If you love Australian literature, this book is a must-read.  Friends and Rivals, Four Great Australian Writers by preeminent biographer Brenda Niall consists of four biographies of women who put Australian writing ‘on the map.’  Of the four — Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson — the only one I haven’t read is Ethel Turner: I didn’t have an Australian childhood so I never read Seven Little Australians (1894) which written so casually, has an extraordinary place in Australian literary history.  It redefined Australia’s relationship with English publishers who had not until then taken Australian writing seriously.

16th edition, 1912, publisher Ward Lock & Co. (Wikipedia)

Conventional, conservative Ethel Turner crossed paths with flamboyant, ebullient Barbara Baynton in 1896 when they were both writing for The Bulletin, but Niall begins Ethel Turner’s chapter with their meeting in 1911 when Barbara helped Ethel to choose an emerald ring.  Herbert Curlewis couldn’t afford more than an unspectacular engagement ring when he courted Ethel, but by 1911 he wanted her to have something finer, and it was Barbara to whom Ethel turned to help her find the prettiest ring in Sydney.  The friendship was surprising, because the women had very different temperaments, but they had bonded over their charitable work as patrons and fundraisers for the Ashfield Infants’ Home which provided shelter and support for unmarried mothers. Although they were both now affluent and confident about their place in Sydney society, they had both experienced the plight of the single mother or the deserted wife:

Baynton’s struggle to keep three young children without a father’s support matched the heroic efforts of Turner’s mother, left with three small daughters. (p.15)

It is small, intimate insights like this episode with the ring that make reading this book such a pleasure.  It’s fascinating to read the story of Turner’s turbulent childhood and the way she remade herself as a society lady.  She was ambitious, but Niall says that her success with Seven Little Australians constrained her development as a writer.  She became known as a children’s author, partly on the advice of Louise Mack who told her that drafts of the children’s book ‘wasn’t half-bad’ and she should finish it instead of working on her ‘serious novel’.  Sales of Seven Little Australians made her publisher want more, and she surrendered to the tyranny of the sequel.  

…Ethel Turner’s success was immense; her output prodigious; her life generously lived.

There was a cost.  Although Turner wrote fluently, met deadlines with strict professionalism and could devise a new plot outline before breakfast, she was a victim of her own efficiency.  She revelled in her popular and commercial success but fretted at the constraints of the genre in which she did best. (p.56)

Alas, whatever gratitude she may have owed to Louise evaporated when Mack published a gossipy novel with a central character of limited talent who seemed a lot like Ethel Turner. The friendship couldn’t survive the failure of trust. Yet when Louise died of a stroke at 67, Ethel gathered flowers from her own garden to take to the funeral and sent kind thoughts to Louise’s family.  (I hope I remember this when I finally get round to reading Mack’s An Australian Girl in London, on the TBR.)

I already knew a bit about Barbara Baynton’s extraordinary life.  You can read what I gleaned from the introduction to the Sydney University Press edition of Bush Studies here but what I didn’t realise then was that as late as the 1970s the true story was unknown.  Prior to that, readers were baffled by a rich and arrogant socialite being able to write so vivdly about the poverty of bush life.

Thea Astley, who found the dominant theme in the six stories published as Bush Studies to be ‘an expression of revolt against the feudal conditions of women in the bush’ was perplexed by their coming from an author who was ‘comfortably off.’ Astley could see no connection between the privileged Baynton of the public record and the brutishness and horror that pervades her fictional world. (p.91)

Indeed.  And it transpires that we owe Bush Studies to the writer and critic Edward Garnett, who, as a reader at Duckworth’s saved it from the slush pile to which other publishers had consigned it. This vignette about the (not quite) unsung hero Garnett is fascinating too:

Like his wife, [the prolific translator] Constance Garnett, he had a passion for Russian literature.  His work enriched English literature in unexpected ways.  He was the discoverer and patron of Joseph Conrad, the Polish master mariner, and D H Lawrence, the brash young man from the Midlands who wrote about sex with shocking frankness.  Garnett was always hoping for ‘the delighted flash of recognition’, when, ‘amid the mass of trivial, indifferent, or heavily conscientious efforts a beginner’s work [showed] that instinctive creative originality which we call genius.’  He believed he had found that quality in Baynton’s strange, disturbing stories. (p.97)

Yes, let’s have a shout-out for all the publishers’ readers ploughing through the MSS to find the wonderful books we love to read!

Henry Handel Richardson — whose Fortunes of Richard Mahoney trilogy is one of my favourite books — had doubts about the realism of Baynton’s squalid stories.  I was a bit surprised by the treatment of HHR in Friends and Rivals: it’s not a very sympathetic portrait, and Niall seems quite exercised by the fact that HHR’s husband compromised his own career as a writer in order to support hers.  (Isn’t that what we would like to see more of, instead of women of great talent always sacrificing their own ambitions to support their men?)

…without Robertson, it is hard to believe that Henry Handel Richardson’s literary career could have flourished.  Henry needed support as well as intellectual companionship; and she needed—or demanded—a very large degree of freedom from everyday duties and relationships.  (p.148)

Yes, my feminist hackles are rising: HHR’s success ascribed not to her abilities, but to having a supportive husband…

Perhaps my opinion of HHR is coloured by having first read Nettie Palmer’s Henry Handel Richardson, a study, and perhaps my doubts about Niall’s representation of both HHR and Nettie Palmer has been influenced by having previously read this article in Overland but I’m a bit taken aback by the condescending tone of some of Niall’s commentary:

Writing about the Leipzig years in her autobiography Myself When Young, Richardson gave the impression that her failure in public performance [at her final year piano concert] was solely due to panic symptoms.  Her account of the student concerts at which she felt the attack of ‘the eyes’ [everyone looking at her] could be read as her final defeat: at the least it implies withdrawal from the competitive musical world.  But Ettie did not drop out in her final year.  She completed her studies after becoming engaged to George and went through the public ordeal without showing undue nervousness.

Neither her examiner’s reports nor the newspaper review of the concert suggest the rich promise that had brought the family to Europe. […] Not exceptional, then, not a future star on the concert platform, the former schoolgirl prodigy was one among many competent students. (p.145)

And there’s this too:

After her mother’s high hopes, and her own, it would have been a miserable comedown to teach music in a girls’ school.  Marriage was a way out, and luckily, she loved George Robertson.  He became everything to her: father, husband, mentor and intellectual companion; and the mainstay of her literary career. (p.144)

Hmm…

And this:

After the anticlimax of the final concert, Mary Richardson took her daughters back to England.  After three years in Leipzig, speaking no German and enduring, in a two-bedroom flat, the sounds of Ettie’s piano, Lil’s violin and the cello played by their friend and lodger, Mattie Main, Mary needed to go home.  Home for the moment was England.  Lillian’s claims to a musical education were deferred.  Her promise as a violinist went with a less demanding nature than Ettie’s.  Besides, with her looks and charm, she was sure to marry.  Ettie’s future was the problem.  The steady devotion of George Robertson became the best hope for a difficult young woman.  (p.145)

There is evidence in Michael Ackland’s Henry Handel Richardson, A Life (2004) that Mary did indeed find the musical household a sore trial.  But it was this passage that prompted me to check his bio (which I haven’t yet read), to see if it was the source of Niall’s negative interpretations of events.  To my surprise — having read Niall’s suggestion that a possible reason for HHR’s childlessness was a fear that her father’s insanity might be hereditary, and another is Ettie’s lofty view that gifted women should not waste their possibilities in childbirth, something that could be left to the masses —  I read that HHR suffered poor health, including

… intense, lower abdominal pains that accompanied menstruation.  In her case these were not simply period pains, but the result of dysmenorrhea, ‘a disease of organically normal childless women up to the age of thirty.’ (Ackland, p.150)

Since these episodes could leave Ettie prostrate for days, my money is on a diagnosis of endometriosis of which dysmenorrhea is a symptom, and childlessness a common consequence.  But whichever it was, Niall makes no mention of it at all, preferring instead to offer a snide remark about HHR’s lofty views.  For the first time ever, I began to doubt Niall’s objectivity as a biographer.

HHR comes out of it very badly too, in the chapter about Nettie Palmer.  Nettie herself is judged to have sacrificed her own writing to support her husband Vance, and to have been a bit of a pain in the way she besieged influential others to promote his career.  But it was when Nettie decided to write a bio of HHR and was stymied by HHR’s literary executor who withheld letters because they were unkind about the Palmers, that HHR comes across as a nasty, patronising, arrogant piece of work whose letters about the Palmers were in stark contrast to her face-to-face behaviour towards them.  Well, as the Overland article suggests, the situation can be read differently.  I’ll leave it to scholars to sort that one out, but I will read the Ackland bio to clarify my own opinion.

It’s not so long ago that I was irritated by the entry at Wikipedia which combined Nettie and Vance Palmer on the same page.  Now at least she has her own entry.  But as far as I can gather, while there is a bio of her daughter Aileen, and there are inclusions of her story in such works as Drusilla Modjeska’s Exiles at home: Australian women writers 1925–1945, (1981), there is no comprehensive bio of Nettie Palmer whose contribution to Australian literature is prodigious.  She was Australia’s steadiest and best-informed critic, she championed our authors at home and abroad, and she did heroic work for refugees from the Spanish Civil War as well.  I’d love to read her story, I really would.

It’s ironic, then, that I want to finish off by sharing this excerpt, which is not about Nettie, it’s about Vance.  But it’s irresistible:

In 1907 he was ready to go home, but not without seeing more of the great world.  Rather than look for sunshine in Italy or Spain, he made his way to Russia.  moer than anything he wanted to see the author of War and Peace.  He went by boat to Copenhagen, then to Finland, and on across Russia.  Takign night trains to save accommodation costs, he head for Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana.  Lacking directions and without a word of Russian, he lost his way and gave up, ‘in need to warm food and dry boots’, feeling a fool for trying.  (p.206)

My heart aches for him, because my visit to Yasnaya Polyana was one of the highlights of my trip to Russia in 2012.

