Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 20, 2019

2019 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction shortlist

Here’s the shortlist for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2019! The prize recognises exceptional new contributions to local literature.

The winner will be announced in October and chosen by a judging panel of booksellers, Readings managing director Mark Rubbo and guest judge and former Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction winner Jennifer Down. The winner receives $3000 in prize money.

Once again I have proven that I would make a hopeless prize judge: nothing that I nominated has been chosen.  But I have read and reviewed two of them…

The six books are:

A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop, see Kim’s review at Reading Matters

Inappropriation by Lexi Freiman, see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes

The Flight of Birds by Joshua Lobb,

A Superior Spectre by Angela Meyer, see my review

This Taste for Silence by Amanda O’Callaghan and

The Glad Shout by Alice Robinson. see my review

(Links go to Readings Bookstore).

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

PS FWIW my (somewhat long) shortlist when we were asked to nominate titles on Twitter were:

The Trespassers by Meg Mundell, see my review;

The Returns, by Philip Salom, see my review;

Little Stones by Elisabeth Kuiper, see my review;

Daughter of Bad Times by Rohan Wilson, see my review;

Invented Lives by Andrea Goldsmith, see my review;

The War Artist by Simon Cleary, see my review;

Driving Into the Sun by Marcella Poilain, see my review; and

Into the Fire by Sonia Orchard,  see my review.

Which proves, I reckon, that this is a good year for OzLit!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 18, 2019

Stone Girl, by Eleni Hale

In June this year I attended an author event at the Sandringham branch of Bayside Library with my good friend and author Mairi Neil, and was introduced to a local writer I hadn’t come across, Eleni Hale.  Mairi blogged the event so I won’t reproduce what’s already been said except to say that the event was about ‘turning your life into fiction’—and Eleni had mined her own life in state care to write what has now become an award-winning debut novel.  Her story, as she told it on the night, was so impressive and her passion for lifting the profile of kids in out-of-home care was so compelling, that copies of Stone Girl sold out.  So I reserved it at my library online as soon as I got home.

In July it was announced that Eleni had won the 2019 Readings Young Adult Prize for Stone GirlThe book is obviously very popular because it has taken ten weeks for my reserve to come through, and my library has multiple copies of it.  It has the PRC (Premiers’ Reading Challenge) sticker on it too, selected for the Years 9 & 10 list,  but it is, IMO, very much a book for senior students or for those for whom it is deemed suitable by the judgement of a responsible adult.   The book doesn’t come with trigger warnings, but I assume that secondary school librarians have some process for shielding younger students from books with very detailed drug references and abuse of all kinds.  I’m aware, of course, of the irony that a book that I wouldn’t have wanted my 15 year-old to read until he was older, is about the terrible things that happened to a girl aged just 12.

By coincidence, Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best has just reviewed a memoir by an author who was also in state care.  Rating the book highly, but concluding that it’s not for the faint-hearted, she begins her review like this:

The current thinking in social work circles is that there are better long-term outcomes for children left with their family in an unstable home, than those removed and placed in foster care. This was in the back of my mind as I read comedian Corey White’s recently published memoir, The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory.

The details White shares of his childhood made me sick with fear from the first page.

That’s how I felt about Stone Girl.  It is a superb evocation of all that’s wrong with the way we provide for vulnerable children in State Care, but it is utterly heartbreaking, and more so because I know it is authentic.  Hale said that night at the library that all the experiences were real, though she had also drawn on what happened to other kids she knew so they didn’t all happen to her.  Well, I don’t want to criticise welfare workers because they have an unenviable task and all the ones I’ve ever met have been doing their very best to manage out-of-home care with inadequate resources.  (And I’ve met plenty, from my very first school and thereafter.) But I don’t think I could have continued reading had I not had the image before me of its adult author who had somehow survived and thrived despite personal experiences and witnessing trauma that would have broken most other people.  I am glad Stone Girl wasn’t available to read in the days when I was required by law to report abuse and neglect under Victoria’s Mandatory Reporting laws, because I know I would have broken them rather than put any child at risk of what happens to the child in this book.

Sophie is 12 when her feckless mother dies of drug abuse and she is taken into state care because there is no family to turn to.  Her biological father has never been much more than that: he’s in Greece in a new relationship.  While Sophie has idealised memories of happy times as a small child on the beach before her mother took off for a ‘better life’ in Australia, her hopes for a reunion go nowhere.  He does not respond to urgent phone calls, and when weeks later she finally makes contact with him his evasive response only makes the social workers think she’s better off without him.

At first Sophie feels comforted by the kindly nature of her first social worker, but her fantasies about finding a new home with her are prohibited by the rules, if not by the worker’s own need to manage her own sometimes resentful family.  Before long, Sophie is on a merry-go-round of short-term emergency placements while they seek a permanent home, and it’s a miracle when even a medium-term place comes up.  The hope dissipates when Sophie realises she is unwanted, and always will be.  She isn’t even wanted in her old school where her best friend’s mother had sabotaged the friendship forever.  Appallingly, she thinks she deserves what happens to her.

The worst aspect of all this, is that all these emergency, temporary, short/medium and “long-term” placements involve being with other kids badly damaged by the system, and often much older than she is.  She is exposed to violence and thuggery, rule- and law-breaking, theft of her few mementoes and outright cruelty, and before long she has become the ‘bad influence on others’ that they were on her.  When she runs away, as she often does, she is exposed to shocking danger and is ‘lucky’ to escape it.  Nobody can make her go to school, cynicism has made her implacably resistant to any kind of counselling, and her prospects seem utterly hopeless.

What shines through, however, is her spirit and her occasional flashes of kindness and compassion.  It’s impossible not to like her, even when she is doing things that deserve firm disapproval.

Stone Girl is not a book you can put down because you have to know that Sophie is going to survive, somehow, before you can close the cover.  For me, that was at four-o’clock this morning.

Author: Eleni Hale
Title: Stone Girl
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2018, 350 pages
ISBN: 9780143785613
Source: Bayside Library, Hampton Branch

Available from Fishpond: Stone Girl, and of course Readings has it too. 


With the world holding its breath over the Hong Kong protests, Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast has a contemporary resonance that she probably didn’t expect when she wrote it in 1990.  There were ‘velvet revolutions’ all over the globe, but the Tiananmen Square massacre had snuffed out the brief hope of democracy in China.

‘I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  I wanted to understand how revolutions start.  It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.’

So in this brief novella of only 105 pages in the ‘Turning Point Series’ published by Peirene Press the author depicts the process by which a family bullied into years of submission finds the courage to rebel.  The occasion for the mussel feast is a long-anticipated promotion for father, who has been away on his usual business trip and will be expecting his favourite meal, that actually, his wife doesn’t like at all.  She says so, on the quiet to her daughter, but she would never dare articulate her own desires to her husband, because that is not what happens in what he calls a ‘proper family’.

Though the fact that everything has changed is acknowledged, the narration begins tentatively, as the daughter traces back the events of this remarkable night.  The catalyst for change is father’s unexpectedly extended absence: there is a break in the routine and he is not at home to enforce his rule at the expected time.  Mother, brother and sister are in the habit of relaxing a bit when he’s away, but they are always constrained in what they say and do because of his impending return.  Performing their compulsory roles, they ‘blab’ to him about each other in a domestic version of East German Stasi surveillance; none of them are capable of resisting the pressure to inform on each other when he demands it.  (As the story progresses, we learn that he enforces his demands with punishments that include shocking violence).

So, with the mussels and potatoes all prepped, the family, are adopting their ‘modes’ in anticipation of father’s return.  Mother who has a full-time job but still does all the domestic labour, has a number of modes and wifey mode entails the hasty application of some liptstick to her after-work face.

Luckily I never regarded my ultimate aim in life as being to switch to wifey mode at half past five every evening.  I didn’t like it when Mum switched; I found it embarrassing, and when we did it, too.  I preferred us when my father was away on business.  You see we all had to switch for my father, to become a proper family, as he called it, because he hadn’t had a family, but he had developed the most detailed notions of what a proper family should be like, and could be extremely sensitive if you undermined these notions.

But now, as it was already seven o’clock and he still hadn’t arrived, my father was undermining his own notions.  Mum’s after-work face seemed a complete waste of time, and the mussels started making that noise in the pot again. My brother was the only one of us who was still looking forward to his mussels and chips.  Mum and I had lost our appetites and were both edgy.  It was the waiting.  If my father had come back at six we wouldn’t have noticed how silly and pointless it was for us to switch, Mum to wifey mode, we to child mode. Shortly after seven Mum said, I do hope nothing’s happened; and out of pure spite I retorted, what if it has, because all of  sudden my father was a spoilsport in my eyes, or to be more precise, a mood wrecker. (p.22)

Crucially, this flash of rebellion is shared.  At first, only tentatively:

Mum looked at me, not as horrified as I’d expected, but with her head to one side, and then she smiled and said, well, we’ll see, and she didn’t sound as if she’d find it surprising or even terrible if he didn’t come home. (p.22-23)

In all the revolutions that have occurred over my lifetime, from the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia to the People Power Revolution in the Philippines and the Arab Spring, there must have been brief moments like this when people braved surveillance and betrayal to articulate the forbidden.  From those first tentative moments of trust, movements grew in strength, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Fall of the Berlin Wall amongst other remarkable non-violent revolutions.  (Not all of them succeeded, of course. The Middle East continues to oppress its citizens in ways the rest of us would never tolerate).

As the narrator’s courage grows and the truth unfolds, readers of The Mussel Feast can see the multiple ways in which a domestic dictatorship operates.  As a record of the overthrow of domestic tyranny and violence, the book is also a metaphor for a chilling bigger picture, offering not just hope but also, surprisingly, flashes of laugh-out-loud laughter as the edifice falls.

I’ve had this book since I read the review at Jacqui Wine’s Journal in 2014 but it’s also been reviewed by almost everyone I know, including some who comment on how long it took for this perceptive book to be translated into English, so I am hanging my head in shame at how long I’ve taken to read it when it took only just over an hour to read!

Stu at Winston’s Dad comments on the style:

This is in the classic vein of central European writing, that feeling of being full on, comma after comma, giving an almost breathless feel to the narrative and […] making you feel the tension at the table, the shadow of this father falls off the page over you as the reader.

See also the review by Kim at Reading Matters.

The Mussel Feast was shortlisted for the 2014 International Foreign Fiction Prize, which merged in 2015 with the Man Booker International Prize.

