To make one more last contribution to #WITMonth, today I read a short novella called The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc, first published in 1965 and translated from the French by Derek Coltman.

(I had been a bit ambitious in thinking that I had time to finish A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding by Amanda Svensson (translated by Nichola Smalley). Life has conspired to get in the way of reading time this past week…)

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is one of Penguin’s European Writers series:  it’s a series of seven (so far) and I bought the lot when I first heard about them. (Except for Death in Spring by Mercé Rodoreda, (translated by Martha Tennent because I  had already read and reviewed the Open Letter Books edition at the beginning of this #WITMonth).  The titles are all bite-sized short stories and novellas, representing authors from France, Spain, Germany , Sweden, Romania, Greece and Italy.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is only 80 pages long and can be read in an afternoon, though its impact will last much longer than that. It affected me in the same way that reading Knut Hamsun’s Hunger did (see my review).  Hamsun’s protagonist is a distressed young man at the end of his physical and psychological tether.  His circumstances are different to Leduc’s old lady’s but like her, he is starving in an impersonal city, and like her, he suffers hallucinations which blur with reality.

Leduc’s nameless old lady is sixty (which doesn’t seem so very old to me), but she is alone and friendless. Her sole companion is an insect in the skirting board of her room.

She was a sack of stones holding itself up of its own volition, this woman who had never had anything, who had never asked for anything.  If the edge of the wind had caressed her neck at that moment, had caressed her neck just below the ear, then her heart would have stopped.  She would have given her life and her death for another’s breath that close. (p.38)

She uses her few francs for a ticket for the train — not to take a journey, but to be in company with other people, even though they ignore her.

She has developed rituals and routines to get through her long lonely days, and she plans carefully to eke out her pitiful store of money.  This is how the story begins:

Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six… the the roar.  The table shook, the coffee beans fell into her lap.

The overhead Métro was an invader she had never grown used to, though it shook her like that every five minutes during off-hours, every two minutes during rush hours.  (p.1)

That astonishing image is just one of many arresting images.  As Deborah Levy says in the introduction, Leduc is incapable of coming up with a boring sentence, and it’s true.  At Les Palmiers, which the old lady must avoid because she has no money…

There were some young girls going into the café and she lowered her eyes — the pavement was as old as she was.

February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist, and the grey streets were melting indistinguishably into the grey street corners. (p.1)

She lashes out and eats two cubes of sugar and some coffee soaked bread, but immediately her rashness in eating without thinking of economy overwhelms her:

She ate: her teeth melted with delight as they sank into the coffee-soaked bread; her stomach was a pit of pleasure — and the passing train was as frivolous as smoke.  But the pencil was already beckoning before the last mouthful; figures will not wait, they are executioners intent on torturing their victim.  (p.40)

Now she has to get some money, some food in order to go on… she craves an orange but there isn’t one in the dustbin, only an old fox fur.  It’s tatty and it stinks, and all the time she wears it she fears that the dustmen will be after her to get it back. But it’s her little rascal, and she loves it.

She took the little fox back to her room and examined it beneath her attic window.  To find something, no matter how ignorant or how learned one may be, is to dip ones’ finger into cerulean blue.  And what she found now was warmth, relaxation, and a caressing softness.  The fox had offered itself to the first comer, and she had been stronger than the others.  They had all been asleep and she had come upon him.  She kissed him, and she went on kissing him, from the tip of his muzzle to the tip of his brush.  But her lips were as cold as marble: in her mind these kisses were also an act of religious meditation.  She looked him up and down, then burst into her first fit of uncontrollable laughter: the amusement he filled her with was no less sincere than the love she felt for him. (p.50)

Though she knows he is just a little dead animal that someone had thrown out into the gutter, she plans to take him out on little jaunts around Paris, while also dreaming of selling him and buying him back when she has made her fortune. Not so different to Knut Hamsun’s protagonist’s dreams of selling a manuscript which will banish his hunger forever.

It really is harrowing to read about these protagonists living in such straitened circumstances, knowing that it’s real life for so many in our mean and selfish world.

Mentored by Simone de Beauvoir, Violette Leduc (1907-1972) was admired by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau, and Jean Genet.  She published fiction and two memoirs.

  • L’Asphyxie, 1946 (In the Prison of Her Skin, trans. Derek Coltman, 1970).
  • L’affamée, 1948.
  • Ravages, 1955.
  • La vieille fille et le mort, 1958.
  • Trésors à prendre, suivi de Les Boutons dorés, 1960.
  • La Bâtarde, (memoir), 1964 (La Bâtarde, trans. Derek Coltman, 1965).
  • La Femme au petit renard, 1965 (The Lady and the Little Fox Fur,trans. Derek Coltman, 1965).
  • Thérèse et Isabelle, 1966 (Thérèse and Isabelle, trans. Sophie Lewis, The Feminist Press, 2015. )
  • La Folie en tête, (memoir) 1970 (Mad in Pursuit, trans. Derek Coltman, 1971)
  • Le Taxi, 1971 (The Taxi. Helen Weaver (translation). Hart-Davis MacGibbon.
  • 1973. ISBN 9780246105851. OCLC 561312438.)
  • La Chasse à l’amour, 1973.

Can anyone recommend which of these titles by Violette Leduc I should try next?

Author: Violette Leduc
Title: The Lady and the Little Fox Fur (La femme au petit renard)
Translated from the French by Derek Coltman
Introduction by Deborah Levy
Publisher: Penguin European Writers, Penguin Random House, 2018
ISBN: 9780241357453, pbk., 80 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 26, 2022

Bon and Lesley, by Shaun Prescott

The last time Shaun Prescott released a novel, it made quite a splash, and indeed the catalyst for me to buy a copy of The Town was a generous review by Ed Wright in The Australian’s Weekend Review.  Jennifer Mills, who reviewed it for the Sydney Review of Books acknowledged the feeling of familiarity that begins The Town for readers of Murnane but suggested that it was more useful to think of this as an echo, an homage, or even a sample. I hadn’t seen Mills’ review when I wrote mine, but I made the case that Prescott’s novel wasn’t like the fictions that Murnane himself describes as conceptual literature.  Prescott’s fictions — both The Town and now Bon and Lesley — offer the adventure of exploring an imaginative mindscape somewhat like Gerald Murnane’s — but Prescott’s writing differs by having characters, a plot (of sorts) and a setting, surreal though they be.

However, what I like about reading Prescott is what I also like about reading Murnane and Brian Castro too.  I don’t presume to make reductive judgements about these authors, but I don’t think the idea is that we should ‘understand’ them in a conventional sense, and certainly not at a first reading.  For me, the pleasure is in reading the prose as a catalyst for tangential thoughts, and inspired by the text, to observe and consider, in a more intense way. To notice things differently.  I like the freedom of reading these authors, beyond the words on the page.

Reading Prescott does take time.  I meander through the pages because the characters’ concerns distract me into introspections of my own…

The novel begins with Bon succumbing to his inclination to step out of his mundane life.  He gets off his commuter train at Newnes, an apparently ordinary regional town with little to offer.  He meets up with Steven, a man of opinions so numerous that Bon soon absorbs them like the background noise of a radio.  They wander around the town together, following trails to non-existent destinations in the forest, returning to town to have inconclusive interactions with a few other people, and to stock up on take-away, booze and cigarettes. The stagnation of their days is a mask for the sense of crisis in their lives, and ours.

The novel is cleverly constructed so that Steven’s monologues are punctuated by Bon’s internal responses, and eventually also by responses from Lesley, a fellow-refugee from the city, and from Jack, Steven’s monosyllabic brother.  Bon and Lesley reflect so much about their responses to anything, that they rarely actually respond to anything at all.  Bon, for example, is not the sort to come to people’s aid, lest they feel condescended to. 

#TangentialThoughts: As we become more aware of the social model of disability and how making an offer to help might be a form of ableism in some contexts, we hesitate.  Is the person able to deal with what appears to be a difficulty on their own, having already developed strategies for dealing with the situation?  Bon is observing a crowd of people who’ve been arbitrarily dumped by a train which doesn’t normally terminate at Newnes.  They are floundering around, apparently uncertain about what to do, in a town they do not know.  But he coped with a similar situation, so by offering to help is he denying them agency or an experience for personal growth?  Is he insulting them, by implying that they can’t manage, as he did? Is a kindly-meant impulse patronising in some contexts?

Steven does not expect anyone to respond to his monologues, but they represent serious concerns all the same.  When he brings Bon to a beautiful place in the forest, his loquacity extends to two pages that pierce the concept of a ‘bucket list.’

It’s a magical road, isn’t it Bon?  And magical all the more for the fact it goes nowhere.  The road just peters off into rough grass and then there’s a stormwater drain.  Across the stormwater drain, there’s a strip of brown grass and a line of Colorbond fence and then some houses.  Whoever built this road, did so because they knew this to be a beautiful location for a road, and likewise, they must have known that it was a beautiful and suitable place for these trees.  Never mind that this road could not possibly go anywhere, because it would be a waste of this space not to have such a beautiful road.  There are no statues or signs or anything else celebrating what this road commemorates.  It’s just here, beautifully commemorating nothing. (p.32)

But he goes on then, to argue that there is no point in seeing it.  Even if Bon loves and appreciates its beauty, he still has to go home, and having seen this beauty he will be discontented.  He’ll probably rarely or never visit it again.

The walk to this road might be full of anticipation and joy, but once reached, and once this road is merely looked at, you’ll need to walk back home, and the walk home will frustrate you.  You’ll continue to know the road’s here, but knowing this will only cause you pain, because you’ll look at our street and our house and our weeded backyard and think: this is a pathetic sight.  (p.33)

Photos of the road might spark conversations about it, but the truth is that seeing it again involves going out of their way, and they can’t ever get their fill of it anyway.  Seeing the road in this new light makes it an underwhelming road after all.

#TangentialThoughts: Steven’s perspective triggers thoughts about Bucket List Tourism and (even more tangentially) its impact on climate change.  When we travel, we generate carbon emissions.  If we are responsible citizens, we may offset these emissions by buying carbon credits in one form or another.  (The last time I flew somewhere, the carbon offset of my flight was optional, and I wonder how many travellers choose it.) Had I not been offsetting my vehicle emissions through Greenfleet when we stumbled on the glorious view at Sublime Point in NSW on our way back from the Hunter Valley, what would have been the impact? More importantly, Steven’s analysis raises the question: is the effort of getting there worth it? Who for? Millions of people all over the world seeking a bit of scenery when that quest is adding to the peril for our planet?

Sublime Point Lookout NSW

Bon and Lesley has some motifs in common with The Town: the ordinariness of the place with its recognisable shops and empty streets; the inertia of its anarchic characters; the shopping catalogues that constitute the only reading matter for so many; the unrecyclable litter that festoons their environment.  It’s this ordinariness that gives the novel its unsettling power: the sense that all around us there are apparently ordinary people living apparently ordinary lives that are actually fragile and at risk.

Just like our planet.

Image credit: Sublime Point Lookout NSWBy Adam.J.W.C. – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Author: Shaun Prescott
Title: Bon and Lesley
Cover image: Untitled, 2018-19, from Garage Romance by Tony Garifalakis
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9781922725257, pbk., 279 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Another interesting book for #WITmonth!

To Hell with Cronjé is the sixth novel by South African author Ingrid Winterbach, who has also published five titles under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen. It is a profoundly moving meditation on male friendship and the futility of war.

Two scientists, Rietz Steyn and Ben Maritz, forge their friendship during the Boer War (1899-1902), of interest to Australians because it was the first of multiple wars overseas that Australians have chosen to join.  I’d hazard a guess, however, that most Australians know little about our participation in this brutal war apart from inscriptions on war memorials and/or from the highly contested myth-making about Breaker Morant. (See my review of The Breaker by Kit Morant.)

