Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 15, 2021

Sincerely, Ethel Malley, by Stephen Orr

Sincerely, Ethel Malley is Stephen Orr’s tenth novel and I’ve read and reviewed all but one of the others, so I can confidently say that this is the best one he’s ever written.  It works on so many levels: it’s a great story in its own right; and it has wonderful characters used to explore enduring themes like courage, fortitude and integrity as well as loyalty and trust within friendships and family.  The transformation of the central character and narrator is both entirely credible and wondrous.  But then there are questions which emerge from the book as a whole: what is truth and and who gets to tell it? who protects the individual against the power of the press?  what is lost when it is so difficult to do anything worthwhile in a conservative milieu? why is tradition so mercilessly hostile to modernity?  how and why does a culture drift into mediocrity? and anyway, what are the arts and why do they matter ?

This remarkable novel is a fictionalisation of the notorious Ern Malley literary hoax.  Although it’s not at all necessary for enjoying the novel, for those not familiar with the hoax, it’s well worth reading up on this at Wikipedia because it’s a significant element of Australia’s literary history which influenced the trajectory of modernist poetry in Australia.

Briefly, what happened was this: in 1943, two conservative Sydney poets, James Macauley and Harold Stewart,  rivals of the precocious Max Harris and not best pleased about the success of his modernist literary magazine in South Australia, cobbled together some random texts and submitted it for publication as modernist poetry. Harris fell for the hoax and in 1944 published the poems in a special edition of the magazine, with a Sidney Nolan cover and a brief bio of the poet: ‘Ern Malley’ who had died young, leaving the poetry to be discovered amongst his effects by his sister Ethel.  The hoax was subsequently revealed and Max Harris was tried and convicted for publishing poems that were ‘obscene’.  Angry Penguins folded in 1946, but by the 1970s those same poems were regarded as good examples of surrealism, and in what I can’t resist calling ‘poetic justice’ today they are read more often than anything written by Macauley or Stewart.

(The excerpts from the poems that are quoted in the novel show just how this could indeed be so.)

Set in 1943-44, Sincerely, Ethel Malley tells Ethel’s story, and she is a brilliant creation.  From her bemused discovery of the poems to her naïve uncertainty about what to do with them and her subsequent contact with Max Harris via a local ‘expert’, she becomes a warrior on behalf of her brother when the storm about authenticity of the poems erupts.  When the newspapers get hold of the story, it becomes the talk of the town in sleepy wartime Adelaide.  Denying the existence of Ern soon becomes a case of denying her existence too, and ever the loyal sister, she sets about demolishing the doubts.

Max Harris’s girlfriend Von is jealous of Ethel, because Ethel has something Von can’t compete with.  Ethel is a salt-of-the-earth, uneducated woman who—like her brother Ern—is of the sort routinely denied the chance to reach her potential by poverty, family tragedy, and an education system that in those days petered out early for people of her class.  But the way she so quickly grasps what modernism is about, eclipses Von’s understanding of Max’s ambitions.  Ethel can extrapolate from her growing understanding of modernism to discuss not only poetry, but also modernist art by Willian Dobell and drama such as James Joyce’s Exiles, and Max enjoys conversation with her.  Stephen Orr is a teacher, and he knows the way that the most unexceptional student can blossom given the right teaching at the right time.  That’s what Max, for all his flaws (and his doubts) does for Ethel.  Her remarkable intelligence blooms.

I walked up the hill, in the back door of the art gallery, past the Impressionists, Conder, Streeton, and all the others who were happy painting Australia as it looked.  Anyone could do that.   But how it didn’t look? I shouldn’t have ever doubted Mr Nolan.  Now, I knew, we needed him and his Malley-like landscapes. I wondered if he’d suffered the same outrages. (p.222)

But good as it is, Sincerely, Ethel Malley is not just an entertaining historical novel and a literary hoax.  It is also a novel of our time.  When Ethel and Max encounter Rus Nielsen at Speakers’ Corner, Orr uses it to raise the issue of toxic populism:

[Max} returned to Nielsen and said, ‘Rus, it seems you’ve already made your mind up.  You hate people who love culture because you don’t understand it yourself.  And instead of trying to (these things, like anything worthwhile, take some effort) you find it easier to destroy the people involved, to laugh at them, to call into question their motivations. And like Hitler, you agitate people into a frenzy, telling them it’s okay to hate what they’ve always hated, because it’s somehow different, and we can’t tolerate difference, can we, Rus?’

Max, my hero, again. ‘Ethel, there’s no use buying into it, this idiot knows what he’s doing.  If you people choose to go along with it, so be it.  You’ll get the society you want, but in the end, might not like it.’

‘So that’s my fault?’ Rus said.  ‘A little bit arrogant, wouldn’t you say?’

‘See, tactic number one.  Identify the enemy and characterise as a moral danger.’

‘Now you sound ridiculous’.

‘Use of emotive language.  Short, simple words.’

‘What, you writing an essay about me, Max?’

‘Reduce everything to imperatives.  Black and white.  Are you with us or against us?  No complexity in any argument.  That’s another thing Hitler does.’ (p.218)

And of course you can substitute the name of a former American president and see what Stephen Orr is getting at.

I loved the way this novel played with its core mystery: what, and who is real in this story?  Sincerely, Ethel Malley is going to be one of my Best Books of the Year, and it’s destined for shortlists everywhere, I am sure of it.

To learn more about Sincerely, Ethel Malley, you can Join Miles Franklin longlisted novelist Stephen Orr and critic Simon Caterson, author of Hoax Nation, to talk literary hoaxes and all things Ern next Thursday April 22nd.  The event is hosted by Readings.  Book here.

Image credit: The Ern Malley edition of Angry Penguins. Featured on the cover is a Sidney Nolan painting inspired by lines from Ern Malley’s poem Petit Testament, which are printed on the cover, bottom right: “I said to my love (who is living) / Dear we shall never be that verb / Perched on the sole Arabian Tree / (Here the peacock blinks the eyes of his multipennate tail)”. The painting is now held at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. Public Domain,

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: Sincerely, Ethel Malley
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2021
Cover design by Liz Nicholson
ISBN: 9781743058084, pbk., 441 pages
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2021

The Thinking Reed, by Rebecca West

This week it’s time for the #1936Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

1st edition hardback cover

For my contribution, I’ve chosen The Thinking Reed, a novel published in 1936 by Rebecca West (1892-1983).  Like The Return of the Soldier (1918, see my review) The Thinking Reed is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  It’s cited because it sensitively examines the limitations of the life led by many middle-class women during the 1920s and it highlights the disintegration not only of a class but an entire way of life.  The 1936 first edition was published by Hutchinson & Co (London) and 1001 Books says that it remains an important and thoughtful exploration of relationships, class, and marriage for today’s reader.  

Last year I read West’s A Train of Powder (see my review) which is a collection of essays that includes her famous reportage of the Nuremburg Trials, and perhaps it was the seriousness of those essays that suggested to me at first that The Thinking Reed was just a rather shallow story of a woman with ‘man trouble’.  The novel begins with Isabelle, a wealthy American widow, who has come to France to make a new start, and has found herself trapped in a relationship with a disagreeable man, when she would rather be with someone else.  In the process of getting rid of him, she makes herself disagreeable to the object of her intentions, and in her disappointment, she impulsively marries someone else.  But as the story progresses through the fortunes of Isabelle Torrey and her French husband Marc Sallafranque, West satirises the vacuous emptiness of the lavish 1920s lifestyle.  Which, as the end of the novel signals, was about to collapse because of the looming Depression.

I am pleased to say that my first impressions were wrong.

The title is a quotation from the French mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer and Catholic theologian, Blaise Pascal, describing the temperament of man and the nature of his existence:

“Man is but a reed, the feeblest one in nature; but he is a thinking reed.”

The third-person limited narration is from Isabelle’s point-of-view, and she does a great deal of thinking indeed.

Her competent, steely mind never rested. She had not troubled with abstract thoughts since she had left the Sorbonne, but she liked to bring everything that happened to her under the clarifying power of the intellect. For she laboured under a fear that was an obsession. By temperament she was cooler than others; if she had not also been far quicker than others in her reactions, she might have been called lymphatic. But just as it sometimes happens that the most temperate people, who have never acquired the habit of drinking alcohol, or even a taste for it, are tormented by the fear that somehow or other they will one day find themselves drunk, so Isabelle perpetually feared that she might be betrayed into an impulsive act that was destructive to such order as reason had imposed on life. Therefore she was for ever running her faculty of analysis over in her mind with the preposterous zeal of an adolescent running a razor over his beardless chin.  (The Thinking Reed. Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, Location 26).

In fact, by chapter 10 Isabelle chastises herself for thinking too much.  These days we would say she is overthinking things.


For this reason she knows that André de Verviers, is not Mr Right.  Although they enjoyed a splendidly passionate attraction to each other for about a week, he is given to impulse, destruction, unreason, even screaming hysteria and he flies into jealous rages.  Since he is one of those men who can’t imagine the possibility that a woman doesn’t want him, nothing she can say fends him off.  (We’ve all met one of those.  In my experience a well-aimed stiletto heel in the offending shin works wonders).  Isabelle, however, eventually reasons that it is her calm and reasonable behaviour that he is attracted to, and therefore the way to discourage him is to embarrass him by creating a public scene, dumping his flowers in the courtyard of his apartment and screeching at him (even though he isn’t there).

Alas, Lawrence Vernon (the one she wants) witnesses this scene, and is disapproving.  Not because of what she did, or the reasons she did it, but because he is embarrassed by it.

After all, he was not quite what she wanted. He had understood and accepted all she had told him; he knew that she was the same sort of person as himself, that she had fallen into the hands of the enemy and had suffered outrageously and had taken what means she could to free herself. But he was not going to tell her that he loved her and wished to marry her because he belonged to the vast order of human beings who cannot be loyal to their beloved if a stranger jeers. (Loc. 701)

So on the rebound, she marries Marc Sallafranque, a wealthy but not very prepossessing industrialist.  Which turns out to be not the mistake the reader might be expecting. Through the twists and turns of the plot, West shows Isabelle’s attraction to men who share her disgust with the decadent life of the rich.

