Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2019

The Glad Shout, by Alice Robinson

On this day, the Guardian is reporting on Cyclone Idai in Africa:

Cyclone Idai has swept through Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe over the past few days, destroying almost everything in its path, causing devastating floods, killing and injuring thousands of people and ruining crops. More than 2.6 million people could be affected across the three countries, and the port city of Beira, which was hit on Friday and is home to 500,000 people, is now an “island in the ocean”, almost completely cut off.

The official death tolls in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi are 200, 98 and 56 respectively. But these totals only scratch the surface; the real toll may not be known for many months as the countries deal with a still unfolding disaster. (Cyclone Idai ‘might be southern hemisphere’s worst such disaster‘, The Guardian, 20/3/19)

At left is a screenshot of where this news item was placed, headlined underneath the article about Teresa May.  The BBC has a thorough report about it: it’s a headline story for them too.  France 24 is reporting it, but only in passing.

And at right is a screenshot of the ABC headlines at the same time on the same day. I scrolled right to the bottom of the screen, and there were no reports about this cyclone at all.  There’s nothing about it in what purports to be the ABC’s World News coverage either.  There is an article about Australian homes possibly becoming uninsurable due to climate change.  Somebody at ABC News, I reckon, has property in Sydney: they are very preoccupied by property prices… but #ForgiveMyCynicism there are not enough deaths from Cyclone Idai to be newsworthy enough to merit the newsroom’s attention.

So it is left to fiction to tell the story of the fate of millions as climate change wreaks havoc around the globe.  Alice Robinson’s new book The Glad Shout tells the story of a storm which destroyed Melbourne, much like Cyclone Idai wrecking cities in Africa.  The streets are flooded; houses have been destroyed; some people are rescued from their rooftops and others are not.  When the story opens Isobel is in a relief centre set up in the cavernous space behind the stadium bleachers, where overpriced merchandise and greasy food were once sold during games.   In a setting where every location is recognisable, Isobel Wilson is with her husband Shaun and her small daughter Matilda:

Jostled and soaked, copping an elbow to her ribs, smelling wet wool and sweat and the stony creek scent of damp concrete, Isobel grips Shaun’s cold fingers and clamps Matilda to her hip, terrified of losing them in the roiling crowd.  The grounds of the stadium-turned-Emergency Relief Centre are still marked with turf paint.  Within hours it will no doubt turn to mud, but for now, as families surge up through the bleachers, the playing field still looks pristine.  Floodwaters have not yet breached the sandbags outside, but there is water in the street and it’s rising. (p.1)

This novel is a bleak but vivid incarnation of a future that seems inevitable, given that our political leaders are still in denial about it.  But The Glad Shout is not just a dystopia: the novel also explores the complex issues of motherhood in extremis.  Isobel’s status-conscious mother Luna is in real estate, doomed to see her ambitions fail as Melbourne succumbs to drought, food shortages and mass unemployment.  Isobel doesn’t share her mother’s values, but their relationship is much more complicated than that.  An older brother, Josh, lacks the stoicism that Isobel often fails to recognise in herself, and he has left the family home after a row with Luna.

Even at her most despairing and angry, when her yearning for her brother becomes unbearable and she retreats to her room to avoid saying something cruel to Luna that she might later regret, Isobel recognises the concern her mother feels for her – that immense maternal love, so difficult to shoulder for them both.  Since he left, Isobel has grown aware of the lost potential of Josh’s life threading out ahead of her, a promise made by him at birth about the kind of adult he would become that Luna that can never cash in on, so long as he keeps his distance.  In his absence, Isobel can never make good on that promise, either.  She could bust a gut for the rest of her life trying to make up for the fact that her brother has cut ties, but it won’t change the fact that he’s done it.  (p.207)

Isobel feels an immense burden  as if her whole character has reduced down to being critical evidence of Luna’s motherhood.  

Well, she doesn’t want to be a placeholder for any aspect of Luna’s identity.  She wants to break away, grow up, have a life of her own – normal things.  But in getting those things for himself, Josh has made it difficult for her to get anywhere close. (p.207)

As Isobel comes to terms with her own motherhood, her resentments morph into a sense of solidarity with her mother.  Women are all strong, or strong enough, in this novel, and the men are not much use: the take-home message is that women cope because they have to whereas men can walk away.  I am not so sure about this: I think that weakness and strength are not gendered qualities.  But that just makes the book more interesting.  I think book groups will have a great time with The Glad Shout… but I sincerely hope that it has a much greater impact than that.

Author: Alice Robinson
Title: The Glad Shout
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2019, 312 pages
ISBN: 9781925712650 (hbk)
Source: Bayside Library Service

Available from Fishpond: The Glad Shout or direct from Affirm Press.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 19, 2019

Home is Nearby, by Magdalena McGuire

This book fits into of my favourite categories, ‘Art in Fiction’ but Home is Nearby is much more than that.  Shortlisted for the 2019 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Award this novel is an homage to the importance of art in our lives, but it’s also a tale of displacement and the journey towards making a new home; and it’s a powerful evocation of life in a totalitarian society as well.

This is the blurb:

1980: The beginning of the Polish crisis. Brought up in a small village, country-girl Ania arrives in the university city of Wroclaw to pursue her career as a sculptor. Here she falls in love with Dominik, an enigmatic writer at the centre of a group of bohemians and avant-garde artists who throw wild parties. When martial law is declared, their lives change overnight: military tanks appear on the street, curfews are introduced and the artists are driven underground. Together, Ania and Dominik fight back, pushing against the boundaries imposed by the authoritarian communist government. But at what cost?

The Polish crisis to which this blurb refers is the time when Soviet forces imposed martial law in order to suppress the Solidarity (Polish Trade Union) movement led by Lech Wałęsa. The trigger for this mass movement was stagnant wages and price rises, and at first the Polish government allowed its existence.  Solidarity was, at the time, the only trade union not controlled by the Communist Party, and it advocated for workers’ rights and social change.  However, when its aims emerged as anti-Soviet with a republican agenda, there was a government crackdown and some years of repression before there was any reform.  But readers don’t need to know much of this to enjoy the book: it’s enough to know that the young students in the novel were courting serious trouble from the authorities with their activities.

Ania learns the skills of sculpture from her father, who makes cemetery memorials in their village, and though she is his only child, he encourages her to take all the opportunities that come her way, so she takes up a scholarship to study art at the University of Wroclaw.  There, while she struggles to find her own unique artistic style, she falls in love with a writer called Dominik, and she leads the kind of bohemian life we associate with being at university in the 1970s.  She parties hard, and she meets all kinds of interesting people.  But some of these fall foul of the authorities, and Dominik in particular writes material that’s considered inflammatory.  As the repression tightens, Ania and her friends begin to consider leaving so that they can express themselves—but they are too naïve to realise that it’s not just a case of wanting to read, write and make art as they please… They are shocked when police brutality and imprisonment turn out to be far more serious than they had expected.

Ania faces a dilemma that’s common in these situations: should she leave and fulfil her potential, or should she stay no matter the risks because she loves her country and the father she loves?  The authorities are experts at bringing pressure to bear…

The book is written in three parts: Fire, Steel and Water, and it’s in the third section that Ania arrives at a migrant hostel in Brisbane and tries to make a new life.  McGuire paints a vivid picture of this disorientating experience and Ania’s conflicting emotions:

I settled on a bench that overlooked the murky water and slapped insects from my legs as a man and a woman in flimsy shorts jogged past, offering me their smiles. I wondered what Father would make of this place, with its insistent cheer, its abundance of heat and light.  It was beautiful, there was no doubt about it.  But nothing here was mine.  I longed to be back in familiar surroundings, where I could say That was the forest where Father and I used to collect mushrooms. Or, That was the park where Dominik kissed me, his ink-stained fingers linked with mine. (p.207)

When she regains her composure, she tries to sketch what is before her, but it is too different: there was too large a gap between what I saw in my head and what transpired on the page. 

Her hostel friend Rahel from Hungary (with whom she connects through their mutual language, French) is soon ready to move on, but Ania is despondent:

Ever since I was a child, I had made things. I longed to be the way I was before, always learning through my hands.  But I didn’t have that now.  Art had abandoned me in this country.  It was like losing the deepest and most private part of myself – the worst type of exile. Without art, I didn’t know who I was. (p.212)

But things move on as they tend to do, and a new life begins to emerge despite the frustrations.  There is a #MeToo moment where a man who’s got it badly wrong gains redemption; and there is the disconcerting experience of encountering Australians who know nothing about what’s happening in the rest of the world. When her Australian friend Carla starts talking about Brisbane being ‘a police state’ when students and their teachers are arrested for nudity in a theatre performance, Ania nearly laughs: The streets in Brisbane were lined with palm trees, not army tanks. 

Sometimes it does take fresh eyes to interpret reality like this.  IMO Ania has it both right and wrong because Queensland wasn’t a Soviet State with tanks in the street and its brutal repression of dissidents.  But we who remember Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen also know that there were fundamental freedoms denied to its residents under the palm trees, and it is vitally important that citizens like Carla be alert to infringements of their civil rights.  Perhaps this incident in the book is a way of showing that sometimes migrants who’ve fled repressive regimes compare where they are with where they’ve been and become complacent about the potential for similar repressions to arise in their new home.

Home is Nearby is a most interesting book that deserves more attention than it has had.  Perhaps because it is published in the UK, it doesn’t seem to be readily available here in Australia, and your best bet seems to be the Book Depository or buying it directly from the publisher, see the link below.

PS There is a terrific book trail here that shows the sites in Wroclaw – I wish I knew how to do this for books set in places I’ve never been to…

Author: Magdalena McGuire
Title: Home is Nearby
Publisher: Impress Books, (Innovation Centre, University of Exeter, UK), 2017, 288 pages
ISBN: 9781911293149
Source: Yarra Plenty Library by Inter-library loan, with thanks to Bayside Library

Much to my astonishment, I was singing the praises of this book the other day, when it transpired that my friend did not know what a democracy sausage was.  So for the edification of those unfortunate citizens who do not enjoy the same privilege as we do here in Australia, an explanation is in order.

Because we are almost unique in the world in having compulsory voting, and because impecunious state schools are very often the place for polling booths all over the country, and because enterprising Parents and Friends associations can spot a good fundraiser when they see one, it has become routine practice for there to be a sausage sizzle so that voters can assuage their hunger pangs in a worthy cause.  Indeed on election day there is a dedicated website where you can even scout around for the best democracy sausage options.  They don’t all offer fried onions or chilli sauce, you know, and some of them have a cake stall as well!

Here is the link to Wikipedia and here are some pictures!  Yes, that’s a democracy sausage map: there are even democracy sausages overseas, the most famous of which is at Australia House in London.  (See the video here).