Author: Brigit Vanderbeke
Title: The Mussel Feast (Das Muschelessen)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Publisher: ‘Turning Point’ Series, Peirene Press, 2013, first published 1990, 105 pages
ISBN: 9781908670083
Source: Personal copy

Available from Fishpond: The Mussel Feast $17.54

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 17, 2019

On Father, by John Birmingham (Little Books on Big Ideas)

I wasn’t sure that I was ready to read On Father by John Birmingham. I saw it at the library and took it home, thinking that it might make an appropriate post for Father’s Day, upcoming in September.  I hadn’t looked at the blurb; I had assumed the book would be some kind of homage to modern fatherhood, and I wondered whether it would ‘unman’ me to read it because I am still fragile about the loss of my father.  Yes, I know, a strange verb to use, that one, ‘to unman’.  All it means is for some circumstance to deprive a person of qualities traditionally associated with men, such as self-control or courage.  But self-control and courage is hardly the sole prerogative of men, and there is no comparable word for women to use.  ‘Unman’ is the one I need to convey the trepidation with which I opened this small book.  I thought it might make me cry.

It turned out to be harder to read than I’d expected.

This is the blurb for On Father:

John Birmingham’s father died. And his life fell apart. The next six months were spent grinding through the dark forests of depression until he finally emerged out of the darkness onto sunlit upland. A unique yet universal story, ‘On Father’ reaches out to everyone who has experienced and survived deep grief.

Treasured clocks: the crystal one was given to me for my retirement.

I avoid books about grief.  Some well-meaning person lent me a copy of C S Lewis’s A Grief Observed after the death of the only school friend I’d ever kept up with.  It’s a bit of shock when someone of your own age dies, and Sue was only in her forties.  I was very fond of her, and still cherish her memory, drinking my coffee out of her beautiful bone china mug and resisting all suggestions to reset the time on her small Seiko clock that graces my mantelpiece.  But the book was useless, and I only read it to be polite.

So if Birmingham’s book had been titled On Grief as IMO it should have been, I would have left it where it was.  But having brought it home, I tackled it, learning that Birmingham felt about his father, the way I felt about mine:

When a parent dies, for those left behind it can feel as though half of the sky has fallen.  My father was the sheltering sky, and beneath his mild firmament no storm ever raged, no hard rain fell.  His nature was as gentle as the fallen world is brutish.  All of our lives, he was both a bastion against the trespasses of ill fate and the predations of the inimical.  (p.1)

Idealised, of course.  But if you can’t idealise your father, you are indeed bereft.  And I write that fully aware that not everyone has a father they can love and admire and grieve for despite some human flaws, and I feel deeply for anyone who has not had that privilege.

Birmingham goes on to describe his father’s death, and then his own descent into a grief which became depression.

Grief is an ocean, fathomless and wide, and on the surface its most impelling forces arrive in waves.  I was first inundated by a surge of howling grief a few hours later, when alone.  (p.22)

It’s interesting that he can remember this, and go on to describe it at some length.  I have no memory of the odd way that I behaved in the wake of my father’s death.  I had parked the car and gone to the hairdresser, and then done some minor shopping.  I went back to where I had parked my car, and it had vanished.  I stood there in disbelief, and eventually made my way to the police station to report its theft.  The policeman was taken aback too.  A theft like that in broad daylight seemed highly unlikely in our law-abiding suburb … perhaps I had forgotten where I’d parked it?  No, I was quite sure, because I’d needed a spot longer than the usual one-hour parking limit, and the few that there are, are localised to that street.  He wrote it all down, and then I set off home on foot, only to be stopped short by a bizarre impulse to retrace my steps.  And found myself staring at my car in the library car park.  I must have got into the car and started off home and remembered the shopping and re-parked it.  And I had no memory of this at all; all I remembered as I retraced my steps was my thinking about my father.   When I returned in grave embarrassment to the policeman, he very kindly, very gently suggested that maybe I should see my doctor.  I guess he thought I had dementia, but I now know that it was not an ‘ocean’ but a fog of grief.

What follows then is an almost scholarly dissection of ‘the literature’ on grief: Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia”, and then the one we are all more likely to know about:

From mourning the loss of my father, I progressed quickly, quietly and with no conscious effort or awareness of the path on which I walked, to losing myself.

Freud, and generations of psychologists, psychiatrists, grief counsellors, and all the lesser mineworkers at the coalface of human sorrow, would say I had not completed my grief work.  I had not moved through Kübler-Ross’s five stages of loss.  As influential as was Freud’s half-baked paper, it was the book On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross that would lodge in the modern imagination, like a fishbone in the throat, where it has remained for nearly fifty years; the definitive explanation for what’s going on with your feels.  In the very first lines of Freud’s Trauer und Melancholie’, he admits that ‘the empirical material upon which this study is founded is insufficient for our needs’.  No such admission ever tempered the appeal of Kübler-Ross’s neatly presented five-slices-of-sad-pizza. (p.30)

That’s a rather intemperate response to On Death and Dying and it reminds me of the anger that I felt when I read the C S Lewis book.

Which is to say, I think, that books about grief, including this one, are unlikely to help anyone through it when it strikes.  They might be helpful in the abstract, or in the aftermath, but in the throes, the only thing that helps at all, is love.

Other books I have read in Melbourne University Press Little Books on Big Ideas series include:

Author: John Birmingham
Title: On Father
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, Little Books on Big Ideas series, 2019, 80 pages
ISBN: 9780522873429
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 17, 2019

The Trespassers, by Meg Mundell

After the last election, you could be forgiven for thinking that Australians don’t care about anything that’s important.  Not about climate change, not about refugees, not about homelessness, older women adrift without a secure income, or the stinginess of Newstart.  (And maybe not even embarrassed about our recent betrayal of small neighbouring countries in the Pacific though it’s too soon to say). Electors were of course having to choose between a party that openly panders to the lowest common denominator, and a graceless party torn between being electable and having some kind of ethical stance.  Not much of a choice, really.

But because I tend to like my fellow-Australians, I prefer to think that what look like mean-spirited choices happen because they are just busy, and too preoccupied (often by sport) to pay proper attention.  Tired out at the end of the day and content to invest whatever energy is left in watching The Bachelorette or women’s footy or some crime drama with or without guns.   I’m like that too, when MasterChef is on.  I’m on bypass for the entire season because the show starts at the same time as what passes for current affairs on the ABC.  That kind of switching-off is very bad for democracy.  But telling voters that they ought to pay attention so that they can make informed electoral choices is never going to work.  One of the things we are most complacent about is democracy.

Which is partly why I think Meg Mundell’s new book is so brilliant. The Trespassers is gripping reading, unputdownable from the first chapter, and inhabited by characters impossible to forget.  The near-future in which the book set, is (rather like Rohan Wilson’s Daughter of Bad Times) not really the future at all.  The story’s timeline is only a few decades away, but the events that propel it are already happening now.  This novel will lure people into paying attention and they will love reading it even as it compels them to face unpalatable truths.

This is the blurb:

Fleeing their pandemic-stricken homelands, a shipload of migrant workers departs the UK, dreaming of a fresh start in prosperous Australia. For nine-year-old Cleary Sullivan, deaf for three years, the journey promises adventure and new friendships; for Glaswegian songstress Billie Galloway, it’s a chance to put a shameful mistake firmly behind her; while impoverished English schoolteacher Tom Garnett hopes to set his future on a brighter path. But when a crew member is found murdered and passengers start falling gravely ill, the Steadfast is plunged into chaos. Thrown together by chance, and each guarding their own secrets, Cleary, Billie and Tom join forces to survive the journey and its aftermath.

The Trespassers is a beguiling novel that explores the consequences of greed, the experience of exile, and the unlikely ways strangers can become the people we hold dear.

There is a moment in the novel when Billie, songstress-turned-nurse, becomes aware of one of those unpalatable truths when she reads an online article about their plight:

Backflow on the piece was evenly split: roughly one-quarter agreed with the journo, another quarter were fence-sitters, and the remaining half voiced angry disagreement or outright venom.  (p.180)

Social media has unleashed powerful voices and their venom carries more weight than it should.

By the time the novel reaches this point the reader is deeply invested in the fate of the three main characters.  Cleary is just a lovable little boy, made more vulnerable because his mother falls victim to a disease that somehow bypassed all the stringent bio-checks before departure.  Without realising the implications of what he saw, he witnessed a crime so heinous that one more death wouldn’t matter, and without his mother to communicate for him, he is trapped in the microcosm of the ship whose fate is reminiscent of the plague-ship Ticonderoga in 1852.  (If you haven’t seen the play that dramatises that story, Hell Ship Ticonderoga starring Michael Veitch, is touring again in 2020).  Billie, hung out to dry by a former lover but whose compassion never wavers, battles to stay uncompromised by the ship’s management and is baffled by what terrifies the boy.  And Tom, exactly the kind of teacher you’d love to have for your own child, holds a vital clue as to what happened, even as he struggles for life in the death-ward.

The novel is more or less chronological with occasional flashbacks for backstories, and three narrative strands carry it forward.  Cleary’s 3rd person narrative conveys his limited perspective, yet in some ways he sees more than the adults do.  Billie’s 3rd person perspective is more expansive, but she—like the rest of the women dragooned into nursing the sick—knows only what she is told by an evasive management, supplemented by gossip and rumours from the other passengers.  Tom’s narrative is in more intimate 1st person, and sometimes confessional.  What’s very interesting to me is the way these three characters feel guilt for mistakes they’ve made, while corporate monsters and their agents feel not a shred of it.  (This reminds me of Michelle Johnston’s Dustfall and how a doctor’s guilt is contrasted with the lack of corporate responsibility for Australia’s asbestos tragedy.  Why Dustfall wasn’t nominated for the Miles Franklin I will never know).

One of my favourite images from the novel, is the spook ‘interviewing’ Cleary, and failing utterly to understand how a child’s mind works.  They ask him to draw his friends:

It would take ages to sketch his pals from back home — the gang from the Pearse Street flats, and his best mate, Ben, who’d moved up north last summer with his family, his ma a wreck from worry, afraid of losing another one to the bug. So he sketched Declan in a fighting stance, waving a sword, scowling ferociously.  The pose came out a bit bow-legged, but his pal would be rapt with the biceps.

Then he drew Billie, a smoking fag tucked in her fist.  Billie wasn’t big on smiling, but the spooks wanted happy pictures, so he plastered a wide grin across her face.

The Steadfast said the lady spook.  Could he draw the ship, out at sea?  The picture came out flat and lifeless, the vessel lost amongst blue waves, so he added a sea-serpent.  The monster was pure class, all coiled muscle and bloodshot eyes.  Below its jagged snarl the ship resembled a bath toy, a snack to be devoured in a single crunch.  The sight of it gave him a chill.

Now the questions came thick and fast.  What was the monster up to? Where had it come from? Why was it angry? There was too much to explain: the ocean’s lukewarm dead zones, all the sea creatures sickened by chemical waste; diseased squid and poisoned sharks, jellyfish hordes sifting the desolate currents, acid-ravaged mutants roaming the sea floor.  The way deep water sheltered fearful things.  Even back home, you never knew what was down there: selkies and merrows up the coast, the serpent lurking in Lough FoyleSea monsters are real, he wrote.  Granda saw one once. (p.157)

The conclusion to The Trespassers leaves me unsettled.  It’s meant to…

You can find out more about Meg Mundell at her website.

