Maralinga's Long Shadow

Indigenous readers are advised that this review contains the names of deceased persons.

Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story is a book I picked up from the NAIDOC week display at the Parkdale branch of Kingston Libraries, and it raises an interesting issue in terms of authorship.

This week is Indigenous Literature Week, and I’ve always wanted it to be about books authored by Indigenous people.  But in this instance, Yvonne Edwards died unexpectedly just as – after a long and busy life as an artist and activist – she had at last begun working with author Christobel Mattingley on writing her story.   Mattingley has therefore constructed Yvonne’s story from interviews and conversations with Yvonne, an interview on ABC Radio’s Message Stick and some input from Yvonne’s family and friends.  It is profusely illustrated with beautiful art works by Yvonne and there are some photographs as well.

While the artworks tell the vivid story of Yvonne’s people, the Anangu people of what is now known as Maralinga, the book is written in the third person in English that is simple and direct, and includes some use of Pitjantjatjara.  It does not purport to be Yvonne’s own voice but it does appear to be written entirely from her perspective.  Although there is a comprehensive author’s note at the back of the book which explains its genesis and her method, still,  it’s not possible to glean from any signals in the text whether this perspective or parts of it have been inferred by the author or drawn directly from Mattingley’s interviews and conversations.  The reader has no way of telling which of the opinions expressed are the sympathetic opinions of the author or the recorded opinions of the subject.  The tone is always respectful of the subject and the draft was approved  by members of Yvonne’s family.   So it seems to me that the book sits awkwardly in a space between a rather naïve way of writing biography written for the children’s or YA market, and a genuine attempt to reproduce the story that Yvonne would herself have told, in words she would have used, and telling a story that otherwise might not have been told.


The story begins in the years long before atomic testing:

Before Maralinga the Anangu people cared for their country for generation after countless generation.  Their land was their being, their spirit, their life.  They knew no other.  They wanted no other.  They loved its rockholes and red sands, its creatures great and small, its trees, its bushes, its flowers, its fruits.  Above all they cared for its kapi, its water, its precious water, and used it wisely, walking many miles from one rockhole to another, always seeking permission from Wanampi, the Rainbow Serpent, who guarded each one, before they took the living water.  (p.1) [This page is accompanied by a detail from Yvonne Edwards’ (undated) painting of Wanampi.]

It goes on to briefly record the arrival of European settlement, dispossession and the Lutheran mission, but it is the peremptory evacuation from their homelands and removal to Yalata by the atomic commission that is the main focus.

But without warning, life at Ooldea was brought to an end for its Anangu people.  Suddenly they were forcibly removed from this ancient oasis, cut off from its life-giving waters which had sustained their ancestors through countless cruel droughts.  All because two groups of walypala, people in faraway cities, could not solve their differences.  The United Aborigines Mission executive ordered the South Australian branch to close its mission at Ooldea.

On 24 June 1952 the Anangu were told to leave.  It was a turbulent day of deep distress.  They wept and wailed, and over 60 years on they still wail at the memory of the betrayal, and how they were forced to leave.  East, west, north, south they went or were sent.  Walking, or on the train. Or on trucks taking them from the home and heartland, which many would never see again.

So the Anangu were sent to the country of another Aboriginal people, land to which the Anangu people were not related, land which the South Australian government had taken.  Land which walypala farmers did not want because it was too hard, too harsh.  Limestone land, hard and harsh under bare brown feet.  So different from the soft red sand the Anangu had always known.  (pp.19-21)

What is shocking about this dispossession is that it is so recent.  It did not take place during Australia’s colonial history, or in its settlement phase.  It occurred within living memory and although the land has now been restored to indigenous ownership, it is irrevocably damaged by radiation.  Yvonne Edwards blames that radiation for the cancers that killed some of her family members.  She had tragic losses, including the death of her first born son who had been taken from her and adopted out, and who in adulthood had not long been reunited with his birth family again.  Yet hers was a life of sustained achievement, creating beautiful artworks, and active in her community, especially in trying to reduce the harm done by alcohol.  She was determined to make Australians aware of the Maralinga story, and with other members of her community had previously worked with Mattingley on a children’s picture book called Maralinga, The Anangu Story, also written from an indigenous perspective.

These resources would be useful for indigenous studies programs in schools, but because they are written from the indigenous perspective, they would need to be balanced by additional materials.  It’s important that students be given the facts, and taught strategies that enable them to make up their own minds.  That’s what history is about.  So while I myself am strongly opposed to nuclear armament and believe that the use of the land at Maralinga and elsewhere in Australia was unconscionable, in the interests of a balanced curriculum, I’d be teaching the students to interrogate these two Mattingley books objectively, and I’d be providing materials that explain more about The Cold War and nuclear testing than is presented in the books.

BTW All the royalties from the book have been given to Yvonne Edwards’ five surviving children.

ILW 2017This is my fourth book for Indigenous Literature Week 2017.

Author: Christobel Mattingley
Title: Maralinga’s Long Shadow, Yvonne’s Story
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781760290177
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2017

Bouquets to Kingston Library

ILW 2017Before I toddle off to bed, just two quick photos:  these are from my local library where they have created a display of books for NAIDOC week.  Below you can see the display at the Parkdale branch (now less one book which I borrowed myself!) and under that there’s what’s left of the display of children’s books by indigenous authors, the gaps on the shelves are where books have been borrowed!

Well done, Kingston Library staff!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2017

2017 Rare Books Week #3

I only made it to one event today: my wounded wing seemed to be on the mend, but you don’t get to choose which arm you use to straphang when you’re on a crowded tram and the trip back from the Baillieu Library at Melbourne University didn’t do me any good at all.  So I had to skip the evening session on Contemporary Book Design at the State Library  and go home early instead…

It was still worth it.  First of all there is a wonderful exhibition in the Noel Shaw Gallery in the Baillieu: it’s called Plotting the Island – Dreams, Discovery and Disaster, and it features fabulous old Dutch, French and British maps from the Age of Maritime Exploration.  It’s on until July 16th, so there’s still some time left if you can get there to see it.  The books and maps come from the Rare Books Collection at Melbourne University, and they really are breathtaking.  I particularly like the early Dutch ones, from the days when they knew only the west coast and represent only half of our continent, leaving it tantalisingly unfinished as if to tempt some brave soul to venture forth and map the rest of it.  But the Dutch ones are also beautifully coloured and have exquisite pictures drawn on the edges so that, for instance, there are scenes from heaven along the upper edge, and from hell below.

My biggest excitement, however, was seeing a book that I referred to in my recent review of Brian Castro’s new book, Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria.  In the novel, Castro’s hero reads a very special book

… in Paris, Gracq reads the French novelist Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806) and, his iPhone surreptitiously between his knees, photocopies La Découverte Australe par un Homme-Volant (1781) in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Well, here it is, the very same book!  It’s not a very good photo … because it was taken surreptitiously with an ordinary old Samsung in a room dimly-lit to preserve the books and maps from deteriorating in bright lights.

There were also indigenous artefacts, quaint old navigation tools and some lovely specimens including a lovely rainbow lorikeet.

Once I had browsed around the exhibition, I made my way to the Leigh Scott Room for Art on the Page presented by Susan Millard who’s in charge of Special Collections at the Baillieu, and of rare books in particular.  The room itself is a delight: Leigh Scott was the university librarian in the 1930s, and I think the treasure trove of books lining the walls may have been his own personal library.  Through the floor to ceiling windows you look out onto the south lawn, which even on a grey day like today was very beautiful.  There is no doubt that Melbourne is the loveliest of our universities.  There are some awful 1960s architectural blobs, but more recent buildings are stunning, and of course the old Quad and the Old Arts buildings are gorgeous.

The Art on the Page session was really a sneak preview of an exhibition that’s coming to the Baillieu in August.  The books we were shown were all art books, mostly created with art works to complement poetry, and all limited editions.  As you can see from my photo they were all placed on special cushions to protect them: these books were mostly unbound (and stored in slip cases) so Susan was able to carefully lift out individual pages and show them to us in our small group.

Very soon I realised the limitations of my knowledge of the early 20th century art scene in Paris: taking notes, I could spell Matisse and Miroir, but there were others I simply didn’t know.  They were mostly abstract artists, though one had done some realist illustrations for Wuthering Heights, but it was all fascinating anyway.  The exhibition is going to show how Australian artists were influenced by the milieu in Paris, many of whom as the years went by had fled the Spanish Civil War and then the Nazis.   The immigrant theme is going to be an important one in the exhibition, as many of our artists expressed their sense of unbelonging in poetry and art.

It was interesting to me to see that in an era when most contemporary poets struggle for publishing opportunities, some poets (e.g. Antoni Jach) are published in these exquisite illustrated special editions which are sold amongst a network of collectors who can afford them.  Susan made the point, when someone asked for a definition of a ‘rare book’, that it was important for these limited editions to be collected.  Usually rare books are collected because they are old, or vulnerable, or yes, rare.  But some contemporary books are added to the university’s collection now because they have a cultural and aesthetic value, and they will be rare before long, and people will want to study them in the future.

Hopefully a good night’s sleep will restore my shoulder to order, and I will be able to go to tomorrow’s Hidden Treasures from the NGV!

It’s taken me ages to read this book, nearly three weeks, and it’s only 390 pages long.  It’s partly because I’m also reading other things as well but it’s also I kept getting distracted by the other issues the book raises. It’s not just a memoir of an eccentric adventurer who was murdered in a remote area of Pakistan, and it’s not just a travel book.  It’s also a book that plays with the conventions of these genres.

Jordi Magraner was an adventurer who fell in love with the Hindu Kush, and, it seems to me, at different times varied his reasons for being there.  He was a student of the natural world, and heard stories about the legendary barmanu – known to most of us as the yeti – and he set off to see if he could find it.  But for quite long periods of time, he got involved in other quests as well…

The author would have his readers believe that the quest for the barmanu/yeti is not as crazy as it seems.

