Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 1, 2023

Six Degrees of Separation: from Born to Run, to ….

This month’s #6Degrees, hosted by Kate from Books are my Favourite and Best starts with a celebrity memoir called Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen.  

It won’t surprise any of you, my amused readers, to learn that I had to Google Bruce Springsteen because, immune to popular culture as I am, I had heard of someone with this name who made the kind of music I can’t abide, but, immune to all forms of sporting culture, I didn’t know of a Bruce Springsteen who was a runner, born to do it or otherwise.  Wikipedia has enlightened me that they are one and the same, and ‘Born to Run’ is the title of an album, but since the article seems only to name the numerous albums that have made him famous and rich, I am none the wiser as to a particular song that I may have inadvertently heard. The article is long, and I didn’t read all of it because I am no more interested in this person than I was before, but my eye rested briefly on the fact that he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2016.

Ah, I thought, I wonder if an author has ever received this supreme decoration for a civilian in the US…and if so, have I read any of their books?

Why yes, E B White, who wrote the beloved children’s book Charlotte’s Web received the award in 1963 from President Kennedy, and so did Thornton Wilder and Edmund Wilson, in the same year.

(Links on the president’s name take you to the list of awards they dished out, which like the oddity of our own Australian awards, makes ‘interesting’ reading.)

President Johnson gave out a swag of awards in 1964.  One for my favourite modernist poet T S Eliot, who wrote The Wasteland, (which I studied at uni).  You can find three reviews of  Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck’s prolific output here on the blog, though not, alas, The Grapes of Wrath which was the catalyst for my love of this author.  A poet by name of Carl Sandberg was also honoured, and so was Ralph Ellison who wrote Invisible Man which I read way back in 1999.

Richard Nixon whose period in office coincided with the Moon Landing in 1969 gave the award to astronauts (but no scientists) and the usual miscellany of recipients (but no authors). Perhaps we can gauge the sophistication of his reading tastes by noting that he gave the award to the co-founders of the Readers’ Digest, Lila Acheson Wallace and DeWitt Wallace in 1972. Still, I can count this as one of my #6Degrees, because we’ve all read the Readers Digest in waiting rooms of one sort or another.

James A. Michener got one from Gerald Ford in 1977.   I thought I’d read something by him in my youth but none of his fiction titles seem familiar.  Modernist poet Archibald MacLeish got a gong too, but he was also 1st Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs which may have had more to do with it.

Jimmy Carter gave the award to playwright Tennessee Williams, and to Eudora Welty who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter.

Ronald Reagan *chuckle* gave one to Louis L’Amour who wrote westerns, but George HW Bush didn’t give any, so we move on to Bill Clinton who recognised Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a Polish journalist and writer and Simon Wiesenthal who is listed as a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, but was also a prolific author. Although I’ve read a fair bit of Holocaust literature I’ve never read him.

That’s five presidents who missed the opportunity to enrich my reading!

Next we come to George W Bush who awarded it to The Deputy Sheriff and Tony Blair; a baseball player, a boxer, a golfer, the founder of a cosmetic company and a pope.  And Harper Lee, author of Gone with the Wind, that well-loved lament for the Southern Way of Life. I am now embarrassed that I loved this book so much, though in my defence I was young and impressionable and besotted by Clark Gable’s portrayal of Rhett Butler in the film (which I saw first). Wrong, wrong, wrong, and thank you to Jennifer et al for setting me straight! #Rueful frown. What was I thinking? Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, which I read back in 1969 and have never forgotten it.  (It also has an  eye-candy leading man in the film, Gregory Peck.)

So then we come to Barack Obama, well-known for his love of books and reading. Which writers got a gong from him? Maya Angelou (whose I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is on the TBR); a Holocaust survivor called Gerda Weissmann Klein; and Isabel Allende who I read once or twice long ago but haven’t bothered since.  I shall have to count her House of the Spirits for the last of my six, because authors haven’t done too well in these awards…

I was a bit disappointed by Obama’s tally.  I was expecting to see those authors who are routinely spruiked for the Nobel Prize for Literature, like Don deLillo (reviewed here), Phillip Roth (reviewed here), Saul Bellow (reviewed here) and Toni Morrison (reviewed here, and more on the TBR).

Obama’s successor who shall be nameless here awarded the medal to a horde of sportspeople and favoured political appointments.  Joe Biden hasn’t completed a term yet and may have a late run of authors in his saddlebags so we shall reserve judgment about him.  (On the subject of these medals, that is.  I have already made up my mind about other failings.)

A celebrity memoir has sparked my meanderings through the recipients of the American Medal of Freedom — that’s my #6Degrees for this month!

Image credit: Readers Digest Feb 1966, from eBay

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 31, 2023

Waypoints (2022), by Adam Ouston

Waypoints is an intriguing work of fiction that will appeal to readers who are comfortable with having a delayed understanding of what’s going on in the text.  If you’re ok with reading what seems to be randomness (but isn’t) you will enjoy Waypoints, even if — like me — you have to read and re-read and re-read again and again to join the dots, and then discover that the author has been playing games and sucked you into tracking something that was established as trivial at the outset.

Instead of focussing on what’s important.

Let me try to explain.

The novel begins with a narrator eventually revealed to be Arthur Bernard  Cripps who is obsessed with Harry Houdini’s attempt on an aviation record at Diggers’ Rest Victoria in 1910.  Cripps is indignant that people are so keen to know ‘facts’, which are often not important, or are distorted, or not even true, when they don’t know what they ought to know.  Specifically he can’t get over the way that many more people know about the celebrity who failed to set an aviation record rather than know about the person who succeeded.

So it’s weird that the bankable fact that has come down through the ages, or rather the decades, over a century later, when getting on a plane costs much less than £200 and the only time aircraft appear in the media is when they are not in the sky — as I now know only too well — is not the same fact that was so bankable in 1910, is not that Harry Houdini was first, but that Harry Houdini was not first… (p.12, underlining mine.)

Ouston — in this narrative of a single paragraph over 172 pages that begins with a sentence half a page long, which is followed by another twice its length — has Cripps lure the reader into reading all about Houdini at Diggers’ Rest, and his promoter Harry Rickards, and about HR’s wife who was a trapeze artist, and — almost as an afterthought — he mentions his own wife who was also a trapeze artist.  Ouston’s narrator is mimicking the way those who are obsessed with celebrity know all about whoever it is, almost as if they are part of the family.

He rambles on about other aviators, and their tragic ends, and how some were lost at sea, and we learn that he has ‘lost’ his father to Alzheimer’s disease, and that he has a project underway to recreate the Houdini flight because he wants to go back in time as if in a time machine to recreate the Age of Awe.

(I won’t have been the only reader to read and re-read, back from page 21, and then back again from page 43, to see if I had missed the name of the person who achieved the aviation record that Houdini was aiming for but failed.)

And then, well after the enigmatic insertion which I underlined in the excerpt above, Cripps tells us that his wife, Alison and his daughter Beatrice vanished without a trace when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared en route between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. This narrator is a man drowning in grief.

How can it be, in an age when everything is tracked, traced, photographed, recorded and stored in the cloud, that there are no answers to the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370?  No wonder there are conspiracy theories about it, he says…

With a slow accretion of detail, with occasional light touches of humour, he keeps revisiting his preoccupations, his mind wandering off on other tangents, but always grounded in his anguish of not knowing, an anguish which is compounded by living in an age where all knowledge is searchable on the web. He shares his exhaustive online investigations into the mystery of the vanished plane, including some unnerving anecdotes about pilot suicides and a dot-point list of theories about how passengers might suffer, or not, as a plane is going down, and I confess to skipping these because I’d never get on a plane again if I read them.  As the text moves on he tries to rationalise what he is doing, torturing himself like this, and he thinks that searching for the truth about his wife and daughter is triggered by survivor guilt.  He had stayed home to care for his father instead of joining them, and he feels shame in surviving.

Paul Fulcher, in his review at Goodreads, writes:

This is a Sebaldian novel for the age of Wikipedia, written by a Bernard-like manically obsessively circular narrator, in lengthy sentences and one unbroken paragraph, except without the misanthropy (wonderfully the very last character in the novel is a “curmudgeonly” Austrian), and with a distinctive voice of Ouston’s own.

I agree: the style of this narrative is rather Bernhardian (as in Thomas Bernhard and his rants) and Sebaldian because there are photos which are integral to the text. But what makes it distinctive is Ouston’s empathetic portrayal of an incomprehensible grief and his mastery of an intimate tone for his bereft narrator.

Waypoints was shortlisted for the 2022 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards.

There are other reviews at the  Sydney Review of Books and at ArtsHub.

Last year, one of my favourite bookshops, Blarney’s Books and Art at Port Fairy hosted the Biblio Art Prize, where a work of art has been inspired by an Australian book.   Waypoints in History 1 and 2 by Glenn Reynolds is a work of genius, I reckon.

Author: Adam Ouston
Title: Waypoints
Publisher: Puncher & Wattman, 2022, first published in Britain in 2022 by Splice
ISBN: 9781922571243, pbk., 173 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Blarney’s Books Port Fairy

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 30, 2023

The Mission House (2020), by Carys Davies

At first glance, the cover design for the Australian edition of Welsh author Carys Davies doesn’t seem to have anything to do with The Mission House.  But it does: those eucalyptus leaves symbolise the ubiquity of things — and people — that are out of place.  Just like the central character in the novel when he notices that these leaves are everywhere in the Indian town where he has sought refuge.  Hilary Byrd feels out of place in the modern world, but postcolonial India isn’t a place for him either.

This is the blurb:

From the prize-winning author of West, a collision between old and new, east and west, in a former British hill station in contemporary South India.

Fleeing the dark undercurrents of contemporary life in Britain, Hilary Byrd takes refuge in Ooty, a hill station in South India. There he finds solace in life’s simple pleasures, travelling by rickshaw around the small town with his driver Jamshed and staying in a mission house beside the local presbytery where the Padre and his adoptive daughter Priscilla have taken Hilary under their wing.

The Padre is concerned for Priscilla’s future, and as Hilary’s friendship with the young woman grows, he begins to wonder whether his purpose lies in this new relationship. But religious tensions are brewing and the mission house may not be the safe haven it seems.

The Mission House boldly and imaginatively explores post-colonial ideas in a world fractured between faith and non-belief, young and old, imperial past and nationalistic present. Tenderly subversive and meticulously crafted, it is a deeply human fable of the wonders and terrors of connection in a modern world.

Hilary Byrd is a quiet, gentle and shy man, a librarian who hasn’t adapted to the way libraries have morphed into places not primarily for reading.  They are now community places where books and reading are only a part of what’s on offer.  There was a child performing an on-again/off-again tantrum in my library yesterday, and I went out of my way to be friendly to the young mum not coping very well with two kids under four because I guessed she was feeling that she was being judged.  But it was easy for me.  I was out of there in five minutes. Some librarians have to put up with this kind of bratty behaviour all day, every day.  And then there’s the awful rudeness, foul language and abuse of people who don’t respect the fact that they are in a shared space, as depicted in The Mission House. The modern world of entitlement is no place for a gentle soul like Hilary Byrd.

