Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 23, 2017

Reading the real thing: Flame Tip, by Karenlee Thompson

flame-tipIt’s only three weeks since I posted about my reading of Karenlee Thompson’s new book, Flame Tip, a collection of short fictions loosely themed around the catastrophic Black Tuesday Bushfires in Tasmania in 1967.  The 50th anniversary of those fires was February 7th 2017 but already this fire season has claimed its victims, making me wonder why more Australian authors haven’t tackled this theme.  Fellow Tasmanian Amanda Lohrey did, in her novella Vertigo (see my review), Roger McDonald wrote about a young arsonist in The Slap (see my review) and Delys Bird edited a collection called Fire (see Karenlee’s guest review).  But for a natural disaster which looms so large in our national consciousness, it’s strange that I don’t know of any others except a brilliant children’s story called Ash Road by Ivan Southall.


In my previous post about this book, I explained that I’d only read four of the fictions because I only had an advance PDF copy.  Would I have read that if it had been by anyone else other than Karenlee who has contributed so much to this blog?  No.  I loathe reading PDFs.  If there is anything worse than reading on a Kindle, it is reading a PDF on a computer.  So you will understand why I was so pleased to receive a copy of the real thing yesterday, and to loaf in bed this morning, enjoying the simple pleasure of holding the book in my hands and reading it. (Kudos to the book designer, BTW, it’s by Art on Order).

The thing is, reading a real book is different.  Lately some of my Facebook friends and Twitter pals have been alerting me to scientific studies which show all kinds of interesting results… all of which seem to point to what some of us knew all along.  We remember what we’ve read better when we read it in a real book.  Guided by our brains which tell us where on the page to find it, we to-and-fro among the pages when we want to revisit an image or clarify our understanding.  Our senses journey with us as we feel the heft of the remaining pages, scampering along towards an exciting climax or moving slowly when we don’t really want the book to end.

And we comprehend better when we read it in a real book.  In my previous post I mentioned a piece called ‘Lost’.  This piece takes the form of a Lost-and-Found notice in a newspaper, and over two pages it lists the belongings lost in the fire.


A Life

Including: four-bedroom weatherboard home with indoor amenities, a much loved border collie answering to the name of Richie, a sense of security, linen and cutlery, a priceless hand-painted jardinière, stamp collection gathered and assembled over three generations, pink shower cap studded with daisies, deck of hand-painted burlesque playing cards, a position of some standing in the community, 2 striped deck chairs, a three-legged cat… (p.43)

I read this before, and I thought I empathised, but when I held the book in my hand to read it again, my sense of this woman’s loss was magnified.  I could see her in her pinnies and navy court shoes as I did not see her before, and the book, not the PDF, made me react:  What if I lost my cherished books, all of them, and worse than that lost my place in my community while sheltered by the Salvos afterwards?  I have never understood why people want to rebuild in vulnerable places before, but now I do.  Belongings means something different to possessions…

Reading the whole collection made me realise something else: that Karenlee’s choice to make this collection ‘loosely-themed’ around the fires was an appropriate one.  None of us ever drive through dense bush in summer without a momentary apprehension because bushfires are an unavoidable part of Australian life.  Every year we see them on TV somewhere, and every year we dig deep for the relief effort.  Memories and fear are tucked deep into our consciousness, and – even for those of us never directly affected – they surface into everyday life many years after the event  in strange, unpredictable and inexplicable ways.  Fiction, and a careful choice of narration as in these stories, unravels the pathways of these memories and fears.

Fiction also allows for revelations I had not considered.  In ‘Degustation’ one of the hungry little girls from up the hill with no shoes and no home, wearing a floral blouse that’s two sizes too big and a torn plaid skirt has grown into a woman dining with a profiteer who bought up all the available charred and rubble-ridden farms in the district after the fires had rendered the singed locals almost comatose with shock. 

Powerful stuff…

You can find out more from Karenlee’s website  and her blog.

Author: Karenlee Thompson
Title: Flame Tip, short fictions
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2017
ISBN: 9781925272734
Source: Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers.

Available from Fishpond: Flame Tip: Short Fictions  or direct from Hybrid Publishers

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 22, 2017

2017 ALS Gold Medal longlist

The longlist for the 2017 Australian Literature Society (ALS) Gold Medal has been announced, and I’ve reviewed six of the longlisted titles. .

The longlisted titles are:

  • One Hundred Letters Home (Adam Aitken, Vagabond)
  • The Easy Way Out (Steven Amsterdam, Hachette), see my review
  • Between a Wolf and a Dog (Georgia Blain, Scribe), see my review
  • Ghostspeaking (Peter Boyle, Vagabond)
  • Letters to Pessoa (Michelle Cahill, Giramondo)
  • Bull Days (Tina Giannoukous, Arcadia), see Tony’s review at Messenger’s Booker
  • Ahead of Us (Dennis Haskell, Fremantle Press)
  • The High Places (Fiona McFarlane, Hamish Hamilton)
  • Music and Freedom (Zoe Morrison, Vintage), see my review
  • Wood Green (Sean Rabin, Giramondo), see my review
  • The Museum of Modern Love (Heather Rose, A&U), see my review
  • Ruins (Rajith Savandasa, Hachette), see my review

Of course the judges can’t longlist every beaut book published in 2016, but notable eligible omissions include:

The ALS Gold Medal is presented annually by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) for a ‘work of outstanding literary merit’ published in the previous calendar year.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 21, 2017

Welcome to Lagos, by Chibundu Onuzo

welcome-to-lagosI’ve read nine novels from Nigeria since starting this blog, and it’s safe to say that most of them feature the corruption and incompetence of Nigerian government, the slums of the city contrasted with a simpler rural life and the conflict between imported faiths and the residual belief in the spirit world.   Welcome to Lagos explores the same themes but is a bit more nuanced in its portrayal of corruption.

Nigerian born Chibundu Onuzo (b.1991) burst into the literary scene with her first novel The Spider King’s Daughter which was nominated for a swag of awards including the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Commonwealth Book Prize and the Etisalat Prize for Literature.  She is currently completing her PhD at King’s College London.  Welcome to Lagos is her second novel.

The story begins with five misfits who journey together to Lagos.  Chike and Yemi are deserters from the army who can’t stomach the massacres of women and children in the name of ‘order’ i.e. suppressing any protest against the destruction of village life or the pollution of waterways and farmland by oil companies.  Fineboy is a militant from the other side, also weary of the bloodshed and with (highly unrealistic) ambitions to break into radio broadcasting. Isoken is traumatised by her near-rape by militants who might or might not have included Fineboy, and Oma is a wife on the run from her violent husband.  As is revealed when Chike has to break the news of a death to these people who’ve become his family, their ethnic origins would normally have been cause for suspicion, if not outright conflict:

It would fall to Chike to tell the others.  These were his first thoughts.  That the Yoruba did not announce death directly.  That he did not know what the custom was in Ebo and that he would break the news to Oma in Igbo.

Fineboy, the most dubious of these characters, turns out to have unexpected talents, and it is he who finds them a place to squat.  (None of them have any money, identity papers or work qualifications,  and as deserters, Chike and Yemi have reason to lie low).  The flat is spacious and congenial, but alas it turns out not to be empty when Chief Sandayo, Minister for Education and usually absentee owner of the flat, also has reason to lie low.  He has sequestered a very large sum of money intended for school improvement, and this puts the five squatters in a quandary.  Fineboy makes the dilemma explicit:

Yeah.  He basically stole ten million dollars.  His pictures were all over the papers a few weeks ago and the government is looking for him.  We could be rich if we turned him in.  Even if we didn’t turn him in, we could be rich.

Sandayo responds with scorn.  He knows how power works in Lagos:

…who is going to give a bunch of squatters credit for finding me?  They’ll say I was captured on the border, dressed as a woman, or some other likely story.  And please warn that boy not to make allegations he cannot back up.’

And Oma thinks it’s dangerous to have a politician in the flatShe knows the difference between an appointed thief and an elected one and that they should all be in gaol.  But she recognises the all-too-likely danger:

But if we take him to the police, there’s a high chance the money will disappear.  Maybe they will even arrest us too so nobody will know about it.  (p.46)

Well, they come up with a morally acceptable solution – but it turns out not to be as safe as they thought because of the well-meaning intervention of the media.  Ahmed, an Oxford graduate, has returned home to appease his conscience for having benefited from his own father’s corruption. He runs an unprofitable journal that has up to now been too insignificant to be a thorn in the government’s side but when he reveals the Sandoyo scoop, things get quite nasty.

Cynics might not be convinced by the redemption for those that make a fresh start, and there is rather too much quoting from the Bible for my taste, but the author’s light touch and capacity to make humour out of incongruous situations make this novel enjoyable reading.

BTW there is an interesting (but not too long) article about Lagos the city at Words without Borders.

PS If I could give an award for cover art, it would go to Bill Bragg for this brilliant illustration!

Author: Chibundu Onuzo
Title: Welcome to Lagos
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2017
ISBN: 9780571268948
Source: review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin.

Available from Fishpond: Welcome to Lagos and good bookshops everywhere.




Cover image: Captain Adelaide (1973) by Nigel Murray-Harvey (1938-2013)

Cultural warning: Indigenous readers are advised that this review contains the name of an Aboriginal person no longer living.

The latest Griffith Review: No 55, ‘State of Hope’ is all about South Australia.  It’s a most interesting miscellany of short essays and memoir, fiction pieces and poetry, and there are also photo stories.   The collection is permeated by an awareness of South Australia’s economic problems in the wake of the collapse of its manufacturing industry, but also by an optimistic faith in its future – not unjustified, given its history under the innovative and visionary former 20th century premier, Don Dunstan (1926-1999).

I can’t possibly do justice to this diverse collection even with the open word limit of a blog, so I am going to focus on just one piece:

Tory Shepherd’s piece called ‘In the dark, when ‘truthiness’ eclipses the truth’  turns out to be strangely prescient in the light of the American election.  (This edition of the review was officially published on the same day as the inauguration, but the content was of course written before that).  With the SA blackout last year triggering all kinds of false claims about the causes, Shepherd reminds South Australians how important it is that they think clearly – because their future depends on it.

Sloppy, anti-scientific thinking leads to poor policy, stagnation and deaths.  Climate change denialism and resistance to renewables means that at a federal level Australia is not doing all it can; the manufactured ‘controversies’ put the brake on progress.

The rejection of well-proven science can be fatal.  That has been shown in those who reject vaccination, or conventional cancer therapy.  If the world does not speed up its action on climate change more people will die through the increasing volatility of the weather.

Truth, arrived at through the scientific process, leads to progress and growth.  South Australia, particularly, is in need of a rather large growth spurt.  Our employment levels are languishing.  the economy is worse than sluggish.  Our dwindling share of the nation’s population means we are set to lose one of our federal seats in parliament, leaving us with just ten MPs in the House of Representatives of one hundred and fifty seats.

Science is a beacon of light in the quagmire. South Australia has the beginnings of a way to finally ditch the ‘City of Churches’ tag and become the centre of rational thought and progress.  Of wind farms and solar power and peerless thinkers and cutting-edge technologies.  World-class medical facilities and top-notch researchers.  Science can make our wine and cheese even better.  It can open up new avenues of industry and create jobs. (p.60)

All this could be sabotaged by people failing to think critically.  What Shepherd could not have known when she wrote this article was that the world’s most powerful man has already been the catalyst for the endorsement of  ‘alternative facts’.   The value of Shepherd’s article is that she explains how an anti-science tendency is getting traction outside the conspiracy theorists’ purview, a phenomenon we are witnessing here in Australia in the examples she provides:  Senator Roberts thinks his opinion about climate change is more valuable than that of Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel; hordes follow celebrity chef Pete Evans’ bizarre dietary advice for babies; and One Nation calls climate change a fabrication.  The danger is that the growing profile of these people can influence policy decisions that will impact on progressive thinking and economic development.

How does this happen?  When I hear these nutty ideas, I wonder about how they get this kind of traction in modern Australia where everybody has had the benefit of education.

Shepherd quotes David Aaronovitch in Voodoo Histories, The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. He writes that some individuals believe that they are the lonely custodians of the truth and that they got there through the quality of their minds. 

Shepherd explains why this attitude is appealing:

Some argue that truth is relative.  Climate change deniers claim that their (cherry-picked, wrongly interpreted) data is more valid than NASA’s, say, or the Bureau of Meteorology’s. Still others state science is a set of beliefs with no more claim to truthfulness than a religion.  And having a different belief to the mainstream makes people feel special.  They’re not just ‘sheeple’, unwitting believers in what the authorities say, but are part of a special subsection of society that possesses the truth.  (p.57)

But with the advent of the internet they are no longer alone.  She tells us that

Online, deniers and conspiracy theorists strengthen their bonds with others who believe the same misinformation as they do.  (p.58)

Buttressed by the network of support, the false beliefs ossify:

The mistrust of the ‘establishment’, of the accepted science, too easily turns to loathing.  This is where the divide between science and anti-science really kicks in.  The conspiracy theorists loathe the system, and the system starts to loathe them in return.  Pseudoscientific beliefs are constantly debunked by scientific institutions such as the Australian Medical Association, the CSIRO, the Cancer Council, NASA.  But those who feel they are treated with contempt are unlikely to change their minds; they only harden against the ‘authorities’ that dismiss their strongly held thoughts. (p.58)

And therein lies the problem.  Shepherd acknowledges that the ‘smackdown’ doesn’t work.  We have seen these ‘smackdowns’ on Q&A or The Project but they have no impact on false beliefs.  Shepherd explains that the desire to find patterns in the phenomena around us derives from the primitive period when humans who could do this had an advantage.  She quotes the explanation of Michael Shermer (author of Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain)

Homo sapiens believe things for a complicated and sometimes random series of reasons.  Why they hold onto the wrong beliefs is the interesting question – why, when presented with evidence of climate change or the benefits of renewable energy, do some refuse to accept the facts?