One day in 1949, a doctor of zoology called Bernard Houvelmans opens the Saturday Evening Post and reads an article entitled ‘There May Be Dinosaurs’.  He’s wary when he sees that it’s signed by a writer he trusts.  Then, amid the claims made in the text, he reads the names of researchers he also considers serious, and by the end he has found that he needs to look into the information.

Seven years later, he publishes On the Track of Unknown Animals, introducing a series of animals discovered to date in the twentieth century.  Most of them are pretty big.  There you’ll find the okapi, the coelacanth, the Paraguayan peccary, the pygmy hippopotamus, the Cambodian wild ox, and the Komodo dragon.

Heuvelmans is a scientist, he considers himself a scientist, the animals he writes about exist ‘in reality’, but he has demonstrated that many of them were only located after conversations with indigenous people who gave assurances of their existences by recounting stories, describing them.  Before they were discovered, these animals were no more than legends to westerners, or the victims of extinction.  In which case why should we not believe other stories told about fugitive beings? (p.32)

I was immediately distracted by the thought that in this era of fake news, would we believe it if there were reports of a yeti being found in the mountains of the Hindu Kush?  Perhaps that would depend on where the reports came from.  If trusted sources like the ABC and the BBC reported it, would we believe it?  Or would we think that they were sincere but had been hoodwinked? Would we disbelieve it altogether or would we accept the revelation that the mythical creature had turned out to be real?

How you respond to this idea depends on whether you think we have mapped our world fully or whether you think that just as other species have been found in remote uncharted places, a yeti might possibly exist.

Well, Jordi Magraner did believe it could be real, and with extraordinary determination he set out to harvest the stories, disprove the reports of mysterious groanings that turned out to be the movement of rocks, and to hunt out every bit of evidence he could find.  The difficulties he faced – funding his project, learning the languages and finding trusted translators, living a simple life in the mountains and so on – are the stuff you might expect in a memoir such as this.  But what complicated everything he did was the contemporaneous rise of the Taliban and the distrust of strangers, the paranoia and the religious extremism that arose from that.  Because the area where he was hunting was where the Kalash lived, a people who were not Muslim and who were at risk of having their culture obliterated by the Taliban’s determination to enforce their religious rule.  Over the long period of time that Jordi was on his quest, he vacillated between finding his barmanu and saving the Kalash, a project which got him into trouble in more ways than one.

Amongst other risky things, he took on the care and education of a boy called Shamsur, which led to suspicions about Jordi’s sexuality and possibly predatory behaviour towards the boy.  These were exacerbated when Shamsur rejected study and in adolescence became an ungrateful hash-smoking layabout.  The suspicions hardened when Jordi then took on another young boy as a replacement.  The author, who admired Jordi for his adventurous spirit but is not writing a hagiography, presents conflicting statements from numerous people who knew Jordi, leading to the reader’s conclusion that nobody knows for sure, but that rumours were rife… and under the encroaching rule of the Taliban this was a risky situation indeed.

The story begins with Jordi’s death, which was obviously an execution by a skilled professional.  The book ends with the author’s inconclusive efforts to find out what really happened and why the police investigation went nowhere.  But in between the quest to find a lost paradise gets bogged down in numerous examples of Jordi’s intemperate nature, his impatience with authorities who try to warn him about the dangers of his project, and his financial difficulties which lead to debts – a very risky situation to be in when, after 9/11 tourism dries up and everyone is short of money.

The book also plays with the conventions of life stories by including imagined sequences which offer an intimate insight into Jordi’s thoughts, his conversations and his behaviours.  This is what the author says about that on the last page:

There is a first version of this book in which everything is described exactly as it happened.  In the one you have just read, I preferred to change a few names so as not to injure any sensibilities and, as far as possible, to protect those involved.  Occasionally I have also recreated the unfolding of episodes that had only been conveyed to me in the barest facts.  I put in some details, atmosphere, tension, colour… without ever distorting the ultimate meaning of the message I received.  These minimal recreations are what make this book a non-fiction novel.

I have dedicated nearly three years to a story in which, as you have seen, I ended up risking my own life.  None of my literary ‘interventions’ detract from the ultimate truth of everything I have written here.  I would have been the greatest of fools if I had done anything to jeopardise so much effort, so much reality.  (p. 389)

A non-fiction novel… a semi-fictional memoir… the boundaries are blurred much more than ‘occasionally’, I thought.  It’s definitely a book for our times.

Author: Gabi Martinez
Title: In the Land of the Giants, Hunting Monsters in the Hindu Kush
Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2017, first published in 2011 as Sólo para gigantes
ISBN: 9781925321630
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Available from Fishpond: In the Land of Giants: hunting monsters in the Hindu Kush

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2017

2017 Rare Books Week #2

Ok, here’s a further update from my adventures at Rare Book Week.

Robert Hoddle by Agnes McDonald (Wikipedia Commons)

On Sunday I went to Gary Presland’s about ‘Reconstructing Melbourne’s Forgotten Landscapes’ … if you have a really, really good memory you might remember that I reviewed Presland’s book The Place for a Village but this session was more about the resources that he used for his research.  It turns out that the early surveyors are the heroes of this story: Robert Hoddle is famous as our first surveyor because he laid out the grid for Melbourne, but his field books from the 1830s and 1840s are valuable sources for reconstructing the way that Melbourne used to be.  Other useful resources include the rare geological maps, artworks, land survey department documents which are held in various collections including the State Library, the Royal Historical Society of Victoria and the Public Records Office.  Other surveyors from this period also include Robert Russell and Clement Hodgkinson, and since they were also artists ‘of some ability’, the drawings and paintings that they did are useful too.   Presland acknowledges that some field notes are boring but other contain a ‘little gem’ of one sort or another and that presumably makes wading through the boring ones worthwhile.

Presland was keen to make his audience understand just how skilled these early surveyors were, when they had only the most primitive of tools to use.  There was no such thing as a theodolite in those days: what they had was a very long metal chain, formed from 100 links each of which was a ‘chain’ long i.e. 22 yards, the length of a cricket pitch.  (They have one at Museum Victoria).  Yet the accuracy of these surveyors was quite remarkable.

If you remember another book that I’ve reviewed, Yarra, a Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River by Kristin Otto, you will know that the water features of Melbourne have changed considerably since settlement began.  Dry features have changed too: there is no Batman’s Hill any more, but the waterfall on the Yarra was an early water feature to be removed because of flooding, and there have been so many diversions since then that the river is actually 2 km shorter than it used to be.  It’s been straightened out at Fishermen’s Bend and at the Botanic Gardens, and now there is Herring Island (formerly Como Island after the Como  Estate) which was created by moving a bend in the river.  And modern maps include water features that weren’t there before as well: Moonee Ponds Creek wasn’t there in 1863, it didn’t flow into the Yarra then, but into ponds and it emptied into what was called Batman’s Swamp.  There were originally ephemeral streams all over Melbourne, including some in Prahran which flowed into Tea Tree Swamp.  Elgar’s Special Survey in Box Hill showed that there were underground streams which don’t show up on the original survey by Thomas Nutt, which hints that Elgar, who was a land developer, was up to some kind of skulduggery  so that he got more land than he should have.

Changes in how we view the environment mean that swamps are now known as wetlands, and we value them as breeding places for birds and other creatures. But until the 1930s, they were considered dangerous to health and breeding grounds for disease, and they were drained for industrial and domestic use.  It would be impossible to know where these wetlands were without the old records and paintings, such as the one of Batman’s Swamp west of Melbourne.

It’s much, much harder to reconstruct flora and fauna from the past because settlement obliterated almost all of it.  Historical sources are not detailed enough, because explorer’s journals tend to generalise trees as gums, oaks and banksias without saying which species they were.  All we can use is the historical information with all its deficiencies, remnant vegetation in situ, and knowledge of regional flora.

The artist Alissa Duke was there at all the sessions I went to,  recording events in her unique style.  In case you missed my previous post here is an example of what she does, from the Boswell and Johnson session on Saturday.

©Alissa Duke

So there she was at Gary Presland’s session and gosh, she actually had the greeting cards I’d ordered from her stuff online all parcelled up ready for the post, so I’ve got them already.  They’re even nicer than they look on the website because they’re good quality paper and the colours are vivid (without being garish.)

On Monday I went to two terrific sessions, but it’s not easy to convey how special they were without the slide shows that the speakers used.  The first one, called Literature for Everyman was at the Monash Uni Law Chambers in Lonsdale St, and the speaker was Stephen Herrin.  He took us through the development of books in England, from the era when most people signed documents with an X because they were illiterate, to the growth of universal literacy in an era when books were too expensive for ordinary people to buy.  His most vivid example was with Hamlet: it cost 6 pence to buy a print version of the play to read, but a working man could go to see the play six times for that amount of money.

Anonymous – Wikipedia Commons

In the era when novels cost about 31 shillings, that was a week’s pay for a workman.  A clergyman earning ten pounds per annum sometimes needed to buy religious books that cost three weeks pay.   So chapbooks emerged: short stories or serials with engravings or illustrations, printed on a broadsheet or as a pamphlet that could be folded to make a book, and sold for a penny.  Some macabre broadsheets were sold at executions and since there were so many public executions in those days, it could be quite profitable.

By Viles, Edward – Wikipedia Commons

Women’s stories were published in chapbooks, and some did quite well out of it, but generally women in this era needed some kind of luck – in the form of a husband in the publishing industry or membership of a religious society which subsidised worthy and didactic alternatives to the scandalous Penny Horribles an Penny Dreadfuls with their stories of murders and smugglers.

The length of some stories of this era is explained by the fact that they were serials – ones like the Mysteries of London (1845-8) ended up being over 2000 pages long because each episode picked up from where the previous episode left off, and then ended on a cliffhanger.  Were they hack writers?  It’s hard to say because their writing was circumscribed by the form and they didn’t have the opportunity to develop characters like novelists did.

There was a special genre called Railway Lit: it was much easier to read a book on a train that on a coach so along came yellow backed books with eye-catching covers, sometimes cheap editions of authors like Trollope but others just trashy stuff like airport novels today.

This was such a terrific session, I really enjoyed it.