But how has this come about?  Indeed, how is it that we take compulsory voting so much for granted that it has taken Judith Brett’s lively new history to make me aware of just how amazing it is that we are the only English-speaking country that makes its citizens vote?

Australians shake their heads in bemused dismay at the electoral shambles we’ve witnessed in the UK and US.  Brexit just couldn’t happen here. Here, at least when people vote and their side doesn’t win, they can console ourselves with the knowledge that it’s a democratic result. Compulsory voting means a referendum ignored by a huge cohort of voters but swamped by zealots would carry no weight at all and there could not be the same kind of divisive fallout that is tearing Britain apart because so many people are distraught at the result.

And because voting is compulsory here, the process has been made easy for us.  Unlike the Brits, we only have to register to vote once which entitles us to vote in elections for all three levels of government, local, state and federal.  The bureaucrats keep the electoral rolls up-to-date; we don’t have to.  Plus, whereas in Britain you need time off work on a Thursday to vote, we vote on Saturdays, which suits a majority of working people.  Whereas in Britain you have to vote in your own electorate so too bad if you’re away from home, we can vote wherever we are in the country, and outside of it, because we have absentee voting and postal voting.  Yup, I’ll be in New Zealand for our next election, but I won’t miss out, because I can vote before I go!

Plus we have preferential voting.  First-past-the-post as in the UK means that a minority can win even though a majority who voted for a variety of other candidates might rather die in a ditch than elect that winning candidate.  Preferential voting means that we get a result that most people can tolerate (though I have to admit that the bunch of clowns in our current government are the exception that proves the rule).

Then there’s the shemozzle of US elections, that couldn’t happen here either.  Remember that strange thing with the Florida hanging chads in the 2000 GW Bush election?  In the US the determination of voting rights by individual states is combined with a highly decentralised system of electoral adminstration.

An observer of the 2004 presidential election estimated that there were in fact thirteen thousand elections, each run by independent quasi-sovereign counties and municipalities.  For the most part these elections are overseen by people who are themselves elected and have strong partisan allegiances.  There is thus plenty of scope for interfering with the process for partisan advantage: losing registration forms or postal votes, not providing enough postal votes, not providing enough polling booths in remote locations or in areas populated by the other side, malfunctioning voting machines, poorly designed ballot papers which challenge the less literate, and gerrymandering—electoral boundaries like pieces of jigsaw, with boundaries twisting and turning to take in certain areas and avoid others.  (p.78)

We have a professional bureaucracy running our elections, and our returning officers have permanent government positions.  The process is uniform all over the country, and the drawing of electoral boundaries is done by the bureaucracy too.  Until I looked it up at Wikipedia, I had no idea just how many controversial US elections there have been, and the list only addresses the presidential elections, not all the other ones! (And look at the other countries in company with them, how mortifying that must be!)

So how has all this happened?  How did we end up with an exemplary system that we all subscribe to, even if we don’t always get the government we want?  Judith Brett traces it all back to the impetus on post-Federation nation-building and a predisposition towards uniformity in our arrangements.  There were smart decisions to choose best practice from amongst the different electoral systems in the states, and bureaucracy was regarded as a plus, not as a pejorative. There were heroes such as Catherine Helen Spence, (see my review of her autobiography;) Mary Lee (see my review of Denise George’s bio); and the South Australian public servant William Boothby; and the emerging Labor Party was determined to ensure that its voters were not disadvantaged by arrangements that didn’t suit working people.   None of this is dry history: it’s peppered with interesting facts such as this one, about the emergence of compulsory voting in the 1920s: Queensland had experimented, very successfully, with compulsory voting but elsewhere turnouts were dropping…

Other bad habits were forming.  The burden of supplying fleets of motorcars was becoming more onerous for candidates and party workers.  It was worst in the country.  Echoing Sydney Sampson in 1918, Albert Dunstan, the Country Party member for Eaglehawk, complained to the 1923 annual meeting of the Victorian Farmers’ Union that ‘a large proportion of people would not vote unless they were taken to the polls in motor cars.’ (p.134

What better way to experience the novelty of a ride in a motor car that you were unlikely ever to be able to afford, than to wangle a lift to the polling booth!

And my favourite: unlike compulsory voting which hasn’t been adopted elsewhere, the practicalities of the secret ballot were Australian innovations in the 1850s that overturned the shambolic, corrupt and sometimes violent electoral practices of public voting in the rest of the world.  Objections to the secret ballot included the complaint that it would take too long: three minutes per voter would mean only twenty men would be able to vote in an hour. That problem was solved by the simple provision of multiple voting stalls in an inner room.  And if you’ve ever wondered why we vote with pencils, you can thank South Australia!

South Australia made two innovations to speed things.  With the dipping pen, even men used to writing took up to five minutes to complete their vote, and many took much longer, so electors instead were provided with pencils. And votes no longer put a line through the names of rejected candidates, but instead put a cross next to their preferred candidate.  These reforms were later adopted for Commonwealth elections. (p.24)

(But don’t do that today: you must number your preferences!)

This is a really beaut book, and it’s another aspect of Australian history of which we can be justly proud.  It deserves to be read around the world—even though Judith Brett acknowledges that there are historical reasons why voting reform is unlikely ever to happen in places that have demonstrated that they badly need it!

That clever cover design is by W.H. Chong.

Image attributions:

Author: Judith Brett
Title: From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 2088 pages
ISBN: 9781925603842
Review copy courtesy of Text

Available direct from Text and good bookshops everywhere. And you can buy it as an eBook too.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 16, 2019

The Journal of Mrs Pepys, by Sara George

Well, I was in need of something less sombre to read — and the Journal of Mrs Pepys waved at me indignantly from the TBR (G) shelf:

‘I’ve been waiting here since you bought me in 2008’ it said, ‘… you fell in love with the cover art because you find still life artworks captivating, and you learned about Sam Pepys and his diary at school.  But I keep getting passed over for other books.  I have survived the annual TBR cull 10 times, which is pretty good for an historical novel first written in 1998, but will I survive another?  What is it with you?  Am I not serious enough, is that it?

Perhaps now you might condescend to liberate me from the TBR??’


The inset of Elisabeth Pepys at Wikipedia says it all.  Check it out:

Born 1640
Died 1669
Cause of death: Typhoid fever
Resting place: St Olave’s London, and
Known for: *Deep sigh* Husband’s diary.

When you look at her portrait, it’s as if she knows…

Author Sara George has done a fine job of rescuing Elisabeth* from this ignominious fate.  Using Samuel Pepys’ diary, (which he kept between January 1660 and 31 May 1669, famously chronicling the Restoration, the Great Plague of London, the Second Dutch War, and the Great Fire of London) George has created a vivid portrait of a lively woman in a tempestuous marriage, and living through exciting times.

Elisabeth has plenty to say about Sam: his drinking; the unfairness of the family budget over which he has total control, and his unreasonable expectations about housekeeping standards and keeping the servants in line. She is also suspicious about his frequent nights away from home; and distraught when she finally discovers his infidelity.  But apart from a brief separation because of his jealousy, their quarrels resolve in what she coyly calls the usual way and she is very proud of his achievements.  (Which you can read about at Wikipedia if so minded).

I haven’t read The Diary (and probably never will) so I don’t know if Elisabeth’s accounts of giving as good as she gets in physical fights is historically authentic.  (At one stage she wakes him from his guilty sleep with a pair of heated tongs in her hand).  However, there is one fight that ends up with a very painful black eye that is visible for a fortnight, and like women the world over she stays indoors so that no one sees, instead of going out and about and showing people what her ‘loving’ husband has done.  Because of course *sigh* he is sorry.  And she must take the man as he is, because [she] can’t change him. This aspect of the novel is (probably) authentic for its era but Elisabeth’s acceptance of it in this novel jars when today we abhor domestic violence of any kind.

It’s fascinating to read about the first time Elisabeth tries unfamiliar foods, which come her way more often as her husband’s fortunes rise.  She was fascinated by a melon, not knowing that any fruit could grow so big, and that she is delighted to try gherkins.  Chez mois, we have a most interesting book called The Gourmet Atlas, Discover the origins and uses of the world’s favourite foods by Susie Ward, Claire Clifton and Jenny Stacey (1997, ISBN: 9781861551795) and it tells me that melons came to Italy in the 14th century via Venetian trade with the Middle East, and by the 16th century English gardeners were growing them in greenhouses.  But of course there was a world of difference between Elisabeth’s diet at the close of the Puritan era when she and Sam were living in poky rooms, and life in the Restoration era when they had their own house and enough money to be complaining about mess from the renovations.  By then Elisabeth is in a position to look down her nose at a host who provides only beef and no venison!

Mixing with what she would call her ‘betters’ she’s now in a position to feel the effects of Sam’s miserliness. There is—always has been—enough money for his drinking and carousing.  But there is not enough, it seems, for her to maintain the standard of dress to which she now aspires.  This issue comes to a head when she is in mourning for Uncle Robert— ironically because it is the inheritance from him that will come to them after Sam’s father dies, that enhances their social position.  She feels it keenly when she attends social events in the same mourning outfit for three months, and the reader knows that Sam’s eventual acquiescence to a swanky new collar is only going to appease her for a while!

OTOH when it’s something he wants, she wryly notes in the privacy of this diary, that is different:

Sam has other thoughts on his mind.  There comes a time in every man’s life when he finds himself in urgent need of a coach and pair.  This moment has come to Sam.  He has talked to someone about securing land at the back to make a coach-house.  He can’t bear to be seen in a hackney any more. A natural progress, I suppose, from our early days when we walked everywhere, to the years when we took a coach if it was raining, to the present time when we always take a coach whatever the weather, and so to the future when we maintain our own.  He’s incensed by the fineness of Peg and Mr Lowther’s coach, to make such a show abroad while they live in such squalor at home. I’d love it, to be able to go abroad in my own coach whenever I pleased. I suspect, though, that actually bringing himself to come up with the money may take some time.  (p. 248)

There is a discernible shift in mood when the plague makes its appearance.  London empties and Elisabeth goes to family at Brampton, noting the rising death toll each month and worrying about Sam still working in London (even though his aristocratic masters have all decamped to what they think is safety).  She knows that the figures are conservative, because the consequences of reporting a death are horrific: the house of the departed is sealed up with all its residents inside it, and they are left, starving, to infect each other and die.  Elisabeth feels for them but is fatalistic: she thinks there is nothing else that can be done.