 The AWM website) tells me that about 16,000 men from what were then Britain’s colonies in Australia, fought (mostly) on the British side.  About 600 died, about half in action and the rest from disease or accidents. (This was from a population of less than 4 million in 1901.) Winterbach’s novel is very revealing about the war that our young men volunteered for, but it was instructive to learn a little more after I’d finished reading the book because some knowledge of South African history and geography is assumed by the author.

From the British National Army Museum, I learned that

The origins of the Boer War lay in Britain’s desire to unite the British South African territories of Cape Colony and Natal with the Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal). The Boers, Afrikaans-speaking farmers, wanted to maintain their independence.

Map of Southern Africa, c1899

Map of Southern Africa, c1899, source: British National Army Museum

Neither the novel nor the museum website admit that both sides were colonisers, fighting over land dispossessed from the original inhabitants.  What it does reveal is the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that these bitter enemies had made, to ensure continued control over the Black population:

On the outbreak of war, the British made a tacit agreement with their Boer enemies that both sides would not arm the black population. As the war progressed, however, this stance proved difficult to maintain and they began employing armed blacks as scouts.

It is estimated that between 15,000 and 30,000 black Africans eventually served under arms with the British Army as scouts and sentries. Another 100,000 worked as labourers, transport drivers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, farriers and builders. (National Army Museum, scroll down to the heading, ‘African and Indian role’)

So this explains this exchange, early in the novel when the party come across some Xhosa:

At noon, their shadows hard upon their heels, they come across three black men on horseback.  The men are wearing hats and blankets.  One is clad in the threadbare tunic of a Khaki [i.e. British] uniform.  Another wears a feather in his hat.

‘A motley crew,’ Ben mutters.

The two groups come to a halt, facing each other.

‘What do you want?’ Willem demands. ‘I trust you’re not helping the Khakis.’

The men confer in Xhosa.  The leader raises his hand in what appears to be a peace sign.

He and Willem bow formally.

The group passes them without further greeting.

‘Tonight they’re be joining General Pettingale,’ Ben says.

‘At least they’re unarmed,’ Willem says, ‘and rightly so.’ (p.7)

Rietz and Ben find themselves in the company of another of these Black Africans of ambiguous military status when they encounter Ezekiel in a Boer transit camp under the control of Gert Smal.  Smal detains them because he doubts their story that the erratic General Senekal sent them as escorts for the postmaster-turned-soldier Willem, who is returning a very young shell-shocked soldier called Abraham to his mother.  Ezekiel is the only character who has any dignity, despite being ordered about by Smal and used as an amusement because he has a freakishly good memory for Biblical quotations and facts about the war. All the others are clearly traumatised by the war, though they behave in different ways:

‘Each of our camp-fellows seems more frightened and bewildered than the next,’ says Reitz.  Gert Smal can hardly be called a rational interlocutor, Kosie Rijpma has yet to say a single word.  Poor Seun barely manages to utter a few incoherent sounds.  Reuben appears to be a somewhat rough diamond and Japie scurries off if one even happens to look in his direction.’ (p.45)

Reuben lost a leg at Dwarsleersbos; Japie lost his hearing when a shell exploded next to him; the predikant Kosie lost his wits in the horror of the women’s concentration camp, and Smal himself is erratic, forgetful and hyper-aggressive. As for Ben and Rietz, it is only their keen interest in the natural environment around them that has kept them sane so far.  Rietz is a geologist, and Ben studies natural history, and their friendship grows as they record their findings in their journals along the route. It is when they are stuck in this transit camp, suspected of being deserters or traitors that they begin to lose their grip on reality.  Both men are in their forties — Ben with a family to worry about and Rietz still grieving for a wife and child already dead — and as they come across more and more evidence of British atrocities, their anxiety grows.

Their anxiety, however, is not just about the war.  Rietz and Ben are scientists in the wake of Darwinism, and the General baits them into giving lectures about their respective areas of study to the men in the transit camp, all of whom are conservative Christians who believe in the literal word of the Bible.  The lecture Rietz gives about the geological age of the earth, and Ben’s lecture about natural selection challenge those beliefs, and the hostility of the others is palpable.

Eventually a superior officer arrives and the men are sent off on a mysterious mission that ends in disaster, and women enter the novel when they provide refuge in the ruins of their farm.  This part of the novel reveals the devastating effects of the British scorched earth policy on the Boer farms and their inhabitants.  While the men try to adjust to their changed circumstances, defeat brings the prospect of a difficult peace for shattered men in a landscape laid waste by a futile war.

When they are out of sight, in the open veld, Reitz asks Ben to halt for a moment.  He gets off the horse, leans against her thin flank, and weeps as he has never wept before.

He weeps for his dead wife, banished to the realm of shadows forever because of his folly.  He weeps for the children—his own child who died so young and whom he never really mourned; the older child, who became a woman overnight, and the little one.  He weeps about the fate of his camp-fellows.  He weeps—bitterly—about Anna, because it has not been granted for them to love each other.  He weeps because after this their lives will never be the same. (p.228)

The title BTW refers to one of the military leaders despised by Gert Smal, who spends a lot of his time ranting about how bad the Boer leadership is.

I have another novel by Winterbach: Happenstance, recommended to me by Stu from Winston’s Dad.  It was first published in 2006, and was translated by Dirk Winterbach, and published by Open Letter Books in 2011.

I read this book for #WITmonth, initiated by blogger Meytal Radzinski and now an international movement to celebrate the work of women writers in translation.  Visit Women in Translation for more information.

To Hell with Cronjé won the 2004 Hertzog Prize, the most prestigious award in Afrikaans literature.

Author: Ingrid Winterbach
Title: To Hell with Cronjé
Cover design by E J Van Lenen
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2010, first published 2007
ISBN: 9781934824306, pbk., 239 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Open Letter Books


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 23, 2022

2022 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction shortlist

The shortlist for the 2022 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction has been announced.  Links go to Readings bookstore.  The nominees are:

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au, see my review

Hovering by Rhett Davis, the pick of the bunch IMO, see my review

Losing Face by George Haddad, abandoned

Love and Virtue by Diana Reid

Loveland by Robert Lukins, see my review

Sunbathing by Isobel Beech


Read more about these titles at the Readings website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 23, 2022

The Colony, by Audrey Magee

Colonisation is a theme common enough in contemporary fiction, but I haven’t come across much fiction featuring the English colonisation of Ireland*.  Audrey Magee’s The Colony, nominated for the 2022 Booker Prize and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, explores the theme in a microcosm of Irish society on a small remote island in the summer of 1979.  Unlike heavy-handed critiques of colonisation (which have their place in educating readers about its enduring consequences), The Colony is more subtly nuanced in its depiction of a world in flux.

Magee’s island society is insulated from the Troubles which derived from the colonisation of mainland Ireland; there is only news of bombs or car-jackings in this Irish outpost.  Chillingly brief radio reports of sectarian violence punctuate the novel but do not impact on the storyline, except to signal that the violence influences even the matriarch who has staunchly resisted any change to existing traditions. Bean Ui O’Néill (Mrs O’Neill) has a terse conversation with her adult son Francis who regards the dead as collateral damage in a great cause.  Later in conversation with her daughter Mairéad, her shifting certainties are subtly signalled by a pronoun:


Hugh O’Halloran, a twenty-eight-year-old Catholic father of five, dies in hospital on Monday, September 10th from injuries received two days earlier when he was beaten by a gang of republican men with a hurling stick and a pickaxe handle.


It’s going mad up there, Mam.

It is, Mairéad. Attacking and killing their own.

Mairéad mopped where her mother had swept.

Francis would say our own.

He would, Mairéad.

But you’re not.

I’m not.

Mairéad reached the mop under the chairs.

You used to.

I did.

Not any more, Mam?

I don’t know what to think any more, Mairéad. (p.339)

The book begins with an English artist being rowed across to the island in a currach, clutching his precious painting materials to his chest and regretting his whimsical desire to use the traditional craft instead of a motorboat.  To the ill-concealed derision of the islanders, Mr Lloyd arrives in soaked clothes bearing evidence of his seasickness, but to his face they make him welcome with a cup of tea and eventually he is escorted to the cottage which he has rented for the summer.

It turns out to be unsatisfactory, and his complaints are interpreted as arrogance.  Everything has to be moved so that there is adequate light for him to set up his studio, and worse than that, is that having expected solitude, he finds himself neighbour to a Frenchman, J P Masson, who is conducting a longitudinal study of the islanders’ use of Gaelic for his PhD.  Masson shares the same delusion, that the work done on the island will bring admiration and fame. Masson also shares Lloyd’s irritation that the islanders have chosen to have two summer visitors, because the Gaelic he is there to study, will be ‘polluted’ since the Islanders will have to speak some English with Lloyd.

Masson wants the island preserved in its rustic traditions, not because it suits the inhabitants best, but because it suits his ambitions.  Addressed familiarly as J.P., he ingratiates himself with his hosts with gifts and bonhomie, and on arrival is rewarded by what amounts to a feast.  He fails to see that the much-needed rental summer income he has provided will cease after this, his final visit; and he fails to see that he is sabotaging the household’s potential for future tourism by being so unpleasant to the English artist.  It is as if he thinks he has territorial rights to occupy the island — and to shape its future. And although, as the son of a colonising French soldier who married an Algerian woman, he resisted all his mother’s efforts to have him learn his Algerian language and heritage because he wanted a French life in France — he refuses to acknowledge that Mairéad’s teenage son likewise rejects the limitations of traditions that it is assumed he will follow.

Lloyd OTOH is not really interested in the islanders at all.  He takes them for granted, giving no thought to what he may leave behind him. He came intending to paint only the cliffs and makes an undertaking to refrain from painting any of the inhabitants — but soon carelessly breaks that promise, unwittingly causing conflict.

Always addressed as Mr Lloyd, and called the Sasanach behind his back, he gets short thrift from the outset.  With his stomach still fragile from the voyage across the heaving sea, he is summoned to ‘tea’:

Micheál and Francis were already at the table.  Bean O’Néill set down plates of fried fish, mashed potato and boiled cabbage.  He poked at the food with his fork but did not eat it.

You should eat, Mr Lloyd, said Micheál.

I’m not hungry.

It’s dinner at one o’clock every day, Mr Lloyd, and tea at half past six.

So this is tea?

It is.

It looks like dinner. What does dinner look like?


Lloyd laughed.

I’m not sure I’ll get the hang of this.

It’s easy enough, Mr Lloyd.  You eat the same food most times. (p.32-33)

It turns out that the only variation from this monotonous diet is an occasional rabbit, caught by the 15 year-old son of Mairéad, the island’s only bilingual speaker of English and Gaelic.  He has been educated on the mainland, and he recognises that English is his ticket to a different future.  Magee signals his desire to escape the island when this boy introduces himself as ‘James’, as she also signals Masson’s arrogance when — unlike his mother Mairéad who addresses the boy as James — he insists on calling him Séamus, as if the boy and his mother do not have the right to decide the name by which he will be known. Where Masson wants to preserve James as a specimen in his research, Lloyd provides the catalyst for something different. He enjoys educating James — until the apprentice surpasses his master, and then he betrays him.

The craftsmanship of this novel is in the attention to detail, including its silences — as when the entrepreneurial Micheál explains that his wife is not an island woman, content without shopping, and Mairéad says nothing.  Unlike her mother, she is not content and her silence does not indicate agreement. Quietly, though never fully understanding how much her son wants to jettison his island origins, she supports his ambition to have a different life.

