Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 25, 2016

Peggy Frew wins 2016 Barbara Jefferis Award

Hope FarmThe winner of the 2016 Barbara Jefferis Award is Peggy Frew, for Hope Farm. 

The Barbara Jefferis Award is offered for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”.

As the ASA website says:

With prizes totalling $55,000, this important award represents one of the highest prize pools in the Australian literary landscape.

The 2016 shortlist included:

Sarah Hopkins: This Picture of You (Allen & Unwin)
Gail Jones: A Guide to Berlin (Vintage) (on my TBR)
Alice Pung: Laurinda (Black Inc.)
Claire Zorn: The Protected (University of Queensland Press)
Peggy Frew: Hope Farm (Scribe Publications) See my review.
Charlotte Wood: The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin) See combined reviews.

The following novels were highly commended:

Vikki Wakefield: In Between Days (Text Publishing)
Mireille Juchau: The World Without Us (Bloomsbury) See my review.

You can read an interview with Peggy Frew at The Age.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 22, 2016

Translation, A Very Short Introduction, by Matthew Reynolds

translation-a-very-short-introductionReading plans, pshaw!

Every now and again a book turns up in the letter box and I drop what I’m doing and simply sit down and read it.  And that’s what happened with Translation, a Very Short Introduction by Matthew Reynolds.  It’s a new title in a series called Very Short Introductions and yes, it is very short, only 120 pages not counting the References, Further Reading, Publisher’s acknowledgements and the Index, which takes the book up to 142 pages.   I read it in an afternoon.

I was interested in it because the worth of translation per se is a topic that is persistent in the literary world.  There are people who loudly scorn translations because they can’t possibly be true to the original, and so they confine themselves with lofty moralising to books in languages that they know. Every now and again there’s a little flurry on Twitter with links to someone or other pontificating about what a distorted experience it is to read in translation, or picking to pieces this translation versus that one and how this is proof that the whole process of translation is a bad idea.

For the opposition there are bloggers like Stu at Winston’s Dad, Tara at Reading@Large (formerly Book Sexy), Jacqui at JacquieWine and plenty of others as well and you will find links to their reviews of books in translations all over this blog.  I like to read and review books in translation, because it brings me worlds I cannot otherwise know.  I can just about read books in Indonesian and in French, but it is hard work, and I know I’ll never be able to read in all the languages that I’d like to.  I can’t imagine life without having read The Great Russians, Zola or Balzac, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Bible or Thomas Mann, and that’s just to mention ones that come quickly to mind.  Orhan Pamuk, Marguerite Duras, Hans Fallada, Irene Nemirovsky, Simone de Beauvoir, Ismail Kadare, Jose Saramago, Herta Muller, Veronique Olmi, Patrick Modiano … once I get started there’s no stopping!

Well, Matthew Reynolds tackles the topic with aplomb.  He’s Professor of English and Comparative Criticism at the University of Oxford and his books include The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer and Petrarch to Homer and Logue (OUP, 2011) and he’s a judge for the annual Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize.  So we know what ‘side’ he’s on.  And a nicely reasoned argument it is too. Chapter 1 ‘Crossing Languages’ deals with the instances of translation that occur: everything from school translations when we’re learning a language to flexibly negotiating languages with someone else not a native speaker of your language, something that happens all the time in multicultural Melbourne or when we travel.  There’s the jargon that we encounter from the medical profession; there are different kinds of English with different idiom; there are sign languages like Auslan and languages in different scripts.  There are dialects and slang and the strange language that Gen X, Y & Z speak.  Shakespeare and Chaucer need some hard work in interpretation when we read them in the original English with its non-standard spelling.  There are sub titles and international icons; there are the very carefully nuanced translations for the diplomacy of the European Union, and there are precise legally binding translations in courts and asylum seekers applications.  These are everyday instances of translation and they all have features in common:

  • Translation does not simply jump from one language to another.  It also ‘crosses languages’ in the sense of blending them. (p.5)
  • All translation involves diplomacy, because the aim of conveying what a speaker or source text is saying has to be tempered by an awareness of what the listener or reader is prepared to take on board. (p.6)
  • All translation involves the crowd, whether through the use of commentaries, dictionaries, multiple source texts or Google Translate, and the translator’s own linguistic competence is honed through other texts and conversations. (p.9)

Even the word ‘translation’ can’t be exactly translated, and that’s the starting point for Chapter 2, ‘Definitions’.  Reynolds says that’s because there is no exact translation of any word.  The image of bread that comes to mind when you think of the French le pain is not the same as the Indonesian roti or the German brot.  In Chapter 3, ‘Words, Contexts and Purposes’ he invites us to try this with the various words for ‘house’ which looks like a universal word until you try it and then the English word ‘scone’ as in clotted cream and jam, which is clearly culturally specific and a word for which there are no easy correspondences e.g. in Chinese.  (He could have done the same with the French word madeleine, eh?)

So translation does not translate the meanings of words; at least, not in the sense of taking the meaning of a word in one language and finding a word with the same meaning in another.  Many words are like ‘scone’, with propositional meanings that can’t be matched by any single words in other languages. So the translator performs some workaround, explaining the troublesome source-language word, or simply pulling it across in to the language of the translation. (p.30)

Dryden in 1680 summed up the issue in a way still influential in translation theory today:

  • metaphrase, now called word-by-word or very literal translation, not varying the word order or anything else, relying on language standardisation;
  • paraphrase, or translation with latitude: now meaning translation within a language rather than between them, with words not so strictly followed as the sense;
  • imitation, now described as ‘versions’, where the translator feels free to vary the words and the sense as s/he sees fit.

Reynolds warns us that translation is infinitely complex, influenced by factors such as

your historical moment and political situation, the genre of the text you are talking about, its context and purpose, the features of it that seem most important. (p.18)

In Chapter 4 ‘Forms, identities and interpretations’ he discusses everything from comics to the poetry of Dante.  A reader has to choose between a translation that preserves the unique rhyme scheme (Dorothy L Sayers’ version) or abandoning it (Longfellow’s or Mark Musa’s) or rewriting it in quatrains (Clive James).  (I’ve got a version on my iPad too, but I have no idea who the translator is, it’s really not an App worth having).

I do take issue with Reynolds on one issue.  He seems to think that we should take a robust attitude to ‘tone’  and he is quite stern about reviewers of translations.  I think this is a bit rich, considering that we are doing our very best to promote literature in translation and it’s better to comment on translation issues than to ignore the translator as if he s/he doesn’t exist.  IMO Tone matters in literature when a translator is trying to render the connotations of speech and context, and I’ve had some horrible experiences reading Zola’s novels where they’ve been translated using modern slang which has crassly altered the class distinctions that Zola was aiming to render.  I don’t agree that the original has no tone or spirit in itself; it takes readers to imagine those into being.  Good authors choose words carefully to capture age, class and identity; as you can see if you have to choose one of these for a translation of ‘maman’ from the French:  ‘mum’, ‘mummy’, ‘Mother’,  and ‘ma’.  Even ‘mummy’ has different connotations depending on context: in Australia, it’s quite common for little kids to use ‘mummy’ but the same word used by an adult for a parent is an occasion for mockery because it’s associated here with being an upper class British twit.  (No one has ever raised an eyebrow over my use of the Anglo-Irish ‘Mother’, but I’ve betrayed myself again and again with my use of ‘Daddy’ which is what I’ve called him ever since childhood).  No Australian, I think, would ever use the American ‘mom’…

What’s nice is that Reynolds acknowledges that translation of literary fiction is difficult because

literary texts are open to a great variety of interpretations: that is part of what it means for them to be ‘literary’.  Critical essays give their readers fewer interpretive options.  One reason for this is the way they are written: they don’t, on the whole, play with ambiguity, fictionality, and form the way that literary texts tend to. (p.60)

This review is getting a bit long: I’m going to wrap it up by telling you that Chapter 5 is about ‘Power, Religion and Choice’  (with an interesting venture into the impact of translation on the Treaty of Waitangi and some exploration of censorship issues; while Chapter 6 is about ‘Words in the World’ exploring the languages that are translated often in the book trade, which is what I’m interested in  (i.e. 40-%: English in all its forms, French, German and Russian) and those translated less (1-3%) – Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Japanese,  Danish, Latin, Dutch, Ancient Greek, and Czech).  Chinese, Arabic and Portuguese less so, and Hindi not much, even though these are the most commonly spoken languages in the world.  (If you’ve read some of these, well done!) And then there are languages that barely register: Ahom, Lushootseed, and Tok Pisin.  (Tok Pisin is spoken in New Guinea, but I’ve never heard of the others).  Chapter 7 is called ‘Translational Literature’ and it explores nationality and culture, and literature as a nation-building force, and the opportunities of multilingual texts in the modern world…

There’s a huge range of books in this series but I think you can see why this particular title appealed to me:)

Author: Matthew Reynolds
Title: Translation, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2016
ISBN: 9780198712114
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Available from Fishpond: Translation: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

the-adventures-of-cuffy-mahoneyCuffy Mahony is one of the great creations of Henry Handel Richardson.  While he is not the focus of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, he is an unforgettable presence towards the end of the trilogy as he struggles with guilt and embarrassment when he walks with his demented father in the town.  The short story which gives this collection its title follows Cuffy’s ‘fortunes’ after the death of his father, and it’s an ironic title, hinting at the small adventures of a normal childhood but delivering a very different tale.

As readers of Ultima Thule (Vol III of the trilogy) will remember, Cuffy (Cuthbert) is the elder of the surviving Mahony children.  He is a quiet, sensitive boy, bookish and observant even when small, and taking after his father rather than his more robust, practical mother.  After Lallie’s death from eating green almonds, the racketing from place to place, the collapse of one home after another and then the collapse of her father who should have been her mainstay Lallie’s twin Lucie is clingy and Cuffy is protective of this.  Mother (Mary a.k.a. Polly) indulges her too, ignoring advice to toughen her up and keeping the child beside her while she works as postmistress in the remote town of Gymgurra the Western District of Victoria.

