Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 30, 2019

This Excellent Machine, by Stephen Orr

One of the aspects of getting older that’s a bit eerie, is finding that part of your life has become ‘the olden days’.  Initially, my idea of ‘the olden days’ was that era when my parents were children and young adults, a time that they would evoke with nostalgia (or otherwise).  Then, emerging with self-mockery but solidifying into nostalgia (or not), ‘the olden days’ become the years of my own child- and young adulthood.  But what’s really spooky is when the years of The Offspring’s child-and young adulthood have become ‘the olden days’.

Though they’ll enjoy it just as much, I suspect that the generation after mine will read Stephen Orr’s new autobiographical novel somewhat differently to me.  This Excellent Machine was a revelation, because The Offspring was (just like his parents) immune to popular culture.  So whereas most parents were dragged into 1980s culture by their children, I wasn’t.  Orr’s book is a ‘foreign country‘ to me.  It’s like reading about a tourist attraction you missed seeing while you were on a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Orr is one of my favourite authors: I’ve read all but one of his seven novels, and he is a genius with characterisation and setting. In This Excellent Machine Clem Whelan is the central character, trapped in the Sunnyboy summer of 1984 and wondering what to do with his life.  When he quizzes his mother once again about his long-absent, best-forgotten father, he knows the script even before they start, and eventually he recognises the pattern:

I’d had enough.  She was like a mower starting on a very big paddock.  (p.85)


There is a conspiracy of silence about this absent father.  Clem lives in a close-knit street in a working-class suburb of Adelaide.  (Only, most people are not working, except in backyard ventures or casual, pointless jobs.  The 1980s was when people started to find out what globalisation really meant).  Everyone knows everyone else, and people rarely move away so the neighbours remember Clem’s birth and early childhood.  And they remember his father, but they keep schtum about it too.  Clem has reached the age where he needs to know, mainly because he is in search of a mentor to guide him through his difficult last year at school.  He’s not sure it’s going to be worth it, and his teachers, ground down because of the hopelessness of their students’ future, aren’t much help.  Pop’s advice is to knuckle down but Clem thinks it might be too late:

It seemed stupid to reduce life to a tertiary entrance ranking, but that’s how it was.  Your brain produced a number, the number got you into university, this got you a good or boring job.  There were more of the latter than the former, so you had to work hard and take advantage of every opportunity. (p.282)

He likes the art teacher, Nick, but Nick doesn’t last because his anarchic attitudes get him on the carpet in the principal’s office, just like any naughty schoolboy.  OTOH Mrs Masharin believes in Clem’s talent as a writer but his judgement of her is harsh:

Mrs Masharin was our own commissar, Soviet discipline made word in the Gleneagles Steppes. Short skirt and unforgiving pantyhose, knee-high boots (always polished) and an industrious shirt; hair up (bun narrowly avoided) and a slight accent that could’ve been anything European, but we were so white-bread we didn’t know.  She looked at me and said, ‘Nice big voice.’ Each word separate, in her usual permafrost accent. (p.357)

The occasion for using a ‘nice big voice’ is when Clem’s writing is featured in a broadcast on the school’s radio station (known not so affectionately as Radio Bogan).

The new radio station (Mr de Weerd’s idea) had started broadcasting across the school grounds every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at recess and lunch.  Light classics, mainly, courtesy of Ms Field’s expansive Comoesque record collection, but the powers that be had conceded, allowing a pop segment (Spandau Ballet, Boy George), an electronic music corner (there were other Kraftwerk fans) and Mrs Masharin’s literature salon.  (p.357)

Even the minor characters are vivid portraits of humanity:

Dwayne Schuit had been made producer.  He sat in a control desk outside the studio.  Dwayne of the Komputer Klub (‘Fun Programming in Basic’), debating and chess club.  Dwayne, who’d missed out on a private education, but wore a tie and jacket to school anyway.  Quoting Python ten years before anyone else; topping Year Eleven Latin (narrowly beating Curtis) and Classics, making it clear he wanted to study arts.  (p.358)

Alas, the radio program also features an aggrieved ex-girlfriend. Clem’s best mate Curtis had, in a romantic moment, given this girl a photograph of his backside, 500 copies of which she has previously plastered all over the school ground.  (Remember those instant photo booths?) Tracey has reason to be very angry with Curtis, and she isn’t finished yet.  When Mrs Masharin asks her to talk on air about the book she’s been reading, her voice rings out all over the schoolyard and beyond, with her summation of a book called ‘Glory Days’… about a young girl, and she stupidly falls for a boy called Curtis. Invited to say more, Tracey continues” ‘In today’s world a girl needs to be careful.  As this book shows, many boys care only for one thing.  Curtis Durell is such a boy.’  You can guess the rest…

So there are laugh-out-loud moments, but also poignant sequences where Clem learns that his initial judgements of people aren’t always fair, and that sometimes there are heart-rending reasons why people do rather odd things such as knitting 17 identical jumpers in all different sizes.

I really enjoyed losing myself in the pages of this book.  Because Clem’s been shielded from the kind of world his father represents, anticipation propels the reader along as the quest to learn about his father intensifies. But it’s his plans to help his ageing Pop find Lasseter’s Reef that are most compelling…

Pop, a backyard mechanic who’s supported the family throughout Clem’s lifetime, is succumbing to dementia.  He’s struggling to remember the sequence of car parts for the repairs he does, he goes wandering and gets lost, and he fumbles for words he known all his life.  But Pop’s fixation on finding the reef, his insistence on keeping the search secret, and his growing inability to foresee consequences is what really ramps up the narrative tension.  Even if you haven’t read T.G.H. Strehlow’s harrowing Journey to Horseshoe Bend, which Pop references to inspire Clem into similar loyalty, the idea of this teenage boy (who keeps failing his driving test) and his grandfather setting out into the harsh South Australian outback in an ageing Datsun 120Y makes for a page-turning experience.

You can read an extract here.

Image credit: Datsun 120Y (Sunny B210), Markmastro, public domain, Wikipedia

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: This Excellent Machine
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2019, 482 pages
ISBN: 9781743056134
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond (This Excellent Machine); direct from the publisher and all good bookstores.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 29, 2019

2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards winners

It’s been a busy night tonight: I’d just finished my review of the latest Australian Foreign Affairs journal when the news came that Les Murray had died, and I’d just finished the obituary when the #NSWPLA Tweets came rolling in.  And it was the first night of the 2019 MasterChef season as well!

So this post is done in haste…


The 2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced tonight: winners below (as harvested from Twitter) are highlighted in bold.

The Book of the Year was Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia by Billy Griffiths, see Rebe Taylor’s review at the SMH

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

Man Out of Time by Stephanie Bishop, see Kate’s review at Books are My Favourite and Best
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser, see my review
The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins, see my review
Border Districts by Gerald Murnane, see my review
The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton – on my TBR , see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes

The Douglas Stewart prize for Non-Fiction

Saga Land by Richard Fidler & Kári Gíslason, see Simon Caterson’s review at the SMH and Nancy’s at Nancy Elin’s BookBlog
Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia by Billy Griffiths, see Rebe Taylor’s review at the SMH
The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie, see Kim’s review at Reading Matters and make sure you read Kate’s at Books Are My Favourite and Best as well.
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
Tracker by Alexis Wright , see my review

The UTS Glenda Adams Prize for New Writing

Flames by Robbie Arnott, see my review
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
Scrublands by Chris Hammer, see Kim’s review at Reading Matters
The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins, see my review
Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau, see Amanda’s review at Whispering Gums and Kim’s at Reading Matters
The Lucky Galah by Tracy Sorensen, see my review

Multicultural NSW Award

The Lebs by Michael Mohammed Ahmad 
Rainforest by Eileen Chong  see Jonathan’s review at Me Fail? I Fly
Home is Nearby by Magdalena McGuire (see my review)
Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang  see my review
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko , see my review
Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic, see my review

NSW Premier’s Prize for Translation

Harry Aveling – I’m barracking for him because I know him from my days as president of VILTA (the Victorian Indonesian Language Teachers Assoc)
Stephen Corcoran
Alison Entrekin
Penny Hueston (I’ve read three of her translations, see here).
Stephanie Smee
Omid Tofighian (highly commended)

Visit the awards website for all other categories.

Congratulations to all the winners and nominees!

PS Thanks to Sue who alerted me to the fact that the Indigenous Prize is only awarded in alternate years.  Kim Scott’s Taboo won it last year. My excuse is (a) that I’m tired and (b) the awards website is confusing!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 29, 2019

Vale Les Murray (1939-2019)

The Australian poet Les Murray AO died today, aged 80.

The leading poet of his generation, and the recipient of numerous awards, he published over 30 volumes of poetry; two verse novels; and eight prose collections. He was also a critic, an editor and an anthologist of six collections of poetry.

The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1985 edition) devotes almost two entire pages to Murray.  The entry reveals that he was born in the small town of Nabiac on the north coast of NSW and grew up on his father’s dairy farm.  He left the University of Sydney in 1960 without a degree, going on to work in 1963 as a translator of foreign scholarly and technical material at the ANU. [Frustratingly, the entry doesn’t give the language in which he was sufficiently fluent to do this.] However, after attending a poetry festival in Cardiff, he gave up this translating position, lived in England and Europe for a year, and then resumed university, graduating in 1969. [The Companion also doesn’t say what sort of degree it was.  I assume it was a BA).

His poetic inspiration, says the Companion, was derived from his continued association with the bush.  He alternated a working city life with bush holidays on a farm not far from where he grew up. His early poems, they say, have a sensitive awareness of the humanity that exists in situations that might seem too banal for poetry, celebrating his farming boyhood, his ancestors, and the rural people and life he intuitively understands. He also had a flair for fresh, original and brilliantly-inventive language and imagery.

These rural origins contributed to a conservative outlook, and Murray was notably the favourite poet of the very conservative prime minister John Howard.  This conservatism may account for the somewhat ambivalent tone of the Companion’s entry although it was published well before the controversies for which Murray was notorious, including his defence of the literary hoaxer Helen Darville who won the Miles Franklin Award under false pretences as a Ukrainian migrant.  The Companion, for example, somewhat dismissively refers to the verse novel The Boys Who Stole the Funeral as an attempt at a novel in verse (underlining mine) and there is also commentary about the obscurity of some of the poems in the ‘cow’ sequence of ‘Walking to the Cattle-Place’, brought about by masses of incomprehensible allusions, and in Roger McDonald’s words, by a ‘corner-of-the-mouth speech that has the effect of under-explanation rather than concentration’.   

At Wikipedia, (lightly edited to remove unnecessary links and footnotes) we read that

American reviewer Albert Mobilio writes in his review of Learning Human: Selected Poems that Murray has revived the traditional ballad form. He goes on to comment on Murray’s conservatism and his humour: “Because his conservatism is imbued with an angular, self-mocking wit, which very nearly belies the down-home values being expressed, he catches readers up in the joke. We end up delighted by his dexterity, if a bit doubtful about the end to which it’s been put.”

In 2003, Australian poet Peter Porter, reviewing Murray’s New Collected Poems, makes a somewhat similar paradoxical assessment of Murray: “A skewer of polemic runs through his work. His brilliant manipulation of language, his ability to turn words into installations of reality, is often forced to hang on an embarrassing moral sharpness. The parts we love – the Donne-like baroque – live side by side with sentiments we don’t: his increasingly automatic opposition to liberalism and intellectuality.”

Whatever about that, the Companion concludes by recognising Murray’s devotion to the Australian rural scene, respect and affection for the ordinary country man, and a conviction that modern society relinquishes, at its peril, the values that are enshrined in the land and in the lives of those who live in intimacy with it.

You can read some of this poetry at the Les Murray website.  

Update: there’s a lovely tribute from fellow-poet John Kinsella at The Guardian. 

Photo attribution: By Bjenks Realname Brian Jenkins – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Source: The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, by William H Wilda, Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, ISBN 0195542339

For people who are concerned about Australia’s place in our region, the current issue of the Australian Foreign Affairs journal could be an interesting one, but I confess to a little weariness about the topic, Are We Asian Yet? History vs Geography.  Individually and collectively, the writers of the four essays have thoughtful ideas to contribute but I have heard most of it before.  (Not because I’m any kind of expert, but because this issue of Australia’s place in Asia is a perennial).