The Great Fire of London, depicted by an unknown painter, as it would have appeared from a boat in the vicinity of Tower Wharf on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September 1666. To the left is London Bridge; to the right, the Tower of London. St. Paul’s Cathedral is in the distance, surrounded by the tallest flames. (Wikipedia Commons*)

The Great Fire OTOH results in a flurry of activity to protect their possessions.  Like everyone else, the Pepys use the river to move things to safety, and they bury their gold in the garden.  I hadn’t realised that the primary strategy to check the fire was to blow up houses in its path, creating a fire break as the CFA does when fighting bushfires.  This strategy doesn’t save St Paul’s, their greatest cathedral, and nothing checks the fire until the medieval city inside the Roman walls is gutted, Westminster (and the home of Elisabeth and Sam) only just surviving due to a drop in the wind.

There is also a discernible panic when the Dutch, as predicted, arrive.  (See the Second Dutch War 1665-7 at Wikipedia.) Their ships sail up the river , set fire to the English fleet, and deliver a blow to English pride by towing away the Prince Charles.  Sam sends Elisabeth to bury his bags of gold at Brampton, but can’t change all his money because the banks have no gold left.  (This defeat, and Charles’ extravagance and unpopularity, made him sue for peace because he feared rebellion, and no wonder he was nervous, so soon after Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth).

The tragedy of this lively ‘journal’ is that after a long-dreamt of trip to the continent, Elisabeth returns with a fever which she fears is typhus (but which Wikipedia says was typhoid fever).  She was only 29.

*In the book, she’s Elizabeth with a ‘z’, but I’ve used Elisabeth with an ‘s’ as Wikipedia does because her father Alexandre Marchant de Saint Michel was French and that’s how (spelling variants of the era aside) that’s how he would have spelt it.  (Although ‘Lisa’ is a common name now, it certainly wasn’t when I was a child, and I was forever being asked if it was short for the French Elisabeth).

PS Wikipedia tells me that:

In 1991 Dale Spender published a fictional literary spoof, The Diary of Elizabeth Pepys (1991 Grafton Books, London). Purportedly written by Elisabeth, the book is a feminist critique of women’s lives in 17th century London.

Image attributions:

Author: Sara George
Title: The Journal of Mrs Pepys
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998, 352 pages
ISBN: 9780312263478
Source: Personal Library.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 14, 2019

Exploded View, by Carrie Tiffany

I have really, really liked Carrie Tiffany’s previous fiction, and was eagerly anticipating reading her new one … so I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am by her latest book, Exploded View.  If it had been written by anybody else I wouldn’t have read it at all.  I would have abandoned it as soon as I realised, and now I wish I had: it’s yet another one about a child damaged by sustained abuse, a topic so done to death I can’t believe that contemporary authors and publishers think there is anything new or insightful to say about it.

The book is unrelentingly sombre, and mercifully short.

If you like wallowing in the unpleasantness of grim fiction à la Sophie Laguna and Emma Donoghue you might like it.  I loathed it.

Enough said…

The only review to balance mine that I can find tonight is at Readings.

Author: Carrie Tiffany
Title: Exploded View
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 192 pages
ISBN: 9781925773415
Source: Bayside Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 13, 2019

Middle England, by Jonathan Coe

I swear it, hand on heart—it is just coincidence that I am writing this review as we in Australia wake up to the news that the latest Brexit deal has been voted down in the House of Commons.  While the ominous date of Mar 29th is etched on hearts across England, it’s not on mine because I’ve been ignoring Brexit, hoping it will go away.  Truth be told, I bought this post-Brexit novel by Jonathan Coe because I was attracted by the cover.  This is the blurb:

Beginning eight years ago on the outskirts of Birmingham, where car factories have been replaced by Poundland, and London, where frenzied riots give way to Olympic fever, Middle England follows a brilliantly vivid cast of characters through a time of immense change.

There are newlyweds Ian and Sophie, who disagree about the future of the country and, possibly, the future of their relationship; Doug, the political commentator who writes impassioned columns about austerity from his Chelsea townhouse, and his radical daughter who will stop at nothing in her quest for social justice; Benjamin Trotter, who embarks on an apparently doomed career in middle age, and his father, Colin whose last wish is to vote in the European referendum.  And within all these lives is the story of modern England: a story of nostalgia and delusion; of bewilderment and barely suppressed rage.

Readers from the UK will probably know that this is the last in a trilogy, following on from The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004)But I haven’t read either of those, so I came to Middle England entirely fresh.  It doesn’t seem to have mattered, the novel works perfectly well on its own.

I thought it was going to be a bit like Phillip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency which offered a human face to post-Thatcher Britain — and it is, except that Middle England unpacks the collapsing social cohesion which is the defining feature of our age.  Middle England is not just the nostalgic image on the front cover, it is a civic nationalism that meandered pleasantly like an old river, its dangerous force spent far upstream. This quotation that begins the ‘Merrie England’ section of the novel comes from an article in The Guardian by Ian Jack, which quotes in turn, Orwell in 1941 on the subject of England: “A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase”.  It’s a long essay, but worth reading if you have time: it speaks of an England, despite its contradictions and hypocrisies, bound by an invisible chain.  Britain, Orwell wrote, was incapable of militarism but had an emotional unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis.  Middle England the novel shows with devastating clarity that British emotional unity is gone…

It is, however, a thoroughly entertaining novel, and the satire is droll.  Its characters are fully realised, and as they negotiate the changing landscape around them, their interior lives are laid bare.  The Trotters are a family who have their own human issues to sort out: how to make a living; how to cope with cantankerous but needy parents; how to deal with vexatious complaints in a university.  They get stuck in traffic and they get speeding tickets.  They sometimes fail the dress code and they forget to do important things. They are not interested in sport but they take an unexpected pride in the Olympics opening ceremony, one of them so overtaken by his excitement that he buys a ticket to an obscure event (which he doesn’t attend). They have siblings they can’t abide, and they fumble sexual relationships.  They have friends who behave badly in the old ordinary way, and they look on the increasingly bad temper of the times as an aberration that they can’t quite grasp.

It is, perhaps, presumptuous of me to conclude that Coe has been reasonably even-handed about Brexit.  I haven’t been paying much attention to Britain; it’s my birthplace, and it’s a nice place to visit, but it’s increasingly irrelevant to modern Australia and since Brexit it seems like the kind of relation we’d rather not have.  (Kevin Rudd was spot on in this recent article at The Guardian about the Commonwealth moving on elsewhere.)   Coe represents what had been subterranean resentments about Europe not just through the voice of grumpy old men and women but also the young who feel disenfranchised and passed over.  But although Coe gives a nod to the diversity of Britain with his characters of colour and a couple of gays, his Trotter family is middle class and none of them ever face poverty, even if temporarily hard-up, and they are not victims of the global economy or austerity.  Those whose perspective we see are either international in outlook, or benign towards Europe, or preoccupied by their own lives and not really paying attention until events force them into it.  Observations of the opposing force and its unpleasant nationalism are filtered, therefore, through them.  They are moderates, which in today’s world puts them on a side.

Other reviews are at The Guardian and this one at The Irish Times.

Author: Jonathan Coe
Title: Middle England
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Random House), 2018, 422 pages
ISBN: 9780241309476
Source: Personal copy, purchased at The Avenue Bookshop Elsternwick, $32.99


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 11, 2019

New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

I don’t know what possessed Tracy Chevalier to write this unsubtle little novel, and I can’t adequately explain why I didn’t abandon it except to admit that I read it to discover just how she resolved it.  The book is part of the Hogarth Press’s misconceived project to retell Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s based on Othello…

At first I thought I’d accidentally picked up a YA title, or even a children’s book, because the prose is so flat and mundane, and alas, there are authors who think that’s appropriate for younger readers.  This impression is bolstered by the crude framing of the story: it is set in a Washington school, told from the perspective of its eleven-year-old protagonists.  There are also cardboard-cut-out schoolteachers all conforming nicely to stereotypes.  Parents, as so often in children’s stories, are elsewhere.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Chevalier consulted Wikipedia for Othello’s character list and the plot, without having any idea about the emotion-charged complexities of the play. The new boy in the playground is O (Osei), the widely-travelled son of a Ghanaian diplomat.  He corresponds to Othello, and Dee (short for Daniela) corresponds to Desdemona, whose first reaction to his arrival is this:

She had lived her life on the playground, laughed and cried and had crushes and formed friendships and made few enemies. It was her world, so familiar she took it for granted. In a month she would be leaving it for junior high.

Now someone new and different had entered the territory, and this made Dee look at the space anew and suddenly find it shabby, and herself an alien in it.  Like him. (p5)

Mr Brabant, the racist teacher full of barely suppressed rage is Brabantio; the Machiavellian school bully Ian is Iago; and a strawberry pencil case replaces the handkerchief that causes so much trouble in Othello.  Eleven-year-olds barely into puberty replace the fraught relationships from the stage.

The depiction of overt and casual racism is laid on with a trowel:

He was moving now.  Not like a bear, with its bulky, lumbering gait.  More like a wolf, or—Dee tried to think of dark animals—a panther, scaled up from house cats.  Whatever he was thinking—probably about being the new boy in a playground full of strangers the opposite colour from him—he padded towards the school doors where the teachers waited with the unconscious assurance of someone who knows how his body works.  Dee felt her chest tighten.  She drew in a breath.
‘Well, well, Mr Brabant remarked.  ‘I think I hear drums.’
Miss Lode, the other sixth grade teacher standing next to him, tittered. ‘Where did Mrs Duke say he’s from?’
‘Guinea, I think.  Or was it Nigeria?  Africa, anyway.’
‘He’s yours, isn’t he? Better you than me.’ Miss Lode smoothed her skirt and touched her earrings, perhaps to make sure they were still there. (p.6)

The entire action is compressed into a single day, scenes chronologically corresponding to before school, recess, lunch, recess and after school, and it culminates with a dénouement shoehorned into absurdity.   I cannot imagine who the intended audience is meant to be.

Don’t say you weren’t warned…

Update: Don’t take my word for it, read Elle’s incisive review at Elle Thinks as well.

Author: Tracy Chevalier
Title: New Boy
Publisher: Hogarth (Penguin Random House UK), 2017, 188 pages
ISBN: 9781781090329
Source: Greater Dandenong Libraries

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 10, 2019

The War Artist, by Simon Cleary

The War Artist is Simon Cleary’s third novel, and it is magnificent.  It is, as Rodney Hall says, at last, a novel that tackles the legacy of the Afghanistan war and the crippling psychological damage of PTSD.  But the novel also lays bare the fissures of modern life forged on Australian soil, and the pressing problem of violence against women.  Painfully, it shows us the limits of sacrifice and redemption.  It is intense reading.

This is the blurb:

When Brigadier James Phelan returns from Afghanistan with the body of a young soldier killed under his command, he is traumatised by the tragedy. An encounter with young Sydney tattoo artist Kira leaves him with a permanent tribute to the soldier, but it is a meeting that will change the course of his life. What he isn’t expecting is a campaign of retribution from the soldiers who blame him for the ambush and threaten his career. With his marriage also on the brink, his life spirals out of control. Years later, Phelan is surprised when Kira re-enters his life seeking refuge from her own troubles and with a young son in tow. She finds a way to help him make peace with his past, but she is still on the run from her own. The War Artist is a timely and compelling novel about the legacy of war, the power of art and the possibility of redemption.