When the story begins Mary is weighing up a proposal from Mr Henry Ocock, and like single mothers the world over, while she considers the pros and cons for herself and her family, she puts her children first.  She does not love Henry, but she could learn to make such a marriage successful and she would be relieved of the burden of work while also ensuring Cuffy’s future education.  But as well Lucie’s nervous dependency, there are Cuffy’s emotional needs to consider:

Cuffy, always excitable, had shortly after his father’s death developed a convulsive twitching and blinking of face and eyes that was distressing to see.  The doctor said the habit was purely nervous, and would pass as he grew older.  Meanwhile, there was nothing to be done; except sometimes hold up a glass to show him how ugly or how silly he looked.  But did she think of him, or either of them, going among strangers thus handicapped, to be made fun of, or found fault with – perhaps even punished – for failings they had done nothing to deserve: at the mere thought of it, all her protective tenderness was up in arms.  No, Richard’s children they were, for good or for ill; and Richard’s children they should remain.  No one but the father they were so like would be capable of understanding them.

And here, as if to brace her in her decision, words she had once heard, and which her memory had as it were stored up for use in this crisis, came floating into her mind. ‘Henry Ocock is harsh with children… is harsh with children.’

That did it: now she knew where she stood. Well, he shouldn’t – she wouldn’t give him the chance to be – with hers.  On no one but herself should their lives and happiness depend.  (p. 8-9)

So things go on as before, Cuffy taking lessons with the kindly Reverend Burroughs, leaving off the lessons and going out in the yard to play tipcat when Cuffy’s facial tic indicated distress.  For most of the story HHR shows us Cuffy’s thoughts in a third person narrative that shows his eight-year-old point of view, revealing his intelligence and his sensitivity to those around him.  Even when he puzzles over the spelling of an author Mr Burroughs reveals as ‘Gertie’ (i.e. Goethe) – Cuffy knows that can’t be right because Gertie  is a girl’s name.  And he knows not to mention to his mother that the Reverend is a sluggard, often taking the lessons dressed in an overcoat over his pyjamas.

But the question of Cuffy’s education weighs heavy on Mary’s mind, and a trip to Melbourne to ask for financial help must be made.  And in preparing for the trip, Mary takes on yet another masculine role and begins to paint the ceiling and walls so that her temporary replacement in the post office won’t think badly of her.  An accident ensues, and the vulnerability of this little family is immediately apparent.  Mary’s determination that on no one but herself should their lives and happiness depend counts for nothing.

HHR’s brilliance in depicting the emotional states of her characters is at its best in showing Cuffy’s distress at how things turn out.  He was an unforgettable character in Ultima Thule but he will haunt the emotions of any reader who meets him in this short story.

And therein, for me, lies the limitation of the short story. I do so want to know what becomes of little Cuffy.  Instead the collection goes on with Sketches of Girlhood, Two Tales of Old Strasbourg and three others which strained my patience altogether.  These stories, do, as the blurb says, offer themes of separation, loss and acceptance through childhood, adolescence, marriage and ultimately death but I found most of them unsatisfying.  ‘The Life and Death of Peterle Luthy’ and ‘Mary Christina’ are maudlin,  while ‘The Coat’ tests credulity, and most of the girlhood stories are really rather mundane.   Only ‘Two Hanged Women’ with its veiled lesbian storyline, and ‘Sister Ann’ exploring the neglected emotional life of a sister raising a horde of younger siblings, held any interest for me.

The collection was first published in 1979, when HHR had been dead for over 30 years, and I can’t help feeling that this was a case of resurrecting some stories which were not really her best work.  Some of them are just sketches, as if preparatory for some other project and others read as if they are sorting out some long suppressed sexual feelings.

Bill from The Australian Legend reviewed this collection and had an entirely different perspective.  (He also very kindly lent this book, long out-of-print, to me).  Bill thinks Cuffy’s story is well-written but is out of place in a collection exploring aspects of womanhood.  How interesting it is that we respond to the same book so differently!  I think Cuffy’s story is brilliant and want it continued in a novel, and I will have forgotten most the rest of the stories by bedtime tomorrow.  Having said that, I’d be quick to acknowledge that feminist scholars would find much that is interesting about expectations placed on women in the era before WW1. ‘And Woman Must Weep’ covers familiar territory in depicting a ‘wallflower’ at a dance but is written with a perception that seems to derive from personal experience, which few authors of that era, I suspect, would have been willing to reveal. ‘Sister Ann’ develops a persistent thread in the trilogy and in Cuffy’s story, of women taking on men’s roles out of necessity, and despite being better at them than the useless men around them, getting no credit for it and still not achieving financial independence or security.

Still, I think HHR was best at long-form fiction, and I’d recommend The Fortunes of Richard Mahony as the triumph of her art.

Author: Henry Handel Richardson
Title: The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony and Other Stories
Publisher: Sirius, an imprint of Angus and Robertson, 1979
ISBN: 0207135118
Source: loan from Bill Holloway from The Australian Legend, thanks Bill!


Out-of-print, try second-hand bookshops and state libraries.




Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 21, 2016

Meet an Aussie Author: Emily Maguire

emily-maguire-2It’s only a day or two since I reviewed An Isolated Incident so I’m very excited to be able to introduce the author to you via Meet an Aussie Author.

an-isolated-incidentAn Isolated Incident is Emily Maguire’s fifth novel.  As she says in her blurb:

It’s about Chris Rogers, an easy-going, heavy-drinking barmaid in the dying NSW country town of Strathdee, who’s plunged into despair  – and thrust unwillingly into the national spotlight – when her adored younger sister Bella is murdered. It’s a novel about everyday violence, the media obsession with pretty dead girls and the difficulties of knowing the difference between a ghost and a memory, between a monster and a man.

As you can see from my review, it’s a novel that speaks to Emily’s skill in creating compelling and highly readable fiction about the pressing social problem of violence against women in Australia, and it’s part of a suite of publications about feminism, sex and culture including

  • previous novels Fishing for Tigers, Smoke in the Room, The Gospel According to Luke and the international bestseller Taming the Beast;
  • a non-fiction book Princesses and Pornstars: Sex + Power + Identity which is a frank, personal examination of what it means to be young and female in Australia. A Young Adult version of this book titled Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice was published in 2010; and
  • articles and essays in The Sydney Morning Herald,  The Age, The Monthly and The Weekend Australian.

Emily has twice been named as a Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year (2010 and 2013) and was the recipient of the 2011 NSW Writers’ Fellowship. She has an MA in literature and works as a teacher and mentor to young and emerging writers.

So you can imagine how pleased I was when Emily agreed to answer my questions for Meet an Aussie Author!

1.I was born …in Canberra, but my family moved to Sydney when I was still tiny.

2.When I was a child I wrote…constantly. I reckon I wrote a dozen ‘novels’ and twenty ‘plays’ before I was ten years old.

3.The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write is/was…my parents and siblings. We were and are a family of proud and joyful reading and writing nerds.

4.I write in… a little room at the top of the NSW Writers’ Centre (where I also teach), my living room, bedroom, hotel room, airport gate, library, park, borrowed back room of someone else’s place, cafe, car, unused staircase. I need my laptop and earbuds with loud lyricless music playing and I’m good to go.

5.I write when… I can. My preference is late at night but I long ago realised that the only way I was going to sustain a writing life long-term was if I learnt to write when and wherever. So I do.

6.Research is….thrilling. How many times have I been about to close a book only to come across the perfect tiny detail that brings everything I’m trying to do into focus or shows me the way forward? The tricky thing is disciplining myself so I don’t use all of my precious writing time on research and never get any words on the page.

7.I keep my published work/s on my bookshelf at home. I often feel, in the midst of writing a novel, that I have no idea what I’m doing and should give it up. The published books remind me that I’ve felt like this before and lived to write another day.

8.On the day my first book was published, I…smiled until my face ached and then drank until my stomach did, too.

9.At the moment, I’m writing an historical novel set in Far North Queensland. It’s new territory for me in several ways and I’m finding it thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.

10.When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I …(an activity) write. Even if it’s crap and nonsense to begin with, I find the act of writing (anything) is what gets me writing (well).

Emily is not the first author to reveal in Meet an Aussie Author that she works from a state-based Writers Centre, which attests to the value of these centres as places for authors to write.  NSW has more than any other state, WA comes in second with four, and because Melbourne is a UNESCO City of Literature I’m surprised to see from the ASA list that Victoria has only two: Writers Victoria (which offers studios and ‘cells’ for writing in) and a branch of the Australian Writers Centre (which appears to market writing courses rather than offering writing spaces).  I thought The Wheeler Centre was going to offer writing spaces but they’re not listed, so I guess they don’t.  And the State Library of Victoria – famous for a number of notable authors using it as a writing space – is now so noisy that only the very tolerant could hang out there to write the next Great Australian Novel.  But Emily’s space at the Macdowell Colony where she worked in 2015 looks very congenial, I love that restful Delft blue.

I’m very curious about that historical novel that Emily’s writing….

You can buy An Isolated Incident from Fishpond and good bookshops everywhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 20, 2016

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

his-bloody-projectLonglisted for the Man Booker Prize, His Bloody Project is the second novel of Scots author Graeme Macrae Burnet.  It’s mildly interesting, but I can’t quite see why it merits longlisting.

It’s a pastiche purporting to be True Crime.  Relating the case of the brutal murder of three people in the Scots Highlands in 1869, it consists of a preface, statements by locals, the murderer’s account of events, medical reports, an excerpt about the case in a book about lunacy, a report of the trial and an epilogue. As you’d expect, these documents are not consistent with each other, and the reader is left in the same position as the purported jury: was he mad or was he bad?

I don’t like reading true crime.  The media tells me quite enough about the awful things that people do to each other, and I think it’s ghoulish to wallow in the details.  So I’m not really predisposed to read something that’s purporting to be true crime.  But that’s not why I’m a bit underwhelmed.  I just don’t think this book has anything of any great significance about it. The book unpacks the back story of the accused and his unedifying life in a miserable village in the Highlands.  A case is made that he acted to avenge the persecution of his father by the local bully who was misusing the power invested in him by an indifferent laird.  The waters are muddied by some aspects of the case not mentioned in his own account of events, and there’s an assortment of perspectives from the villagers and a medical assessment made at a time when mental illness was not understood.  The account of the trial is really quite boring (unless you like that kind of thing, of course) and the verdict is entirely predictable.

