Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 23, 2021

Book Giveaway winner: the Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

Time to draw the winner of the giveaway for The Morbids!  There were 8 entries, and I drew the winners using

And the winners are:

*drum roll*

Congratulations to Fay, Robyn, Jess and Agnes.

To keep my costs down, I’m having them delivered from Fishpond, so if you are a winner, it is conditional on you providing me with your address by the end of this month so that I can pass it on to Fishpond for delivery.

I’ll contact you  to get your postal address.

Thanks to everyone for entering!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 22, 2021

2021 Australian Book Industry Awards Longlist

My goodness, it’s a busy night tonight!

The 2021 Australian Book Industry Awards Longlist has been announced. A shortlist will be released on Monday 12 April, with winners announced on Wednesday 28 April.

Though some are on my TBR, I’ve read only two of them.  But then, I tend not to, with nominees for this award, because read a lot from small publishers, and it’s the big conglomerates that dominate these awards.  But Theresa Smith has read quite a number of them, so visit her site to see her reviews. 

Literary Fiction Book of the Year

  • A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, Jessie Tu (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
  • A Room Made of Leaves, Kate Grenville (Text Publishing, Text Publishing)
  • All Our Shimmering Skies, Trent Dalton (HarperCollins Publishers, Fourth Estate)
  • Honeybee, Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
  • Infinite Splendours, Sofie Laguna (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
  • Song of the Crocodile, Nardi Simpson (Hachette Australia Pty Ltd, Hachette Australia), on my TBR
  • Sorrow and Bliss, Meg Mason (HarperCollins Publishers, Fourth Estate)
  • The Last Migration, Charlotte McConaghy (Penguin Random House, Hamish Hamilton)

General Non-fiction Book of the Year

  • Fire Country, Victor Steffensen (Hardie Grant Publishing, Hardie Grant Travel)
  • My Tidda, My Sister, Marlee Silva; Illustrated by Rachael Sarra (Hardie Grant Publishing, Hardie Grant Travel)
  • One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987–1995, Helen Garner (Text Publishing, Text Publishing)
  • Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark, Julia Baird (HarperCollins Publishers, Fourth Estate)
  • The Golden Maze: A biography of Prague, Richard Fidler (HarperCollins Publishers, ABC Books)
  • The Space Between, Michelle Andrews and Zara McDonald (Penguin Random House, Viking)
  • Un-cook Yourself: A Ratbag’s Rules for Life, Nat’s What I Reckon (Penguin Random House, Ebury Australia)
  • Women and Leadership, Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Penguin Random House, Vintage Australia)

The Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year

  • A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, Jessie Tu (Allen & Unwin)
  • Lucky’s, Andrew Pippos (Pan Macmillan Australia, Picador Australia)
  • My Tidda, My Sister, Marlee Silva; Illustrated by Rachael Sarra (Hardie Grant Publishing, Hardie Grant Travel)
  • Song of the Crocodile, Nardi Simpson (Hachette Australia Pty Ltd, Hachette Australia), on my TBR
  • The Coconut Children, Vivian Pham (Penguin Random House, Vintage Australia), abandoned
  • The Grandest Bookshop in the World, Amelia Mellor (Affirm Press, Affirm Press)
  • The Happiest Man on Earth, Eddie Jaku (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia)
  • The Morbids, Ewa Ramsey (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), on order

Small Publishers’ Adult Book of the Year

  • Glimpses of Utopia: Real ideas for a fairer world, Jess Scully (Pantera Press, Pantera Press)
  • Living on Stolen Land, Ambelin Kwaymullina (Magabala Books), on my TBR
  • Stone Sky Gold Mountain, Mirandi Riwoe (University of Queensland Press, UQP), on my TBR
  • The Animals in That Country, Laura Jean McKay (Scribe Publications, Scribe Publications)
  • The Rain Heron, Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing, Text Publishing), on my TBR
  • What Is To Be Done: political engagement and saving the planet, Barry Jones (Scribe Publications, Scribe Publications)
  • Where the Fruit Falls, Karen Wyld (UWA Publishing, UWA Publishing)
  • Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja, Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja (Magabala Books), see my review

Biography Book of the Year

  • A Bigger Picture, Malcolm Turnbull (Hardie Grant)
  • A Repurposed Life, Ronni Kahn with Jessica Chapnik Kahn (Allen & Unwin, Murdoch Books)
  • Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave, Mark Mordue (HarperCollins Publishers, Fourth Estate)
  • Fourteen, Shannon Molloy (Simon & Schuster Australia, Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • Paul Kelly, Stuart Coupe (Hachette Australia Pty Ltd, Hachette Australia)
  • Soar: A Life Freed by Dance, David McAllister with Amanda Dunn (Thames & Hudson Australia )
  • The Happiest Man on Earth, Eddie Jaku (Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Truganini, Cassandra Pybus (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), on my TBR

General Fiction Book of the Year

  • The Bluffs, Kyle Perry (Penguin Random House, Michael Joseph)
  • The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams (Affirm Press, Affirm Press), see my review
  • The Godmothers, Monica McInerney (Penguin Random House, Michael Joseph)
  • The Good Turn, Dervla McTiernan (HarperCollins Publishers, HarperCollins Publishers)
  • The Morbids, Ewa Ramsey (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), on order
  • The Mother Fault, Kate Mildenhall (Simon & Schuster Australia, Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • The Survivors, Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia)
  • Trust, Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 22, 2021

2021 Australian Book Design Awards Longlist

Today brought the announcement the 2021 Australian Book Design Awards Longlist.  I think they’re mostly a rather lack-lustre lot.

These are the nominees for the Literary Fiction category.  I’d choose Jenny Grigg’s design for A Body of Water because it’s artistic and because it represents the book very well.

Then there are the nominees for Commercial Fiction:

None of these designs make me want to pick the book up off the shelf at the bookshop, but The Night Letters hints at an interesting book because of the Middle Eastern iconography.

However it’s the chosen designs for Fully-illustrated NF over $50 that most bemuse me.  What is it about those two by the NGV that qualifies them as design??


You can see the rest of the nominees here.  The most interesting ones IMO are the ones by students, which are designs for books that have been around for a long time. Have a look at Chelsea Smith’s design for Watership Down and you’ll see what I mean.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 21, 2021

The Coffee Story, by Peter Salmon

To use one of Kim’s expressions at Reading Matters, this novel is absolutely bonkers.  The Coffee Story is a wild, rambunctious, anti-narrative of opportunism and greed, chosen by Toby Litt as his book of the year in the New Statesman.  But it has fared badly at Goodreads, where though some have recognised the incoherence as the fragmented thoughts of a narrator in extremis, others have dismissed it as a waste of time, misanthropic, or unsatisfying and a bit messy.  That might be because the author, Australian Peter Salmon, is an admirer of the postmodern philosopher Derrida, and has just published a much-lauded bio, An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida (Verso, 2020).  I have never read Derrida, but I recognise a postmodern novel when I see it, and this one is very funny indeed.

Your life, they say, flashes before your eyes in your last moments, and Salmon has taken this ridiculous cliché (how could anyone know, eh?) and turned it into a novel.  Teddy Everett is dying of cancer, possibly in a prison hospital, and this is his deathbed confessional.  Or bragfest, take your pick.

The Goodreaders were right about one thing: Teddy is misanthropic, and misogynist too.  He is a horrible man, who comes from a genealogy of other horrible men.  He grows up in Ethiopia, heir to a rapacious coffee empire, and comes of age as communist insurgents begin to make their presence felt.  (There are references to Hailie Salassi, the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, the failure of the League of Nations to protect it and so on, but you can read the novel, as I did, in complete ignorance of Ethiopian history and politics and then look it up at Wikipedia afterwards if so minded.  Where, alas, you will find the usual dispiriting chronicle of African colonial and postcolonial events.)

Teddy, like his male ancestors, has bedded and wedded too many hapless women and feminists may justifiably groan in despair at the absence of women with any real agency.  But this misses the point: no one in this story has any real agency, least of all Teddy unable to do anything but endure the indignities and pain of terminal illness.  The reader is not disposed to feel sorry for him, but even so, when Teddy betrays his wives, his family and his country, he is no more than a bit player in a melodrama not of his making.  The characters in this novel are moving inexorably towards disaster, just as Ethiopia is.  

And yet the novel is very funny.  The playful narrator never lets the reader forget that this is a work of fiction, manipulating events with arbitrary authorial choices, such as when he declares that he’s not given to suspense so let’s alter the chronology and have the event happen then when it suits the narrative.  The mockery is laced with black humour:

My father watched the pickers below as he knocked back the tejHe had thought that his arrival in Africa—he always called it Africa not Ethiopia not Abyssinia, my mother did the same—would be like in the movies, the white massa carried in a sedan chair, hoisted on black shoulders, a further sedan chair swaying behind with his wife and son.  Obedience, obsequiousness, that sort of thing.  Hanging with the Duke of Gloucester at the Coronation, the presentation of zebras and the peeling of grapes.  Sitting on a porch being fanned by a native while the coffee-pickers turned plants into money and Ibrahim Salez turned that money into gold.  A spot of big-game hunting in the evening, safari suits and pith helmets, him and Holbrook posing with rifles for photographs, while awestruck Ethiopes held the heads of lions, gazelles buffalo oryx.  (p.162)

A white man’s colonial fantasy, blithely indifferent to the reality around him. 

The narrative brings the personal life of Teddy Everett down to size.  This is the moment when his child was conceived:

Listen, cells grew and split, split and grew, forged towards organhood.  Helixes gripped and tore.  In other news, the Russians, ferried southwards by the Trans-Siberian railway, seized two hundred villages in Silesia.  The Allies entered Mönchengladbach, levelled Dresden, and crossed the Rhine.  Urgent meetings were held.  Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta; Hitler, Goering and Himmler in Berlin; and, critically, myself, my pregnant ladyfriend and her drunk, gun-toting younger brother in my office at Everett’s.  Negotiations dragged through the night.  Stalin, his position strengthened by recent military victories, won tacit Anglo-US support for Soviet control of Eastern Europe.  Hitler, his position weakened by recent military defeats, won tacit support for the idea of marrying his girlfriend and then topping himself.  My first wife, her position strengthened by the embryo growing inside her, not to mention the presence of her gun-toting brother, won explicit support for the fact that the right thing would be done. 

And so, in a series of firm handshakes and the placing down of weapons, it was agreed.  Russia got Poland, the Third Reich was abandoned  988 years early, and my first wife and I, Gloria in Excelsis, were to be joined in the sight of God and her brother, in holy, most holy, matrimony. (p.171)

The Coffee Story is what they call a Vegemite (Marmite) book.  You’ll either really like it, or you really won’t.  

You can find out more about Peter Salmon at his website. 

Author: Peter Salmon
Title: The Coffee Story
Publisher: Sceptre, (Hachette) 2011
ISBN: 9781444724707, pbk., 281
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings at the Melbourne Writers Festival, $24.95

Availability: Out of print.  Try your second-hand dealer or your library.

There are not many other worthwhile reviews that I could find, though if you check the Amazon reviews page you can see that there were reviews at the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Mail.  I just can’t find them online:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2021

Book Giveaway: the Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

Some readers might be aware that this debut novel, The Morbids, by Ewa Ramsay was recently subjected to a spiteful review.  A really, really spiteful review.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see here.

