No Third Person is a very interesting little book: it’s an essay about how Hong Kong perceives itself in the 20-odd years since reunification with China. I heard about it in a review at the Asian Review of Books a site which is

… the only dedicated pan-Asian book review publication. Widely quoted, referenced,  republished by leading publications in Asian and beyond and with an archive of more than two thousand book reviews, the ARB also features long-format essays by leading Asian writers and thinkers, excerpts from newly-published books and reviews of arts and culture.

It’s free to subscribe and it often has enticing reviews of fiction that we might otherwise not hear about, and although the reviews of non-fiction tend to be ‘scholarly’, occasionally there will be something that piques my interest— as No Third Person did.

The book is published by a new initiative associated with The Asian Review of Books, The Abbreviated Press.  Their website explains its mission:

…  to re-imagine the publishing model for the Internet age, envisaging a collaborative effort between writers, editors and publisher while focusing on prose works of 4,000-15,000 words and targeting publication within four weeks, rather than the 6-12 months that prevail in traditional publishing.

No Third Person is their third publication.  (The other two are titled Journey to the West, He Hui: a Chinese soprano in the world of Italian opera and There’s No Poetry in a Typhoon, vignettes from journalism’s front lines.)

This is the blurb:

British Hong Kong had a good story in the run-up to 1997. Its people worked hard and had an indomitable spirit. China had its own story about Hong Kong: after reunification, the city would prosper as never before due to China’s wise and pragmatic “one country, two systems” policy.

Hong Kong people and the world bought those stories. But now it is clear that the British version of the Hong Kong story no longer holds while Hong Kong people are not so sure about themselves and their future seems less bright. The city and its people are stuck—they have no compelling narrative that joins the past and the future.

This book is based on our thoughts of what a new Hong Kong story might be: a story about “us” and “you”, the people who care about Hong Kong, not an impersonal “he/she/it” story—a story, moreover, to be worked out between Hong Kong and mainland China and no one else.

In just 74 pages, the authors explain how the British ‘story’ of a robust post-1997 agreement that would protect Hong Kong against China the Ogre was the dominant story for world opinion.

The Hong Kong story was in fact the perfect allegory of the larger geopolitical clashes of ‘capitalism vs. communism’, ‘democracy vs. authoritarianism’, and ‘freedom vs control.’  It was in other words, an allegory of the desirable West and undesirable East.

The problem with that line of thinking for Hong Kong—as is was destined to be reunified with the People’s Republic of China—is that it essentially pitched what Hong Kong represented against what mainland China represented.  Communism would never, or at least could not be seen to, succeed.  The West was ‘free’ and ‘rich and China was ‘oppressive’ and ‘poor’.

The British Hong Kong narrative concluded that for ‘one country, two systems’ to work, Hong Kong needed to be able to stand apart from the mainland or even resist it.  (p.14)

Universal suffrage and free elections became the bellwether indicator for the health of post-1997 Hong Kong and an albatross around Hong Kong’s neck because no other form of progress is deemed to be enough.  And that ‘British’ version of the Hong Kong story simply isn’t a convincing narrative for the people of Hong Kong any more.

Efforts to create alternatives are likewise wanting. In 2004 a set of ‘core values’ was advanced: freedom, rule of law, transparency, justice and inclusiveness.  But these core values only emphasise the difference between the two systems.  Recasting Hong Kong based on its business prowess and as a regional hub, as ‘a superconductor’ for the world with China, is too narrow a focus.  The new narrative needs to incorporate a wider framework than that.

Chapter 2, which explains in palatable detail why the Chinese regard their history as traumatic and humiliating, is essential reading for everybody.  I did not know, for example, that China supplied thousands of non-combatant labourers to aid the allies in WW1, many of whom died or were injured—but despite this contribution, China was betrayed at the Paris Peace Conference by Britain and the European powers.  The chapter also shows how this history impacts on China’s fear of internal unrest and foreign intrusion, and how it drives their preoccupation with national security.

What is striking is the optimistic tone of this essay.  The authors identify many common aspirations between the mainland and Hong Kong, and they have numerous suggestions for ways in which Hong Kong’s unique culture and expertise can be valuable to the mainland.  These forms of ‘soft power’ present opportunities for a new narrative to develop.

Chapter 4 is about the basics of the law which protects Hong Kong’s autonomy, at least until 2047, neatly summarised in this video at the South China Post which explains the basis of ‘one country, two systems’.  But what the authors say is that Hong Kong has an interest in demonstrating that diversity can contribute to national modernisation and that its legal system is complementary to the mainland system—rather than something that it is used to confront it. [Analogous, perhaps to Traditional Law being used in some situations to complement the Australian legal system?] The authors concede that there have been some worrying attempts by China to restrict free speech, but they insist that China has still has to work within the Basic Law and that Hong Kong can resist this sort of delinquent behaviour robustly. 

But Loh and Cullen are also adamant that

Hong Kong must first and foremost accept the People’s Republic for what it is today and work towards national betterment in good as well as difficult times. (p.65)

They say that persistent political confrontation and challenging Beijing has not helped to advance democracy, implement better policies or improve local governance.  They argue that Hong Kong people, (especially its rebellious young people), need to jettison misplaced romanticism and pessimism about ‘one country, two systems’.

The all or nothing’ approach has, on balance, plainly been counter-productive. Hong Kong made a grave error in rejecting Beijing’s offer in 2015 allowing candidates, however they might have been selected, to compete in a direct election to choose the chief executive in 2017. (p.67)

Better to pursue incremental reform, they say.

No Third Person is an upbeat essay about Hong Kong’s potential but it also cautions its readers to seize the moment—as they had done before—to build a robust future as a part of the People’s republic and to contribute to the betterment of the nation. 

I reckon our politicians could usefully read this short essay on plane flights in and out of Canberra…

Authors: Christine Loh and Richard Cullen
Title: No Third Person, rewriting the Hong Kong Story
Publisher: Abbreviated Press, 2018, 74 pp.
ISBN: 9789881662965
Source: personal library, purchased from Fishpond $17.97 No Third Person: Rewriting the Hong Kong Story

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 30, 2018

Paint Your Wife, by Lloyd Jones #BookReview

Lloyd Jones is one of my favourite Kiwi authors, and when recently the NZ Book Council tweeted for suggestions for The Best Ten, he was one of mine.  Which reminded me that I hadn’t read Paint Your Wife, one of his books that I bought after discovering Mr Pip (2006) which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker.  I’ve also read Hand Me Down World (2010) and The Book of Fame (2000), and you can find my thoughts about them here.)

Set in the 1970s with flashbacks to the postwar years, it’s the story of a declining town and its idiosyncratic community, which gives the novel a universality in these times when country towns are declining all over the world.  New Egypt used to have a paint factory but now it doesn’t, and so the task ahead is to revitalise the town with ‘projects’ to lure in the tourists and provide not just employment but also a sense of hope to the community.

As the book begins the mayor Harry Bryant has had some success in persuading a cruise ship to drop anchor, but it’s a polite disaster.  New Egypt has nothing much to offer the cruise passengers and when they sail away everyone knows there isn’t going to be a repeat visit.

But the town does have something to offer.  And it comes about because of a quirky artist called Alma— who during WW2 acquires a bevy of models for his portraits by forgoing payment for his rat-catching jobs, and because of a construction job to rival the building of the Pyramids when one of the husbands comes back after the war and suspects his wife of dalliance with Alma.  (As well he might).  George has heard Alice complain about a hill that blocks her view of the sea, and with mattock and wheelbarrow he decides to move it as proof of his love for her.  Yes, the entire hill.

Harry narrates this tale with self-deprecating humour and an understanding of human nature, not to mention an uncanny ability to know what’s going on behind the scenes, even before he was born.  He used his payout from NE Paints to buy a second-hand shop called Pre-Loved Furnishings and Curios which gives him access to the hopes and dreams of his community, sometimes with devastating effect as when a couple sell him their entire house contents and then the promised job in Australia falls through. The recovery of their mattress which has already been sold is a droll episode, but it also introduces a couple of new characters, one of whom will break your heart with pity.  But also significant is the shop’s collection of soft porn (Playboys and the like) in the back room, where he and the other men indulge their private fantasies, longing for women who don’t exist while blind to the real women in their lives.  It is Alma who teaches them not just to look at them, but also to see them.

Through this absorbing tale of a community in a slow-moving crisis , Jones shows us the misjudgements that people make about one another.  When a young couple drift into the town, Harry writes off the young man as a crafty ne’er do well, but he turns out to be much more than that.  George misjudges his wife when he thinks that a muscleman display of moving mountains will rekindle love.  Harry misjudges his own son in London, and he doesn’t like it when his wife Frances misjudges an innocent interlude with the improbably named Ophelia.

It’s a sunny book, one that is alert to human failings but also celebrates the power of the arts in our lives.  And it’s nice to know that resurrecting a town in this way is not a fantasy, as we see here in Australia with towns reinventing themselves as creative hubs.  Here in Victoria, the creative communities from Woodend, Castlemaine, Kyneton and Daylesford have revitalised their declining towns, so much so that house prices rival those in Melbourne!  Are there similar creative hubs outside of Sydney and other cities?

PS It’s not a great cover, I know.  The cover of the editions you can buy now are much better.

PPS Claire from Word by Word has written a superb review which you can see at her blog.

Author: Lloyd Jones
Title: Paint Your Wife
Publisher: Penguin, 2004, 296 pages
ISBN: 9780143019060
Source: Personal library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 29, 2018

Meet a Kiwi Author: Avi Duckor Jones

Avi Duckor-Jones (Photo credit Nick George)

The Seizure Viva La Novella Prize is one of my favourites because (a) they are spectacularly good at choosing interesting winners and (b) because the novella form means that it’s quick and easy to read the winning titles in a timely way.  (Which is not always true of chunksters, as we all know).  But this year the Seizure Prize offered something new: for the first time the winners were from Across the Ditch.

