Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 27, 2020

The Reading Group (1988), by Amanda Lohrey

Well, this has turned out to be a more interesting book than I anticipated.  Winner of the Patrick White Award in 2012, Amanda Lohrey is one of my favourite authors, and I’ve read all of her novels except her first, The Morality of Gentlemen (1984) which is somewhere on the TBR.  Pre-dating this blog I read Camille’s Bread (1995), and The Philosopher’s Doll (2004), and reviewed here on the blog, I’ve read Vertigo (2008), Reading Madame Bovary (2010)and The Short History of Richard Kline (2015).  But I had no idea that Lohrey was sued over this second novel, The Reading Group (1988).  According to AustLit:

‘Publication of The Reading Group led to a libel action by Senator Terry Aulich in 1989, subsequently settled out of court, and the pulping of 1,000 unsold copies, events which aroused debate and some strong protests from the literary community; the novel was reissued several months afterwards.’ Source: The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1994).

This is the blurb:

Sex and politics — in The Reading Group Amanda Lohrey writes with extraordinary flair about how these two inescapable forces are woven into the ordinary lives of all of us.

The Reading Group is set in an indeterminate future at the time of a political crisis in an Australian city. Events are viewed from the perspectives of eight characters who are involved on the fringes of political activity and who have in the past been members of a reading group.

My copy is dated 1990, so it’s the reissued version…

(It’s a pity they didn’t think to fix the potossorum bush that features on page 202.  I am open to correction on this but Professor Google suggests that it’s probably a pittosporum that’s meant, since we have many attractive varieties that would complement the grevillea on the same page.  But I digress…)

With some notable exceptions, Senators in Australia tend to come and go without much media presence, so I shall say at the outset that I did not recognise any allusions to Senator Aulich.  But I had no trouble recognising The Leader, when the ministerial adviser Michael visits him at home.  He’s been there before, so he knows to head for the pool in the back garden (paid for, it is said, if I have identified this now deceased political leader correctly, with the proceeds of litigation).

The Leader looks up from where he reclines on a white tubular sun-lounge.  His tanned, nuggety body is oiled and glistens.  His shorts, green and white and patterned in bamboo leaves, are laced loosely at the fly.  He springs up out of the sun-lounge and his lean, slightly bowed legs narrow down from a wide trunk. (p.202)

Michael is offered a beer by this (always capitalised) Leader whose own diet and conversion to fitness are well publicised.  And (most women will wince at this, because we know who he is ordering about) he pads to the back door and shouts for drinks in his flat, abrasive twang.  Later on we learn that he used to be a union official…

The Reading Group is an intensely political novel, juxtaposing two poets of the Left and the Right jousting over the crisis, and through the character of Michael, offering interesting observations about the ethics of political decision-making.  At one stage, a premier is trapped by an off-the-cuff promise about consultation, and finds himself besieged by timber industry interests when a local council votes to disallow the passage of timber trucks using the shortest route, via their town. There’s a droll scene when a strategic absence from a crucial cabinet meeting turns out not to be long enough, and so he reluctantly has to take responsibility for the measure being deferred yet again.

One of the interesting aspects of reading this novel now, is that the recent past seems like another world.  I do not mean that the novel is ‘dated’ because its concerns are as valid today as they were in 1988.  The contentious issue at hand is a proposal by the Committee for Public Safety, and it is reminiscent of the furore over the proposed Australia Card in 1985.  This identity card was meant as a tax avoidance measure, or so they said, but it was extremely unpopular and the legislation fizzled out.  Australians today are just as exercised about invasions of privacy by government, as the current kerfuffle over the COVIDSafe App demonstrates.  Even more relevant to today are the fires encroaching into metropolitan Sydney and the oppressive heat which pervades the novel.

But Lohrey’s attention to detail brings back memories of a different time.  Some of her cast of characters are upwardly mobile professionals who, thanks to the Whitlam governments abolition of university fees, have transcended their working-class origins.  This created a new ‘class’ of professionals, with experience of political, economic and social disadvantage not seen before.  The members of the ‘reading group’ include Louisa, a teacher; and Robert, a social worker, but they are not wealthy.  Today the price of cars is so low that even young people drive brand new vehicles, but Robert drives an ancient purple Valiant, a reminder of times when—apart from friends who enjoyed the benefit of a ‘company car’—nobody in our circles had a brand new car.  The characters swelter in these cars too, because air-con in cars was a rarity, as it used to be in domestic housing.  In a moment of crisis the only phone in the house is surreptitiously unplugged and carried to another socket in order to ring the police.  Letters come in the mail, money gets sent by cheque, and people get their news from newspapers, not online.

Robert’s sister Claire is a most interesting character: to the dismay of her patrician mother-in-law she is married to Andrew, the lawyer.  She has a daughter called Bronwyn, and is devoted to restoring her Victorian house.  This is the 1980s, when the Women’s Liberation Movement had made enormous gains for women, but though the attentions of a sleaze called Lyndon provokes some restlessness, Claire revels in not having a career.  Here she is, in her natural habitat:

It’s hot but that only makes it easier to shop, to wander in a warm daze around the elegant mall and its side streets. No wind, nothing to ruffle her hair or blow dust in her eyes.  The tension eases out of her body; she is aroused by the colours and the textures and the way the folds of silk hang in the exquisitely designed displays, wisps suspended by invisible nylon thread that seem to float with celestial poise behind the glass.

Ah, the consolations of shopping. Here is a finely tooled leather boot, made by hand in Venice, its smoky jade surface embossed with black leather diamonds; and this is a thing of beauty regardless of its showcase or its price.  She tried on three bleached cotton overshirts, one an almost imperceptibly pale pink, like the sand bleached pastel of a shell, and she folds them back onto the shelf.