Update: 24/6/20 I cam across this article by Brenda Niall today, and this excerpt goes some way towards explaining my dissatisfaction with Niall’s treatment of HHR:

Probably the first question I’m asked as a biographer is something like this: what did you find out about him or her? This suggests that biography is a matter of detection or even investigative journalism. And it is true that a lot of the interest of writing in this form comes from puzzling over bits of evidence, trying to make sense of a jigsaw that will never be complete.

A more useful question would be: “How do you see your subject?” or “How are you planning to shape that life?”

Image credits: Seven Little Australians: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4272416

Author: Brenda Niall
Title: Friends and Rivals, Four Great Australian Writers, Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson
Cover design by W H Chong
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781922268594, pbk, 278 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $34.99

 

Back in 2016 I had a subscription to Pushkin Press, and every few weeks one of their lovely little books would arrive, and as I added it to my Goodreads TBR, I’d think, this will only take an hour to read… But as is so often the case with me when I subscribe to bookish things, I don’t tend to read them when they arrive, and too often they languish.  But I shouldn’t have let this one wait so long, it really is a bit of a treasure.

This is the blurb:

A typically brilliant, ironic and moving travelogue by one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.

In August 1936 a Hungarian writer in his mid-thirties arrives by train in Venice, on a journey overshadowed by the coming war and charged with intense personal nostalgia. Aware that he might never again visit this land whose sites and scenes had once exercised a strange and terrifying power over his imagination, he immerses himself in a stream of discoveries, reappraisals and inevitable self-revelations. From Venice, he traces the route taken by the Germanic invaders of old down to Ravenna, to stand, fulfilling a lifelong dream, before the sacred mosaics of San Vitale.

This journey into his private past brings Antal Szerb firmly, and at times painfully, up against an explosive present, producing some memorable observations on the social wonders and existential horrors of Mussolini’s new Roman Imperium.

I’d never heard of Antal Szerb.  The Pushkin Press site summarises a longer article about him at Wikipedia.

Antal Szerb was born in Budapest in 1901. Though of Jewish descent, he was baptised at an early age and remained a lifelong Catholic. He rapidly established himself as a formidable scholar, through studies of Ibsen and Blake and histories of English, Hungarian and world literature. He was a prolific essayist and reviewer, ranging across all the major European languages. Debarred by successive Jewish laws from working in a university, he was subjected to increasing persecution, and finally murdered in a forced labour camp in 1945. Pushkin Press publishes his novels The Pendragon Legend, Oliver VII and his masterpiece Journey by Moonlight, as well as the historical study The Queen’s Necklace and Love in a Bottle and Other Stories.

Having just spent the last week reconstructing my TBR Excel file — which involved removing over a thousand books from the shelves and sorting them alphabetically and recording their details in the new file before putting them all back again — I am restraining my impulse to order The Pendragon Legend and Journey by Moonlight but this is only because I know there is *no* room on the S-shelf.  Plus, just today I bought another half dozen treasures home from Bound Books in Hampton Street after picking up a reserve from the library.  (And a good thing I went today too, we are locking down again in Melbourne because of a surge in COVID_19 community transmission.  Just when I was starting to venture out, thank goodness I got a looooong overdue hair cut yesterday!)

The Third Tower is a reminder to pay attention to current affairs.  Though Szerb was aware that being able to travel was something that he expected to change, he went to Italy on impulse, only to observe that the beautiful sites that lure us still, were compromised.  While he berates himself for being a snob about it, he is aware that the crowds he wasn’t expecting are there because Mussolini has made train travel so cheap and because nationalism is on the rise.  Pushkin Press has emphasised the sites Szerb visits with sombre B&W reproductions of photos from that era, contrasting these images with the colourful memories we have if we’ve travelled to Italy.  As Szerb muses about the cities and their landmarks, the crowds, the trains and the meals, we—reading this in the C21st, grasp his unease at fascism revealing itself before his eyes.   Everywhere there seems to be exultation — over Italy’s defeat of  Abyssinia, its menace in Spain, and all the other manifestations of Mussolini’s rise to power and his glorification of the masses.  If you believe the papers, (and clearly Szabo doesn’t) everything is fine. He suspected that there was more going on than he knew, and today we know he was right.

It’s just a short book, but it’s certainly not lightweight.

See also this review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Author: Antal Szerb
Title: The Third Tower, Journeys in Italy
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2014, first published in 1936
ISBN: 9781782270539, pbk, 105 pages
Source: Pushkin Press Subscription

 

This morning I listened to Episode 8 of the Auckland Writers Festival Winter Series, hosted by Paula Morris and featuring Freya Daly Sadgrove, Philippa Swan and Helon Habila.

Philippa Swan is the author of a couple of books, the most recent being The Night of All Souls, which is a reimagining of the life and afterlife of Edith Wharton.   The book has been described as a ‘Tardis of a Novel’, stories within stories, with Edith as the main character.  Philippa loves The House of Mirth, and suggests it’s the best Wharton to start with.  But although she had read many other Whartons as well, she had never really thought much about Edith as a person… not until she read Hermione Lee’s  biography which made her realise what an amazing woman Wharton was.

Teddy Wharton, the husband of Edith’s unhappy marriage, is in the novel, and so are other ghosts, which reflects Edith’s fondness for ghost stories. The Night of All Souls is not just an historical novel, because it includes elements of modern life, which include a novella that Edith finds.  It’s based on letters which she left behind after her death, and since she is a private person, she has to find out which secrets that she doesn’t want revealed are in that novella … and she can only find that out from the other people who are in the room with her.  A most intriguing premise, eh?

Paula Morris asked about the role of convention, which was so strong in Wharton’s era, but is not so much now.  But the notion of dirty secrets certainly is still with us.  Edith Wharton, from our perspective, seems a very controlled sort of person, but there was chaos in her life.  Notwithstanding, she was very productive, with forty novels to her credit, writing every morning in a wild sort of panic, often about very gritty things.  In the afternoon she went out to live her elegant social life, alternating between the two worlds, and the parts of her contradictory self.   She was a brave war correspondent too, which is not how we usually think of her.

(I have, of course, reserved this book from the library).

Freya Daly Sadgrove is a Wellington poet, and the author of her first collection Head Girl.  My first thought was that the poems were about prefects at school, and yes it is, but it’s dedicated to her enemies.  She dissects the experience of a young woman not afraid to be profane… and Paula issued a warning that this segment of the program might not be suitable for children…

Paula related this book to Philippa’s by asking if Head Girl represented a kind of dance between public and private worlds.  It sounded as if this was a question that really disconcerted Sadgrove, who said that it represented a different time in her life.  She talked about being honest and so forth, but she had kept some things private.   Apparently the style of the poems reflects her theatre experience so there are lots of gags.  Paula asked about the difference between theatre which is about assuming an identity and a persona, thus inhabiting a character, whereas poetry is about revealing the inner.  Maybe it was nerves, and I’m guessing that doing the session remotely makes that harder, but some of this young woman’s incoherent responses were painful to listen to.  It was chastening to hear that she had suffered depression and that her therapist had been at her book launch.  The reading also came with a warning that there were references to suicide.

It was wonderful to see a literary hero like Helon Habila on screen and I hope his work will become better known in our part of the world.  Travellers (2019) is his most recent book, but I know him as the award-winning author of the searing Waiting for an Angel (2001).  Since then he has also published Measuring Time (2007) and Oil on Water (2010).  He moved from Nigeria to take up a fellowship in the UK, had a further fellowship in Berlin, and is now an academic in America.

Paula Morris began by referring to a Guardian review by Edward Doxc, which begins like this:

Helon Habila’s fourth novel has it all – intelligence, tragedy, poetry, love, intimacy, compassion and a serious, soulful, arms-wide engagement with one of the most acute human concerns of our age: the refugee crisis. This is the answer to the question of what contemporary fiction can do, and the reason I laugh whenever people say (as a character declares ironically in Travellers) that the novel is dead.

Travellers is about the experience of the African diaspora, and the refugee crisis in Europe.  It is set in Berlin and features a privileged academic, who has more in common with the refugees than he first thought.  This unnamed main character’s odyssey is like Habila’s own experience… he was in Berlin on a fellowship when a refugee boat capsized with a loss of 300 lives, and he was invited to write about this tragedy.  This was the catalyst for him to realise that the academic bubble in which he lived and worked made real life seem remote, and this experience forms the trajectory of the novel.

Paula asked about homeland, that is, can outsiders ever really be at home in Europe, even in a multicultural city like Berlin?  That is the question Habila was trying to answer in the novel… the place the refugees thought was their home was lost, so that ‘bursts’ the idea of home in the first place.  ‘Home’ turns out to have conditionality.  It becomes a place that could be anywhere, but it has impermanence.  He feels that himself.  He is not sure that he has a ‘home’ in America but it’s a place to try to make one with his family.

Stolperstein (Wikipedia)

Paula raised the presence of the bronze plaques in the Berlin pavements.  Habila’s character stumbles on one of these and falls to the ground and sees what they are. They are called Stolperstein, (stumbling stones) and engraved with names, they are laid in many places in Europe to commemorate the last known freely chosen place of residency of victims of Nazi persecution: Jews, Romani, homosexuals, members of the Resisters and others.  Habila says that these names in the pavement illustrate the illusion of having a home – the Jews among these people had had homes in Germany, and they had been in Europe for hundreds of years and yet in one day they became outsiders, and were taken away.

Paula referenced Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (on my TBR) and asked if Berlin was important to Habila’s creative life?  He agreed that it was: Berlin is a wonderful city for creative people, with its museums and rich cultural life.  During this fellowship he abandoned one novel to write another, so it was an important year for him creatively.  Ironically, he had not wanted to go there, because his idea of Germany was fashioned by way Germans were portrayed in WW2 film and literature.  Nigeria had been colonised by the British, so that’s the perspective he experienced as he grew up.  Being in Berlin taught him a great deal, though there is always that shadow of migrants coming from Africa on the streets…

Bringing all three writers together, Paula asked about the current Black Lives Matter protests and whether it was possible for a writer to be oblivious to significant moments in history. Habila says that it is essential to support the movement, because to be silent is to be complicit in racism.  Freya agrees that you can’t be silent, but she is not confident that as a Pakeha writer she can contribute.  She recognises that her poetry has been self-centred and she says that now she is ready to put that kind of writing behind her and is interested in looking outward.   But you also have to know when to shut up, and she thinks that this is a time for listening.  Philippa talked about how BLM has coincided with the pandemic, which has meant that in one way we are more connected than ever, and yet we are so isolated.  She finds she can’t write at all at the moment.