Gradually it is revealed that Hilary Byrd descended into deep depression, from which his loving sister Wyn has rescued him more than once, but his impulsive flight to India has put him out of her reach.  There he is rescued from confusion and doubt and running out of money by the Christian Padre who lets him stay in a room vacated by the young missionary who was supposed to replace him.  And then, after a fall in the town, Hilary is rescued again by Jamshed, an auto-rickshaw driver who becomes a patient listener to Hilary’s anxieties while driving him around the town each day.

At page 30, the author signals that Ooty, a hill station in South India, is not going to be the safe haven that Hilary craves.

In due course, the old driver, Jamshed, will be questioned about the tall tourist, Mr Hilary Byrd.

In a leaf-green room with a small high window and a broken electric heater he will sit for hours during the investigation on a moulded plastic chair and tell the brown-uniformed policeman that looking at the tall Englishman that first day at the terminus, he had seen only money.

Money so that the tank of his auto could always be full, so he did not have to beg his customers for a 100 rupee note when they’d barely set off so that he could call at the Bharat Petroleum Station to buy fuel for his empty tank. Money for a pair of shoes which matched. Money for his nephew’s crazy costume.

‘Don’t leave anything out,’ the policeman will say and the old man will nod. Even though there are certain details, now, that do not seem important. (p. 30)

So, though we see Hilary Byrd regain his bearings, we know that things will not end well.  His fears, that he will be trapped into rescuing the Padre’s adopted daughter Priscilla from un-marriageability, change when he becomes fond of her, but he has misread the situation wrongly from start to finish.  The reader is lured into becoming absorbed by this Shakespearean plot, so that the ending comes as a shock.

The Mission House is more than a collision between old and new, east and west, it is a compelling novel that confronts the fantasy of a quiet life with the cruel realities of the modern world.

About the author, from her website:

Carys Davies’s debut novel West was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, longlisted for the European Literature Prize, Runner Up for the Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize, and winner of the Wales Book of the Year for Fiction. Her second novel The Mission House was The Sunday Times 2020 Novel Of The Year.

The Mission House was reviewed at The Guardian too. 

Author: Cary Davies
Title: The Mission House
Cover design: Anna Green
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2020, first published by Granta 2020
ISBN: 9781922330635, 246 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings $29.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 30, 2023

2023 Stella Prize shortlist

The 2023 Stella Prize shortlist was announced today:

  • We Come With This Place by Debra Dank (Echo Publishing), memoir
  • big beautiful female theory by Eloise Grills (Affirm Press), essays
  • The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt (University of Queensland Press), poetry
  • Hydra by Adriane Howell (Transit Lounge), see my review
  • Indelible City by Louisa Lim (Text Publishing), memoir
  • Bad Art Mother by Edwina Preston (Wakefield Press), see my review

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Thanks to Terri King from Pitch Projects for sharing the news.

I am reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship for the forthcoming 1940 Club…

Testament of Friendship is about Brittain’s friendship with another author, Winifred Holtby, from their meeting as students at Oxford to Holtby’s death at the age of thirty-seven.  But there is more to it than that: Brittain is famous for her groundbreaking Testament of Youth, (1933) a classic of WW1 literature which exposed the impact on civilians, especially women.  Vera’s friendship with Winifred was forged in the devastation of WW1 when she had lost her fiancé, her close friends and her brother.  Winifred’s death in 1935 was yet another loss, and this memoir was Vera’s tribute to a friend she loved dearly.

So I was not expecting to laugh out loud as I traversed its pages…

In Chapter 3, ‘For King and Country’ Brittain begins discussing her friend’s path to becoming the author of the award-winning South Riding which was published posthumously in 1936.  She is endearingly honest about Winifred’s young, derivative sentimentality and her saccharine verses, but she asserts that this immature young author was nevertheless the spiritual parent of the woman who wrote the ruthless and vivid satire on British imperialism.  By 1919, says Brittain, her appreciation of ludicrous situations and her capacity for selecting the elements which made them funny were already fully developed. Holtby’s sketches in the unpublished The Forest Unit offer an almost realistic picture of the humours, discomforts and temperamental problems of the Huchenneville camp. 

Young women serving as nurses or WAACs in WW1 were, it seems, routinely warned against associating with *chuckle* ‘The Australians’.  The Forest Unit satirises the masculine jealousies and romantic feminine perturbations which followed the coming of an Australian contingent to rest at Huchenneville after ten months in the line.

Huchenneville village was only three minutes’ walk from the orchard unit, and Jean McWilliam has confessed that she awaited the arrival of the Australians with apprehension.  She was not mistaken in supposing that the plain, undersized British group of orderlies and engineers, who had come to take for granted their monopoly of the WAACs as companions, would suffer by contrast with the tall bronzed figures in slouch hats who rode through the forest blowing kisses to the girls from the high saddles of their magnificent horses.  But she admits that from the beginning the Australians proved to be generous friends who increased the enchantments of life at Huchenneville without appreciably adding to her problems.

“When they arrived”, she writes, “we had only one hut which we used for recreation.  We usually danced because the Colonel’s batman played splendid dance music on the accordion.  The sound of revelry drew the Australians to our unit, and I found an Australian officer standing by me.
” ‘You ought to have more than one candle,’ he said.
” ‘Yes, but our ration of candles was short this week,’ I answered.
“He said nothing, but the next day he sent me a bag of candles.”

In the late autumn of 1918 the Australian division, by arrangement between their captain and Jean McWilliam, gave a dance in the new recreation hut of the orchard unit.  Many of the Australians had not seen a woman for months, and keen masculine competition for the favours of the small WAAC group suggested the injudicious exclusion of their British rivals.  In The Forest Unit, Winifred describes with obvious enjoyment how the jointly owned piano so necessary to the success of the dance was twice kidnapped by the determined antagonists.

“Next morning Celia saw the wagon that was one of the most cherished possessions of the Orchard office at the door of the new recreation hut.
” ‘What’s happening?’ she asked the rabbit-mouthed corporal.
“He looked uneasy but defiant.
” ‘Oh, we are just coming to remove the piano to our hut for a little sing-song that we are having tomorrow night.’
” ‘Oh, but you can’t do that! We’re having a dance here.’
” ‘I know nothing about no dance. Those are my orders and I shall proceed to fulfil them.’ The corporal expanded his already somewhat spreading chest.
” ‘But you can’t’. Celia wrung her hands with feverish anxiety.  ‘We must have it for the dance.’
” ‘Excuse me, but orders is orders, and the dance is no concern of ours.  The piano is ours by rights, which you ‘ave ‘ad the privilege of making use of owing to kind permission of the colonel.  If you want to dance tomorrow night, you must find your own music.  Some of you girls is fond of singing, I’ve noticed.  Let your friends bring their hown piano.  We ‘ave a ‘ymn practice at our ‘ut tomorrow night and the work of the Lord cannot be put off for vain and frivolous amusements.  Carry on, boys.’
“And Celia, wringing her hands on the steps in furious impotence, watched the piano disappearing across the orchard.”

The Australian-bewitched WAACs were not defeated.  Without the official knowledge of their administrator or her hostel forewoman, eight of them took an old farm-cart to the men’s Mess Hut that night, and at the cost of barked shins and broken finger-nails, jubilantly brought back the piano to their recreation room. But in the end Cockney cunning triumphed over Colonial virility, for half-way through the dance the electric light went out with malicious suddenness.  As Winifred, in the excitement of preparing refreshments, had forgotten to indent for candles, the exuberant dancers were plunged into chaotic darkness — “while Sapper Bright, diligently searching for the fault with conspicuous piety, failed to find it.” (pp. 76-8)

Because this excerpt made me laugh, I’m prepared to overlook describing our soldiers as ‘Colonials’ when Australia had ceased to be a colony for nearly two decades.

Author: Vera Brittain (1893-1970)
Title: Testament of Friendship
Publisher: Fontana Paperbacks in association with Virago Press, 1981, first published by Macmillan and Co in 1940
ISBN: 0006363539, pbk., 453 pages
Source: personal library, purchased for $3.00 from the (now defunct) Rhyll Book Exchange on Phillip Island.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 28, 2023

Michelle de Kretser wins 2023 Folio Prize for Fiction

The Folio Prize was announced with fanfare in 2013 as a counter to ‘issues’ with the Booker Prize but it’s  not a prize that I have followed because the books and authors on their long- and shortlists are usually unfamiliar to me, or (sometimes) I’m not keen on their previous work. (Links on author names below are to reviews of works other than the prize-winning titles.)  The prize website tells me who the previous winners have been:

Prize winners to date are: Tenth of December by George Saunders (2014); Family Life by Akhil Sharma (2015); The Return by Hisham Matar (2017); Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry (2018); The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (2019); Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (2020);  In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2021); and Colm Tóibín, The Magician (2022, see my review).

But this year, I learned via Book Twitter that Michelle de Kretser was awarded the Folio Fiction prize for Scary Monsters, (see my review) so *chuckle* I’ve paid attention this time…

The winner of the poetry prize was Victoria Adukwei Bulley for her collection, Quiet; and the winner of the Non-Fiction prize was Margo Jefferson for Constructing a Nervous System.

Congratulations to all the winners!

These are the 2023 shortlists.  I tried reading Glory by No Violet Bulawayo and abandoned it. Brona read Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea and pronounced it her favourite amongst the series. I don’t know any of the others…

More about the prize, from the prize website:

First awarded in 2014 (originally known as The Folio Prize), the Rathbones Folio Prize is open to all works of literature written in English and published in the UK, and is worth over £30,000. All genres and all forms of literature are eligible, except work written primarily for children.

The Prize is unique in that it is judged by members of the 300-strong Rathbones Folio Academy of esteemed writers and critics.

‘Mrs Meiners has gone to get chalk’ is a shocking story… it took my breath away.

It’s in Stephen Orr’s new collection:

A plane in the distance, artillery, his father waiting, and the boy wonders what to do. As with every story in this collection, the child born into a world he can’t comprehend, but stands waiting for answers, overcome with possibilities. The Boy in Time charts this child’s progress from the Outer Hebrides to a Mongolian desert, from war to kidnapping, a Midwestern American nightmare, falling from the wheel-well of a Dreamliner. Stephen Orr’s impressionistic take on the short story captures a child’s bewilderment of what it’s like to be alive.

I don’t read short story collections in order.  I start with the ones with titles that pique my interest. I’d read a few of the ones in the collection when I chose ‘Mrs Meiners has gone to get chalk’ because I knew Orr was a teacher and I was curious about how he was going to make something interesting out of it.

I mean, teaching is so ordinary, really.  It’s happening all over Australia right now, kids doing the ordinary things that Orr captures in his story.  Making dioramas.  Unwieldy pencils writing compositions.  Colouring in.  Chattering to each other in the teacher’s brief absence, even venturing a ‘swear word’ with bravado.

