Indigenous Literature Week at ANZLitLovers begins tomorrow to coincide with NAIDOC Week here in Australia. (8 to 15 July).

NAIDOC Week is when Australians celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and this year the NAIDOC Week theme is Because of her, we can, celebrating the invaluable contributions that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have made – and continue to make – to our communities, our families, our rich history and to our nation.

Indigenous women have been prominent in the development of Indigenous writing as a distinctive genre.  Through their words and storytelling, they have given voice to Indigenous history, culture, lives and ambitions, leading readers on a journey of learning and understanding.  Although I had read and been shocked by Sally Morgan’s My Place back in 1988, and I had read some memoirs since then, I did not I read my first novel by an Indigenous author until 2005: it was Butterfly Song by Terri Janke, and it made me realise that for Indigenous women, there are all sorts of extra barriers and cultural expectations that surround empowering experiences like graduating from university.  It made me realise that Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal Australian are distinct and by implication, that there were other distinctive Indigenous cultures for me to discover.  And it also made me realise that although I had been reading voraciously since childhood, in over forty years in this country, I had never before read any First Nations fiction.   Because of Terri Janke, I can…

If you’ve never read a book by an Indigenous Australian woman author, find out more about 2018 Indigenous Literature Week here, and begin your journey with one of these books.

Please feel free to recommend others not included here!

Larissa Behrendt of the Eualeyai/Kamilaroi people

Ngarta Jinny Bent, with Jukuna Mona Chuguna of the the Walmajarri people

Hazel Brown, of the Noongar people of the southern coast of Western Australia

Vivienne Cleven of the Kamilaroi people

  • Bitin’ Back Shortlisted for the SA Premier’s Award, 2002, Winner of the David Unaipon Award, 2000
  • Her Sister’s Eye Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, Prize for Indigenous Writing, 2004

Claire G Coleman who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people of Western Australia

Dylan Coleman, member of the Kokatha Mula Nation

Editors Pat Dudgeon from the Bardi people of the Kimberley area in Western Australia, Jeannie Herbert, an Indigenous woman born and raised in the Kimberley area and Darlene Oxenham, a Malgana woman from Shark Bay on the coast of Western Australia

Ali Cobby Eckermann who identifies with the Yankunytjatjara / Kokatha people from the north west desert country of South Australia

Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, of the Ngaatjatjarra, one of the language groups making up the Western Desert people of Central Australia

Pictures from my Memory: My story as a Ngaatjatjarra woman, see

Liz Hayden, an indigenous woman from Western Australia

Anita Heiss member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales

Rachel Hennessy, of Aboriginal descent

Rita Huggins, an elder and Jackie Huggins, of the Bidjara Central Queensland and Birri-Gubba Juru North Queensland peoples,

Terri Janke descendant of the Wuthathi/Yadaighana and Meriam people

  • Butterfly Song (I enjoyed this when I read it before starting this blog)

Ruby Langford Ginibi

Jeanine Leane, a Wiradjuri woman

Melissa Lucashenko of the Ygambeh/Bundjalung people

Keelan Mailman, of the Bidjara people

Sue McPherson, of Wiradjuri descent

Sally Morgan from the Palku (or Bailgu) people of the Pilbara

Marie Munkara, of Rembarranga descent

Margo Neale, an Indigenous woman from Queensland, of Indigenous and Irish descent

Oodgeroo Noonuccal a.k.a. Kath Walker of the Quandamooka people of Stradbroke Island, Queensland

NT Writers Centre

  • This Country Anytime Anywhere, IADPress,  featuring works by emerging writers as well as many winners of Northern Territory literary awards, including Marie Munkara, winner of the 2008 David Unaipon Award for Every Secret Thing (also judged the 2010 Northern Territory Book of the Year Award).

Siv Palmer from the Yuwallaraay Aboriginal Nation in far west New South Wales.

Doris Pilkington Garimara, of the Martu,

Ellen Van Neerven, a writer of Mununjali and Dutch heritage who identifies with the Yugambeh people of the Gold Coast and Scenic Rim

‘The Sweetest Thing’ in Review of Australian Fiction, Vol 10, No 4, May 2014 see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums

Lesley Williams a Murri Elder, and Tammy Williams, a Murri woman

Tara June Winch of the Wiradjuri people

Fiona Wirrer-George Oochunyung, of Mbaiwum descent

Alexis Wright of the Waanyi people

Reviews to come for ILW 2018 include

  • The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina (scheduled for July 9th), and
  • How to Be Deaf by Rosie Malezer (scheduled for July 10th)

PS Please use the #IndigLitWeek & #NAIDOC hashtags on Twitter.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2018

2018 Rare Book Week #2

Today I had a rare opportunity to visit the Parliamentary library in Spring Street.  This Rare Book Week event was titled ‘A Gentleman’s Library’ because of course, when the library was set up along with the Victorian Legislative Council way back in 1851, that’s what it was: there were no women MPs.  In fact it wasn’t even representative democracy.  Victoria had just separated from New South Wales on July 1st and the library was established to serve the needs of just 30 MPs.  It wasn’t until 1856 that the Legislative Council became remotely representative and even then women did not have the franchise and neither did Indigenous people who had to wait a very long time for this most fundamental of human rights…

We were given a brief history of how the library came to be stocked.  It was rather shambolic really: there was a vague idea that the new colony should have ambitions worthy of the Gold Rush money that was flooding into its coffers.  So lists of books were compiled and sent to booksellers in England even though there wasn’t actually a room to put the books into.  In fact there wasn’t a parliament either: it wasn’t built till 1856 and the library, such as it was, was then an afterthought, housed in a wooden annexe.  Many books remained in crates.  Then as now the press grumbled about funding for parliament’s library for reasons that were obvious.  The parliamentary library had about the same amount of funding as the newly established public library (now the State Library of Victoria), the difference being that the public library could, yes,  be accessed by the public.  The parliamentary library then, as now, is reserved for parliamentarians,  then only about 100 men.  More about this issue later…

The acquisitions policy was haphazard, to say the least.  It consisted of word-of-mouth and colonial office recommendations.  Sometimes they acquired libraries from colonists returning to Britain.  Sometimes they just asked English booksellers to send them ‘noteworthy’ books and received all kinds of odd things in response.  The criticism included accusations that the books might not even be read – could these early MPs even read? they asked – and books on the arts and sciences were barely read at all.  Alfred Deakin (our 2nd prime minister) got a mention as being a great reader, making his way through about 100 books a year…

The oldest book in the collection is Palladus from 1538.  It was originally written in the 3rd or 4th century AD, and it’s a treatise on farming which was popular in the Middle Ages in England.  Quite why anyone thought this might be any use for agriculture in Australia is a mystery to me: Governor Arthur Phillip knew half a century before in the 18th century that Australian soils and climate were completely different to English conditions.  It is also a mystery to me why it remains in the Parliamentary library to this day.  It is stored under protected i.e. climate controlled conditions and nobody’s allowed to read it without jumping through all kinds of hoops, so it can’t possibly be any use to anyone, and particularly not the politicians for whom this library exists.  It might conceivably be of use to scholars, but they don’t have any means of knowing that a copy is in this library, because the catalogue isn’t digitised, and, like all the other books in the collection, the book isn’t digitised on Trove either.  (Some titles have already been digitised by other holdings, but IMO that doesn’t excuse not digitising the ones that aren’t).  I think that if this book has any value then the place for it is in the National Library of Australia or the State Library of Victoria, where there are procedures for making it accessible if someone wants to study it for some reason… However it comes as no surprise to me that a survey of library holdings in 1957 decided that it had no particular merit – but they’ve held onto it anyway.  Whatever for??  Why not sell it to some English library and use the money for something of more relevance to us?

A young member of the library staff called Michael raised a chuckle when he featured a treatise about husbandry from 1733 by Jethro Tull.  If you Google Jethro Tull you can immediately see why he didn’t know that Jethro Tull was a real person rather than a rock band.  Those of us of a certain age had learned about Jethro Tull at school: he was an agricultural pioneer who perfected a mechanised seed drill and revolutionised 18th century agriculture in Britain.  But nobody learns about the agricultural revolution today so of course Michael had never heard of him and was surprised to see how many of us had.  Nevertheless we were still interested to hear that these books about agriculture (however misguided in the case of Palladus) were indicative of the colonial project to develop a new culture of science and self-sufficiency.  The Mechanics Institutes were part of this strategic attempt to develop that culture in Victoria.  (And interestingly, the Athaneum, our oldest library, was originally a Mechanics Institute.  Who knew?)

It was Michael who alerted the audience to the issue of public access.  Public libraries are a public good, but the parliamentary library is not available to the public, and even staff can’t use it during sitting weeks.  The Parliamentary Library is a place of exclusion.  Which makes me wonder, should it still exist, when politicians can access anything they need from the State Library, from a comprehensive network of municipal libraries, from university collections and a treasure trove of books available on line, not to mention being able to buy books just like the rest of us from their own well-lined pockets?

Sarah Edwards is also a member of the library staff but not a librarian – and she is primarily interested in the aesthetics of the collection. It was easy to see how much she loved and cared for very special books like John Gould’s Birds of Australia.

Once again, I can’t understand why this exquisite book is kept here in a library where hardly anyone can see it…

Also of interest were the pictures on display in the library.  There was, predictably, Anzackery galore – including a poster featuring Edith Cavell whose murder by Germany was used as enlistment propaganda in WW1.  (The library staff had never heard of her yet had never bothered to Google her name even though they had been asked about her before).   But there was also a certificate of commemoration for the centenary of Federation and a Federal Parliament Members Roll from 1901.  And a bust of St Thomas More (!) which I unfortunately didn’t photograph…

The current policy for acquisitions is to focus on Victorian and Australian politics, local history and Australian biography, but the library still acquires rare books to fill gaps in their collection.  I’m not going to mount a facile argument that this money would be better spent on new tram lines and better roads or even funding for school libraries to have teacher-librarians, but I do think the parliament should undertake a serious review of the purpose and policies of the parliamentary library, because it seems to me that some aspects of it are at odds with the egalitarian philosophy of our democracy…

(And I’m not the only one who thought so.  I heard mutterings about this from other people too.)