Author: Meg Mundell
Title: The Trespassers
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2019, 278 pages
ISBN: 9780702262555
Source: Bayside Library Service, Hampton branch

Available from Fishpond: The Trespassers or direct from UQP. Goodreads says there is a Kindle edition too.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 16, 2019

‘Dead Roses’ in The Burnt Ones, by Patrick White

Time for some Patrick White: I was looking for something else on my Collections shelf, and it dawned on me that it’s been too long!

Alas, this battered Penguin paperback looks badly out of place among my carefully protected first editions, but I’m yet to find a copy of a first edition of White’s first  short story collection The Burnt Ones,  so we must make do.  And I must say, that I am quite taken with the cover design by Jack Larkin.  You can tell that he’s read the book, by his image of a laconic Aussie male and the discontented faces of the women.

Along with a dedication to the literary couple Nan and Geoffrey Dutton (which is significant, because it predates White’s notable falling out with the Duttons), the title The Burnt Ones is explained at the beginning of the book.  It comes from the Greek οι καυμενοι [oi kaymenoi], meaning ‘the burnt ones’.  It has connotations of more than just ‘unfortunate’ – it conveys the savagery and scar tissue of burning, whether literal or metaphorical.

‘Dead Roses’ at 66 pages is quite long, for a short story, allowing for greater character development.  This story makes me wonder if White—who I’ve never thought of as having any feminist credentials—was beginning to realise that there were structural reasons why the women of his class were so painful.  It was the 60s, after all, and maybe he was paying attention to the emerging feminist movement…

(I know, I know, I really must read David Marr’s biography.)

The central character is Anthea Scudamore, who’s a bit brought-up and not brought out.  That makes her suitable as one of Val’s patronising projects and she is therefore included as a house-guest at the Tulloch Christmas house-party on the Island.  Val Tulloch knows what is the only obvious and only possible direction in life, and she is convinced that all others must accept the one way to happiness.  For women of that era and that class, this means marriage and children, and so she has also invited Barry Flegg to the house-party.  For Anthea.

Anthea, packing for the trip, is advised by her mother to put in her blue although she knows that summer on the Island is what people call informal now, but one should go prepared for all eventualities.  She is collected from the airport by Ossie Ryan in one of those loosely-connected bombs which rattle between fixed points in the remoter parts of Australia.  She dusts the seat, and Ossie marvels at this spotless girl from the city. Dust turns out to be the least of Anthea’s discomfitures: from the veranda Mollie Aspinall mocks that ‘Mummy hasn’t let her come without a hat’ and Val Tulloch can’t resist: ‘She’s probably left the gloves on the plane.’ She felt a beast, however.  As well she might.

Pale, Juno-esque Anthea and her mother’s middle-class pretensions do not fit in at all.

…Anthea was perspiring by now, after the couple of gins, and the washing-up, and conversation with Doctor Flegg.  They had discussed in such unusual detail dish-washing machines and God, that Anthea had plunged her arms almost up to the elbows in the sink, and the yellow water had risen up, and over on to her raw silk.  What a disaster, Mollie Aspinall shrieked, from beside her droopy cigarette.  Anthea laughed, and looked at herself, and said it didn’t really matter.  Nor did it, except that Mummy.  All the other women were wearing haggish, spotty slacks.  Doug Furfield, drawing a tea-towel out of a tumbler as he discussed trolling techniques which Gil [Tulloch], thought perhaps this girl wasn’t such a bad sort.  But as a solicitor in real life he would know how to keep his distance.  (p.21)

I notice White’s characteristic truncated sentence: Nor did it, except that Mummy.  White does this all the time, forcing us to complete the sentence ourselves.  It’s such a clever technique because it often lures the reader into a spiteful response, equal to White himself.

This story, of course, predates #MeToo by more than half a century, but in the sand dunes with Barry Flegg Anthea turns out to be more assertive that might have been expected.

‘Lie still! I want you.’ He had changed key to give an order.

But the hoarser voice and the weight and extent of his body growing on hers, undermined her daring.

Then the one great gull swooped, intense of beak, intent of eye, as though about to strike.

‘No-ooh!’ she screamed.

Beating her head against the sand.

At least he respected her distress.  He raised himself, and lay along the ridge of shells which were becoming sand, but close beside her, and without any attempt to disguise the true state of his affairs. (p.29)

Pleased with the prudence which had enabled her to handle the most difficult situation of her life, Anthea heads off to weep into her pillow.  And what form did that prudence take?  Her smile, (despite her bruised thighs) restoring him to a position where they could meet socially.  White, more than half a century ago, has discerned that in these situations, it was the woman who had to smooth over embarrassment, although she was not responsible for it.  And he leaves us to wonder if his character would have told Mummy about it, at least, had not Mummy’s nightly phone call been taken within the hearing of everyone in the sitting-room.

How interesting that White could write this episode with such realism, in an era when women maintained a stoic silence about this sort of behaviour.

Anyway, there being nothing else for Anthea to do, she marries a colleague of her father’s.  He’s much older than her, and he tests her forbearance.  It could all have ended very badly for Anthea, but luck is on her side.  Up to a point…

I was not so enamoured of the rest of the collection.  I’ve enjoyed all White’s novels, and one of his plays that I’ve seen performed, but #DuckingForCover I don’t think short stories were his strength.

However, ‘Willy-Wagtails by Moonlight’ also shows insight into how women shoe-horned themselves into what was expected.  Eileen thinks it was so fortunate for them to have discovered each other.

Nora Leadbeatter and Arch Mackenzie.  Two such bores.  And with bird-watching in common.  Though Eileen Wheeler had never believed Nora did not make herself learn to like watching birds. (p.79)

Then there is Marj, in ‘Clay’, who soon learns what marriage is:

So Marj stuck to the carpet-sweeper, she was glad of the fluff under the bed, she was glad of the pattern on the lino, the cartons of crispies that she bought — so square.  Even light is solid when the paths lead inward.  So she listened to the carpet sweeper.  (p, 125)

And Meg— who is ugly, and clever, and a girl—soon learns that it isn’t true that if you want to enough, you can do what you want.’  Lummy is doubtful about pomes and things because he never knew a clever person before. 

But clever isn’t any different, ‘ she begged, afraid he might not accept her peculiarity and power.

She would go with a desperate wariness from now.  She sensed that, if not in years, she was older than Lum, but this was the secret he must never guess: that for all his strength, all his beauty, she was, and must remain the stronger. (‘Down at the Dump’, p306)

White’s observations about class and snobbery are never far away.

What was the betting Nora would drop the crêpes Suzette? It was those long, trembly hands, on which the turquoise ring looked too small and innocent. The Mackenzies were still in the semi-precious bracket in the days when they became engaged. (‘Willy-Wagtails by Moonlight’, p.83)

And he is master of the devastating metaphor:

Georgina Last withheld her reply.  Formally of interest, her shape suggested she had been made out of several scones joined together in the baking. (‘Down at the Dump’, p 293)

Miaowww! Patrick White… nobody does it better.

The other stories in this collection are:

  • A Glass of Tea
  • The Evening at Sissy Kamara’s
  • A Cheery Soul, my favourite among the shorter short stories
  • Being Kind to Titina
  • Miss Slattery and her Demon Lover
  • The Letters
  • The Woman who wasn’t Allowed to Keep Cats
  • Down at the Dump.

The Burnt Ones (First UK edition) 1964

Update 22/8/19: Thanks to the Grisly Wife bookshop which specialises in rare and modern Australian Literature I now have a superb first UK edition of The Burnt Ones, safely protected by Mylar plastic.  It was published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1964,and it features four paintings by Sidney Nolan, which predate White falling out with Nolan in 1976.  It’s worth quoting the last paragraph of the dust-cover blurb:

In individual stories and in the collection as a whole there is that meeting of opposites which distinguishes all Patrick White’s work, and it is beautifully exemplified in the last piece in the book, ‘Down at the Dump’.  Here the old and the young, the respectable and the raffish, the lyrical and the grotesque all meet and fuse to produce a memorable story with all the strength and clarity of a true work of art.  It is an apt conclusion to an outstanding collection.

The Grisly Wife doesn’t have its own website, but you can find their listings at Abebooks and at Books and Collectibles or contact them directly by email.

Author: Patrick White
Title: The Burnt Ones
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia, 1968, first published 1964
ISBN: 0140027769
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind $2.00

Availability? Readings has it.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2019

The Convert, by Stefan Hertmans, translated by David McKay

I am fascinated by the choices cover designers have made for this most interesting book. The French translation of Stefan Hartmans’ new book The Convert (published by Gallimard) is titled Le Coeur Converti (The Converted Heart) and the image alludes to passion. I harvested it from the the author’s website, so I don’t know the credits, but it’s obviously a photo, and it features a girl in an historic building of some prestige.  This interior is not medieval or Gothic, (which have dark interiors), but it could just be the paintwork that’s anachronistic.   She is wearing only her underclothing, and she has dishevelled hair and what appears to be reddened lips. From what we can see of her face and body, we sense that she is coming from or going to a lover.

The Australian edition—so far the only available English translation like the Harvill Secker edition—features the striking ‘Portrait of a Young Girl’ by Petrus Christus, an early Netherlandish painter.  Wikipedia has a lot to say about the significance of this portrait, but what makes it the perfect choice for Stefan Hertmans’ new book The Convert is this:

She looks out of the canvas in an oblique but self-aware and penetrating manner that some art historians have described as unnerving. Joanna Woods-Marsden remarks that a sitter acknowledging her audience in this way was virtually unprecedented even in Italian portrait painting. Her acknowledgment is accentuated by the painting’s crop, which focuses the viewer’s gaze in a near-invasive manner that seems to question the relationship between artist, model, patron and viewer.

Likewise Hertmans’ book plays with the relationship between the subject real and imagined, the author and the reader.  I am shying away from calling the book a ‘novel’ although the author calls it that, and so does the blurb.  Dominic Smith in his review of War and Turpentine explains Hertmans’ approach well:

Not since reading W. G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn” have I been so taken with a demonstration of the storytelling confluence of fiction and nonfiction. I say ‘confluence’ because Stefan Hertmans, like Sebald, is interested in the places where narrative authority, invention and speculation flow together. War and Turpentine affords the sensory pleasures of a good novel while also conveying the restlessness of memoir through its probing, uncertain narrator, who raids the family pantry in search of existential meaning.  (Stefan Hertmans’ website, quoted on the Home page)

I am also shying away from calling The Convert an ‘historical novel’, because I suspect that readers of genre fiction would be a bit disconcerted by that tag.  It’s true that the book features the tragic story of a fateful love affair between a teenage Christian noblewoman and a young Jewish man studying to be a rabbi.  It does have an historical setting: the story unfolds at the turn of the first millenium, thus predating the better-known 12th century tragedy of Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Peter Abelard (most recently brought to life in fiction in Mandy Hager’s Heloise, see my review).  Hertmans’ book is rich in historical detail, and is vivid with visceral images from Vigdis Adelaïs’ disastrous journey.  But this book is IMO more of a memoir than War and Turpentine was, which I tagged a ‘novelised memoir’.