Rather than go Googling to find the nasty review, I’d rather you read this review at The Guardian.

I’ve ordered a copy of The Morbids for myself, to see what I think about it, and I’d like to share the experience.  So I’m offering to buy four more copies as giveaways for anyone with an Australian postcode.

To keep my costs down, I’ll be having them delivered from Fishpond, so if you enter, it is conditional on you providing me with your address so that I can pass it on to Fishpond for delivery.

If you’re interested, please comment below.  If you win a copy I’ll contact you to get your postal address.

I’ll draw the winners in a couple of days or so.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2021

Meet an Aussie Author: Christy Collins

Christy Collins, photographed by Fabrizio Evans

A fortnight ago I reviewed Christy Collins new novel The Price of Two Sparrows and I liked it so much I contacted Christy offering to feature her in Meet an Aussie Author.

I like novels that tell personal stories to illuminate issues that confront the society we live in.  The Price of Two Sparrows revolves around a proposed mosque development on land adjacent to a nature reserve for protected birds and it interrogates the entrenched positions that the media loves to present in reductionist terms.  I can see from the bio that Christy has provided where her interest in these kinds of urban issues comes from.

Christy has worked in academic research in the fields of child health, sustainability and commuter behaviour. Her novella The End of Seeing (see my review) was one of the winners of the Viva La Novella Prize 2015 and is published by Seizure.  It was shortlisted for the Colin Roderick Award and the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Prize and long-listed for the Vogel. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Tasmania and was a 2017 Asialink Arts Resident in Sapporo, Japan. Her novel ‘The Price of Two Sparrows’ is published by Affirm Press. She lives in Melbourne.

Here are Christy’s answers to my questions:

1. I was born…. in Adelaide and lived in South Australia until I was twelve.
2. When I was a child…before I could read or write, I wrote random letter combinations and took them to Mum and asked ‘what does this say?’ over and over again. I don’t think I managed to hit on a meaningful combination.
3. The person who encouraged / inspired / mentored me … there have been so many. For ‘The Price of Two Sparrows’ I was inspired by the very diverse group of people who participated in a State Department study program on Religious Pluralism with me at the University of California Santa Barbara in 2012. The book is dedicated to them.
4. I write in … my study.
5. I write when … I first wake up.
6. Research is … maybe the best part of writing. I love libraries and getting lost in the stacks. Writing this book included travel, art galleries, a birding tour, online research, reading, and long talks with people who know much more than me about Islam or birds or architecture – a privilege and a joy.
7. I keep my published works … on the bookshelf which my husband has alphabetised so at present my books sit between a number of J.M. Coetzee’s and Kathleen Collins’ ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love’. I also keep a ‘reading copy’ that I mark up with small changes before a reading.
8. On the day my first book was published, I … attended the launch event the publisher had organised at Melbourne Writers Festival then went out for burgers.
9. At the moment, I’m writing … a novel about virtual reality and travel.
10. When I’m stuck for an idea … I wait (something will come if I’m patient) / a word… I type ‘XXX’ and keep going / a phrase, I stare into the fridge, make a cup of tea, type ‘XXX’ and keep going.

What a difference there is between the festival buzz of Christy’s launch at the MWF, and the subdued atmosphere of book launches in our Covid-constrained world!  I think we all know now that book launches don’t sell many books on the night, but—quite apart from announcing what is a significant achievement in any writer’s life—what they do achieve is to generate interest.  I really liked Christy’s book, so I hope that it does well.

You can buy the book from Fishpond: The Price of Two Sparrows, direct from Affirm Press or your favourite indie bookseller.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 18, 2021

Emile Zola, a Very Short Introduction, by Brian Nelson

There are good reasons to read this book: if you know nothing about Émile Zola, Brian Nelson’s Very Short Introduction will convince you to add Zola to your TBR; and if you’ve read Zola in a general reader’s kind of way, the VSI enhances your knowledge of the author and his books, making you want to read or re-read more of this author.

This VSI also explains why you might not want to read the Rougon-Macquart cycle in the chronological order that I used, because themes reveal themselves differently if you read the novels in publication order.  The VSI also provides the historical context for the novels in a way that you might not have understood if you don’t have the OUP editions with their excellent introductions.  (Some of the novels were not available in OUP editions when I first started reading Zola, a problem since rectified.  See my post ‘The Art of Book Introductions, or Why You Should Always Buy the Oxford Editions of Zola’.)

Brian Nelson, Emeritus Professor of French Studies and Translation Studies at Monash University here in Melbourne, translated some of the recent editions of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and wrote the introductions.  His style, as you will know if you have read the OUP editions that he translated, is clear, free of pedantry and academic jargon, and easy for a general reader to enjoy.  I was really pleased to add this edition to my collections of VSIs.

Zola, (1840-1902) like his predecessor Balzac (1799-1850), used storytelling to examine his society, but Zola’s focus was the changing cultural landscapes of the late 19th century.  He was a novelist of modernity driven by industrial capitalism.  He was interested in the new shapes of the city, new forms of social practice and economic organisation, and the heightened political pressures of the era.  One of the innovative features of his novels is the portrayal of crowds, a feature of the emerging mass society.

Committed to a literature of truth, and to a new freedom of expression, he introduced a new realm of subjects: urban poverty and the working class; class consciousness and class relations; sexuality and gender.  Truth, for him, was not just a matter of personal integrity, but also an aesthetic principle.  He believed in telling it like it is, with no aspect of human experience out of bounds.  He believed [and I do too] that a writer plays a social role.  What Zola shows is the lives of ordinary people but within the context of change: how they were affected by the growth of the city, by the abuse of power, by the growth of consumer culture, by banking, crime, poverty and prostitution.

His style was not documentary but ironic and satiric.  Zola was provocative, combative, critical and subversive.  He was the most criticised and maligned writer of his day, but also the most popular.  Today he is recognised as a narrative artist, a craftsman, a storyteller and a fabulist.

Chapter One delves into Zola’s research methods and his narrative genius.  His best works, says Nelson, are visionary.  They employ poetic character with movement, colour and intensity.  His descriptions are more than just that—they eclipse human beings to express a vision and magnify the material world.  An example from The Ladies Paradise is the cascading images and rising pitch in the description of the department store sales which suggest loss of control, the female shopper’s quasi-sexual abandonment to consumer dreams while mirroring the perpetual expansion that defines the economic principles of consumerism. [And it’s still very relevant today.  Reading this novel and Brian Nelson’s introduction to it redefined my understanding of the way marketing works and I am a cannier shopper for that.]

The predominant feature is Zola’s oeuvre is the machine, in entities that function like one: the department store, the mine, the stock exchange.  He also uses his theme of heredity selectively to create a sense of doom, like an ancient curse.  But running through all his works is a mythopoeic vision, not just parallels between his characters and figures from classical mythology, but also influencing the narrative patterns of his novels.

There is the origin myth of the first novel of the series, The Fortunes of the Rougons; the myths of hell and the universal flood in Germinal; the myth of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge in The Sin of Father Mouret (La Faute de Abbé Mouret, 1875); the myth of Man’s lost majesty in The Sin of Father Mouret and L’Assommoir; the myth of the Eternal Return in Earth; the myths of Catastrophe and renewal in the later novels of Les Rougons-Macquart, from Nana onwards. (p.9) [I’ve reviewed all these, see here, but I didn’t recognise this aspect of the oeuvre.)

Chapter Two traces Zola’s career as a writer before he began the Rougons—I was interested to see that he learned the art of self-promotion at Hachette but he over-stepped the mark with Claude’s Confession, his second novel about a prostitute.  As an art critic he made himself notorious in the art world stoush over Impressionism v classical painting, but he also learned from Manet his guiding aesthetic, i.e. to look at life like a modern painter.

Novels which are discussed in detail in the VSI include

  • The Belly of Paris (Chapter 3) from his ‘angry young man’ period;
  • L’Assommoir (Chapter 4), the scandalous first great novel of working-class life;
  • Nana (Chapter 5), about a prostitute whose life span symbolises the disfigurement of French society from the coup d’état in 1852 to the declaration of war against Russia which signalled the collapse of Empire;
  • The Ladies Paradise (Chapter 6): a transitional novel, from the private lives of the bourgeoisie in Pot Luck to a new optimistic focus on progress which depicts the Darwinian struggle between small business retailers and the new new phenomenon of the department store;
  • Germinal (Chapter 7) is about class conflict and the struggle between capital and labour, which Zola foresaw would be the most important question of the 20th century. But it’s also a novel about the importance of working-class leadership: Zola was well aware of the risks of muddled thinking and patchy reading and the consequences for demagoguery;
  • Earth which Nelson thinks is one of Zola’s finest achievements, demolishing the myth of the inherent goodness of peasants and depicting them as they really were, primitive and insular in a harsh environment.  Their savage, sometimes murderous attachment to land is an anti-pastoral.

Chapter 9 introduced me to novels I haven’t read: the more mythic Three Cities trilogy (about a priest who loses his faith) and the unfinished quartet of the Four Gospel novels (exploring a secular replacement for Christianity). In this later period—amid the ideological shifts in la fin de siécle—Zola’s themes were life and death, creation and destruction, degeneration and renewal.  But his signature naturalism began to be rejected, Catholicism was on the rise and there was pessimism about the nation’s future.  Nelson says that some of these are more like tracts.

And then Dreyfus affair overshadowed everything else.  This VSI has one of the best and clearest explanations of this affair and its long-lasting effects on France.  And he also says that it may well have led to the probable poisoning of this genius of French literature.

Author: Brian Nelson
Title: Émile Zola, a Very Short Introduction
Oxford Very Short Introductions Series
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press), 2020
ISBN: 9780198837565, pbk., 144 pages including

  • A chronology of Zola’s life and works
  • References
  • Further reading, and
  • Index

Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Available from Fishpond: Emile Zola: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 15, 2021

Wearing Paper Dresses, by Anne Brinsden

Just last week I engaged briefly as a keyboard warrior on the subject of age limits on prizes for debut authors, and tweeted that notable Australian women who started writing late in life included Amy Witting, Olga Masters, Jessica Anderson and Ros Collins (who published her first in her 90s, followed up with her second within a couple of years, and is currently working on her third). Twitter, of course, does not allow for an informed discussion about the factors that held these women back until middle age and later.  Suffice here to say that societal expectations and educational opportunities had a lot to do with it. Plus, that it seems to me that having an open mind and a generous view of the world are useful qualities to employ when tempted to make condescending judgements about the disadvantages that other people confront.

Ok, off my soapbox.

Today I find myself writing a review of a debut novel written by a woman with a career in education and the public service behind her.  I have no idea why this woman’s launch into a literary career was delayed, but I do know this: Anne Brinsden is a writer of rare talent and I wish she had been able to begin her career as an author sooner.

I am not the only one who admires her writing. She won the 2017 Albury Write Around the Murray short story competition with ‘Amber Shadow’, judged and presented by Bruce Pascoe.  ‘Motherless Guns’ was highly commended in the 2018 Williamstown Literary Festival short story competition.  (You can read these short stories at her website, choose Short Stories from the top menu). Her first novel, Wearing Paper Dresses was shortlisted for the 2020 Indie Book Awards for Debut Fiction.  Now that I’ve read it, I know why.