There are four essays:

  • Significant Other: Anxieties about Australia’s Asian future, by David Walker
  • Red detachment, Is Chinese culture beyond reach? by Linda Jaivin
  • Can Australia be one of us? The view from Asia by Sarah Teo
  • The Rookie PMs: How Canberra’s leadership circus is damaging ties with Asia, by George Megalogenis

Yes, there is Australian anxiety about the future.  But competitors for and resisters to US domination in the region were always going to arise.  And it seems to me that one reason That Man keeps tearing up US agreements about everything is that the writing is already on the wall and he’d rather opt out than face the humiliation of losing its superpower influence in our region.  #ChangeHappens…

Yes, Chinese culture is complicated, filtered to us through government propaganda on the one hand and dissidents on the other.  Yes, there has been racism and othering of Chinese people and their culture. But there’s no significance IMO to the fact that Australians don’t know the names of Chinese Nobel Prize for Literature winners Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan.  Most Australians don’t know the names of any Nobel winners, perhaps not even our own Patrick White.  And when it comes to not knowing much about Chinese arts in general, well, of course, it would be better if Australians knew more about any aspect of their neighbours’ culture, but consider the burden: even with the best will in the world, Australians cannot be familiar with all the cultures of its own multicultural population.  And even if we prioritised Asian cultures, it’s still an impossible task, given the number of countries and the diversity of cultures within them. #DiversityIsComplicated.

The chapter which bothered me most was the one by George Megalogenis.  His assumption seems to be that ‘being Asian’ is somehow related to the percentage of Asian-born migrants who make Australia their home.

Are we Asian yet? The answer is yes in the booming inner city and outer suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and even parts of Brisbane.  Already the Asian-born outnumber the Australian-born in Melbourne’s inner city, and in Auburn, in Sydney’s west.  They match the Australian-born in Melbourne’s Dandenong, Sydney’s Parramatta and Brisbane’s Sunnybank. But the rest of the country is either still in transition or caught in a time warp, with an ageing Anglo-European population that is not being replenished with new immigrants.  (p. 75)

So we are ‘Asian’ if our population morphs into an Asian-dominated demography?  Let me clear, I don’t object to any such change.  What I’m querying is the assumption that such Asians remain ‘Asian’ in identity.  As far as I’m concerned they have the potential to be, like all our other migrants, (including me) Australians of one sort or another, comfortable with a malleable identity and a dual heritage.  And what if, as in Britain, the face of Australians becomes increasingly brown, with more migration from Africa and the Indian sub-continent?  Would that make us more, or less, ‘Asian’? IMO whatever ‘being Asian’ means, it doesn’t mean defining ourselves by colour or ethnicity, and especially not if that’s used as some sort of code for making ourselves acceptable to our neighbours.

I think many Asians, like other migrants, want to live here because Australia isn’t ‘Asian’ in some key aspects of national life.  Which brings me to the critical issue, best expressed in the essay by Sarah Teo.   Whatever about the past (White Australia policy &c) and whatever about strategic alliances with Big Powerful (Anglo) friends, Australia is different in its region because it is a stable liberal democracy that values individual rights.

While the debate over ‘Asian values’ may have faded following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the difference in the cultural underpinnings of Australia and Asian countries persist.  Australia prides itself on its liberal values and democratic system of government.  English is the dominant language, with more than 70% of the population speaking it at home. (p.81)

Yes, Australians are literate in English, which has replaced French as the international language. That doesn’t mean English is better. It just means it’s very useful, and it’s shown itself to be adaptable in many contexts around the world. (This website says there are seven recognised ‘Englishes’: UK, US, Irish, Scottish, Australian, New Zealand and Singlish. I suspect that there might be an Indian English as well.)

IMO it’s still Australian values which make us different. While there are differences amongst our Asian neighbours, (e.g. democracy in Indonesia, summary executions in the Philippines), and yes there are failures in implementation and expression of these values in our country, there are fundamentals that Australians are never going to abandon: freedom of speech and association; the right to a democratic vote and the freedom to dissent; freedom of religion; equal rights for men, women and the LGBTIQ community; and the rejection of censorship, capital punishment and of barbaric Sharia laws (as in Brunei).  And while we have our own inglorious history, not least the massacre of Indigenous people and the long-delayed granting of their civil rights as Australian citizens, the silence about these events has been because of ignorance and indifference and an obsession with other events in history, not because an official silence is mandated.  Australia does not, in the 21st century, suppress information about its embarrassments, unlike Asian countries which censor information about the massacre of citizens when they protested, and the purge of thousands of citizens in mass killings because they might have belonged to an unwelcome political movement, and we do not whitewash our own history in our students’ textbooks.

I feel confident about asserting that Australians (whatever their ethnic origins) will not ever want to be ‘Asian’ if it means shrugging off these values.

Authors: David Walker, Linda Jaivin, Sarah Teo and George Megalogenis
Series editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title: Are We Asian Yet? History vs Geography
Series: Australian Foreign Affairs Issue #5
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, February 2019, 144 pages
ISBN: 9781760641009

Source: Personal subscription

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 28, 2019

A Mistake, by Carl Shuker

Carl Shuker’s fifth novel A Mistake, is a confronting novel, one that makes the reader think deeply about human fallibility and the impulse to blame.

Based in Wellington after an international career in Tokyo and London, Shuker is one of the authors I’m going to hear at the Auckland Writers Festival. His writing appeals to me for the same reason that I like the novels of fellow Kiwi Lloyd Jones: he reinvents himself as an author with each title and each novel is completely different to the last one.  According to Shuker’s profile at the Academy of New Zealand Literature, The Method Actors (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005), is an historical/thriller/love story set in Tokyo at the turn of the century.  The Lazy Boys (Counterpoint, 2006) is about toxic masculinity in a NZ setting.  Three Novellas for a Novel (Mansfield Road Press, 2011), is a trio of horror stories set in Tokyo, London and Cannes, and Anti Lebanon (Counterpoint, 2013), is apparently a political thriller and vampire story (really?!) set in Beirut and Syria.  I decided to order A Mistake on the strength of reviews at Booksellers NZ and Alys on the Blog, and the book has turned out to be very interesting indeed.

At first glance, that cover image looks a bit like a lush tropical flower.  But it’s not, it’s the innards of the human body and those protrusions are tweezers and a scalpel.  A Mistake is about an emergency operation that goes horribly wrong and the patient dies, and the chronology of that narrative is punctuated by a parallel narrative about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, a preventable tragedy of seven deaths—caused by an apparently minor mistake rendered catastrophic by NASA’s organisational culture and decision-making procedures.  The high profile surgeon responsible for the deceased 24-year-old patient is the improbably named Elizabeth Taylor, and the issue of medical accountability is brought into sharp focus by a new system for making surgeon’s outcomes publicly available online.  For Elizabeth, the problems with this transparency system morph from being an abstract issue that she contests in the pages of a medical journal, to being a real life issue that impacts on her career and the careers of others in her team.

Lately, I’ve been refusing to engage with those persistent emails demanding that I rate the services and products that I buy.  If I’m happy, I ignore them so that the seller can assume, as they always used to, that I would complain if there’s a problem.  If I’m not happy, I hunt out the bricks-and-mortar address of the corporate HQ and send the head honcho a letter that explains that the questions I’m supposed to rate between 1 and 5 stars don’t allow for any nuance, and then I tell them what the problem is.  (Classic example: how should I rate a product I really like when it comes packaged with excessive single-use-plastic that goes straight to landfill?  Seriously, is there anyone in the universe who hangs up their undies on a plastic hanger in the wardrobe?)  I know from Twitter that I am not alone in rejecting this ratings nonsense, and Tom Slee articulated my misgivings in his book What’s Yours is Mine, Against the Sharing Economy. (See my review, about 2/3 down the page.) Slee says reputation systems are also the wrong tool to deal with extreme failures of trust.  Carl Shuker’s novel shows us, (as did the case of Dr Bawa-Garba in the UK, as reported on ABC RN’s The Health Report) that mistakes are rarely attributable to one person, and that the anger of the bereaved can these days use social media to generate outrage that is ultimately counter-productive in terms of improving patient outcomes.  (See this Health report article that explores the pros and cons of tracking surgeons’ performance.)

The novel tackles other issues too.  Elizabeth Taylor is a strong, decisive surgeon who behaves in much the same way as any medical specialist, but she is judged harshly for her demeanour because she is a woman.  Her manager even has the gall to raise her sexuality as a problem.  Her intense dedication to her work leaves her all but friendless, and in extremis, her subconscious is at war with her confidence that no one in the surgical team was responsible for the death.  (This reminded me of other fine novels about the pressure on doctors to be perfect: see my reviews of Dustfall by Michelle Johnston and Dissection by Jacinta Halloran).  There is a junior doctor too, who becomes a victim of this situation, and (inevitably) there is also hospital management which wants to massage its reputation.  (It would be easy to judge that as well, but where does it leave us if we don’t have confidence in the public hospital system?  Especially if there’s an unstoppable drift to private practice not subject to the same constraints.)

A Mistake is a short work of fiction, under 200 pages, and I read it overnight, unable to put it down.  The first chapter is difficult: it describes the medical procedure in detail, using a lot of surgical vocabulary that I didn’t understand (and wasn’t going to get out of a warm bed to Google).  At first I didn’t see the point of writing such dense, impenetrable descriptions.  Until it dawned on me that it’s this very complexity that makes a ‘transparent’ rating system so absurd.  The difficulty for the reader in understanding what’s going on in the operation, reinforces the idea that it’s ridiculous that consumers might trust algorithms making judgements about such complex procedures on unpredictable human bodies.

An added bonus is the confident New Zealand setting.  I like books that avoid anodyne settings that could be anywhere in the world, and I’m looking forward to seeing Wellington for myself!

Author: Carl Shuker
Title: A Mistake
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2019, 184 pages
ISBN: 9781776562145
Source: personal library, purchased from Fishpond $32.09

Available from Fishpond: A Mistake.  (Due to high demand, it’s sold out again, but the publisher’s website says there are more being printed.)

I bought Sofia Petrovna after reading Judith Armstrong’s article ‘Hidden Women of History: Lydia Chukovskaya, editor, writer, heroic friend’ in The Guardian, and I’ve read it now for the 1965 Club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.  Although the novella is a rare – possibly unique – example of fiction written about Stalin’s Great Purge (1936-1938) when it was actually happening, it was of course not published at the time.  Chukovskaya (1907-1996) kept it hidden until after Krushchev’s Thaw in 1956 when the story was first circulated in Samizdat (manuscript form). Official publication faltered, however, in 1963 when it was decided that the book contained ‘ideological distortions’.  An unauthorised copy in English was published in Paris in 1965 (which makes the book eligible for the 1965 club) but there were changes made without the author’s permission and the title The Deserted House was absurd, given that the titular character lives in a communal house and her disagreeable co-tenants contribute to her travails.  An American publisher subsequently restored the text and the original title, giving us the form of the novella as it is today, and it became legally available in the USSR in 1988.

The European Classics edition that I have includes the Author’s Note, written in Moscow in 1962, before the Soviet publishers lost their nerve, and an Afterword, which is an excerpt from Chukovskaya’s The Process of Expulsion, which tells the story of her expulsion from the Soviet Writers Union in 1974.  What she does not say in either of these additions is that the work is drawn from her own experience: her husband Matvei Bronstein was arrested on false charges during Stalin’s Purge and for years Chukovskaya had no news of him and did not know that he had been tried and executed in 1938.

This is the blurb:

Sofia Petrovna is Lydia Chukovskaya’s fictional account of the Great Purge. Sofia is a Soviet Everywoman, a doctor’s widow who works as a typist in a Leningrad publishing house. When her beloved son is caught up in the maelstrom of the purge, she joins the long lines of women outside the prosecutor’s office, hoping against hope for good news. Confronted with a world that makes no moral sense, Sofia goes mad, a madness which manifests itself in delusions little different from the lies those around her tell every day to protect themselves. Sofia Petrovna offers a rare and vital record of Stalin’s Great Purges.

Sofia is an ordinary woman, compliant with Soviet life, and resigned to the discomforts of communal living, though she would like her adult son Kolya to have his own room. Other people had been moved in a long time ago during the famine years at the very beginning of the revolution, and she and Kolya have only his old nursery while a policeman and his family have her husband’s study and an accountant and his family have the dining room. Since her husband’s death she has taken up work as a typist, and she enjoys the modest status of being in charge of the other women:

…the typing pool was even better, more important somehow.  Now Sofia Petrovna was often the first person to read a new work of Soviet literature, some story or novel, while it was still only in manuscript form; and although Soviet stories and novels seemed boring to her—there was such a lot about battles and tractors and factory shops and hardly anything about love—she couldn’t help being flattered.  (p.4)

But before long, disaster strikes.  Kolya, a rather pompous young man much given to lecturing his mother about Soviet ideology, takes up work as an engineer in Sverdlovsk, is featured as a ‘shockworker’ in Pravda, and even sends his mother a ‘cogwheel’ that he is so proud of designing… but news comes from his friend Alik that he has been arrested.  Sofia’s life spirals downward into disaster…

She spends days and nights queuing in the bitter cold to try to learn his fate, and only after months does she find that he’s been tried and sentenced to ten years in exile, in a destination unknown.  Like all the other hapless relatives of Stalin’s victims, she is convinced of his innocence and believes that all will be well when the authorities realise their mistake.  Even when the purge infects the publishing house and her innocent friend Natasha is denounced and sacked along with other staff, Sofia clings to her faith in Soviet justice.  The incompatibility of this confidence with her belief in her son is fatal.  As Chukovskaya says in the Afterword, the novella shows that society had been poisoned by lies as completely as an army might be poisoned by noxious gases.