Entirely by coincidence, I read this novel contemporaneously with Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier which is also about a soldier with what we now call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both novels explore the impact on those who must deal with a damaged soul, but The War Artist penetrates more deeply into the minds of those who cannot leave the traumatic past behind.

Through Phelan and the flashbacks which lurch unbidden into his life as a civilian, the reader sees the events that haunt him. It reminded me a little of Mark Dapin’s fine novel Spirit House which showed how an horrific past can bleed uncontrollably into the present. As I wrote in my review of that book:

Sensate memory, etched deeply into the brain by trauma or torture, can be triggered by simple everyday things. A scent, a sound, or an even a fleeting part of an image that was also present during the trauma can provoke bizarre and often distressing behaviour when that memory surfaces into everyday life far removed from the initial experience.

For Phelan, his memory of Beckett’s death is inexorable. He feels — and is accused of being — responsible for Beckett’s death, and footage from the body camera gives the patrol ammunition to judge him harshly.  Whereas Rebecca  West had no need to describe the slaughter of WW1 for it to be ubiquitous in The Return of the Soldier, military deaths are so rare in modern warfare, especially in Australian deployments, that each death has an individuality denied to the overwhelming numbers of the Fallen of WW1.  Their names cover vast stone memorials in our cities, capitals and towns, yet the tattoo-artist Kira can memorialise the casualties of the Australia’s Afghan War on the torso of just one man.

The ANZAC legacy dominates the national consciousness and our literature, but contemporary veterans seem invisible.  As far as I know Cleary and Hall are our only authors writing fiction about the legacy of Australia’s contemporary military missions. (Hall’s most recent novel A Stolen Season is about a soldier returned from Iraq.  See my review.)

I’m not fond of the current fad for tattoos, and Cleary’s novel does nothing to dispel its sleazy associations.  But while Kira’s tattoo parlour partner Flores is a horrible, violent drug dealer with nothing to commend him except Kira’s initial infatuation, tattooing as she practises it is depicted as an art form.  Phelan’s impulse to have Beckett’s name tattooed on his shoulder is an homage, an homage which grows to include more of the dead.  Kira’s own skin is covered with the knit of ink.

Do I regret any? she asks herself.  Every part of my body wants to scream yes.  The pair of feathers Flores tattooed on her in the beginning.  The cheap wallflowers she’d inked to shorten her worst days, or the useless skulls she had done after her intuition started going awry.  Flores’s name, that proof of loyalty he’d demanded from her.  Some days she wished she could rip off her epidermis, tear up her thirty-year-old skin and start again.

But you can’t.  She knows that.  You can’t pick and choose.  A tattoo captures a moment.  And then it is gone.  Whatever particular yearning or fear that births a tattoo and propels it into the world cannot last.  Every ensuing need, every fresh desire, differs from the tattooed moments that have already passed into history.  All a tattoo can do is speak of one time, one place.  Who we were, not who we are.

She hears that wise voice sometimes, but in the task of surviving each day there is no time for meditation, no time for philosophising.  (p.250)

Part of the achievement of this novel is the depiction of PTSD beyond its commonly-recognised manifestations.  Phelan the veteran carries his demons within him, but Kira suffers it too, unable to shake off the constant fear that Flores will find her and wreak his vengeance.  Her body holds memory of every beating but it has healed better than her mind.  Every tread on her veranda, every car heard in the distance momentarily paralyses her until her maternal instincts kick in and she checks the whereabouts of her small son.  And while for Phelan life in rural seclusion is a choice he makes because it brings him solace, for Kira it is no choice at all.  Like many women fleeing violence, she knows she must shed every fragment of her old life and connections lest they lead her pursuer to her refuge.

Title page of an 1811 edition of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by R. Graves. (Wikipedia Commons*)

Phelan’s allusions to Marcus Aurelius are an interesting authorial choice.  This Roman emperor is my favourite philosopher because throughout my life his Meditations have guided me towards stoic acceptance of what cannot be changed.  Some people read the Bible for guidance, I read Marcus Aurelius…

But stoicism is not a fool-proof recipe for living: there are times when acceptance is acquiescence and it’s morally or psychologically wrong.  I think book groups would have fine time discussing the stoicism of Phelan’s wife Penny (an allusion to the stoic Penelope in The Odyssey), and also the epilogue that Louis Nowra in his otherwise positive review at The Australian (paywalled) misinterpreted as ‘sentimentality’.  (BTW If Nowra thinks that women being pursued by murderous men is ‘melodrama’ he needs to pay more attention to the daily news or visit this website.)

The War Artist was also reviewed by ex ADF veteran Audie Moldre at Wandering Warriors. He summarises it as a timely reckoning of the challenges arising from the modern battlefield. 

*Image attribution: By Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, R. Graves – Private Collection of S. Whitehead, Public Domain,

Author: Simon Cleary
Title: The War Artist
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2019, 304 pages
ISBN: 9780702260346
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available from UQP and good bookshops everywhere


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 9, 2019

The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West

It really is just a coincidence that I re-read Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918) contemporaneously with Simon Cleary’s The War Artist (2019).  (My review coming soon). West’s slim novella was a ‘handbag-book’ that I’d begun reading on the train last week before beginning The War Artist as bedtime reading a couple of days ago.  Yet here they are, two books a century apart, exploring the cruel impact of post-traumatic stress on soldiers, and their loved ones.

There are important differences between the two books.  West’s Chris Baldry is not a professional soldier, but one of 10 million civilians drafted by popular opinion if not by conscription, into fighting a war that cost 37 million lives.  He comes from a privileged class in England that now no longer exists in the same way.  On the battlefield, he was surrounded by slaughter rather than experiencing it as an aberration, as it is in modern warfare.  (For the military, that is.  Civilian deaths in modern warfare are a different matter altogether).  And at the time that Rebecca West wrote this important little book, post-traumatic stress was just beginning to be recognised, though back then it was called shell-shock.

According to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Rebecca West (real name Cicily Isabel Fairfield) was a journalist who made her name campaigning in support of the English suffragettes.  But Wikipedia tells us that she became much more than that:

Dame Cicily Isabel Fairfield DBE (21 December 1892 – 15 March 1983), known as Rebecca West, or Dame Rebecca West, was a British author, journalist, literary critic and travel writer. An author who wrote in many genres, West reviewed books for The Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Republic, and she was a correspondent for The Bookman. Her major works include Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), on the history and culture of Yugoslavia; A Train of Powder (1955), her coverage of the Nuremberg trials, published originally in The New Yorker; The Meaning of Treason, later The New Meaning of Treason, a study of the trial of the British Fascist William Joyce and others; The Return of the Soldier, a modernist World War I novel; and the “Aubrey trilogy” of autobiographical novels, The Fountain Overflows, This Real Night, and Cousin Rosamund. Time called her “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer” in 1947. She was made CBE in 1949, and DBE in 1959, in each case, the citation reads: “writer and literary critic”. She took the pseudonym “Rebecca West” from the rebellious young heroine in Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen.  (Wikipedia, links removed, viewed 9/3/19)

The Return of the Soldier, however, was an early work: it was the first WW1 novel by a woman, and it was published during the war.  It is notable because it was the first to depict a soldier returning home with shell-shock, and perhaps more importantly to show how the war was affecting society.  When Chris Baldry returns from the front with amnesia, and remembers nothing of his beautiful wife Kitty and their privileged life together, it is a working-class dalliance with Margaret that he remembers, signifying the breakdown of the English class system that took place because of the war.  Much to the disdain of Kitty and the narrator, Kitty’s cousin Jenny, Chris finds solace in Margaret’s company, and despite her discomfort and embarrassment at this unexpected entreé into polite society, Margaret takes pleasure in ministering to him.

It is tempting to suggest that it was West’s clandestine relationship with the author H.G. Wells that enabled her to write so convincingly from the perspective of Jenny, who nurtures a private love for Chris.  Wikipedia tells me that West’s first venture into print was a short story called Indissoluble Matrimony (1914), published the same year as the birth of Anthony West, her son by H.G. Wells who could not marry her because he was already married to his second wife.  Jenny, from her lofty position in the English upper class, begins her observations of Margaret with a derisory portrait of her appearance and manners, but has an epiphany when she sees that the love Chris and Margaret share, transcends the artificial barriers of class.

Comparing the sight of Chris asleep under Margaret’s watchful quasi-maternal eye to her observations of people in church in a catholic country (Spain? Italy? Ireland?), Jenny says:

You know when one goes into the damp odorous coolness of a church in a catholic country and sees the kneeling worshippers, their bodies bent stiffly and reluctantly and yet with abandonment as if to a purpose outside the individual, or when under any sky one sees a mother with her child in her arms, one says to oneself, ‘If humanity forgets these attitudes there is an end to the world.’ But people like me who are not artists, are never sure about people they don’t know.  So it was not until now, when it happened to my friends, when it was my dear Chris and my dear Margaret who sat thus englobed in peace as if in a crystal sphere, that I knew that it was the most significant as it was the loveliest attitude in the world.  It means that the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest quiet for a little time.  That is a great thing for a woman to do.  I know there are things at least as great for those women whose independent spirits can ride fearlessly and with interest outside the home part of their personal relationships, but independence is not the occupation of most of us.  (p.87)

The novella moves on to its devastating ending, leaving the reader to consider the way 1001 Books frames it:

[It] is bitterly ironic and yet lyrical, particularly in the lost world in which Chris’s amnesia, the ‘hysterical fugue’ brought about by shell shock, has enabled him to take refuge.  It is a love story of a kind, through which West explores some of the most complex and difficult questions arising out of the war experience. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 2006 Edition, ABC Books, p.279)

If I then look forward to West’s compelling books that arose from living through WW2 and its aftermath, it is astonishing to me that my library hasn’t got a single book by this author…

Author: Rebecca West
Title: The Return of the Soldier
Publisher: Fontana Paperbacks, in association with Virago, movie tie-in edition, 1980, first published 1918
ISBN: none
Source: Personal library, $2.75, from an OpShop.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 7, 2019

Green Shadows and Other Poems, by Gerald Murnane

As regular readers know, I’m outside my comfort zone when reviewing poetry.  But Gerald Murnane’s poetry is the exact opposite of what I expected: unlike a lot of modern Australian poetry which I find obscure and irrelevant to my interests, Murnane’s poems are not only accessible but also very interesting indeed.