What connects the author with the story of Vigdis and her lover David, is not like his intimate relationship with his grandfather and his WW1 memoir.  Hertmans, now living in the small French village in the valley of Monieux, becomes intrigued by its history.  It was where Vigdis and David fled to from Rouen, to avoid her father’s rage; it was also where she fled from, after a pogrom caused by drunken knights of the Crusades.  Hertmans’ memoir retraces their journey together, and then her journey, alone but for just one of her remaining children, to Egypt.

Though there is, by extraordinary chance, documentary evidence of this story, there are few clues in the landscape that Hertmans explores.  Over a thousand years, everything has changed, of course, though many readers will share Hertmans’ nostalgia about the decline of village life in Europe.  But these changes also mean that he must rely more on imagination to tell the story of Vigdis, and he does not, IMO, always succeed in showing her interior life.  Of course he can imagine her labouring as a peasant woman, and he can depict her love of her children as any parent might.  But he gets it badly wrong, IMO, in the scene where she is raped.  (The book makes this seem inevitable, for a woman journeying alone in an era of chaotic violence. It probably was).  Hartmans is actually better at conveying the frantic anxiety of the men who try to help her when she has lost her wits, than he is at depicting her emotions.

This is not a minor quibble.  I liked this book and I found its ‘confluence’ intriguing.  But for some readers, what happens to Vigdis, as distinct from what she feels, may not be enough, especially if they are already frustrated by the fractured chronology and the foreshadowing of later events which sabotages what there is of narrative tension.

Author: Stefan Hertmans
Title: The Convert (De bekeerlinge)
Translated by David McKay
Publisher: Text Publishing Melbourne, 2019, 304 pages
ISBN: 9781925773576
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available direct from Text (where it is also available as an eBook) or from Fishpond: The Convert

This is a heart-breaking book. Our Lady of the Nile is a prelude to the Rwandan Genocide against the Tsuti, depicting in fiction the divisions in Rwandan society in the microcosm of an elite girls’ school. Scholastique Mukasonga is a Rwandan refugee now living in France, and I have previously read her searing memoir Cockroaches (2006, translated into English in 2016).  This novel (Notre Dame du Nil) followed in 2012 and was translated in 2014.

Our Lady of the Nile draws on the author’s own experience at the Lycée Notre-Dame-de-Citeaux, which she attended as one of the Tutsi quota. It was because she had fled to Burundi after being attacked by Hutu students at that school, that she did not witness the genocide, and escaped the slaughter of her family.

Like the elusive source of the Nile, the causes of ethnic hatred in Rwanda are hard to identify.  The girls who attend the school are there to be prepared for a role in elite society.  They are insulated from the rest of their community in order to protect their purity, and keep them safe.  But school turns out to be not so safe for the Tutsi girls who are only there on sufferance, a token presence to make it look as if they are treated equally in a society which has been discriminating against them for decades.

Spitefulness is revealed in all sorts of ways.  Virginia wants to save a little sugar for her sisters in the village.  She doesn’t like sugar, but her sisters have never tasted it, so she gathers small quantities of it in an envelope to send to them, though—being Tutsi—she always gets the cup last when there is almost nothing left.  Even so, she is accused of stealing when all she has done is to save what she could have had for herself. Dorothée agrees not to tell only on condition that Virginia writes her essays for her, for the rest of the year.  It is obvious that Virginia merits her place in this elite school because Dorothée’s marks suddenly improve…

The colonial history of Rwanda is evident in the school staff and its curriculum.  There are only two Rwandan teachers, one who teaches the local language Kinyarwanda and the other who teaches history and geography:

History meant Europe, and Geography, Africa.  Sister Lydwine was passionate about the Middle Ages. Her classes were all about castles, keeps, arrow slits, machicolations, drawbridges, and bartizans. Knights set off on crusades, with the Pope’s blessing, to liberate Jerusalem and massacre the Saracens, while others fought duels with lances for the eyes of ladies wearing pointy hats. Sister Lydwine talked of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and Richard the Lionheart. “I’ve seen them in movies!” said Veronica, unable to contain herself.

“Will you please be quiet!” said Sister Lydwine crossly. “They lived a very long time ago, before your ancestors had even set foot in Rwanda.”

Africa had no history, because Africans could neither read nor write before the missionaries opened their schools. Besides, it was the Europeans who had discovered Africa and dragged it into history. And if there had been any kings in Rwanda, it was better to forget them, for the country was now a Republic.  Africa had mountains, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, deserts, forests, and even a few cities. It was just a question of memorizing their names and finding them on the map: Kilimanjaro, Tamanrasset, Karisimbi, Timbuktu, Tanganyika, Muhabura, Fouta Djallon, Kivu, Ouagadougou. (Kindle edition, Loc 402)

Episodes like this show that the Europeans were out of their depth when they redrew lines on a map to suit their colonial ambitions.

But Rwanda’s geography is not just a matter of memorising names on a map:

For many long months, rain becomes the Sovereign of Rwanda, a far greater ruler than the former King or the current President. Her coming is eagerly awaited and entreated. Famine or plenty, it’s Rain who will decide. Rain, the good omen of a fertile marriage. First rains, at the end of the dry season, making children dance as they turn their faces skyward to receive the fat drops for which they’ve longed. Shameless rain, revealing the budding curves of all young women beneath their drenched wraparounds. Violent, capricious, punctilious Mistress, pitter-pattering on every sheet-metal roof, on those sheltering in the banana groves or in the muddy neighbourhoods of the capital. She who casts her net over the lake, and diminishes the volcanoes’ hugeness; she who reigns over the vast forests of the Congo, the very guts of Africa. Rain, endless Rain, unto the ocean that bore her. (Loc 563)

Those of us who’ve grown up on the iconic story of Jane Goodall’s longitudinal study of chimpanzees in Tanzania will be interested to see the other side of the story.  The students resent their (white) teacher’s appropriation of gorillas as his own :

When it came to gorillas, you could never get him to shut up. Monsieur de Decker was the one and only expert. Much to his wife’s despair, he climbed Mount Muhabura every weekend to observe them; this year, he had even sacrificed his trip back to Belgium for the long vacation. It was as if he’d always lived in their midst. He was most at ease with the dominant male who had let him count his females. A mother gorilla whose young he’d tended remained duly grateful. However much the guides might caution prudence, try to hold him back, Monsieur de Decker had no fear of these great apes. He was familiar with the character of each member of the group, could predict their reactions, and was able to communicate with them. Indeed, he no longer even needed a guide. The gorillas, he felt certain, were Rwanda’s future, her treasure, her opportunity. They needed protecting and their habitat needed to be expanded. The whole world had entrusted Rwanda with a sacred mission: to save the gorillas!

Monsieur de Decker’s pronouncements on the gorillas drove Goretti to a fury.

“What!” she exploded. “Again it’s the whites who discovered gorillas, just as they discovered Rwanda, Africa, and the whole planet! What about us Bakiga, haven’t the gorillas always been our neighbours? And our Batwa, were they afraid of the gorillas when they hunted them with their little bows and arrows? You’d think the gorillas only belong to the Bazungu now. They’re the only ones who can see them, or get close to them. They’re in love with the gorillas. The only interesting thing in Rwanda are the gorillas. All Rwandans must be at the service of the gorillas, tending to their every need, caring only for the gorillas, making them the entire focus of their lives. There’s even a white woman living among them. She hates all humans, especially Rwandans. She lives with the monkeys all year round. She built her home among the gorillas. She opened a health center for them. All the whites admire her. She receives a lot of money for the gorillas. I don’t want to leave the gorillas to the whites. They’re Rwandans too. We can’t leave them to foreigners. (Loc 1096-1102)

What follows is an amusing episode, except that it leads to a chilling postscript when one of the girls asks about why there were so many people at the military base…

Knowing what will come, it’s quite heartbreaking to read Leoncia’s dreams for her daughter: she is so real.  She’s loving the one-upmanship of having a really clever daughter, she’s plotting the dowry (not just cows, oh no!) and she’s decided that the husband will have his own Toyota so he could run a trading business. Even the children will have their own mattresses…

Which brings me to the question of how this novel would work for readers who don’t already know about the Rwandan Genocide.  People my age remember it vividly, but I can’t answer for whether the world has ‘moved on’.   Hopefully this book helps to keep it in public memory.

Our Lady of the Nile is a good choice for #WIT Month (Women in Translation) because it’s won an impressive collection of awards.  It won the Prix Renaudot and the Ahmadou Kourouma Prize in 2012, and the French Voices Grand Prize in 2013.  Then in 2015 it was longlisted for the BTBA (Best Translated Book Award) for Fiction and shortlisted for the International DUBLIN Literary Award Nominee in 2016.

Author: Scholastique Mukasonga
Title: Our Lady of the Nile (Notre Dame du Nil)
Translated from the French by Melanie L Mathner
Published by Archipelago Books, 2012, 240 pages
Source: personal library, purchased reluctantly from Amazon for the Kindle

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 13, 2019

2019 Mark and Evette Moran Nib Literary Award longlist

Thanks to a Tweet from @BPlusBNews, here are the nominees for the 2019 NIB Award administered by the Waverley Library.

The award recognises the role of research in fiction and nonfiction.  I wonder how they choose this?  Is it the concept of a ‘best book’ or do they consider how complicated the research might be?  It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall when the judges are deliberating, eh?

It’s a long longlist, and I haven’t read most of them!

  • An Unconventional Wife: The life of Julia Sorrell Arnold (Mary Hoban, Scribe)
  • Imperfect: How our bodies shape the people we become (Lee Kofman, Affirm), see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes
  • Reasonable Doubt: Spies, Police and the Croatian Six (Hamish McDonald, Doosra Media)
  • A Spanner in the works: The extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia’s first all-girl garage (Loretta Smith, Hachette)
  • Honeysuckle Creek: The Story of Tom Reid, a little dish and Neil Armstrong’s first step (Andrew Tink, NewSouth)
  • No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Behrouz Boochani, Picador), see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend
  • City of Trees: Essays on life, death and the need for a forest (Sophie Cunningham, Text), see my ANZ LitLovers review
  • The World was Whole (Fiona Wright, Giramondo), see Jonathan’s review at Me Fail? I Fly!
  • Her Mother’s Daughter: A memoir (Nadia Wheatley, Text), see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
  • The Arsonist (Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton), see my ANZ LitLovers review
  • Troll Hunting (Ginger Gorman, Hardie Grant)
  • What Will Be Worn: A McWhirters story (Melissa Fagan, Transit Lounge)
  • King of the Air: The turbulent life of Charles Kingsford Smith (Ann Blainey, Black Inc.)
  • Dr Space Junk vs The Universe: Archaeology and the future (Alice Gorman, NewSouth)
  • Steve Smith’s Men (Geoff Lemon, Hardie Grant)
  • Books that saved my life: Reading for wisdom, solace and pleasure (Michael McGirr, Text)
  • Exploded View (Carrie Tiffany, Text), see Fiona Wright’s review at the Sydney Review of Books

The shortlist will be announced on August 31st, and the winner on November 14th.  (The winner receives $20,000 and shortlisted authors receive the Alex Buzo Shortlist Prize of $1000 each.)