For my heroine I chose not a sister, not a wife, not a sweetheart, not a friend, but that symbol of devotion—a mother.  My Sofia Petrovna loses her only son.  I wanted to show that when people’s lives are deliberately distorted, their feelings become distorted, even maternal ones.  Sofia Petrovna is a widow; her son is her life.  Kolya is arrested; he is sentenced to hard labour; is called an ‘enemy of the people’. Sofia Petrovna, schooled to believe newspapers and officials more than herself, believes the prosecutor when he tells her that her son has ‘admitted his crimes’ and deserves his sentence.  Sofia Petrovna knows full well that Kolya has committed no crime, that he is incapable of it, that to the depths of his being he is loyal to the party, to his factory, to Comrade Stalin personally.  But if she is to believe in herself, not in the prosecutor and the newspapers, then… then… the universe will collapse, the earth give way beneath her feet, the spiritual comfort in which she has so comfortably lived, worked, rejoiced, turn to dust… Sofia Petrovna tries to believe in her son, and in the attempt goes mad. (Afterword, p. 112)

While Chukovskaya makes no claim for her novella as great literature, it seems to me that Sofia Petrovna does what literature ought to do.  It took great courage to write this story and to keep it safe for decades, but more than that, the novella does what cannot be done when wiser after the event: it comments on the contemporary situation by recognising the tragedy of an individual as an emblem of the wider society.  Its power lies in that it was written before Stalin was denounced, when the Terror was raw and ongoing.  The author, nursing her own distress about her husband’s unknown fate, extrapolated a more profound truth from her own cruel experience: the evil done to individuals degrades the entire society.

Thanks to Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for hosting the 1965 club!

Update 28/4/19 See also the review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Author: Lydia Chukovskaya
Title: Sofia Petrovna
Translated by Aline Worth
Emended by Eliza Kellogg Klose
Publisher: Northwestern University Press, Illinois, 1988, 120 pages, first published in 1965 in Paris as The Deserted House.
ISBN: 978010111509
Source: personal library, purchased from The Book Depository, $24.14

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 21, 2019

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

The (Orange/Bailey’s) Women’s Prize for Fiction can be a bit uneven but there’s always something appealing to add to the shelves from the longlist. I’ve read two from the 2018 nominees, (Elmet by Fiona Mosley and A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert) and I still have on the TBR H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker; and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy.  But I didn’t buy the eventual winner – I’d read two by Kamila Shamsie and while I liked them well enough, I didn’t think they were great.  It wasn’t until I was browsing the shelves at The Grumpy Swimmer in Elwood that I remembered the rave reviews…

Some of the blurbers in my edition of Home Fire refer to its roots in Sophocles’ Antigone, but I am here to tell you that you don’t need to know anything about that.  I read Antigone when I was doing Classic Greek and Roman Lit at university, but I couldn’t remember much of it except that its theme is the conflict between love and the power of the state, and (as you’d expect with Greek tragedy) it all ends badly.  By the time I was thoroughly engrossed in Chapter One of Home Fire, I had forgotten all about Antigone

The story begins with Isma enduring a humiliating interrogation at Heathrow.  After years of mothering her orphaned twin siblings, she is free because they are old enough to look after themselves and she is on her way to do her PhD in America.  The interrogation is so long that she misses her flight.  It turns out that the reason that airport security is so interested in her, is because her father Adil Pasha was a jihadi.  Every member of his family is always subject to scrutiny.

Yes, by coincidence Home Fire follows Charlotte Grimshaw’s treatment of this same theme of surveillance of Muslims in Mazarine. (See my review)

That scrutiny is irritating enough, considering the family was innocent of any connection to Adil’s activities and knew nothing about it until after he died en route from Bagram to Guantanamo Bay.  Only their aunt, Adil’s sister mourns him and yearns to have his body for burial.  But when Parvaiz naïvely runs away to join ISIS, for his sisters in London who’d attributed his secretive behaviour to having a girlfriend, the years of living carefully under the radar as loyal Brits count for nothing.  Isma’s anguish is revealed via Skype:

‘You selfish idiot,’ she said.  This was easier to contend with – he rolled his eyes at Farooq [the ISIS recruiter], placing two fingers against his temples to mime a gun firing into his brain.  ‘Watch your manners, brother.  We have company.’ She swivelled the phone, and two man were standing in their living room, everything surrounding them as familiar as his own heartbeat.  ‘Say hello to the men from the Met,’ Isma’s voice continued, conversational.  ‘They’re going to turn our house and our lives upside down.  Again.  Do you have anything you want to say to them?’

He was conscious of the three men on the balcony watching him, waiting to see his response to the news that the police knew where he was and now there was no going back. (p.163)

Reading Parvaiz’s appalled discovery that what he had been told about a beautiful future under ISIS is all lies, makes one wonder how many of those who’ve run away to Syria were equally naïve.

But, in Australia, as elsewhere, an awareness of ISIS duplicity doesn’t solve the problem of repatriating naïve young people, (or rehabilitating the diehards).  (Or even, in the wake of the fall of the caliphate, rescuing their hapless children).  In Shamsie’s novel Aneeka seduces the son of a tub-thumping Home Secretary in the hope that he can be persuaded to let Parvaiz come home.  What starts out as manipulation becomes real love between them, testing Eamonn when he realises what she wants of him and that he has to choose between his love for her and his love of his father,  (whose career couldn’t withstand any softening of his rhetoric).  Karamat Lone is a cleverly drawn character: a Muslim of Pakistani origin, he has risen to the heights of power by exhorting fellow Muslims to fit in.  In a speech at his alma mater, his words are eerily familiar to us here in Australia:

‘There is nothing this country won’t allow you to achieve – Olympic medals, captaincy of the cricket team, pop stardom, reality TV crowns.  And if none of that works out, you can settle for being Home Secretary.  You are, we are, British.  Britain accepts this.  So do most of you.  But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourself apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties.  Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours.  And look at all you miss out on because of it.’ (p.87-88)

Asked by Eamonn if she is harassed because of her hijab, Aneeka (showering at home after a man spat at her on the Tube) tells him about the impact of his speech:

‘If you’re nineteen and female you’ll get some version of a hard time for whatever you wear. Mostly it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to shrug off. Sometimes things happen that make people more hostile. Terrorist attacks involving European victims. Home Secretaries talking about people setting themselves apart in the way they dress. That kind of thing.’ (p.90)

And she challenges Eamonn to think about his own response:

‘What do you say to your father when he makes a speech like that? Do you say, Dad, you’re making it OK to stigmatise people for the way they dress? Do you say, what kind of idiot stands in front of a group of teenagers and tells them to conform? Do you say, why didn’t you mention that among the things this country will let you achieve if you’re Muslim is torture, rendition, detention without trial, airport interrogations, spies in your mosques, teachers reporting your children to the authorities for wanting a world without British injustice?’ (p.90)

Home Fire invites consideration of these timely issues.  It is, unashamedly, a political novel, and Elle at Elle Thinks responds to critics who have the luxury of thinking that politics doesn’t matter.

See also Nancy’s thoughts at Nancy Elin at Ali’s at Heaven Ali.

Highly recommended.

Author: Kamila Shamsie
Title: Home Fire
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2018, first published 2017
ISBN: 9781408886793
Source: personal library, purchased from The Grumpy Swimmer, Elwood, $19.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2019

Nora Heysen, Light and Life, by Jane Hylton

As most Melbourne art lovers know, there is currently an exhibition at the NGV (Federation Square) of the art of father and daughter painters Hans Heysen (1877-1968) and Nora Heysen (1911-2003).  The exhibition runs from March 8th to July 28th 2019, but I haven’t been to see it yet.  (I’m waiting till the worst of the train disruptions are over…it will be great to have all the new infrastructure completed, but the April works are testing the patience of commuters a bit!)

However, when I get there, I will enjoy it all the more due to two lovely books that I borrowed from Bayside Library.  Every week, one of the four branches of the library hosts Book Chat, the idea being that you just turn up and chat about whatever it is you’ve just read.  It’s an enjoyable way for booklovers to meet each other and share their reading, and the added bonus is that at the end of each session, the librarian introduces some books that might be of interest.  That’s how I came to borrow Nora Heysen, Light and Life and Selected Letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen (the latter of which I aim to review in due course).

I read Nora Heysen, Light and Life first.  It was first published by Wakefield Press to coincide with the exhibition held at Carrick Hill from April 1st to June 28th 2009.  The book is a generous size (285 x 215mm, not quite A4) and printed on fine glossy paper so the reproductions of Nora Heysen’s paintings can be seen in close detail.  There are four chapters, all profusely illustrated with photos and reproductions of her work, about Nora’s early years in Adelaide; her life in London; her return to Sydney and then her work as a war artist in WW2; and her final years in a home of her own.  The book also includes notes, a bibliography, a timeline of her life, and acknowledgements.  Best of all, for art lovers, is the ‘Gallery’ of her paintings: 41 pages in full-size, full-colour art works, from collections all over Australia (including our NGV which has four of her works in its permanent collection at Fed Square).

Although the art world was male-dominated, Nora Heysen AM was not exactly an artist overlooked because of her gender.  When she left Australia to study in England in 1934, her work was already represented in three State collections, as well as many private ones.  She had won prizes, illustrated a book, exhibited in Sydney and her first one-person show was a critical and financial success.  However she didn’t find it easy in London where the new influences she was exposed to made it difficult to develop her own artistic identity.  To avoid working in her father’s shadow, she preferred to move ‘away from landscape to still-life and portraiture’, both subject areas that Hans Heysen visited much less frequently.  As Allan Campbell says in his foreword:

She was a remarkable woman whose artistic achievements spanned a period of some seventy-five years, and gained continued respect for her acknowledged passion and genuine dedication to her art.  Nora Heysen was a beautiful colourist, formidable drawer. superb draughtsman and skilful exponent of oil on brush; an artist who placed herself in the history books by becoming the first woman to win the prestigious Archibald Prize [ see here] and the first appointed female war artist in World War Two.

There are some of Nora’s war portraits in the ‘Gallery’ but I wanted to see more.  I took a look at my review of Betty Churcher’s The Art of War, but because I’d only covered Chapter One, I’d made no mention of Heysen’s work (or any other female artist) in WW2.  But when I got the book out to check, there’s a  chapter called ‘Far From The Front Line’, which is a bit misleading because along with three wonderful paintings showcasing women’s war work in the field, there’s a photo of Nora Heyson in her Melbourne studio finishing paintings she started in New Guinea.  And we know from other reading (here, and here) that just being a war zone was dangerous and confronting.  There are sections about other female war artists in Churcher’s book and I will make an effort to revisit the book with another review in due course.

Hylton notes that after a short burst of creativity on her return to her old studio at The Cedars, Nora went to live permanently in Sydney.  Away from her father’s influence, her style had changed, and she was used to living independently.  After her overseas experience as a war artist, she later spent time in Britain again with her eventual husband Robert Black, and she went with him to various Pacific Islands with him because he was a specialist in tropical medicine.  But her relationship with her father remained affectionate, and across these distances, the correspondence between Nora and her father Hans is extensive, so I’m looking forward to reading the letters.

I enjoyed Chapter Two most, with its endearing quotations from a fatherly Hans, including a note about remaining warm and not catching cold in what he considered ‘a rather treacherous locality in the early winter.’  I also chuckled over Nora’s dismissal of modernism, including a comment about sculpture described bluntly as ‘useless lumps of stone… resembling nothing on this earth.’  There’s a gorgeous domestic interior from 1935 in this chapter, which you can see here, scroll down till you see Evie in her blue dressing gown, book in hand. (From there at the NLA website I also discovered a bit about the retrospective held in 2001).  This chapter is also interesting for the way that Nora responds to criticism of her work, and her father’s advice about how to deal with it.  But you can tell from this painting reproduced in the Gallery, that the gloomy weather, money worries and the intense hard work got her down sometimes.

It’s fascinating to read the story behind the portrait that won the 1938 Archibald Prize.  The poised Madame Schumann was apparently very difficult about sitting for it, and ‘refused to sit after the first two sessions’.  When Heysen insisted, ‘there she sat. with tears rolling down her face because I was being cruel.’  And it’s astonishing to read that she produced 170 works of art – under very difficult conditions as a war artist – 152 of them held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. You can see two of my favourites at this Pinterest board*: Private Gwynneth Patterson and Transport driver (Aircraftwoman Florence Miles).

* However do they get round copyright issues at Pinterest?

Nora Haysen, Light and life is a lovely book, sensitively written and offering a superb collection of Heyson’s artworks for your enjoyment.

PS If you’re ever in South Australia, I can recommend a trip to The Cedars at Hahndorf.  It’s billed as the home of Hans Heysen but you can see Nora’s studio, and that’s where her private collection is held.