But it’s not quite so ordinary everywhere, and Orr’s imagination has taken us to an unimaginable situation.

I need to go out into the peace of my garden to regain my equanimity….

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: The Boy in Time
Cover design: Stacey Zass
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2023
ISBN: 9781743059685


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 26, 2023

The Smell of Apples (1993), by Mark Behr

In a review of the Booker-longlisted novel An Island (2020) by South African author Karen Kennings’, academic David Atwell suggested that An Island is a useful successor to The Smell of Apples, an ‘ethically-centred’ 1990s study text on uncovering apartheid-era secrets.  In my own review I linked to Attwell’s review — and, intrigued, I bought The Smell of Apples…

The Smell of Apples (1993) was Tanzanian-born South African author Mark Behr’s debut novel but he wrote only Embrace (2000) and Kings of the Water (2009) before his untimely death at the age of 52.  The Smell of Apples won the 1996 M-Net Award* for a novel in English; as well as other South African book awards including the 1994 Eugene Marais Award; and the CNA (Central News Agency) Debut Literary Award.  It was also recognised internationally: it won the 1995 Betty Trask Award; it was shortlisted for the Steinbeck Award and it won the 1996 LA Times Book Prize for First Fiction.

The significance of these awards is not to be overlooked.  The Smell of Apples was published the year before South Africa had its first democratic elections in 1994, and these awards show that the new South Africa was open to books which interrogated the legacy of apartheid.  It’s a coming-of-age novel, featuring a boy who hero-worships his father Johan, a General in the army who is mounting covert operations in Angola while publicly denying that they are taking place. And that’s not all that’s very disturbing about this father…

The apples of the title — sweet, fresh and crisp — are a metaphor for innocence.  But apples can be deceptive —they can be rotten inside and can also be tainted if they come into contact with something foul.  The ironically named family of Marnus Erasmus is a microcosm of South African society and they represent a family and society defined by racism, hypocrisy and moralising cant.  It depicts in hideous clarity how these attitudes were formed, but it also shows that the system is starting to crack. It’s not just that the sanctions are starting to bite so there is, for example, petrol rationing, it is also that order in society is starting to break down so that it affects the white minority.  There are also challenges to the regime from within their own circle.  Family cohesion is breaking down, which is catastrophic for conservative families because their religion values (their version of) ‘family life’ so highly.

Cultural warning:
Aspects of this review use offensive terminology from the Apartheid era.

The story is told in two time frames: the end of the school year in 1973 when Marnus is just a boy of eight or nine; and in June 1988 when he is a Lieutenant in the South African army, fighting over the border in Angola. As a boy, Marnus has a best friend and ‘blood-brother’ called Frikkie, and their lives revolve around school, homework, fishing and not getting caught when they get into minor mischief.  For Marnus, who has absorbed his authoritarian father’s sanctimonious strictures about morality and truth, telling lies about helping Frikkie with maths homework demands an ongoing secret penance in his nightly prayers. Marnus is depicted as a rather nice little boy, whose encounters with others including ‘Coloureds’ are generally positive.  He has mean thoughts about some peers who are less privileged than he is, but he has been taught to keep these unkind inclinations in check.

It is not until late in the novel when he has an encounter with a servant who was sacked for theft that we see his sense of entitlement emerge and recognise the kind of adult he will become.  Chrisjan, now a derelict begging on the streets, doesn’t recognise Marnus, and Marnus, convinced of his own importance in this wretched man’s life, is outraged.  He misses Chrisjan and the chats they had in the garden, and considered him to be part of his life, albeit one whose unequal status is never questioned.  When this connection is repudiated, Marnus is furious… and he is horribly cruel to this vulnerable man.

Marnus has an older sister called Ilse who is starting to question aspects of the regime that trouble her.  Because of her father’s position, she is destined to be Head Girl at her exclusive school, but from an exchange trip to Holland she’s been exposed to different ideas.  She loves her Tannie (Aunt) Karla but her father won’t have her and her liberal ideas in the house so Tannie has gone into exile in Britain.  The gulf between Ilsa and her mother is exposed with piercing clarity when they venture into the ‘Coloured’ part of the hospital to see how the child of their domestic servant Doreen is getting on after a shocking attack by white men (for whom there is never any accountability BTW.)

This section of the hospital looks smaller and darker than the way I remember Ouma Erasmus’s section.  I wonder where all the doctors are, because everything looks so quiet here.  I wonder if there are Coloured doctors or whether white doctors have to operate on the Coloureds.  After a while, a Coloured matron arrives and asks if she can help us.  Mum says we’ve come to see one of the patients.  The matron asks who the patient is.  Mum says it’s a boy that got severely burnt in Beaufort West.  Him and his mother arrived here this afternoon by ambulance.  The matron says they have too many casualties to simply know who it is, she needs the patient’s name.

Mum says his name is Neville.  The matron looks at Mum as if she’s waiting for something.  Then she asks: ‘And his surname?  What is the patient’s surname?’

Mum says she doesn’t know.

Then Ilse says: ‘It’s Malan.  His name is Neville Malan, and his mother is Mrs Doreen Malan.’  (p.188)

Marnus wonders how Ilse knows what Doreen’s surname is.  The reader wonders how a family can have a servant for decades and not know her surname.

As an adult, Marnus follows his father into the army to protect the Republic from the hostility of the world beyond its borders. Wikipedia tells me that the South African Border War, also known as the Namibian War of Independence or the Angolan Bush War took place between 1966 and 1990, and…

Despite being largely fought in neighbouring states, the South African Border War had a phenomenal cultural and political impact on South African society. The country’s apartheid government devoted considerable effort towards presenting the war as part of a containment programme against regional Soviet expansionism and used it to stoke public anti-communist sentiment. It remains an integral theme in contemporary South African literature at large and Afrikaans-language works in particular, having given rise to a unique genre known as grensliteratuur (directly translated “border literature”).

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know more about this border literature? As far as I can tell, it’s the subject of academic interest behind paywalls.  But The Smell of Apples would certainly qualify, because of the way the plot develops… in both time frames.

One final point, however, is that there is a graphic scene which may trigger distress in vulnerable readers.  It is difficult to identify without spoilers, except to say that it involves both boys in a tragic loss of innocence.

*The M-net Awards were awarded from 1991-2013.  Initially the prizes were awarded in two categories: a work of fiction in English, and one in Afrikaans.  In keeping with South Africa’s multilingual population, it expanded to include categories such as Nguni, SeSotho, SeTsonga, TshiVenda, and there also was an award for Film.  Writers who won this award who are reviewed here at ANZ LitLovers include Zakes Mda, Ingrid Winterbach, J M Coetzee, Dan Sleigh, and Andre Brink.

Author: Mark Behr
Title: The Smell of Apples (Die Reuk van Appels)
Publisher: Abacus (an imprint of the Little, Brown book group), 1995, (2014 reprint), first published in 1993
ISBN: 9780349107561, pbk., 200 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $24.88

From a quick search, it seems that The Smell of Apples is still available in paperback, but not, I think, as an eBook.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 24, 2023

Limberlost shortlisted for the 2023 Dylan Thomas Prize

It will come as no surprise to those of us who have read and loved Robbie Arnott’s novel Limberlost, that it has been shortlisted for the 2023 Dylan Thomas Prize.

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing/Atlantic Books): see my review

At turns tender and vicious, Limberlost is a tale of the masculinities we inherit, the limits of ownership and understanding, and the teeming, vibrant wonders of growing up. Told in spellbinding, folkloric spirit, this is an unforgettable love letter to the richness of the natural world from a writer of rare talent.


Prajwal Parajuly on Limberlost by Robbie Arnott (Atlantic Books)
“We loved this book for its stunning sentences, its quiet meditation on masculinity, and its ability to conjure up (as well as transport us to) 1940s Tasmania. There’s a beautiful tenderness to Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost that impressed us. We are thrilled to have it on the 2023 shortlist.”

You can descriptions of and praise for the other shortlisted books on the prize website:

  • Seven Steeples by Sara Baume (Tramp Press)
  • God’s Children Are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu (Orion, Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel (Rough Trade Press / Granta)
  • Send Nudes by Saba Sams (Bloomsbury Publishing)
  • Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire (Chatto & Windus, [Vintage])

Congratulations Robbie!!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 23, 2023

Doting (1952), by Henry Green

NothingDoting, by British author Henry Green (1905-1973) is another of his comedy of manners novels, but because it’s written almost entirely in dialogue between a tangled cast of characters, it takes reading between the lines to work out what Green was ‘on about’ in this, his last novel.  It was first published in 1952, two decades before he died.  Wikipedia tells me that…

In his later years, until his death in 1973, he became increasingly focused on studies of the Ottoman Empire, and became alcoholic and reclusive.

Despite its sparkling wit, perhaps this last novel is a hint of the depression that may have beset him in the last years of his life.

While it’s not true to say I made heavy weather of Doting, I found myself increasingly puzzled by it. The dialogue often seems inconclusive.  Characters talk past each other, sentences aren’t finished, and there are cultural allusions that are, for an Australian reader in the C21st century, just out of sight. The characters know what the other is thinking, but we don’t.  Or not quite.

So the novel seems lightweight, as the blurb at Goodreads implies:

Written almost completely in dialogue, Henry Green’s final novel is a biting comedy of manners that exposes the deceptive difference between those who love and those who “dote.” Arthur Middleton is a middle-aged member of the upper-middle class living in post-World War II London with his wife. Stuck in a passionless marriage, Arthur becomes infatuated with Annabel, a much younger woman. Their relationship sets into motion a series of intertwining affairs between five close friends less concerned with love than with their attempts to keep the other lovers apart.

The introduction in my edition by literary critic D J Taylor has little to say about it so perhaps he was puzzled too.

It was not until I came to an exchange between the young flirt Annabel and her older admirer, the widower Charles Addinsell, that I joined the dots…

Annabel is flirting with a purpose.  She’s looking for a husband because she comes of the class where it’s expected that she marry, and marry well.  Charles tells her that he’s not up for marriage because he lost his wife Penelope in childbirth:

‘Then why not marry a second time?’ Ann asked in a bewildered voice.  ‘Another mother for your child.’

‘Might die again,’ the man replied, with obvious distaste.

‘Oh no!’ she cried.

‘Not much use for poor little Joe if she did, after all?’

‘I suppose not, Charles.  Yet there’s no reason she should, is there?’

‘Oh none,’he appeared to agree.  ‘Still, that’s all a part of what life has in store for one.’ (p.262)

[Notice the way Green universalises Charles.  It’s ‘the man’ who replies; it’s what life has in store for ‘one’.]

He goes on to say that what he has against ‘living’, is the dirty tricks fate has in store. 

…No good blinking facts.  Do better to realise, they probably will be coming for you.  I couldn’t stand a second kick in the pants of the kind.’

‘But if you’ve already had one really terrible misfortune, aren’t the chances against another, Charles? [LH: see how this sentence drifts off without an ending?]

