Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker, won the Booker Prize in 1995.

January 1st, 1999

The Ghost Road is the third of a very famous trilogy of stories set in WW1: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road. Interestingly, I found the first better than the other two, though the sequels won increasingly impressive prizes while the first one didn’t.

Apparently well researched and using real people like the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and their treating psychiatrist Dr Rivers, the stories focus on the psychological health of the soldiers. Regeneration exposes the absurdity of a bureaucracy declaring Sassoon insane, and then ‘curing’ him in order to nullify his protests about the futility of the war. Clearly they were mad, and he was not, but the novel’s not really heavy-handed about that.

It’s not really heavy-handed about the homosexuality of Sassoon, Owen and Rivers either; it’s just there in the background in Regeneration. The sequel, The Eye in the Door, however, goes into quite lurid detail about another war victim’s sexual proclivities. Prior isn’t likeable, but it’s not because he’s a promiscuous bisexual who’s going to break the heart of a working class girl who’s already been widowed once. His story is used to expose the madness of the military. He was sent to fight in France despite his asthma, sent home with a breakdown, cured of that but invalided out because of his asthma, and then sent off to work in Intelligence. (I suppose it could be true. It’s too crazy not to be). Prior, in his Jekyll-and-Hyde role, is forced to betray pacifists with whom he identifies, and ends up in the care of Dr Rivers – who blames his awful behaviour on childhood trauma, not the war. Of course.

But I lost the plot myself in The Ghost Road. Rivers himself is traumatised as he reflects on the way he has destroyed so many young lives with his absurd cures and diagnoses. The novel then saunters off into Melanesia with Rivers’ memories of doing some anthropological research amongst head hunting tribes. There are more torrid sex scenes starring Prior, and more violence on the battlefield. Maybe it was because I was reading this very late at night after New Year’s Eve partying, but I found it hard to pull these threads together.

Well, it’s always a bit disconcerting not to like a prize-winning book, so I was relieved to find some like-minded souls online. The Guardian Book Review was quite firm in its criticism, and The Mooksie and the Gripes was a bit doubtful. Thanks to Red-Headed Ramble* for the links.

I finished reading this book and journalled it on 4.1.1999.

PS Red-Headed Ramble’s blog is no longer accessible.

Karenlee Thompson. Photo credit:  Patrick Hamilton


Just a quick post because I have my French lesson in 90 minutes and I haven’t finished my homework, but I had to share the news: Karenlee Thompson has been shortlisted in the Scottish Arts Club Short Story Awards 2020, you can read all about it, and her short story here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 30, 2020

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

Like many others, I discovered the wit and finesse of US author Amor Towles with his bestselling A Gentleman in Moscow. Rules of Civility is his first novel, but Goodreads tells me that there is the prospect of a new novel in 2021, and in the meantime there is also Eve in Hollywood (2013) which is a series of short stories about one of the characters in Rules of Civility. Speaking for myself, I’d rather like the new novel to follow the fortunes of Tinker Grey… but I suspect I’d like anything that Towles writes.  I like his sense of humour and his sparkling dialogue, and Rules of Civility was great fun to read.

Bookended by brief chapters in the 1960s, the novel is set in  1938 as America was getting ready to make money out of the looming conflict in Europe.

The thing of it is — 1939 may have brought the beginning of the war in Europe, but in America it brought the end of the Depression. While they were annexing and appeasing, we were stoking the steel plants, reassembling the assembly lines, and readying ourselves to meet a worldwide demand for arms and ammunition.  In December 1940, with France already fallen and the Luftwaffe bombarding London, back in America Irving Berlin was observing how the treetops glistened and children listened to hear those sleigh bells in the snow.  That’s how far away we were from the Second World War. (p.316)

The narrative is triggered by middle-aged Katey Kontent seeing some photos in the Museum of Modern Art.  The photos, taken by the real life photographer Walker Evans, are of anonymous people on the New York subway,  and they include an old friend of hers, Theodore ‘Tinker’ Grey — one when he was looking poor and hungry and without prospects, and one in a cashmere coast, clean shaven, a crisp Windsor knot poking over the collar of a custom-made shirt.  Her husband Val makes the mistake of assuming that Tinker was a symbol of America as the land of opportunity, a place of rags to riches… but as the ensuing narrative shows, Tinker Grey was never what he seemed.

Nor was Katey.  In this momentous year she sheds her Russian immigrant background along with her real name Katya, and with her lively friend Evey manages with a mixture of luck and amusing effrontery, to make her way into New York society, with Tinker Grey as their entrée card.  There’s a lot of fun and flirting, a great deal of drinking, and the repartee is delicious.  The Cinderella elements blind the reader to the realities: just as we never wonder how Cinders managed to get the coal dust out of her fingers, we never wonder how the girls transcend the differences they notice in the dress and footwear of their wealthy friends, when their new compatriots don’t notice any disparities.  Not in appearance, education, cultural knowledge or accent.  Fairy tales are nice like that.

The fairy tale does not extend to the love triangle sorting itself out, but we knew that anyway from the beginning when we know that Katey is married to somebody else.  This is not a romance, it’s more of a coming-of-age.

The book is littered with allusions to books we all know, from Great Expectations to Agatha Christie, which Katey likes because Christie dishes out the kind of justice so often missing in the real world.  The book references are deliberate: Great Expectations, for example, alerts the reader to expect a surprise benefactor when Katey chucks in her lowly job in a secretarial pool and miraculously gets a more prestigious one at a swanky new magazine.  And the title, which comes from a piece of juvenilia from George Washington, has a significance that Katey doesn’t realise until her awakening.

If you are seeking a cheerful story and some light-hearted fun, this is the book for you.

Author: Amor Towles
Title: Rules of Civility
Publisher: Sceptre, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, (Hachette UK), 2012
ISBN: 9781473688841, pbk., 324 pages
Source: personal library.

Available from Fishpond Rules of Civility or from your local indie bookshop.


The title is, of course, ironic.  These two novellas, linked together only by the geography of an urban quarter in Madrid, are explorations of adolescent angst.  Nobody’s happy at all.  However these stories transcend the typical YA preoccupation with relevance and relatability (see Felicity Castagna’s thoughts about this here) with circumstances that are not typical at all.

The first novella, The Story of the Chinese Restaurant ‘Happy City’ is about a family of Chinese migrants.  The younger son, Chi-Huei, was left behind in China when the family migrated to Spain, and the story begins when he rejoins the family after an absence that was longer than originally planned.  This first part covers familiar territory — the confusions of a young child experiencing migration: negotiating a new language and encountering different traditions of school and play.

As is usually the case, the boy learns the language of his new country with more dexterity than adult members of the family.  Within the household his mother, stepmother and grandfather speak Chinese albeit with a different accent because the family came from the north, while the aunt with whom Chi-Huei lived in the south spoke the H. dialect and a thickly-accented Mandarin.  This was the language his aunt had always used when she spoke to him, and the one they used at school, although the predominant language in the streets [was] the H. dialect. [Probably either Hokkien or Haikou, which are southern dialects).  After an initial period of awkwardness Chi-Huei becomes adept at switching accents depending on who he’s talking to, and soon also not only speaks Spanish with his older brother, but also with his father.

Navarro deftly explains why the family migrated in this sequence about languages.  Chi-Huei’s father was briefly imprisoned in China, and although it’s not named as such and one needs to read between the lines, he is suffering PTSD from the interrogation.  He can’t now, in Chinese, answer any questions, about anything, because in the interrogation, he had to give the ‘right’ answer, not the truth (whatever that was), and he had to guess what was wanted without incriminating himself.  The Chinese-speaking members of the family have to tell him what to do, never to ask him what he wants or thinks, because it sends him into panic. But in Spanish, which he learned quickly and speaks easily with his sons, he’s not the fool he’s thought to be by his wife, his father and his stepmother.  Not much is made of this in the story because the focus in on the boy’s difficult relationship with his mother, but it’s an illuminating example of the after-effects of torture. It also explains the family preoccupation with making enough money to be secure in their new home.

In adolescence Chi-Huei begins to chafe at the duty he is expected to fulfil.  His older brother is destined to work in the business (a take-away chicken shop that gradually morphs into a somewhat shabby restaurant) while he is expected to study hard and enter one of the professions.  He despises the family preoccupation with money because he comes to realise that it was the reason for his long absence in China.  His relationship with his mother is conflicted partly because she is the driving force in the business and works at it seven days a week and into the night as well, and he doesn’t share her value system that money is security for the family and her sons in the future. But he also resents her abandonment of him.

She in return intrudes on his nostalgic memories of his childhood past with his aunt in China. Driven perhaps by guilt or shame, she insists that this aunt only cared for him because she was paid to do it.  And while Chi-Huei concedes to himself that money may have been a factor in the beginning, his aunt’s kindness to him was real, and he hates his mother’s efforts to dislodge this truth about his life.  I wonder, how often do parents hold some kind of jealous grudge against other adults that their children admire, because they perceive it as a judgement on their own parenting?

Chi-Huei’s story ends abruptly with no link to the second story except for some mild intimations of adolescent sexuality with Sara who plays in the same street…

Chi-Huei is barely mentioned in ‘The Edge’.  He is referred to only as ‘the Chinese boy’ when Sara explains, indirectly, how their friendship came to an end.  Sara’s narrative also begins with a familiar YA trope: adolescent chafing at parental restrictions imposed on her after she goes beyond the boundaries they have set for her.  Like most middle-class parents they have defined a safe area for her to play in, and when she lies about her transgression, they don’t trust her any more and that’s the end of her games with the gang (that included Chi-Huei).


However, her transgression is a catalyst for an unusual relationship with a vagrant, and provides an opportunity for Navarro to explore a value system that is in marked contrast to the diligence of the Chinese family and the aspirations of Sara’s family.  Shortly after running away from the vagrant, Sara becomes aware of his presence everywhere she goes.  There is a mild sense of menace about this, especially when she becomes intrigued by him and starts stalking him.  But when eventually she takes the initiative and joins him in a café, there is an innocence in her curiosity about his way of life, and a simplicity about his contentment with what little he has.  He tolerates her persistent questioning because she buys him chips, and he’s hungry because he can only afford one meal a day. It turns out that he is not homeless: he has a small pension due to a work-related injury and he rents some rudimentary digs where he makes musical instruments from scrap and creates music with them.

It’s a bit of an anti-climax when Sara’s parents eventually find out and confront him.  He apologises, though he’s done Sara no harm, and had no intentions towards her.  This reassures the parents, but they are very concerned about the ideas that he’s put into her head.  Their solution to this disquieting relationship is to offer to help him — with unexpected results.

