Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 1, 2019

2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist

The 2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced yesterday but I was feeling a bit seedy so I didn’t catch up with the news till today.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction nominees are:

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
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
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 (Update 5/3/19 On Angela Savage’s recommendation, I’ve ordered this on interlibrary loan: it’s hard to find).
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)

Indigenous Writing Prize

Taboo by Kim Scott, see my review
Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling by Larissa Behrendt, see my review
Common People by Tony Birch, see my review
Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss, see my review
The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell

Visit the awards website for all other categories.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2019

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, by Tina Makereti

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke is another of the titles longlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Literary Awards. But it was on my TBR months before the longlist was announced, thanks to an enticing review at Alys on the Blog.  I’ve mentioned this blog before: along with Booksellers NZ, it is the blog to follow if you want to keep up with what’s new and interesting in New Zealand books.

Tina Makereti is the author of Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, which I reviewed in 2016 and included in my Best Books of that year.  It was an impressive debut, but I’m not quite so enamoured of The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke.  I have to admit that my attention wandered a bit in the middle section of the novel…

This is the  blurb:

A vivid novel about a Maori boy exhibited in Victorian London – a provocative tale about what makes us human. ‘The hour is late. The candle is low. Tomorrow I will see whether it is my friends or a ship homewards I meet. But I must finish my story for you first. My future, my descendant, my mokopuna. Listen.’ So begins the tale of James Poneke- orphaned son of a chief; ardent student of English; wide-eyed survivor. All the world’s a show, especially when you’re a living exhibit. But anything can happen to a young New Zealander on the savage streets of Victorian London. When James meets the man with laughing dark eyes and the woman who dresses as a man, he begins to discover who people really are beneath their many guises. Although London is everything James most desires, this new world is more dark and dazzling than he could have imagined.

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke revisits some of the themes of Where the Rekohu Bone Sings.  Once again a character leaves what has become an insecure home and ventures into the unknown in order to seek opportunities for a better future.  The story of James’ childhood in a New Zealand wracked by war is poignant: he sees and experiences terrible things that no child should see.  But missionaries teach the orphaned boy English and a chance encounter with an artist leads to a passage to England and employment as a specimen in an exhibition.  (The Artist, as James calls him, is the sort that came to the antipodes for the purpose of making a book.  Such books, about the quirky new colonial possessions of the empire, were very popular in 19th century England.)

As in Makereti’s debut novel, community is an important theme, but this novel invites the reader to consider inclusion and exclusion, together with civilisation and savagery. James is always caught between the rigid artifice of separate communities and he is always ‘other’, both in the way he takes pride in his individuality and in the way that others define him because of his race.  Yet even as his awareness of being exploited grows, James is no pathetic victim.  He is in London on his own terms:  he endures the curious gaze of the audience because that is his means of learning.  Because he is housed as a gentleman with The Artist’s family, he has access to a library and polite society, and because he is an exhibit he gets to attend Royal Society gatherings.  But his education is furthered in other unanticipated ways: without the approval of his hosts, he makes the acquaintance of other misfits: performers in freak shows, drunks, and gamblers.  The solidarity of this community is forged from an awareness that they are at the bottom of a stratified society.

BEWARE: SPOILER

In this novel, Makereti also explores the ‘othering’ of sexuality.  James’  dearest friends are the seaman Billy, and his lover Henri (Henrietta).  She has freedom of movement and agency because she dresses as a man.  She chooses not to marry because that would compromise the independence that few other working-class women could have had in 19th century England; her joyful life is in stark contrast to the circumscribed life of The Artist’s sister.  But almost inevitably, it seems, the love between Henri and Billy, both in male dress, is observed and perceived as obscene.  Tragedy results, compounded by a breach between Billy and James, because James, when drunk, made unwanted advances to Billy.

So James is alone and friendless, and ‘other’ in every way.

Back in 2011, I read Jane Sullivan’s Little People which fictionalised the story of a sideshow troupe of little people.  Sullivan’s novel gently satirised the curiosity about such troupes by inverting all the expectations that the inquisitive might have.  But Makereti’s novel goes further: it invites the reader to consider the effects of prejudice and discrimination.  And although it is set in the past, its themes are still relevant today.

The cover design by Cat Taylor of a Victorian-era cabinet of curiosities is very apt.  By the look of the image credits, it looks as if it’s been created with a great deal of thought, because each item has been sourced separately and references some aspect of the story.

According to her profile at Goodreads, Tina Makereti is of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Maniapoto, Pākehā and, in all probability, Moriori descent.

Author: Tina Makereti
Title: The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House New Zealand) 2018, 299 pages
ISBN: 9780143771562
Source: personal copy, purchased from Fishpond

Available from Fishpond: The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke $28.86AUD

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 24, 2019

Dinner with the Dissidents, by John Tesarsch

Last December, a comment from a reader called Robin reminded me that I had a copy of John Tesarsch’s Dinner with the Dissidents and on her recommendation, I moved it up the TBR.  Unsurprisingly, since I’ve read and liked Tesarsch before, the book turned out to be interesting reading,  with a pertinent take-home message for our time…

Actually, there are two take-home messages: one is that we ought not be complacent about government surveillance in the form of those phone meta-data laws, and the other is that we let significant books lapse from our attention at our peril.

Almost at the end of the novel, the narrator has an airport conversation with a woman who has never heard of the iconic Russian author Solzhenitsyn, and he muses on the fate of his books — books which in the 1970s were required reading at senior secondary schools and tertiary institutions. In my young adulthood, everybody read Solzhenitsyn, and there was even a film of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But now?

You often read, in critical reviews, that certain films or books have not aged well, as though this is an inherent defect of the nature found in cheap consumer goods, in the plastic toys we buy at Christmas for or children, that are never expected to last the year. The same criticism has been levelled at Solzhenitsyn, and in his case, I believe it is unfair.  Rather, much of his work is too demanding, if not confronting. (p. 303)

Well, the times have changed, and while during the Cold War education institutions were keen to ensure that the young understood the perils of communism, there isn’t the same impetus now since the fall of the Soviet Union.  But what Tesarsch is keen to show in his novel, is that while the surveillance methods of the past were clumsy by comparison, digital surveillance in modern states can be equally unfair, and equally damaging to innocent individuals.  (Or to those who are not guilty, which is not quite the same thing).

The story travels in two strands.  An ambitious young writer called Leonid Krasnov is planted into a circle of dissidents during the Brezhnev era in the USSR.  Lured by the promise of having his own work published, Leonid is supposed to pass on information about (and thus prevent the underground publication of) the exposé Solzhenitsyn is writing. (The Gulag Archipelago, which should date the timeframe as 1958-68, because that’s when TGA was being written but there is a #NoSpoiler event in the novel which puts the date at 1971).  Always plagued by doubt, but unable to extricate himself from the notice of the KGB, Leonid at first complies with what is asked of him, which is not a problem because he can’t find out anything more than what is already known by his superiors anyway.  But his shaky allegiance wavers when he falls in love with the cellist Klara, whose career has been terminated by her support for the dissident cellist Rostropovich — whose career had likewise been curtailed by the Soviets because of his support for the not-quite-so dissident composer Shostakovich.  (Shostakovich has had a good press recently, with sympathetic depictions of his career frustrations in Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time and The Conductor by Sarah Quigley, but in this novel, the composer’s ambivalent cooperation with the Soviets is regarded by Leonid as a sellout.)

Woven through this narrative is the second strand, narrated by the same man as an ageing bureaucrat in Canberra.  Exiled from the USSR, ‘Leo Borsky’ migrated under an assumed name to Australia to evade Soviet surveillance in the UK.  He married Beth (now dead) and had a daughter, Amy, from whom he is estranged.  It is part of his job to deal with that contentious meta-data legislation* that enables the storage of phone meta-data for surveillance purposes… and it comes to his attention that this data is being abused for political purposes.

As in Moscow, he was at first sanguine about Canberra’s surveillance:

The laws require the telcos and internet service providers to retain, for a minimum of two years, all the metadata for every customer.  And they enable a raft of government agencies to access that data without a warrant.  Civil libertarians complain that this is an outrageous invasion of privacy, and I accept they make a fair point.  But these are different times, and law-enforcement agencies need broader powers. If the libertarians were aware of the intelligence we have received about terrorism and organised crime, surely they would not be so strident with their complaints.  (p. 38)

And while the pressures are not quite the same as the heavy hand of the KGB, Leo confronts the same dilemma: should he share the information that he has?  Will it achieve anything?  In the absence of whistleblower protection, should he leak it, at considerable risk to himself, to gain the respect of his daughter and salvage his self-respect?

The novel is a bit heavy-handed in places, laying on thick all the negative aspects of Soviet life, but perhaps this is necessary: younger readers might not be privy to the catalogue of Soviet privations relayed to us during the Cold War as evidence of the failure of communism.  (People forget, or never knew, that in WW2 the USSR was devastated by the German invasion and scorched-earth policy of retreat, and unlike the rest of Europe, allies and otherwise, the USSR received no help to restore its industries and economy under the Marshall Plan.  (See Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal (1948) for more about this). And at the same time, they had to spend big on defence to deal with a hostile NATO on its borders.  No wonder they had legendary queues for consumer goods).

Even so, the narrative tension is maintained by the authentic risks that Leonid/Leo’s dilemmas involve. Dinner with the Dissidents is a thought-provoking book, which shows in digestible form, why we ought to ensure that there are adequate safeguards against encroaching surveillance and its abuse.

There was a review by Judith Armstrong in The Australian Weekend Review (Nov 3-4, 2018) but that’s paywalled and I can’t find any other reviews online.

*According to Wikipedia, the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015 requires that the following types of information need to be retained by telecommunication service providers:

  • Incoming and outgoing telephone caller identification
  • Date, time and duration of a phone call
  • Location of the device from which phone call was made
  • Unique identifier number assigned to a particular mobile phone of the phones involved in each particular phone call
  • The email address from which an email is sent
  • The time, date and recipients of emails
  • The size of any attachment sent with emails and their file formats
  • Account details held by the internet service provider (ISP) such as whether or not the account is active or suspended.

Author: John Tesarsch
Title: Dinner with the Dissidents
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2018, 312 pages
ISBN: 9781925584851
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $29.99 AUD

I often say that I don’t read crime fiction, but I do watch some of it on DVD in small doses.  I like Vera and Shetland, and Death in Paradise if I’m in the mood. And just recently the BBC series of Maigret, as played by Rowan (Mr Bean) Atkinson…

My TBR includes a couple of books by Simenon: the NYRB translation of Dirty Snow and in French Les inconnus dans la maison and Le passager du Polarlys.  But not anything from the Maigret series, which according to Wikipedia comprises 75 novels and 28 short stories.  (Enough to keep Rowan Atkinson and the rest of the cast busy for a very long time.) So when at the library I chanced upon No #19 Maigret, I thought, why not?  It’s short enough to read in an evening…

Maigret is not going to make a convert of me: it was mildly entertaining but it conforms to the detective fiction pattern I’d expected it to.  Which is why now, barely eight hours after I finished reading it, the details are fading, and there isn’t an idea or theme that’s memorable either:

The traditional elements of the detective story are: (1) the seemingly perfect crime; (2) the wrongly accused suspect at whom circumstantial evidence points; (3) the bungling of dim-witted police; (4) the greater powers of observation and superior mind of the detective; and (5) the startling and unexpected denouement, in which the detective reveals how the identity of the culprit was ascertained. Detective stories frequently operate on the principle that superficially convincing evidence is ultimately irrelevant. Usually it is also axiomatic that the clues from which a logical solution to the problem can be reached be fairly presented to the reader at exactly the same time that the sleuth receives them and that the sleuth deduce the solution to the puzzle from a logical interpretation of these clues. (Britannica.com)

In this novel there is a slight variation in that the wrongly accused suspect is also one of the dim-witted police.  But on p56 we learn that this was a standard gangland killing, and the challenge was to get #Insert gangster’s name finally to admit that this was the truth.  On p73 we learn that Maigret had no need to look over his shoulder.  He knew what was going on.