It just so happens that the book is set in the Mallee in Victoria’s northwest, a place of legendary hardship that was the subject of extended discussion over at Bill’s blog, The Australian Legend. This discussion took place BC (Before Covid) and canvassed the idea of a literary trail in the Mallee, handicapped by us not knowing much about books and authors from the area.  Since then I have read Small Town Rising, by Mallee born-and-bred author Bill Green, but Wearing Paper Dresses is not just authored by someone who spent her childhood in the Mallee, and not just set in the Mallee either.  The Mallee is a character in the novel.

…you can talk about the Mallee: a land and a place full of red sand and short stubby trees.  Trees short of leaves and short of shade and overall stunted from the effort of precarious survival.  The Mallee is quiet on the surface of things in its own arid way, and seemingly insipid in its semi-desertness.  With its emaciated trees, its restless shifting sand, its spear grass, its prickles and its prickle bushes.  But it watches.  Waiting for a chance to get rid of you.  Clear off, you lot, it says.  Go back where you came from.  There are too many of you here already.  There is no permanent fresh water in the Mallee.  The Mallee won’t allow it. (p.61)

This personification of the Mallee as a hostile, malevolent being, just waiting for an opportunity to break someone, is like the sabotage of Resistance fighters repelling invaders.  Farmers who first came to the area and tried to clear it for ploughing had no idea what they were up against:

If you think Mallee farmers are stubborn you need to think again.  You need to think about the Mallee. Life in the Mallee is a deceptive, delicate balance and proper husbandry of that balance is necessarily brutal.  These farmers, though, are a hard-wearing lot.  And they need to be, because the Mallee never gives up on sending hot winds and choking dust to blast sheds; salt and drought to ruin crops; blowflies and crows to torment sheep.  Marjorie always knew that.  She knew too about all those Mallee stumps: lurking below the dirt, waiting for their chance.

Mallee stumps can do anything.  They can break a plough or damage a tractor or smash a man.  And the farmers couldn’t get rid of them.  They put up a good fight in the early days, but it wasn’t enough.  The men, camping out there on their hot semi-arid selections with their swags and tents and their bright buoyant optimism, attacked that scrub with axes.  And the scrub laughed while its skinny little trees grabbed those axes and ground down all that dour iron into stubs of their former selves.  So the men tossed aside their dismal axes and took to scorching the scrub with fire.  But that scrub just stared back at their fires and stood and sacrificed its limbs to the flames.  Then it turned its back on all those men and went underground.  To wait them out.  So the men, getting the wrong idea about the insurrectionary tactic, were cheered, made confident by their fires and the downed limbs, and they decided it was time to plough up.

Which was what the Mallee had been waiting for.  That underground Mallee attacked. Because those lurking insurgent Mallee stumps had been setting traps. They broke ploughs, they smashed seeders, they upended carts.  They were ruthless and relentless as they hit out at men and horses alike.  (p.59)

It took the late 19th century invention of the stump-jump plough to solve the problem.  It literally jumps over the stumps hidden underground.  That is because the mallee tree is a dissident.  It does not have a trunk like other trees; and the Mallee root […] is not a root at all.  It is the trunk. 

In other words, everything in the Mallee had to modify in order to survive.  Mallee farmers have to be tough.

And people who survived knew austerity and frugality were paramount in the Mallee […] you needed to conserve.  Mallee people were frugal with water.  But Mallee people were also frugal with behaviour.  They were thrifty with their speech and prudent with their dress and parsimonious with their movements. (p.36)

But Elise, a girl from the city couldn’t adapt.  She loved opera and art and making beautiful dresses.  She baked French macaroons instead of hearty British scones.  She was profligate.  She was lavish. 

Great-great-great grandfather of The Offspring, James Dunstan Green (1870-1949), on his Mallee block c 1942

When Elise meets Bill, working in a Melbourne factory to help save the farm, she has no idea what she is in for when after a few years of marriage and the birth of two little girls, they have to go back to the Mallee to help Pa.  Pa is a wonderful invention… my family album includes photos from the Mallee branch of The Offspring’s family before his grandmother escaped to the city, and Pa is just how I imagine James Dunstan Green: gruff, plain spoken, tough as old boots.  Pa has no idea how to deal with his daughter-in-law, and no idea just how fragile is her mental health.

Written from the point-of-view of Marjorie, her most wilful daughter, the novel shows the sad disintegration of Elise, and the tragic impact this has on her children.  There is a love story in this book, but it is not so-called rural romance, and there is not a shred of sentimentality in it.

Oh, and the paper dresses?  Well, what else would you use for costumes if you had no money for material?

Author: Anne Brinsden
Title: Wearing Paper Dresses
Publisher: Pan Macmillan 2019
ISBN: 9781760784850, pbk., 378 pages
Source: Kingston Library

You can find out more about Anne Brinsden at her website.

Available from Fishpond: Wearing Paper Dresses

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 13, 2021

This Mournable Body, by Tsitsi Dangarembga

I haven’t read the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize yet, but it must have been spectacularly good to have been chosen instead of the shortlisted This Mournable Body by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga. It’s one of those books that makes me wish that all my reading were as worthwhile.

The novel tells the story of one woman’s moral decay and decline into poverty and is emblematic of Zimbabwe’s postcolonial debacle.  So it could have been a melancholy book, but witty asides and black humour lighten the tone.  At the same time, it’s also a painfully honest examination of the deluded visions of Zimbabwe’s leadership and the corrupt state of the nation and body politic.

Tambudzai (Tambu) is a thirty-something Zimbabwean down on her luck.  And it’s not her fault: she was uplifted from rural poverty by an uncle who enabled her education but despite her degree she can’t get work and she can’t get ahead.  Progress towards a better life and success are a mirage.

Tired of being paid a miserable wage while men took credit for the work she did, she imprudently resigned from her job in an advertising agency.  When the novel opens she is exhausting her meagre savings in a rundown hostel where she is past her use-by date because the hostel is for young women, and she is no longer young.

Very soon the reader is drawn into the moral collapse that represents the morass into which Zimbabwe has fallen.  Tambu goes for a job interview as secretary for the Widow Riley but is refused entrance by a wily servant who perceives that Tambu will displace her.  Discouraged yet again, Tambu goes home in anger that expresses itself when a mob turns on one of the girls from the hostel, a flashy, sexy good-time-girl called Gertrude.  I don’t know whether the image of Tambu standing ready to cast a stone is a Biblical allusion to shared guilt or if that’s me imposing a colonial interpretation on a traditional Zimbabwean way of ‘disciplining’ unruly young women who depart from patriarchal standards of behaviour.  But either way the scene skewers the reader into being complicit.  On the one hand Tambu is addressing herself; on the other, the second-person ‘you’ is the reader—both the postcolonial Zimbabwean who wilfully refuses to take responsibility for the descent into mob rule and the wider world which looks away, helpless to intervene in affairs for which under colonialism it was the bedrock but which it now no longer controls.

Her mouth is a pit.  She is pulling you in.  You do not want her to entomb you.  You drop your gaze but do not walk off because on the one hand you are hemmed in by the crowd.  On the other if you return to solitude you will fall back inside yourself where there is no place to hide. (p.24)

Justification comes easily:

You did not want to do what you did at the market.  You did not want all that to happen, nor did anyone else.  No one wanted it.  It is just something that took place like that, like a moment of madness. (p.28)


From the hostel, Tambu moves to a squalid boarding-house owned by Mai Manyanga, a woman whose husband was an opportunist who made money.  He died, leaving her with a graveyard of unsold payphones and a large house.  Despite her assurances that it’s a god-fearing household, her tenant Shine routinely assaults another tenant Maka and leaves in a huff when Tambu declines to let him into her room.  She has set her sights on Mai Manyanga’s three sons as potential husbands as a way to escape her circumstances.  They in turn are plotting to kill their mother in order to gain their inheritance.

The arrival of Christine a.k.a. Kiri alters the situation.  She was a freedom-fighter in the war of independence, but like others in Tambu’s family she has sacrificed much and gained nothing in return.  She chivvies Tambu into action and so she takes up teaching as a last resort while she works out which one of the sons to ensnare.  Temperamentally unsuited for the job and teaching a subject for which she is unqualified by her #irony sociology degree, Tambu loses her temper one day and assaults the unruly Elizabeth, leaving her deaf in one ear.

Part II is an abrupt change of scene.  Tambu is in a psychiatric ward.  She is catatonic, unable to process what is said to her, unable to speak.  Only able to weep unstoppable tears.  There is no need to labour the point that she with the griefs she represents is the only sane person in the ward…

Her family turns up and eventually she is (reluctantly) taken into the family of her cousin Nyasha.  Tambu despises Nyasha for ‘selling out’ into marriage with a European but at the same time she judges Nyasha for allowing the large property to fall into squalor and disrepair.  Tambu thinks that Nyasha is neglecting her responsibilities as a home-maker while her German-born husband ostentatiously helps with the cooking.  (Which, as we all know, is the only creative, satisfying element of daily housework which is also the only task that brings gratifying praise.) Nyasha is busy running empowering workshops for young women (necessitating hours of unempowering preparatory catering) while Leon, the know-it-all (but alas disconcertingly right) Cousin-Brother-in-Law mutters unencouraging remarks about how she is wasting her time.

There is so much more to this brilliant novel, but I want to focus on just one devastating scene when the servant Mai Taka offers to go to the cinema on her day off to make up for taking a previous day off when her husband beat her so badly that she couldn’t work.  When Silence (yes, that’s his name) threatens her, she tells Nyasha it would be better not to go because he has already kicked her and he will beat her again when she comes home afterwards.  But Nyasha insists that Mai Taka stand up to him, to Tambu’s shocked astonishment at her cousin’s foolishness in treating Mai Taka as though she were a workshop participant. Leon (the male ‘in charge’) gets out of the car to negotiate, ultimately agreeing sulkily that Mai Taka will be paid for the day since she is working.

And then Mai Taka arcs up.  She knows she will be beaten now whether she goes to the cinema or not so she may as well go and do what she wants to do anyway.  The irony here is that Mai Taka who’s never been ’empowered’ has more courage than her employer: Nyasha didn’t want to go because she has work to do but gets bullied into it by Leon telling her that the children want a mother not a workshop facilitator.

The awfulness of this scene is that it replicates the tentative moves towards independence of women in different times and places around the world.  The menace implicit in these men’s control is the same though Leon’s is non-violent.  He will get what he wants and so will Silence.  (He retaliates by leaving Mai Taka, taking the children to his parents, and she will never get them back under Zimbabwe’s laws which awards custody to fathers.)

Things look up for a bit and Tambu lives briefly in a room furnished with minimalist, post-colonial Zimbo-chic wrought iron and leather, but her devastating betrayal of her village and its traditions ends in a ghastly tragi-comic tableau.  Dangarembga (who lives in Harare and is therefore a participant in this society not an off-stage observer) at the same time sheets responsibility for the debacle where it belongs: a successful eco-tourism business run by a white Zimbabwean trying to adapt to the new economy is ruined by war-veterans appropriating the land. Whatever the rights and wrongs of much-needed land reform in Zimbabwe, it is a Zimbabwean author writing this searing critique:

You give up paying attention and listen with only half an ear, as Lucia and her companion attempt to dissuade you from the Village Eco Transit enterprise.  Everybody has heard about ex-combatants setting themselves up as custodians of the nation’s development, in spite of displaying no understanding of business that is not related in one way or another to combat.  Yes, it was their very ignorance concerning how to move the country forward that stopped the tours on Nils Stevenson’s farm.  If not for those very war veterans, you would be earning your living up in the north-western gamelands.  (p.338)

I think it’s fair to say that the situation in Zimbabwe was dire under Robert Mgabe and the re-election of the ZANU-PF and its socialist ideology offers little hope of improvement in the economy or social conditions.

