 2017 

  1. Griffith Review 55, State of Hope (2017) edited by Julianne Schwarz and Patrick Allington
  2. No Way But This, in search of Paul Robeson (2017) by Jeff Sparrow
  3. Return to Moscow (2017) by Tony Kevin
  4. The Art of Time Travel, Historians and their craft (2016) by Tom Griffiths
  5. The Art of Frugal Hedonism (2016) by Annie Raser-Rowland with Adam Grubb
  6. Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters (2017) edited by Margo Neale

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And finally…

The ANZ LitLovers Book of the Year is… 

*drum roll*

Flame Tip by Karenlee Thompson.  

Gasp!  I hear you say.  A book of short fictions?  Not Lisa’s most favourite form of writing … and by a little-known author, published by a small indie publisher here in Melbourne.  Really???
And this is why…

The day after Boxing Day, we heard a fleet of helicopters overhead and thought at first they were chasing a horde of speedsters up and down the highway.  But they were actually fighting an out-of-control bushfire in my little Amber’s favourite park, the Flora and Fauna reserve in Park Road, near the golf club.  The fire was ten minutes walk from our house; I breathed its smoke. It threatened places I care about: our local primary school where my neighbour’s children go; the historic Pioneer Cemetery which I have explored many times over 30 years in this neighbourhood; and the house of a friend of mine in Glebe Avenue – where residents had to be evacuated to safety.  Here in suburban Melbourne, miles from the urban fringe!  All good writing moves me, but articulating the loss and heartbreak of bushfire still felt decades later, Karenlee’s powerful words from Flame Tip kept piercing my anxious heart as the long afternoon wore on and still the fire was not under control despite the brilliant efforts of 100 firefighters and four helicopters.  Like every other Australian, I have always cared about the victims of bushfire, but I have never before felt the risk of an out-of-control fire anywhere near where I live.

Which just goes to show really, that at the end of the day, it’s the personal response to a book that lodges it permanently in the heart.

Over to you

Your thoughts on my choices?  What was your best book of the year?



This week ABC Online is featuring an article titled What history really tells us about Jesus’ birth, pointing out that the inn, the shepherds and animals; pretty much everything we think we know about the Christmas Story is historically wrong.  So, yes, Christmas is as good a time as any to take a closer look at the New Testament, not for religious reasons, but for the importance it has in Western literature.   So in between doing festive season stuff around the house, I’ve been taking short breaks to read The New Testament as Literature, a Very Short Introduction, by Kyle Keefer.

As Keefer says in this interesting VSI, scholarly interpretations of The New Testament have been around for centuries, and the book has been read by more groups and individuals than any other book ever written.  It is not only read for religious reasons by Christians, but also for cross-cultural interfaith understanding, as well as by people of no religion who want to discredit it.  But for many, it’s the NT’s place in literature that matters, whether that’s in books with explicitly Christian themes like Paradise Lost or The Pilgrim’s Progress, or books like Ulysses of Absalom, Absalom! that allude to biblical language and themes undogmatically. 

Keefer, who is Assistant Professor of Religion in the Bible Belt of the USA, is interested in the intersection of the Bible and the arts, and so am I.  Although I don’t have a religious bone in my body I love looking at early religious art, illuminated manuscripts, Russian icons, and stained glass windows.  Church architecture is sublime, and the music written for religious purposes by the great composers, is, I think, among the most beautiful that there is.  And although I strongly disapprove of monarchies of all kinds, I am inclined to be more tolerant of the dead ones in Europe because, even though they did it for their own aggrandisement, they commissioned such beautiful art works – which (in mature democracies that have abolished the monarchy) are now accessible to the public.

Despite not having a baptismal certificate, here I am making my confirmation when everyone else did, mainly so that I could wear The Family Tiara and A Long White Dress.  BTW this was the last time any of us wore this tiara.  We were all too Bolshie to wear it for weddings in the 70s.