Mairéad is trapped on this island by the fate that took her husband, her father and her uncle on the same day when all three failed to return from a fishing trip a decade ago.  She will always be known as that ‘poor widow woman’ but she resists the expectation that she will marry Liam’s brother Francis, ‘waiting in the long grass‘.  Mairéad yearns to join other members of the family who emigrated.

The Colony shows that it’s women who bear the brunt of nostalgia for traditions… and that those colonised can still have agency in the adaptations that they choose to make.

Audrey Magee is also the author of The Undertaking (2014, see my review) which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, for France’s Festival du Premier Roman and for the Irish Book Awards.

Jacqui at Jaquiwine discusses other aspects of this fine novel too. Also see the review by Ari Levine at Goodreads which includes images of the many artworks discussed in the novel.

Author: Audrey Magee
Title: The Colony
Design by Jack Smyth
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2022
ISBN: 9780571367603, pbk., 376 pages
Source: Kingston Library

*I watched the TV Outlander series, set in Scotland as England was colonising it, but I haven’t read the books by Diana Gabandan.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2022

2022 Barbara Jefferis Award shortlist

The 2022 Barbara Jefferis Award shortlist was announced today, along with three novels that were highly commended.  The nominees are:

  • Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down (Text Publishing)
  • Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery (University of Queensland Press)
  • Benevolence by Julie Janson (Magabala Books), see my review
  • Revenge: Murder in Three Parts by S.L. Lim (Transit Lounge), see my review
  • Smart Ovens for Lonely People by Elizabeth Tan (Brio Books)
  • The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld (Penguin Random House Australia)

The highly commended titles include:

  • She is Haunted by Paige Clark (Allen & Unwin)
  • A Million Things by Emily Spurr (Text Publishing)
  • The Performance by Claire Thomas (Hachette Australia), see my review

Funded by a bequest in memory of author Barbara Jefferis, this award is made biennially for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”. 

At the ASA website you can read the judges comments about the award in general and the books in particular, but of interest is that they also noted the scarcity of work submitted by authors who identify as men.

They suggested that “This might genuinely represent the number of Australian men writing novels in which women and girls are depicted positively, or merely be a reflection of their publishers’ judgement as to their likelihood of winning.”  Or, it might be that identity politics has led to male authors vacating the field. When I think of books like the late Frank Moorhouse’s brilliant Edith Trilogy, it would be a pity if that is the case.

The winner of the 2022 Barbara Jefferis Award will be announced on Thursday 22 September 2022. The winner will receive $50,000, and shortlisted authors receive $1000 each.

The winner of the 2020 Barbara Jefferis Award was Lucy Treloar’s wonderful novel Wolfe Island, (see my review). ( I am looking forward to hearing Lucy speak at the upcoming Port Fairy Literary Weekend.)

For more information about the Barbara Jefferis Award, visit:

Update: In the light of discussion in the comments below, here’s my own personal list of books from 2020-2021 which represent women in a positive way:

NB I excluded from my list, the ones in the judges shortlist.  Thinking about which of  I’d have shortlisted or made the winner raises a conundrum.  For this prize, should the book have the most positive portrayal of women, or should it be the ‘best’ book, the most memorable and/or the most original?  In the end, the winner of all these was a toss-up between Sincerely, Ethel Malley and The Tolstoy Estate.  Both have memorable women characters and are excellent reading too.  You can make what you will of the fact that both are by male authors!

Image credit: bookstack:

Co-winner of the 2021 Viva La Novella Prize with Every Day is Gertie Day by Helen Meany (see my review), Christine Balint’s novella Water Music is an exquisite portrait of the way artistic ambition often comes with a hard price to pay.

Set in 18th century Venice, it’s the story of 16-year-old Lucietta, an orphan with an unknown benefactor who makes her education possible.  She grows up to be a talented violinist, and is given a place at the Derelitti Convent, the (real-life) musical orphanage for girls.

Unlike *yawn* many historical novels set in Venice, Water Music isn’t an homage to this most beautiful of Renaissance cities.  Lucietta has a limited life, and her horizons are limited by her gender and her social class.  For her there is only her waterside home, and the convent.  Place is superbly realised: the reader can smell the dank fishy air; she can feel the chill of the convent’s stone walls.

Lucietta grows up in foster care with her fisherman father, and her mother, a wet nurse.  She guesses at her parentage, but her destiny seems a foregone conclusion:

I was reared on water and fish like a bird.  So much fish that I know its smell is in the pores of my skin.  When I walk in the market, I notice a lady’s maid screwing up her nose and stepping away from me.  In the night I lie awake, wondering if the stench will ever leave my skin. (p.1-2)

That is not what Lucietta wants:

If I stayed with Mamma, there would be no other future for me.  One day, I would have my own fisherman for a husband, my own dingy smoke-filled room, my own fish heads to feed to the neighbourhood cats. (p.6)

That is not what Mamma wants for Lucietta either.  A woman determined to exercise what little agency she can, she chose to earn her own income as a wet nurse rather than be a fishwife.  Her ambition is that Lucietta should have a different life.

Mamma had requested of the Pietà that I be allowed to stay with her until the age of sixteen to learn how to live in a family.  From when I was very young, she said that I would have to find a better life: a husband who would appreciate my gift for music and keep me in rooms that were warm and light with windows that opened out over the Canale Grande.  (p.6)

The novel begins as Lucietta prepares to leave her family.  Well aware of the gulf in social class that the girl must step into, her father shines her shabby boots with squid ink and cooking fat. Her brother Lionello re-soles them with offcuts from a luthier, and makes the heels a little higher.   Her mother darns her moth-eaten cloak, braids a fine silk ribbon into her hair, and washes a heavy linen bedspread that took three years to make, in lemon soap to get rid of the stink of fish.

At 16, Lucietta  has to make a fateful choice, for once she is inside the locked wrought-iron door she will not have the freedom to leave. At home, her ambitions, nurtured by the love of her music, make it easy to choose.  At the imposing gates of the convent, with Lionello by her side, it is not so easy.

The nuns see to it that Lucietta is parted from all these symbols of her family’s love and the past life that she had.

Soon, because the nun’s habit and wimple cannot conceal her beauty, Lucietta has another choice to make.  A young noble asks for her hand:

I do not know what life with a nobleman would entail.  I try to imagine a room full of windows and light.  Looking out over the water at the gondolas passing by.  But the space presents a different kind of confinement.  And the isolation of it is frightening.  I like Don Leonardi well enough at a distance.  But to submit to him is another thing.  To be dependent on him for my understanding of my life.  To have to learn under him the rules of the Golden Book.  To rely on him for all my connections in the world. To have to surrender my purpose.  A married woman does not work seriously as a musician.  She may play occasionally for guests.  But her primary purpose is to maintain the household and her husband’s social standing.  Have I devoted my life to music simply to exchange it for what others see as a better life?  Am I to have no say at all in my future?

Balint doesn’t just de-romanticise the Cinderella fairy tale as a myth that substitutes one captivity for another, she also exposes the inevitabilities of social aspiration then, and maybe in our own era too. Escape into a different social class, for Lucietta, would mean severing all contact with the family that nurtured her. She would never see Lionello’s children.  For a generation of ‘boomers’, free university in the 1970s and a career in the professions often created a gulf between the parents who thought they wanted this, and their children who don’t ‘fit in’ anywhere.

Balint’s novel exposes the way women’s artistry and talent was compromised by the life choices available to them.  Water Music is an answer to the question, ‘if women have the same abilities as men, why doesn’t our artistic heritage include great works of art, music and literature by women?’

I will be hearing Christine Balint speak at the Port Fairy Literary Weekend in September in a panel with Lucy Treloar and Jennifer Down discussing “Writing Place”. Get your tickets here.

Author: Christine Balint
Title: Water Music
Cover art: Sam Paine
Publisher: Brio Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781922267610, pbk.,119 pages
Source: Personal copy.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2022

Lily, a Tale of Revenge, by Rose Tremain

Lily, the latest novel from prolific English author Rose Tremain, (b. 1943) is a cautionary tale about the perils of revenge.

Set in a Dickensian 19th century England of punitive welfare for the children of fallen women, Lily brings us the story of a child whose mother wrapped her in sacking and abandoned her in freezing weather at the gates of a park in the East End.  Rescued by a passing policeman, she is taken to the London Foundling Hospital.  Her first six years are spent with a kindly foster mother on a farm in Suffolk, and then — of an age to start work — she is returned to this so-called hospital and begins a life of brutal drudgery and abuse.  An attempt at escape fails, her only friend dies, and the most vicious of the staff sabotages an offer of adoption.

As in the best of Dickens’ novels, this catalogue of misery arouses feelings of compassion for the victim and contempt for the perpetrators, but (like Dickens) Tremain has greater ambitions than that. The reader knows from the first page that Lily is a murderer.  No one else knows this, but she is tormented by her crime.

She does not fear being caught: authorities are not even certain that a crime has been committed.  She fears herself.  What she has done has brought no release.  She does not feel the satisfaction that she had anticipated.

Lily cannot unburden herself to anyone.  She cannot fall in love when she knows the fate that lies in store.  No hard work or good deeds can save her, not least because she knows in her heart that she won’t be able to bear the burden forever and will confess.

Any thoughts of justification have lapsed, and dreams of the noose that awaits her haunt her nights and sabotage her days.

She dreams of her death.

It comes as a cold October dawn is breaking in the London sky.

A sack is put over her head. Through the weave of the burlap, she can take her last look at the world, which is reduced to a cluster of tiny squares of grey light, and she thinks, Whyever did I struggle so long and so hard to make my way in a place which was bent on my destruction ever since I came into it? Why did I not surrender to death when I was a child, for children’s pictures of death are fantastical and full of a strange beauty?

She feels the noose, made of thick hemp rope, go round her neck and knows that the noose’s cunning is to be in perpetual coitus with a huge and bulbous knot behind her head.  The knot nudges the base of her skull.  Soon, a trap beneath her feet will open and she will drop into the void, her legs dangling like the legs of a doll made of cloth.  Her neck will snap and her heart will stop. (p.1)

Revenge has brought her no peace of mind.

Author: Rose Tremain
Title: Lily, a Tale of Revenge
Cover design: no credits except the source of the images (Bridgeman and Alamy)
Publisher: Chatto and Windus (Penguin Random House UK) 2021
ISBN: 9781784744571, pbk., 288 pages
Source: Kingston Library


‘China is an emergent empire of a kind never seen before … It’s not a gunpowder or dreadnought battleship or B-52 bomber empire. It’s an information empire, propelled by commercial interests.’ –John Keane

The eleventh issue of Australian Foreign Affairs examines the rise of authoritarian and illiberal leaders, whose growing assertiveness is reshaping the Western-led world order. The March of Autocracy explores the challenge for Australia as it enters a new era, in which China’s sway increases and democracies compete with their rivals for global influence.

lot has happened since this edition of Australian Foreign Affairs landed in my post box last year, but still, the first essay, ‘Enter the Dragon, Decoding the new Chinese empire’ offers interesting insights.  Written well before the Pelosi stunt and the backlash from China, it made me suspect something that I haven’t read anywhere in the mainstream media or even at John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.  What if all that firepower wasn’t intended to ‘punish’ or ‘threaten’ but was a signal to China’s domestic audience?  What if it was meant to show them what China could do, if it chose?  The Chinese people have endured two centuries of humiliation — what if the agenda was really to assert that China is confidently en route to world pre-eminence (and that a militarily overstretched and fiscally overburdened America can’t do much about that?)

