Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 29, 2020

Mother Tongue, by Joyce Kornblatt

In the lead-up to #NovellasInNovember, Mother Tongue is definitely one that you should consider if you can get your hands on it.  It should be in shops from October 1st, but a quick hunt around online suggests that though all three of my libraries have it, (one of them in digital form), not all my regular bricks-and-mortar sources have got stocks just yet.  Well, things are a bit Covid-messy in Melbourne at the moment, do not be deterred, Mother Tongue is worth the hunt.

It’s an extraordinary book.  It was launched at Gleebooks where events manager Victoria Jeffreys is quoted as saying She wrote with such compassion and understanding that part of me wondered if some of it was a true story!’ That’s exactly what I thought…

The blurb suggests the existential questions raised by the novel…

What does it mean when the identity out of which one builds a life turns out to be a lie? What is the impact on one’s self and those one loves? Mother Tongue emerges from the fires of shocking loss, betrayal and grief-tested love.’

Mother Tongue is a profound and moving novel that asks complex questions with such crystal clarity they seem simple. Are we formed by our genes? Our history? Or do we make ourselves? How do we lose each other? More importantly: how do we find each other?

… but this blurb gives no hint of the shocking loss.

When we hear news about some monstrous crime committed against a child, we try to imagine what kind of person could do such a thing, and how the child might ever recover to live a normal life.  But imagination fails us.  It doesn’t seem possible to put ourselves in the place of the people in such a situation.  Yet Kornblatt has succeeded in doing so.  She has woven such a story, a feat of imagination that seems utterly real.

It’s not a spoiler to show you what that monstrous crime is, because here it is, on page one:

My name is Nella Pine and this is my life’s story, as new to me as it will be to you who reads it here for the first time.

I am the secret and the one who whispers the secret into your ear.

I am the crime and the narrator-sleuth.

I came upon the facts of my existence as one who returns to her home in the midst of a burglary: here is the shattered glass, the rifled drawers, the thief with the booty still cradled in her guilty arms.

When I was three days old, a nurse named Ruth Miller stole me from the obstetrics ward in Mercy Hospital and raised me as her own.  This was May 7, 1968, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (p.9)

Nella grows up in Sydney complete ignorance of her real identity until she is middle-aged.  That is when this nurse, who had taken on a new identity as the widowed Eva Gilbert, dies and leaves a letter of explanation for Nella to find.

This is not one of those soppy genre novels about ‘family secrets’, it is about Nella’s journey of reconciling her love for the woman who brought her up, with the crime committed.  It’s about her struggle to restore her shattered identity.  It’s about her dilemma over whether or how to seek out her American family and her real heritage.

What is utterly surprising, and a stroke of unexpected genius, is the beautiful ending.

Highly recommended.

Author: Joyce Kornblatt
Title: Mother Tongue
Publisher: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2020
ISBN: 9780648523321, pbk., 185 pages
Review copy courtesy of Brandl & Schlesinger

Available from Fishpond: Mother Tongue or your favourite indie bookshop.

The Australia Council has released its updated version of the Protocols for using First Nations Cultural and Intellectual Property in the Arts (2020).

Whether you are a reader, a reviewer or a writer, it’s important to know these protocols, which are there to guide us in our interpretation of works involving Indigenous heritage, culture, history and intellectual property.  As Dr Terri Janke,  explains:

“While works by individual artists are protected by copyright, Australia does not yet have a law that prevents alteration, distortion or misuse of traditional symbols, songs, dances, performances and story that may be part of the heritage of particular Indigenous language groups. This is where the Australia Council for the Arts’ Protocols for using First Nations Intellectual and Cultural Property in the Arts comes in. The protocols provide a pathway for collaborations and creation of new Indigenous work.”  (Source: Australian Council website).

Just last week I started to read and abandoned a novel by an English author who, after a short period in Australia during the 1990s, took it upon herself to tell the story of a policeman traumatised by his role in removing Indigenous children from their families under the Stolen Generations policy.  I didn’t review it because I don’t review books that I don’t finish, but it was historically inaccurate and from that standpoint it was cringeworthy.   I say nothing of its merits or otherwise within its genre, but whether this novel was specifically in breach of these protocols or not, it seems to me that to use the tragedy of the Stolen Generations for a mystery/thriller is tawdry and disrespectful.

Which is why I recommend that we can all educate ourselves about these protocols to inform the judgements and interpretations that we make about books.

At the Copyright Agency Ltd website, it sets out ten principles for respecting Indigenous cultural and intellectual property:

  1. Respect
  2. Self-determination
  3. Communication, consultation and consent
  4. Interpretation
  5. Cultural integrity and authenticity
  6. Secrecy and confidentiality
  7. Attribution
  8. Benefit sharing
  9. Continuing cultures
  10. Recognition and protection

For our purposes as readers, reviewers and writers, the implementation of the protocols is demonstrated through case studies which include Tara June Winch’s Miles Franklin Literary Award-winning novel The Yield; and Magabala Books’ Indigenous-led storytelling and writing collaborations.

To read the protocols, click here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 29, 2020

Smart Ovens for Lonely People wins the 2020 Readings Prize

Readings has announced that the winner of the 2020 Readings Prize is Smart Ovens for Lonely People.

From the press release:

We are delighted to announce that Elizabeth Tan has won this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction for her short story collection Smart Ovens for Lonely People.

With an astonishing showcase of craft and unbridled imagination, each story in Smart Ovens for Lonely People submerges the reader in a world that is at once strange and familiar. Praised by the judges for its originality and its humour, this is a book that will surprise and beguile readers.

Read the judges’ report in full here.

‘The stories collected in Smart Ovens for Lonely People made me laugh out loud with surprise and delight – not only because they are very funny, conveying enviable literary skill, but also because I have simply never read anything like them, and that is such a pleasure and a delight.’ – Guest judge and 2019 Readings Prize winner Alice Robinson

‘Full of incisive commentary and pin-sharp prose, this is a marvellous and highly rewarding read.’
Joe Rubbo, manager of Readings Carlton

‘Tan is a writer with a voice and imagination uniquely and utterly her own. Each of these stories feels like a distorted reflection of our technologically mired world and they will resonate with anyone who enjoys the works of Carmen Maria Machado, Margo Lanagan and Kelly Link.’ – Jackie Tang, Readings online bookseller

This is the blurb from the book:

Conspiracies, memes, and therapies of various efficacy underpin this beguiling short story collection from Elizabeth Tan.

In the titular story, a cat-shaped oven tells a depressed woman she doesn’t have to be sorry anymore. A Yourtopia Bespoke Terraria employee becomes paranoid about the mounting coincidences in her life. Four girls gather to celebrate their underwear in ‘Happy Smiling Underwear Girls Party’, a hilarious take-down of saccharine advertisements.

For a limited time, you can buy copies of Smart Ovens for Lonely People at Readings for the special price of $24.99 (was $29.99).

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 28, 2020

2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize shortlist

Update on the 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize: the shortlisted novels are in bold.  Alas, all three are the very ones I haven’t read.  (Though I do have Master of My Fate on order at Benn’s Books).

Longlisted entries include:

The Historical Novel Society of Australia has more info at their website.

For further information about each of the authors and their novels, please visit 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize Longlist.


The announcement of the longlist coincides with ARA Group doubling its funding for the inaugural award, increasing the total prize monies to $60,000. The overall prize winner will now receive $50,000, with an additional $5,000 to be awarded to each of the remaining two shortlisted authors.

The increase in funding places the ARA Historical Novel Prize among the top five richest literary prizes in Australia and New Zealand, and makes it the most significant genre-based literary prize in Australia.


Sponsored by the ARA Group,

The ARA Historical Novel Prize is designed to give historical novelists the opportunity to be recognised in a class of their own — for the first time ever as part of an Australian and New Zealand literary award.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 27, 2020

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam

Rumaan Alam is an author entirely new to me, but I like his style.   Leave the World Behind is the story of a white American family who rent a luxurious rural retreat  on Long Island, and suddenly find their relaxing week interrupted when the owners descend on them in the wake of a total blackout in New York City.  They were on their way home from a concert elsewhere, and to avoid the chaos, they want to stay.  The blurb describes the dilemma like this:

But in this rural area—with the TV and internet now down, and no cell phone service—it’s hard to know what to believe.

Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple—and vice versa? What happened back in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another?

This is a sly novel, operating with a wink and a nod to expose the inner workings of race and class in America, and also how a privileged lifestyle impacts on other societies and the global environment.  This excerpt (set before their unwelcome visitors arrive) gives some idea of Alam’s style.  On a hot and windy day with a bit of a chill in the breeze, they’ve found the beach, despite the GPS initially unable to locate itself until it recovered its hold on them and they drove under its protective gaze.  

Amanda struggled to spread the blanket, something she’d found on the internet, block-printed by illiterate Indian villagers.  She placed a bag at each corner to weigh the thing down.  The children shed their layers and bounded off like gazelles.  Rose investigated the detritus washed up on the sand, shells and plastic cups and iridescent balloons that had celebrated proms and sweet sixteens miles away.  Archie knelt in the sand some distance from their encampment, pretending not to stare at the lifeguards, hale girls, sun-lightened locks and red swimsuits.

Amanda had a novel she could barely follow, with a tiresome central metaphor involving birds.  Clay had the kind of book he normally had, a slender and unclassifiable critique of the way we live now, the sort of thing it’s impossible to read near naked in the sun but important to have read, for his work.  (p.27)

So much conveyed about this family in just two short paragraphs!

I don’t like the term ‘political correctness’.  In my younger days we used it ironically and interchangeably with ‘ideologically sound’.  With a dawning awareness of how everything has a symbolic meaning, we asked if the male tie was P.C. (though we never abbreviated the term); if our gardens, dinner party menus, breed of dog, length of skirts or taste in gender-sorted reading materials was P.C.  But P.C. came to have a different kind of political meaning when the Right adopted it as a means of sneering at the idealism of the Left.  John Howard and his even nastier successors started the toxic divisiveness in Australia when they badged any kind of reform as P.C., labelling it not a public good but a phony good that was just an idea that people thought they ought to have because it made them look good, not because it had any merit.  From a term that we played with to mock our own earnestness and the attribution of meaning to things we had never thought about though they were part of our lives, P.C. became a term of scornful abuse.  The Left retaliated (‘white picket fences”, anyone?) but the damage was done.  Centrist politics is dead and the History Wars et al have an enduring legacy.

All of which is germane to this novel is because it reveals the way these two (white) adults, Amanda and Clay, are driven by P.C. in its non-ironic sense, even when they’re on holiday away from any witnesses.  In an amusing way, by showing the reader their inner thoughts as well as the dialogue and actions, the reader sees the private reasonings behind the things they say and do.   They have a car that’s not too new (so it doesn’t signify conspicuous consumption) but not too old (signifying that it befits their social status and their support for the US economy).  They live in a neutral suburb of New York City: not poor, not bohemian, not outrageously wealthy.  Clay reads a book so that he can be seen to have read it; Amanda buys the kind of food they ‘ought to’ eat.  It’s a long shopping list, exposing their excess, made more excessive when her attention to providing what a loving mother ought to provide, taking into account everybody’s needs and preferences, fails.  Because then Clay makes a second trip to the store to buy the cereal she forgot to buy for the boy, and Clay then buys even more stuff and also has a covert cigarette he will pretend later not to have smoked.  Even their sex life is a considered decision: lusty, but not too much and not when the kids might be aware of it!