The two Kiwi winners for 2018 were Anna Jackson for The Bed-making Competition (see my review) and Avi Duckor-Jones for SwimAs you know if you read my reviews, I was impressed by both these very different novellas, so I am delighted to introduce Avi Duckor-Jones through Meet a Kiwi Author (and will bring you a profile of Anna Jackson before long too!)

Avi Duckor-Jones is an Auckland based writer. Although trained as a lawyer, Avi gained his MA in creative writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters in 2013. His travel writing has been published with BBC Travel, The NZ Listener and Lonely Planet.  He has worked as a writing instructor and trip leader for National Geographic, directed a school in Ghana, and is the winner of NZ Survivor.  (Gosh!)

Here are Avi’s answers to my questions:

1. I was born in Wellington and raised in the beautiful coastal community of Eastbourne, on the opposite side of the harbor from the city. I grew up in York Bay, which held all the adventures (land and sea) that I could’ve asked for.

2. When I was a child I wrote stories about invented creatures, grand adventures and probably cats.

3. The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write was my Dad.  My father was a writer so I grew up in a house was filled from floor to ceiling with books, and we were always encouraged to tell stories ourselves. Often in lieu of a birthday present, he’d ask for a poem.

4. I write anywhere I can. I’ve been very peripatetic over the last five years or so. “Swim” for example, was written on the kindness of many, many people’s desks, kitchen tables, floors, window seats and lawns as I moved about the place. Some of the work I’m the most proud of has come from writing on trains, planes and buses.

5. I write when I can. My life, until this year, has had no constant rhythm or routine so the writing has been in fits and bursts. I’ve had to set aside intentional self-imposed writing retreats to work. Now, it is first thing in the morning before I go to school to teach, and the last thing at night before I go to bed. Hopefully it’s coming together somewhere in the middle.

6. Research is a great range of things. It is living a full life and trying on many different versions of it. It is listening, watching and noticing. It is reading widely.

7. I keep my published work with all its much more attractive and accomplished friends: on the bookshelf.

8. On the day my first book was published, I told my students at school and they gave me a standing ovation.

9. At the moment, I’m developing the play I wrote and performed last year. I’m working on a collection of short stories, and I’m confused by a huge mess of something I am excited about, even though I’m not sure what it is.

10. When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I run.

I really like Avi’s response to the question about research.  I think he’s absolutely right about living a full life (though competing in Survivor might be a bit beyond most of us!) and listening, watching and noticing.  Xavier Herbert was apparently notorious for sitting moodily in country pubs eavesdropping on conversations, but it doesn’t seem to matter where or how it’s done, being out and about and listening to people who are not like yourself and your friends is the way to create interesting fiction that has something worthwhile to say.

Swim can be purchased from

PS You can read a short story by Avi here.

Sometimes we in Australia wake up from untroubled dreams to news of awful events on the other side of the globe. So it is today with news of the anti-Seminitic massacre of worshippers in a synagogue in Pittsburg. There is no point in saying anything here about America and its obsession with guns, and even less point in saying anything about That Dreadful Man who fosters hate all around his country. Either America will deal with its evils or it won’t, and there is nothing any of us in The Rest of The World can do to change that, awful though it is.

But we can and should respond to anti-Semitic events like this by reminding ourselves that these atrocities begin in small ways, with words and actions that pass unremarked by people who fail to notice or who turn a blind eye.  By coincidence, I went yesterday to an author event featuring Sara Vidal, who wrote the remarkable story of her parents who survived the Holocaust.  Far from being depressing, the event was uplifting and it reminded me again of the subtitle of the book: Bella and Chaim, The Story of Beauty and Life (underlining mine). Sara told the life-affirming story of her parents and the people who loved them, and how they were able to make a new life here in Melbourne among people who welcomed refugees.

(I was going to write a post about the story of her road to publication and how it relates to my recent post and the subsequent chat about life writing, but events have overtaken me).

This massacre in America also reminds me of the 2018 theme for Holocaust Memorial Day:

The theme for HMD 2018 is ‘The Power of Words‘, exploring how language has been used in the past, and how it is used in the present day, whether this be through propaganda used to incite, through slogans written in resistance, and through memoirs written to record and respond to what was going on.

Please do visit my review of Bella and Chaim which includes excerpts from the book to reflect on

The vulnerable among us are not protected by guns and high walls and security guards, and they should not have to live like that anyway.  The vulnerable are protected by good people who do not stand by and let hatred fester.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 27, 2018

Shell, by Kristina Olsson #BookReview

As I wrote when I posted a Sensational Snippet from Kristina Olsson’s new novel Shell, I have fallen in love with this book so it’s not going to be easy to write an objective review.  I have mulled over the book for two days since I finished reading it, and I still feel a frisson of pleasure when I set eyes on it. It’s my Book of the Year, and it might even be the Book of the Decade, in the same way that Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance turned out to be a Book of the Decade, for me.

For starters, it is beautifully published.  Designed by Christabella Designs to mark the first book published by Scribner Australia (an imprint of Simon and Schuster), the hardback edition has creamy pale-pink textured boards imprinted with the same glorious image as the dustcover—it’s a photograph called Red Storm Day by Jean-Pierre Bratanoff-Firgoff.  The endpaper images are a sketch and a site plan from the Red Book of Jørn Utzon, the architect of the Sydney Opera House.  This is a book which heralds its status as a masterpiece even as the reader holds it in the hand.

I am not the only one utterly captivated by Shell: it has had glowing reviews in the print media, and its impressive list of blurbers includes this comment from Ashley Hay, author of The Railwayman’s Wife and A Hundred Little Lessons:

Shell sanctifies the greatest of our ideas and being, from love, courage and betrayal to creation and dissent… It’s the kind of book that opens out its readers, making them think and feel. It’s the kind of book I’ll carry with me for all time.

Kristina Olsson Photo by Amelia J. Dowd*

What Ashley Hay says is true.  On almost every page, there’s something to make the reader pause to think, because the book explores fundamental truths and issues that still resonate now in the 21st century.  Although it’s set in an historical period, it’s not historical fiction of the genre variety.  It’s a book that explores history in a new and reflective way.  (See Fred Khumalo’s article about how contemporary historical fiction is being written in South Africa with attitude and a breathless literary intensity; a fire in its belly.)  As Kristina said at the author talk at Readings Hawthorn this week, the book is not ‘about’ the Sydney Opera House.  It’s ‘about’ much more than the sad and sorry story of the humiliation of its architect by a populist NSW state government and its hectoring media.  It’s also the novel we’ve been waiting for, that tells the story of the grass roots movement that emerged to fight against conscription and the Vietnam War.  It shows how Vietnam divided families, and it reveals that excoriating fear that many of us felt about the prospect of someone we loved being sent away to fight in a war.  It reminds us of the cynicism of a government and its compliant electorate that sent 20-year-old conscripts to war — when these conscripts did not have the vote and were legally underage.  200 of the 521 men who died in Vietnam were conscripts and 1459 of the 3000 wounded were ‘Nashos’ too.

The novel begins with a prologue in 1960, a year after construction began on Utzon’s masterpiece when Paul Robeson sang for the workers, a performance which is still electrifying today.  (You can read more about Paul Robeson and why he came to be singing for a bunch of Aussie hard hats in Jeff Sparrow’s wonderful No Way But This, In Search of Paul Robeson.)


Shell then traverses the years 1965 to 1966, through the central character Pearl.  Pearl is a journalist consigned to the Women’s Pages at a Brisbane newspaper because she was photographed at a protest against Menzies’ covert midnight bill to introduce the draft.  (For those not old enough to remember, the Women’s Pages featured cooking, knitting, fashion, weddings and the social pages.  For a journalist, it was career death, and as Kristina reminded us at Readings, this form of ‘discipline’ was not uncommon.)  One of the elements of this novel that I really liked was Pearl’s draft series called ‘Affront’.  She begins working on profiles of forgotten women writers: Kylie Tennant, Eleanor Dark, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Christina Stead, and someone I’d never heard of, Jean Devanny (a friend of Miles Franklin’s).  Well, I now have a copy of Sugar Heaven [Yes, Bill, I’ll send it on to you when I’ve read it!] and am looking out for The Butcher Shop which Goodreads tells me was banned in New Zealand and later Australia for being disgusting, indecent and communistic – in other words, for promoting revolutionary ideas about the role of women and for a bold portrayal of the brutality of farm life. It comes as no surprise in the novel that Pearl’s first two profiles are buried in the Christmas holiday editions of her newspaper…

Pearl has two brothers at risk of the draft, with whom she has lost touch.  When the story opens she is desperate to find them so that— with her contacts in the anti-war movement, she can save them from their fate, possibly hidden by the underground resistance movement.  These missing brothers signify many absences in the novel: there is also the first cohort of soldiers on a ship that sneaked out of Sydney Harbour at midnight, and the absence of the hoopla and tearful farewells that accompanied the departure of troops in WW1 and WW2.  Apart from the forgotten women writers, the assassinated President Kennedy is the hole in America and Pearl’s young man Axel never succeeds in finding his hero Utzon who remains an unseen presence throughout the book.  Axel, who is a Swedish craftsman hired to do the opera house glasswork, has a father who mysteriously disappeared, and Pearl has an aborted child.  And Australia itself has a missing heartland: though the presence of its First Nations is everywhere, there is its failure to come to terms with the dispossession that underlies settlement, and the Red Centre is said to be empty.  Axel recognises this because he’s an outsider, ‘learning’ Australia as new migrants do.

But the absence that haunts this book most of all, is the repudiation of beauty: government interference demanding the cheapest, not the best for its landmark building.  It wasn’t just conformity that propelled the disgraceful treatment of Utzon, it was a fundamental absence of trust.  Australians are too ready to believe that everyone is out to rip us off, that no expert is better than we are, and that people can’t be trusted not to take advantage. This attitude bedevils us still when large public buildings are mooted.  Do we think we don’t deserve beauty?