‘Same as with roulette,’ he answered. ‘When you’re at the tables, identical numbers will keep cropping up!’ (p.263)

In a novel which skewers the generation gap, this exchange reveals the gulf between them.  This is the difference between loving, and doting. As Arthur Middleton explains to Ann:

Love must include adoration of course, but if you just dote on a girl you don’t necessarily go so far as to love her. Loving goes deeper. (p.203)

Arthur Middleton and his wife love each other, enough to withstand their respective infatuations and indiscretions.  But Charles, through loss, has learned that loving can be painful and that doting is perhaps wiser. Ann, with all her life before her in a world that seems full of possibility, remains hopeful and idealistic despite her scatty behaviour.

Having read about Henry Green’s war in his novel Caught (1943) and in Lara Feigel’s The Love-Charms of Bombs, Restless Lives in the Second World War  (2013), I recognised further nuance in this exchange in which Ann protests that he surely isn’t warning women not to love their own children…

…’would you really warn a woman against looking forward to her own children?’

‘They can always die, too.’

‘In a bomb explosion, you mean?’

‘Not necessarily,’ he said.

‘Oh but fifty years ago they died like flies, quite naturally!’ Ann exploded.  ‘Doctors have changed all that! I don’t suppose any number of bombs nowadays could kill the millions of people that used to go just from disease.’ (p.265)

Green’s readers in 1952 would have been alert to the resonances of these words.  They had fresh memories of the Blitz and everyone was suffering the loss of loved ones in the war — fathers and mothers; brothers and sisters; husbands, wives and lovers; sons and daughters; friends, neighbours and colleagues. As Lara Feigel shows, no one escaped bereavement, and though Ann is blissfully unaware of the irony, the prospect of sudden death from ‘any number of bombs’ is certainly not over.  The American use of weapons of mass destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ensuing nuclear arms race meant that there was the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation.  (And there still is, though the cheerleaders for war seem oblivious to that.)

PS Apropos of the light-hearted way Annabel flirts with assorted men, Green tackles an issue that apparently some men still don’t understand:

…she let him kiss her, freely.

He got quite out of breath in the end.

‘Oh, let’s go next door!’ the man murmured, at last.

‘No, Arthur,’ she said, in a different voice.

‘D’yyou mean that?’

‘I’m afraid so,’ Miss Paynton answered, and slewed her mouth away from his.

‘How can one tell when girls mean no?’ he whispered, kissing the lobe of an ear.

By believing them, dearest, she told the man.  He seemed to credit this, for, after a moment, he drew away and began to fiddle with his tie. (p.283, underlining mine.)

Introduced to Henry Green by Henry Green Week at Winston’s Dad, I’ve read Nothing (1950);  Loving (1945); and Caught (1943). (Links go to my reviews).  The other title in this compilation still to read is Blindness. 

Author: Henry Green
Title: Nothing, Doting, Blindness
Introduction by D J Taylor
Publisher: Vintage Classics 2008, first published 1950
ISBN: 9780099481485
Source: Personal library, purchased from the London Review Bookshop.

As I wrote in a recent #6Degrees, we tend to have a skewed version of WW2 events, often limited to the General Macarthur narrative that prevails in the Pacific War.  If I didn’t subscribe to the Asian Review of Books, I might have never have heard of Thomas McKenna’s Moro Fighter or learned about the Filipino heroes of the Resistance movement.  The US was pivotal to the defeat of the Japanese in WW2, but they did not fight alone in the Philippines (or anywhere else).

About the book (from the AmazonAU website)

Moro Warrior tells the remarkable true story of the Philippine Muslim (Moro) resistance fighters of World War II — the most successful and least-known guerrillas of the Pacific Theatre. It is the story of Mohammad Adil, a sword-wielding warrior chieftain commissioned as a junior officer in Douglas MacArthur’s guerrilla army while still a teenager. Confident in his secret protective powers learned from a Sufi master, Adil roamed the highland rainforests with a price on his head, attacking Japanese outposts, surviving ambushes, and gaining a reputation as a man who could not be killed.

It is also the story of the colonial official Edward Kuder, foster father to Mohammad Adil and a rare American friend to the Moros, who sheltered him during the Japanese occupation. Kuder was the sole chronicler of the early Moro resistance — an armed opposition so vigorous that the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army found themselves outfought time and again by Moro irregulars.

When the soldiers of the Empire of Japan invaded their homeland, the Moros, sometimes with swords as their only weapons, bravely fought on alone after the rapid American surrender of the Philippines. At the urging of Edward Kuder, they later joined the American-led guerrilla movement that emerged in 1943 and served with distinction, but their exceptional contribution to the defeat of the Japanese occupiers and the liberation of the Philippines has never been properly acknowledged. Here, based on the vivid recollections of Mohammad Adil and the wartime writings of Edward Kuder, the extraordinary achievements and sacrifices of the Moro freedom fighters of Mindanao finally receive their full due.

The AmazonAU website tells us that McKenna is an anthropologist who has worked among Moro communities in the Philippines and spent decades writing and conducting research on their culture and history.  He interrogates the narratives at hand: the recollections of Mohammad Adil, a sword-wielding warrior chieftain commissioned as a junior officer in Douglas MacArthur’s guerrilla army while still a teenager and the writings of the colonial official Edward Kuder, foster father to Mohammad Adil and a rare American friend to the Moros, who sheltered him during the Japanese occupation. McKenna confirms Adil’s stories and Kuder’s writings with records from military archives. These stories amplify the Wikipedia version of Philippine Resistance here and here.

Mohammad Adil is not much more than a boy at the beginning of McKenna’s book, and what gives the story authenticity is the acknowledgement of the mistakes that were made.  In later years as he learned to trust McKenna, Adil confessed to comic blunders and tragic missteps, disappointments and regrets. Well, normal people aren’t born with the strategic skills, expertise and cunning to combat an occupier, and resistance fighters have to learn these skills, and they make mistakes while they’re learning.  Adil has some lucky escapes from a formidable and callous enemy.

Not only from his enemies! Hoping to join the guerillas, he makes his way to their camp with his foster father Kuder…

It was midday, and there were few guerrillas about. Hedges was not in his office, but Adil recognized Datu Lagindab, whom he knew from his time as a student in Lanao, sitting with some other Maranao men on a bamboo bench along the wall. Adil saw that Lagindab carried one of the new M1 Garand semi-automatic rifles recently offloaded from an American submarine, and he asked if he could examine it. Its mechanism was unlike the Springfield rifle he was used to, and as he handled it, the gun went off, its .30 caliber bullet smashing into Hedges’ portable typewriter on the nearby desk and flinging it across the room.

The sound of a gunshot from Hedges’ office woke the camp, and within seconds the room was filled with men, mostly Americans and Filipinos, with guns drawn and pointed at Adil, standing now with the Garand by his side and beginning to tremble. As shouts of “spy!” rang out, Datu Lagindab and a few other Maranaos stepped in front of Adil. With raised guns and hardened faces, they roared back that the gunshot was an accident and that they would defend this lad. Several tense moments passed until Hedges appeared, recognized the culprit as Edward Kuder’s boy, and ordered all the men to stand down. He cursed vigorously at the sight of his punctured typewriter, scowled at Adil, then dismissed him. Burning with shame, the boy went to find Kuder. It was not the sort of first impression he had hoped to make at guerrilla headquarters.  (pp. 77-78).

But in time, 19-year-old Mohammad Adil became one of the youngest officers in General Douglas MacArthur’s guerrilla army, commissioned as a third lieutenant in the 119th regiment, bringing hope to other Moro with gifts such as Marlboro cigarettes that proved the Americans were on their way to help. In the photos, he looks like a schoolboy.

McKenna writes that, though there were some (including the Sultan) who counselled an end to resistance because they feared Japanese reprisals, the formidable Moro resistance tempered the brutality and reprisals of the Japanese occupation to some extent.

Military history is not my thing but McKenna writes well, flavouring the narrative with anecdotes that bring the principal identities and the locale alive for readers not familiar with the Philippines.  There’s a great story, for instance, about Datu Piang and how he rose from being a nobody to overturn a cruel tyrant called Datu Utu, basically through diplomacy and strategic alliances.

But there are also stories of vengeance and infighting that are not for the faint-hearted. Perhaps that goes with the territory for guerilla fighters… As McKenna says, Adil was a multi-sided individual.

By 1986, he was widely known as a fearsome man who personified the fighting spirit of the Moros—a man about whom songs were sung and legends were told. He was described in terms used for forces of nature: dangerous, unstoppable, uncontrollable. He was said to inspire fierce loyalty in his soldiers, who told him they would gladly jump into the mouth of a crocodile if he gave them the order. He was also known as a “man without mercy” because, as a constabulary officer, he could not be bribed and would arrest even his kinsmen. And he was reputed to be both fearless and, when provoked, deadly. He was, without a doubt, the man described by that reputation.

But as I spent more time with him at his home, I gradually gained a fuller perspective on his life. He was also a man who quoted Kipling, Tennyson, and William James and considered himself an environmentalist. He wrote beautifully composed letters in a graceful hand, preferred classical music, and appreciated beauty in all forms, especially in women. He had a robust, unselfconscious sense of humor and enjoyed making people laugh. Married to his first wife for 47 years until her death, he raised three daughters to be courageous and uncompromising and four sons to be thoughtful and wise. Later, he doted on his grandchildren, raised orchids, and had a warm and playful relationship with his second wife, whom he addressed with great tenderness as “friend.” (p. 166).


I felt uneasy about recovery from illness (and even aspects of childbirth) being attributed to superstition and the supermatural.  Spirituality and customary healing and protective verses from the Koran may be comforting, but at the end of the day malaria responds to quinine, or with good nursing and a bit of luck it runs its course, or you die.   Adil’s difficult birth would not have been resolved by Saik a Datu touching his mother’s tormented body where it was most swollen, and speaking a few potent words. A day’s labour is, alas, not unusual, and the arrival of the child would simply have been Mother Nature at work.

Likewise, attributing military success to prayers to Allah ignores the fact that combatants on all sides pray to their assorted gods. (Germany and Britain were praying to the same one.) But the author simply repeats these claims without contesting them.

I must admit to losing steam towards the end of the book.  It does a fine job of showing that Adil was, as many heroes are, a flawed human having great courage.  But he also had an elevated view of his own importance.  TBH his demands for respect because of  maratabat (a sense of personal honour, dignity, self-esteem and reputation) sounds mostly like testosterone to me, and (influenced by this article) I’d be interested to know how enthusiastic the women are about it.

The book includes Acknowledgements; A Brief Note on Sources and Methods; a Select Bibliography; a Glossary and Pronunciation Guide; Illustration Credits;  and an Index.

Author: Thomas McKenna
Title: Moro Warrior: A Philippine Chieftain, an American Schoolmaster, and The Untold Story of the Most Remarkable Resistance Fighters of World War II in the Pacific
Publisher: Armin Lear Press (2022)
ASIN: B09YD9PBFY, Kindle edition, 324 pages, with numerous B&W reproductions of photos
Source: Purchased for the Kindle from AmazonAU

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2023

2023 Indie Book Awards winners

The Indie Book Awards have been announced — congratulations to the winners!