All this reasoning is made clear, not by the things they say but by their thoughts, which are not consistent with their display.  But on a day of wild weather, just as they are going to bed, they hear a polite knock at the door.  It’s the owners of the rental on their way home to NYC who want to stay in what is, after all, their own property, because they’ve heard that the city has gone into total blackout.  Communications are all down so they don’t know why or how, but they fear chaos.  And they are Black.

Amanda and Clay are both suspicious of this story, but for different reasons.  Clay is annoyed about the disruption to their private holiday.  Amanda doesn’t think that they are the kind of people who would own a luxury retreat like this.  They could be servants, she thinks, not owners.  Ouch!

Leave the World Behind is clever and droll and insightful, and I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that this novel quickly overcame my reluctance to read dystopias at the moment!

Highly recommended.

Author: Rumaan Alam
Title: Leave the World Behind
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2020
Design by David Mann
ISBN: 9781526633095, pbk., 241 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books.  (Bloomsbury sent me a review copy but I don’t read proof copies, so I bought my own when the book was released.)


This is a deeply distressing memoir to read: it’s the story of Pattie Lees’ early childhood of terrible neglect and then her sexual, physical and emotional abuse when she was made a Ward of the State. At times it is really difficult to reconcile the smiling face on the front cover with the story within its pages.

Daughter of a white philandering father and an alcoholic mother who was part Torres Strait islander and part Filipino, with some of her siblings fathered by different men, including a brother she knew nothing about until well into adulthood, Pattie’s story is one of poverty, hunger, and being responsible for her younger siblings when she was barely old enough to look after herself.  When her biological father moved them out to the suburbs, perhaps in a misguided effort to limit the mother’s ‘party-girl’ habits, Pattie and the children were sometimes left alone for days.  Her older brother Terry remembers these absences sometimes lasting a week; Pattie remembers it as less than that.  But she also remembers that when they ran out of baby formula for Elin, she resorted to feeding her sugared tea.

Eventually authorities intervened, and when the initial orders for the children’s welfare weren’t implemented, they intervened again.  Elin was taken to hospital with malnutrition, and the others were taken into custody.  The text acknowledges that in these circumstances in those days, it was routine for children of any colour to be placed in the local lockup because there was nowhere else for them to go.  Their mother was allowed to visit.  But still… the idea of children being in gaol is repugnant. As Pattie remembers it, the people in the surrounding cells frightened the children, and no wonder.

The chapter which reproduces the correspondence about where the children were to be placed is chilling.  Pattie’s skin colour was fair, while Elin’s was very dark despite having a very fair Nordic father.  There was no question of foster care being available, and authorities seem to be more concerned about matching the children’s colour to the institution than in keeping the family together. In Townsville waiting placement, her sister Johanne was fostered out, which led to a complete loss of contact for six years, and in the end, Pattie and her brother Michael joined their elder brother Terry on Palm Island, where he had been sent as an incorrigible child, without anyone telling her where he had gone. It was a huge culture shock for her, exacerbated by the very dark children who rejected her because they thought she was white.

The memoir is remarkable for the way that Pattie acknowledges the good along with the bad, especially the teachers who saw her potential.  Thanks to them and her own hard work she won a scholarship to boarding school in Chartres Towers, but that didn’t work out and she was soon back on Palm Island, where she stayed until she was 18 and legally allowed to leave.

Back on the mainland she found work, was reunited with both parents until a chance application to join the Women’s Royal Australian Navy was successful.  She admits that it wasn’t patriotism that motivated her, it was that the armed forces offered secure employment and therefore protection against being sent back to Palm Island.  She settled well into the discipline, because having been institutionalised, she was used to it.  But as was the case in so many workplaces in those days, she had to leave when she got married, and was soon very busy with the care of her children and with re-establishing family connections. Not everything went smoothly, but there is no self-pity or bitterness in this story.

As is so often the case in the Indigenous memoirs I have read, this woman managed to transcend these awful circumstances to serve in the Women’s Royal Australian Navy; to represent Australia at several United Nations development forums; and to become CEO of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation for Children and Youth Services.  From childhood in a dysfunctional family to a decade in institutional care, she has had a stable marriage with husband Terry for 51 years, and is the mother of four children, grandmother to twelve and a great-grandmother.

Memoirs such as this which attest to remarkable stories of survival are a testament to the resilience of Australia’s Indigenous people.

Author: Pattie Lees with Adam C Lees
Title: A Question of Colour: my journey to belonging
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781925936513, Pbk., 346 pages
Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books.

Available direct from Magabala Books and from Fishpond: A Question of Colour: my journey to belonging

Le Testament Français was published in the US as Dreams of My Russian Summers, but UK publishers retained its French title even in translated editions.  It was the first book ever to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, and it became a bestseller in France and elsewhere.  I picked it up from Brotherhood Books in 2014 because in my 2011-2012 Year of Russian Reading I’d read Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man (La vie d’un homme inconnu).  And so I knew Le Testament Français would be a fine book, and it is. As the blurb on the back of this edition says:

Once in a while, there comes a book that captivates critics and public alike.  Andreï Makine’s autobiographical novel is such a book… Its subtle blend of memory and imagination is reminiscent of Proust… But in its broad sweep and mystical vision, Le Testament Français belongs to the tradition of the 19th century Russian novelists.  (Independent on Sunday, date & reviewer’s name not provided).

Famously, Makine was born in Russia in 1957, fled the Soviet Union for France in 1987, where he slept rough for a while and struggled to have his writing accepted as authentic because publishers thought a Russian couldn’t possibly write so well in French.  Since they didn’t think it was his own work, he pretended to have translated it, and that’s how this beautiful novel eventually came to be published.

It’s a coming-of-age novel, one in which the conflicted soul of a young Muscovite eventually reconciles his love of all things French with a love of his homeland, Russia.  As a boy he inhabits two parallel universes: the Soviet Union under Stalin, and a dream-world, an Atlantis derived from the stories of his French grandmother who lives in Saranza in Siberia, where he goes for the school holidays.

Charlotte had fled there in the exodus from Moscow in WW2, and never left it.   She was notified twice of her husband Fyodor’s death during the war, and was finally reunited with him long afterwards but he died within a year.  Under Stalin they had been persecuted as foreigners and even after many years in Saranza she is still regarded as  an outsider, and only the woman who delivers the milk feels at ease with her.

But this information about Charlotte’s life comes only in fragments.  The boy learns some of it from Charlotte’s stories and some of it from the ‘Siberian suitcase’, a suitcase of newspaper clippings and photos that Charlotte, in her haste to escape the bombing, grabbed by mistake instead of the case of clothes and food for the journey to the east.  But the stories that entrance the boy are stories of Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, of their glamourous presence at the Paris Opera, of magnificent ten-course meals with exotic ingredients like bartavels and ortolans garnished with truffles, and of seeing Proust in the park at Neuilly. The boy and his sister live in this alternate world, speaking French fluently in the holidays and Russian during their more prosaic days at school in Moscow, among classmates who mock him for his dreamy, bookish ways.

The power of this wondrous world wanes as he get older.  He starts to raid the school library to read up on everything French, from the Soviet-approved texts about the Paris Commune to the treasury of French literature which has mostly escaped the censor’s attention. He wants to put his grandmother’s tales into chronological order, into a sequence of events, and in so doing makes sense of his people’s history in a way not accessible to others under Stalin’s regime. He is horrified when he discovers how the Tsar met his end, and his coming-of-age is punctuated by these disconnects between his feelings for a magical world of luxury and glamour, art and beauty, and the grim reality of life under the Soviets.  This becomes more pronounced when his parents die and his Russian aunt takes over the care of the children. She is a sturdy Soviet, anti-Stalin and she doesn’t care who knows it.  It is from eavesdropping on her conversation that the boy learns about the notorious Beria, who used to trawl the streets in his big black car, so that he could kidnap pretty girls, take them to his rooms and get them drunk, rape them and then kill them.

As you might expect from an exile, there’s nothing much that’s good about the USSR in Le Testament Français and yet the book concludes with the boy’s love for his motherland and the possibility of truth being revealed under glasnost.

Highly recommended if you can get hold of a copy.

Author: Andreï Makine
Title: Le Testament Français
Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan
Cover painting: Place de l’Toile by Gustave Loiseau ©ADAGP Paris and DACS London, 1997
Publisher: Sceptre, 1997, first published in 1995
ISBN: 9780340682067, pbk., 275 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Brotherhood Books


I heard about The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai a while ago, and ordered a copy straight away because it is so rare to find fiction set in Vietnam.

This is the blurb:

Set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War, The Mountains Sing is the enveloping, multi-generational tale of the Trần family, perfect for fans of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

Hà Nội, 1972. Hương and her grandmother, Trần Diệu Lan, cling to one another in their improvised shelter as American bombs fall around them. Her father and mother have already left to fight in a war that is tearing not just her country but her family apart. For Trần Diệu Lan, forced to flee the family farm with her six children decades earlier as the Communist government rose to power in the North, this experience is horribly familiar. Seen through the eyes of these two unforgettable women, The Mountains Sing captures their defiance and determination, hope and unexpected joy.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn’s richly lyrical debut weaves between the lives of grandmother and granddaughter to paint a unique picture of the country’s turbulent twentieth-century history. This is the story of a people pushed to breaking point, and a family who refuse to give in.

Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society, OTOH, is set on the other side of the planet from where she lives in Canada, in a village called Chawton in the UK.

This is the blurb:

‘Hope can sometimes be just enough.’

It’s only a few months since the war ended but the little village of Chawton is about to be hit by another devastating blow. The heart of the community, the Chawton estate, and site of Jane Austen’s cherished former home, is in danger of being sold to the highest bidder.

Eight villagers are brought together by their love for the famous author’s novels, to create The Jane Austen Society. As new friendships form and the pain of the past begins to heal, surely they can find a way to preserve Austen’s legacy before it is too late?

And there may even be a few unexpected surprises along the way…

A heartbreaking and uplifting novel of hope, loss and love. Perfect for fans of Miss Austen by Gill Hornby and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer.

It was lovely to hear how these two authors connected with each other because of the difficulties of launching a book during the pandemic.  And they love each other’s books!

Both the authors have had to deal with personal trauma that would devastate almost anybody, so their books enabled them to bond with each other, and they hope that their books will be cheering in some small way for others who might need some literary therapy.  The intimacy of a book connects us in a way that nothing else can.