John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney is the author of The Life and Death of DemocracyIt’s 992 pages long; I’m never going to read it.  But I can read his essay instead, and it makes compelling reading.  ‘Enter the Dragon, Decoding the new Chinese empire’ isn’t an apology for a China we don’t much like. It’s about facing up to a reality rather than indulging in wishful thinking.  It’s about addressing misconceptions that are dangerous:

Like bellows to a fire, fallacies about China are inflaming controversies and stoking divisions.  These misconceptions are dangerous because they spread confusion, attract simpletons, poison public life and blur political judgements.  (p.8)

The first fallacy that Keane addresses is that China is commonly said to have a totalitarian political system.  Strictly speaking, he writes:

… totalitarianism refers to a one-party political order ruled by violence, a single “glorious myth” ideology, all-purpose terror and compulsory mass rallies.  The bulk of Chinese people would say that daily life in their country just isn’t like that.  The Mao days are over. (p.8)

China is ruled, says Keane, by a ‘phantom democracy’ put in place by leaders who seek to win the loyalty of the population.  They know that mere power does not enable enduring rule.  They know that the symbols of economic progress aren’t enough either.  They reject power-sharing, but they mimic electoral democracies.  President Xi practises the common touch with well-crafted “surprise” appearances with the people.  There are village elections and the spread of “consultative democracy” into city administration and business.  They use digital media to shape public opinion via a giant information-gathering apparatus…

…which uses data-harvesting algorithms to send summaries of internet chatter to officials in real time, often with advice about terms to use and avoid during public brouhahas. (p.11)

China’s leaders know that government stability rests on public opinion.  

Ignored by those who view China as a country run by totalitarian bullies and authoritarian autocrats, this principle is of utmost importance in grasping that the new Chinese despotism is equipped with shock absorbers, and therefore more resilient and durable than many suppose. (p.12)

…the rulers of China acknowledge that power doesn’t ultimately flow from the barrels of guns, or from Xingjiang-style interrogations, arrests and internments.  They admit that little sustains the political order beyond the population’s loyalty — their willingness to believe that the system addresses their complaints, and that democracy with Chinese characteristics is therefore better than its ailing ‘liberal’ alternative. (p.12)

The second set of misconceptions addresses China’s burgeoning global role. Like America, China abhors the term ’empire’, but (like America), that’s what it is. Already.

[Empire] is the word that’s needed to describe accurately China’s rising global role in such fields as finance capital, technology innovation, logistics, and diplomatic, military and cultural power. (p.14)

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is building infrastructure around the world, costing more than a trillion dollars, seven times as much (when adjusted for inflation) as the United States invested in rebuilding Western Europe after World War II.  Serving China’s trade ambitions, it’s a counter to the US ‘pivot to Asia’, and it outspends the US and Australia in research and development.

This new Chinese empire is not like the old European empires…

China, by contrast, is preoccupied with capital of a different sort: the flow of investment, the spread of networked information technologies and the growth of global markets for its competitively priced goods and services. It connects cities and hinterlands by high-speed railways, airports and shipping lanes.  Buoyed by its dependence on digital communication networks, fluid mobility is its currency. (p.17)

It’s an information empire, propelled by commercial interests. (p.18)

If you rely on the mainstream media for reporting of the Chinese ambassador’s recent speech at the National Press Club instead of listening to it yourself, you won’t have heard the Ambassador talk about what China perceives is its ‘good global citizenship’ credentials.  (Though this essay was written before the anxious reaction to China’s overtures in the Solomon Islands), Keane explains its high-profile international reach:

China actively partners with its fourteen neighbouring states.  It plays a high-profile role in regional bodies such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Institutional restructuring and the soliciting of leadership roles within global bodies is equally high on its agenda.  China already heads four of the fifteen United Nations agencies.  In recent years, it has helped build, and now leads, multi-lateral institutions such as the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, which are founded on pragmatic consent, not formal treaty alliances.  (p.19)

Chinese officials are careful to massage their public image, throwing their cultural weight around to offset criticism and displaying strong commitments to rule-of-law precepts in bodies such as the World Trade Organisation.

[LH: The Ambassador dignified his refusal to discuss China’s trade embargoes on Australian products with Press Council journalists by reminding them that China’s dispute with Australia is awaiting WTO arbitration.]

They are also careful to promote their empire as a force for peace.  

This portrayal rests upon spin, silence and secrecy: according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) data, for instance, China is now the second-largest arms manufacturer, behind only the United States, and it has more cruise missiles and middle-range ballistic rockets than its great-power counterpart. The PLA’s navy is the world’s largest.  Military bases to supplement its existing Djibouti and Tajikistan installations are no doubt in planning.

China’s public relations task is nevertheless made easier by the fact that they are up against an American empire that some would say is obscenely overarmed.  Those who speak of China as a “bully” and an “aggressor” must remember that the United States remains the world’s commander-in-chief.  It has military bases and installations in 150 countries [LH: including a growing presence in ours] and according to SIPRI spends more on its armed forces than the next ten countries combined. (pp. 21-22)

Another point not mentioned in the mainstream media’s report of the Ambassador’s speech was his pride in China’s contributions to UN peacekeeping.  Keane gives the example of China clearing landmines on the southern Lebanon border with Israel. He notes also its unconventional military strategy towards the United States:

…since it is not an empire in a hurry, it can act under Sun Tzu’s guidance to wear down its competitor by avoiding war, demonstrating that deferral and avoiding “lengthy operations in the field” can yield lasting victories. (p.22)

The third cluster of misconceptions concerns predictions of China’s future, warped by wishful thinking.

From predictions of regime change, or that market reforms would be the catalyst for a liberal democracy, or that the moral superiority of American democracy would triumph, those who hope for China’s collapse wrongly imagine the new Chinese empire to be a repeat of Ottoman bribery, corruption, decadence and quarrelling advisers.

Keane ramps up his critique at this point in the essay: Proponents of a new Cold War attract xenophobes, racists and Orientalists.  

These bull-in-a-China shop warriors seem blasé about the probable consequences of the desired downfall — “the collapse of a world empire,” notes the German scholar Herfried Münkler, “usually means the end of the world economy associated with it.” They may be picking a fight that delivers political, economic and reputational setbacks to the United States, or further hastens its demise as an imperial power.

Reckless China-bashing and moonstruck love affairs with America are dead ends.  Talking up military aggression in the age of nuclear weapons is madness. (p.24-5)

What Keane recommends is agile non-alignment. Australia could embrace cooperation in some areas, such as scientific research and renewable energy.  As former PM Kevin Rudd suggested, we could manage prickly exchanges as elements of a truly durable friendship [..] built on unflinching advice and frank awareness of basic interests and ambitions. This would mean a change in mindset:

a new willingness among political thinkers, journalists, citizens and politicians to dissect their own ignorance about China, to see with fresh eyes its complexity and to avoid underestimating its shape-shifting resilience. (p.25)

For its part, China has flaws not to be underestimated.  Keane says it has a legitimacy problem, and makes a surprising recommendation:

Every Chinese government official, diplomat and businessperson should read The Vizier’s Elephant (1947) by Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić, the classic tale of resentment against the pinched promises and hypocrisy of occupiers, to grasp how easily imperial power can be doubted, satirised, worn down and defeated. (p.26)

[LH: Anyone read it? It’s summarised here.]

Other flaws are:

  • one that historically affected all empires: the chronic tension between the central rulers and administrators at the periphery;
  • environmental concerns and bio-challenges; and
  • its lukewarm and contradictory embrace of public accountability mechanisms.  It doesn’t have watchdog bodies such as public enquiries, judicial review and futures commissions that serve as risk-reduction mechanisms, designed to deal with threatening uncertainties, corruption and nasty surprises. 

I couldn’t hazard a guess as to what our PM and his advisors read to keep abreast of all the issues Australia faces today.  But I have no doubt that the AFF journal crosses Penny Wong’s desk and I suspect that she reads it carefully.  Everything she’s said and done so far suggests to me that she is mindful of Australia’s need for restraint, and to keep out of arguments that are not in our best interests.

The remaining contents of this edition of AFF include these essays:

  • Natasha Kassam & Darren Lim explore how Xi’s China model is reshaping the global order.
  • Sam Roggeveen considers Washington’s stance on China and whether Biden can seek to restore US primacy.
  • Linda Jaivin discusses how Australia might use its strengths as a middle power to combat China’s influence.
  • Huong Le Thu suggests how Australia can improve its South-East Asian ties.
  • Kate Geraghty lays bare the horrific impact that war can have on women.
  • Melissa Conley Tyler reveals the crippling impact of Australia’s underfunding of diplomacy.

Update 18/8/22: In the wake of media reports about the Ambassador’s speech, there are two interesting articles at Pearls and Irritations about the role of the Australian media in our relationship with China:

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  The March of Autocracy, Australia’s Fateful Choices
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 11, February 2021
ISBN: 9781760642105
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library

In my idle moments, I’ve been watching Series III of the Danish TV program Borgen. In Series III (2013) the central character, the former PM Birgitte Nyborg who lost office at the end of Series II, forms a new party in response to her old party’s drift to the right and its stance on immigration. Alongside this storyline, there is a strand about the relationship between politics and the media, and in this series there is a Bright Young Thing who has been parachuted in to TV1 to lift ratings.  Amongst other ‘innovations’ he directs the Head of News to change the news narrative to something ‘positive’, offering viewers a glimpse of ‘I’d like to be that person in the news’ rather than ‘I’d hate to be that person in the news’.

I admit it, I felt a faint (but fleeting) moment of connection with this inane directive.  It came to mind when, for #WITmonth I was reading a novella newly available in English: The Pachinko Parlour, by the French-Korean author Elisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.  And I thought, why is it, that the novels set in Japan that come my way all feature repressed, alienated characters in melancholy claustrophobic settings? Why have these books never made me feel, I’d like to go to Japan?

Pachinko machine (Wikipedia)

The Pachinko Parlour is beautifully written, rendered in English with spare delicacy by the translator.  Set in Tokyo in a humid summer, the novella brings the reader to a crowded city of oppressive heat, where clothes cling to the body and all energy seems to be drained away.  The pachinko parlour of the title is a symbol of the aimlessness of life and the cynicism of the authorities, who’ve turned a blind eye to it.  Gambling for money is illegal in Japan, but the Koreans who’ve clustered together (in what amounts to a ghetto in Tokyo) play these one-armed bandits that deliver small balls for a win, which are then exchanged for money outside the pachinko parlour.  Like pachinko, the game of life for some in Tokyo is low stakes, low strategy.

The Pachinko Parlour is narrated by a blow-in called Claire, the 29-year-old Swiss granddaughter of a couple who fled the Korean War to Japan.  She is visiting from Switzerland where she lives with her mother. From her room, all she can see is the passing feet of the salarymen, a metaphor for the way life is passing her by.

The purpose of her trip is to escort her grandparents on their first-ever return visit to their homeland. The boyfriend Mathieu was supposed to come along, but he has PhD commitments so she’s on her own. Other complications are that the grandmother appears to be regressing to childhood and the grandfather, now in his nineties, is still working all hours at their Pachinko Parlour. It all seems ill-advised.  Why would these very elderly grandparents submit to visiting a place of bad memories with a granddaughter they barely know?

The novella is full of enigmatic elements like this, raising questions which are not answered.