Horse by Geraldine Brooks (Hachette Australia), see Jennifer’s review at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large


The Book Of Roads And Kingdoms by Richard Fidler (ABC Books, HarperCollins Australia)


All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien (HQ Fiction, HarperCollins), see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes


First Nations Food Companion by Damien Coulthard and Rebecca Sullivan (Murdoch Books)


Runt by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin)


The Brink by Holden Sheppard (Text Publishing)

Indie Book of the Year

Runt by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2023

Return to Valetto (2023), by Dominic Smith

Long, long after the German occupation of Italy and the partisan resistance to the Nazis and the local fascists, its shadow remains.  And as with so much of what is unspeakable from World War II, silence reigns over painful and divisive events in Dominic Smith’s latest novel, set in the fictional town of Valetto.

Return to Valetto is a reminder that sunny Italy, with its universally loved cuisine, its beautiful churches and cathedrals, its picturesque villages, its Roman monuments and its must-see art galleries, was once a fascist state.  And just as there were fascists in Britain, the US, Australia and no doubt elsewhere amongst the allies who fought fascism, Hitler’s ally Mussolini had enthusiastic supporters throughout his country.  As elsewhere in Europe, in Italy there was partisan opposition, and though they exacted terrible revenge when they could, after the war some of those fascists melted into obscurity so that life could go on.

Though the exact year in which contemporary events in Smith’s novel take place is fuzzy, 1943 is the year that scarred some inhabitants of Valetto for life.  That year is still within living memory for some very old people and it persists in memory through their families.  (My neighbour Nello, born in the late 1920s, was 15 when he fought with the Italian partisans. At his funeral his proud family displayed a photo of him leading the victory march in Rome.)

Early on in the novel, the narrator Hugh mentions his daughter’s economics research:

‘Remind me what she is studying,’ said Rose.

‘Economics,’ I said.  ‘She’s currently studying how people make decisions when faced with ambiguity.’

‘How marvellous,’ said Violet.  ‘Whatever does it mean?

‘She studies the relationship between reward and risk in economic decision-making, especially as it varies by age and culture and gender.’

They all looked at me, nodding politely but without interest. (p.30)

What an odd snippet to include in the novel, I thought.  And so I noted ‘reward and risk’  and the page number, and my antenna went up again when I saw ‘reward and risk’ again on page 48, in the context of Aunt Iris spending her retirement using data to hunt down serial killers who think they’ve gotten away with something. 

So, yes, this novel is a romcom script in disguise.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but the plotting isn’t subtle. Any alert reader is going to figure out that the ‘secret’ in the blurb will be a someone right under Aunt Iris’s nose, and that a betrayal will originate in WW2 when Hugh’s grandfather was fighting with the partisans.  Hugh is a widower stuck in his grief after the death of his wife six years ago, and his daughter is chivvying him about moving on, so there’s no surprise when there is a kiss.  (He wasn’t expecting it, but the reader was. You can see the movie closeup in the mind’s eye.) The interloper trying to wrest Hugh’s inheritance from him just happens to be a chef, and a visiting chef is just what’s needed when old Ida’s 100th birthday celebrations swell the population of the dying village (10 people) into hundreds.  Perfect for a tableau denouement!

Yet… for the book groups who will love this novel, there are rewards and risks to discuss.   Hugh isn’t risking much when he considers The Kiss.  The aunts are risking their reputation as hospitable hosts when they give their mother a free hand with the guest list for her birthday party.  But there are three characters who risk a lot: someone who thinks he’s got away with something, who wants a last bitter hurrah; a chef who risks her professional reputation; and much more significantly, a character who risks her mental health when asked to revisit very painful memories.  Should she have been asked to do that by characters wanting vengeance for a betrayal withheld from their knowledge for decades?

BTW The book group menu is easy: antipasto and pizza; pinot grigio for fans of chardonnay and robust Italian reds for drinkers of Shiraz.  But there are lots of tempting descriptions of food for the more ambitious.  This is because there are two loyal retainers who facilitate a leisured lifestyle untroubled by domestic duties: Milo, apprenticed at eleven to be the tuttofare who does ‘everything’, and his long-suffering wife Donata who does the housekeeping and produces fabulous food whenever it’s required. Return to Valetto is a feast for the senses.

Theresa Smith reviewed Return to Valetto too. 

BTW the spelling of ‘brooch’ as ‘broach’ for an item of jewellery on p 26: there are fancy etymological explanations for the historic use of ‘broach’ and the American Mirriam-Webster dictionary chides those of us who wondered if this was an Americanisation of ‘brooch’ (i.e.  the jewellery a woman wears on her bosom):

Since the 13th century, both brooch and broach have been used to refer to the jewelry, so castigating those who write about wearing broaches is quite unfair.

So I will confine myself to pointing out that the spelling is unusual

Author: Dominic Smith
Title: Return to Valetto
Cover design: Sandy Cull
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2023
ISBN: 9781761067273, pbk., 358 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

Alerted to the death of notable Croatian author Dubravka Ugrešić (1949-2023) by a Tweet from Declan O’Driscoll, I remembered that her essay collection Nobody’s Home was part of The First 25 book bundle that I bought from Open Letter Books, ages ago in 2014.

This is the book description:

A series of incisive essays from Dubravka Ugresic explores the full spectrum of human existence. From bottled-water drinking tourists with massive backpacks to the Eurovision song contest, Ugresic’s unfailingly sharp critical eye never fails to reveal what has been hidden in plain sight by routine, or uncover the tragic, and the comic, in the everyday.

Born in Croatia in 1949 but eschewing nationalism, Dubravka Ugrešić was a writer, translator and literary scholar with a keen interest in Russian avant-garde culture. She began her award-winning writing career with screenplays and books for children, and translated forgotten and contemporary Russian writers into Croatian. She was best known in the former Yugoslavia for her fiction, novels and short stories, but in 1996 she went into exile in the Netherlands because she was anti-nationalism and anti-war.  As her profile at Goodreads tells us:

In 1991, when the war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, Ugrešić took a firm anti-nationalistic stand and consequently an anti-war stand. She started to write critically about nationalism (both Croatian and Serbian), the stupidity and criminality of war, and soon became a target of the nationalistically charged media, officials, politicians, fellow writers and anonymous citizens. She was proclaimed a “traitor”, a “public enemy” and a “witch”, ostracized and exposed to harsh and persistent media harassment. She left Croatia in 1993.

In exile Ugrešić continued teaching and writing, including novels and books of essays of which Nobody’s Home (Nikog nema doma) is one. Amongst other awards, she won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2016. Her books are widely translated and translation enthusiasts at Book Twitter are devastated by her early death in Amsterdam at the age of 73.

I haven’t read the whole collection, because Nobody’s Home is a book for dipping into, but I’ve enjoyed some of those with the most arresting titles.  I particularly enjoyed ‘What Is European about European Literature?’ with its droll parallels in the Eurovision song contest, and also her self-mockery in ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ where she has a panic attack on the famous Gaudi staircase in Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia.

What possessed me to go up it in the first place? How many steps are there left to go? Will I ever get down—or will I be stuck in the bell tower—looking through the narrow little window at a scrap of sky—forever? Ah Gaudi! I waited in line from early morning yesterday for the famous Casa Mila, ‘”La Pedrera,” to open.  Gaudi’s roof, with those astonishing chimneys (espantabruixes) as if it anticipated the future invasion of camera-clicking tourists: no one can escape being caught in someone’s picture. (p.199)

(Yes, *blush*, you can see my enthusiastic camera-clicking at these sites in the slide-show at my travel blog.)

I could also relate to her wry lamentation about visits to cities that can be reduced to the things I haven’t seen.  Unlike Ugrešić, I have seen the Sistine Chapel, but my plans have likewise been foiled by renovations, strikes, airline stuffups, inexperience at being a tourist, and just not having enough time to see, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and the Milan cathedral, St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Rodin’s statue of Balzac in Paris, and anything in Greece because they were rioting when we were planning my Big Birthday trip in 2012 and so we went to Russia instead.

I am likewise glad that I did most of my travel not so much in the less democratic times when airfares were expensive and Ugrešić had the Louvre, Hermitage and Metropolitan to herself, but before the advent of the hordes ticking off their bucket lists with selfies to prove it and the monster cruise ships in Venice.

Because since then the cities, and with them the museums, have been occupied by consumers of cheap airfares: people resigned to every physical and mental humiliation; tourists with nerves of steel and astonishing physical endurance; human specimens outfitted for combat, armed with backpacks, cameras and bottled water; people waiting patiently in long lines, latter-day pilgrims who are paying penance for who knows what sins; hunters on the lookout for tourist relics and collectors amassing cheap souvenirs; people who have taken the metaphor of the world as a global village literally.  (p.200-1)

Ugrešić is not afraid to be elitist (and neither am I when it comes to cultural institutions, though ‘concern for the cost’ is not unimportant when I can’t just ‘hop off’ to London from Australia).

It has always been them and me.  They used to spend their weekends shopping in malls while I visited museums; they sweated buckets, ransacking Ikeas for furniture for their lairs, and I, with no concern for the cost, hopped off to London for the latest exhibitions.  What happened? The last ten years or so they have caught onto the fact that there are cheap flights and now they are flooding my (my!) places. (p.210)

It didn’t take Covid to deter Ugrešić’ from travel. (My last trip was in 2019, and that was only to New Zealand.)

Now I live on the Internet.  And after all, if our lives are already virtual, why should our travel, including our visits to museums, have to be real? I can find everything I want on museum websites.  The Met and MOMA are my favourite Internet destinations. (p.202)

No, no, Dubravka, it’s not the same!

‘Let Putin Kiss a Wet Slippery Fish’ is a take-down of Putin’s penchant for self-image management, observing that in that famous photo he has killed several semantic birds with one stone: he was addressing the gay population; alluding to a heterosexual metaphor for women; and ‘sending a kiss’ to the subconscious mind of the Russian people, who know their fairy tales. Ugrešić’s interpretation of this allusion to ‘By the Pike’s Wish’ is that it was intended to show Russians that they should put their trust in a higher order i.e. him.  It’s easy humour but Ugrešić goes further, noting that this kind of subliminal messaging that signals an ancient potent fraternity is done by all kinds of leaders.

If hundreds of tons of paper and millions of dollars were spent some eight years back when the Clinton-Lewinsky national lottery spun, and if all of America was caught up in measuring the diameter of the stain from Clinton’s sperm on Monica’s dress, why shouldn’t Putin publicly kiss a slippery, wet fish? If Mikhail Gorbachov [sic] can advertise Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton (photographed by Annie Liebowitz, no less), why shouldn’t Putin have a snap taken with an impressive Caspian sturgeon?

But I am not interested in Putin, or the fish, but in hunger, the hunger for the limelight. What has provoked this massive yearning?  Some twenty years ago, expectations called for the opposite behaviour.  It was once considered vulgar and a sign of bad upbringing to speak of yourself, to tell the public about your private life, to cosy up to people you don’t know, and to show undue interest in the private lives of others.  How did it happen that what used to be vulgar has become an essential part of daily life?