It was good to hear that Canada has dealt quite well with the pandemic, though they are facing a second wave at the moment.  But Indonesia is not coping well, and that is where Que Mai is at the moment, and separated from her children in Europe and her parents in Vietnam.  She’s been reading a lot, and being able to connect through events like Zoom has helped her to cope.  Christine talked about how here in Melbourne we are all homesick for our bookshops, buying online is just not the same.  But of course there is a great deal more to it than that…

So, to themes in the book: Jenner is interested in multiple social dynamics, showing how a group of people thrown together interact.  She writes to escape her own life, to feel control that she doesn’t have in her own life. She’s interested in how people can elevate each other, and help others rise to the occasion.

Que Mai wanted to honour the suffering of the older generation in Vietnam in the early days of the Communist revolution.  Vietnamese people have a tradition of honouring their elders, and listening to them, but censorship has meant that people are not allowed to talk about the impact of land reforms, for example.  Also, because she has no grandmothers, she wanted to create one for herself in the book. Her family doesn’t even have a picture of her grandmother, who died in the Great Hunger where two million people died. She spoke movingly about meeting Vietnamese people in Australia, and how there are still so many stories to be told.

Both authors talked about stepping out of your own life when you travel or live abroad, and how (especially in Vietnam) there is often only one point-of-view that’s presented in the place where you live.  Que Mai referenced Catfish and Mandala by Vietnamese-American Andrew X. Pham which was about returning to his origins and his thoughts about a re-education camp, which gave her a different perspective on the people of South Vietnam.

During this conversation about travel, I bet I wasn’t the only listener to breathe a prolonged sigh…

This was a great session, and it was good to hear that Que Mai is writing another novel, this time about the children of American servicemen searching for their parents.

Hosting the conversation was the indefatigable Christine Gordon, program manager at Readings, who (like me) has had to squeeze in dinner between this event and the previous one with Josephine Rowe and Anna MacDonald.  But (unlike me) Christine has children to manage as well, so huge thanks to her for bringing us this event!

Links are to Readings bookstore.

Black Inc’s series Writers on Writers has so far featured eight authors, including Patrick White, David Malouf and Shirley Hazzard, but this author talk with Josephine Rowe about the most recent, On Beverley Farmer, is the first one I’ve been able to attend.  Beverley Farmer is the author of A Body of Water, about to be re-released by Giramondo, and This Water: Five Tales, by Beverley Farmer.

Josephine Rowe’s name will be familiar to many; I’ve reviewed two of her books here, and she also has a new collection of short stories called Here Until August.  I’ve also reviewed Anna MacDonald’s new book A Jealous Tide.  

This is the blurb for On Beverley Farmer:

‘Across Farmer’s works there has always been an attraction to those beings who occupy two worlds…Once one has lived elsewhere, lived differently, it doesn’t matter whether she stays to forge a new life or turns back towards the old, or moves on once again; there will always be the shadow, the after-image, of the life not lived.’
Beverley Farmer’s writing reflects on restlessness, desire and homecoming. In this brilliantly acute essay, fellow novelist and short-story writer Josephine Rowe finds a kindred spirit and argues for a celebration and reclamation of this unique Australian author.

Anna read an excerpt from A Body of Water, which consists of fragmentary notebook observations from a melancholy period of Farmer’s fallow period when she hadn’t had anything published for a couple of years.  It was a pleasure to revisit this text, because I know the area she was writing about and once again I could picture the landscape she was portraying: coastal places at Barwon Heads, Queenscliff, and the Great Ocean Road.  Place is such an important element in Farmer’s work. 

Josephine read an excerpt about A Body of Water from On Beverley Farmer, which drew attention to patterns in characterisation and themes, and all kinds of other aspects of Farmer’s writing.  But there was also discussion about a book of essays, The Bone House (2005) which I haven’t yet read. I don’t read a lot of essays, but I suspect that I would enjoy those ones. 

On Beverley Farmer is obviously a book to add to my collection!  

Links are to Readings Bookstore which hosted the event: many thanks to Christine Gordon! 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 21, 2020

The Sea, by John Banville, winner of the Booker Prize in 2005

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

The Sea, by John Banville, won the Booker Prize in 2005

October 10th, 2005

The Sea is a brilliant book. I don’t think it can be matched for the quality of its poetic prose or the cleverness of its imagery both sharp and subtle. It arouses intense feelings of nostalgia, loss, impatience and relief – it’s really quite extraordinary.

Max Morden has lost his beloved wife Anna, and he isn’t coping well at all. He’s a middle-ranking art historian and he’s supposed to be writing a book about Bonnard (a French artist), but he’s not getting anywhere because he’s wallowing in grief and old memories and alcohol.

His memories revert to childhood. When he was a child he went on holiday to the ‘chalet’, the cheap part of a holiday village, where he met the Graces, middle-class and socially a step above him and his deserted mother. He becomes a part of their household at The Cedars, playing almost daily with twins Chloe and Myles. He falls in love, as eleven year old boys do, first with the rather slatternly mother (overweight, vague, drinks too much) and then with Chloe, fumbling with her at the beach and at the pictures. Disaster strikes when Rose, inept au pair/governess to the twins, catches Max fondling Chloe’s budding breasts at the beach and they have a blazing row, culminating inexplicably in Chloe swimming out into an unusually high tide, followed by mute, web-toed and probably intellectually-disabled Myles. They both drown.

The memory of this event is so strong that when Anna dies, Max goes back to The Cedars to grieve. As in Marion Halligan’s The Fog Garden, he seems to become lost in memories, overwhelmed by the loss of Anna and the twins. In what passes for life in Miss Vavasour’s boarding house, there are some acutely funny descriptions of The Colonel, Miss V and her awful friend ‘Bun’, but the general tone of the book is of unbearable pain and loss, culminating in Max getting so drunk that he knocks himself out at the beach. He has to be rescued ignominiously by the Colonel, and is finally carted off to be rehabilitated by his daughter, Clair, and her droopy boyfriend, Jerome. Ghastly as this ending seems, in the context of what’s gone before, there seems to be some hope because Max begins to plan escaping to paint in Paris.

It is a wonderful book, richly illuminating in its portrait of grief unresolved. It also shows Max’s painful agonies about which class he belongs to (still an issue in England!) and how needlessly lives can be wasted. Clair has probably left it too late to have either children or the career as an art scholar that she could have had. It is a very moving book, but I loved reading it.

I was on holiday in Italy when I read The Sea, and hated having to leave the book behind. I bought a new first edition when I returned home and had it autographed by Banville when he visited Melbourne!

I finished reading it and journalled it (on scraps of paper, brought home in the suitcase!) in Monterchi, Tuscany, on 20.10.2005.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 20, 2020

The Woman Who Sailed the World, by Danielle Clode

Danielle Clode is an award-winning author, biologist, and research fellow at Flinders University. As she tells us in this lively biography, Clode grew up on a boat, and her own experiences of sea voyages are an integral part of her quest to find out more about Jeanne Barret, the first woman to circumnavigate the world.

I’d never heard of Jeanne Barret until the Australian National Curriculum specified that Year 4 students were to study exploration, i.e. the great voyages during the Age of Exploration, including the exploration of Australia.  This topic hadn’t been in the curriculum at primary level for years and years, and there was next to nothing in the way of kid-friendly resources.  So I made a wiki for my students to use, which meant I needed to resurrect my own rusty knowledge of the topic, which dated from the days when we used coloured pencils to mark explorers’ sea routes onto a map of the world, using tracing paper to copy it from an atlas.  (My students had to show what they had learned with an iPad App called Explain Everything, using their fingers to trace the voyages across a map of the world and explaining where and why the ships stopped en route.  LOL Teachers are getting more cunning with ways to stop parents from doing their children’s projects.)

Anyway, I started my wiki with my own small library of books on the subject, which included:

For the rest i.e. Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias et al, I relied on Wikipedia… and that was how I found Jeanne Barret.  At that time  she was a mere footnote, a curiosity, partly because not much was known about her, and partly because she was not a navigator or a ship’s captain, she wasn’t even a member of the crew.  Dressed as man among men who were apparently oblivious to her gender, she was valet and assistant to Philibert Commerson, the naturalist who sailed with Bougainville’s 1766 expedition to circumnavigate the world.  Indeed, it was easy to get the impression that she was notable only because of her gender.  After all, there are hundreds of nameless crew and servants who accompanied these celebrated voyages, and the only one most of us might know about is Syms Covington, made famous by Roger McDonald’s Mr Darwin’s Shooter (1999).

Turraea rutilans, originally named Baretia bonafidia by Commerson (Source: The Conversation)

Danielle Clode, however, sets the story straight, and it’s a remarkable achievement because of the paucity of records about Jeanne Barret.  She brings Jeanne out from behind Commerson’s shadow, demonstrating without any doubt that she was an equal partner in his collecting activities, and quoting Commerson’s own words to show how much he valued her contribution.  He named a plant after her, Baretia bonafidia*,  citing her role in its discovery:

‘This plant showing deceiving leaves or clothing is named for that heroic woman who changed into manly clothes and with the mind of a woman, traversed the whole globe, a thirst for knowledge as her cause, daring to cross land and sea with us unaware.  […] Equal to the armed hunter Diana and the sage and severe Minerva, she evaded ambush by wild animals and humans, not without risk to her life and virtue, unharmed and sound, inspired by some divine power’. (p.271)

He concluded his dedication like this:

She will be the first woman to have made the complete turn of the terrestrial globe, having travelled more than fifteen thousand leagues.  We are indebted to her heroism for so many plants never before harvested, all the industrious drying, so many collections of insects and shells, that is would be prejudicial for me, as for that of any naturalist, not to render her the deepest homage in dedicating this flower to her. (p.272)

But Jeanne was remarkable for other reasons too.  She was an example of social mobility: an illiterate peasant who rose to become bourgeois.

This is a rags-to-riches story — of a woman who not only sailed the world, but made her fortune and returned to France successful and independently wealthy. When she married Dubernat in the Saint-Louis chapel in Royal Street, alongside the tomb of Madame de Labourdonnais, it was Jeanne who was the catch.  The marriage was witnessed by five men, tradesmen and merchants of varying ages, a mix of young and old French arrivals in Mauritius.  Not servants or labourers, neither upper nor lower class, neither wealthy or poor: these were men more or less in charge of their own livelihoods and destinies.  Jeanne had joined the middle classes — the petite bourgeoisie. (p.291)

(In Search of) The Woman Who Sailed the World isn’t just about a really interesting woman, it’s also a fascinating quest.  Clode’s search for fragments about this woman who seemed to have left no trace of herself — no journal, no letters, no memorabilia — is a story in itself, enlivened by Clode’s understanding of ships and sailing and her expertise in natural history.

Danielle Clode has worked in zoos, museums and universities.  Her first book on French exploration, Voyages to the South Seas, won the 2007 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-fiction, and most recently The Wasp and the Orchid (see Theresa Smith’s review) was shortlisted for the 2019 National Biography Award.  You can find out more about her at her website.