But it is the influence of the Bible in literature that interests me most.  Seriously, if my parents (one an atheist and the other an agnostic) hadn’t sent me to the same order of nuns for the purposes of ensuring a consistent education across three continents, I would not know the Biblical stories that constantly crop up in books and poetry.  What I have found most interesting to learn from this VSI, is that I only know scraps of the NT – bits and pieces of the gospels, the parables and a few exhortations from the Epistles…

The first thing to know is that the Gospels are not anything like biographies.  Keefer has a somewhat old-fashioned idea of biography, claiming that readers expect them to be straightforward chronological accounts of childhood, adolescence, adulthood and death, with a bit of psychologising thrown in.  Clearly he hasn’t been keeping up with modern experiments in biography, but still he has a valid point.  Anyone expecting a Life of Jesus is going to be disappointed, and there’s no attempt to explain his motivations or the influences on his life either.

Other things to know:

A. That all four gospels were written sometime between 65CE and 95CE, at least thirty years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
B. That all four were originally anonymous and that the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were added later.  These author names serve as convenient fictions [i.e. the author of the first gospel ‘Matthew’ is not the apostle known by that name].
C.  That none of the gospel writers witnessed the events recounted in the gospels.
D. That each writer was dependent on sources, both written and oral.  (p.20)

Both Matthew and Luke use the much more terse Mark as a guide, but made a choice to interpret things differently.  And what transpires in these three gospels actually paints a very different Jesus to the one I thought I knew.  In Mark, he gets frustrated with the disciples and their amazing ability to misunderstand his message.  Keefer notes that Mark encourages admiration and even worship of Jesus – and readers might take his sidover the stupidity of the disciples – but since readers might be just as puzzled as the disciples were, they might feel sorry for them instead and not like the way they are treated.  The way Keefer puts this is quite a surprise to me:

It must be said, however, that although Jesus explains very clearly that he is going to die, he never spells out why his sufferings must occur.  While other books in the New Testament fill in this gap, in Mark the purpose of Jesus’ suffering and death remain opaque.  It is not surprising, therefore, that his disciples – perhaps not the brightest students to begin with – recoil at Jesus’ strange insistence on his death. The crucifixion becomes one more parable that they do not understand.  (p.29)

In fact, says Keefer, in the gospel of Mark the only human character to understand is the centurion who presides over the execution.  (That seems a bit odd, doesn’t it, for a book that’s supposed to have been divinely inspired as the Word of God?)

In Matthew, there’s a (probably not widely-known) key to identifying the loyalty of the characters.  Those who follow Jesus always call him ‘Kurios” which means Lord or Master in Greek.  Those who are hostile to him use ‘teacher’ instead.  So when Judas addresses Jesus as Rabbi, that’s a hint of his perfidy.  Keefer says that this stylistic feature denotes Matthew’s sharp dualisms. The narrative divides the world into insiders and outsiders, using symbols such as

the narrow and the wide gates (chap.7), the house on the rock and the house on sand (chap.7), the parable of the wheat and the weeds (chap.13), the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids (chap.25), and the allegory of the sheep and the goats (chap.25). In each of these cases Matthew divides humanity into neat pairs, those who listen to Jesus’ words, and those who do not. (p.31)

Whereas Mark’s gospel blurs the line between insiders and outsiders, Matthew’s is unequivocal.  His approach is all-or-nothing and his dichotomies offer either reward or punishment.  Matthew is much more sure about things (and the disciples in his gospel are not dunces!)  However, this black-and-white world has made Matthew’s gospel the one has been used by anti-Semites because some of the most virulent statements in all the New Testament against Jewish authorities occur in Matthew (e.g. when he harangues the Pharisees). 

Luke, also the author of Acts, is most like a modern biographer.  He tells the story of the birth, he includes a lot about Mary, and he frames his story as the fulfilment of the prophecy. Many of the well-known biblical stories come from Luke, and he portrays a more forgiving Jesus with more concern for others, especially the downtrodden in society.