Author: Jane Hylton
Title: Nora Heysen, Light and Life
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2009, 112 pages
ISBN: 9781862548404
Source: Bayside Library Service, Beaumaris Branch

Editor: Catherine Speck
Title: Selected Letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen
Publisher: NLA (National Library of Australia), 2011, 351 pages
ISBN: 9780642277305
Source: Bayside Library Service, Beaumaris Branch

Availability: Click the links on the titles to go to the publishers’ websites.  There are also books in the Hans Heysen shop at the Cedars in Hahndorf.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2019

Mazarine, by Charlotte Grimshaw

Charlotte Grimshaw (b.1968) is one of the most high profile authors in New Zealand.  While she has yet to win a major award outside New Zealand, her books are reviewed internationally and she has been nominated for and won numerous awards at home.  I disliked the widely acclaimed Opportunity (2007) and didn’t finish it (though you should read the comments below my review to see the opinion of someone who really liked it), but I really admired Starlight Peninsula (2015) because of the interesting issues it raised. So I didn’t hesitate when I saw Grimshaw’s latest title, Mazarine, at the library…

Mazarine was longlisted for the 2019 Ockhams and my explorations at Wikipedia tell me that her intention with her last five books has been to create her own version of a Human Comedy, after Balzac – a series of linked novels and short story collections about life in New Zealand.  Well, what Mazarine gives us is a view of New Zealanders who are multicultural, cosmopolitan and widely travelled.  This is the blurb:

When her daughter vanishes during a heatwave in Europe, writer Frances Sinclair embarks on a hunt that takes her across continents and into her own past. What clues can Frances find in her own history, and who is the mysterious Mazarine? Following the narrative thread left by her daughter, she travels through cities touched by terrorism and surveillance, where ways of relating are subtly changed, and a startling new fiction seems to be constructing itself.

There is a moment mid-way through the book when the text specifically addresses this issue of a new kind of fiction.  Frances, the central character, who has a kind of face blindness affecting her ability to recognise faces, is an author. She’s had some short stories published, and she’s toying with ideas for her first novel:

Absurd that I’d told her [Angela Lang, a journalist] about my supposed novel, a project I couldn’t even begin until I’d found Maya.  A woman who couldn’t read women: how could you hang a plot on that?  A woman wanting answers to her strange, isolating illiteracy, searching for answers to a lost mother while at the same time seeking — in a sense, seeking blind — her beloved daughter, who was missing in the ether, the futureworld. Could you construct a narrative out of blank spaces, out of disconnection? (p.172)

If Grimshaw’s intent was to explore these kinds of limits on fiction, then I would say that she has succeeded.  But the novel does more than that, it touches on some significant issues, not least the impact that surveillance has had on ordinary people.  When Maya goes missing and Frances makes contact with the mother of Joe, (the boyfriend travelling with Maya), Mazarine cautions against asking the police for help.  It’s not just that an email that doesn’t seem quite right in tone isn’t likely to be taken seriously because police would say that in a digital world the missing person had been in contact.  It’s also that while Mazarine’s son Joe is an atheist, her other son Mikail is Muslim like his father Emin (who’s from Chechnya, though living in Paris).  Mikail is ‘political’ and has been living in Molenbeek, a part of Brussels which has a reputation for being a hotbed of terrorist activity.  Mazarine understands why he’s angry:

‘In my opinion it’s quite rational for Mikail to be political and angry.  I’m occasionally quite political and angry myself.  But I don’t get put on lists, stopped at airports*, hassled in the street. According to my ex-husband, Mikail was angry about the way he’d been treated by authorities since he moved to Brussels, there were some incidents where he was stopped by police, and then since the terror attacks in Paris it was getting worse, a sort of vicious cycle, distrust and resentment on all sides. Mikail isn’t easy-going like Joe, he broods, he gets upset. I’m just saying, don’t go to the police yet; let’s think about it first.’  (p.76)

*Entirely by coincidence, I’ve just started reading Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, and her first chapter features a Muslim woman who misses her flight because of a lengthy airport interrogation.

It dawns on Frances that any enquiry might trigger scrutiny that might cause harm to three innocent young people and she realises that she is actually a little afraid of the State…

… and by the State I mean the internationally linked network of surveillance that’s meant to protect us but increasingly seems as much oppressor, at least potentially, as protector. We’ve been given the impression that once a person has caught the attention of the security services, of the Five Eyes, or whatever name you give to the vast, anonymous apparatus that watches us, then even if innocent, he or she will be at risk, certainly marked indefinitely. (p.80)

And she realises that the expectation that Muslim parents report their children’s suspicious behaviour is more complex than it appears:

How many Muslim parents in the UK and Europe must be going through this, anxious about their children’s alarmingly secretive activities (yet doesn’t even the most innocent teenager delight in being alarmingly secretive), assured by all the relevant ‘anti-radicalisation’ services in the community that they can seek advice in confidence, yet knowing that as soon as they bring their children to the attention of authorities they are exposing not only the child but the whole family and community to forces that are themselves alarmingly secret, uncontrollable, relentless. It would certainly seem safer to try to correct the wayward child oneself. (p.84)

Grimshaw wrote and published this book before the Christchurch atrocity, but the questions she raises are certainly pertinent now.

However, and this is a big ‘however’,  Frances is a whiny, needy, over-thinking character who (as with Eloise in Starlight Peninsula) drinks too much so her narrative is incoherent.  (As with Eloise in Starlight Peninsula) she has an obnoxious mother, but in this novel Inez is not her birthmother, and narcissistic Frances who loves to analyse everything has a fine time wondering about Inez’s own disorganised attachment issues as causation for her obnoxiousness.  The reader can also ponder whether everybody is gaslighting Frances in order to protect Inez, but it’s quite possible that the siblings Frank and Natasha don’t exist, since Frances’s psychiatrist questions whether they do.  The other problem that readers can mull over is whether Frances really does see Nick (her Ex), who gets into her locked house and attacks her, an event which triggers her flight out of Auckland.  It seems real enough at the time, but when she subsequently sees him in London, Paris and feels watched even Buenos Aires, well, I’m not sure whether he was a figment of her overactive imagination, and I assume that was intentional on the author’s part.

This exasperating characterisation almost made me abandon the book, but of course I had to find out what had happened to Maya, and why!

See also the review at The Spinoff.

Author: Charlotte Grimshaw
Title: Mazarine
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House NZ), 2018, 278 pages
ISBN: 9780143771821
Source: Bayside Library Service, Sandringham Branch

Available from Fishpond: Mazarine

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2019

A Season on Earth, by Gerald Murnane

The image on the cover of Gerald Murnane’s A Season on Earth is immediately recognisable to Melburnians of a certain age.  A quick Google search reveals its provenance: the photo is by Neville Bowler from The Age newspaper in 1972 when the CBD in flood was front page news.  Chosen by the inimitable W H Chong for the cover image, this photo of a man alone, stranded high and dry yet apparently calm, is just perfect for this book…

As Murnane explains in the introduction, A Season on Earth has history.  It was originally published in 1976 as A Lifetime on Clouds by Heinemann – in truncated form with just two of the four sections from the original manuscript.  Indeed this the form in which I bought the 2013 Text Classics edition at the Boyd Community Library in Southbank.   I had gone to hear Murnane in conversation with Andy Griffith, who wrote the introduction.  (Although the book is now available in its entirety, I shan’t be jettisoning A Lifetime on Clouds because I like the introduction.  And I wish I’d asked Murnane to autograph it when I had the chance!)

The story, such as it is, comprises the droll activities of a character called Adrian Sherd.  What’s this? you may ask, since Murnane is so adamant in his later books that it is facile to expect characters (or plots) in fiction.  Well, A Season on Earth is Murnane’s second novel, for all that its publication is his 15th published work.  It’s a bildungsroman, and in the first section Adrian in the 1950s seems a lot like an adolescent ‘character’, one who is obsessed with elaborate sexual fantasies which take place in America.  The second section reveals his marriage to a good Catholic woman of extraordinary fertility – but like his sizzling sexual experiences in America from Part One, none of it is real.  It’s all his vivid imagination, struggling to reconcile his strict religious upbringing in a mundane suburb of Melbourne with his adolescent sexuality.  This is followed by the two sections excised from A Lifetime on Clouds: Adrian joins a religious order but discovers it’s not his vocation.  As we learn in Part Four, it’s writing that is his vocation, and the whole book has been about his intellectual and emotional journey towards a creative life.

But I’m minded here to quote the New York Times, cited on the Text Publishing website because it describes exactly how I read Murnane.  When I first read his fiction it was new to me and I tried to make it fit into my experience of reading.  I don’t do that now:  I let my mind wander where it will, as suggested by the NYT:

‘Reading Murnane, one cares less about what is happening in the story and more about what one is thinking about as one reads. The effect of his writing is to induce images in the reader’s own mind, and to hold the reader inside a world in which the reader is at every turn encouraged to turn his or her attention to those fast flocking images.’

Since A Season on Earth is an early work, reading it is less like having images triggered by the text and more like a ‘story’.  The reader is never in doubt about what’s real and what’s not, even though Adrian himself has difficulty separating his fantasy life from the real one.  Nevertheless some of the images are catalysts for a good chuckle:

After he had set the table for tea, Adrian read the sporting pages of The Argus and then glanced through the front pages for the cheesecake picture that was always somewhere among the important news.  It was usually a photograph of a young woman in bathers leaning far forward and smiling at the camera.

If the woman was an American film star he studied her carefully.  He was always looking for photogenic starlets to play small roles in his American adventures.

If she was only a young Australian woman he read the caption (‘Attractive Julie Starr found Melbourne’s autumn sunshine too tempting to resist.  The breeze was chilly, but Julie, a telephonist aged eighteen, braved the shallows at Elwood in her lunch hour and brought back memories of summer’) and spent a few minutes trying to work out the size and shape of her breasts.  Then he folded up the paper and forgot about her.  He wanted no Melbourne typists and telephonists on his American journeys.  He would feel uncomfortable if he saw on the train one morning some woman who had shared his American secrets only the night before.  (p.16)

This image (nothing like what came to be known as a Page 3 Girl), and its innocence despite Adrian’s smutty intentions, led my mind to the highly sexualised images that surround us every day now.  Goodness only knows how hormonally-challenged young men negotiate it all!

The sequence in which the young Adrian is dazzled by the pageantry of the coronation in 1953 and works it into his fantasy with Lauren and Rita and Linda in the Bluegrass Country of Kentucky is laugh-out-loud hilarious.  They plan a little surprise for him and Lauren and Linda emerge from behind the bushes in brief two-piece bathing suits that dazzled him. The fabric was cloth-of-gold studded with semi-precious copies of all the emeralds and rubies and diamonds in the crown jewels. 

Behind them came Rita, draped in a replica of the coronation robe itself.  And when the other two lifted her train he saw just enough to tell him that under the extravagant ermine-tipped robe, she was stark naked.  (p.22)

A-hem.  Perhaps not every one might be amused…

Adrian’s grasp of religion is laugh-out-loud funny too:

The examination of conscience was supposed to be a long careful search for all the sins committed since your last confession.  Adrian’s Sunday Missal had a list of questions to assist the penitent in his examination.  Adrian often read the questions to cheer himself up.  He might have been a great sinner, but at least he had never believed in fortune tellers or consulted them; gone to places of worship belonging to other denominations; sworn oaths in slight or trivial matters; talked, gazed or laughed in church; oppressed anyone; been guilty of lascivious dressing or painting.

Adrian had no need to examine his conscience.  There was only one kind of mortal sin that he had committed.  All he had to do before confession was to work out his total for the month. For this he had a simple formula.  ‘Let x be the number of days since my last confession.’

‘Then the total number of sins = 2x/5 + 4 (for weekends, public holidays or days of unusual excitement).

Yet he could never bring himself to confess this total.  He could have admitted easily that he had lied twenty times or lost his temper fifty times or disobeyed his parents a hundred times.  But he had never been brave enough to walk into confession and say, ‘It is one month since my last confession, Father, and I accuse myself of committing an impure action by myself sixteen times. ‘ (p. 28)

I defy anyone to read Adrian’s use of moral theology in order to reduce his total to a more respectable size without doubling up in laughter.

Although I’m delighted to have the full version of this book to read, I can understand why Heinemann pruned it so drastically.  Part Three, where Adrian goes to a seminary to prepare for the priesthood is also droll, but the satire relies on some knowledge of the practice of Catholicism as it was in the 1950s, and, IMO it works especially well for readers who can detect in it, Murnane’s future interest in images and landscapes.  I suspect that an editor, not knowing what was to come from this author, might not have recognised some significances in Parts Three and Four.  (And worried, maybe, that it was too ‘Catholic’ for a general audience?)  All the same, excising Parts Three and Four not only ruined the story, because readers got only half of Adrian’s character, but it also deprived readers of some comic gems.