But perhaps the indomitable spirit of Zimbabwean women will prove that wrong.

There are plenty of reviews for this superb book, but the best of them is at Literary Elephant. 

Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga
Title: This Mournable Body
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2020
ISBN: 9780571355518
Source: Bayside Library

This event at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre was live-streamed and subsequently available to view at this link, and the sheer delight in being ‘in person’ at an author event was palpable.

This is the blurb for the event:

One in five Australians has a disability. And disability presents itself in many ways. Yet disabled people are still underrepresented in the media and in literature. ‘Growing Up Disabled in Australia‘ is the fifth book in the highly acclaimed, bestselling Growing Up series. It includes interviews with prominent Australians such as Senator Jordon Steele-John and Paralympian Isis Holt, as well as poetry and graphic art, and more than 40 original pieces by writers with a disability or chronic illness. Led by Editor, writer and appearance activist Carly Findlay, and featuring a number of Victorian-based contributors, this panel discussion event explores some of the most pressing issues faced by those living with a disability.

Editor Carly Findlay OAM was in conversation with contributors Alistair Baldwin and Lucy Carpenter.  Carly began by inviting Alistair and Lucy to tell their stories.  Alistair’s is called ‘Hippotherapy’ and is about a childhood experience with riding for the disabled.  Carly says this story is very funny, and the subsequent reading proved it (which might not be what you’d expect).  Lucy’s is called ‘This is My Song’ and it’s about living with albinism and impaired vision.

Lucy also talked a bit about the importance of disabled people having control of their stories: she disagrees with the common representation that disabled people are unhappy about their lives and would like their lives to change.  But this is not true, she says, disabled people can and do enjoy their lives just like anyone else.  Knowing this can empower young people and people who are newly diagnosed. It will give confidence and comfort to them to see disabled people out and about and in the media, she thinks…

Alistair expanded on this: it’s not just about agency, it’s also about quality because disabled people are best placed to write their own stories because they know what it’s like.  Alistair (who is also a comedian) delivered some very funny one-liners, which are impossible to reproduce, just watch the video!

What’s the biggest barrier being faced?  Alistair says for him it’s access to an audience. Disabled people do a great job advocating for themselves, but if they can’t get into a room, they can’t get access.  The pandemic has meant that abled people have needed live-streaming just like disabled people do, and he’s hopeful that this will remain in place as life opens up again.  Accessibility is a hackneyed issue, he says, but that doesn’t make it less true.  For Lucy, it’s subtle discrimination: she thinks that non-disabled people think they’re more accepting than they really are.  Every now and again something is said that reveals this, but she thinks that increased exposure will change it.

What’s the most ridiculous micro-aggression ever said to you?

Alistair says that complete strangers come up to him and ask what his leg braces are for, and he replies ‘Attention, and he’s glad it works!”  And then there’s the weirdo who kept stressing that magnets that would fix his problem.  (Carly says that she’s found magnets touted as a cure for everything).   Lucy told about being at the train station one night, and a very drunk man came up to her and said that she was walking better than him, and he could see. Carly said that it’s often on the train that these things happen: she was once if she was asked if she’d been smearing lollies on her face.  (She has a skin condition).

There were readings, and also questions from the audience.  The first one was interesting: it brought out how a visible disability can bring out discrimination, but having an invisible one means you don’t get the help you might need. Another interesting question was ‘how do you decide what is, and isn’t disability” and Carly replied that she used a ‘social model’ of disability which included ‘physical, mental and social disability’ and she was keen to ensure that the book comprises such diverse situations.  Not everyone ‘grows up’ recognising that they are disabled, because they never ‘see themselves’ as part of that community.

It was, as was noted in the thanks to the participants, an insightful session.  Thanks to the Geelong Library for making it available.

Please note: the event was supported by Auslan interpreters, but unfortunately the video doesn’t show them on screen.

PS The video begins with 5 minutes of PPTs.  But do not press the play button because that will take you to some other totally irrelevant You Tube video!

Editor: Carly Findlay
Title: Growing Up Disabled in Australia
Publisher: Black Inc, 2021
ISBN: 9781760641436

Growing Up Disabled in Australia is available in print and as an eBook from Black Inc and from Fishpond: Growing Up Disabled in Australia

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 11, 2021

MJBW Summer Bookclub: ‘The Watermill’ by Arnold Zable

MJBW Summer Bookclub: ‘The Watermill’ by Arnold Zable

Melbourne’s Jewish Book Week, like many other bookish organisations, pivoted quickly during Melbourne’s lockdown, and one of the benefits of that is the digital MJBW Summer Bookclub.  It’s usually on a Tuesday evening, which is when I have a regular commitment, but the program is available, free, on the MJBW website events page, shortly afterwards.

This conversation between Arnold Zable and Tali Lavi offered readers an insight into The Watermill, a quartet of true stories of displacement, of survival and and of resistance, and how Zable sheds a ray of light in the darkest of places.

Tali Lavi introduced Arnold Zable as a man of many talents, writer, dramatist, teacher, essayist, activist and much more.  He’s also a man with an international outlook.  He has worked with refugees, immigrants and many groups of vulnerable people.  You can find out more about him at his website.

The Windmill is due for release on March 3rd.  This is the blurb:

Echoing the rhythms of the watermill—and ranging from remote provinces in China and Cambodia, to pre-and post-war Yiddish Poland, Kurdish Iraq and Iran, indigenous and present-day Melbourne—this quartet of stories are united by the ebbs and flows of trauma and healing, statelessness and displacement, memory and forgetting, oppression and resistance. And ever-recurring journeys in search of belonging.

The Wheeler centre promo expands on it like this:

The four stories of The Watermill, by widely-loved novelist, storyteller and human rights advocate Arnold Zable, take place around the world – from remote provinces in China and Cambodia to pre- and post-war Yiddish Poland, Kurdish Iraq and Iran, and Indigenous and present-day Melbourne. Zable’s compassionate, sensitive nonfiction unfolds with novelistic lyricism, as he explores the tides of history, memory, healing and belonging.

For many migrants, including Zable’s parents, Australia is a haven, but it’s also much more ancient than that.  There was discussion about Zable’s relationship with Aunty Joy Murphy which began back in the 1990s.  It is this relationship that has given him a sense of Australia’s ancient past continuing into the present.

One of the quartet of stories derives from China.  (The photo on the front cover is a watermill in the place where Zable was teaching). Zable talks about the Cultural Revolution, when the whole country went mad, and then the Tiananmen Massacre, followed eventually by the country opening up.  Though when he visited, he still found a wariness in the people.  But he also found that the Chinese knew their ancient history and culture, and were connected to something ancient, something more important than the rise and fall of ancient dynasties.

Lavi asked him about whether fiction is more freeing than the NF.  She quoted his haiku about the limitations of language to convey the richness of the experiences he had in China.  He thinks the borderline is thin, including in this book.  He said that in Café Scheherazade he created composite characters to conflate a bigger experience, and in The Windmill, he has done the same thing.  The stories are true, but the characters are composite.  All writers struggle with how you capture an experience.  How do you do justice to the experience of a woman who lost four children in Cambodia genocide?  How do you capture the magic and grandeur of being alone in the valley of southwest China for a year? It’s even harder to convey the experience of trauma…

Lavi asked him about walking… she said it seemed restorative and also integral to the stories he’s written.  He said he’s always been a walker, it’s how he sees and gets the feeling of a neighbourhood.  Solitude is important, and the magic of walking is three part: someone or something comes towards you: then you may talk or observe it for a while.  And then you move on, and that’s the third part.  Stories are like that, they come, and they go. Walking also makes one alert to what’s going on around you, including what’s on the periphery.  Walking is a big part of his passion for life.

Although most of the time he’s a listener and a conduit for other people’s stories.  But in writing NF there are times when he is a participant and has to step forward.  It’s different in fiction because different points of view enable those other perspectives.

Like many writers he keeps journals, and he says that if he didn’t he wouldn’t have the detail, the immediacy or the texture that he needs.  But still he has to make choices, not just publish his journals: he wanted to zero in on the heart of what he learned, about endurance, for instance.  Also some things become magnified with the passage of time.  You may be alert to what you see and what’s going on, but when you rework them in writing something new, something else emerges.  (And you still have to do research afterwards!)

[Not that I am a writer in Zable’s league, but I find this is true with my reading journals too.  Sometimes what I write in my journals is just my immediate feelings, which are sometimes gushing or negative or dismissive or puzzled or banal.  But then (I am a walker too) as I walk the dog each day I think about the book and I process it in a different way.  A lot of what I write here has been ‘written’ on my walk.]

The Windmill is based on journals from the 1980s, and though the completion of it took about two years, so it’s impossible to ask ‘when did you start writing’ something.  He doesn’t pre-plan, he follows where the story takes him. He says he never writes about victims, he writes about human beings, and that he is always alert to gestures because so much is conveyed by the hands.  Talking about a woman who founded a theatre in Bergen-Belsen, he showed how she used her hands to block her eyes and ears because, he knew, she did not want to revisit the past.

It is a betrayal not to tell some stories, but it’s also a betrayal if you don’t do the story justice. The people who share their stories are the authors of them, because they are the authority on that experience.

Lavi’s questions were thoughtful and responsive to what Zable said.  An excellent interviewer!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2021

The Swimmers, by Chloe Lane

I came across The Swimmers in August last year after seeing a Tweet from NZ author Paula Morris about it, so I wasn’t surprised to see that it has made the 2021 Ockham NZ Book Awards longlist.  Since I had a copy, I decided to read it before the shortlist is announced in early March.  It’s a remarkable book.

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

This is the blurb:

Erin’s mother has motor neurone disease and has decided to take her fate into her own hands. As Erin looks back at her twenty-six-year-old self, she can finally tell the story of the unimaginable task she faced one winter.

Around the world societies are grappling with the difficult issue of assisted dying, some of them achieving the passage of compassionate legislation to enable it with appropriate safeguards, and others unable to do so, often frustrated by religious or professional interests imposing their beliefs on others who don’t share them.  Lane’s novel, published in 2020 and presumably conceived and written before that, predates reform in New Zealand via the End of Life Choices Act 2019 which takes full effect in November 2021.  However, from what I gather from Wikipedia about the provisions of the NZ Act, Lane’s novel wrestles with the issue of choices about how assisted dying can be achieved and who may be involved in it.

Erin’s mother has been a strong, independent woman all her life, and she wants to be in control of the time, place, and ambience of her dying too.  To Erin’s surprise she has enlisted her sister Wynn in her plans, and Erin finds out about it almost by accident.  Would Erin have been told had she not unexpectedly decided to visit her mother?  Would she ever have been told? That’s one of a number of ambiguities in the novel. Because Erin narrates the story, there’s only her perspective, and it doesn’t occur to her to think about this. She’s a narcissistic twenty-six year-old, and prior to the bombshell she’s been preoccupied with the end of her affair with a married man.  It was only on a whim that she decided to join the Moore Family Queen’s Birthday weekend lunch anyway, and she was hoping her mother would think she’s come home because she missed her.  Erin is not a very nice person.

