Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 8, 2011

Night Street (2010), by Kristel Thornell (2009 Vogel joint winner)

I know we should all try to be content with the gifts we have but I do wish I had just a little artistic skill.  One of my  friends carries a small sketching diary as she travels and her tiny drawings are so much more personal than souvenir photos.  Having not a scrap of talent with pencil or brush, I admire artists of all kinds – and ever since I discovered Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth I have enjoyed reading fiction about them too.

So thank goodness for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards – if Night Street had not been shortlisted I might never have come across it. Somehow it had completely slipped under my radar.

The novel is a fictionalised life of the painter Clarice Beckett, who lived and worked in Beaumaris under the most extraordinarily difficult conditions.  Having studied under Frederick McCubbin and Max Meldrum, she then found herself having to care for frail parents during daylight hours, and was only able to paint between dusk and dawn.  She managed to pursue her art despite these difficulties but never found favour with the local art scene. Beckett died young,  her work unrecognised and left to rot in an outdoor shed. It was not until a retrospective of Australian Tonalists in the Art Gallery of South Australia, that her significance was finally recognised. (To see some of her paintings, click here).

From these brief facts about Beckett’s life, debut author Kristel Thornell has crafted a novel of surprising vitality.     In daylight hours there is a tense claustrophobic tone as Beckett negotiates the expectations of her time and culture: suitors to relieve her of spinsterhood are traps to subvert the life she wants to lead as an artist. The demands of her uncomprehending parents are dull and relentless; she has little emotional support when critics savage her work because she is a protégé  of Meldrum and his tonalist movement was controversial.

But in the gloom of misty Melbourne evenings and the dawn, her spirit is free.  Outdoors, she takes lovers; her sensuality is liberated by bracing swims in the bay.  Paintings lovingly described by Thornell capture the mood: lights breaking through fog; scraps of colour in a bleak landscape.

Thornell herself has an artist’s eye for imagery and some of her similes are striking.  A man’s silence flatters him ‘like a high-class suit, a generously positioned lamp’ (p59).  Tea is drunk in ‘frequent small sips from the special china, a blue and white fantasy of pastoral England wrapping itself around the cups, spreading over the saucers like an extravagant rash’. (p39)  I  featured her writing as a Sensational Snippet earlier this month so it is most unfortunate that here and there the prose (and sometimes punctuation) is a little clumsy.  The editor at Allen & Unwin really should have attended to this clunker on the very first page:

 There were few people on the winter beach at that time, in any case.  The only hardy or unusual enough were a solitary-looking man in a battered hat and a trio of fishermen accustomed to her presence. (p1)

This one grated too:

Against this background of torpid summer heat that had them dozy and short-tempered, they toasted subduedly with their teacups to the new year of nineteen thirty four.  (p164)

‘Subduedly’?  It’s not a word I’ve ever come across  so I looked it up.  The online Mirriam-Webster claims it’s an adverb but it’s not in the Shorter Oxford or the Macquarie Dictionary and for good reason: it sounds like a lump of concrete in this sentence.   A debut author of this potential deserves more of her publisher’s care and attention than this…

Meanjin posted enthusiastically about Thornell’s joint win in the 2009 Vogel and from their site  there is a link to her short story called ‘Leading Man’ for you to sample.  Melissa Watts also reviewed it at Literati (watch out for spoilers).

Do catch Kristel Thornell delivering the Neilly Series lecture at the University of Rochester; she has some particularly pertinent points to make about ‘Emerging’ – the process of becoming a writer.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Kristel Thornell
Title: Night Street
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2010
ISBN: 9781742373362
Source: Personal library, purchased at Top Titles Brighton, $23.99


  1. I completely agree with your review. This was a beautifully written book, and the style of the paintings seemed to spill over into the writing. I always admire writers who can describe such a visual medium so well. But I do think it deserved some closer editing.


    • Thank you, Melanie, and welcome to chatting about books on ANZ LitLovers!


  2. I also agree this is a beautifully written and engaging book, a poetic and minimalist meditation on creativity and the position of creative women in Melbourne, Australia, between the wars. The third person point of view belies a first person access to the artist/protagonist’s inner and outer life, creating a moody tension. On the question of editing and finish, I would be more likely to agree with the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the Institute of Professional Editors who jointly selected it for the 2011 Barbara Ramsden Award in recognition that the “creative relationship between editor Clara Finlay and writer Kristel Thornell has resulted in a captivating story …. Skilled editorial judgement is evident too when Thornell’s writing breaks free of the conventional boundaries of style.” Maybe it’s at these points that your reviewer is balking. The judges went on to say, “The collaboration between author and editor has resulted in images, light and colour that inhabit and infuse the text with a painter’s perception of the surrounding world.” This book was also a co-winner of the 2009 Australian/Vogel Award for an unpublished novel by an author aged under 35. (Incidentally, the author’s christian name is given wrongly in the publication details at the foot of your review.)


    • Hello Tove, thank you for taking the time to comment.
      I am astonished to read the comments you attribute to FAW and the Institute of Professional Editors about the editing in Night Street. I had assumed that the NSW Premier’s Award and the Vogel judges were prepared to make allowances, as I had, for a young writer who deserved better from her editors because overall, Night Street has much to recommend it. (As I have said).
      However, if it is correct that examples such as the ones I have given are considered by professionals to be ‘writing breaking free of conventional boundaries of style’, well, all I can say is, they should try reading them out loud.
      I think I have read enough works of experimental fiction and innovative writing style to be able to differentiate between a creative departure from the rules, and ignorance of the rules. The writing, in the examples I have given, detracts from rather than enhances the images the author is trying to portray. So I stand by my comments, which I reiterate, were of Thornell’s editors, not of the author who clearly has potential.
      Thank you for drawing my attention to the error with the author’s name. I have fixed it.


  3. Bought this after reading your review – it arrived this morning :)


  4. […] have benefited from a more close proofreading or editing process (a sentiment shared by another book reviewer I follow). For […]


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