I hope to see this book on shortlists too.

*Baretia bonafidia has since been renamed as Turraea rutilans.

Author: Danielle Clode
Title: (In Search of) The Woman Who Sailed the World
Publisher: Picador, (Pan Macmillan) 2020
ISBN: 9781760784959
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan

Available from Fishpond: In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World or your favourite Indie bookshop. Yu can buy the eBook direct from the publisher.


Image credit: Turraea rutilans, originally named Baretia bonafidia by Commerson. Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris (France) Collection: Vascular plants (P) Specimen P00391569, at

I bought this audio book ages ago when I was about to have eye surgery and wanted to have a book to ‘read’ at bedtime.  But in the event, I listened to Campbell Scott’s narration of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Heroes languished until more recently when my old foe, insomnia, surfaced again.  I am pleased to be able to tell you that this recording is soporific. (Which is why it took months for me to finish it.)

TBH, I don’t much like Stephen Fry.  (There wasn’t much else to choose from in the bookshop).  I admired his role in the film Wilde (1997), but I find his humour, as seen in the QI series, predictable and vulgar.  This tendency surfaces from time to time in Heroes and some of the narration is hopelessly over-acted, but for the most part, it’s a fairly lacklustre retelling of the Greek myths and legends that we read as children.

I don’t remember what edition I read in childhood, but it was probably Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green, which was first published in the UK in 1958.  I bought a Puffin edition for The Offspring for Christmas 1980.  In this retelling, there is great dignity in the way that Prometheus meets his fate, after Zeus discovers that he has taught men the uses of fire.  The words of Roger Lancelyn Green are poetry in prose:

…Zeus, as soon as he became aware that his command had been disobeyed, and the gift which he withheld had been stolen and given to men, summoned Prometheus before him.

‘Titan!’ he cried fiercely. ‘You have disobeyed me! What is there to prevent me from casting you down into Tartarus with your brethren, and destroying these vile insects, these men, to whom you have given gifts reserved for the Immortals alone?’

‘Lord Zeus,’ answered Prometheus quietly, ‘I know what is to come, and how cruelly you will punish me for all I have done.  But there are two things you cannot do: no Immortal may take away the gift an Immortal has once given — so you will not deprive men of fire now that I have made it theirs.  And I am certain that you will not destroy mankind, when I tell you that a man — your son, born of a mortal woman — will save you and all of you who dwell in Olympus on that future day when Earth will bring forth all the Giants meaning to be revenged for the overthrow of the Titans.  This I tell you, and you know that my words are true: no Immortal can slay a Giant, but a Man can slay them, if he be strong and brave enough.  And I will tell you this also: at a certain time in the future you will fall as your father fell.’

Then the wrath of Zeus was terrible.  In a voice of thunder he bade his son Hephaestus, the Immortal whose skill was in the working of metals, take Prometheus and bind him with fetters of brass to the great mountain of Caucasus on the eastern edge of the world.

‘There you shall lie,’ he cried in his cruel rage, ‘for ever and ever as a punishment for your daring and disobedience.’ (Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green, Puffin Books, 1958, 1975 reprint, p. 35)

And as we all know, when Prometheus wouldn’t reveal how Zeus could avert his doom, Zeus sent an eagle to pluck out his liver, an agony to be repeated every day because his liver grew back again.

Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens c.1611-12 (Wikipedia)

In the print edition of Heroes, (which we happen to have as well because The Spouse bought it), there are colour illustration inserts, which include a reproduction of ‘Prometheus Bound’ by Peter Paul Rubens.  This magnificent painting, with the eagle’s claw pinning the head of Prometheus to the rock as it does its cruel work, depicts that agony described by Green, his screams echoing over the haunted cliffs and chasms of Caucasus, so that none dared approach.  Yet Fry tells the story of his release in banal language utterly unworthy of this moment in classical myth:

Heracles knew who this figure chained to the rocks was, of course.  Everybody did.  But only Heracles dared to raise his bow and shoot down Zeus’s avenging eagle as it soared out of the sun towards them.

‘I can’t pretend that I am sorry to see him go,’ said Prometheus watching it plunge to its death.  ‘He was only doing the Sky Father’s bidding, but I have to confess I had learned to hate that bird.’

I rest my case.

Image credit:

Author & narrator: Stephen Fry
Title: Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures, originally published as Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined.
Publisher: Penguin, 2018
ISBN: 9781405940566, 15 CDs, running time 15 hours.
Source: Personal library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 16, 2020

Late Sonata, by Bryan Walpert

Late Sonata is an interesting novella, framed around the structure of a sonata.  And not just any old sonata, it’s Beethoven’s No 30 in e Major, Op 109.  (Yes, it has its very own Wikipedia page.)  You do not need to know anything about sonatas to enjoy the book, but it enhances the pleasure if you know that this sonata consists of three movements, corresponding to the three parts of the book; and that the sonata has six variations in the third movement, which corresponds to six versions of reality that the central character considers in the last part of the book.

I did take the narrator’s advice at the beginning of Part One:

Listen to Beethoven’s Sonata No 30 in E Major, Op. 109.  Really listen to it. Not while you’re cooking or ironing or reading or paying the bills.  Listen with your eyes closed.  Lie down on the rug.  If you can, listen beside someone you love, while they are still capable of sharing it. Give your attention to every note, every silence. (p.1-2)

#Digression1: The recording I chose was played by Gerard Willems, on the Australian designed and manufactured Stuart & Sons piano. (I have, BTW, on the TBR a copy of Brendan Ward’s The Beethoven Obsession which tells the remarkable story of how Willems came to record all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas on the Stuart piano.  You can read a review of that book here.)  But you can also listen to Daniel Barenboim’s recording here.

#BackToTheBook: As we know from the first paragraph, Stephen exhorts us to listen with a loved one while they are still capable of sharing it because his wife Talia has Alzheimer’s and she has slipped further into total dependence since the death of their son Michael.  Stephen is a flawed character, but his devotion to caring for Talia at this time of her life when he is grieving for a son she can’t remember, makes him a good man.  He’s not just alert for any sound in the night that tells him she’s gone wandering, he’s also reluctantly editing her last book.  Talia was a musicologist and this last book is a study of Beethoven’s sonatas.

At the same time, Stephen escapes into his own writing, which Talia had described as his redemption fantasies.  Again, the sonata structure that underlies the novella makes an appearance: in the first movement, the exposition, a sonata begins in the tonic key, and moves into the dominant key.  It’s supposed to resolve in the tonic, and it doesn’t sound ‘right’ if it doesn’t.  So Late Sonata features two stories:

  • the one that Stephen is narrating about his real life, about his memories, and about his struggles to confront his past, to resolve his concerns about marital fidelity, and to face the truth about his family; and
  • the other, the story that Stephen is writing, about Orville who is involved in an experimental treatment to reverse ageing, a kind of Benjamin Button experience that presents an older man adjusting to life as a young man again.

There are many poignant moments in this novel, but I’ll share just one:

What I never expected to emerge from the course of Talia’s illness was the sense of losing my own history.  Hers, of course.  I expected her sense of self to dissipate — though I dreaded it — along with her memory of her profession, her conversations with her sister, her desires and rages.  I expected her to forget the way we used to sit out on the deck and watch rain clouds thicken, feel the humidity gather in the air, wait with eyes closed as the first drops splashed on our skins before running into the house, a regular event when we were younger (at what point had it become history?) To lose my wife’s knowledge of who I am — that is in a very real way to lose the knowledge myself.  There is no one else left alive who knows as much about me, both from the recollections I’ve shared with her (Recollected too often, she said) and the length of the journey taken together.  What I know of myself is informed, even constructed, by her wry responses and reflections, the occasional admissions of affection, even admiration.  That is the oddest, though not the most important, part of losing her, even as she sits just a few feet away. (p.136)

#Digression2: ‘a few feet away’: this was one of a number of phrasings in the text that alerted me to Walpert’s American background.  (NZ, like Australia, has used the metric system for decades.) He’s been in New Zealand since 2004 and is now a New Zealand citizen and a professor at Massey University, but every now and again I browsed back through the text to see if I’d missed something specific that identified the setting as American.  It took a Google search for a Cooper’s Hawk which makes an appearance in the story to confirm what I’d suspected from this passage:

They like eating birds best, Aaron said — pigeons and, if they can find them, doves.  Maybe you’ve heard them called chickenhawks.  But they’re also eat mice or squirrels, chipmunks, hares. (p.57)

As far as I can tell, there are no squirrels or chipmunks in New Zealand. Cooper’s Hawks are native to Northern America though they can be found as far afield as Canada and Mexico.  But not in New Zealand and neither is the Sharp-shinned Hawk which also gets a mention.   Not that this setting matters, of course, Late Sonata is a fine story and it was co-winner of the 2020 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize.  It’s just that I was expecting it to be set in New Zealand and was puzzled when hints emerged that it wasn’t.

You can listen to this interview about Late Sonata where Walpert talks about the genesis of the novel in a MOOC that he undertook.  I liked his motive for this: he wanted to experience what it was like for his students, to be embarking on learning about something completely unfamiliar.

Author: Bryan Walpert
Title: Late Sonata
Cover art by Sam Paine
Publisher: Seizure by Brio Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781922267238, pbk., 157 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Seizure Online
Available from the Seizure Bookshop or Fishpond: Late Sonata or your favourite indie bookshop.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 16, 2020

The Tolstoy Estate, by Steven Conte

Steven Conte’s brilliant new novel The Tolstoy Estate recreates the brief WW2 German Occupation of Yasnaya Polyana outside Moscow before they were forced to retreat.

As I said the other day in discussion about historical fiction at Whispering Gums, I know a fair bit about this extraordinary event because in 2012 The Spouse and I had a private tour to Yasnaya Polyana when we were in Russia, and our guide was an expert on the battlefield history of the area, tours of which he more commonly led. So en route, on the two-hour journey from Moscow, he gave us a bonus history of the German onslaught and how it was repulsed.  It was only our second day in Russia, and we were yet to see evidence of the scorched earth policy of the Germans, so we were not then really aware that the survival of this historic estate, the home of one of the world’s greatest writers, was an anomaly.  But as we subsequently visited palaces and cathedrals and museums in what had been occupied territory, we saw photos documenting the way the Germans expressed their hatred of all things Russian by looting and destroying these buildings and cultural artefacts.   It really is a remarkable experience to wander through an exquisite palace and then come across, in a small corridor, B&W photos of that same palace in ruins.  As the before-and-after photos at this website at Russia Beyond show, not all restoration work is complete, even now.)

Yasnaya Polyana (Wikipedia)

But Yasnaya Polyana escaped this fate because it was strategically useful.  The Germans were advancing on Moscow, but were halted on the southern flank at the city of Tula just under 200k from the capital.  They used the Tolstoy estate, about 12k southwest of Tula, as a hospital for casualties, and occupied it for about six weeks.  In Conte’s novel, the occupiers discover the significance of the building when they find tourist maps, and the central character military surgeon Paul Bauer is a bookish type who has read War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  So for him, it’s a bit like the literary pilgrimages I like to do, feeling a sense of reverence for the site where a great work of literature was penned.