For example, when Adrian’s aunt tells him to have a special devotion to Our Lady, Adrian organises a sacred beauty contest.  He harvests a pile of images of the Madonna from books and holy cards:

He tried not to think of it as a beauty contest—he knew that Catholics were advised not to take part in such things.  And he had never forgotten that a bishop in America once excommunicated a young woman for appearing in the Miss Nude Universe Contest.

Adrian’s competition was not judged according to physical beauty, although the winner would have to be graceful and pretty.  He intended to find among his pictures of Our Lady the one that would most arouse his devotion. After he had decided on the winning picture, he would take it to Blenheim [the seminary] and paste it inside the door of his room.  Each time he left the room he would glance up at the picture and carry away the beautiful image of Our Lady in his mind.  She would inspire him in his work and study just as the image of Denise McNamara had inspired him in the old days at St Carthage’s.  [Denise McNamara is the girl he ‘married’ in Part Two – without ever having plucked up the courage to speak to her.] (p.259)

Adrian tests out his four finalists to see which was best at protecting his ‘holy purity’ while he watches what he thinks is a raunchy film.  (This is the Fifties, remember, when Hollywood had strict rules about depicting ‘bedroom scenes’.) And significantly, for readers of the mature Murnane, the winner protects him by conjuring a landscape that offers no temptation.  Further on, Adrian reads a book called Elected Silence by the American Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton. This classic autobiography of redemption, about the conversion and vocation of a sinner, is transformed by Adrian into film scenes, accompanied by a mighty orchestra playing the climax of a gem from the classics such as Overture 1812 or Capriccio Italien.  On the train to Blenheim he realises that non-Catholics had their own version of history and he sees events in history in images.  On the northward journey it is dark after they change trains at Albury, and it is not until Part Four when he comes home to be a writer, that he sees the vast plains of western NSW, and the reader remembers how Murnane’s fascination with vast empty spaces becomes the fiction entitled The Plains.

In Part Four, I was much entertained by Adrian’s public service stint in the Department of Education.  For those of us old enough to quake in terror when each term the Education Gazette announced which ‘temporary’ teachers were to be shunted about all over the state, it is intriguing to learn that there was actually no system to it at all.  Adrian devises his own.  Fascinated by landscapes he selects destinations in rural England, based on these Victorian rural schools having the same name as the ones in his map of England (such as Macclesfield, Malmsbury, and Mortlake).  He is sure he is doing these hapless teachers a favour when he matches the most deserving cases who are teaching in colourless Australian places (in Melbourne suburbs such as Brunswick, Coburg and Maribyrnong) to greener(!) places such as Horsham.

Every day he could send two or three young men and women on long arduous journeys that would bring them at last to idyllic English landscapes. (p. 388)

Later on, he modifies his system to give some of the young men a taste of the solitude and hardship that his favourite poet had endured, sending

a few complacent young men to one-teacher schools with names that seemed the Australian equivalents of the remote places mentioned in A Shropshire Lad: Peppers Plain, Big Hill, Clear Lake, The Cove, Mosquito Flat. On fine spring days when he crossed the crowded lawns of the Treasury Gardens, he envied the young temporaries in their distant schools, surrounded by the raw material for whole volumes of poignant, lyric poetry. (p.440)

Images of Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright are inevitably triggered by this droll sequence…

Is it necessary to have read Murnane’s other books first? I would say not at all, merely that it is enhanced by familiarity with his oeuvre.  A Season on Earth is well worth reading in its own right, and although much of it is a very funny comic novel that pokes fun at Catholic guilt, it is also a poignant portrait of a lonely individual trying to come to terms with being different in a world regimented not just by his religion but by a conformist society.

There is so much more that I could share, but I will stop now, and recommend only that you beg, borrow or steal yourself a copy as soon as you can.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: A Season on Earth
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 485 pages (first published in truncated form by William Heinemann as A Lifetime on Clouds, 1976)
ISBN: 9781925773347, hbk 1st edition (RRP $39.99)
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available including as an ebook direct from the publisher, from Fishpond: A Season On Earth and from all good bookstores.


I’ve just discovered that Bloglovin’ has been copying my entire posts for their so-called Reader – which is an unambiguous breach of my copyright.

I don’t usually mind people reblogging my posts, as long as they’re not doing it solely to draw people to their sites, and as long as they comply with the ASA (Australian Society of Authors) rule about 10% (see the yada-yada in the RH sidebar, down at the bottom.)
But I object very strongly to third parties copying my reviews in total. Presumably, they are doing this to make money, out of my content.

I’m not the only one: Ashley at Nose Graze doesn’t like it either, and I’m adopting her solution which is to change the settings on my blog so that RSS feeds only access a summary, not the entire post.

That might inconvenience some readers, I’m sorry about that.

I’ve never thought about it before, but my cookbook shelves are a glimpse into the way I’ve lived my life. The oldest ones are recipe books for a beginner cook wanting to do it well: they include the CWA cookbook and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, plus Margaret Fulton and the Women’s Weekly Cookbooks. Recipe books from the 80s reflect my ‘earth mother’ phase, when I made everything from scratch.  They also represent a long period of time when I was a vegetarian, mainly because I was (still am) opposed to factory farming.  This phase led me to branch out into recipes from all over the world with recipes for Italian, Chinese and Asian cooking, and when The Spouse came into my life and we began to travel overseas, things became more adventurous so that now there are books of Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern cuisine.  The recipes became more complex too, influenced in part by MasterChef, but also by the restaurant scene here in Melbourne.  You can see this in some of the foodie books I’ve reviewed here on my blog, with pride of place going to my efforts to reproduce a recipe by Heston Blumenthal. 

At first glance, Magic Little Meals belongs back in my ‘1980s earth mother’ phase.  It’s not a glossy ‘food-porn’ book.  It’s only 200m square, and although it’s profusely illustrated, the stylist has concentrated on the food and the ingredients rather than the décor.  But it’s actually a profoundly contemporary book because it addresses a concern that so many of us have…

We have had a terrible year in the kitchen garden.  We harvested barely enough tomatoes to fill a pudding bowl, our beetroot failed altogether, and as I write there are two – just two – eggplants finally emerging from plants that had many flowers but otherwise had failed to fruit at all. Our only success has been the pumpkin vine. The reason for this debacle is that the weather has been profoundly affected by climate change, and we hadn’t changed our practice to accommodate it.  And not one of our numerous gardening books has any advice, and the ABCTV’s Gardening Australia has been no help at all.  If there is anything on their website about how to handle extreme weather situations, I can’t find it.

But Magic Little Meals is all about growing your own food for the table, and it is written with a keen sensitivity to the way the world is now. It’s the only book I’ve ever come across that has practical tips for protecting the vegies during those extreme heat waves.

Lolo, who as a child lived through the Dutch famine of 1994-45, knows the importance of food:

While war raged, I lost contact with my family after a children’s transport took me to an eastern province. Here, foster parents increased my weight by 50% in four months. Growing one’s own food was the rule there, one of many life lessons learned during that period.

But good land is the key. In Australia I grew my first fruit and vegetables. I worry about the speed at which the Australian environment is being logged, mined out and sold off to make the nation grow. With partner Burr Dodd I planned how to revegetate South Australia by 2050. The result was the movement known as Trees For Life.

I wrote about my gardening experiences for my grandchildren to prepare them for possible food shortages. One Magic Square: Grow your own food on one square metre and its companion Outside the Magic Square: A handbook for food security are still in print. [Click the links to go to the Wakefield Press website.] This present volume, written with Tori Arbon, is a response to readers’ requests. It completes the unintended trilogy. May these books continue to inspire people to recognise that good food comes from good soil and that widespread growing at home can perhaps save the planet.

As I took Amber for her walk today, I noticed yet again how new housing developments in our street have reduced the space for gardens.  When I moved here in 1979, all of the houses built in the frugal fifties had a front and back garden, the front used for ornamentals, and the back for play space, the vegie patch and the washing line.  But now? The two story townhouses built diagonally behind us have only a pocket-handkerchief front garden with a patch of lawn smaller than a bed sheet, and a strip of land at the back where they *sigh* have planning permission to plant bamboo. There are growing numbers of McMansions housing families of just four: these are built right to the edge of boundary fences, with barely enough room for a single tree.  This is typical of the way styles of urban living now make people dependent on buying all their food, but the other result of urban expansion is that some of our best arable land is being swallowed up by outer-urban housing.

I remember my mother saying of England that she never again wanted to live in a country that couldn’t feed itself.  Could Australia ever be reduced to relying on imports?  Lolo Houbein asks, what if China, currently exporting to Australia, can’t feed its billions in the future?

There are things that we can do.  Magic Little Meals asks for no more than one square metre of land, and has tips for growing food in pots on balconies too.  Their best tip for apartment dwellers is to

ask neighbours whether you can all grow one or two different vegetables and do swaps.  One climbing tomato could provide enough for 8 people; on cabbage could be quartered.  As for one zucchini plant… you’ll find out! (p.3)

There are five parts to this book: after the introduction, each chapter in Part One depends on a freshly picked vegetable from your garden with growing notes provided for each vegetable. Part Two is about making food interesting with herbs and spices. Part Three, ‘Kitchen Mysteries Unwrapped’ is for novice cooks to learn the basics and the secrets of preserving a glut.  Part Four is about growing and eating your own fruit: for us that’s just citrus trees and olives, but the advice applies just as well if you are buying fruit when it’s in season.  (Cheap strawberries, the little ones that supermarkets don’t want) when quartered and dried are delicious with winter cereal!) Part Five, is about the health and community values of taking an holistic approach to the food you eat. It is this part that has a whole section called ‘Vegetables to Grow in Very Hot Summers’: it explains about the pollination problems we had and how some plants with exposed fruit like eggplant, tomato and capsicum ‘stand still’ through heat waves.

There are other really useful aspects to this book: one of the most important is that the recipes are for 1-2 persons.  You can easily double them to make meals for four, but how often do you find that the recipe for four in the other cookbooks ends up with three serves being eaten by two people and the one-serve leftover in the fridge ends up being thrown out?  This is terrible from a food waste point-of-view, but recipes don’t always halve very well, e.g. when it uses only one egg.

So, what are the recipes we’re going to try?

  • Pumpkins (obviously).   Ever heard of cooking pumpkin vine tips?  No, nor had I.  It turns out that there’s some pruning you’re supposed to do, and you can cook the tips with fennel and coriander, and finish them off with coconut oil, olive oil or pumpkin oil. (Ever heard of that?  I hadn’t.  Google tells me there are all sorts of claims for its health benefits.  But it appears to be expensive: about $25 for 250ml.) There’s a recipe for unripe pumpkin soup too.
  • Eggplants (obviously, unless the possum gets them).  I’ve tried a couple of recipes for Baba Ganoush, and I’ll try this one too.  All of them have the same ingredients, it’s all in the proportions.  I yearn to make one as good as our friend Zeina does, but she doesn’t use a recipe!
  • Speedy celery salad: our celery are newly planted right now, but it won’t be long before we have heaps. I like the addition of Moroccan spice mix to this recipe.
  • Capsicums: we are still getting a few fingerlings from a heritage capsicum plant, and they tend to get wasted because we don’t use capsicums all that much. So the Hungarian Goulash Vegetarian might be just the thing, especially since it apparently tastes even better the next day.  White beans substitute for the meat in the traditional carnivores recipe.
  • Spicy Beetroot stems.  Who knew?  These can be steamed with garlic, onions, mustard seed and other spices. The recipe calls for a dollop of yoghurt but that’s no problem because I make my own.  (Kitchen Warehouse sells a set-and-forget yoghurt maker that makes it ridiculously easy.)
  • Finally, potatoes, when we have them next season: I’ll have a go at Boxty: it’s an Irish recipe, sort of like a cross between a pancake and a rosti.

Just one thing: the recipe for making your own ricotta cheese says you need unhomogenised milk.  Not so.  From 2 litres of ordinary homogenised milk from the supermarket, I use a little bit in whatever recipe calls for it, make yoghurt with about 2/3 of the rest of it, and then ricotta with whatever is left over.  And you can use lemon juice instead of vinegar if you have lots of lemons.  The recipe I use says that the only kind of milk you can’t use is long life (UHT) milk because it won’t curdle.

Authors: Lolo Houbein and Tori Arbon
Title: Magic Little Meals, Making the Most of Homegrown Produce
Publisher: Wakefield Press, Adelaide, SA
ISBN: 9781743055793
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Wakefield Press and Fishpond: Magic Little Meals: Making the most of homegrown produce


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2019

Thursbitch, by Alan Garner

I discovered the English author Alan Garner (b-1934) when my parents gave me his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, (1960) one Christmas.  I loved its English folklore and was enchanted by the fantasy.  Still, it came as a surprise to me when at teachers’ college studying children’s literature, I was introduced to Red Shift (1973).  That book didn’t strike me as one I might read to primary school children, and when I hunted them out, nor did Brisingamen’s sequel, The Moon of Gomrath(1963), or Elidor(1965), or The Owl Service (1967).  I liked them, but they were difficult books conceptually, and when I decoded the last lines of Red Shift (using the Lewis Carroll Alphabet Cipher) I would have hesitated to use the book even in a secondary school because I thought it was far too pessimistic for melancholy adolescents, even if their chances of decoding its devastating final words were slim.