While they’re at it, they might review their over-zealous security procedures.  I’ve flown all over the world including making my way through 4 sets of security just to get to and from Norfolk Island, but never before have I had to unpack my entire handbag to reveal a suspicious item such as … a Ventolin asthma puffer.

PS It was great to see artist Alissa Duke sketching proceedings again.  You can see the sketch she did at her blog and to see a sample from 2017, see my previous post about this here). Alissa makes beautiful handmade cards featuring books and library designs.  Visit her website or her Etsy page to order these lovely cards for the booklovers in your life.  You can also buy them at Readings at the State Library.


The Radetzky March is listed in 1001 Books so I pounced when I saw it at the library!

This is why the editors included it:

The Radetzky March ranks as one of the finest European historical novels of the twentieth century and is the outstanding literary work produced by the prolific journalist and novelist Joseph Roth.

Through three generations of the Trotta family, the story traces the decline of the Hapsburg Empire in its dying days, but this is not a family saga.  From the hero of the battle of Solferino who saves the Emperor Franz Joseph’s life and is subsequently ennobled from plain Lieutenant Trotta to Baron von Trotta and Sipolje; to his son Herr Van Trotta who becomes the District Commissioner; to his grandson Carl-Joseph who has an indifferent peacetime career in the army, the book focusses just on these three men who are all, effectively, bachelors, and how they represent the fracturing of the old certainties of empire.

Strauss’ Radetzsky March is a motif throughout the book.  Throughout his rigid loveless childhood when he is steam-rollered into the military career denied to his father, Carl-Joseph hears the local bandmaster play this march and he associates it with tradition, order, duty and belonging.

But as the first Baron rightly surmised, these values are under stress.  As Emma from Book Around the Corner explains in her review the Baron steered his only son into the bureaucracy because he was livid about the misrepresentation of history in the legend that proliferated about the way he saved the Emperor.  Truth takes second place, because a mere infantryman from a peasant background could not be seen to have saved an emperor.  (Or even to have touched him). So the story in the schoolbooks transforms Trotta into a cavalry officer, and when the newly ennobled Van Trotta appeals to the Emperor, he is told that the legend is meant to inspire Austro-Hungarian patriotism.  But the story is removed from the textbooks anyway, thus ensuring that Van Trotta’s son and grandson wrongly think that they are of aristocratic lineage.

This unusual level of access to the Emperor is a motif in the book as well.  Carl-Joseph is a poor soldier, his lofty ideals having no outlet since the country is at peace.  The only time he sees any action is when his unit is required to put down industrial action in the region bordering Russia, and so he drifts into a dissipated life of drinking 90% proof, amassing a colossal debt due to gambling, and dereliction of duty due to womanising.  When his folly causes a fatal duel and he is in serious trouble, his dutiful letters to his father begin at last to confront reality and the family’s special connection to the Emperor rescues him, not for the first time.

Too late, father and son begin to forge a relationship as disillusionment with empire sets in for both of them.  Carl-Joseph had never enjoyed family life.  As a small boy he was sent away to school so that he could realise his widowed father’s ambitions that he would become a cavalry officer.  (A career destined to become irrelevant in the mechanised warfare of WW1).  They communicated in a routine of diffident letters which made it impossible for either one to know the other.  In a parody of the relationship that the Emperor has with his subjects,  the District Commissioner has exactly the same conversations each time with his underlings because he has no idea who they are or even if their children are boys or girls.

The strict regimes of Carl-Joseph’s father’s and his routine pretensions to nobility sabotage all his relationships, and late in life he realises that he has had no friends.  The death of the old family retainer Joseph provokes a crisis because he is irreplaceable and the District Commissioner has no one to talk to or help him with advice about his son’s catastrophes.  While Roth’s portrait of Carl-Joseph is not unsympathetic, his character’s eventual rescue by the Empire is symptomatic of a regime that looked back to protecting an entirely useless, accident-prone young man at the expense of better people who had something worthwhile to offer.

The novel is superbly written, evoking a bygone age with finesse and the translation is perfect.  (Hofman is a poet, and he also translated Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin). It is a tragedy that Roth (1894-1939) was forced to flee Germany under the Nazis and died in poverty in Paris aged just 44.

Apart from the fact that this is a thoroughly engaging novel, why should readers find a story tracing the decline of an empire relevant now?  Well, we are living through the decline of the American empire and the same lessons apply.  Poor leadership in political life; flawed education systems more focussed on test results than on preparation for the future; dysfunctional family life; mythmaking history through mass media; a failure to teach ethical standards of behaviour in the military; inequitable economic policies and an intolerance of diversity. We in Australia might not have an empire, but we might do well to interrogate how many of these lessons apply to us too…

Author: Joseph Roth
Title: The Radetsky March
Translated from the German by Michael Hofman
Publisher: Granta Books, 2003 (first published in 1932, first English translation 1933)
ISBN: 9781862076051
Source: Dandenong Library

In anticipation of Indigenous Literature Week for 2018, I am pleased to be able to offer a giveaway of Women of a Certain Age from Fremantle Press in WA.

This is the blurb:

Anne Aly, Liz Byrski, Sarah Drummond, Mehreen Faruqi, Goldie Goldbloom, Krissy Kneen, Jeanine Leane, Brigid Lowry and Pat Mamanyjun Torres are among fifteen voices recounting what it is like to be a woman on the other side of 40. These are stories of identity and survival, and a celebration of getting older and wiser, and becoming more certain of who you are and where you want to be.

There are two Indigenous voices included in the collection – ‘Black Boxes’ by Jeanine Leane and  ‘Djana ngayu Who am I?’ by Pat Mamanyjun Torres.  Jeanine Leane is the well-known author of Purple Threads (see my review), and ‘Black Boxes’ is reviewed here at Underground Writers.  Pat Mamanyjun Torres is a writer, artist, illustrator, community worker, health worker, educator and Aboriginal administrator and AustLit shows (even if like me you are not a subscriber) a long list of her publications.

AustLit states that Pat Torres belongs to three Indigenous groups – the Jabirr Jabirr from the north of Broome, the Nyul Nyul from the Beagle Bay area and the Yawuru people from south of Broome, but this belies the complexity of her heritage.

Ngayu ngarrangu jarndu. Ngayu Djugun ngany, Jabirr-Jabirr ngany, Nyul-Nyul ngany, Bard ngany, Yawuru ngany, Karajarri ngany. I am Aboriginal woman. I belong to Djugun, Jabirr-Jabirr, Nyul-yul, Bard, Yawuru and Karajarri. My Aboriginal name is Mamanyjun, which is a red coastal berry (Mimusops elengi) that grows in the rainforest areas of our clan estates in Jabirr-Jabirr country. I am a strong and proud woman from the First Peoples of Australia. I am connected to Djugun, the original people of the Broome region, Jabirr-Jabirr, the original people of regions north of Broome and west of Beagle Bay. I am also connected to the Nyul-Nyul and Bard, who originated from areas north of Broome, and the Yawuru and Karajarri from areas to the south. I am also Scottish, English, Irish, Filipino and Surabaya-Indonesian on my mother’s side. I am approaching mirdanya, elder-status, and am in the ‘autumn years’ of my life. (p.99)

Reading this brief memoir fills me with awe for the richness of this woman’s wisdom.  She tells us, briefly, and without bitterness, that she has had minimal contact with her father’s side of the family so she chooses to be passionate about her Aboriginal family lines, their histories and their knowledge systems.  And she chose to make her lifelong work would be a bridge between the two cultures.

Knowing both Kimberley Aboriginal Australian culture and white Australian culture has meant that my family and I often take on roles that bridge the gap between the two groups. My past careers as a curriculum development officer for the Tasmanian Education Department in Hobart, and with the federal Department of Education and Youth Affairs in Broome, Darwin and Canberra, are examples of this bridging role. Our families, who live at the intersection of so many different identities, have been at the forefront of language, health, education, music, arts and cultural programs. We do this to achieve positive life changes for our extended families and remote communities, as well as to facilitate cross-cultural understandings in the mainstream (p.105)

She writes with love and pride about her children and grandchildren and with generosity about the past:

My life has been an extraordinary one, full of stories of our families’ social and cultural histories, and how we interconnect with Australia’s First Peoples in the Kimberley region, and the Asian and European immigrants who came to live and work in this part of Australia. Many diverse peoples married our womenfolk from the Djugun, Yawuru, Jabirr-Jabirr and other people, thereby creating my descent line of the Torres and Drummond families. I have grown up with a great thirst and hunger for knowledge and am privileged to live in a time when Australian society is more supportive of Australia’s First Peoples, in comparison to the previous generations of my mother, grandmother and great-great-grandmother.

My great-great-grandmother, known as Mary Minyarl, was a Djugun woman from Ngunu-ngurra-gun, now known as Coconut Well, situated north of Broome, Western Australia. She lived at a time when women were kidnapped off the coast, enslaved in chains and forced to free dive for pearl shell for the early master pearlers. Mary Minyarl was removed from her family clan lands in Djugun country, and taken north into Jabirr-Jabirr clan lands to dive for pearl shells. She was also taken south into Yawuru lands along the coast to collect the large pearl shells with other Aboriginal women. These pearl shells created wealth and influence for early colonial families in Western Australia. (p.101)

You can see from this short excerpt that this is a Giveaway worth winning!  But if you want to be sure of a copy, you can buy it direct from Fremantle Press in paperback or as an eBook.


Be in it to win it!  Anyone with an Australian postal address is eligible.  Please indicate your interest in the Comments box below and I’ll select a winner using a random generator round about the middle of next month.

All entries from readers with an Australian postcode for delivery will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner.   (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met).

Good luck everybody!

Editors: Susan Laura Sullivan, Maria Scoda, and Jodie Moffat
Title: Women of a Certain Age
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781925591149
Source: Review copy of Djana ngayu – Who am I? by Pat Mamanyjun Torres, courtesy of Fremantle Press


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 3, 2018

2018 Rare Book Week

Once again it is Rare Book Week in Melbourne, and although I missed most of it because we were away on Norfolk Island we were able to attend a terrific event today at the Monash Conference Centre in the CBD.  The session was called ‘The Australia to Come, exploring 19th century visions of Australia’s future’ and it was presented by Zachary Kendal who’s a librarian at Monash and a PhD candidate in Literature and Cultural Studies.