After a brief wander round in DJs to buy a picture frame, it was off to hear Dr Jonathan Burdon AM talk about silk maps and how they were used by downed pilots in WW2 for escape and evasion.  Just as you might have seen in the film The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen, escape from a POW camp was a dangerous enterprise, which usually resulted in execution if recaptured.  But it was a soldier’s duty to try to escape, partly to get back into the fight against the enemy, but also to tie up the enemy’s resources.  Well, although Dunkirk was a wonderful rescue of over 330,000 men, there were 40,ooo British and 48,000 French soldiers left behind and they ‘went into the bag’ as it was called.  Amazingly in one of the stalags they set up a print room to make maps for planned escapes, but back in England M19 realised that they could save lives if pilots were routinely issued with silk maps for escape and evasion.  Clayton Hutton is the hero of this story, and if you can get hold of it, you can read all about the project in M19, Escape and Evasion, by Foot and Langley.

Maps had to be thin, lightweight, durable, have stable colour, be crease resistant and silent when opened.  They had to be unnoticeable when tucked into clothing as well. Silk was used in the first place but of course it ran out before long and then they used rayon.  The Brits made over a million of them, and the US made 3 million for their air force and 2 million for their navy.  They were given to secret agents and also smuggled into POW camps inside chess pieces, in decks of cards and even Monopoly boards!  One thing though: the Red Cross was never used to smuggle the maps in, because if the Germans had got wind of that, then they would have shut down delivery of the Red Cross parcels that meant so much to the POWS.  They were smuggled in ‘privately’.

There were plenty of these maps on display and they really are stunning artefacts, but the hit of the night was a button that concealed the all important compass!

Are they still is use?  if they are, no one is telling, but they were used during the Cold War, the Vietnam War and in the Balkans…

You can read more about silk maps at the Australian War Memorial Website, and here you can see one that was repurposed as a dress after the war when material was still rationed in Britain.

I have more events to go to this week and will do my best to report on those too.  In the meantime, I am in the middle of reading Philip McLaren’s There’ll Be New Dreams for Indigenous Literature Week and I am loving it!

If you’re interested, have a look at the  Rare Books Week program and try to get to some of the events if you can.  There are probably still some vacancies at some of them.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 3, 2017

The Whale Rider, by Witi Ihimaera

I remember the sense of excitement when we went to see The Whale Rider at the movies in 2002.  The only other New Zealand film I’d seen was The Piano (1993), which was a great film but not, apart from the scenery, distinctively New Zealand in character because the characters were 19th century pioneers from Britain. The Whale Rider was my first introduction to Māori mythology and customs.

And now, over a decade later, I’ve finally read the book.  A novella of 148 pages, The Whale Rider is Witi Ihimaera’s fourth work of fiction, and probably the best known.  Like his other books it explores Māori culture in contemporary New Zealand, in this case, the crisis that occurs when the first-born to whom traditions are entrusted turns out to be a girl.  However there are significant differences between the book and film, not just in the naming of characters but also in the plot.  (Kahu is called Pai in the film).  Re-reading the summary at Wikipedia I can see that dramatic tension has been escalated by characterising the girl as more confrontational than she is in the book.

The narration is mostly by Kahu’s older cousin Rawiri, from the generation that sees the wider world beckoning.  As a teenager he observes his grandfather Koro’s rejection of Kahu because of her gender, and he admires his feisty grandmother Nanny Flowers who stands up to him.  But as a young man he takes off to the bright lights of Sydney and then to labouring work in Papua New Guinea, returning home seven years later only when it is made clear that his mate’s mother doesn’t find him acceptable because of his colour.  Rawiri is like a bridge between the generations, recognising that the world is different and some ways in the coastal village of Whangara must change but he is also keen to learn about his traditions and he’s a willing protector of customs.  He’s a ‘manly’ man, physically strong and powerful on his motorbike, but even when a teenager he is not afraid to show that he has a tender side and nurtures his much younger cousin.  He isn’t torn between his two warring grandparents: he loves and respects them both.

Rawiri also observes several instances where Kahu seems to have special powers.  An omniscient narrator in the prologue tells the story of the ancient whales and how they came to communicate with humans, and it is this special relationship which is at risk because of Kahu’s gender.  But it is Rawiri’s narration that reveals that Kahu is heard singing the whale’s song, and that it is she – not the boys chosen by Koro to take on the role – who is able to plunge to the depths to retrieve a stone cast by Koro.  (The stone is a whale tooth in the film).  The crisis comes when – the community having witnessed the deaths of 200 stranded whales not far from Whangara – a new stranding occurs and the bull whale defies all attempts to turn him around and lead the other whales out to sea.  There is a pleasing inevitability about the way Kahu resolves the crisis and the life force of their community is restored.  The Whale Rider isn’t a book to read for plot.

There are a lot of Māori words in this story, but the sentences are mostly crafted so that there is no need to consult the glossary at the back of the book.  My edition also has photo stills from the film in a glossy centre-spread, which reminded me of some of the most vivid scenes: Kahu at a school ceremony bravely reciting her whakapapa (genealogy) although devastated that her grandfather has refused to attend, and the Māori men powering their canoe through the water at the end, demonstrating what a formidable force they must have been in the days when they were warriors.

The book or the film?  I’m glad I had the vivid film images in my mind as I read, but I prefer the book.

Witi Ihimaera is of Ngati Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa descent.  He was the first Māori author to be published in New Zealand.

This is my third book for Indigenous Literature Week 2017.

Author: Witi Ihimaera
Title: The Whale Rider
Publisher: Reed Publishing, 2002, first published 1987
ISBN: 9780790008691
Source: personal library, purchased from Brotherhood Books.


There were second-hand copies available at Fishpond on the day I looked: The Whale Rider but the novel is still in print and readily available in new editions.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 2, 2017

Don’t Take Your Love to Town, by Ruby Langford Ginibi

Indigenous readers are advised that this review contains the names of deceased persons.

Ruby Langford Ginibi (1934 – 2011) was a Bundjalung woman born on Box Ridge Mission, Coraki on the North Coast of NSW.  As you can see from the my original 1988 Penguin Paperback of her first book, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, she did not have the name Ginibi when it was published: Ginibi is a Bundjalung honorific, one of many honours which she subsequently received for her work as an author, historian and lecturer.

According to Wikipedia , Don’t Take Your Love to Town won the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Human Rights Award for Literature.  It’s still in print today.  It is studied in schools and universities as a record of rural and urban indigenous life in an era of significant change but it is read and enjoyed as a great story: wise, funny, poignant and frank about the difficulties of indigenous life as well as Langford’s own mistakes.  (The title of the book refers to a popular song by Kenny Rogers and her own assessment that it took her too long to realise that she was better off without unreliable men who drank and beat her up.)

I had my first three kids with Sam Griffin (Koori), but I didn’t change my name.  Bill, Pearl and Diane are Andersons, named after me.  The next three I had with Gordon Campbell (gubb)*, Nobby, David and Aileen.  They’re registered in his name.  Then I married Peter Langford (gubb), and Ellen and Pauline were born.  Now I’m Mrs Langford.  My only legal name change.  Later, I had Jeff, my youngest, with Lance Marriot (Koori), who took on all my kids and loved them all. But I stayed Langford, by now things were complicated enough.

You can think of me as Ruby Wagtail Big Noise Anderson Rangi Ando Heifer Andy Langford.  How I got to be Ruby Langford.  Originally from the Bundjalung people.

*gubb – urban Aboriginal word for white person. (p. 2)

She had nine children altogether, three of whom had predeceased her at the time of writing this book, and another died later.  Her family also included ten adopted children who [she] collected along the way as well as a large extended family scattered around New South Wales.  The book is dedicated to every black woman who has battled to raise a family and kept her sense of humour.

Wikipedia also tells me that:

[Langford] received an inaugural History Fellowship from the NSW Ministry for the Arts in 1994, an inaugural honorary fellowship from the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, in 1995, and an inaugural doctorate of letters (Honors Causia) from La Trobe University, Victoria in 1998.

In 2005 she was awarded the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards Special Award. Her works are studied in Australian high schools and universities. In 2006, she won the Australia Council for the Arts Writers’ Emeritus Award.

Langford’s achievements were all the more extraordinary because she left school after just two years of high school, and much of that was disrupted.  Her mother left the family when she was six, and she was brought up by Her Aunty Nell and Uncle Sam while her father chased itinerant work, as many men did in the 1930s.  Despite these disadvantages she was a high achieving student…

[Dad] took me up to the headmaster’s office and told me to wait on the bench outside.  I heard Dad asking him about my progress, and then Mr Rubenach’s voice saying he wanted me to go on to third year and do my Intermediate Certificate.  Dad said he didn’t know about that.  Mr Rubenach said I should then go on to teachers’ college, the reasons being that I was class captain and school prefect and had come first in my class again.

I sat on the bench, my head buzzing.  Every teacher I’d ever seen was white.  I tried to imagine black kids being taught by black teachers, then I tried to imagine white kids with black teachers.  (p. 37)

The headmaster went on to explain that the Aborigines Protection Board would put Ruby through college, but her father objected: he refused to have anything to do with the Aborigines Protection Board because all they’ve done so far is take people from their land and split up families.  And so Ruby started work as a cleaner, then worked for a butcher and after that went with her father and his new wife Mum Joyce to work as an apprentice machinist in Sydney.  But she was back in the bush before long, living in a makeshift tent and sharing hard manual labour alongside the fathers of her children.  Her first child was born when she was eighteen and others followed shortly afterwards.  She coped alone when her men were away – sometimes working, sometimes drinking, and sometimes being unfaithful to her.  It was a life of tremendous hardship, insecurity and stress.