Among the gospel writers, Luke presents the most sympathetic and likable portrayal of Jesus.  He exhibits a strong irenic quality in his characterisation, highlighting those aspects of Jesus’ words and deeds that are most appealing while downplaying antagonistic qualities. (p.39)

When I read on to learn that Luke’s Acts are the most entertaining composition of the New Testament, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that ‘Luke’ – whoever he really was –  was the best author of the lot.  Keefer compares the gospel of John to the poetry of William Blake because it’s superficially simple but actually very complex conceptually.   The reader needs to get used to specialised vocabulary and may need to read in a circular way, returning to earlier pages to make meaning of it.  There are no parables, and none of the familiar scenes of birth, exorcism, Eucharist or temptation in the desert.

John’s Jesus does not suffer like Mark’s Jesus, rarely teaches like Matthew’s Jesus and has little concern for the marginalised as does Luke’s Jesus.  This gospel differs most from the Synoptics, however, by presenting the reader with a literary challenge. (p.50)

(Later on, in the final chapter ‘The New Testament, bound, Keefer makes the point that although the NT tends to be read as a whole, none of it was intended to be collated in this way.  It was gathered together into a canon in the 4th century, and when people read its component parts, they tend to be aware of the other parts as well and may be disconcerted by the inconsistencies e.g. in the representation of Jesus.  He says that these inconsistencies should not matter if we view the NT using the metaphor of painting, which provides multiple portraits showing different aspects of the same person.)

The John who wrote Revelations that have cropped up so often in my reading, is apparently not the John who wrote the gospel.  Since I have to confess that I have never actually read any part of the NT in its entirety, I find that what Keefer has to say about Revelations makes me most tempted to do so.  He posits Revelations in a rich literary history of epics, citing the Iliad and the Aeneid and a Babylonian epic called Enuma Elish, all of which are stories of great civilisations emerging from great wars.  The epic struggle between good and evil still plays out in modern works such as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter… (I could also add Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series to this list).

The elements of all three creations have striking commonalities.  The characters in these sagas find themselves in the midst of a world disturbed by the emergence of an overwhelming evil power (Darth Vader, Sauron, and Voldemort).  All sentient creatures must ally themselves with either the force of evil or the counterforces of good.  Those who oppose evil seem drastically inadequate to the task.   Their numbers are few, fate seems to work against them, and the powers they wield pale in insignificance compared to those of the dark side.  Even the most potent powers of good (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, and Dumbledore) suffer defeat and death when they try to oppose the sway of oppressive evil. (p.78)

How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and NowI can tell you, I was not expecting this kind of analysis in a book about the New Testament!  I found this chapter fascinating, and I recommend this VSI to anyone considering the place of the Bible in literature.   I’ve had How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now (also pitched at secular readers as well as believers) on my TBR for ages now, and I will read it one of these days, but this little VSI has certainly sparked my interest in a way that I wasn’t expecting…

Author: Kyle Keefer
Title: The New Testament as Literature, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions Series, 2008
ISBN: 9780195300208
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: The New Testament as Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

My thoughts about this beautiful book are going to be inadequate because it’s due back at the library before I have time to read it properly, but I still think it’s worthwhile drawing attention to Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters, edited by Adjunct Professor Margo Neale from the Australian National University and written in collaboration with Aboriginal knowledge holders from Martu country and Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara (APY) and Ngaanyatjarra lands.  Neale is well-placed for this complex role because she is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Historical Research, and Senior Curator and Principal Advisor to the Director (Indigenous) of the National Museum of Australia.

Like other books from remote Indigenous communities that I have come across, Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters is produced in a collaborative  way but is distinguished by having been conceived not from a museum or university within a Western paradigm but derives from a concern of Indigenous people themselves, that knowledge is being lost as old people pass away and young ones are distracted by modern technologies.  As Neale says in the Introduction, ‘Alive with the Dreaming’,  elders knew that they must use Western ways of holding the knowledge, waiting for some time in the future, after the elders had passed on and [the young people] were ready to learn.  

My first understandings about the term ‘songlines’ was from the English author Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines because I wanted to include the concept in what I was teaching about Australian exploration.  I had searched without success for an Indigenous explanation among my resources at school (The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture and Australian Dreaming, 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History).  These were books that Margo Neale herself had recommended to participants in the Summer School for History that I had attended in 2008, but useful as they were for many things as we introduced Aboriginal Perspectives into the study of space, nutrition and safety round the home, I retired from teaching still keen to find an Indigenous explanation of the concept of songlines or Tjukurpa.  So I was delighted when I stumbled across Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters and I asked my library to get a copy for me.

Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters was published to accompany an exhibition currently on at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, but it is not the usual exhibition where the exhibits are sourced from art galleries and other museums.  It is the product of journeys made by traditional custodians into country to reconnect, consult with and activate the master archive in country, the result forming a unique ‘third archive’ because of its integration of understandings about our shared culture and environment.   What you see in this big, beautiful book on expensive glossy paper is beautiful artworks and handcrafted artefacts that represent a public resource with varying levels of access.  Some Indigenous knowledge about songlines is restricted to those with authority to know it, so the repository of knowledge is layered, enabling sharing with non-Indigenous people as well as protection of secret knowledge for traditional custodians of the future.

What all visitors to the exhibition can share is the narrative of the seven sisters’ journey as they flee from a hostile shape-shifter across Martu country in the west to the lands of the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara in Central Australia.  The characters in this Odyssey of the desert country are known by different names as the sisters journey from west to east, and as Kim Mahood (author of Position Doubtful) explains in the chapter ‘The seething landscape’, this sorcerer changes shape as he pursues them relentlessly, spying on them, lying in wait for them, sometimes capturing one or several of them.

The violence of his obsession thwarts his attempts to approach the women ‘proper way’ [i.e. according to kinship rules about marriage], and manifests as a landscape that seethes and ripples with sexual desire, rendered unstable by a force that is both a primal sex organ and a relative of the Ancestral snake that lives in waterholes and creeks – dangerous, unpredictable, everywhere. (p.32)

Yurla embodies the desire for the forbidden, for which he suffers humiliation and disappointment, although he also inflicts fear and harm.  One could put various interpretations on this story – that sexual obsession makes fools of men, that pursuing your desires above all else is a futile enterprise, that female solidarity prevails.  While all these elements are present, to interpret the story only as a morality tale is to undermine its psychological power. It cleaves to the emotional truth of human experience in all its arbitrariness, a reflection of desert life and survival. (p.33)

But the significance of this story is that it’s not just a story: it’s a songline:

The trajectory of the sisters across the country is a means of naming and remembering sites, their resources and their significance. As the Minyipuru dance, run and fly across the Martu landscape, zigzagging from waterhole to rock hole, fleeing Yurla, sometimes outwitting him, sometimes falling victim to him, they map the waterholes and mark the country, creating landmarks and enacting ceremonies, weaving a picaresque tale that is menacing and hilarious, cheeky, violent, transcendent – and above all, memorable.  Soaring together across the night sky, chased relentlessly by the priapic old man, the Minyipuru leave their traces everywhere.  (p.33)

As you turn the pages of the book, you can see artworks which represent this journey and what I hope you can see in this photo I’ve taken, is the way that a labelled transparency has been overlaid on a painting called Yarrkalpa (Hunting Ground) to show all the different sites, from a community oval to recently burnt country showing a mosaic of patterns of burning and regrowth.  Click here to see the painting itself on the NMA site.

While we may not recognise the significances in the Indigenous artworks we see, all of them represent this kind of detail as they tell a story that is intimately connected to place. That’s why the protagonists of the story have different names in Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara (APY) and Ngaanyatjarra lands: the places are different and different languages are spoken.  In Martu country the sisters are called the Minyipuru and their pursuer is called Yurlu; from Kunnamurra onwards in the western desert he becomes Wati Nyiru and the women are the Kungkarrangkalpa – the stories become darker and his obsession focusses more on Kampukurta, the eldest sister. Art works in the Tjanpi Desert include weaving and a form of contemporary art installation involving woven sculptures of the sisters. (Click here to see them).

There are variations in what can be made public and what can be accessed only by those judged ready to be told.  In the chapter ‘On revealing and concealing’ we are told that new forms of technology are being used to encourage the younger Aṉangu to take an interest in their own culture.  Similarly, dances used to tell these stories have been captured and broadcast digitally, and on the NMA website you can also see and hear the story told via an interactive dome. It’s quite exciting to read about how the newest technologies are being exploited by the oldest living culture on earth to protect and share their culture!