Zachary began by acknowledging that the views explored in the books presented today, are views of 19th century British colonisers.  Whether they were presenting an optimistic view of Australia’s future or a dystopian vision of a future that they feared, the reality for Indigenous people was that the dystopian future was already here from the time that colonisation began.  He recommended that the audience also read contemporary books that recognise that colonies created both utopias and dystopias at the same time, suggesting The Swan Book by Alexis Wright and Terra Nullius by Clare G Coleman, and also the TV series Cleverman.

He also pointed out that Utopian writing began in 1516 with Thomas More’s Utopia, but that the word derives from eutopia meaning ‘good place’ and outopia meaning ‘no place’.  In other words a utopia is not a perfect place, not an ideal, and not an unchanging paradise, but merely better than what’s already there.  But dsystopia just means ‘bad place’.

Having clarified his position with this culturally respectful introduction, Zachary went on to share his insights into the utopian writing of the pre-Federation era.  Printing was becoming more accessible here in the late 19th century, but many of the books would be called SF today.  He has identified a number of themes in these utopias, including:

  • Socialism
  • Federation and independence
  • Foreign invasion
  • Women’s rights
  • Secularism
  • Christianity, and
  • Spiritualism.

So, to the books!

He began with Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards 2000-1887 published in the USA in 1888.  This Rip Van Winkle in reverse is a portrait of an ideal life in the future – with the end of capitalism, no wars, no poverty, and an early retirement from work with much reduced working hours. It became influential around the world, sparking all kinds of spinoffs including here in Australia.

  • Melbourne Riots and How Harry Holdfast Emancipated the Workers, a realistic novel, by David A Andrade.  Andrade, who was an anarchist, shows the oppressed workers taking control of the city without having to rely on the wealthy to change.  His workers unite, form co-ops, and end the private ownership of land.  This utopia is not state-run socialism because there is still some private wealth, but the workers are empowered.
  • The Coming Terror is an 1894 novella by S A Rosa.  He wanted to see an enlightened electorate voting for change at the polls.  His socialist utopia nationalises industry so that workers only work four hours a day.  There are just laws, wise government and it’s an earthly paradise.
  • Sometimes, utopias were compared with life elsewhere.  Melbourne and Mars, My Mysterious Life on Two Planets by Joseph Fraser (1889) is apparently a better novel and not just a propaganda tract like the ones listed above.  It features worldwide peace because there are collectivist values on Mars, where people are bound together by the difficulty of life there.  This altruism is contrasted with less noble values in Melbourne.  The focus is on technology and science and the advances made on Mars, which include hey! the use of renewable resources. (BTW I’ve linked this one to its online edition because I had to check the author’s name, but Zachary says that nearly all of these can be read online because they’re all now in the public domain).
  • Neuroomia, a Manuscript from the Deep (1894) by G. McIver, is an adventure in Antarctica.  Its theme of a lost civilisation is a common one, but it’s different to the usual ones set in the Australian interior.  This one was published on grey boards like a respectable novel, but also as a disreputable ‘yellow-back‘ competing with Penny Dreadfuls.

Books that are pro Federation and independence contrast with those expressing a fear of invasion.

  • John Dunmore Lang’s 1852 Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia, the Right of the Colonies and the Interest of Britain and the World divvies Australia in half, with a utopia on the eastern seaboard and Western Australia offered to Britain as a penal colony.  (I bet the reviews in WA were a bit caustic about that!)
  • Not all the utopias were in favour of independence.  Charles Ashwold Bland’s 1891 Independence, A Retrospect, tells a story of how things went wrong with premature independence and a Republic.  States fail to unify, can’t agree on a capital city, and the people come to regret the republic when they are under threat from China and almost at war.  People flee to New Zealand which has stayed with the British and prospered nicely.
  • We sat up straight when we heard the next title! The Battle of Mordialloc (1888) by Edward Maitland is set close to home for us, Mordialloc being only five minutes away by car.  In this story England is at war with Russia so Australia declares independence in order to remain neutral.  But without the Mother Country to defend us, those sneaky Ruskies invade on Melbourne Cup Day (when everyone is too drunk to notice!), landing at Mordialloc and presumably marching the troops up the Point Nepean Road (now the six lane Nepean Highway) to the city 25 kms away.  I might have to read this one to find out if the Brits rescue us.  Maybe the Kiwis do!!
  • Inspired by The Battle of Mordialloc, The Battle of the Yarra (1893) by An Old Colonist, is another cautionary tale focussed on the fear of invasion, but it’s from a utopian future.  Australia has become a great and powerful nation with a strong military by not getting in Britain’s wars.  In this one the people fight valiantly against the Russians and eventually they lose the war.
  • Again featuring war with Russia, The Yellow Wave (1895) by Kenneth Mackay features our troops being overseas leaving us vulnerable to invasion by China.  This one apparently merited a scholarly edition in 2003 and was also made into a satirical play…

Women wrote both utopias and dystopias on the theme of women’s rights.

  • Millie Finkelstein wrote The Newest Woman, the Destined Monarch of the World (1895), a satirical anti-Utopia revealing the dystopian nature of the world under the dominion of women.  Zachary read us its hilarious preface bemoaning the fear of women taking over the world.  He had thought at one stage that maybe it was authored by a man under a nom de plume, but no, there is a picture of Millie and she is its author!
  • In 1883, Henrietta Augusta Dugdale published A Few Hours in a Far Off Age.  It has a more positive view of women’s role, depicting better education, equality, and a happier and more stable society.
  • Catherine Helen Spence in 1888 penned A Week in the Future which showed Australia when gender equality was achieved, and (just squeezing into the C19th) in 1901 Mary Ann Moore-Bentley published A Woman of Mars, or Australia’s Enfranchised Woman. 

The themes of Secularism, Christianity and Spiritualism all explored the relationship between science and religion in the wake of Darwinism.

  • Melbourne was the hub of the Secularist movement, and it features in an anonymous publication from 1872 called Misopseudes, or the Year 2075, a Marvellous Vision.  The book attacks the Bible, Catholicism and predestination, and – common to many books in this era of the White Australia policy, it’s anti-Communist, racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic because it blames the Jews for all the derivative religions that its author despises.
  • Catherine Helen Spence got a second mention with her 1884 An Agnostic’s Progress from the Known to the Unknown.  It’s a rejoinder to Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress and is very critical of organised religion.
  • By contrast the anonymous ‘Acorn’ published The Future of Victoria in 1873.  It’s a utopia full of devout Christians, inspired by the literal truth of the Bible.  Science is only secondary and the book is critical of secular movements and other religions.
  • In 1885 The Great Statesman from the year 3000 by Joseph Broadbent Holmes attacks women’s suffrage and is in favour of very harsh penalties for crime.  It’s a very conservative utopia which showcases the unification of all the Christian churches and it’s the only religion in the world.  Holmes was another White Supremacist keen to see the triumph of his xenophobic view of the world and his hero is a fascist strong man.
  • Eugenics rears its ugly head in Visit to Topos by William Little.  In his utopia TB, alcoholism and other conditions have been eradicated and it’s the science of heredity that has achieved this, including through the exercise of telepathic prenatal education – in the womb!
  • Spiritualism was also centred in Melbourne, and it features in some remarkable books, rebuilding faith from the rubble of Darwinistic disbelief. William Bowley in 1892 produced Affinity, teaching from the spirit world, but this was surely eclipsed by A New Pilgrim’s Progress, (1877) published anonymously but revealed to the be work of no less than our second prime minister, the Hon Alfred Deakin!  This allegory of a spiritual journey to the City of Reason – a scientific utopia stripped of religious dogma – presents spiritualism as entirely rational and scientific … and what’s more, it purports to be by the Puritan John Bunyan himself (1628-1688) and the author specifically denies having written a word of it himself!

So there you have it: a comprehensive reading list of utopian writing, daft and dafter, but all at least thinking of what the future might be like and expressing their ideas about it with confidence.

Many thanks to Zachary for a fascinating presentation!

Another poetry review from Tony at Messenger’s Booker – I couldn’t reblog this one from Norfolk Island because their internet was too slow where we were staying.

Messenger's Booker (and more)


Apologies in advance, this post contains links to numerous poetry reviews and interviews, it appears the last few years of reading, writing and talking about Australian poetry has resulted me building up a decent a resource!!! I have also referred to various other reviews of “Argosy”, not out of laziness, but read on to understand why.

In the last twelve months if you’ve delved into many of the Australian Poetry Awards, you would have come across Bella Li’s 2017 book “Argosy”. This year “Argosy’ has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the Kenneth Slessor Prize (the Poetry Award for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards), and the book was highly commended in the 2017 Anne Elder Poetry Award (the winner being Rico Craig with “Bone Ink”- review and interview with the winning poet here) and commended for the 2017 Wesley Michel Wright Prize in Poetry (the winner…

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Another review of Australian poetry, thanks to Tony from Messenger’s Booker:)

Messenger's Booker (and more)


The 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the 2016 Queensland Literary Awards both featured Joel Deane’s “Year of the Wasp” as a shortlisted title (the winners were Anthony Lawrence for “Headwaters” in the PM award and David Musgrave for “Anatomy of Voice” for the Qld Award), the book also winning the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize and making the John Bray Poetry Award shortlists. More remarkable is the fact that poet Joel Deane, at the young age of 42, had suffered a stroke in 2012. Previously a finalist for the Walkley Award and the Melbourne Prize for Literature, Joel Deane was an established writer at the time, with three books (one non-fiction and two fiction) and three collections of poetry to his name. As the back cover tells us, “Year of the Wasp” is a book about Joel Deane’s “battle to rediscover his poetic voice”, however I would like to add…

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This catch-up review of The Captains and the Kings is the last but one of the books I read on Norfolk Island, so normal programming will resume soon!

I discovered Jennifer Johnston via Kim at Reading Matters, and since Kim has reviewed 13 of Johnston’s 27 titles listed at Wikipedia I am surprised to find that this is one that Kim hasn’t reviewed, though I bet she’s read it because it’s Johnston’s first novel from 1972 and winner of the Author’s Club First Novel Award.  It’s a fine example of a first novel that shows more than unusual promise, and reading this – only the second novel I’ve read by this prolific Irish author – I’m not surprised that she went on to have a significant career.  (She was born in 1930, and her last novel was in 2013 when she was 73 so perhaps she’s enjoying a well-earned retirement by now).