These grandparents have lived in Tokyo since the Korean War, but have never integrated into the host society.  The grandmother, in particular, refuses to speak Japanese, and is said to have cut out part of her tongue during the WW2  Japanese Occupation of Korea rather than speak their language. Claire, under the misapprehension in Switzerland that learning Japanese would be useful in her relationship with her grandparents, has studied it at university and her Korean is only rudimentary.  Clearly, the communication difficulties they have now go back a long way since the reader can assume that—whether the grandmother ever talked about the Occupation or not—the communication (letters? phone calls? Skype?) that she (in Tokyo) had with her daughter and granddaughter (in Switzerland), must have been in the Korean language. Why didn’t Claire understand this before her visit? And anyway, why is it Claire who doesn’t speak Korean making this visit, and not her mother, who does?

Whose desire is it, that Claire should spend her 30th birthday, marooned with people she barely knows and can’t communicate with?

What narrative tension there is in the novel, derives from the reluctance of these grandparents to make any preparations for the trip to Korea, the implication being that they have accepted their situation.  They don’t really want to go and may have been pressured into it.

Claire (instead of doing whatever GenY tourists do in Tokyo), spends her days lying around in the heat, playing games on her phone, and intermittently teaching French to 10-year-old Mieko.  Mieko lives in a hotel abandoned when it went bankrupt; her living arrangements are odd, to say the least:

I follow Madame Ogawa back towards the entrance.

‘Mieko’s room is downstairs,’ she says, indicating a door half-hidden by a coat rack.  The door opens onto a concrete staircase. ‘Be careful,’ she says.  ‘The light switch is at the bottom of the stairs.’

Her voice echoes slightly, as if in a cave.  I feel my way down until the concrete gives way to a springier surface underfoot.  The humidity rises.  A neon light flickers on to reveal an open pit surrounded by a walkway with a waist-high glass barrier.  The floor of the pit slopes gently down to a drainage hole.  In one corner sits a single bed.

At this point in the narrative, this image triggers a scene from those awful crime shows where girls have been locked underground by a serial killer, but no, this nightmarish space is the bedroom of Madame Ogawa’s 10-year-old daughter.

Madame Ogawa places her hands on the guard rail.

‘The swimming pool.  It’s never been used, even when the hotel was open.  Mould.  It’s clean now, since we had it drained.  Mieko sleeps here, for the time being.’

I lean over the barrier to get a better look.  Arranged around the bed, a desk and a chest of drawers, a yoga mat and a hoop reflected to infinity in mirrors of either side of the pool.  Plastic blocks are arranged at the foot of the steps leading down into the pool.  I can’t help thinking of the arcade game Tetris, with the geometrical shapes that drop down and have to be rearranged in space. (p.5-6)

Other than the absence of Mieko’s father, which might account for poverty, there is no explanation for why a teacher of French and her daughter are living in such peculiar conditions.

Whatever the ambiguities of The Pachinko Parlour, the pattern is familiar to Australian readers: postwar migrants and refugees got on with rebuilding their lives and shouldered their memories of trauma privately. With rare exceptions such as Oh Lucky Country! by Rosa Cappiello, they did not write about the migrant experience in fiction or in memoir.  It is their children and grandchildren who write stories of displacement, loss of identity and resentment about a society that they feel is not inclusive.

Jacquiwine loved this book, and I recommend that you read her review too. See also Sharon’s review at Where the Books Go.

I read this book for #WITmonth, initiated by blogger Meytal Radzinski and now an international movement to celebrate the work of women writers in translation.  Visit Women in Translation for more information.

Image credit: pachinko machine By Piotrus – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Author: Elisa Shua Dusapin
Title: The Pachinko Parlour (Les billes du Pachinko)
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
Publisher: Scribe Publications Australia, 2022 , first published 2018
ISBN: 9781922585172, pbk., 176 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 11, 2022

Nimblefoot, by Robert Drewe

Nimblefoot, the eighth novel from the prolific Australian author Robert Drewe (b.1943), is an intriguing mixture of rollicking yarn, social exposé and a mischievous flirtation with the historical truth.  It’s a fictionalised version of the all-but-forgotten story of Australia’s first international sporting star, Johnny Day (1856–1885) who in real life was an undefeated child winner of walking races in the 1860s, who went on to win the 1970 Melbourne Cup on a horse coincidentally called Nimblefoot and who then disappeared out of the historical record.

Click here to see an image of Johnny Day at Trove.  Drewe says in the Afterword that it’s the only picture of Johnny in existence and that he was captivated by it:

Johnny and his exploits were completely unknown to me — and also to everyone to whom I subsequently mentioned him.  I was riveted by the sepia print of a confident little Australian kid wearing a winner’s sash and red athletic shorts and leaning nonchalantly on a milestone on a winding dirt road in the English countryside.  (p.302)

Did you follow that link?  So, in the Afterword excerpt, did you notice the red shorts described in a sepia print?  Did you notice where Johnny’s impressive sash is? Did you then Google Johnny, to find him featured on the ABC no less, back in 2014? Fossick around online a little more and lo! Click here to see another image of Johnny Day, this one at the National Portrait Gallery.

*chuckle* These are signals that the author is being playful, eh?  Clearly, the reader needs to be alert…

The first part of the novel brings Johnny’s childhood to life, and while this is a book intended to entertain, there are aspects of this childhood that will give a reader pause.  We have, sadly, been made only too well aware of historical institutional abuse and exploitation of indigenous and parentless children; and while A.B. Facey’s autobiography A Fortunate Life, by A.B. Facey (1894-1982) covers a period some decades later than Drewe’s novel, it gives a vivid picture of a childhood of neglect and exploitation that was commonplace for children of the working class. Drewe’s novel, while not labouring the point, also illuminates the pitilessness of 19th century life for the children of feckless parents.

The ‘rollicking yarn’ in Nimblefoot is a smokescreen for a novel that reveals a devastating portrait of the way children were treated in the colonial era.  Transpose the way Johnny Day’s parent exploited his son’s precocious talent to the present day, and he’d be hauled up before welfare authorities and the media would have a field day.

The novel is told from Johnny’s point-of-view, sometimes in Johnny’s voice, and sometimes by a narrator who sees and comments on more than Johnny does.  The tone is often jocular, and Johnny seems sanguine about walking incredible distances and his father pocketing his winnings.  He gets to travel the world in pursuit of these winnings, but he doesn’t actually see much of it because he has to make the most of being a child prodigy while he can.  (He doesn’t get an education either.)  By the time he reaches his teens, Johnny’s days as a child wonder are over, and since he’s very short in stature, his father offloads him to work in the racing industry.

Well, even today, the racing industry means a hard life that contrasts with the glamour of the track, but in Johnny’s day it meant sleeping on a sack in the stables so that the horse doesn’t get stolen.  The horse is valued a whole lot more than the vulnerable human looking after it.

Crude medical care failed his mother in that era, and in the form of leeches and quackery it fails Johnny and his stable mates too when they catch various infections from their unhygienic living conditions.

But Johnny’s triumph at the Melbourne Cup takes the novel off on a different, more sombre tangent.  Nimblefoot’s win coincides with the visit of Prince Alfred (one of Queen Victoria’s offspring) and while I have only Drewe’s word for it, Prince Alfred celebrated the win with underage sex at the same hotel where 14-year-old Johnny, plied with drink, has lost his virginity with a couple of good-time girls. He wakes to screaming:

In the hubbub no one pays me any attention.  The Prince disappears back into his room, complaining about bad form, leaving the other three, standing in their underwear in the corridor.  [Police Captain] Standish and [society bookmaker] Slack look to [Lord] Lacy for instruction.

‘Time to call it a night,’ he says.  ‘Oh, what’s this we have here?’

A sobbing naked girl about my age and hardly developed, limps out into the corridor, all swollen and bleeding down her legs.  A tortured but beautiful face.  She sobs that she’s reporting the Prince to the police for poisoning her and burning her insides with Spanish fly.

‘I am the police, Standish says.’ (p.78)


The girl yells that she will tell all the influential clients who also come to Mother Fraser’s — the Governor, the Solicitor-General and their associates.  What happens after that is that a lot of people have to be silenced to preserve the Royal reputation. The light-hearted tone of the narrative doesn’t mask the horror when the list of potential witnesses grows to include Johnny’s father:

Butchering being perhaps the most heavily armed of the basic trades, butchers don’t anticipate violence on their premises.  Back in Ballarat a week after the court case, Tom Day had sent his workers George and Bobby home and was preparing to close up at eight o’clock when a late customer entered the shop.

Perhaps his father had forgotten his Standish anxieties when he turned his back to trim the customer’s order of lamb cutlets.  Maybe he was impressed by an order of spring lamb instead of the usual hogget or mutton.  Anyway the killer caved in his skull with is own meat hammer and left the cutlets, hammer and body on the floor, different bloods fusing in the sawdust. (p.96)

Johnny takes flight, making his way to Western Australia on the steamer Queensborough.  Along the way he meets Anthony Trollope on his tour of Australia, and can’t resist bragging a little about his sporting achievements.  Alas, he was not to know that Trollope can’t resist writing about the child wonder…

His pursuer, careless of the fact that police had no powers once they crossed colonial borders, tracks him down and then there is a cat-and-mouse trail south and north and into the hostile inland as Johnny tries to elude capture while also making a living and falling in love with a couple of young ladies.  Disappearing into anonymity is made harder by Johnny’s short stature. He can disguise himself with a fledging beard, but he cannot disguise his height…

Johnny is a remarkable hero for this novel.  What we would now call PTSD haunts his adolescent dreams but he is indefatigable.  He comes across as an adolescent with initiative, courage, good humour and resilience.

That much is true, I like to think…

Author: Robert Drewe
Title: Nimblefoot
Cover design by
Publisher: Penguin Random House (AU)
ISBN: 9780143786450, pbk., 307 pages
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House (AU)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 9, 2022

Sensational Snippets: Late Journals, by Antigone Kefala

How should one review a published version of a writer’s journal?

I’ve been pondering this since I started reading the Late Journals of Antigone Kefala, an Australian writer of Greek-Romanian heritage who writes in both Greek and English. Born in 1935 in Romania to Greek parents, she and her family lived in Greece and New Zealand before migrating to Australia in 1960.  Over her lifetime she has published poetry, fiction, non-fiction, essays and journals.  This journal is said to be her last.

This is the description from the back cover:

Late Journals completes a trilogy of works in which Kefala develops and expands her range as a memoirist, beginning with Summer Visit (2003), and followed by Sydney Journals (2008), both published by Giramondo. Kefala is not alone in writing in the journal form – Beverley Farmer and Helen Garner are notable contemporaries – but she is remarkable for the poetic resonance and intellectual significance she imparts to her observations. Feeling acutely her position as an outsider, because of her migrant background, she nevertheless expresses a strong sense of community with the writers, artists and thinkers who share her situation, or have influenced her work. The journals abound in portraits and tributes, reflections on art and life, and wonderful descriptions of places and landscapes, which give full reign to her imagination, and her ability to express the vitality and strangeness of the life around her.

But how to review it?

It’s a journal, and even though it may have been written with an eye to publication and edited so that we read a polished product, it’s still Kefala’s personal reflections, in fragments.  How can we ‘judge well’, as Angela Bennie says a reviewer should? There is artistry in the prose, and there are insights that are memorable, but I can’t capture this in the form of reviews that I usually write.

Late Journals includes interesting fragments about Kefala’s rich cultural life in Sydney, her musings on mortality and the loss of friends, and commentary on current affairs (though not the banality of politics).  A scholarly reader would probably draw on themes and issues from previous works, and identify continuities and departures in this one.  But I am not a scholarly reader, and I’ve never read Kefala before.  It seems to me that the flavour of this work is best captured by sharing some of the fragments that resonated with me…

The fragments that most often meant more to me, were those that referred to what I found familiar (e.g. about Beethoven’s music or Anna Akhmatova’s poetry), or were opinions that I found intriguing, whether I agreed with them or not.