But then, not everyone confronted with such a situation is…

Erin is a flawed human being, and so is her mother.  Erin is superficial, and judgemental, and judgemental about superficial things such as home décor and clothing choices.  She thinks she’s a sophisticated city girl, at home in the world of art galleries where she has just curated her first show.  (Which was a flop.  Which may have contributed to the end of the affair with the gallery director.)  She’s judgemental about Aunty Wynn, and although Erin’s mother is beyond the power of speech now, we learn that she was judgemental about Wynn too.  But she has come ‘home’ from Wellington to the family farm at Kaipura to have her sister’s help; she didn’t seek that help from her daughter in Auckland.  Book groups that can tackle topics like this will explore the reasons: to spare her daughter?  to prevent her from interfering?  What this woman is about to do is illegal now, and will still be illegal after the new law comes into effect because the clauses of this act make it an offence to “incite, procure or counsel” and “aid and abet” someone else to commit suicide.

After collecting Erin from the bus stop, Aunty Wynn—a hearty country soul who talks too much about irrelevant things—manages the awkward task of explaining to Erin about what her mother is about to do.

”She’s good,’ she said again, taking a deep breath and exhaling audibly through her nose.  ‘Though you should know, your mum has asked me to help her exit.’

‘Exit?’ I said.

‘Die,’ Aunty Wynn said.

She was incredible to watch, my mother had once said about Aunty Wynn.  She was talking about when they were both young and still swimming competitively.  Despite how she holds herself on land these days, back then she moved through the water as effortlessly as a goddamn dolphin.  It was, to my knowledge, the only nice thing my mother had ever said about her sister.  I remembered this as proof that my mother wouldn’t enlist Aunty Wynn in this way.  The idea of my mother checking out didn’t make sense.  And even if it could be true, she would have asked me first. (p.17)

The novel, over the course of five days, traces Erin’s steps and missteps towards understanding.  As the reader wrestles with the moral dilemma that lurks at the heart of this novel, the story moves along.  Erin learns that she was wrong about her mother, her Aunt, almost everyone else and herself as well.   We watch Erin fail to understand that her role is confined to helping with things that others were going to do without her help anyway, but we also see her realise that her stupid selfish behaviour is, at this time, a disappointment to her mother, now when it’s too late to be different.

The tone is unsentimental, and sometimes blackly comic.  But the emotional toll on the protagonists is clear.  At the beginning of the novel Erin couldn’t imagine life without her mother in it. (An unsatisfactory father is offstage).  By the end of the novel, she has had to confront reality.  The reality is that losing someone you love is devastating, no matter how imperfect that love is.

The remarkable aspect of The Swimmers is that right up until the end of the book, the reader can’t be sure that the death will take place.

PS, the next day: I’ve been thinking about it more and more overnight. Especially about the bizarre things that Erin does. My grasp of human psychology is weak, but I think that what looks like entitled behaviour, or worse, inadequate plotting, is a form of displacement, a way of not thinking about what is going to happen.
But also, a longer bow, perhaps…
I taught a foster child once, a little girl of eight, who did the most awful disgusting things in her foster homes, and she lasted less and less time at each one. I was only in my middle twenties so I was horrified, but the social worker told me it was because the child, far from wanting to be on her best behaviour, knew that the foster parents who said they loved her like their own children, would only do that until she did the wrong thing and then they would send her back. Unlike the love of their own children which was unconditional, their love for her was conditional. At the age of 8 she had learned that so she thought, consciously or unconsciously, that she might as well be really naughty and get it over and done with and be sent back to state care.
So the self-destructive behaviour is a way of bringing on the inevitable: Erin’s going to lose her mother’s love on Tuesday so she may as well be awful and get it over and done with now. Similarly, the self-harm is a way of testing to see if there is anyone else who is going to look after her once her mother is gone.

Author: Chloe Lane
Title: The Swimmers
Publisher: Victoria University of Wellington Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781776563180, pbk., 214 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $27.42 AUD

Available from Fishpond: The Swimmers

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 8, 2021

Beyond the Stage, edited by Anna Goldsworthy and Mark Carroll

I must admit that my heart sank when this book turned up in the mail—not another one about the war, I thought—but it’s not at all what I was expecting.  It’s primarily concerned with how the arts, and drama in particular, can articulate things about the tragedy of war in ways that can’t otherwise be expressed.

Beyond the Stage, Creative Australian Stories from the Great War is a fully illustrated book of essays to accompany the 2018 exhibition ‘Beyond the Stage: aspects of performing arts in South Australia, 1914–1936’, which was held at the State Library of South Australia. You can see some of the images here.

This is the blurb:

In the beautifully illustrated Beyond the Stage, essays by leading Australian artists and academics examine the impact of the Great War and its aftermath on creativity and performance in South Australia.

There are historical studies of key individuals, such as Adelaide’s Telsie Hague, and the role of women performers as fundraisers and active agents of wartime patriotism. The contribution of artistic companies, such as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, State Opera of South Australia and State Theatre Company, is examined. Steve Vizard dissects the preposterously unlikely – and highly entertaining – encounter between Sir Lawrence Olivier and Mo (aka Roy Rene), helping the reader explore Australian national identity after the Great War.

And completing this remarkable book are thought-provoking personal reflections on the nature of memory and commemoration.

The introduction to the book reproduces things I knew anyway, though others may not.  From packing up the estate of my piano teacher Valda Johnstone, and from writing her memoir, I knew a lot about how Australia’s creatives were active in supporting the war with songs and marching music, poetry, concerts, and fundraising for the troops.  Valda’s parents, Frank and Myra Johnstone, were musicians who were very active during WW1, and amongst Valda’s effects there were numerous musical scores and programs from their fundraising and entertainment concerts for the troops, as well as Valda’s own contributions during WW2.

These boxes of memorabilia BTW have all been deposited at the State Library of Victoria, where, for example, you can find the scores for music that they played at concerts during and after the war when fundraising for the wounded. There’s an Allied Forces March by Felix Godin from 1914; The Flying Ace March from 1919; Day, (a marching song) by Guy D’Hardelot from 1915, and Heroes of the Empire, a march by Craigie Ross, orchestrated by Percy E. Fletcher.  There’s also (since Valda was born in NZ and always considered herself a Kiwi though she came to Australia as a very little girl) the very patriotic New Zealand the land, ‘neath the Southern Cross, words by G.A. Troup with music by D.A. Kenny from 1915.  Just type Valda Johnstone into the search box at the SLV if you are interested.  Her papers also include some poems; a large collection of photographs, autograph portraits of the Great Composers; her AMEB exam certificates, and hand made posters.  One day, when I finish the last chapter of the memoir, I’ll deposit that too.

For those who know little about this entertainment and fundraising aspect of Australia’s wars, or who are researching this period of our history, the Introduction in Beyond the Stage will be a revelation.  The full colour reproductions of handbills, musical scores and photos of performances are fascinating, and the focus on the role of women is refreshing.

State Library of South Australia Item b1188175

There are profiles of notable women such as Gertie Campbell and Adelaide Primrose who were active in art, performance, composition and fundraising at a time when war made space for them to do so. Gertie, an enterprising businesswoman, had her own music business, where she performed her own compositions such as When our boys come home and Come on Australians and published the scores for sale in the shop.

It should not, however, be overlooked, the authors say, that these women also had an influence on the successful prosecution of the war especially in terms of maintaining morale.  [So women weren’t just handing out white feathers, they were rousing patriotism in other ways as well.]

Those of you who saw my fruitless Twitter appeal for information about Australian women jazz musicians for a special broadcast I was doing on 3CR, will understand my feeling of frustration when I learned from this book about someone who deserved to have her story told.  Gertie Campbell turned to jazz in the postwar period, had her own jazz band which she conducted, and enabled other women jazz musicians by publishing their music.  I have had this book since it arrived last December, and if I’d only had time to read it I could have included Gertie’s story in my program!

For me, however, the most interesting essay is by historian Bruce Scates who is unequivocal in his distaste for the lavish spectacles of the Anzac Centenary and the grotesque installation at Villers-Bretonneux in particular. He begins his essay with an excerpt from the diary of Nurse Elizabeth Tranter, too busy with the wounded to celebrate the armistice on 11th November, but recording instead the cruel death of a boy she calls ‘Sunny Jim’.  He goes on to write about the cost of war to the casualties who came home with terrible injuries:

Splinters of shrapnel worked their way through bodies, gassed soldiers coughed out their lungs, cot cases confined to iron beds slowly wasted away. ‘Nervy’ men took their own lives, haunted by the things they had seen and done. One man—a war hero awarded the Military Medal at Passchendaele—battered his wife and four-year-old daughter to death with a hammer.  Then, with equally terrible resolution, slit his own throat.  Others succumbed to the syndrome of what was called ‘the burnt out digger’.  They survived the war, but not the peace.  They died prematurely aged.

How many lives did the Great War really claim?  At the Australian War Memorial 60,000 names gleam in gold midst a forest of scarlet poppies. But filed away in the archives are the names of men and women who died in repatriation hospitals decades after the fighting ended. For a time the Memorial debated if these should be included in the list of official casualties.  It proved too difficult and too confronting to measure the real cost of war.  (p.129)

What angers Scater is the lost opportunity of the centenary.  It could have been a time for sober and thoughtful reflection.  Instead it was a carnival.

Perhaps the greatest monument to our mismanagement of the Anzac Centenary is the interpretive centre the Australian government built close to where Tranter served.  Many other such war museums adopt a transnational perspective.  A hundred years since the carnage that tore Europe apart, they speak across national borders and reveal the common tragedy shared by combatant and civilian alike.  But the Sir John Monash Centre, an interpretive centre at Villers-Bretonneux, labours with myth rather than history—bragging of how one nation helped secure ‘victory’ in 1918.

The museum purports to ‘relive’ the Great War, offering visitors ‘an immersive multimedia experience’.  Around a hundred million dollars was spent creating a kind of digital battlefield: gas rises up from the floor, planes strafe the trenches and tanks rumble by.  German soldiers in these simulations are dehumanised, their faces concealed by gas masks.  And vicariously we are invited to take part in the killing.  Fighting on the Somme has become a kind of computer game—you stalk the enemy through fields and villages—and you shoot him.

Elsie Tranter held high hopes for the armistice.  She believed a lasting peace could make sense of all the terrible sacrifice.  But today at Villers-Bretonneux the Great War grinds wearily on, macabre entertainment in the guise of commemoration. (p.133)

I saw TV footage of this centre when it was opened, and I share Scater’s distaste. He goes on to write about the Aftermath project by the Australian Art Orchestra in Melbourne’s Domain, a sound scape of remembrance that allowed many voices to speak of war because remembrance is the property of the whole community.

Reading this chapter reminded me of holidays in Inverloch.  We stayed in a house that had belonged to my nephew’s great aunt, widowed by WW1.  With photos and trinkets in nearly every room, the house breathed the presence of this man who had died so many years before.  It spoke of a life arrested by a love that was cherished by this woman until she died when she was a very old lady. The stories from the Aftermath project were homage to people like her:

‘These are not the stories of heroism in the face of impossible odds’, the Australian Art Orchestra’s Artistic Notes explain, ‘[they are not about] mateship and noble causes that drive the nation building myths that perpetuate war.  These stories are the reality’.  (p.139)

The book is worth reading for this essay alone, but there’s much more to engage your interest as well.