Although the story is set over fifty years ago now, it has a timeless quality.  Mr Predergast is an ageing Anglo-Irishman, living in small town Ireland.  His is a melancholy existence, living alone in his decaying mansion with only a drunken gardener called Sean for company.  His wife has died and he is estranged from his only child Sarah, and there is only an irritating Rector chivvying him about moving to London to be near his daughter.  His memories are no solace: his childhood was marred by the death of his brother at Gallipoli, and his mother made it obvious that the wrong child had survived.  His adulthood and marriage to Clare was a peripatetic life, never settling anywhere, making no friends, achieving nothing of note.

Into this loneliness comes Diarmid, a local lad whose awful parents want to offload him into work at the manor.  Mr Predergast is dismissive.  Apart from the fact that he can’t afford to pay Diarmid and he already has a gardener of sorts, he is ossified in his isolation.  Quite properly, he sends Diarmid packing, with advice to pay more attention to schooling than he has done so far, if he really wants to be in the army.

But Diarmid worms his way into Mr Prendergast’s solitary life, and soon the old man finds himself enjoying reminiscing about games of toy soldiers with his brother, and he likes introducing Diarmid to books and poetry and history.  This is all ok up to a point, but Diarmid’s parents still haven’t offloaded him and he’s still wagging school.  What turns out to be even more significant is that is Sean is jealous… and then Diarmid runs away from home.

Anyone reading this novel now, in the 21st century, when we have a much more sensitive awareness to child sexual abuse, will probably be reading it with antennas alert for what comes next.  But this is an innocent relationship, a genuine friendship between a lonely old man and a child who has piqued his interest.  Mr Prendergast is utterly unprepared for the way his actions are interpreted by Sean, by the Rector and inevitably by Diarmid’s parents.

The Captains and the Kings is only a short novella of 152 pages, but the characterisation of this small human tragedy is deft and perceptive.  This excerpt is from when Sean’s bitter spite has given Mr Prendergast a slight suspicion that Diarmid might not be wholly trustworthy:

Mr Prendergast left the dishes to soak in the sink with the tail-end of a bar of Sunlight soap to cut the grease.  He went upstairs to the old nursery and had his sleep in the chair by the rain-pearled window.  Swallows scraped and twittered under the eaves, coming to grips with their northern world.  He slept for a long time and woke stiff and melancholic. Slowly he tidied the soldiers away into their boxes and put the dust overs back over the furniture.  The room was asleep once more.  The child had, somehow, halted for a while the inevitable, dreary process of dying.  Now, as the last grey cover went over the last chair, he could feel the process beginning again.  He locked the door and went downstairs.

It was choir practice evening.  He put the nursery key back on its hook.  His legs and back ached from stooping. He couldn’t think of anything more disagreeable than playing hymns for an hour and undoubtedly being worked over by the Rector. (p.80)

I’ll always be grateful to Kim for introducing me to this wonderful author!

Author: Jennifer Johnston
Title: The Captains and the Kings
Publisher: Review Books, an imprint of Headline Book Publishing, 1998, first published in 1972
ISBN: 9780747259343
Source: personal library, purchased from Savers OpShop, $2.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2018

Fletcher of the Bounty, by Graeme Lay #BookReview

It won’t take long to share my thoughts about this one… it’s a rather ordinary book with some rather questionable fictionalisations.

Fletcher Christian was the leader of the 1789 mutiny against commander William Bligh of the HMAV Bounty, and this novel by prolific New Zealand author Graeme Lay is a fictionalised account of the story.

If you already know the story of the mutiny, (and after a week on Norfolk Island, I certainly did) then the most interesting part of this novel is the story of Fletcher’s Christian’s youth in England and his rise from genteel poverty after his widowed mother fell into debt.  But the first hint that this fictionalisation takes liberties with the truth occurs when the reader comes across a concocted account of Christian rescuing the young William Wordsworth from being bullied at school.  It’s not just unconvincing, it’s also an indication that heroic deeds will be ascribed to this man who consigned the commander of his ship and 18 loyalists to a likely death when he cast them out to sea in a longboat.

Journey of the longboat

Artistic licence or otherwise, this 1790 painting by Robert Dodd which I photographed at the Pier Store Museum on Norfolk Island, shows the enormity of the crime.  The Bounty was in the middle of nowhere, in the largely uncharted waters of the Pacific, and these men were cast adrift in an overloaded boat with supplies for about a week.  Fletcher Christian later died in murky circumstances on Pitcairn Island so there is only Bligh’s (possibly self-serving) account after he miraculously steered his longboat crew 6000km to safety in Timor, but whatever the reasons, the mutineers would have had no illusions about the likelihood of Bligh surviving.

Graeme Lay, however, has adopted a populist interpretation of events, with Fletcher Christian as a conflicted hero distressed by Bligh’s irrational command and in love with a Tahitian woman, adding for good measure the insinuation that Bligh made homosexual overtures to Christian, which he found intolerable.  (Even if true,  why this would justify consigning a man and his supporters to a likely death in a vast ocean, I cannot imagine.  Women suffer indecent propositions all the time without reacting with such disproportionate outrage).

Oh well, as a novel Fletcher of the Bounty is no better or worse than the sensationalist Hollywood movies about the mutiny, the inaccurate plots of which are laid out on display at the museum for the edification of those interested in history.  I bet they sell heaps of these books on Norfolk Island, where descendants are proud of their Christian lineage…

Norfolk Island Museum Bookstore

Author: Graeme Lay
Title: Fletcher of the Bounty
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2017
ISBN: 9781775541066
Source: personal library, purchased from the Norfolk Island Museum Bookstore, $34

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2018

What the Light Reveals, by Mick McCoy #BookReview

I had mostly great reading while on holiday on Norfolk Island, and I’ve got a few reviews to catch up on but I’m going to start with this one because it’s such an interesting book.

What the Light Reveals by Melbourne author Mick McCoy is a Cold War ‘spy’ novel with a difference.  While the book is a little bit overburdened with issues, it deals with a paranoia that we recognise in the 21st century, that is, a fear and rejection of nonconformist political opinions, and also the harm that is done by sensationalist media reporting.  This is the blurb:

In an increasingly divided and intolerant world, What the Light Reveals is a beacon: a novel that brilliantly captures the sometimes devastating consequences of individual belief. Conrad is falsely accused of passing military secrets to the Russians. His life and that of his family is turned upside down by discrimination and fear. Unemployed, misrepresented by the media, betrayed by relatives and threatened by strangers, Conrad sees no choice but to uproot his family from their homeland to start a new life in Moscow.
It is also the story of Ruby, and of her and Conrad’s adopted son Alex, and biological son Peter, and of the tension and intrigue that confronts them and shapes their lives in two countries. Russia lives and breathes in McCoy’s superb evocation of it, but Australia is never far away. As Peter says, ‘Tell me again why we’re still here?’Told with suspense and rich in characterisation and surprising plot twists, this is a novel of both heart and intellect, a book about the need to belong, about what a family is and why we all need one.

Based loosely on the real life story of McCoy’s aunt and uncle, What the Light Reveals begins with a summons for Conrad Murphy to appear before the Royal Commission into Espionage during the Cold War.  This first part of the book is exceptionally good at evoking the era, not least when Conrad’s train is becalmed for 24 hours somewhere out bush near Wagga Wagga because a plague of locusts has damaged the engine.  His wife back in Melbourne’s Richmond doesn’t know why he hasn’t rung her as expected, the landlady in Sydney doesn’t know why he’s late, and the meeting he was supposed to have with his lawyer ends up being a brief consultation just before they go into the court.

The kangaroo court proceedings are no more than a fishing expedition, but the damage to Conrad’s reputation is extreme.  He is a Communist, but because he doesn’t go out of his way to tell people that, the media portrays him as a person with something to hide, and the innuendo that he is a spy translates into social and job discrimination, and a huge breach within the family.  From being a successful engineer who’d done his bit during WW2, Conrad and his wife Ruby are not just ostracised but also plunged into poverty because Conrad can’t get the sort of work he used to do.  This little known Royal Commission into Espionage was part of the fallout over the Petrov Affair, and for individuals hauled before it, it appears to have had effects not dissimilar to McCarthyism.

For Conrad, who genuinely believes in socialism, the solution to their travails is to relocate to Moscow, along with their two sons Alex and Peter.  This part of the novel is unremittingly grim: bitterly cold, dingy, dreary and punctuated by tedious attendance at Soviet public events of the sort we used to see on TV during the Cold War.  Ruby and the boys are less enthusiastic about the Soviet Dream, and their narrations reveal the stresses and strains of unhappy migration that lead to fractures in their family life.  It is in intimate aspects of their personal lives that the plot becomes overburdened with issues: adoption and sibling rivalry; coming-of-age angst including teenage love; betrayal including infidelity; plus two devastating tragedies – all laced together by distrust and dishonesty.

This flaw, however, doesn’t detract overall from the convincing pattern of suspicion and surveillance in both countries.  The techniques of Soviet surveillance are well-known to us from literature and film, but less well-known – or perhaps forgotten – is how thuggery and intimidation, both official and unofficial, operated in the West as well.  This novel is a welcome addition to a growing number of Australian books exploring Cold War history, such as Document Z by Andrew Croome, by The Memory Room by Christopher Koch, and Katherine Brabon’s The Memory Artist.  The lessons for our time are obvious, and What the Light Reveals is a fine example of the human cost of press ideology and the abuse of judicial processes for political purposes.

Author: Mick McCoy
Title: What the Light Reveals
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2017
ISBN: 9780995409873
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 29, 2018

Vodka & Apple Juice, by Jay Martin #BookReview

Vodka & Apple Juice is a travel memoir with a difference…

First of all, it’s about travel in Poland, not a destination that gets much attention in the travel memoir market.  Secondly, it’s written by the wife of an Australian diplomat, based in Warsaw for a three-year posting.  And finally – most importantly- the author took the trouble to learn Polish so that she was not dependent on translators for local information.