My thanks to the organisers of this series, and congratulations to Paula Morris for chairing each session so well.

Image credit: By Francisco Peralta Torrejón – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53778166

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 20, 2020

The Sun Will Soon Shine, by Sally Sadie Singhateh

The Sun Will Soon Shine is a timely reminder to me that all kinds of issues are slipping under the radar during the pandemic.  Sally Sadie Singateh is a writer from Gambia, but the issue she raises in this novella are widespread.  It’s the story of Nyima, born in a village, but keen to sidestep community expectations about the near universal fate of girls to become a wife and mother, serving a man who most likely has more than one wife.  As part of this predestined journey, a girl is made to endure the practice of female circumcision a.k.a. FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).  But Nyima is an intelligent girl, who wants to become a teacher.

What prompts me to link this story with the pandemic is that (anywhere in the world) lockdown conditions in remote villages, even in the age of the mobile phone, limit exposure to more enlightened ideas.  Nyima’s father envisions a different future for her.  He has travelled outside his village, and has rejected the community’s expectations for his daughter.  He wants Nyima to finish her education, and has encouraged her career ambitions.  He has organised a different kind of initiation for her, in which she learns the cultural knowledge of her people but does not undergo FGM.

But when he dies, Nyima’s mother is too weak to protect her daughter from tradition.  Dependent on her brother-in-law for support, and hidebound by religion, she acquiesces to thirteen year-old Nyima’s marriage to a grotesque old man called Pa Momat because Uncle Modou decrees it. Nyima is devastated:

When I voiced out my thoughts to my mother, she just shook her head sadly and told me to raise my hand and look at my fingers. ‘You see, Nyima,’ she said, ‘even the fingers are not equal.  My dear daughter, it is written in the Holy Book that men shall lead women into eternity.  And so, my child, it will remain.’

Her words did not deter me.  I believe that men should indeed lead women but they should not control them like puppets on strings. Women should be allowed to voice their thoughts, as in my case.  I wanted to tell my uncle that I did not want to marry Pa Momat.  I wanted to complete my education and become a teacher so that I could share my knowledge with others.  I wanted to scream it all out, let loose all of my torments and frustration, but tradition and customs prevented that.  A woman had to accept her destiny and mine was to marry Pa Momat. (P.15)

Worse is to come.  Pa Momat rejects her and demands back the wedding expenses and the dowry (that has gone to Uncle Modou) because she is uncircumcised.  And so she is physically forced to undergo this hideously painful mutilation, to make her acceptable to her angry husband.  And then there is more trouble because she does not get pregnant, to give him the required son.

All this is happening while she is still in her teens, and her powerlessness makes it seem as if there is no hope.  But the title of the book comes from her mother’s saying, that even in the depths of despair, ‘the sun will soon shine.’  And it does, in the form of a cousin who has made a career for herself as a lawyer, and had promised Nyima’s father to support the girl’s quest for education.  The story does have a happy ending, though Nyima has more travails to endure before it comes, and the damage done to her body can never be repaired. More to the point, Jainaba’s role in Nyima’s rescue is as a kind of ‘guardian angel’ or ‘fairy godmother’ who saves just one girl from an implacable destiny—when really, what is needed is structural and cultural change.

The insularity and conservatism of village life makes gender equality difficult at any time, but when the walls are up, people are emboldened to take advantage of a reprieve from the forces of change.  NGOs and health educators cannot visit to bring new ways and to support change.  Gambia’s president banned FGM in 2015 but who will be enforcing it in rural areas, in a country where an estimated 76.3% of girls and women have been subjected to it?

Who knows how many girls’ ambitions for a better life are being permanently damaged at the moment?

This ‘No Time to Lose’ video from UNICEF shows that progress has been made, but that any pause in the campaign would be devastating for the future of women and girls.

 

And in the words of a joint statement by Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director; Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director; and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director:

“Thanks to the collective action of governments, civil society, communities and individuals, female genital mutilation is in decline. But we are not aiming for fewer cases of this practice. We are insisting on zero.”

Books like The Sun Will Soon Shine help to keep the issue alive in countries like Australia where FGM has spread because of immigration.  Despite some initial setbacks with prosecuting facilitators of FGM,  the High Court has recently ruled that it is illegal in all its forms, in all states and territories, but education, vigilance (and the likelihood of gaol for the powerful men who promote it) are the best weapons we have for the protection of women and girls wherever they are.

You can donate to the UNICEF Education for Every Girl campaign here.

Author: Sally Sadie Singateh
Title: The Sun Will Soon Shine
Publisher: Athena Press, London, 2004
ISBN: 9781844011421, pbk., 105 pages
Source: A gift from my friend ‘Sally from Oz’, thanks Sally!

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 17, 2020

2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist

The shortlist for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award was announced today.

The six shortlisted titles are…

Richard Neville, Mitchell Librarian of the NSW State Library, and head of the judging panel, has characterised the shortlist as a feast for readers of TraumaLit:

‘The books on this year’s shortlist, diverse in form and tone, all explore the effects of trauma. From familial stories of neglect and abuse to the national story of racial and cultural dispossession, these novels demonstrate powerfully how past trauma continues to inform the present.’

Fortunately from my point of view, since I am not at all fond of TraumaLit, I think that Birch, Salom and Winch have transcended that characterisation.  (No one I know has reviewed the Frew.)  On the basis of the SRB review and a review from Kim at Reading Matters whose review is pending, I am mildly tempted to investigate No One next time I’m in a bookshop).

It’s #NoSurprise Gerald Murnane has been passed over again… an author widely touted as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize, and still the MF eludes him.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 15, 2020

Mrs Osmond, by John Banville

He had paused on a pathway, under a trellis of vines, and was patting his pockets and frowning—he must have forgotten something at his neighbour’s apartment, his cigar case, most probably, since it was a thing he frequently mislaid and left behind.  He wore a pale loose linen suit and a cambric shirt with a soft collar; his waistcoat was unbuttoned and his straw hat was pushed far back at an uncharacteristically casual and what for anyone else would have been a comical angle, although it nevertheless gave to him, with his narrow face and tapering beard, the look of one of El Greco’s haloed, white-clad saints. Although they were separated only by some yards, he would not yet have seen her, so bright was the sunlight surrounding him and so dimly shadowed the doorway within which she stood.  She made no sound or movement, only stayed still and watched him.  He was usually so sharply self-aware a man that, caught there in the glare of noonday and not knowing he was observed, he appeared to Isabel unwontedly a figure of the ordinary sort, distracted, agitated, vexed both at his own forgetfulness and the stubborn way that supposedly inanimate, taken-for-granted things have of making themselves furiously elusive.  (p.275)

Ah… Henry James.  You either love the style of this great American novelist—designed to catch, with immense, with fiendish, subtlety, and in sentences of labyrinthine intricacy, the very texture of conscious lifeor you hate it.  There are 208 words in that excerpt, and we agree, I am sure, that nothing has happened, and this paragraph goes on for a page and half, and still nothing happens.  What is truly remarkable about John Banville’s ‘sequel’ to James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881) is that his style in Mrs Osmond so faithfully replicates James’s style and yet remains so readable.

It’s playful too.  Isabel Archer is one of the great disappointments in 19th century fiction: her assertive independence fizzles out in Europe when she learns of her husband Gilbert Osmond’s perfidy and it’s not clear whether she goes back to him or not.  Oh please! we thought, when we read Portrait of a Lady in our younger years, bring on the feminist literature project and let us have female protagonists with some intelligence and gumption.  Banville plays with us all through Mrs Osmond... what is this rich (enormously rich) young woman going to do to salvage her life?  Yes, even on page 275, two-thirds of the way through the book, that excerpt above is followed by this:

A moment ago she had been thinking of him and recalling his spiteful cruelties with a bitterness of her own, but now, seeing him so prosaically there, a man she had once convinced herself she adored, she felt a sort of softening towards him, a weary resignation in the face of his misusing of her.  (p.275)

Oh no!  She’s not going to forgive him, is she??

(The other thing that will keep readers reading is the vast amount of money that Isobel so rashly takes out of the bank.  What happens to it?  Does she leave it behind somewhere, does it get stolen, does she give it away, does she deposit it again?)

Well, of course, I have nothing to say about that here!

A good number of my friends at Goodreads have marked this as ‘to-read’ but not yet read it… I hope they do, I’d love to know what other readers think of this.  I like the way Isobel’s perspective shifts on issues and relationships.  In the search to understand herself and to unravel her own reasons for her unwise marriage, she comes to understand other people much better than she did.  This belated coming-of-age is gratifying to read because James’ Isabel has been niggling away in my literary memory for a long time, and now I have more respect for her.

I wonder what Banville will write next? ( know he has a new crime novel out this year, but that’s not what I mean).

See also Tony’s review at Tony’s Book World.

PS The description of James’ style in the second paragraph is Banville’s own… it comes from this article at The Irish Times.

Author: John Banville
Title: Mrs Osmond
Cover art: no info supplied
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Random House), 2017
ISBN: 9780241260180, pbk., 376 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Radings

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 13, 2020

Reading for Refugee Week

This Sunday 14 June to Saturday 20 June is Refugee Week, 2020. Here’s a compelling collection of immigrant and refugee stories for you to explore:

Fiction

My reviews are here:

Non-fiction & memoir

My reviews are here:

Donations to the Asylum Seeker Resource Network can be made here.

Emmanuelle Pagano is the author of fifteen novels, and lives in the Ardèche in South-east France.  One Day I’ll Tell You Everything won the European Prize for Literature in 2009, but although the prize includes support for translation, it has taken all this time for it to be available in English.  And that is a real pity because this book tackles a delicate issue with great sensitivity.

After ten years away, Adèle has returned to drive the school bus in the village in the Ardèche mountains where she grew up. Her body has undergone seismic transformations, just like the landscape around her. No one recognises her. But when a snowstorm strands the bus on a mountainside, Adèle and her passengers take shelter in a cave, and the secrets begin to emerge.