Well, Thursbitch (2003) is difficult and pessimistic too.  It’s one of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition).  It shares elements with Red Shift because it plays with time, the long ago past bleeding into the present and influencing the action of the characters in both eras.  Although it’s only 160 pages long, it took a long time to read because I had to keep re-reading parts of it to make any sense of it.  It didn’t help that due to its slim size, I chose it as a ‘handbag’ book

The landscape is ancient.  Thursbitch is actually a valley, (also spelt Thursbatch) near Macclesfield in the Pennines on the borders of Cheshire and Derbyshire.  When the story begins, in our present time, a mismatched couple are climbing in difficult terrain and getting lost, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Sal is suffering from some kind of neuro-degenerative disease (maybe Motor-Neurone Disease or Multiple Sclerosis) and Ian is her long-suffering carer.  Sal is making a last-ditch effort to research standing stones, wayside markers from the past and is very knowledgeable about the geology of the landscape, though her recall of words is failing as her disease progresses.  Ian is the butt of her scorn.

In the 18th century, Jack Turner perishes in the snow.  He is a ‘jagger’, someone who harvests salt from the moorland, and through the flashbacks in the narrative the reader learns that he’s also a mystic whose pagan cult is threatened by the growing domination of Christianity. Where Sal links the ancient markings on the markers with contemporary astronomical knowledge, for Jack they are part of his rituals, and because the text weaves in and out of both periods of time, these events impact on each other.  Sal finds an inscription on ruins that are not marked anywhere on their maps: the markings are about someone freezing to death in the snow.

But it’s not at all easy to understand what’s going on because Garner’s use of dialect is uncompromising:

‘Nan Sarah.’  You’re all as I ever needed in all this world. Did you not know?’
‘You seem never suited.  Forever agate.  Like as you’ll never rest.’
‘But that’s my way,’ said Jack.  ‘I’m a jagger born, me.  I walk in my own shoon.  And the more I see the more I want to be with you.  Not some trollop else.  And if you are teeming, and you’ll keep it and take me, then I’ll be a toad with two side pockets.’ (p.32)

And the contemporary situation isn’t much easier because the action is carried through dialogue that (even with simple events like Sal refusing to use her walking sticks) doesn’t always reveal what’s going on until you’ve almost given up.  (I remember that I had to read and re-read Red Shift many times before I worked out what was going on.)

The review at The Guardian hints that it might have helped if I’d read Strandloper first.

Author: Alan Garner
Title: Thursbitch
Publisher: first published 2003
Personal copy, OpShop Find.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2019

The Aunt’s House, by Elizabeth Stead

Elizabeth Stead (b. 1932) is the author of six novels: The Fishcastle (Penguin, 2000); The Different World of Fin Starling (Penguin, 2003); The Book of Tides (2005)The Gospel of Gods and Crocodiles (UQP, 2007) The Sparrows of Edward Street (UQP, 2011) – and her latest novel The Aunt’s House (2019).  This is the blurb:

Recently orphaned, Angel Martin moves into a boarding house populated by an assortment of eccentric and colourful characters. She’s befriended by the gregarious Winifred Varnham – a vision in exotic fabrics – and the numerically gifted Barnaby Grange. But not everyone is kind and her scrimping landlady, Missus Potts, is only the beginning of Angel’s troubles. Angel refuses to accept her fate. She is determined to forge a sense of belonging despite rejection from her two maiden aunts, Clara and Elsa, who blame Angel’s mother for their brother’s death. Her Sunday visits to the aunts house by the Bay expand her world in ways she couldn’t have imagined.

Elizabeth Stead brings her classic subversive wit and personal insight to this nostalgic portrait of wartime Sydney. In Angel Martin, she has created a singular and irrepressible character. A true original.

Set in 1942, the novel begins with eleven-year-old Angel adjusting to a new life as an unwanted addition to a boarding house run by the parsimonious Missus Potts.  Her mother has just died, and her paternal aunts don’t want her because they believe her mother was responsible for their brother’s death in a car accident.  Although Stead’s book is fiction, the poignant plight of this unwanted child reminded me of Alva’s Boy, an Unsentimental Memoir by Alan Collins’.  This memoir, recalling Collins’ wretched childhood in Sydney in about the same era, is the remarkable personal story on which his novels were based. (See my review.)  Knowing that during these years there were indeed unwanted, unloved and horribly neglected children who were so ill-fed and ill-clothed, made The Aunt’s House seem even more vivid…

Like Alan Collins, Elizabeth Stead uses humour to lighten the mood, and both books feature childhood escapades as well.  But the quirky narration of The Aunt’s House is entirely different: written in third person but from Angel’s perspective, it shows us a scatty child who thinks, speaks and acts in strange ways.  People say that she is not quite right in the head, and the proximity of the Sanatorium where her mother died means that people often talk about madness, as they did in those days when mental illness was less well understood.  The other characters in the boarding house are also eccentric, and Angel is befriended both by the savant Barnaby Grange who sees the world in numbers, and by the flamboyant Winifred Varnham who dresses in exotic robes and wears a chopstick in her hair.  Part of the value of The Aunt’s House is that like the famous One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nestit encourages readers to think about the folly of labelling people and to consider instead the fluctuating borders between eccentricity and mental illness.

And in Stead’s story, Angel’s odd behaviour is protective, to some extent.  She is able to earn a little money when she’s finished her onerous chores, and she uses it to travel Sydney’s trams and to visit her aunts even though she is not made welcome.  She doesn’t take no for an answer, because despite the overt hostility of these aunts, (one more so than the other) Angel remains optimistic. She doesn’t know what it’s like to have a family but she believes fervently that she can create one.   And because she hasn’t learned the aloof behaviour that’s common on public transport, she chatters away and makes friends with the amused conductors and other people that she comes across.

Her interior life is enriched by the music she hears in her head all the time, and by art.  A visit to the art gallery is stymied when she is told that she can’t enter barefoot, but Angel uses her initiative to persuade one of her mother’s neighbours to help her out with some second-hand sandals.  She is enchanted by the colours:

O! the colours! O, the richness of it all!  Everything was so overwhelmingly beautiful it made Angel cry and the crying disturbed her because she never cried.  Angel crept from painting to painting close to the floor and in such a way she hoped she might make herself invisible or possibly part of the display.

There was one painting in the main gallery that was big, bigger than all the walls in the boarding house stuck together, and there was a seat to sit on to watch it.  Angel just sat there with tears running, like the creek in the gully, down her face with the joy of it all…O, the colours!  And the music inside her turning somersaults was loud enough for the whole place to be deafened by it and its colours poured all over the place…. O, the colours, the colours.  (p.64)

(What would this painting be, I wonder?)

A regular truant from school, Angel has educated herself with books, music and art, and her environmental awareness stretches to renaming the ocean as the nation of Mariana, after the Mariana Trench.  I found myself thinking about how best a school would teach an erratic, untamed but highly intelligent child like Angel and came back to the motto I had on my professional LisaHillSchoolStuff blog: ‘If students can’t learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn’. Of course, nobody today teaches the way they did in 1942, but a child like Angel would still be a challenge in a regular classroom. So if I were still running professional development workshops, I’d be providing excerpts about Angel’s thinking and behaviour, for teachers to discuss strategies for providing a child like her with an education that would be enjoyable and meet her needs…

However… There are three separate instances of sexual abuse in this novel.  They are very lightly sketched, and the tone of Angel’s response suggests that although these experiences have taught her to be wary, her hard-won resilience is a coping strategy.  But I do wonder, what message is conveyed when three of five males in the story are abusers?  Does this not run the risk of normalising this kind of aberrant behaviour, if it’s portrayed as something that any man will do, given a vulnerable child and opportunity?

Click this link to hear Elizabeth Stead on Radio National’s Conversations program back in 2007.

Author: Elizabeth Stead
Title: The Aunt’s House
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2019, 280 pages
ISBN: 9780702260353
Review copy courtesy of UQP


This short book is my introduction to an ancient myth from Indonesia.  It’s this month’s selection for our Indonesian book-group, and this is the blurb:

I La Galigo, the vast Bugis epic myth, is one of the most voluminous works in world literature. Set in Luwuq, the cradle of Bugis culture, the cycle tells the story of the initial residence on earth of the gods and their descendants. “The Birth of La Galigo”, the poem found herein, represents a contemporary retelling of one of the epic’s most popular sections.

Wikipedia tells us this:

Sureq Galigo or La Galigo is an epic creation myth of the Bugis from South Sulawesi, written down in manuscript form between the 18th and 20th century in the Indonesian language Bugis, based on an earlier oral tradition. It has become known to a wider audience mostly through the theatrical adaptation I La Galigo by Robert Wilson. (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove most links, viewed 13/4/19)

(What’s really nice about this Lontar Foundation edition is that it includes double page B&W stills from the theatrical performance to illustrate scenes from the story.  You can see some of these images here.)

Interesting, isn’t it, that we know the ancient myths of Greece and Rome, and increasingly we are encountering the ancient stories of our Indigenous people, but that we tend not to know the stories of our near neighbours?  It’s a pity because La Galigo is a great story. As the Introduction tells us, the original epic of about 300,000 words, is longer even than the Indian Mahabarata (200,000 words) and Homer’s Odyssey – but the episode that is best-known and loved is the story of the tempestuous relationship of Sawérigading and the princess I Wé Cudai, a union which produced the hero I La Galigo.

The tale begins with the creation of the world, which as in other classic myths, consists of the Sky, the Earth and the Underworld.  The creation of people to populate the earth comes about because the King of Destiny is challenged to recognise a fundamental truth: gods need people to worship them.

After a moment’s silence,
the King of Destiny conferred with his consort,
‘What do you think of this idea, Datu Palingé?
What if we settled our children there,
encouraged them to plant their roots on earth,
to give that barren place inhabitants?
Can we call ourselves gods at all
if there is no one in the land beneath the sky
to worship us as gods?’ (p.11)

(This lyric translation by John H McGlynn is published side-by-side, page-by-page with the Indonesian poem by Sapardi Djoko Damono, which is derived from the original Bugis version translated into Indonesian by Muhammad Salim.)

BEWARE: SPOILERS (but myths are meant to be well-known so it hardly matters)

So they send Batara Guru down to Mayapada to create and rule over the world and in accordance with the Creator’s decree, he marries his cousin Wé Nyilik Timo from the Underworld so that they can have descendants.  Three months later we know that that the predicted twins are on the way because she gets cravings of a rather unusual kind:

So many things she craved:
two-headed deer from Botillangi,
fleet-footed mousedeer from Senrijawa,
tanri flowers with roots growing in Heaven
and blooms draping into the Lower World,
twin coconuts from the sky’s edge,
rose apples from the spirit world,
ring-necked deer from Botillangi,
nutmeg from Ternate,
and deadly fish with dagger spurs from Heaven. (p.37)

Batara sends Ladunrusséreng, the king of all fowl and all the birds of the land to fetch these demands threatening to pound them into flour/should they be slowed by even the strongest wind. 

When the twins are born, the boy arrives equipped with a golden dagger and battledress, while his sister is attired as a priestess.  And in accordance with the Creator’s decree, they are immediately separated so that they don’t fall in love with each other.  But of course as in all myths of this type the inevitable happens, and Sawérigading falls for his sister Wé Tenriabeng as soon as he comes of age and sets eyes on her.  No way, he is told, in no uncertain terms and in fear of the threatened drought and famine should he break the rules, he agrees to go in search of the beautiful woman who resembles his sister instead.

There are, of course, travails to be undergone: a tree that can only be cut down with an axe from heaven, with timber that can only be assembled into a flotilla of ships in the Underworld.  Then there are seven enemies to be despatched, including the betrothed of the woman he seeks.  But alas for Sawérigading, after all that he endures, the princess I Wé Cudai doesn’t fancy him.  She overhears women gossiping about him:

“Our lady will suffer greatly
if forced to lie with a man not of this country,
to bed with a seaman with so much body hair
you could braid his back
or use it as tinder to start a fire. (p.89)

And she tells her father that she would prefer exile/ or better yet, death! rather than marry him.  Her father returns the wedding gifts, which (unsurprisingly) offends the would-be groom:

He looked as if he would explode,
felt as if shards of glass were in his eyes,
such was the feeling in his heart.
Like a wave striking the shore,
his response was immediate,
ordering his men to rip out the stakes
and tear down the wall now encircling the town.