I felt like I was living tribal but with no tribe around me, no close-knit family.  The food-gathering, the laws and songs were broken up, and my generation at this time wandered around as if we were tribal but in fact living worse than the poorest of poor whites, and in the case of women living hard because it seemed like the men loved you for a while and then more kids came along and then men drank and gambled and disappeared.  One day they’d had enough and they just didn’t come back. It happened with Gordon and later it happened with Peter, and my women friends all have similar stories. (p.96)

This sense of isolation and distress about the loss of traditional lifestyles intensifies as Langford’s personal circumstances deteriorated but the activism of the 1970s and 1980s offered new opportunities.  There was mainstream awareness of issues like Black Deaths in Custody and paternalistic organisations were abolished.  Having jettisoned the men who prevented her from becoming active in Indigenous politics (because they expected her to stay home and run the household), Langford became a voice for her people and the long dormant skills of writing resurfaced.  Don’t Take Your Love to Town was the first of many books which changed the way Australians thought about Indigenous people.

In the course of exploring the impact and significance of this book I found a superb essay by Tara June Winch at the Griffith Review.  This essay dismisses the idea of Langford distancing herself from a painful past, preferring to recognise her as a stoic survivor, and it also acknowledges the torrent of chaos that [Aborigines] both endure and enflame themselves.  Yes, it can be confronting to read about dysfunctional elements of Langford’s life, but it is this unflinching frankness that gives the book its power.

Highly recommended.

I read Don’t Take Your Love to Town as my second book for Indigenous Literature Week 2017.

Author: Ruby Langford Ginibi
Title: Don’t Take Your Love to Town
Publisher: Penguin, 1988
ISBN: 9780140111736
Source: personal library, purchased from Diversity Books, (their bricks and mortar store, which closed in 2012 but still trades online.)

Available from Fishpond: Don’t Take Your Love To Town

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2017

2017 Rare Books Week

I’ve had a lovely day today, the first of many adventures with Rare Books Week for 2017.  (I hope.  I have signed up for a whole lot of events, but I did that before I mushed my shoulder so it remains to be seen whether I will have the stamina to go to all of them.)

I started off at the Boyd Community Hub with a session called Johnson and Boswell, Holmes and Watson.  The presenter was John Byrne who is president of the Johnson society and who proved his credentials by (a) donning his Oxford cap and scarf and (b) then producing a deerstalker hat à la Sherlock Holmes.  He told us that his professional interest is Samuel Johnson and Boswell who wrote his biography,  but that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are for fun…

Byrne reminded us that there are plenty of famous couples in the world of literature and also in popular culture, everyone from The Lone Ranger and Tonto to Crusoe and his Man Friday.  He said there is a scholarly connection between the two sets of couples even though Holmes and Watson are entirely fictional and came into being 100 years after Johnson and Boswell.  But he mainly regaled the audience with all sorts of funny anecdotes about his amazing collection of Sherlockian ephemera and books.  My favourite was the one about how Holmes’s address in Baker St is actually the premises of a bank, but people write to Sherlock Holmes at that address with real problems that they think this fictional character can solve, and believe it or not, the bank employs a staff member to deal with this voluminous correspondence!  (Only in Britain, eh?  I can’t imagine any of our penny-pinching banks doing something like that).

It was at this session that I met an artist called Alissa Duke, who is attending Rare Book Week sessions and drawing them.  She has a small Moleskine artist’s book and a bag full of pencils, and she does stunning sketches that are full of life and very appealing to anyone who is bookish.  The first thing I did when I got home was to have a look at her stuff online and I’ve ordered some of her gorgeous bookish cards.  If you are a very special friend of mine you might one day receive one of these greeting cards…

©Alissa Duke


From this session I went to The Magic of the Arts at the State Library.  There were three speakers:

Dominique Dunstan (Arts Manager at the SLV) had the audience rapt from her very first slide: Durer’s Field Hare from 1502, which is in a rare book from the very early days of the SLV’s collection.  The library was established in the heady days when Victoria was awash with money from the Gold Rush, and the President of the Trustees, Sir Redmond Barry was ambitious for its collection.  He wanted the best, and with the money he had at his disposal and a knack for approaching philanthropic donors, he started what has become our SLV Art Book Collection.  The AAA (Australian Artists File) comprises 30,000 files (books, magazines, journals and ephemera) and some items are unique.

Magic props in the SLV WG Alma Collection

The collection also includes zines, photography, sheet music, and most magical of all, the WG Alma Conjuring Collection.  WG Alma was an Australian magician who also manufactured the props used for performances.  He left his collection as a bequest to the library in 1993, and it is a major resource for contemporary magicians.  Almost all of it has been digitised, but at left you can see some of the models Alma made to show how tricks worked.  This realia is now very fragile and rare so it’s not on open accession, and anyway the library doesn’t want to spoil the magician’s craft by letting any old person look at these things so they have procedures in place so that the conjuror’s secrets are not revealed!

The second speaker was Associate Professor Alison Inglis and she talked about the Fine Arts Library and the Pamphlets collection.  Before we had our very own splendid National Gallery of Victoria (which I have bragged about before because it is the best in the country thanks to the Felton Bequest) the plan was to have an art history museum as part of the library.  The Acquisitions Program (again, well-endowed with Gold Rush money) soon meant that there were stunning books on art and architecture, as well as art works themselves, and the art works had their own catalogues which were produced to educate the public (an influx of gold rush immigrants who were thought to be rather rough and ready on account of being get-rich-quick hopefuls and Not of The Right Sort.)  So there are monographs, art journals, catalogues and books… and the slide show made me ache to do a fine arts degree so that I could fossick about amid these treasures.

The last speaker was a droll fellow called Dermot McCaul who talked about the popular music collection.  Now I admit to being Not Very Interested in the SLV’s exhibitions of popular culture stuff, (because I lived through it but mostly ignored it) but I take McCaul’s point.  He’s a classical music lover like I am, but he says that when it’s the end of an era, and the end of a millennium too, it is appropriate for a museum or library to look back and see if its collection reflects its past era. The 2oth century  was an era of revolutions in the arts – commercial art, graphic arts, comic books and so on, and even though I am so not interested in any of that, I can see that a museum or a library ought to collect it.  And the SLV did, and thank heavens they did, because penny-pinching at the ABC (necessary because of mean federal government budget cuts) meant that they were offloading their 3LO archival stuff and if the SLV hadn’t rescued it, it might have been lost.  The 3LO sound library in what’s now called redundant formats (i.e. 78s, vinyl  etc.) not only includes all sorts of music but also the dates of when it was played on air, so it’s an archive of an era. Does it matter?  Not to me, but yes it does to most people.  So I am pleased that my library is collecting this and other stuff that apparently the NSW library sniffed at.

It made me realise that apart from all the other million-and-one reasons why I am glad I live in Melbourne is that here we have a culture of valuing things like this.  In Melbourne we don’t have moronic shock jocks and half-wit politicians who sneer at the arts and create a following who sabotage funding for artistic and historic pursuits.  (Yeah, ok, we have the Sun-Herald, and yes, we did move the Yellow Peril because of public scorn, but we’ve been ashamed of ourselves ever since and it won’t happen again.)

Hopefully I will get to all the other events I’ve booked in for, but Indigenous Literature Week starts tomorrow so I’ll be focussing on that.  But if you’re interested, have a look at the  Rare Books Week program and try to get to some of the events if you can.

Too busy to read a whole book for Indigenous Literature Week this year?

Here are some short inexpensive suggestions for the time poor.

Links on the titles take you to where you can buy the book.

These ones are all from the Australian Review of Fiction: they are digital editions that come packaged as two stories, one by an established author and the other by an emerging author.  They cost only $2.99, and come in Kindle and other digital formats to suit iPads etc.

These are short story collections and anthologies, links on the titles are to suppliers:

Or, if a bit of sassy chicklit appeals, you can romp through these novels by Anita Heiss in no time!

  • Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms
  • Tiddas
  • Paris Dreaming
  • Not Meeting Mr Right
  • Manhattan Dreaming
  • Avoiding Mr Right.

Indigenous Literature Week starts July 2 2017 (but of course you can read these any time of the year)!

Sign up here

Joiner Bay and Other Stories is a collection of seventeen stories on the theme of finding oneself and others, selected by editor Ellen Van Neerven from 200 entries in the 2017 Margaret River Short Story Competition.  I’ve read the winning entry by Laura Elvery.   Laura’s work has been published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Kill Your Darlings, Award-Winning Australian Writing and Griffith Review, so hers is a name to keep an eye on, eh?

Please note that this review discusses teenage suicide.  If it raises any issues for you, help is available at Beyond Blue or Kids Helpline or Sane Australia or your local services.

Elvery’s story, ‘Joiner Bay’, tells the tale of a schoolboy who runs to make sense of his best friend’s suicide, and I can see why it won.  With first person narration of this boy’s interior world, she has captured the pseudo-laconic speech that so often characterises adolescent male behaviour.  Here in her opening paragraph you can see him using distractors to make it look as if he doesn’t care, and trying to exercise control of others by deciding what is and isn’t important, and judging others by deciding in advance whether they care or not.  And then he makes his demand: they will be made to care…

I’m a runner.  I don’t get pocket money for jobs or just because.  Dad tells everyone how if I run 10 ks he’ll give me five bucks.  If I get a PB I get five dollars more.  We have the rowing machine and the weights and a bench press in the spare room now.  I’ve been running more lately, and someone else, like a psychologist, might say it’s because my best friend died recently.  But people can say what they like, and they still won’t know the truth, even if they believe it.  Even if they tell other adults while I’m in the room.  My best friend’s name was Robbie.  You don’t need to know his last name, because nobody cares about that.  But what you will care about is that he killed himself, and you’ll care how he did it: with a cord and a beam to hang from, which means he probably broke his neck, and then he probably stopped breathing.  That’s the order of things.  (p. 226-7)

In a story of less than ten pages, the characterisation is economical.  There is the narrator, his father, a teacher and the dead boy.  Yet Elvery manages to convey important elements: we know that Dad is a loving father because he sits up all night beside his son, knowing that he must break the news in the morning.  We know that the teacher is the right blend of business-as-usual and concern because he respects his student’s space.  And we know Robbie through memories of shared activities and from the way his love for his little sisters is manifested.  We see hints of misplaced guilt about ‘missing the warning signs’ too:

The week before it all happened, he followed me around the library at the end of lunch, bored, slipping books out and putting them back spine-in.  He found a hardcover about celebrities who died young and he kept coming back to the shelf to read it.  He showed it to me.  I think I thought it was funny. (p. 231)

The Introduction by editor and Mununjali woman Ellen Van Neerven makes it clear that there are plenty more good stories in this collection.  I’ll mention just two from the blurb:

Second prize winner Else Fitzgerald’s work has appeared in Visible Ink, Australian Book Review, Award Winning Australian Writing and Offset. Her story ‘Sheen’ leaves the reader questioning what it is that makes up humanity.