‘We don’t want to know what circumstances led to you being on the streets, but we’re prepared to help you,’ says my father.  ‘I know of a shop where they’re looking for an assistant.  We can give you some money so you can find somewhere to sleep, and get cleaned up, and buy yourself some clothes too.  Then you could apply for the job. I can give you a reference.  You’re still very young, and you shouldn’t let yourself just waste your existence like this.  You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.’

‘He doesn’t want that kind of help, Daddy.’ I say. ‘You’re offending him.’

‘So what kind of help do you want?’

‘I don’t want anything,’ the homeless man says… (p. 183)

Although there is much that is unsaid in The Happy City it’s a book which illuminates the ideas of socio-political movements against capitalism such as the Occupy movement.  I think it’s no coincidence that it was published at the same time as the GFC inflicted austerity on ordinary people while those responsible went on as before…

Author: Elvira Navarro
Title: The Happy City
Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey
Publisher: Hispabooks Publishing, 2013, first published as La ciudad feliz 2009
ISBN: 9788494094897
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $30.71

Available from Fishpond: The Happy City

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 26, 2020

The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, by Thea Astley

[This first paragraph was edited 27/8/20, with thanks to Carmel Bird.]

I’d love to know who  I’m grateful to author Carmel Bird who has tracked down the artist who painted the cover image on the 1996 Viking hardback first edition of The Multiple Effects of RainshadowThat image The painting is called ‘Emerging’ and it’s by Margery Watsford who painted it for the cover of the book.  Her shadowy Indigenous figures in the landscape are a perfect allusion to the content of Thea Astley’s penultimate novel whereas the Penguin paperback which followed in 1997 gives the wrong impression altogether.  A rainshadow is a dry area on the leeward side of mountains which block the passage of rain.  Farming in Australian areas of rainshadow is a heartbreaking business when only neighbours on the other side of the mountain receive drought-breaking rains.  Areas in rainshadow are desiccated deserts, withered, dried out, incapable of nourishing life and growth.

Like the characters in this novel.

The story fictionalises a real event on Palm Island:

In the little hours of a January morning in 1930, on an island off the Queensland coast, a man goes berserk with a rifle and a box of gelignite. Is he evil? Or crazy? His violence is in fact a mirror for the brutality of Australian life – and is a dim reflection at that, in a country where atrocities by whites against blacks are so ingrained few question them.

The effects of the rampage ripple out from the island to link the fates of those who witnessed it, across the north and down through the decades. It is a time when silence in the face of tyranny is at its loudest. When allegiance to English niceties is confounded by the landscape and by the weather. And change is a slow wind that brings little real difference.

Thea Astley at her crusading best, brings this event to life through multiple perspectives over a chronology of ensuing decades.  The book begins with Manny Cooktown, the only Indigenous narrator, whose bitter first person voice is interleaved among the others. Manny is the one who puts an end to the madness after being armed by administrators skulking in safety. As always there is a search for a scapegoat, and Manny is put on trial on the mainland, away from his wife and children.

There are two women whose narrative is also first person — intimate, confiding and scornful: very Astley.  Mrs Curthoys is a widow who makes a living as a landlady on the island, hosting the various administrators of what is essentially a penal colony for innocent Indigenous men, women and children.  She has two daughters, for whom she has social ambitions: Leonie narrates part of the story in years long after the incident.   The other voices are all examples of the ineffectual, morally complicit Whites, and they are distanced from the reader by third person narration: Gerald Morrow, the failed author and incompetent foreman who is depicted on the 1997 Penguin cover in his craven escape from the island during the violence;  Mr Vine, yet another of Astley’s misfit schoolteachers isolated by his intellect, and defeated by his attempts to teach a classical education to the boorish sons of the wannabe gentry. Like others in the Astley pantheon, he marries imprudently out of loneliness.  (Marriage is, in this novel, an institution which meets no one’s needs.) Father Donellan is a well-meaning but useless priest, defeated in his attempts to ameliorate conditions for the Indigenous people herded onto the island and treated abominably by the supervisors who succeeded Captain Brodie, who, for all his manifold flaws, at least was fond of the poor devils even as he treated them like children with very little potential.

Captain Brodie’s voice, in the middle of the book, is painful to hear.  The atrocity takes place at the beginning of the book; the reader knows what there is to know about the facts of the matter.  But Astley shows us a man in a maelstrom of malevolent weather who is driven mad by grief after the needless death of his wife in premature childbirth; a man tortured by excruciating headaches; a man driven beyond endurance into irrational screams of despair, and a man whose response to the violence of his own unrestrained emotions is to inflict horrific violence on others.  This humane representation of the perpetrator made me think about a book I haven’t read yet, See What You Made Me Do: Power Control and Domestic Violence which won the 2020 Stella Prize. Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large wrote about her response to it here, and it was discussed in this article at The Conversation.  It’s not an novelist’s job to come up with a solution to prevent male explosions of anger like this, but one can’t but wonder, with the benefit of hindsight, what might have been done to prevent the atrocity that took place in real life.

None of this is to imply that Astley was deflecting attention from her primary preoccupation.  She alludes to Indigenous dispossession when an Indigenous scholarship boy responds to racism with a splendid put-down…

Indigenous readers are warned that there is offensive language in the following excerpt:

‘What’s a boong like you,’ one of them asked Normie Cooktown that afternoon, ‘doing at a school like this, eh?’

Vine overheard this question on his way to duty in the shower rooms.  He saw Normie, plumped out by boarding-school stodge and the bravery that came with being the fastest runner, stick out his lower lip and he paused by the half-open door.

‘My grandad…’ Normie said.  And stopped.

‘Your grandad what? Witchetty George? Wurley Wille?

‘My grandad owned your dad’s place once.  Reedy Crossing.’


‘It’s true. My grandad was Martin Pelham.’

The other boy reddened.  ‘What about your grandma, then? What about her? Some camp gin.  Pelham doesn’t count as your grandad.’

‘He went to a better school than this.’

Vine held his breath.  Other boys coming across from the playing-fields looked at him curiously.

‘And what was that? Wombat college? Mulga Grammar, eh?’

‘No,’ Normie Cooktown said.  ‘It was a place in England.’ He scuffed his feet and memory.  ‘Rugby’.  (p.180)

(Rugby.  One of the great public schools of England, immortalised in Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes.)

Astley is also explicit about the slavery imposed by the Queensland government at this time, using the word, possibly for the first time in Australian fiction.   The Indigenous people herded away from their own country into this settlement had no freedom of movement; and were not paid for their labour.  They were chained by the neck, subjected to solitary confinement and separated from their families for weeks at a time merely for ‘cheeking’ the supervisor.  They had to get permission to marry and it was often refused.  Their lives were ruled by bells and dormitories to separate the sexes.

Ever the schoolteacher, Astley notes that the Queensland school curriculum (closely modelled on the British curriculum) exalted the historic British philanthropic campaign to abolish slavery in 1833 while continuing to implement slavery in the decades after Australian Federation.  (As I recall it, it was documented in Henry Reynolds’ This Whispering in Our Hearts, that, prior to Federation, a fusillade of correspondence took place between humanitarian colonists reporting the subversion of the rule of law; and the Colonial Office in Britain demanding that there be an end to the atrocities in the Australian colonies.  Indifferent colonial governments ignored these demands because they were more concerned about establishing frontier settlements than human rights.  After Federation, state governments did as they pleased without answering to anyone).

There are many confronting aspects to this novel and it retains its power today.  It won the Age Book of the Year in 1996.

Other reviews are at Whispering Gums, Reading Matters and at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.

This is my last review for Thea Astley Week 2020 but I shall be on the lookout for more Astleys than I haven’t read yet.  Thanks to everyone who contributed with reviews, articles, commentary and enthusiasm for this great Australian writer.  We won’t let her be forgotten!

Author: Thea Astley
Title: The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1997, first published 1996
ISBN: 9780140267556, pbk., 296 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Diversity Books, $5.00

Available in a Text Classics edition at Fishpond: The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow and at your local indie bookshop.

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle, won the Booker Prize in 1993.

August 6th, 2003

It took me much longer than it should have to finish this slight, inconsequential novel. It won the Booker in 1993, but it’s a bit of a mystery why that was so. I would have given the prize to Remembering Babylon by David Malouf, a much better and more significant book in every way.

Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha is written in the voice of Paddy, nine years old in the 1960s, watching The Man From UNCLE on TV and observing his parents’ marriage break up. It’s impressionistic, with (paraphrasing Jung here, about childhood memories) ‘little islands of memories floating round in the vagueness of ocean’. These scraps of memory are not quite in sequence though there is a sense of dawning awareness that grows as the novel moves to its conclusion.

There’s no plot as such, which is ok, but I’m not sure what its theme is either. In fact I’m not at all sure what Doyle is on about, except to depict the chaotic order of life in small boy gangs and the violence they impose on each other. Paddy is awfully cruel to his little brother, setting his lips alight with lighter fuel and delivering ‘dead legs’ and ‘Chinese burns’ as a matter of routine. The gang sets traps to delineate territory in their growing housing estate, and the ‘Corporation’ children set one of wire, causing one boy to almost lose his foot. All this is presented as the norm. It’s rather disquieting.

The opening lines are an allusion to Portrait of a Young Man by James Joyce, but if there are other allusions as well, I failed to find them. If any such invisible allusions are what made it worthy of the Booker, then the judges have made a wrong assumption that readers will recognise it. Much too subtle for me, and I’ve read Portrait twice.

My overwhelming impression is one of distaste for the depiction of a savage little way of life.

I finished reading this book and journalled it on 6.8.2003


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2020

2020 Readings Prize shortlist

The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2020 has been announced.

The six books on the 2020 shortlist are

Readings is offering the whole set for $134.90, (a saving of $30) or you can buy individual titles by clicking on the links on the books.

In an ominous sign of how things are for local booksellers, there will be no prize money this year, just honour and glory.  You can read more about the books here, but I implore you, my dear readers, if you are going to buy these or any books, please buy them from your local Australian bookstore.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2020

Book Giveaway winner: The Labyrinth, by Amanda Lohrey

It’s time to draw the winner of the giveaway for Amanda Lohrey’s new novel The Labyrinth.

There were 16 entries:

  1. Karenlee Thompson
  2. Fay Kennedy
  3. Travellin’ Penguin (Pam)
  4. Jenny (Jeniwren)
  5. RobinandIan
  6. Robyn Cadwallader
  7. Thoughts Become Words
  8. Jennifer (Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large)
  9. Kimbofo (Reading Matters blog)
  10. Jess White
  11. Meg (Margaret Broughton)
  12. Rose Reads Novels
  13. Michelle J
  14. Elaine Lewis
  15. Sarah Ellwood
  16. Cristina Ferreiro

So, off we go to a random number generator…

*drum roll*

And lo! Number 9 is the winner! That’s you, Kim, and it’s a fitting thankyou for all the years I’ve enjoyed your blog:)

You’ll need to email me your postal address please…

If you missed out, this is the blurb, to entice you to get a copy.