It’s interesting to see that Bruce Chatwin is acknowledged as having popularised the term ‘songlines’, which Aboriginal people have now made their own.  In his chapter titled ‘The last songs of Tjapartji Bates’, Darren Jorgensen quotes Chatwin as saying that the Dreaming is like a ‘labyrinth of countless corridors and passages’ rather than a grand scheme by which desert life might be understood.’   He understood that songlines could never be completely explained, that like good poetry they must remain always a little incomprehensible, a little out of reach.  

That’s true, but it’s really nice to have a beautiful book like this which enhances our understanding a little!

The exhibition finishes on 25th February 2018.  See here for more information.

Click here to hear a beaut interview with Margo Neal on ABC Radio National.

Editor: Margo Neale
Title: Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters
Publisher: National Library of Australia, 2017
ISBN: 9781921953293
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 26, 2017

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson #BookReview

The title looked familiar when I saw this book on display at the library, so I brought home Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (1906-2002).  It’s a reprint by Persephone Books who specialise in reprinting neglected 20th century women writers, (similar in spirit to the Text Classics series which specialises in out of-print Australian classics).   I mention this because both publishers spruce up the text for a contemporary audience with an introduction by an eminent critic, but those in the Text Classics series that I’ve read are infinitely superior to the introduction for Miss Pettigrew by Cambridge scholar Henrietta Twycross-Martin.  Hers is merely biographical, and attends very little to the issues raised by the book.

I discovered after I’d finished reading the book and went to list it as ‘read’ at Goodreads, that I’d marked it as one of the 1001 Books that I’m supposed to read before I die.  The Cinderella theme mentioned by Twycross-Martin in the intro seemed a bit lightweight for 1001 Books, especially since she mentions Winifred Watson’s novels in the same company as Catherine Cookson’s, with common themes of women having second chances, adapting to change, moving on.  But no, that’s what 1001 Books says too, more or less, in a contribution from a Dr Meg Jensen from Kingston University, wherever that might be.

Well, yes, Miss Pettigrew is, superficially, a lightweight confection.  First published in 1938 and set in the interwar years, it tells the story of a ‘spinster’: a poor, plain, dowdy, middle-aged, unemployed nursery-governess who is mistakenly sent to answer a job advertisement as a housekeeper in the home of a glamorous actress called Delysia La Fosse.  There she stumbles into situations in which her naïveté and innate strength of character make her invaluable to Miss La Fosse, and, powdered and primped and dressed in borrowed finery, she ends up attracting a Nice Rich Man as well.

But that’s not all there is to the story.  In amongst the froth and bubble, the escapades, the witty repartee and the glamour of an entertaining farce, there is also social commentary.

Miss Pettigrew – daughter of a curate – is one of the genteel poor.  But her genteel poverty is unlike that of the handsome, well-dressed young aristocrat Freddy Eynsford-Hill in Pygmalion.  He’s still living a comfortable, idle life, moving effortlessly in society and handicapped only by his poor marriage prospects.   She is thin (not elegantly slender) and her complexion is poor because she doesn’t have enough good food to eat.  She’s an unemployed governess because she’s had no education or training and she’s no good at it, each position she’s had being worse than the last.  She’s facing eviction because she hasn’t got the rent for her room, and her inner thoughts reveal more than once that if she doesn’t get the job at Miss La Fosse, the workhouse is her only option.  She’s actually desperate. 

Surely not, weren’t the workhouses – designed to be harsh to deter the able-bodied poor – a 19th century phenomenon?  Well, no, not exactly.

As the 19th century wore on, workhouses increasingly became refuges for the elderly, infirm and sick rather than the able-bodied poor, and in 1929 legislation was passed to allow local authorities to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals. Although workhouses were formally abolished by the same legislation in 1930, many continued under their new appellation of Public Assistance Institutions under the control of local authorities. It was not until the National Assistance Act of 1948 that the last vestiges of the Poor Law disappeared, and with them the workhouses. (Wikipedia, viewed 26/12/17)

And, wasn’t there some kind of social safety net?  Again, not exactly.