The South West Prize winner Leslie Thiele has had her short fiction commended and shortlisted in various competitions. Her story ‘Harbour Lights’ details the emotional turmoil created by a painful confrontation.

Interested?  Margaret River Press is offering a copy for a giveaway.

Be in it to win it!  Please indicate your interest in the Comments box below and I’ll select a winner using a random number generator round about the end of next month.  Previous giveaway winners are welcome!

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

Author: Laura Elvery
Title: Joiner Bay and Other Stories
Publisher: Margaret River Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780648027508
Courtesy of Margaret River Press.

If you can’t wait to see if you are a winner, you can buy a copy from Fishpond Joiner Bay and Other Stories: Margaret River Short Story Competition: 2017, or direct from Margaret River Press.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 24, 2017

Heat and Light, by Ellen Van Neerven

To whet your appetite for Indigenous Literature Week, here’s my review of a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while…

If all goes well, I’ll be reading two winners of the David Unaipon Award during Indigenous Literature Week 2017.  (Click here to see others that you can buy).  It’s an important award because as well as a prize of $10,000, the winner receives a publishing contract with category sponsor University of Queensland Press (UQP).   Ellen Van Neerven won the award in 2013 for Heat and Light, and I have finally – at last! tracked down a copy of Larissa Behrendt’s Home which won in 2002.  I’ve read quite a few of the recent winners, and they’ve all been interesting reading (links go to my reviews):

As it happens, I brought home another interesting book from Bayside Library today.  It’s called Black Writers, White Editors, Episodes of collaboration and compromise in Australian Publishing History, (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009 ISBN 9781921509063) and the author is Jennifer Jones, whose research explored the editorial relationship for three foundational Indigenous women writers, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Margaret Tucker and Monica Clare.  I’m unlikely to read it all because … a-hem… it is indeed a scholarly work, but it made me realise for the first time that the process of publishing indigenous narratives can significantly alter what is eventually published.  Jones’s analysis shows (amongst other things) that for the three authors that she researched, there were numerous alterations which were not just spelling and grammar, including

  • changes that increase political impact in a passage;
  • insertion of alternative colloquialisms;
  • minimisation of character’s emotional expression; and
  • standardisation of colloquialisms.

More importantly the editing changed the nature of the writing.  She gives an example of where editing one of Noonuccal’s stories

  • made it conform to the dominant cultural viewpoint on  Aboriginality and Aboriginal sovereignty;
  • messed with the structure to shift it into a Western understanding of chronology;
  • recontextualised it to make it about a bygone Dreaming rather than about the consequences of contact history; and
  • whitewashed some aspects of Aboriginal experience, such as scavenging in the tip or stealing, to make it palatable for the projected white mainstream readership. 

What Jones has to say about the toning down of Aboriginal perspectives in the presumed interests of marketability in the 1970s-1990s, made me wonder whether this still happens at all today, or whether these practices have faded away along with old ideas about assimilation.  I certainly hope things have changed.  I want to read the unfiltered voices of Indigenous authors, no matter what they have to say.

The catalyst for me to make this this digression about editing is the way that Ellen Van Neerven has structured her stories in Heat and LightEverybody is playing around with form and chronology these days, it’s just part of the contemporary writing scene.  But Van Neerven asserts a shared concept of time: in a book written in three distinct sections, the middle section called ‘Water’ has Western time in which  she projects forward into the near future with what is deemed to be progress, and this ‘progress’ is confronted by life forms ancient beyond imagining so that ordinary linear time seems irrelevant.  In the sections titled ‘Heat’ and ‘Light’ which bookend this central, (most political) part of the book, linked short stories from the near past tell us about concepts of kinship, memory and storytelling which have been fractured but remain resilient and powerful over generations.

I can’t help thinking how the short stories might have been sanitised in a past era.  Amy Kresinger initially rejects the information that her biological grandmother was a Bundjalung woman called Pearl, a woman who was gang-raped by local thugs and who abandoned her child to be brought up by her sister, Marie.  Amy’s sense of identity is rocked:

My thoughts are running wild as I drive to my place.  If I didn’t know my grandmother, then I could I know myself?  My grandmother as I had always known was Marie Kresinger, Aunty Marie to everyone.  She’s spent most of her life as a domestic.  She died from heart failure at the age of seventy-two.  People said her heart was too big.  (p.5)

Her father can’t face up to it either.  He would tell her nothing of their history, whether he knew it or not.

Yet Amy’s voice remains strong and resilient, and she grows in wisdom and confidence, discovering her sexuality along the way.  This is a lively book, where the narrators of have distinctive voices and usually a laconic sense of humour.

There was a picture of it in one of the magazines, I remember.  We’d made a stack of the mags up high in the office.  I hadn’t read them yet.  I wasn’t ready to commit to weight loss and crosswords and Sudoku. (p.150)

Heat and Light won the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize.  It was also shortlisted for The Stella Prize, the Queensland Literary Award for State Significance, and the Readings Prize.

Ellen van Neerven is a Mununjali woman from South East Queensland.   She’s an editor, mentor and advocate for First Nation writers, and she was the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Best Young Australian Novelist in 2015.

ILW 2017I read Heat and Light was my first book for Indigenous Literature Week 2017.

Author: Ellen Van Neerven
Title: Heat and Light
Publisher: UQP, (University of Queensland Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780702253218
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $22.95

Available from Fishpond:Heat and Light
Check out Sue’s review at Whispering Gums too.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 23, 2017

Some Tests, by Wayne Macauley

Wayne Macauley is an entertaining satirist who mercilessly exposes Australian follies, and I like his novels very much.  I’ve read Blueprints for a Barbed-wire Canoe (2004, satirising our obsession with home ownership); The Cook (2011, it parodies foodies); Demons (2014, which exposes the inane narcissism of middle-class Melbourne ); and I have Caravan Story (2007) somewhere on the TBR.  (Links are to my reviews). Macauley’s latest target, in Some Tests, is the medicalization of normal life…

Beth is a nice, ordinary woman with a husband and a couple of kids, living in an ordinary Melbourne suburb.  She works in aged care, and David, her husband is an accountant.  They are muddling through life as most people do, planning a renovation that they can’t really afford, occasionally worrying about infidelity without apparent cause, and coping with the vagaries of parenthood.  Until one day when Beth wakes up not feeling very well, and David calls in a locum because their usual doctor isn’t available.

The locum’s diagnosis is a bit vague, but Beth is feeling seedy so she agrees to go for some tests.  And from this innocuous beginning, she finds herself on a merry-go-round of doctors and specialists and referrals, with a patient file that grows ever larger but never records a diagnosis.

On the first day, Beth seems to be experiencing what is familiar to all of us, but soon events take a more surreal turn.  Her case acquires a sense of urgency, and she is squeezed in for further appointments on the same day, going from Dr Yi to Dr Twoomey and then on to Dr Kolm.  The doctors’ room are located further and further away across Melbourne, necessitating long trips to the more remote suburbs, and the passengers on the trains and buses are all – every one of them! clutching referral slips for ‘more’ tests.  There are so many of them that kindly bus drivers call out the stops and give the passengers directions to the ever-lengthening roll call of doctors.  The time and distance involved means that Beth spends all day getting there and ends up staying the night – in rooms that are thoughtfully prepared in advance for her, complete with fresh undies and toothbrush.  It is as if she is on a conveyor belt and there is no getting off once she gets on.

She is –  of course – prescribed some drugs at PharmComm: they are precautionary … to some extent prophylactic – but in a certain sense palliative too, and she is docile about taking them.  Her passivity and self-absorption will be eerily familiar to anyone who has been shunted around the medical system… it’s all so tiring and confusing, in the end we just go along with things, eh?

There is, in trademark Macauley style, a suitably macabre ending.

Author: Wayne Macauley
Title: Some Tests
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN:  9781925355932
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Some Tests

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 22, 2017

Ache, by Eliza Henry-Jones

Ache is commercial fiction exploring the aftermath of bushfire on individuals and communities.  It’s quite draining to read, made more so by the knowledge that the author has qualifications in psychology and grief counselling, and wrote her Honours thesis about the representation of bushfire trauma in fiction.

The story centres around thirty-something Annie, who shot to tabloid fame by escaping with a small child from the burning mountain on a horse.  (Need I say, this is a classic example of highly risky panic? So many people die trying to escape at the last moment. If you live in, or visit, anywhere at risk of bushfire, including the urban fringe, have a bushfire plan and rehearse it.)

Annie’s grandmother dies, as do other people in the small community. Her mother’s home is ruined, and her daughter is traumatised.  And Annie, who lives and works in the city with her husband Tom, feels the urge to return to the mountain to help her mother and her uncle.  She also needs to sort out her marriage and deal with her own grief.

The characterisation of the child, Pip, is painful.  Quite honestly, if it were not for the author’s qualifications which show that she knows much more about this than I do, I would find it hard to believe that any parent could survive the bratty behaviour of this child and still love it.  I won’t catalogue the things this child does, I’ll just confine myself to the observation that the burden on Annie is exacerbated by the expectation that she should tolerate her child’s appalling behaviour.

What Jones does well is to show how the demands of family can impact almost beyond endurance on a fragile personality.  Annie has a city career as a vet and her husband is a city person.  But she feels she is needed back up on the mountain and so she abandons both the job and the husband and feels guilt about that too.  There is also an old lover vilified for having started the fire, and Annie herself  is the result of a teenage pregnancy and was always closer to her grandmother than her mother, so there are those resentments to deal with as well.  It seems a crowded palette of characters and psychological issues but it’s probably close to real life for some people.