Erica Marsden’s son, an artist, has been imprisoned for a monstrous act of revenge. Trapped in her grief, Erica retreats from Sydney to a sleepy hamlet on the south coast, near where Daniel is serving his sentence.

There, in a rundown shack by the ocean, she obsesses over building a labyrinth. To create it—to navigate the path through her quandary—Erica will need the help of strangers. And that will require her to trust, and to reckon with her past.

The Labyrinth is a story of guilt and denial, of the fraught relationship between parents and children. It is also an examination of how art can be ruthlessly destructive, and restorative. Mesmerising yet disquieting, it shows Amanda Lohrey to be at the peak of her powers

Author: Amanda Lohrey
Title: The Labyrinth
Publisher: Text
ISBN: 9781922330109

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2020

Beachmasters, by Thea Astley

1985, ALS Gold Medal (1986)

Beachmasters is a surprising novel: it’s the first time I’ve read an Astley set outside Australia, and it’s the first time I’ve seen her (or any other Australian author) tackle the issue of colonialism in our region.  It’s an appraisal of a failed rebellion in a thinly disguised colonial Vanuatu, and while it has its ‘Astleyan’ challenges, they are not the usual cultural and linguistic allusions.  It’s the best Astley I’ve ever read. Yes.

And yet, at Goodreads there is one brief (three-line) review describing it as Astley not at her best, though it’s Astley, so it’s very good.  There are seven three-star ratings; and less than 20 who’ve marked it ‘to read’.  One of those is someone who follows this blog, so #FingersCrossed I can persuade him to pick up the book…

Some background first, lest you think Astley is having a laugh in her portrayal of the shambolic administrative arrangements for her fictional island of Kristi.  Vanuatu was, for most of the 20th century, governed jointly by historic foes, France and Britain.

Called the British-French Condominium, it was a unique form of government, with separate governmental systems that came together only in a joint court. The condominium’s authority was extended in the Anglo-French Protocol of 1914, although this was not formally ratified until 1922. Melanesians were barred from acquiring the citizenship of either power and were officially stateless; to travel abroad they needed an identity document signed by both the British and French resident commissioners.

Many called the condominium the “Pandemonium” because of the duplication of laws, police forces, prisons, currencies, education and health systems. Overseas visitors could choose between British law, which was considered stricter but with more humane prisons, or French law, which was considered less strict, but with much worse prison conditions. In their book, Vanuatu by Jocelyn Harewood and Michelle Bennett, is this memorable passage referring to the 1920s: “Drunken plantation owners used to gamble… using the `years of labour’ of their Melanesian workers as currency. Islanders used to be lined up against the wall, at the mercy of their employers’ dice. Long after America’s Wild West was tamed, Vila was the scene of the occasional gunfight and public guillotining.”  (Wikipedia, viewed 22/8/20)

The ‘Coconut War’ (which I vaguely remember being reported with mild hilarity by the Australian press) was a brief and mostly non-violent rebellion on the island of Espiritu Santo which although militarily ‘crushed’ resulted in Vanuatu’s independence in 1980.  The revolt was led by a charismatic politician of mixed European, Melanesian and Polynesian descent, called Jimmy Stevens a.k.a. Moses. Wikipedia tells us that at his subsequent trial, which led to his imprisonment for 14 years…

…it was revealed that Stevens and Nagriamel [his political movement] received US$250,000 from the American-based Phoenix Foundation, a libertarian group that previously attempted to establish an independent tax-haven state in Abaco Island, the Bahamas in 1973.

[BTW The Americans got what they wanted.  Wikipedia’s article about the Vanuatu economy tells us it’s now a ‘flag of convenience’ country, and a tax haven, *and* Vanuatu sells citizenship for about $150,000, and its passports allow visa-free travel throughout Europe.  (Who knew??)

Wikipedia also tells us that the trial also established that the French government had secretly supported Stevens in his efforts.

This is wonderful material for a novel, and it’s amazing that only Thea Astley thought of doing it!


The prologue is a bit off-putting.  Browsers in a bookshop may well have put it back on the shelf.  I couldn’t make sense of it until after I’d finished the book.  It’s written in an Italicised creole and it includes sentences like this:

And, too, oh in this litany, pray, your eyes east-west, pray for Hedmasta Woodful, now and at the hour of the changing, and for the Bonsers, mechanics of more than boat engines, for Planter Duchard and family, and above all, for the big man, the yeremanu, Tommy Narota, part Kristi, part Tongan, part Devon, who has taken on his new native name, abandoning that of his sea-faring adventurer daddy, along with his ceremonial dress of Bipi fringed tablecloth and lace antimacassar loin-wrapper.  (p. 1)

What were Penguin’s editors thinking when they allowed Astley to get away with this, on the crucial first page?  Of course, she was formidable…

Fortunately, it’s only one page long, and the rest of the novel is narrated by a comprehensible omniscient third person with a wry sense of humour and a compassionate anti-colonial view of proceedings.  There is a sprinkling of what Astley explains in her Acknowledgements is a South Pacific pidgin which she calls Seaspeak, with dialect words and custom references drawn from a number of areas in the one island group.  (Karen Lamb’s bio tells me that in 1983 Astley had made a research trip to the New Hebrides i.e. Vanuatu but is otherwise not much interested in this novel.)  But the language games of Beachmasters are a good deal easier to interpret than Astley’s usual cultural and linguistic allusions, of which there are few. (Unless I missed them, of course).

The novel is framed around the politics of well-past-its-use-by-date colonialism and its climax is the rebellion, but it’s the character of Gavi who holds the book together.  He discovers as a teenager that he has a mixed-race background similar to the charismatic (but naïve) Tommy Narota, and to his embarrassment Gavi learns that his classmates don’t believe in his mother’s French identity, even if she, perhaps, believes it herself.  Astley portrays the racism of this petty society in all her trademark ferocity, not least within Gavi himself.  Confused by his father’s obfuscations, he becomes an acolyte of Tommy Narota and gets mixed up in the cynicism of Bonser’s covert role in facilitating the rebellion.  This novel is a warning about radicalisation long before anybody knew what it might come to mean.

Gavi’s teacher Père Leyroud tries to counsel him.  In an allusion to the differences in French and British law, he canes Gavi with six strikes, not five as it would have been had he punished the boy in English, and Gavi has never forgotten that the ironic taps on his hand were spelling out the word v-é-r-i-t-é: truth.  It is to the priest that he goes to unravel the truth of his racial heritage, but he doesn’t want to hear Leyroud’s truth that it makes no difference. No ultimate difference.  Gavi already knows differently from the scorn of his classmates.

Other characters represent certain types.  The colonial Brits and the pretensions of their wives are obvious targets:

Whenever Assistant Resident Commissioner Trembath saw a black face, he instantly launched into pidgin, believing it to be one of those enduring symbols of colonial power.  one spoke to them.  Oh indeed one spoke but in a bastardised version of one’s precious tongue, placing them, old chap, in the position of using baby-talk back.  Frightfully funny, really.  Of course they couldn’t cope with anything more than baby-talk.  Only the simplest thoughts going on.  (p.110)

Trembath always speaks to his driver Joseph in Seaspeak, and Joseph speaks back to him in perfect English.

But Astley is too honest a novelist merely to caricature these types.  Mrs Trembath is a fool, but the indignity of her undoing is compassionately rendered.  Astley has less patience with Colonel Mercet who despises Trembath’s efforts with French and almost choked whenever he had to listen.  His perfidy is made clear:

As for Colonel Mercet, non-communication with his British half suited him perfectly.  For four years, now, he had plotted an ill-laid course of Gallic takeover, encouraging a group of shonky developers from the States with roots originally sprouted in a fundamentalist religion.  Born again, they declared, wisely, for profit.  The Salamander Corporation, with the Colonel’s connivance, planned to carve up great tracts of Kristi and turn it into a mini-Florida.  (p.111)

Headmasta Woodful rises to the occasion.  When his morning starts with distant shouts and missing staff, he suspects it’s another ‘fright-jump’, another of these moments of sudden political passion that decorated his years on the islands like painted beads.  (p.65) He’s never fitted in despite his best efforts with students and expats, and for him, in all the hot stinking sweating years he had been striding from house to classroom in his mad belief in service through a wife’s death and a daughter’s absence in a Sydney boarding-school, there is only the platonic friendship of Madam Guichet, island jetsam abandoned by a lugger master, her grey hair ashake form too much morning bottle. He refuses to join the exodus of Brits on the beach as they wait for promised rescue and turns the school into a refuge for frightened Islanders. And it is Headmasta Woodful who, at first not realising exactly what Gavi has done tries to comfort him for the evil his folly has unleashed:

Under cover of back-seat chatter he said to Gavi, without turning his head, as if he were convincing himself as well, ‘This day, Gav, this year, next year and the one after that and even beyond that, they’ll all string out like old Lorimer’s.  No harder, no softer than they are for any of us.  Remember that.  You’ll live through them, as he did.

‘You don’t understand,’ the boy said.  ‘I helped to take them from him.’ His voice was so low Woodful had to incline his head to hear.

‘Took what?’

‘His years.’

That stopped him.  He couldn’t reply to that, to such self-slaughter.  He drove in silence for nearly a mile.  Finally, ‘I don’t know what happened today,’ he said, ‘any more than you’ve told me.  Perhaps you did, indirectly. ‘ He heard the boy gasp with the pain of accusation. ‘Soothers won’t help.  Soft things.  If you did, if that is what you believe, then admit it and accept it.  That’s the only thing and the hardest.  Accepting.’ He fumbled around in his mind.  Nothing seemed right.  ‘You’ll have learned not to make excuses. That’s one of the best things you can ever discover.’

He could hear Gavi crying, not loudly, but insistently as if the tears would never stop.

‘The main thing,’ Woodful went on, turning the car off the coast road and heading for the school, ‘is to be sorry.  Beyond that what can you do?  Oh it will hurt for a long time but time does other things besides pass.  Sorrow is one thing, Gav.  Regret’s another.  And regret is useless.’ (p.147)

This is a gentle, generous side of Astley the author, with words of wisdom that sound as if they are straight from the heart, and hard won.

Author: Thea Astley
Title: Beachmasters.
Cover art: Bill Farr
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1985
ISBN: 0140079122, pbk., 185 pages
Source: OpShop find, $1.00

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 21, 2020

The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson

Winner of an EU Prize for Literature Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters is a blend of social realism and the fantastic which reveals the ongoing trauma that haunts Belfast despite the Good Friday Agreement set in place two decades ago in 1998.