…what are called nice people aren’t nice at all. They’re very nasty. They’ve got an unfair proportion of the world’s goods, and only a few wipe out that unfairness by what they do with their good luck. The rest of them want more, and they don’t care how they get it. They’ll close their eyes to any vice on the part of anybody who’s rich and who has a comfortable house they can go and stay in, or who can give them tips on the Stock Exchange. They are complete parasites, who can’t earn their keep. (Loc 4813)

West is not afraid to sheet home blame where it lies.  She is not surprised that she has been forgiven her unforgivable behaviour by her friend the Russian émigré Princess Luba, because…

…having been able to forgive God for the miseries He had brought on her through the medium of history, [Luba] could scarcely be hard on her fellow creatures, who had so many more excuses for their misbehaviour. (Loc 3761)

So much of this novel is laugh-out-loud funny. After a crisis which leads to depression, Isabelle goes to a French clinic:

She therefore mentioned her depression to the doctor in charge, a short, sensible-looking man with a beard, in the hope that he might suggest a change in her regime. But he answered her chiefly in abstract nouns, of which she had often noticed there were more in general circulation in France than in any other country, and she saw that she had fallen into the hands of one of those modern doctors who have strayed too far from aperients in the direction of the soul. He gave her no helpful prescription, but spent every day a longer period in her room, using more and more abstract nouns, until his conversation seemed to have broken all links with reality. But she grasped that this was not the case the afternoon he led her to the window and pointed out that, even as in the garden below the delicate blossoms of spring had given place to the roses of summer, so youth and its illusions gave place to maturity and its deeper, richer, and, he could swear, more delicious experiences. His voice throbbed, and she recalled with embarrassment that, whereas in England and America a beard usually means that its owner would rather be considered venerable than virile, on the continent of Europe it often means that its owner makes a special claim to virility. (Loc.3816)

She does no better with a German doctor who enthuses about the medicinal qualities of mountains:

 She found herself quivering with rage. What right had he to feel that he was doing anything that ought to be done, taking notice of anything that ought to be noticed, when he was merely indicating that, in the same world where she and a great many unhappy people found themselves, there was also a mountain? In point of fact, the Hüpfenstrudelalp had probably not looked down on any great amount of human emotion, for the valley beneath, being infertile and poor in timber, had hardly been settled till the English began mountaineering in the middle of the nineteenth century. It had probably been witnessing joy and sorrow for about as long as the local railway station. (Loc.3899)

Isabelle went early to the doctor’s room, to tell him that she was leaving that night, and when he objected, she reminded him that he had promised her that the mountains would give her peace, and firmly assured him that they had. She perceived at once that she had been right in supposing this to be a proposition which he would not find in his heart to dispute, any more than the French doctors had found themselves able to frustrate her intention of returning to a lover; but he was unable to disguise a certain amount of regret that the mountains had acted quite so promptly on one of his wealthiest patients. (Loc 3980)

West’s wit ranges far and wide, unbothered by contemporary reluctance to assign national characteristics:

Marc lit a cigar and began one of those conversations with the wine-waiter which Frenchmen enjoy as Englishmen enjoy talking about cricket. Nothing is learned thereby. Both parties know before they begin that 1914 and 1917 were good for red Bordeaux and nothing remarkable for white, but 1920 was good for both, and that the last time Harrow beat Eton was in 1908. It is a refined and allusive way of satisfying the same need that is met by chewing gum, and it does no harm. (Loc 4297)

Nor does West refrain from droll allusions to sex!

She would not be afraid of those embraces which had so often reminded her, as she lay submerged in their tossing darkness, of the backgrounds of Delacroix’s vaster pictures, of crimson curtains hanging from huge marble pillars whose capitals were lost in rich opacity, of stacked lances and jewelled and hieratic helmets, of immense fruits and iridescent serpents. (Loc 4238)

But she is occasionally romantic too:

“Well,” he said, “I thought we might go down into the town and choose a present for you, just to mark your homecoming. Something from Carrier’s, I thought.”

“Oh, my darling, how lovely!” cried Isabelle. “You know how greedy I am, and it is so pleasant to come back to all those town-things after all that milk and white enamel in the clinics.” She said to herself, “It is not going to be quite so easy to forget, after all.” Then she cried out, alarmed in case she had betrayed her thought, “But why are you looking so miserable, Marc? What has suddenly come into your head?”

“Only that I have done my best, and it is not good enough,” he said.

“What do you mean? It is a charming idea, and I am delighted.”

“No, that is not the point,” he said. “The point is that what I am offering you costs only money, and I have plenty of that. Whatever you choose, I will hardly feel it. I wish I could give you something that meant I must scrape and save and go without sleep to pay for it. That would be a real present. But that’s the one thing I can’t afford to give you.”  (Loc 4064)

Romance between a husband and wife… and the satisfactions of marriage!  The Thinking Reed turned out to be much more than I had thought it would be.
(PS Some readers may remember that Australian polymath and former politician Barry Jones published his autobiography A Thinking Reed some years ago.  Alas, it’s still on the NF-TBR, where it’s been since he autographed it for me at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival in 2006. I’ll get to it one day, though I doubt it will be as wickedly funny as Rebecca West’s.)

Author: Rebecca West
Title: The Thinking Reed
Publisher: Open Road Media, 2010, first published 1936
Purchased from Amazon for the Kindle.

Image credits:

1st edition hardback cover: The Thinking Reed by Rebecca – Pseud. Of Cicily Andrews WEST – First Edition – 1936 – from Alphabet Bookshop (ABAC/ILAB (SKU: 8607) (

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2021

Doctor Pascal, by Émile Zola, translated by Julie Rose

It was a disappointment when, back in 2016 when I read the last of Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart series, Doctor Pascal was not available in a modern translation. I ended up reading a 2012 Virago Press Kindle edition which was translated in 1898 by Mary Jane Serrano (c. 1840 – 1923).  Serrano was primarily a translator of Spanish but she also translated from French and Portuguese, and I read her translation in preference to the 1894 edition translated by Ernest Vizetelly or the Elek edition translated by Vladimir Kean in 1957.  It really is quite remarkable that it has taken so long for a modern translation to become available but Oxford World’s Classics has at last completed its project to publish the entire Rougon-Macquart series in modern translations, and Doctor Pascal is now available translated by Julie Rose with an accompanying introduction and notes by Brian Nelson.

Australian Julie Rose is a world-renowned translator of French literature.  She is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres and has translated Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, as well as works by Dumas, Moliere, Racine, and Marguerite Duras.  (See Australians lead the way in French translation (  You can see the difference in style from Serrano in this excerpt:

Ah, those abominable papers! she saw them at night, in her nightmares, revealing in letters of fire, the true histories, the physiological blemishes of the family, all that wrong side of her glory which she would have wished to bury forever with the ancestors already dead! She knew how it was that the doctor had conceived the idea of collecting these documents at the beginning of his great studies on heredity; how he had found himself led to take his own family as an example, struck by the typical cases which he saw in it, and which helped to support laws discovered by him. Was it not a perfectly natural field of observation, close at hand and with which he was thoroughly familiar? And with the fine, careless justness of the scientist, he had been accumulating for the last thirty years the most private data, collecting and classifying everything, raising this genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquarts, of which the voluminous papers, crammed full of proofs, were only the commentary.    (Doctor Pascal, translated by Mary Jane Serrano, 1898, Chapter 1, Kindle Location 204) Ah! She saw those abominable files, at night, in her nightmares, setting out in letters of fire the true stories, the physiological defects of the family, the whole seamy side of its glory that she would have liked to bury once and for all, along with the ancestors already dead! She knew how the doctor had got the idea of putting those documents together when he first embarked on his great studies on heredity, how he’d been led to take his own family as an example, struck by the recurring cases he noted in it and which supported the laws he’d discovered. Wasn’t it a perfectly natural field of observation, one right there in front of him, which he knew all about firsthand? And with the robust disinterestedness of a scientist, he had spent the last thirty years accumulating the most intimate information on his nearest and dearest, gathering and classifying everything, drawing up this Rougon-Maquart Family Tree, of which the voluminous files were merely a commentary, stuffed with proofs. (Doctor Pascal, translated by Julie Rose, 2020, Chapter 1, p.16-17

Likewise, you can see how much more readable the modern translation is in this excerpt from Chapter 2.

… Dr. Pascal had only one belief—the belief in life. Life was the only divine manifestation. Life was God, the grand motor, the soul of the universe. And life had no other instrument than heredity; heredity made the world; so that if its laws could be known  and directed, the world could be made to one’s will.  In him, to whom sickness, suffering and death had been a familiar sight, the militant pity of the physician awoke.  Ah! to have no more sickness. no more suffering, as little death as possible! His dream ended in this thought  – that universal happiness, the future community of perfection and felicity, could be hastened by intervention, by giving health to all.  (Doctor Pascal, translated by Mary Jane Serrano, 1898, Chapter 2, Kindle Location 457) … Doctor Pascal had only one belief: the belief in life.  Life was the sole manifestation of the divine.  Life was God, the great engine, the soul of the universe. And life had no instrument other than heredity, heredity made the world; which meant that, if you could only understand it, harness it so as to control it, you could make the world however you liked. Because he’d seen sickness and suffering up close, a doctor’s militant compassion was stirring inside him.  Ah, to stop people getting sick, stop suffering , to keep people alive as much as possible.  His dream ended in the thought that you could spur on universal happiness, the future city of perfection and bliss, by intervening and ensuring health for all.  (Doctor Pascal, translated by Julie Rose, 2020, Chapter 1, p.16-17

But, as I have said so many times before when lauding this OUP series, it is not only that the new translations don’t betray Zola’s work with self-censoring excisions and abridgements or inaccuracies.  It is not only that contemporary translations avoid the florid prose of the 19th century Vizitelly editions or the dated expressions in the Elek editions.  The OUP series all come with introductions that set the series and the individual title in context.  Brian Nelson, Professor Emeritus of French Studies at Monash University and  author of, amongst other works of literary criticism, Émile Zola a Very Short Introduction (2020) has done eleven of these introductions and I credit the one he wrote for The Ladies Paradise as the catalyst for my entire Zola Project.

The introduction for Doctor Pascal introduces Zola as

…the quintessential novelist of modernity, understood as a time of tumultuous change.  The motor of change was the rapid growth of capitalism, with all that it entailed in terms of the transformation of the city, new forms of social practice and economic organisation,  and heightened political pressures. Zola was fascinated by change, and specifically by the emergence of a new mass society. (p.vii)

For those entirely new to Zola, the Introduction explains how the three branches of the Rougon-Macquart family represent layers of society in 19th century France, and how the series as a whole is an assault on bourgeois morality and institutions.  Zola was above all else, committed to the value of ‘truth’ in art and his belief that the writer must play a social role:

to represent the sorts of things—industrialisation, the growth of the city, the birth of consumer culture, the workings of the financial system, the misdeeds of government, crime, poverty, prostitution—that affect ordinary people in their daily lives.  (p.vii)

I can think of no living writer doing the same thing to the extent that Zola did.

If you’re not familiar with Doctor Pascal you can read my review to get a grasp of the novel, but to understand its place in the series you need to read Nelson’s explanation of the climate of ideas in France in the mid- and late nineteenth century.  Over the course of his career Zola weathered changes in the intellectual climate, from the middle decades of the 19th century when science not only acquired enormous intellectual prestige as the principal, or even the sole, model for the creation of true knowledge, to a reaction against it.  The entire Rougon-Macquart series is predicated on Zola’s belief in a ‘scientific’ form of realism which he called ‘naturalism’.  His characters act the way they do because they inherit behaviours from the inexorable laws of their physical nature.  So Doctor Pascal aims to counter the emerging distrust of science and the growing mood of pessimism during the fin de siècle.  

It’s also a very personal novel because it transposes intimate aspects of Zola’s own life.  Pascal, he says, is a surrogate of of Zola. 

Pascal may thus be seen as Zola’s double in philosophical, writerly and autobiographical terms.

Most importantly, Zola wanted to respond to critics who dismissed his work as morbid because of its dark themes.  He wanted to demonstrate his essential optimism, i.e.  a myth of catastrophe is opposed by a myth of hope. 

The translator’s note clarifies how much I missed by reading an earlier translation.  (I’ve pruned this a little to avoid spoilers.)

Both Serrano and Vizetelly cut sexual material from the text.[…] Yet even Kean, cutting nothing and writing with such uninhibited modernity, can be censorious, as when he described the doctor’s ‘sordid escapades with the first loose women he met’ in Marseilles, adding the adjectives ‘sordid’ and ‘loose’ and thereby providing a judgement Zola carefully refrains from making.  (p. xxii)

In my previous reading of Doctor Pascal, I had missed entirely a significant aspect of the relationship between MaÎtre Pascal and his disciple Clotilde.

Julie Rose thanks Judith Luna as the guiding spirit of the Zola retranslation program for Oxford’s World’s Classics, and I do too.   It’s a different book when it’s translated for our times.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Doctor Pascal
Translated by Julie Rose (2020)
Introduction and Notes by Brian Nelson (2020)
Cover illustration: detail from Sous la lampe, 1887, by Marie Bracquemond
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, OUP (Oxford University Press), 2020, first published in 1893,
ISBN: 9780198746164, pbk., 296 pages (not including the Explanatory Notes at the back of the book)
Source: Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Cross-posted at The Books of Émile Zola


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 9, 2021

Incantations, by Subhash Jaireth

Incantations is such a perfect accompaniment to a trip to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, I hope they have it on sale in their bookshop.  (If they do, Sue from Whispering Gums will be buying it.  We know from reading her blog that she gives books as thoughtfully chosen presents, and IMO it’s a safe bet that this one will be on her shopping list for some lucky person.)