Jay Martin was a senior public servant in Canberra when her husband’s career change took them to Warsaw, a world away from more fashionable destinations like Paris, London and Rome.  Before long they are caught up in the diplomatic social whirl, and Jay finds that she has a lot to learn about how to shop, how to dress and especially how to make small talk with people she will never see again.

(Her struggles to maintain a vegetarian diet in a world of Polish sausage are quite amusing!)

What she finds hardest to adjust to, is not having the social status of work any more.  She is a diplomat’s wife, and although she has rudimentary Polish at her command, she finds it takes all day to negotiate quite simple things because of the language and cultural barriers.  But when she is introduced as ‘the wife of’, she finds that people tend to be dismissive and although she’s enjoying a rest from the pressures of work, she resents their assumption that she is not capable or intelligent.

She fills the gap with travel.  She travels all over Poland and beyond, delighting in cheap air fares and – once or twice – in the diplomatic immunity which means she can ignore some rules.  But the downside is that her husband’s very long hours place pressure on their marriage and it comes perilously close to falling apart.

Her honesty about her deficiencies is quite disarming.  She admits to not knowing anything about Polish literature and their four Nobel prize winners – and she has the grace to feel ashamed that she hasn’t read Patrick White, our Australian Nobel Prize winner either.  She’s also ignorant about why postwar reconstruction in Berlin obliterated its history while Poland painstakingly reconstructed historic Warsaw after it was destroyed in WW2.  She hadn’t heard about the Holocaust Museum in Berlin either. It made me realise yet again how painful it must be for migrants and international visitors to Australia when they encounter similar complacent ignorance about the rest of the world.  We really should do better with educating our students about world history and literature though how we can wean students off YA fiction and endless rehashings of the Anzac story I do not know.

My favourite anecdote comes from her attendance at the Eighth Polish (and Sixth International) Hand Scything of Boggy Meadows for Nature Championship. Planning to write an article about it for a newsletter she contributes to, Jay goes with a friend called Julie after finding out about this event in a guidebook.  Waddling along in their gumboots, they observe the ‘training fields’ and the competitors dressed in practical attire except for one who bucked the trend… in a black Lycra one piece with Slovakia emblazoned on the back.

The beginnings of the finals was announced, and we lined up with a hundred or so other people.  Orange tape strung at waist-height marked out twelve lanes in a pristine field of boggy marsh grass.  We squelched over and took up a place at the edge.  Two solid men with bellies the result of a lifetime of effort took up position on one side, on the other were a younger couple of men with black felt hats and embroidered braces.

A gun went off, and the contestants came out, scythes swinging. The crowd around us yelled, and the competitors quickly settled into their rhythms.  A folk band played a rousing tune.  Grass flew left and right as the scythes swung, leaving in their wake a trail of neatly cut grass.

Dawaj dawaj!’ the beer bellies yelled.

Dawaj dawaj!’ I yelled.

‘Dawaj dawaj!’ Julie joined in.

The first of them came in ten minutes later, to rousing applause from the crowd and a crescendo of folk instruments. We kept clapping as the rest of the dozen finalists came over the finish line.  Despite Mr Slovakia’s friction-resistant outfit, he finished middle of the field. (p. 156)

It is only later that Julie confesses that she thought that they would be doing the scything… and Jay takes this as a sign of potential friendship that Julie was willing to come anyway!

Despite the dark moments when the marriage is under grave strain, this is a hugely enjoyable memoir of embassy life and an illuminating insight into Polish culture.

Recommended for expats, tourists and anyone who enjoys a good chuckle.

PS This MS was the first creative non-fiction manuscript to win the TAG Hungerford Award.

Author: Jay Martin
Title: Vodka & Apple Juice,Travels of an Undiplomatic Wife in Poland
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781925591316
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 28, 2018

We Are Not Most People, by Tracy Ryan #BookReview

We Are Not Most People is, as the title implies, a character-driven novel about people who don’t fit the common mould.

Relationships between an older man and a much younger woman – or May-September relationships – are often mocked.  When they occur between a middle-aged man who’s dumped the woman who supported his career so that he can have a ‘trophy wife’, it’s often attributed to a mid-crisis on the one hand, and a grasping nature on the other.  But what if it’s a case of just not meeting the right person until late in life?

Kurt Stocker’s childhood in Switzerland is dominated by conformity.  His parents and teachers are strict and unyielding in their expectations of the boy. When his teacher derides his tentative attempts to express himself imaginatively, he is so terrified of his parents’ response that he asks to change schools – and ends up in the dogmatic realm of the priests instead.  To please his parents he goes into the seminary to become a priest but he can’t adapt to the oppressive regimen and is expelled, with nothing to his name and no support to reintegrate into the community. As he says to Liesl, the quixotic music mistress who is his only friend:

‘Liesl, I’m thirty years old, and I don’t know anything.  I don’t know how to get a room or an apartment.  Let alone a job.’ (p.102)

He makes a marriage to Liesl and they have a child, but the marriage is dysfunctional.  Liesl is a manipulative bully while he is shy and diffident, nursing rebellious thoughts within. Their incompatibility becomes worse when they migrate to Australia, where her iconoclasm dissipates because there is no oppressive religious community to rebel against.

Woven through Kurt’s third person narrative in alternating chapters, is the story narrated by Terry.  A misfit in small town Australia, she is drawn to her language teacher, Mr Stocker, enjoying his language classes and sensing something of his unusual character.  She is an excellent student and on her way towards transcending the common fate of young women in her town, when disaster strikes and she leaves school prematurely.  She drifts into unemployment punctuated by menial work, and despite her secular background, becomes drawn to the religious life.  The Carmelites, no less, an enclosed order whose values ultimately shock her.

Novice Mistress had chosen her topic for today.  The same topic, with a specific variation: detachment from our loved ones.

‘A good Carmelite cleaves to God only,’ she said, ‘and sees all other attachments as distraction from Him.  Because a Carmelite is charitable and forbearing, she still receives visitors as she must, but she feels them as a burden, an interruption to her communion with God, a sacrifice she must make to show compassion for His creatures.  She takes no pleasure in them.’ (p.145-6)

Terry can’t bear this:

Solitary as I might feel, I could never regard those I loved as a burden, no matter how virtuous, or saintly, or dispassionate that might be.  I felt the heat rising in me, flaming like the long grass but unable to be kept down, and something lumplike, forgotten, melted and gone cold, where maybe what people call a heart, a soul, a conduit of some kind used to be. (p.146)

Both Kurt and Terry have been established as lost souls who are passive and poor much like Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, but their departures from the religious life are not equally decisive.  Terry leaves of her own volition; Kurt is expelled. Their experiences of isolation and displacement are only superficially similar…

The relationship of these two damaged people in the secular world is no starry-eyed romance.  They love each other dearly, but the obligations of the conventional world, and Liesl’s ongoing demands that outlast Kurt’s relationship with his daughter Tina, sabotage their fragile attempts at togetherness.  The sexual desire so often derided in the stereotypical May-September relationship is a critical impasse because Kurt is so traumatised by events in the seminary and his disastrous relationship with Liesl that it seems impossible for him ever to have a normal loving relationship.

Readers looking for a neat-and-tidy solution to this impasse will be disappointed.   Ryan quotes Villette in the Epilogue:

Here pause: pause at once.  There is enough said.  Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope… Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

We Are Not Most People, however, is a deeply satisfying book that is rich in themes for discussion.  I read it loafing about here at Norfolk Island, surrounded by natural beauty warped by the island’s history as a penal colony.  I found myself wondering why humans value conformity so much and why we allow religious institutions to inflict their strictures on vulnerable young lives.

There are book group notes at the Transit Lounge website.

Author: Tracy Ryan
Title: We Are Not Most People
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2018
ISBN: 9781925760040
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

When the Doves DisappearedEstonia is a small country on the Gulf of Finland that was occupied by the USSR after the First World War, then during World War Two by Germany, and then reverted to Soviet Occupation after the war.  Both the USSR and Germany suppressed dissidents and operated surveillance networks to prevent insurrection by nationalists, and both of them took advantage of any individual Estonians who supported their regime to conduct covert operations.

It stands to reason that some Estonians would have welcomed the Germans as liberators, and it’s equally clear that some would have welcomed the return of the USSR.  It also stands to reason that while it would be prudent for people of ambition to take advantage of the German Occupation, that this would make life difficult when Germany lost the war and their former overlords returned.  Such is the fate of small countries in any battle between great powers, and as in other times and places it was sometimes necessary for people to change identities in order to survive if they had picked the wrong side to support.

And always, with people of ambition in this perilous position of having a past that needs to stay hidden, there will be people from the past with an axe to grind.  There is the problem of staying incognito, and the problem of managing anyone who recognises the new identity for what it really is.

This, then, is the problem that Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen has chosen for When the Doves Disappeared, set in the 1940s under the German Occupation, and then in the 1960s under the Soviets.  And it is a textbook example of an author breaking the first rule of fiction: give your characters problems, don’t give your problems to characters.

The only character who is in any way credible is Edgar, and his characterisation is problematic since he is introduced by his unhappy wife Juudit as unsatisfactory because their marriage is unconsummated.  Although the novel is coy about this, it becomes clear that Edgar is gay, but there is no authorial empathy for someone trying to negotiate a life under regimes which oppressed any kind of sexual difference with a brutality which makes the treatment of Oscar Wilde look benign by comparison.  Far from it.  This author is apparently not interested in the human rights of LGBTIQ people and this character has no redeeming features.  Edgar is an anti-hero, disloyal to his country, his family and friends, and cunning in achieving his petty ambitions.

By contrast, his cousin Roland is noble.  He is a freedom-fighter who risks his life in the cause of Estonian independence, and somewhat improbably manages to avoid capture or betrayal under either of the most efficient regimes the world has known.

There is a right side and a wrong side in this novel, but Juudit vacillates between the two.  Her ambitions don’t rise much above cigarettes, stockings and cognac but even before Stalingrad when both she and her SS lover begin to realise that the writing is on the wall for Germany, she recognises that the combination of her social status and her lack of Aryan credentials makes her unfit to be anything more than a mistress in Berlin.  If she is lucky, that is, and not just left behind to face the music as a collaborator.  Unfortunately for Juudit, she is genuinely in love with Hellmuth, and her problems are made doubly difficult by Roland, hell-bent on justice for his girl Rosalie who has died under mysterious circumstances. Juudit is in a good position, with her contacts, to funnel useful information to Roland and to help with the escape of refugees.