The first one in the book is titled ‘If this is a poem’ and it’s very short…

If this is a poem
I mean, if Lesbia Harford
might not disown
it or Thomas Hardy

might read it through,
then I’ve somehow betrayed
or never knew
my true vocation. (p.1)

Murnane also muses on what he should have written in ‘On first reading William Carlos Williams’ … and in ‘The Darkling Thrush’ he castigates himself for having an emotional response to certain poems, thus being one of those ignorant critics/ who rely on what they call feelingsWhen so much of Murnane’s fiction has exhorted me not to identify the narrator with the author, I hesitate to suggest that these poems are reflections on his own life, yet with many of them it seems impossible to do otherwise.  For, as the blurb tells us, Murnane is now in his eightieth year, and surely here he is reflecting on the directions his writing career has taken…

The blurber is in no doubt that the poems are expressions of authentic memory:

The forty-five poems collected here are in a strikingly different mode to his fiction – without framing or digressions, and with very few images, they speak openly to the reader of the author’s memories, beliefs and experiences. They are for this reason an important addition to his internationally recognised works of fiction, from Tamarisk Row and The Plains to Barley Patch, A Million Windows and Border Districts. [Underlining mine.]

Yet I wonder.  Murnane lives in a small town, and he’s a widower among widows.  So what seem to be recent intimate experiences in the poems ‘Rosalie isn’t speaking’ and ‘Angela is the first’, seem risky to me.  Surely, he writes, she’ll never hear of its being published, unless you, Reader, make bold to inform her.  Just imagine Rosalie — if she exists — reading this:

I can only hope to get over my unease
by finding its true source
by learning why I have this urge to appease
persons of no importance

to me — sorry, Rosalie! (p.15)

And ‘Piss-weak’ might get him into trouble too!

You join what they call a service-club
in a little township to pay the place back
for its welcoming you, so you say, but in fact,
the club recruited you, and you didn’t have the guts

to refuse.  (p.30)

Murnane has made a virtue of inhibition in his fiction: is he now in his old age abandoning that inhibition to express tactless opinions that might see him friendless in Goroke? Whatever for?

Academics who study Murnane will find this collection very revealing, because some poems seem to illuminate the thinking behind his fiction.  This is the blurb again:

The poems include tributes to his mother and father and to his family, and to places that have played a formative role in his life, like Gippsland, Bendigo, Warrnambool, the Western District, and of course Goroke. Especially moving are his poems dedicated to authors who have influenced him – Lesbia Harford and Thomas Hardy, William Carlos Williams, Henry Handel Richardson, Marcel Proust, and with particular force, the nineteenth-century poet John Clare, who gives the collection its title, revered ‘not only for his writings / but for his losing his reason when / he was forced from the district he had wanted as his for life.’

I liked the poems that revealed his thinking about places.  For example, in ‘Ode to Gippsland’ this author of The Plains writes of feeling uneasy in the damp forest when he was more used to the comforting plains of his native district.

I had lived all my life with plains at the back of my mind
and actual plains to my west if I needed to flee
You made me uneasy; your topography seemed awry:
an unwelcoming zone between snow and my enemy, the sea. (p.10)

and in the same poem, recalling how Shakespeare’s Marc Antony/ would sometimes address Cleopatra simply as ‘Egypt, he confesses that …

In the worst of our rages, I called my wife simply ‘Gippsland’. (p.10)

Murnane revisits themes from his fiction such as ambivalent faith in ‘A Certain Sort of Atheist’ and ambivalent sex in ‘There’s no such thing’ but he can also be playful as in ‘The Ballad of G.M.’:

My mother knew her American films;
I was often at her side
And I knew the end was not far off
when she took out her hankie and cried. (p.4)

In the same poem, he reminisces about the stoicism of bush living:

There was never a wind like the wind from the north
that came on us out of the blue
It was nothing to taste the desert all day,
but we saw the summer through. (p.5)

However, I took no pleasure in reading the verse about authors Murnane despises, and didn’t find it ‘moving’ at all, and not just because most of these authors are favourites of mine.  I also didn’t like the scorn in ‘Non-travellers’ for those of us who like to ‘see the world’ and I dislike his characterisation of our treasured memories as trashy recollections of barely known people and places! There’s also an anti-Semitic element in ‘Anzac 2015’ that I didn’t like at all, and it bothers me (a lot) that a literary hero of mine would use it. Best to move on quickly from those ones.

Maria Takolander also reviewed it for the (limited paywall) Saturday Paper.  And in a review that is mostly more about A Season Earth, so did Owen Alexander at the SMH.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: Green Shadows and Other Poems
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2019, 104pp
ISBN: 9781925336986
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available direct from Giramondo, and good bookshops everywhere.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 7, 2019

2019 Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) longlist

The ABIA 2019 longlists were announced today

Literary fiction book of the year
Boy Swallows Universe (Trent Dalton, Fourth Estate), see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
Bridge of Clay (Markus Zusak, Picador)
In the Garden of the Fugitives (Ceridwen Dovey, Hamish Hamilton), see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes
Shell (Kristina Olsson, Scribner), see my review
The Children’s House (Alice Nelson, Vintage), see my review
The Shepherd’s Hut (Tim Winton, Hamish Hamilton), see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes
Too Much Lip (Melissa Lucashenko, UQP), see my review
Wintering (Krissy Kneen, Text)

General fiction book of the year
Nine Perfect Strangers (Liane Moriarty, Macmillan), see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes
Scrublands (Chris Hammer, A&U), see Kim’s review at Reading Matters
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart (Holly Ringland, Fourth Estate), see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes
The Lost Man (Jane Harper, Macmillan), see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes
The Nowhere Child (Christian White, Affirm), see Kim’s review at Reading Matters
The Other Wife (Michael Robotham, Hachette)
The Rúin (Dervla McTiernan, HarperCollins)
The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Heather Morris, Echo), see my review

General nonfiction book of the year
Any Ordinary Day (Leigh Sales, Hamish Hamilton)
Boys Will Be Boys (Clementine Ford, A&U)
Dear Santa (Samuel Johnson, Hachette)
No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Behrouz Boochani, trans by Omid Tofighian, Picador)
The Arsonist (Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton), see my review
The Land Before Avocado (Richard Glover, ABC Books)
Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia (Marcia Langton, Hardie Grant Travel)
Woo’s Wonderful World of Maths (Eddie Woo, Macmillan)

Biography book of the year
Back, After the Break (Osher Günsberg, HarperCollins)
Butterfly on a Pin: A Memoir of Love, Despair and Reinvention (Alannah Hill, Hardie Grant)
Challenge Accepted! (Celeste Barber, HarperCollins)
Eggshell Skull (Bri Lee, A&U), see Kate’s review at Books Are My Favourite and Best
Johnathan Thurston: The Autobiography (Johnathan Thurston with James Phelps, HarperCollins)
One Hundred Years of Dirt (Rick Morton, MUP)
Speaking Up (Gillian Triggs, MUP), on my TBR
Teacher (Gabbie Stroud, A&U)

International book of the year
Becoming (Michelle Obama, Viking), on The Spouse’s TBR
CIRCE (Madeline Miller, Bloomsbury)
Fear: Trump in the White House (Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster)
Less (Andrew Sean Greer, Abacus)
Lost Connections (Johann Hari, Bloomsbury Circus)
Milkman (Anna Burns, Faber), on my TBR
Normal People (Sally Rooney, Faber)
Ottolenghi Simple (Yotam Ottolenghi, Ebury)

Small publishers’ adult book of the year
A Superior Spectre (Angela Meyer, Peter Bishop Books), see my review
Blakwork (Alison Whittaker, Magabala)
Deep Time Dreaming (Billy Griffiths, Black Inc.)
Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (ed by Anita Heiss, Black Inc.), see my review
The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted (Robert Hillman, Text)
The Geography of Friendship (Sally Piper, UQP)
The Western Front Diaries of Charles Bean (ed by Peter Burness, NewSouth, published in association with the Australian War Memorial)
Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean (Joy McCann, NewSouth)

The Matt Richell award for new writer of the year
Boy Swallows Universe (Trent Dalton, Fourth Estate), see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
The Nowhere Child (Christian White, Affirm)
Eggshell Skull (Bri Lee, A&U), see Kate’s review at Books Are My Favourite and Best
One Hundred Years of Dirt (Rick Morton, MUP)
Teacher (Gabbie Stroud, A&U)
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart (Holly Ringland, Fourth Estate)
The Rúin (Dervla McTiernan, HarperCollins)
The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Heather Morris, Echo), see my review

Shortlists will be announced on 11 April, and the winners on 2 May at a ceremony in Sydney.

Visit the ABIA website to see longlists for these awards

  • Small publishers’ children’s book of the year
  • Illustrated book of the year
  • Children’s picture book of the year (ages 0-6)
  • Book of the year for younger children (ages 7-12)
  • Book of the year for older children (ages 13+)


#2 Child of All Nations

Child of all Nations  (Anak Semua Bangsa) is the second in the Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, so called because it was conceived on the island of Buru— where he was imprisoned without trial in 1965 when the military dictatorship of President Suharto cracked down on anyone suspected of communist sympathies.  Access to books and writing materials were prohibited in the prison, but Pramoedya narrated his novels to his fellow-prisoners, and was finally able to write them down in 1975. Child of All Nations was finally first published in 1979 in Jakarta, and was translated (along with the rest of the Quartet) into English in 1982 by a courageous Australian staffer called Max Lane, (who was promptly recalled because of Indonesian displeasure at having these novels disseminated to the international community, you can read his story here).

Impressive as Max Lane’s mammoth contribution was, IMO it’s high time there was a new less clunky translation. In the 2012 interview at Asymptote about whether he was able to retain the literary qualities of the original, Lane says that his focus was on retaining the ‘foreignness’ of the original, and that he expected the reader to do some work of interpretation and digestion of language.  

Thus I kept quite a few terms in Indonesian, leaving them in italics. I do notice that in later editions the publisher has removed the italics for many words. Why make familiar something which should not be familiar? Late 19th century Java in the Netherlands Indies should not appear so familiar to a later 20th century reader. In many cases, however, the examples are mainly minor in reality.

I am not suggesting for a moment that this approach was wrong, and I like what he says about his translation work as the translation of ideology and perspective, not just text.  No, for me, it is what he concedes about issues also in sentence structure and tenses that deserves a new translation, and I don’t say that as a grammarian, but merely as a reader who expects language to flow whether in translation or not.  For example:

He was afraid.  And his body could not carry his longing to be away from this frightening place.  There was only one thing that proved he was still alive: the never-subsiding shout in his heart—live, live, I must live, live live!

and on the same page:

Paiman wanted very much to ask for help, but even his tongue would not work for him. (p.122)

The book also merits an update on the publisher’s introduction, which retains its long out-of-date information from 1996 i.e. that Pramoedya (who lived out his last years in Australia and died in 2006) is currently under city arrest in Jakarta where his books are banned.  It’s now over 20 years since the Fall of Suharto and Indonesia is a functioning democracy, not a dictatorship.  A writer of Pramoedya’s stature, Indonesia’s most prominent author and contender for the Nobel Prize, deserves better…

Child of All Nations continues the story of Minke’s political awakening in Indonesia’s colonial era as depicted in This Earth of Mankind, and this book is one where I think it’s best to read its predecessor in the series first.  There is a large cast of characters, most of whom featured in Book #1, and it might be hard to follow events if you haven’t read This Earth of Mankind first. (See my review here).