Amazon Echo Dot

When I first went to Moscow many years ago, my Russian friends held to an unwritten rule: the less you said about yourself, the thinner the police files would be.  Why is everyone now rushing to fill their files?  Why do we treat the former bogeyman of the totalitarian system, Big Brother, like a household pet? Isn’t there anyone left in the world who suffers from healthy paranoia? (p.210)

Ugrešić goes on to write about the great paradox that the more we eat, the hungrier we are.  People are frightened of disappearing but the more traces they leave, the faster they are erased.  The more books we publish, the quicker they are forgotten; the more movies we watch, the less able we are to remember what they were called. 

Where our ancestors left behind only a few photographs, we record absolutely everything today:

our inception, life in the womb, emergence from the womb, games, growth, every minute, every month, every year, the operations, excursions, sexual acts, pulling of teeth, concerts—absolutely everything. Even when we don’t do the recording ourselves, there are many services at work recording our biographies: somewhere our every purchase of an airplane ticket is on file, our dinners, the shoes we bought, the times we went to the doctor.  (p.212)

Our archives are full, she says, even before we’re born.  (Well, mine isn’t! The first photo of me is the one you see as my avatar.)

I hope that Ugrešić’s books aren’t forgotten.  In her brief essays, she offers so much to think about.  The very next essay, ‘A Little Story about Remembering and Forgetting’, explores cultural oblivion, and how it gets harder and harder to explain important aspects of how things were to ensuing generations.  In the haste to obliterate the history of communism, some things are lost.  She could not readily explain samizdat literature to her young students:

The East European culture that had been created under communism dwells in a similar limbo of oblivion. This was an intriguing culture and the shared ideological landscape gave it a certain consistency—the landscape of communism.  It was a fact that the finest part of that culture was born of its defiance of communism, split into the “official” and the “underground” sides.  Aspects of that cultural landscape are a part of many of us.  Among us there are many who remember the brilliant Polish, Czech, and Hungarian movies; the stirring theatre; the culture of samizdat; art exhibits and plays held in people’s living rooms; critically orientated thinkers, intellectuals, and dissidents; and great experimental books whose subversive approach was built on the tradition of the avant-garde movements of Eastern Europe.  All of this has regrettably, gone by the board, because all of it has been stymied by the same merciless stigma of “communist” culture.  (p.214)

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I feel like a fool for having left my discovery of Dubravka Ugrešić for so long.

The translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać is excellent.  The prose flows, the gentle mockery never jars.

You can find out more at her website.

Author: Dubravka Ugrešić
Title: Nobody’s Home (Nikog nema doma)
Cover design by Milan Bozic
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2008, first published 2005
ISBN: 9781934824009
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from Open Letter Books via their First 25 book bundle.

Photo credits:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 18, 2023

Seasons in Hippoland (2021), by Wanjikũ Wa Ngũgĩ

Seasons in Hippoland was a serendipitous loan from a Bayside Library display.  It has an arresting title, a moody cover image and an author name that I (sort of) recognised…

Wanjikũ Wa Ngũgĩ is the daughter of Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (whose books I have reviewed here).  She was born in Kenya, educated in the US and has lived and worked in Eritrea, Zimbabwe and Finland.  Wikipedia tells me that her CV includes journalism and editorial work as well as founding and directing the Helsinki African Film Festival.  Her writing includes her debut novel The Fall of Saints (2014) and contributing to anthologies such as New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent (2019); and short stories in Akashic Books’ Noir Series: Houston Noir (2019) and Nairobi Noir (2020). If her second novel Seasons in Hippoland (2021) is anything to go by, literary talent runs in families. (Her brother Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ is also a writer.)

#Digression: Whispering Gums... have you ever done a Monday Musings on Literary Offspring in Australia?

This is the blurb for Seasons in Hippoland, along with the Seagull edition cover.  I like the hippos, but I think the undercurrents of the gazebo edition cover fit the story better and since ‘Dark Billabong’ is an Australian image, it adds to the universality of the novel’s concerns:

Victoriana is a country ruled by an Emperor-for-Life who is dying from an illness not officially acknowledged in a land where truth and facts are decided by the Emperor. The elite goes along with the charade. Their children are conditioned to conform. It is a land of truthful lies, where reality has uncertain meaning.

Mumbi, a rebellious child from the capital of Westville, and her brother are sent to live in rural Hippoland. But what was meant to be a punishment turns out to be a glorious discovery of the magic of the land, best captured in the stories their eccentric aunt Sara tells them. Most captivating to the children is the tale of a porcelain bowl supposed to possess healing powers. Returning to Westville as an adult, Mumbi spreads the story throughout the city and to the entire country. Exhausted by years of endless bleak lies, the people are fascinated by the mystery of the porcelain bowl. When word of its healing powers reaches the Emperor himself, he commands Mumbi to find it for him—with dramatic consequences for everyone in Victoriana.

The story begins with Mumbi as a sulky adolescent, sent to stay with her Aunt Sara because her parents are anxious about her rebellious behaviour.  The irony is that both her parents and Aunt Sara were rebels themselves, but they were fighting for a political cause not for the right to party and smoke dope.  Mumbi is furious about being banished to the countryside:

I thought of the friends I was leaving behind and my heart plummeted again.  I wanted to be in their shoes, chasing each other on the streets or fighting over popcorn while they waited in line to watch the American super-stars whose names and life events bounced off our mouths like poetry.  There was also the possibility of meeting Soul Dreamers, a Westville a cappella group we’d only so far seen on TV.  My friends and I had divided up the members among ourselves.  For marriage that is.  We so desperately hoped to bump into them somewhere, and constantly wagered with each other as to who would be the lucky first to do so.  My rural banishment would no doubt give them a huge advantage in this matter. (p.11)

She tries sulking in silence but doesn’t last long because she is captivated by Aunt Sara’s stories (and her wonderful cooking).  Her parents are good people but they are busy lawyers.  Family life is constantly disrupted by the need to help clients deal with the depredations of a government indifferent to the poor and vulnerable.  They haven’t told their children anything about the struggle for independence or the risks they took.  Aunt Sara’s stories are a revelation.

Seasons in Hippoland is a coming-of-age story that portrays the complexity of entering an adult world of where the dreams of postcolonial independence have been corrupted by greed, violence and corruption.  The country isn’t named as a setting, but it isn’t hard to work out that it could be any number of countries in Africa.

Magic realism is used, economically, to assert the importance of oral history, listening to elders, and resistance to dictatorship and oppression. One of the most vivid scenes concerns Mumbi reliving a frightening incident in Aunt Sara’s life.  For a moment, the reader is puzzled by the ‘magic’, and then the realism takes over.  It makes it possible to show how the reality of Aunt Sara’s experiences affect the next generation too.

Perhaps there are autobiographical elements in the portrayal of the next generation’s reluctance to follow in parental footsteps.  (Wikipedia tells us that The Ngũgĩ  family was deeply impacted by the repression of the Mau Mau revolution.) Mumbi does not want to be a lawyer, and by her own account she slacks off at school so it’s a bit surprising that she gets into law school.  But Seasons in Hippoland shows that there’s an imperative to do what you can for your country, even when it’s risky.

Author: Wanjikũ Wa Ngũgĩ
Title: Seasons in Hippoland
Cover and frontispiece image: ‘Dark Billabong’ 2021 by Alexander McKenzie
Publisher: Gazebo Books, Summer Hill NSW 2022, first published by Seagull Books 2021
ISBN: 978064510309
Source: Bayside Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 16, 2023

The Big Smoke (1959), by D’Arcy Niland

I nearly didn’t read this novel. I had a bad feeling about it based on the cover art of my 1978 Penguin edition, and then the first paragraph features a character using some truly awful, awful racist language.  But because I made a hesitant decision to keep reading this author of social novels, I now know that Niland was reproducing what would have been an authentic way of talking about Australia’s First Nations in the era and milieu of the novel, and he had a purpose for doing that. He goes on to show with confronting clarity how endemic racism impacted on some of his characters.

And he also shows that his central character, against all the odds, had agency in his life and made a success of it.  And that’s why we see this character as one of a couple dressed in smart middle-class clothing, with a derelict old white man behind them on a park bench.

The 1959 Angus & Robertson cover is entirely different. I don’t know who did the cover art but it clearly signals the ‘noir’ character of its contents.  The ‘big smoke’ is Sydney in the 20s and 30s, and this Sydney is ‘.. is a character. It talks. It works on its own. It plays fair and it plays foul.’  Niland’s Sydney is peopled by characters living in poverty, and they are not blessed by affectionate communities or loving families as in the fiction of his wife Ruth Park, the author of novels also set in Sydney: The Harp in the South (1948); Poor Man’s Orange (1949) and their prequel Missus (1985). To quote my review of The Harp in the South:

…while they live in one of the roughest parts of Sydney, and there is drunkenness and violence, theirs is a community which will offer friendship and compassion when it’s needed.

That’s in short supply in The Big Smoke.

Niland (1917-1967) was the son of an Irish shearer.  He began his writing career as a copy boy at the Sydney Sun, working at the Redfern railway sheds to augment his earnings.  But he then chose to travel, work and live amongst the people he wanted to write about.  In Australia and the Pacific, he worked as an opal-miner, a circus hand, a stevedore, and a woolshed rouseabout and these experiences amongst ordinary working people and the underclass informed his fiction and gave it powerful authenticity. Characters in The Big Smoke — a steeplejack, a street sweeper, a night watchman, a paperboy, a seamstress and a waitress come from the world of poorly paid dead-end jobs doing manual labour.  (Actually, I’m not sure that Veronica’s aunt and Gemma’s father pay anything at all to the relatives who work for them.) Small business, such as it is, consists of Sleepy Gus’s burger café, Spitz’s rag-and-bone trade, Aunt Bridie’s dressmaking, and Chiddy Hay’s work as a boxing promoter.  There’s also a priest, a prostitute and a couple of housewives.


The Big Smoke begins and ends with a fight promoter called Chiddy Hay, a loser who has grand dreams of making serious money with a star fighter called Frankie Tarcutta.  Frankie doesn’t really want to be a fighter, but boxing was one way for an Aboriginal man to make a bit of money. Chiddy’s ambitions collapse yet again when Frankie’s powerful punch fells another Aboriginal fighter called Jack Johnson in a row over a girl called Milcy, and Frankie disappears out of Chiddy’s clutches (and the novel) for his own safety.

Milcy is an Aboriginal girl adrift in Sydney. From this one sexual encounter, she has Jack Johnson’s baby, and this child becomes known in the streets as ‘Jack Johnson’s boy’ although there was never a paternal relationship.  ‘Jack Johnson’s boy’ links the ten short stories that comprise the novel.