Edgar, rebadged as Comrade Parts under the postwar Soviets, is also in a good position to fossick around for information.  By the 1960s he is a minor apparatchik, and he has been assigned the task of writing a pro-Soviet novel which exposes Estonians who betrayed Soviet Estonia under the German Occupation.  So he gets to see otherwise classified archives which enable him to keep his own past hidden.  His problem is that he is back with Juudit who has become a loose cannon in his life.

At nearly 300 pages in this edition, When the Doves Disappeared is a bit of a slog, and it betrays the author’s unsophisticated view of human nature.  It’s a pity that the first Finnish-Estonian novel I’ve come across is a disappointment…

Author: Sofi Oksanen
Title: When the Doves Disappeared (Kun Kyyhkyset Katosivat)
Translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers
Publisher: Atlantic Books, 2015, first published 2012
ISBN: 9781782391258
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $27.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 24, 2018

The Everlasting Sunday, by Robert Lukins #BookReview

I’m away on holiday on Norfolk Island where the internet is slow and patchy, so this must be a brief review of this very fine book.

The Everlasting Sunday is the debut novel of Melbourne author Robert Lukin who has previously been published in the usual Australian literary magazines – but the novel is British to its freezing winter bootstraps.  It is set in 1962 during an epic winter storm in the north, and the cold gets into the bones as only a British winter can.  (I remember it from my childhood.  Vividly).

17-year-old Radford is sent to Goodwin Manor from London, for some reason unspecified except that he has been ‘found by trouble’.  Diffident, lonely and angry in a subterranean way, Radford is also suicidal, but the low-key anti-authoritarian approach of the administrator Edward ‘Teddy’ Wilson offers a kind of balm, albeit a tentative one because all the other boys have been ‘found by trouble’ too.

There are no rules at the Manor, only customs of the laissez-faire variety, and lessons such as they are, are laid back too.  They are rather like those of the 1970s in progressive schools where children turned up at lessons if and when they felt like it, relying on the skill of remarkable teachers to entice and maintain attendance.  Radford (who is bright) goes to some classes but not many, chiefly only engaged by lessons in electronics taught by an unremarkable teacher called Manny.

But school is the least important aspect of Radford’s life at the Manor.  Nobody tells him anything about how things work, no-one ever explains anything, and no answer is ever direct and unambiguous.  Nevertheless he achieves a satisfactory acceptance, and a friendship emerges with the charismatic West.  Though Teddy’s main objective is to keep the boys alive, they are mostly unsupervised, larking about in various freezing covert places on site with contraband booze and cigarettes.  Not all of these boys are benign.

The tension rises as the Manor becomes snowed in.  This freeze is no joke.  Food supplies dwindle and Britain shuts down, with transport paralysed and commerce in a state of siege.  The Manor seems not to have made provision for such an eventuality and perilous journeys must be made by horse and cart to replenish the larder.  Each time the lads go out into the snow for more foolishness driven by the frustrations of being confined indoors, there is a sense that one or more of them may not return.  But the crisis when it comes is unexpected and savage.

Lukins writes a brutal story in exquisite poetic prose.  His imagery, drawn from an icy palette and a crumbling mansion, is startling, and the dialogue is superb, masterful in its depiction of the way adolescent boys say so little but mean much more.  This is a scene in the in the aftermath of Snuffy’s return from prison, along with a girl called Victoria.

Radford and West had broken away to the belfry, and for three cigarettes they took seat of their thrones.  Snuffy had in one way or another been the dominating topic of conversation since the morning of his arrival, but a change had come in the previous twenty-four hours.  All had flipped and it seemed the boys were trying to last the longest without breathing his name.

‘Snuffy.  How old is he? Radford asked, bowing out of the competition.


They nodded, in quiet reverence to this.

‘Are you in love with Victoria yet?’

Radford waved the notion away too vigorously.

‘You should be, if you’re not,’ West said.

‘In love?’

‘Of course.’

It was a clumsy thought that had occurred to Radford more than once.  He wondered if it could be accurate.  How pathetic that would be.  How obvious.

What would it mean if I was?’

‘Nothing at all,’ West said.

‘I haven’t admitted to this.’

‘I thought it might be something you wanted to talk about.’  West gestured for the matchbook. ‘Love is something people want to endlessly discuss, to speak like they might be in a film.’  He paused, putting weight on one knee and mimicking a matinee idol.  ‘I prefer to smoke, it being one of life’s elementary pleasures. No courtship. No having to reason with the thing or earn its respect….’ (p.92)

You can read an interview with the author at Amanda Curtin’s blog.

Author: Robert Lukin
Title: The Everlasting Sunday
Publisher:  UQP (University of Queensland Press, 2018)
ISBN: 9780702260056
Source: Kingston Library



Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 20, 2018

Author event: Enza Gandolfo at Beaumaris Books

As promised, here’s my report combining Enza Gandolfo’s author event organised by Beaumaris Books… with my notes from her session at the Williamstown Literary Festival last weekend.

Enza is the author of Swimming (Vanark Press, 2009) which was shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Award in 2010 (see my review), and now the recently released The Bridge (see my review). Once again the event was held not at the bookshop on the South Concourse but at a nearby café/function venue called Ginger Fox.  The admission price included a copy of The Bridge and as is usual at these Beaumaris Books events also included a two-course meal featuring dishes mentioned in the book.  So we had pasta from p.10; Bolognese sauce and fried chicken from p. 207; followed by lemon cake from p.9 and gelato from p.47!

Cheryl, who owns and runs the bookshop with her husband Andrew, introduced The Bridge with a sobering memory from her childhood.  She was in grade 2, when her friend’s father died in the bridge collapse.  At that age she struggled to comprehend how her friend went from having a father to not having one.  She is right when she says that all of us have memories of that day…

Enza is a warm, sincere and engaging speaker and she spoke generously about her journey through four or five careers before becoming a writer.  There were no creative writing courses when she was growing up as the child of Sicilian migrants in the 1950s and 60s, so she became a teacher, eventually deciding that although she liked young people, she didn’t much like schools, so she became a youth worker.  From there she took on an advocacy role for refugees and migrants, doing policy work and ethnic services for refugees who by then were mainly Vietnamese.  A writing course at TAFE finished just as Masters and PhD courses in writing became available, and she wrote her debut novel Swimming for her PhD.  She has always wanted to tell the stories of the invisible people in the books that she read as a child: women, working-class Australians, and migrants.

There are two kinds of writers, she says: those who plan and outline, and those who don’t.  Enza begins with a place or a setting, a couple of characters and questions to explore, and the first draft is in fragments.  She talks to her characters as a way of separating them from herself and her own experiences, because although some events derive from her own life, she doesn’t want her books to be about her.

Both Swimming and The Bridge explore grief, perhaps because Enza was born into a house of mourning.  Her grandmother’s other son had died, and she often heard this grandmother say that her life was over.  Yet Enza could see that it wasn’t, that people do somehow find ways to go on, and so her interest in grief and resilience dates from these early memories.  Through two strands, the story of Antonello who struggles to cope with the trauma of the West Gate Bridge collapse, and of Jo, a 19 year-old VCE student whose recklessness and folly causes a terrible accident, The Bridge also explores questions of culpability and guilt, how we apportion blame , and how the consequences of terrible mistakes can never be foreseen.

Westgate Bridge, seen from the walkway near the Memorial Park (Image: Kham Tran, Wikipedia)

Why the bridge?  Enza lives within walking distance of the West Gate Bridge and sees it daily.  It is a Melbourne landmark that gives her the bearings of our city.  She takes regular walks through the wetlands of the memorial park, but even when it’s lovely, she is still conscious of a monstrous structure above her.  She has memories of being in High School when an announcement called all the students who had parents working on the bridge to go to the office.  It’s a melancholy place.

Class is an issue that permeates the book.  All the adults that Enza knew were working people, and industrial accidents were regular events.  Her own father was lucky not to have broken his back but he lost part of a finger at work.  The working men who lost their lives in what is still Australia’s worst industrial accident died because their employers failed to provide a safe workplace. And they have never been held to account, because corporate Australia never is held to account for these preventable deaths.  (No one went to gaol over the wilful negligence at Wittenoom either, an issue explored in Michelle Johnston’s Dustfall which I recently reviewed).

Still, Enza felt hesitant about writing the story of the collapse, because she felt it was not her story to tell.  And then a chance meeting with a worker who had not been there on that fateful day, changed her mind.  She realised that the men were intensely proud of their work on a bridge that was to be a magnificent landmark.  This man had had a brother who worked on the bridge and he knew many of the men who died.  He felt that he needed to work on the bridge so that it could be finished, and most importantly, so that it would be safe.  This man’s story made her feel that the impact of the collapse was a story that needed to be told.

However, the catalyst for the novel was actually not the bridge, but the story of a young woman whose drink driving had caused two deaths and severe disability for two other people.  A common story, and one that has most of us shaking our heads in dismay.  Yet the judge in this case had noted that she was not a party girl: she was quiet and hardworking and hardly ever went out.  An uncharacteristic folly coupled with immaturity and recklessness had caused terrible tragedy.  She was punished with a six-year gaol term, yet Enza found that people she knew were judgemental about this (as I myself remember being at the time).  This judgementalism was the trigger for questions about being responsible for a shocking accident. How do you live with it, when it’s your fault?  Can you ever have a future again?

What motivates Enza to write is that writing gives the power to create empathy and understanding through rendering alternative points-of-view.

During question time, it wasn’t long before the subject of women’s freedom to walk their city came up.  In the novel both Sarah the lawyer and Jo, the young women who has caused the terrible accident, walk the streets to clear their heads.  The recent murder of a lovely young woman called Eurydice Dixon in parkland in an affluent suburb of Melbourne, one of the safest cities in the world, has shaken our sense of security.  It seems so wrong, doesn’t it, that just as we fail to have safe workplaces, we have failed to create a safe city for women to walk in…

You can buy Enza’s book from Fishpond: The Bridge and of course from Beaumaris Books.






Viking 1993

Elizabeth Jolley Week might be officially at an end, but the reviews keep coming!

