Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 29, 2018

True Country, by Kim Scott #BookReview

True Country, Kim Scott’s debut novel first published in 1993, has been on my TBR for ages, so I was happy to join a readalong with Emma at Book Around the Corner.  But unlike Kim at Reading Matters, I did not love this book.  It is powerful writing, and innovative in design and intent, but it is also deeply depressing because it paints such a vivid picture of the dysfunctional behaviours that we are told still plague indigenous communities today.

True Country is a kind of bildungsroman, but one that has been creatively adapted to serve a new purpose.  The central character, Billy Storey, does not ‘go out into the wider world’ in search of the self, becoming educated in the ways of the world while the reader looks on.  Billy’s search for identity takes him out of the White world that he knows, to the intimate world of a (fictional) remote northern Australian indigenous community, where everything that he already knows does not apply.  His confused identity, shaped by more than two centuries of assimilationist policies and family denial, is confronted by the confident assertion of identity from the local indigenous people, who know who they are even though their culture is changing.  So while Billy is there ostensibly to teach at the school, what actually happens is that the teacher finds himself being taught – learning a whole new culture and lifestyle, along with different values and ways of behaving.  He learns a history more ancient than any he was familiar with, and he learns in ways that are unconventional in westernised societies.  He is on a challenging learning journey, and the text brings the reader along with Billy to learn about Aboriginality at the same time.  (It’s important to note that although there were increasing numbers of indigenous memoirs, there were not many novels written by indigenous authors at that time in the late 20th century).

In the beginning, Billy and his wife Liz identify with and are identified as Whites, differentiated by their education, their jobs, their clothes, by having air-conditioning in the house and easy access to a cool beer after work, and most of all by their prospects.  The respect they are shown is also differentiated: the other Whites treat them with the same professional respect they reserve for themselves, while the indigenous people (mostly) treat them with a kind of amused tolerance for their lack of understanding and ignorance about the community’s heritage and lifestyle.  But there are also instances of behaviour towards Billy and Liz that most Australians would consider disrespectful – such as having their home invaded by a horde of kids and their clothes and possessions used and ‘borrowed’.  But this is not considered disrespectful by some members of the indigenous community, while other mission-educated Aborigines are furious about it.  This is indicative both of a shift in cultural values from communal ownership to the idea of private property, but also confusion about Billy’s identity.  Billy has the money to buy a boat and if he’s a whitefella, he isn’t obliged by kinship rules to share it.  But if he ‘belongs’, then he should be willing to lend it to anyone who asks.  The position of his wife (who the reader assumes to be White) is subsumed in Billy’s, as far as the community is concerned).

This portrait of comparative privilege shifts, as Billy falls in love with the land, enjoys aspects of living off the land such as fishing, and finds himself captivated by the stories of an Elder called Fatima. About half way through the book this change is signalled by two events…

On a night out of Somerset Maugham or something […] living in the tropics, living in more privileged circumstances than the locals, sweating and drinking whisky, Billy is asked about his project to write up the stories he is being told by Fatima, and he acknowledges his Aboriginal heritage for the first time.  He forestalls any derogatory responses by using a common insulting epithet himself, though there is some ambivalence in reconciling his interest in indigenous story-telling with his Westernised self.

Liz explained.  Murray raised his eyebrows. ‘Why bother?’ You want to encourage them?  They’ll lie to you you know. Still, I guess you could fix up their English when you write it up for the kids or whatever.’
‘Not necessarily, not just that.  Look… I’m not finding time to write them up anyway.’
‘No one’ll thank you for it.’
‘Ha! Ah well.  What else can I do?  I like that sort of thing. And I’m Aboriginal, of Aboriginal descent.  A bit of tarbrush in me.’  Oops.  he gave a derisive snort of laughter.  Too many whiskies for Billy maybe.  ‘So I’m interested.  That must be part of the reason I asked to come here.  Most chalkies only come here if they’ve got no choice. I dunno.  Maybe it’s stupid any of us being here, if we look at it.’ (p.117)

Just a few pages later, he explicitly identifies with the Karnama mob when he asks if any of ‘our mob’ are going to be employed when a new building project starts.  He is tackled about that straight away:

‘They starting Monday then?’ Billy asked.  Gerrard nodded.  Billy continued ‘Any of our mob working with them?’
Gerrard leaned forward.  ‘You’re joking,’ he said.  ‘And whaddya mean, “our mob”?  No, this lot don’t know how to work.  (p.127)

I wrote ‘comparative privilege’ above, because by most standards of Westernised life, this would be a hardship posting.  This naïve young couple, and the new principal Alex, (with wife Annette and child Alan) have no real idea what they are in for.  The teaching day starts with collecting sleepy children who’ve been up all night watching videos, and even very intelligent children are barely literate and way behind where they should be educationally.  The narrator puts it succinctly:

So.  They have a hard time here in Karnama. Maybe this is not the place for them (p. p113)

They hold a meeting to debrief about the problems.  Indigenous employees employed to do various jobs such as gardening and cleaning aren’t punctual, don’t turn up at all or don’t finish the jobs.  Alex is frustrated because he wants them to come to work often enough to learn some skills.  The school children often haven’t been fed or cleaned, and they fall asleep in class. There is nostalgia from some for the mission days when Father Paul could issue vouchers for food and clothing but that can’t be done under new policies of ‘self-determination’.   There is a suggestion that if the employees are paid daily so that they see the immediate consequences of coming to work, either being paid or having their pay docked.  Gerrard’s response shows his frustration with constant changes of government policy:

‘Can’t do it.  Ab Affairs, DAA – whatever they’re called this week – fly money out once a month.  We’re accountable, and it’s for the previous month. Anyway, we can’t. (p.111)

Annette’s exasperation boils over:

‘It’s just not good enough, that’s all.  We work like slaves for their kids, and they’re just leaving it all up to us.  They don’t care.  And what about the power? The powerhouse breaks down – every second day or whatever it is – and there’s no air-conditioning. It’s hell in those rooms then.  Talk about hot.  And the smell! And the school seems to be the first to lose power as well, and last to get it back.  how come?  It’s all wrong.’ (p.112)

And the narrator observes wryly:

Ah yes.  So they have this big meeting so they can get things off their chest?  They gunna have big chests then.  And that Annette, she have biggest milk.  Big ones out here, eh?  She look like little tank withy big guns right out front then. (p.113)

That sexism also expresses itself in appalling violence against women.  Parts of this book depict hopelessness and degradation and there is no authorial attempt to deny or justify it other than to make it clear that colonisation and subjugation lies behind it: there is the pathological drinking, petrol-sniffing, the self-destructive behaviours, the damage to property and cars, and the neglect of children and brutality towards them, including old men ‘initiating’ young girls.  There are attempts by some members of the community to adapt by blending old traditions with modern opportunities and to control access to alcohol – but they are up against resentment and refusal to cooperate, especially among young men whose attitude is ‘why should I cooperate when so much damage has been done to our culture?’ ‘why shouldn’t I drink myself silly when there is no place for me in White society anyway?’ ‘why should I obey White laws when there is a murder, committed almost casually by a couple of White bouncers, and the outcome in court is that Aborigines are expected to live by White laws but are not protected by them?’ ‘why shouldn’t I stay at the beach with my mates instead of putting on a phony corroboree for a bunch of tourists looking for an exotic experience?

While I think I understand this cynicism, I did find it depressing.  Billy’s ‘welcome’ into the community isn’t enough to make me feel that there is any prospect of improving the situation in the foreseeable future.  I would like to see the ‘big’ things achieved: a treaty, formal recognition in the constitution, a Truth and Justice Commission, Land Rights and reparations, and a formal Reconciliation process culminating in a change of date for an Australia Day we can all respect and enjoy, but I would dearly love to see a united effort to improve living standards and genuine prospects for young indigenous people.  But it would be naïve to suggest that I can see way that any of this could be achieved, and I don’t get the impression from True Country that Kim Scott feels optimistic either.

Update, the next day: Here’s the link to Emma’s review of Le Vrai Pays, (True Country) which she read in French, translated and with annotations by Thierry Chevrier and Marie Derrien.

Author: Kim Scott, a Noongar/Nyungar man from the southwest of Western Australia.
Title: True Country
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 1993, this reprint 2010
ISBN: 9781921361524
Personal library: purchased from Dymocks, $22.95

Available from Fishpond: True Country or direct from Fremantle Press where it is also available as an eBook.


I don’t often read literary journals, not because they’re not worthwhile but because I have so often subscribed to them in the past and then not found time to read most of the issues.  But I was interested when New Zealand publisher sent for review a copy of Ora Nui 3, Maori Literary Journal: Going Global because the Introduction intrigued me…

In traditional journals, indigenous writers enter the collection from stage left as exotic other.  In terms of the New Zealand canon, Māori writing locates everyone – Pakeha, migrant, the indigene – in Aotearoa. The tyranny of democracy means, however, that the Māori experience mostly appears as moments in a broader discussion dominated by white writers.  Life imitates art.  Ora Nui shifts this power balance and places Māori at the centre of an international dialogue.

Differences and similarities emerge but every writer in this collection is concerned with the same issues: identity and belonging.  The works are very relational.  Writers investigate who they are in response to other populations, and their environs.  They reimagine themselves in new contexts.  Art and photography make the writing pop.  The collection is a glorious celebration of diversity and change.

As we march into a future of diversity, Māori have  a central role in the emerging cultural discussion.  (p.1)

This perspective interests me because even though I haven’t visited New Zealand yet, I know from the media that they, like everywhere else around the western world, are experiencing change because of an influx of refugees from around the world.  Monocultural societies, and bicultural societies are on the way out.  All of us are learning that diversity is the norm, but that raises special challenges for societies with an existing First Nation population that may or may not have been treated with the respect it deserves and may still have issues arising from colonisation.  It’s poets, writers and artists in this collection of experimental prose, poetry, art, and photography who tackle these issues with heart and soul…

Sometimes, however, outsiders may not get it right. Marino Blank’s poem ‘I haven’t seen as Australian Aboriginal yet’ consists of five verses set in Sydney, the last line of which ends with ‘I haven’t seen an aboriginal yet.’ [Sic, ‘aboriginal’ is not capitalised, and it uses an adjective instead of a noun).  This poem, well-meaning as it is, panders to the idea that Australia’s indigenous people should conform to a recognisable skin colour and physiognomy – and as Anita Heiss argues so cogently in Am I Black Enough For You? (2013) they don’t.  Likewise, Kim Scott says in his novel True Country his people can be:

Well, not black.  Or dark brown, or purple-black, or coffee coloured, or black-brown.  Maybe tan.  But what is this?  We are all different.  I am not the same. (True Country by Kim Scott, Fremantle Press, 1993, p.191)

So while the point of the poem is to note the absence of Australia’s indigenous people from its fancy tourist destinations and national celebrations, it is based on a false assumption. Because a casual observer can’t tell by looking whether a person is indigenous or not, so it’s not possible to say whether they are absent or not.  Can we just stop classifying people and making judgements about them by racial characteristics, eh?

Paula Morris, OTOH, in her essay ‘Of All Places: a Polemic on ‘International’ Book Prizes’ gets it exactly right IMHO.  She writes about how

For those of us from the southern hemisphere – or from vast continents like, say, Africa – the attention afforded to apparently ‘international’ prizes is also a constant reminder that we’re on the outside, looking in.  (p.96)

Yes, we in Australia know this too.  The big conversations, and the big book promotions by booksellers, are about the Nobel, the Man Booker International, and the Booker, these last two being about US and UK books, and the former dominated by European authors as well.  The Commonwealth Writers Prize, which used to bring attention to a diverse range of writers, is now just for short stories.  I’m sorry, I think it’s lame now, and nobody takes much notice of it.  The one truly global prize if the Dublin IMPAC… So the question is:

Why do we continue to permit British literary prizes to claim the title of most prestigious or influential or important in the English-speaking world? Why do we place that power in the hands of British publishers and British judges? Why are we still in thrall to the Mother Country? Why do we want its approval? (p.102)

Why indeed?  I like Morris’s ideas for new prizes:

Imagine an English language prize in which every country with an English-language national book award – like the Miles Franklin in Australia, the Giller Prize in Canada – submits that year’s winner. Imagine a new Asia-Pacific prize that reorients us within our own region.  Imagine a Southern hemisphere prize that sees us communicating directly with our neighbours rather than waiting for the old publishing centres far to the north to determine the books we and the rest of the world read. (p.103

There’s also an interesting essay by Rafaël Newman on nationalism called ‘Nations Anonymous’,  a very powerful poem called ‘Our Auschwitz (for Reza Barati)’ by Australian poet Jean Riki, and a long poem in three parts called ‘Tricks of a Treaty’ by Māori poet Kani te Manukura.

one good trick, that one
played by empire
on our tupuna
how could they have known
by making their mark
on that paper
we, the descendants of chiefs
would become palimpsest
upon the pages of this land…

These are just a few of the items that called for my immediate attention in this journal.  At the very least Australian universities should subscribe!

Editor: Anton Blank
Title: Ora Nui 3, Maori Literary Journal: Going Global
Publisher: Anton Blank Ltd, 2017
ISSN: 2253 1599 ISBN: 799439049307

Source: Review copy courtesy of Anton Blank

Availability: Visit the website of Anton Blank Ltd. 

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is commemorated each year on the 27th January, because that is the day of the liberation of the Nazi extermination and concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945.  As it says at Global Dimension, which is a website for teachers promoting learning for a ‘just and sustainable world’:

HMD seeks to highlight the importance of understanding and combating the processes that led to the mass extermination of Jews during World War II, and to recognise that the type of behaviour demonstrated in Nazi Germany was not unique either to Germany or to a particular point in history. More recent events in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur amply demonstrate the propensity of human beings to engage in mass murder.