Congratulations to all the authors, editors, publishers and researchers!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 12, 2019

Gun Island, by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh is one of my favourite authors: I read and liked The Glass Palace (2000) a long time ago, and I was transfixed by his historical fiction trilogy, Ibis. There is so much resentful agenda-driven fiction these days—but Ghosh writes big picture novels that illuminate and clarify rather than blame.

The big picture issue that he tackles in Gun Island is the state of the planet, and climate change in particular.  The point that he makes that’s new for me, is that we might have reached a tipping point where the unstoppable tide of global commerce makes it impossible to rein in emissions and prevent catastrophe.  Whereas in 1987 there was an international agreement to phase out CFCs and there is evidence now that the hole in the ozone layer is repairing itself, no such international cooperation is happening now to deal with climate change.  The argument Ghosh so elegantly advances in this novel, is that Nature is losing the battle.

But as with his other novels, it’s the human story that drives the narrative.  His central character Dinnanath Dutta a.k.a. Deen, is a sixty-something dealer in rare books.  A Bengali trading in the US, he has failed to establish any firm relationships, and although we learn little about that, it is easy to guess that his mildly pompous, diffident personality has something to do with it.  He’s not a man to step out of his comfort zone; he is always at the edges of social gatherings and conferences, more of an aloof observer than a participant.  The first person narration enables the reader to discern Deen’s own attitudes from his lofty description of Kanai:

I had just entered the venue — a stuffy colonial-era club — when I was accosted by a distant relative, Kanai Dutt.

I had not seen Kanai in many years, which was not entirely a matter of regret for me: he had always been a glib, vain, precocious know-it-all who relied on his quick tongue and good looks to charm women and get ahead in the world.  He lived mainly in New Delhi and had thrived in the hothouse atmosphere of that city, establishing himself as a darling of the media: it was by no means uncommon to turn on the television and find him yelling his head off on a talkshow.  He knew everyone, as they say, and was often written about in magazines, newspapers and even books.

The thing that most irritated me about Kanai was that he always found a way of tripping me up.  This occasion was no exception; he began by throwing me a curveball in the shape of my childhood nickname, Dinu (which I had long since abandoned in favour of the more American-sounding ‘Deen’). (p.5)

More annoying to Deen, with a PhD that he’s proud of even though he abandoned academia to become a book dealer, is that Kanai knows more about Bengali folklore than he does.  Moreover, Deen prides himself on logic and reason, which is why he is irritated to find himself intrigued by Kanai’s taunts about the ancient Bengali myth of the Bandooki Sadagar a.k.a. the Gun Merchant who is pursued around the globe by Manasa Devi, the Goddess of Snakes.  Each time odd things happen in the novel and are attributed by others to some mystical origin, Deen doesn’t argue about it since that’s not in his nature, but he interrogates himself and comes firmly to the conclusion that there is always a rational explanation even if it isn’t clear at the time.  What he learns from the journey that unfolds, is that logic and reason isn’t necessarily incompatible with legends, because legends attend to constants in human interactions.

The novel is circuitous: the threads of the theme don’t come together straight away.  So it is a bit of spoiler to say that the interesting thing about Manasa Devi is that she is comparatively powerless.  The ancient Greek gods that we are used to, are powerful.  They’re omnipotent: they get what they want.  But Manasa, who needs the Gun Merchant’s submission to retain power that she has only by the consensus of her followers, cannot make him comply.  Her authority rests on her subjects’ obedience, and her shrine in a swamp in the Sundarbans is on the route for every merchant that has sailed out of Bengal since time immemorial.

The Sundarbans are the frontier where commerce and the wilderness look each other directly in the eye; that’s exactly where the war between profit and Nature is fought. (p.9)

Ghosh’s theme is that the stable, secure world that some of us have been taking for granted is in an uncontrolled war, and the ancient trading places are its symbolic battleground.  The story takes Deen to Venice, crumbling under the onslaught of tourists and a rising ocean, and to the Sundarbans in Bengal where its people flee devastating extremes of weather to become part of the army of foreign workers propping up the lifestyle of the West.  These frontiers are linked bizarrely by the depopulation of one and the onslaught of uncontrolled migration on the other, which culminates in the arrival of a refugee boat in the Mediterranean and the clash between Far-Right Nationalists opposing refugee arrivals v. the Open-Borders Left.

Shipworm borings in a wharf piling, see coin at lower left for size comparison

These elements might make Gun Island seem like a ‘political’ novel, but Ghosh has a light touch, made all the more devastating by his calm tone.  There are two strong women who enlighten Deen: Piya is a scientist who researches the changing habits of dolphins in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, and Cinta, who is in her eighties but usefully well-connected, introduces him to the reality of modern Venice via what appears to be merely a nostalgia tour retracing the steps of the purported Gun Merchant.  Those of us who’ve wandered through the calles will enjoy the tour while also noting the city’s peril.  Venice is not just coping with the rising acqua alta but also with devastating damage to its wooden foundations from shipworms, whose habitat range is moving into the Mediterranean due to climate change.  Cinta’s confident assurance that they have plenty of time before the water rises shows that the wisdom of years of experience can’t always be relied on when Nature has been pushed too far. But there’s more to this episode than that…

Cinta tells Deen about the role of 17th century Venice in provisioning the fastest-growing commerce of the time—chattel slavery, intended for the New World.  This is not something that tourists learn in this city which trades on its history, eh? Nor do most of us realise that the cheap labour force propping up tourism in contemporary Venice is a form of modern slavery.  Foreign workers are not allowed to migrate legally to the West which hoards its benefits for those already there; these people in desperate straits are exploited on their illegal journey of hope by people smugglers; and then if/when they arrive at their destination they are kept in permanent bondage by their illegal status and their irredeemable debt.  One of the characters in this situation manages to save up enough to pay back what he owes, and is beaten up and relieved of his money because it is in the interests of his ‘master’ to keep him indebted forever. So he will always be cheap labour, always at risk of deportation if he causes any trouble.

Gun Island is exactly the kind of book I like to read.  The characterisation includes strong older women and lively young people disconcerting their elders in a good-natured way; and I like books that show older people revising their once-solid beliefs and facing up to change.  I enjoyed the settings in cultures both new and familiar to me, but what I particularly like is the way climate change is an integral part of the contemporary setting and not some dystopian future.  It’s how it is, not how it’s going to be.  It’s discomfiting reading, but it’s real.

Image credit:

Teredolites borings in a modern wharf piling. The US one cent coin in the lower left of this image is 19 mm across.  By Wilson44691 – Own work, Public Domain,

Author: Amitav Ghosh
Title: Gun Island
Publisher: John Murray (Hachette), 2019, 312 pages
ISBN: 9781473686670
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Ulysses Books Sandringham, $32.99

Available from Fishpond: Gun Island


This is a wonderful book — I visited Russia in 2012 and I loved seeing this photographic survey of Moscow in its early post-Soviet phase.   The question is, does the book work for people who’ve never been to Russia?  I think it would.  I think anyone interested in history would find this book fascinating because it records the impact of a cataclysmic shift in geopolitics and the world economy, on ordinary people.

This is the blurb:

Robert Stephenson’s book focuses on Moscow following the collapse of the USSR and provides a unique pictorial view of daily life in Russia’s capital city during the turbulent early years of transition to market capitalism. Original photographs and supporting narrative by the author, who lived in the city throughout the time, show how the old Soviet capital and its inhabitants adapted to a new capitalist reality as Russia opened its doors wide to new influences, ideas and possibilities.

This was a time of promise and protest, revolution and reaction, with Moscow at the centre of the changes. While Soviet monuments, cars and domestic appliances were abandoned and thrown on the rubbish heap, a new consumer society gradually asserted itself. New ideologies and beliefs challenged and clashed with previous orthodoxies. At the same time resistance to reform and western influence was also emerging, and new certainties were sought in the return of old, pre-Soviet symbols and values.

The book portrays the country’s capital in the epoch-making period between the fall of communism and the establishment of the modern Russian state and provides a new and intriguing source of original material for all scholars and general readers interested in modern Russian history and culture.

First things first: the book is the right size and format.  There are 210 A4 landscape pages, the majority of which are full page colour photos. The book consists of twelve coherent chapters, starting with a succinct summary of the political events that were a catalyst for it all, and then moving on to chapters exploring different aspects of the transition.  The chapter called ‘The Shadow of the Past’, for example, has photos of statues ripped from their plinths after the 1991 coup: Kruschev and Stalin ignominiously on their sides.  More poignant is the photo of a temporary memorial on the site where workers found human remains buried in lime in a ditch, near the former home of Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s head of secret police.

Chapter 3 ‘Inflation, Speculation and Accumulation’ includes Stephenson’s observations of the unplanned change and how it affected ordinary people.

In the hyperinflation that followed the removal of price controls and the floating of the rouble at the beginning of 1992, millions found that bank balances built painstakingly over many years were instantly reduced to nothing, and wages (if paid at all) were impossible to live on.

When in late January 1992, President Yeltsin issues a new decree lifting all restrictions on trade, many people took to the streets to try to sell whatever wares they could put together.  Grandmothers joined with children and others to crowd the pavement and sell anything from underwear, kitchenware and ornaments to toys and produce from the dacha.  (p. 39)

The photo depicting this pathetic line of sellers stretching beyond the page is vivid and so too is the scene in GUM, almost entirely empty of customers in 1992.  (GUM when I visited in 2012 was an expensive department store crowded with shoppers toting luxury brands.  Imagine DJs with just half a dozen customers, and you get the idea.)  Another photo, from 1993, shows how quickly the vultures descended: there’s a massive ad for a new casino and gaming centre.

Remember the protests in favour of a return to Soviet times?  In the chapter Reform and Resistance, there are photos of anti-capitalist demonstrators, and another one of police on the streets, presumably to keep things under control.  But, interestingly, they’re not armed, they look more like very young bus conductors than riot police…

I was fascinated to see chapter called Religious Resurgence.  By the time we visited almost a decade later, we were able to see numerous churches and cathedrals restored to their pre-Soviet glory.  Notable among these was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, literally blown up by Stalin in 1931, and rebuilt from the ground up over five years.  Stephenson’s photo shows it under construction in 1995. There are also gorgeous pictures of Hare Krishna adherents, rugged up so as to be unrecognisable in the brutal Russian winter, and looking like their joyful colourful selves in summer.