Readers may remember one of my favourite books from last year was by the same author: Spinoza’s Overcoat, Travels with Writers and poets by Subhash Jaireth… well, Incantations is a book in a similar vein.  It’s a series of short meditations on artworks, most of which are portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, each one accompanied by a full copy reproduction of the work in question.  Many of them are portraits of writers, so of course I liked those ones best.

But lest you think I am too utterly predictable, I’m going to start with the first portrait, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (2009) by Guy Maestri.  Take a look at it here. Subhash titles his thoughts about this portrait ‘Melancholy, and it begins like this:

Melancholy.  It is all about the eyes.  Their absence, in fact.  The face hides them, unwilling to reveal them.  This reluctance makes their presence even more immediate; more urgent.  I am drawn to them; look for them.  But they are hidden, enclosed underneath the canopy of ridges, donning the thin eyebrows.  The eyes concealed in cave-like sockets.

Painted with thin washes of oil and glazed patiently, the portrait emits light, which is muted and borrowed from the light falling on it. (p.3)

These words encourage to reader to look carefully at the portrait, to linger over the way light illuminates it.  To consider the way melancholy drips off the painted linen like drops of dense dark honey. 

As I read my way through the book I began to think about the ways portraitists convey the identity of the sitter, and came back to this portrait.  The head-and-neck portrait fills the whole space and there is nothing to indicate that Gurrumul had one of the most beautiful voices ever recorded.  I like this artist’s confidence that we know this without needing to be told. And I like the colour palette, which like Evert Ploeg‘s portrait of Deborah Mailman (1999) signifies the relationship that Indigenous people have with the land.  The piece about the Mailman portrait is aptly called ‘Luminous’ and I like the way Subhash’s powerful words draw attention to symbols we might otherwise miss:

The hessian canvas comes from bales of wool.  It shows signs of wear and tear.  Its rough surface is stained and holed but some letters and numbers stencilled on it have survived.  They sit together with other letters and words painted by the artist.  DM is one of them, as is the word CLASS, inverted and pushed behind Mailman’s right arm.  Not far from her right shoulder, just above the six figure number, is a tiny map of Australia, stencilled in black.  It is so small that it can be easily missed, but when the eyes start looking at the numbers, it shows itself immediately.  ‘Made in Australia’ it says, and as soon as these words are uttered, history pours out of the painting.  (p.8)

Skipping ahead to the portraits of authors, I am spellbound by the one of Stella Bowen whose autobiography I read last year.  Amanda Curtin had lent me her copy which had reproductions of Bowen’s paintings including self-portraits, but I hadn’t seen the one reproduced in Incantations.  Self-portraits are fascinating because they aren’t really about capturing a likeness:

It’s a self-portrait after all, painted to examine the shape of her being.  Therefore, to capture the likeness wasn’t her main concern.  She wanted to go beyond it; to penetrate the veil of her appearance.  She wanted to find out what others saw when they looked at her, and if possible, affect their look: to make them see what she herself saw.  (p.30)

Once again, the portrait doesn’t allude to the sitter’s profession.  But nor does it interfere with what we know.  Which is why I was so surprised by Jeffrey Smart’s portrait of David Malouf (1980). It’s bizarre: Malouf is in overalls, working at a gas station.  But I’m not happy either with Robert Hannaford’s portrait of Robert Dessaix (1998), and Subhash is discontented too.  Hannaford hasn’t captured the cheeky naughtiness that characterises Dessaix, who Subhash tells us is a master trickster who knows how to have fun at the expense of his or his interlocutor’s literariness.  The portrait doesn’t capture the author’s love of books and travel, and there’s an irrelevant pot of glue on the table next to him.  So not all of the artworks are ones that Subhash finds successful.  But they are all works that he wants to respond to, with carefully chosen words that encourage the reader to look closely and to respond as well.

My favourite of them all is Jenny Sages’ portrait of Irina Baranova (Handing the baton) (2007).  Her career in ballet is cleverly alluded to: she faces the viewer, and her shoulders are covered in everyday wear, but she is in conversation with a much younger ballerina.  We do not see that face, but we know she is a ballerina because we can see the fine straps of her bodice.  Subhash meditates on what he thinks she might be saying, but I’m more entranced by her eyes, her dignity and her authority.

It’s from Subhash’s ‘incantations’ that I have learned to look more closely at these portraits to enjoy them in my own way.

Highly recommended.

Author: Subhash Jaireth
Title: Incantations
Publisher: Recent Work Press, 2016
Cover images are details from artworks in the book.
ISBN: 9780994456557, pbk, 113 pages

Available from the NLA Library Bookshop

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 8, 2021

A Million Aunties, by Alecia McKenzie

So Chris start telling him bout all the museum-dem, while I listening with one ear.  I glad to see Chris looking more relax.  I worry about him the same way I feel for Stephen.  Like we is family.  And I thinking: Look at me who never have nobody.  And yet all of us here like we on some big family reunion trip. (p.179)

This ‘family’ is in Paris, exploring the treasures of its art collections.  There are nine in the group, connected by love and affection rather than biology, and each of them in one way or another is transcending some personal pain.

The catalyst for the trip is Chris’s casual remark at a dinner in New York.  The blockbuster Monet exhibition had just opened at MOMA, when he said ‘I might stop over in France and visit the Monet museums before I go to Italy.’  The trip to Italy is to see Lidia’s parents—Chris hasn’t seen them since Lidia, his wife, was blown up in a terrorist attack.

His good friend and agent and fix-it man Stephen has been the catalyst for Chris’s journey to healing.  He organises for Chris to go home to Jamaica, where he stays with Miss Della.  She could use a little extra money to repair her house which, like all the others in the street, has been damaged by the landslide.  Nurtured by comfort food and a light-filled room in which to paint, Chris finds Miss Della’s love of plants infectious and although he has never been any good at painting flowers, he begins to do so, in homage to Lidia who was a landscape gardener of public spaces in New York.

Successive chapters are narrated by different characters, each of whom has a story to tell.  A story of damage and endurance, and a journey towards acceptance and healing.  Reading this just after Noreena Hertz’s The Lonely Century is like balm to the soul.  There’s not a whiff of Pollyanna in A Million Aunties but the novel asserts that all kinds of grief can be assuaged by the love and affection of others.  And that families don’t need to be connected biologically: it’s the love and affection that counts.

There’s no pretence that forgiveness is easy.  Chris is admiring the stained-glass windows and paintings in the cathedral of Sainte-Clotilde in the 7th arrondissement when he observes a man come in to pray.  He turns away to give the man privacy, but they strike up a conversation outside on the steps.

‘I haven’t seen you here before.’ The man’s English was near perfect.  ‘Are you a member of the church?’
‘No, I’m just visiting.’
‘You’re American?’
‘Sort of. Citizen of Earth. Terrien.’
‘So, you’re religious?’
‘Not really,’ Chris said.  What was his religion?  Maybe art.
‘Me neither,’ the man told him.  ‘But it makes me feel better to come here.  I pray to get rid of the hate.’
His words surprised Chris.
‘My son.  He was gay.  They beat him up in a bar, just for that.  He died five months ago.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Chris said.  Did he have the kind of face that people needed to tell him these things?
‘So I pray for them.  And for me and my wife.  She’s still very, very angry, and it’s killing her.’
‘I hope they go to jail,’ Chris said.
‘Yes.  They will spend a long time in prison.  But it won’t bring my son back.  And we have to go on.  We have to try to understand why people do terrible things.’ (p.177)

Chris isn’t ready to try to understand.  Miss Pretty is too damaged ever to resume a normal life.  But Paul, who lost his wife and child in a country where there were rivers of blood and terrible things could be done with a machete, finds solace in carving their likeness in trees brought down in a hurricane.  Miss Vera, who notes that when a husband dies there are mourning rituals that bring some consolation but there is no equivalent ritual for when a husband abandons his wife for a new one, understands that people are admiring Paul even though they don’t know what to say.  And sometimes they say what they are feeling in unexpected ways:

…But when man run off with other woman, what is there to say, really? Him gone to a better place? The angels taking care of him?  Him in heaven now?

Still, when I put fire to all him clothes and things in the backyard, people come to look, like them doing now with the tree-dem.  And is after that that Miss Della did bring me the dry-up plant.  And she say to me, I always cutting off the bad parts of mi plants and burning them, and the next thing I know, the plant putting out new leaves and blossoms like nobody’s business, and thriving.  When she say that, I did just nod mi head. (p.154)

A Million Aunties is like the way I imagine a grandmother’s wise stories would be.

Thanks to Amanda Curtin for bringing this book to my attention.

Author: Alecia McKenzie
Title: A Million Aunties
Publisher: Blouse & Skirt Books (Blue Banyan Books, Jamaica) and Akashic Books New York, 2020
Cover design by Ion Communications
ISBN: 9781617758928, pbk., 196 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 8, 2021

The Performance, by Claire Thomas

Until today, I had never heard of theatre-fiction.  It’s a genre of fiction that

… refers to novels and short-stories that focus on theatre. Characters often include actors, playwrights, directors, prompters, understudies, set designers, critics, or casting agents. Common settings may include theatre auditoriums, dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces, or other places in which theatre is created and performed. Theatre-fiction may engage with and represent many different varieties of theatre, from performances of Shakespearean tragedy to Kabuki theatre to pantomime or marionette shows. (Wikipedia)

So Actress, by Anne Enright, which I read and reviewed last year, is a piece of theatre-fiction. I’m sure we can think of other examples, yes?

That definition, however, omits the most crucial element of theatre—the audience!  Well, now we have a novel focussed on the theatre audience…

The Performance, the second novel of Melbourne author Claire Thomas, explores the preoccupations of three generations of women watching a performance of Beckett’s play, Happy Days (1961).  (Which is not a happy play at all.  You don’t need to know anything about this play to enjoy the novel, but you may find it interesting to visit Wikipedia’s page about it.)

The three women watching the performance in the intimacy of the theatre are:

  • Margot, a successful professor of literature, who is fending off pressure for her to retire to make room for younger academics.  She loves her work and takes pride in remembering all her students so she has no intention of being moved on.  But life is becoming difficult: her husband of many years has dementia and he has started hitting her. She’s been hiding the bruises with long sleeves, but it’s 40° in Melbourne on this stifling summer night, and she’s worn a sleeveless dress, expecting that within the anonymity of the theatre, no one will pay any attention to her.
  • Ivy, a wealthy philanthropist, who is watching with a friend of hers.  She’s been given two free tickets that she could easily afford to buy, and will be attending a function afterwards at which she and other philanthropists will be charmed into granting the theatre some of her money.  She is more alert to the nuances of this charade than one might expect: she actually had a very deprived childhood and came by her wealth through a fortuitous inheritance that she was not expecting at all.
  • Summer, an usher, who is working to pay her way through her drama course.  The perk of the job is that she gets to see drama for free, but she nearly always misses the first act because she has to stay outside to deal with the latecomers.  Tonight, however, her anxiety overwhelms her: her partner April has parents up in the hills on the urban fringe, where the bushfires are burning out of control.  She knows April will want to help her parents, and she is frantic because she doesn’t know where April is right now.

All three of these women respond to moments of dialogue in the play with their own preoccupations.  Winnie, marooned on stage in a mound of earth up to her waist, prattles to her taciturn husband Willie as she works her way through her daily routine,  She takes items out of her capacious handbag, which are aides-mémoire to her life.  But life, like the mound of earth that constricts her, is closing in, and she will be buried up to her neck after the interval, so Winnie has to work hard to maintain her optimism with poignant references to happy times in the past.  This dialogue impacts on the audience in different ways, triggering thoughts and memories both banal and significant.

Margot, for example, muses about her own body when Winnie puts aside her hairbrush and spectacles, saying Old things. Old eyes.

She is pleased she hasn’t lost her ankles, that they haven’t thickened with age.  Thin ankles are a high-quality feature for the young and old.  Combined with shapely calves and slim knees, her legs were finely turned, as John [her husband] used to say.  (p.18)

But like the play itself and its meanings deeper than Winnie’s chatter, the musings of these three women have more significance than mere contemplation of ankles. Margot is also worried about her work, her husband, and her relationship with her adult son.  Ivy reflects on a traumatic incident in her earlier life and the joys and satisfactions of late motherhood.  She’s also concerned about whether the philanthropic choices she makes are the right ones.  After an awkward encounter during the interval, she reflects on the appropriateness of her own behaviour and her assumptions about people.  And on this night Summer will also have an unexpected reminder of her uncertain identity.  Her mother won’t discuss who her father was, but the colour of her own skin tells her that he wasn’t white.

I wanted to like this book more than I did.  The structure is clever, especially the artful insertion of a play script for the period of the interval, and the resonances with the Beckett play are thoughtful and sometimes wise.  But I felt vaguely discontented by another book about the interior lives of women.  This was encapsulated for me in Ivy’s thoughts about a school reunion:

…Ivy was horrified by the middle-agedness of her former classmates.  There was a woman who had been intimidatingly hip at school, and Ivy only recognised her because of the name tag she had on her chest.  Her face had fallen into hound-like dewlaps and there were sun splotches and creases all over her décolletage. She had lank boring hair and was (un-ironically) dressed in an unflattering long-sleeved blouse with bad jeans.  Very bad jeans.  And there was an inflection in her voice that was almost satirically pompous.  Ivy felt angry with her for ageing so badly.  Did you have to become so daggy? she wanted to say.  I’m very disappointed. (p.272)

I can do without the interior thoughts of women like this. I found myself liking a daggy woman who had learned that women being preoccupied with their appearance and judging that of others is stupid.

The Performance was also reviewed at The Guardian.

Author: Claire Thomas
Title: The Performance
Cover design by Alissa Dinallo
Publisher: Hachette, 2021
ISBN: 9780733644542, pbk., 292 pages
Source: Kingston Library



Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2021

The Lonely Century, by Noreena Hertz

Readers may remember that the recent Adelaide Writers Week program featured a session with the economist Noreena Hertz, discussing her book The Lonely Century and I reported on the session here.  It was such an interesting session that I reserved the book at the library and have just finished reading it.

Having ‘attended’ the session, I was familiar with the theme of the book and the propositions that it makes, and I won’t revisit that now since you can read my report, but the book was worth reading in its entirety for the additional detail.  It confirms that the book is not a piece of ‘pop’ psychology— it’s meticulously researched and cogently argued, and it also revealed to me that some of the more alarming manifestations of loneliness are not, as I had thought,  projections into the future, but are happening now.  In addition to the worrying connections between political extremism, conspiracy theories and loneliness, there’s discussion of research that shows that people are more aggressive and hostile when they are lonely because they put up a protective shell that denies the need for human warmth and company.  What is most troubling about this, is that the same research shows that visual cortex of these people is stimulated by the suffering of others.  They react to suffering more quickly, but with attention, not with compassion.  So next time the media reports on some unconscionable crime committed against a helpless victim, and you wonder as I have how could they do such a thing? consider that the offender’s brain doesn’t work the way that mine and yours does.

Not every lonely person, of course, is an affront to our sense of common decency.  The Lonely Century offers more detail about the economic costs of loneliness (billions) because of its demonstrable impact on health and wellbeing. What the book suggests is that our response to this should be to make renewed efforts to connect with the people around us.

The lonely mind acts in self-preservation, on the alert for threats rather than trying to see things from others’ point-of-view.  It also affects how we categorise the world: lonely people see the neighbourhood as unfriendly whereas the non-lonely in the same neighbourhood don’t.  When lonely people see their environment as threatening and non-caring, they have diminished empathy. That’s bad for democracy because democracy requires that different views be reconciled as it tries to meet the needs of all citizens.  Democracy needs people to be connected to the state and to each other.

When these bonds of connectivity break down; when people feel they can’t trust or rely upon each other and are disconnected, whether emotionally, economically, socially or culturally; when people don’t believe the state is looking out for them and feel marginalised or abandoned, not only does society fracture and polarise, but people lose faith in politics itself. (p.35)

Hertz has more to say about how neo-liberalism and the mantras of ‘every man for himself’ have contributed to the loneliness problem that we have.  But it derives from a perfect storm of causes, not just economic but also cultural, societal, and technological.  There’s a chapter about ‘solutions’ which use technology but mostly, they made me feel ill.  I remember when there were proposals to use robots to deliver meals in Australian aged care homes and there was outrage because people understood that for residents too frail to join others in the dining room, that person-to-person contact with a human being was crucial to mitigate the loneliness of their days.  So how do we feel about a Japanese trial of a robot friend (in concept, not unlike the one in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun) to help solve the loneliness problem of its elderly people?  (Japan has the world’s oldest population).  The PaPeRo (partner-type personal robot) uses facial recognition technology to interact with humans, and offers greetings and reminders and makes expressive gestures.  (You can see a video of how it works here). When I think of the world’s refugee problem, I can’t help but think that Japan would do better to open its ultra-restrictive immigration policy and bring young people in to solve their problem instead of wasting money and expertise on a solution as cruel and heartless as this.

And if you think this is bizarre, the top-of-the-range sex robots apparently lead the way…

(*chuckle* No, I did not do a Google search to find one!)

The chapter titled ‘The Solitary City’ acknowledged that the sense of desertion and utter loneliness of a city like London was recognised back in the 19th century by Thomas De Quincy.  But what’s different now (confirmed by shocking statistics about pervasive loneliness in the 21st century city) is the image of a rude, self-absorbed urbanite.  It’s not a stereotype.  People feel they can get away with things because anonymity breeds hostility and carelessness and the modern city is an anonymous place.  The urban privacy that people value comes at a cost, as people found during Lockdown.  People in apartments were much worse off than people in the suburbs where community thrives, and the book includes examples of architecture and design features that are hostile to people getting together.

People move faster in cities, with less time to connect even over the purchase of a coffee, and they change addresses more often, this rootlessness contributing to the problem.  Living alone is often a lifestyle choice based on a desire for independence and economic self-sufficiency, but the risk of loneliness is high.  Eating single-portion meals can feel very lonely indeed. (There’s a TV program in Japan that screens other people eating, creating the illusion that viewers are not eating their own meals alone.  I kid you not).

But there’s more to this than just how individuals feel.  Being with others, accepting differences, resolving issues, and co-existing is part of honing pro-social democratic instincts. 

For whether it is discussing, deliberating, or indeed learning how to respectfully disagree with your housemates or neighbours or partner, all these are important skills we need to practise if we are to learn one of the key tenets of inclusive democracy: that sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the greater good. (p.69)

The chapter about modern work practices was illuminating.  I knew already, for example, that work at places like Amazon is soul-destroying and stressful, but I had not realised that the constant monitoring of productivity meant that people could not even have a chat on a toilet break.  If that chat doesn’t happen at work—how’s your family, did your footy team win, what did you do on the weekend— for some people, it doesn’t happen at all.  The constant rating of performance which is so annoying for consumers is dreadful for workers: the age of surveillance capitalism is different to previous forms of employee monitoring because of its extent, the levels of intrusiveness and because decision-making has been ceded to machines.  (There are even systems which monitor workers in their own homes, maintaining surveillance on the number of key-strokes and the use of apps.)  The digitisation of the workplace means that emails are transactional not conversational, and for many, the longer commute, #MeToo, and the end of communal lunch spaces and opportunities for informal socialising means that there are few opportunities for meaningful cooperation and collaboration.  Add in longer working hours, and families are the losers.

There’s a whole loneliness economy which exists to bring people together. Commercial communities include music, writers and craft festivals; cross-fit groups and even author talks and late night shopping. But because these things cost money, and can sometimes be very expensive, there’s a risk of exclusivity.  Hertz says you can’t buy community, you have to make it, and you have to have leadership that encourages people to want to do things together.

There’s more about the omnipresence and omnipotence of the Smartphone and its destructive effects of screens on our relationships.  But we have to realise that relying on individuals to make sensible decisions about something that’s doing them harm is not enough.  Governments, business and individuals, Hertz says, need to wake up to the costs of loneliness.  It’s costing billions and posing a potent threat to tolerant and inclusive democracy. 

Author: Noreena Hertz
Title: the Lonely Century, Coming Together in a World that’s Pulling Apart
Publisher: Sceptre, (Hodder and Stoughton), 2020
ISBN: 9781529329261, pbk., 394 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 4, 2021

Death of a Coast Watcher, by Anthony English

One of the pleasures of a blog like mine is that sometimes there is an opportunity to introduce a really fine work of fiction to readers who might otherwise never get to hear about it.  The debut novel Death of a Coast Watcher by Australian author Anthony English has been positively reviewed by The Asian Review of Books but it’s published by a small indie publisher in the UK which doesn’t have much exposure here in Australia.

This is the blurb:

In 1943 on Bougainville Island, New Guinea, a Japanese officer beheads Hugh Rand, an Australian spy — a coast watcher. The spectators include villagers he terrorised as his mind frayed under the stress of pursuit by soldiers and their hounds. Rand’s influence transcends his death. For decades he plagues characters who strive to cope with him and one another in New Guinea, the Gilbert Islands, Australia and Japan. Who misperceives? Lies? Self-destructs? Suffers? Loves? The layers unfold as the author entices us through cultural, historical and intellectual curtains, deep into minds and relationships disturbed by the Pacific war and Rand’s legacy.

And this is the video (which I like because of the music):

What kind of man is willing to be despatched from Australia onto an island occupied by the Japanese in WW2, where the local people are possibly more loyal to the Japanese than to Australia? Australia had held the mandate for the Territory of New Guinea since the defeat of Germany in WW1 but there was no certainty that the locals were willing to risk their lives to enable an Australian coast-watcher to send radio reports about Japanese troop movements.

Such a man must surely be brave, and so he is in the shocking first chapter of Death of a Coast Watcher.  Hugh Rand, formerly a colonial administrator on New Ireland but now landed covertly on Bougainville to monitor Japanese activity, initially arouses the reader’s admiration for his courage under Japanese torture and for the manner of his beheading. Very soon, however,  the reader is trapped into confronting a back story that shows him to be cruel, violent, racist and misogynistic.  Charlotte Millar, whose husband in the 1970s is obsessed with Rand’s story, reads a witness account and comes to this conclusion:

From Bos’s encounters with him and her description of the execution, including the dynamics of the severed head, Charlotte now discerned a shortish, awkward man with sandy hair; his distinctive clothing tattered and stained; awful injuries and much blood.  No voice or face but aspects of his individuality rammed into her brain, where he registered pride, intelligence, fortitude, fearlessness; and the personality of a psychopath to rival the Japanese officer and his dogs. (p.183)

The power of this novel arises from the way narrators undermine the testimony that has gone before, in order to establish that, sometimes, it’s just not possible to find out what happened.  Rand’s story, narrated from a 3rd person limited point-of-view, tells us not only what he did, but also about his bizarre motivations and about his obsessive preoccupation with being in control.  An alternative story comes in 1971, from the narrative of a young Indigenous woman called Bos Simeon.  She is pressured incessantly to retrieve memories she would rather forget, and she tells a different story about Rand’s presence on Bougainville.  Peter Millar, reading Charlotte’s translation of Bos’s Pidgin English, says it could be a fabrication, and that they should read it as one of several possible stories.  What Peter doesn’t know is that Charlotte, for her own neurotic reasons, has embellished the text, and made excisions too.

On a break back in Australia Peter visits Brooksbank, Rand’s Commanding Officer, now a very old man.  He undercuts the narrative again, hinting that there’s more to the story but he won’t ever tell.  Charlotte, ever the cynic, thinks that he’s glorifying the banal with mystery.

Charlotte is a difficult character: hypercritical, jealous, demanding, racist, and unafraid to be completely obnoxious.  Ayanokoji—who she meets by chance in Japan in 1982 when she debunks from a conference because it’s tedious—wonders how her two husbands have coped with her negativity and her compulsion to say what she thought.  She is strong on logic, but her argument often cynical, with a sting in the tail.  How did they put up with her anxiety, impetuousness, and her over-analysis of others but not of herself?

But why should we trust his opinion?  He is a man who has successfully hidden shameful truths about himself from his colleagues and his wife for decades.

Death of a Coast Watcher is an artful novel that asks very difficult questions: about evil acts done by all sides in war; about mythologising false heroism; about whether atrocities should be memorialised because that might only foster ongoing hatred, and about how governments so readily abandon moral principles for strategic, economic and diplomatic reasons.   In 1971 Peter is annoyed that he has to pander to a Japanese delegation come to reclaim body parts and relics of dead combatants: he wants to tell them uncomfortable truths that are never alluded to in the Japanese curriculum, and he gets some advice from a colleague that I find intriguing, and not just in the context of this dialogue:

“Wear the gag.  Then write and publish what you want when your contract’s over.” (p.257)

It’s really hard to do justice in a review to a thought-provoking book like this one.  Highly recommended.

About the author (from the Monsoon website):

Australian author Anthony English was formerly a university lecturer in international management and prior to that a civil servant and development project manager, working in Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Previous publications include journalism and academic articles, and his non-fiction book Tug of War: The Tension Concept and the Art of International Negotiation (2010) analyses international negotiation in hostage release, diplomacy, trade and business. Death of a Coast Watcher is his first long work of fiction

Image credit: map of Bougainville, where-is-bougainville.jpg (1500×1070) (

Author: Anthony English
Title: Death of a Coast Watcher
Publisher: Monsoon Books, UK
ISBN: 9781912049707, pbk., 464 pages
Review copy courtesy of Monsoon Books, via the author

Available from Monsoon Books (£8.99, free postage in the UK), from Fishpond in Australia and New Zealand Death of a Coast Watcher $15.97 AUD.  It’s available for your Kindle as well.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2021

Baho! by Roland Rugero, translated by Chris Schaefer

Once again, a recommendation from the Johannesburg Review of Books has turned out to be excellent reading.  Baho! by Roland Rugero and beautifully translated by Chris Schaefer, is notable for being the first Burundian fiction translated into English, but there’s much more to it than that.

In 91 short pages this allegory exposes misogyny and the hypocrisy of ‘honour culture’; mob mentality and how it can be swayed by populists; othering and marginalisation; the harm caused by religion and superstition; and—although the 1990s genocide* in Burundi is never mentioned—the fragility of peace after war.

This is the blurb:

When Nyamugari, an adolescent mute, attempts to ask a young woman in rural Burundi for directions to an appropriate place to relieve himself, his gestures are mistaken as premeditation for rape. To the young woman’s community, his fleeing confirms his guilt, setting off a chain reaction of pursuit, mob justice, and Nyamugari’s attempts at explanation. Young Burundian novelist Roland Rugero’s second novel Baho!, the first Burundian novel to ever be translated into English, explores the concepts of miscommunication and justice against the backdrop of war-torn Burundi’s beautiful green hillsides.

When Nyamugari flees in dismay, his actions are interpreted as guilt, and the village is outraged. But they are not outraged on the girl’s behalf.  The men, all too busy ogling other women at the same time, are angry that she has been sullied, reducing the market value of investing in a dowry for her.  They consider that all women in the area have been defiled by this act, and that they—the men—are all affected.  These comments put me in mind of actual cases of ‘honour killing’, not just in places like the Middle East and Pakistan, but right here in Australia.

Nyamugari can’t defend himself because he is a loner.  Originally mute for psychological reasons, he was rendered physically mute by a charlatan claiming to offer surgery as a cure.  To make matters worse, a change of teacher who refused to teach someone who could not speak, meant that the boy—despite teaching himself to read and write—never has the opportunity to become part of the community, and after the death of his parents, lives only on the fringes of society.

But Nyamugari is also a handy scapegoat.  There has been a devastating drought, and there have been a number of unsolved rapes.  Mob violence escalates and superstition comes to the fore when the mob leader claims that if he is killed, it will rain.

Each chapter is prefaced by a proverb in Kirundi, such as ‘akatareste kaba gasema‘ and its translation: cursed is the one who does not heed the warning; and there’s a reminder that these proverbs derive from real life: umagani ugana akariho means ‘the proverb moulds what exists.’

There are also Kirundi words sprinkled throughout the text, always accompanied by their translations, as when Nyamugari’s mother tells him to accept what is:

Nyamuragi had a principle: never waste time explaining to others what is difficult for him to understand himself. A practice consciously cultivated.  Since his expulsion from primary school, he had scarcely tried to make himself understood.  He could communicate with gestures.  Actions such as convincing, seducing, and discussing, however, were unknown to him.  Since then he had conceived of them as futile obligations to a community that had confined him to a sub-human category since birth.

Born incomplete, he had settled for living out his inadequacy.  Just for himself.  Without making it a tragedy or a question of resisting an accursed fate.  One must not fear what is.  His mother would tell him “Ibuye riserutse ntirimena isuka,” “The pebble that peeks out of the dirt cannot split the hoe.”  As soon as a farmer sees a pebble starting to show in the ground, he stops and probes at it with his hoe, goes to the trouble of picking it up, throws it a long way off, and then calmly settles back into his labour.

What is already is: you must disregard it and continue your life in peace. (p.56)

Not all of us, of course, would agree with this advice.  It’s not always wise counsel when there’s something that needs to be changed.  And there’s a convincing argument that truth-telling is an essential ingredient in reconciliation.  But Rugero’s story is an allegory which is specific to its time in Burundi and its culture.  Needing to restore peace after the genocide that’s never mentioned in the book, Burundians, he says, need first to move on from the past.  I think that what he may be saying is that Truth and Justice Commissions or Nuremburg Trials may perhaps be better deferred for another time, when memories are not quite so raw and people are not so trigger-happy.

This is explained best in the entry for Baho! at Wikipedia

The primary allegory that Rugero utilizes in Baho! ties Nyamuragi to the natural spirit of Burundi that is trying to live on despite the country’s past. However, due to the violence instilled in the people, simple misunderstandings are brought to nearly kill the boy.

The many themes elicited in Baho! create a collection of conflicting elements that resemble the dualities that exist in current Burundian culture. As Rugero observes, Burundians are constantly striving to do better as a people, but are also quick to spite one another because of their differences. “Living in Burundi is to be constantly ready for a fight…” To Rugero, this in itself creates another duality in how the outside world views Burundi, as many observe Burundians to be entirely peace loving at face value.

This message is reinforced by the work’s title, which translates as a command to “live”, referring to Burundi’s need to move past its violence and distrust and just live peacefully into the future.

It appears from what I’ve read at Wikipedia, that the UN has done some good work in establishing power-sharing among the warring groups  and the peace is so far holding.

* There was not just one genocide in Burundi.

Bouts of ethnic cleansing and ultimately two civil wars and genocides during the 1970s and again in the 1990s resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and left the economy undeveloped and the population as one of the world’s poorest. (Burundi – Wikipedia)

Author: Roland Rugero
Title: Baho!
Publisher: Phoneme Media, 2016, first published 2012
ISBN: 9781939419620, pbk., 91 pages
Source: personal library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2021

Six Degrees of Separation: from Shuggie Bain, to…

This month’s #6Degrees starts with the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart.  Just this week I read a review of this which compared it to a thinly disguised misery memoir, evoking memories of Angela’s Ashes.

Maybe there is more to it than that… surely it must be a wonderful book to have edged out The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste? I am loving the books coming from Africa at the moment… Maaza Mengiste is from Ethiopia, but I’ve also come across authors from other countries in Africa who are writing in a similar vein… using historical fiction to rewrite the colonial history of Africa from oral histories passed down in tandem with, but unrecognised by the written record.  These stories feature strong, powerful people, (especially women) who transcend victimhood.

She Would Be King, by Wayétu Moore is a story of Liberia, and features a strong female lead in Gbessa, and—prompted by the search results in the image library in my WordPress account—that takes me to the short story The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling.  Yes, that’s ironic indeed.  Kipling was The Great Imperialist, widely admired as a writer in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and then despised in the era of decolonisation.  He was the first English language winner of the Nobel Prize in 1907, “in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author.”

But Kipling was also a father, one who surely came to rue his scorn for ‘shirkers’ which led to sacrificing his only son John to the Great War, wangling a commission for him despite his poor eyesight.  John died on his first day in the trenches, at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, at the age  of18.  In a poem written after the war, Kipling wrote “If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied.” (See Epitaphs of the War, at The Poetry Foundation).

There are so many books written about war, occupation and its aftermath: I’ve reviewed 166 books in this category, and still they keep coming.  The most recent one I read was The Invisible Land by the late Hubert Mingarelli set during the Occupation of postwar Germany and exploring how dehumanisation can take hold, and I’m currently finishing off a review of Baho! by Roland Rugero, translated by Chris Schaefer which is set in postwar Burundi after the genocide.  It shows the fragility of peace after war, and how the years of violence can erupt over simple misunderstandings.

Thinking of misunderstandings… for the forthcoming 1936 Club at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings co-hosted with Simon at Stuck in a Book, I’m reading Rebecca West’s The Thinking Reed. It is, as Wikipedia says, about the corrupting influence of wealth even on originally decent people, but this critique is also an amusing analysis of the ways in which human beings deceive themselves and one another with misunderstandings that are not simple at all.

I’m also reading The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz (see my report of the author in conversation at the Adelaide Writers Week) in which she unpacks the misunderstandings that arise in the digital world because we cannot ‘read’ the facial and expressions and body language of those with whom we interact.

As usual, I’m reading too many books at once!

Next month’s starter book is Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary.

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

It’s not often that we get to read a new novel by a living winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  This is partly because most laureates, by the time they win, are getting on a bit; partly because the judges have a fondness for poetry; and partly because we often have to wait for translations of novels written in other languages.   At the time of writing this, the living Nobel laureates who write novels are Patrick Modiano, who won in 2014; Mario Vargas Llosa (2010); J. M. G. Le Clézio (2008); Orhan Pamuk (2006); J M Coetzee (2003); and Kenzaburō Ōe (1994).

So Klara and the Sun, the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, is cause for some excitement, and it’s well-deserved.  It’s a remarkable book.


Ishiguro’s preoccupation with a future that is already with us continues.  Never Let Me Go (2005) explored the idea of creating clones to use for their body parts, when already we know that some parents conceive children so that they can harvest bone marrow or ‘spare parts’ such as kidneys for a child already born.  (Jodi Picoult wrote about this in her novel My Sister’s Keeper in 2004).  There are also reports that body parts are harvested unethically in some countries: China reportedly takes body parts from convicted criminals, and people living in extreme poverty in India are reduced to selling theirs.

In Never Let Me Go, the clones were not fully human, but seemed so.  They were kept together until their body parts were needed and they formed asexual relationships with each other.  The narrator spoke in a curiously flat, detached tone, but she became real to the reader and so her inevitable ending was distressing.  Klara and the Sun OTOH envisages a world where the genetic enhancement of children is widespread, and where privileged adolescents with no real friends of their own, can have an AF, a ‘friend’ created with AI, artificial intelligence. These AFs are very sophisticated creations: they have the ability to ‘learn’ their human friend and while they are programmed always to put the interests of the human first, they also have the ability to weigh alternatives and to make judgments.  Once purchased, they become part of the household… though to what extent depends a great deal.

As it turns out Josie does have a human friend—Rick, who lives next door—but he is socially disadvantaged. Ishiguro reveals this carefully, at first letting his readers wonder why Rick is ostracised by teenagers and parents alike.  He’s different in some way that arouses prejudice, and the reader can only guess why that is, until it’s revealed that it’s because he has not been ‘lifted’.  His mother’s choice not to have him genetically modified affects all his life chances.  He will struggle to get into a university unless he can convince one of them to offer him one of the scarce places for un-lifted children because he’s exceptionally clever.

The story begins in the shop where Klara and Rosa wait for someone to buy them.  The manager soon realises that Klara has exceptional powers of observation, even though she is so limited in what she can see in her environment.  However, as the novel progresses we see that her vision is distorted, showing us, accurately, how complex vision is—how the human eye assembles what it is before it into coherent images because the human mind makes that possible.  Even these sophisticated AFs can’t replicate all the functions of the human body and mind.  What Klara ‘sees’ is an assemblage of boxes, messing up her near and distance vision.  As it turns out, it is not merely her vision that is distorted.

Josie, when she finally persuades her mother to investigate the purchase of an AF, is at pains to reassure Klara that she will be happy with them even though she is not always well.  Gradually the reader comes to understand the reason why there are few children available for real friendships…

Klara is so lifelike that the reader can’t help but empathise, but occasionally feels foolish for doing so.  (It is, after all, not unlike caring about a Siri or an Alexia.) Klara’s observations are both naïve and incisive, as when she ‘learns’ that Rick shows his other selves in certain situations.  He can be offhand, honest, sincere and guarded with her; he’s kind, confused and irritated when he’s with Josie; he’s scornful and defensive when he’s invited to an ‘interaction meeting’ designed to teach adolescents how to be with each other before they go to university; and he’s anxious, caring and angry with his mother Helen.  Klara is very clever at negotiating these different selves.

However, what Ishiguro shows so clearly is that AI is very intelligent but it only ‘learns’ what is presented to it, so its perceptions are distorted.  We all know how AI is used to track us as consumers: a Google search for a brand of car shows up in advertising on Facebook and Twitter; a search for a book at Goodreads shows up as adverts in online newspapers.  We can trick it by searching for something we would never buy, and until recently we tended not to think it was harmful because it’s only tracking just one of our selves, i.e. our selves as consumers.  Now in a post-Trump world we know that AI manipulates political choices as well, so we are not as sanguine as we were…

Klara, however, can also get things horribly wrong.  Knowing that she is solar-powered, she has translated her own dependence on the sun into a ‘belief’ that the Sun is an omnipotent, benign being.  She thinks the Sun intervenes to do good in the world, and that he can be persuaded to help in certain situations.  Ultimately, this leads to a situation where Klara recognises that self-sacrifice is required, and thus the novel asks us to consider what it is that makes us human.  Is it love?

Highly recommended.

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Title: Klara and the Sun
Cover design by Faber
Publisher: Faber, 2021
ISBN: 9780571364886
Review copy courtesy of Faber via Allen & Unwin Australia


Thanks to Readings Bookshop, I’ve just been able to enjoy an author event with Pip Adam in conversation about her novel Nothing to See with Laura Jean McKay

Readers may remember that I read and reviewed the Victoria University edition of Nothing to See, when it was released in New Zealand, and I was ecstatic when Giramondo Publishing decided to publish it here in Australia, making it less expensive for us to buy, much easier to get, and with a gorgeous new cover too.  The Giramondo edition also means that the book gets much wider exposure here.

As Pip explained, the plot is basically that two women go into an alcoholic stupor and wake up to find that they have physically split into two bodies. The session began with a reading from the first part of the novel, where the text introduces us to Peggy and Greta, and their very straitened circumstances.  This gave Pip the opportunity to talk about the characters’ pervasive preoccupation with food, about the theme of the divided self and the overarching theme of loneliness: these characters not being seen because they don’t seem to count.

The challenge is to write two characters who are one, and yet make them distinctive.  It was actually very difficult and Pip tried different ways to write it, before settling on the final version.

This was a wide-ranging—and sometimes hard to follow—conversation, so follow the link and listen to it for yourself.

1907 edition of Arsène Lupin, cover art by Pierre La Fit

The latest title selected for the book club I attend as part of my efforts to learn French, is Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Cambrioleur, (Arsène Lupin #1).  It’s a collection of short stories featuring a ‘gentleman-thief’ called Arsène Lupin, and the first one is called ‘The Arrestation d’Arsène Lupin’, which is about the arrest of the anti-hero.

I’m not keen on crime novels, and the fact that this one is written in French by the French author Maurice Leblanc (1864-1941) makes little difference to me.  The Gutenberg edition that I read features an effusive introduction by Jules Claretie of the Académie Française, in which he compares Lupin to memorable characters of the dubious variety in the fiction of Balzac, Victor Hugo and others I’ve never heard of, but I didn’t find it convincing.  If the first story is anything to go by, this is lightweight entertainment, not even remotely as ingenious as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes which preceded it by over a decade.

(Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887 with A Study in Scarlet, while Arsène Lupin doesn’t make his first appearance till 1905.)

‘The Arrestation d’Arsène Lupin’ is set aboard a transatlantic cruise ship where the narrator and his fellow-passengers are discombobulated to learn via the miracle of the wireless telegraph that the famous gentleman-thief is on board.  A coincidental thunderstorm cuts the connection so that they only know that he’s aboard, he’s blond, he has an injury to his right arm, and his name begins with the letter R.  And lo! before the storm has a chance to blow away (or the telegraph to be restored) some valuable jewels are stolen.

The narrator takes advantage of this situation to arc up his flirtation with a very wealthy young American woman to the role of detective-protector.  Between them they eliminate other passengers with the initial R, and this is not so difficult (a) because Miss Nelly is socially connected to most of them and (b) because they don’t need to bother looking beyond First Class.  The one remaining suspect, the son of a wealthy Bordeaux merchant, is not best pleased to discover that he is the object of suspicion and offers a reward to whoever identifies the real thief and/or the jewels. Nobody is convinced by this.

Well, as you can guess from the title of the story, Arsène Lupin is eventually apprehended, and as you can guess from the existence of the rest of the stories in the collection, he lives on to cause mayhem for another day.  The Big Reveal is, IMO, disappointing for its banality, but mine is a minority opinion because these stories were very popular.  Wikipedia has this to say:

Clearly created at editorial request under the influence of and in reaction to the wildly successful Sherlock Holmes stories, the roguish and glamorous Lupin was a surprise success and Leblanc’s fame and fortune beckoned. In total, Leblanc went on to write 21 Lupin novels or collections of short stories.

The character of Lupin might have been based by Leblanc on French anarchist Marius Jacob, whose trial made headlines in March 1905. It is also possible that Leblanc had also read Octave Mirbeau’s Les 21 jours d’un neurasthénique (1901), which features a gentleman thief named Arthur Lebeau, and he had seen Mirbeau’s comedy Scrupules (1902), whose main character is a gentleman thief.

By 1907, Leblanc had graduated to writing full-length Lupin novels, and the reviews and sales were so good that Leblanc effectively dedicated the rest of his career to working on the Lupin stories. Like Conan Doyle, who often appeared embarrassed or hindered by the success of Sherlock Holmes and seemed to regard his success in the field of crime fiction as a detraction from his more “respectable” literary ambitions, Leblanc also appeared to have resented Lupin’s success. Several times, he tried to create other characters, such as private eye Jim Barnett, but he eventually merged them with Lupin. He continued to pen Lupin tales well into the 1930s.

Travel is off the menu for a good while yet to come, but for those who might care to add it to their bucket lists, Leblanc’s house in Étretat, is today the museum Le clos Arsène Lupin.

Will I read the rest of these stories?  I’d rather not, mais je dois faire mes devoirs! (but I must do my homework).

Author: Maurice Leblanc
Title: Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Cambrioleur, (Arsène Lupin #1)
Publisher: Project Gutenberg (French version), first serialized in the magazine Je sais tout, 1905.
Source: Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur by Maurice Leblanc – Free Ebook (

Image credits:

It came as a shock to learn from the dustjacket of The Invisible Land that Hubert Mingarelli (b. 1956) died in January 2020.  It was only last year that I discovered his writing… thanks to Tony from Tony’s Book World, I read and reviewed A Meal in Winter (2012) but I have Quatre Soldats (Four Soldiers, 2003) on my French editions TBR, and I know Mingarelli as the author of perfect little novellas, which meditate on the culpability of ordinary people in war.  It is sobering to think that there will be no more new books from this writer, though perhaps there will be more translations of his work.  I hope so.

The ordinary people of The Invisible Land are the two main characters, an unnamed photojournalist who narrates the story, and O’Leary, the young soldier assigned to him as a driver.  But there are also the ordinary German people who are the subject of the photographer’s quest across a desolate landscape.  WW2 is over, and the British battalion is assessing the situation in North-West Germany at Dinslaken, where there had been a labour camp.  The horrors of the camp are not the focus of the narrative: it’s their effect on the people who have to deal with the aftermath which is so powerfully conveyed.

Colonel  Collins, the English battalion commander, is barely in control of his hatred, his distress about the atrocities he has seen economically conveyed in his response to a request for shoes:

‘They all ask me for something,’ he said.  ‘But I make them understand that there’s a time to keep their mouths shut.  If they start crying to soften me up, I’m afraid I’ll lose my temper.’ […] ‘Today,’ he said, ‘they came to ask me for shoes. I said, “You think I’ve opened a shop?” I started laughing and I told them to go away.  They started to leave.  Then I said, “No, hang on, I remember where there are some, but take a van.”  I showed them on the map where they could find huge piles of shoes.’ (p.7)

Without being able to articulate his reasons for doing so, the photographer sets off with O’Leary into the surrounding countryside to photograph ordinary Germans.  Like all those who first encountered the German atrocities in WW2 and those who have learned about them thereafter, he is unable to make sense of it.  How was it that ordinary people could have been complicit in what was done?  Mingarelli’s vignettes are an attempt to answer this unanswerable question. They demonstrate the accretion of dehumanisation.

As the photographer and his driver make their way from one site to another, they accumulate small cruelties.  With no shared language, they succeed in ordering about the people they come across, demanding that they submit to being photographed.  Memorably, they insist that a sleeping bride be woken after her wedding night.  They see the farms recovering, including one where there is a sea of lupins, and they crush this beauty under their boots.  They find a body trapped in debris on the river bank, and release it to float away, perhaps to the sea where it will never be found.  This troubles O’Leary, but his companion is indifferent.

Right from the start, the photographer does not distinguish between those with culpability and those who do not:

…using sign language, I explained what I wanted to do.  He glanced at the sky, turned around and called out in a deep voice.  The woman came out and he whispered a few words to her.  She was much younger than him.  I took a few steps back, signalled to them to turn towards me, and just as I was about to take the picture a little girl in an embroidered dress appeared at the door.  The man spoke gently to her and the girl started to move away.  I made him understand that she should stand between them.  The man held out his hand and when she was in place I pressed the button.  The woman and the girl immediately went back inside.  The man didn’t move.  As I walked to the car, I noticed that I was trembling slightly and it wasn’t as hot. (p.30)

The photographer, who suffers from nightmares about the corpses at the labour camp, mulls over events, and realises that the large German car they are driving belonged to the camp administrator, and that is why passing army trucks don’t care if they run it off the road.  He also realises that the weeping woman in soldier’s boots who was turned away from the battalion, was pleading for her husband’s life.

O’Leary, who enlisted too late to actually be involved in any battles, has a troubled history, which reminds us that evil is everywhere.

Sam Taylor’s translation is immaculate.

Author: Hubert Mingarelli
Title: The Invisible Land
Publisher: Granta, 2020, first published in French as La Terre Invisible in 2019
Translated by Sam Taylor
Cover design by Nathan Burton
ISBN: 9781783786022, hbk., 139 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 26, 2021

O, by Steven Carroll

As I commented on Jennifer’s review of this book at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large:

I know I’m going to have to read this novel, because, well, it’s Steven Carroll and I trust him not to write anything revolting, but I really wish he’d written about something else. The Story of O is such a horrible, horrible book, I really don’t want to revisit it even indirectly.

Wikipedia has a page about The Story of O, but don’t visit it unless you want to know the reasons for my revulsion.  Carroll makes repeated references to whether the book which inspired his story is an erotic novel or porn, but whichever it is The Story of O features explicit descriptions of sadomasochism, dominance and submission.  Like most readers, I have an imagination that lets me ‘see’ what’s happening in a novel, and I wish I’d never read The Story of O.  I’m no prude but the extreme violence and degradation ‘O’ endures for ‘love’ make it unforgettable for all the wrong reasonsCarroll is restrained in his allusions to it, but I knew more than his text was telling me, and I read his novel without ever losing that awareness and with a dread that there might be nastier content to come.

Jennifer hasn’t read The Story of O, and her experience of reading Carroll’s novel is different to mine, and probably closer to what Carroll intended…

Carroll’s novel explores the idea that Anne Cécile Desclos (1907 – 1998), a French journalist and novelist who wrote under the pseudonyms Dominique Aury and Pauline Réage, wrote The Story of O as an unconscious metaphor for the most shameful episode in modern French history: the Nazi Occupation of France in the Second World War.  That is, O’s surrender to degradation is a metaphor for the French surrender in June 1940 and the ensuing partition of France into the Occupied territory in the north and west; and in central and southern France, the pro-Nazi collaborationist state of Vichy under Marshal Philippe Pétain.  In his Notes on a Novel at the end of the book, Carroll writes:

If Story of O had been written in the 1970s and later it wouldn’t have mattered.  But the fact is that Dominique Aury wrote it as a love letter to her lover, publisher Jean Paulham, soon after, in the rain-shadow of the Occuption, when words such as ‘surrender’, ‘submission’, ‘defeat’ and ‘liberation’ had a meaning redolent of an all too recent, shameful past. Everybody was on edge, nerves were jangled, the experience still raw, and to a large extent the populace wanted to put the Occupation behind them.  Repress it.

But the moods and preoccupations of a country, especially at certain pivotal moments, have a way of surfacing through art.  Whether consciously, unconsciously, or a combination of both, art can sometimes mirror the very thing that a country wants to forget. And it increasingly occurred to me that, as unlikely a candidate as it may seem, Story of O was just such a work: one of those cases in which the individual psyche is like the whole society writ large.  (p.301)

While Carroll’s O isn’t biographical fiction, some of the characters and events are based on real life. The novel begins with Dominique Aury’s fury and disgust about the Surrender, and her meeting with her soon-to-be lover, the publisher at Gallimard, Jean Paulham. Amongst other things, we learn that he is also involved in Les Éditions de Minuit the real-life clandestine publisher of books to counter German censorship.  The most famous of these books, Le Silence de la Mer (which I reviewed here) isn’t mentioned, but the underground materials that Dominique delivers at Jean’s instigation would have included it.  But as Carroll explains, the real-life Dominique Aury never did anything as dangerous as the rescue of Pauline Réage, who is an authorial invention.

The Dominique of the novel writes her novel to rekindle the flame of her affair with Jean, who is starting to look at other women, the way he first looked at her.  She also wants to prove to him that women can write sexual fantasies just as men can, just as the Marquise de Sade did.  Her work isn’t intended for publication, but Jean persuades her, and though Gallimard dismisses it as pornographic smut, they find an alternative publisher.  It causes a scandal, and it divides its readers.  Guessing who its anonymous author might be becomes a parlour game, and they even encounter someone claiming to be the author.

The novel loses a bit of impetus as it moves on through the years.  It becomes more of a meditation on the issues it raises: how to be free under a brutal occupation; the hypocrisy of postwar reprisals; what can or might be written by women; whether submission can be an expression of love; May/September relationships; and how authors sometimes reveal more to their readers than they know themselves.

To the reviewer who wrote that this novel explores why the baring of female desire is so appalling, even frightening and that Carroll’s character is most free when defeated and occupied, I say this.  All over Australia we are currently seeing revelations about men’s behaviour towards women, which suggests that—perhaps influenced by the graphic porn which is so readily available—they believe that subjection, domination, submission and violence are acceptable in sexual relationships.  The distress that has been revealed is a clear indication that far too many men are wrong in these beliefs.  So let’s not talk nonsense that normalises and provides justification for them.

is certainly a departure from the Glenroy and T S Eliot novels.  I’m glad I read them first.

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: O
Cover design: gray318
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2021
ISBN: 9781460757314, pbk., 308 pages
Source: Bayside Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 25, 2021

2021 Stella Prize shortlist

With thanks to Terri King from Pitch Projects for a press release that’s quick and easy to share with you, comes the 2021 Stella Prize shortlist.

In alphabetical order of author surname, the 2021 Stella Prize shortlist is: 

I really like the way the press release included this homage to the industry that brings us books, and the literary community which supports it:

The 2021 Stella Prize shortlist showcases the extraordinary ingenuity and expertise on offer within the Australian book industry. Last year, against all odds, publishers continued to release books as the pandemic changed the ways in which we all live and work. Writers, too, adapted to their newfound circumstances and often publicised the books they’d spent years writing, in digital rather than physical spaces. Booksellers, librarians, and the literary community at large did all they could to ensure these books still found their readers, and it’s thanks to this monumental effort that the Stella Prize Judging Panel have been able to present such a compelling and hopeful shortlist.

I’ll scrounge around as usual for reviews of the books I haven’t read, and will update this when I’ve found some. Done.  I can’t yet find anyone whose reviews I trust who’s read Witness.

Update: The winner will be announced on April 22.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 24, 2021

2021 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist

The shortlists for the 2021 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced today.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction

  • Father of the Lost Boys by Yout Ajang Alaak, see my review
  • In the Time of Manaroans by Miro Bilbrough
  • Womerah Lane: Lives and Landscapes by Tom Carmant
  • The Warrior, the Voyager, and the Artist: Three Lives in an Age of Empire by Kate Fullaghar
  • A Question of Colour: My Journey to Belonging by Pattie Lees and Adam C Lees, see my review
  • The Trials of Portnoy: How Penguin Brought Down Australia’s Censorship System by Patrick Mullins

Multicultural NSW Award

  • After Australia by Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Ed)
  • The F Team by Rawah Arja
  • Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore
  • The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham,(abandoned)
  • A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu
  • Throat by Ellen Van Neerven, see Brona’s review at This Reading Life a.k.a. Brona’s Books

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize

  • Travels with a Writing Brush: Classical Japanese Travel Writing from the Manyoshu to Basho, translated by Meredith McKinney
  • Imminence by Marianna Dimopoulos, translated by Alice Whitmore, see my review
  • This Tilting World by Colette Fellous, translated by Sophie Rebecca Lewis
  • Autumn Manuscripts by Tasos Leivaditis, translated by N N Trakakis
  • Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao
  • Russia Washed in Blood. A Novel in Fragments by Artyom Vesyoly, translated by Kevin Windle

Indigenous Writers Prize?

For some reason, though I recognise Indigenous authors in the shortlists, there is no shortlist on the relevant page of what is the most badly designed website I’ve come across. Update, later in the afternoon: but now that I’ve checked the page, it says its a biennial award.  Why we have to click through from the main page to find that out, I don’t know…

For prizes in other categories, I’m sorry, I’ve got other things to do, so you’ll have to visit the awards website.

Update, late the same night: Jonathan at me Fail? I Fly! has listed all of the categories here, with links to the judges’ comments.

Memo to publicists:

I’ve got *literally* thousands of subscribers who read my blog by email.  Some of these subscribers are in places with lousy internet speeds (i.e. an awful lot of places in Australia) and that is why they opt for email because websites crash if they take too long to load.  For subscribers who read my blog online, I keep file sizes down by limiting images that take up their download time.

In the absence of a helpful press release, or a shortlist available as a print list, I’ve had to laboriously wade through two separate pages for each of these prize shortlists so that I can deliver the news to those readers in text.  Publicists ought to realise that not everyone has equal access to the Internet.  And while I am a volunteer in the service of promoting Australian literature within and beyond Australia, they are *paid* to publicise the product.  So they owe it to us to make it easy for us to help them do that.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 23, 2021

Addressed to Greta, by Fiona Sussman

Addressed to Greta is New Zealand author Fiona Sussman’s third novel, and I asked the library to order a copy, based on this review at Read Close.   Sussman was already on my radar since her debut novel Shifting Colours and I featured her in Meet a Kiwi Author so I was expecting to enjoy this.  

And, despite a mild tendency to stray into Worthy Sentiments, Addressed to Greta is enjoyable reading.  It features a socially-awkward single woman in her late thirties, constrained by the relentless voice of her dead mother Nora’s preoccupation with conformity and respectability.  (Nora has her reasons for this, but we don’t find out what they are until long after we have blamed her for Greta’s predicament.)  Greta has never had a relationship, and since the death of Walter, she doesn’t have any real friends, nor any family.  She is lonely, insecure, and captive to the safe routines of her life.

Walter, however, changes everything, and from beyond the grave at that.  She had fallen for him, only to find out that he was gay, but in a sign that’s there’s more to Greta than meets the eye, that romantic love morphed into a deep affection.  It was Greta who stayed by his side when he died of liver cancer.  And because he was very fond of her too, he left money in his will for her to travel and see more of the world than New Zealand has to offer.  (Greta hasn’t even been to the South Island.)

The catch is that he’s left instructions with his solicitor Angus, that her all-expenses-paid trip overseas will be orchestrated entirely by him.  Until just before her departure she doesn’t know what Walter’s choice for her first destination is, much less the others.  There’s a three-month time limit on her departure date, so that if she dithers, the money will go to charity.  Plus, since she doesn’t know how long she’ll be away for, she has to give up the lease on her home, resign from her job, and find somewhere for her pet chicken to live during her absence.  These are major life-changing decisions for a single woman with limited employability and insecure housing, and the reader has to take it on trust that Walter, whose conditions of acceptance imply that he thinks he knows what’s best for Greta, hasn’t dealt her a dud pack of cards.  The characterisation of Greta shows that she needs to learn to take a risk, and the novel is a rom-com of sorts, but all the same, these conditions look like controlling behaviour to me.  

(I don’t have much patience with people/characters who try to control events from beyond the grave.  They’ve had their time on earth!)

Anyway, full of trepidation, Greta sets off for New York, escorted around the city for a week by Walter’s friend Frank.  From Frank she learns aspects of Walter’s life that he had withheld, and she feels peeved that someone else knew him better than she did.  She survives her terrors (which derive mostly from watching American films) by meeting a succession of very nice people, who, one after the other, teach her something about rising above stereotypes and the inequities of the world.  She then learns not to trust her ignorant assumptions in London, and has various epiphanies along the way in Rwanda.  