At the 2020 (digital) Melbourne Writers Festival, Jan Carson was paired with Tasmanian author Robbie Arnott whose new novel The Rain Heron (n my TBR) also uses magic realism in a setting grounded in everyday reality. To quote from my report about what Carson said in this session:

The Fire Starters explores the history of sectarianism in Northern Ireland in a novel where the ghosts of the past inhabit the present during the Marching Season in Belfast.  These echoes of the past can be seen in real life: Carson said that whenever you see a limping man of a certain age in Belfast,  it’s because he was knee-capped during the Troubles.  The book  traces a father’s dismay when he learns that his son is involved in the violence that often accompanies the bonfires set by the competing sides.  Realism blends with the fantastic with rebellious young people setting mega fires that spark a conflagration.

Chair Angela Meyer asked: Can aspects of reality be better addressed by using the fantastic?  Carson said that the Northern Ireland tradition is realism, whereas in the republic, this is not so.  Citing writers like Salman Rushdie, Carson likes fantastic elements being used to show how absurd reality can be.  She says she doesn’t want people to ‘like’ her work, she wants then to wake up and pay attention to what’s in it.

Which is certainly the effect the book had on me.  I hadn’t thought much about the ongoing effects of the violence in Belfast.  From this distance and having no skin in the game, I thought the Troubles were all over and a good thing too.  Carson tackles this attitude in Chapter 1 ‘This is Belfast’, leading me to categorise this novel within ‘War, Armed Conflict and its Aftermath’ because though the conflict in Northern Ireland has long been characterised as ‘The Troubles‘, that innocuous-sounding name is a euphemism for a civil war of extraordinary brutality.

The Troubles is too less a word for all of this. It is a word for minor inconveniences, such as overdrawn bank accounts, slow punctures, a woman’s time of the month.  It is not a violent word, something as blunt and brutal as ‘apartheid’.  Instead, we have a word like ‘scissors’ which can only be said in the plural.  the Troubles is/was one monster thing.  The Troubles is/are many individual evils caught up together.  (Other similar words include ‘trousers’ and ‘pliers’.) The Troubles is always written with a capital T as if it were an event, as the Battle of Hastings is an event with a fixed beginning and end, a point on the calendar year.  History will no doubt prove it is actually a verb; an action that can be done to people over and over again, like stealing. (p.8)

It had not occurred to me that there remains in Belfast an undercurrent of fear that a small spark could start it all up again, nor that young people coming to maturity in a ‘post-Troubles world’ might not realise that reigniting rebellion might soon get out of control.

However the aspect of the book that haunts me still is the way Carson has explored parenting.  Two fathers symbolising all the parents bringing up children during the Troubles, struggle with their demons: Dr Jonathan Murray plans to harm the child he loves in order to protect others from her, while Sammy Agnew with a long-ago violent history of his own, has spawned a violent psychopath who threatens the safety of the entire city.

Years ago, one of my friends had a son who was a drug addict.  He stole from her and from other people and eventually came to the attention of the police.  When he jumped bail and took refuge at her place, she had to confront this same dilemma.  Should she call the police while he slept on her sofa?  What was in his best interests as well as her own and that of the community?  It was a nightmare scenario that no parent would ever want to face.  Carson shows the anguish of these parents seeking to protect the community from peril, and I thought of the parents of radicalised Muslims who face this dilemma too.  Murray’s story shows the fear of potential harm, while Agnew’s tragedy is already real.

The characterisation of these two fathers is brilliant.  Jonathan Murray’s story is told in first person, illuminating his own unloved life.

I don’t have a middle name.  This was my parents’ doing.  They had not planned on children.  If pressed, they might have expressed a preference for dogs or garden ornaments over miniature versions of themselves.  I was, and continue to be, an ‘accident’, though in truth I believe this word is an inaccurate term for the act of planting a child seed in your wife’s belly.  Accidents are occurrences without intent, such as broken crockery or crashed cars.  Often alcohol is involved. Yet, ‘accident’ is how my conception has always been referred to in the Murray household.  ‘Disappointing ending’ may be a better description, or ‘unfortunate repercussion,’ for I’ve been told the act itself was carefully planned and even featured candles. (p. 26)

These parents emigrate while Jonathan is still at school.  His infant daughter Sophie is the only good thing ever to happen to him.

Agnew’s anguish is told in third person omniscient:

Mark is different.  Mark has the ability to hurt people without actually touching them.  It is the distance that thrills him, that makes him feel like God.  This, Sammy knows, is a kind of greatness.  He is sometimes jealous of his son who, even at eight, is quicker than his father and mother combined.  This, Sammy knows, is the worst kind of power: fists can be held down or even severed, but a mind like Mark’s is impossible to contain.  He is afraid of his son.  There is no softness in him, not even with his mother.  (p.76)

But as you can see from these excerpts, Carson’s style has a wry humour, wickedly deceptive as it leads the reader towards a harrowing finale.  Interspersed through the alternating narratives of Sammy and Jonathan are curious vignettes about ‘Unfortunate Children’ — children who are born with special gifts such as having wings, but whose gifts are not always benign.  At first these vignettes don’t make sense, but it all comes together in the end, showing us that a naïve attitude to ‘difference’ can be risky because ‘difference’ can be life-enhancing or dangerous.  Parenting sometimes involves heart-breaking honesty and the courage to make very difficult decisions indeed.

Highly recommended.

Author: Jan Carson
Title: The Fire Starters
Publisher: Black Swan Ireland, Transworld, Penguin Random House UK, 2019
ISBN: 9781784163846, pbk., 291 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 21, 2020

An Item from the Late News, by Thea Astley

If you didn’t already know that things tend to end badly in Thea Astley’s novels, the minotaur and its laconic audience on the cover of the 1984 Penguin edition of An Item from the Late News would signal the destination. But still, it comes as a shock.

The novel, narrated by a bitter middle-aged woman with considerable flaws of her own, is the story of a man denied the peace he craves by the venality of an outback town.  Signalled as Christlike by his name Wafer, he lives just beyond the town of Allbut in a shelter that he (naïvely) hopes will protect him from a nuclear bomb.  A survivalist of sorts, he’s built an underground bunker, and divested himself of the 20th century as best he can, earning him the scorn of the ugly rural males that Astley likes to portray.  He is understandably obsessed by his fear of bombs — he was a small boy in London when he saw his father obliterated in the Blitz.  But the catalyst for this novel expressing fears of nuclear annihilation, I suspect, was Australian and international protests against the 1966-1996 French Nuclear Testing Program in the Pacific (which subsequently culminated in state-sponsored terrorism: the bombing by French intelligence services of the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand in 1985.)  Other current issues in Astley’s sights include a coast miscalled Sunshine of the vanishing sand, the varicosed bitumen, the high blood-pressure of high-rise; and PTSD among Vietnam war veterans as portrayed by the sinister evil of Moon.

Gabby, so called by her father and brother because she’s always talking about things they deem to be trivial, has been married to men whose names she has forgotten.  She is a desultory artist, whose nervous breakdown seems to have been triggered by her mother’s insistence that she cannot live without a man. Astley’s mocking account of a car-salesman of a psychiatrist whose punishment for her ‘misdemeanors’ is a long-term long-sleep needle is an allusion to the Chelmsford Private Hospital Deep Sleep Therapy scandal (1963-1979), which triggered the Royal Commission into Mental Health 1988-1990 in NSW.

(I wonder how many of us would recall that scandal? There’s also an allusion to stone struck to muezzin life by the sun — how many of us knew what that was back in the 1980s?  I knew nothing about Islam until I taught my first Turkish student in 1985.  There are musical allusions too: I liked a largo droop to the shoulders but had more trouble with Hunding’s ominous theme referenced as a Wagnerian warning ignored:  I had to look up the plot of Das Valkyries for that one even though I’ve seen the opera three times, alas only on DVD. )

But although there are allusions that will remain obscure to many, there are also occasions where Astley deftly explains them.  When Gabby is being snooty in Denmark when she’s asked if she watches Dallas, she puzzles her hapless hosts by saying ‘It’s like the Mass in Latin’ — and then she explains to them (and her readers) that ‘the church used to argue for the use of Latin that it gave you a sense of familiarity anywhere in the world’ — and goes on to add in an authorial aside that “it’s amusing, isn’t it, to know that ‘Dallas’ or ‘The Incredible Hulk’ or ‘Hawaii-Five-O’ have taken the place of the Tridentine Mass. It’s no coincidence that her examples of TV shows are all American, and not from the BBC which was also standard fare on ABC TV in the 1980s: in the bush commercial TV was a recent phenomenon which was supposed to be enlarging our vision of the world.

With Gabby back in Allbut for her mother’s funeral, Astley uses two other funerals to signal the cruelty of the town towards anyone Other.  Arch who is intersex is still mocked in death, and Tommy Wildapple’s Indigenous sister Rosie is denied the opportunity to be at his funeral in the most humiliating way.  Gabby despises everyone from her father in his squatter’s chair to the entire town, but develops an attraction to Wafer.  His near neighbours are Moon, a loner with a quick temper and a dubious history whichever one you believe; and Colley, a failed architect with an overdose of charm and a 13 year-old daughter who is assaulted by Moon when he comes across her bathing in a pool.

Emmy flees to Wafer but nothing is done about the assault because of an accident of timing: Colley has broken his hip and in the kerfuffle they don’t tell him.  He remains unaware, unaware and he’s offstage leaving Emmy alone, which turns out to have great significance as events proceed.  Wafer alienates the town by helping the crew of an overturned circus train when the town would rather see the back of them, and he also commits the offence of being too friendly with the blacks.  But a much more serious cause for resentment is that nobody believes that he didn’t know that his beautiful talisman is a valuable sapphire, and that he doesn’t remember where on his travels he found it.  With a willing audience that includes Gabby’s complicit father and brother, Moon, the policeman Cropper, and Slobo the publican go to extreme lengths to force him to tell what he doesn’t know.

And Gabby, revealing herself as needy as a pathetic schoolgirl in love, betrays him horribly.

An Item from the Late News is brutal and relentless, and the title is a reminder that everyday violence is too often just a postscript to the news…

1982 First edition

Author: Thea Astley
Title: An Item from the Late News
Publisher: Penguin,1984 first published by UQP 1982
Cover illustration by Drew Aitken
ISBN: 014 006948 8, pbk., 200 pages
Source: OpShop Find

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 20, 2020

Thea Astley Week, midweek roundup

I was hoping to have my review of An Item from the Late News ready for today, but a headache intervened, and so did the internet going down for a while so I’m re-reading it…  Ah well, it’s folly to rush the reading of any novel by Thea Astley anyway.

So I thought I’d post a roundup of contributions from other readers, and a few other bits and pieces.

First of all: contributions from other readers:

A little hunt around the web unearthed these:


Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner, won the Booker Prize in 1984.