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

In recognition of this day,  I decided to put other things aside to read Bella and Chaim which had arrived in my post box late last year.  The author, Sara Rena Vidal, was born in 1945 in a refugee camp to Holocaust survivors Bella (Basia) and Chaim (Heniek).  They had married just before the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and escaped the death camps by hiding in a hole in the ground for 18 months.  Karol Smolarczyk, (listed among the Righteous Gentiles Among the Nations register of people who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust), was a retired policemen who constructed a bunker under a wood-sawing machine in his backyard workshop.  He and his niece Lodzia brought them food… invariably potato soup and occasional scraps of meat and took care of their needs as best they could without detection.  But it was hellish, mentally and physically:

The bunker is so small: one-metre-wide by one-metre-high by two-metres-long. Unable to stand, they sit, or lie, in the dark, separated from the dirt floor by a thin matting, with just a threadbare blanket, thus enduring the longs days and nights. (p.146)

Vidal keeps this section short – hardly more than four vivid pages – but few could read it without being overwhelmed by the moment when they are liberated by a delighted Russian soldier who is hardly more than a boy.  

It’s an unusual form of Holocaust memoir, and one particularly well suited to this year’s HMD theme, ‘the power of words’  because the author has used the power of multiple sources of words to conjure the immediacy of a vanished world.  I haven’t read anything quite like it before.  The blurb describes it as a flowing collage which embraces and mingles memory, historical record, fragments of the 1950s, real-time journal entries and musings on the light, dark, and potential of being alive.  This is further clarified by the ‘Author’s Note Regarding the Elements’, in which she explains the purposeful structure of these elements within the thirteen parts of the book:

  • her own memory fragments are from her unpublished memoir The Making of Plans, her journal and her reflections, and they are placed in alternating parts One to Thirteen;
  • the stories of her parents Basia and Heniek as told to her, covering the pre-war period, the time in the Warsaw Ghetto (1939-43), and then 1944-49.  These stories are interspersed with prose poems, and her parents’ sayings and insights along with her own thoughts.  These elements alternate in the even numbered parts up to Part Twelve.

Although many of us have known about the Holocaust for many years because our shocked parents told us about it and we learned more at school and since, we need to remember that this is not always the case with younger generations.  And in a multicultural country like ours, migrants who have come from countries hostile to Israel, or people from war-torn countries with disrupted or minimal education, may also not know about the Holocaust.  Furthermore, strange as it may seem after so many years, new information still comes to light when old photos or journals or newspapers are discovered in long-hidden places, or when official documents are released for public scrutiny, or when an elderly survivor finally breaks a silence of over seventy years.  So it is entirely appropriate that Vidal’s memoir also includes the historical context through facts, numbers, analysis and newspaper headlines, augmented with a component she calls ‘Imagine Being in their Shoes’, these particular sections…

gleaned from the real-time journals of those who perished
and the recollections of those who survived –
offer detail and insight to things
my parents did not tell me,
of the events in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The book concludes with an Affirmation, and there are also photos, a map, a chapter on sources, a bibliography, endnotes and an index.  Different fonts, indentations and text placement indicate changes in the type of text, and the language of each section uses the idiom of the time, often using words used by victims and survivors as found in records and testimonies.  The effect is sometimes disorientating, reminding me of the Jewish Museum in Berlin where the architecture is deliberately designed to replicate the physical experience of being shunted about and not feeling safe anywhere. One lurches from past to present, from the verbosity of officialese to intensely personal poetry, from seemingly bland reportage to family arguments.  But taken together, this collage is deeply humanising.  The people – survivors and victims alike – are intensely alive in this memoir.

This is an excerpt on page 107 (I have done my best to replicate the font and layout):

What if?
Many historians then and now question that perhaps more resistance
and an earlier heroic stance could have translated to lives saved.
The Jews of Poland are variously charged with helping the war effort,
conspiracy in their own extermination, mistreatment of fellow Jews,
mistakenly considering surviving, as they had before,
by sacrifice of some to save the body.

However, each instance is different, only the rule of no rule applies.
One dies by going, another by staying.
One survives by acts of kindness from a gentile; another perishes;
a third survives despite lack of help or betrayal.
The saved report being shot point bank, injured,
made to dig their own graves; for each saved, thousands are murdered.
Each one’s same-different story is individual,
not reducible to archetypal or stereotypical categories.
Until the end of time, many will discuss and debate the what-ifs.

Bear with me.  This is the time space place
where thinking of what is to come – then, and with hatreds today –
I become immobilised.

Dream my Way Back

I don’t even have to close my eyes to see Grandmother Sara.
She leans over to stroke my hair.  Prettier in life than in the photo.
I introduce her to my husband, and my grown children.
Joy sparkles as Sara takes in the jewels …

This image
stays with me
, and,
as each fragment makes a contribution,
this recurring waking vision
helps me to continue.

 Midway through the book, there is an especially poignant moment in Chapter 16, titled ‘All the Family Still Alive’.  It was the 9th of August 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, and aware of the cataclysm about to befall them. it is decided that Basia and Heniek should marry before the Nazi ‘selections’ separate the families.  So they gather together to celebrate the wedding of the young couple.

Everything had been made ready.  No time for proper preparation, no wedding dress or invited guests to mark this celebration.  But this is not an occasion for lamentation.
And to join them in long life as man and wife, the blessings are sealed with a plain gold band, the mazeltovs resound, toasts are drunk to life, to health, to happiness.
The young couple cling to each other.
Alive in the present.
The whole family.
Still alive. (p.124)

The children of Holocaust survivors are burdened in ways that most of us can’t imagine, but I think we all share a desire that our parents should find peace and contentment.  The post war years were harrowing for Basia and Heniek too, but eventually they were able to settle here in Melbourne and find some enjoyment in life despite the loss of almost their entire family.  Heniek dies aged 77, able to say ‘Let me go – I am happy with my life’ and Basia, whose mental health suffered terribly during the confinement in the bunker, is one day, aged 87, at last able to reconcile herself to tensions within the family and assert:

‘I believe, everyone is just the same. I mean all people.’
She pauses again. ‘There are good ones and bad ones.’
My hands on the wheel, glancing at her, I catch the affirming nod of the head as she agrees with herself. I give her a reassuring smile. She smiles back, her eyes sparkling, pleased with herself. I am pleased with her too.
‘Watch the road,’ she admonishes.
For good measure she adds, as if for the first time,
‘Live and let live.'(p. 202)

Advice worth thinking about…

Author: Sara Rena Vidal
Title: Bella and Chaim, the story of beauty and life
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2017
ISBN: 9781925272659
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available from Fishpond Bella and Chaim: The Story of Beauty and Life or direct from Hybrid (where it is also available as an eBook and you can read a generous extract).

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 23, 2018

The Sisters’ Song, by Louise Allan #BookReview

The Sisters’ Song is the debut novel of WA author Louise Allen, who blogs at Louise Allen and also hosts a popular series called Writers in the Attic.  I’ve been following her for a while now, so I was very pleased to see her novel finally make it into print.

It’s historical fiction, but of the near past, starting in the 1920s in Tasmania, and spanning seventy years.  It tells of a very different and much harsher world, when social and religious rigidity compromised people’s lives with devastating effect.  Nora and Ida lose their father to stomach cancer when they are still just small children, and their mother doesn’t cope.  The inadequacy of mental health services is also a strand in the novel, showing the misery that occurred because people were expected just to get on with things without the kinds of counselling and support available today.

So as well as being deprived of a father, the girls are also subjected to their mother’s erratic moods and cruelties.  They end up living with their grandmother but their young lives are blighted by fear of their mother and her moods.  And because Nora seems to have been favoured with the looks, the talent and the approval and admiration of the adults, Ida finds it hard to reconcile love for her sister with the jealousy she feels.  It becomes even more difficult when Nora, who wants to have a musical career, ends up isolated in the Tasmanian bush by an early marriage and three unwanted children – while Ida in Hobart would love to have a family, but finds that she can’t bring a baby to term.  The grief this causes lasts her lifetime, as I know from friends, it does, and it can be triggered at any time by events that seem insignificant to others.

I pushed my sobs down again and wiped the tears from my cheeks.  When my breathing had slowed, I went out to the kitchen.

Len was down by the back fence, surrounded by a yellow circle of light from the kerosene lamp.  He sat on a stool, a wooden needle wound with twine in his hand, mending a hole in a fishing net.  He shuttled the needle in and out, in and out, looping, checking, hitching, looping, checking, hitching across the breadth of the hole.

As I watched him, I imagined our three boys.  They’d have been dark like him but taller.  They’d be grown up by now and working – one for Stan, maybe, the plumber next door; another for Max, the butcher; and the youngest, Leonard, he would have been sitting by the fence with his father, helping him mend the nets.  I had a feeling those two would have been close. (p. 263)

The conventions of the time exacerbate the fault lines in this family.  Religion seems to be more of an obligation than a solace and the roles that women are expected to fulfil are very limited.  Nora never gets over the loss of her dreams of a musical career, and her children bear the brunt of her resentments, looking to their Aunty Ida for the mothering that they don’t get at home.  The husbands, Alf and Len, who love these two fraught women, are a little too good to be true in that they are unfailingly kind, but their inadequacies of understanding and communication seem authentic for the era, and one in particular suffers in silence with devastating consequences.  What’s also authentic is the way that shame made families keep secrets about matters that are not considered shameful today, and this created crises of identity and ruptured family life when the silence was broken.   Careful research and a profound understanding of the era also shows up in other small ways, such as women being more isolated because they don’t know how to drive and because phones are for the wealthy.

The characters suffer because of the expectation that the role of wife and mother was the only option for women, and the reforms and changes of attitude that accompanied the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s came too late for this generation.  For them, it was the next generation that had to find a better way.

The Sisters’ Song is a well-crafted debut with a compelling storyline.  It would make a good mini-series, with Noni Hazlehurst in the complex role of the very difficult mother and the stunning scenery of Tasmania as a backdrop!

Author: Louise Allan
Title: The Sisters’ Song
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2018
ISBN: 9781760296315
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Top Titles Brighton, $29.99
(A&U sent me a proof copy, but I don’t read proof copies, see my review policy).

Available from Fishpond: The Sisters’ Song


From a story of courage from a Sudanese refugee, to a celebration of an entirely different kind of courage, I found reading this biography to be an emotional experience.  Close to the Flame, the Life of Stuart Challender is the latest of Richard Davis’ fine biographies of Australia’s great musicians.  I have previously read Wotan’s Daughter, the life of Marjorie Lawrence but Challender’s premature death from AIDS at the age of 44 was a tragedy not just for him and his family, but also for Australian music.  It’s just impossible to read this thoughtful biography without a sense of what might have been: if not for his untimely death, Stuart Challender (1947-1991) would have had an international career, there would be numerous recordings of his oeuvre, and he would probably still be delighting audiences with beautiful music even now.  He was, as Davison says in the Prelude, the finest Australian-born conductor of his generation.  

(And I heard him early in his career because it coincided with my discovery of opera in the early 1980s, when he came to Melbourne to conduct the Australian Opera).

The biography follows a conventional chronological route, starting with Challender’s childhood in Tasmania and his early promise as a musician, learning piano and clarinet.  It was this part of the book that interested me most because I am always fascinated to learn how childhood experiences and opportunities translate into genius.  Well, it was his grandmother Thelma Driscoll who fostered his love of music by singing arias around the house, and it was when his father took him in 1961 to hear Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony conducted by Tibor Paul, that Stuart decided aged 14, that he wanted to be a conductor.

I thought it was the most amazing and exciting thing I’d ever heard!  Tibor Paul threw himself around, his arms flailing and drawing incredible sounds from our little orchestra. [The Tasmanian Orchestra had just 31 players at the time].  I was transported by the music – the peasants’ merrymaking in the third movement and the colossal storm music of the fourth.  And of course I was fascinated by the conducting.  There and then… on the spot, I decided that a conductor was what I wanted to be. (p.7)

(I don’t actually find it as surprising as Davis does that a working-class ex-serviceman with footy ambitions for his son should attend a concert.  Unlike today, schools in those days routinely exposed their students to classical music, and ABC Radio and TV routinely broadcast classical music as part of its everyday programming including concerts and operas on Sunday nights. Whereas today, if a parent doesn’t tune to Classic FM, a child may have only the most minimal exposure to classical music.)

Stuart’s first opportunities to conduct came with the New Town School Orchestra in Hobart, and then at the Hobart Matriculation College.  But the first musician to influence him much was Felix Gethen, only a minor composer but a wizard at adapting orchestral scores to fit the small Tasmanian Orchestra’s resources.  Tasmania, however, was always going to be limited in opportunities so at 17 he applied for and won a scholarship to the Conservatorium of Music in Melbourne, (though his family had to help him out when the scholarship was not renewed in 1966.)

At Melbourne Stuart studied piano under Ronald Farren-Price  and thrived in the companionship of other music students.  To increase his opportunities to conduct Stuart formed his own Melbourne Youth Chamber Orchestra and also tried his hand at composing.  Significantly for his later career, he came into the orbit of the composer Keith Humble and was inspired by his enthusiasm for contemporary composers.

He joined the Victorian Opera Company in 1966 where he played piano for rehearsals plus clarinet or percussion in the orchestra, and he also coached some of the principals and rehearsed the chorus.  Eventually he was listed in the program for Carmen as ‘repetiteur and assistant conductor’, and made his opera conducting debut with Tales of Hoffman later in the year.  At 21 he succeeded the retiring conductor Leonard Spira and his first performance of an opera called Albert Herring received a glowing review in the London journal Opera:

The conductor was Stuart Challender, who controlled the singers and the orchestra with professional ease. (p.21)

Although he was granted a scholarship for the next phase of his studies in Germany, being short of money continued to be a problem right through his next venture.   His parents sent him money, and his grandmother knitted warm clothes for the bitter winters.  Although he was often lonely because he had not come to terms with his sexuality, he still managed to enjoy the companionship of friends and attended inspiring performances such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Hamburg.  But although he learned a lot, his progress was modest and in 1980 Stuart came home to a job offer with the Australian Opera in Sydney.