Ache is only 260-odd pages but it seems longer because I found it dreary.  (It feels unkind to admit this because of its sincere attempt to explore trauma).  But I think the urge to show how awful the aftermath of bushfire can be has overwhelmed the author’s capacity to tell a good story, and commercial fiction needs to tell a good story.  That’s the risk an author takes in writing about grief and loss, I suppose, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Karenlee Thompson’s collection of short fictions, Flame Tip explores the terrible Hobart fires, and some of them will break your heart, but they’re not dreary.  (See my review).

Karenlee, however, really admires Ache (see her review) which just goes to show that the same book can elicit very different responses!

Update, a mere half an hour later:

Well, well, look what Radio National is talking about today!  ‘The evolution of emotion in literature’, that’s what.  And you know what, *sigh* their promo images are all but one of women emoting.   I couldn’t put up with listening to all of it…

Update, later that evening: I nearly forgot: Lexi Landsman wrote an absorbing book called The Ties That Bind which also explores the impact of bushfire.  See my review.

Author: Eliza Henry-Jones
Title: Ache
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2017
ISBN: 9781460750384
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Ache

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 21, 2017

Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria, by Brian Castro

Isn’t that the most splendid cover image?  It’s a cartoon called Gustave Flaubert dissecting Madame Bovary (1869) by Achille Lamor, courtesy of Goethe University in Frankfurt.  It graces the cover of Brian Castro’s latest book, Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria, a novel in thirty-four cantos.  Like much else in this book, the cartoon is droll, and captivating, and probably opaque if you don’t get the literary allusion.

Well, as usual with Castro’s books, I must confess immediately that there must be plenty of allusions that I’ve missed on a first reading but I am not too bothered about that because I know from reading Katharine England’s introduction to Drift (1994) that Castro doesn’t expect his readers to do that.  Quoting here from my own review of Drift:

England quotes a paragraph from Looking for Estrellita in which Castro which explains that he prefers to read books that he doesn’t understand straight away, and that he writes similar books himself. So

Castro’s books are for readers who distrust easy certainties in fiction and like to work – and particularly play – with all the nuances of a text, reconstructing to their own individual satisfaction the author’s intentions and concerns. (Introduction, ix)

And what she says about Drift, IMO applies equally to Blindness and Rage:

if you like things in black and white – fixed premises, unequivocal answers – this book, in which everything moves and shifts and comes round again in subtly altered focus is probably not for you. (Introduction, x)

Castro suggests in this book, however, that it might not just be a case of whether you like a challenge or not… maybe people are losing the ability to play his games.  Here in Canto XIII he’s talking about police giving up on their surveillance but they’re obviously not his only target:

… since it take a lifetime to encode high
literature they grew disinterested
when the digital age began to lose
close reading skills and treated all this seeding
and dissemination as something trite;
too intellectual… (p. 145)

But he also acknowledges that allusions can be very sly.  Poor Gracq misses one entirely because it’s based on a coded message with an address and time that an Australian would be unlikely to know:

‘But there is no time… [to meet]
there is always no time.’
Lucien started to complain.
‘It’s in the poem by Verlain,’ she said,
on this occasion broadcast
on 5th June 1944 to signal
the Normandy invasion.
Je me souviens [I remember]
des jours anciens [the old days]
It was a quarter past eight
in the evening, Lucien.’ (p. 152

Anyway… if you’re still with me…

Amongst the literary allusions are some I recognise and others to chase up: Bataille, (1897-1962) Leiris (1901-1990), Caillois (1913-1978) and Klossowski (1905-2001) from the French Collège de Sociologie, none of whom died young except their lovers and who sound like a very interesting bunch who (Wikipedia tells me), believed that surrealism’s focus on the unconscious privileged the individual over society, and obscured the social dimension of human experience.  I didn’t look them up when I was reading the book in bed, and I didn’t discover that many of them are listed at the back of the book until I found them there after I’d reached the end, but anyway, my adventures with Finnegans Wake are teaching me to read on, and to sort out the mysteries later.  But Caillois sounds particularly relevant to Castro’s writing because he was very interested in play as an essential pre-condition for the generation of culture.  You can read about it here if you are keen, but the point is that Castro makes many intellectual propositions palatable through the playfulness of his writing. Would a reader like me ever have discovered Klossowski and Co had Castro not penned this allusion to tempt me off to Wikipedia?

his nephew screwing Colette.
Pierre Klossowski, Jesuit friend and fellow traveller,
would write this version of his jealous joie
and call it Roberte ce soir.

(The Dalkey Archive has a translation if your interest is piqued too).

Blindness and Rage also offers an extra challenge for me because it’s a verse novel that made me think I should get round to reading Dante first.  But I didn’t do that, I confined myself to reading Clive James’ introduction to his translation of  The Divine Comedy which reminded me of university things I’d forgotten about poetry and why I do not have the expertise to comment on the poetic qualities of the work.  Never mind, I love the book and I’m going to tell you about it anyway…

First of all, here is the blurb from Readings:

Blindness and Rage is a novel told in 34 cantos, somewhat in the manner of Pushkin’s great Russian novel in verse, Eugene Onegin.

Castro’s hero Lucien Gracq is a townplanner from Adelaide who is writing a book-length poem, Paidia. Doubtful of its reception, he travels to Paris to join a literary club which guarantees its members anonymity, by having their books published under someone else’s name, while the authors themselves are encouraged to commit suicide if they are not already, as in Gracq’s case, facing death from a terminal illness.

Castro’s novel is a part-serious, part-comic fantasy on the present fate of literary authors, who might as well be anonymous, or dead, for all the recognition that they are likely to receive for their writing.

And here, making its erudition more explicit, is the blurb from Giramondo:

Suffering from a fatal disease, Lucien Gracq travels to Paris to complete the epic poem he is writing and live out his last days. There he joins a secret writers’ society, Le club des fugitifs, that guarantees to publish the work of its members anonymously, thus relieving them of the burdens of life, and more importantly, the disappointments of authorship. In Paris, Gracq finds himself crossing paths with a parade of phantasms, illustrious writers from the previous century – masters of identity, connoisseurs of eroticism, theorists of game and rule, émigrés and Oulipeans. He flees from the deathly allure of the Fugitives, and towards the arms of his beloved – but it may be too late.

Written in thirty-four cantos, Blindness and Rage recalls Virgil and Dante in its descent into the underworld of writing, and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin with its mixture of wonder and melancholy. The short lines bring out the rhythmic qualities of Castro’s prose, enhance his playfulness and love of puns, his use of allusion and metaphor. Always an innovator, in Blindness and Rage he again throws down a challenge to the limits of the novel form.

And here is a little excerpt from Canto 1, which I liked because it mocks the pretentions of poetry so deliciously.  There have been three verses of 16, 14 and 15 lines beforehand which defied my attempts to identify any kind of recognisable poetry pattern (which is not to say there isn’t one, of course.  In fact I am sure there must be some Oulipo somewhere, if I only knew what to look for).  Whatever, there are half- and inline-rhymes and half- and inline-rhythms in free verse and then we get this:

But how to write now in such gloom
in the face of real impending doom?
Should the work be given every attention
to become the focus of constriction?
His heart’s regret
was his life’s invention: to beget
lying and exaggeration
in exchange for deep imagination
when it was a sign of the times
to pretend to the truth,
even if it smacks of youth
to force some easy ABBA rhymes,
without relying on Pushkin’s Onegin
for good taste
after pulp fiction had laid waste
to innocence in the nursery,
pushpins inserted into favourite Teddy
and every friend a Fagin. (p.2-3)

A pun on ABBA!  I love it:)

Castro has written about the lack of literary recognition in Australia before, and in Blindness and Rage he plays with all kinds of mock-possibilities for redemption.  In Canto VII he tells us how For several years after the death/ of his first wife Gracq devoted himself/ to working for refugees and he writes movingly about their escape from the lees of life only to find their dreams of a better life corrupted:

… But then they
still owed people smugglers and had to pay
with dope and vice and soon
reality replaced the dream with
rat-infested kitchens, piecemeal porting
at railway stations while skinhead racists
were jimmying their windows
to steal the one precious memory
of a vinyl record not heard in a decade thick
with dust for want of a gramophone (p. 51)

But himself a kind of refugee in Paris, Gracq reads the French novelist Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806) and, his iPhone surreptitiously between his knees, photocopies La Découverte Australe par un Homme-Volant (1781) in the Bibliothèque Nationale.  *chuckle* He finds that Victorin, the hero of Restif’s novel, a flying man, had plans to inseminate/ the South, improving the human race/ through ingenuity/populating the earth with his progeny/ […] with a blindly French civilising succour.  There is a reproduction of a quaint frontispiece from Restif’s book facing the last page of this canto, showing us Victorin setting off with his flying apparatus to rescue us from our antipodean mediocrity … in 1781! (No, I’m not getting into a discussion about cultural imperialism or identity politics here.  If you’ve read Drift you know that Castro can’t be accused of that, he is being playful).

(Update: much to my delight, I saw a copy of Restif’s book myself at Melbourne’s Rare Books Week.  You can see my photo of it here).

But *amused frown* I might myself become the subject of Castro’s mischievous pen if I don’t stop soon.  Though he wouldn’t have been thinking of an obscure litblogger like me, he warns reviewers off when Gracq, hanging out with his fellow authors at Le club des fugitifs, finds that:

In the hubbub Gracq realised
the shades had surrendered their work
to the general public who were eager
to seek out secrets in the meagre seam
almost exhausted.
There were others he did not recognise –
writers without compromise; unmolested –
it was clear to him they had retired here
to flee from any interpretation;
not like the rest, their aura lost
through constant quotation.  (p. 95-6)

I’d better not quote any more then or offer my interpretations, eh?

For a proper review, see the SMH.