Guest reviewer Meg Broughton has rounded off her reading of the Vera Wright trilogy with a review of the last book, The Georges’ Wife, published in 1993 and awarded The Age Book of the Year (1993 and the National Book Council Banjo Award for Fiction (1994).

The novel opens with Vera and George going to Australia, but not as a couple. He is in a cabin by himself, she is in a cabin sharing with three other women. On the ship Vera meets a widow and refers to her throughout the novel as the ‘Widow’. Vera is called ‘Migrant’ by the ‘Widow’ and is taken under her wing.

‘It isn’t a repetition,’ Mr George says when I meet him at the station, ‘It isn’t a repetition, is it, of that fellow Metcalf? This isn’t the same sort of thing is it?’ …’I tell him of course it is different. I am older now…I am a doctor now and in my first resident appointment. I remind him that I am the mother of two daughters and that, above all, I belong to him, Mr George.’

Like the other two novels in the trilogy the story weaves from the past, to the present and to the future.  Metcalf, Magda, Gertrude and Ramsden are revisited, and new characters are introduced. Felicity and Noel are bohemians and a strange couple. They tell her:

‘We are seriously trying to live among real people.’….’You can’t leave us now. We need your ordinariness.’

She again becomes part of a triangle! Noel has TB and Vera also suffers from the disease.

Like Mr George, I wonder…

‘How can you, Vera, ….How can you be manipulated, Vera, by someone whose interests are purely superficial and acquisitive?’

He asks this question with regard to the ‘Widow’ – I asked it a few times myself during the reading of the three novels.  Vera is obviously intelligent and very sexual. She craves love and acceptance… 

At the end of the novel we know that Mr George is suffering from Alzheimer’s’, her parents and Eleanor have died; and her daughters Helena and Rachel are successful in their medical fields. She also marries Mr George in Australia.

The Georges’ Wife is a very satisfying end to the trilogy.

Further reading can be found at ‘Elizabeth Jolley, Mr Berrington and the Resistance to Monogamy’ at

You can see Meg’s reviews of the first two in the trilogy by clicking these links: My Father’s Moon and Cabin Fever. These reviews of Jolley’s semi-autobiographical novels prompt me to make time to read/re-read them in the light of Brian Dibble’s biography Doing Life which I read in 2016.  If you check out my review of the bio you can see that I noted Dibble’s analysis of Jolley’s relationship with the older Leonard Jolley, and the reference to how she cared for him in his declining years in aged care is linked to The Georges’ Wife.  Here it is this tender passage again:

They both came to regard the Alfred Carson arrangement as one where they could enjoy being together.  Since the mid-eighties Elizabeth had come to feel there was more tolerance in their marriage, and she did not get so angry with him; age, she realised, distanced her from passions, negative ones included, and besides , she was learning to conserve her energy.  Although she had felt it all along, she could more readily see and say each was to the other someone completely trusted and sustaining. She enjoyed her daily or twice-daily visits, when she would tell him her news and push his chair through their quiet neighbourhood as he rehearsed for her the names of plants and trees.  Fond memories of those walks, and the last stage of their lifelong companionship, are invoked in the opening and closing passages of The Georges’ Wife where Vera pushes Mr George’s chair along green leafy streets.  (Doing Life by Brian Dibble, UWAP, ISBN 9781921401060 p. 224)

That’s such a beautiful image, I think.  So many people focus on Jolley’s unusual domestic arrangements, but at the end of the day she was not just one of Australia’s finest writers, she was a devoted wife who genuinely loved her elderly husband and took care of him in his last years.

Thanks again, Meg, your contributions have been most welcome!

Author: Elizabeth Jolley
Title: The Georges’ Wife
Publisher: Viking 1993
ISBN 0 670 85265 1

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 20, 2018

Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi #BookReview

I was quite surprised when I came across Freshwater at the library.  I had read about it at the Johannesburg Review of Books and had expected it to be difficult to access as so many books from Africa are.  But it turns out that Emezi is an expat Nigerian and that Freshwater, her debut novel, was published in the US not Nigeria, and it’s been widely reviewed there (see here, and scroll to Books).  So that accounts for its availability in my local library.

Freshwater is, as the JRB review says, inventive, innovative and bold.  It tells the story of Ada’s fractured selves, and these are, disconcertingly, based on the author’s own realities. This may mean that the work is partly autobiographical, and that Ada’s traumatic experiences of Otherness perhaps mirror the author’s own life.  Thinking that this might be so makes reading the book an unsettling experience…

Like Ben Okri’s The Famished World, Freshwater features ogbanje – spirits from Igbo spiritual beliefs, in this case multiple amoral spirits inadvertently stranded in Ada’s body when the gates were left open.  Repeated episodes of sexual abuse bring these spirits to the fore, most notably Asughara who intervenes in Ada’s subsequent sexual ventures at college in America, ostensibly to prevent her being hurt again.  One of the most disconcerting aspects of this novel is the unadulterated contempt for the men she encounters.  It is Asughara’s nature to be cruel and contemptuous, but there are no good men in this novel, not even Ada’s father who disappears into obscurity leaving his wife to take care of the family, (which she mostly does by abandoning the children to work overseas).

However the novel is not about characterisation, and readers looking to ‘connect’ with a character will probably be disappointed.  There is very little about Ada’s family, and the reader learns nothing about how she got to college in the US, what course she’s doing or what career she might anticipate.  There’s a lot about her appearance, her clothes and her hair, and also about the physical appearance and the limitations of the men she meets.  The clarity of these external descriptions serves to emphasise the confusion of Ada’s internal identity and to stress that the beautiful self that is seen by others is not the self that she is trying to negotiate without going mad.

Ada herself narrates only a couple of chapters, the rest being commandeered by the brothersisters who populate her other selves.  They talk about her as both separate from themselves (referring to her as The Ada) but also part of her, and they fight with her and with each other though Aughara is always the dominant aggressive powerful one.  But as Asughara finds out when her attempt to manipulate Ada into suicide fails, all of them are subject to the laws of their spirit mother Ala who will decide when and how Ada will be released from her torment.

In just one chapter, Ada speaks as a young woman trying to get help for mental health issues.  But Asughara sabotages this visit to a therapist, and prevents her ever from returning.  Asughara interferes with medication, claiming to act in Ada’s best interests but also admitting that cruelty is the birthright of the brothersisters and that it was always clear that Ada would go mad.

(As a side issue, the author notes that this being America, Ada’s mother is not abe to talk to her doctors because Asughara has denied permission for it.  IMO there’s a kind of insanity in the privacy laws we share with the US, when parents can’t intervene on behalf of a critically ill child whose mental illness has compromised decision-making ability).

The most successful aspect of this novel is to show just how convincing the multiple personalities of dissociative identity disorder can be, not just to the self experiencing them but also to people encountering them.  None of the sleazy young men who sleep with Asughara know that she is not Ada.  The explanation given in the novel is that multiple selves make it possible for different selves to remember different experiences, which means that a traumatic experience can be sectioned off and not remembered except by the self that experienced the trauma. It is a way of managing memories that would otherwise be intolerable.

One other aspect to note is that Ada’s other selves are resolutely Igbo.  They often speak in Igbo, and though they party hard, they perceive the American college world as strangers do.  They are as Other as she is, the difference being that she, being human, tries to fit in, until the ogbanje convince her that only a radical transformation can offer release.

I don’t agree with the reviewer who wrote that

Rooting Ada’s story in Igbo cosmology forces us to further question our paradigm for what causes mental illness and how it manifests. It causes us to question science and reason.

But what Freshwater does do is to make us hope that research and a compassionate health care system can reduce the torment of mental illness wherever it occurs.

Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Title: Freshwater
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2018
ISBN: 9780571347216
Source: Kingston Library

  A brilliantly written escape novel, written while the Nazis were in power and one of the only depictions of a concentration camp to be seen in the midst of war.  The Seventh Cross was an international bestseller in 1942, but it hasn’t been in print in the UK since.

That blurb is a story in itself, eh?  Anna Seghers was a significant author of novels and short stories in pre-war Germany, but as a Communist of Jewish descent she fled with her husband and children to Mexico.  This novel was published there and it became a movie starring Spencer Tracy in 1944.

At this distance it looks like a woeful movie, disappointing because it fails to capture the nuances of the book.  Yes, The Seventh Cross is an escape novel, but it’s also more than that, it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of surveillance and the way distrust sabotages the sense of community which binds us together as human.

The seventh cross of the title, is the last of seven erected for the purpose of executing the escapees from the (fictional) Westhofen Concentration Camp.  The inmates of the camp are political prisoners – dissident communists and unionists and people who’ve spoken out against the Nazi regime.  The commandant of the camp is unhinged by the mass breakout: his petty ambitions are on the line and so he butchers these seven plane trees to prepare a cross for each escapee – as a warning to the rest of the camp and a signal to his superiors that this escape will not go unpunished. The allusions to the crucifixion of Christ are an overt reminder that many of the Nazi perpetrators of evil were Christians.

The novel follows the pursuit of the seventh man, George Heisler.  One by the others are recaptured and subjected to interrogation by Fahrenberg to find out how the escape was planned.  Segher’s great strength in this novel is her sense of restraint: the rather matter-of-fact way she exposes their brutality makes it all the more horrific because it is so routine.  The recaptured prisoners know what is coming, and hope only to survive without giving out information until their inevitable death…

Heisler’s journey is marked by his fear of betrayal.  His family and ‘known associates”, of course, are under surveillance.  But he has friends and acquaintances not known to the authorities – which among these can he trust?  And even if he can trust a man, can he trust the wife who has legitimate fears for the safety of her children?  Once again there is restraint in Seghers’ delivery: just one short clause tells us about a man who could not live with himself after his betrayal…

‘They had to arrest the Bachmann woman in Worms too.’

‘Why? Overkamp asked brusquely.  He had told them he was opposed to arresting her, for it would only arouse curiosity and tension among the populace, and overtly considerate treatment if the Bachmann family would be more effective in isolating them.