It’s a complicated plot, and quite confusing even up to the dénouement, which reveals the betrayals (intended and otherwise) which brought Minke and Nyai before the court towards the end of the novel.  But essentially, it’s the story of his coming-of-age.  The story begins with the death of Minke’s wife Annaliese, expelled from her homeland to the Netherlands where she dies of a broken heart.  From the letters of his friend Panji Darman, Minke learns that the reason she was expelled had nothing to do with concern for her welfare after the death of her father, the Dutch businessman Herman Mellema, and everything to do with her rival for the inheritance of the family’s wealth. As the novel progresses, he also learns that for all his fine education that distances him from his own people, he will never be accepted by the likes of his Dutch classmate Robert Suurhof, and that his excellent results at this prestigious Dutch school will never confer equal rights under the colonial regime.  His marriage to Annaliese was not even acknowledged by Dutch law, and she was not acknowledged as Mellema’s daughter until they were able to use it to get her out of the way.

All the events of the novel lead to Minke’s development as a writer, but it isn’t easy for him.  He suffers an internal struggle to the relinquish the prestigious European ways he has acquired. He is proud of the status conferred by his education in a Dutch school, and his achievement is signalled by his fluency in Dutch, and his European mannerisms and clothing, especially the wearing of shoes.  But urged on by Kommer, an effusive Eurasian editor of a Malay-language newspaper, and by Nyai who shares all that she has learned from her bitter experiences as the concubine sold by her parents to Herman Mellema, he realises that his external European habits and the use of the oppressor’s language alienates him from the people he could be helping.   Almost everyone he has encountered (in both Books #1 & #2) recognises his potential as a leader in the struggle to assert the voices of the people exploited by the colonial regime, but Child of All Nations shows him that he is surrounded by Dutch, Eurasian and Native people who benefit from the existing situation and who want to sabotage any attempts at change.

The episode with the farmer Tulangan shows Minke that he is both naïve and foolhardy, and that Natives whose confidences he seeks are right to distrust him.  When at Kommer’s urging Minke goes out into the countryside to make contact with his own people, he meets this farmer who is mounting a last-ditch attempt to save his ancestral small-holding.  Tulangan has already had to surrender most of his land to colonial sugar interests and is being squeezed out of the rest by having access to water rights denied.  Minke overcomes the family’s suspicions about his ambivalent status and learns to respect the back-breaking work done by the peasant class, and he is shocked by their material poverty. True to traditions of hospitality, they share everything they have although they don’t have enough to eat themselves. However…

Naïvely, Minke writes Tulangan’s story (in Dutch) and submits it to Martin Nijman, editor of the powerful Dutch newspaper Soerabaiaasch Niuews (Surabaya News), which is the mouthpiece of the sugar industry and its colonial infrastructure of power.  This brings prompt retribution when the article is butchered by Nijman to present Tulangan as a rebel.  Tulangan, badly injured in a brutal attack, flees for protection to Minke, who is himself now being recognised as a trouble-maker.  Nyai is able to arrange refuge for Tulangan’s terrified wife and children but the episode only serves to confirm that Minke is out of his depth.  It also shows that Nyai can only help while she retains control of her wealth, and there is a conspiracy to take it from her.

Not only that. Nyai has a crisis of conscience when she realises that her wealth has also been gained at the expense of exploited farmers like Tulangan.

At the end of the novel, Minke has learned not to trust anyone.  He seems virtually friendless, and powerless against a legal system in which he has no rights.  But when Engineer Maurits Mellema comes to take possession of his inheritance, their real friends and Nyai demonstrate the power of words that speak the truth.   In an elaborate ‘handover’ ceremony, Mellema is confronted by forces he had not expected. Kommer is there to tell Mellema that his betrayals will be reported in the Malay newspaper so that everyone will know, and the French painter Jean Marais — representing a European with integrity — is there to tell him that he will paint a portrait titled L’ingénieur Mellema, Le Vampire Hollandais.  This painting won’t be exhibited in the Indies, but in Europe, to shame him.  Nyai’s right-hand man and protector of the family challenges Mellema to a sword-fight man-to-man, Minke confronts him with his knowledge about Mellema’s role in Annaliese’s death in the Netherlands, and Nyai taunts him to take her grandson Rono away with him — because he’ll need to kill the infant since (as the illegitimate child of her now-dead son Robert Mellema), Rono is also entitled to the inheritance.

But it is the accusations of the Eurasian child, little Maysoroh, which brings the entire village out to witness Mellema’s humiliation.  Annaliese had been kind to Jean Marais’ Acehnese wife, and Maysoroh loved her.  When she finally manages to make sense of the tangle of languages that she hears, Maysoroh bursts into tears, expressing all the sorrow of a colonised people who are legally powerless but have truth on their side and a passion to express it.  Shamed into aborting his arrogant plans, Mellema leaves, saying only that he is postponing the handover so nothing in really resolved. He leaves behind a suitcase of Annaliese’s clothes, which finally reduces the stoical Nyai to tears.

#3 Footsteps

I assume I will find out whether Nyai and Minke are dispossessed by Mellema in Book #3, Footsteps!

The cover art for the quartet is by Gail Belenson and the artist is Stephen Daigle.

Author: Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Title: Child of All Nations, The Buru Quartet #2; (Anak Semua Bangsa, Tetralogi Buru #2)
Translated from the Indonesian and with an Introduction by Max Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books USA, 1996 (first published in English by Penguin Australia 1984, first published in Indonesian 1979
ISBN: 9780140256338
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond: Child of All Nations (Buru Quartet)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2019

2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards shortlist

The 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards shortlist has been announced.


  • The New Ships, by Kate Duignan (Victoria University Press).  I have this one, loved it, see my review. 
  • The Cage by Lloyd Jones (Penguin Random House), see my review
  • This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman, (Vintage, Penguin Random House), on my TBR, I’d better get on and read it!
  • All This by Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press), on order from Fishpond




  • Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath (Victoria University Press)
  • There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime by Erik Kennedy (Victoria University Press)
  • The Facts by Therese Lloyd (Victoria University Press)
  • Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press)


  • Fight for the Forests: The Pivotal Campaigns that Saved New Zealand’s Native Forests by Paul Bensemann (Potton & Burton)
  • Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor edited by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith (Massey University Press)
  • Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing by Sean Mallon and Sébastian Galliot (Te Papa Press)
  • Birdstories: A History of the Birds of New Zealand by Geoff Norman (Potton & Burton)


  • Hudson & Halls: The Food of Love by Joanne Drayton (Otago University Press)
  • Memory Pieces by Maurice Gee (Victoria University Press)
  • We Can Make a Life by Chessie Henry (Victoria University Press)
  • With Them Through Hell: New Zealand Medical Services in the First World War by Anna Rogers (Massey University Press)

The winners will be announced on May 14th.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 5, 2019

Into the Fire, by Sonia Orchard

Almost a decade ago, I read Sonia Orchard’s debut novel The Virtuoso (2008) which won the Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction.  I was impressed, but it’s been a long time between novels, so I refreshed my memory of the theme from my review, to find that in this new novel — though the plot is entirely different — once again it’s a case of a friendship that sours…

Lara is a thirty-something high-achiever about to become a mother for the first time when she visits the surviving family of her best friend Alice, a year after Alice died in a house fire. Lara is devastated by this loss, even though their long-term friendship was as good as over.

That friendship originated in a shared view of the world, nourished by the feminist ideals they aspired to after completing Women’s Studies at the University of Melbourne in the 1990s.  But plans to travel the world together and ‘have it all’ fell apart when Alice opted to keep an unplanned baby and in her early twenties took up an ‘earth mother’ lifestyle in the bush.  With the charismatic musician Crow she has two more children, and the gulf between her life and Lara’s widens as Lara takes off around the world and builds her career.

It was nostalgia for the shared good times that sustained continued contact — and Orchard writes brilliantly about the hectic lifestyle they had, following Crow’s band and partying hard.  Reflecting on this friendship, however, Lara displays her inner nerd with her own psychoanalysis of her feelings — using every theory I’ve heard of and more.  While this is necessary for the reader to understand the dynamics of the friendship and its betrayals — and it reinforces the idea that Lara is so busy obsessing over it that she neglects the messages she is hearing from her friend — the explanations of Maslow et all and how it applies to the characters does get a bit wearying.  Other readers may enjoy this endless intellectual narcissism but it just made me grateful that none of my friends are like this!

One of the blurbers alerts the reader to the gaslighting that’s going on, so it’s not really a spoiler to mention it.  The depiction of its impact on Alice is vivid:

… I was saddened by what I saw.  Alice’s vitality had faded, or been transformed into a jitteriness.  She tapped continually on the table with her fingers or with a teaspoon, her leg jiggled up and down, she chewed her fingernails like a child.  Earlier, she’d even ducked out the kitchen door, asking me to stay and watch over the stove, then returned, smelling of cigarette smoke.  She’d only ever been an occasional smoker but had made a big deal about giving up altogether when she had kids. (p.147)

But Lara has her own toxic relationship to deal with and so she fails her friend just when she is needed the most.  The novel explores this gulf between the ideals of feminism and its reality in relationships, and how when tragedy strikes, blaming and self-blaming intersect when it’s all too late.

The Saturday Paper reviewed it too.  It’s paywalled but you can have a limited number of views before the paywall kicks in.


Author: Sonia Orchard
Title: Into the Fire
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2019, 272 pages
ISBN: 9781925712827
Source: Bayside Library Service

Available direct from all good bookshops and Affirm Press where it is also available as an eBook.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2019

Hare’s Fur, by Trevor Shearston

Hare’s Fur is such a lovely book! The Australian literary scene is awash with grim books at the moment, but as the blurb says Hare’s Fur offers an exquisite story of grief, kindness, art, and the transformation that can grow from the seeds of trust.

The novel doesn’t shy away from the realities of life.  Russell Bass is a Blue Mountains potter, alone after the recent death of his wife, and of his child, long ago.  He has kindly neighbours who offer companionship and he has his highly-regarded creative work as a potter to keep him busy, but nothing can fill the chasm of loss after his beloved wife died unexpectedly almost a year ago.