One Day I’ll Tell You Everything is the haunting story of two siblings—a younger brother and his older sister, who used to be his brother.

Pagano’s evocation of the remote mountains where Adèle drives her bus is stunning.  The novel spans September to February of the following year so much of her route traverses freezing conditions as she picks up both primary and secondary students to deliver them to their schools.  There are regular warnings about snow storms and alterations to her usual route because of landslips, but ploughing on through snow and fog is routine.  You can see the translator’s skill in this passage:

The autumn you read about in books doesn’t last.  The flamboyant colours, the lyrical oranges of the beech trees, the brilliant ochres of the willows, the sun-speckled acid greens on the birches, the deep reds bleeding into scarlet of the maple forests, or conversely the sparkling, pointillist reds of the individual maples standing out among the yellows of the other trees—there’s just time for me to describe it, time for the wind to send a few leaves back to the ground, and two or three more trips with my kids, and it’s over.  It’s over on the ground as well as on the branches. (p.57)

On Adéle’s trips, autumn is soon enough a display of dreary colours that match the fog. In the old days, children used to walk to local schools, but with the decline of village life in rural France, these schools have closed and now the children have a long journey every day.  Each one of them is an individual to Adéle, and she cares about them all.  Her life as their driver is solace for the loss of a most important relationship.  Her brother Alex was angry about her transition from male to female: he grieves the loss of his big brother, but he refuses to acknowledge her as his sister.  So she left the city to come to a place where she is accepted as a woman because no one knows her history.

Adéle and Alex have not seen each other for ten years when he gets injured in a work accident.  He does rope access work which stabilises the rock face.  In hospital, he doesn’t want to talk about his relationship with Adéle: he would rather complain about the engineers who manage the job, who decide what needs to be done from photos, or from a chopper, and they produce printouts, diagrams and photocopies from their computers without ever seeing what he sees because they never go up the mountain. To all of them it’s just a job.  Pagano does not connect this gulf between theory and practice with the disaster that eventually happens, but the reader can join the dots.

It is when the children are sheltering from the extreme cold in a cave that one of them reveals Adéle’s history to the others.  This is a crisis in her life because the revelation may affect her standing in her community and her emerging relationship with a man called Tony.  Pagano doesn’t labour the point but the novel shows with awful clarity that transitioning from one gender to another impacts on all kinds of relationships and it takes great courage to negotiate that.

I like the way the novel ends on a note of hope:

I know exactly how the rumour will take over the whole countryside: like the thawing of the snow, it’s going to be dirty.  But it’ll be good, it’ll be true, it’ll be very down to earth, one piece of ground after another, step by step. (p.233)

This is a beautiful book about an ordinary person whose life becomes extraordinary—Adéle becomes heroic in more ways than one. l think what it shows us is that even radical changes to the body do not alter a person’s nature or humanity.

I hope this book is widely read.

Author: Emmanuelle Pagano
Title: One Day I’ll Tell You Everything
Translated from the French by Penny Hueston
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2020, first published as , 2007
ISBN: 9781922268914, pbk., 241 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 11, 2020

On a Barbarous Coast, by Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick

In the lead-up to #IndigLitWeek 2020 in July, here’s a most unusual novel to pique your interest!

On a Barbarous Coast is a collaborative work of speculative fiction.  It tells an alternative history of Lieutenant James Cook’s landing in far north Queensland in 1770.

Craig Cormick is an Australian science communicator and author of 30+ books of fiction and non-fiction.  His co-writer is Harold Ludwick, a Bulgun Warra man from the Guugu Yimidhirr & Kuku Yalandji nations, and a Fellow of the National Museum of Australia.  Together, they have woven a story that revisits the landing from two perspectives…

Magra is a midshipman on the Endeavour, and Garrgiil is a boy from the Guugu Yimidhirr people.  The story departs from history when the Endeavour comes to grief on the Great Barrier Reef.  The real-life Cook beached the badly damaged ship for repairs for seven weeks and then continued his voyage; in this novel the ship breaks up and Cook is washed up insensible along with other survivors.   Magra is a disaffected man of failed ambitions, while Garrgiil is on the cusp of manhood.  Both fear the Other, but both are curious as well.

In alternating narratives, the reader sees the catastrophe from the observations of the Indigenous people and from the British PoV.  Puzzled by the behaviour of people they think are spirits returned from the dead, the Guugu Yimidhirr people keep their distance, but maintain a watch on events, while — deprived of authoritative leadership — the survivors are divided amongst themselves.  The marines take off with the only weapons and build themselves a fort, while Magra and the rest of them are focussed on shelter from the elements and finding food and water.  The botanists Joseph Banks and Mr Solander are invaluable for identifying edible plants as a food supply, but the marines, led by a ruffian called Judge, kidnap Solander to help them when they fail to catch and kill wildlife.  Garrgiil, watching unobserved, notes however that none of the survivors are following laws and customs about where and when to gather food.  As the survivors soon find out, their food sources are not sustainable, and malnutrition and sickness are the result.

It is the marines, however, who breach the laws in the most egregious way.  They have set themselves up in a sacred site, and worse than that, a man is killed there.  Garrgiil is shocked, but the Elders can’t extract the usual retribution because they are constrained by the same laws.

Gargiil’s narrative is, IMO, marred by the clumsy use of Indigenous language.  Each time an Indigenous word is used, it’s Italicised, and an English translation is placed in brackets beside it, as in this extract:

Wuji is the tormenter, the spirit that hunts people who go into bubu dabul (sacred areas) without permission.  He is relentless in his pursuit of those who break the law.  Bamu wukpu biini (many people have died) from his nightly terrorising of them, even when bama (people) are alone gun-gun bi (in the scrub, or bush) he will appear and chase them.
Only a magarri (sacred corroboree ceremony) can halt his desire to take the flesh of our people. (p.35)

This technique breaks up the flow of the language, and it doesn’t encourage the reader to put in a little bit of effort to learn the new word.  And it’s unnecessary.  I’ve read other books which use Indigenous language — words which when placed with care enable the reader to work out the meaning from context.  This s a more natural and authentic use of the language, and (providing a glossary if really necessary) is a much better way IMO of treating Indigenous language with respect.  It has the added bonus of the word becoming familiar if it’s repeated often enough.

Back in 2004, the Australian archaeologist, anthropologist and historian Inga Clendinnen (1934-2016) won the NSW Premier’s Non-fiction Award for Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact. In the light of improved knowledge and cross-cultural understanding, the book interpreted the reports, letters and journals of the first British settlers in Australia to reconstruct the interactions between the First Nations and First Settlers in 1788. It’s 15 years since I read that book, but what I remember was the clarity with which Clendinnen demonstrated how confusion and hostility could have been prevented had effective communication enabled understanding of each other’s culture.  On a Barbarous Coast suggests what might perhaps have been, had the time between 1770 and 1788 been used to establish a respectful dialogue between Indigenous people and their visitors.

It’s tantalising to think about what might have been, but the important thing now is to face up to Australia’s Black History with honesty and good will.  We need good political leadership to make that happen across the country, but since we don’t have that, in the meantime it’s a case of ‘be the change you want to see’…

Harold Ludwick is a Bulgun Warra man from the Guugu Yimidhirr & Kuku Yalandji nations in far north Queensland.

Authors: Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick
Title:  On a Barbarous Coast
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760877347, pbk., 309 pages
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

See also Ashleigh Meikle’s review at The Book Muse.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 8, 2020

Inconvenient Memories, by Anna Wang

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 6, 2020

Six Degrees of Separation: from Normal People, to….

This month’s #6Degrees starts with Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which I haven’t read yet.  But whether the title is ironic or not, the obvious thing for me to do is to introduce a character who tests our ideas of what ‘normal’ might be…

Voilá! Professor Kien from Auto-da-Fé, by Elias Canetti, translated by C.V. Wedgewood.

As I wrote in my review:

Set in Vienna and Paris, the story begins with a chance meeting between Professor Kien and a clever little boy.  The boy has inadvertently stood between Kien and his view of the books in a bookshop.  The professor goes for walks early in the morning before the bookshops open so that he won’t be tempted to buy any more – he already has a library of 25,000 books and anyway, the books in the bookshops are inferior and not worthy of him.

He himself was the owner of the most important private library in the whole of this great city. He carried a minute portion of it with him wherever he went. His passion for it, the only one which he had permitted himself during a life of austere and exacting study, moved him to take special precautions. Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase. Fortunately, the great number of the book shops did not open until after eight o’clock. (p11)

But still, he’s not happy to have his view obstructed.

Of course, we booklovers might regard this passion for books as perfectly normal… as is the Professor’s interest in Sinology, which brings me to a book set in China…

Australian author Nicholas Jose lived and worked as an academic in China in the 1980s and wrote his superb novel Avenue of Eternal Peace back in 1990.  I see in my 2019 review that I read it just as the Hong Kong protests over the Extradition Bill were ramping up.  How right they were to be concerned: while the rest of the world is preoccupied with events in America, the Chinese have passed a new security law that threatens the Rule of Law and the human rights of defenders.  This is a very worrying development for Hong Kong…

A search of my own posts reveals that there are about 140 posts that discuss human rights in one way or another, many of them by Indigenous authors.  One of the most well known books won the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Human Rights Award for Literature… it’s Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1988) by Ruby Langford Ginibi.  As I said in my review:

It is studied in schools and universities as a record of rural and urban indigenous life in an era of significant change but it is read and enjoyed as a great story: wise, funny, poignant and frank about the difficulties of indigenous life as well as Langford’s own mistakes.

There’s nothing funny about breaches of human rights, yet some Indigenous writers have created superb black humour out of Australia’s Black History.  One that I referenced just recently in my post announcing Indigenous Literature Week in July is Marie Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act (2014).  As I said in my post, if the editor of The Age had read Munkara’s novel or even just read my review, he wouldn’t have said such foolish things in the middle of the #BlackLivesMatter phenomenon. If I had my way A Most Peculiar Act would be on school reading lists all over the country because I regard it as essential reading for all Australians.