Shermer refers to the TV series The X-Files. Credulous FBI agent Fox has a poster in his office that reads ‘I Want to Believe’.  Humans want to believe, in part, because we have evolved to be pattern finders.  To find the evidence.  Those who could track the droppings of prey or spot the telltale signs of a predator were more likely to survive.  Finding patterns in stars might help you find the way home.

Shermer points to how this operates for conspiracy theorists (those who believe man never landed on the moon, or that September 11 was a grand hoax) when he writes in The Believing Brain: ‘It is because their pattern-detection filters are wide open, thereby letting in any and all patterns as real, with little or no screening of potential false patterns.  Conspiracy theorists connect the dots of random events into meaningful patterns, and then infuse those patterns with intentional agency.’ (p.56)

If I had known this when I was teaching, would I have had any strategies to combat it? Are these undiscriminating pattern-detectors already ossified in primary school-aged children?   Mine is the generation that had to pass the ‘Clear Thinking’ component of Year 12/VCE/Matriculation English so we learned to detect flaws in written arguments – do secondary schools still require this?  Or is a conspiracy theorist born not made?

South Australia needs its people to invest in STEM: science, technology, engineering and maths.  All of which rely on truth and the rejection of truthiness to succeed.  South Australia’s hope depends on stopping the viral spread of truthiness and steering the boat back to truth.


There is much, much more to this edition of the Griffith Review.   I was intrigued by Max Allen’s article about developments in the Riverland wine region that show how initiatives from individual farmers can thrive, and I’ll be looking out for the wine varieties he describes.  There’s also an interesting piece by Emily Potter about the role of olive trees in a changing climate.  Amongst the fiction is an excerpt from Jane Rawson’s new novel From the Wreck (see my review); there is also poetry from Ali Cobby Eckerman; a moving memoir by Tracy Crisp about the impact of Fly In, Fly Out jobs on a family; and a stunning full colour bilingual photo story in the Adnyamathanhal language, together with Eva Horning’s story of its creation by Uncle Buck McKenzie.  And I loved Lea McInerney’s piece about learning Ngadjuri, the local language of her home town of Clare.

There is also a really valuable article called ‘Stormy Times’ by John Soehr which explains how governments have an important role to play in steering development in new directions.  (An example of this is the building of a state-of-the-art research hospital to attract biotechnology experts working on new pharmaceuticals for export).  His conclusion is worth quoting in full:

While dark clouds gather on the economic horizon, the threat they pose could be minimised by job-rich stimulus measures to accelerate the growth of knowledge and design-intensive industries in response to both domestic and global demand, particularly from the Asia-Pacific region.  At the same time, entrenched unemployment, growing underemployment, poverty and inequality must be confronted by well-integrated social and economic policies with the same commitment and vigour that we have seen in times of crisis when great storms, drought, economic shocks and recessions threaten hardship and suffering.  South Australia must be well prepared and positioned to manage all of these challenges. (p.31)

That’s probably true for other states of Australia too.

Editors: Julianne Schultz and Patrick Allington
Title: State of Hope, Griffith Review #55
Publisher: Griffith University in association with Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925498295
Review copy courtesy of Griffith Review

Available from Fishpond: State of Hope (Griffith REVIEW) or you can subscribe to the quarterly direct from Griffith Review.



I haven’t #named the translator for this delightful French novella, because I read it in French.  Le Rendez-vous de Venise by Philippe Beaussant was first published in 2003 and when I read Emma’s billet at Book Around the Corner last year I decided with her encouragement to order the French edition, completely forgetting that I already owned the English Pushkin Press English edition (Rendezvous in Venice, 2014, translated by Paul Buck and Catherine Petit) through my 12-month subscription to Pushkin Press.  As it turned out, I was very glad to have both.  (And for the ease of readers I have referenced the page numbers of the English translation.)

The novella will appeal to anyone who likes art.  Pierre Voisin, the narrator, introduces his Uncle Charles as an erudite art historian whose affectionate patronage and skilful mentoring has guided Pierre’s own career as an art historian too.  They had a very close relationship, but it was not until after his uncle’s death that Pierre discovers in some old notebooks that Uncle Charles had once been passionately in love with a woman called Judith.  Pierre, who has modelled his own austere life on his uncle’s, is astonished, because he thinks that Uncle Charles thinks of women only as portraits.  Poor Pierre, he can’t imagine his uncle kissing a young woman in the streets of Venice.

How can I imagine my austere old uncle with a woman?  I only ever saw him with old Mariette dressed in black, with her blue apron and her hair in a bun, herself resolutely old-fashioned, smiling sometimes, yes, smiling, looking up from her work or into the glass of a window she was busy wiping, and who, I knew, reminded my uncle of Françoise in Swann’s Way? How can I imagine Uncle Charles close to a woman?

Yet, of course, women were not absent from his thoughts.  He loved them.  I know, I’ve seen it.  When he started to talk about them, he just couldn’t stop.  But they were always painted women.  He talked about them like a lover but, unlike a jealous lover, he gave the impression, while talking about his beloved (the beautiful Eleanor of Toledo, painted by Bronzino, or Giovanna Tornabuoni in the fresco of Sante Maria Novella) that he would have wished you to share his passion and that his dearest wish was for you to fall in love with her too. (p. 26-7)

Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (Source: Wikipedia

Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (Source: Wikipedia)

Now I have seen the portrait of Eleanor of Toledo by Bronzino at the Uffizi in Florence, so, like many other readers, I knew the portrait being referenced in this passge.  But one of the pleasures of reading this book in the 21st century, however, is that I could Google to find paintings that I did not know.  At left is a portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio  (which I may have seen at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid but I don’t remember it if I did.  There are #understatement a lot of paintings there, and I wasn’t allowed to take any photos there anyway).  However that is not the one that Uncle Charles is so fond of: that one is in Florence in the Church of Santa Maria Novella next to the railway station and it’s a religious painting called ‘The Visitation’ in which the virgin is in the presence of a very regal Giovanna Tornabuoni.  (Scroll down the page I’ve linked to, to see it).   IMO It’s harder to see why he was so taken with her image in the fresco, but then, I haven’t seen the real thing.  Although I rested my weary feet in the little park outside the church, our day in Florence was at an end and we had a train to catch.

Portrait of Simonetta by Piero di Cosimo (Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of Simonetta by Piero di Cosimo. (Source: Wikipedia, Google Art Project)

At right is a portrait of Simonetta Vespuccio by Piero di Cosimo, which Uncle Charles later declares as Genoese because of the shape of Simonetta’s lips. (p 29-30).   (The painting is held at the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France).  But there’s more to it than that.  Yes, there is significance to this attention to her lips because it turns out that Judith has a sibilant ‘s‘ i.e. a bit of a lisp…

Le Rendez-vous de Venise is a book that draws on familiarity with painting in a very special way, because paintings are the subject of extended meditations.  When Pierre finally meets Judith and contests his memories of Uncle Charles with hers, it is their differing memories of Uncle Charles’ disquisitions that make Pierre feel uncharacteristically angry.  And, in particular, it is the exquisite painting of Young Girl with a Dead Bird that is the focus of their disputed memory of Uncle Charles.  (I saw this painting in 2015 in the Musées royaux des Beaux Arts in Brussels, just before I had to abort my holiday because my father was gravely ill).  In Le Rendez-vous de Venise there are more than a dozen pages about this painting alone,  and reading the French edition, I found myself turning again and again to the cover image (above) to confirm the text, so it’s a pity that the Pushkin Press edition with a different cover image doesn’t offer the same opportunity.  IMO knowing this portrait is integral to the story.

Uncle Charles, who analysed the painting in detail with Pierre, has for Judith invented une histoire (a story) about the child, in his imagination a five-year-old child who has discovered the truth about mortality when she found her pet bird dead.  The anonymous artist, Uncle Charles says in Judith’s version:

has refused to lay down, with the tip of his brush, the little touch of light, the little sparkle one sees on every eye of every portrait of every painter of all times.  Nothing to read.’  He added: ‘She is absent.  She is not there.  She has gone….’ (Rendezvous in Venice, Pushkin Press edition, p.98)

It is such a beautiful painting.  For me, it represents that moment when a child realises for the first time that a parent can’t make everything right again.  A child on the verge of tears.  In the novel, it’s the moment when Pierre realises that maturity means being open to a different view of the world.  It takes him a while to adjust to the idea that his beloved Uncle Charles might have been a different person when he was with Judith.  It is this realisation that makes it possible for Pierre to transform his life.

There are all kinds of  resonances to enjoy in this short novella.  If you have read the book, Part II of Emma’s billet unpacks the many references to Proust in some detail, but here is just one: Uncle Charles in his dotage gets a bee in his bonnet about a book he wants his servant Mariette to retrieve from his shelf.  He remembers exactly where it is, but names it as Albertine Disparu (translated rather clumsily as Albertine Gone, I would have chosen Albertine Lost).  But from the text readers soon realise that Uncle Charles has misremembered the title: as Mariette  grumbles (channelling Francoise, the grumpy old servant in Combray) the book is not Albertine Disparu, it’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time/ Remembrance of Things Past):

Yes, it is what I was thinking about, while night fell in my work room. Proust in Venice.  Me in Venice.  Proust is in love and he leaves his mother. his affectionate mother, whom he couldn’t bear in Combray, when she did not come to say good night to him in bed, he cruelly abandons her, leaving alone for the station, because he is in love.  (p.63).

Uncle Charles’s false memory makes him question what he remembers, as Pierre must learn to do:

Are the memories we have something true, real, present, or are they a construction out of something which isn’t any longer but which was, or a construction out of nothing? (p. 64)

As Emma had predicted I had to brush up on le subjonctif passé, but it was not that the caused me the most difficulty.  My strategy, since I had both books, was to read as far as I could as long as I thought I had the gist of the text, and then to check with the English edition to check that I was on the right track.  I was quite pleased to find that I could make my way through 8-10 pages at a time before some unfamiliar construction or idiom flummoxed me, and it became easier as I went along.  That is, until the narrator Pierre has his unanticipated meeting with his uncle’s lover Judith at an art conference, where there’s a long-winded pompous ass called Jean Pellerin who tries to impress by talking about how nowadays one can still remain an epigone of that purely historicising moment interpretation of artistic phenomena, and goes on to say that Uncle Charles’s perspective on art is an interdependent form of a kind of … a kind of epistemological constellation.  (p. 77) Well.  I don’t know what that means in English.  I also had trouble with some of the slang that Sarah uses.  So yes, the Pushkin Press edition was indispensable.

The Man with the Glove by Titian, held at The Louvre (Wikipedia Commons)

The Man with the Glove by Titian, held at The Louvre (Wikipedia Commons)

PS This is Titian’s ‘The Man with the Glove’ (L’homme au gant) that is referenced as well.  #JustBecause.

PPS I’d been reading this novella slowly for a while, and it was Stu’s Pushkin Press Fortnight at Winston’s Dad that made me hurry up and finish it!


French edition:

Author: Philippe Beaussant
Title: Le Rendez-vous de Venise
Publisher: Le Livre de Poche (Pocket Books), 2005 (out of print)
ISBN: 9782253108962
Source: personal copy, purchased from Abe Books

English edition:

Author: Philippe Beaussant
Title: Rendezvous in Venice
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781782270980
Source: personal copy, Pushkin Press subscription

Available from Fishpond: Rendezvous in Venice





children-of-the-arbatChildren of the Arbat was a sensation when it first became available to Soviet readers in 1987.  A landmark text of glasnost, it was written between 1966 and 1983 but had been suppressed as anti-Stalinist and was therefore distributed only via very risky underground means known in the USSR as samizdat.  But during the Perestroika era the novel was released in serial form in newspapers and its sequels 1935 and Other Years (1989), Fear (1990) and Dust & Ashes (1994) became available too.   Children of the Arbat, set in the 1930s,  is partly autobiographical: like the central character Sasha Pankratov, Anatoli Rybakov (1911-1998) was himself exiled to Siberia for three years.

Alex 'Florstein' Fedorov (Wikipedia Commons) By Alex 'Florstein' Fedorov, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Arbat St in Moscow, photo by Alex ‘Florstein’ Fedorov (Wikipedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

There are three strands to the story: Sasha’s arrest for spurious reasons and his exile to Siberia; life in Moscow as his girlfriend Varya Ivanova waits for his return; and the depiction of Stalin as he plots to cement his power by eliminating all opposition.  The title is instructive: the Arbat today is a tourist precinct, a lively hub of commercial activity in the historic heart of Moscow.  (It’s the only place I’ve ever been where you are offered a free vodka (neat!!) as soon as you walk into a shop.) Before the Soviet era the Arbat was a place for artists, intellectuals and academics, and and today as it becomes gentrified it’s still a desirable place to live. But in the Soviet era it was where high-ranking officials lived, and the title of the book refers to the generation born at the time of the Russian Revolution, who by the 1930s were young adults who had grown up believing in Soviet ideals. They were privileged by comparison with most people in the Soviet Union because they had better access to education and opportunity, they were in a position to see the economic progress being made under rapid industrialisation, and they were forgiving of the human cost because they saw it as an unavoidable aspect of the creation of the Soviet State which they wholeheartedly supported.  The novel charts the slow disillusionment of this generation as they begin to see the consequences of rule by terror.

Sasha is finishing his final year as an engineering student when he is accused of anti-Soviet activities.  He’s a hardworking, idealistic and loyal member of the Komsomol (the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) so at first he thinks it’s a joke, and then he thinks it’s a mistake that can be sorted out.  But although his loyalty and idealism doesn’t falter, under interrogation he realises that it’s perilous to mention the names of his friends who also wrote some humorous verses for the student newspaper, and that he ought not to mention his powerful uncle either for fear of drawing him into what appears to be some kind of arcane intrigue.  His friends react with caution as they too begin to realise that the ‘mistakes’ that can be made, are impossible to unravel.  They are not like Sasha, who subscribes to the Komsomol way of life, avoiding smoking, drinking, religion, and anything else deemed anti-Soviet and dedicating himself to the improvement of society through volunteer work.  These friends are not interested in politics; they are either ambitious and keen to avoid any trouble, or they are fun-loving, enjoying Western-style popular culture, dining out in restaurants, going to the cinema and dances, and wearing fashionable clothes.  They find it all too easy to forget him as he is shunted off to exile.  Even Varya Ivanova lets herself be seduced into the good life…

Sasha’s journey into exile is not like the Solzhenitsyn experience of the gulags that was described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Although Sasha suffers from the loss of his freedom and his separation from his vulnerable elderly mother, he is not in a forced labour camp but is expected to get a job in the village he has been sent to.  But he is not free from surveillance and is the automatic victim when anything goes wrong.  When he is accused of being a ‘wrecker’ (a saboteur trying to destroy the progress of the Soviet Union) because he gave advice that a tractor part needed to be repaired, it is explained to him that the peasants have no experience of mechanisation and do not look after their tractors.  They break down of course, and the State has found that the only way to make them quickly learn to maintain their equipment is to punish them harshly for any damage.  Sasha faces ten extra years added to his sentence because no one will take responsibility for the failure to heed his warning, and because no one will take his side because he is an exile.

‘You don’t understand the situation you’re in, Pankratov!  You think that because you’re in exile you’re free.  You’re mistaken!  And I’ll tell you something else: the people in the camps are better off!  Yes, I know, it’s tough there, they have to fell trees in the cold and there’s hunger, they’re behind barbed wire, yes, but there you’re surrounded by prisoners like yourself, you’re no different from each other.  Here there are no sentries and watchtowers, you’ve got the forest all around you, you’ve got the river and the healthy air, but here you’re an alien, here you’re the enemy, and you’ve got no rights.  We’re obliged to put you inside on the first denunciation.  Your landlady could come and say you were rude about Comrade Stalin.  That would mean you were preparing a terroristic act.’

He smiled at Sasha.

‘So there it is, Pankratov, that’s how things stand.  You’ll get ten years minimum.  Do you understand?

‘Yes, I understand.’

He understood it all right.  If they could exile Soloveichik for a harmless joke, and Ivashkin for a misprint in a newspaper, and a cook for putting ‘Lazy Soup’ on the menu, and if a pair of stolen soles could get you ten years according to the law of the seventh of August, and if he himself had been exiled for a few stupid rhymes, then for the separator – agricultural machinery – they would really give it to him.  (p.503)

Yet he is not bitter about this… the striking element in this novel is the extent to which Sasha’s generation believed in the new system, and were philosophical about its excesses.  They accept that sacrifices must be made to build a new society and to enable the Soviet Union to catch up with the rest of the world.

But the chapters about Stalin’s paranoia are chilling.  They show his subordinates acquiescing to his commands – which are not issued as orders but rather as oblique statements which they have learned to interpret, i.e. if he says something is a good idea, that means it’s a decree. His secretary, for example, takes note of how many letters he takes to Stalin’s desk each day, and he sorts them when they’re returned.  Some are actioned, some are ignored.  And some are destroyed while others are secreted away for purposes unknown.  It is this secretary’s job to try always to be one step ahead, but it is even harder for the other members of the Politburo to negotiate the shifting sands of Stalin’s repressive policies.  These chapters also depict Stalin’s imagined thoughts, deluding himself as to what brutality might be forgiven by the masses in the name of stabilising the Soviet state.  We see some of the senior members of his inner circle secretly regretting that they didn’t deal with him when they could, and we see his determination to eliminate Kirov as a more moderate rival.  As history shows, Stalin went on to be responsible for millions of deaths.

The edition I read is a mass-market paperback that I found in an OpShop.  (A new copy isn’t available anywhere, as far as I can see).  Arrow Books, a London division of Century Hutchinson, obviously rushed it into print in 1988; it is full of really annoying typos: Khrushchev spelt with a double K; ‘and’ separated with a space into ‘a’ and ‘nd’; missing words; incorrect use of homonyms; and plenty of other errors which disrupt the flow of the reading.  But the print size is mercifully normal for a book of 700+ pages, and the translation by Oxford scholar Harold Shukman is excellent.  Flawless.  The cover image BTW isn’t acknowledged but with a little sleuthing I found it: it’s a detail from “The Strike 1905” (1964), by Alexander Alexandrovich Smolin, held at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. 

children-of-the-arbat-movie-posterWikipedia tells me that the novel was adapted into a TV series in 2004, but a review at IMDB suggests that it hasn’t been subtitled, so that’s that.

BTW There was recently an excellent discussion about contemporary Russia on ABC Sydney.  It featured Graeme Gill, Norman Hermant and former diplomat Tony Kevin, author of one of my favourite books, Walking the Camino and a new book called Return to Russia.  I think they should replay the program on Radio National to give it a wider audience.

Author: Anatoli Rybakov
Title: Children of the Arbat (Дети Арбата)
Translated from the Russian by Harold Shukman
Publisher: Arrow Books, 1988, first published 1987
ISBN: 9780099633303
Source: Personal library, purchased from Abe Books.

Availability: Out of print, try your library, Abe Books or other second-hand bookshops.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 18, 2017

In Search of Hobart, by Peter Timms, read by David Baldwin

in-search-of-hobartI like most of Australia’s capital cities, but – as many Australians do – I have a special fondness for Hobart.  We like it because it is beautiful, intimate in scale and rich in interesting things to do and see.  No other capital city lets tourists share such a wealth of treasures without much need of a car; though you need one to explore Mt Wellington, from a B&B in Battery Point I have spent half a dozen happy weekends mooching about on foot in the Salamanca district and the CBD while The Spouse attended conferences, and we were then able to walk to splendid restaurants without fear of a breathalyser to spoil our pleasure in the wine list.  Hobart has all of a capital city’s amenities without the traffic, crowds and pollution.  You can go to museums and art galleries; concerts and plays;  historical tours and markets; and all of it tucked beside the charm of Constitution Dock and under the brooding majesty of Mt Wellington.

Peter Timms’ In Search of Hobart (2009) was the first contribution to the New South City Series; it was followed in due course by Brisbane by Matthew Condon and Sydney by Delia Falconer. I bought Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham when it came out in 2011 and Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy in 2012.   Others in the series are Canberra, Alice Springs, Perth and Darwin.  My guess is that these books are very popular with tourists: they are compact reading, and can be read between cities on board the plane.

Timms’ is a recent convert to Hobart’s charms: he originally hails from Melbourne but has adopted Hobart as home and his affection for the city shows.   Still, he has a criticism or two to offer, but he includes anecdotes and interviews with fellow-Hobartians so there is a diversity of opinion.  His own background is as an art curator and critic of note, and – as you’d expect – he has some cross things to say about some of Hobart’s more recent architectural developments.  It might surprise him to know that they are not what I remember when I think of Hobart: my mind’s eye brings me images of Arthur’s Circle and the National Trust-listed buildings in Davey St and Macquarie St.  The ugliness of the Crown Casino is no different to the ugliness of casinos elsewhere in Australia, and I have trained my eye to look away.  But I am, of course, a tourist; I am not confronted by the city’s dreary bits.  I have no idea where Hobart’s supermarkets are, or where its Centrelink might be, or where any other of its mundane practicalities are located.  I know where the bookshops are, and the coffee shops, the restaurants and the boutique art galleries.  I know the suburb of Sandy Bay, but not the dreary ones that Timms is concerned about.  (Well, we have our share of dreary suburbs in Melbourne too, and Sydney has an even bigger wasteland than we do.  So does Paris, if it comes to that).

This idiosyncratic view of Australia’s smallest, most southerly, least-populated capital city explores Hobart’s troubled acceptance of its convict past and its brutal near-annihilation of its first people.  I was interested to hear his thoughts about Truganina, which (as in so many other instances) gives by omission the incorrect impression that she was ‘the last’ Tasmanian Aborigine.  She was not, as the state pension paid to Fanny Cochrane Smith paid after the death of Truganina shows.  (See my review of Tasmanian Aborigines by Lyndall Ryan for further details if you are not familiar with this part of Tasmania’s history).  But I think Timms is probably right about the suppression of the convict history: as a new arrival to Australia in the 1960s I was bemused in my Melbourne school to hear the teasing of a student from Tassie.  Back then, I had no idea what it was about, but now I know that Tasmanian ancestry could then have been a cause of profound embarrassment since, the population being as small as it always has been, there was every chance that the family tree concealed a convict, an Aborigine, or both, and neither was acceptable in those days).

Timms links Hobart’s shift in attitudes to a new-found confidence in itself.  It is no longer ashamed of its convict past, and it has led the rest of the country in reconciliation initiatives with Indigenous Tasmanians.  Poverty arising from market forces on a limited economy (both before and after Federation) led to invidious comparisons with mainland cities, especially when so many young people deserted the state for employment and the bright lights of bigger capital cities.  But the lack of capital to redevelop the city in the 1960s and 70s has preserved the city’s charm: it is rich in historic buildings that could so easily have been torn down for horrible office blocks and now Hobartians take great pride in these lovely buildings.  And so they should.  A stroll in the Hobart CBD on a sunny spring day is an absolute delight. (The last B&B we stayed at had a small guide book of historic walks for loan to its guests, but I’m sorry, I can’t remember its name).

What shines through this insightful little book is the love of nature and the beauty of the city.  It comes as a surprise to be reminded that a mere 30 minutes from the CBD one can look out from Mt Wellington to where the nearest landfall is Patagonia.  It’s amusing to hear about the wintertime frolics: there is apparently a tradition of building a snowman on the car bonnet and then racing to be the first to reach the CBD before it melts.  It is salutary to realise that climate change is rendering Hobart’s weather even more benign during the summer season, and tempting indeed to invest in a little historic cottage while house prices are still well below the stratospheric scale of those in Sydney and Melbourne.

For international readers, take my advice: include Tassie in your holiday itinerary, and listen to a copy of this book on the plane.

PS The narration by David Baldwin was an inspired choice.

PPS I have since discovered that there is an updated 2012 edition…

Author: Peter Timms, with an introduction by Robert Dessaix
Title: In Search of Hobart
Read by David Baldwin
Publisher: Louis Braille Audio, 2010, first published 2009
ISBN: 9781742125756
Source: Kingston Library

The City Series is available from Fishpond:


I heard about this memoir of the 1994 Rwandan genocide last year via Shoshi’s Book Blog, and she’s right, books like this are hard to review because of the weight of tragedy they contain.  Shoshi acknowledges that she reads mostly for entertainment, enjoyment and escapism, yet still she would recommend Cockroaches because of its value as a survivor testimony.

I think it’s important to try to know the stories of our multicultural society.  There are refugees from the Rwandan genocide living among us, with memories of the horror described in this book.   Because I’d seen the film Hotel Rwanda, and I remember the reports of the genocide in the news of the day  – I knew this would not be an easy book to read.  But I thought I owed it to them, at least, to read it.

Goodreads provides a brief bio about the author:

Born in Rwanda in 1956, Scholastique Mukasonga experienced from childhood the violence and humiliation of the ethnic conflicts that shook her country. In 1960, her family was displaced into the under-developed Nyamata. In 1973, she was forced to leave the school of social assistance in Butare and flee to Burundi. She settled in France in 1992. The genocide of the Tutsi swept through Rwanda 2 years later. Mukasonga learned that 27 of her family members had been massacred. Twelve years later, Gallimard published her autobiographical account Inyenzi ou les Cafards, which marked Mukasonga’s entry into literature. Her first novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, won the Ahamadou Kourouma prize and the Renaudot prize in 2012.

Cockroaches begins as Mukasonga – safe in France – wakes from the nightmare of her murdered family:

Where are they now? In the memorial crypt of the church in Nyamata, nameless skulls among all the other bones? In the bush, beneath the brambles, in some mass grave that has yet to be found? Over and over, I write and rewrite their names in the blue-covered notebook, trying to prove to myself that they existed; I speak their names one by one, in the dark and the silence. I have to fix a face on each name, hang some shred of a memory. I don’t want to cry, I feel tears running down my cheeks. I close my eyes. This will be another sleepless night. I have so many dead to sit up with.  (Kindle Locations 59-63).

The book then retraces her childhood which began in a rainforest in the southwest of Rwanda, in Gikongoro province.  The first pogroms against the Tutsis broke out in 1959, and the family was deported to Nyamata, in Bugesera.  Despite the constant fear of more outbreaks of violence, she and her siblings had a mostly happy childhood in a loving family, but they always knew that they were on borrowed time because they were so aware of the hatred of the Hutus.

Those peaceful days were a rare thing in Nyamata. The soldiers of Gako camp were always there to remind us what we were: snakes, Inyenzi, cockroaches. Nothing human about us. One day, we’d have to be got rid of. In the meantime, the terror was systematic.  (Kindle Locations 609-611).

The soldiers amused themselves by terrorising schoolchildren:

From Gitagata to the school in Nyamata, the dirt road joined up with the highway that went on to the Burundi border. All the children were in a hurry to reach school before the drum sounded. But they had an even more pressing concern: they had to listen for engines. If they heard the tiniest sound, they had just time enough to dive under the coffee plants, leap into the bush, or take cover in the first house they could find. The road to Nyamata was also the road to Gako camp. Military trucks often went by, and the soldiers fired or threw grenades to terrorize any child foolish enough to walk by the side of the road. Nothing the soldiers did on the Nyamata road was a scandal, since no one ever walked it but Tutsis.

One day there were four of us on the way to school: Jacqueline, Kayisharaza, Candida, and me. A truck suddenly appeared behind us. We hadn’t heard it coming. All we could do was dive into the coffee plants. Too late! The soldiers had seen us, and they’d thrown a grenade. Kayisharaza’s leg was shredded. She had to give up on school. She couldn’t drag her dead leg all the way to Nyamata. She was the oldest girl in her family, and she became a burden for them, for her brothers and sisters. I don’t know how many schoolchildren were wounded like that on the road to Nyamata. (Kindle Locations 613-623).

In 1967 the violence became institutionalised.  Hutus were lured to attend forbidden meetings and butchered with machetes, with child soldiers of the ‘revolutionary youth brigade’ left to guard victims slowly dying in the lake that was their water supply, so that families could not retrieve their bodies for burial.

There is more of this, and it is distressing to read, especially when we read that having made it safely to France Scholastique feels guilt about her survival.  Because she did not witness the genocide she hopes that if she returns she might one day find some trace of her family, but feels that she should spend her money helping other refugees rather than on what she knows will be a fruitless journey.

It is hard to comprehend the numbers killed in this genocide: Scholastique’s family, all wiped out in 1994, is emblematic of its extent:

André and I could only call the roll of our dead: my father Cosma, 79 years old; my mother Stefania, maybe 74; my older sister Judith, her four children, and I’m no longer sure how many grandchildren; my brother Antoine and his wife, with nine children, the oldest twenty, the youngest five; Alexia and her husband Pierre Ntereye, and four of their children, between two and ten years of age; Jeanne, my younger sister, her four children, Douce, eight, Nella, seven, Christian, five, Nénette, one, and the baby she was eight months pregnant with. (Kindle Locations 1200-1205).

What is left is the duty to remember her loss while somehow enduring and making a new life.  

There’s a World Vision group helping with recovery projects and although there is a very long way to go, you can see some of the remarkable progress they have made at Rwandan Stories.

I also have a copy of Mukasonga’s second book, a novel called Our Lady of the Nile, (Notre-Dame du Nil) published in 2014.

Author:  Scholastique Mukasonga
Title: Cockroaches (Inyenzi ou les cafards)
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
Publisher: Archipelago, 2014, first published in 2006
ASN (Kindle edition): B01AEPR4TK
Personal copy. Purchased from Amazon.


the southwest of Rwanda, in Gikongoro province, at the edge of Nyungwe forest,


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2017

Madame De, by Louise de Vilmorin, translated by Duff Cooper

pushkinsIt’s Pushkin Press Fortnight at Winston’s Dad, and I was spoiled for choice since I had finally succumbed to his enticing reviews and bought an annual subscription to Pushkin Press.  (I’m not sure that you can still do this.  I couldn’t find the link on their website if you can).

I was tempted by Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel because I am currently reading Children of the Arbat by Anatoli Rybakov which has once again whetted my appetite for RussianLit, but in the end I decided to start with the book I’ve had the longest, Madame De by Louise de Vilmorin.  It’s only 80 pages long, more of a short story than a novella, which is a good thing since Children of the Arbat is over 700 pages and I am only half way through.

madame-deMadame De     piques the interest immediately with its strange title.  Although it was first published in 1951, the omission of the proper noun and its replacement with a blank space alerts readers to a device used to hint at a real-life subject (i.e. a roman à clef) while at the same time suggesting a universal type.  Madame De _____ could actually be someone the reader knows (or knows of) but she could also be ‘a typical woman’.  Either way, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the author despised Madame De     .  The characterisation is much kinder to her husband.

I like to think that De Vilmorin set her tale in the past and wrote in the style of 19th century French fiction because she was pleased that women such as Madame De     no longer existed.  I have recently bought Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba and although I’ve only read a couple of chapters, the book shows that reality of life under Nazi Occupation meant that there were grave risks for weak-willed women dependent on men for their sense of self.  Then again, the 21st century is replete with celebrity airheads who marry foolish rich men, and maybe De Vilmorin was satirising the behaviour of collaborators.

An idle woman with no children, Madame De       is preoccupied with being elegant because that is the mark of merit in the circle of society to which Mme De     belonged.  She sets the fashion and others follow. Balzac wrote many stories about women such as her, often in contrast to women who used their wit and intelligence to achieve something worthwhile despite the patriarchal society they lived in.

The 19th century being as it was, Madame De      has no money of her own so through her own folly she ends up embarrassed by her debts.

M. de      was a rich man.  He was proud of his wife and refused her nothing.  He never questioned her about the money she spent, so she had no cause to fear his reproaches, yet from a sort of weakness, not unmixed with a desire to prove her cleverness, when he admired some object she had just bought or a dress she was wearing for the first time, she could not resist saying that it had cost her half of what she had actually paid for it. So Mme De     hid from M. de      the total amount of the bills she had been incurring.  After this had been going on for a few years she found herself seriously in debt, which caused her at first anxiety, then anguish and finally despair. It was the more difficult for her to find the courage to tell her husband because she had been deceiving him for so long, and because he had always treated her with the greatest generosity.  Unwilling to lose either his admiration or his confidence, she decided that the secret sale of some jewellery was the only way in which she could solve her problem.  (p.12)

She decides to sell some very valuable heart-shaped diamond earrings which M. de     had given her as a wedding present.  She puts on a stellar performance when she ‘discovers’ they are missing.

The story traces the adventures of these earrings as they are first subject of speculation as to the thief, then a cause of anxiety to the jeweller who has legitimately bought them but now fears being accused of being a fence, then purchased again and again and again by the amused husband while his wife engages in subterfuge with the Ambassador who buys the earrings as a token of his passion for Madame De        .

As in all good fairy tales Madame De gets what she deserves, but there is more to the tale than a morality tale about vanity, deceit, trust, self-delusion and folly.  The earrings, once a symbol of love, are tarnished by lies that inevitably impact on all the relationships in the novel.  No one comes out of it well, not even the rational and tolerant husband.

I think this book featured in reviews for Women In Translation month, but I can’t remember where I first heard of it.

Author: Louise de Vilmorin
Title: Madame De
Translated by Duff Cooper
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2012
ISBN: 9781908968333
Source: Personal library, Pushkin Press subscription

Available from Fishpond: Madame De.  (For Australian and New Zealand buyers, it is cheaper to buy individual titles from FP than the Pushkin Press website because you don’t have to pay postage).



Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 13, 2017

The Pines Hold Their Secrets, by Jill Blee

the-pines-hold-their-secretsJill Blee is a remarkable woman: born in Ballarat where she now lives again, she is a ‘late bloomer’ as an author after a very varied career in Melbourne and Sydney.  From an old article in The Age, I’ve learned that after school she trained as an industrial chemist, but like many women of her generation, she gave up work to have a family.  When her marriage broke down she started a picture framing business, then sold insurance, and then was a factory manager. At 35 when her youngest started school, she started an arts degree, and – her interest in history fired by helping her children with projects – she went on to complete two Master of Arts degrees and a PhD, working as a live-in boarding-school housemistress so that she could study by day.  And at 50 she began to write.  I’ve previously reviewed Brigid (1999) and The Liberator’s Birthday (2002), and … without knowing it was Blee’s work as an historical researcher that I was watching, I’ve also seen some of the Doctor Blake Mysteries, set in Ballarat!

The Pines Hold Their Secrets (1988) is her first novel.  It’s historical fiction, set on Norfolk Island during its period as a notorious penal settlement.  Elise Cartwright travels with her family from the penal settlement in Hobart to Norfolk Island where her father – transferring under some unspecified cloud – has accepted a lesser position as Superintendent of Agriculture.  He had been one of the most important men in Van Diemen’s Land and his silly wife is very conscious of her social position, fussing over frocks and what’s ‘appropriate’ and always manoeuvring to ensure that her three daughters marry well. Elise, an independent minded young woman in her early twenties, chafes at the social niceties and thus comes into brief contact with a convict called O’Shaughnessy while they are on board the Porpoise.

On Norfolk Island Elise is haunted by O’Shaughnessy’s enigmatic plea for help to prove his innocence, but can’t do anything about it.  And despite Mrs Cartright’s best efforts to shield herself and her girls from anything unpleasant, before long all kinds of horrors are revealed, all reasonably consistent with what we know of Australia’s history as a penal colony.  While there are a couple of rather melodramatic moments that test credulity as the novel reaches its climax, the plot rattles along quite well and the characters are generally well-drawn.

Academic study can sometimes infect the authenticity of dialogue in a novel but not so in The Pines Hold Their Secrets.  Blee has a crisp, effective style, conveying in this example both the possibility of romance emerging in this unlikely place and the rudimentary nature of justice :

Orders were being given to the troops.  The other ladies were walking together across the common to their homes on Military Row.

‘What’s going to happen?’ Elise asked, still holding onto Smith’s jacket.

‘The judge will pronounce the sentences.  That’s why he’s here.’

‘Oh, what will they be?’ Tears were running down her face. Smith took out his handkerchief to catch them.

‘Two will hang, I believe. The others will be flogged.’

‘Which two?  Do you know names?’

‘Not yet.’ (p.97)

The Pines Hold Their Secrets is engaging light reading, enhanced by a setting not often used in Australian novels.  For the Term of His Natural Life comes to mind, of course, and no doubt Norfolk Island’s most famous resident Colleen McCullough set one of her novels there, but I can’t think of any others.

(It just crossed my mind that I could start categorising my reading by settings, but noooo, I’m going to resist that thought!)

Author: Jill Blee
Title: The Pines Hold Their Secrets
Publisher: Indra Publishing, 1998
ISBN: 095877188x
Source: personal library, purchased from the author’s blog which seems not to have been active since 2013.  However I poked around on Facebook and found out about a new limited edition book called Cuthberts: A Ballarat Institution,  so Blee is still writing…

Availability:  It looks as if it’s out of print.  There are active links to Amazon for some of Blee’s titles on her blog but not for this novel.  Try your library or secondhand bookshops.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 12, 2017

The Collected Stories of Pinchas Goldhar

the-collected-stories-of-pinchas-goldharI don’t go to many book launches these days, but the launch of The Collected Stories of Pinchas Goldhar was more of a cultural event than a book launch…

Pinchas Goldhar was born in Lodz, Poland in 1901, and migrated to Melbourne in 1928.  Anxious, with good reason, about the survival of Jewish life and culture in an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe and a resolutely monocultural Australia, he became

‘the first to publish a Yiddish literary book, the first editor of a Yiddish paper, the first Yiddish writer to be included in Australian anthologies, the first to translate Australian writers into Yiddish and was certainly one of the founders of a literature written by “New Australians”  before the term New Australian even existed.’  (H. Brezniak, quoted in the Preface by Serge Liberman. p.vii)

(Wikipedia tells me some of the authors he translated into Yiddish include Henry Lawson, Susannah Pritchard, Frank Dalby Davison, Alan Marshall and Vance Palmer).

Held at the Kadimah Leo Fink Hall in Elsternwick, the launch was an impressive affair.  MC was Renata Singer (wife of Peter Singer the philosopher and an author in her own right) and the speakers included Professor Bill Rubinstein and Arnold Zable, with readings of the story ‘Drummond St’ in both English and Yiddish.  There was also a performance by the Melbourne Yiddish Choir.

Louis de Vries from Hybrid Publishing told the extraordinary story of the book’s gestation.  Although, as Professor Rubinstein had told us, these stories represent a distinctive moment in Jewish and Melbourne life, and although no less an authority than Nettie Palmer admired them, they have not been available as a collection in English until now.  Two previous attempts to publish them were aborted when the publishers died unexpectedly, so de Vries was pleased to break the jinx!

As Arnold Zable explained in a very moving and powerful speech, Goldhar’s stories are not nostalgic for Europe.  They are about the universal immigrant experience:

His stories are poignant and touching, featuring mainly Polish-Jewish protagonists who wrestle with the strange ways of their new home, but resonating for any migrants or refugees who have come to Australia.  Often told with bitter irony, the stories express the loneliness and isolation of the immigrant, for whom cultural differences seem insurmountable, the longing for familiar Jewish life, and his sense of uprootedness and disappointment in his adopted homeland. (Preface by Serge Liberman. p.vii).

I meant to listen respectfully during the Yiddish reading, but it was too hard to resist reading the first story.  It’s called ‘Cain’ and it was all I could to suppress a tear as I read it.  It takes the form of a letter to his family, from a Doctor Hermann Lowenstein who committed suicide in a Dresden concentration camp.  He tells his wife Klara and his children not to say Kaddish (the Jewish mourning ritual) for him, because he will always bear the mark of Cain after he was forced by the Nazis to brutally beat another prisoner.

From the moment that the Nazis broke into our house in the middle of the night and dragged me from my bed, my life has been suspended in a web of uncertainty.  Suddenly, I began a new life.  I became a new man.  Dr Hermann Lowenstein ceased to exist.  His books, his laboratories, his high moral principles and ideals disappeared without trace as if they had been sucked into a vacuum.  A new being was created in my body – not a person, but a creation of fear that trembled at the sound of every scream, cowered before every stare, became a slave to every superior.  My entire persona was ruled by only one thought – to live, to live, to live! (p.19-20).

In his anguish, he tells them that because of this they must forget him and obliterate his memory without trace.

Well then, I just had to read the next story, ‘Café in Carlton’.  This is a story that should be read in every secondary school in Australia.  After witnessing the transformation of Hulka, the quiet, harmless stamp-cutter who lived next door into a Nazi empowered to smash windows and terrorise his Jewish neighbours, Mendel is forced to abandon his ruined hotel and is deported from Poland.  But when he has made his way to Melbourne, the careless anti-Semitism of the street urchins terrifies him again:

But even in far-off Australia, Hulka’s laugh haunted him as, deep within him, still lived the terror of the Granadierstrasse.  When he opened his restaurant in Rathdowne Street and saw for the first time the word ‘Jew’ scribbled in chalk, his heart missed a beat.

It’s started all over again, he thought, and bowed his head in resignation.  He had worked so hard to arrange the restaurant so that it would not look Jewish.  He had put a potted plant in the window and hung out a menu card that advertised only Australian dishes: ham and eggs, roast lamb and plum pudding.  He had decorated the tables with paper flowers, he did everything just as he had seen in Australian cafés.  (p.41)

Shamelessly, I also read the novella ‘The Last Minyan‘, a story which encapsulates Goldhar’s fear that his culture would be lost to assimilation.  It’s very poignant too.  It reminded me of those churches I’ve visited where the only worshippers are a pathetically small group of old ladies, and it’s not hard to see what will happen when they die out.

As the speakers said, Goldhar died in 1947 so he did not live to see the postwar transformation of Jewish society in Melbourne, nor the establishment of the state of Israel.  But despite his pessimism about the future of Jewish cultural life, they were quite sure that he would have been pleased to see that Yiddish, among many other aspects of lively Jewish culture, is thriving in Melbourne, and I am proud to live in a city that has transformed itself from an assimilationist monoculture to a city that welcomes all forms of diversity.

The stories are collected from various issues of the Australian Jewish News, Oystralier Leben, Dertzeilungen (1939), the Second Australian Yiddish Almanac (1943), Tsustayer Zamulbukh (1944) and Collected Writings (1949),  over a period of time starting in 1931.  They have been translated by Tania Bruce edited by Pam McLean, Judah Waten, Andrew Firestone, Joshua Goldhar, R.Z. Schreiber, and Naomi Kelly.  The book also includes illustrations by Noel Counihan and Yosi Bergner, an Introduction by Pam McLean from Deakin University and an afterword by Pinchas Goldhar’s son, Joshua Goldhar.

Author: Pinchas Goldhar
Title: The Collected Stories of Pinchas Goldhar
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2016
ISBN: 9781925272246
Source: Personal copy, purchased on the night for $25

Available from Hybrid Publishers or from Fishpond:The Collected Stories of Pinchas Goldhar: A Pioneer Yiddish Writer in Australia


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 11, 2017

Crocs in the Cabinet, by Ben Smee and Christopher A. Walsh

crocs-in-the-cabinet When I first heard about this book last year, I thought it would be amusing to read. From down south in Melbourne where politics is for real, what I saw in the media about the antics of the recent CLP government looked like high farce, and Crocs in the Cabinet, Northern Territory Politics, an instruction manual on how NOT to run a government seemed like light-hearted entertainment.  After all, the population of the entire NT is smaller than many local councils; it’s hard to take their government and its pretensions seriously, I thought.

But through a well-timed slap to my condescension, by coincidence yesterday I read an anguished article by twenty-something Alex McKinnon in The Guardian, entitled ‘Morrison and Co are kneecapping my generation’s future. And laughing about it. This article, triggered by the Question Time antics of the Turnbull front bench, is a salutary reminder that politics isn’t an amusement, it’s about people’s lives:

Malcolm Turnbull’s government is almost as proudly negligent on the growing existential question of climate change as Tony Abbott’s was. Morrison’s little Punch and Judy show came as Australia’s eastern states braced for a heatwave of unusual length and severity, at the end of a summer that is already – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – the hottest on record.

It is enormously galling that my life, and the lives of the people I care about, are held and crushed in the hands of people as proudly mediocre and ignorant as Morrison and Joyce. They, and the rest of the sneering brats on the government front bench, will most likely not have to live with the consequences of their own laziness and brute stupidity. I will.

And of course, in the interim there has also been the Trump catastrophe.  I am still getting used to the idea that we in The Rest of the World have to take this man seriously.

So I came to my reading about the NT’s chaotic government in a changed frame of mind.   Intolerant of high jinks, for a start, and recognising them for what they are.  Also depressed and angry about the failure to prioritise the needs of vulnerable people, especially indigenous people who’ve been short-changed in the NT over decades and who’ve had to suffer the indignity of The Intervention because of the indifference of their governments. No wonder Territorians voted against statehood.  From down here, the No vote looked like a bizarre result, but now I think I would have voted No too.

Crocs in the Cabinet – like many books rushed into print in the aftermath of an election – isn’t analytical reading.  It’s a reportage of events, the journalists often quoting their own articles from the newspaper so often mocked on the ABC’s Media Watch, the notorious NT News (NewsCorp).  (Just Google NT News + Media Watch to see what I mean).  The cover blurb and inserts of full cover reproductions of the tabloid NT News front pages don’t encourage the reader to take the book seriously.

 Find out exactly how bonkers the NT parliament really was, as you read of …
– a drunk Territory minister, a seedy Tokyo ‘cabaret’ club, a $5000 bar tab and taxpayer-funded credit card. Priceless!
– the lewd videos a masturbating minister sent someone, not his wife
– the anguished words ‘WE ARE IN LOVE!’ echoing from the floor of parliament
– a Chief Minister defying a coup by throwing his phone in a pool
– the ‘gone fishing’ MP who chose baiting up instead of turning up
– the minister, charged with assault, who sold her ‘MY HUSBAND IS HAVING AN AFFAIR WITH MY NIECE’ story to TAKE 5 magazine.

This is Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail meets Fawlty Towers.

You can see the style from the author’s introduction:

This is not a political book.

It’s about politicians, but it’s not about politics.  The Mills and Giles CLP government failed for many reasons, but not because of ideology or its political leanings.  This book is about the fall of an empire – about the power struggles and missteps and flawed characters that took the CLP from the Northern Territory’s dominant political force to near extinction, from an election win in 2012 to holding just two seats in Parliament four years later.

As the empire crumbled, the internecine nature of Darwin’s elite society was laid bare.  The carnage exposed a sort of frontier Gotham City; corrupted by an interconnected web of public service fiefdom, lawyers, judges, police, politicians, businesspeople and the media.  (p.ix)

Once the reader has grasped the central thesis i.e. that narcissistic personalities were the cause of the government dysfunction, the breathless style detailing the succession of events begins to exhaust itself.  I admit to scanning some pages; I was in no mood to read them.  But the book improves as it moves along, perhaps a product of its joint authorship, perhaps just because events were more recent in the mind and the patterns began to form.

It crossed my mind as I read about various corruption scandals, bribery allegations and fake publicity stunts that I would need to be very careful about what I write here.  Hachette, the publisher, has deep pockets and has presumably had its lawyers carefully check the book.  But I will confine myself to generalities just in case.

Firstly, Smee and Walsh identify the two causes of the electorate’s disenchantment with this government.  For a while Territorians were prepared to tolerate the outrageous public and private behaviour of their politicians, because they were getting things done.  But the essential bond between government and electorate – trust – was lost over the privatisation of the TIO (Territory Insurance Company) which had a record of prompt payouts after the NT’s numerous natural disasters and the sale of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese businessman, creating security implications if Australia gets into a stoush over the South China Sea.   The authors don’t say so, but there’s a moral for voters in this.  An electorate ought to hold its politicians accountable for their ethics or lack of them, in all things, at all times.

Secondly, towards the end of the book, Smee and Walsh remind readers that governments have two equally important roles in western democracies.

The first is to actually govern.  To develop policy, to pass laws, to manage departments and to do tangible things in the interests of constituents.

The second is to deliver good government. That means forging a consensus when the right action might not be the popular one…[…]… It means being community leaders and acting in a way that reflects the values of voters. And it means standing for something – something more than a group of personalities playing the power game.  (p.236).

In the electorate wipeout that followed, the CLP lost government and opposition.  (They only won two seats which means that independents currently form the opposition).  But IMO the electorate lost more than that, they lost confidence in their democracy, and no doubt the blame game is hard at work.  My question (not tackled in the book) is, how well is the party system working, when people like those were endorsed as candidates and some rose to become leaders?  If the talent pool is too small to throw up good candidates, what is the party doing to increase its membership and to improve its candidate base, and what are governments of all persuasions doing to encourage the wider electorate to participate in the democratic process?

It isn’t enough to complain around the BBQ as if it doesn’t really matter.  The disaffection vote is growing and it’s not a pretty sight.

Authors: Ben Smee and Christopher A. Walsh
Title: Crocs in the Cabinet, Northern Territory politics: An instruction manual on how NOT to run a government
Publisher: Hachette, 2016
ISBN: 9780733637520
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond:Crocs in the Cabinet: Northern Territory Politics – An Instruction Manual on How Not to Run a Government

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2017

The Museum of Modern Love, by Heather Rose

the-museum-of-modern-loveWhen I first opened the pages of this book at bedtime, I saw that I had to make a decision.  The author explains that the novel is a hybrid of fact and fiction and some of the characters are, by permission, based on real living people.  One of these, and central to the story, is performance artist Marina Abramović, but although her name was vaguely familiar I could not remember why.  To be honest, although I look at and often enjoy contemporary art, I would be hard pressed to name any living contemporary artist apart from Anish Kapoor (and that’s only because we have dined out on our impressions of his bizarre incomprehensible red wax installations at the Guggenheim in Bilbao).  I have only ever once seen any performance art: at the Melbourne Festival some years ago where the audience was invited to ‘visit’ and make conversation with silent and immobile patients decked out in ghostly white.  It was quite unnerving, and obviously memorable, but I have no idea whose work it was.

Well, I decided not to explore online to find out about Abramović.  I wanted to see whether the book worked for people like me, interested in but not knowledgeable about contemporary art, with a dash of scepticism thrown in for good measure.  *chuckle* Would the book work without the aid of Google?

Well, it does, The Museum of Modern Love works for me.

There is a lot to think about in this novel, which explores the nature of art by reference to Abramović’s performance of ‘The Artist is Present’ in New York.  This performance involved Abramović sitting immobile and silent in a gallery at MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art) each day for 75 days, while members of the public queued up to sit in silence and gaze into her eyes.  They made a movie about this in 2012, and the trailer features Abramović saying that she is most often asked ‘why is this art?’  Heather Rose answers this question by showing how her characters, observing or participating in this performance, project onto Abramović their thoughts, memories, quandaries and so on.  It is a different way of thinking about art and what it’s ‘for’.

But The Museum of Modern Love is not just cerebral pondering about the nature of art.

SPOILER (not a very big one since you’ll guess most of this, as I assume you are meant to, before it’s revealed by the author)

There’s a major character called Arky Levin, whose wife Lydia has taken out a restraining order to prevent him visiting her in the last stages of a terminal disease.  She has done this because he is a film composer, and she loves him, and she wants to spare him a burden that would curtail his creativity.  He loves her too, but in interrogating himself about the pain her decision has cost him, he reveals his disgust about the physical effects of her decline, and his selfish desire to be spared it so that he can do his best work ever.  (He thinks he’s at the peak of his career).

I found this very confronting.  Most of us like to believe that our loved ones, flawed though they may be, would be there for us if we needed them, and we also like to believe that we, flawed though we may be, would be up to the challenge of providing that support if our loved ones needed it.  Lydia has judged Arky beforehand and found him wanting.  She has made a unilateral decision (for which their friends have judged him harshly) so that she isn’t distressed by his failure to be there for her.  (She has BTW enlisted her daughter’s support, which is an interesting authorial choice, eh?)  Rather than put up with him being inadequate and to allow him to continue work which, yes, does demand congenial surroundings rather than a horde of in-house nurses and medical equipment, she has denied him part of the process of coming to terms with impending death and the opportunity to say goodbye.  Readers will find themselves unsure if this is generous, or cruel, on Lydia’s part.

But what if Arky is a genius?  Abramović makes incredible demands on herself and any relationship she has had.  Is creative genius different and does it absolve one from ordinary human obligations? Leaving aside the issue of whether Lydia’s absence and the manner of imposing it would inhibit Arky’s creativity anyway, what would we think about Beethoven or Shakespeare putting their work on hold to nurse a loved one at home for as long as it takes?  And is there a gender issue underlying this?  Would a man take himself away to die quietly without interfering with his wife’s art?? What kind of relationship underlies this sort of decision?

Anyway, the narrative drive, such as it is in a novel intended to be more of a meditation on life and love, focusses on how Arky is going to behave.  Will he eventually go to see Abramović so that the semi-mystic experience of communing with her in this artifice will clarify what he should do?  Will he go to see his wife anyway?  Will he be too late if he tries?  The reader has to buy into the whole premise that Abramović’s art is a sort of spiritual experience in order to sustain belief in the power of the Abramović phenomenon, and I admit to faltering a bit towards the end.

Still, The Museum of Modern Love is a very interesting novel, offering an empathetic view of provocative contemporary art that I haven’t come across before.  I enjoyed the insights into the composer’s creative processes, and I liked the way Rose wove her characters together to bring their insights to bear on Arky’s dilemma.  All of them are memorable in some way, especially the recently bereaved Jane who spends all of her brief holiday in New York absorbed by Abramović’s performance.  What more convincing device could Rose have used to demonstrate just how compelling The Artist is Present may have been for those willing to submit to it!

PS If you’d like to suss out Marina Abramović beforehand, this article by Emma Brockes at The Guardian is an intelligent overview.  I don’t recommend the Wikipedia article: much of Abramović’s work sounds a lot like self-harm and it made me feel quite sick to read about it.

Author: Heather Rose
Title: The Museum of Modern Love
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781760291860
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Available from Fishpond: The Museum of Modern Love

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 7, 2017

The Navy-blue Suitcase, by Sally Van Gent


If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember reading my review of Sally Van Gent’s first venture into publishing, Clay Gully, Stories from an Apple Orchard (2013) and the follow-up feature in my Meet an Aussie Author series.  Sally’s life has been a most interesting one, and her latest book, The Navy-blue Suitcase, Curious Tales from a Travelling Life fills in her backstory prior to making a new life for herself as a would-be orchardist of heritage apples.

The suitcase is a double metaphor.  It symbolises not only Sally’s twenty years of nomadic life but also the marriage of her parents.  As a little girl living in Yorkshire with her mother, her grandparents, and a perennially absent father, Sally had been intensely curious about this suitcase hidden under the bed, and of course one day she sneaked a peek when her mother, who had very few possessions of her own, was out…

When I read Clay Gully, I was impressed by Sally’s optimism in the face of hardship, and it’s there again when, late in the book, she finds out the truth about her father.  He’s a man who flits in and out of their lives from far away London, making promises he never keeps but maintaining control with daily phone calls.  Even as Sally grows into adolescence her mother still doesn’t have a contact phone number or address for him.  It’s not hard to guess what’s going on, but the tragedy of it is that her mother never faces up to it.  When she finally has to get a home of her own, she foolishly believes his promises to pay her half of a shared house.  She believes him when he says there’s a ‘small hitch’ and her friend uses her savings to make up the shortfall ‘for a week or two.’ From faraway Qatar, Sally is horrified:

There’s a moment’s silence, and then my mother says brightly, ‘I’m going to love living here and there’s absolutely nothing for you to worry about.’

But I do worry, and as it turns out, with good reason.  After a few months, when my father’s money still hasn’t arrived, the house has to be sold and the two friends never speak again. (p. 78)

A man who would be so cruel to his wife is equally unkind to his daughter, but, without bitterness, Sally has the good sense to give up on him, as her mother should have done years ago.  That’s my judgement from joining the dots: Sally never sits in judgement of either of them.

Sally has the most amazing life.  With her first husband Nick, she lives in Qatar, Mauritius, back in England in the Lakes District, Kuwait, Athens and Singapore.  She brings up two kids including one with a very serious birth abnormality.  There are whimsical anecdotes about each place, illustrated by sketches of wildlife, landscapes urban and rural, the children at play, curios, and an astonishing variety of houses.

It’s in Singapore that her first marriage falls apart, but as with the failings of her parents there is no bitterness over that and no tell-all recriminations either.  With her new husband she has just one stipulation, that he has to give up seafaring because she’s had enough of a peripatetic life.  So they settle in Australia, though not without a few false starts.

My favourite of her light-hearted anecdotes concerns the burglary when they live in a secluded rural property near Bendigo, and the dour Aussie insurance assessor raises a quizzical eyebrow over the claims for some very expensive jewellery.

I’ve prepared a list of the missing items, at least the ones we’ve identified so far.  It’s an odd mixture: the Malay knife that has gone from the wall in my husband’s office, his spare watch, an old camera.  They’ve taken a four-pack of VB beer from the fridge and a bag of pens, Blu-tack and sticky tape that I bought for Nat, who’s about to go away to college.  They’ve even taken the five and ten cent coins from his money-box.

And of course there’s my jewellery.  I’ve made detailed drawings of each piece and I hand these to the assessor. He flicks through the pages and then looks around the room.  I can tell he’s taking stock of the peeling yellow paint, the hideous brown-striped curtains and the awful shag-pile carpet that was full of cat fleas when we moved in.

When I catch his eye he looks away, but I can tell he is studying me too.  He’s caught me at a bad moment. he arrived as I was digging holes in the front garden for the plants I brought with me from the other house, and I haven’t had time to wash.  I’m wearing tattered jeans and a baggy old T-shirt that I bought in an op shop years ago.

He gets up to leave, but at the door he stops.  ‘I’d like to remind you,’ he says severely, ‘that there are heavy penalties for giving a false declaration to an insurance company.’

Well, who would believe that she was given this jewellery as a (no-strings) gift from an Arabian sheik?  But it’s true!  (I can relate to this because until I show them a photo of me wearing it, no one believes in the existence of our family tiara, (bigger and better than the one Princess Di borrowed for that doomed wedding).  Tiaras don’t have much use these days, so we don’t have it any more.)

I liked this book.  Sometimes memoir can be rather wearying, especially in its therapeutic manifestations when the author has a lot of misery or self-justification to get off her chest.  But The Navy-blue Suitcase is not like that.  It has optimism, humour, an indefatigable faith in a better future, and a powerful sense that life is what you make of it, no matter what cards you’ve been dealt.

Author: Sally Van Gent
Title: The Navy-blue Suitcase, Curious Tales from a Travelling Life
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054062
Review  copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond The Navy-Blue Suitcase: Curious Tales from a Travelling Life or direct from Wakefield Press.

small-great-thingsJodi Picoult is one of America’s most popular authors but apart from My Sister’s Keeper which I read in 2005 before I started this blog, I’ve never been very interested in her brand of issues-based story-telling.  However, late last year I caught the tail-end of a Radio National program about Small Great Things which tackles racism, and was sufficiently interested to bring the audio-book home when I stumbled on it on the shelves at the library.

As it says on the Books and Arts website,  the set-up for the novel is this:

Ruth Jefferson is the only African American nurse at the birthing centre where she works.

A white supremacist couple don’t want her to care for their baby. The hospital accepts this request.

After a routine procedure, Ruth is left alone with the baby, and due to complications, the baby dies.

She is charged with murder.

The novel suffers from an overdose of melodrama, the court-room scenes are used for speechifying rather than realism, and the end-of-novel redemptions completely lack credibility, but these defects, I think are forgiveable in the wider scheme of things.   The intent (made explicit in the author’s afterword) is to make White Americans think about everyday racism, and about how White people view the world through the prism of their own privilege without realising that they’re doing it.

The characterisation, for a start, is very effective.  It’s told from three perspectives:

  • The nurse (Ruth Jefferson) dealing with the shock discovery that a lifetime’s hard work, dedication and forbearance in the face of racism in the workplace, can fall apart because of her colour;
  • the public defender lawyer (Kennedy McQuarrie) and her personal journey towards realising that racism can’t be brushed under the carpet in the courtroom; and
  • the White supremacist father (Turk Bauer) whose racism morphs into something much more dangerous when he wants someone to blame for the death of his child. 

Given this cast it would have been easy to let stereotypes take over yet the totally unlikeable White supremacist parents are humanised by their loss. The male narrator is particularly good at rendering this character as wholly contemptible so it’s even more effective when the tragedy of their child’s unexpected death shows him as a father devastated by grief.  Ruth OTOH has a very angry, less successful and clearly jealous sister called Adisa who taunts her after her humiliating arrest, saying that now maybe she will realise that no amount of hard work and respectable behaviour will ever make her ‘fit in’.  And Kennedy, who bears the weight of Picoult’s didactic message, is surprisingly lively.  Young and inexperienced,  she resists being typecast by Adisa (who’s very rude to her), she resists any suggestion that she needs to do Racism 101, and she’s up against the conservatism of the courts so her learning journey is a struggle.  She has a too-good-to-be-true husband who just happens to know medical experts who can help with the defence, but she also has a mother who just doesn’t ‘get it’ when she tries to discuss what she’s up against, and she’s tyrannised by her small daughter Violet at home as well.

There’s a moment in the novel when Ruth’s teenage son Edison ponders the possibility that he might become a lawyer, and while his inclination is to work for the defence, he says his life has been more of a preparation for the prosecution.  This is because the onus of proof is always on him, as a Black person, to prove his case.  This onus of proof is manifested in ways big and small, as Kennedy finds when she goes shopping with Ruth, and it is Ruth, not she, who is always asked for ID when she produces her credit card at the checkout.  The novel is very good at demonstrating these examples of what are sometimes called micro-aggressions, the hundreds of small, pseudo-insignificant ways in which people of colour are routinely humiliated.  The bigger picture is that Ruth, a very good nurse with twenty years experience, would never have been charged if the racism of the parents had not triggered a chain of events.   (The novel makes it clear from the beginning that there is never any question that she was negligent or harmful to the baby).

The novel is also very good at exposing a common view held by well-meaning White people: like Kennedy at the beginning of her relationship with Ruth, they can afford to say that they don’t ‘see colour’ because it doesn’t affect them.  But people of colour don’t have that luxury; they have to deal with being ‘other’ every day of their lives.    There are flaws in the novel which make me hesitate, especially in the resolution of Turk’s wife’s situation which I can’t discuss because of spoilers, but overall, this is a book which offers food for thought and given Picoult’s popularity, may even have an influence.  Pitched squarely at middle America, Small Great Things has a message for Australians too.

Author: Jodi Picoult
Title: Small Great Things
Read by Audra Ann McDonald, Cassandra Campbell, and Ari Fliakos
Publisher: Bolinda Audio, 2016
ISBN: 9781489365743
Source: Kingston Library

This audio book edition says that it is a library edition only but you can buy the Allen & Unwin print edition from Fishpond: Small Great Things

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 6, 2017

From the Wreck, by Jane Rawson


I should know better than to start reading a book by Jane Rawson late at night…

From the Wreck is such an unsettling novel … I tried turning the light out half way through and inevitably I found myself tossing the scenario around wondering – worrying! how it might resolve itself.   The catalyst for the book was the story of Rawson’s great-great-grandfather who spent eight days stuck on a reef when the steamship Admella was wrecked, but this is not like any family history I have ever read.

George Hills is rescued, only to be haunted by the horrors of those dying around him.  He has memories of the mysterious woman who was with him when after numerous attempts the lifeboat finally reached him, and she knows what the survivors did in their desperation.  While she seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth, George feels her otherworldly presence all the time.

His torment is mirrored by hers.  She is a being from another world, seeking refuge on Earth after a catastrophe.  A shape-shifter who can adapt to different life forms, she has been searching without success for her fellow beings and her loneliness is palpable.  In her desperation she attaches herself to George’s son Henry in the form of a birthmark, and with her companionship he grows to be a strange little boy with odd caprices.  He calls her Mark.  Playfully, Rawson makes this being’s name for people ‘uprights’.   If only we were…

Rawson, as I have said before, is a genius at characterisation of the sad, lonely and vulnerable.  I have used the female pronoun for this being, because her first manifestation is as Bridget Ledwith, but her gender is as fluid as her identity:

I am wet, shaken and stretched.  I am angry, scared. I am here all alone again alone alone alone. I am so sick of all this, this stupid world of running and hiding and hiding and running and pretending to be someone I am not and never have been.

Here where there is no place for me.  Where there is no one I know and no one cares if I live or die. Don’t get me started on Henry, he would be stupider and narrower without me and that would make him far, far happier than he is today.  If he never sees me again he will live like a normal boy and grow up into a healthy man and take his place in the great parade of stomping.

Perhaps if I had made myself into a man instead of a woman.  But what did I know?  Nothing. I knew nothing then and not much more now. Ten years, eleven, twelve, whatever it’s been of hour after hour living the life of a small boy.  (p.251)

Contemporary issues seem to bleed from beyond the page into this artful blend of an authentic historical world and the fantastic, demanding our empathy.  Refugees stranded on offshore islands where no one cares if they live or die.  LGBTI kids pretending to be someone they are not and never have been.  Abandoned children, feckless parents.  The world of this novel is only too familiar and yet there is humour too, and a light touch with some of George’s more risible attempts to locate his shadowy woman.

A strange and mysterious novel, From the Wreck is oddly compelling.  I have a feeling that I still be thinking about it for a while, but hey! It’s 3:30AM and time to try turning the light out again.

BTW Jane Rawson has a piece in the latest Griffith Review focussed on South Australia.  It’s called State of Hope.   More about that later.

Author: Jane Rawson
Title: From the Wreck
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2017
ISBN: 9780995359451
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond: From the Wreck

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 5, 2017

Margaret Flockton, a fragrant memory, by Louise Wilson

margaret-flockton-a-fragrant-memoryTowards the end of this lovely book, the biographer’s frustration is momentarily unleashed:

If only her letters had survived!  What might have been learned about Margaret’s life during the Great War? (p.215)

What indeed… In rescuing the story of  the botanical artist Margaret Flockton (1861-1953), Louise Wilson has done a sterling job of celebrating Flockton’s remarkable achievements, but the woman herself remains a shadow.  A self-effacing and very private personality, she can be  known only for her legacy, and we have to be satisfied with that.

It is an extraordinary legacy.  Summarised on the website of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Margaret Flockton’s career as Australia’s first and most celebrated professional botanical artist was full of firsts.  Although she had a great champion in J.H. (Joseph Henry) Maiden, Director of the RBG (1859–1925), she worked in an era when women’s roles were circumscribed, but she nevertheless became professionally qualified and forged a career and financial independence.

Born in England when women were subjected to legislation that limited their financial independence, Margaret was inspired in that quest for financial independence by the experience of her grandmother Maria and the misfortunes of her improvident father.  An heiress, Maria was made bankrupt by her husband, his business partner and her solicitor.  Margaret’s father, expecting an inheritance that never came, took up life as an artist, but he was not successful.  The family, like so many, migrated to Australia in search of better opportunities…

Opportunities came to Margaret because she had insisted on completing her education before leaving England three years after her sisters.  Although it is not known how she supported herself in London, she attended various training schools in art, and gained entry to the National Art Training School in South Kensington.  She was lucky in this because its superintendent Henry Cole was alert to the predicament of the intelligent middle-class lady and ‘the difficult problem of woman’s work.   The art school enabled women to become qualified, not just as teachers of art, but in Margaret’s case for other employment.  It was her professional qualifications that made the difference at the beginning of her career in fine art, and in Sydney as a commercial artist and as a  botanical artist of Australian plants; at the end of her career it was her professional expertise that distinguished her work from her great rival Ellis Rowan, also a wildflower artist.

The biographer cites from The West Australian in 1924, a summary of the issue:

“There are two distinct forms of wild flower painting – the strictly botanical, and the ordinary flower ‘study’.  In the former, artistic effects in composition and light and shade values are subordinate to accuracy of detail and the perfect delineation of a fully expanded flower, an unopened bud, leaf, and stalk, the latter often depicted in sections for convenience on a small-sized sheet of paper with the lowest showing the root formation.  The greatest Australian exponent of this class of flower painting is Miss Margaret Flockton, of the New South Wales Government Botanist’s staff, and illustrator of many technical botanical publications.  Yet in addition to what may be termed her ‘diagrammatic’ skill, Miss Flockton’s ordinary flower paintings are full of ‘feeling’, and her beautiful study, entitled ‘Waratah,’ in the Sydney Art Gallery is a perfect example of the combination of artistic effect with botanical accuracy.’ (p.201)

You can see this beautiful painting on the SAG website.

The exquisite works of Ellis Rowan, championed by the botanist Sarah Hynes (who was sacked from the RBG for ‘insubordination’) and who became the celebrity artist whose award-winning work was collected by the National Library of Australia and the Queensland Museum, are however, of a different order.  Rowan did not identify the plants as a professional botanical artist should.  The article in The West Australian, having eulogised her work, goes on to say:

“Unidentified flower paintings, however beautiful they may be, are of no scientific value to the systematic botanist… The establishment of a national collection of such paintings as Mrs Rowan’s, were they correctly named, would be of immense value to both professional and amateur botanists.” (p.201)

But the Commonwealth government succumbed to the campaign and paid a great deal of money for the Rowan collection anyway…

It was Margaret Flockton’s fate, like that of so many uncelebrated public servants, to leave a significant legacy of work unrecognised by all but a few, and it was not until 2003 (!) that the RBG got round to investigating her role in its collection of botanical art.  If her work is on display, *sigh* the website doesn’t tell us so, and if I have any readers in Sydney, I’d appreciate it if someone who visits the RBG could let me know if they do.

Prior to joining the RBG (as an underpaid ‘temporary’ who worked there till her retirement, pay rises granted only grudgingly as a result of J.H. Maiden’s constant badgering about it), Margaret Flockton also worked commercially, producing some exquisite postcards and also posters for a tobacco company.  These works are now collectors’ items and impossible to find online but (as with all Wakefield Press publications of this type) the book is profusely illustrated with reproductions on high quality paper and the wildflower lithos series are full size on the page so that you can linger over them as I did.  Flockton’s paintings – of still life and portraits – are also mostly in private hands so we must hope that one day there will be a retrospective where we can see them full size.

But the one that interests me most is ‘The Fortune Teller’, a watercolour painted in 1900.  (See here). It’s a full length portrait of a young woman, wearing a plain shawl and drab dress, but with a flower in her hair and playing cards in her hands and a coy expression on her face.  It is a striking contrast to the chaste professionalism of the botanical paintings, and hints not at some spurious hidden love life, but at a liveliness of character or personality that remains elusive to the end, despite Louise Wilson’s best efforts.

Author: Louise Wilson
Title: Margaret Flockton, a fragrant memory
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054475
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: Margaret Flockton: A Fragrant Memory or direct from Wakefield Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 4, 2017

An Autobiography and Other Writings, by Anthony Trollope

an-autobiography-and-other-writings-trollopeIt is many years now since I went through a Blytonesque phase of reading everything – everything! – that my local library had to offer by the 19th century British writer, Anthony Trollope, but I retain an immense fondness for his characters.  These days I see them within my mind’s eye in their BBC personas because the Chronicles of Barsetshire and The Pallisers have all been rendered into TV series, but my sense of Trollope’s gentle wisdom about the fallibility of man derives from the words on the page, from all those years ago.

And now, from reading this autobiography I know how Trollope came to be wise about the fallibility of man.  He had a terrible childhood and adolescence, he endured middle-class poverty and disappointed expectations, and he became a useless tearaway in his early youth.  From his own idle, debt-ridden years he knew what it was to be on the wrong path,  and from his administrative work in the Post Office Civil Service, he understood how minor corruption could establish itself uncorrected because people chose not to investigate irregularities.  (If you’ve ever seen that episode of Lark Rise to Candleford where Lark Rise residents challenge the rule that the recipient had to pay for the telegram if they’re outside the delivery distance, then you’ll understand why Trollope was out to ensure that there was no profiteering on mail delivery on his watch).

But enchanting as it is to read Trollope’s journey towards becoming a successful novelist, An Autobiography offers more than that, as the Introduction by Nicholas Shrimpton makes clear.  Observed by a fellow passenger en route across the Atlantic to be hard at work,

Trollope for once was not busy on a novel.  Instead, he was writing An Autobiography.

The result was not only the only autobiography by a major Victorian novelist.  It was also a book which has divided opinion ever since.  For some, it is one of the truest, most honest autobiographies ever written: an engrossing account of a young man who unexpectedly rescues himself from drift, doubt, and professional failure in his late twenties, and goes on to achieve a happy marriage and a successful career. For others it is a dismayingly philistine account of the life of a professional writer.  Preoccupied with contracts, deadlines and earnings, unblushingly explicit about the methods used to achieve success, emotionally reticent, and factually unreliable, it can be seen as a mere memoir, or self-help manual, rather than a genuine exploration of the self. (p. v1)

Oh, I do hope I haven’t put anyone off by placing this paragraph upfront!  The book is such good reading! But the introduction goes on to say that the book (published posthumously in accordance with Trollope’s instructions) did his literary reputation no good at all.  By making explicit his industrious methods of work, Trollope confronted the theory of ‘inspiration’ and a hovering muse, and demolished it.  He got up at 5:30AM every day and wrote his quota of words before going to work.  But the critics were not impressed by this revelation.  He had been prolific and could now be accused of writing with mere mechanical skill…

I find this attitude baffling.  Trollope wrote books that could – a century later – keep a twenty-something reader on the other side of the world utterly absorbed for months and whose adaptations for the screen could captivate a whole new generation of fans.  Trollope was not an Enid Blyton or an Agatha Christie, churning out formulaic bestsellers with apparently effortless regularity: he wrote intelligent social novels that exposed the foibles and minor corruption of the clergy and landed gentry.  As I indicated in the Sensational Snippet I posted a day or so ago, his forty-seven novels explored political, social, and gender issues in realistic detail.

Did the disdainful critics not understand that the industrious Trollope was following the model of his mother Frances Milton Trollope who picked up her pen in middle age and doggedly wrote books (including in 1836  the first anti-slavery novel, Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw)  to rescue the family from her husband’s debts? Trollope had witnessed his family’s financial decline because of his father’s imprudent investment decisions.  He had suffered the ignominy of that at school, where his father’s ambitions meant that he was among wealthy young bullies while trudging twelve miles a day from a shack on the failed farm that Thomas Anthony Trollope had bought (after failing at the bar due to his incorrigible bad temper).  Any romantic ideas that the young Trollope might have had about a helpful muse would have vanished along with his father’s expected inheritance that failed to materialise (after his elderly uncle married and produced an heir). Trollope obviously understood that only hard work was going to improve his circumstances, and he was not going to let his own family suffer as he had.  A regular income from writing supplementing his income as a civil servant was what enabled him to provide for them according to their class and expectations.  He was not going to idle about waiting for a muse to help him out!

He was also well aware that his continued success could not be relied upon, especially after he resigned from the Post Office early, thereby forgoing a pension.  In his old age, reflecting on his present happiness, he says:

… who has had a happier life than mine?  Looking round upon all those I know, I cannot put my hand upon one. But all is not over yet.  And, mindful of that, remembering how great is the agony of adversity, how crushing the despondency of degradation, how susceptible I am myself to the misery coming from contempt, – remembering also how quickly good things may go and evil things come, – I am once again tempted to hope, almost to pray, that the end may be near. (p. 43)

Fortunately, by the middle of the twentieth century the academic carping from the critics of this autobiography was seen for what it was.  (The public had never stopped liking his books, and the books were never out of print, even when most Victorian novels were out of favour).  But quite apart from the pleasure of learning about a favourite author from his own hand,  there are other reasons why this book is of value.  Trollope’s descriptions of his writing process is fascinating. 

In Chapter 5, ‘My First Success’, Trollope tells us about the creation of the mild-mannered elderly Septimus Harding in The Warden, who is confronted by a firebrand reformer called John Bold up in vociferous arms about the disbursement of charity funds between its administrator (the warden Septimus) and its intended beneficiaries in the town. (An issue still relevant today, eh?) The situation is complicated still further by John Bold’s romance with Septimus’s daughter Eleanor.  Septimus, much loved in his community, is bewildered by John Bold’s lawsuit, and devastated by seeing his name and reputation scourged in the scurrilous newspaper Jupiter.  His outraged son-in-law Dr Grantly harangues him to stand his ground and defend himself.  You have to read the book yourself to see how Septimus, buffeted from all directions, resolves this situation.

It’s fascinating to learn that Trollope imagined all this so successfully without ever having had much to do with the clergy or ecclesiastical life.  In a rare rejoinder to a contemporary critic, he also tackles the accusation that Tom Towers from the Jupiter is a thinly veiled reference to some editor or manager of The Times newspaper.  Not so, he says, he had created the journalist Tom Towers just as he had created the archdeacon, (and all his other characters) entirely from his imagination

… and the one creation was no more personal or indicative of morbid tendencies than any other.  If Tom Towers was at all like any gentleman then connected with The Times, my moral consciousness must again have been very powerful. (p.66)

Time and again he makes the point that an author should ‘live with’ his characters, know everything about them, and make sure that they change and develop over time just as people do in real life. He writes about these characters as if they were real people, mourning the ‘death’ of his Mrs Proudie as if she were a member of his family.  He has much to say about the tension between reproducing ‘realistic’ dialogue with all its stops, starts and interruptions, and fluent, coherent speech which sounds forced and unrealistic in novels because people don’t talk like that in everyday life.  I was also charmed by what he has to say to debut authors about the difficulties of writing that pesky second novel once the burning issue that motivated the first one has been dealt with.  There’s also some cogent advice about the responsibilities of critics and how authors should deal with them ethically.

Of all the secrets of the publishing industry, the one that should be of most interest to us as readers is, what becomes of the failed first novel?  Trollope tells us in Chapter 4 ‘Ireland – My First Two Novels’, about how his first efforts were unmitigated failures.  Like all authors, he was pleased to see his name in print but [primed by his own self-doubt, as his contemporary readers can see] expected nothing to come of it.  Further on, he reveals some of the maths: a publisher tells him about the cost of production and how much he has lost on it, (and how Trollope should give up writing).  With the benefit of hindsight we might even feel sorry for this Mr Colburn in letting Trollope slip from his grasp, but the anecdote shows that publishers might well have printed 375 copies, sold only 140, and incurred a loss of £63, 10s. 1½d.  Trollope isn’t very flattering about publishers yet somehow I have acquired the idea that publishing used to be a gentlemanly occupation, with publishers using their financial successes to nurture beginning authors and to absorb the losses of failed novels (and perennially poor-selling poetry books).  Mr Colburn seems to have been one of these and he gave Trollope a start even if only 140 copies were sold.  How many debut novels do today’s profit-driven publishers nurture, or are they leaving most of them to flounder through the self-publishing swamp?  Do they dump the authors of the failures, as Mr Colburn may have come to rue? And have the profit/merger-driven staff purges left the major publishers with insufficient expertise to spot the talent, as Mr Colburn failed to do?