They then set fire to the place
and very soon the town was in flames. (p.91)

I Wé Cudai’s relatives sue for peace and an unwanted marriage to him is the price of his mercy.  Still, she sets some firm conditions,  and only in a pitch dark room, on a bed surrounded by seven layers of mosquito netting, circled by seven walls, and guarded by seven royal court officials is Sawérigading able to have his heart’s desire…

Cravings signal her eventual pregnancy – and they are equally unusual!

So many things did she desire:
twin coconuts from a distant shore;
hearts of gnats from Uriliu at the bottom of the sea;
mosquito bellies and fish from the Lower World;
and tanri flowers that grow in the Kingdom in the Sky. (p.99)

(As before, and under the same duress, the birds go out to fetch all this.)

Sawérigading is delighted when the child is born, the very image of his handsome father.  Alas, I Wé Cudai doesn’t behave in a very motherly way when the child Galigo is born.

“Put him inside a broken cooking pot
and place him on a raft.
Set the raft adrift in the river
and let it be taken away downstream.
He must not be the heir to Luwuq’s throne;
he shall not stay in this palace.
His wailing is misery to my ears!” (p.105)

Just as well Sawérigading has a concubine handy to foster the child!

Robert Wilson’s production of I La Galigo has been performed around the world, including at the Melbourne International Festival in 2006. You can see a short video of the performance here.

Authors: Muhammad Salim, Sapardi Djoko Damono and John H McGlynn
Title: The Birth of I La Galigo (I La Galigo Lahir)
Publisher: The Lontar Foundation, 2013, 117 pages, first published in 2005
ISBN: 9786029144338
Source: Personal copy, purchased in Indonesia for our book group by Halina – terima kasih banyak, Halina!

Available from the Lontar Foundation.

The Spice Islands Voyage, in Search of Wallace is the June choice for our Indonesian bookgroup but I’m reading it early because it’s hard to source and we need to circulate the library copy as best we can.

It’s more than a travel book.  Tim Severin is an explorer who specialises in recreating historic voyages, and the list of his books at Wikipedia is impressive:

  • Tracking Marco Polo (1964) – Motorcycle ride from Venice to Central Asia along the Silk Road
  • Explorers of the Mississippi (1968)
  • The Golden Antilles (1970)
  • The African Adventure (1973)
  • Vanishing Primitive Man (1973)
  • The Oriental Adventure: Explorers of the East (1976)
  • The Brendan Voyage (1978) – Sailing a leather currach from Ireland to Newfoundland
  • The Sindbad Voyage (1983) – Sailing an Arab dhow from Muscat, Oman to China
  • The Jason Voyage: The Quest for the Golden Fleece (1986) – Sailing from Greece to Georgia
  • The Ulysses Voyage (1987) – Sailing from Troy to Ithaca
  • Crusader (1989) – Riding a heavy horse from Belgium to the Middle East
  • In Search of Genghis Khan (1991)
  • The China Voyage (1994) – Across the Pacific Ocean (almost) on a bamboo raft named Hsu-Fu
  • The Spice Islands Voyage (1997)
  • In Search of Moby-Dick (1999)
  • Seeking Robinson Crusoe (aka In Search of Robinson Crusoe) (2002)

Lest you think that these adventures were merely Boys Own Adventures, here’s a snippet from The Spice Islands Voyage that suggests otherwise:

This was the other, darker side to the apparent tropical paradise of palm trees, green forests and sandy beaches through which we were sailing, and where Wallace had soldiered on for six years of field work.  During the Spice Islands voyage all of us suffered at one time or another from chills and low-grade fevers, even though we had modern medicines and, in Joe, our own doctor on board.  In Banda a small insect bite on my leg turned septic in six hours and puffed up as if I had been bitten by a venomous insect.  I felt giddy and unwell as if I had severe flu, and was dosed with antibiotics.  Leonard developed blotches on his face, and Joe was tormented by rashes all over his body. Even Yanis with his iron constitution and india-rubber physique could sometimes be seen curled up miserably underneath a scrap of sailcloth, shivering and with his eyes dull with fever.  Julia was by far the most vulnerable.  In the twelve months during which she assisted the project, she contracted one bout of typhoid and had dengue fever twice. (p.129)

The ‘Wallace’ referred to in this excerpt, is Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, and biologist who is famous for two things: conceiving the theory of evolution independently of Darwin (which prompted Darwin to stir his stumps and publish The Origin of Species instead of dithering about); and identifying in 1859 the line separating the fauna of the Indo-Malayan and the Austro-Malayan regions in the Indonesian archipelago.  Asian birds, bats and mammals are west of the line, and unique Australasian fauna are only found east of the line.  As you can see from the diagram the science has developed since Thomas Huxley named this line after Wallace, because we now know more about ancient sea levels and the continental shelves, but Wallace’s observations were still an amazing achievement.

Darwin, Severin tells us, got the lion’s share of the credit for the theory of evolution, for as the years went by he was to make fewer and fewer references to his co-discoverer, instead referring to ‘my doctrines’ (as distinct from what he dismissed as Wallace’s excellent memoir).  So eventually everyone forgot that the theory of evolution was originally introduced to a small scientific gathering in Victorian London who would have thought of it as the Darwin-Wallace theory.   ‘Survival of the fittest’ indeed…

Wallace wasn’t, apparently, bitter about this.  Severin says he came back from south-east Asia and stepped into Darwin’s shadow, deliberately and courteously.  His book, The Malay Archipelago, was the monument he preferred… However in later years when Wallace was struggling to support a wife and family, Darwin was at least instrumental in Wallace receiving a pension in recognition of his work.  Later still, Wallace also received medals, honorary doctorates and an Order of Merit so at least among scientists, his pioneering ideas have been acknowledged.  Severin’s coverage of the intricacies of this controversy is excellent.


Severin begins The Spice Islands Voyage with an homage to Wallace which explains this Darwin controversy and goes on to discuss Wallace’s background.  The seventh son of a shabby genteel family, and a bookish, shy young man, Wallace had a father who managed to lose all their money and so the young man had to find his own way in the world.  His interest in geology and botany was sparked by his work as an assistant to his brother who was a freelance land surveyor, and he funded his travels by writing and (ironically given that he was one of the first to recognise conservation as an issue) through the sale of the exotic species he collected.  But he confounds the image of the Victorian explorer which is based largely on the African model.

He did not go forward, rifle in one hand, bible in the other, on the lookout for big game or souls to save.  Nor did he seek to map the source of great rivers or to climb the peaks of the highest mountains.


… even allowing for the differences between Africa and Asia, Wallace was still an explorer of a different style. He did not advance at the head of a long line of porters, one of them perhaps carrying a tin bath on his head.  Wallace worried more about his supply of pins to stick into insect specimens than about bath supplies.  He recruited only a handful of local helpers when he needed them, and his only regular companion was Ali, a Malay assistant whom he trained to shoot and skin birds or bet butterflies. (p.10)

Wallace’s observations of the people he met were shaped by his own experience of being ‘other’. Severin says that his writing shows that he saw things from the perspective of the local people, and he did not want to be feared as a foreign devil. However, I read this book conscious that I would be discussing it with Indonesian friends, and perhaps that made me sensitive to Severin’s own writing about the ‘other’:

We had scarcely dropped our rucksacks to the ground when two men emerged shyly from the forest behind us.  I had seen them in Labi Labi among the crowd of onlookers when we came ashore from our prahu.  The taller of the two had been hard to miss as he was a muscular, bare-chested man in black pantaloons, with a stern expression, who looked as if he was auditioning for a role as a pirate.  Now he hovered at the edge of the camp-site.  He had a wooden cage strapped to his back, and in one hand a hoop of bamboo with a wooden crosspiece.  It was a bird perch on which two bright red Chattering Lories were swinging and chirruping as their name would suggest.  His companion, hardly bigger than a 13-year-old child, had a dreamy smile and was wearing such a tattered pair of trousers and tee-shirt that he might not be wearing any clothes at all.  (p.203)

I interpret this description as a reminder of the widespread malnutrition that stunted growth in Indonesia under the Dutch, and the poverty of the clothing suggests near-destitution.  But there is no commentary about that, so it serves to convey the author’s negative perceptions and Severin thenceforth refers to the first man as ‘the pirate’.  I also noticed that when recording an official’s demand for money to cover expenses the sum of 100,000 rupiah is mentioned.  Most readers will not know that this is not a vast amount:  Severin merely notes that it’s about the equivalent of two weeks’ wages, which it might well be in a place of such poverty, but the traveller paying it is parting with only about $10AUD or £5GBP.  So it seems to me that Severin sometimes lets his disappointment with the state of conservation in Indonesia spill over into presenting the locals from a limited western point-of-view, and that his judgements might not accord with other post-colonial perspectives about this.

Wallace’s first expedition was to the Amazon with a fellow enthusiast called Henry Bates, but it ended badly when they split up to follow different interests.  Wallace asked his brother Herbert to join him but Herbert died of Yellow Fever, and Wallace lost all his specimens on the return journey when his ship caught fire.  It is Wallace’s second journey to the Malay archipelago (1854-1862) that Severin recreates, comparing what he found in the late 20th century (the year before the fall of the dictator Suharto) with how things were in the middle of the 19th century.  There is a fascinating chapter about the building of a replica boat, which Severin names the Alfred Wallace, and then he visits the same places as Wallace did.  Notably, Severin compares the contemporary state of affairs from a conservation point-of-view, and in general he disapproves.  In Wahai, he comments on the free-for-all logging industry and its wasteful destruction of century-old trees; and on Ambon and elsewhere, the poaching of endangered birds brought from Aru to open market for export to collectors.  There is also a chapter about exotic species being openly traded as gourmet delicacies, and the chapter about the wholesale destruction of turtle nests for their eggs is devastating.

Severin makes only slight acknowledgement that this trading, which is so disastrous for endangered species, is part of a word-wide trade in collectible species. He mentions Singaporean bird-dealers sending parrots to Pacific countries, and the American market for cockatoos.  But the trade is more global than that, China being a major culprit in the use of exotic endangered species for their so-called Chinese medicine, sometimes witlessly used by westerners so they are complicit in the illegal trade too.  Customs officials occasionally intercept smuggled birds at Australian airports, so there’s obviously a market here as well.  It would be surprising if there were no UK or European collectors IMO, but there is no mention of this.  The reality is that people don’t smuggle endangered species unless there is a valuable market for it.  Disrupting this global trade and supporting alternative development projects is what’s really needed, and IMO it’s not impoverished people in far-flung places or their cash-strapped governments who should be responsible for doing that.  OTOH this book performs a valuable role in raising awareness about what’s going on, and perhaps other writers are best placed to discuss solutions.

What I found interesting was Severin’s commentary about the abject failure of government decrees and international convenants and the indifferent Indonesian bureaucracy, contrasted with the conservation successes of an autocratic ruler who still retains power and influence derived from traditional adat.  Even when Severin finds a place where official environmental programs are successful, Severin dismisses the success stories as being told what he wants to hear so that NGO or government funding will continue.  I’m not sure what I think about this: adventurers tend to have negative views about rules and regulations which get in the way of whatever they want to do.  (Yes, I am thinking of a prominent Australian adventurer with a penchant for pronouncements about a ‘nanny state’).  Likewise, visitors to ‘exotic’ islands also tend to take a dim view of development, preferring the places they visit to be unspoilt by sagging electricity wires and dull buildings for commerce or government.  I’m more inclined to think that people are very pleased to get electricity and other elements of development… and I think it’s much too easy to blame impoverished people for doing whatever it takes to survive in a global economy where the old ways of sustainable living have been so badly disrupted.  The Indonesian government for all its flaws has done a better job of transitioning from colonialism than many other countries have, and there has been a marked improvement in the standard of living for its people.  I’d like to see it do better, of course, and dealing with corruption along with conservation issues would be somewhere at the top of my list of priorities (along with the elimination of poverty).  But I think we should hesitate to judge because the complexities of the situation can’t be identified from short in-country visits*, no matter how well-intentioned.  It would be very interesting to see a book about the current state of affairs written by an independent Indonesian journalist.

*In the Epilogue, Severin acknowledges that for every year that Wallace had been in the Moluccas, we had spent little more than a month.  And he also says that Concentrating on Wallace’s route, we ignored areas where other environmental protection programmes were in progress.  He reminds the reader that their impressions were only gathered from a tiny sliver of the rim of Indonesia.

Nevertheless, this book is enjoyable reading.  Severin accomplishes the role of sailor, historian, popular science writer, and traveller in a highly readable narrative that shines a light on the difficulties of protecting wildlife in remote places.  I’ll be interested to see what my book-group thinks about The Spice Islands Voyage!

BTW here is a National Geographic video of the Red Bird of Paradise, which Severin was so keen to see (and disappointed in that, largely because he went during the wrong season).

Image credits:

Alfred Russel Wallace: London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company (active 1855-1922)First published in Borderland Magazine, April 1896, public domain, Wikipedia

The Wallace Line: By Altaileopard – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Author: Tim Severin
Title: The Spice Islands Voyage, in Search of Wallace
Photographs by Joe Beynon and Paul Harris
Illustrations by Leonard Sheil
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co., UK, 1997, 267 pages
ISBN: 9780316881753, (hbk.)
Source: Port Phillip Library Servioce, St Kilda Branch

Availability: This edition seems to be out of print, but on the day I looked, Fishpond had a used copy: Spice Islands Voyage. However, Amazon has many of Severin’s titles, though I note that a reader at Goodreads was disappointed by the lack of maps and photos in the Kindle edition.

Great news! Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World by Michelle Scott Tucker has been shortlisted for the 2019 Ashurst Business Literature Prize.

Never heard of it?  Neither had I, but it’s worth $30,000 to the winner so it’s a prize worth knowing about.

It’s also a prize worth thinking about… why would such an award be set up?  According to the website, these are its aims:

The Ashurst Business Literature Prize aims to:

  • Encourage business and finance writing and commentary of the highest quality; writing that brings with it the richness that can come from detailed research

  • Stimulate those writers with a knowledge of Australia’s business life and to encourage their continued production of insightful, well researched books that can be easily digested by the general reader

  • Enable all Australians and the general reader to be better informed about Australia’s commercial life and its participants

  • Add another dimension to Australia’s intellectual and cultural life.

Books that are eligible for the prize include corporate and commercial literature, histories, accounts and analyses of corporate affairs as well as biographies of business people.  That description sounds a bit dry, but a look at the shortlist gives a different impression, and shows you why a prize that promotes such books is a good idea.  Click the links on the titles to see the publisher’s descriptions:

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers! (I shall be barracking for Elizabeth Macarthur, of course, and not because it’s the only one I’ve read.  It’s because I loved it.)

The winner will be announced on 15 May 2019.

PS (A-hem) And something else, that had escaped my notice when the second edition of Elizabeth Macarthur came out.  Have a close look at the cover…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2019

All This by Chance, by Vincent O’Sullivan

All This by Chance was the last for me to read of the four titles shortlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.  Like the other titles (see links to my reviews gathered in one place here) it explores what it means to tell the truth:

“They stood out for their ability to explore personal memory and collective mediation of the truth in new and provocative ways that have a lasting impact on the reader,” says the Fiction category convenor of judges Sally Blundell. (Auckland Literary Festival website, viewed 10/4/19)

O’Sullivan, who among other distinctions was Poet Laureate in NZ from 2013-2015, is of Irish heritage, but the characters in All This by Chance have a heritage that they themselves are unsure about.  The story is told in parts, from the unshared perspective and chronology of different generations, but all in third person narrative which effectively distances the characters from each other.

The story begins in postwar Britain, where a shy young pharmacist called Stephen escapes from Auckland, a place he sometimes hated, to a place he knew nothing of.  There in 1947, in London, under the benign paternalism of David Golson, he begins both his career and a puzzled engagement with a post-Holocaust world.  He meets and marries Eva, a woman without a past because she knows nothing at all about her family.  As a baby she had been adopted out from Berlin, and then sent to safety with a Quaker family in England when anti-Semitism was on the rise.  So it is a shock when the past that Eva has been shielded from emerges into their lives: an elderly aunt of whom she knew nothing has survived the Holocaust and been brought to London to be with the sole remnant of her family.

Ruth goes with them when the couple set sail for Auckland.  She is, they were warned, badly damaged by her experience, but the gulf between them is not just because of the impenetrable barrier of unshared languages.  A specialist tells them one day that they should be grateful that she remembers so little of the dreadful years in the camp.  Yet Ruth seemed to know Miss McGovern when they recognised each other on the ship, and Miss McGovern becomes a regular if not really welcome visitor in Auckland.  The genesis of their curious friendship remains unexplained for a long time, until in 1976 a Holocaust researcher panics Miss McGovern into telling Stephen their shared story.  She and her sister Irma were imprisoned because they would not renounce their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Ruth had suffered brutal and enduring punishment because she tried to help Irma in a moment of crisis.  Miss McGovern now is terrified that the researcher will trigger cruel memories which have mercifully been lost.

On the other side of the world in 1968, Stephen’s daughter Lisa lives an idyllic lifestyle in Greece.  While her brother David struggles to resurrect a Jewish identity that his parents never had, she has left all that behind.  She has a genial lover, Fergus, and she is biding her time before starting her career as a doctor.  But real life intervenes and Lisa abandons him, choosing instead to work on an African mission where her life moves towards a trajectory no one could have foreseen.  In 2001 her niece Esther will track down Fergus in the hope that he can shed light on what happened.  Now a bitter and lonely old man, he is only too pleased to have someone forced to listen to him.  And Esther, like the other characters, has to wrestle with the ghosts of the past and whether it is better to seek out the truth or to let things be.

All This by Chance is a perceptive novel, exploring the lives of people who are never sure that they belong.  Although melancholy in tone, it is not a pessimistic novel, but rather one that invites a possibility that belonging, in a world where migration is becoming the norm, might not matter quite as much as we think it does.  Tucked into an episode between Fergus and a woman called Angela, there is this:

He amuses Angela with the stories he tells her. It is weeks since he has taken her out like this.  And when she asks him, is he happy though, is he content the way things are between them, he asks, Who can ever answer that, on a particular day, in a world like ours?

‘It isn’t so difficult,’ Angela said.  But writers like Fergus, she supposes, people who think more deeply about things, you cannot expect them to see things the way others of us do.  She stretches out her hand to put it across his.

‘Take it a day at a time,’ he says.  He sees the crinkling at the corner of her eyes.  ‘We can’t do more than that.’ (p.233)

See also the perceptive review at Alys on the Blog.

Author: Vincent O’Sullivan
Title: All This by Chance
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2018, 335 pages
ISBN: 9781776561797
Source: Bayside Library Service, Sandringham Branch

Available from Fishpond (free delivery from NZ to Australia) All This by Chance


The big news in Australian bookish circles today is the announcement of the Stella Prize. It won by Vicki Laveau-Harvie for The Erratics (see more here and here) but I’ve been sitting on embargoed news that there is an Australian author whose work has been noticed on the international stage for books… Now that the announcement is official….

Some years ago the Commonwealth Writers Prize was shelved and replaced by a Short Story Prize.   What follows is from the press release about the 2019 shortlist, which this year includes a story by Australian Emma Ashworth, who wrote The Floating Garden (which I reviewed here) You can find out more about Emma here.

You might like to look at the official website first, because Emma whose surname begins with A, tops the list, and there is a link to a tantalising glimpse of her story.

Twenty-one outstanding short stories have been selected by an international judging panel to be in the running for the world’s most global literature prize. The writers – 15 women and 6 men – come from 16 countries, including, for the first time, Tanzania, Zambia, Malaysia, Cyprus, and Barbados. The youngest is 20, the oldest 80.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from the Commonwealth. It is the only prize in the world where entries can be submitted in Bengali, Chinese, English, Greek, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Tamil, and Turkish. Such linguistic diversity in a short story prize in part represents the richness of the many and varied literary traditions of the Commonwealth.

The shortlist was chosen from 5081 entries from 50 Commonwealth countries, and includes two translations into English, one from Greek and one from Malay.

Chair of the Judges, British novelist, playwright and essayist Caryl Phillips said: “ The vitality and importance of the short story form is abundantly clear in this impressive shortlist of stories from around the world. These authors have dared to imagine into the lives of an amazingly wide range of characters and their stories explore situations that are both regional and universal. Almost as impressive as the number of entrants and the quality of the shortlist, is the amount of work that the panel of judges have invested in this process. They have read carefully, debated with great sensitivity, and been mindful of cultural traditions as they have collectively reached their decision.  Compared to many literary prizes, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is still young. However, with each passing year the prize gains importance within the literary world. It offers a unique opportunity to read and think across borders, and to connect imaginations from around the globe. It has been a great honour to be a part of the judging of the 2019 prize.”

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is run by Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation. Commonwealth Writers develops and connects writers across the world and helps address the challenges they face in different regions.   The prize is judged by an international panel of writers, representing each of the five regions of
the Commonwealth. The 2019 judges are the Ugandan novelist and short story writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, overall winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Africa); the Pakistani writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif, whose novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (Asia); the award-winning author of speculative fiction, Karen Lord, from Barbados (Caribbean); the British short story writer Chris Power, author of the Rathbones Folio Prize-longlisted collection Mothers (Europe and Canada); and the poet, playwright, fiction writer and musician Courtney Sina Meredith, a New Zealander of Samoan, Mangaian and Irish descent (Pacific).

The 2019 shortlists in full:
‘The Bride’, Adorah Nworah (Nigeria)
‘Extinction’, Alex Latimer (South Africa)
‘The Blessing of Kali’, Irene Muchemi-Ndiritu (Kenya)
‘How to Marry an African President ’, Erica Sugo Anyadike (Tanzania)
‘Madam’s Sister’, Mbozi Haimbe (Zambia)
‘Miss Coelho, English Teacher’, Kiran Doshi (India)
‘Pengap’, Lokman Hakim (Malaysia), translated by Adriana Nordin Manan (Malaysia)
‘My Mother Pattu, Saras Manickam (Malaysia)
‘Resurrection’, Hilary Dean (Canada)
‘Death Customs’, Constantia Soteriou (Cyprus), translated by Lina Protopapa (Cyprus)
‘Deserted’, Erato Ioannou (Cyprus)
‘Amid the Winds and Snow’, Tyler Keevil (Canada)
‘The Night of Hungry Ghosts’, Sarah Evans (UK)
‘Love-life’, Nuzha Nuseibeh (UK)
‘Granma’s Porch’, Alexia Tolas (Bahamas)
‘A Hurricane & the Price of Fish’, Shakirah Bourne (Barbados)
‘The Ol’ Higue on Market Street ’, Kevin Garbaran (Guyana)
‘Oats’, Rashad Hosein (Trinidad and Tobago)
‘Bluey’, Maria Samuela (New Zealand)
‘Screaming’, Harley Hern (New Zealand)
‘Nightfall’, Emma Ashmere (Australia)

For author biographies and short story summaries, please visit

All shortlisted stories will be published on the innovative online magazine of Commonwealth Writers, adda, which serves as a gathering place for stories and a space where writers and readers can talk across divides. The judges will then go on to choose a winner for each of the five regions.

These will be announced Thursday, 9th May 2019 before being published online by the literary magazine Granta. The overall winner will be announced in Québec City on 9th July 2019.
Last year, Kevin Jared Hosein, from Trinidad and Tobago, won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for his story ‘Passage’, which convinced the jury, chaired by the novelist and poet Sarah Hall, as “a truly crafted piece of fiction” that was “immediately and uniformly admired”. In 2017, Ingrid Persaud, also from Trinidad and Tobago, won for ‘The Sweet Sop’. The story was written specifically for the prize – and went on to win the 13th BBC National Short Story Award last year.

Keep up to date with the prize and join the conversation via: |

About the Commonwealth Short Story Prize |

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is run by Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation. Now in its eighth year, it is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction (2000-5000 words). Regional winners receive £2,500 GBP and the overall winner receives £5,000 GBP. Short stories translated into English from other languages are also eligible.

About Commonwealth Writers

Commonwealth Writers develops and connects writers across the world. It believes that well-told stories can help people make sense of events, engage with others, and take action to bring about change. Responsive and proactive, it is committed to tackling the challenges faced by writers in different regions and working with local and international partners to identify and deliver a wide range of cultural projects. adda, the innovative online platform of Commonwealth Writers, is a gathering place for stories and a space where writers and readers can talk across the divides.

With thanks to Kramb and Charlotte Tuxworth at FMcM Associates

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 9, 2019

Kiwi author on the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist

I don’t usually pay much attention to the UK Rathbones Folio Prize: it was launched in 2014 as a (let’s be honest) more highbrow alternative to the Booker, but although it was in its initial phase definitely a prize for literary fiction I’ve never been very excited about it.  Since 2017 the prize has branched out to include any form of writing, fiction, non-fiction or poetry, which is how it comes about that a collection of essays by New Zealand author Ashleigh Young has been shortlisted for the 2019 prize.

Thanks to a tweet from Readings, here is the shortlist (links on titles are to Readings Bookshop):

The prize is worth £30,000.  Nominations are made by an ‘academy’ of great writers which includes Margaret Atwood, A S Byatt, Zadie Smith and Australians Peter Carey and J M Coetzee.  The winner will be announced on May 20th.

According to Wikipedia, the other 2019 nominations were:

  • Ann Wroe, Francis: A Life in Songs
  • Bob Gilbert, Ghost Trees
  • Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, House of Stone, see my review
  • Sue Prideaux, I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Freidrich Nietzsche
  • Georgina Harding, Land of the Living, on my TBR
  • Nancy Campbell, The Library of Ice
  • Edward Carey, Little
  • Chris Power, Mothers
  • Will Eaves, Murmur
  • Sally Rooney, Normal People
  • Mohammed Hanif, Red Birds
  • Zaffar Kunial, Us

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