If I search ‘essential reading’ in my posts, *chuckle* I come to the conclusion that I have used this term rather a lot.  But still, Journalism at the Crossroads, which Margaret Simons wrote in 2012, is even more essential now.  She wrote it before the election of That Dreadful Man in America, and before anyone knew how much damage his use of the term ‘Fake News’ could do.

Margaret Simons has another book currently in the marketplace, one which demonstrates the value of long-form journalism in the form of Quarterly Essays.  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by current affairs at the moment, but the planet is no less important today than when Greta Thunberg brought everyone out on the streets, and Simon’s essay Cry Me a River, by (Quarterly Essay #77) about our own patch of the environment along the Murray-Darling River, is important too.

So that’s my #6Degrees: from domestic issues to issues of national importance!

Next month’s book is with What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt.

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 6, 2020

The Schoonermaster’s Dance, by Alan Gould

Keen to support both authors and bookshops, I’ve just bought Chris Flynn’s Mammoth and Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron, which caused a minor crisis on the A-G Australian authors section of the TBR.  No room.  I was sorely tempted to read one or other of them right away, but The Schoonermaster’s Dance waved at me, reminding me that I’d shelved it back in 2013 after a successful hunt for Alan Gould’s backlist after I discovered The Seaglass Spiral.

So here we are, and what an absorbing book it is, offering much to think about besides the obvious theme of obsession.

Forty-something Sarah Tilber is friends with Jenn, and has been since their schooldays in England.  The story of how Sarah’s obsession with her ancestor Charles Harling Tilber gets out of hand is narrated by Jenn… who learns most of it through Sarah’s letters and postcards and the occasional visit.  Jenn is the wife of a schoolmaster in England, and Sarah is the wife of a librarian in Canberra.

Or was.  The story begins with Sarah’s mystifying disappearance.  Her father’s death severed her sense of connection to things, and so she left her job at the NLA (where she was a librarian too); she left Kieran, her kindly but claustrophobia-inducing husband; and she set off on a lengthy odyssey to find the traces of this long-dead great-uncle.  And somehow, with the circumstances unknown, she disappears in July 1990, somewhere between the border of Peru and Chile.

Jenn, who mourns her still, tells Sarah’s story to ensure that her friend has a presence in this world.  Sarah had no children (and seemed not to like them much either) and nothing remains of her possessionless life except—like her ancestor—in the traces of other people’s lives.  So in the same way that Sarah was wholly absorbed in ‘establishing’ the fact of Charlie Tilber’s life, so too is Jenn, using the same word ‘establish’ to assert the importance of her narration of Sarah’s life.  Despite her misgivings about her friend’s absorption in the past life of an ordinary person, Jenn has taken on the same behaviour.

CHT (as Sarah often abbreviates him) was a man who spent his life at sea, and died alone in an aged care home.  But by a series of lucky events, Sarah meets a man who served on the same ship as a boy, and this creates a sense of connection to the great days of sail.  A newspaper clipping about a tragic voyage exists, and Sarah uses this to imagine reasons for the haunting that seemed to have been part of CHT’s melancholy persona.  The tragedy also enables Sarah to invest her great-uncle with a kind of tragic hero status.

Jenn, describing this situation, notes that her friend is detached from the present and the real people in her life (not just Kieran the hang-dog husband but also an uncle, a sister and some nephews in England).  The way that she seems wholly absorbed by the past becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the obsessive amateur sleuthing that goes on among many family historians.

Gould illustrates the pointlessness of this obsession with a telling moment.  Sarah visits Jenn in school where she teaches along with her husband, and in the library Sarah immediately locates an atlas.  She uses it to demonstrate that CHT can be located at a given moment in time on the latitude and longitude of an ocean, because of her research in his ship’s logbooks, which she has committed to memory.  Gould could have been writing about me when he describes how this obsession tests a friendship.  Sarah talks about nothing else, except for very occasional brief moments when she remembers to be polite.  The Schoonermaster’s Dance purports not to be a book about Jenn, but the reader can deduce that there must have been events in her own present, living family that would have merited the interest of a real friend.

Jenn doesn’t just feel a bit neglected by Sarah’s lack of interest in her and her children, she resents the demands that Sarah makes.  The long letters and postcards about CHT require Jenn to be interested in CHT too; she has to read it all, respond to the letters and remember it.  (If you have a friend interested in FamHist you will know that it is fatal to admit that you’ve forgotten some aspect of their, a-hem, fascinating research, because you will be told about it in excruciating detail all over again.)

Jenn needs to set boundaries to deal with the demands that Sarah places on her, but she doesn’t know how… and this is something that’s been on my mind a bit lately because a Facebook Friend posted the graphic below.  There was a time in my life when I realised that I was dealing with someone who had a serious personality disorder, and somewhere online I found not only an eerily accurate picture of her behaviour but also strategies for how to deal with it.  It saved my sanity at the time.

Well, Jenn needs to set those boundaries so that she can escape from Sarah’s obsession, but when Sarah visits her, Jenn ends up leaving her husband alone altogether, even (chastely) sleeping in the guest bedroom with Sarah so that she can listen to her friend go on and on and on about CHT.  Jenn even gets drawn into it a bit, though that was probably the wine they shared.

What Jenn eventually realises is that Sarah’s behaviour is triggered by a kind of faith that it will matter somehow.  As if finding significance in her great-uncle’s life, will do the same for hers.

‘I don’t know what I will come to, Jenn,’ she said, after an interval of silence.
‘Is that Charles Harling Tilber or Sarah Tilber?’ I asked.  I raised myself on my elbow and tried to make out her face against the whiteness of the pillow.  It was indistinct, a darkness around the eyes, whose expression I could not distinguish.
‘Both,’ the indistinct patch replied, and we were silent for some minutes.
Again I could have tried to introduce the subject of my own feelings.  Instead, I said, ‘It is about belief though, isn’t it? Belief that when you have turned the data into a retrieved presence, it will matter somehow.’
She wouldn’t answer. (p.197)

Well, we all want to feel significant.  Yet most of us are not, except to our family and friends.  What Gould seems to be saying is that, yes, there can be traces of a life that otherwise left no issue (children, possessions, creative endeavour) but that the pursuit of them leads to nowhere.  In Sarah’s case, to oblivion, because her journey ends in her own disappearance.

In the aftermath of Sarah’s disappearance, Jenn dislikes herself for her irritation with Sarah.  She arranges the final missives from Sarah in a particular way almost as an act of contrition:

…I believe my ordering represents the emotional truth of how far my friend was successful in ‘inhabiting more than her own time’, and the degree to which, alas, she was also deluded into thinking this was entirely possible.  And it also expresses my own perplexity at her loss, my unhappiness that Sarah’s life seems to end with her energies, her intelligence, her pursuit of truth, somehow misused. (p.230)

Gould’s writing is as always a joy to read.  This is Sarah, in a letter describing one of her sources to Jenn:

Nina Kovacs Musson is now a fond old lady in her early seventies with a very brown, lined face framed by short straight hair which has the soft colour of a cambric pillowslip.  She is slim and sits in a chair with a willed uprightness.  Her voice shows evidence of some rigorous elocution lessons early upon her arrival as a refugee in Australia, though I could detect the trace of her mid-European accent behind it.  Her husband, a semi-retired sheepfarmer, is equally deep-tanned, white-haired, and, for all that he remained out of our way, he did so with a kind of ‘suave tweediness’.  He is as patrician as Australians get, and she has the aspect of a middle-European of ‘good family’, sharpened by those lessons in the proper speaking of English.  (p.213)

This wonderful book is long out of print, but there seem to be copies at eBay and AbeBooks, or you could be lucky like I was, at Brotherhood Books.

Author: Alan Gould
Title: The Schoonermaster’s Dance
Cover illustration and design by Darian Causby, Harper Collins Design Studio
Publisher: Flamingo, Harper Collins (Australia), 2001 (first published 2000)
ISBN: 9780732266547, pbk., 269 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from BrotherhoodBooks.

 Indigenous Literature Week 2020 at ANZ Litlovers 

Cultural warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some references in this blog include images or names of people now deceased.

For information about ILW 2020, click here.

Reviews

Thanks to everyone who is participating in 2020 Indigenous Literature Week – I hope that hosting this celebration helps to make more people aware of indigenous writing!

You are welcome to add your review/s early (or late). I will be monitoring this page until the end of July.

When you are ready to share your reviews, please use comments below:

Include

  • your name & the name of your blog (if you have one) and the URL where your review is posted (your blog, or your GoodReads or Library Thing account).

(Please do not add Amazon consumer reviews because they generate intrusive Amazon ads and I don’t care to support Amazon advertising).

  • If you don’t have a blog or a GoodReads/Library Thing account, then please share what you thought about the book you read in the comments section at the bottom of this post.
  • Or, if you’d like to write a review of greater length, contact me at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom about writing a guest review to be hosted on the ANZ LitLovers blog.

I will gather these links to generate a list which will be added under the headings below on this page. I will also add any new titles that crop up to the permanent Indigenous Reading List.

PS If you haven’t signed up to participate yet, or want to know more about ILW, click on the link at the top of this page.

2020 Reviews (in alphabetical order by author)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors

Firstly, check out this collection of children’s picture books by Brona at Brona’s books: perfect presents for the children in your life.

Tony Birch, born in Melbourne and an urban Koorie of Aboriginal, Irish and West Indian descent

Claire G Coleman, who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people of Western Australia

Gay’wu Group of Women (or ‘dilly bag women’s group’), consisting of Yolŋu women from north-east Arnhem Land in Australia’s far north, and non-Aboriginal women

Anita Heiss, member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales

Julie Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Aboriginal Nation

Ambelina Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, from the Palyku people of the Pilbara in Western Australia

Melissa Lucashenko, of the Ygambeh/Bundjalung people of northern coastal New South Wales.

Harold Ludwick, a Bulgun Warra man from the Guugu Yimidhirr & Kuku Yalandji nations in far north Queensland, collaborating with Craig Cormick

Bruce Pascoe, of the Bunurong people in Victoria

Archie Roach, born in Mooroopna in 1955.  His family lived on the Framlingham Aboriginal Mission near Warrnambool. He is one of the Stolen Generations, taken as a child from his mother, Nellie, a Gunditjmara woman, and father, Archie, a Bundjalung man from New South Wales.