Plus, he speaks Russian albeit with mediocre skill.  (Which I can understand because I learned it for six months before travelling to Russia and it’s not an easy language to learn.)  So it’s just as well that Katerina Trubetzkaya, Acting Head Custodian of Yasnaya Polyana, speaks fluent German, starting with a smart put-down to the battalion’s CO, Lieutenant Colonel Julius Metz: ‘Any half-decently educated person can speak the five or six main European dialects.’ Metz is monolingual, never really discovering that he is at the mercy of those who interpret for him.  Bauer doesn’t tell him that Katerina has imprudently ignored his quiet advice not to identify herself as Tovarishch i.e. Comrade, and Katerina switches in and out of German whenever it suits her.  But since her hostility is reckless, she delivers most of her insults in German, so that the enemy can understand her.

One aspect that I noticed repeatedly in Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, was how passionately the Soviet women spoke of their land and their desire to defend it no matter the cost.  Over and over again Alexievich quotes their disbelief and outrage: how dare anyone set foot on their land? So Conte’s representation of Katerina is absolutely authentic: she is livid, and she is also utterly confident that Germany will be defeated.  In this respect she has Tolstoy on her side: because War and Peace is framed around Napoleon’s humiliating retreat from Moscow in 1812, with 27,000 soldiers the only remnant of his massive army after the loss of 380,000 men in the bitter Russian winter.

‘It’s only a matter of time until Tula falls, gnädige [gracious] Frau, and when it does the whole Soviet centre will collapse.  By Christmas, I assure you, we’ll be well ensconced in Moscow.’


‘Let’s say you’re right, she said, ‘though I strongly doubt it.’ Bauer guessed what was coming, and she didn’t disappoint. ‘In 1812 Napoleon held Moscow for most of September and October, and yet by November his Grande Armée was — how shall I put it? — in headlong retreat.’

‘Madam, warfare is no longer a matter of rag-tag armies chasing one another about the countryside.  It’s total, and our strength is the greater.’

‘Russia remains large, its winters cold’.

Metz gave her a supercilious smile. ‘You seem like an intelligent woman.  Don’t you know that history never repeats itself?

‘Ah, but there you’re wrong.  Herr Oberstleutnant. 1707, the Swedes.  It was in Russia they learned neutrality.  If you’re smart enough, you Germans will learn the same lesson — though somehow I doubt it. (p.29)

Well, we all know what happened, and Bauer with his mediocre Russian already knew it too, from a brief conversation with a hostile babushka…

what the High command, with Abwehr spies and Russian linguists at its disposal, had apparently overlooked: in October the roads essential to the German strategy were impassable by definition.  (p.5)

Rasputitsa, (Sea of Mud) by Savrasov (1894) (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia tells is that this is called the rasputitsa: a Russian term for two seasons of the year when travel on unpaved roads or across country becomes difficult, owing to muddy conditions from rain or melting snow. It is applied to both spring and autumn.  Savrasov’s painting at right is beautiful, but the photos at Wikipedia give a better idea of the defensive advantage that halted the German offensive.  After that came the turning point of the war with the defeat at Stalingrad which showed that the Germans were not invincible, and paved the way for D-Day at Normandy.

But in Conte’s novel Stalingrad is yet to come, and there is bitter fighting at the front in the battle for Tula.  Even as the relationship between Katerina and Bauer thaws, the casualties come into the hospital suffering not just from battle wounds but from frostbite.  Conte vividly evokes the brutal weather when the temperature drops to minus sixteen degrees Celsius and Bauer wakes to a layer of snow over his blankets because he left the window ajar.  The army has not been supplied with winter uniforms, and although Bauer wears almost all his clothing, he is cold even indoors. He thinks of the troops — on both sides — out there in the blizzard:

under canvas or in foxholes; of their having to rise and feed themselves, visit latrines, tend to horses and vehicles, see to their weapons and to dozens of other mundane duties in order to prepare themselves for combat. (p.52)

Tolstoy’s Grave. (Wikipedia) When we visited, people had placed red flowers around the mound.

That morning when he gets to the hospital, Katerina is enraged that Tolstoy’s burial grove has been desecrated by its designation as a German military cemetery for the fallen.  ‘I’d rather see your troops in Soviet soil than on it,’ Trubetzkaya said, ‘just not anywhere near Tolstoy.  I want them disinterred.’  Metz palms her off onto Bauer, who goes with her into the bitter weather to see the grave.

If anything the wind felt harsher than before, an ice-spiked gale all the way from the tundra.  Big clouds flew fast and low overhead, their edges frayed, wild and unstable.  Trubetzkaya led him into the wind, and enviously he glanced at her clothes: a grey cape over her quilted jacket, fur-lined boots and mittens and her ushanka, the flaps of which she’d tied underneath her chin. His own cloth cap did little to fend off the wind and left his earlobes cruelly exposed.  His wrists stung where his gloves didn’t reach.  Already his face was stiffening.  (p.56)

If not for Katerina teaching him how to fend off the early effects of frostbite, he would have lost his nose, and he becomes acutely aware of the misery of the men at the front.

Conte doesn’t spare his readers the horrors of  conflict and the way the casualties suffer, and he also shows human endurance put to the test.  Bauer and his team work for 36 hours straight, until he can hardly think about what he is doing.  When he finally makes his way toward bed, he is accosted by Metz, who is becoming more and more unhinged, partly because Drexel is experimenting on him with amphetamines to enhance his performance and stamina, and partly because he can’t face the impending defeat of their objective to take Moscow.  But The Tolstoy Estate is also a bittersweet love story, when two intellectual soulmates meet in this most unlikely set of circumstances.

I loved their conversations about books and writing, and Katerina’s impassioned argument that the novel is a force for good in the world.

‘To be clear, I’m not saying that the novel as a form will disappear, any more than poetry has disappeared since it lost its status as the most prestigious branch of literature. But its importance will fade. Everything fades, I suppose, certainly everything made by human hands, and yet I can’t help feeling bereft to witness this diminution of the novel, which for all its inadequacies has trained us to see the world from others’ points of view. To borrow a Stalinist idiom, the novel is a machine, a noisy, violent thing whose product, oddly enough, is often human understanding, perhaps even a kind of love. I daresay some might look at the last one hundred years and say, ‘Nonsense, what love?’ but if so they are naïve because the terrifying truth is that it could have been worse. Hitler could have won. Kennedy and Khrushchev could have blown us all to hell. And who knows what other horrors we’ve evaded because someone, or someone’s teacher, or someone’s mother or grandfather, once put down a novel and thought, ‘My God, I am like that stranger’ or ‘That stranger is like me’ or even ‘That stranger is utterly different from me, and yet, how understandable his hopes and longings are.’ And in the future, as fewer and fewer people use these engines of empathy, what horrors will we not avoid?’ (p.355-6)

It’s been a long time between books for Steven Conte.  He won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for The Zookeeper’s War back in 2008, but The Tolstoy Estate is well worth the wait.

Highly recommended.

You can find out more about Steven Conte at his website.  There are also questions for book groups.

Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes reviewed it too — and by coincidence, but not surprisingly since we share a love of the novel, has quoted the same excerpt as above. See also Jennifer’s review at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large. 

Image credits:

Author: Steven Conte
Title: The Tolstoy Estate
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2020
Cover design by Catherine Casalino
ISBN: 9781460758823, pbk., 410 pages including Acknowledgements
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings $27.99

Available at Fishpond: The Tolstoy Estate or your favourite indie bookstore.

My copy of Gabrielle Carey’s new book arrived from Readings yesterday, so the timing of this author event is just perfect.

This is the blurb for the book, Only Happiness Here, In search of Elizabeth von Arnim:

‘When I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim, I found, for the first time, a writer who wrote about being happy.’

Elizabeth von Arnim is one of the early twentieth century’s most famous – and almost forgotten – authors. She was ahead of her time in her understanding of women and their often thwarted pursuit of happiness. Born in Sydney in the mid-1800s, she went on to write many internationally bestselling novels, marry a Prussian Count and then an English Lord, develop close friendships with H.G. Wells and E.M. Forster, and raise five children.

Intrigued by von Arnim’s extraordinary life, Gabrielle Carey sets off on a literary and philosophical journey to learn about this bold and witty author. More than a biography, Only Happiness Here is also a personal investigation into our perennial obsession with finding joy

And this is the blurb for the event, hosted by The Avid Reader in Brisbane:

Gabrielle Carey narrates a riveting journey through the life and work of one of last century’s most successful – and almost forgotten – women novelists, Elizabeth von Arnim.
Jessica White is in-conversation with Gabrielle Carey discussing her biography Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim.
Elizabeth von Arnim is one of the early 20th century’s most famous – and forgotten –authors. Born in Sydney in the mid 1800s, she went on to write many internationally bestselling novels, marry a Prussian Count and then an English Lord, nurture close friendships with H.G. Wells and E.M. Forster and raise five children.
Her novels were ahead of their time in their representation of women and their pursuit of happiness. Intrigued by von Arnim’s extraordinary life and vibrant career, Gabrielle Carey sets off on a literary and philosophical journey to know more about this talented author.
From the Prime Minister’s Literary Award winner of Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family, Only Happiness Here is part biography, part memoir and part reflection on human nature’s obsession with finding joy.
Gabrielle Carey is the author of novels, biography, autobiography, essays, articles and short stories. She teaches writing at the University of Technology, Sydney, where her infatuation with Randolph Stow is happily tolerated. Her most recent book was the memoir, The Waiting Room: A Memoir.

Madonna Daffy from UQP did the introduction, reminding us that many of Von Arnim’s books are still in print 100+ years after publication.  She also referred us to the  review by Marie Matteson at Readings.

Jessica began by telling us how much she laughed when she was reading this book.  She thinks that this is because Gabrielle and Von Arnim share the same droll sense of humour (evidence of which occurred throughout this event!)  She went on to say that the book is spliced with Gabrielle’s reflections on reading and her own life. So how did Gabrielle come across Von Arnim?

Gabrielle said that she discovered her when Ursula Dubosarsky lent her one of Von Arnim’s books and she has been under her spell ever since.   She had such an interesting life, but although this book is about happiness, it’s also true that she was sometimes miserable.  One of the people who made her miserable was her first husband,  and before that the pressure to get married made her miserable.  At that time and in that society, it wasn’t really an option not to be married, so she had to go along with a marriage arranged for her.  (At 23 she was just about an old maid, said Gabrielle). Of course at first he was charming at first, but all her books are about how marriage changes people.

Von Arnim, was, however, resilient.  She realised early on that the Count was not her soulmate, especially when he moved her into a Berlin apartment which — contrary to her expectations, given that he was an aristocrat — was cramped.  She was expected to conform to a very restricted society where everything was very regimented and the opposite to the freedom that she wanted.  To escape this sense of confinement, she took the dog for endless walks and she went cycling.