There is so much to think about in this stunning book and I fear I haven’t done it justice.  I look forward to hearing what other readers think about it…

Update: Becky’s review at Becky’s Books is here.

*Photo credit: Photographer Amelia J Dowd, courtesy of Simon and Schuster 

Author: Kristina Olsson
Title: Shell
Publisher: Scribner, (an imprint of Simon and Schuster, 2018, 374pp
ISBN: 9781925685329 (hbk.)
Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $34.99

Available from Fishpond: Shell


Pramoedya Ananta Toer 1950s (Wikipedia Commons*)

I swore I would never join another book-group … but when I was invited to join a newly-forming Indonesian book group, I didn’t hesitate.  My enthusiasm was partly because I want to discover more contemporary Indonesian authors, and partly because the first book they chose was This Earth of Mankind by Indonesia’s most prominent author and contender for the Nobel Prize, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006).  I have previously read and admired his Girl from the Coast and have been meaning to read his most famous work for ages.

This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia) is the first in the Buru Quartet, so called because it was conceived on the island of Buru— where Pramoedya was imprisoned without trial in 1965 when the military dictatorship of President Suharto cracked down on anyone they thought had communist sympathies.  (See Wikipedia for more information about the anti-Communist massacres in 1965-6).  Pramoedya had been researching the history of Indonesia for what was to be a series of historical novels about the beginnings of national consciousness in Indonesia in the period 1890-1920, but when he was arrested all his books and materials were burned.  Undeterred by the prohibition on books and writing materials in the prison, Pramoedya narrated his novels to his fellow-prisoners, but it was not until 1975 that he was finally able to commit his works to paper. This Earth of Mankind was finally published in 1979 in Jakarta, and thanks to a young Australian Embassy staffer called Max Lane, it was translated into English in 1982.  (Lane was promptly recalled to Australia because of Indonesian displeasure at his role in disseminating the novel, and you can read why he thinks everyone should read this book here).

Queen Wilhemina (1901) (Wikipedia Commons*)

The novel traces the coming-of-age of Minke, a Javanese teenager of aristocratic descent.  He is the only ‘Native’ Javanese at his prestigious high school, distinct and not fully accepted by the other students who are either ‘Indos’ (of Eurasian descent) or members of the ruling Dutch Colonial Society.  In the Translator’s Acknowledgement, Lane explains the significance of these strata in society and the capital letters which denote them in the text.  In the Dutch East Indies of this period, (beginning in 1898 when Minke is besotted with the young, pretty (and of course unattainable) Dutch Queen Wilhemina), society is stratified by race and caste, and languages are used to exclude and include.  Natives were forbidden to use Dutch, the elite language of colonial power, so it shocks people when Minke uses it because he’s learned it at school, and it enrages the authorities when it is spoken by a self-educated concubine fighting for the rights of her child.  But rigid class distinctions within the Javanese society were also observed: by the use of three different levels of Javanese, based on the status of the speaker and the listener.  Understanding these distinctions and the frequent references to languages spoken and forms of address is important to understanding the significance of these codes being breached.  (A glossary at the back of the book is provided).  (It’s possible, perhaps, that these egalitarian breaches of hierarchical etiquette were part of the reason why the work was judged pro-Communist).

There are numerous other indications of this stratified society.  Apart from the choice of language and the ability to speak it, race and caste are denoted by access to transport.  Natives walk.  Nyai— only able to break out of her lowly status and confer privileges just like a Dutch colonialist because she turfed out her useless husband— provides Minke with a carriage, and because her daughter can ride a horse, Minke learns to do it too.  Housing styles and furniture are different in the homes of the elites, and Minke’s friend Jean Marais has a thriving business getting locals to reproduce European designs.  Minke often feels uncomfortable and out of place because he doesn’t know social rules such as the use of cutlery, but he’s also discomfited when he recognises that the social rules are being deliberately used to humiliate him, (as when his fair-weather friend Robert Suurhof places him in a situation where as a Native Minke could expect to be completely ignored).  And the position of women and girls in mixed-race relationships is invidious.  Concubines are held in contempt by everyone, whether the woman chose her fate or not.   Jean, the daughter of the Frenchman Jean Marais and an Achenese woman, must be sheltered from public scorn about her origins; and her mother wanted to be killed because she felt sullied by the touch of a European.  Nyai’s daughter has no friends at all.

Minke gets over his infatuation with Queen Wilhemina when he sees Annalies, the beautiful Eurasian daughter of Herman Mellema, a Dutch plantation owner and his concubine Nyai Ontosoroh.  Annalies is not as unattainable because the self-educated and entrepreneurial Nyai has taken over the business from her incompetent husband— and her own experience as a child traded to him without her consent predisposes her to prefer the young Minke as a suitor for her child.  But as Indonesian readers familiar with their country’s history would know, their love is doomed.


It is doomed because the legal status of Annalies is unclear.  The children of concubines were not Dutch citizens and had none of their rights and privileges unless the father formally recognised them.  And if he did, the mother lost all rights to her child.  When the legitimate son of Mellema turns up with plans to take back his inheritance, you can predict which offspring the Dutch legal system is going to privilege.

But the novel is about much more than a fraught love story.  Minke, by virtue of his outstanding achievements at school, is recognised as a potential leader.  His teacher Magda Peters has long and earnest conversations to make him understand how the Javanese elites have acquiesced in the theft of their country and how they are craven in their roles as petty regional administrators.  There is extensive correspondence between Minke and the La Croix sisters who try to groom him as the leader who will inspire Indonesian nationalism.  They want him to throw off the shackles of colonial government and the demands of capitalism.  Minke (like Pramoedya himself) is more interested in a career as a writer than as a politician, but the content and style of his early published pieces are identified by his school as inflammatory, and (using his relationship with Nyai and her daughter as a pretext) his teachers expel him from school three months before he is due to graduate (and they send Magda Peters packing too).

Signs of the emerging modern era are everywhere in the novel.  Minke’s place in an elite school is a sign of fractures in the rigid colonial divides, while Nyai’s successful management of a Dutch business and the way she has taught herself to read, write and manage accounts in Dutch is another example of people breaking out of their expected place in society.  (Minke receiving a stamped letter addressed to him is also significant, because Natives don’t get letters since they are illiterate). There is an emphasis on science and modern civilisation in the school curriculum, and Minke marvels at stories of ice manufacture.  He hears stories of Japanese trying to modernise by sending their youth to study in England and America, but he is shocked when he sees Native women working in the Mellema business, and wonders what they are wearing underneath their western-style calico shirts.

This Earth of Mankind is an historical novel, but not in the style of the commercial genres popular today.  It is written with a political purpose, and its style reflects its origins in Indonesian storytelling.  As Max Lane says at the beginning of the book:

…this is not a book of revenge or hatred.  Its spirit is not that of a simple denunciation.  Pramoedya Ananta Toer set out to recreate the past through the telling of a story and the evocation of an atmosphere.  He has actually brought to life in the first person the real ego of his main character, a new historical personality in the process of being forged by history itself. It is Minke, his psyche, his predicament, that is able to bring such a huge kaleidoscope of characters and stories together.  The figure of Minke himself is announcing the coming of something that would envelop everybody, that would leave no part of society free of turmoil: a revolutionary future, the awakening of a people. (p.12)

I plan to read the next in the quartet,  Child of All Nations, before long.

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed this book too.

This cover art for the quartet is by Gail Belenson and the artist is Stephen Daigle.

*Photo attributions:
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, by Ministry of Education (Kempen) – Jassin, H.B. Kesusasteraan Indonesia Modern dalam Kritik dan Essay. Gunung Agung: Jakarta. 1955. Page in title., Public Domain,
Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands By Unknown –, Public Domain,

Author: Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Title: This Earth of Mankind, The Buru Quartet #1; (Bumi Manusia, Tetralogi Buru #1)
Translated from the Indonesian and with an Afterword by Max Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books USA, 1996 (first published in English by Penguin Australia 1982, first published in Indonesian 1979
ISBN: 9780140256352
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond: This Earth of Mankind (Buru Quartet)

Life Writing is incredibly popular these days, and it came as no surprise to me to learn from This Very Short Introduction to Autobiography that Michel Foucault thinks that we have become ‘confessing animals’. The plethora of memoirs, autobiographies and ‘true confessions’ today seems to be evidence of a compulsion to record the complexities of human life, experience and memory, though it has to be said that some life writing seems of more lasting value than others.  Autobiography, a Very Short Introduction by Laura Marcus, a Professor at Oxford, is a fascinating exploration of this kind of writing, starting with the Confessions of St Augustine in the 4th century, through to its modern manifestations in multimedia, autobiographical novels and autofiction.

After the Introduction, there are eight chapters in this VSI (as well as the usual references, suggestions for further reading, and an index).

  1. Confession, conversion, testimony
  2. The journeying self
  3. Autobiographical consciousness
  4. Autobiography and psychoanalysis
  5. Family histories and the autobiography of childhood
  6. Public selves
  7. Self-portraiture, photography, and performance
  8. Autobiographies, autobiographical novels, and autofictions.