The blurb claims that it’s a story about the provisional nature of truth, even when the facts are clear.  But so what?  We all know that truth is a slippery beast anyway.  It also claims that it’s a deeply imagined historical novel but it’s no better or worse than any number of historical novels I’ve read, and not in the same league as something like Wolf Hall.  No, for me, His Bloody Project is shallow and ordinary, and even its form has been done before.

Really, with the wealth of novels eligible for this prize, was this really among the very best?

Enthusiasts for the book include Justine Jordan at The Guardian who calls it a fiendishly readable psychological thriller, and Jake Kerridge at the Telegraph  who is unabashed about calling it a genre novel but likes the ingenuity.  (I would agree with his point that two of the last three Booker winners were crime novels (i.e. The Luminaries and  A Brief History of Seven Killings but not Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North)  except that I haven’t read A Brief History of Seven Killings so I’ll have to take his word for it.)

Author: Graeme Macrae Burnet
Title: His Bloody Project
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925498257
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: His Bloody Project

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2016

Howard’s End, by E.M. Forster

howards-endI suspect that everyone I know has read this book, and if they haven’t, they’ve seen the Merchant Ivory film, but my copy of E.M. Forster’s fourth novel has been sitting on the TBR since I picked it up years ago in an OpShop for $7.00, and it was time to read it at last.

I’ve been an Aussie for decades now, but Forster resurrected my residual Englishness with his description of the panorama from the summit of the Purbeck Hills.

If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills, and stand him on their summit, a few miles to the east of Corfe.  Then system after system of our island would roll together under his feet.  Beneath him is the valley of the Frome, and all the wild lands that come tossing down from Dorchester, black and gold, to mirror their gorse in the expanses of Poole.  The valley of the Stour is beyond, unaccountable stream, dirty at Blandford, pure at Wimbourne – the Stour, sliding out of flat fields, to marry the Avon beneath the tower of Christchurch.  The valley of the Avon – invisible, but far to the north the trained eye may see Clearbury Ring that guards it, and the imagination may leap beyond that onto Salisbury Plain itself, and beyond the plain to all the glorious downs of central England.  Nor is suburbia absent. Bournemouth’s ignoble coast cowers to the right, heralding the pine trees that mean, for all their beauty, red houses, and the Stock Exchange, and extend to the gates of London itself.  So tremendous is the city’s trail! But the cliffs of Freshwater it will never touch, and the island will guard the Island’s purity till the end of time.  Seen from the west, the Wight is beautiful beyond all laws of beauty.  It is as if a fragment of England floated forward to greet the foreigner – chalk of our chalk, turf of our turf, epitome of what will follow. And behind the fragment lie Southampton, hostess to the nations, and Portsmouth, a latent fire, and all around it, with double and treble collisions of tides, swirls the sea.  How many villages appear in this view! How many castles! How many churches, vanquished or triumphant! How many ships, railways, and roads! What incredible variety of men working beneath that lucent sky to what final end! The reason fails, like a wave on the Swanage beach; the imagination swells, spreads and deepens, until it becomes geographic and encircles England. (Beginning of Chapter XIX, p.170)

Ah, the power of words! I don’t feel like ‘the foreigner’ Forster says will be impressed: I feel like Forster’s England is my England still.

BEWARE: SPOILERS (Not big book-ruining ones, but you all know the plot anyway, eh?)

Throughout the novel Margaret Schlegel worries about the flux of life.  She has lived all her life in Wickham Place but the lease can’t be renewed because a developer wants to replace the old houses with flats.  Thoroughly unsettled, she can’t find a new place at all, and she is baffled by the Wilcox family who have several houses but don’t put down roots anywhere.  Mr Wilson is a rich businessman, and the first of his residences the reader encounters is Howards End, too small to be a proper estate once its meadows were sold off, but still a charming if idiosyncratic country house. It is here that Margaret’s sister Helen meets up again with the Wilcox family who they’d met while on holiday in Germany.  And it is here on this visit that Helen indiscreetly kisses Paul Wilcox and causes a flurry with an impetuous engagement and an equally impetuous breaking off.

The Wilcox family then comes to London, to their flat in Ducie Street opposite the Schlegel sisters (who are not really German, though their father was).  Frosty courtesy fades, and Margaret becomes friendly with Mrs Wilcox, a vague and sentimental creature who seems to sense the feelings of others.  But Mrs Wilcox is fading away from some unspecified malady…

The funeral brings Margaret to Howards End, and she falls in love with the place.  She has a very comfortable independent income (as do Helen and her brother Theobald, known as Tibby).  So she has no need of the property that Mrs Wilcox on a whim leaves to Margaret.  But the note – unsigned, undated and written in pencil – is deemed invalid and Margaret is never told of it.  Still, Charles Wilcox nurtures a sense of outrage.  The catalyst for his hostility is Paul and Helen’s silly ‘engagement’ but his mother’s gesture exacerbates his anger because he has a growing family and fears he will never be as rich as his father is.  He doesn’t want any of his inheritance squandered on outsiders.

By the time Evie Wilcox marries, Margaret has accepted Mr Wilcox’s prosaic proposal, and she goes down to his estate at Oniton in Shropshire on the Welsh border.  She loves this place too, but Henry had bought it only to please Evie after her mother died.  But now Evie is to have a home of her own, it’s no longer needed.  It was never practical – too far from London, and the shooting is no good for weekend house parties.  And besides, it’s damp, which makes it fit only for a boys’ preparatory school.  (Forster loves his little jokes).  Margaret as fiancée plays hostess at Oniton only once – to disastrous events, which confirm their intention to build something splendid in Sussex.

The tenant at Howard’s End having broken his lease, the house becomes a temporary storage place for Schlegel family possessions – furniture, paintings and an impressive collection of valuable books. But Margaret has to go down there to sort out a problem – old Mrs Avery has taken it upon herself to unpack everything so it must all be packed up again and put into proper storage in London.  It seems that Mrs Avery is a little fey: she has turned Howards End into the home Margaret yearns for, and that Ruth Wilcox had wanted her to have.   And as indeed , it turns out to be…

But by such a strange, melodramatic set of circumstances!  Only Forster could have pulled it off without making a penny dreadful out of it.  Instead he paints a profound picture of class consciousness and hypocrisy.  The worlds of Edwardian culture and materialistic commerce collide; the sisters debate liberalism and imperialism; Margaret mourns the pace of change and Mr Wilcox is sour about universal suffrage:

‘I hate this continual flux of London. It is an epitome of us at our worst – eternal formlessness; all the qualities, good, bad and indifferent, streaming away – streaming, streaming forever. That’s why I dread it so. I mistrust rivers, even in scenery.  Now, the sea – ‘

‘High tide, yes.’

‘Hoy toide’ – from the promenading youths.

‘And these are the men to whom we give the vote,’ observed Mr Wilcox, omitting to add that they were also the men to whom he gave work as clerks – work that scarcely encouraged them to grow into other men. (p.184-5)

It is in this novel that Forster uses the term ‘only connect’ which is forever connected with his name.  Margaret, troubled by her husband’s soul and lack of feeling for others, hopes to help him:

It did not seem so difficult.  She need trouble him with no gift of her own.  She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man.  Only connect!  That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.  Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die. (p.188).

So often spousal ambitions to change the other fail!  Mr W wreaks his changes upon Margaret and she doesn’t mind, (though the more Bolshie Helen resents it).  Does Margaret succeed in changing Henry?  Readers may well have different opinions about that…

Howard’s End is a great book, and it deserves its place in 1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die.

Author: E.M. Forster
Title: Howards End
Publisher: Penguin, 1989, first published in 1910.
ISBN: 9780140111606
Source: Personal library, purchased in an OpShop for $7

Available from Fishpond: Howards End.  (Mine is the Penguin edition edited by Oliver Stallybrass, which seems to be out of print.  The link leads to the Penguin edition with an introduction by David Lodge, but there are dozens of editions available.)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 18, 2016

Carmel Bird wins the 2016 Patrick White Award

It must be a bittersweet experience, receiving the Patrick White Award.  It was set up  to acknowledge authors who have been highly creative over a long period but have not necessarily received adequate recognition.  If you check out the list of recipients at Wikipedia you can see that it is a distinguished company indeed, but while many of these authors have been nominated for Australia’s major literary prizes,  few of them were ever awarded our most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award.  Yet receiving this Patrick White prize confers great prestige because it’s only ever given to really impressive writers: it’s never compromised by the inclusion of ‘encouragement awards’ or agenda-driven issues or anything else.  It goes to inspirational people who have made a career of writing and write because they must, even though the rewards may be meagre.  Every one of these authors should have an OA as well.

Patrick White used his 1973 Nobel Prize winnings to establish his award, and as the Perpetual Trustees Press Release says:

Like many philanthropists, Patrick White established the award to create a legacy – one that would reward Australian writers and help them to continue to flourish.   This legacy now extends more than 40 years and has had a significant impact on the lives of so many in the literary community. It is a demonstration of just how important philanthropic giving is in the community.

This year the prize is worth $20,000, and has been awarded to Carmel Bird in recognition of her outstanding contribution to Australian literature.

Child of the Twilightfair-gameCarmel Bird is a prolific writer: I’ve read quite a few of her books including her 1998 novel Red Shoes and a collection of short stories called Automatic Teller (1996) and two more reviewed here on this blog: Child of the Twilight and Fair Game, a short piece in the FL Smalls Collection.  She has published more than 30 works, including writes novels, short stories, essays, anthologies, children’s books and books about the craft of writing.

(From the Press Release) Reflecting on the award, Carmel Bird paid homage to Patrick White:

I am honoured and also overcome with joy to have been selected to receive the Award, to have been added to the list of distinguished writers who have received it in the past. Patrick White has been one of the key writers in my life. In awe, I met him in 1961, never imagining that one day I might receive a wonderful gift from him.

First of all I fell for the plays, then the stories, then the novels which I began reading in the sixties. I like to believe his work has in many subtle ways affected my own. Perhaps his interest in what he called the ‘sin of goodness’ can be found in some of my own narratives. I treasure the deep, pictorial quality of his prose, its spirituality, its humour, its grandeur, the power of its music.

A story I love about Patrick White is that when he was a child he went to my homeland of Tasmania for a holiday, remembering it ever after as Paradise Lost. I do like that. I am so grateful to Patrick White first of all for his work. And naturally I am grateful to him for setting up the award.

The judges for 2016 were  Dr Bernadette Brennan (Chair), Professor David Carter and Associate Professor Debra Adelaide and their commendation reads:

The judges are pleased to select Carmel Bird as the 2016 winner of the Patrick White Award.   Carmel has contributed widely and uniquely to Australian literature since her first book in 1976. Carmel has since gone on to publish 30 more books – her imagination is extraordinarily wide-ranging and her fiction consequently creates a world that criss-crosses textual, intellectual and geographical boundaries.

Members of the public are welcome to attend the Patrick White Literary Award celebration at Readings Carlton, 309 Lygon Street, Carlton, Victoria on Friday 11 November 2016. To book, visit the Readings website.

Thanks to Jessica Effeney at Honner Media for sharing the news about this award.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 18, 2016

2016 Zoe Morrison wins the Readings Prize

Music and FreedomZoë Morrison has been named the winner of this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction for her debut novel, Music and Freedom.   Read my review here.

From the Readings website:

The Readings Prize was launched in 2014, with the aim of supporting new and emerging Australian authors. It is unique in the Australian literary prize landscape as it is the only significant prize to be managed entirely by a bookshop, and it considers both first and second works of fiction by Australian authors – a point of difference that is important to Readings, as many authors often struggle to find traction with their second novel or collection of short stories.

From the press release:

Set over a period of 70 years, Music and Freedom is a profound and moving portrait of one woman’s life, ranging from rural Australia in the 1930s to England in the modern day.

The Prize judges were united in considering the novel a sophisticated and intelligent work of fiction.

‘A stimulating, thought-provoking and immensely satisfying book.’ – Mark Rubbo, managing director

‘A good story, beautifully written.’ – Maxine Beneba Clarke, author and Readings Prize guest judge

‘A wise novel with a wonderful sense of music and passion.’ – Chris Gordon, events manager

‘An impeccably written and incredibly relevant novel.’ – Tom Hoskins, manager at Readings State Library 

‘Highly recommend for fans of Anne Tyler, Stephanie Bishop & Elizabeth Strout.’ – Nina Kenwood, marketing manager

You can read more about the author and the prize at the Readings blog.

There were some fine books on the shortlist, you can read more about them and find links to my reviews here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 17, 2016

2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlist

Messenger’s BookerUpdate 19/10/16 I’ve added a link to Tony’s poetry review at Messenger’s Booker.  He’s hoping to review them all before the winners are announced so I’ll be adding links as they occur.

Update 18/10/16: I’ve added in the publishers, who deserve credit too.

The 2016 shortlist features both well-known authors and newcomers:


Forever Young, Steven Carroll, Harper Collins, 2015, see my review
The Life of Houses, Lisa Gorton, Giramondo, 2015,  see my review
The World Repair Video Game, David Ireland AM, Island Magazine, 2015, (I wanted this, but it was a limited edition and with postage as well, too expensive for my budget)
Quicksand, Steve Toltz,  Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2015, see my review
The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood, Allen & Unwin, 2015, see combined reviews  


Net Needle, Robert Adamson, Black Inc, 2015
Cocky’s Joy, Michael Farrell, Giramondo, 2015
The Hazards, Sarah Holland-Batt, UQP, 2015, see Tony’s review at Messenger’s Booker
Waiting for the Past, Les Murray AO, Black Inc, 2015
The Ladder, Simon West, Puncher & Wattmann, 2015

Australian History
The Story of Australia’s People. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Australia, Geoffrey Blainey AC, Viking Penguin, 2015
Let My People Go: The untold story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959-89, Sam Lipski and Suzanne D Rutland, Hybrid Publishers, 2015
Red Professor:  The Cold War Life of Fred Rose, Peter Monteath and Valerie Munt, Wakefield Press, 2015
Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life, Doug Morrissey, Connor Court, 2015
The War with Germany: Volume III—The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, Robert Stevenson, Oxford University Press, 2015


Tom Roberts and the Art of Portraiture, Julie Cotter, Thames & Hudson, 2015
On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Melbourne University Press, 2015
Thea Astley: Inventing her own Weather, Karen Lamb, UQP, 2015, see my review
Second Half First, Drusilla Modjeska, Penguin, 2015 
Island Home
, Tim Winton, Penguin, 2015

Children’s Fiction

Adelaide’s Secret World, Elise Hurst, Allen & Unwin, 2015
Sister Heart, Sally Morgan, remantle Press, 2015
Perfect, Danny Parker and Freya Blackwood, Hardie Grant Egmont, 2015
The Greatest Gatsby: A visual book of grammar, Tohby Riddle, Penguin, 2015
Mr Huff, Anna Walker, Penguin Books, 2015

Young Adult Fiction

Becoming Kirrali Lewis, Jane Harrison, Magabala Books, 2015
Illuminae: The Illuminae Files_01, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Allen & Unwin, 2015
A Single Stone, Meg McKinlay, Walker Books, 2015
Inbetween Days, Vikki Wakefield, Text publishing, 2015
Green Valentine, Lili Wilkinson, Allen & Unwin, 2015

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

PS You can read the media release and visit for more information about the shortlisted books and to see the judges’ comments.

PPS Thanks for ArtsWorks for a user friendly media release!


I’m still reading Labyrinths: having finished the Fictions, I’m now enjoying the essays.  In the current context of the identity politics brouhaha, I particularly liked ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ because it tackles issues relevant to ‘Australian’ literature and what its authors may write about.  (You can read the article here).  It’s interesting that this was a live issue in 1951, eh?

But the essay I want to discuss here is ‘Partial Magic in the Quixote’ because I have recorded my adventures with Don Quixote here on this blog (and note that I do not presume to call my blundering thoughts a ‘review’!)  Borges has some interesting things to say about Quixote, which may redress a little of my naiveté in reading the book.

Borges notes that in contrast to other classic books like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia and Shakespeare’s plays, Quixote is a realistic work, but the realism is not that of 19th century realism.  Joseph Conrad, he says, did not need the supernatural because to include it would be a denial that the everyday was marvellous. Henry James thought that reality was poetic enough but for Cervantes the real and the poetic were mutually incompatible.

To the vast and vague geographies of the Amad’is, he opposes the dusty roads and sordid wayside inns of Castille; imagine a novelist of our time centring attention for purposes of parody on some filling stations.  Cervantes has created for us the poetry of seventeenth century Spain, but neither that century nor that Spain were poetic for him. (p. 228)

So, Cervantes is precluded from the marvellous, but he has to include it in order to parody it. He has to insinuate it with subtlety in his secret, nostalgic farewell to the pastoral novel and the novel of chivalry.  He does this by inserting a novel within a novel, in the sixth chapter of the first part where the priest and the barber inspect Don Quixote’s library.  One of the books is Galatea by Cervantes himself, and the barber knows the author, but doesn’t care for his work, saying that

he is more versed in misfortunes than in verses and that the book contains some inventiveness, proposes some new ideas and concludes nothing.  (p. 229)

This says Borges, is a character passing judgement on the author of the book that the character is in.

Furthermore, in the ninth chapter, it turns out that the entire book is a pretence:

… the entire novel has been transplanted from the Arabic and that Cervantes acquired the manuscript in the market-place of Toledo and had it translated by a morisco whom he lodged in his house for more than a month and a half while the job was finished. (p.229)

I remember being baffled when reading the second part of Don Quixote to find that the characters of the first part are the readers of the second part. But Borges compares this to the play within a play in Hamlet, where the imperfect correspondence of the principal and secondary works lessens the efficacy of this inclusion. (p.230).  Apparently something similar happens in the Ramayana when Rama hears his own story, and also in the Thousand and One Nights about which Borges is not kind:

This collection of fantastic tales duplicates and reduplicates to the point of vertigo the ramifications of a central story in later and subordinate stories, but does not attempt to gradate its realities, and the effect (which should have been profound) is superficial, like a Persian carpet. (p. 230)

In another work, The World and the Individual (1899) by Josiah Royce, the reader asks us to imagine that the soil of England has been levelled and a map of England drawn upon it.  The map is perfect, no detail is omitted, and therefore, crucially, the map must show a map of the map, and that map must have a map, and so on in infinity.

Why, asks Borges, do these stories bother us?

… these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional world can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.  In 1833, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written. (p.231)

*chuckle* You may be reading a fictitious post by a fictitious person in fictitious cyber space!

Author: Jorge Luis Borges
Title: ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in Labyrinths
Translated by James E. Irby
Publisher: Penguin Australia 2011
ISBN: 9780143566342
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Labyrinths (Popular Penguins) and good bookshops everywhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 16, 2016

On the Blue Train, by Kristel Thornell

on-the-blue-trainIt took me longer than expected to read this book, an imagining of the celebrated 11-day disappearance of the author Agatha Christie, a mystery which remains unsolved to this day. Kristel Thornell’s On the Blue Train is not a whodunit, it’s a whydunit, and it’s basically a slow meditation on relationships, past, present and emerging.

Like most books creating fiction from the life of a real person, it is IMO best read on its own terms rather than fossicking around to see how it matches up with what is known of the real life.  Since nothing is known anyway about how Christie under her alias Teresa Neele spent her eleven days at the Harrogate Hydro, the plot allows for the creation of an assortment of characters, much like any of the ‘hotel novels’ I have read, hotels in this genre being the sort of places where well-heeled people stay for quite long periods of time, and crucially, offering opportunities for the characters to get to know each other.  (See Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner, In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield, or The Little Hotel by Christina Stead).

It’s often a feature of novels set in these hotels, that the characters have something to hide.  While they might go out to see the sights, as Thornell’s characters do, that’s not why they are there.  In On the Blue Train they are running away from themselves, hoping to reinvent themselves in some way.  The characters who impact most on Teresa Neele are running away from unspoken grief, as she is, and so they circle around each other, unsure as to whether they can unburden themselves to someone they barely know.

The narration focusses on the thoughts and emotions of Teresa and her admirer Harry; all the other characters are seen through their eyes. (Though not in a sardonic or witty way, like the sharp observations of Katherine Mansfield and Christina Stead).  Harry notices Teresa immediately: a single, attractive woman, obviously well off and au fait with the lifestyle, yet wearing the same clothes on the second day as on her first.  So he is intrigued, and the hotel’s amenities and attractions conspire with him to get to know her better.  There’s a couple there, too, who conspire to help Harry in his quest.  The Jackmans have something in common with the back story Teresa invents for herself,  they have a daughter who has just lost a child as Teresa claims to have done.  Mrs Jackman does a little low-level matchmaking for these two single people, a device which means that usually Teresa and Harry know where the other is, to be met or avoided, depending on inclination.

Although the ‘big’ secret is the question of Teresa’s identity and whether she will reveal it to Harry or he will reveal that he’s sussed her out from the newspaper reports of her disappearance, the interest of the novel is whether they will confide to each other the secrets that are the real reason for their unsettled lifestyle, and then, whether any such revelations will lead to anything more.  So while the story is bookended by the framework of the Christie disappearance, the novel is much like any other novel focussed on a woman getting away from it all (and possibly getting into extra-marital mischief).  Both characters are haunted by old loves and the anguish of missed opportunities, and it is up to the reader to deduce whether either or both are ready for anything new.

The writing style is curious.  At times it deliberately draws attention to itself, with unusual constructions like she had stridden.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the past tense of the verb to stride used in this way.  There are also word choices which seem anachronistic, such as she couldn’t quite place this homey scene, instead of homely.  There is attention to the Australian accent which I found odd because it seemed to imply that wealthy Australians in 1926 had an instantly recognisable broad accent, when (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!) Australians of Harry’s class spoke with what is now called a ‘cultivated Australian’ accent i.e. indistinguishable from the BBC accent of the 1950s, and best exemplified by Tamie Fraser and others of her ilk.  When Teresa muses on her life with ‘Mummy’ and ‘Nursie’, the text sometimes verges on parody.  Yet there are snippets which reminded me of Patrick White’s modernism, as in He … dressed hectically, not troubling with a shave.  I am undecided about whether I admire this writing style, or not.  Here’s a larger sample, chosen at random:

In came the chambermaid with tea and newspaper.  A wedge between Teresa and the warmth she’d been forced from.  She said she’d take breakfast in bed, resentful of the young woman’s efficient movements and elastic spine.  Yet there were dark dips under her too-penetrating eyes.  She might know what it was to be betrayed by sleep.  She probably had a child, several, and must be an old intimate of fatigue.  How had she kept her pleasing waist? Her days would involve a great deal of hard work, of course, and possibly letdowns that may or many not be blunter than suffering.  The beauty not quite managed was receding, a treasured friend waving on the quay, a shimmer in the distance.  Light hair discolouring, silver strands creeping in like minor but disruptive misunderstandings. When the husband’s eye roamed, she’d know it.  Teresa continued to take exception to her energetic gaze.  (p. 104)

Peter Pierce in The Australian was very impressed.  (Sorry if it’s paywalled). He suggests that Thornell’s literary ancestor is the once lauded, now almost forgotten Martin Boyd. 

The cover design?  Hmm.  The text font is nice, but as so often, the image is just one of those generic images.

Author: Kristel Thornell
Title: On the Blue Train
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781760293109
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Available from Fishpond: On the Blue Train


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2016

Last Man in Tower, by Aravind Adiga, read by Sam Dastor


A strange thing happened the first time I listened to this book.  It’s a few years ago now, when I was still working and listening to audio books on the daily commute.  I got almost to the end of Booker-winning Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower and found that I just couldn’t bear to continue because I feared what might happen to its flawed hero Masterji.  I had become so invested in his story that I just didn’t want to know if something awful happened to him…

I had the paperback copy at home too, but I kept putting it aside for other things.  I had never had this kind of reluctance before, and it was still rankling a bit when I saw the audio book again at the library last week and decided to tackle it again in a more stalwart frame of mind.

Masterji is a member of the Vishram Society, a group of middle-class residents who live together in Tower A of a fading apartment complex in Mumbai.  Once smart but now needing more money than the residents can spare for repairs, the apartments are right next to the Dharavi slums, where they have attracted the attention of real estate developer Dharmen Shah.  He wants to capitalise on Mumbai’s real estate boom by demolishing them both and building a luxury high-rise on the land…

Although there are rumours that Shah does not always make good the promises he makes, most of the residents are keenly interested in his generous offer to buy them out with a combination of cash and a new residence somewhere else.  And although they are a bit ambivalent at first because the offer breaks up their close community, as time goes by, even those who were ambivalent eventually succumb to a combination of threats and inducements, until just one resident is holding out, Masterji…

The problem is that the deal is an all-or-nothing arrangement.  There is a deadline, set in concrete, and unless there is 100% agreement, Mr Shah will take his money elsewhere.  Or so the residents think.  They pressure Masterji because they see their hopes of a better future fading.  But what they don’t realise is that since Tower B was a pushover, full of ambitious young executives only too happy to desert their fading apartment block, Shah absolutely has to acquire Tower B or he will be stuck with land that is only half the size he needs to build his luxury complex.  However, Shah has a ‘left-hand man’ called Shanmugham who helps him to get his way in situations like this. 

So Masterji is besieged on the one hand by Mrs. Rego and Mrs. Puri, Mr. Ajwani and Mr. Kudwa, and on the other by Shanmugham and his thinly-veiled threats.

The tragedy of this scenario is that Masterji’s neighbours are corrupted by the deal.  Masterji wants to stay where he is because he is old, and because his apartment is full of memories, of his wife who died just a year ago, and his newly graduated daughter who was killed when waiting for a train and pushed by the unheeding crowd onto the tracks.   But his neighbours have their heart-rending stories too, especially Mrs Puri who is getting too old to care for her intellectually disabled son Ramu, and blind Mrs Pinto, who has memorised every bump in the stairwell wall so that she can still get about with some independence.  The characterisation is so deftly done that the reader is torn between impatience with Masterji’s obstinacy and with his poignant desire to put his head in the sand and ignore the rampant development all around him because he just wants to keep his home.

There are moments of droll humour, but the story takes a dark turn as one by one the community turns on Masterji.  The narration by Sam Dastor is excellent: the huge cast of characters are all rendered as individuals and the subtlety of their moral corruption is well-paced and depicted with care so that nothing seems one-dimensional.

Time and again we see stories of communities displaced by the building of Olympic ‘villages’, new freeways and urban reconstruction – Last Man in Tower puts a human face on the phenomenon, showing us that the Big Bad Developer does not work alone.  There are always others who benefit from development and their ethical standards can be just as flexible as his when money is involved.

Author: Aravind Adiga
Title: Last Man in Tower
Narrator: Sam Dastor
Publisher: Bolinda Audio, 2011
ISBN: 9781742854267
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 12, 2016

An Isolated Incident, by Emily Maguire

an-isolated-incidentI bought Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident when I read about it in the Readings Monthly catalogue and thought, this sounds like a novel tackling an important issue.  And it does.  #DuckingForCover IMO it tackles the topic of violence against women in a more sophisticated and credible way than the much-lauded The Natural Way of Things.

The title An Isolated Incident is ironic: yes, the murder of Chris Michaels’ sister Bella is unusual in the small town of Strathdee, but murder and violence against women is an almost everyday occurrence, keeping the police busy in a town of only 3000 people.  But the realisation that this is the case is slow to take shape in the reader’s mind because – like Chris who relates most of the story to a listener whose identity is not revealed until the end – the reader is preoccupied by the horror of Bella’s death.  We do not ‘see’ the body as Chris does – there are no graphic depictions of violence – but we know enough to know that she suffered terribly and that the wounds inflicted are what make the police confident that the killer is not someone from Strathdee.  That is because they – like everyone else in Strathdee – know the men who are violent to their women, and they know the kind of violence they routinely inflict.   When another woman is murdered in the town, the police know exactly who has done it and they wrap up the case almost overnight, a phenomenon we see so often in perfunctory media reports that it is commonplace.  Bella’s murder is different. ‘This was done by someone who really hates women’, they say in Strathdee, oblivious to the reality that the culture of this emblematic town makes them all complicit in everyday violence.  It doesn’t occur to them that the other woman was murdered by a man-hating woman, because, you know, he was sorry afterwards.

Maguire has deliberately made this situation ordinary.  Chris is a barmaid in the local pub.  She lets truckies drive her home sometimes, and she thinks she can pick which ones are safe.   But in her unvarnished narrative focussing largely on her overwhelming grief, she also shows us the everyday men in her life: her violent stepfather and the way his wife accepted the violence meted out both to her and to Chris; her ex-husband’s police record and his struggle to give up the drinking that turns him from being a really nice man into a thug; the truckies and the blokes in the bar who – innocent of the crime – talk about violence against women in the town as part of the everyday.

Alongside Chris’s narrative there is May’s.  May Norman is part of the media storm that descends on the town, eager for any salacious detail and ruthlessly distorting the snippets they get from a town trying hard to be loyal to Bella’s memory and supportive to Chris.  Like Chris she is grieving the end of a failed relationship, but in contrast to Chris, she is ambitious and hopes that in a world of declining opportunity for journalists, she can break the big story on this murder.  What she finds instead in Strathdee is that she despises herself for the role she plays in making things worse for Chris.  She is forced to recognise that she has abandoned the lofty ideals she had about improving the world by telling the real story of crime to provoke change.  Her narrative shows us the strategies journalists use to build trust among the wary.  It also shows us how naïve this young woman is when she goes jogging by herself at night, in a place where women are fair game for any passing motorist.

The blurb calls this book a psychological thriller, but while Chris feels a sense of escalating panic as she realises she is now all alone in the world, even her realisation that the killer is among them, perhaps even drinking in her bar, does not drive the narrative tension.   Her fear is the fear of losing a loved one, and her anguish at the way her sister was killed.  Yes, as the media breathlessly reports, everyone is now locking their doors and Chris has upgraded her security, but it’s not the monster killer she fears, it’s one of the blokes in the pub who overstepped the mark, though she wouldn’t call it rape, no, it’s just par for the course and it’s up to her to make sure he doesn’t do it again.

When May finally gets an interview with Chris (as we knew she always would), she remarks on Chris’s ease with men:

‘[…] You’re good at your job, well-presented, as they say. If you wanted to you could get work in one of the more upscale places.  I think you like the Royal because it’s so blokey.  I watched you there one night. There was an energy. Between you and all the blokes.  Sexual, for sure, but not only that. They like you – not just for your body or whatever – but you.  And you like them.’

‘People are nice to me, I’m nice to them.  Nothing worth banging on about.’

‘That’s just it,’ May said.  ‘It’s so unusual and you don’t even realise it. You don’t realise how much most men dislike women.  And knowing that, most women can’t relax around men the way you do. Can’t let ourselves show that we like them even if we really do.’

‘Ah.  That’s a different thing, though.  I like ’em fine, but I’m never relaxed, not fully.  It’s like with dogs.  All the joy in the world, but once you’ve seen a Labrador rip the face off a kid, you can’t ever forget what they’re capable of.’

May leaned forward.  ‘Is that just a metaphor?  The Labrador thing?’ (p. 254)

All my life I’ve been surrounded by good men, non-violent men, so much so that when a vice principal once let his fear of female leadership overwhelm him, I walked out of the school and went home as a signal that I would not tolerate his screaming, his aggression and his invasion of my body space.   I had never encountered it before, and had never expected it to occur in a primary school, of all places.   Books like An Isolated Incident are a reminder to people like me and the nice men that I know, that there’s a culture out there that needs to change, and that it’s all the more dangerous because it’s so everyday.

Bill at The Australian Legend reviewed it too.

Author: Emily Maguire
Title: An Isolated Incident
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2016
ISBN: 9781743538579
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings Bookshop $29.99 (but it’s gone up since then)

Available from Fishpond (cheaper): An Isolated Incident

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 11, 2016

Haiku Rhapsodies, Verses from Ghana, by Celestine Nudanu

haiku-rhapsodiesIf you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may remember that I have made the acquaintance of a poet called Celestine through her comments, and I have made reference to the haiku that she shares on her blog, Reading Pleasure.  I subscribe to this blog, and so Celestine’s haiku pop into my inbox on a regular basis.

Haiku is, because of its apparent simplicity, more often a travesty of poetry, inane, banal and derivative, but Celestine has adapted this form to create small jewels of thought.  Often I find her words consoling, sometimes they lead me to pause and wonder.  And I have wanted to have them, not just in ephemeral cyberspace, but mine to have and read whenever and wherever I like.  Today, to my delight I have discovered that Celestine has published a collection, Haiku Rhapsodies, and although I can only have it in a Kindle edition, I bought it immediately.  (I really want a print edition, to keep by my bedside, to read as I read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, much as many would read a Bible).

The poems are grouped into four themes:

  • Afriku
  • Nature
  • My Heart
  • The Divine

I can quote one from Afriku because it is part of the product description at Amazon.

empty calabash
reflects the fading sun
a beggar sits in gloom

Just eleven words, and yet immediately we feel it.  A beggar has spent all day fruitlessly.  He, or maybe she, has nothing.  Nothing at all.  There is no judgement, no appeal to the western pocket yet we know that this powerful image is representative of a great injustice in our world.

This one comes from My Heart evoking the simple pleasures of being in love

butter on toast
the taste of you
at breakfast

You can read a review by Gillena Cox at Lunch Break and buy this lovely collection from Amazon.    That’s a link to, UK and US readers will need to use their own sites, just search for Haiku Rhapsodies.



finding-elizaI was always going to read this book, but I have a reason for reading it now.  Amongst my pile of books for review is an intriguing new one from NLA (National Library of Australia) Publishing.  Written by John Maynard and Victoria Hoskins, it’s called Living with the Locals: Early Europeans’ Experience of Indigenous Lifeand this is its blurb:

living-with-the-localsLiving with the Locals comprises the stories of 13 white men, boys and women who were taken in by the Indigenous people of the Torres Strait islands and of eastern Australia and who lived in their communities between the 1790s and the 1870s, from a few months to over 30 years. The white people had been shipwrecked or had escaped the confines of penal servitude and survived only through the Indigenous people’s generosity. Many of them were given Indigenous names—Bunboé, Murrangurk, Duramboi, Waki, Giom, Anco. They assimilated to varying degrees into an Indigenous way of life—several marrying and learning the language—and, for the most part, both parties mourned the white people’s return to European life.

The stories in Living with the Locals provide a glimpse into Indigenous life at the point of early contact between Indigenous people and British colonists. It was a time when negative attitudes towards Indigenous people gave rise to misinterpretation of events and sensationalised versions of the stories. However, many of the white survivors spoke up against the appalling treatment of the Indigenous people, and advocated for conciliation and land rights. They also were unwilling to reveal Indigenous beliefs and customs to unsympathetic colonists.

So as you can see, Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling is a perfect companion piece for my reading of a book about how Australia’s indigenous people were written about in the early days of settlement.  And I had to read it first…

Eliza Fraser's house (Source: Creative Commons at Wikipedia)

Eliza Fraser’s house (Source: Creative Commons, Wikipedia)

Larissa Behrendt of the Eualeyai/Kamilaroi people, is an author, a lawyer and an Aboriginal activist. This book analyses the famous story of Eliza Fraser, shipwrecked in 1836 and taken in by the Butchulla People of K’gari (now Fraser Island), to show how colonial storytelling about Indigenous people in Australia came to be the dominant, mostly negative stereotype, and how that storytelling has contributed to racism to the present day.  And if you have any doubt about the pervasive power of the stories that were told, you have only to look at the Blue Plaque outside Eliza Fraser’s house in the Orkneys.  Like that house, the plaque looks about as solid and dependable as you can get, eh?

Eliza Fraser, artist unknown, Wikipedia Commons

Eliza Fraser, artist unknown, Wikipedia Commons

But as Behrendt shows, Mrs Fraser may have been not particularly dependable at all.  Widowed and in need of public sympathy and financial support, she told an horrific story, not of the harrowing moments of shipwreck, but of her captivity at the hands of the Butchulla People.  The story records her enslavement, their brutality, the barbarism (including cannibalism) and her rescue In the Nick of Time from a Fate Worse Than Death.  The story was embroidered with exotic details for different audiences (including bizarre descriptions drawn from her (faulty) knowledge of American Indians) and was retold with variations over time, even by our Nobel Prize winning author Patrick White in A Fringe of Leaves (1976).  Mrs Fraser had motives aplenty for dramatizing her experiences: a ripping yarn that played to her audience’s fears and prejudices was more likely to be marketable…

dancing-with-strangersThe oral history of the Butchulla People tells a different story, one of rescue and protection rather than captivity.  And it was fear of cannibalism amongst the shipwrecked sailors that made Captain Fraser agree to a landing after four weeks in the lifeboat.  Behrendt generously suggests that misunderstandings may have accounted for some of the misrepresentations: for example, the women painted Mrs Fraser in a particular way to indicate that she was not to be harmed, and when one of the white men pushed her, he was promptly reprimanded – with some physical emphasis – to make it plain to him that he had to respect the women’s authority in this manner.  You only have to have read Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers to realise that mutual incomprehension bedevilled early relationships between the indigenous people and the settlers; what is not so clear is why these misunderstandings continue to be perpetuated.

Behrendt is particularly interested in two elements of the Fraser story: the representation of Aboriginal women as promiscuous, as bad mothers, as vindictive and also the fear of cannibals.  The author makes a convincing case that the stereotyping says more about the storytellers than about their subjects.  There is an assumption that the Black women are jealous of Eliza, because she is white, and her narrative plays on fears about sexual vulnerability at the hands of lecherous Aboriginal men.  There is also an assumption and that the women are slaves to the men and that they therefore wish to enslave Eliza too.  Believing in her own superiority, Eliza resents being expected to do her share of the work, unaware that the area was in drought and that she is dependent on the generosity of the people who are sharing what little they have.  Eliza, far from being the fragile vulnerable woman of the stories, is a survivor, and the real truth of colonial life is that it was Aboriginal women who were at risk of abduction, rape and enslavement by white men.  But their stories are not the dominant narrative, the captivity narrative excludes them.

Behrendt explores the cannibalism motif extensively.  She points out that there is almost no documentary evidence of cannibalism in any of the colonised societies that are represented in literature, everything from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to R.L.Stevenson’s Robinson Crusoe.   But in colonial Australia, although there were valiant warriors in the frontier wars, the sad statistics show that it was the indigenous people who were most vulnerable to violent death.

The ‘savagery’ of Aboriginal people as it was represented in stories such as Eliza Fraser’s helped to propagate the idea that Aboriginal people needed to be tamed.  When this wasn’t achieved through ‘retaliatory’ lethal violence or atrocities against Aboriginal women, it was done through the implementation of the policies of assimilation and dispossession, or by controlling Aboriginal people within their segregated communities on reserves or missions. (p.76)

coonardooTwo of the books analysed were of particular interest to me because I’ve read and reviewed one of them, and the other is on my TBR.  Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1929) is a landmark novel in Australian literature because it depicts a relationship between Hugh Watt, a pastoralist, and Coonardoo, who gives birth to his child but as Behrendt points out, is never accorded the status of an equal partner.  The white characters are represented as benevolent caregivers, fulfilling their duty to take care of their Aboriginal workers, when in fact they have dispossessed them of their land, are not paying them for the work they do, and offer no opportunity for advancement or full participation in the new society.  Prichard never mentions the massacres taking place throughout the period of her novel, nor does she acknowledge the exploitation of Aboriginal women by characters like Mrs Bessie.  I haven’t read this novel yet, but I know now that I will read it differently because I have been made aware of the subtext.

The White WomanLiam Davison’s The White Woman, (1994) on the other hand, is a story of white men searching for a mythical white woman said to be held captive by the Aborigines.  It has a post-colonial perspective, exploring the motivations of one of the searchers, and the ideologies that inspire the story.

Through this fictional reconstruction, Davison explores themes of the colonial agenda, the amorphous nature of truth, and the victor’s version of history.  He also explores the white woman as a symbol of the Empire and delves into the paternalistic attitudes that white male frontiersmen held about white women.  He highlights the fantasy of playing the ‘saviour’ with all its sexual undertones. He is sensitive to the way in which this construct of white femininity places the Aboriginal woman in the position of the feminine and sexual ‘other’.   (p.100)

As I said in my review:

The search for the woman was motivated by romantic notions of rescue, but the gruesome reality that they uncovered instead was that pioneer settlers on the ungoverned frontier in Gippsland were massacring the indigenous people.  What’s more, the ideals that motivated the narrator were not shared by other members of the expedition: they knew that it was better not to find a ‘sullied’ woman because it was the search itself which furthered their grandiose ambitions.

In the chapter titled ‘Fictionalising Aboriginal Women’ Behrendt brings up the vexed issue of ‘appropriation’.

Successful storytelling requires the writer to create characters that ring true – whether in historical fiction, romance or science fiction.  As readers, we have to believe in their authenticity.  And you cannot create an authentic Aboriginal character unless you are able to deeply and truly understand their experience and perspective. In 1920 when Prichard was writing, the last people to be asked about how issues facing Indigenous people should be dealt with were the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves.  They simply weren’t included in public discourse.  (p. 105)

The point is well made that we should remember this when we are reading narratives about them from the past, and equally so in contemporary narratives, depending on who is writing the narrative and in what context.

There is a great deal more to think about in this slim book of only 200-odd pages, but this post is quite long enough already and I would rather encourage you to get a copy and read it for yourself.  I think that Finding Eliza is essential reading for anyone engaged in Australian literature whether reading, writing, or editing it.

You can find out more about Larissa Behrendt in Sue’s ‘Spotlight’ at Whispering Gums.

Author: Larissa Behrendt
Title: Finding Eliza, power and colonial storytelling
Publisher: UQP, 2016
ISBN: 9780702253904
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2016

Expressions of Interest: Christina Stead Week (November?)

Christina SteadFollowing on from the recent success of #ReadingRhys week hosted by Jacqui at Jacqui Wine’s Journal and Eric at the Lonesome Reader, I am wondering if there would be interest in a Christina Stead week?  Text Publishing has just released four new titles in the Text Classics range, (The Puzzleheaded Girl; The Little Hotel; A Little Tea, a Little Chat and The Beauties and Furies, all available in eBook or print) and the major online stores all have editions of Stead’s most famous work The Man Who Loved Children and other titles as well.  I have seven of her novels on my TBR so I’m not short of choices!

Christina Stead (1902-1983) was a major Australian novelist who wrote twelve novels and several collections of short stories but she receives all too little recognition.  I think it would be nice to celebrate the Text reissues with a reading week, and I was thinking of the middle of November, after Cup Week and before Christmas gets in the way.  If you’d like to join in, please indicate your interest in the comments, thanks.

Titles to choose from are:

Novels (links are to Wikipedia)

Short stories

  • The Salzburg Tales (1934)
  • The Puzzleheaded Girl: Four Novellas (1965) (containing The Puzzleheaded Girl, The Dianas, The Rightangled Creek and Girl from the Beach)
  • A Christina Stead Reader (1978) edited by Jean B. Read
  • Ocean of Story: The Uncollected Stories of Christina Stead, edited by R. G. Geering (1985)
Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2016

The Science of Appearances, by Jacinta Halloran

the-science-of-appearancesThe Science of Appearances is Jacinta Halloran’s third novel, and although it’s less intense than its predecessors, I enjoyed it very much.

Dissection (2008, see my review) was Halloran’s debut: it tells the story of a doctor in personal and professional crisis when a malpractice suit is lodged against her.  Pilgrimage (2012, see my review) is also an exploration of self-doubt, tracing the psychological journey of a paediatrician with a secular-scientific view of the world who is suddenly confronted by her mother’s desire to make a pilgrimage to Romania, seeking a miracle cure for her terminal illness.  Both these novels focus on relationships in the lives of professional women and how they make things messy.  The Science of Appearances has a broader canvas and a sunnier tone despite some confronting episodes.  And this time the two central characters are non-identical twins, Dominic and Mary.


Yes, those are Catholic names, and there is a certain inevitability about the trigger for Mary to leave Kyneton, the conservative 1950s town.  After their father’s unexpected death, along with the loss of his salary, the family loses the grace-and-favour house that came with his teaching job.  The widow’s pension doesn’t go far and they live in straitened circumstances rather than the middle-class comfort they are used to.  Dominic has to abandon his academic ambitions and take up work in the post office twenty miles away in Romsey.  Mary, artistic rather than academic, cleans the house of her boyfriend Robbie Cameron, and fatefully, also the presbytery.

st-kilda-pier-kioskChance, luck, fate – call it what you will, it plays a large part in this novel, and what might otherwise be dismissed as convenient coincidence takes on a deeper meaning as the plot unfolds.  Fortune smiles on Dom: he gets back to school, and then into university, studying genetics at a most exciting time.  Although still conscious of duty, he begins to lighten up a bit in the more relaxed atmosphere of his boarding house, and he meets a lovely girl who brightens his days.  Mary, meanwhile, has fallen on her feet too: a kindly family takes her in and in exchange for working in the café at the iconic St Kilda Pier kiosk, she makes a home amid the raffish delights of St Kilda.  Although still underage she leads a Bohemian life, and finds a way to finance art lessons, maintaining relationships with more than one man into the bargain.  She hasn’t made contact with her family since she left because she fears being brought back to Kyneton.  (Which is, BTW, a delightful town nowadays and a nice place for a weekend getaway).

But Kyneton for Mary represents the shock of her mother’s betrayal, boredom and privation, and the loss of her freedom, her independence and her joie de vivre.

Best of all, though, is the porthole window.  When she stands close to it, she looks across water to the elbows of land on either side.  When she lies on the bed, the window reveals a circle of sky.  She imagines Robbie star-gazing beside her as evening turns to night, and longs for it to happen; for it to be the two of them and only them, perched like lovebirds in a nest.

She turns from the porthole window, thinking of Dom, at home with their mother.  They’ll be drawing the curtains in Beauchamp Street, while this room, her room, blushes pink with the sunset.  (p.105)

The scenes in St Kilda are brought vividly to life:

St Kilda.  There’s a wonderful wildness about the place. Sometimes it comes with the wind off the water, blowing in so much salt that Mary’s hair grows stiff.  The sand worms its way between her toes and into the furthest corners of her sheets.  It tickles her feet on the floor of her room, a little reminder of how lucky she is.

In the Catani Gardens the vagrants sit and tell stories of the glory days, when they worked as delivery boys to the toffs of Fitzroy Street, struggling from the drays with blocks of ice as big as a room, a dozen crates of champagne.  There was always a band in the bandstand and dancing at the Palais de Danse, and the whole damn place was decked out with lights.  (p.115)

The novel takes on a darker tone when discoveries in genetics flow into the eugenics debate.  In the postwar wake of Nazi policies, eugenicsC proponents are few but – coming from a university base – potentially powerful.  Dom can see the role of genetics in eliminating inherited diseases and this interest in eugenics puts his relationship at risk because his girlfriend lost most of her family in the Holocaust.  And he still hasn’t resolved his relationship with his mother, and he still hasn’t managed to find Mary.  He’s a very troubled man.

The novel captures the social world of 1950s very well, but it wears its research lightly.  A character ‘wins’ the conscription lottery, but it’s for service in Korea, not Vietnam.  Cars gradually become more common in Kyneton, but Halloran describes the punishing daily bike ride to Romsey as if she’s done it herself. And birth control, for any reason, is still out of reach for women.

The Science of Appearances is absorbing reading, and it raises all kinds of issues for thoughtful people to discuss.

Author: Jacinta Halloran
Title: The Science of Appearances
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2016
ISBN: 9781925321579
Review copy courtesy of Scribe.

Available from Fishpond: The Science of Appearances

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 9, 2016

Henry Handel Richardson, a study, by Nettie Palmer

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Source: Wikipedia Commons (This photo is also in the book, along with more flattering ones).

I love Henry Handel Richardson’s novels, and because with the exception of The Young Cosimo (1939) they are so strongly autobiographical, I was delighted to find this ex-library copy of Henry Handel Richardson, a study (1950) by Nettie Palmer, (1885-1964) who was Australia’s leading critic of her day.  Originally sourced from Ell’s Book Centre in Newcastle (probably long gone now), my copy belonged to the Lake Macquarie Shire Public Library, and its last borrower took it home in 1979.  I bought it for $8.00 in a second-hand bookshop somewhere between home and the Hunter Valley.  It has a boring tan hardback cover but it’s nicely protected in Mylar, and I consider myself very lucky to have found it.

I was somewhat startled to discover that there is a bit of an academic stoush over the representation of Nettie Palmer in contemporary times. I Googled ‘Nettie Palmer’ to find her dates for writing this post, and discovered Deborah Jordan in Overland taking Brenda Niall to task over an article in The Australian Book Review (which I haven’t read because I no longer subscribe since the ABR lost its exclusive focus on books and doesn’t review enough Australian lit anyway).  I can’t pretend to be interested in any of the argument, but will quote part of Jordan’s first paragraph because it encapsulates the reasons why I took such pleasure in Nettie Palmer’s style:

Once the ‘twin deities’of Australian literature, receiving accolade after accolade from most of  the major critics of the interwar period, and inspiring several generations of Australian writers, they have been diminished by decades of critical material, some positive, but mostly negative.  The New Left criticisms of scholars in the late 1970s were especially harsh as they formulated their own critical principles in opposition to the supposed failures of previous non-Marxist generations, and their wholesale dismissal has held sway over the longer view of mature scholars such as Jack Lindsay, Vivian Smith, Geoffrey Serle and Harry Heseltine. More recently, with the emergence of ecocriticism, with a richer dialectical materially orientated theory of literature and neo-colonialism, and with the field of Australian literature in such fragile state, we should be able to begin to recognise how significant Vance and Nettie Palmer were in inscribing the very legitimacy of Australian literature.


This is what I had written in my journal:

Reams have been written about HHR, I wrote one myself when I was at university.  But I doubt if anything has been written that is so clear-sighted and free of jargon as Nettie Palmer’s study.

She begins with a straightforward account of HHR’s life, concluding that it was the years in HHR’s youth in Australia and Vienna that preoccupied her imagination.  She was a private, reclusive woman who wrote not for money or fame, but because it was her gift.  And then she moves on to an analysis of the books.

Today, no one could write an essay about a work by HHR without the isms: feminism, post-colonialism, and racism.  Nettie Palmer, incredibly knowledgeable about Australian literature was free of all that despite her university education, and so she focusses the space she has available on HHR’s themes and characters.

It is so refreshing to read!

Each book is discussed in chronological order of writing, so Palmer begins with The Getting of Wisdom even though it was published second in 1910.  Palmer doesn’t say so directly, but (as you’d expect) she implies that it’s a slighter work than the later novels: it’s a coming-of-age story that concludes with Laura breaking free of her troubles, but as Palmer puts it, beginning with an image of Everygirl, it took on her own nature, with its special gifts and preoccupations. (p. 39).  IMO it’s an important book for teenage girls to read, but by the time we reach adulthood we have ceased to care about the pettiness of their preoccupations with appearance and status and so TGOW as a study of a young girl’s inner growth becomes interesting more for me as a pointer towards a question it doesn’t tackle.  If clever girls, in HHR’s case one who was destined to become a great writer, can rise above the pettiness because of their consoling gifts, what becomes of those less gifted, those who suffer the barbs of their peers without ever being welcome in the peer group but have nowhere else to go?

Maurice Guest (1908), Palmer says, transitioned over the eleven years it took to write, from a study of milieu (Vienna) to a study of love in all its overwhelming intensities and erotic vagaries.  Not the love that leads finally to happiness and a domestic hearth. (p.57) There is in the novel little about an idyll:

Love is represented as a destructive flame from which the strong man tears himself away while there is still time, or saves himself in an engrossing pursuit. Those whose life is in their music, like Schilsky or Kraft, are immune, to them love is a diversion, one that may have abnormal twists and excitements but can never operate as a controlling force in their lives. It is people with inadequate gifts who suffer… (p.57)

That is why Maurice, not talented enough to make it in the musical hothouse that is Vienna, and not really sure that a musical career is what he wanted, falls victim to an obsession with Louise (as I put it in my review).   Palmer says that Maurice Guest is a ‘great’ novel because it has classical qualities:

  • a powerful theme, never lost sight of, and with a climax like a Greek tragedy
  • a superb narrative flow with countless small but significant and brilliant episodes and characters.

Fascinating to me was the discovery that HHR wrote this novel when the brilliantly bilingual author was thinking in German.  Her punctuation is like German punctuation, where commas are part of syntax marking out relative clauses or an adverbial phrase, and not as in English, marking pauses when reading aloud.  Who knew? (I know several European languages, but not German).

Palmer goes on to analyse the character of Laura in more depth, suggesting that HHR has created her as Bovarian:

Like Emma Bovary, Louise not merely wishes to be happy on her own terms, she takes it as her right, and at anyone’s expense.

I hadn’t read Emma Bovary (see my review) when I read Maurice Guest, so I missed this association entirely.

The analysis of the trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney is a delight to read, not just because Palmer has such interesting things to say about the book but because it’s one of my all-time favourite books.  I was fascinated to read that it was not until the publication of the last volume Ultima Thume that HHR began to receive critical recognition and success in the marketplace.  She was nearly sixty when the book was chosen as a ‘Book of the Month’ in the American Readers Club.  That seems a bizarre choice to me because although it’s my favourite of the three books, I can’t see how it would make much sense without reading the first two, a point that Nettie Palmer also makes when discussing the characterisation of Richard Mahoney, who by Volume III is a fragile and pitiful man and an embarrassment to his young children.

In addition to an analysis of The Young Cosima (an imagined life of the daughter of Liszt and her relationship with Wagner which I haven’t read yet, so I skipped it) there is a chapter on Methods of Work, a Retrospect, and an Appendix of correspondence with the Palmers.  (There’s a good index too, well done to whoever did it).

Because this is a ‘study’ rather than a life biography, I suspect that this book will bring most pleasure to those who have read the novels of HHR, but it’s also interesting as an example of an earlier style of literary criticism.  I think I have a couple of readers who would be interested in having a look at it, and I am quite willing to lend it for passing on, as long as I get it back in the end.

Author: Nettie Palmer
Title: Henry Handel Richardson, a study
Publisher: Angus and Robertson, 1950
Source: Personal library

Long out of print.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 7, 2016

All Day at the Movies, by Fiona Kidman

all-day-at-the-moviesI love it when this happens: I started reading All Day at the Movies last night at about nine o’clock, fell asleep very late at night with the book over my nose, and didn’t get out of bed this morning till I finished the book at about eleven.  It wasn’t that the novel is a page-turner; it was more that it was so utterly absorbing that I just didn’t want to put it aside.

Fiona Kidman DNZM OBE (b. 1940) is a prolific New Zealand novelist, poet, scriptwriter and short story author.  She’s written more novels than are listed at her Wikipedia page, because (on the day I looked) the list doesn’t include The Infinite Air (2013, see my review) or this latest novel, All Day at the Movies (2016).  With the possible exception of The Captive Wife (2005, which I loved but have not reviewed on this blog) I think it may be her best yet.

Beginning in the brutally conservative 1950s, the novel is constructed as a chain of interconnected stories, tracing the fortunes and secrets of a New Zealand family. Far from being the ‘golden age’ so often associated with the postwar period, this era was a difficult one for women.  For Irene Sandle, widowed in the last year of the war, her only solace is the child born from Andrew’s last leave, but she lost a satisfying job at the library because in the 1950s there was no such thing as maternity leave.

When she went back to ask for her position after the birth, it had been filled.  The land girls who had worked in the countryside came flocking after jobs in town.  She did have a war widow’s pension after all, and a roof over her head, the head librarian explained.  It wouldn’t be fair to take her back.  That wasn’t exactly the point, because the roof was over her parents’ house.  For a time that was all right, but it wasn’t any more. (p.18)

Chafing for freedom that she can’t have under her parents’ roof, Irene takes little Jessie with her to Motueka, where she finds work as a manual labourer on a tobacco farm.  There she eventually falls for Bert Butcher, possibly a German-Jewish refugee on the run after he jumped ship. But he dies, which suits the overseer Jock Pawson just fine because he’s been leering after Irene ever since she arrived.

By 1963, eleven-year-old Belinda is mourning her mother, and not coping well with the ironically named Charm (Charmaine) who has inveigled her way into becoming stepmother to Irene’s four children.  Any hopes Belinda had that her older sister Jessie might rescue them collapse when Jessie takes off, and she, Grant and little Janice bear the brunt of Charm’s inability to be a substitute mother.

Belinda tried showing her father the rope burns on Grant’s wrists where Charm had tied him to a chair because of the wet sheets, and bruises on Janice’s arms where she’d been smacked for not doing her homework.  ‘You kids knock around with the wrong sort,’ he said.  ‘You want to get decent friends, bring them over.’

There wasn’t much to show for hair pulling, or getting your nose twisted, but there was all of that too.  Janice got head lice and Charm shaved her head and put kerosene on it.  When Janice screamed and tried to get away, Charm lit a match and threatened to hold it on Janice’s chemical-smelling head. None of them got school lunches if they answered her back.  You couldn’t always tell when you were answering back anyway.  Just the way you said please and thank you was enough to set her off some days.  Please. Pleased with yourself, are you?  Whack. Thank you. Thank you for what?  Calling you a liar? I’ll get the belt to you.  (p.63)

Each new time period introduces new characters: the man who rescues Belinda from an uncertain fate; the school counsellor who learns that Janice’s truancy had more to do with her stepmother than anything else; and a group of ladies who lunch, and experiment with their first marijuana on a fateful day.  The story moves through the twentieth century of New Zealand, noting the changes that affect women, that open up society, and the change in the media landscape.  Most significantly we see how opportunities change from the trap that the undereducated Irene finds herself in, to the second chance that Belinda gets (though not without the significant help of another woman).  This is authentic: this is how it was when women who had been denied education were finally able to access it in the 1970s.  Also authentic is the depiction of the unsafe working conditions on the tobacco farm, of the exploitation of a disabled hairdresser, and of unemployment in the wake of changes in economic policy in the wake of Reagonomics.  We also see the xenophobic reaction to the postwar arrival of Italians, and the lack of respect for the Maori too.

Some of the story is sad, but it’s not a misery memoir in disguise.  Life’s just not like it is in the movies, that’s all.

I loved this book, and was sorry to come to the end of it.

Author: Fiona Kidman
Title: All Day at the Movies
Publisher: Penguin Random-House, 2016
ISBN: 9781775538905
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House, via Raewyn Davies at 24/7PR

Available from Fishpond: All Day at the Movies



Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 6, 2016

2016 Queensland Literary Award winners

Not Just Black and WhiteThe Queensland Literary Awards were announced last night, and I am pleased to see that Not Just Black and White by Lesley Williams and Tammy Williams took out the major award of $25,000.  (All the other awards are a somewhat scanty $10,000 each).  This important book is contributing to a campaign for justice for stolen wages and it deserves to be widely read.

*drum roll* And the winners are:

Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance (Prize: $25,000)

Winners: Not Just Black and White, Lesley Williams and Tammy Williams (See my review)

Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Awards (Two Prizes of $10,000 each)

Winner: Emily Craven
Winner: Michelle Law

Unpublished Indigenous Writer – David Unaipon Award   (Prize: $10,000)

Winner: Paul Collis for Dancing Home

Emerging Queensland Writer – Manuscript Award

No winner, two Encouragement Awards given

Encouragement Award: H.E. Crampton for The Boatman
Encouragement Award: Laura Elvery for The Elements

Griffith University Children’s Book Award   (Prize: $10,000)

Winner: KidGlovz, Julie Hunt (author) and Dale Newman (illustrator)

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award  (Prize: $10,000)

Winner: Dreaming the Enemy, David Metzenthen

State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection – Judith Wright Calanthe Award (Prize: $10,000)

Winner: Anatomy of Voice, David Musgrave, see Tony’s review at Messenger’s Booker

University of Southern Queensland Australian Short Story Collection – Steele Rudd Award  (Prize: $10,000, co-winners awarded $5,000 each)

Winner: A Few Days in the Country and other stories, Elizabeth Harrower (See Sue’s review at Whispering Gums)

Winner: The High Places, Fiona McFarlane

University of Southern Queensland History Book Award   (Prize: $10,000)

Winner: The Pearl Frontier: Indonesian Labour and Indigenous Encounters in Australia’s Northern Trading Network, Julia Martínez and Adrian Vickers

The University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award  (Prize: $10,000)

Winner: Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger, Fiona Wright (See Sue’s review at Whispering Gums)

The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award (Prize: $10,000)

Winner: Between a Wolf and a Dog, Georgia Blain

The Courier Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award (Prize: $10,000)

Winner: Swimming Home, Mary-Rose MacColl

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Thanks to Tony from Messenger’s Booker for the heads up!

Older Posts »