January 1st, 2004

Hotel du Lac won the 1984 Booker and it is superb. Its central question is: what kind of woman should one be? In 1984 we were exploring feminism, but this is not quite what Brookner is on about; her female characters are always circumscribed by their lives and are never able to exercise much in the way of choices…

Edith Hope, in her late thirties, is a very respectable writer of romantic fiction, but she has scandalised her friends. Having drifted into accepting a widower’s proposal, she has jilted him at the altar. Geoffrey was a nice man, a good catch and her ‘last chance’. She meekly agrees to a ‘holiday’ at a small hotel in Switzerland while the scandal dies down…

What seems not to be acknowledged by her friend Penelope, is that Edith has a career and an independent income. She doesn’t need a ‘good catch’. She has a pleasant home and a settled life which brings quiet satisfactions: sunshine, gardens, lunch with her publisher and her agent. She also has, unknown to anyone, a lover, David, who is the light of her life although she sees him only once or twice a month. He is married and has a family that he does not intend to leave.

What she does not have, not in 1984, is social position. She is invisible, adapting herself to others, and pitied by them for apparently being ‘unwanted by a man’. Marriage to Geoffrey would have ameliorated that, but there was too much to lose. She realises, as she rides around the block in a taxi to the Registry Office, that she would not be able to write, and she would lose her treasured routines. Her small pleasures and the identity she has suddenly seem more valuable. Were she to become a wife, she would have a different role to play, a house to keep and a social position to manage. At this crucial point, she decides to remain herself, as she is, with her life unchanged.

But the proposal and abortive marriage means that her life cannot remain unchanged. At the Hotel du Lac, she meets Mr Neville. He points out these things to her, that she is too self-effacing and that she should try behaving badly. More selfishly, less romantically. Unexpectedly, he proposes. He wants companionship, without demands. He expects, since they are not in love, to have affairs, and so should she.

She almost accepts him. She writes a farewell letter to her beloved David, from which we learn from mild traces of bitterness, that she knows that she really means very little to him. On her way to post it, she sees Mr Neville exit from Jennifer Pusey’s room – poor, pathetic and very rich Jennifer, indulged by her suffocating mother, and for whom life is passing by. In this she is like Edith, except that Jennifer doesn’t have the dignity of a profession or worthwhile pursuits. Edith is quietly outraged that Mr Neville uses women like Jennifer; she does not want to marry a man like that.

What kind of woman should she be? She will go back to England, but her life will not be quite the same. People are very cross with her, and although she tore up her letter to David, she may continue with him – if he offers. He may not, since he has not bothered to write to her. Does she want him? Like Mr Neville she wants companionship, but on her terms. She likes her house, her way of doing things. It would seem that she cannot have what she would really like, not in her social situation, because marriage brings social obligations that would interfere with the parts of her life that she likes.

Perhaps today she would be able to resolve the dilemma. She would be seen as a successful single woman, with no need of a man to place her. But her self-effacing personality, her shapeless cardiagsn and her inconspicuous dresses? Do they represent the real Edith, or do they symbolise the times when marriage was a woman’s only destiny?

I finished reading this book and journalled it on 21.1.2004.

Author: Anita Brookner
Title: Hotel du Lac
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, 1984
ISBN: 0224022385, hbk., 184 pages (First Edition)
Source: Personal library, purchased from Klanhorn Booksellers, $37.00


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 19, 2020

A Kindness Cup, by Thea Astley

The title of A Kindness Cup is ironic.  It alludes to the New year’s Eve tradition of raising a glass (i.e. a cup o’ kindness’) while singing Auld Lang Syne. The words ‘We’ll take a cup of kindness yet’ express ‘good will, friendship and kind regard’ to absent friends, and they evoke a sense of belonging and fellowship among the company.  But the occasion in the novel in which it is sung is evidence only of malice, self-delusion, and a wilful forgetting.  Written contemporaneously with Xavier Herbert’s monumental Poor Fellow My Country that tackled Indigenous dispossession (1975, see my review) , Astley acknowledged in a note at the beginning of A Kindness Cup that the impetus for the novel was an actual incident at The Leap, Queensland, in the second half of the last [19th] century and she has used elements of the report of the Select Committee on the Native Police Force Queensland, 1861.  Her novel exposing this massacre won the Age Book of the Year in 1975, predating The Other Side of the Frontier by historian Henry Reynolds in 1981.  And wilful forgetting of Australia’s Black history is still going on.

Alternating back and forth in time, from events surrounding the massacre to twenty years afterwards, A Kindness Cup exposes small town memorialisation as a lie.  The occasion is a reunion to celebrate the founding of a town with a weeklong extravaganza of speeches, drinking and a performance by the town songbird who made good elsewhere. Now aged 60, Latin teacher Tom Dorahy has returned as an avenging angel to expose the involvement of his pupil Buckmaster in the death of Kowaha and her baby girl.  Buckmaster now is an honoured citizen, knighted along with Sweetman for handling (i.e. breaking) the sugar strike and for owning more acres of sweet grass in the north than any man had the right to own.  Dorahy’s musings establish that (like most of the class) Buckmaster was stupid and lazy; he also had a father whose patronage kept him at the school.  Defeated by his attempts to educate these lumpish boys, as a man of 37 Dorahy was capable of only minor acts of malice:

Nort, Mr Dorahy inscribed meticulously on Buckmaster’s ill-spelled prose.  Nort, he gently offered, as Trooper Lieutenant Fred Buckmaster gave his evidence before the select committee. (p.6)

Here Dorahy allows himself a self-indulgent joke: he wants Buckmaster to know that he has scored ‘nought’ on his ill-spelled Latin translation.  Thea Astley is making the same comment about the enquiry into Kowaha’s death — Buckmaster’s testimony before a magistrate follows, and the enquiry achieves ‘nort’.

Characters of all moral stripes flesh out the panorama of treachery.  Jenner is the bright boy in class who mystifies Buckmaster en route to a ‘dispersal’ with his sly allusion to Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, ‘Tirra lirra by the creek’.  Buckmaster’s crony is the local politician Sweetman who just wants the past to lie buried.  Snoggers Boyd prides himself on objective reporting and isn’t keen to make a stand without some time to think it through (and beat a strategic retreat to retirement elsewhere).  Charlie Lunt, who almost paid with his life for warning off the Aborigines, is a Christlike figure, seeking reconciliation through the power of love.  ‘Christ was wasting his time’ says Dohery, when he finds Jenner recovering from a beating by Buckmaster, ‘It would take a score of Gethsemanes’. 

Well, religious or not, contemporary readers might argue that forgiveness and reconciliation begin with truth telling.  It is what Dorahy wants, but nobody listens to him now, if they ever did.

A Kindness Cup is rich with allusions. Astley was not interested in writing ‘accessible’ fiction.  In the first chapter, there is an allusion to Lunt doing a bishop’s candlesticks when Mr Dorahy (another of Astley’s misfit teachers aching with loneliness) muses on the position of the Indigenous people working with long knives in the cane and their scabby children making games in the dust at the entrances and exits of towns:

He was friendly with them, as friendly perhaps as Charlie Lunt on his hopeless block of land west of the township; friendly even when they robbed his accessible larder, noting the small fires they made at the boundary fences of his shack; or when he caught Kowaha, shinily young, pilfering sugar and flour, eyes rolling like humbugs with the lie of it while he did a bishop’s candlesticks — ‘But I gave them to you’ — confusing her entirely. (p.6)

1974, Winner of the Age Book of the Year 1975

When Astley published this novel in 1974, there was no Google to assuage a reader’s puzzlement and the musical Les Mis (1980) had not yet premiered in French, much less in English. Either you knew Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and the story of the bishop who lied to save the ex-convict Jean Valjean from further imprisonment after he stole the candlesticks — or you remained mystified.  My battered paperback copy of A Kindness Cup is obviously a student’s copy… it’s plastered with annotations, but its owner ‘McKenzie’ was blind to this symbol of mercy in the novel.

An episode between Lunt and Buckmaster alludes to the Biblical Judas and a Miltonic sweep of wings. I wondered, when I came across it, if younger readers, even with the advantage of Google, will unravel this one:

A large lady arranges her behind at the piano.  The queen is saved in a series of mundane chords. (p. 96)

When Dorahy sees Kowaha’s body, he quotes from Livy: Lucretia lying naked.  This is more than an allusion to rape, it’s also Dorahy’s unfufilled desire to cause a rebellion and bring down the regime, just as the noblewoman’s rape brought the downfall of Tarquinius Sextus. Like many of of his real-life counterparts seeking truth and justice for Indigenous people on the frontier — as documented in Henry Reynold’s This Whispering in Our Hearts, (1998) — Drahy was doomed to fail.

Sometimes historical fiction can be just as powerful.

Bill reviewed it too, at The Australian Legend. 

Author: Thea Astley
Title: A Kindness Cup
Publisher: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1977, (1984 reprint), first published 1974
ISBN: 01700562036
Source: OpShop Find, $1.00

A Kindness Cup is available in the Text Classics series at Fishpond: A Kindness Cup


It is with great pleasure that for Thea Astley Week, I am hosting a guest review of Thea Astley’s Coda, by regular reader Margaret (Meg) Broughton, who loves reading, especially Australian fiction and non fiction.


Coda was to have been Thea Astley’s last novel, but fortunately for us it wasn’t.

Coda is not a feel-good novel. Kathleen the protagonist sadly knows she is not wanted. She is old, and is suffering from dementia and incontinence. Her children have dumped her into a retirement home.

The novel is a short one, divided into three parts and is less than 200 pages long. There is no real plot and it is character driven. You will not forget these characters easily, especially Kathleen.

Throughout the novel the unhappy mood of Kathleen’s life is offset by Thea Astley’s dark humor. It will make you laugh sometimes, but also make you grimace in its truthfulness.  And, Thea Astley’s harsh thoughts on marriage, children, aging and dementia also cast a critical eye on society.

The novel opens with Kathleen ‘losing her nouns’. From here, Kathleen reflects unhappily on her life and how it is acted out:

...four ages of women: bimbo, breeder, babysitter, burden.

She never wanted to be a burden.

Each section of the novel begins with a newspaper clipping highlighting the dumping of old demented people in places unknown to them, as are their own names. Also, in each part we learn more about Kathleen, and her relationships. She did experience love, once with an American. She married an Australian, Ronald, who went to find ‘his new Jerusalem’ during their uneventful time at Honaira. Later, back in Queensland with their two children Shamrock and Brian, he dies.

Her son Brian, is renamed Brain by his wife Boasie, because of his many business failures. Her daughter is Sham, (Shamrock), who could not find herself settled down to marriage with lawyer, Len. He becomes a crooked politician and is referred to as ‘Minister of Transport’. Their children join forces and sell her house to make way for a government road. Subsequently, Kathleen is dumped into the retirement home, appropriately called Passing Downs. When Kathleen is asked how she likes her room, her response is “It’s f—— awful’. Her last act as a grandmother is to go feral, she runs away from her imprisonment.