Stephenson also confirms the theme of post-Soviet Russians aping Western culture, as in a Russian novel I recently read, The Hemingway Game by Evgeny Grishkovets.

As people began to acquire disposable income, and access to goods and services widened. consumerism flourished.  The impact on domestic industries, however, was disastrous.  Commodities made in the Soviet Union or supplied form eastern Bloc countries rapidly became outmoded and were discarded wholesale, while anything from (or at least sold as from) the West was seen as automatically higher in quality, with the level of quality usually measured by the price.


Everything Soviet made, from light switches and doors to domestic appliances, was to be thrown out and replaced by foreign-made equivalents.  (p.93)

(I hope by now they’ve got over the illusion that our built-for-obsolescence products are better.)

This is an excellent book, full of vivid insights capturing a moment in time of great significance.  You can see some of the photos on Stephenson’s website, but they really need to be seen in conjunction with his sensitive observations rather than with the assumptions that many of us have absorbed from triumphalist western media reports.

I hope someone, somewhere, had the foresight to photograph Vietnam and China in their transition to a modern economy…

Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings liked it too!

Update 15/8/19 By brilliant coincidence, SBS On Demand is screening a doco called Back in the Soviet Bloc, hosted by a young women who was born in the USSR but migrated to here in Australia when she was 12.  She goes back to see what it’s ‘really like’.  So far I’ve seen the episodes on St Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev in Ukraine.  What stands out for me is the way people say they like freedom, but freedom comes with problems.  Coming from a society where there was no rich and poor, they are clearly troubled by the gulf between the social classes that has emerged.

Author and photographer: Robert Stephenson
Title: We are Building Capitalism, Moscow in Transition, 1992-1997
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2019, 210 pages
ISBN: 9781912894024
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications

Available direct from Glagoslav


See also the review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Fishpond: We Are Building Capitalism!: Moscow in Transition 1992-1997

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 9, 2019

The True Colour of the Sea, Stories by Robert Drewe

Prompted by this collection’s shortlisting for the prestigious Colin Roderick Award, I’ve just spent a blissful couple of hours reading some of the stories in Robert Drewe’s The True Colour of the Sea.  I haven’t read them all because I’m also half way through Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island—and anyway, I don’t like to read a short story collection all in one go, if I’m going to read short stories at all, I like to dip into them over time.

Of those I’ve read, I liked ‘Another Word for Cannibals’ best.  Yes, this choice reveals something about my macabre sense of humour…

The unlikely premise of the story is a reunion between the descendants of a Methodist minister, and the offspring of the cannibal ancestors of those who ate him.  Drewe has mischievously named his fictional Pacific island Okina, which Wikipedia tells me is a glottal stop in Hawaiian languages, denoting ‘uh-oh’.  ‘Uh-oh’ indeed.  Through the auspices of a Leeds academic who also shares this rarest of ancestral links, Damian and Lisa have been invited to attend a special 150th anniversary ceremony to make amends to the Horne descendants.  

Drewe is adept at describing a certain type of woman:

Damian and Lisa had met Jennifer only once before, at a family wedding in North London, and remembered her as a wiry extrovert with reckless scarlet hair and a sort of ethnic-Victorian dress style, a mixture of tinkling bracelets and fingerless net gloves.  (p.21)

One suspects that a refusal to participate was not a possibility.  In response to the understandably ignorant questions of the descendants, Jennifer explains:

In any society or culture, in whatever period of history, everything we humans do rests on the assumptions we share with our family, friends, neighbours and workmates,’ she’d replied.

‘Everything social is open to question, including solidly held beliefs and ideas about karma, the self in society and nature and culture. Only by relating uncritically to the different versions of the world can we be fully human.’ (p. 22)

Lisa’s not quite convinced.

‘Is she lecturing us that cannibalism is okay in some circumstances?  That if we’re against killing people and eating them then we aren’t fully human?’

‘Grandpa Isaac might beg to differ,’ Damian had said.  ‘Frankly, I thought this was one case where we weren’t the bad guys.’ (p. 22)

Poor naïve Damian! He’s not impressed when Jennifer explains that an element of exchange is required:

‘Reconciliation is very important to the Okinian ethos.  But ‘making amends’ isn’t the whole point.  ‘Saying sorry’ is part of it, but reconciliation ceremonies require something from each side.’ (p. 22)

Drewe has some fun with the concepts of cultural relativity:

Exchange? ‘So they entertain us in a big way, say sorry for eating him, and then want something from us in return?  Some sort of swap?’ Damian said. ‘Maybe we should remind them that our team is already one member down.’

Not worth getting upset about, though.  Isaac’s fate was macabre and tragic, but it had made for an extraordinary family legend, not to mention unbeatable dinner-party conversation.  Black humour in spades.  Of course cannibal jokes were bad form these days.  Cannibals were the stuff of old cartoons and comic strips.  Chubby cannibals wearing chef’s hats and bones in their noses.  Pith-helmeted explorers simmering in big cooking pots.

Everyone drew a polite veil over bloodthirsty bygone practices.  Keep shtum about headhunters.  Don’t mention Michael Rockefeller’s mysterious disappearance.  (p.23)


Janine from The Resident Judge of Port Phillip has read the whole collection. See her review here.

Author: Robert Drewe
Title: The True Colour of the Sea
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, 2018, 212 pages
ISBN: 9780143782681
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $29.99

Available from Fishpond: The True Colour of the Sea


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 9, 2019

2019 Colin Roderick Award shortlist

The shortlist for this year’s Colin Roderick Award,has been announced.

The shortlisted titles are:

  • Sun Music: New & Selected Poems (Judith Beveridge, Giramondo)
  • Boy Swallows Universe (Trent Dalton, Fourth Estate), see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
  • The True Colour of the Sea (Robert Drewe, Hamish Hamilton), (short stories, on my TBR, see my review)
  • The Death of Noah Glass (Gail Jones, Text)
  • Dinner with the Dissidents (John Tesarsch, Affirm), see my review. I know, I shouldn’t, I’ve only read one of the shortlist — but I really liked this one so I’m barracking for it anyway!

Books are eligible if they are published in the previous calendar year and can be in any form (poetry or prose), in any genre, as long as it deals with ‘any aspect of Australian life’.

The winner, to be announced on October 31st will receive $20,000, and will also receive the silver H T Priestley Memorial Medal.  (You can see a photo of David Malouf with his gold medal here. Gold medals are presented occasionally for an outstanding contribution to Australian literary culture).

The award is administered by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies at James Cook University.  Jock Serong won it last year for On The Java Ridge, a book which impressed me for its contemporary significance.

For more information, visit the award website here.  Thanks to @BplusNews for tweeting this announcement.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2019

Art Forgery Book

For those of us who love books about art, this review by Mark Holsworth at Melbourne Art Critic is an interesting one.  (Reblogged by permission)

Black Mark

In Forged Jonathon Keats looks at art forgery with the usual stories of art forgery. The first part of the book Keats tells a short history of art from Ancient Egypt to the present day from the perspective of his thesis of the greatness of fakes. In this loose history Keats doesn’t distinguish between fakes, forgeries, copies, appropriation and piracy. In an odd version of the artistic skill verses originality argument Keats argues that forgeries are the great art.

However, Keats’s argument only works when the fake is discovered or revealed because part of the greater quality that Keats believes exists in them is that they have fooled people in the past. There is little else to prove any quality aside from the fact that they fooled people who wanted to be fooled, like Nazi’s supporting the forgery of medieval turkeys because the Vikings could have brought them back from…

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The Emerald Tablet is not my usual reading fare, but I enjoyed it.  Written by Melbourne author Meaghan Wilson Anastasios who has a career in archaeology in the Mediterranean and the Middle East behind her and now uses her expertise to work as a researcher for film and TV, the novel has been described in a Saturday Age review as pure escapism in the mould of Dan Brown or Indiana Jones.’  But though I think the flawed main character has the same kind of charisma as Harrison Ford, I think The Emerald Tablet is infinitely better than anything by Dan Brown on which I confess to having wasted my time.

The book begins with a well-constructed introduction that includes all the central characters, alludes to the quest that drives the narrative, and provides just enough of the geopolitics of the 1956 Suez Crisis to bring the reader straight to the story: what is this mysterious tablet that is wanted by all the superpowers converging on the Middle East? Yes, it’s a reworking of an ancient theme: similar in concept to The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series et al, The Emerald Tablet is a quest for a power that in the right hands can protect the world and in the wrong hands would destroy it.  The emerald tablet, hidden somewhere in the Middle East, is thought to hold the secret of alchemy, which is not, historically, (as most people wrongly think) about the transmutation of metals i.e. from lead to gold, but was aimed at the production of the fabled ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, which really had nothing to do philosophy but was supposed to bestow spiritual wealth and immortality.  (See The Sceptical Chymist at The Logical Place if you want to know more about this.)  In this novel, it’s the possibility of nuclear knowledge in the wrong hands that makes the quest credible for a 21st century reader, and it’s the chemistry between Ben and Essie that makes for interesting reading.

Anastasios builds a complex character in Ben.  Like his mansion, he is a handsome edifice that had seen better days. He’s obviously beddable, but not suitable for long term commitment because he’s built for adventure.  As Fiona soon finds out. She’s despatched by page 53, berating herself for being sucked into his vortex and calling him out as a self-destructive narcissist. She agrees that she’ll be safer leaving him, but not in the way that he — in the frame for murder, in a country that wants a culprit rather than justice — means it.  Fiona’s indignant departure sets up the possibility of romance between Ben and Essie, but previous betrayals muddy the waters and maybe there’s a Book #3 before they resolve things one way or another?

Not all the characters believe in the mumbo-jumbo.  After what happened in wartime Crete to his wife and son, Ben has no belief in a benevolent god, and he knows from his own actions that armed conflict makes both sides do terrible things to one another, so no one can be trusted.  This makes for an interesting exchange between Ben who favours scientific theory, in opposition to Sebile who wants the Good Guys to find the tablet.  She claims alchemy as respectable, quoting Isaac Newton as an adherent.  He wasn’t, actually, he was just a hobbyist, exploring out of curiosity because chemistry was not a mature science at that time And unlike the alchemists known to history who — to cover up the fact that their ‘experiments’ didn’t actually discover anything except that they didn’t work — published their ‘findings’ in strange codes with mystic symbols and arcane whatnot, Newton published only his real science, never anything on alchemy.  (Again, if keen, see The Sceptical Chymist in the section on the History of Western Alchemy).  But Sebile believes in the powers conferred by the tablet and is motivated by a desire to ensure it stays in the right hands.  Ben just wants to make money out of it.