At the Black Oak Bookshop she buys a book of William Morris designs for gift-wrapping and a pop-up book of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp.  So sad that the traditional fairy-tales are increasingly hard to find on the bookshelves. (pp. 193-4)

Given the title of this novel, a reader might expect allusions to books and reading, and indeed, Michael is astonished to find The Leader reading Macauley and Petrarch’s Lives, Spengler’s Decline of the West and Gibbon. But there are also quotations from books, nicely credited at the back of the book so that you can work out which book they’re from.  (The only one I guessed was a quotation from Mansfield Park, with an allusion to Julia Bertram.)

What a pleasure it was to read this book! I came to it after the disappointment of abandoning a recent release, and it was a joy to read finely crafted prose, meticulous plotting and sophisticated characterisation, in a novel over thirty years old that explores issues that have never really gone away.

Author: Amanda Lohrey
Title: The Reading Group
Cover illustration by Kerrie Leishman
Publisher: Pan Books, (Picador Australia), 1988
ISBN: 9780330271103, pbk., 269 pages
Source: Personal library, Op Shop Find

Try the OpShops or second-hand stores.




  1. It was pretty clear to Tasmanians at the time of publication that the adulterous character was probably identifiable. The big give-away was the fact that the character had published a book of poems – added to other identifying features such as career details and type of car.
    So often reprints of books don’t bother to correct typos. ‘Potossorum’ would probably have been an autocorrect (?!) that got in after the final proof-read.
    (I have for years asked the publisher of my ‘Stolen Children’ to correct their typo in the Introduction, to no avail. The word I wrote was ‘threnody’ which was autocorrected to ‘theory’ which makes no sense.)


    • LOL I’m not going to comment further, Carmel, because although we are all now safe from The Leader’s litigious activities, the Senator is still alive!
      Auto-correct has a lot to answer for, eh?


      • Lisa would you let me say to carmelbird that, speaking of the eighties, I have just reviewed The Babe is Wise including ‘Buttercup & Wendy’. Of all the things we permit, allowing politicians to sue their detractors for telling the truth, might be the most anti-democratic.


        • I think it depends what truths you mean. Political chicanery, dishonesty, theft, corruption, yes, I agree.
          But I do not want Australian politics to descend into the American slime pit where personal indiscretions from a long,long time ago can derail an otherwise worthy candidate. I think the private lives of politicians are none of our business.


          • I would have a privacy law (to also protect us from the private lives of cricketers wives) and no defamation law for anything except malicious harm.


            • Well, what’s malicious? There’s been a row here over a policeman sharing a photo of a famous person (occupation not going to be named here). The policeman has been suspended, charged and will possibly lose his job for breaching the arrested person’s privacy.
              But here’s the thing, on the Channel 10 news update within the Masterchef episode we were watching, this matter was deemed to be of sufficient importance to be one of three items, and the item — which was about how police authorities had dealt with the matter — included the titillating little addition that the person concerned had been in women’s clothing. So, 48 hours after the story broke, Channel 10 is still broadcasting the entirely unnecessary facts about the matter, adding to the man’s embarrassment and making sure that no one is unaware of it.
              I call that malicious…


  2. Did the author work in the political sphere herself or was she using publicly available information? If as Carmel Bird indicates in her comment, it was obvious who the adulterous character was, you’d have thought the publishers would have picked that up and made changes before publication,


    • I don’t know, Karen, it’s all a long time ago. But Carmel, who’s a Tasmanian writer of lovely novels too, says it was possible to identify the person, so it does seem odd that Picador, a large company, wouldn’t have run it past their lawyers.


  3. I find it amusing that Australians get so antsy about ID cards and apps but will happily have a Facebook account that uses all their private info in ways they would have never dream of letting anyone use. Now I’m in marketing, the info you can get from FB to target specific audiences is mind boggling. FB knows everything about you. Ditto for Twitter.


    • Yes, I’ve given up worrying about this (as much) ever since B22 started working in data a couple of years ago – fb, banks, supermarkets, real estate agencies, twitter, instagram, google – all share info about what you spend, how much and where, with each other and anyone else who wants to buy it. It’s out there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I suspect that people don’t care about who knows what they buy. What they care about is being sprung having an affair!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Ohh a book with a character called Bronwyn. I don’t see my name in print very often, so it always catches my eye…and gives me another reason to read another book by Lohrey.


    • I never used to see mine in print either… I think Madeleine St John might have been the first to have a character called Lisa, in The Women in Black.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sounds fascinating Lisa. And yes, don’t those times seem far away, pre-mobile phones and all our modern gizmos. And I feel old for remembering them! ;D


  6. I wouldn’t get the real-life parallels but this sounds like it stands on its own too. Is it better to know the references before reading, or to google them afterwards do you think?


    • I think it would stand on its own.,, sometimes I Google and sometimes I don’t, it just depends on whether not knowing niggles at me.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I remember when in American TV shows a character would speak into a house landline phone with an astonishingly long lead, so they could walk almost into another room while still carrying on the conversation. I’d never seen anything like this in the UK, and thought it so cool. I also remember phones with a dial, not buttons. I’m that old.


    • Yes, me too. The old black bakelite ones. They had a lovely ring tone.


  8. Having just read four Amanda Lohrey books from the latest to the first I am now reading this one Could you give a hing as to who the Prime Minister is modelled on? Is it G W or M F?


  9. […] In high school I was (always in) The Reading Group, by Amanda Lohrey […]


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