Kathleen is vague at times, and has difficulty in searching for words and her past, but she does remember Daisy, her best friend. They kept in touch from their teen year romances, to marriages and even past Daisy’s death. Kathleen in her rambling monologues, sometimes gets Daisy confused with her dog Brutus. Daisy marries a wife beater and has six children to him. ‘Whoops a Daisy’. But, like Kathleen, she learned to cope.

I didn’t like the scheming and callous Sham and Brain. And, sometimes it was also difficult to like the cynical Kathleen, though I sympathized with her, for this closure of her life.  Yet, I also admired Kathleen, for the fight in her to be independent.

The novel ends with Kathleen catching a ferry. ‘God!’ She said aloud to the world at large, to anyone who would listen. ‘What a marvelous day!’

I say what a marvelous read despite the gloomy themes. The writing is superb. I think people will be able to connect to Kathleen’s story. As I grow older, my main fear is getting dementia. I already have difficulty in remembering words!

In these Covid19 times, I can only think how distressing it is for loved ones in nursing homes, as well as for their families.

I think we can all agree on that, Margaret…

Thanks for your contribution to Thea Astley Week!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 17, 2020

Girl with a Monkey, by Thea Astley

It’s always interesting to discover the early work of a well-loved author.  I began reading Thea Astley with her last work Drylands (1999) and then worked my way back through the other novels which also won the Miles Franklin Award: The Well-dressed Explorer (1962); The Slow Natives (1995) and The Acolyte (1972).  I’ve also read Coda (1994) and A Descant for Gossips (1960).  (All of these are reviewed here on the blog except, alas, for Drylands, click the links to see my reviews).  To read an author’s debut novel after her mature work is sometimes disappointing, but not so with Girl with a Monkey, Thea Astley’s first novel, published in 1958.

I try to imagine the impact this novel must have had.  This story of a young school teacher marooned in an intellectual wasteland pre-dates Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1961) and is all the more iconoclastic because the school teacher is a young woman.  Two decades later when I was at Teachers’ College myself, I was struck by how biddable my fellow students were.  I hung out with the other students who were already wives and mothers, and we could not believe how the younger ones meekly submitted to unreasonable changes to requirements (that affected our child-care arrangements and presumably their lives as well) and an absurd demand that female graduates would wear (virginal) white gowns to graduation, signalling that they were paragons of respectability.  This was the 70s, when we’d all read Germaine Greer, and yet these girls submitted to authority as if in a time warp.  How much more so must this have been in 1958 when Thea Astley was a teacher!

Written in Astley’s trademark spiky prose, laced with challenging vocabulary and scattered with French phrases and quotations from Horace, Catullus and the Catholic Mass, Girl with a Monkey tells the story of an assertive young woman called Elsie who is escaping from what we would call today a stalker.  In her short period of time in what is obviously Townsville though it’s never named, Elsie has been out with a number of young men, all of them disappointing and not just because they are not her intellectual match.  Her escape is facilitated by requesting a transfer to a different school, and the novel traces her last day in the town.  She buys her ticket, organises her meagre luggage, makes her farewells, and then over the course of the interminable day revisits her memories of the past months.  All the while she is conscious of hiding from Harry lest he discover her plans and do what he has threatened to do.

His possessiveness is declared in the first chapter.  

‘Don’t play me around, Elsie, or I’ll do you, sure as fate!’ But laughing, both of them, not deadly earnest at a time like that, yet sensing beneath the laughter a perhaps or a might; and a resolution that she should play him skilfully if she ever want to find out. (p.3)

Harry is a labourer on the roads, and even  Elsie’s landlady Mrs Buttling, could see that they are unsuited because he just didn’t have your education.

“You’d be like my mother.  Disgusted for life.  If you had gone on with it I mean.  Poor mum! He’s always asking for what she doesn’t want to give, and they’re both sixty. A woman has a right to feel sick.” (p.30)

Though Astley’s scorn for people like Harry is obvious, his characterisation is generous.  She shows him being more knowledgeable than Elsie about the beach flora, and also canny about a business proposition that a friend had.  He shares his memories of attending, aged eight, a post war demonstration for labour rights that turned into a riot, but says nothing to Elsie about how he was so panic-stricken by the shooting that he wet his pants. Harry has ambition, and wants to better himself, reading books that Elsie gives him, and submitting to her pedantic corrections of his grammar.  But the gulf between them is unbridgeable, and she knows that when she quotes some of her own poetry to him, and he asks if it’s by Shakespeare:

The sudden upsurge of anger and hatred surprised her, but nevertheless she was incapable of repressing this impatience with an ignorance which, in the world where he moved, caused all poetry to be classed as Shakespeare, the only name known, just as all music that was not popular in the hit-parade was ‘classical’.  Perhaps if she were not angry she would have shed bitter tears at the hopelessness of it all. (p.59)

[I have taught children like this — isolated in the milieu of the school by their fierce intelligence, in despair that they will never find a friend.  It will be better at secondary school, there will be lots more students there and some of them will be interested in the same things as you, I used to say, hoping that it was true, after all my efforts to find a match had failed.]

Reproved, Harry listens with pleasure to Donne, and Browning and Tagore, but this painful success concludes with these ominous words:

‘I tell you, Elsie, if this ends, you an’ me, I mean, there’ll never be anyone else.  Not ever, do you hear?  So don’t fool about with me.  I think I’d kill you for it if you did.’ (p. 61)

Girl with a Monkey is a short novel of only 144 pages, but these words of Harry’s haunt the pages when read with contemporary knowledge about the number of women killed by a current or former partner.  (On average, one woman each week in Australia.)  Did Thea Astley know about this when she published this novel aged 33?  Whether she did or not, the book is both a vivid picture of Australia in a more conservative era and yet chillingly relevant to today.

Because Elsie has no choice. She is the one who has to go, and has to hide her whereabouts.

BTW there is a small, and seemingly irrelevant episode in which Elsie receives a birthday telegram from her parents and tears it up.  This incident which isn’t connected to anything makes more sense when you’ve read Karen Lamb’s excellent biography Thea Astley, Inventing Her Own Weather (see my review) which reveals the poor relationship Astley had with her very religious mother.

Available print-on-demand from Allen & Unwin’s House of Books, $14.99

1958 First edition

Author: Thea Astley
Title: Girl with a Monkey
Cover design: no details
Publisher: Thomas Nelson, 1977, first published 1958
ISBN: 0170051722
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind. 50c!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 16, 2020

2020 Melbourne Writers Festival Sunday 16/8/20

My sessions for today were:

Michael Christie: Greenwood

Genealogy isn’t a simple story,’ says Michael Christie. ‘In my own personal life and experience, families are built much more than they are born.‘ A novel that reckons with legacy, inheritance, nature and sacrifice, Greenwood reveals layer by layer one family’s secrets – and the forest that binds them across generations.

Christie has constructed a time-hopping, world-spanning, page-turning family saga that’s as intricately constructed as the rings of a tree. With Sophie Cunningham (author City of Trees, see my review here).

The Language of Animals:

What would happen if we could understand what animals were saying? Chris Flynn (Mammoth, on my TBR), Erin Hortle (The Octopus and I, see my review) and Laura Jean McKay (The Animals in That Country) have each explored this question in their latest books – with fascinating results.

Harnessing both the surreal and the serious, these works pose inventive and urgent questions about our place in the world and what it means to be human. With Elizabeth McCarthy.

In Which Two Friends Discuss Reading:

Books are often seen simply as a source of diversion and pleasure. But they are more than that. They can offer not an escape from real life, but a richer engagement with the business of living.

Two great readers – Charlotte Wood (The Weekend, see my review) and Tegan Bennett Daylight (The Details, see my review) – sit down to discuss how they find comfort, refuge and power in both reading books and writing them. With Nicole Abadee.


Michael Christie: Greenwood

Sophie Cunningham loves trees and she was the perfect person to do this interview.  She asked Michael if when he looks at a house, does he see wood or does he see trees?  He answered by saying that the book shows the different relationship that five generations of a family have with trees, starting with pioneers using timber to make a simple house; then a tycoon cutting down acres of timber to make a fortune; his daughter is an environmental activist; her son is a carpenter making fancy furniture for the rich; and the final character is an environmental scientist.  He went on to talk about the magic of trees and forests in Grimm’s Fairy Tales (and a spinoff of those stories, the name of which I didn’t catch).  This fascination with trees is because wood has been alive and is similar to human flesh in that way. [This made me think of the trees in The Lord of the Rings]. Cultures across the world also have scores of legends and stories about trees.

Sophie noted that the intergenerational perspective enables a kaleidoscopic view which covers a lot of issues.  Michael said that the seed of the story was a character of a hermit living hidden in the woods and finding a baby abandoned in the forest.  This fairy tale quality is like the woodcutter refusing to kill the baby in Snow White, which expands around it in the novel.  This scene is in the middle of the book, which led on to a discussion of the structure.

The book is structured like the rings of a tree, beginning in 2038, then progressing back to 1974, 1934, 1908,  and when you reach the heartwood in the middle, the book goes back in these nested rings to the future.  [This sounds like the structure of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a book I loved].  This idea to mimic the structure of a tree came from when Michael cut down a tree to make way for his driveway, and when he counted the rings, it was older than he was.

Sophie went on to ask about influences on his characterisation, such as his work for the homeless.  [I liked it when he said he was never going to write about suburban people worrying about whether their lawn is nice.  He hastily added that these books are great, but hey, I reckon I knew exactly what he really meant!]

In the book’s future scenario, there is The Great Withering— a dust storm (like in the 1930s America due to industrialised farming in California, as in The Grapes of Wrath).  This Withering is a phenomenon which has caused trees around the world to fall prey to many diseases, all of them attributable to climate change.  In his scenario, only rich people can have afford to have an environment which supports trees.  But he says this aspect of the book is not sci-fi dystopia because this imagined phenomenon is not so far-fetched.  Near where he lives trees are withering due to drought stress, and we have the same here in Australia.  Desertification causes dust storms here, notably last summer, the legendary one in 1983, and those which rolled through the Mallee and elsewhere long before that.

I also liked the conversation about the way the novel investigates different ideas of family and contests the idea of blood descendants having some kind of significance to a family.  Families are much more complicated than the traditional notion of family implies.  He says it’s fiction’s job to complicate the notions that we have!

Apparently there is a scene in which a woman loses her home library in a tornado… I shall have to steel myself to read that bit!

Michael Christie is from Canada, a country whose literature has similarities to ours.  The late Kevin from Canada, sorely missed from the LitBlogSphere, wrote an illuminating essay about it here.