All this changed when they went to his long neglected schloss, and she refused to go back to Berlin.  She loved the garden, and she wrote a bestseller about it, Elizabeth and her German Garden, the first of over 20 books.  Jessica asked if Von Arnim was a ‘natural’ writer?  Gabrielle’s theory is that because women are not allowed to verbalise their feelings when they’re young, the only way they can express that is in writing.  Von Arnim didn’t have an unhappy childhood, but she was ‘apart’ from the rest of the family.

Jessica asked Gabrielle why she wrote the book the way she did, not as a bio, but as a biblio-memoir.  Gabrielle, who has some strong opinions about straightforward biographies being ‘boring inventories of a life’, said that that kind of bio had already been done.  She prefers biblio-memoir: she likes the blend of the relationship between the subject and the author writing it. She also thought that Won Arnim has a lot to offer at this moment in our own time. And she liked Von Arnim’s passion for gardening because her grand plans didn’t always work in the garden: gardening teaches you about disappointment, it’s a metaphor for life (and for writing, added Jess).

Only Happiness Here finishes with a set of rules for happiness, the first of which is freedom.  Jess thinks this is a set of rules for women writers too.   Von Arnim found it difficult to find a space for herself and her writing, and her husband kept intruding, and he was irritated by this as well. He had a fixed idea of women’s role and she was pushing back against that all the time.  Writers are impossible to live with, said Gabrielle, and he seemed needy to her.  Often writing doesn’t work well with marriage, she thinks.

Von Arnim was ahead of her time, with undertones in her novels about domestic violence.  Another theme is escaping to England, and Gabrielle told an anecdote about how she wanted to go there, he wouldn’t let her,, she ordered the carriage anyway, and he sent it away.  So she left the house in the middle of the night and walked ten miles to the railway station and then continued her journey.  Gabrielle thinks this is kind of rebelliousness is ‘Australian’, a characteristic which Von Arnim retained even though she left when she was only three.  Asked what makes Von Arnim ‘Australian’ Gabrielle suggested straightforwardness, determination to get what she wants, and being outside in the earth (in the garden).  Maybe it’s also because she has an Australian type of feminism which is distinctive, like Germaine Greer’s…

Von Arnim ended up having to rescue the Count financially: that’s ironic because he was supposed to be the boss but she paid the bills because he was hopeless with money.  Her next husband was also a dud, and so was the affair that she had with H G Wells. Her relationships were unsuccessful, but that didn’t stop her being happy because she believed that happiness was possible if she could create environments or conditions that enabled her natural buoyancy to happen.   Her attention was not on herself, it was on things outside herself. She did have periods of depression, but she had an incredible capacity to enjoy life, especially nature and gardens, and relationships when they were good.  Her intellectual capacity and energy levels were extraordinary.

In her research, Gabrielle said there were a  lot of Australian reviews of Von Arnim’s books because she was well-known here, despite avoiding publicity.

Brona from Brona’s Books asked a question about Katherine Mansfield, who was Von Arnim’s cousin.  Katherine Mansfield read Elizabeth and her Garden when she was eleven, and some say it was that which made her decide to be a writer.  Von Arnim was very supportive of Mansfield and promoted her work.  She was a generous mentor to a poor and unwell competitor and they had a warm and loving relationship.  Katherine Mansfield’s last letter before her untimely death was to Von Arnim.

The Count’s death was liberating for her.  Until then, she had kept secret her real name (Mary Annette Beauchamp) but once she was free of him, she was happy to be known by her pen name Elizabeth Von Arnim.  She became a very merry widow and built a splendid Swiss chalet which became a hub for an extensive network of friends including Bertrand Russell. Alas, she fell for Russell’s brother, and married him but it was disastrous.  It lasted about three years, then she ran away from him as well.

Von Arnim had a son and four daughters, one of whom was devoted to her and wrote an adoring bio, while another daughter wrote an alternative version which was destroyed.  The first daughter wrote that her other children found her demanding and difficult and that they felt they had never met her expectations.

If you’re interested in Von Arnim, Gabrielle recommends starting with The Enchanted April, which is about a holiday in Portofino.  It features a woman escaping, and was made into two beautiful films.  But Gabrielle’s favourite is Vera, which is different to all the others: it’s serious, it’s about domestic violence — psychological tyranny, not physical violence.

You can buy Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim from Fishpond (click the link), or your favourite indie bookshop.

Shortlisted for multiple awards including the National Biography Award and the 2020 Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance, Jessica White’s recent book of creative non-fiction is Hearing Maud: A Journey for a Voice.  It’s available from from Fishpond (click the link) or direct from UWAP.

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre, won the Booker Prize in 2003.

July 7th, 2003

This is the Booker prize winner that sent the media into a frenzy because the author, DBC. Pierre (real name Peter Warren Finlay) is a former drug addict who conned a friend out of a whole apartment somewhere in America. (He said he used some of the prize to pay him back). It wasn’t really a book I wanted to read because (a) it’s full of foul language and has no apparent literary qualities (b) it’s narrated by a real smartarse who speaks like those morons I sometimes see on TV. This type of ‘gonzo’ adolescent slanginess was what also put me off The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Pulitzer Prize or no.

It is however, a clever satire, and I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. Vernon is accused of the mass murder of his school mates after a Columbia-style tragedy, and the justice system is so screwed up with pseudo-experts and media tricks that he’s found guilty and sentenced to death. Vernon’s mother and her friends are obsessed with getting into the media to report on it, and his girlfriend (of a sort) turns him in, to a reporter in Mexico. It’s just good luck that he is finally found not guilty and all ends well in crazy 21st century Texas.There is a bit of a problem with the loss of plot direction about 2/3 of the way through, and I felt mildly guilty that I lost interest in the details of Vernon’s life at about the same time as it was to be terminated. I almost put the book aside then, but persisted, and it does recover its impetus, romping through to its unlikely ‘happy’ ending.

I have heard that Americans mostly don’t like this book. It is unequivocal about the immorality and injustice of capital punishment, now obsolete in the rest of the West. It is vicious satire, exposing the narcissism and materialism for which America is often lambasted. It is savage about the trashy way of life exemplified by the greed of its characters (takeaway food, monster fridges, obesity and dieting); it’s ruthless in its commentary about their institutions (the legal system and the media). I don’t know whether it’s fair comment or not. I’ve never been to America, and I don’t imagine that a short time as a tourist in their splendid museums and art galleries would qualify me to make a judgement.

I finished reading this book and journalled it on 15.11.2003.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 11, 2020

A Haunted Land, by Randolph Stow

Scanned from the back cover of the First Edition, photographer unknown.

Randolph Stow wrote this astonishing first novel as an undergraduate at UWA, the University of Western Australia.  Published in England in 1956 when he was just twenty-one, The Haunted Land is gothic in its plot and intensity.  Without the benefit of Suzanne Falkiner’s 2016 biography to enlighten me, it makes me wonder about what kind of youthful experiences Stow had had, about the books he had read, and about the people in his life.  Despite its flaws, I’ve included the photo scanned from the back cover of my 1956 Macdonald first edition because it emphasises how young he was, and it’s a photo I haven’t seen elsewhere on the internet, perhaps because this edition is now very rare indeed.

A Haunted Land tells the story of the Maguire family in one fateful year.  Set in 1902 in isolated squatter country in the mid-west of Western Australia, it begins with an echo of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.  Jessie returns as an old, old woman in a prologue revealing the desolation and decay of ‘Malin’, the once impressive homestead where the main action of the story takes place decades ago.

At the end of the avenue was the house, hidden, until they were inside, by the thick trees and shrubs that grew around the fence.  Gums, olives and oleanders made a dark-leaved screen.  The man got out to open the hanging gate that scraped along the ground, and the smell of the vivid oleander flowers in the heat came to him like a blow.  And the car drove in to the wide stretches of what was once a lawn, and at the end of the lawn was Malin.

It had been a white house, but in its decay had become shabby.  The grey shingles had been beaten out of place by many rains, and the woodwork, once green, was now faded and cracked.  At each corner of the front were bay windows and in the middle the front door with its dark-green paint and wolfs-head knocker intact.  Three stone steps led up to the verandah.

One of the verandah posts was broken, and the upper balcony sagged dangerously, but seemed supported by the great climbing rose which had taken possession of a whole side of the house and reached even to the base of one of the white chimneys.  At the front it had followed along the railing of the lower verandah and covered the stone steps.  The paths and the lawns were covered with dead weeds, which in a more fertile season had been white daisies and cosmos with flowers fragile and delicate as ash.

‘Early Convict Style,’ the girl murmured.  ‘The classical architecture of our district.’  (p.10-11)

What follows traces the disintegration of the Maguire family under the tyrannical rule of the patriarch Andrew.  In the wake of the death of his delicate wife Beth, Andrew keeps his older boys Martin and Nick to farm alongside him and the three Aboriginal labourers who play an important part in the story.  He sends Adelaide aged nine, and eight-year-old twins Anne and Patrick, not to Perth, but to Melbourne, on the other side of the continent.  This was a significant journey back then: it was to be many years before the Trans-Australian Railway was completed in 1917; what is now the 1660-km Eyre Highway linking Western and South Australia was a rough track until the war in the Pacific, and it remained unsealed until 1976.  In the late 19th century it was not conceivable to send young children across this route in a horse-and-buggy; they went by ship.  Andrew could hardly have sent his children further away.

When they return ten years later, their presence upsets the balance of Andrew’s strong personality and the meek acquiescence of the older boys.  Martin longs for recognition as a man, while Nick yearns to be a musician or an artist, but Andrew demands total submission to his will and considers it his responsibility to bully his sons out of any flaws that he thinks they have.  These young men have a love-hate relationship with their domineering father, avoiding confrontation, seeking his approval, and acquiescing to his primary strategy for making men of them: in his study after dinner, he gets them drunk.

Adelaide is the peace-maker and the worrier, and she wants to take on what would have been her mother’s domestic role, but Andrew is determined that any assistance given to the housekeeper Mrs Cross is limited.  Adelaide is expected to know her elevated place in this rural society, and to reinforce the lower status of others.  Anne, on the other hand, is self-absorbed and flighty, and when her growing awareness of her own sexuality crosses a racial and social boundary, there are tragic consequences.  Like everyone else in the family she is incapable of expressing her feelings.  Adelaide knows something is wrong, but Anne’s guilt drives a wedge between them.  It is to her twin Patrick that she finally confesses, and then Andrew’s cruelty surfaces in Patrick in the most shocking of ways.  It is not the only act of appalling violence in the novel.

The family is not entirely isolated: Aunt Edith lives within visiting distance but they are estranged.  When an opportunity for potential reconciliation occurs— in the form of a welcome home party for a veteran of the Boer War—Andrew’s malice and rudeness sabotages any chance of it.  He wants his children all for himself.  His malignant response to Patrick’s love for the recently widowed young Jane is even more brutal because it’s masked by the way he conceals it.  He also manages to damage Martin’s love for Jessie beyond repair.  Only Nick, who gets away to Perth, with vague plans to go even further afield, seems to have any hope at all, but his letters to Adelaide suggest that it was a forlorn dream.