Beginning in chapter one, Marcus discusses the important question of what motivates the writer of autobiography:

Numerous writers of autobiography, from across the centuries, have offered their own understandings of the motives for autobiography, its possible forms, and its intended readerships. Prefaces, or opening statements, frequently anticipate the charges of vanity, egotism, self-distortion (or self-promotion), and narcissism that might be levelled against the author who talks about him or herself, answering them in advance by suggesting more edifying or altruistic autobiographical motives.  Some writers of autobiography will suggest that they are on a quest for self-understanding, while others will stress their wish to communicate their experiences to others.  (p.5)

From a reader’s point-of-view, (or posterity’s) the value of a life-story depends on its representative or exemplary status.  Some writers (such as Harriet Martineau) feel a duty to tell the story of an unusual life, while others such as John Stuart Mill felt compelled to write about his life in an age of transition.   Gandhi apparently didn’t intend to write a real autobiography, but rather to redefine it by telling the story of [his] experiments with truth… and that, of course, brings up the whole question of veracity:

… any narrative of the self and its life-story will entail a reconstruction, subject to the vagaries of memory, which renders the division between autobiography and fiction far from absolute. (p.4)

Marcus suggests that the rise of memoir

…could in part be understood as a response to the problems of representing a whole life. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the distinction (at least in English-language contexts) was often drawn, or implied, between autobiography as a sustained and serious self-examination and memoir as a more outward-facing record of experiences and events.  (p,6)

This distinction, she says, has largely been lost in our own time, and the ‘celebrity autobiography’ is more often written when a career (or notoriety) is flourishing, rather than towards the end of a life.  And the religious confessions such as those of St Augustine (4th century); St Teresa of Avila (1555) or John Bunyan (1678) which record the spiritual conversion have been replaced by secular and emotional confessions about the creation of the self, as in Rousseau’s Confessions (1782).  What’s different in our time is that these ‘confessions’ are no longer originally a private or intimate act, and the idea of presenting a ‘model’ life or a good example to others was tested by Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis in which he accused Lord Alfred Douglas of ruining his life.  Closer to our own time, J.M. Coetzee’s trilogy of memoirs, Boyhood, Youth and Summertime distance his past selves through the 3rd person narration, and while Youth, Marcus says, has its own intense and ironic relationship to confession, shame and desire,

Summertime breaks with the narrative of the growing self: the (auto)biographical subject is a dead man.  A young English writer is writing a biography of the recently deceased John Coetzee and gathers materials from those, in particular his women lovers, who ‘knew’ him life; failures in intimacy and of knowing mark their recollections. (p.23)

A novel way to get round the problem that no autobiographer can write the whole life because it isn’t over yet!

In the same chapter, the question of testimony and trauma arises.  Discussing Frederick Douglass’s Twelve Years a Slave (see my review, in which, BTW, I classified it as a memoir), Marcus says that a number of former African-American slaves felt an obligation to write (or dictate) their testimonies because ‘testimony’ was legally denied to slaves and ‘coloured people’; they could not, in law, bring a while man to account for his actions nor testify against his word. Autobiography, in this context, is an assertion of identity and personhood.  Many war testimonies, such as Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and Primo Levi’s If This is a Man were written to bear witness too. For Levi, who survived the Holocaust…

‘the need to tell our story to ‘”the rest”, to make the “rest” participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse.’  The lesson he early learned from a fellow camp-inmate was that ‘even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness.’ (p.27)

Crucially, in Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death a Holocaust memoir by the historian Otto Dov Kulka, while drawings, maps and photographs are included, there are gaps in what is recalled.  In the present age, we recognise these gaps as authentic manifestations of trauma, and the ‘truth’ of the witnessing is not undermined but strengthened by the partial, fragmentary and times dream-like nature of its telling. 

Chapter 2 offers Thoreau’s Walden (1854) as the first of all those memoirs and nature and travel writings, while Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Song of Myself’ in Leaves of Grass (1855) is an unashamed expression of delight in his own human form and energies and in those of others. These romantics are contrasted in Chapter 3 with the autobiographies of philosophers for whom (as R.G. Collingwood apparently said in 1939, ‘the autobiography of a man whose business is thinking should be the story of his thought.’ This chapter is fascinating, focussing on the representations of memory, the self in and through time, concepts of subjectivity, identity, and consciousness, and self-formation or ‘becoming’ in the autobiographies of Descartes, Montaigne, Hume, Nietzsche, and the existentialists Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and (someone new to me) André Gorz.  Of these I’ve only read (some of) Simone de Beauvoir, but I have read Bertrand Russell’s three-volume autobiography and didn’t find it particularly illuminating so I noted with some satisfaction that Marcus says that he didn’t address the question of the self and *chuckle* his occasional mentions of it are distinctly cerebral. This chapter also raises the contested issue about whether or not lives should be conceived of as a narrative. 

[Do we think of our lives like that? I think of my life as more like a piece of crazy-paving… If I were to write an autobiography (and fear not, I have no intention of it), I would do what Roland Barthes and Michel Leiris apparently did (see Chapter 4, about psychoanalysis), and organise my life around themes.  Mine would be different to theirs (images, dreams and fantasies) but perhaps Mistakes, Wasted Opportunities and Failed Attempts at Elegance. And like Katherine Mansfield in her journal, I would struggle with the impossibility of observing the prescription ‘To thine own self be true’: True to oneself? which self?’  Remember the many selves of Lee Lin Chin and David Stratton?]

The chapter about family histories put me in my mind of a recent review at Whispering Gums, of Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter. Sue called it a hybrid: where the biography is of the subject (mothers, in these cases) and the memoir is of the writer (the daughters.)  Giving as an example Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) Marcus calls this genre both and neither an autobiography of the son and a biography of the father, and she discusses how these works become part of the world of feeling and imagination which has been suppressed or denied.  And she cautions that:

It is, however, the world of imagination which may touch dangerously on the duplicitous story-making and self-mythologising that can destroy the self’s grounding in reality. (p.72)

[Yes, and there are ethical questions about those Hollywood tell-all hybrids when the parents are dead and gone and not there to defend themselves.]

Marcus also cautions against the ‘misery memoir’.  There’s a more elegant name for these: pathography, and she notes the role of the commercial structures of publishing which have promoted the literature of ‘the imperfect childhood’ as well as accurately describing my response to them: a certain contempt for, and perhaps exhaustion with, such writing. She names those high-profile exemplars A Child called ‘It’ and Angela’s Ashes and Jean Winterson.

The chapter about ‘public selves’ offered the most interesting examples of autobiography, ranging from Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father to Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.  I like this type of autobiography because it links to contemporary politics, activism and exemplary lives. But I skipped over most of the bit about ghost-writing and celebrity autobiographies…of people who are famous for being famous. 

The chapter exploring photography and the last one about modern manifestations of autobiography that blur fact and fiction are fascinating too, but I’d better stop here because this review is already too long.  Buy the book!

PS I should admit here that my record of reading at Goodreads shows that over a lifetime, I’ve only read 38 autobiographies, and, well, I haven’t rated many of them highly.  But I still have a few on my TBR and having read this excellent VSI, I shall approach the next one in a more informed way.

Author: Laura Marcus
Title: Autobiography, a Very Short Introduction
Series: Very Short Introductions (Oxford University Press)
Publisher: Oxford University Press,2016
ISBN: 9780199689255
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: Goethe: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 24, 2018

A Hundred Small Lessons, by Ashley Hay #BookReview

I’ve never wanted to live in a brand new house: I like the idea of a house that has a past.

My own house has a wonderful story. It was built in the immediate post war period in what was then a new development (though there had been a village here since 1852). Because of the shortage of men and materials during the building boom, there were restrictions on the size and number of rooms new houses could have. The young couple who bought the block managed to find a tradie to put up the frame, but he shot through so they ended up building it themselves. Every day after work, for months, they took the train to Moorabbin Station where there was a timber yard, and rode their bicycles for a couple of miles down what was then the Point Nepean Road – balancing three long weatherboards between them. When they got here, she held the lantern while he climbed the ladder to nail the weatherboards in place, and then they went home, to do it again the next day. I know this inspiring story of grit and initiative because we met this couple when I hosted an afternoon tea for one of our elderly neighbours and she asked if she could invite them, because they’d been young parents together in the avenue. Although they loved how we had renovated their house, and were very pleased that there was a happy family living in it, the husband was embarrassed that the floorboards in our newly renovated kitchen were on show – we think those polished floorboards are beautiful, but he’d covered them up with lino: because of the timber shortages, not all the timbers are the same!

Still, despite my affection for stories like this, I might not have bought A Hundred Small Lessons on the basis of its blurb:

When Elsie Gormley leaves the Brisbane house in which she has lived for more than sixty years, Lucy Kiss and her family move in, eager to establish their new life. As they settle in, Lucy and her husband Ben struggle to navigate their transformation from adventurous lovers to new parents, taking comfort in memories of their vibrant past as they begin to unearth who their future selves might be. But the house has secrets of its own, and the rooms seem to share recollections of Elsie’s life with Lucy.

In her nearby nursing home, Elsie traces the span of her life—the moments she can’t bear to let go and the places to which she dreams of returning. Her beloved former house is at the heart of her memories of marriage, motherhood, love, and death, and the boundary between present and past becomes increasingly porous for both her and Lucy.

Over the course of one hot Brisbane summer, two families’ stories intersect in sudden and unexpected ways. Through the richly intertwined narratives of two ordinary, extraordinary women, Ashley Hay weaves an intricate, bighearted story of what it is to be human.

Yes, it sounds a bit twee. But Ashley Hay is the author of The Body in the Clouds and The Railwayman’s Wife and so I knew this novel was in good hands.

Lucy and Ben’s marriage seems like a typical modern marriage, both of them adjusting to the tests of new parenthood.  But Lucy, marooned in a new city where she has no support network – and without the necessary initiative to form one – soon becomes quite neurotic about safety and security.  She is a catastrophist who can’t enjoy a bit of peace while her husband takes the kid for a walk in the pram:

Another thing she hadn’t understood all the years before Tom came along: motherhood’s terror—extremity, catastrophe, terror.  The crazy swing from love to dread that could disrupt the most nondescript day.  No mother she’d known had talked of it: not her sisters, nor her mother, not the friends she’d left behind in every place they’d lived.

[Which might be because some of us never fell captive to it!  My mother was a catastrophist, so I know how exasperating it is for the child.]