The Emerald Tablet is Book #2 of the Benedict Hitchens series, and I haven’t read The Honorable Thief.  It seems not to matter in this well-crafted plot. Ben and Essie have a back story which has left them as professional rivals still carrying a torch for one another.  Essie teams up with the Brits in cahoots with a French Nazi collaborator because both France and Britain need access to the Suez Canal to reach their colonial possessions, while the American Ben, trying to shake off a trashed reputation because he had been involved in the illegal sale of ancient artefacts, teams up with a Turkish pal and an assortment of professional contacts in the Middle East.   Then there’s the Americans who are posturing about being anti-colonialist but are actually siding with Egypt because they want to humiliate the Brits; the Israelis are tagging along with France and Britain because they want the Arabs put in their place, and the Soviets are there, well, because they’re Soviets and that makes them very good at being Thugs when it’s called for.  These rivalries and betrayals allow for a number of gruesome deaths which are a matter of regret for the Good Guys.  (Except when it’s rough justice for personal vengeance and the moral high ground, as it is on a couple of occasions for Ben and Essie).

This is the kind of book propelled along by lucky breaks for protagonists and their pursuers; clues turn up in convenient places; maps and symbols align; and there are chases, and gun fights, and ancient artefacts used as weapons.  (There are also some revolting sex scenes that I could have done without).  It kept me entertained for a good couple of days because it’s a thriller for a thinking person. I bet it would make a beaut film too, with Richard Roxborough looking suitably rumpled as Ben, and Isla Fisher as Essie (doing that excellent scornful pout that she does).  And maybe Jacob Rees-Mogg in a guest appearance as the anachronism from the British Foreign Office…

Update 9/8/19: You can find out more about the author at her website.

Author: Meaghan Wilson Anastasios
Title: The Emerald Tablet (Benedict Hitchens series #2)
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2019, 404 pages
ISBN: 9781760552633
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan

Available from Fishpond:The Emerald Tablet: A Benedict Hitchens Novel 2

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 6, 2019

2019 MUBA (Most Underrated Book Award) shortlist

Once again living up to its name, the MUBA (Most Underrated Book Award) sponsored by @BooksellersAU. has nominated three books for its shortlist, and I’ve only read one of them.

Thanks to Twitter, I can tell you what the judges said about their choices:

First up, we have BRONTIDE by Sue McPherson, published by @MagabalaBooks , a YA novel told via interviews with four high school boys in a small Queensland town, that swept our judges away and made them cry.


I haven’t read that one, but in 2012 I did a Giveaway for another YA novel by Sue McPherson — Grace Beside Me, also published by Magabala Books.  The give away was won by @WellReadJen, and her review is at Goodreads. So Sue McPherson is on my radar.

Secondly, we have ANTIDOTE TO A CURSE by James Cristina, published by @transitlounge2 , a fiction novel set in 1990s inner Melbourne which blends the Bosnian war, an impending AIDS diagnosis, birds and cats, that the judges noted as a ‘quietly ambitious’ book.


I haven’t read this one but you can read a review of it by Cameron Woodhead at the SMH.

And finally, we have SONGWOMAN by Ilka Tampke, published by @text_publishing, the sequel to SKIN; a historical fiction novel with a gripping plot that includes politicking, bloody battles and romances, noted as a ‘riveting read’ by the judges.


Songwoman is the one I’ve read, and it certainly wasn’t under-rated by me! It’s the sequel to Skin, which I also liked.  A blend of historical fiction and fantasy, Skin was shortlisted for the 2015 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and longlisted for the 2016 Voss.  Songwoman deserves similar acclaim: it is, as I said in my review, likewise solidly grounded in the mud and dirt and ruthlessness of Albion (i.e. Britain) in 47AD when the Romans were consolidating their rule and stamping out the last vestiges of resistance in Wales. It has a brave and feisty central character, always tricky to depict convincingly in stories set in the patriarchal past, but Tempke pulls it off with her mystic character Ailia.  This is how I concluded my review:

The novel ripples with the ancient beliefs of an ancient era in collision with a modernising force of great power.  The Catuvellaunians sacrifice to the Mothers, including a rather grisly human sacrifice, and they believe in augury and visions and totems.  Some, like the little girl Malacca, are ostracised as outsiders to the tribe, and as Ailia discerns for herself, warfare becomes an end in itself. And the descriptions of the Welsh mountains are beautiful, but the stink of first century life is vivid too.

It’s an absorbing story with twists and turns and moral dilemmas to untangle.  Ailia, still only a young woman, is on a journey of self-discovery and must regain her confidence in herself and also deftly manage the distrust of those within her tribe who are not even sure of her status and role.  She’ll be back in Book #3, with, I predict, Malacca by her side…

I hope so!

The judges for MUBA are:

You can find out more about them on the Small Press Network website. 


The Hemingway Game might seem like an odd title for a contemporary Russian novella, but it’s an allusion to the way post-Soviet Russians are aping American culture.  Two young men, Sasha (a.k.a. Sanya) and his friend Max, have adopted this ‘Hemingway Game’ as a strategy for being manly and supercool and attracting young women without forming any commitment.  Sasha has been married and has a son but is now solo while Max’s relationship status is a bit dubious.  Since they drink prodigious quantities of alcohol in their night on the town, they are in fact conforming to the stereotype of heavy-drinking Russians, but they’re sculling cocktails not vodka shots so perhaps there’s a difference.

The Hemingway allusion also extends to Sasha’s sleepy fantasies about himself in various heroic adventures, though sometimes these interruptions to the narrative seem a bit forced.

By coincidence, Sue at Whispering Gums has posted a review today of Chekhov’s famous story, ‘The Lady with the Dog’, and although I haven’t read it, it seems to me that The Hemingway Game treats the same theme, that is, a story of a young man discovering what true love really is.  Set over a single day in Moscow, Grishovets’ story shows us two men having relished their carefree dalliances only to discover that real love matters more.  Sasha, who’s an architect, is suddenly infatuated with Her, the unnamed object of his new and overwhelming affections, and for most of the novel he carries on like a silly teenager, waiting on phone calls, and stressing about whether and when he should call and what he should wear and all that nonsense.  It is not until late in the story that a catastrophe makes him understand that it’s real love and not infatuation that he craves. At the same time Sasha’s preoccupation with Her annoys Max who still wants to play around — until he too realises the error of his ways.

Along the way, Grishkovets has some fun satirising the new Moscow.  Both the young men are from the provinces, and are a little smitten by the 24/7 anything goes Big City lifestyle.  They are particularly attentive to the style of the taxi drivers who negotiate Moscow’s atrocious traffic, but they take the glory of Stalin’s ‘gift to the people’ metro stations for granted.

This is what they were looking at: the Kremlin fortress walls and cathedral

There’s a droll moment when, both horribly drunk, are taken aback by the majestic symbolism of the Kremlin:

We were standing on fresh snow. A frozen river lay before us, and farther ahead, beautifully lit, rose the Kremlin.  The snow covered the battlements of the wall along with the slopes and ledges of the towers. And soaring above it all, like outlandish air balloons, were the domes of the cathedral…

It was cold.  Behind us, cars passed from time to time. We stood in silence.

‘You’re right,’ Max said, It’s not right to barf here.’

‘Yes. You know, Sanya, we’re already used to this view. Postcards, posters, TV. From childhood — the Kremlin, the Kremlin! And here it is! Imagine how amazing it must be for some Japanese or Australian to see it. (p.147)

I can vouch for that.  It is amazing.  But they (a-hem) relieve themselves anyway…

Grishkovet also pokes fun at the Russian preoccupation with foreign style, and not just American concepts of masculinity.  Sasha has a French friend called Pascal who’s also an architect, and Pascal has no qualms about poaching a new commission to build an ostentatious mansion for a horrible vulgar man whose only concern is that the design be the latest fashion.  Similarly, Sasha has learned English at school and university, but his English isn’t good enough to get the jokes…the implication being that the jokes aren’t actually funny.

The story could just be the ravings of a besotted and rather vacuous young man except for the presence of an ominous Black Mercedes which follows Sasha everywhere he goes.  This symbol of Soviet surveillance is past its use-by date, and Sasha doesn’t take it seriously and neither does its driver, though it would be a spoiler to tell you how the reader discovers that.

There are a few disconcerting typos in this paperback edition, but the translation is excellent.

At a time when our media is reverting to the old Cold War rhetoric and images about Russia, it’s refreshing to read that urban romances can take place in Moscow, just like in big cities anywhere.

Author: Evgeny Grishkovets
Title: The Hemingway Game
Translated from the Russian by Steven Volynets
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2019, 175 pages
ISBN: 9781911414513
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications, London

Available in all formats from the Glagoslav website or from Fishpond: The Hemingway Game

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 5, 2019

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, by Hilary Mantel

Long before Hilary Mantel became famous for her acclaimed Booker Prize historical novels, I knew her as an author of novels like Beyond Black (2006) with its dark humour and macabre undertones.  Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) — a serendipitous find at the library — is in the same vein, with the added frisson of having been written in the aftermath of Mantel’s own unhappy sojourn in Saudi Arabia.

I suspect that most of the women I know would chafe at life in Saudi Arabia, even now when the western media is trumpeting reforms that allow women to travel, divorce, and apply for official documents without the permission of a male guardian. I was underwhelmed last year when Saudi women were allowed to drive, and I am underwhelmed now.  I don’t subscribe to the idea that men have a right (god-given or otherwise) to give or withhold permission to women, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Mantel wrote Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) in the wake of the Islamic Revolution that swept the Middle East after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  These novels remind us that women need to be eternally vigilant about their own human rights…

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is the story of Frances Shore, a woman with a professional career as a cartographer who joins the expat community in Jeddah when her husband’s work in the construction industry takes them to Saudi Arabia.  A veteran of expat life in Africa, she was prepared for restrictions on her lifestyle but is appalled by the reality of life in a punitive patriarchal theocracy.  Mantel’s comments in the postscript ‘Behind the Scenes’ accurately convey the tone of the book:

When I travelled at first I used to ask what I could get out of it, and what I could give back.  What could I teach, and what could I learn? I saw the world as some sort of exchange scheme for my ideals, but the world deserves better than this.  When you come across an alien culture, you must not automatically respect it.  You must sometimes pay it the compliment of hating it. (PS, p.12)

Frances does hate it.  She hates the greed which brings the expats to endure the intolerable in return for generous salaries.  (She and her husband Andrew are mustering a deposit for a house in the UK).  She hates the vacuous lifestyle of endless shopping and nostalgic British ‘cultural’ activities. She has nothing to do, and apart from (illegal) boozy parties with the other expats and the shopping, she is confined to her flat because it’s not just the official decrees that restrict her, it’s also the constant sense of feeling unsafe because of unofficial ad hoc harassments:

So she set off home.  There was a main road to negotiate, but it was mid-morning, fairly quiet, and she never had any trouble crossing at the lights. A boy in a Mercedes pulled up, waved her in front of him.  As she stepped out from the kerb, he revved his engine, the car sprang forward, and she had to leap from under its wheels. She heard the brakes applied; caught herself up, heart racing, and looked back at the driver of the car, understood that it had not been an accident. ‘You are my darling, madam, you are my baby…’ Saw on his face laughter and contempt.