Editors: Anna Goldsworthy and Mark Carroll
Title: Beyond the Stage, Creative Australian Stories from the Great War
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781743056653, hbk., 176 pp, colour photographs throughout
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

Available direct from Wakefield Press or Fishpond: Beyond the Stage: Creative Australian stories from the Great War

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 7, 2021

Time to Remember, by Janna Ruth

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the devastating Christchurch Earthquake.

The earthquake occurred in Christchurch on Tuesday 22 February 2011 at 12:51 p.m. local time. The earthquake struck the Canterbury region in New Zealand’s South Island and was centred 6.7 kilometres south-east of the centre of Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-most populous city. The earthquake caused widespread damage across Christchurch, killing 185 people in the nation’s fifth-deadliest disaster.

Christchurch’s central city and eastern suburbs were badly affected, with damage to buildings and infrastructure already weakened by the magnitude 7.1 Canterbury earthquake of 4 September 2010 and its aftershocks. Significant liquefaction affected the eastern suburbs, producing around 400,000 tonnes of silt. The earthquake was felt across the South Island and parts of the lower and central North Island. While the initial quake only lasted for approximately 10 seconds, the damage was severe because of the location and shallowness of the earthquake’s focus in relation to Christchurch as well as previous quake damage.(Wikipedia, 2011 Christchurch Earthquake, lightly edited to remove some technical jargon, footnotes and unnecessary links, viewed 7/2/21)

Janna Ruth’s timely novel came recommended to me by NZ publicist Elizabeth Heritage who persuaded me to overcome my reservations about self-published books. As Elizabeth says on her promo page successful publicity is all about relationships, and though we have never met, she thought I would like this one, and she assured me that it was professionally edited, and she was right!

Time to Remember is the story of some Canterbury University students who were children when the quakes hit.  They are now coming of age, but the usual YA preoccupations take second place to the real business of the novel.  These students, busily getting on with their lives, are living with personal trauma, which some of them don’t even know that they have.

Natalie, a Kiwi of Asian descent, is a volunteer at the student newspaper, ‘Canta’.  She wants to be a journalist and is a talented writer,  But she’s in a self-destructive relationship with Aidan, who sleeps around behind her back and takes advantage of her professional perspective on the paper.  He often leaves her to do hours of hard work before the deadline—when his is the only paid position on the paper and he is the one who should take responsibility for it.

Natalie conceives the idea of a commemorative edition comprising student memories of how the quake affected them.  Everyone thinks it’s a good idea because it releases long suppressed trauma that, despite counselling, hasn’t been properly acknowledged because they were children at the time.  All except Josh, who is vociferous in his opposition and is spectacularly rude to Natalie in the way that he voices his objections.

Well, of course, he has ‘issues’, and his character also plays the role of an adolescent Mr Darcy.  The first part of the book depicts both pride and prejudice, and a good bit of pettiness as well.  But the reader learns the reasons for Josh’s objectionable behaviour when Natalie uses her instincts for good journalism to check the register of deaths.  Josh is livid when she gently confronts him with what she knows, but those of us who know our Austen soon recognise that these two are destined to be together.  Part of the interest in this novel then becomes a question of how this comes about, given the entanglements of their existing relationships and the nature of their personalities.  Natalie (whose own issues emerge in due course) eventually finds out that Aidan is a low-life whose posturing about ‘open relationships’ is a mask for sheer selfishness, and Josh has to start on a path to recovery when he steadfastly refuses to get professional help because he’s in denial. Like real life, it’s very messy, and it’s a situation exacerbated by the claustrophobic microcosm of university society, centred in the small world of the student newspaper.

Napier Museum, photo by The Spouse

While all this is going on, the call-out for contributions to the commemorative edition results in a flood of stories.  The depiction of memories arising from the quake from a child’s perspective reminded me of an exhibition that we saw in a museum in Napier, a city that was entirely rebuilt after the 1931 earthquake.  To quote from my travel blog:

We started off on the ground floor with a display about the 1931 Earthquake.  We had already read about this, and seen the informative video at the Art Deco Trust, but this museum exhibition rounded out the historical facts with personal stories.  There were stories from people who lived through it, including some poignant ones from people who were small children at the time, and there were some treasured trinkets that had been salvaged.  There was also a digital display on a banner, that had voices of the people superimposed over diagrams that showed the transitions as the land rose up and changed the landscape while below it the Richter Scale was climbing.  It was very vivid.

I used the word ‘poignant’ to try to convey the emotional impact that the children’s memories had on me.  I don’t even cry at funerals, but that exhibition brought me close to tears, and so did the memories expressed in Time to Remember.  There’s a particularly poignant scene where Natalie takes Josh to the Residential Red Zone, a vast area of land where it is unsafe to rebuild and 8000 homes were acquired by the government and demolished or removed.  Standing where her house was, she draws a vivid word-picture of every room, the garden, and what could be seen through the windows.  I had to do this myself, standing in the ashes, to explain where things had been for the insurance assessor after a house-fire at my MIL’s place while she was overseas on holiday.  It is what bushfire victims have to do, and people who’ve suffered any kind of disaster to their homes.  Although I had only lived there for six months and it was not my childhood home, that house held many good memories for me and it was a profoundly painful experience.

The novel also shows how both adults and children growing into adolescence use drugs and alcohol as a crutch to block out anguish.  From another museum exhibit that we saw in Auckland we learned that quakes are much more common than we in Australia realise, and so for survivors of the Christchurch quake, knowing that the likelihood of another is never very far away must make it even harder to deal with the trauma.  You can’t tell children that it’s all over when it’s not true.

Janna Ruth writes in German and in English, and you can find out more about her here.

Image credit:

Author: Janna Ruth
Title: Time to Remember
Publisher: self-published, Janna Ruth, 2021
ISBN: 9780473544898
Source: Review copy from the author, via Elizabeth Heritage Publicist

Available from Fishpond: Time to Remember, $26.30 AUD

This month’s #6Degrees starts with Anne Tyler’s latest book Redhead by the Side of the Road.  Have I read anything by Tyler?  Tick, yes I have, The Accidental Tourist in 2003.  (It is so good to be able to do a quick search now that my reading file is restored!)

Tyler is one of those lightweight Americans who writes relationship stories.  I think that the Offspring did Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant for his VCE, so I may have read that too.  Obviously not very memorable.  And neither is this. (Reading Journal, 17/10/2003).

Moving on…

I’m not feeling very imaginative today, so what have I read that’s got ‘red’ in the title? I don’t need to look in the file because it was memorable.  Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red was a book that indulged my interest in illuminated illustration and it’s a cunningly designed murder mystery as well.  In my review I likened it to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost. I liked both of those too…

I love looking at illuminated manuscripts, and I loved reading Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours.  It was a wonderful story about a woman from a medieval family of illuminators who stepped into the breach when her husband went blind. Book of Colours was awarded the 2019 ACT Book of the Year and was and shortlisted for the 2019 Voss Award as well.  Recently on this blog there was a tantalising comment from Robyn about the book she’s currently working on, so I’m hoping for something new before too much longer.  (Though as we said, in our exchange of comments, it’s not easy to do the research if you can’t travel).

Sometimes an author doesn’t need to travel for research purposes: the story comes from lived experience.  Fiona Sussman was brought up in apartheid South Africa, but migrated to New Zealand in the 1980s.  Her novel Shifting Colours (2014) powerfully unpacks white privilege in a story of an adoption across the racial divide, and the tragedy that ensues.  The Global Literature in Libraries blog recently featured South African women writers for a month, but when they featured novels they limited the list to novels published between 2015 and 2019, so while it’s an interesting collection, there are many fine novels not listed, including Shifting Colours. 

I should take this opportunity to mention the late Raewyn Davies at 24/7 PR, because she was the one who brought Shifting Colours to my attention.  She was one of the best publicists around.  Unlike so many others, she took the trouble to know the tastes of the reviewers she worked with, and I knew that if she recommended a book to me, I would like it.  She was respectful too.  I haven’t got tickets on myself, but I resent publicists who behave as if LitBloggers like me are unpaid employees of the book industry.  She died a couple of years ago, and I miss her.

Another book recommended by Raewyn was Fiona Kidman’s All Day at the Movies (2016).  Kidman is, of course, a pre-eminent NZ author, but this book was something special.  It laid bare the inequities of the so-called ‘golden age’ associated with the postwar period in Australia and New Zealand.   It’s not a resentful novel, nor is it a misery memoir in disguise, but it sets the record straight.  It tells the story of so many women who were useful during the war, and relegated to domesticity afterwards.

A book that gives voice to a different generation is the one I’ve just finished.  Time to Remember by Janna Ruth is the story of university students who experienced the Christchurch Earthquake ten years ago when they were children.  I’ll be writing my review of this book this weekend… suffice to say here that it’s a poignant exploration of the ongoing effects of childhood trauma.

Disasters, unfortunately, are part of the human landscape, and this made me consider what I’d read of childhood experiences in Australia’s droughts, fire, floods and cyclones.

The most memorable of them all for me, is the story of Cuffy, in The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony and Other Stories, by Henry Handel Richardson.  It was lent to me by Bill from The Australian Legend.  In the novel Ultima Thule (Vol III of the  The Fortunes of Richard Mahony trilogy) Cuffy is the little fellow who struggles with guilt and embarrassment when he walks with his demented father in the town where his mother has become the postmistress.  Her husband’s mental illness is triggered in part by the relentless Australian heat, and the Depression which was the catalyst for his fall from a place in society arose from years of drought.   As I said in my review of the short story:

HHR’s brilliance in depicting the emotional states of her characters is at its best in showing Cuffy’s distress at how things turn out.  He was an unforgettable character in Ultima Thule but he will haunt the emotions of any reader who meets him in this short story.

I started reading a bio of HHR last year but was waylaid by other things.  I’ll get back to it soon.  Literary biographies are my favourite bios to read.

Next month’s starter book is Phosphorescence by Julia Baird. Click the link to go to Kate’s review.

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 5, 2021

Aussies and Kiwis on the 2021 Dublin Literary Award longlist

Books by Australian authors and one by a New Zealand author have been longlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award.

Perhaps we have Covid to thank for the more sensible length of the longlist.  Last year there were 150+ books, this year there are 49 books: from 30 countries, in ten languages, and nominated by 69 libraries.  The shortlist will be announced on the 25th March and the winner on the 20th of May. The prize is worth €100,000 (A$157,760) and if a translated novel wins, the translator wins 25% of the prize money.

Of the Australian titles, I’ve read and reviewed these:

  • The White Girl by Tony Birch, University of Queensland Press, see my review
  • This Excellent Machine by Stephen Orr, Wakefield Press, see my review
  • The Yield by Tara June Winch, Hamish Hamilton Australia, see my review

I’ve read and reviewed the New Zealand title:

For more information, visit the award’s website.

Once again the list has been a tedious task to transcribe.  To the web page of book covers they have added a downloadable PDF with a chart which when copied results in a single paragraph of text which needs to be separated.  I hope I haven’t made any mistakes and would appreciate advice about any information that needs to be added or corrections that need to be made.   I’m also aware that I may have missed Australian or New Zealand writers if I’m not familiar with their names, so please don’t hesitate to let me know if there are more than those I’ve identified.