In a Bridget Jones kind of way, most of this is quite droll.  Greta is tall and ungainly and has embarrassingly large feet.  She speaks before she thinks, and she over-explains her faux-pas and apologises all the time.  She hugs people without knowing whether it’s culturally appropriate or not, she badgers her tour guide about whether he’s Tutsi or Hutu when he has clearly explained that he is Rwandan only, and she even curtsies to a doorman.  Even smiling at all this feels a bit mean because it’s such a poignant situation.  Her progress through this journey of discovery is constantly punctuated by her mother’s sour voice and poisonous admonitions, with Walter’s encouraging letters not entirely able to drown her out. 

After her jaunt to see the gorillas in Rwanda, Greta comments on the the tour group as ‘interesting’ and, true to form, persists with the topic when Daniel, the tour group leader, clearly doesn’t want to criticise them.  

‘Some must drive you mad, ‘ she persisted. ‘Mrs Gladwell was my most annoying customer.  Dion Parkle too.  How do you manage to remain so good humoured?’

He offered her some dried banana from a packet.  ‘You know the word ubuntu?’

She shook her head.

‘It means, “I am who I am, because of you.” Everybody we meet changes us a little, no?’

Greta thought about the group.  Seven lives had unexpectedly intersected.  She wondered whether anyone’s path had been altered as a result.  Whether anyone’s cosmic plan had been reconfigured.

‘What you do today impacts me,’ Daniel said.  ‘And what I do, impacts you.  We are all connected.  That is humanity.’ (p.273)

One of many aspects of the trip that Greta finds stressful is the constant desertion by people charged with looking out for her.  When she parts company with Daniel to go on to her next destination, she wonders what it would have been like to have a permanent partner in her life.

The guaranteed safety of someone, always.  How was it that her life had turned out like this?  Why did she have to be the one left swimming solo?

There’s a lid to fit every can,’ was what Nora used to say. So, Greta grew up believing that somewhere out there was a man who would complete her.  She just had to find him and then she’d be fine.

But she was thirty-nine and had not yet found that someone.  No one bar Walter, who didn’t count, being ‘unavailable’ in the life-time-commitment sense.  Where was this superman who was supposed to supplement her deficits and be the solution to all her problems? (p.216)

Clearly Greta is not a feminist.  

Beyond finding some elegant shoes in Size Huge in New York, does Greta find happiness? The author has wisely refrained from an obvious happy ending, leaving just a few hints here and there that Greta’s life has changed for the better.

One little quibble: I’m surprised the editor didn’t rein in the occasional use of medical terms.  (Sussman is a former GP.)  ‘Mandible’ instead of ‘jaw’; ‘acromegaly’ on page 140; enochlophobia and panophobia on page 172—seriously, who knows what these are without having to look it up?  Do readers who haven’t come across thyroid problems know what is meant by eyes bulging in thyroidal exclamation? 

You can find out more about Fiona Sussman at her website

PS It’s just dawned on me that Walter’s 3-month deadline would mean that if his legacy had coincided with the pandemic and its closed borders, Greta would have missed out on the trip and the money through no fault of her own!

Author: Fiona Sussman
Title: Addressed to Greta
Publisher: Bateman Books, NZ, 2020
Cover design by Keeley O’Shannessy
ISBN: 9781988538600, pbk., 338 pages
Source: Bayside Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 21, 2021

Chasing the McCubbin, by Sandi Scaunich

The first thing I noticed about this thoughtful debut novel was the authenticity of the characters in Chasing the McCubbin.  Set during the recession of the 1990s when the Centrelink juggernaut did not exist and vulnerable people went for welfare support to the CES (Commonwealth Employment Service), the story features a lost soul called Jo (Joseph) and his unlikely mentor, Ron, an eccentric trader in antiques and (more commonly) junk from garage sales. 

Jo’s mother Leonie is a lost soul too.  With PTSD after extreme domestic violence, she is barely functioning.  Jo, setting off for his first encounter with Ron, leaves his mum to sleep and wake and boil the kettle and eat toast and watch daytime television wrapped safely in her fading blue dressing gown.

He sees her body, still and serene, but that is all.  She is hollow.  It is as though the mother he knew crawled out from her skin long ago, seeking refuge, perhaps escaping to somewhere safer.  Usually, when she glances his way, she does not see him.  He is a faceless silhouette that no one notices, not even his mum.  He is part stranger, part son, part dole bludger, a boy from The Pines: a combination of scattered pieces, and nothing, all at the same time.  (p.12)

The Pines is a disadvantaged area within the Melbourne outer suburb of Frankston, and Jo’s future looks bleak whether there’s a recession or not.  But a chance meeting between his mother and Ron in the queue at the CES leads to a job offer of sorts.  Not one that pays a salary, not a job that will affect his unemployment benefit, but one based on a share of the money they might make.  With the bank about to foreclose on the house, 19-year-old Jo has to step up and do something.  Anything…

Ron’s wife has died, and he needs someone to navigate the van when he goes ‘scrounging’ at the garage sales that are proliferating as people try to find ways to make a little money.  Jo can’t drive because there’s no one to teach him and no car to practise in, but he turns out to be good at reading maps and at planning journeys to minimise the cost of petrol.  And he’s an extra pair of hands to help lug their finds to the van, or to stand guard over some treasure to prevent some other would-be buyer making off with it.  He learns to help with sanding old bits of furniture, and over time he begins to recognise items which can be resold to other dealers at a profit. 

Reading this novel puts me in mind of The Antiques Road Show and the dumbfounded expressions of people who’ve discovered the value of something they thought was worth much less than the expert’s appraisal.  This show probably accounts for the inflated value some of Ron’s sources put on their wares.  

Apparently the TV show doesn’t usually show the counterfeit items that are worthless (so as not to embarrass their owners), but Ron is alert to the problem of replicas.  

‘It’s even taken me a while to get the hang of pottery.  Take William Ricketts, for example. An artist was making exact replicas.  They were so alike, you couldn’t tell the bloody difference.  There was this one time I thought I’d stumbled across these William Ricketts bookends.  I was thinking, “You little beauty!” As soon as I picked one up, though, I had my suspicions.  It wasn’t terracotta, more like a resin.  Anyway, sure enough, I scanned the bottom and this rip-off made it.’ Ron’s lips curl into a smirk.  Then Red Wagon [one of Ron’s rivals] goes and grabs the same thing, pays, and takes off like lightning! I tried to tell him it wasn’t the real deal but he thought he knew better.  Those fakes fooled people left, right and centre.’ (pp.63-4) 

Peopled with equally eccentric competitors seeking the elusive bargain worth a fortune, Chasing the McCubbin reveals Ron’s generosity of spirit.  With a wealth of anecdotes to enliven the driving, he takes genuine pleasure even in his competitor’s success.

‘The Grub seems to have a sixth sense and always knows where to look.  But me mate Lucky beat him this one time.’ Ron’s voice becomes upbeat.  ‘The Grub was looking over a table at a garage sale and went right past a piece of nineteen thirties Arthur Boyd pottery.  Lucky had ben to the Arthur Boyd museum in New South somewhere, so he knew it straight away—it wasn’t your typical Boyd.  It was blue, and that’s rare, and only Lucky knew it.’ Ron chuckles. ‘And he got about six hundred for it!’

Not averse to the idea of discovering a treasure myself, I was briefly excited to read that blue Boyds are rare and valuable.  Alas our little blue pot on the right was made by The Spouse’s mother during her pottery phase, and while the yellow one is indeed a Boyd—it’s signed by Martin Boyd, worth about $25.  Oh well…

Chasing the McCubbin is a story about new beginnings, and its title is very appropriate.  Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), as Australians will know, was an Australian artist, and a prominent member of the Heidelberg School art movement.  Most of his paintings are in national and state galleries, but if they ever came on the art market, those paintings would be worth a fortune.  Ron buoys Jo with his dream of finding a lost McCubbin which will change their lives, but he succeeds in changing Jo’s life in simpler ways.  He’s a rough diamond, intolerant of his rivals and given to categorising the people he deals with by their ethnicity, but he is kind to this withdrawn youth.  They are company for one another, and they come to share the pleasure of the quest.  

I don’t often quote blurbers, but Graeme Simsion’s comments in the press release about Chasing the McCubbin are apt:

‘Truly fine writing with a great sense of characters and place, sympathetic and heartfelt without being sentimental, Scaunich pulls us into a fascinating world of low stakes and petty rivalries.’ 

You can find out more about Sandi Scaunich at her website.

Author: Sandi Scaunich
Title: Chasing the McCubbin
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2021
ISBN: 9781925760590, pbk., 265 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2021

Grace Notes, by Bernard MacLaverty

Cathy is hosting #ReadingIrelandMonth at 746 Books, so I hunted through the TBR and found Grace Notes, by Bernard MacLaverty (which had been lurking there since 2010).   MacLaverty was born in Belfast, but moved to Glasgow in 1975, and although Wikipedia summarises Grace Notes as a conflict between a desire for creativity and motherhood, I think it’s about more than that.  I think it’s also about a desire to escape an intractable conflict which soured every aspect of life in Northern Ireland.

The novel begins with Catherine’s return to Belfast for her father’s funeral after an estrangement of some years.  The novel predates the Good Friday Agreement (1998) and though on the bus home she watched the familiar landmarks she used as a child pass one by one, things are not the same in the town.

In the town itself she was surprised to see a Chinese restaurant and a new grey fortress of a police barracks. She stood, ready to get off at her stop.  There was something odd about the street.  She bent at the knees, crouched to look out at where she used to live.  It was hardly recognisable.  Shop-fronts were covered in hardboard, the Orange Hall and other buildings bristled with scaffolding.  Some roofs were covered in green tarpaulins, others were protected by lath and sheets of polythene.

‘What happened here?’ she asked the bus driver.

‘It got blew up.  A bomb in October.’

‘Was anybody hurt?’

‘They gave a warning.  The whole place is nothing but a shell.’

She stepped down onto the pavement and felt her knees shake.  A place of devastation. (pp.9-10)

Catherine has been living in Glasgow since winning a scholarship and deciding not to come home after graduating.  She has been living in safety while her family’s neighbourhood was bombed all around them, and she didn’t even know about it.  A vast gulf now separates her from her mother, who, not knowing anything about Catherine’s new life, achievements and responsibilities, is still entertaining hopes that her only child will stay home now.  But paradoxically, since it could be bombed at any time, ‘home’ is stasis, predictable, judgemental, rigid and under siege.  She grieves for her father despite his flaws; she wishes she could get on better with her mother but she no longer shares her faith nor her values.

In a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere, Part One of the novel traces the brief couple of days of mourning and the funeral, with Catherine trying hard not to react to irritations from her nagging mother, and trying also to work out when and how to tell her mother a piece of news she isn’t going to want to hear.

Part Two is the back story of Catherine’s joy in creating music, her doomed love affair with Dave on the island of Islay, and her triumph over post-natal depression which nearly ruined her career as a composer.  Anyone who loves music will be fascinated by the way MacLaverty describes the process by which fragments of music come together in Catherine’s imagination. The writing is beautiful, and the reader can almost hear the music from the descriptions.

But Catherine does not let her parents know that the inaugural performance of ‘Vernicles’ will be broadcast all over Britain and the EU because they would not understand.  Their world is circumscribed by the expectations that they have of a daughter, and they would think her music pretentious, difficult and strange.  Most of all, as Catholics, they would not like the way she has integrated the drumming of Orangemen into her composition…

The gulf between these parents and their child seems unbridgeable in much the same way that the sectarian conflict seemed intractable at that time in history.  My first thoughts were that this was a pessimistic ending, but on reflection perhaps there is hope for Catherine’s generation.

Grace Notes was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1997, and won the Saltire Society Literary Award for Scottish Book of the Year (1997).

Author: Bernard MacLaverty (b.1942)
Title: Grace Notes
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 1998, first published 1997
ISBN: 9780099778011, pbk., 277 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from the Book Depository


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