After a dance performance at the Sydney Opera House:

A clean, muscular performance, interesting dissonant music, the woman dancer very beautiful. More like acrobats. (p.3)

On reading an unnamed new book:

The poems, as if constantly saying something, yet an empty sort of phenomenon, like an artificial essence they put into drinks to make people want to drink more, but which leaves them empty. (p.5)

On reading an unnamed magazine featuring an unnamed writer describing difficulties with writing.

He was describing his efforts to become part of the Australian scene after he migrated here with his parents, by trying to mirror Aboriginal writing and approaches, to be told off by an Aboriginal writer with whom he shared a platform at a reading.

I thought last night — a deeper alienation than mine.

In my case neither mirroring nor mimesis, from when we left Romania, and even before that, I was aware that I was trespassing on someone else’s territory.  Constantly trying not to venture on their patch, appropriate, trying to define my limits, my territory, mostly inwardly, my experience, finding a language for it.

In spite of the intellectual gloss of the paper, nothing but inner desperation. (p.7)

An entry for June in Journal 1 about computers offering new communications, contact with the world, more information and making friends with the world makes me wonder what year she wrote this.  The underlining in the excerpt below is mine, and I’m wondering if she’s taking a long view, or is (like some older people) commenting on innovations that have not been ‘new’ for a while now:

A new method of running away from oneself, listening less and less to oneself, everything finally simulated. (p.13)

This alienation from the digital world worsens in August, when she understood from a friend no longer writing letters to her, that she had gone on FACEBOOK, wrote impressions of her travels, performances she had seen… amazing how people responded…

We are being forgotten in favour of FACEBOOK, TWITTER… Everyone is going public.  Conversations with the world!  While the intimate exchange is ignored. (p.17)

Another expression of disappointment in contemporary life:

Reading a small biography of [Grace] Cossington-Smith.  The phenomenon of someone of such calibre working for so long unrecognised, till she is almost eighty.  An old story.

While everyone now thinks that they can pick up a genius at first glance.  As Pat used to tell me, that if my painter friends are not making it, it is because they are no good, because now, everyone is on the lookout for talent.

But the question remains, they may be on the lookout, but WHAT ARE THEY CAPABLE OF SEEING? (p.21)

And this one:

The literary scene, as the sports scene and so on, seems to be dominated by a few names, as if written by adolescents who can only remember one name, more names in a scene impossible to sustain. (p.148)

And this, a conversation with ‘Elizabeth’ in Journal IV about her omission from the PEN Macquarie Anthology:

‘Are you in it?’

‘No, I don’t think so.  They have not asked for permission.’

They should have waited for her to die and then take her out, she has been in every anthology published so far. (p.101)

And then, a poignant entry in Journal VI:

Looking at the latest Companion to Australian Literature — we appear in a subsection called ETHNIC MINORITY WRITING. After so many years of writing here we are still totally outside the whole scene.  Not only Ethnic, but Minority as well — a double blow… (p.147)

In 2021 UWAP published a critical study called Antigone Kefala, New Australian Modernities, edited by Elizabeth McMahon and Brigitta Olubas.  The book description reveals Kefala as a cultural visionary:

Antigone Kefala is one of the most significant of the Australian writers who have come from elsewhere; it would be difficult to overstate the significance of her life and work in the culture of this nation. Over the last half-century, her poetry and prose have reshaped and expanded Australian literature and prompted us to re-examine its premises and capacities. From the force of her poetic imagery and the cadences of her phrases and her sentences to the large philosophical and historical questions she poses and to which she responds, Kefala has generated in her writing new ways of living in time, place and language. Across six collections of poetry and five prose works, themselves comprising fiction, non-fiction, essays and diaries, she has mapped the experience of exile and alienation alongside the creativity of a relentless reconstitution of self. Kefala is also a cultural visionary. From her rapturous account of Sydney as the place of her arrival in 1959, to her role in developing diverse writing cultures at the Australia Council, to the account of her own writing life amongst a community of friends and artists in Sydney Journals (2008), she has reimagined the ways we live and write in Australia.

It sounds as if it would be rather interesting to read about her role in developing diverse writing cultures…

Author: Antigone Kefala
Title: Late Journals
Cover image by Eleni Nakopoulos
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9781925818970, pbk., 162 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2022

Klotsvog, by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Lisa C Hayden

With thanks to Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for my discovery of this book, my choice for #WITMonth turned out to be compelling reading. Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog, (2009) was translated by Lisa C Hayden in 2019 for The Russian Library at Columbia University Press and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker, as was Khemlin’s The Investigator (2012, translated by Melanie Moore for Glagoslav in 2015, see my review).  Information at Wikipedia about Khemlin is sketchy but it seems that her international profile blossomed in the post-Soviet era and reading these two novels confirms my opinion that Khemlin (1960-2015) was an outstanding author of subtlety and style.

Klotsvog, with its unprepossessing title, is subtitled Notes from the Jewish Underground but its portrayal of secular Jewish life is confined to the mental landscape of its central character, the narrator Maya. Like a Soviet version of Becky Sharp from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-8), Maya is on a quest to better herself.  In the Stalinist USSR, upgrading from cramped and overcrowded housing becomes an all-consuming quest for Maya who engineers successive relationships to achieve an apartment of her own by the novel’s end.

Like Becky, Maya is shallow, selfish, manipulative and cruel, but unlike Becky, her motivation is not merely materialistic.  As noted in the Foreword by Lara Vapynya, Khemlin, the catalyst for her outrageous behaviour is fear.

Maya, like all the secular Jewish characters in her milieu, lost most of her family when they perished under the German Occupation of Ukraine during WW2.  She and her mother survived through ‘the evacuation’ (the mass migration of 16 million western Soviet citizens to the east) during the Soviet retreat.  They were among about 1.5 million East European Jews—mostly from Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia—who, in contrast to near annihilation of the Jews in the rest of German occupied Europe, survived behind the lines. Wikipedia tells us, however, that in the postwar era, Stalin reignited anti-Semitism, with campaigns against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ (i.e. Zionists), among whom were writers and intellectuals arrested for ‘espionage’ and ‘treason’ beginning in 1948 and culminating with the Night of the Murdered Poets.

The surviving fragments of the Jewish community had good reason to fear a Soviet version of Hitler’s Final Solution, and they were also haunted by the long history of pogroms in Ukraine, Poland and Russia. In the novel, Maya—who gradually becomes aware of how her suppressed Jewish identity impacts on her life—thinks that catastrophe is inevitable.  She determines to live as well as she can in the meantime.

My romantic infatuation with Viktor Pavlovich had overshadowed my thinking, leaving me with just enough awareness to think only of my love for him, especially since this was my first love. But the horrible assumptions hovering all around literally drove me into a corner and forced me to return, again and again, to the days in evacuation that had brought so many deprivations.

Of course, the problem of the future fate of the Jewish people—of which I was a constituent part due to my birth—rattled me.  But things were working out from that angle, too: I could live pleasantly and with dignity alongside a reliable person, at least for an allotted time, until new ordeals.  Be that as it may. (p.14)

Khemlin, as I said, is a subtle author, and Maya, as I said, is shallow. So with only occasional insights into Maya’s mental landscape of fear, the novel romps through her energetic efforts to improve her lot while she awaits her fate.  Her first lover Viktor, (her maths teacher at the technical college in Kiev where she is studying to be a teacher and the father of her first child, Mishenka) is soon ditched because divorce from his wife Darina would leave the ex-wife registered to live in their accommodation.  Maya upscales to Fima, manager at her workplace.  (She has ditched her studies as they are incompatible with her plans but continues to claim that she is a pedagogue throughout the novel.)

Maya tricks Fima into thinking that Mishka is his child, and moves into his slightly more spacious rooms.  But Fima is grieving the loss of his entire family and his excessive drinking is a symptom of his fragile mental state.  Maya moves on to her second husband, also a manager and offering better prospects.  Meanwhile, Maya’s mother is also upscaling her status, income and accommodation.  She marries Gilya, a widower who lost family too, enabling Maya to spirit Mishka off to live with her mother in rural Ostyor in Russia, where Maya’s only concern is that he is learning Yiddish, which makes him vulnerable.  Speaking it outside the home could lead to his death. 

Alas, Maya does not know that Miroslav has something to hide too: his paralysed mother, who is dependent on nursing that Maya is expected to provide.  Nonetheless, the indefatigable Maya intends Miroslav to adopt Mishka, and before long offloads the nursing and the laundry to a young woman with whom Miroslav finds some consolation. Things are not working out as Maya had planned.  Soviet life is complicated.

Readers who know The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, translated by Krystyna A. Steiger, will remember how family homes were subdivided after the October Revolution to accommodate numerous unrelated residents. The New Moscow Philosophy…

… is set in late Soviet-era Moscow, in Apartment 12 where numerous people are crammed into a space which was once home to just one family, of whom the elderly Alexandra Sergeyevna Pumpianskaya is now the sole surviving remnant.  After what Russians call the Imperialist War (i.e. World War 1) ‘at the time of the so-called consolidation of the Moscow gentry and bourgeoisie’, the apartment was subdivided by soviet decree and the Pumpianskaya family ended up with only the dining-room.  The rest of the apartment became home to a disparate group of people, who now form an uneasy kind of extended family, bound together by the intimacies of daily living at the same address and – over the years – a shared history of life under the Soviets. (See my review)

What with the Soviet rules for allocating households to accommodation, the residency rules, the complex adoption process and her adroit management of her lies, concealments and self-deceptions, Maya’s personal life is such a complicated mess that she even thinks of the impending deportations as a solution to her problems.

But Maya does not allow setbacks.  There is another husband, another lover, another neglected child, along with Maya’s self-justifications in pompous Soviet-era bureaucratese.  She is in complete denial about Ella’s delayed development, about her estrangement from Mishka, and she takes no responsibility for neglecting what remains of her family or the trail of broken people she leaves behind her.

Sombre notes occur only intermittently in Klostvog. Some could be easy to miss, such as the gift of a Mazuzah (Mezuzah) for Marik’s birthday.  Maya catalogues all his gifts as a measure of her status, and she is very cross when her daughter Ellochka removed it from its hiding place to show her friend that it’s ‘true’ that ‘Jews have expensive jewels’, and then threw it away.  What is unsaid in the novel is that it had to be hidden because to display it on the front door would identify theirs as a Jewish household and invite peril.  It was made of silver, and very valuable—and a ‘souvenir from the war’ a delicate inference that it was looted from an abandoned Jewish home.

Klotsvog is a remarkable novel and Lisa Hayden’s translation is excellent.  She provides a helpful translator’s note too, giving context to the work and explaining a couple of historical references that clarify Maya’s survivor’s fear.

I read this book for #WITmonth, initiated by blogger Meytal Radzinski and now an international movement to celebrate the work of women writers in translation.  Visit Women in Translation for more information.

Image credit: Mazuzah:

Author: Margarita Khemlin
Title: Klotsvog, Notes from the Jewish Underground, (Клоцвог)
Translated from the Russian by Lisa C Hayden
Publisher: The Russian Library, Columbia University, 2019, first published 2009
ISBN: 9780231182379, pbk., 245 pages
Source: Personal library

This month’s #6Degrees starts with Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness which has just won the Women’s Prize.  I confess to having sent it back to the library unread: I’d reserved it before it won the prize, and other, more enticing books were calling me and I thought it was unfair not to return it when it was so obviously in demand.