Nominees from elsewhere around the world.  (I have kept the Aussies and Kiwis in this list (in Italics) to keep the numbering correct, but links to my reviews for those are above.)

2021 Longlist of Library Nominations

  1. Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, Bonnier Books UK
  2. Things That Fall From The Sky by Selja Ahava, Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and
    Fleur Jeremiah, Oneworld Publications
  3. Until Stones Become Lighter Than Water, by António Lobo Antunes, Translated from the Portuguese by Jeff
    Love,  Yale University Press
  4. Homeland by Fernando Aramburu, Translated from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam,  Penguin Random House
  5. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Little, Brown Book Group, on my TBR
  6. The White Girl by Tony Birch, University of Queensland Press, see my review
  7. It Would Be Night in Caracas by Karina Sainz Borgo, Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer,  HarperVia/Harper Collins
  8. The Cat and The City by Nick Bradley, Atlantic
  9. The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, Penguin Books
  10. The Innocents by Michael Crummey, Penguin Random House Canada, Canada
  11. The Pelican: A Comedy by Martin Michael Driessen, Translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder, Amazon Publishing
  12. Catacombs by Mary Anna Evans, Poisoned Pen Press
  13. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Hamish Hamilton, on my TBR
  14. The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse, Translated from the Norwegian by Damion Searls, Fitzcarraldo Editions
  15. Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh, John Murray, see my review
  16. When All is Said by Anne Griffin, Hodder and Stoughton
  17. The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischwili ,Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins & Ruth
    Martin, Scribe Publications, see my review
  18. Beyond Yamashita and Perciva, by Shaari Isa, Translated from the Malay by Shaari Isa,  Institut Terjemahan & Buku
    Malaysia Berhad
  19. Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann ,Translated from the German by Benjamin Ross, Quercus
  20. The Ditch by Herman Koch, Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett,  Picador
  21. While the Music Played by Nathaniel Lande, Blackstone Publishing
  22. Lost Children archive by Valeria Luiselli. Alfred A. Knopf
  23. The Boy by Marcus Malte Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan & Tom Roberge,  Restless books
  24. Auē by Becky Manawatu, Mākaro Press, see my review
  25. The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel, Knopf Publishing, Canada, on my TBR
  26. Apeirogon by Colum McCann, Bloomsbury, see my review
  27. Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes, Fitzcarraldo Editions
  28. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, Orion Publishing
  29. Cilka’s Journey, by Heather Morris, Echo Publishing
  30. Dark Mother Earth by Kristian Novak, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Amazon Publishing
  31. Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars by Joyce Carol Oates, Fourth Estate
  32. Inland by Téa Obreht, Random House
  33. Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor, Penguin Random House
  34. Mona in Three Acts by Griet Op de Beeck, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison  Amazon Publishing
  35. This Excellent Machine by Stephen Orr, Wakefield Press, see my review
  36. Mary Toft; Or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer, Pantheon Books
  37. The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, translated from the German by Jen Calleja, Serpent´s Tail
  38. A Chronicle of Forgetting by Sebastijan Pregelj, translated from the Slovene by Rawley Grau Slovene Writers’ Association
  39. We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Ruffin, One World
  40. Beside Myself by Sasha Marianna Salzmann, translated from the German by Imogen Taylor, Text Publishing
  41. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak, Viking
  42. The Subtweet: A Novel by Vivek Shraya, Canada, ECW Press
  43. Crossing by Pajtim Statovci , translated from the Finnish by David Hackston, Pushkin Press
  44. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Jonathan Cape
  45. The Trumpet Shall Sound by Eibhear Walshe, Sommerville Press
  46. The Nickel boys by Colson Whitehead, Little, Brown Book Group
  47. Reproduction by Ian Williams, Random House Canada, Canada
  48. The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson, Grove Atlantic
  49. The Yield by Tara June Winch, Hamish Hamilton Australia, see my review
Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 4, 2021

Remote Sympathy, by Catherine Chidgey

Catherine Chidgey is a versatile author: as you can see from this summary at Wikipedia she has written in a variety of styles and across wide-ranging topics.  I discovered her work when The Wish Child became a bestseller in 2017, was captivated by the way she captured contemporary life in The Beat of the Pendulum in 2018 and then was lucky to find a copy of her debut novel In a Fishbone Church.  She has won multiple awards both in New Zealand and internationally, and has just been longlisted for the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for her latest novel Remote Sympathy.

You might remember that I reported on the launch of this book via Zoom. This is how I summarised the story at the time:

One of the guiding images of the novel is ‘The Transparent Man’, an installation in Vienna.  This was a model of a male body which had been on display in the 1930s, which Catherine knew of from her research for The Wish Child.  ‘The Transparent Man’ was a sensation because it was the first time people had been able to see a model of the human body wired to show how internal body parts work.  In the novel, Lenard, a doctor who is hoping to find a treatment for cancer, goes to see this model and that’s where he meets Anna, his future wife, who is Jewish.  He doesn’t find the cure he’s looking for, but he gets sent to the camp to cure the wife of a prominent Nazi so he has to pretend that he can.

Source: Wikipedia

The transparent man was on display in the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden which was bombed during the war, but there are replicas in many museums around the world.  But in the novel, when Doktor Lenard Weber sees it, it is unique, and it is the catalyst for his invention: a cure for cancer called the Sympathetic Vitaliser.  At the Holy Spirit Hospital in Frankfurt, he gets approval to run a trial, and remarkably, two patients with cancer go into remission.  Weber is a good scientist, and he knows these are just cases of spontaneous remission, and he’s disappointed but not surprised when these two cases eventually die.

All this is taking place amid the Nazi rise to power, and before long the restrictions that apply to Lenard’s Jewish wife and child force them apart.  Things get difficult for him at the hospital, but shortly after he is dismissed, he is summoned to the Buchenwald slave labour camp near Weimar, where to his dismay he is required to rebuild his Sympathetic Vitaliser in order to treat Greta Hahn, the terminally ill wife of the camp administrator, Dietrich Hahn.

The story is told through four narrators: Doktor Lenard Weber’s letters to his daughter Lotte; the imaginary diary of Frau Greta Hahn; the Private Reflections of One Thousand Citizens of Weimar; and an Interview with Former SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn.  The genius of this narration is that the story progresses chronologically, but the focus remains on the personal whilst also portraying Germany’s moral abyss.  The war is largely off-stage, as is the Holocaust.  Although he is writing to his daughter in 1946 from Frankfurt, Weber’s role is mostly as a witness, explaining to his child and to the reader about what has happened.  Greta is preoccupied by domestic concerns: she is anxious about her child, she misses her mother, she likes gadding about with her vivacious neighbour Emma, and she is vaguely troubled about the camp because it represents danger to her and her family. The One Thousand Citizens are a kind of obscene Greek Chorus: blind to what they do not want to see, proclaiming self-justification and resentment of the liberating American forces who forced them to confront what had been done in the camp.  And Dietrich, in his postwar interview on trial for his life, is a grotesque villain who loves his wife and takes terrible risks to try to save her.

The blurb inside the book sums it up better than I can:

A tour de force about the evils of obliviousness, Remote Sympathy compels us to question our continuing and wilful ability to look the other way in a world that is once more in thrall to the idea that everything—even facts, truth and morals—is relative.

The novel is utterly absorbing.  Beautifully written, historically authentic, and emotionally engaging, Remote Sympathy confirms Catherine Chidgey’s preeminent place in New Zealand literature.

You can see other reviews at Alys on the Blog and at Read Close.

Author: Catherine Chidgey
Title: Remote Sympathy
Publisher: Victoria University Press, NZ, 2020
ISBN: 9781776563203, pbk., 526 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $38.52.

Available from Fishpond: Remote Sympathy (BTW Booko’s comparison price on this is wrong: they’re adding $7.95 shipping to the $38.52 cover price but shipping on books is free from NZ to Australia.)

Image credit:

Transparent man: Datei:DASA gläserner Mensch frontal.jpg – Wikipedia

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2021

A Second Life, by Stephen Wright

A Second Life is a pleasurably baffling book.  Winner of the 2017 Viva La Novella Prize, it seems to be many things: a meditation on death and memory; a cry of anguish about misogyny and male violence towards women; and a quest for justice when there isn’t any to be had.  But it’s not a book with an easy plot or even an obvious cast of characters, and there’s a warning early in the book that lets the reader know that confusion lies ahead:

…language is a sleight of hand that both reveals and hides the existence of the unspeakable; that reminds us there are things about ourselves we can never know, that knowing is endless and uncageable, and to understand each other is an approximation of a dream.  (p.23)

I’ve read it twice, and there are still aspects of it that I don’t understand.

This is the blurb from Seizure’s website:

In a tiny book-lined office backing onto a supermarket in a small town in northern New South Wales, a woman named Acker sits smoking a cigarette and listening to the music of Philip Glass. Others come to her with their stories of violence and pain and through her writing she attempts to salvage what they have lost. A Second Life immerses the reader in a world that is both familiar and forbidding. It unfolds with horror and beauty to reveal a complicated and unforgettable portrait of a woman who moves through this world carrying secret histories, different ways of seeing, and many stories.

With a narrative voice that is at once eerily beautiful and slightly wild, and a premise that is surreal and ambitious, A Second Life stood out to me immediately. It’s an exploration of the self and life and death, all of which comprise the psychological fabric of the main character, who occupies many selves and sometimes none at all.

Wright plays with the conventions of the detective story.  Acker seems to be some kind of private investigator, with a seedy office tacked onto the read of the Emporium in the village street.  She’s not Australian, she only visited it once, but is now stuck here, and she thinks that’s because of the light and because of the history of murder and the addiction to brutality and exploitation.  Women who have suffered at the hands of men come to her with their choking griefs.  

In crime fiction it is often the villages and small towns that hide a sinister sub-structure of violence and transgression, ringing the cities like refugee camps and harbouring an endless proliferation of terrorists, serial killers, cults, sexual predators and people smugglers.  Those who fictionally murder often have no motive except to rejoice in their demonic cleverness.  But this is the common daily crime: a man kills a woman, or a man kills her children, or a man kills a woman and her children.  Or a man kills a woman and her children and then himself.

The dark and bloody tales of crime fiction, Acker thinks, are just descriptions of the ways we prefer to hide the truth or leave cryptic stupid clues about violence. (p.11)

An unnamed woman comes to Acker, and she listens, and hears the bones of the too-familiar story…

…all the repetitive tropes of misogynist violence: that to be is to own, that punishment is justice, and if punishment is justice, murder is transcendent justice, the sacrifice of martyrs.

The stalking.  The threats.  The ongoing terror.  How the cops did nothing. And the courts said, The Father.  The final text message. Her panicked rush through the suburbs with a yawning chasm tearing open her heart.  Flinging open the screen door.  Blind in the gloom after the summer street.  Then the children’s bodies, broken, blood like a plant’s shadow.  How she noticed everything and can’t forget.  Every detail.  (p.13)

She tells the woman to come back in the morning.  And then the novella morphs into something unexpected.