That is, until Russell stumbles upon some children hiding out in the remote bush where he goes to harvest clay for his pots.  These kids are from an entirely different world.  They are sleeping rough in a freezing cave because their feckless parent has been taken off to gaol for dealing in drugs.  The oldest of these kids, Jade, has at 15 seen it all before, and she believes that DoCS (the Department of Community Services) will separate the trio when they go into care.  Because, the last time her mother was gaoled, that’s what happened to her and her older sister Kayla.

Russell, knowing nothing of this when he first sees the two younger ones playing a game in the creek, sees straight away that all is not well.  He judges the smaller one to be about five and the other eight or nine:

… now he studied the faces.  They lacked the roundness of children’s faces, looked bony, underfed. The boy was olive-skinned, his cheeks burnished like — again — those of bin-rummagers in town, and probably from the same cause, sun and wind.  (p.35)

But Russell doesn’t show himself:

… they would bolt, he was sure, the second he showed himself.  It was the feral in their appearance, the filthy windcheaters, the slightly starved faces.  And they were too at ease, like kids playing in their own backyard.  They would react as if to an intruder.  Which he was.  If they were actually living close by.  (p.37)

DoCS, of course, is searching for them (and rightly so); and the kids assume that a responsible adult would turn them in.  But Russell doesn’t react in the expected way.  He assumes that there’s a parent with them and based on the coarse language of the children, and their neglected appearance, has made some judgements about her. But he’s a man who’s open to other possibilities as well:

He’d perhaps misjudged the parent here.  These two seemed not at all fearful — of being out in the bush, or of what, down here, would be pitch-dark nights, just a slit of sky.  They obviously felt themselves safe, whatever the reason for being here.  He shouldn’t destroy that feeling. (p.38)

This gentle story of children both damaged and resilient, and the way that Russell is able to transcend the social gulf between them is an homage to trust and a testament to the human spirit.

Trevor Shearston is the author of Game, which was long-listed for the Miles Franklin.

PS Hare’s Fur, BTW, is nothing to do with furry wild mammals with long ears.  It’s a kind of ceramic glaze said to resemble rabbit’s fur.  You can see an example here. There is quite a lot about pottery in this novel, but not enough to be boring.

Author: Trevor Shearston
Title: Hare’s Fur
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2019, 208 pages
ISBN: 9781925713473
Review copy courtesy of Scribe

Available direct from Scribe and good bookshops everywhere.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2019

Literary Places, by Sarah Baxter

If you love to travel, and your itinerary always includes Bookish Moments then you too will probably feel as if this book has been written just for you.

The concept is simple: travel writer Sarah Baxter who is obviously also a Bookish Person, has selected 25 well-known books and then written 2-3 seductively bookish pages about the destinations that form the settings.  So there are portraits of places that I’ve visited, where I’ve sought out Bookish Moments from my reading: the Dublin of James Joyce’s Ulysses; the St Petersburg of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment; Jane Austen’s Bath as in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion; the Saigon of The Quiet American by Graham Greene.  (We dined at the Continental Hotel, where Greene used to stay).

Since the author has spent time here in the Antipodes, there’s even Hanging Rock in the Macedon Ranges from Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. (One of my teaching colleagues nearly gave me a heart attack when we climbed to the summit with a bunch of schoolkids and he joked very convincingly that we’d lost one of them!) Kiwis may feel a bit slighted that Baxter hasn’t included anywhere elvish in New Zealand which can IMO lay claim to Tolkien.

Don Quixote souvenirs are everywhere in Toledo. This one is suitably bookish, and though you can’t see it in this photo, he’s on the same shelf as For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Baxter’s portraits include places I’ve tramped all over: Dickens’ London (of course); Paris (of course) from Les Misérables; and Florence from A Room with a View; but Literary Places also covers places that I’ve viewed in the distance.  It will come as no surprise to my readers that I much prefer to view from the train rather than hike the Sierra de Guadarrama that features in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and likewise Don Quixote’s La Mancha which we saw en route to Toledo.

The Sierra de Guadarrama rises from the parched meseta, just north of Madrid.  Scorching in summer, snow-bitter in winter, these hefty mountains now provide a fresh-aired playground for Madrideños, but once rang with gunfire and ran with blood. During the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939), when pro-democracy Republicans fought — and were ultimately defeated by — General Franco’s right-wing Nationalists, the sierra saw some of the fiercest fighting. (p.48)

La Mancha doesn’t sound quite so hostile, but that endless plateau looked hot and inhospitable when we saw it, and that was in autumn:

The sun slips earthwards, its last rays caressing the endless plateau of nodding wheat, saffron blooms and ancient olive trees.  The light glows too, on a phalanx of hulking white giants, lording the hillside and waving their long arms as if urging a fight. Yet these mighty monsters, so pugnacious from a distance, prove harmless up close. Not ogres but windmills, transformed by the day’s late haze and the flights of a fanciful mind … (p.54)

Then there are places familiar to me, though I’ve only imagined them from the power of the author’s pen: Cairo in Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz;  the Yorkshire Moors in Wuthering Heights; Davos in The Magic Mountain; and Naples from Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (though I have had glimpses of it from the Circumvesuvia en route to Positano).  There’s Kerala in The God of Small Things and Kabul in The Kite Runner and as you’d expect there are places in the Americas: in the US there’s New York in The Catcher in the Rye; the Mississippi River in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Monroeville in To Kill a Mockingbird and Monterey in Cannery Row; and in Latin America there’s Cartagena in Love in the Time of Cholera.

There are only a few books I haven’t read: Burger’s Daughter (set in Soweto) by Nadine Gordimer; Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin; Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun; and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. But this raises the question of the book’s audience.  Will you love it as I did if you haven’t read the books?  Will you love it if you’ve been to the places but not read the books? I think that’s best answered by the pages about Soweto, a place most of us are unlikely to visit:

Sprawling across the veld, this confusing, suppurating place sits apart from the bright, big city, separated, not just by geography but by dilapidation and the sharp end of history.  Here in the township, rotten roads crawl through ordered ugliness, row upon row of unlovely houses.  Tin shacks lean on each other like drunks; drunks sway between old cars and half-crazed chickens; junk piles up down dirty alleys where tramps forage and stray dogs cock a leg.  The air smells of urine, offal, liquor, despair.  This is the land across the divide; the black backyard.  A dumping ground.  A crucible for social change.


Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter  was published in 1979, when apartheid — ‘the dirtiest social swindle the world has ever known’ — still wracked the country.  Initially banned for being dangerous and indecent, it’s a striking work of historical fiction in which the suffering is all too real. (p.88)

I don’t know about anyone else, but while that description doesn’t tempt me to pack my suitcase (even if there are tours that Baxter says are safest) it has certainly prompted me to order the book for my TBR.  (It was already on my wishlist because it’s listed in 1001 Books and anyway Gordimer is one of my literary heroes.)

Literary Places would make a lovely gift for a booklover.  Drop hints for your next birthday!

Author: Sarah Baxter
Title: Literary Places
Series: Inspired Traveller’s Guides
Illustrated by Amy Grimes
Publisher: White Lion Publishing,  an imprint of the Quarto Group, 2019, 144 pages
ISBN: 9781781318102
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99AUD


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 3, 2019

On Fairness, by Sally McManus (Little Books on Big Ideas)

I’ve never been all that keen on joining things, but I always belonged to my union.  And I was quite pleased when my loyalty was rewarded with an official AEU certificate when I retired; I hadn’t imagined that anyone would notice.  But these days, with union membership in decline, perhaps 35 years’ loyalty is special.  All I know is, that without the union fighting tooth and nail on our behalf, governments of either stripe would never have given teachers a decent pay rise and our conditions would only ever have got worse.  It’s not that they’re necessarily malevolent, (though one of them certainly was), it’s that there’s so many of us.  Even the smallest pay rise is a big hit to a state education budget; any reduction in teaching conditions (which are really learning conditions, of course) saves a lot of money.  The same is true of any workers serving the public: nurses, police, paramedics, firefighters, anyone working in public transport — and of course the public service itself, because they all have the same pay scales across all multiple departments.  Any time governments have blown the budget, these workers bear the brunt of the budget cuts and have to fight for a pay rise.

But Sally McManus in this interesting little book On Fairness points out something else: in economies where jobs in a strong public sector are available, private employers have to compete for workers by offering comparable pay and conditions. (p.60) If that’s the case, it seems to me that it’s actually in the interests of anyone who works for a salary to support the high rates of unionisation in the public sector: private sector workers can sit back and wait for a union to win better pay and conditions, and take the benefit, thank you very much. But no, you are more likely to hear them repeating the shock-jock mantras: ‘bloated public service’; overpaid and underworked’; ‘fat cat bureaucrats’ and ‘union thuggery holding the state to ransom’.   So I really hope this little book is widely read, because it sets the record straight…

Sally McManus created history when in 2017 she became the first woman to be the secretary of the ACTU; together with Ged Kearney as President (2010-2018) and Michele O’Neil (2018-) she has shattered the cliché of the union thug and opened the way for a new era in Australian unionism.  On Fairness is the latest in MUP’s Little Books on Big Ideas series.  At under 100 pages in a book with the dimensions of a greeting card, these books can be read in no time at all, and always provide something worthwhile to think about.

McManus begins with a transcript of the interview she did on 7.30, four hours after she became ACTU secretary.  Sales got her ‘gotcha’ moment because McManus doesn’t play games with the truth:

… in a memorable interview on ABC’s 7.30 last year […] McManus provoked outrage and condemnation from the government when she declared that she had no problem with workers breaking the law if the laws were “unjust”.

“Our current laws are broken,” she said in the interview.

McManus says the answer was unplanned. “I got a whole heap of media training, right, got a whole half day just practicing how to deal with the media, all these weird techniques like pivoting and deflecting and stuff,” she says. “But I’ve spent my whole life standing up in front of working people and telling them the truth, and if your job is to do that – and even if it’s not what they want to hear, your job is to be honest.” (SMH, 13/10/18)

That authenticity comes through in the book time and again.  From her personal history to the history of the movement and its historic battles: McManus reminds us that we owe gains like superannuation and workers compensation for workplace injury to unionists who achieved them at some personal risk.

From the origins of modern trade unions during the Industrial Revolution, to the Australia of today, workers have always confronted a threat of state-sanctioned punishment when they’ve decided to take action in their own industrial interest. Violence, the police, mercenaries and the military have been used across time and across the world to bust strikes, persecute union leaders and suppress worker protests. (p.13)

There are cases of extreme violence against unionists, but more often there are the other anti-union, strike-breaking tactics with which we are familiar:

… exorbitant fines, jail sentences, raids, mass sackings, lengthy litigations, social ostracism, propaganda campaigns, organised harassment and bullying, as well as vilification in the media, to punish workers taking action in the interests of industrial fairness for themselves and in the interests of a fairer society. (p. 15-16)

McManus points out that the rampant lawlessness attributed to unionists belongs more fairly in the workplaces of Australia, where there is chronic underpayment of workers; exploitation of visa workers and workplace practices that put the health and safety of people at risk.  