There were so many things to worry about—Tom himself, and the spiders in the garden; the planet; and everything in between.  She couldn’t bear to watch the news.  Some twins, she’d heard the edge of a report just this morning, had been starved to death by their own mother in this very city.  She’d broken a plate in her hurry to switch off the radio.

Now, she scooped her phone off the counter.  Ben was ringing to tell her something dreadful. Something had happened.  By the river. Something had happened to Tom. (pp. 34-35)

So when odd things happen, like the disappearance of Lucy’s phone from her kitchen, overnight footmarks in the wet lawn and unexplained noises at night, the reader (like the bemused husband) is never quite sure whether Lucy is just being melodramatic or these oddities have really happened.

I really like the way Elsie’s story is told with affection and respect.  Elsie lived in the house with her husband Clem and her twins Elaine and Donald but after many years of widowhood she has a fall.  Her children, now in their seventies, place her in care and sell her house, but she has lapses of memory and often lives in the past.  Nevertheless, she is a fully-realised character, and her surprisingly coherent memories reveal unexpected adventures.  This is my favourite image of Elsie:

In the bathroom she stood splashing water onto her face—she must have splashed through a riverload of water in her years in this city, keeping herself cool through Brisbane’s summers.  Now, she knew, another summer was on its way.  Elsie loved the way the heat pressed against every plane of her skin.

She sized up the image in the mirror.  Age seems to have come on so quickly.  ‘I have no idea who you are or why you’re here,’ she said clearly, and she took a mouthful of water and sloshed it around, then spat it onto the troubling reflection. (p.25)

As with Lucy’s anxieties, the reader is never quite sure whether Elsie’s ventures outside her new apartment really take place.   But through her memories the reader sees a different kind of marriage—not idealised, because the lives of women were so circumscribed in that era, and her own daughter Elaine finds that frustrating—but the relationship between long-dead Clem and Elsie is an homage to contentment with what you have and a rock-solid marriage that never faltered. It reminded me in a way of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, though that tribute to the people of a different period and the values that they had is more nostalgic.

The writing is exquisite: it’s a love song to the river that threads through Brisbane, a city which I have never really explored. But it also shows the disorientating effects of having lived in places where the coast is in the wrong place and the stars are different.

The topography of this place still amazed her, the way it rose and fell so abruptly.  Lucy had walked for hours, intrigued by its constant crescendos and falls.  She’d walked pathways and roadways that cupped the edge of the river and she’d pushed the pram around their curves, trying to decipher its calligraphy and understand its ever-changing direction.  Where she grew up, north of Sydney, the coast ran obediently north to south; you stood on its shore and looked directly east, out across the ocean.  You knew where you were.  Her sisters still lived on that coastline, suspicious of any place that had a river, not a beach.  In their new house—Elsie’s house—the back door faced almost due east and Lucy loved that.  One sure point in a floating world.

Here were rises and ridges, dips and hollows, climbs so steep that stairways had been cut into hills and seemed to push straight to the sky.  There were crests and corners that seemed sometimes to consume sound and sometimes to amplify it—the river could pass the CityCat’s siren along to her house, although she was well away from it, upstream. (p.127)

A Hundred Small Lessons is a quiet book, but a welcome departure from the endless succession of novels about dysfunctional relationships.

Theresa reviewed it too, at Theresa Smith Writes.

Author: Ashley Hay
Title: A Hundred Small Lessons
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2017, 366 pages
ISBN: 9781760293208
Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $32.99

Available from Fishpond:A Hundred Small Lessons

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 24, 2018

Sensational Snippets: Shell, by Kristina Olsson

I am reading Shell, the latest novel from Kristina Olsson, and I have fallen in love with this book.  I am lingering over the reading because I don’t want it to end.

This morning, I was captivated by this sequence where Axel, the young Swedish glass artist hired by the architect of the Sydney Opera House, Utzon, is ‘learning’ the city, as all outsiders do in an unfamilar place.

On the ferry home he watched the Opera House approach, its shapes looming against the sky.  Leaned back against his seat.  For months he had done this: absorbed the movement of air and temperature, the drift and call of language.  The shape of desire in the city, in the angle of its streets and the eyes of its people.  The way its buildings cut into the sky.  Stone, he thought, felt odd in this place, where light fell and tumbled like an acrobat, stretched and played in empty spaces.  He began to see the city in terms of its light: the way it captured or held it, bounced it back.  The way sunlight was swallowed in the throats of the streets, in alleyways, between buildings.  The lemony feel of five o’clock, faces coated by dusk.  Light was like glass, it changed the way you saw things.

He wondered about the countryside outside the city.  Beyond harbour and headland to the wide stretches of land behind them.  Endless acres where cattle ran, and kangaroos.  Deserts.  A raw, empty centre.  He had heard of vast stretches of red sand, and a rock monumental in size, a sacred presence.  Was this the equivalent of the temples that erupted from South American jungles?  There were Aboriginal people who lived in its shadow, from an ancient culture with story and song and dance at its heart.  Then how could this centre be described as empty?  He sat upright.  And how could anyone represent this place in art without reference to its beginnings?

(Shell, by Kristina Olsson, Scribner, (Simon & Schuster), 2018, ISBN 9781925685329, p.195)

Shell is a very special book.  Already I know that it is my Book of the Year, and I don’t often choose a book for that honour.  (The last one was That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott in 2010). Shell is available from Fishpond (Shell) and all good bookshops and if you are lucky someone will give you a copy for Christmas. It will change the way you think about things…

Last weekend I went to a private concert in the Dandenongs. We listened to Schubert and Beethoven and a composition by young cellist Luke Severn in a purpose built salon, with cathedral windows through to the trees and the birds flitting through the branches. It was sublime… Light, and the glass that filters it, does change the way we see— and hear— things.

And so does architecture. Which of our great public buildings represents our places with reference to its beginnings? I think Federation Square does, with its colours, and its fractured surfaces. What do you think?

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 23, 2018

2018 Queensland Literary Awards winners

The winners of the Queensland Literary Awards have been announced:

Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance
Awarded to an outstanding work, by an Australian writer, focused on documenting, discussing or highlighting a uniquely Queensland story.
Prize: $25,000
• We’ll Show the World: Expo 88 (UQP) by Jackie Ryan

Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Awards
Awarded to two (2) outstanding Queensland writers up to 30 years of age.
Prize: two awards of $10,000 plus career development support to the value of $2,500 each
• Anna Jacobson
• Bri Lee

The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award
Awarded to an outstanding work of fiction by an Australian writer.
Prize: $15,000
• Taboo (Pan Macmillan) by Kim Scott, see my review

The University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award
Awarded to an outstanding work of non-fiction by an Australian writer.
Prize: $15,000
• Tracker (Giramondo Publishing) by Alexis Wright, see my review

Griffith University Children’s Book Award
Awarded to a work, suitable for children up to 12 years old, by an Australian writer.
Prize: $15,000
• The Elephant (UQP) by Peter Carnavas

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award
Awarded to a work, suitable for young adults aged 13 to 19, by an Australian writer.
Prize: $15,000
• In the Dark Spaces (Hardie Grant Egmont) by Cally Black

University of Southern Queensland History Book Award
Awarded to an outstanding non-fiction history book by an Australian writer.
Prize: $10,000
• We’ll Show the World: Expo 88 (UQP) by Jackie Ryan

University of Southern Queensland Short Story Collection – Steele Rudd Award
Awarded to an outstanding collection of short stories by an Australian writer.
Prize: $10,000
• Pulse Points (Text Publishing) by Jennifer Down

QUT Digital Literature Award
Awarded to an exceptional work of transmedia or digital literature showcasing innovation in storytelling.
Prize: $15,000
• Little Emperor Syndrome by David Thomas Henry Wright, with Chris Arnold

State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection – Judith Wright Calanthe Award
Awarded to an outstanding collection of poetry by an Australian writer.
Prize: $10,000
• I Love Poetry (Giramondo Publishing) by Michael Farrell

Unpublished Indigenous Writer – David Unaipon Award
Awarded for an outstanding manuscript by an unpublished Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writer. This category is sponsored by the Copyright Agency Limited through the Cultural Fund and supported by The University of Queensland Press.
Prize: $15,000 and publication with UQP.
• The Making of Ruby Champion by Kirstie Parker

Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer
Awarded for an outstanding manuscript by an unpublished Queensland writer. This category is sponsored by Jenny Summerson and supported by the University of Queensland Press.
Prize: $15,000 and publication with UQP
• Garrison Town by Melanie Myers

2018 Queensland Writers Fellowships
Awarded to three (3) established Queensland authors to advance a writing project over a 12 month period. The Queensland Writers Fellowships are sponsored by Arts Queensland and State Library of Queensland and supported by Queensland Writers Centre.
Prize: three Fellowships of $15,000 each
• Michael Gerard Bauer, Gaps and Silences
• Laura Elvery, Medallion
• Jackie Ryan, Alfred Russel Wallace: Optimist and Dissenter

The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award
Awarded to an outstanding book by a Queensland author. The winner of The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award is determined by public vote.
Prize: $10,000

• Brisbane Houses with Gardens (Beth Wilson) by Beth Wilson

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers, and thank you to Michelle Vecchio from Shout Communications for the press release announcing the winners!

This slim novella— almost a short story, really— is unsettling reading.

Caution: if anything in this review is a catalyst for distress, please remember that help is available at Lifeline and Beyond Blue or counselling services in your location.

This is the blurb:

A man loses his daughter while swimming one summer. This little gem of a novella— sad and beautiful and spellbinding all at once— is the tale of how he strives to be reunited with her again, whether back home on dry land or thousands of miles underwater. Racked with guilt and doubt, he lingers over her memory, refusing to let her go. He imagines and reimagines the moment she slipped away from him as he searches for her behind every rock, in every bush, in every wave.

So this is the story of a man’s grief for the daughter he has lost, and how that grief derails him.  It is narrated by the distraught father, in snatches of memory intersecting with his perceptions of how he is coping now. At first our sympathies are with him— how could they not be? But as the story progresses the reader becomes disorientated by the discrepancies in three different versions of the girl’s disappearance. Ostensibly, he is speaking to his lost child.  But to whom, really, is he telling these stories, if not himself ? To his wife, to offset the blame for failing to watch the child by the water? To his friends, to deflect their judgement that he’s an irresponsible parent?  Is he rehearsing a plausible tale for the police and the coroner?  Or is it that his memories of that day have become distorted by the other times that there was a momentary distraction? Is this a cautionary tale to warn parents about the potential for fatal consequences when momentary distractions prevail? (I look at the behaviour of parents in public places when they are absorbed in their phones and I despair sometimes for the future of their lonely little children).

But there’s more: the man’s descriptions of his own obsessive behaviour illustrate his torment but they also signal a disintegration of the self.  And here I am reminded of the dictum that there is no timeline for grief.  The mantra that everyone grieves in their own way.  That none of us should take it upon ourselves to advise that someone should be over it by now or that it’s time to move on.  And yet… the poignant tragedy of In Every Wave asks: what if self-absorption in grief abandons others who are bereaved, who are in need of love and support?  what if giving in to overwhelming grief leads to obsession with the dead and— as in the tale of Orpheus— to extreme efforts to reunite with the loved one?  These questions trigger anxiety about the signs we should watch for, and what we should or could do if we think intervention is necessary. These are difficult questions, not easily expressed, not easily answered…

The book is beautifully written, in a translation by Guil Lefebvre that is exemplary.  But its conclusion packs an emotional punch that made me put it promptly aside because I wanted to think about something else.

Simon reviewed it too, at Tredynas Days. So did Stu at Winston’s Dad.

Author: Charles Quimper
Title: In Every Wave (Marée Montante)
Translated from the French by Guil Lefebvre
Publisher: QC Fiction, Quebec, 2018, 78 pages
ISBN: 9781771861557
Review copy courtesy of QC Fiction

Available from Fishpond: In Every Wave

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2018

Meet an Aussie Author: Sarah Myles

As you’ll know if you read my recent review of The Wolf Hour, I have been a fan of Sarah Myles since I read her first novel Transplanted (Hodder Headline, 2002). It’s a stunning novel and I really do recommend that you try to get hold of a copy if you can.  It won’t be easy because my search of all the libraries in Victoria got nowhere, but if you are really quick, Brotherhood Books has a copy on the day I am writing this, and Abebooks has copies from The Grisly Wife in Beechworth, and Grant’s Bookshop in Sandringham.

Anyway, I was so pleased to find that after a gap of 16 years, there is another novel for me to enjoy, that I asked Sarah if she would participate in Meet an Aussie Author, and I was delighted when she agreed!

Sarah Myles began to write fiction after graduating in literature from Monash University, and studying at the University of Western Australia. She has trained and worked as a nurse; travelled through Europe, The Americas and Africa; and worked as a freelance reviewer, mentor and editor. These days she divides her time between writing and family, living in inner Melbourne and on the west coast of Victoria.

And the catalyst for those travels?  A map on a primary classroom wall… and you read more about that on Sarah’s website.

Here are Sarah’s answers to my questions:

1. I was born … in Gippsland and raised on a farm until the proposed freeway went through and we were encouraged to move.

2.When I was a child I wrote… lines, “I will not skip class or smoke in my school uniform” at least five hundred times or until the lunchtime detention was finished. Beautiful writing and ideas that questioned were things I admired in others, all the while being enraptured by the stories being told.

3.The people who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write are… everyone I have ever read, with Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, Mary Shelley, Patrick White, Toni Morrison, taking an early role in showing me how the reward is in the work.

4. I write in… my study mostly, but I can pack up and become nomadic at very short notice.

5. I write…  usually in the mornings, frequently at the wolf hour*—that waking-sleep, questioning-time in the small hours before dawn.

6. Research is…. like a journey where I get lost in a dark forest or a luminescent cave only to find some treasure I had not anticipated.

7. I keep my published works in … my unruly bookshelves

8. On the day my first book was published, I… was grateful

9. At the moment, I’m writing… what might be two books, although I’m not sure which one will take precedence. The first is an older work partly abandoned and yet not because I cannot forget the characters, the other is a completely new story set in the middle of the ocean—my other great love.

10. When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I … go for a long walk, pull out some weeds or read. Conversations and wine are wonderful too.

And here’s a postscript that answers our questions about the title of the book:

I couldn’t help noting your online conversation and I thought I’d just quickly add here that there are no wolves in Australia either. Less a literal than an allegorical title, it refers to the time/“the hour” when we come face to face with ourselves.

In many sources people refer to ‘the hour of the wolf’ as the time between midnight and dawn—and specifically the time when out of the greyness all you can hear is the sound of your own heart, a glimpse caught at a small waking moment in mid-evolution when you discover something about yourself you did not expect or perhaps cannot accept.

In my novel, my characters face uncomfortable truths about themselves and each other, and I was deeply curious to see what they might do in a moment of crisis. Would they surprise themselves or would they be disappointed by their actions? And how then would they reconcile these feelings?

Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

You can buy The Wolf Hour from Fishpond: The Wolf Hour: A Novel of Africa, and good bookstores everywhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2018

Swim, by Avi Duckor-Jones #BookReview

Sometimes, when we read in the media about the terrible things that can happen to  people, we wonder how they can ever find the strength to go on living.  Swim, a slim novella that was joint winner of Seizure’s 2018 Viva La Novella Prize, is a vivid depiction of a man trying to reconcile himself to a cruel past by punishing his body in endurance swimming.  He has been around the world— the Gulf of Mexico, the English Channel— but back in coastal New Zealand, his obsession threatens to derail everything.

The author, Avi Duckor-Jones, is a Kiwi high school teacher of English, with an MA in Creative Writing, but his profile at Seizure reveals that the catalyst for this book comes from his time in Hawaii.

Back when the idea for the story was beginning to bloom somewhere in me, I was living in Hawaii and hanging out with all these big wave surfers. They were so driven to keep pursuing that one thing, and any commitment or responsibility seemed to be at odds with their desire to put themselves in this incredibly dangerous, almost spiritual place. There was no room for jobs, or relationships, or societal expectation, there was some stronger force at play, which I found incredibly interesting. The more I travelled and researched, the pattern was the same in all extreme athletes, and to an extent myself.

This disassociation from everyday life is carefully mapped in Swim so that a sense of horror dawns only slowly.  Jacob comes back to New Zealand because his mother is ill, but his relationship with her is fractured, and seemingly irreparable since his father took his own life and she then abandoned the boy, without even making arrangements for his care by others.  As the story progresses, it becomes clear that she lives in an alternative world, where none of her conflicting stories reconcile with each other.  Jacob takes on the restoration of his father’s fishing shack in what seems to be a redemptive act of homage to the father who taught him to love wildlife, but is really a task to mark time until Jacob can do another endurance swim, this time to an island far out in the bay.  He thinks that if he can complete this perilous swim, it will bring him peace, and also the possibility of a relationship with the enigmatic Kiri, his mother’s carer.

In the mean time, his grasp on everyday life begins to deteriorate.  His friendship with neighbours Henry Lange and his family is tested by his increasingly bizarre behaviours.  Henry is exasperated but still willing to try to help, but his wife Kate is livid, especially when her children are put at risk.

The novella is suffused with descriptions of nature: birds, trees and of course the sea, but it is human story of a man damaged by his parents that compels the reader to the final pages.

The striking cover design is by Sam Paine, and I like the ambiguity of it. A single-minded pursuit of a goal, or an irreversible plunge into the depths. Waves nurturing the swimmer, or encircling him in a trap? Very cleverly done…

Author: Avi Duckor-Jones
Title: Swim
Publisher: Seizure by Brio, 2018, 169pp
ISBN: 9781925589504
Personal copy, purchased from SeizureOnline $14.95

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 18, 2018

Jennifer Down wins the 2018 Readings Prize

Just a very quick post to let you know that Jennifer Down was awarded the Readings Prize today, for her short story collection Pulse Points.

FYI these were the six books in the 2018 shortlist.  Links on the title are to Readings.  They have a special price on the winning book at the moment.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 17, 2018

2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlist

The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlist was announced today, and I can only breathe a sigh of relief that Australian Prime Ministers can come and go but an army of bureaucrats make sure that the important things still get done!


I’ve read all of these and I loved them all, but Border Districts is my pick for the award, for all the reasons I’ve said before.

  • A Long Way from Home, by Peter Carey (Penguin Random House), see my review
  • The Life to Come, by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin) winner of the 2018 Miles Franklin, see my review
  • First Person, by Richard Flanagan (Penguin Random House), see my review
  • Border districts, by Gerald Murnane (Giramondo), see my review 
  • Taboo, by Kim Scott (Pan Macmillan), see my review)


An epic fail for ANZ LitLovers, I haven’t read any of them, and none of them are on my TBR.

  • Unbreakable, by Jelena Dokic and Jessica Halloran (Penguin Random House)
  • Mischka’s war: A European odyssey of the 1940s, by Sheila Fitzpatrick (University of Melbourne Publishing)
  • The library: A catalogue of wonders, by Stuart Kells (Text Publishing) I haven’t read this, but I attended an author event about it at the Brighton Library on Library Lovers’ Day
  • No front line: Australia’s special forces at war in Afghanistan, by Chris Masters (Allen & Unwin)
  • Asia’s reckoning, by Richard McGregor (Penguin Random House UK)

Australian history

EpicFail #2

  • The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, by Judith Brett (Text Publishing), see Nathan’s review at A Biographer in Perth 
  • John Curtin’s war: The coming of war in the Pacific, and reinventing Australia, Volume 1, by John Edwards (Penguin Random House
  • Hidden in plain view: The Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney, by Paul Irish (New South Publishing)
  • Beautiful Balts: From Displaced Persons to New Australians, by Jayne Persian (New South Publishing)
  • Indigenous and other Australians since 1901, by Timothy Rowse (New South Publishing)


I’m delighted to see Brian Castro’s Blindness and Rage here, I loved that book!