And so does the reader. The only interest for the reader is to discover how Maigret will get the admission that he needs when he’s no longer in the police force (because he’s retired).  The dim-witted policeman (of course) gets it wrong when he says that Maigret can’t use his ‘method’ in this case:

‘Usually, you get involved in people’s lives, you try to understand their thinking and you take as much interest in things that happened to them twenty years earlier in concrete clues.  Here, we faced with a bunch about whom we know pretty much everything.  They don’t even try to put us off the scent’. (p.103)

One thing I noticed: in the BBC TV series, Maigret’s wife is a significant character.  Maigret discusses matters with her, and he values her knowledge of human nature as a contribution to his thinking about the cases he solves.  Not so in the book.  (Or not this one, anyway).

Author: Georges Simenon
Title: Maigret (Maigret #19)
Publisher: Penguin Classics, 2015, first published 1934
ISBN:9780141397047
Source: Dandenong Library Service, Springvale Branch

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2019

The Age of Light, by Whitney Scharer

I made rather heavy weather of The Age of Light by debut American author Whitney Scharer.  It’s a fictionalised slice of the life of Lee Miller, one of those women more famous for ‘being the wife of’, than for her own achievements which were considerable.  But though the novel does reveal the talent, hard work and determination of a woman who broke into the emerging field of professional photography, the novel focusses a great deal on Lee’s romance with the surrealist photographer Man Ray, IMO at the expense of other aspects of Miller’s life.  At 367 pages, the novel just seemed too long for itself.

However, Scharer writes evocatively of Miller’s artistry as a photographer, so much so that I put the book aside to explore her oeuvre online.  After her experiences as a photographer during the war, Miller married in the UK and had a son, Penrose, who has rescued her work from the attic, as it were, and created a magnificent digital archive of thousands of photos by Miller, mainly from the 1940s.  The photos show the range of Miller’s craft, including striking shots of Parisian life, Paris fashion, her surrealist compositions and her work as a war correspondent at Normandy and Dachau.

It was this work at the liberation of the camps which traumatised Miller, and the novel begins with her declining years at Farley Farm, where she lived postwar with her husband the artist Roland Penrose and became a food writer.  The stage is set with a surreal dinner party where the meal somehow survives her alcoholism but her editor at Vogue is under no illusions.  From there the novel switches to Miller’s 1929 arrival in Paris and her ambition to leave behind a successful modelling career and move to the other side of the lens.  She attracts the attention of Man Ray and agrees to pose for him in hope of learning the craft of photography, as much a matter then of developing the negatives as it was of managing light, exposures and unwieldy equipment.  This aspect of Miller’s career is fascinating, and the decadent artistry of the era is effectively made more striking by the author’s insertion of brief scenes from WW2 that illustrate how traumatic it was for war correspondents present at the liberation of the camps.  My understanding of that horror was enhanced by my recent reading of The Dead Still Cry Out, the Story of a Combat Cameraman, by Helen Lewis which vividly reveals how war correspondents were utterly unprepared for what they witnessed but felt compelled to record it.  Scharer captures some of this compulsion in Miller’s despatches to her editor, captioned with the words ‘Believe it’.

But (while I am well aware that there is a market for it) reading about love and its angsts, or sex and its variations does not interest me much.  These overlong segments make The Age of Light more of a romance novel than an historical novel, which is IMO a pity.

The cover art by Stuart Wilson of the Picador Art Department for the Australian edition is gorgeous, and I freely admit that it’s what attracted me to reading the book in the first place.

Other reviews are at the Washington Post, and RunSpotRun … where I learned that this book is one of those million-dollar bidding-war books.  The reviewer Jenn Fields asks interesting questions about whether that knowledge influences reviews or not, but then goes on to declare that The Age of Light is a dazzler of a debut that deserves the buzz. It all depends on what you’re looking for, I suppose…

Author: Whitney Scharer
Title: The Age of Light
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019, 376 pages
ISBN: 9781509889136
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2019

Johannesburg, by Fiona Melrose

Hard on the heels of my reading of Jane Caro’s Accidental Feministscomes an exploration of a mother-and-daughter relationship that exemplifies Caro’s association of feminism with occasional inter-generational friction.   When mother-daughter expectations about gender roles diverge, there can sometimes be mutual disappointment.

In Fiona Melrose’s novel Johannesburg (2017) the central character Gin spends more time thinking about her role as a creative artist and a writer, than she does organising an important birthday party for her elderly mother. She is trying—and failing—to be a dutiful daughter, with a mother who doesn’t understand her ambition.  Since Gin doesn’t think the domestic arts are important, her mother expects the party to be a debacle and her response is unkind and discouraging.  But there are two sides to this coin: Gin’s choices impact on her mother — who had no choice in them at all.

Would her mother be kinder if Gin had simply complied, married some local man, set up a house, spent her days choosing soft furnishings, teaching art at the local primary school?  Gin had a sense that this would have allowed her mother to settle into some sense of comfort, achievement, objective standard by which she could announce her own parenting, and her daughter’s life, a success.  Instead Gin had asked her mother to navigate an alien set of credentials.  Difficult to quantify, impossible to justify when all around were simply toeing the line.  By refusing to conform, Gin had forced her mother to do the same.  She had forced her to defend something she didn’t believe in.  (p.104)

Johannesburg is a contemporary reworking of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, set on a single day in Johannesburg on the day that the death of Nelson Mandela was announced in December 2013.  Gin (Virginia) has returned from her work as an artist to spend the day preparing for her mother Neve Brandt’s 80th birthday party.  Narrated in chorus of voices, the novel brings characters together across a colour and class divide that still persists in the New South Africa.  It’s a satisfying book that richly rewards attention to narrative strands that don’t at first seem connected. (Pay attention to the dog Juno: Juno was the Roman goddess who protected the nation as a whole but also kept special watch over all aspects of women’s lives!)

Death stalks the novel: Gin’s wild adolescence in a lawless post-apartheid city, makes her preoccupied by death.

They were rainbow nights for the new Rainbow Nation, lawless and blood-full, so that all four chambers of her heart raged in unison.  After dominating her childhood, it seemed as if the police were all but gone.  While violent crime played out in suburbs and townships across the city in a way that made Gin fear her own breath in the dark. And there was no one there to save her, not her parents, not her friends.  Certainly not [her unwanted suitor] Peter. So she embraced it.  The whole city was an accident of death.  This one was in the wrong place, that one, his time was up.  A roll of the dice.  Wrong house, wrong petrol station, wrong time and your day was done.  Death was everywhere and came in every form.  Just to be alive was dangerous and to survive a defiance. (p.65-6)

The irony is that privileged white people like Gin are still not in the same sort of peril as the black underclass, and she doesn’t realise that until late in the novel.

Mandela’s death brings people in their thousands out onto the streets to pay homage to the comrade who became a king, but — surprising perhaps to many of us — there are intimations that the ‘secular saint’ hasn’t fulfilled all the hopes that accompanied his release from prison and subsequent election as the first back head of state.  Dudu’s brother September (a corruption of his Zulu name Secheba) reminds the reader of Septimus, the veteran suffering from shell-shock in Mrs Dalloway, and like Septimus is similarly detached from society by post-traumatic stress.  Unable to work since being shot by police breaking up a strike, September lives in squalid conditions in a cardboard shelter on vacant land under a freeway.  Despite majority rule, he is one of the black millions on whose labour South Africa’s wealth is based, but who does not share in the rewards of the new democracy and remains a victim of an economic system that made their land unfit for heroes.

Half-crazed by pain, his use of ganja and his quest for justice, Septimus is the spokesperson for uncomfortable truths, and he thinks that Mandela has been unwell for so long that he has been an ineffective ruler.  By inference, Mandela has also presided over a shocking massacre at the Verloren miners’ strike (a strike which is modelled on the lethal force used to break up the Marikana Miners Strike in 2012).  Verloren means ‘lost’ in Afrikaans, and so September’s protest placard bearing the words VERLOREN.  HERE I AM,  has a double meaning: he is a lost soul who refuses to be forgotten, but his quest for justice over what happened at Verloren is a lost cause.

It’s a lost cause because Gin’s disappointing suitor Peter, has betrayed his own personal history. During apartheid, he had the courage to represent Black South Africans who ran foul of racist laws, but in the new Rainbow nation he has jettisoned his principles and now works for a mining company in a huge corporate building called The Diamond.  He’s about to be complicit in laying off 2000 workers without batting an eyelid — he’s more concerned about not wanting to work with a flirtatious colleague who irritates him. Peter is not the man who will plead the Verloren victims’ case; his job is to manage the fallout, to prepare for every eventuality and reality, legally. It is Septimus who sees him clearly for what he has become:

I hold nothing against him on account of whiteness but I do judge him on his forgetfulness. He has holes for eyes. He has forgotten how to look at a man, he cannot meet my gaze. This will be his downfall.
He pretends he does not see my protest. I know this man, I have seen him at the mines. He is young. He should know better. He sat there and pretended to listen to us and hear our grievances but in the end he was there to bury the sins of the men who hide in the Diamond. (p.266)

There are echoes of Woolf’s essay A Room of My Own (1929) in which she says that women must have an independent income and a space of their own, if they are to be creative. But in Johannesburg Melrose transcends Woolf’s neglect of women not of her social class.  Neve has a whole house of her own, her space invaded only when Gin comes home, and Gin has an apartment of her own too in New York…,

… more than enough space for one particularly since she had a studio for work, subsidised and spacious.  The artist’s necessity.  A studio of her own was what she had yearned for, not a husband. (p.243)

But political change hasn’t made much difference to social inequality: things are very different for the Zulu servant Mercy.  The room she has is hers only for as long as she works for Mrs Brandt, and Mrs Brandt has the right to treat her like a child and demand to see what was in there or see how it was kept. Mercy has always dreamed of having her own apartment with a small kitchen, and…

… often when she felt trapped, saw her life the same every day until she retired, arthritic and spent, she imagined all the things she could cook in that little kitchen. A stove that she could buy second-hand, and a small table (she would paint it red) and in there she would sing out her hymns as loud as she cared while she fried vetkoek to sell to builders and gardeners all over the city, mielie fritters, beautiful cakes for white ladies’ book clubs, peanut better biscuits too.  Even stew and pap.
But she had no such room, no such kitchen to call her own and it was this lack that she felt most keenly. (p.264-5)

The city setting is powerful: seething with peaceful crowds in mass grief for Mandela contrasted with a sense of menace from the traffic jams, white drivers cocooned inside a car but unable to ignore the touts, beggars and thieves.  In a gated community where no one can see inside a neighbour’s property, Gin impulsively opens the house gates to let in a delivery without doing a routine identity check first. The irony is that the only intruder she lets in is Peter, when that’s the last thing she wanted to do.

Johannesburg is represented as a city with many problems in a nation that has many problems, but beauty still matters:

For all of it, the fracturing, the pain, the proximity to death, she knew what she had always known: beauty matters. […] Despite the cruelties, the awfulness, the knowledge that in this city, something terrible, catastrophic was always about to happen, made it matter more.  Every flash of beauty however glancing had to hold its own weight in gold. (p.320)

The descriptions of flowers for the party are exquisite…

For another review, see Books Alive.

Author: Fiona Melrose
Title: Johannesburg
Publisher: W.F. Howes, 2019, 323 pages
ISBN: 9781528849319 (large print edition)
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 18, 2019

Accidental Feminists, by Jane Caro

To afficionados of the ABC current affairs program The Drum, Jane Caro’s Accidental Feminists is exactly what you might expect of the author: forthright, amusing, full of pithy anecdotes to illustrate a point, and witheringly authentic.

This is the blurb:

Women over fifty-five are of the generation that changed everything. We didn’t expect to. Or intend to. We weren’t brought up much differently from the women who came before us, and we rarely identified as feminists, although almost all of us do now.
Accidental Feminists is our story. It explores how the world we lived in-with the pill and a regular pay cheque-transformed us and how, almost in spite of ourselves, we revolutionised the world. It is a celebration of grit, adaptability, energy and persistence. It is also a plea for future generations to keep agitating for a better, fairer world.

This was our anthem, (and it explains the cover art):

 

(BTW, in my search for this video, I came across another more recently-made clip which featured women in all kinds of swirling sexualised imagery accompanied by backgrounds proclaiming harmony, which to me shows me just how far our younger sisters have to go.)

