Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 13, 2009

Belonging (2003), by Isabel Huggan

BelongingBelonging could very nearly have been yet another of those ‘genre’ books: lifestyle/psuedo-travel/memoir, of the sort written by middle aged women who go to live in rural France or Italy and regale their readers with tales of quaint behaviour and ‘real’ values.  Mary Moody is Australia’s worst of the type, because – under the guise of honesty – she included humiliating her husband in the memoir, but most of them are warm-hearted, if naive, and they make pleasant, easy reading – evoking nostalgia for past trips and vague plans for more…

And so it was that I approached this book.  I had finished Voss, and was looking for something lighter and less demanding, knowing full well that whatever I chose I would end up judging it as wanting – because it wasn’t going to be as brilliant as Voss.  Do other readers do this?  It’s most unfair, I know…

Anyway, I curled up under the doona with Belonging,  confident that I would nod off to sleep dreaming of fresh-found truffles and quixotic tradesmen.  Huggan had lived a peripatetic life, and was now settled in the Cevannes mountains in France.  In middle age, she was struggling with learning the language, and trying to build another network of friends, all for love of her husband who wanted to live there.  Delicious simple meals, shopping in the traditional way, Autumn leaves, snow, the inevitable travails and the counting of the blessings, memories of other places lived in, all lovingly described by a writer who seems to be a very nice person.  A bit fragmentary, a bit of a muddle, but a gentle bedtime read…

Or so it seemed until I came to the chapter entitled ‘Homage to Kenko’.  She is in Tasmania where she is Writer-in-Residence and staying in a house in Swansea.  She is bothered by not being able to pull strands together to write about our Tassie: like so many of us she has fallen in love with it, ‘like a thunderbolt to the heart’ (p200) and dearly wants to do it justice.  As a violent storm hurls itself at the coast, she reads instead – and discovers the organising principle of this book, Belonging.

Kenko is a Japanese philosopher who venerates uncertainty.  He says uniformity is undesirable and that ‘Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth’. (p224).  He writes in a random mode of composition called ‘follow the brush’, a form that the Japanese think is ‘more honest than fiction’ (p223).  They don’t want to impose pattern on experience, but rather allow the reader to

encounter apparent formlessness and, in moving from one subject to another, enjoy tracing subtle links between them.  The work of making patterns is left to the open-minded reader – allowing an infinite number of variations to occur. (p224)

I think this is what Huggan has done with Belonging.  The fragmentary style and meanderings are deliberate, not a sign of  an endearing amateurism.  They mirror the episodic way she has lived her life in a series of apparently random decisions to make homes in Canada, Kenya, France, the Philippines, Tasmania and back to France again.  What seemed like a bit of a muddle was in fact the intentional organising principle of the book.

Mind you, it does make me wonder, what is the intrinsic difference between random thoughts done deliberately and random thoughts at random?

How very modernist!

Or  is that post-modernism??

Update, 3.4.2010

There is a reading group guide at Random House.

Author: Isabel Huggan
Title: Belonging
Publisher: Bantam (Random House)
ISBN:  9781863254380
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


  1. Ah, whenever I read some reference to Japan I have a yearning to go back there! I like what you say about Kenko and his philosophy – makes me think I might like to read this book. I haven’t read many in the genre – not even Mary Moody though I’ve met her and her husband (name-dropping – she wouldn’t remember me of course!) – for the reasons you give, but this one does sound interesting. France, Japan (reference to anyhow), Tasmania…I hear it calling.


    • I haven’t been to Japan yet – I want to do everything on my wish-list in Europe first while I’m young enough to survive the long haul! What she writes about Tasmania is just beautiful – capturing exactly how the place gets into the soul and lures you back time after time. I think I could be very happy living in Hobart… Lisa


  2. Fair enough – I probably wouldn’t have gone to Japan yet if it hadn’t been for our son’s living there, but we’ve now been twice and are itching to go again. We think we’ll sneak 5 days or so en route to Europe next year (as there are many places there that I – we – want to get to too).


  3. Europe I mean! Oh, and I’d like Hobart too except for its climate. I’m a Queenslander and it’s too mild for too much of the year for my liking. Gorgeous city though. My brother has been in Tasmania since 1984, and in Hobart probably since about 1988. It would be hard to prise him away.


  4. of course, yes – I would go to the Falkland Islands if that’s where my son were living!
    I think it also makes a difference when there’s someone who knows you well who can direct you to the things they know you’d be interested in. Tim and I spend months planning our self-guided trips to try and achieve the same thing.


  5. Yes, it was great having him. On both trips we spent the first half of our time with him – partly in new places for him and partly in his home place – and half on our own. That was particularly great first time around as it gave us the confidence to branch out. It’s fun doing research for one’s own trips isn’t it. Now, it’s off to a jazz concert – f2f friend’s son, now resident in Melbourne – is playing this afternoon.


  6. Having just re-read the Kenko philosophy part of this blog post, I’m wondering if I should revisit David’s Mitchell’s Japanese novels, number9dream and Ghostwritten – I might have missed something…


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