Anyway, it’s an easy segue to the Women’s Prize winners that I have read.  I’ve read nearly all of them because the prize winners are usually the kind of books I like though they can be a bit middlebrow, depending on who the judges are. Kate Grenville famously won it with The Idea of Perfection in 2001. Kate Grenville used to be one of my auto-buy writers, but she lost me with Sarah Thornhill (see my review) and a tiresome book about her allergy to perfume.  (I didn’t review it because I only scanned it, enough to know that if I want to know about allergies, I’ll read one by a medical expert.)

After that she compounded my irritation with a fictionalised life of Elizabeth Macarthur.  FWIW Elizabeth Macarthur was IMO an Australian pioneering woman of sufficient importance in our history to warrant reading about her real life, interrogated from a 21st century perspective that explores how the work of pioneering women farmers has been overlooked.  Margaret Scott Tucker’s wonderful biography, Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World is the book to read for that.  As you can see in my review, the bio places Elizabeth Macarthur where she belongs as the pioneer of the wool industry, displacing her tiresome husband who got all of the credit for it even though he wasn’t the one making the crucial decisions that led to their success. And as you can see from the cover of the second edition, the cover blurbs my judgement that the bio is unputdownable. 

Most of the biographies that I read are literary biographies, (though I make an exception for anything that Brenda Niall and Hazel Rowley have written).  The LitBios I like best are the ones that show how the writing emerges from the life, such as Nathan Hobby’s recent bio of Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Red Witch. (See my review.) These bios enrich my reading of the author’s work and often stimulate me to seek out more of the author’s work.  The Red Witch made a serious dent in my book budget because of Nathan’s enticing analysis of titles I didn’t have—but it also warned me off being a completist with KSP because Moon of Desire was a potboiler, written when Prichard was short of money and hoping for a Hollywood option.  A good literary biographer can save a reader from making unwise purchases!

Which leads me to…

Just recently in the #54321 meme, I listed four auto-buy authors, but I didn’t list Richard Flanagan.  I love all his novels, except for the potboiler The Unknown Terrorist.  Flanagan is a writer after my own heart, he’s a man of strong opinions and he is fearless about expressing them.  But after my disappointment with that novel, I hesitate before I part with my money. The Unknown Terrorist, as it says at Goodreads:  is a relentless tour de force that paints a devastating picture of a contemporary society gone haywire, where the ceaseless drumbeat of terror alert levels, newsbreaks, and fear of the unknown pushes a nation ever closer to the breaking point.  I read it before I started this blog, and this is what I wrote at Goodreads:

This book is utterly unlike Richard Flanagan’s other literary fiction novels. If this is the first and only book you have ever read by this Australian writer, don’t make the mistake of dismissing him as a writer of polemic not-very-convincing thrillers. His other books, Death of a River Guide, Gould’s Book of Fish and Wanting are brilliant, intriguing, complex novels that will reward every millisecond you put into reading them.

Clearly, I must segue to one that I found rewarding, but oh! which one of Flanagan’s multiple novels which have stayed with me as indelible memories?  Perhaps with one not reviewed on this blog, because I read it back in 2002: Gould’s Book of Fish, famously canned by the literary critic Peter Craven before it hauled in a mass of prizes, including the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (2002), the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal (2002), the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book Overall (2002), and a nomination for Miles Franklin Literary Award (2002),

Well, Peter Craven is not the only literary critic to be out of step; *chuckle*, while not in his league, I’m out of step myself often enough. (Most recently with Sarah Winman’s Still Life!) Everyone’s a critic these days, but I am mindful of the wise advice from Angela Bennie in the Introduction to Crème de la Phlegm: Unforgettable Australian Reviews.  As I wrote in my review:

What matters, according to Bennie, is that criticism should ‘judge well.’  She cites a number of harsh reviews which demonstrate that the reviewer didn’t know anything about the theory behind the work  – notably A.D. Hope’s excoriation of modernism in Patrick White’s Tree of Man, labelling it ‘illiterate verbal sludge’, which must have amused the author when he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Paul Haefleger’s dismissal of Sidney Nolan.  You can’t , for instance, pretend to be an critic of the visual arts today if you don’t know anything about post-modernism – after all, the artist has probably studied post-modernism at tertiary level and it’s to be expected that they’d be influenced by it.  But some of our reviewers pander to shock-jock attitudes and simply write scornful stuff instead of trying to educate their readership about new ideas.  If you’re going to be a critic, Bennie says, you ought to be informed about the media you review.

I also noted Bennie’s summation of the current state of reviewing:

Bennie, in her decade-by-decade analysis of how arts criticism has adapted over the years, says that in general, literary criticism is in decline.  Constraints of space, pandering to popular taste, dumbing-down: it’s all downhill from here, and at a time when more and more books are being published.

That was back in 2007…

From the winner of the Women’s Prize to a book about literary criticism, that’s my #6Degrees for this month!

Well, well, I just finished my draft and visited this meme’s host Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best to see what the next book is to be and it looks like I’ll be revisiting Bennie’s book!

Next month (September 3, 2022), we’ll start with the book you finished with this month (and if you haven’t done an August chain, start with the last book you read).


Literary criticism of an author’s work is not my usual fare these days, though I read a lot of it in my university days.  I credit it with my ongoing love of literature because it showed me that there is always more to discover in a book that you admire.  

These days, I’m more likely to enjoy a literary biography, but I could not resist a copy of Julieanne Lamond’s Lohrey, the first in MUP’s Contemporary Australian Writers series. Though reading it will reveal some of Amanda Lohrey’s personal life, it is not a biography, it is a delicious survey of her fiction, and was such an intense pleasure to read that it made me appreciate the Lohrey novels all over again. 

Scholars of literature in general and Australian literature in particular will be champing at the bit to get their hands on Lohrey, but for general readers—whether the completists among us who’ve read everything or those who’ve just discovered Lohrey since she won the Miles Franklin Award, Lamond’s book is a treasure trove of insights into one of the best living authors in Australia.

As regular readers know, I was up to page 4 of Lohrey when I jumped ship to read The Morality of Gentlemen, Lohrey’s debut novel from 1984.  My only hesitation in enthusing about it in my review was that while I’d had a copy on the TBR, it is now difficult to source.  I really hope that Lohrey triggers a reissue of this title because Morality is a superb example of a destabilising effect recurring in Lohrey’s fiction: it creates readerly confusion because the author disallows a point-of view.  Her fiction is always unsettling partly because there are multiple perspectives including assertive narrators who undercut the characters, and partly because she creates such irritating characters, who act in ways that we don’t approve of and yet we feel some sympathy for them. But, says Lamond, her broader concern is how our lives are impacted by the economic and political structures in which we live.  

Morality, as I noted in my review, features detailed descriptions of the venues where events take place. In the chapter titled ‘The Politics of Renovation’, Lamond discusses the symbolism of houses which are also plot devices in Lohrey’s fiction. Renovating recurs as both a literal activity and an enactment of philosophical ideas and emotional states. Referring to an older meaning of renovation, Lamond provides a fresh insight: it also means “to cause to be spiritually reborn [or[ to invest with a new and higher spiritual nature.” That is what the central character is struggling with in The Philosopher’s Doll, (2004); A Short History of Richard Kline, (2015); and in The Labyrinth, (2020) too.

For middle-class characters and wealthy characters alike the home becomes a site of self-discovery and reinvention.  These processes are often accompanied by discomfort caused by the contradiction of desiring social mobility whilst feeling distaste for displays of such desire in others.  Richard Kline and his wife Zoe scoff at ‘the lingua franca of Sydney life: real estate’. (p.49)

[LH: I find that these discomfiting emotions often provide the humour in Lohrey’s fiction.]

In Chapter Two, ‘Free Solo’, Lamond explores the way Lohrey interrogates the competing expressions of masculinity in the wake of the growth of corporate culture in the 1980s in The Reading Group (1988, see my review.)  Lohrey doesn’t harp on about toxic masculinity or exclude them from her insights, she unpacks the way they behave.  In Camille’s Bread (1995); in Richard Kline and in The Labyrinth, what the reader witnesses is a desperate and dogged attempt for Lohrey’s characters to escape the ways in which they have been socialised to be men.  

Many men in Lohrey’s novels are socialised into an expectation of unencumbered power and agency which they cannot enact, except through violence.  (p.79)

What these men fear is the unthinking violence of their male role models. Readers of The Labyrinth will remember Jurko, the undocumented immigrant with whom Erica builds a wary friendship. 

Jurko’s life is defined by a ferocious beating from his father; his response is to leave his home country and his profession and remake himself, on his own terms, in Australia.  He enters The Labyrinth like a bearded, older, Balkan version of Stephen from Camille’s Bread. Like Stephen, he is a man drawn to asceticism, damaged by his father, but now bedraggled, down to the bare bones of life. (p.79)

Lohrey also shows from Morality onwards, how women are sidelined. She is brilliant, says Lamond, at detailing what it feels like to be belittled by everyday interactions between men. It was delicious to be reminded by Lamond of that scene in Camille’s Bread where Marita is thinking about the men in her life—and in the fiction she reads—who resist being ‘domesticated’.

Contemplating this now, she is suddenly aware of a presence and looks up.  A large black cockroach has scurried out from under the bench and is poised beside the cooling rack … No matter what she does she is never rid of them and now she accepts that they will always be there; big, brutish, ugly and omnipresent. (p. 149 in Camille’s Bread, cited on p.83 in Lohrey.)

[LH: It was this quotation that sent me to second-hand booksellers for a copy of Camille’s Bread. I must have read a library copy of it rather than bought my own, and I simply must have it so that I can re-read it!]

The chapter titled ‘Fire’ explores the way Lohrey writes about our apprehension of crisis and its proximity and how the motif of fire raises questions of ethical and political responsibility for others.  Fire is a symbol and a plot device, and a metaphor for crisis more generally. Lohrey doesn’t write dystopias about the endgame of climate change; she uses the form of the realist novel to consider ecological and political agency.  In The Reading Group (1988) and in Vertigo (2009), Lohrey tackles climate change but also explores the causes of inaction.  She has a long-held interest in the causes and conditions of political inaction. 

Have I given you a taste of this wonderful book?  I haven’t discussed the pleasures of the chapter titled ‘Scenes of Reading’ nor the author’s interview with Lohrey because this book deserves to be widely read in its entirety — not just by those intrigued by Lohrey’s writing (and I haven’t even mentioned her short stories or her forays into non-fiction!) — but also as a masterclass in writing about writers.  Lamond is a writer in her own right: incisive, insightful, and often amusing.  

Forthcoming books in the series include readings on two more of our greatest authors, Gerald Murnane and Joan London.

Author: Julieanne Lamond
Title: Lohrey
Series: Contemporary Australian Writers 
Cover design by Evi O. Studio
Publisher: Miegunyah Press, an imprint of MUP (Melbourne University Press) 2022
ISBN: 9780522878936, pbk., 173 pages
Review copy courtesy of MUP. 


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2022

2022 Queensland Literary Awards shortlists

The shortlist for the the Queensland Literary Awards 2022 has been announced. The winners will be announced on Thursday 8 September 2022.