Families in The Big Smoke are patched together with what’s available. Chapter 2 introduces Ruby, an ageing prostitute whose income now comes from renting out rooms.  She takes in Milcy, delivers the baby, and then (willingly) fosters him when Milcy shoots through.  Medical care for the poor is also in short supply in this Sydney, and when Ruby dies from cancer a faded actor called Old Halley takes over the care of the boy.  Fate has to find another ‘family’ for him when he is mixed up in a murder that he didn’t commit, but he also plays a role in finding a family for Young Frosty, a lonely steeplejack searching for a young woman seen only through a third-storey window.

There’s violence and tragedy too.  Ocker White inadvertently kills his wife when ‘glassing’ a man he suspects of flirting with her; Father McGovern is almost killed by Big Lew, the thug who stole his watch; and Spitz beats his wife and children until his boys are big enough to beat him instead.  One of the most harrowing incidents concerns the old derelict who steals sixpence for a meal from a paperboy and can’t return the stolen money until pension day next week.  The paperboy’s revenge is to grind those two pies into the dust.

Are things any better for people on welfare in the 21st century when the pension money runs out too soon?

What is the value of reading a book like this, which to contemporary readers, has problematic elements?  Well, I wouldn’t advise anyone to mount a hunt to find a copy. (It also has a stereotyped Jewish character who plays a sort of Shylock role in the novel, and its portrayal of accepting family violence is out of step with contemporary values.) Yet it was a serious attempt in 1959 to depict some aspects of the world endured by people of colour.

‘They’ll laugh,’ [Gemma} said. ‘They’ll point and make remarks.  They always do.  It’s horrible.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘It’s always been like that in the jobs I’ve had.  They don’t want to talk to me.  They insult me, the girls even, and the men are worse.  They think I’m… I’m low.  I’m just for poking dirt at because I’m…’
‘Because you’re dark.  Yes.’ (p.188)

Where Niland gets it wrong is that Gemma then tells her mother she’s used to it now and it doesn’t hurt any more.  And her mother says that she didn’t let it get her down. Where he gets it right is when he writes that Gemma lives in expectant fear.  It could break out anywhere, any time.  And it does.  Horribly so.

Would it have been better if it had been written by a First Nations author?  Of course it would.  But it wasn’t.  As the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature shows, First Nations writing began (as far as we know) in 1796 with Bennelong’s letter to Governor Arthur Phillip, but it was not until 1924-5 that the first Aboriginal author David Unaipon was published.  However, Unaipon did not publish fiction and as far as I know, no First Nations novels had ever been published when Niland wrote The Big Smoke. 

Whatever its flaws, The Big Smoke was a brave attempt to confront Australians with some hard truths about the poverty they ignored and the racism they inflicted.

Author: D’Arcy Niland
Title: The Big Smoke
Cover art by Cosmos Julien
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia, 1978, first published 1959
ISBN: 0140049649, pbk., 224 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Diversity Books, $6.00

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 14, 2023

Fools of Fortune (1983), by William Trevor

Chosen as a contribution to Cathy’s Reading Ireland at 746 Books and A Year with William Trevor hosted by Kim at Reading Matters, Fools of Fortune is also a title listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It’s included — along with two others by Trevor, Felicia’s Journey (1994) and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002) — as a poignant novel [that[ explores the legacy of Ireland’s decolonisation, tracing the aftermath from the time of the Black and Tans through to the 1980s.

Fools of Fortune poses a world of love and devotion against their destructive opposites.  […] Trevor’s view combines both Yeats’ intense vision of tragic cycles with a more benevolent Chekhovian sense of a rural world in which a futile human tragicomedy is played out.  […] Trevor is a writer of wonderful economy and precise observation, whose focus is distinctly on the intimacy of his characters’ relations and the local world they inhabit. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 2006 Edition, ABC Books, p.713)

I’ve read a fair few of Trevor’s books, some reviewed here on the blog but many more from my Blytonesque binge when I discovered his work in 2004. What I’ve come to expect from Trevor is that he writes gently about devastating events, and he does so in his mid-career novel Fools of Fortune too.

His central character is William Quinton, just a boy when the Black and Tans kill his father and torch his ancestral home Kilneagh, killing his sisters in the fire as well. The Quintons are an Anglo-Irish family (what my mother used to call ‘English people living in Ireland’) but they have nationalist sympathies. They support Home Rule, and they host visits from Irish heroes such as Michael Collins.  And though they had nothing to do with the murder of a returned WW1 soldier thought to be a spy for Britain, the Black and Tans’ retaliation blights Willie’s entire life.

In the hands of a lesser storyteller, this could have been a dreary tale.  Instead, the narration by Willie in the first part of the novel brings us his memories of boyhood at Kilneagh where his father is a mill-owner and his future seems assured. There are droll stories of Willie’s time at boarding school with a wonderful cast of characters including eccentric masters and irrepressible boys with mastery of the untruths that they tell to evade punishment for various misdeeds.  One of these misdeeds, however, involves a former master falsely accused of wrongdoing, a drunk, who avenges himself with a pathetic insult, unseen except by the trio of mischief makers, Willie, Ring and de Courcy.  In the aftermath, however, the drunk gets his revenge because his accuser is traumatised by the mockery of schoolboys.  But the drunk never knows it because he’s drifted away.  This incident is emblematic of the bigger theme: that the aftermath of trauma persists long after the event.

Along with his exploration of revenge as part of a cycle of violence, Trevor also illuminates the issue of blame based on accusations that may or may not be false.  ‘Father’ Kilgarriff was defrocked (he says) by a false accusation. Doyle whose terrible death is the catalyst for the Black and Tans’ revenge, dies on the strength of accusation not proof and the atrocity at Kilneagh occurs only because of suspicion.  The master whose career was destroyed says he was innocent of the accusations against him.  In a small world where gossip is a real thing, it can destroy lives.  Marianne whose chronicle of doomed love forms the second part of the story, makes life-changing decisions because she knows her parents cannot withstand gossip. And though Marianne tries to shield Imelda from the destructive past, the child’s curiosity and eavesdropping works its evil anyway.

Violence destroys lives long after the event.  Though she takes to alcohol as a salve, Willie’s mother Ann cannot resolve her grief, adding to his losses.  The extended family, estranged by the depth of a grief they do not understand, suffers too.  And eventually, through Marianne’s narrative, it becomes clear that Willie will have his revenge, at a terrible cost extending into the next generation.

Trevor (who lived in England for most of his life) wrote this novel long after the transitional period of Irish independence but during the decade-long IRA bombing campaign (1971-1983). Fools of Fortune suggests that the cycle of violence has to end somehow but in Ireland it happens sometimes that the insane are taken to be saints of a kind. 

Imelda reads her mother’s diary, where she addresses Willie:

I had never heard of the Battle of the Yellow Ford until Father Kilgarriff told me. And now he wishes he hadn’t. The furious Elizabeth cleverly transformed the defeat of Sir Harry Bagenal into Victory, ensuring that her Irish battlefield might continue for as long as it was profitable … Just another Irish story it had seemed to you …… But the battlefield continuing is part of the pattern I see everywhere around me, as your exile is also. How could we have rebuilt Kilneagh and watched our children playing among the shadows of destruction? The battlefield has never quietened. (p.189)

Back when that IRA bombing campaign was at its height, I remember my mother telling me that ‘every family in Ireland has a Black and Tans story’ but that passing these on to the next generation only perpetuated hatreds.  I am not sure that she was right about that because truth telling does not necessarily do so.  Though there is a risk that it can make things worse, clearing the air and facing up to the wrongs of the past can lead to healing.

William Trevor  (1928 – 2016), was an Irish novelist, playwright, and short story writer. Fools of Fortune won the Whitbread best novel award in 1983.

Author: William Trevor
Title: Fools of Fortune
Publisher: Penguin, 2015, first published 1983
ISBN: 9780241969496, pbk., 215 pages
Source: Personal library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 13, 2023

I’ll Leave You With This (2023) by Kylie Ladd

I’m reading some rather heavy-duty NF books at the moment, so I was in the mood to read something less demanding.  As you know from my recent post about a local author event (Kylie Ladd in conversation with Bayside author Sally Hepworth), I had read the Prologue to I’ll Leave You with This almost as soon as I got home.  It’s a compelling introduction to the issue explored in this thoughtful novel: organ donation, and how families handle its complexities.

Sometimes, grief about the loss of a family member is about the only thing families have in common. Of a family of five siblings, four sisters remain to grieve the loss of their brother Daniel who was shot and killed on the streets of Sydney.   At the time they willingly agree to donating his organs, but on the third anniversary of his death, Clare conceives the idea of tracking down the recipients.

(Which, as you probably know, is not encouraged and there are protocols in place to prevent unwanted contact.)

Told from the perspective of each of the four sisters at different times in their lives, I’ll Leave You with This explores multiple issues: childlessness and the pressures of IVF; bullying and its long-term effects including self-harm; the conflict between parenting and work; women held captive by the roles expected of them; the gulf between religious rhetoric and pastoral care; and the loss of parents as the glue that holds a family together.  Plus, there’s the problem of legacy pets.  Who is going to give Daniel’s dachshund a forever home? He’s been shunted around from one sister to another ever since Daniel died…

(Emma is appalled when Bridie turns up to offload him while she takes a holiday, and she learns how Bridie has treated him.

‘And honestly, Emma,’ she goes on, ‘I don’t think John Thomas would cope in a shelter.  He needs to be with me all the time.  Or Tom, or someone.  He’s like a bloody ghost. Every time I turn around he’s there.  Often I don’t even get to turn around — I trip over him, because he’s wrapped himself around my ankles.  So I tried shutting him in the laundry for a bit and then he chewed off all the skirting boards.’

‘You locked him up?’ Emma is horrified.

‘He’d had a walk, a long one, and his breakfast,’ Bridie replies defensively.  ‘I just wanted to get some stuff done without his eyes following me around like one of those portraits in a horror movie.  He’s so needy.’

Emma snorts.  Bridie doesn’t do needy.  Bridie can conjure an entire movie from a script and some actors, but she won’t take responsibility for a house plant.  She has staff for that. (p.147)

No, we are not meant to like Bridie.  Her treatment of this dog reminded me of how Jude the martyr, Jude the boss treated Finn, the old dog in Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend. (I had two lovable dachshunds as a child, (both of them imaginatively called Gretel), so I was always going to dislike any character who was mean to a dachsie!)

Anyway, the plot is a little choppy to start, but as each sister emerges as a distinct character, the narrative coheres.

The emotional terrain is complicated by doubts and insecurities. Clare is reeling from separation.  After years of failed IVF treatments for a baby that Clare craves and her partner Sophie doesn’t, Sophie is tired of their lives being ruled by the IVF regime.  When—in the same year that they had finally been able to marry—she leaves, Clare has to deal with multiple losses: the love of her life; the chance of having a child; and her home.  And she has no money because everything they had was spent on IVF.

