Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 22, 2017

Treading Air (2016), by Ariella Van Luyn

It seems to me that there are two kinds of historical fiction…

Firstly, there is the genuinely escapist read in the Jean Plaidy tradition, i.e. aristocrats and the serving class in a long-ago world, with the star-crossed lovers and political intrigues that belong there.  The egalitarian nature of Australian society makes this a tricky genre for Australian authors, because they have to draw on hierarchical societies remote from our own, but Elisabeth Storrs has done so successfully with her Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy.

Though I enjoy escapist reading occasionally, more interesting to me is the historical novel which aims to shine a light on some aspect of past life,  (including a sub-genre based on a real life which I’ve tagged Rescue A Woman from Oblivion).  Australian examples of these from my recent reading include The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley about the forgotten wife of John Gould (see my review); Jill Blee’s novels about the Irish in Australia; Crimes of the Father by Tom Keneally which explores clerical child abuse (see my review); and Long Bay by Eleanor Limprech based on the true story of a woman gaoled for performing abortions in the Federation era. (See my review).

The injustice of a past era is a common theme in these novels, and Treading Air, the debut novel of Ariella Van Luyn, tackles it through her character Lizzie O’Dea who becomes a prostitute in Townsville during the 1920s.  Based on what little is known of the real-life Elizabeth O’Dea, Van Luyn’s  story begins in 1943 when Lizzie is in the Brisbane Lock Hospital, an isolation hospital for people who have venereal disease.  Punctuated by chapters about her time in the ward, other chapters tell Lizzie’s back story about her life of poverty and limited choices, her unsatisfactory relationship with her husband Joe, and her gradual disillusionment as she fails to achieve even the most simple of her ambitions, to have a home, financial security, children and family.

The predictability of this tale of woe is leavened a little by the characterisation of Lizzie as a lusty young woman who discovers her sexuality through her clientele, but I didn’t find it very convincing.  (You can read Van Luyn’s academic paper which demonstrates how the tensions between discourses of women’s criminality and sexuality can be explored through the representations of a historical figure based on newspaper articles found in the archives here).  (Yes, this is a PhD novel). (Update: no it’s not.  Van Luyn’s unpublished PhD novel was called Hidden Objects.)

Sue at Whispering Gums liked it better than I did and the novel was shortlisted for the 2012 Queensland Literary Awards in the unpublished manuscript category. (Update: No, it wasn’t, that was the novel Hidden Objects.  I apologise for the confusion between these two novels: I read the blurb at Affirm Press and assumed that the prize-winning PhD novel was Treading Air.)

BTW I am not sure of the current relationship between Affirm Press and Simon and Schuster, the publishing firm subject to a ban on reviews because of its publication of a far-right troll peddling hate speech. I’m not into censorship but when there’s not much an Australian can do to repudiate Trump’s new America, I decided that I had enough books to read without supporting an American publisher who offends my values, so I decided not to read or review their books too.  Treading Air lists its publisher as Affirm Press, an Australian publisher based in Melbourne, and as you can see from their About page, they are in transition away from their association with S&S. But  when I googled the title to find other reviews to link to,  the first search result showed Treading Air listed on the S&S website.  However, I did not know this when I drafted this review and it has not influenced my opinion of the book.

Update: (the next day) I have had an email from Keiran at Affirm Press, clarifying this issue.  He says their relationship with S&S finished at the end of June and they are switching to Hachette.  He also says that the role S&S played and Hachette will be playing from the end of June onwards is simply a sales one. All publishing, editorial, publicity and marketing is managed by Affirm themselves – they simply get the books into stores on their behalf.  Thanks to Keiran for so promptly letting me know about this:)

Author: Ariella Van Luyn
Title: Treading Air
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781925344011
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Treading Air


  1. Like you, I’m not keen on censorship, but it is totally mind-boggling, isn’t it? Not only that S&S would pay a $250K advance for such hatred, but that the public would order it in such quantities as to make S&S’s decision (in their dollar-dazzled eyes) justified. Strange world indeed.


    • Yes, you’ve nailed it, the real problem is the buyers…
      I guess the thing is, I have learned to recognise our Australian publishers whose integrity I doubt, and I avoid them, but I wouldn’t have placed S&S among them.


  2. Another PhD novel 🙄


    • It turns out that it’s not… my mistake … see my amendments above.


  3. Hi Kim, are novels written as PhDs part of the literary scene in the UK?


    • Yes, or as Masters. I don’t mind if the books are written as part of a creative writing degree, but when they are some other degree and sort of shoehorned into a book for public consumption I’m not sure they always work.


  4. Oh dear, I hadn’t read that about S&S. I’m not keeping up much with any news these days. I understand that they distribute Affirm Press, so hopefully Affirm will find someone else to carry that role.

    I particularly enjoyed seeing how Van Luyn forged her story out of a person about whom little is known, how she played with the historical record. I agree think there’s a bit of a rush on these lost women stories. I don’t mind them, overall, because there are some interesting stories to be told, but I wouldn’t want to read a diet of them (any more than I’d want to read a diet of anything really – except our Jane of course. Haha.)


    • Yes, read too many of them and they start to feel all the same. Though I did like Long Bay very much.


  5. I am not sure how I feel about boycotting S&S. I go out of my way to make sure none of my money goes to Rupert Murdoch and I no longer read my local paper since they started publishing A.Bolt. I was going to say censorship is always wrong, but maybe after all I agree with you.


    • I hesitate to call my PoV on this a boycott, because it’s more low level than that. I don’t look at the publisher of a book before I read it, and if I read something of theirs without realising it, well so be it, and I’d review it as I review everything else I read. But I’d much rather give my two-bobs worth of free publicity to publishers who have ethical standards.


  6. Ive been completely oblivious to the S & S shenanigans but reading about it now I can’t help wonder where the company parked its brains when someone came up with the idea of handing out a load of money to this guy. Their ‘defence’ statement seems disingenuous – “We do not and never have condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form.” and then going on to say the views are not theirs, but the authors.


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