The unfairness could not be more apparent.  Australian law punishes the strike action that demands fair wages, safe workplaces, job security and equal treatment for workers, and these strikes occur due to an employer’s refusal to provide these things.  When employers break the law and steal wages, it’s in the interest of personal greed at the expense of working people.

It grates deeply on most Australians that there is one law that applies to rich elites and another, harsher standard applied to the rest of us.  (p.90)

It does indeed. It certainly sickens me that no state in Australian adequately punishes employers whose negligence causes deaths in the workplace so there is no significant deterrent to their criminality.

Is it okay for ordinary Australians to break the law if that law imposes unfair restrictions to their workplace pay and conditions?  In On Fairness Sally McManus argues cogently that civil disobedience is part of the armoury against unjust laws, and it is important to stand up for the principle of fairness because it’s integral to the kind of society we want to have.

BTW on a related theme, there is a most interesting article this week at Inside Story: see here to read Climate Change and the New Work Order by Frances Flanagan.

Author: Sally McManus
Title: On Fairness
Series: Little Books on Big Ideas
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2019, 100 pages
ISBN: 9780522874853
Review copy courtesy of MUP.

Available in all good book shops, and also from the We Are Union shop, where all proceeds go to the Change the Rules campaign.

Here we are again, noting the passage of time with another #6Degrees – I know February is a short month, but it seemed ridiculously short to me…

This month’s starter book is Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist (2018), a brilliant book which deserves to be widely read for the insights it offers into the human causes of a catastrophe.  I reviewed it here, and it has since been nominated for The Stella Prize…

Not long after I read The Arsonist there were fires blazing out of control all over Tassie, and the catastrophic Black Tuesday Bushfires in Tasmania in 1967 were on everyone’s mind.  That our firefighters were able to prevent a similar loss of life when the fires were so much more extreme shows what we have learned from our tragic experiences with bushfire.  And that thought, re-emphasised the day before yesterday by our anxiety about a friend near a fast, out-of-control fire in Mornington, put me in mind yet again of my 2017 Book of the Year Flame Tip by Karenlee Thompson, published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Black Tuesday.  Yes, this book figured in my last #6Degrees... it’s on my mind a lot during the bushfire season…

From there I could also repeat last month’s #6Degrees with Flames by Robbie Arnott because it’s just been shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards but instead I’ll jump to another impressive debut, The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins. It’s been shortlisted for the same award, and rightly so.  I was very impressed by this novel and I featured the author in my Meet an Aussie Author series.  (And it’s perfect reading for hot weather: we’re in the middle of a heat wave now, and books set in snowy landscapes are ideal).

For obvious reasons, there are not many Australian books set in snowy landscapes.  For that we look to Europe and Canada, and the one that comes most immediately to mind is the Soviet era One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. I’ve chosen a Romanian edition of this famous book because the cover art best expresses my memory of reading it.  I was young at the time, and I struggled to understand the inhumanity behind the gulags.  I thought it was a Soviet aberration but I know better now, of course.  Man’s inhumanity to man is only too common.

Solzhenitsyn is a character in a book I’ve just read: Dinner with the Dissidents by John Tesarsch.  It has an interesting plot: an ambitious young writer agrees to spy on Solzhenitsyn in order to have his own work published; and the book, in two time frames, shows how he faces the same risk-ridden dilemma under the present surveillance regime in Canberra.  If you don’t know just exactly how your data is being monitored, visit my review of Tesarsch’s book, I’ve pasted in a summary from Wikipedia.

Of course, if you have nothing to hide, you may well feel that surveillance doesn’t matter.  But another book featuring a dinner explores the impact of children’s behaviour on parental ambitions, and how they have very good motivations to conceal what’s happened.  The Dinner, (2012) by Herman Koch was a bestseller and if you read my review you can see why, it’s a clever satire about narcissistic parenting, and it also pokes fun at pretentious dining.

Probably not a bestseller, but an award-winning and much more thoughtful book is The First Week (2013) by Margaret Merrilees.  In this novel Merrilees explores the impact of a son’s criminal behaviour on his mother.  In this first week she travels from her home to give him her support, but her own life and everything she believed has turned upside down. From this experience, she sees beyond to other moral dilemmas that confront White Australians.  If you haven’t read this book, it’s still available from Wakefield Press, in print and as an eBook.  Merrilees has gone on from this impressive debut with other books, the most recent of which is Big Rough Stones (2018).

So that’s my #6Degrees: in very different ways both the beginning and the end of the chain are books about looking beyond the tabloid headlines to the impact of crime on ordinary people.

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 1, 2019

2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist

The 2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced yesterday but I was feeling a bit seedy so I didn’t catch up with the news till today.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction nominees are:

Man Out of Time by Stephanie Bishop, see Kate’s review at Books are My Favourite and Best
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser, see my review
The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins, see my review
Border Districts by Gerald Murnane, see my review
The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton – on my TBR , see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes

The Douglas Stewart prize for Non-Fiction

Saga Land by Richard Fidler & Kári Gíslason, see Simon Caterson’s review at the SMH
Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia by Billy Griffiths, see Rebe Taylor’s review at the SMH
The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie, see Kim’s review at Reading Matters and make sure you read Kate’s at Books Are My Favourite and Best as well.
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
Tracker by Alexis Wright , see my review

The UTS Glenda Adams Prize for New Writing

Flames by Robbie Arnott, see my review
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
Scrublands by Chris Hammer, see Kim’s review at Reading Matters
The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins, see my review
Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau, see Amanda’s review at Whispering Gums
The Lucky Galah by Tracy Sorensen, see my review

Multicultural NSW Award

The Lebs by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Rainforest by Eileen Chong  see Jonathan’s review at Me Fail? I Fly
Home is Nearby by Magdalena McGuire (Update 5/3/19 On Angela Savage’s recommendation, I’ve ordered this on interlibrary loan: it’s hard to find).
Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang  see my review
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko , see my review
Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic, see my review

NSW Premier’s Prize for Translation

Harry Aveling – I’m barracking for him because I know him from my days as president of VILTA (the Victorian Indonesian Language Teachers Assoc)
Stephen Corcoran
Alison Entrekin
Penny Hueston (I’ve read three of her translations, see here).
Stephanie Smee
Omid Tofighian (highly commended)

Indigenous Writing Prize

Taboo by Kim Scott, see my review
Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling by Larissa Behrendt, see my review
Common People by Tony Birch, see my review
Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss, see my review
The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell

Visit the awards website for all other categories.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2019

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, by Tina Makereti

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke is another of the titles longlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Literary Awards. But it was on my TBR months before the longlist was announced, thanks to an enticing review at Alys on the Blog.  I’ve mentioned this blog before: along with Booksellers NZ, it is the blog to follow if you want to keep up with what’s new and interesting in New Zealand books.

Tina Makereti is the author of Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, which I reviewed in 2016 and included in my Best Books of that year.  It was an impressive debut, but I’m not quite so enamoured of The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke.  I have to admit that my attention wandered a bit in the middle section of the novel…

This is the  blurb:

A vivid novel about a Maori boy exhibited in Victorian London – a provocative tale about what makes us human. ‘The hour is late. The candle is low. Tomorrow I will see whether it is my friends or a ship homewards I meet. But I must finish my story for you first. My future, my descendant, my mokopuna. Listen.’ So begins the tale of James Poneke- orphaned son of a chief; ardent student of English; wide-eyed survivor. All the world’s a show, especially when you’re a living exhibit. But anything can happen to a young New Zealander on the savage streets of Victorian London. When James meets the man with laughing dark eyes and the woman who dresses as a man, he begins to discover who people really are beneath their many guises. Although London is everything James most desires, this new world is more dark and dazzling than he could have imagined.

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke revisits some of the themes of Where the Rekohu Bone Sings.  Once again a character leaves what has become an insecure home and ventures into the unknown in order to seek opportunities for a better future.  The story of James’ childhood in a New Zealand wracked by war is poignant: he sees and experiences terrible things that no child should see.  But missionaries teach the orphaned boy English and a chance encounter with an artist leads to a passage to England and employment as a specimen in an exhibition.  (The Artist, as James calls him, is the sort that came to the antipodes for the purpose of making a book.  Such books, about the quirky new colonial possessions of the empire, were very popular in 19th century England.)

As in Makereti’s debut novel, community is an important theme, but this novel invites the reader to consider inclusion and exclusion, together with civilisation and savagery. James is always caught between the rigid artifice of separate communities and he is always ‘other’, both in the way he takes pride in his individuality and in the way that others define him because of his race.  Yet even as his awareness of being exploited grows, James is no pathetic victim.  He is in London on his own terms:  he endures the curious gaze of the audience because that is his means of learning.  Because he is housed as a gentleman with The Artist’s family, he has access to a library and polite society, and because he is an exhibit he gets to attend Royal Society gatherings.  But his education is furthered in other unanticipated ways: without the approval of his hosts, he makes the acquaintance of other misfits: performers in freak shows, drunks, and gamblers.  The solidarity of this community is forged from an awareness that they are at the bottom of a stratified society.


In this novel, Makereti also explores the ‘othering’ of sexuality.  James’  dearest friends are the seaman Billy, and his lover Henri (Henrietta).  She has freedom of movement and agency because she dresses as a man.  She chooses not to marry because that would compromise the independence that few other working-class women could have had in 19th century England; her joyful life is in stark contrast to the circumscribed life of The Artist’s sister.  But almost inevitably, it seems, the love between Henri and Billy, both in male dress, is observed and perceived as obscene.  Tragedy results, compounded by a breach between Billy and James, because James, when drunk, made unwanted advances to Billy.

So James is alone and friendless, and ‘other’ in every way.

Back in 2011, I read Jane Sullivan’s Little People which fictionalised the story of a sideshow troupe of little people.  Sullivan’s novel gently satirised the curiosity about such troupes by inverting all the expectations that the inquisitive might have.  But Makereti’s novel goes further: it invites the reader to consider the effects of prejudice and discrimination.  And although it is set in the past, its themes are still relevant today.

The cover design by Cat Taylor of a Victorian-era cabinet of curiosities is very apt.  By the look of the image credits, it looks as if it’s been created with a great deal of thought, because each item has been sourced separately and references some aspect of the story.

According to her profile at Goodreads, Tina Makereti is of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Maniapoto, Pākehā and, in all probability, Moriori descent.

Author: Tina Makereti
Title: The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House New Zealand) 2018, 299 pages
ISBN: 9780143771562
Source: personal copy, purchased from Fishpond

Available from Fishpond: The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke $28.86AUD

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