The youngest, Emma, is physically small and lacking in confidence after years of bullying at school.  She has never had a relationship and even with a Christian version of Tinder, her devotion to God at the Crossfire church limits the pool of potential male partners.  She has abandoned her emerging career as a cellist because of a #MeToo incident with a visiting conductor, but her sisters have not even noticed. Allison is too busy with her career as a senior obstetrician and the demands of her twin boys (and feeling like a guilty failure at both); Bridie, the ‘bulldozer’ of the family, is too self-absorbed with her fading career as a film-maker.  This is not a close or supportive family and their only regular commitment to each other is to meet at a restaurant on the anniversary of Daniel’s death.  Also sharing this occasion is Joel, who was once Daniel’s partner but Daniel wasn’t interested in monogamy.  Joel is very nice, caring and thoughtful but he’s gay… not to mention still grieving for Daniel, so not available as a love interest.

So yes, this is all very messy, and there are a lot of ‘issues’ percolating through the novel, and the ending is just a little bit too tidy… yet it’s satisfying in a way because this family has had enough grief for an author to leave them stranded in misery.

Theresa Smith reviewed it too. 

Author: Kylie Ladd
Title: I’ll Leave You With This
Publisher: Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2022
Cover design: Christa Moffitt, Christabella Designs
ISBN 9780143778950, pbk., 336 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore Hampton.

I wonder if the catalyst for poet John Kinsella’s latest book was the 50th anniversary of the voyage of the sailing ship ‘Fri’…

Though these days nobody seems bothered by the acquisition of nuclear powered submarines for Australia, people my age remember the courage and determination of the crew of the ‘Fri’, the New Zealand yacht which led a ‘David and Goliath’ flotilla of yachts in an international protest against French nuclear bomb tests at Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific in 1973.  My mother had to be talked out of joining the crew, but my American-born neighbour Gloreea was on board.  She was a young woman in her 20s when she  left her family, her home, her job, and her friends in the US to take part in trying to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. This was Big News back then in 1973.

Wikipedia is dismissive, describing these heroic protestors as a group of hippie consumer escapees, in search of adventure and an alternative lifestyle down-under.  That characterisation is an insult to the courage of the crew.  The ‘Fri’ was in danger not only from radioactivity or worse, but (as the shocked world found out later) also from unscrupulous French agents. In 1985 French terrorists blew up the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in New Zealand, killing a photographer on the sinking ship.

Those of us who cared about this did what we could in our own ways.  We campaigned with a barrage of letters and protests; we boycotted French products.  We let our politicians know about our fury.  Despite generally cordial relations with France, our Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was opposed to nuclear testing in the Pacific.  The International Court of Justice was on our side too, but still, all efforts failed.  The French ignored the ruling. 

Cellnight reflects our despair, and demands that we remember, amongst other things of crucial importance, the peace campaigns of the 20th century and what they tried to achieve.  From a prison cell, Kinsella asks who will remember?

Who will
the ambient

the destroyers,
the frigates,
nor denying
nuclear weapons,
the reactor
of the aircraft
off Gage Roads?
Who will remember

the walks
from many
to get there.
to converge
to arrive
as one
to protest.
And who will
the white

And who will
the arrested
who belonged
to no group,
had no affiliation?
Why belong
to no group,
have no affiliation?
But that’s
only part
of the picture,

isn’t it?
There were
friends, fellow
anarchists, fellow
And so many
protestors.  NDP
and Marxists,
citizen protestors,
the curious,
and the far right

the foot
of the woman
next to you
with a stomp
of the boot.   (pp. 11-13)

The NDP (Nuclear Disarmament Party) bailed the woman, but not the ‘stirrer, Trot’ which he was not.  And people went about their business, fishermen worrying about their fish, for their sake,/ not for the fishes’ sakeDiplomacy went about its business too, while weapons brooded in reactors amid this attempt/ to change/ what quiet people/ tell you/ is inevitable. And the attempt to speak out in the magistrate’s court is suppressed with a threat of gaol time.

Many people will read this verse novel for its passionate tribute to the natural environment; for the celebration of the spirit of sacred Noongar country in southern Western Australia; and for the truths it tells about colonisation.  But I read it for its denunciation of escalating militarism and taxes/ directed/ towards/ the military/ rather than health/ and learning,/ housing/ and environment. 

 Peace is a universal necessity (p.112)

Cellnight is an elegy for a time when there was passionate activism.

Image credit:

Author: John Kinsella
Title: Cellnight, a Verse Novel
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2023, due for release 1/4/23
ISBN: 9780648414094, pbk.,  207 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 11, 2023

Typhoon Kingdom (2019), by Matthew Hooton

Matthew Hooton’s Typhoon Kingdom is a terrific book which deserves more attention than it’s had.  I bought it last year in a sale at UWAP, where you can still buy it for a song, and I’m here to tell you that you should get a copy before they’re all gone.  This is the blurb that attracted my interest:

Based on the seventeenth-century journal of a shipwrecked Dutch sailor, and testimonies of surviving Korean ‘Comfort Women,’ Typhoon Kingdom is a story of war, romance and survival that brings to life the devastating history of Korea at crucial moments in its struggle for independence.

In 1653, the Dutch East India Company’s Sparrowhawk is wrecked on a Korean island, and Hae-jo, a local fisherman, guides the ship’s bookkeeper to Seoul in search of his surviving shipmates. The two men, one who has never ventured to the mainland, and the other unable to speak the language, are soon forced to choose between loyalty to each other, and a king determined to maintain his country’s isolation.

Three-hundred years later, in the midst of the Japanese occupation, Yoo-jin is taken from her family and forced into prostitution, and a young soldier must navigate the Japanese surrender and ensuing chaos of the Korean War to find her.

Matthew Hooton is a teacher of creative writing at the University of Adelaide, but has also worked as an editor and teacher in South Korea where as his UWAP author page tells us, he first encountered stories of the Dutch shipwreck and plight of Korean ‘Comfort Women.’ 

His first novel, Deloume Road, which also features scenes set during the Korean War, was published in 2010 by Knopf/Vintage in Canada, and Jonathan Cape/Vintage in the UK. It was awarded the Greene & Heaton Prize for best manuscript from the Bath Spa Creative Writing MA Program in 2008, and the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker Prize’ in 2010.

(Now I’m on a mission to source a copy of Matthew Hooton’s first novel Deloume Road. None of my libraries have it but I’ll find one somewhere! Amazon has it. Update, later the same day: thanks to Kim’s comment below, here’s her review of it at Reading Matters and one from the late Kevin from Canada.)

Typhoon Kingdom begins in the 17th century, also known as the Age of Exploration.  Though Hooton’s characters land in the hermit kingdom of Corea (Korea) by misadventure, the novel shows that lands being ‘explored’ by the Europeans were already inhabited and had their own government, customs and foreign policy.  Unfortunately for the sailors of the shipwrecked ‘Sparrowhawk’, trading with Nagasaki for the Dutch East India Company, six of them are escorted to the king on the mainland and the other is covertly whisked away to a much worse fate.  While the six are not ill-treated as they expect to be, they are not allowed to return home because they have knowledge of modern military weapons that the king intends to acquire from them.  (Then, as now, there is hostility between Korea and Japan.) Van Persie, however, rescued by the fisherman Hae-Jo, is kidnapped by a pseudo-shaman who first tortures him, ostensibly to appease the spirits, and then exploits him as a caged exhibit because his blond hair and blue eyes makes him an oddity.

This first section of the novel is told from the perspectives of different characters: the fisherman Hae-Jo; the fictionalised Hyojong, the 17th king of Joseon; and the shipwrecked Dutch sailor Van Persie.  Hae-Jo is poor and ignorant, but his life on the island has insulated him from the cruel mores of the mainland.  He has a sense of humanity which guides him to rescue Van Persie and try to reunite him with the others.  Ji-hoon had warned him about what to expect on his perilous journey:

‘Stay clear of the King’s roads, take shelter in the trees at night, and do not speak to anyone if you can help it.  The King has spies in every village, at every crossing.’

Ji-hoon had also told him many useful and worrying things about the mainland—further rumours of famine, and customs that seem beyond belief.

‘In the capital, there are men who own more slaves than we have grains of rice. This is true.  If a woman kills her husband she is buried up to her neck by the roadside with a saw left next to her. So I am told. And no woman, not even the rich, are permitted outside of their homes during daylight.’

And though he cannot help but laugh at the thought of telling the women divers of his own island such a thing, he is troubled by how deeply different the customs of the mainland are, and he fears he knows even less than he once imagined.  He is a poor guide, a stranger leading a stranger through a strange land. (pp.58-9)

Through the terrors of Van Persie’s experience—alone, vulnerable, unable to communicate and having no agency of his own—Hooton deftly portrays an inversion of what so often happened when Europeans captured ‘exhibits’ to take home for exploitation.  But he does find mercy in the woman who cares for his wounds and from Hae-Jo who risks everything in his quest.

Part 2 is set in 1942. It is also told from three perspectives.  Introduced by a fictionalised General Macarthur hidden in an ancient Dutch East India fort as he waits for evacuation to Australia, The General’s story punctuates the narrative with the long journey to liberate countries from Japanese occupation.  But the main story is the harrowing narrative of Yoo-jin, a doctor with remarkable powers of healing, who is taken to be one of Japan’s so-called Comfort Women, an offensive euphemism for years of rape by Japanese servicemen.  Before she is captured, a boy called Won-jae, comes into her care when his hand has been all but ruined by Japanese brutality.  Possibly a descendant of Van Persie, Won-Jae has blue eyes and through the long years of Japanese occupation followed by the Korean War he cherishes his dream of meeting again the woman who did not treat him as Other.

While the narrative tension is maintained by the hope that Yoo-jin and Won-je may be reunited, I don’t think that Typhoon Kingdom is a ‘romance’ as suggested by the blurb.  But I do think it is a story of love.  It’s about love for one’s fellow man in extreme circumstances. Hae-Jo puts himself at risk because he cares for a stranger who he recognises as a man not unlike himself. Yoo-jin never wavers in her devotion to healing even in the most appalling captivity and somehow manages to suppress her rage to help a wounded enemy.

As I write, amid the warmongering about the ‘threat’ from China, there is pressure on South Korea to mend relations with Japan.  It will surprise no one that the Japanese have steadfastly refused to pay compensation to those who suffered under its rule, and the latest ploy is for South Korean business to establish a fund to compensate those used by the Japanese for slave labour.  It should surprise no one that there is considerable opposition to Japan offloading its responsibility for its war crimes in this extraordinary way.

But I expect that, for geopolitical reasons, the victims will be bullied into accepting it and keeping quiet, the way the Japanese treatment of Australian POWs was airbrushed out of our postwar relationship.

See Rohan Wilson’s review here, reprinted at the global literary agency BJZ based in New York City.  BJZ represents Hooton and is apparently responsible for the Korean New Wave in global publishing which won Barbara J Zwiter the 2016 International Literary Agent of the Year Award.  Her website tells us that she also represents other Australian authors such as Madeleine Ryan and Jamie Marina Lau.

Author: Matthew Hooton
Title: Typhoon Kingdom
Cover design by Peter Long
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Publishing), 2019
ISBN: 9781760800307, pbk., 282 pages
Source: Personal library

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