Trollope did not give up.  He so badly wanted to be a writer, and [primed to follow Frances Trollope’s inspiring example, as the reader sees from Chapter 2, ‘My Mother’] he saw so clearly that an income derived from writing could not only give him financial security but also restore his position to the status of gentleman which was his by birthright.

The rest, as they say is history, and the autobiography traces his progress through the publishing history of his career.

For readers seeking to know more about the man himself (and his wife about whom he says barely a word), I’ll let him answer that directly:

It will not, I trust, be supposed by any reader that I have intended in this so-called autobiography to give a record of my inner life.  No man ever did so truly, – and no man ever will. Rousseau probably attempted it, but who doubts but that Rousseau confessed in much the thoughts and convictions rather than the facts of his life? If the rustle of a woman’s petticoat has ever stirred my blood; if a cup of wine has been a joy to me; if I have thought tobacco at midnight in pleasant company to be one of the elements of an earthly paradise; if now and again I have somewhat recklessly fluttered a £5 note over a card-table; – of what matter is that to any reader? (p.226)

BTW For lucky readers who live in London, there is a Trollope Society where you can have jolly dinners together and take guided walks with other enthusiasts.

PS The ‘Other Writings’ are:

  • Trollope on Jane Austen
  • ‘On English prose Fiction as a Rational Amusement’ (which amplifies what’s in my Sensational Snippet)
  • From Thackeray
  • From ‘The Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne’
  • From ‘A Walk in the Wood’

Author: Anthony Trollope
Title: An Autobiography and Other Writings
Publisher: Oxford Worlds Classics, 2016
ISBN: 9780199675296
Source: Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Available from Fishpond: An Autobiography: And Other Writings (Oxford World’s Classics)

an-autobiography-and-other-writings-trollopeI am reading the autobiography of one of my favourite Victorian novelists, Anthony Trollope, and it is an absolute delight.  Amongst other things, it offers advice to novelists, and in Chapter 12 it includes his thoughts about the value of the novel per se

At one stage he had had a novel rejected by a magazine called Good Words because *shock, horror!* it had dancing in it, and while we today might smile at such Victorian prudery, Trollope had, by the time he came to write this autobiography in his sixties, lived through the period when novel-reading had transitioned from being a clandestine affair because novels were thought to be frivolous and harmful, to widespread acceptance:

Novels are read right and left, above stairs and below, in town houses and country parsonages, by young countesses and farmer’s daughters, by old lawyers and young students.  (p. 127-8)

His being an era of didacticism, Trollope does not dismiss the possibilities of the novelist’s influence:

If such be the case – if the extension of novel-reading be so wide as I have described it – then very much good or harm must be done by novels. The amusement of the time can hardly be the only result of any book that is read, and certainly not so with a novel, which appeals especially to the imagination, and solicits the sympathy of the young. (p. 138)

And he stakes a claim for his profession which is, I think, worth quoting.  He wants his work to be appreciated – not just as an entertainment, but as something more.

He notes that there is still some prejudice – not against novels

…as is proved by their acceptance among us.  But it exists strongly in reference to the appreciation in which they are professed to be held; and it robs them of much of that high character which they may claim to have earned by their grace, their honesty, and good teaching.

No man can work long at any trade without being brought to consider whether that which he is daily doing tends to evil or good.  I have written many novels, and have known many writers of novels, and I can assert that such thoughts have been strong with them and with myself.  But in acknowledging that these writers have received from the public a full measure of credit for such genius, ingenuity, or perseverance as each may have displayed, I feel that there is still wanting to them a just appreciation of the excellence of their calling, and a general understanding of the high nature of the work which they perform.

By the common consent of all mankind who have read, poetry takes the highest place in literature.  That nobility of expression, and all but the divine grace of words, which she is bound to attain before she can make her footing good, is not comparable with prose.  Indeed it is that which turns prose into poetry.  When that has been in truth achieved, the reader knows that the writer has soared above the earth, and can teach his lessons somewhat as a god might teach.  He who sits down to write his tale in prose makes no such attempt, nor does he dream that the poet’s honour is within his reach, – but his teaching is of the same nature, and his lessons all tend to the same end.  By either, false sentiments may be fostered; false notions of humanity may be engendered; false honour, false love, false worship may be created; by either, vice instead of virtue may be taught.  But by each, equally, may true honour, true love, true worship, and true humanity be inculcated; and that will be the greatest teacher who will spread such truth the widest.  But at present, much as novels, as novels, are bought and read, there exists still an idea, a feeling which is very prevalent, that novels at their best are but innocent.  Young men and women, – and old men and women too, – read more of them than poetry, because such reading is easier than the reading of poetry, but they read them, as men eat pastry after dinner, – not without some inward conviction that the taste is vain if not vicious.  I take it upon myself to say that it is neither vicious nor vain.  (p.137)

From An Autobiography: And Other Writings (Oxford World’s Classics), by Anthony Trollope, 2016, (first published 1883), ISBN 9780199675296, review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

He goes on to say that young people form their ideas about what is expected of them as men and women from novels, that novels explore all kinds of human dilemmas such as the tension between the ambition to be honest and the ambition to be great, and that novelists who depict the successes of the unworthy as heroic ought to be ashamed of themselves.  He admits that it’s tempting to make a novel interesting – not *heaven forbid!* by drawing on the alluring regions of vice – but by the outskirts of these regions, on which sweet-smelling flowers seem to grow, and grass to be green.  It is in these border-lands that the danger lies.  The novelist may not be dull. He goes on to talk about the careful craft of making virtue alluring and vice ugly so that without being a sermon, the entertaining novel teaches a lesson.

Trollope was writing in a different era, when there was consensus about ideas of right and wrong, and (though it would have startled him to hear this) when what was expected was less tolerant, less inclusive, and often exploitative of others.  (Actually, always exploitative if you remember the impact of colonialism, but I am also thinking of class and gender distinctions and labour exploitation in the industrial era). Yet – apropos a recent reader’s comment here on this blog about the sordid realism of a YA novel chosen for secondary school study – there is still something appealing about the innocence of Trollope’s conception of 19th century literature, and how young people might absorb an aspiration to be become good and worthy people from the pages of an entertaining novel.

Trollope has much else to say about the craft of writing, much of which is still – well over a century later – surprisingly relevant to aspiring writers and debut authors.   But I can’t quote the entire book!



Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 1, 2017

‘The Bushwalker’ from Flame Tip, by Karenlee Thompson

Karen Lee ThompsonReaders of this blog are no stranger to author Karenlee Thompson.  I have lost count of the guest reviews she has contributed to ANZ LitLovers since I reviewed her debut novel 8 States of Catastrophe in 2011 and followed up the review with an interview for Meet an Aussie Author.   So I am very pleased to bring you the news that her new book, Flame Tip, is scheduled for publication this March.

flame-tipFlame Tip is a short story collection loosely themed around the catastrophic Black Tuesday Bushfires in Tasmania in 1967.  February 7th 2017 marks the 50th Anniversary of the day when fire claimed the lives of 62 people, left 900 injured and over seven thousand homeless.  While the stories are all fiction, they are a powerful evocation of the event, bound to provoke memories and invite comparisons by those who lived through the horror.

Lucky me, I have an advance copy.   But it’s only a PDF which *sigh* has to be read on screen so I’ve only read four of the stories.  (I’ll wait to read the rest when the print copy arrives at Benn’s Books where I’ve placed my order.  And which is conveniently across the road from the French bakery café Noisette where one can peacefully read the new books over good coffee and pastries and cakes to die for).

In the meantime I’ve read the quirky foreword by MONA’s  David Walsh (whose memory of that day is that he wasn’t collected from his first day at school by his mother, because of the fires).  I’ve read Karenlee’s introduction, which reminds us that bushfire is an ever-present element of the Australian consciousness:

This collection is my homage to the beautiful down-under island state of Tasmania and to its people.

It is a book designed to be dipped into at random and reread as the mood dictates. The aim of the stories is to present a version of truth ‘under the mask of fiction’ (to borrow from Gao Xingjian), revealing nuances of character and place, as well as repercussions that are often difficult to expose through nonfiction.

While fleeting backdrops such as the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) and the Hartz Mountains National Park provide for a quintessentially Tasmanian experience, these stories will resonate Australia-wide, bushfire forming an elemental part of our national consciousness, as it does.

‘The Bushwalker’ is a poignant example of repercussions difficult to expose through nonfiction.  Only seven pages long, and peppered with apocalyptic quotations from the Bible, it tells the story of Bertie Taylor, trapped with his father among the flames.

Playful at first, a crackling dance around the trees and fence posts. His father guiding him: here, this way, Bertie, watch your step. Acrid air making it hard to breathe. Excitement surging in time with the distant leaping flames. Fear creeps into Bertie’s belly as his father’s footsteps quicken and the sizzling turns to evil hissing behind them, rushing this way and that, retreating and gushing. Bertie steals a backward glance and is relieved to see the flames heading in the opposite direction. His father’s speed doesn’t slow.

Look at ol’ mad Taylor, he hears. What does he find to do out there all day? Bertie scratches the scar cleaved into his jaw and limps on. He doesn’t care what they think. The sun yawns into the sky and a day must be filled. (p.21)

As we can see from the second paragraph, Bertie survives the fires.  But he is scarred emotionally as well as physically, suffering lifelong guilt based on an Old Testament perception of God’s wrath and punishment.

His timeless unconscious and twelve-year-old subconscious play petty deceits. He imagines he sees the outline of God in the smoke. There’s the long flowing hair, the almost endless beard, the eyes; one a dusty blue, the other inferno red. God is staring at him, forcing him to remember his sins (stealing apples from Mr Ertza’s orchard, dipping his finger in the jam jar, burying his face in his cousin’s knickers). Bertie starts to conjure pseudo memories for himself: chopping the head off a chook when he’s never even lifted up that big axe; spraying a deer with shot from his father’s 12-gauge when he knows he never could. Never. God is putting these pictures in his head so that he will take the blame for the furnace. (p23)

Bertie also feels a profound sense of responsibility to make sure such fires never happen again.  Like a latter-day prophet Jeremiah issuing warnings in vain, he emails the Tasmanian Fire Service about trees endangering the approach to the Harz Mountains National Park.

There are visceral images in this story, but I’ll leave readers to discover those for themselves.

Even when writing about utter devastation, Karenlee evokes startling imagery as in this example from the heart-rending ‘Let Me Tell You’ (which you can read as a sample on the Hybrid website):

No eggs this morning for there are no chooks. Mum’s standing at the back door staring at nothing (or everything). Next door’s washing flaps about like a slapstick comedy on a vacant stage.


Whistling Kite  (Source Wikipedia Commons)

I doubt if anyone can read the micro-fiction ‘Lost’ without getting a lump in the throat.

‘Medusa One Snake and her Band of Three’ is a remarkable story.  According to the blurb, Karenlee made a serendipitous finding of some research by journalist and ornithologist Bob Gosford – about birds harnessing fire for their own benefit.  She has turned these findings into a story told from the perspective of the matriarch of a band of Whistling Kites:

Medusa One Snake, large and regal and known for the pitch-perfect quality of her rising notes; Swifty, her handsome if not overly bright partner of three years; and their youngest son Scout Junior, capable of independence but not keen to branch out into the unknown. (p.46)

As the proverb says: it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.  The fire is mustering a feast for the birds.

The first whiff of smoke and the sight of the flames could not have primed them for the magnificence unfolding. Nothing could have prepared them: it was unprecedented. Rabbits. Lizards. Snakes. Goannas. Everywhere they looked, wild things rustled and slithered and hopped; a mobile smorgasbord charging in their direction. Close behind, vivid red plumes, tongues of flame rocketing forward. (p.46)

The author’s quirky humour and gift for characterisation comes into play as we see the birds plan their strategy:

What are we doing, Medusa? There’s a feast!

Use your brain, Swifty. Medusa One Snake reminded herself that, even at full functionality, Swifty’s brain didn’t work precisely as it should. Beyond the necessities to keep himself alive, poor Swifty was more of a turkey in the brain stakes.

The flames will outrun the wildlife any minute, Swifty. Those lizards and bunnies will be beyond barbecued and more than a few of the hunters will be incinerated because of their greed.

Medusa One Snake was and always had been a thoughtful matriarch, weighing odds, calculating risk. She cocked her head towards Scout Junior, sensing his twitching was a precursor to some interesting suggestion.

I’ve got it! He shuffled his little two-step of excitement. Up close, I saw twigs with one end glowing, the other untouched. All we have to do is pick up some of those suckers and drop them at a place of our choosing. Then we can get way ahead of the fire and grab our prey as it runs to us. (p.48)

Isn’t that amazing? The things we learn from reading fiction! I knew that our trees have evolved to suit a fire ecology, but I had no idea that birds could do this…

You can find out more from Karenlee’s website  and her blog.

PS Just in case you’re wondering why I have tagged Karenlee with both ‘Queensland’ and ‘Tasmania’ – she was born in Tassie but now lives in Queensland.  So they can both claim her as their own.

Author: Karenlee Thompson
Title: Flame Tip, short fictions
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2017
ISBN: 9781925272734
Source: ARC courtesy of Hybrid Publishers.

Available from Fishpond: Flame Tip: Short Fictions  or direct from Hybrid Publishers

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