  • Archipelago, by Adam Aitken (Vagabond Press), see Tony’s review at Messy Booker
  • Chatelaine, by Bonny Cassidy (Giramondo Publishing)
  • Blindness and Rage: A phantasmagoria, by Brian Castro (Giramondo Publishing), see my review
  • Transparencies, by Stephen Edgar (Black Pepper)
  • Domestic Interior, by Fiona Wright (Giramondo Publishing)

Children’s literature

(I’m hoping my library will have a display of these and I can take a quick peek before someone borrows them.  I like the sound of Pea Pod Lullaby but it’s good to see new names that I don’t recognise from my days in the school library).

  • Storm Whale, by Sarah Brennan and Jane Tanner (Allen & Unwin)
  • Feathers, by Phil Cummings and Phil Lesnie (Scholastic Australia)
  • Figgy Takes the City, by Tamsin Janu (Scholastic Australia)
  • Pea Pod Lullaby, by Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King (Allen & Unwin)
  • Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee! by Lisa Shanahan and Binny Talib (Hachette Australia)


It looks like Allen & Unwin, Scholastic and Hachette have scooped the pool in Children’s Lit and YA, but fair enough, they are great supporters of quality children’s books and YA.

  • My Lovely Frankie, by Judith Clarke (Allen & Unwin)
  • Living on Hope Street, by Demet Divaroren (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Ones that Disappeared, by Zana Fraillon (Hachette Australia)
  • Ruben, by Bruce Whatley (Scholastic Australia)
  • This is My Song, by Richard Yaxley (Scholastic Australia)

This PM’s Award is a beauty: winners receive $80,000 and shortlisted authors get $5000.  And it’s tax free:)

For more information, visit the website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 17, 2018

The Bed-making Competition, by Anna Jackson #BookReview

The Bed-making Competition with its quirky title and impressive credentials as joint-winner of the 2018 Viva La Novella competition is a book that will make you wish you had sisters, or that the ones you have were like the ones in this story.

The novella is in five parts, tracing the evolution of the relationship between Hillary and Bridgid as they negotiate a rebellious adolescence, the deliberate disappearance of one and the motherhood of the other, and a surprisingly amusing reunion at their mother’s deathbed.  The tone is both tender and hilarious, making it very satisfying to read.

I loved reading about these two girls, and how as teenagers they romped through a large amount of cash and their father’s credit card after he inexplicably left them to their own devices while he went after the wife who had deserted them.  My, how they shopped! They ate out every night.  They wagged school and university.  And gosh, they even drunkenly gate-crashed a teacher’s dinner party with such aplomb, they must have taken master-classes from Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous.

Yes, they partied as if there were no tomorrow, which came eventually but—such wicked girls! they knew exactly how to play their parents off against each other:

Dad said, ‘You’re eighteen,’ at the same time as Mum said, ‘Of course you shouldn’t have to fend for yourselves,’ glowering at Dad, and then they both started on us, though mostly Bridgid, about the mess they’d come home to, and all the stuff we’d bought, and they were waving receipts at us that they’d already retrieved out of the bags that had piled up on the table ready to wave at us.

Bridgid just stood there saying nothing, and I thought, oh no, now we’re really in for it, and I almost wished Mum hadn’t come home, though I did hope that Bridgid would get most of the blame for being the oldest. But Bridgid just stared at Mum and Dad, and then she burst out, in the most convincingly traumatised tone, ‘I didn’t know if you were ever coming home!’

‘Oh, Bridgid,’ said Mum.

‘We were so scared!’ Birdgid said accusingly.  ‘We didn’t know what to do! And Hillary kept asking when you were coming home, and I didn’t know what to do to cheer her up.   I didn’t know what to do! (p.22)

The bed-making competition, in case you’re wondering took place in a suburban shopping centre.  (I don’t know if stores still run these promotional competitions: The Spouse once won an Iron Man competition for ironing a crisp cotton shirt to perfection, which was nice because we got a beaut new iron out of it.) Our heroine, opting for speed over hospital corners, does not win, but I will say no more.

Buy the book, it is just gorgeous.

Author: Anna Jackson
Title: The Bed-making Competition
Publisher: Seizure by Brio Books, 2018, 100 pages
ISBN: 9781925589528
Purchased from SeizureOnline $14.95 plus postage, also available now at Fishpond: Viva La Novella VI Winner Book 2

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 16, 2018

The Wolf Hour, by Sarah Myles

The Wolf Hour is Sarah Myles’ second novel.  I read and admired Transplanted (2002) not long after it was released so I retrieved my reading journal – and yes, there are some common themes with this latest book.

Myles is interested in the dark side of human nature, and how society contributes to violence.  What I wasn’t expecting in The Wolf Hour was the way tolerant liberal parenting was exposed as flawed and irresponsible.

The story begins in Uganda where 30-year-old Tessa Lowell is researching the effects of PTSD on child soldiers rescued from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). She’s an idealist, who wants to make a difference, but her naïve enthusiasm for being at the coal face of peace talks with the LRA leader Joseph Kony is disastrous.  She gets abducted while others in the delegation are injured trying to protect her.

Back in Melbourne, her mother Leigh was worrying even before the ominous silence from Uganda, and there are small fissures in an otherwise loving relationship with her husband Neil.  When they are told about the abduction by Dominic, a former child soldier now working for reconciliation and restorative justice, they turn to Tessa’s brother Stephen, who is living and working in some unspecified business in South Africa. 4000 miles away from Tessa’s plight, Stephen jumps in a plane with his mate Rebe, and momentarily the novel’s credibility falters when he miraculously manages to rescue her. (This is not a spoiler, it’s implied on the back cover blurb).

But it is no miracle.  Stephen is like those amoral American he-men in movies who parachute into impossible situations and do whatever it takes to get a result.  It’s his ‘business’ that makes it not only possible but also entirely credible … and when his parents realise what that business is, they are horrified. In a shattering moral quandary about what to do, Neil reflects on Stephen’s childhood misdemeanours, and remembers that he had thought at the time that they were pretty harmless.

But he’d had the opportunity then, hadn’t he?  It had been like looking into a crystal ball—a match struck in a darkened room where he’d been given a glimpse into what the future might hold, each incident a foreshadowing which he might have chosen to address, and yet what he had done but allow Stephen free rein?  By omission he had become the absentee father who relied on school fees to cover ethics and on team sports to instil fairness. (p.291)

It’s with insights like this that The Wolf Hour transcends any categorisation as a suspenseful thriller even though it’s unputdownable.  (After starting it last night and reading till two in the morning, I nearly made myself late for French lessons today because I just had to finish it).  But it’s not just a very thought-provoking novel, it’s also beautifully written.  Myles writes evocative prose with a sensitive authenticity that is drawn from her trekking in Africa, particularly in remote areas of Uganda.

Two months earlier, when Tessa arrived in this part of northern Uganda to overwhelming hospitality and constant questions, huts of mud and thatch, red earth under cloudy skies and low hills, it smelt like nowhere else she’d ever been – sour cassava, dusty cow manure, frank sewage, burning rubbish.  There were things that unnerved her: the raw stump of an amputee, the blind eyes of a child—smoky, white orbs, like the eyes of a baked fish.  For all her travel and education, a privileged world had filtered the details of the lives she was only beginning to witness now.  She half listened to the advice her parents gave and nodded at the cautionary tales from her colleagues and friends, but mostly she wanted to understand more. (p.6)

Theresa reviewed it too at Theresa Smith Writes – and we agree about the curious title!

Author: Sarah Myles
Title: The Wolf Hour
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2018, 340 pages
ISBN: 9781760632519
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Available from Fishpond:  The Wolf Hour: A Novel of Africa

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 16, 2018

Mary Lee, by Denise George #BookReview

Mary Lee, Denise George’s biography of a ‘turbulent anarchist’ and her battle for women’s rights is a perfect companion to Clare Wright’s recently published You Daughters of Freedom (which I reviewed here).  That’s because Wright’s book about the struggle for women’s suffrage in Australia and beyond – comprehensive though it is – pays scant attention to the event that started it all in Australia: the achievement of the women’s vote in South Australia in 1894.  Had it not been for women’s suffrage in South Australia, those ‘founding fathers’ would not have had to negotiate women’s suffrage in the new rules for voting in the very first federal election.  As Wright makes very clear, the South Australians were ready to derail federation altogether if their women were not allowed to vote, and it was inconceivable that women in some states could vote and others could not.  The parliament was snookered, and so women got the vote!

Jubilee 150 Walkway North Terrace Adelaide: Statue of Mary Lee. Sculptor: Pat Moseley (Wikipedia Commons*

Yet the South Australian story of women’s suffrage is barely known.  Denise George deserves all credit for unearthing the story from obscurity, because as the blurb tells us, Lee’s journals and most of her letters, along with a dearth of recorded women’s history, kept her contribution hidden for more than 125 years.  Mary Lee is a woman whose statue should not only be among the gentlemen of the South Australian parliament, she should be prominently acknowledged in our national parliament as well.  (I will be delighted if someone who lives in Canberra inspects the building to see if she is).

Mary Lee, suffragist and social advocate, really was an amazing woman.  She was nearly sixty when she and her daughter Evelyn landed in Australia to look after her gravely ill son Benjamin, and after he died she threw herself into battle to improve the lives of women.