From the description of Acker’s dingy office, we learn that she dismembers and then reconstructs books revealing their bizarre and occasionally subversive natures. We learn that she is a writer herself, and that her books were on restricted access in university libraries.  And (easy to miss, as I did the first time I read this strange book) we also learn that she must be dead because she came through the Round Window just as Death once came through it in an episode of Play School that coincided with her cancer diagnosis.  She is a ghost who sees other ghosts, the multiple selves that we present to the world, the unknowable others that we are or might have been.

Each living soul waiting at her door appears with a host of invisible others in train, dumb spectres, trying to find ways to speak, to invent versions of language, each of them obscured, eroded and entombed by others.  (p.22)

I had the pleasure of chatting with Joe from Rough Ghosts via Zoom yesterday, and tried to explain to him some of the fascination of this book.  This excerpt is for him:

To write is to read.  To write is to find the way in.  The difference between writing what is true and what is false lies in never pretending that you are writing of others, of some separately existing alternate world….

Gerald Murnane is insistent on this too.  He doesn’t write about characters, he refers to them as image-persons; and in A Million Windows, he is quite combative about the undiscerning reader who believes that a work of fiction contains little more than reports of so-called characters, of what these characters do and say and think, and of the scenery, so to call it, in the background. (See my review for more about this).

…Acker creates in her writing her own awareness, a knowledge of herself that is contiguous with the surface of the world.  She uses her writing for herself to remember her self.  She causes her  self to fold back on itself, pli selon pli [Fr: fold according to fold].  Whatever I write writes me.  I am reading this with you, she wants to say to her reader, discovering what I am writing.  We do this to each other, with each other.  There isn’t any other way it can work.  If you think that you can read a book, without the book reading you, I don’t know what to say to you. (p.27)

Note that here this is the author directly addressing us, his readers.

So, Acker wanders about, nodding to the Auntie in the café, buying a grevillea at the market from the Beautiful Girl who reads her books, and this is where, from a reference to a book called My Mother: Demonology we learn that Wright is channelling the US author Kathy Acker (1947-1997).  An author who, Goodreads tells me wrote…

…fluidly, operating in the borderlands and junkyards of human experience. Her work is experimental, playful, and provocative, engagingly alienating, narratively non sequitur.

Ah. I’ve never read Kathy Acker, but now (I think) I get it!

Author: Stephen Wright
Title: A Second Life
Cover art by Sam Paine
Publisher: Seizure by Xoum, 2017
ISBN: 9781925589047
Source: Personal library, purchased from Seizure Online,  $6.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 2, 2021

Arcadian Adelaide, by Thistle Anderson

Since I’m a Melburnian, it feels a bit brave to be reviewing Arcadian Adelaide.  This vitriolic spray against the good folk of Adelaide was published as a pamphlet at the beginning of the 20th century in 1905, and it caused considerable outrage at the time.  Packaged in this new edition with a foreword by Katie Spain and an essay on the historical context by Derek Whitelock, the pamphlet is only about 50 pages long but Thistle Anderson manages to insult almost every aspect of Australia’s most respectable city.  As it says in Whitelock’s essay, Adelaide would have liked to dismiss her as an immigrant harpy, but no, she was a lady of character, style and note.  (Austlit says she was even presented at court, which I reckon would have stymied her Adelaide critics who had to make do with being presented to the local MP or mayor).

Born in Scotland, Thistle Anderson was a beautiful and well-educated Scotswoman, of Kiplingesque imperial beliefs, much travelled, who confessed to two years on the stage and a love for adventure and vigorous outdoor life.  She had published poetry in 1901 and 1902, and she went on to publish other works after this one.  But this is the one she is famous for….

This is the dedication for the book:

To any kindred spirit whom duty may compel to live in Adelaide, and who living there, suffers as we suffer.

There are three parts to her critique, which clearly indicate that her approach is comprehensive, albeit concise:

  • Part I—The Place
    • Chapter I. Holy Village
    • Chapter II.  Living Accommodation
    • Chapter III. The Tram-Cars.
  • Part II—The Inhabitants
    • Chapter I. The Men
    • Chapter II. The Women
    • Chapter III. The Lesser Animals
  • Part III—Generalities
    • Chapter I. Manners and Customs
    • Chapter II. Industries
    • Chapter III. Redeeming features

The Author’s Note and Foreword refute the criticism that she is bitter or malicious.  Rather, she claims, the pamphlet is meant as a playful skit.  But she doesn’t hold back!

Adelaidians, look away…

Outwardly, Adelaide is intensely respectable—that is to say, the inhabitants go to church regularly, and think it extremely wrong to play cards for money.  They are ostentatious in their charity, but it goes very little below the surface.  Their ideas are, for the most part, about as broad as Blondin’s wire, and their cardinal virtues are Religious Belief and Conventionality. Briefly summed up, the creed of Adelaide so-called society runs:—

“I believe in Lewis Cohen, Mayor of Adelaide, and in Sir George LeHunte (or any other man), Governor of South Australia, from whom much hospitality may be expected.  He was appointed in England, and ascended into Government House.  From thence he shall issue many invitations.  I believe in the social laws, in much going to Church, in doing to others as they would do unto you if they could, in the charity that will be beneficial to our social position, and in the Life of the Everlasting.  Amen.” (pp.11-12)

The Men?

Adelaide is largely inhabited by the type of man that wears celluloid collars, and travels on coastal boats—to be sure there are a few male inhabitants who have neither qualification, but these are mainly bankrupt.  It is fairly safe to assume their bankruptcy is due to their contempt for celluloid collars, and their disregard of Adelaide’s social laws, combined, in many cases, with a large devotion to Bacchus. (p.33)

The only men exempt from this generalisation are the Post Office officials and the Railway employés [sic]. From them she has had only kindly courtesy and she thinks they are the most valuable assets in Adelaide. 

I doubt that young Thistle had many friends left in Adelaide after this dismissal of the women:

The outward semblance of the Adelaide female is intense respectability, and of course, in many cases, being homely to look upon, and exceedingly badly clothed, she has no temptation to err from the paths of strict propriety.  The poorer type is terrible to look upon, and the rich women make one wonder how they manage to spend so much money in clothing their nakedness, and with such disastrous results.  (p.37)

The text is accompanied by pen and ink drawings and occasional B&W photos from the period.

I was amused by Whitelock’s reason for wanting the pamphlet republished now:

I chanced upon Arcadian Adelaide while writing a history of Adelaide and found its wit and polemics a bracing and informative diversion from masses of self-congratulatory civic and state publications I had had to ingest. (p.98)

That may well be the case, but the other reason to rescue this work from oblivion is that Thistle was courageous in breaking the deafening silence of Adelaide self-criticism.  And she had fun doing it!

Author: Thistle Anderson
Title: Arcadian Adelaide
Foreword by Katie Spain
Essay by Derek Whitelock
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2020, first published 1905
ISBN: 9781743056189, pbk., 99 pages
Source: review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Wakefield Press, your favourite indie bookshop or Fishpond: Arcadian Adelaide

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 1, 2021

A Close Run Thing, by David Treweek

I’ve been reading some sombre books lately, so I was pleased to turn to this light-hearted romp, authored by one of the librarians at my local library.

Our librarians are friendly but they’re busy people so a chat is usually brief.  But when a librarian has to sit at the entrance on door duty, making sure that we register and sanitise before we enter the library, it’s nice to have a chat, and that’s how I found out that David is a published author.  His book was published in 1999 but I found a copy at eBay.  It was just the thing to offset a run of rather grim reading.

A Close Run Thing is the story of Peter Cavanagh, an antique dealer whose business is in trouble during The Recession We Had to Have.   He’s a small-time ‘man on the make’ not just in business but also with women.  When well-heeled ladies come into his shop to buy something, he isn’t always, a-hem, thinking about the sale.

Alas, the bank is on his back, and sales of luxury items are down as Australia’s economy is adjusted to take account of falling GDP.  And Peter has a run of really bad luck.

There was an avoidance game going on and Peter felt as though he was in the middle: he was avoiding creditors, customers were avoiding the shop, and women were avoiding him,  But the most successful avoider was money.  It was everywhere but nowhere,  Even a sniff, a smidgen of the wretched stuff would help.  (p,158)

With sales few and far between he has two ladies interested in his Georgian table, and the urgency of his money troubles means he has to sell it to the one offering substantially less.  When she brings it back because it’s too much hassle to polish it, he sells it to the other woman, whose husband’s business fails.  She wants to sell it back to him but he hasn’t got any money to buy it with.  And so it goes on.

His biggest disaster happens when a trader who’s bought some items goes into receivership before the cheque clears.  In an hilarious sequence of events he tries to steal his own furniture back, but gets charged with burglary, and things could have gone badly had he not taken the precaution of getting the principal witness too drunk to attend court the next day.

There’s also a droll pursuit of a woman called Anne, who invites him to liven up her attendance at a Catholic retreat in the bush.  She’s a lawyer, doing some work for them which involves staying overnight, and he’s there to do valuations of their furniture for insurance purposes.  But, oh dear, he confuses the directions about which guest cell to visit in the dark of night, and stumbles into a tryst between two of the religious fraternity.

In style, A Close Run Thing reminds me of Morris Lurie’s Hergesheimer, but it’s bawdier.  The setting, OTOH is pure class: it’s Melbourne’s High Street Armadale antique shopping strip, rated highly among Things to Do at Trip Advisor.  When my mother was alive I used to haunt these shops looking for birthday and Christmas presents, so I know them well.  But it’s the characterisation of the customers that’s the highlight of this novel.  Peter humours dear old Mrs Carruthers’ as her trembling cigarette converts into a leaning tower of ash which tumbles onto a Persian rug worth $5,500.  He makes a fuss of her rather than his merchandise so he asks rudimentary questions about her health, her house and Churchill the dog. He can almost predict the script as she skirts around asking the price, and the reader sees his inner thoughts as he engages with the routine disparaging remark meant to bring the price down:

‘It’s just like it.’
‘Just like what Mrs Carruthers?’
‘The table in London.’
‘Oh I see.’
‘It was destroyed in the Blitz.’
‘I’m sorry about that.’
‘It was a wedding present from my husband’s family.’
‘So it had sentimental value.’
‘But it didn’t have a stripe around the edge.’
No trouble.  I’ll just have a stripe-free one sent over. (p.66)

We don’t often come across novels set in retail stores, which is strange because I’m sure they must have lots of interesting stories to tell.

And yet, for all that this is a book written to amuse, it also makes a serious point.  Perhaps Peter’s shop is in trouble because he isn’t sufficiently focussed on it; perhaps he hasn’t built up reserves when times were good.  But now his business is in serious trouble because of of changes in the economy.  Our economy had to be modernised at that time: whether we liked it or not, globalisation was taking hold and in the late 20th century changes were inevitable.  But what A Close Run Thing shows is that there are all kinds of victims when the economy falters, and while unemployment tends to be the focus of measurement and commentary in the media, the heartbreak of a business failing is not to be underestimated.  For sole traders like Peter, the business is not just an income, it also represents years of hard work and a social network too.

In my community, people have been loyal to local traders and they’ve all survived the economic shock so far.  But it’s not like that everywhere, here in Australia or overseas.  It’s going to be a difficult few years ahead…

Author: David Treweek
Title: A Close Run Thing
Cover art and illustration by David Snellgrove
Publisher: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1999
ISBN: 9781875989508, pbk., 292 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased on eBay, $19.99


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