What was revolutionary about our generation was that the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s is the first in history where most of the women worked for wages for most of their lives. And because money is power, this has changed everything.

While (of course) not everyone accessed higher education, Caro acknowledges that the Whitlam government’s abolition of university fees was pivotal:

If tertiary education was free, it was harder to rationalise preventing girls from accompanying their brothers, especially as so many of us had higher marks. More than that, however, our mothers also began to grasp the chance that was offered to them.  It was female mature-age students who radically swelled the ranks at universities during that tiny window of opportunity…(p.71)

However…

[women]  tend to be concentrated in lower-status industries and at the lower end of the pay scale.  Even more depressing is the fact that previously high-status, well-paid occupations tend to fall in both status and pay when they become female dominated.  General medical practice, marketing and human resources (the latter of which once meant a board position) spring to mind. (p.72)

Caro attributes this to ‘flexibility’ — because (again backed up by her statistics) most women still do the ‘second shift’ i.e. the housework, the cooking, the childcare.  Again there are also structural reasons like expensive child-care and high effective marginal tax-rates when moving from three to four days a week to full-time work due to the loss of family and child benefits. (p.75)

The take-home message of Accidental Feminists is this: there is a cohort of older women in dire financial straits because of structural and social impediments to financial independence that have affected their entire lives.

All of these hurdles and impediments combined with a stubborn unconscious bias against women and their abilities—despite how well they do in education—is the reason women lose that much-quoted $1 million of potential earnings over their lifetime in comparison to men.  This situation is grossly unfair and limiting if you are a women who has managed to earn a relatively high income, but it is devastating if you have earned a low one.  The cumulative effects of this loss as they age and become less able to get paid work are why so many of this generation are living on the edge of poverty.  They are directly responsible for the fact that women retire with half the [superannuation] of men and a major contributor to the fact that one in three women retire with no super at all. (p.75)

The chapter about elder abuse (not just financial) which is most often female elder abuse, is shocking. But the raw facts about female retirement are also confronting.

The average age of ‘retirement’ whether voluntary or not is currently 58.8 years for men and 52.3 years for women.  Yet if you [like Caro] were born after 1 January 1957, you are not eligible for the old age pension until you are sixty-seven.  If you have superannuation (and remember, one-third of women currently retire with no superannuation at all) you can access it between the ages of fifty-five and sixty, depending on when you were born.  Nonetheless, given so few of us have much put aside for our old age, if so many women leave the workforce—either voluntarily or not—a good fifteen years before they can access the pension, what on earth are they living on? (p.156)

The answer is, for some of them, the Newstart allowance which pays them a pittance to apply for jobs they are deemed too old to get.

(I knew some of my teaching friends who’d been pushed into early retirement were doing it tough, but I hadn’t realised that there was this gulf between how their fractured work history had led to financial insecurity and how my unbroken full-time work history had led to a comfortable and secure retirement).

For some too many women, this financial insecurity leads to homelessness…

By unpacking the mixed messages that women absorb about work, money, caring and assertiveness, Caro shows that there is not just still a need for change, but also for women to wise up.  Using the example of Lisa Wilkinson, a television co-host who asked to be paid the same as her male counterpart Karl Stefanovic, and was subjected to a TV station damage control story that her pay rise would cost ten producers their jobs — Caro comments wryly:

Odd, isn’t it, that it is only the large salaries paid to women that impact on the jobs of the more lowly paid in an organisation?  Apparently Stefanovis’s $2 million annual whack had no effect on Channel 9’s ability to hire people. (p.57)

This is the 21st century, and we have had equal pay since 1969, but still (as Caro shows with statistics) women are paid less…

Our hesitation to put a value on ourselves, I believe, is partly because of all the messages we have unquestioningly absorbed, but it is also self-protective.  We know how the world reacts to women who ask for what they want.  Sensibly enough, we try to minimise the fallout.  When women act like women and put other people’s needs ahead of their own and when they are modest, self-effacing and submissive, they may win approval but they don’t get what they want.  When they act like men—put their own needs first, promote their desires, amplify their achievements and ask directly and forcefully for what they want—not only are they criticised, but they also don’t get what they want.  I had an epiphany a while ago when I realised there is no right way to be a woman.  (p.68)

Occasionally Caro weakens her argument with examples that IMO don’t apply.  In discussing the case of Hillary Clinton whose popularity waxed and waned depending on whether she was supporting a man in power (good Hillary) or seeking it for herself (bad Hillary), there is no recognition that the policies of Bernie Saunders represented widespread disaffection with the economy.  Clinton, (as Jeff Sparrow points out in Trigger Warnings) was singing the same old economic song that had led to mass unemployment and the rise of the working poor… when voters were looking for an economic alternative.  (Well, they chose Trump instead.  We’ll see how that works out, eh?)

Caro then goes on to apply the same dubious logic to Julia Gillard:

As long as she was deputy PM to Kevin Rudd, she was enormously popular; when she took the leadership of the ALP and so became first female prime minister, she was hated. How dare she do what so many men had done before her and ‘stab her leader in the back’? (p. 58)

This is nonsense.  Yes, there was a scurrilous misogynistic campaign against Gillard, but it was dog-whistle opportunism.  We know now from research that those shock-jocks influence politics a lot less than was thought. Feminists like me, who were initially delighted to have a female PM, were uneasy about how it was achieved, because there is a world of difference between ambitious disloyalty to a Leader of the Opposition, and replacing a popular Prime Minister in office for no apparent reason.  Since then, men who have done the same thing for more obvious reasons in the Liberal Party (Turnbull and Morrison) have suffered the same public opprobrium.  Electors just don’t like it when they have voted for a certain type of leader who then gets unceremoniously dumped while in office.  While it is true that in our system of government, we vote for a local representative, not the leader of the party in the house, it is the leader who represents the values of that party.  It is he or she whose authority within cabinet influences the directions of the government.  In a party system like ours, the values embodied in that person is part of what people vote for, and they don’t expect it to change on someone’s ambitious whim, whatever their gender.

This quibble aside, Accidental Feminists is a thoroughly engaging book that offers much to think about… and, yes, to act on.  For as Caro says:

Feminism, although it may as yet be incomplete, is a whole-of-society—indeed, whole-of-world project.  (p.170)

Feminism may be an incomplete project, but it has never been as influential or as powerful as it is today.  And things are beginning to change rapidly.  Enough women, including older women, now have an independence that few of us have ever had previously, and we are using that independence to make sure that the plight of older women, and all women, remains invisible no longer. (p.180)

Author: Jane Caro
Title: Accidental Feminists
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2019, 233 pages
ISBN: 9780522872835
Source: purchased from Beaumaris Books

Available from Fishpond: Accidental Feminists

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2019

An Orchestra of Minorities, by Chigozie Obioma

If the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be the heroes in the story of the hunt.

It was the Johannesburg Review of Books that alerted me to Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma’s new novel. They published an interview with the author before the book was released, the catalyst for me to pounce on it as soon as it hit the shelves at the library.  Since then it has been reviewed by Linda Jaivin at The Saturday Paper (paywalled, but you can access one free viewing per week) and there’s an extract at The Monthly as well, for readers to sample the author’s style.

The extract — without any context — may confuse readers a little because the narrator addresses Chukwu, Egbunu, Ebubedike, Gaganaogw, and Agujiegbe as he tells his tale, and he also addresses a would-be suicide as his Mommy (when she isn’t).  Well, unless you already know that Chukwu is the supreme being in Igbo cosmology, you need to read Chapter One to understand that these names and honorifics are the old fathers of the spirit world, before whom Chinonso’s chi argues his case lest Ala raise her hand against him. Chinoso has broken a moral code that merits her retribution, and his chi (guardian spirit) is desperate to explain the circumstances.

This is why I have hastened here to testify of all I have witnessed and to persuade you and the great goddess that if what I fear has happened is true, let it be understood that he has committed this great crime in error, unknowingly—
Although I will narrate most things in my own words, they will be true because he and I are one.  His voice is my voice.  To speak of his words as if he were distinct from me is to render my own words as if they were spoken by another.  (p.4)

Obioma shot to international literary fame when in 2015 his debut novel The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Booker (see my review), and this novel has an idiosyncratic narrative voice as well.  The chi is discursive, fulsome, and very persuasive as he retells the story of a self-made man not good enough for the nouveau-riche of Nigeria.  When Chinonso is comprehensively insulted, shamed, and threatened because of his love for the wealthy Ndali who loves him in return, she tells him that it’s not because he is a lowly poultry farmer, because her father could easily buy him a business, a job, a property to make him acceptable.  What her father objects to is that he doesn’t have an education, in a society where a degree in something or other is a prerequisite that supersedes honesty, integrity, determination, compassion or hard work.  To her, his status doesn’t matter, but it’s an insuperable obstacle all the same.

That ‘deficiency’ is the one thing that Chinonso thinks he can change, so (#NoSpoiler as the back blurb tells us so) he sells most of his possessions to attend university in Cyprus.  The tragedy that unfolds there is perhaps a common story, but in Obioma’s novel, this love story-thriller is unputdownable.  Will Chinonso’s Penelope wait for him during the years of his unwilling Odyssey?

The chi tells us that he begun to try to make Chinonso forget Ndali, but realises that such efforts are often futile.

Love is a thing that cannot be lightly destroyed in a heart where it has found habitation. (p.386)

Almost to the very end of this bewitching novel the narrator withholds the truth of what Chononso has done, and focusses instead on what fate has done to him.

Obioma resists a heavy-handed expose of Nigeria’s social and political problems, but the title is instructive.  The ‘orchestra of minorities’ is a term used by Chinonso’s father.  Ndali understands it for the first time when a hawk steals one of Chinonso’s chickens and she hears the birds crying in a coordinated song, the kind they sing during burial ceremonies.  It is a song of sorrow, sung by defenceless birds which depend on humans to protect them.  And she cries with the chickens, because she and her lover are also powerless…  against her father who opposes their love:

…’I am sad for them, Nonso.  And I am sad for us, also.  Like them I am crying inside because we don’t have power against those who are against us.  Mostly against you.  You are nothing to them.’ (p.290)

We should all cry about snobbery, corruption, exploitation, and people preying on the vulnerabilities of the naïve and wickedness for which no restitution can ever adequately restore what has been lost…

Highly recommended.

PS One of the interesting aspects of this book is the setting in Cyprus with its ongoing sovereignty dispute between Turkey and Greece.  Chinonso visits Varusha, and it’s worth finding out about this abandoned modern ruin under the Turkish Occupation so that you can visualise it.

Author: Chigozie Obioma
Title: An Orchestra of Minorities
Publisher: Little Brown, 2019, 515 pages
ISBN: 9780349143194
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2019

Vale Mudrooroo (a.k.a. Colin Johnson) (1938-2019)

Cultural warning: Indigenous readers are advised that this obituary includes the names of deceased persons.

The Australian and Books & Publishing are reporting the news that Mudrooroo a.k.a. Colin Johnson, has died, aged 80.

Mudrooroo was born at East Cubelling (near Narrogin WA), and brought up in a Roman Catholic orphanage.  He lived in India for six years, including three as a Buddhist monk.  He was married to Sangya Magar and had three children, and since 2001 was living in Nepal.

He published as Colin Johnson between 1965 and 1983, and after he changed his name in 1991, as Mudrooroo (or Mudrooroo Narogin, Mudrooroo Nyoongah).  While his Aboriginality is contested by some, (see my summary here) according to the Danish academic Professor Eva Rask Knudsen his significance as an Australian author ought not to be.  See my summary of her position here, where amongst other things she writes:

It was hard if not impossible […] to think of contemporary Aboriginal writing as a distinct genre if Mudrooroo was to be excluded.  For every phase in the development of Aboriginal writing—from the formative years that were documentary and probing, to the consolidating years that were archaeological and re-constructive, and to the more recent years that were experimental and transformative—there is a seminal text by Mudrooroo.

His achievements were many: he graduated with a BA (Hons) in 1987, and lectured at the University of the Northern Territory in 1987.  From there he lectured at the University of Queensland in 1988 and subsequently in 1991 held the Chair of Aboriginal Studies at Murdoch University in Perth.  His awards included the the Wieckhard prize, 1979; the Western Australia Literary award, 1989; the WA Premier’s Book award for most outstanding entry and for poetry, 1992; and he was awarded an Australia Council Writer’s grant, 1994.  He was also the cofounder of the Aboriginal Oral Literature and Dramatists Association.

He was a prolific author.  His novels included:

  • Wild Cat Falling. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1965. (This first novel was reviewed in the NY Times, and the catalogue at the NLA shows that it was translated into a number of different languages.  Bill at The Australian Legend reviewed it here.
  • Long Live Sandawara. Melbourne, Quartet, 1979; London, Quartet, 1980.
  • Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World. Melbourne, Hyland House, 1983. (See my review).
  • Doin’ Wildcat (as Mudrooroo Narogin). South Yarra, Victoria, HylandHouse, 1988.
  • Master of the Ghost Dreaming. Sydney, HarperCollins, 1991.
  • Wildcat Screaming. Sydney, HarperCollins, 1992. (A sequel to Wild Cat Falling).
  • The Kwinkan. Sydney, HarperCollins, 1993.
  • The Undying. Pymble, N.S.W., HarperCollins, 1998.
  • Underground. Pymble, Sydney, NSW, Angus & Robertson, 1999.

He published poetry:

  • The Song Circle of Jackie, Hyland House (Melbourne, Australia), 1986.
  • Dalwurra: The Black Bittern (as Colin Johnson). Nedlands, WesternAustralia, Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, 1988.
  • The Garden of Gethsemane. Melbourne, Hyland House, 1991.
  • Pacific Highway Boo-blooz: Country Poems. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia, University of Queensland Press, 1996.

and he wrote across a variety of other genres:

  • Before the Invasion: Aboriginal Life to 1788 (as Colin Johnson), withColin Bourke and Isobel White. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Writing from the Fringe (as Mudrooroo Narogin). South Yarra, Victoria, Hyland House, 1990.
  • The Mudrooroo/Mueller Project (a play). Sydney, New South Wales University Press, 1993.
  • Aboriginal Mythology. London, Aquarian, 1994.
  • Us Mob: History, Culture, Struggle: An introduction to Indigenous Australia. Sydney and New York, Angus & Robertson, 1995.
  • Indigenous Literature of Australia/Milli Milli Wangka. South Melbourne, Victoria, Hyland House, 1997

Memoir:

  • Balga Boy Jackson, 2017.  See my review.  This was to have been the first of three (?) books about his life, but there is no listing at the NLA for a subsequent book, though given the problems Mudrooroo had finding a publisher, and the possibility that he may have turned to alternative publishing without knowing the deposit rules, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a sequel.

According to the Australian academic Chris Tiffin:

Colin Johnson’s novels deal with the displacement of modern Aborigines and their inability either to find a place in white society or to hold to the traditional ways. His first novel [Wild Cat Falling, 1965] was [like his memoir Balga Boy Jackson, 2017] concerned with the world he knew growing up in Perth—a world of the bodgie subculture often in trouble with the law—while subsequent novels confront events from the Australian past and their implications for Aborigines today.

His novels were sometimes absurdist, and explored the struggle to find a moral core by which to live.  His memoir Balga Boy Jackson (2017) reflects the same opposition between a directionless “modern” Aborigine and a decayed though still integral Elder, that was identified by Tiffin in Long Live Sandawara (1980).  Tiffin’s summary of the novel includes mention of a character called Noorak, who as a child saw the clash between an Aboriginal resistance fighter, Sandawara, and the whites.

Johnson treats the freedom fighters of the past with seriousness and dignity as true spiritual products of the soil. The sort of holistic integrity in Sandawara and his fighters contrasts strongly with the rootlessness of the modern characters.

[For many Australian readers in the 1980s, this would surely be one of the first times they had ever heard of Aboriginal resistance to white settlement.]

But, Tiffin argues, the theme of glorious and inspiring resistance to the whites, shifts to developing a philosophy of survival in Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World (1983). This is the only novel I have read, so I was interested to see Tiffin’s thoughts about it (which of course are more academic than mine) but were obviously written before scholarship about the continuing existence of Tasmanian Aborigines, see my review of Lyndal Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines).  So Tiffin writes (as ‘Colin Johnson’ did) that the novel is about  … the annihilation of the Tasmanian Aborigines in the first half of the 19th century. Well, they weren’t annihilated, and ironically, given the controversy about Mudrooroo’s identity, they have had a long struggle to have their Aboriginality accepted.

Anyway, (in part) Tiffin summarises the novel like this, reinforcing his thesis about Mudrooroo’s focus on the catastrophic impact on Indigenous life:

The controlling viewpoint is that of a learned man of the Bruny Island tribe who sees his land polluted by the aggressive practices of the whites. The focus of the novel is on Wooreddy’s attempts to understand the processes of change where there had been no change before. Wooreddy is obsessed with the belief that he has been chosen to survive to see the imminent end of the world. This insight comes to him as a child when he sees his first sailing ship which he takes to be a floating island drawn by clouds from the domain of the evil spirit, Ria Warawah. Wooreddy’s sense of being select enables him to avoid the worst pangs of outrage and regret as the dispossession of the Aborigines proceeds. He retreats into a fatalistic numbness which cannot be termed cowardice, for bravery and cowardice are no longer meaningful concepts.

[…]

Johnson uses historical events and characters in this novel to investigate the state of doomed suspension in which the Aborigines found themselves after the arrival of the white man. Since there never was any chance of the Tasmanian Aborigines resisting the invaders, their world effectively ended from the appearance of the whites. […] The whites are a force of history as much as a manifestation of the evil of man. Wooreddy is denied even the satisfaction of having someone to blame.

As was noted on Twitter, (thanks @nathanhobby) there is a curious silence about Mudrooroo’s passing.  At the time of writing, his death has been marked only in two paywalled sources.  Considering that there is a wealth of scholarship, here and overseas, about this Australian writer who was still publishing only a year or so ago, it seems rather shabby to me.

My sources for details of Mudrooroo’s life and career are those that are freely available online:

  •  Australian Studies academic Chris Tiffin’s Mudrooroo Biography at j.rank.org  which offers this rider to researchers: Content on this website is from high-quality, licensed material originally published in print form. You can always be sure you’re reading unbiased, factual, and accurate information.
  • Wikipedia (mainly focusses on the controversy)
  • Encylopedia.com (Includes summaries of some of the novels)
  • National Library of Australia (NLA) catalogue

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 15, 2019

The Time is Now, Monica Sparrow, by Matt Howard

Set in London, The Time is Now, Monica Sparrow by Australian author Matt Howard, is a tale of lives muted by loss yet it isn’t a dreary book.  Monica, whose car accident killed her brother Caleb on his 18th birthday, has become a hoarder, stuffing her flat with useless possessions; Diane, her sister has cultivated an abrasive personality (and a rare talent in droll one-liners); and her stepbrother Jamie the afterthought has almost obliterated himself as a presence.  In his case, it’s partly because the family was lumbered with him when Father couldn’t cope with the grief and debunked to his lady-love so that her son Jamie was surplus to requirements.  Mother is sliding into dementia, as if life is not worth remembering anyway.

The catalyst for change is Xavier, a minimalist so minimal that he signs his name with an ‘X’, prompting one of his co-workers to comment that people will think he’s illiterate.  Which would be droll, because Xavier is an editor at Wyatt Dean, a London publishing company.  He has but one author to nurture, the arrogant Tobias Balfour who churns out a bestseller each year, but Xavier acquires the task of editing Monica’s transition from self-publishing to print because Jacob, his boss, is Diane’s husband.  (Clearly, the author’s personal experience in the publishing industry provides authentic fodder for his novels!  In-house publishing politics seem fascinating… are they really like that, I wonder?)

Well, it turns out that Monica is not the only hidden talent, but to say more would be to spoil the plot.

Howard’s style is spare, but crafty in its allusions:

‘Is Monica a writer of literary fiction?’
Xavier knew this to be unlikely if she was indeed a hit on the Internet; that meeting place for angry folk and nitpickers.  A village square Xavier rarely visited.  It was one of the chief reasons, along with public transport, that Xavier had decided that people were not for him.
‘Commercial fiction,’ Jacob Meneksk said, then added, ‘Monica has several e-books for sale online already, but they’ll need serious editing to work in print.  She is currently writing another one which we will launch her with.  She’ll need help to keep the word count down.  That’s where you come in.’
Yasmin’s next remark was almost gushing.  ‘Monica’s female characters are central, however her male characters are also compelling.’
Something in the way she looked at Jacob as she said that caught Xavier’s attention, but it was quickly shuffled aside as the realisation hit him: ‘Romance fiction.’ (p.24)

Matt Howard has a great way with words: Monica’s kitchen is like the aftermath of an explosion at an Ikea store; her meeting with Xavier is like a whole Central Tokyo intersection of ways.  But what I really, really liked, was the moment of redemption.  A masterpiece of plotting without an ounce of schmaltz.

Towards the end of the book, the narrator makes a comment which attracted my attention:

Launches of books by mid-list authors — those for whom modest sales are expected and to whom the humblest of advances are paid — don’t attract media. (p. 254)

Perhaps if Xavier overcame his distaste for the Internet he might discover a worldwide media community of volunteer lit-bloggers taking up the slack? (With a worldwide readership and interactive commentary and — what’s more — staying power never achieved by newspaper reviews that land in the recycling bin).

This novel is more than just a wry look at the fad for offloading the detritus of life if it ‘no longer brings joy’.  Xavier takes it too far, so as to clear life, unscathed by the process of having lived it. Conversely, Monica finds that an unexpected gift had value and worth diminished by being but one of many such bowls her place harboured, most unused and rarely considered.  These extremes are more than merely comic: they represent psychological distress, as wise Aunty May knows:

Aunty May looked pleased that Monica had finally mastered her onerous drive for stuff.
‘I expect people see me as someone continually rewarding themselves.’
‘Huh,’ Aunty May mused.  ‘I reckon you as someone who deprives themselves.’
‘Of what?’ Monica asked.
Aunty May pondered.  ‘Real things — laughter, prospects, some well-deserved unencumbered joy.’  Then added, ‘A fair shot at future happiness.’ (p.247)

Sometimes, a frightened bird doesn’t know that it can fly…

Author: Matt Howard
Title: The Time is Now, Monica Sparrow
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019, 282 pages
ISBN: 9781925760170
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond: The Time is Now, Monica Sparrow, and direct from Transit Lounge (where there are also reading group notes).

 

In a (futile) pre-Christmas effort to rein in book spending, I had borrowed Jeff Sparrow’s latest book from the library but it wasn’t long before I realised that I wanted my own copy.  Trigger Warnings, Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right isn’t a book to scamper through and return within three weeks.  It’s a ‘chapter-a-day sort of book, allowing time for thinking in between.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked if told by people not in the profession that teachers aren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas any more.  This anti-PC furphy went so far that the education department in Victoria had to put out a circular reminding us what had always been true: Christmas traditions are part of Australian culture.  While in government schools which have been secular since 1870 when education became free and compulsory, teachers can’t infuse the Christmas story with religiosity, they can certainly tell the Christmas story, decorate classrooms, sing Christmas songs, and of course have the students make presents and cards.  Clearly, in a multicultural society like ours, it would be crass for any teacher to ignore other cultural festivals such as Diwali, Eid, and the Chinese and Jewish New Year celebrations &c.  Likewise at Christmas my students were always free to make whatever kind of cards they liked.  For me, the issue always was about finding a way for the activities to have some educational value.  So we would study Christmas and other celebrations around the world (i.e. geography), and when I had Year 5 & 6 classes and they’d done that to death, we did Holiday Safety, at the beach etc.  That wasn’t being PC, it was to teach something useful at the end of the school year, when the older students were usually bored and restless.

The first chapter of Sparrow’s book is about how this term political correctness a.k.a. PC arose.  He reminds me that…

… right-wingers portray PC as an Orwellian scheme to end freedom of speech, a deliberate strategy to impose a progressive orthodoxy.  In reality, radicals coined the term as a joke.  The phrase first emerged within the American New Left as an ironic homage to Stalinist rhetoric, adopted by progressives to mock censorious comrades and to chaff the overly earnest. In Australia and Britain, the preferred term was ‘ideologically sound’ but the gag worked the same way. (p.12)

Yes, by the time PC had trickled down to usage by ordinary people like us, we used it to poke fun at our own lame efforts to Do The Right Thing.  Carnivores at the BBQ teased the vegetarians about ideologically sound ‘hayburgers’ and The Ex would ask if his tie was ideologically sound before setting off to work in the morning.  We still use it: asking friends if they would like some ideologically sound excess vegies from the vegie patch.  So it’s fascinating to read how in America, what was originally a satire on totalitarianism became, for the right, a signifier of totalitarianism. Key players in this transformation were Ronald Reagan, the Australian political commentator Nick Adams, the classicist Allan Bloom and NY Times reporter Richard Bernstein who wrote an article called The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct. (It’s paywalled, but you’re allowed one free visit each month, though I myself wouldn’t waste it on this article).

Chapter Two traces the history of 20th century activism in the great social movements of our time: feminism, the gay and lesbian rights movements, and the struggle against racism. While it wasn’t a neat progression, Sparrow characterises the activists of the 1950s and early 60s as ‘palliationist’, that is, middle-class, speaking on behalf of others, non-confrontationist, and ‘respectable’.  By contrast, ‘direct politics’, in the late 60s and 70s, had a focus on mass action, on grassroots mobilisation, on participation and self-organisation by workers, students and the oppressed.  Crucially, whereas palliationist politics distinguished between interests, direct politics drew connections between issues so that counterculture, black, women’s, student and anti-war movements were entwined and used the same (sometimes militant) tactics.  But by the mid 70s, radicalism had moved on to pragmatics, and a once-widespread commitment to revolutionary change had given way to ‘the practical pursuit of reforms’, with many former firebrands becoming what [Todd Gitlincalled ‘crisp professional lobbyists’ or devoted to winning local office.  This third shift into professional settings is termed ‘delegated politics’, (and in Australia, you can see it in feminist Anne Summer‘s career as a bureaucrat in the Hawke government’s Office for the Status of Women. See also my review of Damned Whores and God’s Police.)  It is this shift into delegated politics that makes it easier for conservatives to frame action to protect minorities as a bureaucratic measure imposed by an unrepresentative minority.

Chapter Three ‘Battlers and Elites’ explores the most baffling phenomenon of it all. As the blurb says (in part):

The man lives, quite literally, in a building serviced by a golden elevator. Somehow, he presented himself as the scourge of the elites. For decades, he built a persona based on the most conspicuous consumption and the crassest of excess – and then he won the presidency on an antiestablishment ticket. The unlikely rise of Donald J Trump exemplifies the political paradox of the twenty-first century.

In this new Gilded Age, the contrast between the haves and the have-nots could not be starker. The world’s eight richest billionaires control as much wealth as the poorest half of the planet – a disparity of wealth and political power unknown in any previous period. Yet not only have progressives failed to make gains in circumstances that should, on paper, favour egalitarianism and social justice, the angry populism that’s prospered explicitly targets ideas associated with the left – and none more so than so-called ‘political correctness’.

I remember being astonished when John Howard described teachers as part of the ‘elite’.  Me, with my mortgage, and my ordinary house in the suburbs, and my ordinary job as a primary school teacher.  What he meant was the contrast between the sound common sense of working-class battlers (whose children I taught) and the censoriousness of the progressive elites.  It was a weird way of thinking about class in Australia, but while there’s no mystery about how a fish-and chip shop owner like Pauline Hanson has captured this sentiment, it is baffling that Australian battlers support millionaires like Clive Palmer.  But as Sparrow explains, the argument depends on the assumption that ordinary people were traditonalist, repelled by the exotic notions expounded by the ‘new class’.  Or more exactly, it defined ordinariness by conservatism — and then defined elitism by radicalism.  

There are many interesting aspects to this book, not the least of which is the extent to which the rhetoric in Australia has slavishly followed the American version.  We can see an example of this at the moment where an environmental disaster is attributed in some quarters to ‘greenies’ and unemployment is blamed not on factory closures due to neoliberal economics but on refugees.  The chapters about smug politics’ is instructive indeed…

But on a note of optimism in the conclusion, Sparrow cites the success of the grassroots movement for marriage equality, which showed our politicians that they were out of step with the views of the electorate.  I would like to think that after a long period of inertia, there is a groundswell of demand for action on climate change coming in the same way.

I would also like to think that Sparrow’s plea for people to get involved in social activism bears fruit.

I may yet write another post about the chapter on identity politics because it’s so useful.  But this review is too long already, so I would recommend you get hold of a copy for yourself.

The book includes acknowledgements, notes, but unfortunately, not an index.  (I say that because I know I’ll be referring to this book off and on in the future).

PS There are reading notes on the publisher’s website.

Author: Jeff Sparrow
Title: Trigger Warnings, Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2018, 300 pages
ISBN: 9781925713183
Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond.

Available from FIshpond: Trigger Warnings: political correctness and the rise of the right $26.72 or direct from Scribe where it is also available as an eBook.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 14, 2019

The Storyteller: Selected Stories, by Serge Liberman

I have been reading these stories by Serge Liberman OAM (1942-2017) on and off ever since the book launch last year, but I am clearing the decks of books received for review in 2018 and it’s time to write about some of the most memorable…

‘The Promise’ comes to mind now because it covers similar territory to The Atheist by Achdiat Mihardja, which I read last month.  Both stories involve a fraught discussion about questions of faith between a man and his adult son, and both vividly convey the pain felt by both as the chasm between them widens.  But the context is entirely different.  Hasan in The Atheist is a symbol representing a secular future for a nation emerging from colonialism, but in ‘The Promise’ Shimen  — speaking with his father who perished — represents all those who lost their faith because of the Holocaust.  Distraught that he has been spared when so many others were not, his response to his father’s belief in God’s will is a passionate rebuttal:

‘If that which happens happens by His will, why then did He will it that you, Father, and you, Mother, and you, Shliomi, Soreh, Itzik, Rivke, Yankev and the children — the children, tell me, why the children? — all of you so gifted, so good and so mightily loving of Him, should be taken, and that I be saved instead, the least endowed and the least deserving, who in surviving has come not only to live every day joyless and with heartache, but also to repudiate Him as a fiction, an invention, a fable — and yes, a lie?’

The spectre of his father tells him that a Jew may repudiate God, but will never himself be repudiated. He says that until God’s purpose is known, it is for men to create their own purposes, and it is not too late for Shimon to do so.  But Shimon interrupts his father as he never would have if his father were alive:

‘For me, fifty years ago was already too late’, I say, ‘when I learned that there is none above, nor below, nor in the wings who directs dramas, comedies and farces down here.  There is only us, we as ourselves; mortal men all, some of us wise, others less so, some menschlich [humane], others brutish, some choosing well, others badly, some reaping justly what they have sown, and others shredded and dismembered, not by their own choosing but by the designs that others with names like Amalek**, Haman** and Hitler have cut for them.’ (p.206-7, Amalek and Haman were Biblical enemies of the Israelites)

This altercation reminds me of once reading that there were Jews who believed the Holocaust was another of their Old Testament God’s punishments for sin, and to me it seemed such a terrible thing that as well as all the other horrors of the Holocaust, these believers should think that they deserved it.  One flaw in this otherwise excellent book is that there’s no appendix providing the previous publication of these stories, so I can’t tell when this one was written, but ‘fifty years ago’ suggests about 1995, which makes every day joyless and with heartache even more poignant.

‘Two Years in Exile’ also speaks of the tension between parents and children.  Set in Melbourne when Northcote was on the suburban fringe, Mother finds it a wilderness. 

Five miles from the city’s heart, Mother feels as if she were in a country town, a Siberian sovkhoz, [a Soviet state-owned farm] or a displaced persons’ camp again.  Far away is High Street with its sprawl of shops, offices, arcades and picture theatres.  Further still, a light-year away, there is — she knows — a Jewish face, a Jewish word, a Jewish melody.  But at our end, her very existence is enshrouded in a pall of silence and loneliness, while beyond, past the next crossing, along the dry, cracked and dusty unmade road, stretches an empty nakedness that, for Mother, is worse even than the silence and the loneliness.  And more threatening.  (p.38)

But her son, tormented by a freckled neighbour called Colin, is trying hard to fit in, and he hates it when they move to St Kilda.  They move because he is forced to deny his identity, and his mother fears that betrayal:

‘Don’t ya’ like our Christmas songs, mate?’
[Colin] is over me.  As always.  I lie spreadeagled on my back, the grass beneath cold and moist and unyielding, his knees pressing down, a vice on my outstretched arms, my own legs achieving nothing towards liberation.  His face, freckles and all, scowls.  His nostrils, black pits, flare.  His mouth is a menacing crypt of fillings and carious teeth.
‘We kill Jews, do ya’ know?’
Words are his sole weapon, but the roots of my hair burn, as though he has set me on fire.  The throb in my arms is as nothing against this fire.
‘I am not a Jew.’ (p.43-44)

Both his parents hear this denial, but it’s his mother who is distraught:

‘We must move from here.  See what this wilderness, this wasteland is doing to your son.  Little brothers, blessed sisters.  How have we sinned?  Who is right in this world?  And who is wise? And who is safe?  Chaim to Siberia, Reuven to the gas-chambers, Sonia to America, Shimon to Israel.  Leaves, feathers, scattered and dispersed, while we, silly, blind, pitiful yiddelech [little Jews] sink to the bottom of a barren trough, in exile, without a Yiddish book, a Yiddish word, a Yiddish geist? [spirit](p.45)

There is the same sense of dislocation in ‘Home’: we learn that for a boy home was where the feet ran most freely; home, for Mother, object of hopeless and hungry hankering, was where she had been at her fleetest. But Warsaw as she knew it is gone:

There was no returning to the tumbling of Baroque, Gothic, Classical and Rococo, to the shimmering sun-splintering  Vistula lapping past her house, to the warmth of family and laughter, to the crucible in which contending ideologies and messianisms boiled and fermented and effervesced.  (p.117)

This theme, of children adjusting to a new life while a mother struggles with being isolated from a robust cultural life by language difficulties and a different way of life, also surfaced in Sofija Stefanovic’s memoir Miss Ex-Yugoslavia.  It is a common experience for newcomers in any country, and I think it is especially hard for mothers who see it as their duty to create a new home but don’t feel as if they have one any longer.

This inter-generational tension erupts as a real crisis in a family where the younger generation marries ‘out’, as in Liberman’s ‘Drifting’, though in that story it is the father who is inflexible about his son marrying a non-Jew.  A damaged soul, he uses emotional blackmail to try to sabotage the relationship.  ‘Is this what I lived through Auschwitz for? For my sake, give her up.’ 

The struggle to make sense of the Holocaust —when it was and still is an evil that makes no sense — is a preoccupation in these stories, but it is filtered through different perspectives.  In ‘Words’, Australian-born Nathan, though born of postwar refugees from Poland, is relentless.  He talks about the Holocaust as an abstract event, telling his future mother-in-law that experience when extreme […] can be a narrow-minded teacher.

How deeply the younger man had wounded, Shraga Sztayer never revealed.  But after that he stood back from Nathan Rubin and accepted him — tolerated him — only because Rita , in love with dour intellect, loved him in her way and he, the father, was unable to dissuade her. (p.259)

There’s a universality about these frictions.  Too often we hear that people who’ve suffered should ‘get over it’ and ‘move on’ but Liberman’s insights reveal the cost of ‘moving on’ when your own children don’t understand…

Equally hard is that others ‘move on’ too.  Shraga’s poems are rejected by his publisher because they are too abstract, too remote […] and too sterile.

…listen to me.  Europe, Auschwitz, Siberia — they’re behind us.  The people, yes the people are tired of the same reworked themes.  Your Ashes of Time ten years ago was appropriate.  They were good poems, substantial, sensitive, significant.  But today…’ He paused, then with his hand again cut across whatever Shraga Sztayer was beginning to say.  ‘Our reality today is Australia not Poland, Israel and not the vanished shtetl. [a small European Jewish village or town].  Our problems are of identity, belief, culture, affluence, of children turning away, of parents unable to reach them.  A poet who wants to leave his mark must adapt and respond to change, must progress in the same direction as society.  (p.261)

In articulating these painful issues in a sensitive and compassionate way, there is no doubt that Serge Liberman left his mark…

Posthumously published after Liberman died in 2017, The Storyteller, Selected Stories was completed with the help of friends Alex Skovron and Richard Freadman.

The cover painting is The Esplanade, St Kilda by Herman Pekel.

Author: Serge Liberman
Title: The Storyteller, Selected Stories
Introduction by Alex Skovron
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2018, 432 pages including the glossary of Yiddish words and phrases
ISBN: 9781925272956
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

You can buy the book from Fishpond: The Storyteller: Selected Stories or the Hybrid Publishing website. or good bookshops everywhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 13, 2019

Zebra, and Other Stories, by Debra Adelaide

There are 13 short stories in this collection I skipped straight to the last story in this collection, because I’d rather read a novella than a short story any day…

‘Zebra’ is an odd confection.  It’s a whimsical tale of a female prime minister well into her middle years and with a name as ordinary as the dust on her shoes.  She has been in power for several years, long enough to take as much pride in the garden at The Lodge as in her other achievements (which are a wishlist of reforms that have not happened in real Australian life).

Accused of not having a ‘real’ job by her irascible neighbour Kerr, this PM (oddly non-combative for a politician) muses to herself:

He could not boast about making company tax more equitable, about simplifying the paperwork for small business, about establishing a non-profit national telecommunications provider.  He had not implemented the quiet triumph of her entire term: people answering the phones again in government departments. He hadn’t found a way to keep manufacturers onshore and small schools open in small towns.  Nor had he ever got all six state premiers together without a single fight.  (p.234)

However, as the story opens the PM has a report to read in preparation for an overhaul of the national health budget.  It rejoices in the title Key Strategic Objectives: Minimising Negative Patient Outcomes, but it fails to keep her attention and sitting so long to read it (literally) gives her a pain in the proverbial:

The document she was reviewing, being a commissioned public service report, was woefully unclear.  Actual patients did not rate a mention.  Their specific health needs were smothered under bureaucratic jargon.  Thick clods of managerese fell upon the subject as if it were already dead, shrouded, and six feet in the ground.  She did not feel like a Health Service Stakeholder, and the report so far made her feel unenthusiastic about taking her right buttock, or any part of her anatomy, to medical facilities as they currently stood.  (p.204)

Her garden is the one project that really matters to her:

She knew that in the years to come, retirement years, the post-leadership twilight world of sitting on boards and running consultancies and working for international charities — the quiet morning-tea existence, as opposed to the nonstop sushi train that was life now — she could easily have regrets.  She would look back on this time in her life and never wish she had been to more briefings, overseen more committees, shaken hands with more delegations, attended more conferences, held more cabinet meetings.  Especially not cabinet meetings.  But she would regret it if she hadn’t made the most of the garden.  (p.205)

The truth is, she’s not interested in the slog of governing and she would rather delegate the stuff that bores her to her ministers.  What she wants is to generate ideas and indulge her well-hidden life of the mind, but she gets sucked into trivia which the media presents as evidence of fitness to govern:

All the accusations people levelled at elites being out of touch reached a crescendo when it came to parliamentarians.  But she was probably the first prime minister of the country who knew the price of a litre of milk.  At both the supermarket and the corner store.  Previous prime ministers had been crucified for less than that.
(p. 233)

If you’ve been around for a while and paying attention to politics in this country, these allusions will evoke a wry smile. You will remember those wishlist policies being sprouted by Howard and Rudd; you’ll have a vague recollection of Bob Hawke and John Howard on post-retirement boards; of Paul Keating’s Asian consultancy; and of the work Malcolm Fraser did for UNICEF.  The oft-denied plan to destroy Medicare and the weasel words used to conceal it will ring a bell; and you will remember the end of John Hewson’s political ambitions because he was ‘out of touch’ on the price of everyday groceries.  But while most people will recognise one of the ‘trouble-makers’ in the Senate, who remembers Brian Harradine these days?  The PM’s executive assistant with ambitions to be a policy adviser derides Harradine’s large Catholic family, and recommends dealing with the Tasmanian crisis by letting our smallest state secede because their excess of independents has made the state ungovernable:

‘Let them go, I say.  Place is only good for cheese and apple juice anyway.’
‘Is that your most professional advice?’
‘It’s caused trouble for years.  Ever since that Green fellow went into the senate.’
‘You mean Brown.’
‘Same thing.  Then before him there was that lunatic, the one with a hundred children.’
‘Harradine?’
‘Yes.  Just one extremist dictating to the rest of the country.  It shouldn’t be allowed.  But if we cut them off, it won’t.
‘Make the state secede?’
‘Why not? What do we get out of the place?  Really?’ (p.210-211)

(Women with long memories will remember that Brian Harradine’s ultra-conservative beliefs had such disproportionate power in the Howard government that they prevented access to pharmaceuticals for women’s reproductive choices across the country.  See the last sentence here.)

Anyway, for reasons I’ll leave for readers to discover, the PM ends up building a maze in the gardens of The Lodge for a zebra which was sent to her by Texan whose private zoo has gone bust.  It is a daft story, a fantasy about political power and how it is wasted in this country.  It is also about the loneliness of power and her bell curve of expectation and disappointment, an index of overworn emotions and fatigued hope. 

There are other reviews (of the whole collection) at The Saturday Paper (paywalled, but you can read one free article each week), and The AU Review.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Debra Adelaide
Title: Zebra and Other Stories
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019, 327 pages
ISBN: 9781760781699
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan, RRP $29.99

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2019

Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, by Amanda Curtin

I really like Amanda Curtin’s fiction, starting with my belated discovery of The Sinkings (2008) and then being bowled over by Elemental (2013), so I confess to a frisson of disappointment when I realised that her latest book was a biography of an artist I’d never heard of.  I shouldn’t have worried… Kathleen O’Connor of Paris is every bit as captivating as Curtin’s fiction.

It’s not actually true to say that I had never heard of Kathleen O’Connor.  I should admit instead that her name hadn’t registered with me, even though I had (of course!) visited the NGV’s 2013 exhibition ‘Australian Impressionists in France’ and seen a couple of her paintings.  What’s more, I even have the catalogue by Elena Taylor, which has a chapter on ‘Expatriates’ and beautiful full colour plates of ‘Luxembourg Gardens’ 1913 and ‘Two Cafe Girls’ c 1914.  (Neither of which, alas, are available online because the former is held at the Royal Perth Hospital Art Collection (!) and the latter is in private hands).

I shouldn’t really begin with the paintings, because, honestly, I read right through the whole book without ever venturing outside its pages, but I will mention here that this handsomely produced edition includes 13 full colour plates on gloss paper in the central section, and numerous B&W reproductions of O’Connor’s paintings and other memorabilia throughout the text.  But by the time I sat down to write this review it was too much of a temptation not to go searching with Google to admire O’Connor’s oeuvre on my nice big desktop screen.  (I have listed below the sources I found so that you can do this too).

The amazing thing about Kathleen O’Connor is that she was in Paris at all.  Like most young ladies of her time, she was expected to grow up and get married to some eligible chap from the social scene in Perth.  (Her parents had relocated there from New Zealand, for her father C.Y. O’Connor to take up a position as Engineer-in-Chief of Western Australia.) With no independent income of her own, Kathleen set off with her widowed mother and sister for a trip ‘home’ to see the UK and Irish relations, and then refused to go home with them.  She knew what she wanted to do, and she was determined to do it.  And true to the stereotypes of the artist-in-the-garret, (though she negotiated a small allowance from her family) she lived in penury, moving from one attic to another and getting by on the proverbial smell of an oily rag.

But she loved Paris. La Belle Époque was a wonderful time to be an artist in Paris, where the artists clustered in Montmartre and Kathleen claimed she could eat well on next to nothing in Paris in the years before the war: ‘five francs [about twenty-five cents] bought two good dinners.  She took lessons from numerous artists, visited galleries, and found subjects she could paint for free in the Luxembourg Gardens.  And although she was never financially independent of her family because sales of her art were never enough, she established a profile in the French art scene where her paintings were accepted for exhibitions and subsequently admired in the press.  Her emerging profile led her to submit her portfolio of designs for decorative items to Paul Poiret at Atelier Martine which led to work with Poiret, with la Maîtrise and with another of the grand department stores, Aux Trois Quartiers, on the boulevarde de la Madeleine. 

Galeries Lafayette Inside, from the 4th floor (Wikipedia*)

One of the aspects of this book that I really like is Curtin’s voice as she undertakes her research.  Here she is on the trail of Kathleen’s personal archive of textile designs:

The flagship Boulevard Haussmann store of Galeries Lafayette is one of Paris’ top tourist attractions.  Here, consumerism on a grand scale meets Art Nouveau palace.  I have to admit it’s breathtaking—the towering stained-glass dome crowning an atrium rising through three balconied floors of sparkling lights and sparkling merchandise, the grand staircase styled on the one in the Paris Opera House.  I become lost among the crowd on the ground floor, where paperbacks jostle with Birkin sacs and strollers and small platoons of tourists marshalled by flag-carrying guides.  I glance down at the instructions I’ve printed out, but I can no longer see the entrance I came in.  A friendly security officers takes pity on me and directs me to the staff elevator.

The opulence ends abruptly on the seventh floor, where the lift terminates. I check my directions again and locate the wooden staircase, and it’s up two flights to the ninth floor and a warren of utilitarian offices and my destination: the archives. (p.112)

(Compare that with my breathless naiveté in the food hall in 2005. We were wise to go in late autumn when the worst of the tourist season is over.)

I also loved Curtin’s rueful admissions that she has to resist the temptation to invent the missing pieces of Kathleen’s life.  An author of fiction can do this with impunity, but a biographer may not. (Well, as we know, they sometimes do, but I don’t like it, at least not when I can’t tell which is fact and which is invention.)

Anyway, as Curtin notes, however, Kathleen did—more than once—succumb to entreaties to return home, only to escape again as soon as she could rustle up the money for her passage.  So she was in Paris during WW1, and only just managed evacuation to London when the Germans occupied Paris in WW2.  The story of her escape with precious paintings in her luggage, only to lose the lot when the Germans bombed the ‘safe’ city of Bath, is sobering.  And these are not the only paintings missing: she sold numerous paintings that are unaccounted for, including the apocryphal ones that she chucked into the Fremantle Harbour when she couldn’t rustle up the import taxes on one of her trips home.  (See more about that, here).

Kathleen O’Connor of Paris is a wonderful book on many levels: it brings an under-appreciated Australian artist to new prominence; it tells a captivating story about an artist’s life; it shares the pain and the gains of the biographer’s art; and it recreates a Paris that is long, long gone, swamped by the tourist hordes and new developments.

See also Nathan Hobby’s review.

You can see a selection of Kathleen O’Connor’s works at the NGA, including the gorgeous dress that Amanda Curtin enthuses over in the chapter about O’Connor’s departure into textile design. Art Gallery NSW has only two, but the NGV has six, including a parasol which *pout* hasn’t been digitised yet.  I know from the references in the book that the Art Gallery of WA has a good few paintings, but their search function is a bit laborious so you’ll have to content yourself with this one.

The book cover design is by Carolyn Brown. (The back is beautifully designed too, but I am not sure about the copyright status of the O’Connor painting reproduced there, so I haven’t scanned it.)

Amanda Curtin ©Miles Llowry

Amanda Curtin blogs at Looking Up Looking Down, a blog I recommend you follow if you are interested in Australian books and writing, because she profiles WA authors including emerging authors prior to publication.  (It’s how I discovered Louise Allan, debut author of The Sisters’ Song, recently chosen for Summer Reading at my library and no doubt at others too).  Amanda also shares book club questions for discussion about her books, including this one.

Image credits:

Australian Impressionists in France by Elena Taylor is published by the NGV, 2013, ISBN 9780724103720, and from what I can see online, it’s still available.
Author: Amanda Curtin
Title: Kathleen O’Connor of Paris
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2018, 319 pages
ISBN: 9781925591644
Source: Greater Dandenong Libraries, Springvale branch

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2019

Collected Short Fiction, by Gerald Murnane


Collected Short Fiction offers an entrée to Gerald Murnane’s fiction for the newbie.  I’ve been reading his books for years now, and am a confirmed enthusiast only too delighted by his more recent prominence both here in Australia and overseas.  But I’m no closer to ‘understanding’ Murnane, only more comfortable with the effect his writing has on me.

(This is what I wrote in a comment on my post about The Plains, back in 2009 when I was reading Inland:

I keep going backwards and forwards and re-reading…and then spinning off with thoughts and ideas of my own that seem to be couched in his kind of circular sentences, as if he has colonised my mind. It is a bizarre experience to read something like this, floundering around trying to work out what’s happening even though it seems unlikely that anything is actually happening.

These days I don’t flounder, I surf along whatever wave I can catch. And yes, it’s exhilarating.)

The blurb for Collected Short Fiction has this to say:

This volume brings together Gerald Murnane’s shorter works of fiction, most of which have been out of print for the past twenty five years. They include such masterpieces as ‘When the Mice Failed to Arrive’, ‘Stream System’, ‘First Love’, ‘Emerald Blue’, and ‘The Interior of Gaaldine’, a story which holds the key to the long break in Murnane’s career, and points the way towards his later works, from Barley Patch to Border Districts. Much is made of Murnane’s distinctive and elaborate style as a writer, but there is no one to match him in his sensitive portraits of family members – parents, uncles and aunts, and particularly children – and in his probing of situations which contain anxiety and embarrassment, shame or delight.

When the Mice Failed to Arrive’ was originally published in the Autumn 1989 edition of a periodical called ‘Sport’ and then in Velvet Waters (McPhee Gribble 1990).   The excruciating depiction of the narrator’s childhood anxiety spills into what seems to be a deeply personal account of parental failings and guilty memories from a teaching career.  And it’s true: even if you’re Gerald Murnane and perhaps not temperamentally suited to teaching, it’s a career that’s like parenthood, it’s filled with guilt about the times you failed to meet a need, or weren’t prepared, or you lost your temper, or let a child down when they needed you most.  Those times do haunt teachers who care…

Guilt also seeps into ‘Stream System’ which was first published in The Age Monthly Review 8, no 9, December 1988-January 1989:

When my brother first went to school I used to hide from him in the schoolground.  I did not want my brother to speak to me in his strange speech.  I did not want my friends to hear my brother and then ask me why he spoke strangely. During the rest of my childhood and until I left my parents’ house, I tried never to be seen with my brother,  If I could not avoid travelling on the same train with my brother I would order him to sit in a different compartment from mine.  If I could not avoid walking in the street with my brother I would order him not to look in my direction and not to speak to me.

When my brother first went to school my mother said that he was no different from any other boy but in later years my mother would admit that my brother was a little backward.

My brother died when he was forty-three years old and I was forty-six.  My brother never married.  Many people came to my brother’s funeral, but none of those people had ever been a friend to my brother.  I was certainly never a friend to my brother.  On the day before my brother died I understood for the first time that no one had ever been a friend to my brother.  (p.39)

‘Land Deal’ reveals an aspect of Murnane’s preoccupations that I haven’t recognised in his longer fiction.  It is prefaced by a quotation from John Batman about his notorious purchase of the land on which Melbourne was built, and is narrated in the first person plural.  These narrators regard the transaction as a bizarre dream:

Of course it was the wildest folly to suppose that the land, which was by definition indivisible, could be measured or parcelled out by a mere agreement among men. In any case, we had been fairly sure that the foreigners failed to see our land.  From their awkwardness and unease as they stood upon the soil, we judged that they did not recognise the support it provided or the respect it demanded.  When they moved even a short distance across it, stepping aside from places that invited passage and treading on places that were plainly not to be intruded upon, we knew that they would lose themselves before they found the real land.  (p.48)

(This piece was first published in Educational Magazine, no 3, (1980), which was issued to all government school teachers.  That means I almost certainly read it at the time, failing to see its significance.)

I learned something about James Joyce from an astonishing piece called ‘The Boy’s Name Was David’ (first published in Best Australian Short Stories, Black Inc., 2002).  A narrator who had spent some time being a teacher of fiction at a college of advanced education which became a university, first explains his intriguing way of marking student work, and then remembers being fanatical in urging his students to think of their fiction, of all fiction, as consisting of sentences.  

At least once each year, he told each class an anecdote that he had remembered from a memoir of James Joyce.  Someone had praised to Joyce a recent novel.  Joyce had asked why the novel was so impressive.  The answer came back that the style was splendid, the subject powerful.  Joyce would not listen to such talk.  If a book of prose was impressive, the actual prose should have impressed itself on the reader’s mind so that he could afterwards quote sentence after sentence. (p.450)

It will come as no surprise to readers of Murnane that there is a link to horse-racing in this story…

It’s interesting to see another review at a site Music & Literature, which offers an entirely different perspective on ‘Stream System’.  It just shows how Murnane can be many different things to different readers.  I tend to get distracted by segments that tug at the heartstrings, but the reviewer Timothy Aubry is right, there is, in these fictions:

…. a geography of thought that is recognizably Murnane’s. Over and over we encounter real and imagined landscapes, maps, horse races and racing colors, forgotten and discarded books, adolescent sexual anxieties that persist longer than they should, objects and people repeatedly referred to as those “mentioned in the previous paragraph,” images that have passed through the supposed author’s mind while writing the very text we are reading, which summon other images, which demand description, which provokes further thoughts about further images, and so forth. Things do often happen to his characters and Murnane occasionally tracks these developments chronologically, but more often his fictions splay out in atemporal fashion, becoming a web of discrete moments all connected to each other through multiple strands of association.

This is a superb collection.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: Collected Short Fiction
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2018, 20 stories, 468 pages, also available as an eBook.
ISBN: 9781925336641
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available direct from Giramondo and Fishpond: Gerald Murnane: Collected Short Fiction

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 9, 2019

The Cage, by Lloyd Jones

I bought Lloyd Jones’ new novel The Cage as soon as it was released so I was pleased when it was nominated for the Ockham’s New Zealand Literary Awards.  I have other appealing nominees on my TBR too but I wanted to read this one first of all.  But The Cage is such a devastating, confronting novel, I found myself not wanting to continue, yet unable to stop reading.

I knew Jones to be an author who writes about outsiders, most recently for me in Hand Me Down World. But The Cage is something else again.  This is the blurb:

Two mysterious strangers appear at a hotel in a small country town.
Where have they come from? Who are they? What catastrophe are they fleeing?
The townspeople want answers, but the strangers are unable to speak of their trauma. And before long, wary hospitality shifts to suspicion and fear, and the care of the men slides into appalling cruelty.
Lloyd Jones’s fable-like novel The Cage is a profound and unsettling novel about humanity and dignity and the ease with which we’re able to justify brutality.

The treatment of the strangers is puzzling in the way it hints at events and motivations — yet it seems to be uncomfortably familiar.  These two bedraggled men do not—cannot—respond to expectations, which soon morph into requirements.  And when those requirements are not met, the men are tricked into entering a cage and kept there in conditions too appalling for me to describe.

A group of townsmen form a committee to ‘manage’ the situation, and Sport, a young man living in his uncle’s hotel after the death of his parents, is assigned the role of ‘observer’. He nicknames the older man Doctor, and the young man Mole, recording everything these they do in his ledger.  At first the reader feels some hope that he represents some kind of humanity:

What have we learned so far?  This is the most persistent question the Trustees ask.
So far, I would say we have learned to overcome our revulsion and shame. (p.61)

But he is only too easily slides into blaming the strangers:

So much depends on patience.  The strangers are like cattle that dot the hillsides.  They are so still they could be mistaken for porcelain.  Few thoughts to share ever surface on their faces or leave their mouths.  If they truly care about us, they would make more of an effort. (p.67)

Sport visits the town zoo because it helps [him] understand life in the cage, and he recognises the suffering of a rhino in its pen:

And when I lock eyes with it I see that I am part of its problem—that I am implicated in its suffering. (p.68)

But out of sight means out of mind:

In their first days of captivity they rushed back and forth across the cage in panic.  Bashing themselves against the mesh.  The young one scraped his nose.  When he wiped it, the blood spread across his face, and we all thought, briefly and inescapably, thank God he’s inside the cage.  The blood and wild eyes and that crazy mane of hair.
In his charge across the cage, Doctor went more slowly, like an old-fashioned cab, holding up his hands to appeal their circumstances.  It became irritating to hear the same thing yelled up at our windows.
Then night removed them from view and we didn’t have to think about them until the next day. (p.73)

Sport does not entirely acquiesce in his role:

I put my pen down.  Some moments, I have decided (without wider consultation) deserve their privacy.
Besides, so far our awareness of their misery has not led to anything changing.  What is the point of sympathy that does not produce a change of circumstances?
(p. 88)

Yet he does not rebel:

Last night, sitting on the windowsill listening to Mole’s attempts to console Doctor, I began to sob.  I could not stop sobbing.  My eyes filled with tears until I could not see the rules lines on the ledger open on my knee.
Then a voice spoke in the dark.
Sport.  can you hear me?
It was Mole.
Sport, he said.  You are not like them.
I closed the window—ashamed to know I’d been heard. (p.93)

The sense of horror grows as one reads on, wanting something to change, yet fearing that, as in real life in our cold-hearted world, it will not…

*****

By coincidence, I read Daniel Finkelstein’s review this morning of Deborah Lipstadt’s new book Anti-Semitism: Here and Now, and that triggered the thought that the way people in Germany learned to overcome their revulsion and shame over actions that morphed into the Holocaust is more universal than we like to admit.  Every day on the news we see and hear about terrible suffering but we have learned to adjust.  War, poverty, natural disasters, the misery of refugee camps (including our own on Manus and Nauru) mostly don’t attract more than fleeting attention.  Sure, some individuals and organisations take action, but most of us don’t.  Some of us might make a donation to an aid organisation, but most of us don’t adjust our consumption habits and we don’t harass our politicians into action on long-term solutions.

I wish they could be made to read The Cage.

For more about this book, visit Radio National, Alys on the Blog, and Booksellers NZ

 

The cover design, the genius of which you’ll discover as you read the book, is by W H Chong.

Author; Lloyd Jones
Title: The Cage
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018, 262 pages
ISBN: 9781925603224
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore Sandringham, $29.99

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 7, 2019

2019 Stella Prize Longlist

The 2019 Stella Prize Longlist was announced today:

Little Gods by Jenny Ackland, see my review

Man Out of Time by Stephanie Bishop, on my TBR

Bluebottle by Belinda Castles, see Theresa Smith’s review

The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo, see my review

The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper, see my review

The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones

Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau, see Amanda’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.

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee, see Kate’s review at Books are My Favourite and Best

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko, see my review

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums

The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright

The Shortlist will be announced on March 8th, and the winner on April 9th.

See the Judges report here.

PS I’m very disappointed that Shell isn’t listed.

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 6, 2019

The Year of the Beast (Glenroy Series), by Steven Carroll

This gorgeous novel is the final title in Steven Carroll’s award-winning Glenroy series.  The series, set in the Melbourne suburb of Glenroy, began with the story of Vic, his wife Rita, and their only son Michael in The Art of the Engine Driver (2001), and continued with The Gift Of Speed (2004), The Time We Have Taken (2007), Spirit of Progress (2011), and Forever Young (2015). Now, going back in time to the origins of the family we have The Year of the Beast (2019).

The story begins with Maryanne walking in the streets of Melbourne.  She is forty years old, unmarried and seven months pregnant with the child who will become Vic the engine driver.  It is 1917 and the second conscription referendum is in full swing.  Carroll, evoking recent memories of the divisive Marriage Equality plebiscite, notes correctly that this so-called referendum was actually a plebiscite, but, checking this, I found that it’s not just popular history that has it wrong by referring to it as a referendum:

All of the historical documentation refer to the ballot as a referendum, even though it did not involve a proposal to amend the Australian Constitution. Because it was not an amendment to the constitution, it had no legal force, it did not require approval in a majority of states and residents of federal territories were able to vote.  Such a ballot is now usually referred to as a plebiscite to distinguish it from a referendum to alter the Constitution. (Wikipedia, viewed 6/2/19)

This distinction points to a significant aspect of the story: a plebiscite, as a powerful indication of the people’s will, evokes passion in a way that never happens with Australian referenda to amend our uninspiring and bureaucratic constitution.  As the blurb says:

Melbourne, 1917: the times are tumultuous, the city is in the grip of a kind of madness. The Great War is raging, and it is the time of the hotly contested second conscription referendum. Fights are raging on the streets, rallies for ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ facing off against each other on opposing corners. Men, women and children, jostling, brawling, fighting and spitting.

Maryanne, on the edge of the crowd, perceives the maelstrom as a beast, a terrible world for her baby to be born into:

She has just stepped off her tram and is moving slowly, labouring towards the corner of Elizabeth and Bourke streets.  The centre of the city on a grey spring day: late afternoon, slipping into twilight.  Spring! Ratty spring.  She pauses before the intersection.  Her heart sinks.  Normally thick with carriages, trams and the occasional motor car, it is now thick with people.  Clouds in the sky swirl; on the ground the crowd sways.  This way and that: a single organism, with thousands of arms, legs and eyes, emitting a continuous hum.  A giant thing.  A beast. All those faces, eyes, mouths, hats, ears, arms and legs surrendering themselves to this thing they have become.  This mass.  This agglomeration, now still, now swaying, and all the time emitting a continuous hum and occasionally erupting into a roar as if the beast were suddenly stirred for action.  Or wounded.  A groan that subsides into a hum, then erupts into a roar.

It is as if some fantastic metamorphosis is taking place in front of her.  And a storybook beast is coming to life before her eyes. As if each of those faces has reached into the depths of its darkness and brought forth the beast that lurks there. Always lurks there, waiting patiently.  Sometimes years, sometimes centuries.  But always there.  And now, its hour come, the beast roars, groans and writhes into life.  The very worst of humanity has risen and become this collective thing to which each of those massed faces gives the gift of its darkness, so that the beast may slouch into life and the world hear its groans.  For it has waited a long time, brooding in its cave, alone and forgotten, but always there.  And now, its moment come, the world will pay. (p.4)

This excerpt is a good example of Carroll’s style.  Rhythmic, pulsing and richly evocative of its beast metaphor, repeating some elements to give them added force and solidity, and revealing the thoughts of the usually reticent main character.  This is the Yes crowd, demanding more young men for the death factory.  Maryanne has other priorities in her life right now, but she is appalled by what she sees, especially when she sees a peaceful women’s demonstration for the No vote being manhandled by vicious police.

The back story reveals Maryanne’s almost accidental career as a teacher in a small town, and the character of the man whose baby she carries.  This is not a plot-driven novel, but there is enough narrative tension to propel it along.  Maryanne is being pressured to hand over her unborn baby to the nuns for a likely vocation in the priesthood, and she needs the support of her fiercely independent but still religious sister Katherine.  (Who is one of the best, most dynamic characters in the whole Glenroy series.  A character like those indomitable women in the novels of Kylie Tennant, she doesn’t cave in to what others expect of her, and I want her to have a novel of her own!)  Looking ahead to the man that the baby will become, Maryanne also wants her child to know that he did have a father even though his behaviour makes him a despicable man that she doesn’t want in her life.

A small gripe: Early in the story, Maryanne tells Katherine that she has been to a suffragette meeting.

‘I get restless.  Confined. I have to get up and go out or I feel like I’ll go mad. I have to go … somewhere.  And today I went to a suffragette meeting.  Oh, they don’t go around calling themselves that.  What do they call themselves?  Women’s Peace Army? I think that’s it…’ (p.59)

No, Maryanne hasn’t been to a suffragette meeting. The Suffragettes were on the other side of the world in London.  What the author means is a suffragist meeting, and a one-word Google search would have told him and his editor so.  This isn’t a mere matter of semantics: suffragists believed in peaceful, constitutional campaign methods to gain votes for women, while the Suffragettes in the UK used direct, militant methods.  (See here). The distinction needs to be made because the Women’s Peace Army, using the suffragist colours of purple, white and green and led in Melbourne by Vida Goldstein, (characterised in the novel as Vera),  was committed to peace and peaceful campaign methods.  They sang songs and distributed pamphlets.  They were never militant.

The book cover? Hmm, it’s not one of the Harper Collins Design Studio’s finest.  It’s a variation on the naked-back-of-a-woman cliché, the red hair presumably meant to be shorthand for ‘Irishwoman’ because the central character has a Roman Catholic background.   This design is misleading, because the image of the crowd from Getty stock images makes it look as if she is the focus of their attention, as if she might be addressing them, when she’s not.  Steven Carroll deserves much better than this for his books and it’s not the first time I’ve thought so.

So don’t be misled by the cover.  This is a wonderful book, richly evocative of its time and with unforgettable characters.  I haven’t found many other reviews yet, but there is this one from Readings.

Update 12/3/18 Jennifer Cameron-Smith reviewed it at Tasmanian Bibliophile @Large. 

Image credits:

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: The Year of the Beast
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, 2019, 305 pages
ISBN: 05943605
Review copy courtesy of Harper Collins

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 5, 2019

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

A long time ago when I was bored brainless by teaching in a complacent, over-privileged school, I started a law degree part-time as an escape route.  But before long I realised that even though I loved studying law, I didn’t want to spend my working days with other lawyers and I didn’t want to work in academia.  A chance conversation with a writer was the catalyst for me to chuck the law degree, and shortly afterwards fate intervened.  I was promoted to a school where I felt I could actually achieve something purposeful with my career.

I never regretted my decision but I still like the intellectual effort of untangling the principles of law, and that is why I really liked Ian McEwen’s The Children Act.  It’s a book that humanises the law and the people who apply it, defying the ease with which John Smith and the tabloids decry the law ‘as an ass’.

In this novel, a High Court judge has to make a difficult decision while her long marriage is falling apart.  She is sixty, and has devoted her life to her career, but now her husband wants to have an affair.  Outraged, she watches him go and changes the locks.  All credit to her, she does not proceed at work on auto-pilot, but instead applies her mind to the very difficult legal problem before her.

The principle upon which her decision must rest is clear: McEwen quotes the relevant section at the start of the book:

When a court determines any question with respect to … the upbringing of a child … the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.
Section 1(a), the Children’s Act (1989)

Our Australian Family Courts work under an identical principle.  It seems so obvious, and easy…

In McEwen’s story, Judge Fiona Maye has to rule on whether a hospital can overrule the parents’ decision to refuse a blood transfusion to a dying child. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses so this decision is based on their religious beliefs, but its consequences are that he will die a gruesome death when he otherwise would probably recover.  The complicating factor is that the ‘child’ is three months shy of turning eighteen.  In adulthood, the decision would be his entirely, but he doesn’t have three months left.  Already the delay in his treatment means that he is suffering breathlessness.  The matter is urgent.

It’s not a long book, but McEwen unpicks the complexities of this case so that the reader shares the dilemmas.  Because he is so close to adulthood, Adam’s state of mind must be considered.  Is he old enough, intelligent enough, self-aware enough to understand fully what his choices entail?  Is he influenced unduly by the religious views of his parents and the Elders who visit him to shore up the certainty of refusal?  Has his education been sufficiently rigorous to enable him to make decisions like this? Does his agreement with his parents’ beliefs arise from his fear of being ‘disassociated’ (i.e. excommunicated and excluded from the community)?

Is there some factor she hasn’t thought of?  And is it humanly possible, in a brief bedside interview, to break through adolescent reserve and bravado to arrive at the truth?

At any time, in any country, in numerous different contexts, there are people invested with great power to whom we, the people, entrust critical decisions.  They are the ones whose job it is to make the difficult decisions, on our behalf.  This novel asks, is it humanly possible to keep a clear head when one’s personal life is in turmoil?  Who bears the responsibility when common sense and reason fails, and an appointed Solomon makes a choice that has unanticipated consequences?

There’s a strand of literary criticism which is never going to forgive Ian McEwen for being middle-class, and especially not for his novel Saturday.  Nevertheless, The Children Act was nominated for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction (2015), the Goodreads Choice Award  for Fiction (2014), and the International Dublin Literary Award (2016).

I liked it.

Author: Ian McEwen
Title: The Children Act
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House UK), 2014, 216 pages
ISBN: 9780099599630
Personal library, free from a giveaway table

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2019

Love is Blind, by William Boyd

There’s only one thing to do when it’s too hot to venture outside, and that’s to loaf around with books. I’ve read two today, and I’ve finished William Boyd’s novel that’s been on the bedside table for a day or two.

Boyd (b.1952)  is a Scottish writer with 15 novels to his credit, and he’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He has honorary doctorates in literature from the universities of St. Andrews, Stirling and Glasgow, and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2005 for services to Literature. And while he doesn’t seem to have won any major awards, his early novels in particular attracted attention.  This is the list from his Wikipedia page:

So it was about time I read one of his books!

Love is Blind is a straightforward historical novel, set at the turn of the 19th century.  The narrative is chronological, starting in 1894 when young Brodie Moncur escapes from his tyrannical father to take up an opportunity as a piano tuner in Paris.  This era was a golden age for piano manufacturing and Brodie’s employer Channon wants to compete with Steinway pianos, so he sends Brodie, his most able employee, to set up the branch there, second in command to Channon’s son Calder.  Through a clever scheme to promote the pianos via concert pianists, Brodie meets John Kilbarron (the Scottish Liszt) and fatally, falls for John’s lover Lika Blum, a beautiful Russian soprano. When things go wrong in the Paris branch, Brodie strikes out on his own, and ends up in St Petersburg where John Kilbarron has a wealthy patron who doesn’t seem to mind paying for a piano tuner with not much to do except have assignations with the lovely Lika.

The novel is basically a twin study of obsession.  Brodie is obsessed with Lika, and Brodie’s rival/s are obsessed with vengeance.  Despite his background as the son of a preacher, Brodie’s love life has consisted of transactional sex with prostitutes but he falls passionately in love with the enigmatic Lika.  Everything he does from this point on is predicated on what is obviously a doomed relationship.  The reader can see what Brodie cannot, which is that she is evasive about her past, flirts with Brodie behind Kilbarron’s back, but obviously isn’t as keen on Brodie as he is on her.  And #SpoilerAlert it all ends badly.

IMO Love is Blind is a little long for itself, yet some elements seem unexplained.  I never worked out why Brodie is berated by his father Malky for his dark skin, and kept waiting for a revelation about parental infidelity which (unless I missed it) never came.  I also didn’t understand why Malky’s tirades in his sermon were drawn from biblical passages that didn’t exist.  And where was the explanation for Brodie’s brother turning into a violent drunk?  OTOH some segments were unnecessarily drawn out, and there’s some rather gratuitous writing about the sex habits of people on the Andaman Islands.

These quibbles don’t really matter because the interest lies in Brodie’s passion for Lika and the travails of their relationship.  In this fin-de-siecle period, music and madness take the characters all over Europe, with Brodie trying to escape his father, his employer’s betrayal, his vengeful pursuer and the TB which threatens to kill him if he doesn’t live a stress-free life in a congenial climate.  It’s a bit melodramatic, but that’s the point, I think, to show that obsession is melodramatic.  No one in their right mind would behave the way these characters do, but then, they’re not in their right minds!

There are numerous literary references, but they’re mostly overt, as for example when Brodie reads an article in Harper’s Bazaar about Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. So even if a reader doesn’t know that this is a brilliant book about the exploitation of migrants in turn-of-the-century America, Google will reveal all so that it can be seen that Boyd is linking that book with the exploitation of convict labour on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Empire.

See Alexander Larman’s review at The Guardian and also Tony’s  review at Tony’s Book World. 

Author: William Boyd
Title: Love Is Blind, The Rapture of Brodie Moncur
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Random House UK), 2018, 371 pages
ISBN: 9780241295946
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House Australia

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