The Language of Animals:

What these three novels have in common is that they feature animals with language.  Mammoth is narrated by an extinct mammoth; The Octopus and I is about a woman who develops an affinity with an octopus, and The Animals in That Country features a flu which has as a side effect that humans can understand animals.  Pulling this off in novels for adults is no easy task but it’s been done before e.g. by Eva Sallis in Dog Boy.

It was interesting to hear how the writers chose a ‘voice’ for the animals: they can’t just be the same as people, to succeed artistically they need a voice of their own.  Species also need to be differentiated.  Laura Jean talked about how it was when she worked out the voice of her insects that her writing really ‘took off’.  Chris Flynn (who’s had experience working in an animal shelter and understands how we all talk to our companion animals and how they ‘talk’ back to us) also made his animals speak through the different eras in which they were brought to a museum, e.g. in Nazi Germany.  It was difficult for him, however, to research how extinct animals moved and behaved, and what environments they lived in.  Erin talked about spending a lot of time researching how an octopus learns, and also finding a way of recreating and then disrupting the rhythm with which an octopus moves.  It’s the shortest chapter in her book but it took a year to write.

The conversation took a sombre turn when the issue of animal extinction and possible cloning DNA to bring them back, focussed on human responsibility.  Like the authors this is something I feel deeply about; like many Australians I’m haunted by that video of the Tasmanian Tiger in the Hobart Museum.  It was a very interesting session, well-chaired by Elizabeth McCarthy.

In Which Two Friends Discuss Reading:

Nicole Abadee began by asking how these two friends met, and it turns out that Charlotte received a fan letter about Tegan’s book.  They both belong to a writers’ group, and Tegan is often acknowledged by Charlotte as the first reader of her work.  Membership of this group waxes and wanes, sometimes they go away and work together but they don’t do a lot of workshopping along the way.  But Charlotte says she has to be really ready to share her work with Tegan because Tegan will be honest!  It’s obviously a close and respectful professional relationship as well as an enduring friendship.

Reading as comfort and refuge is very pertinent at the moment: what are they reading now? Tegan began with Wolf Hall at the beginning of Lockdown, which she liked but found it a little grim towards the end because there were so many deaths. Then, triggered by her daughter’s reading of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, she read works by Lawrence Durrell. She liked his joy in life, and this resonated for her at the time, especially because My family and Other Animals was her mother’s favourite book, and she read it to her when she was dying.  Tegan noted that there’s a lot of books about trauma at the moment, she hasn’t found much other reading as solace, except for Durrell.

Charlotte read Improvement by Joan Silber, who she’d just met at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival and then ordered everything else by her, but the only one that’s come so far is Lucky Us.  She loves Joan London, and Tessa Hadley.  And now she’s reading Fierce Attachments: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick.

What books do they turn to when times are tough, and why?

Charlotte: books that are character-based like Elizabeth Strout’s that reveal the private thoughts of people in an ego-less way, examining the interior worlds of people.  Quieter books are comforting, such as The Good Parent by Joan London who loves Chekhov because there’s no ego in his work, he’s a complete observer… Charlotte says that she would say the same thing of Joan London.  Writing that doesn’t show off or draw attention to itself. [She probably wouldn’t like Thea Astley?]

Tegan: she doesn’t want books straining for relevance or contemporary issues or dealing with concentric rings of horror that we are all dealing with at the moment. She wants books that offer a world unto itself, complete in itself.  I would have liked her to expand on this.

Nicole quoted Charlotte from an essay she wrote: the more I go on, the more I am convinced that a great book is one that leads readers away from the worn path of what they already know to… wild new worlds…

… and then *bother!* I lost the thread of the quotation so I tried to rewind, and lost the connection.  And despite repeated attempts could not get it to play again.

So that’s it folks, it’s a pity the technology let me down at the very end, but it’s been a great festival and big bouquets to all concerned especially Gene Smith, who directed the festival this year.  He has set the bar high for his successor!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2020

2020 Melbourne Writers Festival Saturday 15/8/20

My sessions for today are:

How Crises Shape Literature: 

During times of crisis, we often turn to literature to make sense of the incomprehensible. But what is it like to author such a work?

Join James Bradley (Ghost Species, on my TBR) and Caoilinn Hughes (The Wild Laughter, see my review), as they discuss the growing genre of crisis literature, the turbulent events that informed their latest books, and the responsibility writers have to record and reflect on these troubled times. With Astrid Edwards.

Australia’s Response to Climate Change

As we struggle to recover after last summer’s devastating bushfires – and with the next fire season less than six months away – urgent questions must be addressed. What is missing from Australia’s climate change response? How can First Nations’ knowledge and practices help us? And what must change in the way we talk about climate change?

Join Ketan Joshi (Windfall, on my TBR), Rebecca Huntley (How to Talk About Climate Change In A Way That Makes A Difference, on my TBR), and Victor Steffensen (Fire Country) in conversation. With Adam Morton.

Megha Majumdar: A Burning

In this propulsive and mesmerising debut, a young Muslim woman’s Facebook post lands her in jail on terrorism charges – and the story that follows is a vivid portrait of contemporary India’s social and political complexities.

Join author Megha Majumdar for a discussion of power, nationalism, corruption and justice in a work that is both gripping literary thriller and compassionate social commentary. With Roanna Gonsalves.  See my review of A Burning.

Brit Bennett: The Vanishing Half

Stella and Desiree, identical twin sisters, run away from their small southern town in search of self-determined futures. Both light-skinned Black women, their lives take strikingly divergent paths as one passes as white, while the other marries ‘the darkest man she could find’.

Brit Bennett sits down to discuss The Vanishing Half (on my TBR), an expansive, multi-generational saga that dramatically exposes racial inequality and the emotional stakes of identity. With Areej Nur.

An Evening with Elizabeth Strout

No one observes the beauty of ordinary lives quite as astutely as Elizabeth Strout. Ten years after she won a Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, (see my review) she has returned to small-town Maine – and her flawed, cantankerous and much loved heroine – in the delightful Olive, Again.

The master storyteller sits down to discuss her career, her craft, and what compelled her to revisit Olive after all these years. With Kate Torney.

How Crises Shape Literature: 

The first point of discussion on the topic of writing about a crisis, was, how long does it take to be able to process a crisis in order to be able to write about it?  Both of Hughes’ novels are about the GFC in Ireland, over a decade ago now.  She said she feels it’s necessary to have time to take a long view of it.  But how does Bradley tackle climate change when there’s no time really, to wait? He said it’s not possible to reflect on the past in the same way because things are changing all the time.  He also said that a crisis also affects what people write, referencing Ali Smith’s Seasons series, capturing the feeling of the moment.

Moving on from this, why does Bradley choose the novel rather than NF?  He says he writes both, and both enable thinking through of ideas and grappling with issues, but NF timelines are shorter whereas fiction takes 2-3 years and is good at capturing feelings, a sense of what it’s like, and the texture of it, including in a dystopian future as in his book. Fiction makes the big issues of climate change comprehensible.  We understand the crisis but we can’t apply our understanding of these issues to our own lives because they just go on as normal.  [I’m not sure that victims of this summer’s bushfires would agree with this, but I think he’s talking about most people who just go on living their lives in cities, anxious about the future but not seeing any change in their immediate circumstances.] This dissonance is hard to manage, but fiction enables you to inhabit a place that doesn’t have that dissonance.  He isn’t bothered about the dismissive tags that might apply to speculative fiction… it’s not surprising that fiction about climate change involves imagining a future, but he’s resistant to the CliFi tag … he thinks that climate fiction is more than that, it touches everything about our lives, and all fiction needs to deal with it… we need a more sophisticated language to talk about that.

Astrid said that what made The Wild Laughter relevant for her at this time… (she looks to be of an age to have never lived through a recession) … is that the book’s focus on the devastating effects of recession was a glimpse of what might be in store for us in a post-Covid world.  Bradley made the point that The Wild Laughter is also about family and parenting and bringing up children in an uncertain world.  Hughes talked about the need to have honest conversations between the generations, the young have never had the opportunity to share their experience of a disrupted world, but C-19 has now made uncertainty universal because it’s affecting everybody. [I can only assume that she’s referring to baby boomers here, and not people of my parents’ generation who endured the disruption of WW2.  But she’s wrong about the boomers, anyone who experienced the existential threat of a loved one being conscripted to fight and possibly die in a foreign war has that experience of powerlessness seared into the soul.]

Bradley raised the issue of all the people who feel too paralysed to write.  It’s difficult for him with kids at home, but it’s a really interesting time to write.  It’s an incredibly charged and important moment and it’s more important to write at the moment than ever.  He also feels it’s better to be doing something than sitting around worrying, but it’s important to be thinking, to be involved, to be engaged with government plans for recovery and so on. Hughes’ was different, she’s giving herself space before she writes.

This was a great session and I’m looking forward to reading Bradley’s book…

Minor quibble: Astrid began by saying that ‘we all experienced” the GFC.  Australia didn’t.  We had a competent government whose economic strategies kept Australia out of recession.

Australia’s Response to Climate Change

Adam Morton started the session on climate change by asking Ketan how his move to Oslo changed his thinking on the climate change debate in Australia.  He found himself writing a book about Australia and climate change right at the time when the media was firstly focussed on the summer bushfires, and then everything was eclipsed by the coverage of C-19.  But he said that both Norway and Australia share the problem of the morality of fossil fuel extraction which contributes to emissions.  His work involves analysing communication data about climate change —  media reports and social media chat — and because of the wind farm ‘debates’ [a.k.a. beat-up] — he has become interested in communicating science effectively.  He thinks that if equity and fairness are baked into initiatives (e.g. giving people a share in the profits of wind farms) then community opposition fades away.

Rebecca is also interested in the issue of communicating.  It’s clear that just communicating facts is not enough.  Asked why climate change became a professional focus, she said that the student climate strikes were a catalyst because her own children felt there was no future.  But it was also that she perceived that although most Australians are concerned about climate change, that concern is not translating into changes in ‘the electoral map’.  It is the trickiest communication job in front of us, because measuring the communication issues involves measuring heaps of other things as well: politics; trust in government; understanding of science; economic issues and cultural issues. There’s also the issue of conflict. Morton asked:  people don’t want to be involved in conflict, so how do you talk to people who don’t believe or care about climate change?  Rebecca says not to waste your time if they’re not people with power.  Ignore your uncle at Christmas if he listens to Andrew Bolt! Save your energy for forcing professional deniers out of power. And it’s important to bring the conversation back to the middle ground, away from the polarisation…

Bringing Victor into the conversation, Morton asked for his reaction to the bushfire emergency.  He said it was no surprise because he’d been working with communities and he knew that people haven’t been managing the land properly.  He felt frustrated and angry and sad because he feels so strongly that drought and fire need to be managed together, not separately, and he hopes that something good may come from it, i.e. using old knowledge to manage the land. He says there are encouraging signs about this.

Ketan talked about how change is more do-able if conversions to lower levels of emissions focus on immediate benefits to people.  Converting buses to electricity makes the air cleaner and that is not only noticeably better air quality in a city like Oslo but it also improves health.  This could translate really well in Australia where the air quality during the bushfires was so terrible.  He noted that a lot of us are feeling better during lockdowns because the air quality is better.

On the topic of communicating effectively, Rebecca said it was important to start from a position of care, that you want things to be better, and to communicate that you want to avoid further losses caused by climate change.  I am looking forward to reading her book.   Victor’s approach is to use practical strategies, to take people out onto the land to learn. He thinks that meeting in board rooms is a waste of time… but he acknowledged that getting politicians to come and do that isn’t easy.

Ketan says he’s mainly works with people who are convinced of the need to act but don’t know what to do because they’re not across the detail.  He compared the way in which the pandemic has been treated as urgent, and the way that people think that there is time to deal with climate change.  So he aims to reframe the narrative in a way that’s new and focusses on the urgent need to deal with specific things like the development of new fossil fuel extraction plans in Australia.  He doesn’t think he’s turning anyone around (he mainly uses Twitter, which, he said, is hardly a fertile ground for changing the minds of people who disagree!) and he now wants to do things differently… but Rebecca thinks that social media is where some people engage and it’s possible to equip people with knowledge that they need to influence others.

This session went a bit over time so I skipped the concluding remarks…

Theresa has also reported on this session at Theresa Smith Writes.

Megha Majumdar: A Burning

As you know, I really admired Megha Majumdar’s A Burning and was keen to hear her discuss it with Roanna Gonsalves.  Asked how she came up with her unforgettable characters, she said that she wanted to show how or if people can hang onto their dreams even in the face of very difficult conditions.  Jivan is one who works really hard and is tripped up by the system.  Lovely is seduced by dreams of fame. PT Sir shows how a little taste of power leads to making really difficult decisions about what to surrender even at the cost of integrity.  Megha’s studies in anthropology have guided her into detailed observation of how things really are, invoking the layers of social hierarchy — that some benefit from and others can’t despite individual initiative.

Roanna noted that all the characters speak in different registers of English.  This is an issue that writers in India have to address in a way that writers don’t when they’re writing in other countries where there are not so many different forms of English. It’s not easy to render and avoid clichés.  English is the colonisers’ language in India and now it’s the language of the elite and aspiration: she learned early that English was essential to get ahead.

Megha said that the use of social media is extensive in India, and people think that it means people can be free to say anything, but it’s not so.  It’s Jivan’s casual comment, using English, that gets her into trouble.  And she has a naïve belief that if she can only get her story out, that everything will be fair. It was intriguing to hear Megha talk about how her work is nourished by good journalism — that’s not something we’d hear too often in Australia!

It was really good to have this interview conducted by someone who was familiar with the milieu of the novel, and I’ve noticed that this MWF has a greater diversity of interviewers and panel chairs, and that’s very pleasing to see.  One of the interesting aspects of this, was that Roanna raised the issue of ‘telling other people’s stories’, that is, asking an Indian author about writing about people from different classes and ethnic groups within India.  In order words, listeners were made aware of the complexity and diversity of Indian society instead of succumbing to assumptions about it being an homogenous society.  Roanna’s questions also gave Megha the opportunity to explain that she wanted to push back against simplistic and unexamined renderings of anyone which is what tends to happen with nationalism’s representation of who people are supposed to be.

Roanna Gonsalves is the author of a collection of short stories called The Permanent Resident, (UWAP) which won the Multicultural NSW Award in the 2018 NSW Premier’s Awards.

Brit Bennett: The Vanishing Half

Areej Nur started by saying that The Vanishing Half was the best thing that had happened to her this year.

Bennett began her novel  with the idea that black/white are not fixed identities… the premise of this story is that the identity of her protagonist is mistaken by others and in slow and not really deliberate ways she decides to take advantage of it.  Small decisions can and do affect our lives and people in a widening circle of our lives.  One of the interesting things about people who ‘pass’ (i.e. get away with not being recognised as black) is that there’s no real research on it.  Research that is available is about the people who’ve been discovered, or revealed themselves, but she was interested in the hidden history of ‘passing’.  Areej thought that there was something magical and like a fairy tale in this story of fifty years of people ‘passing’.   These people are different, and their children are different, and it all comes back to a small decision that took place almost accidentally.

Digression: this session would have benefitted from including an Australian context.  Indigenous people in Australia, if they were ‘white enough’ could ‘pass’, but if they did, they had to renounce their Aboriginality and avoid all contact with family.  I don’t know much about this but I know that (at least until the threat from Japan in the Pacific War) in both World  Wars Indigenous people were not supposed to enlist but some did if they could ‘pass’.  And during the assimilationist phase of our history, there was also an official system of enabling Indigenous people to ‘pass’ which isolated them from their communities.  I think that some Indigenous people in contemporary Australia often experience a questioning of their identity and this is very hurtful.  But the session was framed entirely from an American context.  Brit Bennett actually said that the situation of ‘passing’ was distinctively American, and I know that this isn’t true, because it occurred in South Africa too, during the Apartheid regime.

I think I would have enjoyed this session more if I’d read the book before the session, because I wasn’t always able to follow the conversation, for example when Areej said at the end ‘thank you for bringing Jude back to life’…

An Evening with Elizabeth Strout

It’s a long time since I read Olive Kitteridge, and TBH I didn’t like it as much as Amy and Isabelle, but having heard Elizabeth talk about her portrayal of Olive as an older woman who had grown ‘bigger’ (not physically) I’m now interested in following up with this sequel.

It was fascinating to hear about how these characters just arrive in Elizabeth’s imagination — what wonderful imaginations some authors have!

Listening to Kate Torney and Elizabeth Strout talking about Olive, was as if they were talking about some person that they both knew in real life: it kind of broke a spell when they began talking about the process of writing instead.

It is no reflection on this session that my notes are scrappy: it was late by the time I got to it, and I just relaxed and enjoyed it.

Theresa from Theresa Smith Writes reported on this session as well.

I’ll try to be up early tomorrow for my first session!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2020

How We Disappeared, by Jing-Jing Lee

On a day that commemorates Victory in the Pacific, it seems appropriate to take a look at a novel which explores the long term effects of Japan’s Occupation of Singapore.

Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, How We Disappeared was featured in the 2020 (digital) Melbourne Writers Festival, where Jing-Jing Lee discussed the book with Adolfo Aranjuez.  It’s a remarkable book and a stunning achievement for a debut novel.

There are three strands to the story: in the present day there is newly widowed Wang Di, deeply troubled by her refusal to let her husband tell her about the massacre of his entire family by the Japanese, and now it’s too late.  And there is Kevin, a young boy who has found intriguing documents among his dead grandmother’s effects and tries to solve the mystery of his father’s true identity.  In 1941 there is the story of Wang Di’s lost girlhood when she was enslaved as a Comfort Woman when she was only a teenager.

Moving back and forth between these narratives, the reader encounters people of this novel who are a long way from the shiny apartments and lavish lifestyle that tourists see in Singapore.  In her old age Wang Di is a Cardboard Lady,  who makes a modest living by collecting and recycling cardboard, an occupation considered demeaning by the other people in her apartment block.  She has also become a hoarder, believing somehow that being surrounded by things makes her safe.  Illiterate because of her disrupted schooling, and shamed into isolation from anyone who might know her story, she is incredibly lonely.

Kevin is lonely too: badgered by his parents about his school results and not much else, he doesn’t have the kind of home that enables bringing friends over to hang out.  He has shared a bedroom with his grandmother for years, and has a close relationship with her, so much so that it is to Kevin that she says her last words, which are the catalyst for a search of her things in his bedroom.  He finds letters never sent which set him off on a remarkable quest.  He does not have his parents’ interest or support because of the constrained relationship that he has with them.  Shame and reticence pervade these characters’ lives to a degree unimaginable to many readers in free-and-easy Australia, I suspect.

Friendship, however, blooms in the strangest place: Wang Di, enduring appalling conditions in the ‘black-and-white house’, finds friendship with two other girls, Huay and Jeomsun.  They share the scraps of food some soldiers give them, which supplements their starvation diet, and they find some solace in each other’s company.  But on release, they have to go their separate ways and keep silent about their experiences:

‘Don’t tell anyone.  Not me or your father or any of the neighbours.  Especially not your future husband, not matter how kind you think he is.  No one must know.  You need to forget her, Huay, and the other girl.  They didn’t exist.  You understand?’ She reached out and I backed away, thinking she was going to strike me.  But she gripped my arm and pulled me forward, as if trying to shake me awake.  ‘Understand? It’s for your own good.’ (p.279)

How We Disappeared is an unforgettable book.  Highly recommended.

See Jennifer’s review at Tasmanian Bibliophile as well.

BTW There is a memorial to the Comfort Women in Sydney, where the controversy surrounding it is a testament to the ongoing Japanese refusal to face up to their past.

Author: Jing-Jing Lee
Title: how We Disappeared
Cover image by Sukutangan
Publisher: One World, 2020
ISBN: 9781786075956, pbk., 341 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings $19.99


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2020

Book Giveaway: The Labyrinth, by Amanda Lohrey

In my enthusiasm for supporting my favourite authors and bookshops while we’re under lockdown here in Melbourne, I have accidentally bought myself two copies of Amanda Lohrey’s new novel The Labyrinth.  (One from Readings, and one from Benn’s Books Bentleigh).

This means that you, my lucky readers, have the opportunity to win a giveaway copy.

I haven’t read it yet, but it’s by Amanda Lohrey so of course it will be wonderful.  This is the blurb:

Erica Marsden’s son, an artist, has been imprisoned for a monstrous act of revenge. Trapped in her grief, Erica retreats from Sydney to a sleepy hamlet on the south coast, near where Daniel is serving his sentence.

There, in a rundown shack by the ocean, she obsesses over building a labyrinth. To create it—to navigate the path through her quandary—Erica will need the help of strangers. And that will require her to trust, and to reckon with her past.

The Labyrinth is a story of guilt and denial, of the fraught relationship between parents and children. It is also an examination of how art can be ruthlessly destructive, and restorative. Mesmerising yet disquieting, it shows Amanda Lohrey to be at the peak of her powers


Interested? Please add your name to the comments below, and I’ll draw the winner at the end of next week.  All entries from readers with an Australian postcode for delivery will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner. (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met).

Good luck everybody!

Author: Amanda Lohrey
Title: The Labyrinth
Publisher: Text
ISBN: 9781922330109

If you don’t want to wait for the giveaway, do what I did, and buy a copy from your favourite bricks-and-mortar bookshop.

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