Queensland Premier’s Award for a Work of State Significance

  • Wounded Country by Quentin Beresford, NewSouth
  • Muddy People by Sara El Sayed, Black Inc. Books
  • The Burnished Sun by Mirandi Riwoe, University of Queensland Press
  • Operation Jungle by John Shobbrook, University of Queensland Press
  • Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego, University of Queensland Press

Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award

  • Rebecca Cheers
  • Marilena Hewitt
  • Miranda Hine
  • Sean West

The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award

  • The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Hachette Australia
  • Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au, Giramondo Publishing, see my review
  • The Furies by  Mandy Beaumont Hachette Australia
  • The Keepers by Al Campbell,  University of Queensland Press
  • Australiana by Yumna Kassab, Ultimo Press

University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award

  • Lies, Damned Lies by Claire G. Coleman, Ultimo Press
  • Muddy People by Sara El Sayed, Black Inc. Books
  • The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar, Pan Macmillan
  • The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen by Krissy Kneen, Text Publishing
  • Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego, University of Queensland Press

Children’s Book Award

  • My Brother Ben by Peter Carnavas, University of Queensland Press
  • A Glasshouse of Stars by Shirley Marr, Penguin Random House Australia
  • Kunyi by Kunyi June Anne McInerney, Magabala Books
  • The Boy Who Tried to Shrink His Name, by Sandhya Parappukkaran and illustrated by Michelle Pereira, Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing
  • The First Scientists by Corey Tutt and illustrated by Blak Douglas, Hardie Grant Explore

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award

  • Girls in Boys’ Cars by Felicity Castagna, Pan Macmillan
  • Katipo Joe: Wolf’s Lair by Brian Falkner, Scholastic
  • Morrison and Mr Moore by Michael Hyde, In Case of Emergency Press
  • Social Queue by Kay Kerr, Text Publishing
  • Sugar by Carly Nugent, Text Publishing

University of Southern Queensland Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection

  • Dark as Last Night by Tony Birch, University of Queensland Press
  • The Kindness of Birds, by Merlinda Bobis, Spinifex Press, see my review
  • The Burnished Sun by Mirandi Riwoe, University of Queensland Press
  • If You’re Happy by Fiona Robertson, University of Queensland Press
  • Lake Malibu and Other Stories by Su-May Tan, Spineless Wonders

Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Collection

  • TAKE CARE by Eunice Andrada, Giramondo Publishing
  • Statis Shuffle by Pam Brown, Hunter Publishers
  • accelerations & inertias, by Dan Disney, Vagabond Press
  • At the Altar of Touch by Gavin Yuan Gao,  University of Queensland Press
  • Bees Do Bother: An Antagonist’s Carepack by Ann Vickery, Vagbond Press

David Unaipon Award for an Emerging Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Writer

  • ‘Finding Billy Brown’ by Edoardo Crismani
  • ‘Wawun, Judulu and The Big Storm’ by Julie-Ann ‘Garrimaa’ Moore
  • ‘Always Will Be – stories of Goori sovereignty, from the future(s) of the Tweed’ by Mykaela Saunders
  • untitled manuscript by Rick Slager
  • ‘Unplanned Journey: A personal account of one Indigenous woman’s life’ by  Aunty Joan Tranter

Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer

  • ‘Do you like the artist Georgia O’Keeffe?’ by A E Macleod
  • ‘The Interventions’ by John Richards
  • ‘Sunshowers’ by Emily Winter
  • ‘Things Left Unsaid’ by Yen-Rong Wong

The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award

Voting is open for The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award.  Cast your vote by 15 August.

  • Whole Notes by Ed Ayres, ABC Books
  • The Keepers by Al Campbell, University of Queensland Press
  • Muddy People by Sara El Sayed, Black Inc. Books
  • Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss,  Simon & Schuster Australia, see my review
  • The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen by Krissy Kneen, Text Publishing
  • Red Heaven by Nicolas Rothwell, Text Publishing
  • Crime Writer by Dime Sheppard, Ruby Books
  • Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego, University of Queensland Press

To read the judges comments, see the awards website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2022

Still Life, by Sarah Winman

I was expecting to like Sarah Winman’s Still Life.  It’s had very positive reviews, it was longlisted for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and I liked her previous novel Tin Man, declaring that it was rare to find a novel that is so much about love and kindness and friendship without descending into sentimentality.

Alas, Still Life is an English fantasy of Tuscan postwar life: sunshine and weather mild enough for shorts; good food and nice wine; appealing scenery round every cobblestoned corner complemented by splendid Florentine art; and a language easy to learn between the sheets should you need to know more than the vocabulary for food.  Yes, there are occasional problems such as the 1966 flood, but such difficulties are overcome by the niceness of people who come together as a genial community, and Brits who flit in to help without any clear idea of what to do can still manage to access the essentials of life such as a bath and a decent meal. Plus, this Florence is, despite Italy being a Catholic country, easy-going about gays and lesbians; and it’s tolerant of stuffy English people and an excess of tourists.  Most remarkable of all, they have an impressive ability to transition briskly from a military dictatorship under Mussolini with no hard feelings about who was on which side.

All this while Britain was enduring postwar austerity and Germany was rebuilding the ruins.

The story starts outside Florence during WW2 with the meeting of Evelyn Skinner the art historian and the soldier Ulysses Temper, named not after the Greek hero but after a racehorse.  This detail is important because it establishes Ulysses as an ordinary unpretentious fellow who is nonetheless charmed by the whimsical Evelyn and he earnestly imbibes lessons about Florentine art.  While there are inconclusive hints that Evelyn might actually be a spy, if that’s what she is then her cover is not very convincing.  It does seem somewhat unlikely that any English art conserver, much less a woman, would be dodging artillery fire on the front line, and indeed if she or any other English person were there at any time when the Germans were there as well they would have interned her as a matter of course.

Besides, surely Italy  had plenty of art historians of its own…


This meeting takes place as the characters are cheerfully looting a Tuscan cellar after the German retreat.  While I suspect that the Tuscans wouldn’t have begrudged their liberators, it doesn’t alter the fact that the military is not supposed to help itself to the possessions of the locals, who presumably need what remains of their surviving stock to earn a living after the war.  Italian superintendents are mentioned but they seem to be there to protect what remains of the art after the German departure, and it wasn’t made clear whether these characters in the cellar were there by invitation or not, or whether they paid for the splendid bottles of wine which they drank with such sophisticated appreciation.  A minor detail, but truth be told, I am always more likely to notice minor details if I’m not much engaged in a novel.  And I was often bored by this one.  Yes, bored. This book is much too long for itself.

Anyway Ulysses the dutiful soldier meets the art historian Evelyn across a social divide bridged by war, and then the war moves on and they are parted by more than just the decades between their ages.  He goes back to Britain to an inconclusive relationship with a rather bad-tempered woman called Peg, but with the proceeds of a lucky bet, goes back to live in Florence with an assortment of other male companions and Peg’s school-age daughter by another man (for whom she’s still carrying a torch).  The novel then proceeds to tease the reader with reunions that would have occurred had only Evelyn done this or Ulysses done that.  Although I did entertain what turned out to be a fruitless interest in the spying side of things and I  wondered if Ulysses would ever stop hankering after Peg and find the love of his life, I grew tired of these inconclusive meanderings of the plot, such as it was.

Why then did I continue reading the book?  I chose it from the TBR after reading Mercé Rodoredo’s Death in Spring, because I wanted something less harrowing. And I knew how that this book is dearly loved by many people, so I kept expecting that something would illuminate it for me, and then I would love it too.

It just didn’t happen for me.

Read the reviews of readers who loved it here, and here and here.

Author: Sarah Winman
Title: Still Life
Design and Illustrations by Ellie Game
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2021
ISBN: 9780008283360, pbk., 436 pages
Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 2, 2022

2022 NIB Literary Award longlist

The 2022 Mark and Evette Moran Literary Award longlist has been announced.

Established in 2002, the NIB is an award that focusses on excellence in Australian research and writing, and it’s the only major national literary award of its kind presented by a local council, i.e. Waverley Council (in NSW).

This year’s total prize pool is $28,500. Finalists each receive the Alex Buzo Shortlist Prize (6 x $1,000) and will be eligible for the Nib People’s Choice Prize ($2,500) and the Mark & Evette Moran Nib Literary Award ($20,000).

Alas, I have read only one of the nominees, and have only one on the TBR.

  • Currowan by Bronwyn Adcock (Black Inc Books)
  • Telling Tennant’s Story by Dean Ashenden (Black Inc Books)
  • Q Anon & On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults by Van Badham (Hardie Grant Books)
  • Leaping into Waterfalls by Bernadette Brennan (Allen & Unwin), on my TBR
  • Two Afternoons In The Kabul Stadium by Tim Bonyhady (Text Publishing)
  • Making Australian History by Anna Clark (Penguin Random House)
  • Signs and Wonders by Delia Falconer (Scribner Australia), see my review
  • The Asparagus Wars by Carol Major (ES Press)
  • Delia Akeley and the Monkey by Ian McCalman (Upswell Publishing)
  • Mafioso by Colin McLaren (Hachette Australia)
  • Mortals by Rachel Menzies and Ross Menzies (Allen & Unwin)
  • Inseparable Elements by Patsy Millet (Fremantle Press)
  • My Tongue Is My Own by Ann-Marie Priest (La Trobe University Press)
  • Red Heaven by Nicolas Rothwell (Text Publishing)
  • A Great Hope by Jessica Stanley (Picador Australia)
  • Here Goes Nothing by Steve Toltz (Penguin Random House)
  • The Jane Austen Remedy by Ruth Wilson (Allen & Unwin)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2022

Vale David Ireland (1927-2022)

I am indebted to a tweet from @kateharrisontas for the news that the award-winning Australian author David Ireland AM has died.  He won the Miles Franklin Award three times, in 1971, in 1977 and in 1979, and the ALS Gold Medal in 1985.  

Kate Harrison proofed and distributed Ireland’s last published novel, The World Repair Video Game for Island Magazine’s special limited edition in 2015.

There is very little biographical information about David Ireland in the public domain, but from Wikipedia and the Text Publishing website, I gather that Ireland, born in New South Wales in 1927, began by writing poetry and drama before turning to fiction with his first novel The Chantic Bird in 1968.  He worked on a number of blue-collar worksites before turning to writing full time in 1973 after he had won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971). Though interesting, and still worth reading, it was IMO a ‘blokey’ book, and so was The Glass Canoe which won the MF in 1976, so I was mildly inclined to disagree with Nicolas Rothwell, in his Introduction to the Text edition of The Glass Canoe, when he suggested that Ireland went out of literary fashion because the literati were no longer interested in his brand of realism. IMO, it was more that the milieu in which Ireland set his novels seemed irredeemably old-fashioned for feminist readers like me who savoured the emergence of Australian women’s fiction in the 1980s.

But I have not yet read any of Ireland’s fiction published in the 1980s.  I never even heard about it. I had bought  A Woman of the Future (1979) only to add it to my MF collection and it sat neglected on my TBR amongst the other winners.

However, after an absence of nearly ten years from publication, Ireland surfaced again with The World Repair Video Game in 2015, (see my review). Its nomination for the MF and my delight in reading it sent me scurrying to my favourite second-hand sellers to supplement the TBR with his backlist. I don’t have them all, alas,

Ireland’s novels are listed at Wikipedia as follows:

ANZ LitLovers extends condolences to the friends and family of David Ireland, another giant of Australian literature lost to us this year.

Update 4/8/22: Do read Van Ikin’s superb tribute to Ireland’s oeuvre at The Conversation. 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2022


I discovered this meme via Lizzy Sidal from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

It’s not as easy as it looks.  And of course, if I did it next week, my answers would be different.

5 Books I Love (just from my 2022 reading, just from Australia and New Zealand)

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

The Red Witch, a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard by Nathan Hobby

The Morality of Gentlemen by Amanda Lohrey

Other Houses by Paddy O’Reilly

Loop Tracks by Sue Orr


4 Auto Buy Authors (Australia and NZ only.  This was hard.)

Brian Castro

Catherine Chidgey

Amanda Lohrey

Stephen Orr

3 Genres I Love (no surprises here)



Literary biographies

2 Places I love to read 

In bed

On the sofa

1 Book I’m (probably) reading next (for #WITmonth)

Klotsvog, Notes from the Jewish Underground, by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Lisa C Hayden

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