Kim Scott, of the Noongar people of the southern coast of Western Australia

Ellen Van Neerven, a writer of Mununjali and Dutch heritage who identifies with the Yugambeh people of the Gold Coast and Scenic Rim in Queensland

Ida West, a Tasmanian Aborigine, born on the Cape Barren Island Reserve

Tara June Winch, of the Wiradjuri people of New South Wales.

Maori Authors

Witi Ihimaera of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki descent

And from elsewhere…

From Stu at Winston’s Dad, comes his review of A Glass Eye by Miren Agur Meabe, of the Basque region in Spain, translated by Amaia Gabantxo.

Further reading

 

Cultural warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some references in this blog include images or names of people now deceased.

Due to COVID_19, the National NAIDOC Committee has decided to postpone NAIDOC Week 2020 (5 July – 12 July) in the interest of safety for Indigenous communities…

but

Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers is a virtual event that has always been about encouraging Australians to read and learn from Indigenous authors…

so

ANZ LitLovers will again be hosting Indigenous Literature Week in July (5 to 12 July), to celebrate all forms of Indigenous Writing.

I hope that many readers will join in and read a book by an Indigenous author.  But even if you don’t have time or opportunity to do that, at least you can read the reviews.

This week, there was a newspaper editorial that asserted that Australia did not have a legacy of slavery like America.  Clearly, that editor had never read Not Just Black and White, by Tammy Williams and Lesley Williams, which won the David Unaipon Award in 2015 and told the history of Indigenous people being legally unable to withdraw from work for which they were unpaid. Nor had he read Marie Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act (2014) which refers to the Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918 which authorised Indigenous people being taken from their families and re-named; being educated in a way that facilitated their exploitation; being forced to work without wages; having their movements and relationships restricted; and having stolen from them, their human rights to their language, religion and culture.  While Australia did not have private ownership and trade in human beings as America did, only the most narrow definition of slavery could justify that editor’s assertion.

  While I would be the first to say that no one can read everything that’s published, it doesn’t take long to read reviews of Indigenous literature which clearly explain these issues.  And I would have thought that every journalist who has the temerity to comment on Indigenous issues would make it their business to keep up.

Educating ourselves about Australia’s Black History is not an optional extra.  It is a moral obligation.

Reading the reviews of Indigenous-authored books that have been featured during Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers every year since 2012 is not the only place to start educating yourself, but it’s an easy place to start because the reviews lead to the authentic, authoritative voices of Indigenous authors.

While I would like Australians to participate by reading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature, participants are welcome to join in reading indigenous literature from anywhere in the world, from Canada to Guyana, from Native American to Basque to Pashtun or Ixcatec. (For a list of indigenous people of the world, see this list at Wikipedia.) As to how we define indigenous, that’s up to indigenous people themselves.  If they identify as indigenous, well, that’s good enough for me, (and if you want to see how foolish it is to label people, see the first quotation here.)

Thanks to contributions from a fantastic bunch of participants in previous years of ILW the reading list is now extensiveFor reasons of space and time and personal preference my reading list is mostly literary fiction titles by indigenous Australian and New Zealand authors but participants are free to choose any form —short story, memoir, poetry, biography, whatever takes your fancy!  The permanent link to my reading list (and to other useful reading lists) is on the ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List in the top menu. (There is a list of Indigenous Women Writers there too.)

Thanks to all those who joined in last year and have encouraged me to host the week again.

Interested?

  • If you’d like to participate simply say so in comments below.  Tell us what you think you might read in the comments box to help spread awareness of what’s available. .  You never know, you might encourage someone else to try the book too! (You can always change your mind later if you want to).
  • Bookmark the page for Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers 2020 so that you can use the comments box there either
    • to provide the URL of your review on your blog, your Goodreads page or your Library Thing page, or
    • to share your thoughts as a comment and then I’ll add it to the reading list.
  • If you would like to write a guest review of your book for ANZLL I will happily host it here too.

From the TBR I plan to read these titles from Australia:

  • On A Barbarous Coast by Craig Cormack and Harold Ludwick (a Bulgun Warra man);
  • Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina (from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region);
  • Benevolence by Julie Janson (a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Nation);
  • Tripping with Jenny by Mudrooroo a.k.a. Colin Johnson (published posthumously, see my obituary);
  • Australia Day, by Stan Grant (a “self-identified Indigenous Australian who counts himself among the Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Dharrawal and Irish”); and
  • (on reserve at the library), The Wounded Sinner by Gus Henderson, (whose people are from the Flinders Ranges region in SA)

and from New Zealand (if I get time)

  • The Matriarch (The Mahana Family #1) by Maori author Witi Ihimaera

Most of the above titles can be purchased, but publishers don’t generally make it easy to find (or find out about) indigenous writing.  I find the most useful sources for indigenous titles are

  • UQP – use their Browse Books menu to find David Unaipon Award winners, titles from the Blak & Bright Festival, and Black Australian Writing;
  • Wakefield Press – choose browse by category from the top RHS side of the home page (under the search box).  Not all these titles are by indigenous authors so choose carefully;
  • and indigenous publishing houses Magabala Books and Jukurrpa/IAD Press

(There is, of course, AustLit’s Black Words, but there’s not much point in me supplying a link to a subscription-only resource.)

PS Please use the #IndigLitWeek hashtag on Twitter.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 2, 2020

No Small Shame, by Christine Bell

It’s just a coincidence, but Theresa Smith has just published an author talk with Sandie Docker that discusses ‘the power of feel-good-fiction’, and today I finished reading a book that fits into that category.  Christine Bell’s No Small Shame is a book with a ‘feel-good’ ending, but it also deals with issues that haven’t gone away since the historical period in which the novel is set.  The central character is torn between love, pity and duty; she has to deal with religious prejudice; and her choices are constrained by grinding poverty, lack of education, gender inequality, and her responsibility to her children.

Sandie Docker believes that

…at its heart, feel-good fiction can transport us from our own worries and remind us that there is hope. It leaves us feeling that love will prevail. That with friends by our side we can cope with anything. That life is a joyous gift to cherish. Feel-good fiction can take us away from our own problems, snuggle us up in a warm literary hug, and remind us that no matter what’s going on, there is promise. Promise that we will find our way through.

At a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges not only on a personal scale, but globally, the need to be reminded of the good in humanity, the beauty within our own lives, the love that exists between partners, or friends, or families, is tangible.

No Small Shame, despite its flaws, ends on a satisfying note of hope.  It’s a love story with a feisty Scots heroine against the backdrop of WW1 and the tragedy of ruined men in a land not made fit for heroes at all.  What is well done is the realistic portrayal of the tug between love and duty; the way hope and forgiveness can betray common sense, and the authentic depiction of poverty in the early 20th century…

I remember a weekend away in a miner’s hut in Woods Point many years ago.  It had what seemed like a romantic simplicity: a one-roomed shack with a dirt floor, no running water and no electricity, but the simplicity would have soon worn very thin for me.  The shack was untouched since the days when this novel was set: when water had to be fetched and heated for a once-weekly bath; when a woman had two dresses only; when pullovers were reknitted with supplementary yarn scraps to fit a growing child; when you grew your own produce or you went without; and when being born with any kind of disability was a disaster for a farmer’s son in the backblocks.

Mary O’Donnell, born into a Catholic mining family, endures this life when her family migrates from Scotland to Wonthaggi in Victoria, where her father works in the State Coal Mine (now a tourist attraction, the only historic coal mine experience in the Southern Hemisphere).  As a teenager in Bothwellhaugh, Mary had fallen for the handsome dreamer Liam Merrilees, and her family joins his in Australia in search of a better life.  She dreams of education and a career as a nurse or a teacher; he doesn’t know what he wants except that he doesn’t want to follow his father down into the mine.  And by the time she meets up again with him in Wonthaggi, he has lost any interest in her.  He just wants to get away from the dreariness of his life.

Mary’s on-off inconclusive responses to his diffidence are far too long-winded and repetitive, and since the reader already knows from the blurb that there’s an unexpected pregnancy and a reluctant Liam for a husband, by the time we reach page 114 when he gets drunk and they finally do the deed, it comes as an anti-climax.  But the novel improves: trapped into marriage Liam takes off to enlist at the first opportunity, leaving Mary to escape her bullying mother by taking refuge on a friend’s farm—where she soon learns how awful marriage can be because Frank Sloy is a brute and her friend Winnie is a slattern.  It is only when tragedy strikes that Mary gets back home, (and no, it’s not the tragedy that this period of history would make predictable).

So things look bleak for Mary but a friend offers help, and life looks up when she gets to Melbourne, discovers kindness in a boarding-house, and starts on an apprenticeship that could lead to financial independence.  A neat twist in the tale shatters all this hope, and the rest of the novel is an absorbing portrayal of the dilemma in which many women found themselves.  Though some of the characterisation relies on stereotypes of saints (e.g. the landlady Pearl) and sinners (e.g. Mary’s mother Maw), the characterisation of Mary is excellent, especially the portrayal of her complex emotions.

BTW The author must have been astonished to find that her book which in passing references the Spanish Flu, hit the shops at the same time as the pandemic!

Author: Christine Bell
Title: No Small Shame
Cover design: Christabella Designs
Publisher: Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press)
ISBN: 9781920727901
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $32.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 31, 2020

Rise and Shine, by Patrick Allington

Back in 2010 when this blog was still very young, I reviewed Patrick Allington’s first book, Figurehead which had been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award.  It remains in my memory as an outstanding novel which tackled some complex moral issues in an entertaining way.  (Which is mostly what I like my books to do).

Ten years later comes Rise and Shine which—though set in a dystopean world after an apocalypse—again wrestles with complex issues.  Amongst other things, it’s about leadership, and how it can lose its way, even when it’s motivated by the common good.

‘Rise’ and ‘Shine’ are two cities on what’s left of the earth after the catastrophe which left it bereft of animal and plant life, and subject to toxic rain.

No one who survived could really say whether it was a single big catastrophe, or a series of smaller messes, or if it was just the slow grind of excess.  Probably it was all of that.  Maybe Russia dropped a bomb on San Francisco.  Maybe it didn’t.  Maybe the Nile became poisoned.  Maybe it didn’t.  Maybe the last of the ice caps turned yellow.  Maybe they didn’t.  Maybe Vitamin C turned out to be carcinogenic. Maybe it didn’t.  Governments of all brands, the UN, the anti-UN, the World Bank, FIFA all spoke loud and long about what needed to happen, but by then no one could tell information from lies.

The details hardly matter now.  The earth, pushed past its limits, began to eat its own.  Most of the eight billion victims died over a period of a few months.  Quickly, slowly: these things are relative.  Living another day, and another, depended on who you were and where you were. (p.1)

Drones and robots have established that there’s nothing left in the barren landscape, only these two cities, founded by the charismatic Barton and Walker and their four offsiders, Cleave, Hail, Curtin and Holland.  Thirty years after they found each other in extremis, they are still alive, though sick, in the way that everyone is.

Cleave lives in self-imposed isolation, and is the Chief Scientist in Rise.  With the assistance of Malee, who collects and analyses information for her, Cleave interprets data for toxicity, pathogens and salinity in the precious water supply, and she observes the environment far and wide for any signs of emerging plant or animal life.  So science has been elevated to an important and respected position in this society.

Curtin is the Chief Medical Officer, tasked with keeping the population alive. But increasingly her time is focussed on the health of Walker, attending to his tumours and sores.  Minions help him dress in garb that conceals his wasted frame, because it is important that the figurehead looks the part.  But Walker thinks it’s more important that she attend to others.  This is a society whose leader is focussed on the common good.

Hail is Walker’s Chief of Staff, an ebullient man who deliberately provokes Walker each day because that is what brings out the best in him.  The dialogue and black humour between these two (as in Figurehead) is brisk and lively and whisks the plot along.  Irritating as Hail is, he is good at reading people and managing them.

Barton—the bravest of them all—and the leader of Shine, is off-stage in the early part of the book.  Thirty years ago when she and Walker conceived a survival plan, she had said that they would need an enemy to make it work.  She offers to lead that enemy, and so evolves a perpetual war between the cities that, bizarrely, is their means of survival.  Holland (who goes to war ‘miked-up’), is the commander of the Walker forces, leading elaborately staged engagements with the forces from Shine.  Film of these engagements is broadcast at meal times, to satisfy the citizens’ need to be moved by human suffering.  Despite the graphic footage, no one is actually meant to die…

Each film ends with the message ‘Let’s be tender’, warning citizens against violence because they can see the suffering on screen.  (They can’t avoid it.  It’s everywhere.)

So this society is built on disinformation—and the credulous (who enjoy these films) believe it all and shout down any opposition.  Geraldina has some hesitant doubts… She tells her husband Flake that Imma from the office has seen the amputee from ‘The Battle of Bare Hills’ walking around in plain daylight on his own two feet, and that Imma says that the films aren’t real.

‘All that blood and still she doesn’t believe what her own eyes tell her.’ […] If the war wasn’t real, none of us would care.  That’s basic biology, right? Right? If none of us cared, we’d all be dead.  I mean, what on earth is she talking about?’

Geraldina promptly acquiesces.  (Flake sneaks off to the equivalent of a porn shop for a close-up photo from ‘The Battle of Sergeant Sala’.)

There’s another droll sequence in which journalist Ajok (skilled in the art of smiling and not asking awkward questions) interviews Walker (equally skilled in detecting her next move). The interview is a PR event for the upcoming peace talks between President Heelton of Rise and President Rant of Shine.  Everyone knows the talks will be inconclusive. It’s a Catch-22 situation: Rise is insisting (and has for the last thirty years) that there must be two meals a day, so by definition there must be films of battles to satisfy this hunger.  I couldn’t help thinking of American presidential rallies when I read about the bunting and bands that accompany the arrival of the two puppet presidents…

As the novel progresses, it becomes unputdownable.  Surveillance systems go into hyperdrive when the status quo is threatened and the suppression of dissidents reminds us of Orwell and Huxley.  Written long before COVID_19 was on the horizon, Rise and Shine is a reminder to beware of autocratic saviours whose mantra is the common good…

Author: Patrick Allington
Title: Rise and Shine
Cover design by Scribe, artwork: Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 17 by Hilma af Klint
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2020
ISBN: 9781925849769, pbk., 233 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe

Available from Scribe and all good bookstores

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 29, 2020

Melting Moments, by Anna Goldsworthy

‘Melting Moments’ are super-sweet biscuits, which are totally delicious but cloyingly sweet if you eat too many of them.  They are a good metaphor for Anna Goldsworthy’s venture into writing fiction.

Ruby Jenkins marries in patriotic haste during WW2, because that’s what women did in those days.  (Or so this book would have you believe).  She has been to charm school, learned the importance of having a feminine presence, and is ready to please a man because that’s how things are.  (Or so this book would have you believe.)  She has a tiresome caricature of a mother-in-law, who conforms to all the stereotypes, because that’s how mothers-in-law were.  (Or so this book would have you believe.) And eventually, she has a Whitlam-era daughter, who rebels against conservative norms and has A Life of Her Own.  (Or so this book would have you believe.)  On and off, Ruby questions her missed opportunities, which mostly revolve around men (and not, for instance, on whether she might have taken advantage of the Whitlam reforms to get herself the education that she missed out on, and then take up the late-start career that launched so many of us into independence and self-fulfilment).

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique aside, we all know women who did not conform to these stereotypes, and Melting Moments would be a much more interesting novel if the characterisation cast a wider net to include them.

(My late MIL, born in 1924, for instance, was at Monash at the same time as The Spouse, and graduated with her Bachelor of Social Work in 1978, thanks to Whitlam who gave women these opportunities by making university free. I should add that she had left school early to go to work, not because her family was hard up, but because of the shortage of manpower during WW2.)

There is a novel waiting to be written about the tectonic shifts in social norms that took place in the sixties and seventies.  The relationship between mothers who missed out and daughters who didn’t is also well worth exploring in fiction.  But the relentlessly domestic Melting Moments is not that book.

Nobody else thinks so.  See

I wonder what Accidental Feminist Jane Caro would think about our era being characterised in this way.  I wish she would review this book…

Image credit: Melting Moments biscuits: Australian Women’s Weekly Food, https://www.womensweeklyfood.com.au/recipes/melting-moments-15030

Author: Anna Goldsworthy
Title: Melting Moments
Cover design by Sandy Cull
Publisher: Black Inc, (Schwarz Books), 2020
ISBN: 9781863959988
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 28, 2020

The Cockroach, by Ian McEwan

Books comes into our lives in all sorts of ways: The Cockroach, if I keep it on my shelves, is always going to remind me of Australia’s 2020 horror bushfire season.  I don’t remember how I heard about a struggling bookshop called Candelo Books in Bega, NSW, but my heart went out to them and I rang them up and ordered some books.  I don’t imagine that my $65.68 made much difference in the overall scheme of things, but I am very pleased to see that they are still trading, even with COVID_19 adding to the woes of retailers all over the world.

And I’m also pleased that I have taken Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach off their hands because I suspect that whatever prospects there were for selling it in 2019, in post-Brexit 2020, only the most loyal of McEwan’s fans are likely to be interested in it.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a cockroach which morphs into a cynical populist prime minister of Britain.  Like Kafka’s infinitely more thoughtful Metamorphosis in which Gregor Samsa wakes one day to find he has inexplicably become ‘monstrous vermin’, so too McEwan’s Jim Sams initially struggles for control of his new body.  But, being clever but by no means profound, he doesn’t reflect on his life, his relationships, his responsibilities and his incapacity to fulfil them, as Gregor does.  He is the most powerful man in Britain, and though completely unfit for the job, he sets out to deliver to the British people the stupid transformation of their economy that they voted for.  The word ‘Brexit’ isn’t mentioned—the catastrophe cynically put in place by the prime minister who had called the referendum resigned immediately and was never heard of again—is about an economic system called Reversalism, in which employees pay to work, and are subsidised for consuming. The reverse flow of money offered the enticing prospect that the entire economic system, even the nation itself, [would] be purified, purged of absurdities, waste and injustice. 

In a brilliant coup, the Reversalist press managed to present their cause as a patriotic duty and a promise of national revival and purification: everything that was wrong with the country, including inequalities of wealth and opportunity, the north–south divide and stagnating wages, was caused by the direction of financial flow. If you loved your country and its people, you should upend the existing order. (p.29)

There’s really not much more to say.  For me, the satire wore thin well before the end of Part Two, and there are four parts, mercifully concluding at a hundred pages.

You will find many more enticing novellas over at Madame Bibliophile Recommends who is running her annual Novella a Day in May…

Author: Ian McEwan
Title: The Cockroach
Cover design by Susan Dean
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, (Penguin Random House UK), 2019
ISBN: 9781529112924
Source: personal library, purchased from Candelo Books, Bega NSW, $16.99

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 25, 2020

An Equal Stillness, by Francesca Kay

I’m in the habit of reading something from the non-fiction shelves during the day, and a novel at night, and so when memory stirred as I was reading Stella Bowen’s autobiography Drawn from Life, I hunted out Francesca Kay’s An Equal Stillness from the TBR.  This novel explores the same dilemma in fiction that featured in real life in the Sensational Snippet that I posted from Bowen’s book.  As the bookcover blurb says: Artist, lover, wife, mother: can one woman be them all? To be more specific, how do women reconcile being a loving, supportive spouse with the need to advance their own careers, especially if they have a special gift?

An Equal Stillness is a novel but it reads like an intimate biography, charting an artist’s professional and personal life from a close perspective.  It’s clear-eyed and not blind to the subject’s faults, but it’s gentle and not quite detached.  It’s not until the very end of the book that the reason for this is revealed, though some readers may guess it beforehand.  What they may also not guess is that this is not a fictionalised retelling of a real artist’s life… Jennet Mallow is an entirely fictional creation and using the form of a biography is the author’s way of making the story convincing.

Jennet was born in England’s north, in the fictional village of Litton Kirkdale in the upper valley of the River Aire, to a mother disappointed by life.  Lorna wanted to escape her parents, and—this is not quite as cynical as it sounds—she married, fully expecting the man to die on the battlefields of WW1.  Her father had died when she was 13, and her brother had died at Ypres.  The people she loved had died, and she expected that Richard would die too.  But he didn’t, and he didn’t want to stay in the army despite his family’s traditions.  He retreats to a quiet, humble life as a cleric, with a wife frustrated by his lack of ambition and their dull domestic life.

Somehow, from this blighted family, Jennet becomes an artist of renown. As a child she made art in a hidden space behind her bed, and untaught, she wins a scholarship to an art school in London in 1945.  Thriving in the cultural milieu she marries another artist, David Heaton, older than her and already becoming successful.  But before long she gives birth to a son called Ben, and her art takes second place to domestic life.  When they go to Spain because they are fed up with dreary postwar England, she—pregnant again—is content with her role:

Those first few months in Santiago stayed in her mind as a time of happiness, and they mark the start of her most fecund periods as an artist.

There was money enough to live on but not to spare.  David’s, then, was the lion’s share of the expensive art materials.  This was fair, Jennet conceded; she had made nothing from her painting but David had, and was on the brink of making more.  His professional world encompassed dealers and collectors; she was nowhere near this stage.  But in Santiago she had time, now that Ben could play on his own or guarded by adoring girls, and space, in the cool square room she shared with David.  Although his nearness could be intimidating and his critical presence sharp, Jennet felt free enough to paint again for the first time since Ben was born.   To start with she let David keep the canvas — it was pricily shipped out to him by a colleague at Stockwell — and instead made use of whatever she could glean: cardboard, bits of broken boxes, driftwood.  On these she painted the green jug they used for wine, a blue bowl full of lemons, the upturned hulls of fishing boats, the slither of a net of anchovies and, over and over again, the sea in all its nuances as she saw it through her upstairs window.  (p.71)

Expats join them, and David begins drinking heavily.  But when he goes back to England for an exhibition of his work, he takes something of hers with him, almost as a kindly afterthought.  Unexpectedly, Jennet’s work is taken up by an influential art dealer called Patrick Mann.  He visits, and he encourages her.  But the drudgery of children and keeping the household going after the birth of twin girls Sarah and Vanessa gets harder… even as the urge to create gets stronger.  The issue of women’s dreams and ambitions being subservient to a man of lesser talent looms larger in the novel but Jennet loves David despite his flaws, and they move back to England primarily because of his drinking problem.

From there the novel becomes a bit like a soap opera with infidelities that morph into catastrophe, but there is a truth about these kinds of lives, and the writing about art is superb. What is also superb is the attention to the compromises Jennet makes with herself:

…there was, even in the hardest day, the promise of reward. As the diver groping though the murk sustains himself with images of pirate’s gold shining through the dark bones of a shipwreck, so Jennet clung to the prospect of the time she set aside for work.  She used to play a private game: points scored for no mishap or time saved by some cleverly cut corner; five points if Sarah did not spill her drink, eight if Vanessa’s sheet was dry, ten if the preparation of a stew today would do for soup tomorrow.  An extra minute earned for every point, on a good day a whole hour won to add to those she let herself spend painting.  Mabel Harris was part of this private deal as well; the money Jennet paid her was justified if it bought time for work, which in its turn would earn enough to generate more time.  That the argument was circular she knew, but she saw no way to break it, unromantic and prosaic as it was.  The notion of an artist starving willingly for art might make good fiction, but it was never Jennet’s.  Jennet was a realist, saddled with three children who had not chosen to be born and must be fed and clothed and shod, and a husband who did not always want to share the burden.  These were not ideal conditions for an artist.  But, however sorely it was tried, Jennet kept her faith in herself, quietly, doggedly and in the meantime cooked three meals a day and cleaned her little house, painting in every spare second she could find.  (p.144)

An Equal Stillness won the Orange Award for New Writers in 2009.

Author: Francesca Kay
Title: An Equal Stillness
Publisher: Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books, 2009 (first published in 2009 by Weidenfled & Nicolson)
ISBN: 9780753825655, pbk., 324 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings $22.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 24, 2020

Father of the Lost Boys, by Yuot A Alaak

Father of the Lost Boys is the true story of Mecak Ajang Alaak, a teacher who led 20,000 of the Lost Boys of South Sudan to safety during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1987-2005).  This memoir is written by his son, who came to Australia with his parents as a refugee in 1995.  This is the blurb:

During the Second Sudanese Civil War, thousands of South Sudanese boys were displaced from their villages or orphaned in attacks from northern government troops. Many became refugees in Ethiopia. There, in 1989, teacher and community leader Mecak Ajang Alaak assumed care of the Lost Boys in a bid to protect them from becoming child soldiers. So began a four-year journey from Ethiopia to Sudan and on to the safety of a Kenyan refugee camp. Together they endured starvation, animal attacks and the horrors of landmines and aerial bombardment. This eyewitness account by Mecak Ajang Alaak’s son, Yuot, is the extraordinary true story of a man who never ceased to believe that the pen is mightier than the gun.

The book begins with the story of an idyllic childhood in the village of Majak in Sudan.  It is 1952 and Ajang is born into a Dinka life where family is paramount and the foundation upon which the tribe stands.  He turns out to be gifted and the elders ensure that he gets a good education, ultimately attending Rumbek Seconday School—the best school in South Sudan—because they hope he will make a terrific translator for them in their negotiations with the Anglo-Egyptian rules that govern Sudan.  However, in 1963, when he is nineteen and in his second year there, war erupts between north and south.   The school is regarded as a breeding ground for future leaders of the south and it is shut down, but Ajang and his fellow students walk for over three months through a barren landscape to Ethiopia, where the UN accepts them as refugees and after two years Ajang is able to finish his education with distinction.

When a peace agreement is reached in 1972, he returns to his village, and soon after he begins a career in teaching at the Rumbek Secondary School where he had been a student.

He has a burning desire to educate every boy and girl in the country.  His belief in education is almost religious.  As he sees it, education is the only solution to the problems that his people and his country face.  He has hope for the future of his people and country.  His dream is to build hundreds of schools, technical colleges and universities across South Sudan. (p.19)

It was not to be.  In 1983, trouble erupts again.  The Islamic north imposes Sharia Law and Arabic on the south.  The south rebels, in protest against a religion they reject and a language they don’t understand.  Ajang is away in Khartoum at the time, organising supplies for southern schools, but Yuot, his mother and siblings escape the fighting on foot, surviving the journey because uncles help with carrying the young children.  They hear nothing of Ajang for three years, and then learn that he is a political prisoner in Malakal in the Upper Nile.  Five months later, they hear a radio report that he has been executed.

Yuot is only seven, but he now carries his father’s legacy.

To the other children in the village, I cease to be one of them.  I become the boy whose father has died.  I begin to wonder what I have done to deserve this, but really don’t have time for self-pity.  I must take care of my family, do whatever it takes to defend them.  My spirit is strong, my age and size irrelevant. (p.25)

While the memoir is primarily an homage to his heroic father, his mother Preskilla is also an amazing woman.  She is courageous and enterprising, somehow keeping the remnants of her family together in circumstances that would crush a lesser spirit.  Even when the report turns out not to be true and Ajang is restored to them, the situation is still desperate and she is the one who enables their survival because she is the one who adapts to a different life and learns to make saleable goods so that they can eat.

Yuot’s own experience as one of the Lost Boys dragooned into becoming a child soldier is only a small part of this book.  But an incident with his commander, a seasoned fighter who is also a conservationist and refuses to shoot a pride of lions, teaches Yuot that all kinds of people must drop their dreams, hobbies and ambitions to pick up a weapon.  Each must do what each must do.  Our dreams must wait.  His experience in Nairobi, when the family makes it to the comparative safety of Kenya, teaches him more about human nature when they encounter corruption and thievery, and yet more threats to his father’s life.

It is hard not to feel emotional when reading that his faith is restored on arrival in Australia after a long and arduous process of being accepted as a refugee.  They are met at Adelaide airport by their hosts Rachael and Scott:

Through their loving hugs, I feel the heartbeat of a great nation.  I feel the welcome of millions.  That hug, so readily given, helps to restore my faith in the goodness of people.  For much of my life, I have known nothing but war. I have seen rivers stained with the blood of my people.  My country’s government has tried to exterminate me numerous times.  As a refugee, I have been invisible to the world.  Yet now, in a land far from my own, I feel love.  These are strangers.  We are not the same.  Not of the same heritage, not of the same culture.  We speak different languages and we are not of the same colour.  But humanity binds us all. (p.190)

This memoir is a life-affirming story, which proves yet again that so many refugees have courage and initiative that—quite apart from any humanitarian motives—show how much the fortunate West has to gain in opening its doors.  In the Epilogue, Yuot tells us that he and his siblings are all married with children, and own their own homes.  Yuot studied geoscience and engineering while Bul studied engineering and management, and both of them work in the mining industry, Yuot in WA and Bul in Tasmania.  Athok has a degree in banking and international finance and lives in South Australia, where their parents still live in the family home in Adelaide.  After working odd jobs to make ends meet, Preskilla trained as a nurse and worked in aged care for 20 years, while Ajang worked as an activist on behalf of the Lost Boys, and as a result of his efforts, tens of thousands of South Sudanese refugees have been resettled in Australia and many others have been accepted into the USA, Canada and many European countries.  Ajang was able to return to South Sudan to oversee the conduct of the referendum on independence where he witnessed the exercising of democracy in a land devastated by war.  

Yuot’s short story ‘The Lost Girl of Pajomba’ was anthologised in Ways of Being Here (Margaret River Press, 2017).   Father of the Lost Boys is his first full-length work and was shortlisted for the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award.

The book includes maps to help the reader with orientating the action of the journeys across Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. There is also a glossary and an Author’s Note as well as Acknowledgements.

Author: Yuot A Alaak
Title: Father of the Lost Boys
Cover design by Nada Backovic
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925815641, pbk., 230 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press.

Father of the Lost Boys is due for release on June 1st, but you can pre-order it from Fremantle Press.

 

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