The Unemployment Insurance Act 1920 created the dole system of payments for unemployed workers. The dole system provided 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to over 11 million workers—practically the entire civilian working population except domestic service, farm workers, railroad men, and civil servants. (Wikipedia, viewed 26/12/17.  The underlining, showing that governesses were exempt from this largesse, is mine.)

Surely there is more than irony in this exchange about marriage, between a wealthy, successful chanteuse with more boyfriends than she can coordinate, and Miss Pettigrew who had no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether [she] was alive or dead?

‘I have never,’ said Miss Pettigrew, ‘been loved in my life.  I want to know.  I’ve always wanted to know.  There are hundreds like me want to know.  Is it worth it?
‘Yes,’ said Miss La Fosse, ‘to me.’
Miss Pettigrew sat down.
‘I am older than you,’ said Miss Pettigrew; ‘I am a stupid woman.  I haven’t your brains, nor your beauty, nor your cleverness.  I don’t advise marriage from virtue or custom, but from experience.  I have no friends, no money, no family.  I only wish to save you from that.’  (p.162)

The truth of this Cinderella story is that it is always Miss Pettigrew who needs to be saved, and the narration that allows the reader to know her innermost thoughts is a constant reminder that this fragile day of delights is entirely contingent on her mistaken identity.  And without her ‘fairy godmother’s’ impulsive interventions — none of which are acts of genuine empowerment, but always – though friendly and kind, mainly for Miss La Fosse’s whims and advantage – Miss Pettigrew had a very bleak future indeed, and as the text says, there are hundreds like her.

English social class is changing in this era after WW1, and the snobbery about nouveau riche money is shown to be passé.  Miss Pettigrew, while acknowledging the social power of her parents’ view of the world, adjusts her ideas about Joe, who has made his money as a wealthy corset manufacturer:

She stole a look at him.  Big, bluff, hearty, a hint he could be a little brutal maybe, but also kind and considerate.  He was not a gentleman.   Her mother would have been shocked by him.  Mrs Brummegan might have cut him, if she had not first heard of his money.  Her father would definitely not have admitted him within the circle of his intimates.  She was lowering her dignity as a well-bred gentlewoman in accepting his attentions, but she had sunk so low in one short day she simply didn’t care whether he was vulgar or not. (p.204)

What I would have liked to know from the fairy-floss introduction is whether Winifred Watson was intentionally writing social novels like the Fabian George Bernard Shaw or the socialist George Orwell.  Was she perhaps adding her voice to the clamour for social welfare improvements that were finally introduced by the Labour government after the war?  Or was Watson really just, as it says in the introduction, writing stories that deal with the development and resolution of sexual and family tensions in ways that may flout convention and the law, but that allow women to survive and ultimately flourish? 

However, I would also have liked the introduction to attend to some disconcerting dialogues:

[I apologise for any offence or hurt this quotation may cause, but I can’t deal with it without quoting it].

‘Now the first one, he was kind too,’ said Miss Pettigrew earnestly, ‘but well, my dear. I wouldn’t advise marrying him. I don’t like to jump to conclusions but I think there was a little Jew in him. He wasn’t quite English. And, well, I do think when it comes to marriage it’s safer to stick with your own nationality.’
‘Certainly,’ said Miss LaFosse, demurely. (p.162)

Was Winifred Watson anti-Semitic?  Or is she deliberately exposing anti-Semitism with this dialogue?  Either way, the decision to reprint the book with an introduction that makes no mention of this invites judgement, IMO.  Twycross-Martin interviewed the author in the year 2000: she could have asked Watson about this troubling passage, and whether she felt differently about it being in her book after the horrors of the Holocaust.  Times change.  It’s not good enough, in the 21st century, to turn a blind eye to discrimination of any kind, in any context, and any contemporary editor would attend to this kind of casual anti-Semitism as part of the editorial process, removing it not only as unnecessary but also an entirely inappropriate flaw for a character who is meant to be viewed sympathetically.  Leaving it in the reprint, as an authentic part of the original text that reflects its era requires comment in the introduction.  It cannot be ignored.

Similarly, noting also that Miss Pettigrew suspects that Joe might be a little brutal, reprinting this statement by one of the male characters, without editorial comment is problematic too:

‘Now Delysia’s a little devil and there’s times I could flay her alive, and obviously she needs a little physical correction, but I’m the only right man to do it’. (p.154)

Sure, Watson is only a minor author, but someone who’s read her entire oeuvre of six novels would (presumably) know whether this endorsement of domestic violence is an aberration or not.

Other reviews: Kim’s at Reading Matters, and Max’s at Pechorin’s Journal.

Author: Winifred Watson
Title: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Publisher: Persephone Press, 2008
ISBN: 9781906462024
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas from ANZ LitLovers

Best wishes to everyone for a merry Christmas!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 24, 2017

2017 Mascara Lit Review shortlists

The Mascara Lit Review is a transnational journal of Australian and world literature, with an interest in migrant, subaltern, Asian Australian and Indigenous creative and critical writing.  And in a nice Christmas surprise for authors and publishers, they have just announced their 2017 shortlists for #Avant-garde awards.  It’s a bit tricky harvesting just from Twitter images, so these lists may not be quite complete:

Best Anthology

  • Too Deadly: Our Voice, Our Way, Our Business, by the Us Mob Writing Group, see notes about the launch here
  • Shaping the Fractured Self, edited by Heather Taylor Johnson
  • Best Australian Poems 17, edited by Sarah Holland-Batt
  • The Australian Face, Essays from the Sydney Review of Books, edited by James Ley and Catriona Menzies-Pike (on my TBR)


  • The Last Days of Jeanne D’Arc, by Ali Alizadeh, see my review
  • Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria by Brian Castro, see my review
  • My Mother and Other Fictions, by Michael Giacometti
  • Rubik, by Elizabeth Tan

Non Fiction

  • Mirror Sydney, by Vanessa Berry, see my review
  • A Writing Life, Helen Garner and Her Work, by Bernadette Brennan
  • Scoundrel Days by Brentley Frazer
  • The Book of Thistles, by Noelle Janaczewska


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 24, 2017

Zoffany’s Daughter, by Stephen Foster

Having so recently had a bad experience with a self-published book, I approached Stephen Foster’s Zoffany’s Daughter with some regret that I had agreed to review it.  But I need not have worried: the book is beautifully produced and I enjoyed reading it.

German-born Johan Zoffany (1733-1810) was a distinguished neoclassical painter whose works are held in the National Gallery and the Tate, and the Royals have some too because his patron in England was George III (the mad one).  But Zoffany was dead by the time events in this history take place and no help to his daughter Cecilia, except to confer upon her the status of a lady.  And had he been alive, he may not have wished to be involved in her travails, because then as now, custody battles are unedifying affairs.   The best thing we can say about the 21st century version of such battles is that at least they take place without the attention of scandal-mongering newspapers.

Which was not the case in the 19th century.  Newspapers, in fact, turn out to be a major source of information for historian Stephen Foster when he set out to unravel the story of Cecilia Zoffany, the estranged wife of the clergyman Thomas Horne, who turned up on the island of Guernsey with two of her eight children, Clementina and Laura, and promptly provoked a storm of scandal and gossip.  But the book is not a straightforward chronological narrative of events: it consists of introductory material on the nature and credibility of sources; background information about the history of child custody and the legal status of women; Clementina’s imagined journal; and excerpts from newspapers and court documents from St Peter Port in Guernsey.  An extensive list of sources at the back of the book shows the extent of the research, nicely balanced by the author’s warning at the outset:

Most of this story is true.
So far as I know, none of it is false.
Much of it is fiction.

Zoffany’s Daughter is subtitled ‘Love and treachery on a small island’, but it seems to me that in the battle for custody of the girls, the treachery is not clear-cut.  Under British law, Rev. Horne was entitled to custody as of right, husband and wife being considered one person at law and women therefore generally having no separate legal existence.  Whatever we might think about this now, fathers were considered to be best placed to fulfil their duties to their children which were to provide for their proper maintenance, to protect them and to give them an education suitable to their station in life.

But, (for reasons unclear because the matter escaped the attention of the English press), when Rev. Horne and his wife Cecilia separated in 1821, he retained custody of his sons and one of his daughters and Cecilia had custody of Laura (aged 10 when the custody battle erupts in 1825) and Clementina (aged 16).  The Separation Agreement provided an allowance of £300 per annum for three years.  Cecilia debunked to France, then Jersey, and arrived in Guernsey at the end of the three years desperately short of money.  Ominously, she accepted sums of money from a complete stranger – a gentleman called Mr Jean de Jersey (who unsurprisingly turned out to have a ‘reputation’).

While Foster presents a detached account of the eventual court battle, his sympathies seem to be with Cecilia, a mother desperate to avoid losing ‘the child she valued more than her life’.  He concludes the book with a plaintive poem ‘A Mother’s Farewell Address to Her Daughter’ which was published in the Gazette de Guersey a fortnight before the always-inevitable handover.  But (perhaps because my sympathies lie with the child) this sentimental portrait doesn’t wash with me.  To try to prevent the court handing Laura over to her father, (presumably gravely concerned about his daughters’ prospects in these less than salubrious circumstances), Cecilia had, with Mr de Jersey’s connivance, smuggled Laura into a co-conspirator’s home.  The court promptly put Cecilia in prison for contempt of its orders and offered a reward for the discovery of the child’s whereabouts.  This left this child – torn from the only family she has known for the last three years – confined indoors for weeks with no contact from her family except for clandestine night visits from Clementina.  Even allowing for different attitudes to children in the 19th century, this seems to me to be a remarkably cruel thing to do to a ten-year-old child.  And pointless.  While her mother was posturing her love for the child, Laura was deprived of both parents.  She had none of the material benefits of living with her father, and wasn’t with her mother anyway.

Because I’m interested not just in history but also in how historians ‘do’ history, I was intrigued by Foster’s discussion of microhistory.  In the chapter titled ‘On small history’ he writes about movements in the writing of history –

Marxist, empiricist, narrative, structural, labour, historicist, environmental, feminist, quantitative, social, nationalist, trans-national, total history, deep history, post-modern, cultural, new historicist and many more. (p.60)

Foster names microhistory as one of these ‘fashions’.  What it offers, he says, apart from a narrowness of focus […] is the exploration of some larger historical issue beyond the specificity implied by its title.  I haven’t read any of the microhistories he offers as examples, but The Return of Martin Guerre (1982) by Natalie Zemon David, is familiar to me because I’ve read The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941) by Janet Lewis and I saw the excellent film starring Gérard Depardieu for which Zemon David was consultant.   By showing in detail the lives of ordinary people, microhistory aims to illustrate larger truths about society and culture.

Although he says that it is up to readers to make up their own minds, he stakes a claim for Zoffany’s Daughter as another example of the genre:

Here then, in the story of Cecilia, Clementina and Laura at St Peter Port, is a small series of events, interesting but seemingly inconsequential to all but those caught up in them, unfolding over a short time in a confined and inward-looking place.  These, on the face of it, are potential ingredients of what historians call ‘microhistory’.  (p.60)

Sadly, what I think Zoffany’s Daughter shows is that whatever about gender inequity in the 19th century, then as now, parents locked in marital hostilities often lose sight of what really matters when it comes to the wellbeing of their children.

Zoffany’s Daughter is illustrated with reproductions of portraits and paintings, many of them in full colour.  There are extensive notes for each chapter at the end of the book, and a clear explanation in the chapter ‘On history and fiction’ of the textual method used to differentiate between Foster’s creative inventions and what are faithful transcriptions or direct quotations from sources.  I really like this, because it resolves the issue that (IMO) bedevils creative non-fiction.  The reader who want to know what’s ‘true’ and what’s not, can see for herself… though of course she must still exercise critical judgement about the selection of sources and the objectivity of narrative perspective!

Author: Stephen Foster
Title: Zoffany’s Daughter
Publisher: South Solitary Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780646971414, 152pp.
Review copy courtesy of the author.

Available from the author’s website.

Older Posts »