Even in this youthful novel where it is tempting to interpret the characterisation of Andrew Maguire as settling adolescent scores, Stow achieves a kind of psychological truth about this malevolent father-figure.  (Stow dedicates the book, BTW, to his father and mother.)  With third-person omniscient narration, the reader sees Andrew’s obsession that each of his children in their different ways exist to mirror his memory of his dead wife.

Maguire came into the stable and eyes fell on his wife’s saddle tilted sideways on the rack.  He reached up and straightened it, noticing the tooling as he did so.  Two daisies, E.A.M.—Elizabeth Ann Maguire.  She’d always left it like that, untidily, just as Anne had done.  She had been forever leaving things lying about. Things like music, things like clothes.  Things like memories.

Strange, how much she was present after so long; after ten years and four months she ought to have retired a little from the scene.  But she kept coming back, as soon as he was alone she was there with him.  At first he’d been glad, treasuring the memory…I’ll never forget you till I die, that sort of thing.  He hadn’t known then what a torment she meant for him.

But he should have known, he knew Beth.  He should have expected this tearing longing, this unkillable lust for what no longer existed outside the mind.  He should have been prepared for it, the inevitable racking torture of straining to see still, to touch, taste, hear and smell what had gone beyond the senses to have a new mocking life in his memory.  Oh, Elizabeth Maguire, you are immortal and irreplaceable.

‘Oh, Elizabeth Maguire, he said aloud, you are a toothache in the soul.’

Even more torturing to see her for a moment physically present, speaking, thinking, through the bodies of her children.  Just for a second to find her, in Martin’s earnestness, in Nick’s dreaminess, in Patrick’s impetuosity, Anne’s irreverence, Adelaide’s quiet sympathy.  Just for a second to grasp her, and then to see her disappear into somebody else’s mind.

Never to have her whole, never to have her real.

He’d tried, tried with them all to turn them into Beth, and it was no use.  (p.93-4)

Although this is a mature novel for an author so young, there are aspects of the novel that betray Stow’s inexperience.  Anne’s behaviour is overwrought, even for a gothic novel; and while the characterisation of the developmentally delayed Tommy Cross as a latter-day Caliban links the novel to Shakespeare’s The Tempest (an epigraph from which is at the beginning of the book), it reads uneasily today.  Likewise—ironically, because Stow went on to write with great sensitivity about racial differences in To The Islands which won the Miles Franklin Award and the ALS Gold Medal in 1958—the words that Stow uses in dialogue about the Aborigines are offensive in our day and age, and are, I suspect, the reason why this novel has not been reissued as his other novels have been.

The Geraldton Regional library is proud to hold a collection by and about Randolph Stow where you can see multiple covers of different editions, and also his Olympia typewriter, letters, a travel trunk and artifacts gathered during his travels.  It sounds like just the place for a literary pilgrimage.

I read this book from my collection for Simon and Kaggsy’s 1956 Club.  It’s unique—not just because it’s Australian— among the books other readers have been reviewing!

Author: Randolph Stow
Title: A Haunted Land
Publisher: Macdonald, London, 1956, first edition hardback
ISBN: none.
Source: Diversity Books (I think), $145.00.  (It’s very rare).

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 9, 2020

Max, by Alex Miller

Max, by Alex Miller, is the poignant account of the author’s quest to discover the truth about a man who thought his life was futile.  It is, as the blurb says:

An astonishing, moving tribute to Alex’s friend, Max Blatt, that is at once a meditation on memory itself, on friendship and a reminder to the reader that history belongs to humanity

Max Blatt was the husband of Ruth Blatt, who was a friend of my mother’s.  She went to Ruth for private lessons in German, but she never mentioned Max, and now I know why.  Max was a solitary man, who would have absented himself when my mother arrived for her lessons.  I also know now that Ruth was the breadwinner in the family because decades after WW2, Max suffered from poor health as a result of torture at the hands of the Germans. He had been a member of a German Resistance group, and they had tortured him for weeks.

The book begins with Miller’s surprising admission that he did not go to the funeral of this dear friend.  At the time of Max’s death back in 1981, Miller was teaching and working in theatre, and he was ashamed to admit that he had failed to live up to Max’s belief in his future as an author.  Rather than admit to his three failed attempts at novels, Miller stayed out of the way of his best friend and confidante, and two years went by before Ruth rang to tell him that Max had died.  She was hurt by Miller’s absence at the funeral, and by his failure to explain himself.  Guilt has obviously gnawed away at him ever since.

Decades passed, but when the opportunity to visit Berlin arose, it became a catalyst for the quest to find out about the parts of Max’s life that had never been revealed, concealed within a deep silence that he broke only rarely.  He wanted to write about Max, a man who was very important to him, but he did not want to write fiction, he wanted to write the truth of his life.  In this context, it’s impossible to forget the novelised version of Ruth Blatt’s life, fictionalised as Ruth Becker in Anna Funder’s All That I Am…

The sections of this book are named as Fragments rather than chapters, and in Fragment 14, he has this to say:

[Max’s] story is a scatter of such broken shards.  That is its nature.  Almost its central truth.  It is a ruined house.  Liked the bombed-out houses of my childhood after the war.  The pieces were violently blown apart, many of them ground to dust.  To fill in the gaps with the imagination, as if all the pieces could still be located by imagining them, to write as if nothing of value was lost, and lost forever, would be to deny the tragedy of his story.  It would be to miss the truth of his times, when many of the most beautiful things were lost, and truth itself was lost.  Some things can never be retrieved. (p.145)

But there are different kinds of truth:

It is my belief that shared family myths are important and have a way of persisting and nurturing us despite what might come to seem to us in later life to be their lack of objective truth. […] Something called objective truth is not always achievable, and informed speculation […] remains critical to the historian’s ability to present us with an understanding of the subject. Often our shared family myths, which arise from this informed speculation, embody a private, even a poetic truth for us that can never be found in the official prose of government documents and scholarly articles. Our emotional investment in the results of our research can never carry the same quality of intimacy for us as that carried in stories we received from our parents during our childhood years.  (p.170)

And so, as fragments of Max’s life and the fate of his family are discovered, most of it through unexpected chance encounters, and much of it still unclear, Miller comes to believe that there is a moral imperative in the kind of truth-telling that he wants to do in homage to his friend:

The uncertainty surrounding all these undocumented events has naturally created an array of plausible possibilities.  Some aspect of each of these accounts may be true, but no one is clear about exactly what happened.  Family mythologies are critical to all of us and without doubt contain a sense of our own private truth.  It is this sense of the truth—in this case, the fact that they were all murdered by the Nazis at a time of terror, confusion and chaos—that remains beyond dispute.  Their dreams were lost. Their lives were torn apart in the most brutal way.  The impossibility of ever piecing together the precise facts with any certainty from such an event is itself a sacred testimony to the shattered nature of their lives.  To invent from these scattered shards a detailed account might be to create an entertaining fiction, but it would be a betrayal of the murdered ones and their more terrible truth. And it is this terrible truth that must be remembered, or there can be no justice for them in our remembering. (p.175)

These assertions about truth and imagination in stories of the Holocaust bring to mind the different ways in which life stories can be told.  Guided by Inga Clendinnen’s Reading the Holocaust (1999), I have read and reviewed many memoirs and factual accounts of the Holocaust by survivors but I’ve also read creative non-fiction.  Writing teacher Mairi Neil in her review of Ros Collins’ Rosa, Memories with Licence (which is not a Holocaust story but rather an exploration of Jewish identity) talked about the concept of truth in relation to the reliability and perspective of our memories, coupled with the attendant fear of causing hurt to someone still alive or even tarnishing the memory of someone deceased. Sue at Whispering Gums, reviewing the same book, discussed how writing at a distance in the third person enables an author to guess about relationships, and quotes this excerpt from the introduction:

Rosa is much more personal [than her previous family history book, Solly’s girl] – and freely written – and I have taken liberties with the truth. Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say. Memories with licence.

It does, as Sue says, ring true.  It is, it seems to me, the kind of poetic truth that Miller thinks is important. As is Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt. As I said in my review,

…his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, he also faced the question of an unknowable past, and he has also, as an act of defiance and homage, refused to let that past fade away.  Instead, Presser has used as a literary device the ancient Jewish golem, a clay creature magically brought to life with words – so that his grandparents’ lives can be told.

Fictionalising the lives of survivors to dramatise them, is a different matter.  I am appalled by authors milking the Holocaust to write romanticised filmic bestsellers, yet I think there can be a place for a new generation of authors to write about aspects of the Holocaust with respect, sensitivity and authenticity.  A Boy in Winter by German author Rachel Seiffert is a good example of a novel which explores the ways in which ordinary people grapple with what’s right and wrong when they are caught up in the tide of events. Her Booker nominated debut The Dark Room, was a powerful trio of novellas that tackled the moral responsibility of ordinary Germans under the Third Reich. But these novels, and others like them, are not based on real lives, except in the way that all novels are all based on composites of real lives.

That these musings of mine were triggered by Miller’s story of his friend are just a taste of the riches of this book.   The most sobering aspect of it is that, thanks to the world wide web and our interconnected world, Miller was able to learn the fate of Max’s parents and siblings.  Max could not save them, and he died without ever knowing what had happened to them.

Author: Alex Miller
Title: Max
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760878160, pbk., 262 pages including two sets of colour photo inserts, Acknowledgements, Sources and Notes. RRP $29.99
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Available from Fishpond: Max, direct from Allen & Unwin, or your local indie bookshop.


Ask, and you shall receive they say, and sometimes it’s true.  That “one ardently loyal fan in Melbourne” is me. When I received an email from Victoria University Press in NZ that they were launching Catherine Chidgey’s new novel, Remote Sympathy, I had the cheek to ask them if they could make it a virtual launch so that I could ‘attend’.  And they did!

(And there were other people attending by Zoom who couldn’t otherwise have been there, so I’m glad I asked.)

Even more miraculous is that Zoom worked this time!!!

Karen Slaughter started by talking about the courage it takes to speak up in writing about momentous matters.  The story, she said, chooses the author, and Catherine’s previous novel The Wish Child illuminated the horror of Nazism through the eyes of children.  (See my review here). Knowing what Catherine went through to write the bleak story of that era, she understands how much courage and stamina Catherine needed to go back to that time in this new book, and yet she would not rest until she had finished it.

It’s a novel that shows us who we are, exposes our frail connections, and of human impulses to violence.  There is no chance of remaining remote as you read it, you will find yourself wired to it, with every circuit.  It is spell binding, from a time in recent history that has much to teach us in our modern era.

Catherine said it was a complex book to write, and she acknowledged a great many people who helped her.  (I won’t name them in case I get them wrong, but they included survivors of Buchenwald, researchers, and people who advised on French, pianos, dentistry, and Judaism).

One of the guiding images of the novel is ‘The Transparent Man’, an installation in Vienna.  This was a model of a male body which had been on display in the 1930s, which Catherine knew of from her research for The Wish Child.  ‘The Transparent Man’ was a sensation because it was the first time people had been able to see a model of the human body wired to show how internal body parts work.  In the novel, Leonard, a doctor who is hoping to find a treatment for cancer, goes to see this model and that’s where he meets his wife, who is Jewish.  He doesn’t find the cure he’s looking for, but he gets sent to the camp to cure the wife of a prominent Nazi so he has to pretend that he can.

In answer to a question about tyranny and people’s belief that it can’t happen here… Catherine said that she first visited Buchenwald when studying in Germany, and she saw how close it was to Weimar — the cradle of German enlightenment and civilisation.  That proximity informs the title: it’s the inability of the people of Weimar to admit to what was going on in their midst, and also the name of the doctor’s theory about curing cancer.  The people of Weimar saw thousands of people arrive by train, and they saw these prisoners leave the camp each day to work as slave labourers, and they could all see the condition of the prisoners yet they turned a blind eye to it.  Indeed, they objected to naming the camp after Goethe, but not to the existence of the camp itself.  They were also much exercised about cutting down a stand of trees to build the camp because of a legend about the tree under which Goethe sat: this was a sacred site to Germans, but the tree symbolised something different to the prisoners.  It represented all that was gone of civilised Germany. (The tree was burnt to bits by allied bombing, but there’s a reference in the book to a sculpture called The Last Face by Bruno Apitz which was made from the remnants of the tree).

Karen raised the importance of trying to understand what happened in Nazi Germany.  Paraphrasing what she said (I hope accurately): When we stop trying to do that, we are on the route to accepting the Holocaust and other horrors.  Catherine talked about the characterisation of her Nazi officer Dietrich, because it was important to show him as a complex human being rather than a stereotype.  She wanted to show what happens when a very powerful man faces a personal tragedy like his wife getting cancer.  He was based on a real life Nazi, (as were some other characters) and she researched him by reading about the Nuremburg Trials which made him and others seem quite normal.  (I’ve read about this effect in Rebecca West’s account of these trials in A Train of Powder, 1955).  Some of Dietrich’s dialogue is direct from recordings of the Nuremburg Trials but she changed his characterisation to achieve complexity: he’s a husband and a father as well as a Nazi brute.

Catherine wanted the citizens of Weimar to be in the story too.  She showed slides of the Weimar citizens who were forced by the US liberators to visit Buchenwald, and these photos show how upbeat and cheerful they were as they entered, and how subdued they were when they came out… But then, devastatingly, Catherine told us how the following Sunday there were declarations from the church pulpit that they were not to blame…

All the main characters all gradually reveal themselves.  Greta, Dietrich’s wife keeps her distance in her beautiful villa on an idyllic site very close to the camp, and she amuses herself with shopping and home decorating, and taking her son out to enjoy falconry.  But she comes in contact and develops a friendship with Leonard the prisoner when he is tasked with curing her cancer.  She doesn’t ask her husband about his work, and he doesn’t tell her about her diagnosis.  She maintains a stoic silence about whether the treatment is working or not, and it’s ambiguous whether she is complicit with Leonard in pretending about it, or not.

Catherine said that on her research trips she was always impressed by the way the Germans have been willing to interrogate their past, and they were assiduous in helping her find the records she needed.  She quoted Primo Levi who said that language alone is capable of regenerating truth: language contains everything, he said.  She hasn’t included the gruesome horror of the camp, but instead wanted to express the sorrow of Buchenwald in a different way.

As the last survivors of the Holocaust pass away, and successive generations try to fathom the unfathomable, writing about the Holocaust moves into a different phase.  I believe that it is crucial for new writing about the Holocaust to be respectful and authentic, and especially not to be romanticised.  So I am looking forward to reading this book…

My copy of Remote Sympathy is somewhere between New Zealand and Melbourne!  If you want a copy too, until stocks arrive in Australia, the cheapest way to buy it is through Fishpond: Remote Sympathy

My thanks to the tekkies at Victoria University who made this Zoom session possible and to the Internet gods who made it work:)

Oh dear, poor Henry Kendall!

This is the summary of his life on the website of the Henry Kendall High School in Gosford NSW:

Henry Kendall High School is named after a well-respected poet who lived in Gosford for a period of time. Henry was born in the Ulladulla district and as a young man enjoyed writing poems and songs.

Although his work was published, he found it difficult to support himself and so he worked as a clerk and freelanced as a journalist.

In 1868 Henry married Charlotte. Their life together had many hardships. Their daughter, Araluen, died young and the distraught parents were too poor to afford a headstone for her grave. Henry wrote a poem in memory of Araluen.

Henry had reached a very low point in his life when he arrived in Gosford in 1872. He found the beautiful surroundings of Gosford, including the beaches and creeks; the bush, and the hills; and the good friends he made, helped restore his health and confidence.

While in Gosford, Henry wrote poems such as Narara Creek, Rover and Names upon a Stone among others. In 1875 he was appointed Clerk at Fagan’s timber yard and stone at Camden Haven, now known as Kendall. In the year that followed, his wife and two sons returned to live with him. With his family back together, Henry left Gosford with many fond memories.

He continued to write and publish his poems but in 1882 he fell dangerously ill with tuberculosis. He died aged 43 and was buried at Waverley Cemetery in Sydney.

The Australian Poetry Library offers a similarly respectable version of his life where you can find 201 of his poems if you are so minded.  Try ‘Bellbirds’ the one that I read long ago in the Victorian Readers Sixth Book; it’s also in the Penguin Book of Australian Verse edited by Harry Heseltine (1972). Defining Kendall as a prolific writer of varying merit, Heseltine also includes ‘The Last of His Tribe‘ and the excruciating ‘Song of Ninian Melville’.  Also at the Australian Poetry Library site you can find Kendall’s Sydney Exhibition Cantata, for which he won a £100 prize; the poem for Araluen; and the rather moving ‘On a Baby Buried by the Hawkesbury’. 


…this is the blurb from Adrian Mitchell’s lively new biography:

Henry Kendall was once regarded as Australia’s finest poet, compared favourably with Wordsworth. His poetry was romantic, sentimental in its celebration of the Australian bush he loved. But he was more Henry Lawson than John Keats: a self-pitying wife deserter, cadger and drunkard. And it ran in the family.

From 1859, Kendall published prolifically in newspapers and periodicals. But he struggled to support a wife and children through poems and articles, his first poetry book was a financial failure (though critically acclaimed) and his brother and sister contributed to his financial troubles.

Often in debt and on the precipice of bankruptcy, Kendall suffered from poverty, ill health and drunkenness. In 1870, he was charged with forging a cheque, and found not guilty on grounds of insanity; two years later, he spent time in an insane asylum. But from 1876, he began to rebuild his life and career, and in 1880 his collection Songs from the Mountain was an outstanding success.

In this intriguing work of literary investigation, celebrated author and historian Adrian Mitchell delves deep into Kendall’s storied life and uncovers a dark past that casts new shadows on his legacy. He discovers that this habitually self-effacing poet had good reason to keep himself and his family out of the limelight. This is the true story of Henry Kendall, his parents and his grandparents – and he had every reason to dread it being made public.

In many ways, Kendall’s life reads like a 19th century version of a soap opera with one unedifying crisis after another… Like many in colonial Australia, Kendall did have reason to fudge his family history, and it’s fascinating to read just how many versions of it there were.  The two main culprits were his mother whose imaginative reconstructions were second only to Mrs Hamilton-Grey (so-called), who published not one but three romantic biographies of his life, the last in in 1929. (She also left a bequest to build a memorial to him in the Sydney Botanic Gardens.) However, in 1938, the year after she died, Kendall’s son, Frederick published his own Henry Kendall, His Later Years, which he said was a refutation of her book Kendall Our God-made Chief.

She was not the only one wanting to possess his memory…supporting the romanticised idea of the poet: there are all kinds of memorialisations in NSW where you can even visit the so-called Henry Kendall Cottage in West Gosford — which was not actually his cottage at all.  It belonged to the Fagan family who (according to the website):

…made a significant contribution to the local area through their farming, citrus orchard, mail contracts, timber business, and breeding of cattle and champion race horses. They were one of the first to grow oranges in the Gosford area. Between 1873-1875 the Fagan family cared for and provided employment for the Australian poet Henry Kendall.

Indeed they did. But generous as they were, it would probably surprise them to find their pioneer cottage renamed as it has been!

The Fagans took Henry in and restored him to health after he was released from an asylum, where he had been committed in 1873, filthy, starving and having led the life of a Bohemian and to have plunged deeper and deeper into debauchery.  Estranged from his long-suffering wife and children, he was supposed to have taken up work as an editor in Grafton, but got drunk at Newcastle en route and the steamer sailed on without him.  With no money or possessions he set off back to Sydney on foot.

As it happens, long steady walking through the great swathes of trees was one of the best things Kendall could have done, for that is now known to settle nerves, and quieten disturbed thoughts. On the other hand, his feet would have been sore, his boots rather the worse for wear, and given the long distances with few villages or settlements, he was bound to have been hungry as well as tired.  Thirsty too.  In that part of the country he would have encountered timber cutters’ camps from time to time, and those of shingle splitters; doubtless he was invited to share their campfire when he came across them, that is, if he could overcome his instinctive shyness.  (p.152)

But even the story of how Kendall the tramp came to meet with the Fagans isn’t clear.  Nor is it clear how they recognised Australia’s leading poet down on his luck, when newspapers didn’t feature photographs at that time. However it came about, there is something Biblical about their kindness.  Mitchell alludes to Matthew 25:35:

However it happened, he arrived at the head of Brisbane Water and the Fagans gathered him up and took him home.  He was enhungered, and they gave him meat; he was thirsty, and they more than likely gave him tea.  He was a stranger, and they took him in. (p.153)

It was not to last.  Nothing good seemed to last for Kendall.  He died, reconciled with his wife at least, in 1882.

As Mitchell points out, the wording of the epitaph on Kendall’s ostentation memorial at Bronte, is hardly appropriate, given Kendall’s alcoholism:

Awake him not! Surely he takes his fill
Of deep and liquid rest, forgetful of all ill.

The polished grandeur, says Mitchell, was all about stroking the self-esteem of the public.  It’s a far cry from his description of his father’s neglected grave in the distant forest.  It’s not a fitting memorial for a man who preferred a solitary life and the simplicity of the bush.

Author: Adrian Mitchell
Title: Where Shadows Have Fallen, the descent of Henry Kendall
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781743057483, pbk., 228 pages including extensive Notes and an Index.
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

Available from Fishpond, Where Shadows Have Fallen: The descent of Henry Kendall, direct from Wakefield Press or your local indie bookshop.


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