When she got home she phoned Carla. ‘Look,’ Carla said, ‘it’s happened to me.  Don’t take everything so personally.’

‘But why?’ she insisted. She felt on the verge of tears.  ‘I just wanted to cross.  I would have waited.  I would have let him go by.’

Carla said tiredly, ‘They don’t want us on the streets.  It’s just a thing they do.’ (p.238)

So Frances rarely risks it.  She stays in, and learns about her new home from her husband and his colleagues, and her neighbours.  Yasmin and her wheeler-dealer husband Raji are from Pakistan, and there’s a Saudi couple: Samira and her elusive husband Abdul Nasr.

Yasmin and Samira are both Muslim, and they aim to educate Frances about the Koran and the ‘disinformation’ about Sharia Law that is spread in the West.  Frances is baffled by their acceptance of what she considers intolerable and tries to understand it. But though these Muslim women both try to justify the barbarity of Islamic punishments, for ‘crimes’ that allegedly don’t exist in this ‘pure’ society, Frances remains unconvinced.  (She keeps her doubts to herself, for example, when she is told that hand amputations are done humanely, with a doctor there to prevent infection.)

When a crime does occur, the expat advice is not to call in authorities, because often it’s the witnesses who end up in gaol and the crime is never solved anyway.  Frances struggles with this cynicism: she doesn’t want to make judgements about Saudi society and she cringes when her oblivious fellow expats cross the line into cultural superiority and racism.  But she is caught in a bind: hypocrisy and corruption is everywhere, and she is not able to ignore it because she is repeatedly warned by her husband’s employers, colleagues, and their wives, that she must be aware of it and yet act as if it doesn’t exist. It is (literally) dangerous to do otherwise.

In the company of other expats, her sarcasm is unrestrained.  The reality is that a woman’s testimony is worth nothing; and that foreigners are automatically suspect.  Crucially, her concerns about a shadowy presence and someone crying in the supposedly empty flat above, are dismissed as a kind of cabin fever on the one hand, and a dangerous interference on the other.

The novel moves slowly at first as Frances struggles to adjusts to her situation: she vacillates between acceptance as a survival strategy and refusal to submit.  Andrew is the only one she can be honest with, and he is preoccupied by looming financial trouble as the oil price falls.  For him, it’s not just about the money he can make in Saudi Arabia: he’s fallen in love with the architecture of the building he’s contracted to construct.  Opportunities like this are rare, and he wants to see it built…

There are moments of Mantel’s characteristic black humour: there’s an hilarious scene when the scale model arrives from San Francisco, and some fool has peopled it with women in mini-skirts and sundresses.  These have to be surgically removed with tweezers through a hole cut into the Perspex box  lest any Islamic sensibilities be offended.  Likewise, when Frances has to reciprocate the endless dinner parties, she uses her new bargain-priced ‘Saudiflon’ saucepans, only to find that the fake Teflon comes off in black flakes all over the food. Very symbolic!

Tension throughout the novel is sustained by the ‘memo’ that forms a prologue.  It provides advice to all expat staff of the construction company to exercise extreme caution in the wake of recent tragic events and to refrain from commenting on the deaths…

See also Kim’s review at Reading Matters. 

Author: Hilary Mantel
Title: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street
Publisher: Harper Perennial (Harper Collins), 1988, 299 pages
ISBN: 9780007172917
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street



Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 4, 2019

Dry Milk, by Huo Yan, translated by Duncan M Campbell

Although I’ve read a fair few books by Chinese authors by now, hardly any of them have been by women, and I’ve often wondered whether this is in part a consequence of the One-Child policy which has resulted in a gender imbalance.  Since this must surely impact on the lives of women in China in ways we can hardly imagine, it would be really interesting to read their domestic fiction but it’s not easy to find much that appeals.  (I follow the China Fiction Club on Twitter, but I rarely find anything there.  The Asian Review of Books is more helpful IMO).


Born in 1987 and based in Beijing, Huo Yan is a writer of novels, short stories, screenplays and criticism.  She has a PhD in Contemporary Literature, and in 2013 she held a residency in New Zealand, where one of the conditions of the award was that she had to write a story in a Kiwi setting.  Dry Milk is the result, and it’s a very interesting novella indeed.

It’s the story of John Lee, a character who twists a reader’s sympathies one way and another until the final macabre conclusion.  A librarian forced to preside over the destruction of Chinese literature during the Cultural Revolution,  he cynically marries a woman who offers him a means of escape.  She, always named merely as ‘the woman’ in the story, is intellectually disabled as a result of her parents’ suicide: she was the sole survivor when they gassed themselves and the Chinese authorities are only too glad to be rid of her when they find that she has distant relations in New Zealand.

Over thirty years Lee makes a life for himself as a trader in second-hand goods in Auckland.  It is a charmless life: he is brutal to his docile wife, and treats her with disdain.  He is an outsider amongst both the Kiwi and local Chinese, and cares for nothing except making money.

Into the emptiness of this life come two new characters: a beautiful shy young student who boards with him, and an entrepreneur who wants him to invest in the booming export market for powdered milk.  (Both New Zealand and Australia export powdered milk to China where consumers don’t trust the safety of the locally produced product).  Lee forms a really creepy attachment to Jiang Xiaoyu, eavesdropping on her every movement through the walls, fondling her underwear in her absence and doping his wife so that she becomes an even more ghostly presence in the house.  At the same time as the reader is confronted by this repulsive behaviour, Ye Xiaosheng’s investment scheme seems more and more dubious: Lee hands over his life savings on trust, and then is asked for more.  The reader recognises these warning signs, but Lee does not. He is too preoccupied by his obsession with the girl.

The façade which masked his alienation and loneliness falls apart in a shocking conclusion which offers interesting possibilities for discussion.

The press release that came with the book tells me that Dry Milk was shortlisted for a major prize in China and was selected as one of the best novellas of the year. It is an absorbing tale—I couldn’t put it down and read it in a single sitting.  But it is very dark, and it raises questions about the female author’s decision to narrate the story from the perspective of a man who is both victim and perpetrator.  The undercurrent of suppressed anger about the violence of the Cultural Revolution is coupled with Lee’s humiliation about the sordid way in which exile in New Zealand was achieved, and the example of a cross-cultural marriage which goes horribly wrong hints that Auckland is not as welcoming of its migrant community as Jacinda Ardern likes to imply.

I’d love to read a novel by this author so I’m hoping that Dry Milk gets the attention it deserves and further translations become available in due course…

Theresa has also reviewed this novel at Theresa Smith Writes.

Author: Huo Yan
Title: Dry Milk
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2019, 112 pages
First published as Li Yuehan in 2013
ISBN: 9781925336993
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available from Giramondo Publishing, from Fishpond: Dry Milk, and all good bookstores.

This month’s #6Degrees puzzled me when the first emails popped into my inbox this morning.  Kate’s was starting with The Aftermath (and my brain began fizzing with ideas about war and reconciliation immediately)…. but Theresa Smith’s was starting with The Light Between Oceans. Huh? What’s going on, I thought, how can the meme start with two different books?

The answer is that we have to start with the book we finished with in July.  Bizarrely, for me, it’s a book for junior readers, about (of all things, my pet yawn) playing sport…

But not quite.  Deadly D and Justice Jones, making the team by Kalkadoon man Scott Prince is more about young people learning to manage their anger, and it was written to lure sports-mad young people into wanting to read.  And it features Indigenous kids in an everyday way.  They’re just kids playing football, and the Superhero Deadly D just happens to be Indigenous.

That prompts a thought that many of us like to see ourselves represented in the books we read.  This year’s Miles Franklin winner, Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko’s features a family like any other except that they’re Indigenous, and their family baggage is tied up with the sad and sorry Black history of our nation.  I didn’t note this in my review but Lucashenko’s great skill in writing this superb novel is that readers can identify with the messiness of her characters’ lives on so many levels.  You don’t need to be Indigenous to identify with feeling resentful of a bone-idle loudmouth brother, eh?

The push and pull of love and loyalty in Too Much Lip made me think of Susan Johnson’s Life in Seven Mistakes, IMO her best book though it’s not the one that was shortlisted everywherethat was The Broken Book (2005).  Life in Seven Mistakes (2008) is a delicious black comedy, woven around the phenomenon inflicted on all of us whose parents have retired to the so-called Sunshine State: the Dreaded Family Christmas at Surfers Paradise. As you can see from my review I found a great many resonances in my own life, though I was restrained when it came to expressing exactly what they were!

How much truth to tell is a perennial issue in authorship, whether the book is fiction or not.  Jessica White treads a careful line in her hybrid memoir Hearing Maud, a journey for a voice.  In tracing the life of Maud Praed, deaf daughter of the Australian author Rosa Praed, (see my review) White sees with clarity the difficult decisions that her own parents had to make about what’s best for their child and how the child in later life may question the wisdom of the decisions that were made.

Not all memoirists seem to care about how their family members feel… I remember feeling repelled by the (now famous) Benjamin Law for ‘outing’ his mother’s gynaecological history in The Family Law, and Alice Pung reveals unresolved conflict with her mother in Unpolished Gem.  But as I wrote in my review: this is the generation that tells all and fuddy-duddies like me who prefer a little discretion are probably past our use-by date…

Some books, however, are written as homage to a much-loved parent.  Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North was ‘the book he had to write’ for his father, a survivor of the infamous Burma Railway built by POWs.  In my review I alluded to how reading about the brutality experienced there was overwhelming at times—I cannot imagine the emotional toll of writing it, knowing that’s what your own father had suffered.  But I also noted how

….by tracing the POW experience from different angles The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Thomas Keneally’s Shame and the Captives contribute to a richer understanding of defeat.  The Japanese treated their POWS as slave labour to build a symbol but their captives were ennobled by it; the Australians at Cowra treated their Japanese POWS well, and their captives felt shamed by it.

And that brings me neatly to The Aftermath, which starts Kate’s chain at Books are My Favourite and Best and also contributes to a deeper understanding of victory and defeat. The Aftermath is set in post-war Hamburg with the British occupiers sharing a house with a defeated German.  In my review I described it as a penetrating exploration of vengeance and forgiveness, guilt and blame in a very charged atmosphere and that is mostly what comes through in the film which was subsequently made.  But, as is so often the case, the book is a richer experience and develops the theme in all its complexity.

So that’s my #6Degrees: from a book about conflict resolution to another about reconciliation!

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

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