The list of causes she took on is impressive – everything from raising the age of consent to sixteen (from— can you believe it? ten years old in 1875) to ending capital punishment, but it was her extraordinary determination to achieve votes for women that is her most important achievement.  She endured years of abuse and ridicule in the press and the parliament, records of which seem improbable now, but which were a routine occurrence in her life.  I won’t dignify these insults by quoting them here, but instead share with you the words of the anonymous journalist who spoke up for giving Mary a solatium in her old age.  (A solatium is a form of compensation for emotional rather than physical or financial harm, but Mary—never wealthy anyway— had beggared herself in support of her causes and there were no old age pensions in those days).

I recollect reporting a speech made by Mary Lee some eight years ago. It was made in a small room in the YMCA building, and its object was to start the agitation for women’s franchise in earnest.  There were, if my memory serves me, some three or four ladies of the gimlet-eye and determined-chin type, and perhaps three or four men, one of whom was Mr Caldwell MP, all looking rather sheepish.  Mrs Mary Lee, however, is of the plump order of agitator, and if she experiences worry, she does not show it.  She spoke excellently; I remember that.  Since that time she has had to endure much obloquy, and fifty pounds is a very poor solatium.  If I had been so suspiciously regarded by my own sex for a term of years I should require to be pensioned off for life and a good stiff pension too. (p.200)

It was not her own sex, however, who caused most of that obloquy. One of the many scurrilous parliamentarians insulting Mary was one Ebenezer Ward.  What is not often realised is that the most vehement objections to granting the female franchise came from the liquor industry who feared restrictions that might come from enfranchised women who (then as now) suffered most from men’s abuse of alcohol. Ward—whose profile at the ADB Online reports on his scandalous private life and his bankruptcy but has nothing to say about his abuse of Mary Lee— was often drunk in parliament. Women politicians today complain about bullying in parliament, but at least they are there as of right and have the protection of standing orders; Mary Lee had to endure Ward’s monstrous insults without any right of reply except through her letters in the press.

The first part of the book covers Mary Lee’s early life, reconstructed from all kinds of administrative records, and deftly written to convey the atmosphere, society and social mores within which she grew up, married and became a teacher, a mother, and a widow.  While this is illustrative, it does not – cannot – tell us the one thing I most want to know.  Who or what were the formative people or events that triggered her activism?  What books did she read?  What lectures did she attend?  Which speakers inspired her?  These catalysts matter as much today as they did then: what makes a person get up and do something to make the world a better place instead of just thinking or talking or generating #hashtags about it? The loss of her journals and letters makes these answers irretrievable.

Because, as this biography is at pains to confirm, in the 19th century there were social conventions about women and marriage that made feisty women such as Mary Lee very rare indeed.  Whereas in Australia women from the earliest convict days had broken all kinds of conventions, in Ireland (where Mary Lee was born, grew up and married) and Britain (where she had her children, taught alongside her husband George, started her own school, and was widowed), social conventions were more rigid.  And unlike her middle-class compatriots in the battle for women’s rights, Mary was working-class, which makes her achievements all the more remarkable.

Mary Lee is part of the Wakefield Press History series and is the first to be published about this remarkable South Australian woman.  The author, Denise George PhD, researched Mary’s life in Armagh, Monaghn, Cambridge, London and Adelaide, to create this very readable and totally inspiring biography.  If you would like to donate to other history projects at Wakefield Press, visit their site for further details.

Photo Attribution: Pdfpdf at English Wikipedia

Author: Mary Lee
Title: Mary Lee, the life and times of a ‘turbulent anarchist’ and her battle for women’s rights
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2018, 256pp including notes, bibliography, acknowledgements & index
ISBN: 9781743055960
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Wakefield Press and Fishpond: Mary Lee: The Life and Times of a ‘turbulent Anarchist’ and Her Battle for Women’s Rights

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2018

The Year of the Farmer, by Rosalie Ham

Rosalie Ham’s fourth novel is very timely: The Year of the Farmer is set in a small rural town in the grip of drought.  Its people are even more tightly tangled in the stranglehold of water politics.

Droughts are perennial in Australia, and there is constant tension about how best to use a limited supply of water.  It’s not just farmers and environmentalists who bicker over who gets what, it’s also States upstream and downstream of rivers which straddle state boundaries.  Some years ago the Federal Government got involved and designed a scheme to resolve these issues, but it’s state governments that implement it and everybody seems disgruntled with the result.  The problem of water politics is only going to get worse as climate change wreaks havoc across our dry and dusty continent.

These big picture issues impact on the individual, of course, and Rosalie Ham’s hero Mitch is The Man on the Land.  He’s a lovely man.  Handsome, hard-working, kind and tender to old people and animals, he strides across his blighted landscape Doing His Best Against the Odds.

The Odds are stacked against him.  His farm is failing, his ancient dad is not much use around the farm any more, the water authority is demanding efficiency improvements he can’t afford to make, and (via an apocryphal pregnancy that ended in ‘miscarriage’) he has found himself married to Mandy, the town’s Most Horrible Person.  And when the story opens, his childhood sweetheart and the love of his life Neralie has come back from The Big Smoke to take over the local pub.

But Mitch is a resourceful and resilient optimist.

The dust staining the thin sheet of clouds peeping from the horizon told Mitch the sheep were coming.  He stopped the ute, tied the steering wheel to the rear-vision mirror to keep the vehicle on course, and wedged a square of timber against the accelerator.  He paused again to check the clouds sneaking up, then put the ute in hear and climbed onto the tray, the truck grinding along at a walkable nine k’s and the sun hot through his shirt.  The hungry, thirsty mob hurried towards him so he jumped onto the feeder trailed and pulled the outlet lever.  The middle of the seed in the bin fell away, and wheat trailed on the dry dirt.  Soon the thread of skinny, unhandsome sheep were falling into line, like a sipper closing, either side of the thread of golden feed.  He pointed.  ‘Those clouds will slide over here and water will fall from the sky.’

Tinka, Mitch’s mostly black dog, understood many words but there were none she recognised in the sounds he was making, so she turned her ear back to the gathering mob of dull sheep.

‘I see you don’t believe me, Tinka, but I’m reliably informed that weather works in seven-year cycles and I choose to believe it.’ He climbed across and stood on the roof of his ute.  ‘This is my year, our year.  Rain will fall and life will change.’ (p.3)

Alas for Mitch, he doesn’t know what the reader does.  A one-page but devastating prologue sounds the alert: the dogs from the hippie camp by the river have formed a marauding gang, a fluid line of hunt-coloured ghosts moving with purpose. 

These dogs are not the only predators.  Mandy is as unhappy as Mitch but has a finely tuned gift for malicious revenge, and since her attempt at social climbing has failed so miserably she is determined to ruin Mitch with the spoils of divorce.  The corrupt head of the water authority Glenys Gravedigger Dingle is out to profit from the argy-bargy over water allocations, and the residents of the new lakeside development want water for their empty lake.  The battle for business in a declining town is waged between shops duplicating their rival’s stock to poach customers, and the local lawyer that manages the bankruptcies is doing nicely enough.  Interlopers from the city have no idea what they have stumbled into, but they soon find out when a community meeting degenerates into a free-for-all of competing interests.

As Ham showed us in The Dressmaker, country towns are no idyll.   Her characters are deliberately exaggerated to reveal the rivalries, the snobbery, the jealousies and the naked spite – all of which are muted in big cities because we can get away from and ignore people we don’t like.  On the satirical canvas of The Year of the Farmer these human frailties are laid bare to devastating effect.

But love story and black comedy aside, The Year of the Farmer is also a vivid portrait of the struggle to live off an increasingly unruly land.  It’s salutary reading for city folk whose eyes might have glazed over newspaper reports about water allocations and subsidies for irrigation improvements…

Author: Rosalie Ham
Title: The Year of the Farmer
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2018, 323 pages
ISBN: 9781760558901
Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $32.99

Availability: Fishpond: The Year of the Farmer by Rosalie Ham and good bookshops everywhere

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 13, 2018

2018 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature Longlist

The longlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian literature was released this week.  I’ve only read two of the nominated books so far but will try to track down more.  Last year’s winner (The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam was superb (see my review).  Stu at Winston’s Dad is aiming to review the four translations on the list.

This is the 2018 longlist:

Anuradha Roy: All The Lives We Never Lived (Hachette, India)

Arundhati Roy: The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness (Alfred Knopf, USA and Hamish Hamilton, Canada) on my TBR

Chandrakanta: The Saga Of Satisar (Translated by Ranjana Kaul, Zubaan Books, India)

Deepak Unnikrishnan: Temporary People (Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, India)

Jayant Kaikini: No Presents Please (Translated by Tejaswini Niranjana, Harper Perennial, HarperCollins India)

Jeet Thayil: The Book Of Chocolate Saints (Aleph Book Company, India and Faber & Faber, UK), see Tony’s review at Messenger’s Booker

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire (Riverhead Books, USA and Bloomsbury, UK) (nominated for the Booker, and won the Women’s prize

Manu Joseph: Miss Laila Armed And Dangerous (Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, India)

Mohsin Hamid: Exit West (Riverhead Books, USA and Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, India) See my review

Neel Mukherjee: A State Of Freedom (Chatto & Windus, Vintage, UK and Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, India)

Perumal Murugan: Poonachi (Translated by N Kalyan Raman, Context, Westland Publications, India)

Prayaag Akbar: Leila (Simon & Schuster, India) See my review

Rita Chowdhury: Chinatown Days (Translated by Rita Chowdhury, Macmillan, Pan Macmillan, India)

SJ Sindu: Marriage Of A Thousand Lies (Soho Press, USA)

Sujit Saraf: Harilal & Sons (Speaking Tiger, India)

Tabish Khair: Night Of Happiness (Picador, Pan Macmillan, India)

The shortlist will be announced on November 14th, and the winner gets $US25,000.  For more info see the prize website.

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