‘When they took Bachmann down from the attic where he’d hanged himself, his wife had yelled that he should have done it a day earlier, before the questioning, and it was a shame about her clothesline.’ (p.178)

The novel also shows how people did not always intend the terrible consequences of their actions.  In the town of Buchenbach – amalgamated from Ober- und Unterbuchenbach in an administrative reform, two mayors vie for the one remaining position.  The treacherous Wurz wanted only to usurp his rival – he wasn’t expecting him to be arrested and never return.  In addition, Wurz had expected only that there would be financial advantages for his sons joining the SA (the abbreviation of Sturmabteilung, a paramilitary group known also as the Storm Troopers or Hitler’s Brownshirts). But now he fears that one of the escapees, Aldinger, is on the run in order to kill him in revenge.

The damage to social relationships extends everywhere.  Lifelong friends fear giving themselves away and drift apart, until they have a moment of shared comprehension.  It’s worth quoting this passage in full:

Meanwhile, George had eaten his fill. He’d left the automat without looking to the right or left.  In the process he’d brushed against the fellow who had just a moment before started at the sight of him.

‘Do you know him?’ the other fellow asked his companion.

‘Fritz,’ the first one said, ‘you know him too.  At least you used to know him.’

The other one looked at him questioningly.

‘I’m sure that was George,’ the first one went on, quite beside himself.  ‘Yes, George Heisler, the one who escaped.’

‘God, you could have earned yourself some money!’ the other one said with a half smile and a sideways glance.

‘Could I really have done something like that?  Could you?’

They suddenly looked directly into each other’s eyes with the terrible look of … creatures whose intelligence is imprisoned during their lifetimes and remains incommunicable.  There was a flash in the eyes of the second one, and he said, ‘No, I couldn’t have done it either.’

They packed up their bags.  They used to be good friends, these two; then came the years when they no longer talked about anything meaningful with each other for fear of giving themselves away, in case the other had changed.  Now it turned out that they were both still the same; neither one had changed.  They left the automat, friends again.  (p.196)

But for those who have to decide whether to help or not, it’s not an easy decision. Franz, George’s former friend and rival in love, vacillates through phases of wanting to help or wanting to hinder him.  And for George, with his own fears and loneliness, his anxiety about who to trust, being on the run makes it surprisingly easy to sum up a man’s character:

A couple of dozen people went through his head who were probably just then working at their jobs or picking at their food – with no idea of the terrible scale om which they were being weighed at that moment. A Last Judgement on a bright autumn morning without trumpet blasts.  (p.207)

The Seventh Cross is an exciting novel – well paced and with a rising sense of tension as the dragnet closes in time and again.  I admit to reading the last 40-odd pages when my attention waned during the Barry Hill session at the WillyLitFest – I just had to know if George made it to freedom or if the seventh cross was his doom…

And no, of course I’m not going to tell you if he is caught or not!

Author: Anna Seghers
Title: The Seventh Cross (Das Siebte Kreutz, Ein Roman aus Hitler-Deutschland)
Translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo
Publisher: Virago UK 2018, first published by El Libre Libro, Mexico, 1942
ISBN: 9780349010670
Review copy courtesy of Hachette Australia

Available from Fishpond: The Seventh Cross

Tony’s review and interview with Ramon Loyola’s The Measure of Skin

Messenger's Booker (and more)


Active social media followers would probably have come across Ramon Loyola, whose recent projects include poems in the new Verity La anthology, “The Hunger”, as well as designing the flyer for this new eBook, he is guest editing Issue 3 of “Pink Cover Zine” with Samantha Trayhurn, and he actively keeps his blog “ramon loyola in lowercase” up to date with references to his published poems (in the last month he has had work appear in “Pencilled In Magazine Issue 3: Food” and in “Other Terrain Journal Issue # 5”).

Earlier this year Vagabond Press released a small chapbook of Ramon Loyola’s poems as part of their “deciBels 3” Series, “The Measure of Skin”. The series was edited by Australian writer Michelle Cahill and is introduced at Vagabond press as follows:

Richly diverse in their cultures and communities, these poets trace their ancestries to South Asia and the Philippines, to…

View original post 2,209 more words

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 18, 2018

2018 Williamstown Literary Festival

I’ve had a wonderful weekend at the 2018 WillyLitFest.

My first event on Saturday featured Josephine Wilson in conversation with Sherryl Clark, chatting about the Miles Franklin-winning Extinctions. As you know if you read my review, I loved this novel so it was a real treat to hear Josephine talk about it in depth, bringing my attention to aspects of it that I hadn’t picked up on in my reading.

Asked why (the infuriating) Fred became the central character, Josephine said for her, writing is partly intentional, and partly not.  But she was always going to write a book about masculinity and about engineering and the constructed world, exploring the literal mind and the metaphysical mind.  She comes from a family of engineers, you see, and she says that she and her mother were somewhat marginalised in the family because of the way that engineers look at the world.  (And amusingly, she found at a book group discussing Extinctions, that she was not alone in this!)  But for all his bombast, Fred is afraid of taking risks which is why he is a theoretical engineer not someone who has ever built anything.  (Though I have to take issue with this myself, because Fred is a migrant from the UK, and all migrants are risk-takers, even when they come from apparently similar and benign host-and-destination countries.)

Sherryl raised the contentious issue of appropriation, because Extinctions features a part-Aboriginal adopted daughter. This element of the story has an interesting genesis.  Doing the PhD for her novel coincided with adopting a child in the author’s own family, and so she knows at first hand that cultural identity can be an issue not only for indigenous people, but also for others if the children don’t resemble the parents, (especially if there is an opaque abandonment process which prevents knowing the birth parent, as there is sometimes with overseas adoptions).  She said that she doesn’t need anyone to absolve her for writing this character the way that she did, because she wrote the novel the way that she wanted to.  She wanted to show Martha learning that although her intentions were good, and she was wanting to ‘do the right thing’, she was actually a ‘blackbirder’ and ‘a thief’.  This is an ambiguity that is deliberately not resolved because of the ethical issues surrounding adoption and the reality that is different to the ‘good’, ‘kind’ deed.

There was much, much more to this session than I have space to recount, so I will content myself with saying that if you get a chance to hear Josephine talk about the novel in person, don’t hesitate.  And I would also say that Sherryl Clark is an excellent interviewer, who facilitated this conversation really well.

My next session was with Enza Gandolfo, in conversation with Demet Divaroren.  I will be hearing Enza talk about her new book The Bridge (see my review)later this week at an event hosted by Beaumaris Books, so I’ll combine my thoughts from both events in my post about that afterwards.  Suffice, for now, to say that this session was a highlight of the WLF for me.   If you haven’t read it yet, get yourself a copy, and put it on your book group schedule too…

After that, I went to an excellent session called Interviewing Techniques for Memoir and Family History with Anna Brasier.  Yes, I know.  You are wondering why I went to this when I have no intention of writing in either genre.  Well, the short answer is that I like to ‘eavesdrop’ on the things that authors do, and the longer answer is that I love writing at any time, and this was an enjoyable way to spend an hour.  I sat next to a wonderful young man called Russell who plays trombone with the Melbourne Ska Orchestra and it was our job to interview each other and then write each other’s story!

After that I went to a session with Barry Hill – poet, essayist, novelist, critic, editor and author of Reason and Lovelessness, in conversation with Professor Richard Tanter (who is a big noise in the Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons).  The conversation ranged widely, but was, I have to say, a bit depressing, as it so often can be when discussing the state of the world today.

After that it was time to check in at the local Quest, and to get some dinner.  I was going to dine out, but the weather was looking ominous, so I contented myself with some takeaway from the Hellenic Hotel, and just as well, because that night a foul and filthy storm rolled in from the Antarctic and I was glad to be warm and dry indoors.  Off to bed with my new book Freshwater by Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi, ready for an early start in the morning…

I hope the audience enjoyed my session on Sunday with Shokoofeh Azar, because I certainly did.  It’s such a treat to be able to ask an author all the questions you’ve wanted answers to!  I had re-read The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree in preparation for the session, and found all new aspects to it that I hadn’t explored previously in my review.  So we talked about themes of books and reading, about the effects of the Iranian diaspora, about the impact of the regime on family life, and about justice, as it is expressed in the novel.  And I also asked about the book’s journey to publication: it turns out that Shokoofeh wrote the novel in Farsi and a friend translated the first chapter – and that did the rounds of various silly publishers who rejected it – until finally Wild Dingo Press picked it up and paid for the rest of the book to be translated into English.  The rest, as they say, is history, and the book went on to be shortlisted for the Stella and named as one of the best books of 2017 by The Australian.  The audience asked really pertinent questions which added to the conversation so it really was a most enjoyable way to spend an hour.  (And it was a delight to meet in person some readers of my blog, including Mary Holmes who had won a Zola novel in a giveaway!)

Talking of meeting people, I will take the opportunity to drop names here with a shout out to authors I caught up with at the festival: Jane Rawson (From the Wreck); Michelle Scott Tucker (Elizabeth Macarthur), Jenny Ackland (Little Gods) and Georgina Arnott (whose book The Real Judith Wright I bought at the WLF last year but haven’t read yet).  And also Clare Saxby who writes brilliant children’s picture books and whose book Meet the Anzacs triggered the development of a whole school plan for teaching the topic of Anzac. (See my professional blog, LisaHillSchoolStuff if interested.  I couldn’t help ear-bashing Clare about the need for a picture book about the nurses of WW1, wouldn’t it be great if that bore some fruit!)

After my session with Shokoofeh I went to a beaut session with Michael Smith talking about his book Voyage of the Southern Sun with Rob Brown.  The book is the true story of a modern-day Boys Own Adventure, with Smith flying around the world in a little sea plane to make modern aviation history.  I bought the book for The Offspring (who’s just got his commercial pilot’s licence) … but I might not give it to him in case it gives him ideas…

I had lunch in ‘The Hub’ with The Spouse and good friends Carol and Bob who’d braved the elements to come along.  I didn’t get the name of the caterers, but their hot and spicy pumpkin soup is to die for.  They coped superbly with the crowd – obviously, just like us, most people took one look at the wind and rain and decided not to venture down Ferguson Street to the Williamstown eateries!

My last session was provocatively titled ‘Has Facebook killed Citizen Journalism?’ and was a discussion that ranged over fake news, the contraction of journalism generally and so on.  There were other sessions after that, but I didn’t fancy driving in the dark in such horrible weather so I it was time to go home.

My thanks to the committee and volunteers of this festival – it was an excellent festival and I feel privileged to have been part of it.



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