Author: Brian Castro
Title: Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria
Publisher: Giramondo, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336221
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo

Available from Fishpond: Blindness and Rage: A Phantasmagoria or direct from Giramondo.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 20, 2017

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

I wanted to read this book as soon as I read the review at A Life in Books so I asked my library to buy it and they did.  #BigBouquetForKingstonLibrary!

It is the achingly sad story of the disappearance of a teenage girl in a hill community in the heart of England.  She was there on holiday, and she simply vanished.  We have all heard stories like this in the media, and we know that these unsolved disappearances resonate long, long after the event.  The names of Eloise Worledge, the Beaumont Children and Linda Stilwell are known to everyone my age, and never forgotten.

And yet…  the saddest moment in this story comes when, years after the disappearance, one of the characters sees an item of the missing girl’s clothing, and doesn’t recognise it for what it is.

The story is written not as a crime novel nor from the parents’ perspective but as a chronicle of how life goes on, as it must.  The villagers are good people: they turn out for the search, and they are respectful, cancelling long anticipated events and time-honoured traditions because they feel it would be inappropriate to hold them.  But as the narrative progresses we see the endless natural cycle of life with the birth and death of wildlife and the progress of the seasons, and although they are haunted by the disappearance people grow older and make changes in their lives as people do.   Amongst the other narratives, the story traces the growth and development of the teenagers who knew the girl, who is always referred to in a kind of refrain, as Rebecca Shaw, sometimes known as Becky or Bex.  These teenagers are the ones who knew her best, though they didn’t know her very well at all.  So there is no real sense of her as a person – which is what happens when a person becomes a ‘case’ to the police and to the media, who rustle up renewed interest at anniversaries which occur over the 13 year span of the novel.

Despite its sober storyline, this is a beautiful book which becomes impossible to put down.  Do read Susan’s review – it’s irresistible.

Author: Jon McGregor
Title: Reservoir 13
Publisher: Fourth Estate UK (Harper Collins) 2017
ISBN: 9780008204860
Source: Kingston Library (who got this book in for me, because I implored them to!)

Available from Fishpond: Reservoir 13

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 19, 2017

2017 Miles Franklin Award shortlist

The Miles Franklin Award shortlist has been announced:

Emily McGuire: An Isolated Incident, Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2016, see my review

Mark O’Flynn: The Last Days of Ava Langdon, UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2016, see my review

Ryan O’Neill: Their Brilliant Careers, Black Inc Books, 2016 see my review

Philip Salom: Waiting, Puncher and Wattman, 2016 – see my review, and yes, this is the one I think should win.

Josephine Wilson: Extinctions, UWAP (University of Western Australia Press, 2016), see my review

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


This weekend I went to the Williamstown Literary Festival.  I went to some beaut sessions, and bought some nice books, and in due course I will read them and tell you all about them.  For now, suffice to tell you that I bought these three, and on the basis of the author’s sessions and having read the first chapter during festival lulls, I recommend that you get hold of them too:

But what I really want to tell you about is something that will interest anybody who’s interested in Australian books and writing.  Insiders will already know it, but I am not an insider, and nor, I suspect are a good many of my readers.  So read on…

The WLF is a festival supported by Victoria University (who run writers courses, as many universities now do) and this support manifested itself in a number of sessions pitched squarely at aspiring writers.  I went to two, not as an aspiring writer looking for tips but because I had read the authors and wanted to support their sessions.  At ‘Pathways to Writing’ with Enza Gandolfo and Sherryl Clark, there was a whole lot of advice about writers’ groups and courses – obviously useful to the aspiring writers in the audience –  but my ears pricked up when there was a question about the Faber Writing Academy.  It costs thousands, apparently, but they offer useful editing experience (and contacts in the industry), which led on to the wisdom of hiring an editor before pitching to a publisher.  Investing $5000-6000 for a structural edit can mean that your book is the best it can be and has a much better chance of evading the slush pile.  Because once your book is in that pile, you can’t resubmit it after you’ve improved it, with a note to say it’s better now…

The penny didn’t drop until the afternoon when I went to a session called The Age of Experience, chaired by Jane Rawson.  This session featured writers who hadn’t been published until after they were 35, and it included Jenny Ackland, Christy Collins and Paul Dalgano.  At one stage Jane began a question by saying that it was fair to say that none of them had been hugely successful: they hadn’t won a major prize and they hadn’t had their book optioned for a film.  My jaw dropped.  I hadn’t read Dalgano, but I had read Ackland’s The Secret Son and Christy Collins The End of Seeing, and I knew that Jenny’s had been chosen as a Summer Read by the State Library so multiple copies had been sold to lots of libraries and that her second novel will be out soon, and I knew that Christy’s had won the Seizure Prize and been longlisted for the ALS Gold Medal.  This seemed like success to me! Jane’s question went on to tease out what these authors were hoping for if ‘hugely successful’ wasn’t on the horizon, (and Jenny, for example, went on to talk about the pleasure and satisfaction just of being published).   But Jane’s question lingered.  And eventually it dawned on me, even if it’s not what Jane was fishing for or what these authors thought, that there are authors out there who are at least hoping for a return on their investment in themselves.

I’m not in a position to have an opinion on whether Australia’s economy is able to support writing as a income-producing career, though I think few of our current crop of really good writers are prolific enough for that, and prolific has its hazards for the quality of an author’s work (as we see with the variable quality of Tom Keneally’s work from a literary PoV).  But now *penny drops*  I can see that writers who’ve invested years of tertiary fees and/or thousands to Faber and/or a privately-hired editor might have an expectation that they’ll at least get their money back, and hopefully much better than that.  That’s what ‘success’ would mean.   Again, I’m in no position to know how realistic that is.

But – as an outsider empathising with the PoV of a writer who hasn’t spent that kind of money – I can also now see that at the publisher’s submissions desk, the competition is with people who have made that kind of professional investment.

In other words, the gatekeeper’s gates have shifted further back, and this worries me.  It might mean that what gets published is drawn from a pool of writers who can afford that kind of investment, and that might make our writing rather dull.

I think that the best writing comes from authors who’ve seen a bit of the world and care about it, and who know and listen to a wide variety of people.  Sure, they need to hone their craft, and work with other people to make it really good, but not at the expense of living the rich and varied life which is what makes writing great.  Only a genius like Jane Austen could make a very restricted life into a brilliant novel, and genius is by definition very rare indeed.   The more our books and writing are peopled by the middle-class and the tertiary educated, people who can afford to live in the inner suburbs of capital cities, and people who do not know what it is like to be homeless or unemployed or undereducated or have just $7.00 in the bank, (yours truly, circa 1969), the greater the risk that our Australian books and writing will become impoverished.

This is not to suggest that books by authors who fit the profile I’ve sketched haven’t written terrific books or that they can’t empathise with the experiences of others.  If you are a regular reader of this blog then you know that I have read and loved authors from all kinds of backgrounds.  But I think it is a risk we run if the pathway to publication becomes crowded by people who can afford to invest in themselves to the exclusion of others that can’t.

What do you think?


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 16, 2017

Datsunland, by Stephen Orr

The lead story in Datsunland, a new collection of short stories from Stephen Orr is a great conversation starter…

Titled ‘Dr Singh’s Despair’, it’s about a clash of cultures on an epic scale.  Dr Singh is an Indian doctor who has agreed to work in a remote location in the hope of bringing his family here to Australia for a better life.  He is an educated, cultured, rather formal man who is used to being treated with respect.  To say that the casual mores of Coober Pedy come as a shock is a bit of an understatement.

Waiting in the airport terminal for the car that was supposed to meet him…

He sat on a loose seat, took a freshly ironed handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead.  He remembered the brochures the Health Commission had sent him: Barossa Valley vineyards, fishing off white beaches on the Eyre Peninsula and marvelling at the Naracoote Caves.

Yes, some of this please, he’d written back.  He was tired of living in the most densely populated place on the planet.  A swarm of humans that just kept coming, filling his waiting room, his days, his nights, his dreams with broken bodies, malaria, typhoid and TB, floating through the small, hot room he worked in for sixteen hours a day.

Yes, some of this please.

But then came the next letter.  We have shortages in remote locations.  Very considerable financial incentives are involved.

Yes, some of that too.

So, sign here, Dr Singh, and we’ll pay your airfare, accommodation – the whole lot.

Almost.  (p.5)

Well, we Aussies can just imagine it, can’t we?  It’s Wake in Fright with indifferent racism instead of drunken violence.  It’s Singh’s ‘failure’ to ‘see the funny side of things’ that will generate discussion.  I think this would be a great story for secondary school students to unpack…

The stories in this collection are sombre: the characters are, as the blurb says, outsiders peering into worlds they don’t recognise, or understand. 

Completely different to ‘Dr Singh’s Despair’ and nightmarishly chilling is ‘The One-Eyed Merchant’, a salutary reminder that workplace safety practices used once to be non-existent. ‘A Descriptive List of the Birds Native to Shearwater, Australia’ doesn’t have the most enticing title, but it’s a powerful story, again about outsiders and how we perceive them.  ‘Miss Mary’ is a tale that aches with loneliness and a wasted life.

Two stories pack a most uncomfortable punch.  Most of the stories are set in small outback towns  but ‘The Confirmation’ is a story of sectarian violence in Ireland.  The other one that really shocked me was ‘The Adult World Opera’, a gut-wrenching story of a child struggling to survive a situation that no child should have to endure.

I have previously reviewed the novella in this collection, Datsunland when it was published in the Griffith Review.

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: Datsunland
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743054758
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: Datsunland

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 14, 2017

No More Boats, by Felicity Castagna

As aspect of Australian policy that has long irritated me is that apparently it’s anti-refugee sentiment in the ethnically diverse western suburbs of Sydney that drives our unconscionable refugee policy.  These electorates are crucial to electoral success and so both political parties kowtow to their hostility to refugees who come to Australia by boat.  The irony is that these loud, unfeeling and disproportionately influential voices come from people who themselves came to Australia by boat.  (Who, perversely, take no notice at all of refugees who arrive by air and then seek asylum, and apparently have no objection to the hordes of people who overstay their visas either).