The rest , they might say, is history, but it’s fascinating reading, especially following his pathway from occasional guest conductor of minor performances to Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and his first international tours.  While most of us know him as the conductor of orchestral music and opera, he was also a mentor and friend to some of Australia’s rising stars: notably Carl Vine but also Richard Tognetti and others.  But it was such a short career, and a sense of melancholy begins to pervade the chapters as the diagnosis of AIDS is made, and his illness starts to impact on his work.  It is extraordinary to read how he pushed himself to fulfil his commitments despite being sick and exhausted, even flying to London to make his English National Opera debut in 1991, the year of his death.

This book is a treat for music lovers.  As the copious notes at the back of the book show, it is the product of extensive research.  There is a chronology of Challender’s life and career, an extensive discography (which notes that the ABC has a large body of material in its archives which is not accessible and has not been released commercially.  (A search at the ABC Shop online retrieved no results for Challender recordings at all, though it’s possible they’re just hopeless at tagging, I suppose).   Elsewhere in the book Davis notes that the ABC carelessly recorded a news broadcast over the top of a tape of a Challender recording, so let’s hope they don’t do that again!  There is also a comprehensive index and several pages of B&W photographs.

I have previously featured Richard in my series Meet an Aussie Author, do check it out.

Author: Richard Davis
Title: Close to the Flame, the Life of Stuart Challender
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743054567
Available from Fishpond: Close to the Flame: The life of Stuart Challender or direct from Wakefield Press.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 22, 2018

The Aftermath, by Rhidian Brook #BookReview

The Aftermath, set in Hamburg in the immediate post-war period, has such an unusual premise that I wouldn’t have believed it could happen except that the author, Rhidian Brook, says that something like it actually took place.  It is 1946 and under the Occupation by the Four Powers (Britain, France, the USSR and the USA) Britain has requisitioned some of the surviving housing for their senior servicemen who are managing reconstruction and de-Nazification.  But Colonel Lewis Morgan, when he sees the size of the house he has been assigned, makes a quixotic decision to share the house with its previous owners, and so it is that former enemies who have much to resent end up living under the same roof.

The story begins with some confronting images of the devastation and then the awkward reunion of Lewis with his wife Rachael, who is still traumatised by a German bombing raid on a quiet town in Wales to which they had been evacuated for safety.  She was literally blown across the room,  and her son was killed.  She and her surviving son Edmund haven’t seen Lewis since the funeral and these relationships are all under strain.  Rachael is, as you would expect, extremely hostile to the idea of any fraternisation with any Germans, whereas Lewis, a decent man, is keen to do his best to restore normality as soon as possible though not all his colleagues feel the same.

The owner of the house, an architect called Richard Lubert, has lost his wife Claudia in the firestorm, and his daughter Frieda (about the same age as Edmund) hates the British with a passion.  These interlopers, she thinks, have consigned the Luberts to the servants’ quarters upstairs, while they enjoy all the comforts of a wealthy household including their three surviving servants.  With the schools still in chaos, Frieda goes out to help clear the rubble each day, and comes in contact with a member of a resistance group which has refused to accept defeat.

The proximity of these characters allows for a penetrating exploration of vengeance and forgiveness, guilt and blame in a very charged atmosphere.  Brook’s approach is open-minded, showing that there were people on all sides who behaved well and badly. He makes a point I had not previously understood that in the carve-up between the Four Powers, Britain, already struggling under austerity at home, had acquired the most badly-damaged region (because they had done the bombing) while delayed entrants to the war against fascism and those who capitulated made things more difficult, with for example, the Soviets refusing to supply grain from the bread-basket region that they controlled unless the British blew up surviving factories which would otherwise be competitors in the post-war economy.  And this of course made it even more difficult to get Germany back to work and on the road to self-sufficiency.   The Americans, yet to implement the Marshall Plan at this stage though rapidly realising it was necessary, were already operating with a Cold War mentality, and were beginning to lose interest in the massive task of identifying former Nazis (something I already knew about from my reading of Post War Lies by Malte Herwig.)  There is an interesting episode in which a German character thought to be blameless turns out to have evil buried deep within, and there are also instances of the British Occupiers behaving in a very shabby way.

There are all kinds of betrayals in this novel, and I am not surprised to learn that the author is also a screenwriter, because there is a cinematic quality to the scenes, and compelling trajectory to the narrative.  I think it would make an excellent film.

I am indebted to New Zealand blogger C.P. Snow, who reviewed this book when it was first published.

Author: Rhidian Brook
Title: The Aftermath
Publisher: Penguin 2014
ISBN: 9780241957479
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Aftermath

It’s not a coincidence that my library had Songs of a War Boy on prominent display this week: the African community in Melbourne has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons.  Scurrilous politicians attempting to whip up law-and-order issues in time for the next election have used the criminal behaviour of a very small teenage minority to besmirch an entire community – and I’m happy to join my library in promoting a book by an author who is – no disrespect intended – a bit of a poster boy for the African refugee community.  (Though if you followed the uplifting and often humorous #AfricanGangs Twitter thread, you will have seen that there are numerous examples of Africans studying and working hard, achieving great things, and bringing up their families to be everyday Australians to be proud of).

(BTW I am using the term ‘African’ in the same way that I would use ‘European’.  There are 54 countries recognised by the United Nations on the continent of Africa.  I found the map at the front of the book very helpful for tracing Deng’s journey to freedom because my knowledge of African geography is a bit hazy, as it is for parts of post-Soviet Europe).

Deng, however, has gained a place in Australia’s heart as a spokesman for people of African origin.  From the age of six Deng Thiak Adut was a child conscipt in southern Sudan, and was rescued and brought to Australian when he was fourteen.  Through sheer grit and determination this illiterate teenager with no formal education mastered English, and went on to complete not just an undergraduate degree in law, but also a Master’s.  He now has his own practice, the AC Law Group, in partnership with Joseph Correy, was awarded the New South Wales Australian of the Year for 2017 and was featured in a promotional video for Western Sydney University which immediately went viral and has been viewed almost three million times.

I thought I knew Deng’s story from the extensive media coverage so I only brought the book home to browse through, but I ended up reading it cover-to-cover and couldn’t put it down.  There are so many things to think about and the word inspirational doesn’t just apply to Deng himself.  He makes a point of acknowledging all the people who helped him, from Christine Harrison, the Australian counsellor in the Kakuma Refugee Camp who sponsored him to Australia, and her husband Bob who eased their transition through the first overwhelming days, to Geoff Hicherson, a retired policeman who took on the duties of a parent when a parent could not fulfil those duties, including ferrying him around to soccer matches, helping him with English and giving him a bicycle so that he could get his first job, mowing lawns.   Then too, there is the story of Deng’s brother John Mac Acuek, who risked his life to rescue Deng from the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), and encouraged Deng every step of the way, yet struggled to make a new life in Australia, not least because he could not get employment despite being well-qualified for the jobs he applied for.

However, the most informative chapter of the book, for me, was the chapter that explained the genesis of the civil war in Sudan.  Colonialism is often blamed for the seemingly endless conflicts in Africa, but from this book I learned that Islamisation (and the imposition of sharia law) has a lot to do with it too.  Under the British, (prior to WW2) Sudan was basically peaceful because it was recognised that Sudan was – in reality if not in lines on a map – two separate countries, and so there were two separate administrations in Sudan, predominantly culturally Arab and religiously Islamic in the north but tribal, traditional and either Christian or animist in the south.  With decolonisation impending, the British conflated these two administrations, so that when Sudan gained independence in 1956, the south (which had the oil fields) was unwillingly under the thumb of the north and guerrilla warfare had already begun.  There were other factors including internal tribal distrust and infighting at work too, but Deng says that this religious conflict is the root cause of the civil war that led eventually to South Sudan achieving independence.

Although the story of Deng’s time as a child soldier is grim, there are lighter moments when he comes to Australia.  On arrival they are dismayed to learn they are being taken to Blacktown because they think it’s a ghetto for black arrivals, and then there’s their first meal.  Bob Harrison takes them to

… McDonald’s, which was a palace of confusion.  There were tables of wood that weren’t made of wood, and people dressed up in uniforms who weren’t soldiers, and there were huge pictures of food pasted on the walls, only I couldn’t see where the food actually was.  (p.143)

Bob had also organised their first apartment, above the offices of Marist Youth Care, where he worked:

It was a small two-bedroom place, but for us it was a palace, filled with technological wonders and food the likes of which we hadn’t even known existed.  After the long journey to Australia, I laid my body down on the first real bed I’d ever seen, under my first duvet, and I slept in a country at peace.

I will, for the rest of my life, be grateful to the people and organisations of Western Sydney for welcoming me into their fold, and I am proud that, as you read this sentence, I am most likely at my desk at my office, reading depositions, just a short distance away from that apartment.  I especially appreciate everything the Marists did for us – from flying us over, to arranging a job for John as the caretaker of the grounds surrounding our apartment.  Things were not easy in those early days, though.

Everything from crossing the road to heating the oven (Elizabeth [John’s wife] tried to heat it with kindling and fire) was confusing to us, and the Marists were our only tether to sense. (p.144)

(BTW On that long-haul plane journey from Nairobi via Hong Kong, they’d had nothing to eat, because they couldn’t figure out how to eat the plastic-covered food … gosh, wouldn’t you think someone would have noticed, and helped a fourteen year old kid too embarrassed to ask for help?)

Then, oh dear, Centrelink…

I am not one of those with not a good word to say for Centrelink, because politicians of all stripes have inflicted endless changes of policies and programs and systems on its hapless staff, then compounded the difficulty with that facile mantra ‘work smarter not harder’ every time they have a purge of public servants.  On top of that they have also entangled everything in privacy legislation to prevent information sharing, even with its own agencies like Medibank.  It also isn’t easy having to deal with people from hundreds of different cultures and languages, especially those cultures which have only recently started arriving in Australia.  (I know this, I was a teacher.  I was reported once by an Arabic parent for making an ‘obscene’ gesture in the playground when I gestured for a child to come over to me.  Who knew?  Not me, not my principal, not any other member of staff!)

I found out about Centrelink when for the first time in my life I had to deal with them in order to get an aged care place for my father in Victoria.  It made no difference that he was fully self-funded, it’s not possible to get a bed unless you fill out multiple forms and register in the system.  But alas, the computer screens froze when I couldn’t prove his identity – because although he’d spent 55 years as a taxpayer in Australia (and had a nomination for an AO!), at 91 he had no driving licence, valid passport or other approved ID.  Deng had a similar problem with Centrelink’s inflexibility:

As a minor, I would need a legal guardian in Australia, which was a strange concept for me because the closest I’d had to a guardian since the age of seven were superior officers from the SPLA. For my brother to be my guardian, he and I had to have the same surname, or at least a good reason why we didn’t.  Dinka-Bor naming convention was apparently not a good reason.

John’s full name was John Mac Acuek, so for us to register with the refugee papers that we had been given in Kenya, I had to take on John’s surname.  When I was given my Centrelink accreditation, I found a name on the form that meant absolutely nothing to me and bore no similarity to the names my family gave me, nor any mention of my clan’s history.  (p.146)

Deng was outraged at being renamed Dave Machacuek, and who could blame him.  I do hope Centrelink have found a better way of solving problems like this by now…

Songs of a War Boy is excellent reading, and credit should also go to Deng’s co-writer and journalist Ben McKelvey who, I suspect (on the basis of knowing the writing style of a few lawyers), had a hand in making this a crisp, coherent and thoroughly readable text.

Author: Deng Thiak Adut
Title: Songs of a War Boy
Publisher: Hachette, 2016
ISBN: 9780733636523
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Songs of a War Boy: The bestselling biography of Deng Adut – a child soldier, refugee and man of hope

Following on from my chance discovery of the 19th century writer Margaret Seymour in Australia’s First Century 1788-1888 which I’ve blogged for Bill’s ‘AWW Gen 1 week’ at The Australian Legend, (a week to focus on the first generation of Australia’s Women Writers) … now it’s time to look at the much more prolific Mary Gaunt.

Australia’s First Century 1788-1888 consists of facsimiles of pages about Australia that were originally published in a four-volume series called Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia, published in 1889.  I was looking for anything by Ellen Clacy, whose A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia 1852-53 I am currently reading on my Kindle.  But in addition to finding instead in the book’s Table of Contents two articles by Margaret Seymour (which I’ve reviewed here),  I also found seven articles by M. Gaunt, including ‘Gold’; ‘Ballarat’; ‘Explorers by Sea’; ‘Riverina’; ‘Early Explorers by Land’; ‘Later Explorers by Land’; and ‘Some Inland Towns of Victoria’.

Could this ‘M. Gaunt’ be the Mary Gaunt (1861-1942) that I’d noticed on Bill’s AWW Gen 1 page and whose Kirkham’s Find (1897) was reissued in 1988 as part of the Penguin Australian Women’s Library series?  Well, yes she was, and she was actually born in Australia (Chiltern, Victoria to be exact) and her story is just wonderful!

Photograph of Mary Gaunt, Australian novelist, included in her book “Alone in West Africa,” published in 1912 (Wikipedia Commons)

I found her at Australian Literary Journalism, a site well worth exploring further.  (It’s currently focussing on colonial literary journalism, but intending to expand.) Mary Gaunt’s page  complements one at Colonial Australian Popular Fiction and the one at the ADB but it’s the ALJ page that explains the ‘mannish’ quality of her writing for Cassell’s.  Whereas Ellen Clacy’s writing is notable for her female perspective and the title of Margaret Seymour’s ‘An Englishwoman’s First Experience of the Bush’ makes a virtue of the author’s gender as well as her English origin, not a word of anything M. Gaunt wrote so much as hints at its author being a woman.  Mary Gaunt’s page at Australian Literary Journalism explains why:

Gaunt’s first work of literary journalism was a first person article narrating her brother Ernest’s experiences in Papua New Guinea (1885).  She submitted the article to the Age as Ernest, not disclosing that she was his sister and had never left Victoria. It was promptly published and Gaunt later employed the same tactic for a series of first person articles about naval training undertaken by another brother, Guy, and the conflict he witnessed between officers at sea. Gaunt submitted the articles to the Argus under the byline, “by The Captain of the Maintop Starboard” (1888).

Her biographer, Bronwen Hickman writes that when Gaunt contributed to the volumes Picturesque Australasia (1887 – 1889) , she wrote under the name “M. Gaunt” to claim the stories without revealing her gender (2014; 47)  and appease her mother’s displeasure that she was writing journalism. For the Picturesque Australasia, Gaunt wrote again about her brother in Papua New Guinea, but also explored descriptive narrative closer to home, writing about the Victorian goldfields and the Riverina.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) says that Mary Gaunt was not a great writer but she knew her limits and within them she wrote with economy, directness, imagination and energy.  But the ADB seems to be focussing more on her novels than her journalism.  (To be fair, the ADB entry was probably written before Bronwen Hickman’s biography, Mary Gaunt Independent Colonial Woman, (2014) published by Melbourne Books. But I have noticed before that older entries in the ADB tend to be a bit dismissive of women writers.)  Whatever about that, if you read the home page at Australian Literary Journalism it would seem that Gaunt’s inclusion there means that her work fits their definition of

…long-form reporting written with the flair of the novelist or short story writer. In other words, non-fiction written using literary techniques such as characterisation, dialogue and description.

and moreover, we learn from the ALJ Mary Gaunt page  that later in her career she was pioneering the research process called ‘immersive journalism’ that I associate with Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) and Eve Langley. (1904-1974)

Returning home to Victoria, Gaunt wrote a fictional story for The Bulletin and worked on novels, but continued to write journalism articles that focussed on the care of the poor and those with disabilities, particularly women and children, rather than highlighting  bohemian poverty as Marcus Clarke did.  According to Hickman, Gaunt wrote from, “inside the institutions,” (2014;70)  so was practicing immersive journalism. Gaunt toured Melbourne slums with the Melbourne District Nursing Society (1893) then immersed herself in the kindergarten, “Little Sisters of the Poor.” (1893). Both were published in the Argus under her full name ‘Mary Gaunt’, as was her piece “A Butter Factory” (1894).

Ok, enough about all that, what do I think of the pieces I’ve read in Australia’s First Century 1788-1888?  Well, there being so much more to read, I haven’t read all of them.  But it takes only a page or two to discern that she’s not #understatement as sensitive a writer as Margaret Seymour:

The greater part of Victoria was a wilderness in those days, but of danger there was little, save that every-day danger of the Australian bush, want of water.  An occasional wandering tribe of aborigines too, might prove troublesome, but that hazard was lessening daily. They had never been very numerous, and the squatters had from the first been waging continual war against the dark-skinned denizens of the bush, who, now reduced to half their numbers, entertained a wholesome fear of the white man’s firearms.  Into the virgin forest, then, went these prospectors, among the hills and into the gullies where the foot of civilised man had never yet trod.  What if they did disturb the ferns and trailing creepers, and turn the pretty silver creeks rushing down the rocky hillsides into dirty, yellow-tinged streams, and the fern-clad gully into a desolate waste? No one ever saw the beauty they spoiled, no one very likely ever would have seen it, and these men, selfish as they no doubt were, have helped to build up a mighty colony. (‘Gold’, p137)

I don’t think there’s any way to interpret her blithe dismissal of reducing half the numbers of the indigenous people as a ‘lessening hazard’ other than to call it blatant racism, and I apologise if reproducing it here has caused any hurt or anger.  Later in the same article when Gaunt writes about the black troopers, while she acknowledges that although coming from the midst of savagery they made excellent policemen and were the equal of their white comrades, she goes on to say…

… Tall and slight, often good looking, a splendid horseman, managing his horse with grace and ease, this son of that race which is truly counted as one of the most degraded in the world was the beau ideal of the trooper.  Unfortunately there was a reverse side to the medal.  It was utterly impossible to civilise the black man.  After three months of civilised life, he would beg a holiday, and return for a little to his own people.  Then, should anyone pay a visit to the blacks camp, a mile or so down the creek, there might be seen prone on the ground, or crouching beneath a wretched mia-mia, that hardly served to keep out the weather, a dirty, unkempt savage, stark-naked, save for an opossum rug or a filthy blanket, surrounded by gnawed bones, fighting dogs, and all the conglomerate filth of a black’s camp. (p.142)

Some people might excuse this on the grounds that Mary Gaunt was a product of her time, but as you can see from my post about her contemporary Margaret Seymour, published in the same book, there were other writers who acknowledged dispossession and were concerned about the ‘outrages’ against the indigenous people.  And this offensive portrayal is in marked contrast to her depiction of the Chinese – which is generally sympathetic, though her pervasive snobbery makes her describe them as being drawn from the very lowest ranks of society.  (This snobbery makes me want to read those later articles about disadvantaged people, as mentioned above).

Nevertheless it is an astonishing achievement that she is able to present such a vivid portrait of the diggings from what the ADB tells us were her childhood memories and her brother’s ‘yarns’.  ‘Gold’ is detailed, comprehensive, and interesting, even at a distance of over a century.  The descriptions of the methods used for mining are vivid and take up many pages, which are accompanied by line drawings to clarify the process even further.  Any kid doing a ‘Gold’ project would love to get his hands on this book!

I skipped ‘Ballarat’ and ‘Explorers by Sea’ and went instead to ‘Riverina’, and enjoyed her presentation of Australia’s capricious river systems:

On the map the rivers and creeks twine and twist in and out in apparently inextricable confusion.  It is all but impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins; and yet the first impression of the stranger set down in Riverina in the summer-time would be that he had come into a dry and barren land, where no water is.  The sky is one clear, cloudless expanse of blue, so deep as to be almost purple; the atmosphere is without humidity, dry almost as the Sahara itself; and many of those creeks, marked so plainly on the map, are during the greater portion of the year mere chains of water-holes, between which a man may cross on foot dry-shod if indeed they are not dried up altogether.  (‘Riverina’, p. 613)

She explains for her English readers that sheep do wonderfully well despite the barren appearance and monotony of the landscape, except when drought lays its iron hand on the land.  She includes a graphic description of the horrific death that might come to a man lost on the plains but she says this is rare because the true bushman has an instinct, a kind of sixth sense and can find his way without a compass.

The monotony isn’t confined to the landscape either: in her arresting images of the life of a boundary rider, she describes the unchanging diet of tea and mutton and damper, damper, mutton and tea and notes that some of them end up suffering from scurvy because of their enforced abstinence from vegetable food.  (Maybe if they’d taken a tip from the Aborigines she was so scornful about in ‘Gold’, they might have had a better diet, eh?)  However, she offers an entirely different picture of the Riverina in winter, describing its perfect climate, its emergence as a health-resort, because the plains are full of life and warmth, and the dreary hot summer is but a memory of the past. She loves the peppercorn trees which thrive in the scorching summers, and even has a good word to say for the hot north winds because they play a part in town drainage, something she had noticed might otherwise be a problem in such a flat landscape!  She writes quite a lot about Deniliquin and Hay, which would surely be of interest to historians of these towns.

And used with prudent judgement, perhaps also of interest to authors writing historical novels.

Mary Gaunt - Independent Colonial WomanYou can listen to Michael Cathcart at Books and Arts at ABC Radio National, interviewing Bronwen Hickman about the biography, Mary Gaunt – Independent Colonial Woman.  (My goodness, we are going to miss Michael in the wake of all the changes at Radio National…)

Author: Mary Gaunt
Title: (selections from) Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, Facsimiled from pages devoted to Australia appearing in Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia MDCCCLXXXIX (1889)
Editor: E.E. Morris
Publisher: Child & Henry, in association with Fine Arts Press, 1980
ISBN: 0867770643
Source: Personal library


I was making my way through a Kindle edition of A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings 1852-53 by Ellen Clacy for Bill’s ‘ AWW Gen 1 week’ at The Australian Legend, which focuses on the first generation of Australia’s Women Writers … when it occurred to me that I might have a print version of it in a book that I’ve had for a very long time indeed.  It’s called Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, and it consists of facsimiles of pages about Australia that were originally published in a four-volume series called Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia, published in 1889.

Well, no, Clacy doesn’t get a mention.  But when I scoured the Table of Contents looking for women writers, I found that there was only one contributor who was identifiably female, and that was Margaret Seymour, who contributed ‘An Englishwoman’s First Experience of the Bush’, and ‘Queensland – Past and Present’,  – which is notable for acknowledging the dispossession of the Aborigines and notes one of the first acts of indigenous resistance, recording that there was fighting at Bribie Island at a place ‘now called Skirmish Point‘.  I can’t find anything about her online, I don’t even know the dates of her birth and death or where she came from in England.  I know nothing about why she came to Australia, or whether she stayed here, though she talks about having the keys of office at the cattle station when she arrives there.  She may have been a housekeeper there, because it will be her especial department to look after the cheeses; so will the poultry but she is an educated woman and whoever gives her the guided tour of the station talks about how they should soon be getting ready for dinner.  Perhaps he is her husband? A brother? It is frustrating not to know.  But, based on the two pieces in this book. I like her very much.

I like her frank assessment of the costs of the colonisation. Commenting on the expansion outward from Botany Bay she writes:

A great human tide was rising – rising to beat on unknown shores; it had not receded, because as yet only a few waves had crept beyond the usual tide mark.  The great waters were banking up behind, and the end would be a change so vast and so important in the world’s history that every detail of the pioneers’ early experience would become of deep interest. The hardships they endured; the pluck and energy they showed, are jewels in a national crown of glory; the mistakes they made, the outrages they committed, blots on that nation’s escutcheon.  (‘Queensland – Past and Present’ p.633)

I am impressed by Margaret Seymour.  While she is proud of the enterprise and energy of the Queensland settlers, she is not just alert to the dispossession caused by settlement, she also writes frankly about the racist treatment of the Chinese on the goldfields, calling them wonderfully industrious and frugal and citing these qualities as the reason for the white population’s disdain.  She says that

…they are the best gardeners, and pretty well the whole of the market-gardening of the colony is done by them.  As cooks they command as high wages as the white man, and therefore, from their numbers and their usefulness, they become the white man’s most powerful competitors… (p.638)

(Seymour is also complimentary about the Chinese cook she has, when she writes about her new home in ‘An Englishwoman’s First Experience of the Bush’, praising his spick-and-span appearance and the cleanliness of the kitchen though she does have doubts about him stoning the raisins for their Sunday pudding with his teeth!  But it is quite clear from her anecdotes about her meals and accommodation en route that the English settlers she encountered have even more dubious habits of hygiene so she is not being racist.)

In this piece about Queensland she is also enthusiastic about indigenous fruits, naming the Davidsonia plum, the Herbert River cherry, the kumquat and native limes, i.e. the finger lime (a plant only recently available for planting in domestic gardens.  The Spouse has been experimenting with them in cocktails, a pleasure perhaps denied to Margaret…) Seymour writes vividly about the progress of the settlements across the landscape but concludes in a nostalgic paragraph:

We have now made a hasty survey of a colony which would contain England more than thirteen times over.  We have seen the great invading wave of white faces creep slowly up  and sweep over the land, changing it in every direction.  The old things are fast passing away, the black faces have become fewer and are dying out, the strange kangaroo is beaten back into the interior, and the gorgeous birds have hidden themselves in the thickest scrub. It is not all gain to see the peace and silence of nature chased away by the rush of the settler and the noisy activity of the steam engine. (p.642)

She also has a sense of humour.  In ‘An Englishwoman’s First Experience of the Bush’, written by the time she feels confident about describing herself not as a ‘new chum’ but as ‘an old hand’, she starts with the train journey to Queensland.  The only woman in the carriage, she is seated opposite a butcher who stumbled on some gold, is now a millionaire, and was one of the distinguished colonials fêted in England at the Exhibition. 

‘What do you say the name of the new station is?’ he asked.


‘Alpha,’ he repeated, ‘and the next place is Beta, and there is a place over there called Omega.  Aint it strange, now, that the people about here can’t find any decent names for their places, but must needs call them by these blackfellow’s names!’ (‘An Englishwoman’s First Experience of the Bush’, p.490)

And lest you think she is being patronising, she tells you that it is all fair game for a ‘new chum’ to laugh if a bushman makes a mistake, for there is no denying they are unmerciful in their taunts at a new chum. She goes on to tell her readers that

The Australian bushman is strong, capable, and ingenious, inured to hardship, and incapable of fretting over trifles; but he is often ill-tempered and morose, always sure that the colonial way is best, and that there is nothing to be learned from anyone, least of all from a new chum. (p.490)

She also gives vivid examples of what ‘roughing it’ really means.

‘I should very much like a basin and some water to wash in, I am so dirty from yesterday’s long day in the train.’

My request is met by a very grave face, and the answer, ‘We are at the top of the range and water is very scarce here, but I will see what I can do.’

It was difficult not to look dismayed when my companion returned with a little tin mugful of water.

‘I wanted the water to wash with, not to drink, ‘ I said mildly.

‘I know that, and here is the soap.  Now you must take your first Bush lesson, and learn how bushmen wash when they have no basin and water is scarce.  Hold out your hands, so.  Now I shall put one thimbleful of water into them, and then you must soap them.  Now a rinse.  Now a nice lot for your face.  Once more, and the pannikin is empty.  There, you have not had a very bad wash, have you?  and you are a fully-baptised bushwoman.’ (p.494)

One of the deficiencies of this otherwise excellent book is that apart from there being no biographical information about any of the contributors, there is also mostly no acknowledgement of the artists who supplied the wonderful drawings of homesteads and shacks; birds, animals and plants; carriages or carts dealing with the rough terrain; and bush characters such as swagmen.  But it’s only a small quibble.  I think that the English readers of the original publication must have been fascinated by it all, but most especially by the vivid images of writers like Margaret Seymour.

Part 2 of my review of this book will be about Mary Gaunt.

Author: Margaret Seymour
Title: (selections from) Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, Facsimiled from pages devoted to Australia appearing in Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia MDCCCLXXXIX (1889)
Editor: E.E. Morris
Publisher: Child & Henry, in association with Fine Arts Press, 1980
ISBN: 0867770643
Source: Personal library.  Probably only available second-hand.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 19, 2018

Poor Man’s Wealth, by Rod Usher #BookReview

Sometimes I come across a gem of a book like this and I think, how did this one pass me by when it was first released? Rod Usher is an Australian author who now lives in Spain, and I stumbled on Poor Man’s Wealth in the library.  It turned out to be just the perfect book to read to offset the bleakness of The Story of a Brief Marriage and my only hesitation in recommending it is that you may have difficulty finding a copy.

I picked up the book because Rod Usher’s name was vaguely familiar to me: it’s probably because he was once the literary editor at The Age newspaper.  But Usher is an elusive author, and the most I could find out about him was at this exuberant post at Carol Kean’s blog.  Never mind, this novel speaks for itself, and this book will resonate with anyone who cares about the fate of small towns around the world, places being depopulated because in our crazy globalised world, there is not enough work for young people in rural areas, causing an exodus to cities.

Here is the blurb:

Part fable, part love story, part comi-tragedy, Poor Man´s Wealth is narrated, somewhat unreliably, by El Gordo–the Fat One. He is the mayor of Higot, a dusty village in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country under military rule. He and the secret Marisol Committee–a group of local councillors–dream up a plan to save the village from economic death and the exodus of its young people, especially now that tobacco–their one source of income–is a suspect crop. They start a hoax. El Gordo, whose charming English comes via a library bequeathed to him, argues that the hoax which so changes the life of Higot is no more a deception than, say, the Loch Ness Monster, Ireland´s Blarney Stone, the Colossus of Rhodes… Can they pull it off and attract tourists to unattractive Higot? Will the hunchback Bartolomeo, a sex scandal involving a bicycle, or the military junta blow the hoax apart, see its perpetrators ‘disappeared’? El Gordo takes the reader on a joyous, witty and wise journey through the travails of his village…and his heart.

The characterisation is so vivid that you can’t help but become invested in their fate, you find yourself cheering the love story on from the sidelines, and the plot is so cunningly constructed it will leave you guessing right up to the end.

Although Usher subtly tackles the corruption of the junta and the anxiety it evokes even in an out-of-the-way place like Higot, and there are sly asides about English class consciousness, the tone is comic throughout.  El Gordo’s lack of confidence in himself, his naïveté about so many things, and his stumbles with the intricacies of the English language render him a most lovable narrator:

Marisol Ruiz is not what you English speakers call a chicken of the spring (p.2)

When he had finished the last of the empanadillasGunther looked at his watch and said we should get down to brass business. (p.95)

At the Bar Vals, Enrique Ruiz, a cousin of Marisol in Juar, rented a machine with an arm that picks up a record and plays it.  Only one or two of our songs, the rest what Enrique calls American, which he says is the music young people will pay to hear.  I have listened to some of these songs and I am still not convinced the language is truly English.  (p.121)

I quickly told her I had come to do some tidying in my office and to receive some official visitors.  I am not sure which surprised her more.  Upstairs I moved various columns of papers to leave two chairs empty.  Footsteps could be heard coming up as I scrummaged in the cupboard for the framed photos all mayors must have on the wall.  (p.175)

El Gordo’s adventures with English verse are cheeky.  (An English expat called Mister Giles had made him a bequest of his library).  At a crucial moment in… um… #NoSpoilers! a promising relationship … is saved by the rhythm of the poem ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix‘ by Robert Browning:

I still do not have much more idea of what it means than when Mister Giles first read it to me but, as he said then, I got the thrust of it.

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.  (p.92)

Later on, a verse that comes to mind was one confirming the life I was now living rather than flavouring it with someone else’s sensations:

Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.

As I was swimming into half sleep I considered translating the lines of Mister Donne for #NoSpoilers! <snip>, a cheeky way to teach her the English words of placement. (p.204)

Rarely does one chuckle when reading a book that shows us the marginalised, the poor, the powerless and even the Black Dog of depression.  I do not want to give this book back to the library!

Author: Rod Usher
Title: Poor Man’s Wealth
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, 2011
ISBN: 9780732294519
Source: Kingston Library

Look out for a second-hand copy from Fishpond: Poor Man’s Wealth and yes, if you’re quick Brotherhood Books has one for $7.00.  The only thing that stops me buying this for myself is that I want someone else to be able to enjoy it #TruthBeTold but such altruism may not last.  However, (I hate to say this because you know how I hate The Big Behemoth) you can also get a Kindle edition for $14.00.

It took a while for me to recover after coming to the devastating end of this extraordinary short novel.  I knew what was coming – it is called The Story of a Brief Marriage after all – and from the very first pages when Dinesh, a Sri Lankan evacuee during the Sri Lankan civil war, moves across a blasted landscape with a gravely injured child in his arms, I knew this story could not end well.  But it is so exquisitely crafted, and the character of Dinesh so powerfully wrought, that the reader comes to share his tentative hopes.

Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, The Story of a Brief Marriage is Anuk Arudpragasam’s first novel.  It tells the story of how Dinesh, over the course of a day and a night, moves from a state of numb acceptance of having lost everything, to a hesitant awakening.  The story begins in a refugee camp, one of many which has formed as the civilians try to flee being caught between government forces and what is always referred to as ‘the movement’, which I take to mean the Tamil Tigers.  As the conflict draws in, the refugees are crushed towards the coast, and although Dinesh seems not much more than a boy, there is a constant risk that – if he isn’t killed by the shelling – as an able-bodied male he will  be captured and enlisted to fight for the movement.

‘Able-bodied’ is a relative term.  He has not slept for days, and he has not eaten.  He shed no tears when his mother was killed. But he is strong enough in body to help with bringing the injured to what little help is available.  This is the confronting first paragraph, indicative of pages that made me put the book aside sometimes, to walk outside in the garden to hear the carefree laughter of the children next door:

Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was now about to lose his right arm.  Shrapnel had dissolved his hand and forearm into a soft, formless mass, spilling to the ground from some parts, congealing in others, and charred everywhere else.  Three of the fingers had been fully detached, where they were now it was impossible to tell, and the two remaining still, the index finger and thumb, were dangling from the hand by very slender threads.  They swayed uncertainly in the air, tapping each other quietly, till arriving at last in the operating area Dinesh knelt to the ground, and laid the boy out carefully on an empty tarpaulin.  His chest, it seemed, was hardly moving.  His eyes were closed, and his face was calm, unknowing.  That he was not in the best of conditions there could be no doubt, but all that mattered for the time being was that the boy was safe.  Soon the doctor would arrive and the operation would be done, and in no time at all the arm would be as nicely healed as the already amputated thigh.  (p.1)

(I could not read this book at night at all. I read Rod Usher’s light-hearted Poor Man’s Wealth instead.  More about that later).

It is in this calm, detached tone, that Arudpragasam relates a story that most of us cannot possibly imagine, even though we see images from war zones on our TV screens all the time.   As the shelling of the camp continues, an old man approaches Dinesh, asking if he will consent to marry his daughter Ganga.  Because the story is always narrated by an apparently indifferent narrator but from Dinesh’s traumatised perspective, the reader can only try to comprehend the reasons for this strange offer from this unemotional, weirdly detached ‘logic’:

Whatever she and her father were in disagreement about, Ganga was right that getting married would make no great difference to her safety.  The two of them could always just pretend to be married if it made a difference to how the soldiers treated her, and the chances were good that they would do with her what they wanted in any case, regardless of her marital status.  Why Mr Somasundaram was so anxious for them to get married, then, if this was how things stood, was a little difficult to say.  It was possible naturally that he just wanted to see his daughter married before he died, so he could know she wouldn’t be left alone if he didn’t survive, but this was implausible too since getting married now, he must have known, would more likely hurt Ganga’s prospects than help.  Most probably they would both be killed before the fighting was finished, but on the off chance that she survived while he died she would be forced to live out the rest of her life a widow, whereas if she stayed unmarried there was a chance at least that she could find a husband by herself later on. Getting married was not necessarily in Ganga’s best interests, therefore, and if Mr Somasundaram wanted her married it could not have been for her sake but his own.  Probably it was something he wanted only so he could be free from responsibility for the last member of his family, so that no longer being responsible for anyone, he’d be able to dwell on his shame alone at last and in peace.  (p. 45-6)

Mr Somasundaram’s shame is that he failed in his duty to keep his family safe.  The power of this novella is that it is that calm dispassionate narrator’s logic which makes it so compassionate. When we read that Mr Somasundaram should not be absolved from guilt even in the circumstances of a world that had been unfair to him because it had removed all possibility of him being able to fulfil the responsibility he had undertaken, we refuse to accept this ‘logic’.   It sounds like a heartless politician or a complacent armchair philosopher.  We reject it.

Dinesh marries Ganga in a simple transaction devoid of all ceremony save the tying of her mother’s thaali around Ganga’s neck, and then begins the bittersweet story of Dinesh’s tentative steps towards looking after her and getting to know her.  He thinks it might perhaps be possible to make love before they die, but moments of respectful tenderness leads instead to unexpected release of a different kind.  As the pages creep towards the end of this short novel of only 193 page, the tension becomes almost unbearable.

Colm Tóibín calls The Story of a Brief Marriage ‘one of the best books I have read in years’, and so do I.

Author: Anuk Arudpragasam
Title: The Story of a Brief Marriage
Publisher: Flatiron Books, 2016
ISBN: 9781250075277
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $17.98

Available from Fishpond: The Story of a Brief Marriage


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 18, 2018

Common People, by Tony Birch #BookReview

This collection of 15 short stories by Tony Birch brings us stories of the everyday as it is lived by marginalised people.  The title is ironic, because although it implies that these people are all around, often unseen, they are nonetheless remarkable.

The first story, ‘Ghost Train’ is confronting.  Two single mothers, Marian and Lydia, drive to a remote site in the country for a cash-in-hand meat-packing job which turns out to be in an off-the-grid slaughterhouse.  Marian is wearing a skimpy T-shirt featuring an image of Barack Obama, and on the way to the job she cops some good-natured ribbing from her friend who thinks that the gift of a T-shirt is an inadequate recompense for sleeping with a wife-cheating loser called Justin.  But Marian says she likes it:

Marian ran a fingernail across the word HOPE below the president’s face.  ‘I don’t care.  I love the T-shirt, and the message.  It’s saying, you know, don’t give up. Hope!’ 

‘Are you serious?’

‘Yeah.  There’s nothing wrong with hope, Lydia.  Just because you’ve given up on the world, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to. (p.3)

Marian and her T-shirt are smeared with blood by the time they leave, one hundred and fifty dollars cash each in their pockets.  But Lydia’s day hasn’t done anything to restore any sense of hope because her heart is aching along with her shoulders.  She saw something really grisly when she slipped away from her work and went the wrong way to the toilet.  In the last shipping container they are processing the carcasses of animals that none of us would knowingly eat.  And the manager judges correctly that a guarantee of future work will ensure her silence.

Birch doesn’t romanticise the marginalised: Marian makes assumptions about a Vietnamese woman and is rude about her, within her hearing because she assumes she can’t understand English.  Rose gets a quiet form of comeuppance at the end of the story, which I really liked.

The second story ‘Harmless’ features a 13-year-old loner who takes an interest in a gentle misfit known to all as ‘Harmless’.  People in the community…

… would sometimes offer him help, but Harmless didn’t want help, and let them know without speaking a word.   He used to sleep nights in the bandstand in the middle of the park, except on cold and wet winter nights, when the police would drive by and insist he take up their offer of a bed, a blanket and a hot meal.  (p.15)

Some hard boys from the city beat him up, and that was the trigger for Harmless to make a home for himself in an abandoned timber shack and that is where the narrator goes for help when she finds a girl in trouble.  The town wants to make a heroes of them, but Nan wouldn’t hear of it.  She told me that no good could come from making a public spectacle of myself.  

Readers need to pay close attention to the characterisation in these stories.  This narrator is being brought up by her grandmother, and there’s a complete absence of any other family, though there’s a kindly garage owner who sells them a second-hand bike, and the policeman subverts the stereotype of the heartless copper by negotiating with Harmless for help that he is willing to accept.  (A much less benign copper features in a later story ‘Colours’.)  The husbands in ‘Ghost Train’ have shot through, and the other men are all hard cases which adds to the sense of menace.  The stories don’t feature ‘picket-fence’ families at all, except in ‘Sissy’ where the nuns arrange a holiday for a girl who’s never seen the sea.

A car turned into the street, a rare occurrence in the neighbourhood.  A couple of boys who’d been playing with a rusting three-wheeler bike chased the car as it slowly moved along the road.  Miriam dropped her cigarette and ground it under the heel of her shoe.  The car stopped in front of their house, a powder blue sedan that shined like new.  It was a small car, Sissy noticed, a two-door without a back seat.  She didn’t know anyone who owned a car and Sissy had never ridden in one.  She raised herself slightly out of her chair to catch a glimpse of the driver.  The passenger side window was so clean and shining all she could see was her mother’s apprehensive olive-skinned face reflected back to her.

The car door opened and a woman got out.  Although it was a hot morning she wore a mauve-coloured woollen suit and a straw hat with matching mauve flowers sewn into the brim, shading her pale skin.  She was so white Miriam was certain the lady was ill.  The woman walked around to the front of the car but remained on the road.  Miriam stepped onto the footpath and half curtsied before realising the stupidity of her action.  (p.136)

This story is especially poignant for the way we see an Indigenous single mother reacting as any parent would to the idea of letting her child go away for two weeks with people she doesn’t know, and then accedes to the offer because the opinion of the nuns at Sissy’s school clouds her own better judgement.

My favourite story is ‘Frank Slim.’  The people in these stories don’t access the services that middle-class Australia takes for granted, and a brothel-madam who’s paying protection money to the police doesn’t have any expectation that they might help when she is menaced by a very unsavoury character.   She also rejects the idea of any help from Welfare when one of her ‘girls’ shoots through, leaving her 12-year-old son behind.  But Viola has her own solutions to these problems, and her own ‘community’ doesn’t let her down.

There are not many authors who can override my preference for the novel with a collection of short stories, but Tony Birch is one of them.

PS That arresting cover design and illustration is by Josh Durham from Design by Committee.

Author: Tony Birch
Title: Common People
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2017
ISBN: 9780702259838
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Common People


A Whole Life is an unusual book to be an international bestseller.  It’s a very quiet book, a kind of elegy for a very quiet, solitary man.  I’ve seen it compared somewhere to Stoner by John Williams but although their principal characters share the same stoicism there isn’t the same sense of a life subordinate to self-sacrifice.  Stoner, a college professor, gives up the love of his life because in America at that time divorce would have destroyed not only his career but also hers – and that sacrifice would change them both in ways that would harm their love.  But (without in any way diminishing the integrity of either character), it seems to me that in A Whole Life Andreas Eggar is more of an Everyman.  He leads a much more humble life, he has very few choices, and he loses the love of his life through a natural disaster not through any noble self-sacrifice.  Seethaler’s novella is more about the quiet heroism of an ordinary man just getting by in a world that doesn’t care about him at all.  He represents any man who somehow survives an awful childhood without having his spirit broken, who plods through schooling that’s irrelevant to his needs and then drifts through low-paid casual work, and who serves his country in a war he doesn’t understand and is then punished for being on the losing side.  And he doesn’t even have the joys of family life because of the way fate served him.

A Whole Life starts in 1933, a date that many of us associate with Hitler’s rise to power, but the remote mountains of Austria are far away from the shrieking demagogue.  The village where Eggars arrived as a child in 1902 was still farming by hand with axe and scythe, and cars and tractors have not yet replaced the horse and cart.  The story begins with a curious episode that juxtaposes Death and Love on a day that Eggars will never forget.  He was rescuing a near-comatose goatherd from a lonely death on the mountain when the goatherd got up off the stretcher and ran away from the Cold Lady of Death, never to be seen again.  Afterwards, taking a restorative drink at the inn, Andreas then sees a lovely young woman:

All his life Andreas Eggar would look back on this moment, again and again: that brief  smile that afternoon in front of the  quietly crackling guesthouse stove. (p.8)

Episodes from the past fill in the backstory but don’t seem to disrupt the chronology because even though progress comes to the valley there is a pervading sense of timelessness.  The calm, measured prose reports on joy and tragedy with equal poise, rendered exquisitely in this translation by Charlotte Collins.  Things are like this, it seems to say.  They always were, and they always will be.    So we learn that after a brutal childhood at the hands of his uncle, Andreas left home with little skill or education, and a limp.  But he is immensely strong, and he has a quiet, stubborn confidence in himself.  He gets by with labouring jobs, sleeping rough in barns and sheds because he likes his own company.  He is self-sufficient because his needs are few, and the story of how he gets the money to woo and wed his sweetheart is as poignant as anything you may read in contemporary fiction.

Tragedy strikes, and Eggars is on his own again when the war reaches their hamlet.  The book records his mild surprise when he is eventually conscripted when he had previously failed the medical, but does not labour the point.  The reader understands what Andreas does not: that Germany is losing the war.

Of all the pages in this melancholy book, the story of Andreas’ time as a Russian prisoner of war is the most grim.

Helmut Moidaschl was the first in a long line of people Egger saw die in Voroshilovgrad.  The very night they arrived he was seized with a heavy fever, and his screams, stifled by the shreds of his blanket, filled the barracks for hours.  The next morning they found him lying dead in a corner, half-naked, doubled over, both fists pressed against his temples.

After a few weeks, Egger stopped counting the dead.  They were buried in a little birch wood behind the camp.  Death belonged to life like mould to bread.  Death was a fever.  It was a crack in the wall of the barracks and the winter wind whistling through.  (p.86)

He spends six years in Russia, and comes back to a different world.  His old employer had gone bankrupt just after the war.  There are new buildings, there are shiny new cars, and day-trippers and holiday makers throng to the ski-slopes.  He accepts all these changes with silent amazement and takes on work as a guide.  He has an opportunity to meet with his hateful old uncle, and acquits himself with dignity.  He makes no complaints.

But he is always alone, and silent, and private.  He makes no mark upon the world.

Author: Robert Seethaler
Title: A Whole Life
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Publisher: Picador, 2015, first published as
Ein ganzes Leben in 2014.
ISBN: 9781447281894
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: A Whole Life

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 15, 2018

Mr Hogarth’s Will, by Catherine Helen Spence #BookReview

Over at The Australian Legend, Bill is hosting a week (15-21 January) dedicated to the first generation of Australian women writers which he defines as those writers who came before the 1890s and the Sydney Bulletin ‘Bush Realism’ school, although many of them continued writing into the first part of the 20th century, though as he notes, most Australian writing before 1850 consists of letters and journals and novels only began to be published after that. What to read for this ‘week’ was an easy choice for me, because I’ve had Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865) on my TBR since Sue at Whispering Gums recommended it to me, and it has turned out to be utterly absorbing reading.

Catherine Helen Spence by Maude Gordon c 1900 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) migrated to Australia in 1839 aged 14, in the wake of her father’s financial difficulties, and as Dale Spender notes in the introduction, Australia turned out to be the right place for the restoration of the family’s fortunes.  As Luke Slattery showed in his novel Mrs M, Australia’s egalitarian ethos in the colony enabled social mobility even during the convict years whereas enduring class consciousness and snobbery about family ancestry in British society solidified divisions which could not be transcended.  There was no way ‘up’ but there were plenty of ways ‘down’, the most obvious of which was financial embarrassment (as we see in the novels of Dickens).

But as Mr Hogarth’s Will shows with striking clarity, there were structural reasons for a decline in family fortunes.  Inheritance law and custom meant that amongst the propertied classes, an eldest son inherited almost everything, while second and successive sons went into the military or the cloth or failing that, disappeared into some sort of administrative role in the far away colonies.  Going into business was not gentlemanly.  It was not done.  And the absence of all these eligible young men in faraway places meant that there were numerous young women educated for the prospect of marriage but with little chance of achieving it. For them, if an inheritance annuity was not forthcoming, the only employment option was to be a governess.

Which is what happens to Jane and Alice (Elsie) Melville in Mr Hogarth’s Will.  The eccentric Hogarth, despite the remonstrances of his lawyer, made a Will which effectively disinherited them so that they would not be courted for their fortune, and left his estate to a formerly unacknowledged illegitimate son called Francis.  It was Mr Hogarth’s intention that the young ladies should be independent and work for their living, but he has not had them educated with what was essential to become governesses to other young ladies.  These subjects were called The Accomplishments’ (playing piano, singing, drawing, painting, needlework, French &c); he has had them taught the ‘mannish’ subjects of Latin and Greek, mathematics, agricultural chemistry and mineralogy.  Admirably educated for teaching boys, or for book-keeping, accountancy or other administrative work, Jane searches for work everywhere but the doors to employment are closed because of her gender.  Alice, meanwhile, is that staple ‘delicate’ young woman of 19th century literature.  Sweet, pretty and fragile, she feels the loss of their middle-class expectations more keenly than the plain and practical Jane, i.e. Alice weeps a lot and goes into a decline.  Alice has grown up having allowances made for her ‘delicacy’, so in their present change of circumstances all that is expected of her is that she should try to do something not too taxing such as needlework or writing sentimental poems.  Stoic Jane shoulders this burden willingly but things seem all the harder for her because she is confronted with the reality while sheltering Alice from it.

Former friends, neighbours and a potential suitor pity and patronise Jane and Alice, but no one offers them any help. Things come to such a pass that the only accommodation they can afford is in a working-class district of Edinburgh with a returned colonial called Peggy who is supporting a brood of orphaned nephews as a washerwoman.

Mr Hogarth’s Will, to add insult to injury, includes a clause that prevents Francis from helping Jane and Alice in any way, specifically prohibiting marriage and ensuring that the money goes to charity if any of the conditions are breached.  And as you would expect in a 19th century Cinderella novel, Francis falls in love with one of these girls that he is forbidden to marry. The other attracts the attention of a colonial called Brandon who,  anticipating the #MeToo hashtag controversy, has come to their disapproving attention via Peggy’s story of his ‘inappropriate’ behaviour back in Australia.

Mr Hogarth’s Will is not, despite its romantic entanglements and happy resolution, a soppy romance.  The plot is absorbing over the full length of the book because the girls’ problems seem insurmountable and this novel is an early example of feminist realism in an entertaining package.   Spence was on a mission to expose the structural problem of female unemployment and the poverty of single women.  In an extended dialogue between Jane and Mr Rennie at the bank, Jane tackles his refusal to give her work.  She demolishes all his reasons, notably that her presence would distract the young men from their work, that women can’t be trusted with confidential information, and that employing women reduces employment for family men supporting families.  And when he expresses sympathy for their difficult circumstances, she has a swift rebuttal because her search for work has taught her that she is just one of many others, all competing for the same poorly paid work that offers little hope of advancement or any chance of improvement in their circumstances:

… ‘You know there are enormous numbers of single women and widows in this country who must be supported, either by their own earnings or by those of the other sex, for they must live, you know.’
Mr Rennie smiled at Jane’s earnestness.
‘You smile, “on ne voit pas la necessité”*, said Jane.  “I dare say it would really be better for us to die.’
‘I am sure nothing was further from my lips than either the language or the sentiment.  I think your case especially hard – especially hard.’
‘I thought it was, till I heard of these numerous applications; and the sad thing to me is, that it is not especially hard…’ (p.39)

*”We do not see the need”.

Australian $5 note (Source: Wikipedia, this use compliant with RBA restrictions)

Along the way, Spence also pokes fun at British condescension about colonists; satirises the publishing industry and its formulaic products; and includes some (mercifully not too long) rants about politics (and her pet project, proportional representation).   These political opinions are digestible within the novel because they are delivered in dialogue by a lively cast of characters – and they have historical significance today because Spence’s career went on to include standing as the first female candidate for parliament in 1897 and being a potent activist for social, economic and electoral reform.

Australian 10c stamp (1975) (Source: Wikitree, Notable Australians)

Catherine Helen Spence was honoured on the Centenary of Federation $5 note, and she was also commemorated on a 10c stamp in 1975.  Miles Franklin named her as the  “Greatest Australian Woman” and on Spence’s 80th birthday she was named as a “Grand Old Woman of Australia’.  The Art Gallery of South Australia apparently has a posthumous portrait painted by her protégé Margaret Preston (known at that time as Rose McPherson), but all my attempts to find it using their collection search function have failed.  But if Wikitree: Notable Australians is correct, and the Preston painting was used as the source for the stamp image, it makes her look like a sour old woman compared to the painting by Maude Gordon, which portrays her a lively personality with twinkling eyes and an amused smile. Which is much more in keeping with the witty style and clever humour of Mr Hogarth’s Will.

Thanks for the recommendation, Sue!

Update 17/1/18 Thanks to Katherine Burton at the NLA who did a search of this series for me, I can now tell you  the following titles were published as part of the Penguin Australian Women’s Library:

  • The Peaceful Army edited by Flora Eldershaw (1988)
  • Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence (1988)
  • The Fortunes of Mary Fortune by Mary Fortune (1989)
  • Kirkham’s Find by Mary Gaunt (1988),
  • The Letters of Rachel Henning (1988)
  • Mo Burdekin by Sarah Campion (1990)
  • Sisters by Ada Cambridge (1989)
  • Jungfrau by Dymphna Cusack (1989)
  • The Penguin Anthology of Australian Women’s Writing (1988)

The rest of the titles are about women’s writing but not, as far as I can tell, actually reissues of titles or collected works from the period.  A bit of a lost opportunity IMO.

Author: Catherine Helen Spence
Title: Mr Hogarth’s Will (first published in Australia as Uphill Work but Mr Hogarth’s Will in Britain)
Introduction by Dale Spender
Publisher: Penguin Australian Women’s Library, Penguin Australia, 1988, first published 1865.
ISBN: 9780140112337, 439 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Diversity Books, $6.00

Don’t even think about buying it new: all I could find at Fishpond or The Book Depository were very expensive ‘heritage series’ or scholarly editions.  But Fishpond does sometimes have second-hand copies: if you search for it there, scroll down the results until (if you are lucky) you see one tagged New and Used… on the day I looked there had been one at $16.99.  Other places to look for second-hand copies are Brotherhood Books and Diversity Books and also AbeBooks.  But do be careful: Mr Hogarth’s Will was originally published in three separate volumes, and the listings don’t always make it clear whether you are getting the whole book or not.

If you can bear it, you can read Mr Hogarth’s Will as a pdf courtesy of Sydney University.  But don’t print it out, the novel is 439 pages long!

Or try your library…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 12, 2018

Heloise, by Mandy Hager #BookReview

Heloise, Mangy Hager’s first work of fiction for adults, has been longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and it turned out to be interesting reading, though *chuckle* perhaps not in the way that its author intended it to be.  It is a retelling of a story many already know: the doomed love of the famous 12th century French lovers whose letters have come to exemplify passion and romance for a thousand years.  Hager’s novel, the blurb tells us, offers a plausible interpretation of the known facts and a vivid imagining of the gaps in the lives of the philosopher and theologian Peter Abélard – who was compelled to be celibate by his position as a secular canon – but who seduced his younger pupil-scholar Héloïse d’Argenteuil who subsequently became his not-so-secret wife and then a reluctant nun. Both of them paid a terrible price for their forbidden love, which makes for a good story even if you already know its outline.  But what made it interesting for me was its problematic aspects…

In order to discuss this, it is necessary to reveals elements of the story, so be warned:


The novel is written entirely from Heloise’s point-of-view, tracing her rescue from an unhappy foster-home to her uncle’s Fulbert’s care and placement in a convent at Argenteuil, now a suburb of Paris.  There she gains access to education from the Jewish convert Saris, learning Latin and Greek and exploring the works of Ovid and Virgil.  But when the convent is closed due to political manoeuvring, Heloise takes shelter under her uncle’s roof in Paris, and pining for her lost education opportunities, she discreetly attends male-only lectures by the famous teacher Abelard.  Highly intelligent, Heloise is frustrated by the restrictions on education for girls in this medieval era and is delighted when her uncle allows Abelard to take lodgings with him and to teach the teenage Heloise.  They enjoy intellectual word play and robust discussions, but eventually the first of the problematic incidents takes place.  Their mutual attraction and shared passion leads to him forcing himself on her.  In this novel, although she loves him and he loves her, it is unquestionably rape.

And she forgives him.

It turns out that she has quite a lot of forgiving to do.  Hager’s Abelard is selfish, arrogant, domineering and impulsive, and eventually Heloise comes to realise that what she interpreted as concern for her welfare, was more likely protecting his own interests and safety.  But – fascinated by his mind and convinced of his intellectual legacy – she forgives him for hiding her away with his family when she is pregnant, (and failing to protect her, in her innocence, from that).  He fails to protect her from her enraged uncle’s fists as well, and the violence of Fulbert’s fury almost kills her, but oh yes, she forgives him too.

Heloise forgives Abelard for neglecting her for months while he is busy with his career, failing to write and to visit, leaving her in a state of constant anxiety about his fate and hers.  But when he eventually does turn up, forcing himself on her a mere three weeks after the birth (ouch!) she is so delighted that he shows some interest in his son that she overlooks it all, going on to forgive him for lying to her about the fate of this infant son so that she doesn’t see Astrolabe again until his adolescence; for making her go through a sham secret marriage; and for finally forcing her to take the veil though she has consistently rejected that option because she cherishes her independence. And not until very late in the novel does Heloise ever contemplate career options for Abelard that would have enabled them to be together.

So when I encountered these problematic aspects of the novel that portray Abelard in a less-than-flattering light, and Heloise’s loving letters are quoted in the wake of behaviour that most of us would consider unforgiveable, and all this reprehensible and unloving behaviour is excused by a diagnosis of Abelard’s ‘mania’ (this, made a thousand years after the man has died) and the very young Heloise has the wisdom to be understanding about it, well – handicapped by not knowing which aspects of the novel are based on solid research and which are plausible interpretations or a vivid imagining of the gaps – my ‘credibility antennae’ start to quiver.

I don’t want to read a novel like Heloise only to have to spend my time tracking down the authenticity of the research on which it’s based, but what on earth is a card-carrying 20th century feminist to think about this? Heloise as befits a somewhat rebellious personality has her moments of doubt, but they are always resolved with forgiveness and understanding.

Here’s an example, when in a moment of crisis, a stanza from one of Abelard’s poems torments her:

Be my spirit for me… This phrase tolls on while every wrong he ever did her unfurls like a court roll in her head.  His bodily force, his vanity, his total absorption with himself, his insistence on marriage and that she take the veil, the stealing of her son…

Be my spirit for me… And yet, and yet… had he not also marvelled at her mind and shared the tools to open it?  Had he not woken the woman in her and enabled that fleeting glimpse of Heaven? He rarely talked down to her; he listened and valued her input into his works.  He may be a man with many failings, no doubt of that, but is not everyone imperfect?  Surely this is the lesson of Adam and Eve?  Godlike perfection may be the ideal to strive towards, but in the garden somewhere will always lurk a snake.  (p.235)

Maybe that is really how it was, but all the same, it’s a strange message to send to a contemporary readership, especially in the wake of issues raised in this post by WA author Rashida Murphy.

PS The church infighting about obscure matters of theology is, I guess, necessary for the storyline, but I found it detracted from the narrative drive.

But for an entirely different reaction to mine, do listen to this podcast at Radio NZ.  Elisabeth Easther is almost breathless in her enthusiasm and she shares none of my misgivings at all!

Alys on the Blog has a fine review as well.

Author: Mandy Hager
Title: Heloise
Publisher: Penguin Random House New Zealand, 2017
ISBN: 9780143770992
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $30.50 AUD

Available from Fishpond: Heloise

Season of Migration to the North (1966) is not the first book I have read from Sudan, but it is unquestionably the most famous one.  It is featured in some editions of 1001 Books; it was named as the most important Arabic novel of the 20th Century by the Arab Literary Academy in 2001; and its author Tayeb Salih (1929-2009) was considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize.  Given a second life in 2009 when Season of Migration to the North was reissued for the influential NYRB Classics series, the novel was first brought to my attention by enticing reviews at Reading Matters, and Intermittences of the Mind, and then it was included in Radio National’s (now defunct) Africa Reading Club.  And although it is a difficult book to make sense of, it is well worth reading for those of us who would like to understand more about the culture of the growing Sudanese community in Australia.

When I say that it is a difficult book ‘to make sense of’, I don’t mean that it’s hard to understand what’s happens in the novel.  The plot is reasonably straightforward: in the 1960s, in an unsettled period in his home country of Sudan, an unnamed narrator returns home to his village.  He has been studying literature in the UK, and he is hoping to make a difference in his newly independent homeland.  He expects to find everything much the same in this small village where everyone knows everyone else, and spends his first days at home revisiting the places of his youth, catching up with relations and renewing old friendships.  But he soon discovers a recent arrival to the village, an enigmatic stranger called Mustafa Sa’eed, and to his astonishment one day this man starts reciting English war poetry in a perfect English accent.  It turns out that he had studied abroad too.

Eventually, in a story within the story,  Mustafa comes clean with the dirty secrets of his hidden past.  In England he had become a notable economist, destined to help his country emerge into nationhood, but – resentful of the way he was constantly exoticised by women – he pandered to their Oriental fantasies, with disastrous results.  Reinforcing the stereotype of the ‘Dangerous Black Man’  he murders one of these women,  but he is given only a light sentence in a bizarre trial reminiscent of the trial of Meersault in Camus’ The Outsider.  He is not really on trial for what he has done, he is on trial for being disassociated from the culture in which he finds himself, and for his lack of emotion.

No sooner has all this been revealed than Sa’eed abruptly disappears, leaving the narrator confused and angry, because – in a breach of village traditions – Sa’eed has bequeathed responsibility for his wife and two sons to him, rather than to the wife’s father and brothers.  This infantilising treatment of a woman is one of many moments in this novel to make a feminist bristle…

There is also a much quoted episode where the men of the village gather together to drink and gossip and boast about their conquests.  Women know that many men do this behind our backs but it is always unpleasant to come across it in fiction, because it makes it harder to ignore the fact that this smutty objectification of women happens in real life (and perhaps even among the apparently nice men that we know or have to work with).  But this behaviour is not hidden in the novel.  It is overt: there is even a token woman present.  There is an obvious temptation to interpret this and other misogynistic sequences as indicative of the way a different culture openly treats women with contempt, but the issue os not addressed in the otherwise excellent introduction by Leila Lalami.  (Kim calls it out in her review, noting that the line between sexual violence and eroticism does feel blurred in places, and the book, unsurprisingly, has been condemned in the past for being pornographic).

It was not until I listened to the discussion at Radio National that I began to grasp the postcolonial purpose of the misogyny:  (see here, starting at 13:00).  Salih himself in a 1997 interview talks about how his novel was an early example of identifying Orientalism, showing how people look at each other through a haze of stereotyping of the Other and there are misunderstandings on both sides.  One of Michael Cathcart’s guests, Prof David McKinnon expands on this in his explanation of what postcolonial literature exposes: by inverting the tropes of a book like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it shows us that one culture has an apparatus for describing the means of representation of the Other  – they own the narrative and they get to tell the stories in their own terms.  So, if I understand it correctly, in this episode,  an exaggerated cast of men represent the condescending coloniser exploiting and belittling the colonised (women).  It is significant then, that the token (old i.e. desexed) woman remains silent on the matter of female circumcision; she joins in some of the bawdy talk because she thinks she is accepted by the men and can share their narrative, but when it comes to the mutilation of women’s bodies, she is silenced.  The narrative is theirs: there is no place for a narrative that the men cannot share because they do not know or understand the Female Other.  This scene exposes the way that Sudanese might delude themselves that they are accepted as equal but the truth is that Europeans do not even know about, much less understand Sudanese traditions and therefore these traditions are excluded by the dominant narrative.

The narrator is a moral contrast to Sa’eed, not only in his determination to grant autonomy to a woman who wants to remain free, but also in his awareness of shared humanity.  Early in the novel he responds to curious questions about Europe by saying:

As best I could I answered their many questions.  They were surprised when I told them that Europeans were, with minor differences, exactly like them, marrying and bringing up their children in accordance with principles and traditions, that they had good morals and were in general good people.

‘Are there any farmers among them? Mahjoub asked me.

‘Yes, there are some farmers among them.  They’ve got everything – workers and doctors and farmers and teachers, just like us.’  I preferred not to say the rest that had come to mind: that just like us they are born and die, and in the journey from the cradle to the grave they dream dreams some of which come true and some of which are frustrated; that they fear the unknown, search for love and seek contentment in wife and child; that some are strong and some are weak; that some have been given more than they deserve by life while others have been deprived by it, but that the differences are narrowing and most of the weak are no longer weak.  I did not say this to Mahjoub, though I wish I had done so, for he was intelligent; in my conceit I was afraid he would not understand.  (p.5)

But as Leila Lalami points out in the introduction, there is no rosy conciliation between modernity and tradition in the novel.  The narrator with his PhD in poetry does not fit easily back into village life, and there is irony in his attendance at a Pan-African education conference in a glitzy modern building where they meet for days and days to standardise the curriculum – when there are not enough teachers and schools to teach it.  The hopes and dreams of independence are frustrated by corruption and greed because, says Salih, the colonisers trained their replacements to think as they do.  In the Guardian obituary of 2009 Salih is quoted as saying “I have redefined the so-called east-west relationship as essentially one of conflict, while it had previously been treated in romantic terms,” and that’s certainly true.  It’s not an optimistic picture, which today, more than 50 years after the book was written, seems all the more devastating given the long postcolonial history of Sudan’s civil war and its spawn in the ongoing civil war in South Sudan.

Author: Tayeb Salih
Title: Season of Migration to the North
Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies
Introduction by Laila Lalami
Publisher: NYRB Classics, 2009, first published 1966 in Arabic, 1969 in English in the Heinemann African Writers Series
ISBN: 9781590173022
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $16.25 AUD

Available from Fishpond: Season of Migration to the North


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 8, 2018

Incredible Floridas, by Stephen Orr #BookReview

Stephen Orr is one of my favourite authors, and I have read (and reviewed) all of his fiction except for his debut novel Attempts to Draw Jesus (2002) which I have yet to find.  Although each book he writes takes us into a different Australian landscape, there are common themes:  a nostalgia for the intimacy and eccentricities of suburban life as his generation lived it in the 1960s and 70s; a preoccupation with the relationship between father-figures and sons; and the impositions of parental ambition on the next generation.

Where The Hands, an Australian Pastoral (2015) focussed on the intergenerational inheritance issues of a hard-scrabble farming family, Incredible Floridas revisits the theme of Dissonance (2012) which explored the conflicts between creative ambition and normal family life.  And whereas Dissonance is loosely based on the life of the composer Percy Grainger, for Incredible Floridas Orr has chosen a well-known Australian painter as the inspiration for his central character Roland Griffin.  By the descriptions of the artworks and the workings of Roland’s imagination, the reader can see that Roland is loosely modelled on Russell Drysdale (1912-1981).  Similarly caught in the cross-currents of post-war art, Roland finds that his landscapes with iconic figures of Indigenous people and outback battlers are being displaced by abstractionism, and at the same time in the State Gallery of SA he is disappointed by the classical paintings on display because they’re not about Australian life. Galleries have bought Roland’s paintings but no longer hang them, and the Archibald Prize rejects his latest work.  Nevertheless, in the middle of the catastrophic drought during the war years Roland takes his family into the devastated ghost towns of the interior and sketches the people doing it tough in what’s left of the towns.  He admires the optimism of the people who are hanging on and he believes passionately that he has something to contribute to urban people who know nothing of the hardships of people on the land.

But the novel is not primarily about the travails of an artist’s life.  It is more about a man whose son has committed suicide, and the inevitable guilt and what-ifs that ensue.  In some ways it is similar to Time’s Long Ruin (2010) which tackled the aftermath of a disappearance reminiscent of the disappearance of the Beaumont Children in 1966.  Incredible Floridas also explores what I described in my review as the endless, hopeless swirl of thoughts about who, and how, and why.   The guilt about what could have been prevented, about anger and discipline and careless words, the anguished recollection of unkind acts and sins of omission that all parents inevitably commit.  But in this novel, things are more complex.  It is not a case of innocents stolen away by someone evil.   Roland’s son Hal is a very difficult child indeed and he drives everyone to distraction: his parents, his sister Sonia, his neighbours, his teachers and the other children in his neighbourhood.  It is not until his late adolescence that his problems are finally recognised and diagnosed and the reader knows from the beginning of the book that it was too late by then.

The novel begins in 1962 when the tragedy has just occurred, and the rest of the novel traces events from 1944 onwards as Roland Griffin reflects on his priorities – his art, and fatherhood.  So the tone is melancholy and nostalgic, but not grim.  Memories are the everyday stuff of family life, delivered in fractured dialogue, seguing from one scene to another as Hal’s life unfolds.  Like his namesake in Hamlet, Hal is tormented by personal demons that he does not understand but unlike Hamlet he is not fatherless.  His father is often psychologically absent because Roland Griffin is preoccupied by his art, but he’s not a bad father: he just can’t sustain being there for this most difficult child when he needs to be making his living with his art.  He is out of his depth, trying to deal with Hal’s irrational outbursts of increasing savagery.  A fight at school puts a boy in hospital; he sets off fireworks on the dance floor at a Legacy dance.

His parents blame the brutal honesty of other children who know Hal is not normal, they blame the inadequacies of the school and they blame themselves.  They try to protect Hal from the consequences of his thieving and violence, and there is also kindness and understanding from their neighbour Sam and his grandmother Nan.  But as Hal’s behaviours escalate their marriage comes under increasing strain while also impacting on their daughter Sonia.  The novel shows the strain of a past era when women looked to men to be providers:

This was the problem with wives, Roland guessed.  They had no intention of letting a man return to his childhood, which, it seemed to him, was the only place wroth returning to.  They wanted them working, earning, saying sensible things, not painting, dreaming away the days, making unfunny jokes and buying ruined buildings in ghost towns.  Men had to be made sensible.  (p.140)

The title is, I think, an allusion to a poem called Le Bateau Ivre (The Drunken Boat) by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), who influenced the development of surrealism.  The poem describes of a poet trying to spread harmony and understanding through the visions of a boat lost at sea and the disillusionment when the spell breaks and there is only a sense of failure and imprisonment.

I struck against, you know, unbelievable Floridas
Mingling with flowers panthers’ eyes and human
Skin! Rainbows stretched like bridal reins
Under the horizon of the seas to greenish herds!

(Arthur Rimbaud, “The Drunken Boat” from Complete Works, Selected Letters, translated by Wallace Fowlie. Copyright © 2005 by Wallace Fowlie.  Reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press at The Poetry Foundation. )

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: Incredible Floridas
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743055076
Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: Incredible Floridas


This is the first in what I hope will be a series where debut Australian authors have the opportunity to spruik their novel!

Rachel Leary, photo by Kirsty Argyle

First up are Tassie author Rachel Leary, featured in Meet an Aussie Author late last year – and Louise Allan from WA. Many of you will know Louise from her blog series Writers in the Attic.

Rachel’s first novel is Bridget Crack which I reviewed a little while ago.  The book is published by Allen & Unwin, ISBN: 9781760295479

Bridget Crack is a young working class women transported to Van Diemen’s Land.  Raised by an uncaring step-mother she is emotionally reserved, seemingly-tough and recalcitrant.  In England she married an irresponsible man, which ultimately led to her transportation to the other side of the world.  In Van Diemen’s Land she must now contend with the life of an indentured servant.  In trying to both survive and wrestle some control over her circumstances she flees from her neglectful, taciturn master’s service, only to become lost in the bush.  Here she falls in with bad company.  Matt Brady is a bushranger, a man on the run.  Alluring, but confusing and volatile she becomes increasingly trapped in his world.  Now, viewed as bushranger’s whore, how can she find her way out of the marginal, wild lands?

Captain Marshall, Bridget’s first master in the colony, is a soldier, a man from a merchant family married to a would-be aristocrat. He could possibly save Bridget, but does he have what it takes to be a hero? He, like Bridget, must come to terms with this strange new land, and who and what he is within it.  The British are here to civilise wilderness and its ‘savages’, to use this land as their God intended, and to redeem sinners and criminals.  Marshall is expected to embrace this cause, but why does he find himself increasingly uncomfortable?  Set at a time when tension between the aboriginals and the settlers is rising, Bridget Crack charts a women’s journey through wilderness and a her quest to survive the darkness of humanity.

You can buy the book from all good bookstores including Fishpond: Bridget Crack .

And then we have Louise Allan’s first novel, ‘The Sisters’ Song’,  out now with Allen and Unwin, ISBN 9781760296315. The manuscript has previously been shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle—TAG Hungerford Award and awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship.   Louise grew up in Tasmania but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her first career was as a doctor, but in 2010 she ceased practising medicine and took up writing. She has had several short stories, essays and articles published in literary anthologies and medical journals.   Apart from writing, Louise also enjoys music, photography, walking and nature.  You can find her at her website, on Facebook, at Twitter, and Instagram.


This is the blurb for The Sisters’ Song:

Set in rural Tasmania from the 1920s to the 1990s, The Sisters’ Song traces the lives of two very different sisters. One for whom giving and loving are her most natural qualities and the other who cannot forgive and forget.

As children, Ida loves looking after her younger sister, Nora, but when their beloved father dies in 1926, everything changes. The two girls move in with their grandmother who is particularly encouraging of Nora’s musical talent. Nora eventually follows her dream of a brilliant musical career, while Ida takes a job as a nanny and their lives become quite separate.

The two sisters are reunited as Nora’s life takes an unwelcome direction and she finds herself, embittered and resentful, isolated in the Tasmanian bush with a husband and children. Ida longs passionately for a family and when she marries Len, a reliable and good man, she hopes to soon become a mother. Over time, it becomes clear that this is never likely to happen. In Ida’s eyes, it seems that Nora possesses everything in life that could possibly matter yet she values none of it.

Over a span of seventy years, the strengths and flaws of motherhood are revealed through the mercurial relationship of these two very different sisters. ‘The Sisters’ Song’ speaks of dreams, children and family, all entwined with a musical thread that binds them together.

And here Louise shares the story of how she came to write her book:

My first book, The Sisters’ Song, is about two sisters, one of whom dearly wants a family, while the other dreams of being an opera singer. Needless to say, neither sister’s dreams are realised, and the story is about how each deals with their loss and grief.

There’s a quote at the beginning of my book: ‘There are some women not meant to have children, and there are others born to do nothing else.’

For millennia, motherhood and children were considered the ultimate goal of a woman’s life, and throughout history many intelligent and creative women were never given the opportunity to develop their potential. Today, we’re meant to consider ourselves lucky because we can have careers as well as motherhood, but even now a woman who chooses not to have children is considered odd.

I drew inspiration from my antecedents, creative and intelligent women whose talents weren’t encouraged or allowed to flourish, but who married young and had large families. My great-grandmother, for example, was married at 16, and by the time she was widowed at the age of 27, had six children. A few years later, she took to her bed where she made exquisitely beautiful handcrafts for the next 26 years. I used to think she was selfish, but now I see it was her way of surviving.

My grandmother had eight children, and, although the pill was available in her latter reproductive years, she wouldn’t use contraception because of her strict Catholicism. She complained with each pregnancy and mistreated her kids, and I wonder if having child after unwanted child really was the best way to serve God. She was intelligent and artistic, and I wonder how much of her mistreatment of her kids was due to frustration at not being able to use her intellect and creativity.

I pondered all of this as I wrote my story, as well as my own sometimes conflicting feelings between caring for my family and pursuing my own dreams and hopes.

You can buy Louise’s book from all good bookstores including Fishpond:  The Sisters’ Song

Debut authors of literary fiction who would like the opportunity to be featured in Debut Mondays, should read the ANZLitLovers review policy to get an idea of the scope, style and readership of this blog and get in touch if interested.


Here’s the first #6Degrees for 2018!  Hosted by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best this month’s starter book is The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith and I’ve read it, because my mother loved it.  I used to buy the latest incarnation of the series for her birthdays, Christmas, Mothers’ Days and was always pleased that McCall Smith was so prolific!

My mother also loved Pride and Prejudice. (Don’t we all?)  This set of Austen’s was my mother’s, each one quaintly inscribed with ‘Mrs Hill’.  I can’t imagine any woman doing that these days!  These books have charming illustrations by C.E. Brock (though that’s not acknowledged in the book, I had to do a Google search to find out); an introduction by R. Brimley Johnson; and were published by Readers Union, by permission of J. M. Dent and Sons, who, the verso page tells me, were the original publishers.  Wikipedia says otherwise: it credits T. Egerton, Whitehall as the original publisher…

The fiction I read these days confines art work to the covers, and often not even then.  Michelle de Kretser deserved a better cover than the one on The Life to Come.  It conveys nothing at all about the book, which explores the way that assumptions about ourselves and others impact on relationships in all kinds of ways in a muticultual society.

OTOH, the cover of What’s Yours is Mine, equally simple, and probably equally cheap to do since it also just uses text, tells you a lot about the book!

I’m also attracted by book titles, of course, but they can be deceptive.  Adrian Mitchell’s The Beachcomber’s Wife is a good title (with a great cover), and an enjoyable book on the theme of women’s lives being subservient to others, but I would never have picked up a book with a dull title like The Adventures of Augie March if it hadn’t been written by Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow.

So yes, my choices are influenced by the fame of the writer, but only up to a point.  At the end of the day it’s the words between the pages that matter, and even notable writers have their duds.  (Yes, Iris Murdoch, I’m looking at you).  That’s why I’m always open to reading debut authors.  It’s hard to choose a favourite, but a debut that I really liked from last year was Michalia Arathimos’ AukatiArathimos is writing about contemporary NZ issues of cultural identity as well as the complexities of contemporary political protest, and these issues are just as relevant to Australian readers.

Next month’s book is Lincoln in the Bardo, a book I sent back to the library after the obligatory 50 pages.  But I’ll do my best not to write a negative #6Degrees – I’d much rather write about books I like than ones I didn’t.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 4, 2018

The Earth Cries Out, by Bonnie Etherington #BookReview

My 2018 reading year didn’t start well: I ditched my first two books, one after the other.  But my first review of 2018 is a different story: The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington  is a mesmerising, captivating novel that well deserves its nomination for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Awards.

Narrated in a poignant melancholy tone, the novel takes us to a different place and time.  Ruth Glass looks back on her childhood in the isolation of a village in the West Papuan highlands as a time of dislocation and intense loss.  Her five-year-old sister Julia has died in an horrific accident at home, and everyone feels the guilt and unspoken blame. Her parents are on the verge of divorce at the time of the accident but at her father’s insistence they go as aid workers to West Papua (then in the 1990s known as Irian Jaya).  He thinks it is a form of atonement that will heal them.  His wife Marian is too broken to defy him.  And Ruth is an eight-year-old child made older than her years by this tragic chain of events.  She is haunted by the squabbles she had with her sister and confused by the mixed messages she gets about God, atonement and forgiveness.  The silence overwhelms her.

One day the yellow house held Julia’s voice, and then it did not.  One day I was a sister, and then I was not.  One day we were in a dream world, where Julia was dead and the space where she once was became large and silent, and then we were in another country altogether – where stories and voices made their way into our house any way they could.  They heaved under the floorboards, whispered in the windows.  Creaked in the attic like a python grown too big on rats.  And I collected them all to fill that silence Julia left.  (p.11)

Along with Ruth’s letters to her grandfather in Nelson, NZ, these local stories and voices are scattered through the novel.  Ruth’s friend Susumina tells her stories of places haunted by death – which is an everyday occurrence in the village.  Ruth’s family is not alone in its grief: everyone in Yuvut has lost a loved one, to childbirth, to injury and disease, to malnutrition, AIDS or to the Indonesian regime which suppresses the independence movement with brutal violence.  The light planes – on which the village depends for transport, supplies, medical help and news – crash regularly into the surrounding mountains obscured by mist and rain.  Passengers and crew are often not found for years, though whether that will be reported in the media depends on whether they are foreigners, Indonesian transmigrasi relocated from Java, or locals.

Etherington’s mastery of narrative voice allows the reader to hear both the reflective voice of Ruth as an adult, and as a observant, thoughtful child.  This enables the reader to understand the politics of the Indonesian occupation, the tension between her parents, the dangers of diseases like Dengue Fever and Malaria, and the cruelty of some of the social mores of Yuvut such as the way they treat unmarried mothers.  But we also see a child who absorbs the culture shock, adapts to her new circumstances, and plays games including in forbidden places. She learns the language; she observes the strength of community life; she finds out who to trust.  Her letters to her grandfather describe the beauty of the plants and animals, and also express worries that she dare not reveal to her parents.

My friend Alyssa said that she did not know what her grandparents looked like when she went back to America one time.  And they didn’t know what she would look like either.  I hope I will still know what you and grandma look like when I get back one day.  It might take a long time to get back, though.  Please don’t forget what I look like either. 

In an interview with the NZ Herald, Etherington explains that the authenticity of the novel derives from her own childhood experience in West Papua, but says that her own family is nothing like the one described in the novel.  I don’t doubt that it’s true, but her portrayal of domestic hostilities is utterly convincing.

For another review, see BooksellersNZ. and Landfall NZ.

Author: Bonnie Etherington
Title: The Earth Cries Out
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House) New Zealand, 2017
ISBN: 9780143770657
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $AUD 29.99

Available from Fishpond: The Earth Cries Out and also at Readings in Australia.

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