Felicity Castagna, winner of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Award in the Young Adult Fiction category for The Incredible Here and Now, explores this phenomenon in her new novel No More Boats.  It’s uncomfortable reading, but it’s an important book and it shows how fiction can shine a light on contemporary issues in society.

Antonio Martone is a product of the Populate or Perish immigration programs of the 1950s.  With his good mate Nico, he has been a hardworking success story in the construction industry, building good solid houses with craftsmanship and care.  He owns his own home and has others too, as investments.   But things are unravelling: he has been badly injured in the workplace accident that killed Nico; he is alienated from his wife and children, and he feels that his security is compromised because of the hysterical media response to the Tampa crisis.

Castagna builds her story slowly, weaving the narratives of Antonio, his wife Rosa, and his children Clare and Francis.  Rosa, facing the empty nest and anxious about Antonio’s strange behaviour, is plagued by regret.  She left Antonio once before, and wonders if she could have made a more interesting life for herself like her neighbour Lucy did when the 1970s came along and there were opportunities for women to reinvent themselves.  Rosa’s life as a housewife is empty and unfulfilling, and she is disappointed by the ingratitude of her kids.  They don’t share her ambitions for them and they don’t appreciate the sacrifices she’s made.

Castagna has been a high school teacher and it gives authenticity to her characterisation of the adolescent Francis and his mates Jesús and Charbel.  Francis is a source of constant frustration to Antonio and Rosa: he is bone idle, he oozes foul language, and in a marijuana-induced haze, he drifts in and out of the family home with no apparent purpose in life and no respect for anyone.  Rosa and Antonio think that they can take some satisfaction in Clare’s achievements, but they are rudely awakened when they find out that months ago Clare gave up her job as a teacher without telling them, and is working in a bookshop…

There is a claustrophobic atmosphere of inertia in this novel.  All the characters conceal their thoughts, and conversations slide past each other:

In the kitchen Francis and Jesús took beers out of the melting ice in the sink.  John Farnham asked questions from the stereo speakers:

What about the world around us?
How can we fail to see?
What about the age of reason?

‘Francis.  Jesús.  You’re here.’ His mother had appeared from nowhere.

She ignored her son completely, turned to Jesús and gave him a kiss.  ‘I hear you are doing very, very well for yourself. Worked hard.  Almost an accountant now.  Your mother will be able to visit you in your office one day.

Jesús smiled and nodded.  But Francis knew his mother was not really speaking to Jesús.  She was speaking to him.  She wanted him to be more like Jesús.  To have dreams of offices too.  Never going to happen.  Francis smiled at her.  He knew his mother well enough.  He knew that she’d had just the right amount of sherry and was enjoying herself just enough to smile back at him eventually, if he kept on smiling.  (p. 51)

This party for Antonio’s premature retirement is the catalyst for the collapse of Antonio’s life.  All his old securities have gone, and now he wonders if he was wise to come to Australia by boat.  He tells himself that in his era Australia wanted people like himself to come here, but like Clare’s ex-student Paul whose parents came by boat from Vietnam, Antonio has a fragile sense of belonging.  He is plagued by the raucous media and the Prime Minister’s infamous mantra ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’  The promised land is not what he thought it would be.

The reader isn’t sure if Antonio’s bizarre behaviour is triggered by prescription painkillers or the early signs of dementia, but when the ghost of Nico commands him to paint ‘No More Boats’ in giant letters across his concrete front yard, it provokes a predictable response.  Both sides of the refugee debate camp out in the street, with megaphones blaring slogans and fisticuffs among the hotheads.

In my review of Max, I pointed out that there are topics that need sensitive handling by authors.  Castagna has explored the underbelly of a vexed social issue without endorsing or condemning it, leaving the reader to form her own judgement.  I’d like to see more of this kind of writing about contemporary life in Australia… it’s illuminating and it’s thought-provoking.

Update 16/6/17 For a European angle on the world refugee crisis, see Emma’s billet about Elorado by Lauren Gaudé.

Author: Felicity Castagna
Title: No More Boats
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336306
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo

Available from Fishpond: No More Boats and direct from Giramondo

Well, there’s been a bit of a break since my last post about Finnegans Wake – but I’ve been busy – re-reading what I’ve read so far, making links with what has gone before …

And now we’re up to Chapter 6.  And straight away I am reminded of those bizarre ABC quiz programs where only the nerdiest of nerds could possibly know the answer.   There are twelve riddles set by Jockit Mic Ereweak and Shaun (son of Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle) misunderstands three and gets four right:

Shaun Mac Irewick, briefdragger, for the concern of Messrs. Jhon Jhamieson and Song, rated one hundrick and thin per storehundred on this nightly quisquiquock of the twelve apostrophes, set by Jockit Mic Ereweak. He misunderstruck and aim for am olio of number three of them and left his free natural ripostes to four of them in their own fine artful disorder.    (Finnegans Wake, Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition p. 126)

As far as I can tell this chapter doesn’t advance the trial of Earwicker but just tells us more about some of the characters.  In considerable and comic detail…

Joyce plays with the ancient form of the riddle by going into overdrive.

You know what you are looking at here?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

These ten pages (twelve in the Penguin edition) are the first riddle.   Here’s a little bit of it:

I. What secondtonone myther rector and maximost bridges-maker was the first to rise taller through his beanstale than the bluegum buaboababbaun or the giganteous Wellingtonia Sequoia; went nudiboots with trouters into a liffeyette when she was barely in her tricklies; was well known to claud a conciliation cap onto the esker of his hooth; sports a chainganger’s albert solemenly over his hullender’s epulence; thought he weighed a new ton when there felled his first lapapple; gave the heinousness of choice to everyknight betwixt yesterdicks and twomaries; had sevenal successivecoloured serebanmaids on the same big white drawringroam horthrug; is a Willbeforce to this hour at house as he was in heather; pumped the catholick wartrey and shocked the prodestung boyne; killed his own hungery self in anger as a young man; found fodder for five when allmarken rose goflooded;   (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition p. 126).

It’s a great long catalogue of comings and goings, deeds both minor and major, and the answer, when it finally comes is Finn MacCool. But it’s also HCE because (it seems to me) the default character is HCE.  If you can’t work out who someone is, it’s probably HCE hounded become hunter; hunter become fox; harrier. marrier, terrier, tav.  But why should we feel he is Vespasian yet … think of him as Aurelius?  Aurelius (as in Marcus Aurelius Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180) is my favourite Emperor, and I like to read his Meditations at bedtime, as some people might read The Bible.  Vespasian was a military man, not a thinker.  Neither Campbell nor Tindall enlighten me on this point…

There are parts that one simply must read aloud:

… die king was in his cornerwall melking mark so murry, the queen was steep in armbour feeling fain and furry, the mayds was midst the hawthorns shoeing up their hose, out pimps the back guards (pomp!) and pump gun they goes;  (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle) (p. 134-5).

see attribution below

The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.

Other bits are just plain incomprehensible: the cryptoconchoidsiphonostomata in his exprussians.  Oh well…

I think that one of the riddles that Shaun solved was No 4 because I guessed it too:

4. What Irish capitol city (a dea o dea!) of two syllables and six letters, with a deltic origin and a nuinous end, (ah dust oh dust!) can boost of having a) the most extensive public park in the world, b) the most expensive brewing industry in the world, c) the most expansive peopling thoroughfare in the world, d) the most phillohippuc theobibbous paùpulation in the world: and harmonise your abecedeed responses?   (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition p. 140).

Well, the answer is Dublin, but Joyce plays games with this too, with four old men naming (in obscurantist ways)  the four cities (Belfast,  Cork, Dublin and Galway) of their four provinces Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught.  (This is where it helps to have familiarity with the Irish accent: only saying it aloud transforms Dorhqk into Cork, eh?)

Riddle No 10 is mainly a very long answer, given by Isabel, sister to Shaun and daughter of Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle.  Isabel seems to be having a light-hearted incestuous relationship with her brother.  She also seems to be an airhead.

Riddle 11 is in verse, and it’s answered in a long-winded roundabout way by a pedantic schoolmaster, who digresses every now and again to tick off his students.

As my explanations here are probably above your understandings, lattlebrattons, though as augmentatively uncomparisoned as Cadwan, Cadwallon and Cadwalloner, I shall revert to a more expletive method which I frequently use when I have to sermo with muddlecrass pupils. Imagine for my purpose that you are a squad of urchins, snifflynosed, goslingnecked, clothyheaded, tangled in your lacings, tingled in your pants, etsitaraw etcicero. And you, Bruno Nowlan, take your tongue out of your inkpot! As none of you knows Javanese I will give all my easyfree translation of the old fabulist’s parable. Allaboy Minor, take your head out of your satchel! Audi, Joe Peters! Exaudi facts! (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition) (p. 152).

The schoolmaster’s lecture, says Campbell, is in three phases:

  1. discussion in abstract terms of the general principles involved
  2. a fable, The Mookse and the Gripes, translated from the Javanese and quoted by the professor to illustrate the main drift of his argument
  3. a more complex classroom illustration, the story of Burrus, Caseous, and the cowrymaid Margareen, to clarify the more abstruse of the professor’s implications and to carry the argument forward to its main point. (Campbell, p109)

The introduction to my Folio edition says that Joyce claimed not to have read Lewis Carroll, but I thought of Alice and the Mock Turtle and the Griffin straight away when I came to the crazy logic of the Mookse and the Gripes. The illustration shows Pope Adrian IV  (the Mookse, and also Shaun) sitting on a stone, while the overripe gripes (grapes, and also Shaun’s brother Shem) are winding around a tree by the side of a stream (the River Liffey) while Nuvoletta is looking down on them from a balcony (and being ignored).  This sequence is about the old conflict between the authority of the Catholic church and those who reject it.  The argument descends into a volley of insults, as sibling arguments do, and the scene ends, apparently, with them metamorphosing into an apron and a hankie, but I couldn’t identify the part where that happens!

So on to Chapter 7!


Sing a Song of Sixpence image: Downloaded from Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by EuTuga., Public Domain,

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »