Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 1, 2017

The Lady of the Realm, by Hoa Pham

This new title from Hoa Pham would make a great choice for Novellas in November*.  Although it’s set in Vietnam, tracing many decades of that country’s tragic history, it’s a calm, meditative book which asserts that peace is possible. I liked it very much.

The Lady of the Realm features a young girl who grows to womanhood during the years of the American War, which we in the West know as the Vietnam War.  Liên wakes one day after an horrific dream in which she sees the massacre of peaceful people in her village and she seeks reassurance from her grandmother Bà, who tends the shrine of the Lady of the Realm.

In the morning I went to the dinh, the village square, where a wooden effigy of the Lady of the Realm was kept in the centre hall. Bowing to Bà, my grandmother who tended the shrine, I clutched a bunch of purple wildflowers for the Lady, and a rice cake from my breakfast.  Bà opened up the hall for me and bade me enter.

I bowed to the wooden figurine shrouded in the shade of the morning sun. She wore a bright pink cloth veil made by my grandmother, and her serene face bore a half-smile.  The hall always had a hush about it due to the meditating and worship for the Lady and I walked slowly on the hallowed ground. (p.7)

Her grandmother counsels her to have faith in the Lady’s power to protect them and to hope and pray for peace, but this faith is sorely tested.

Over five decades we see the impact on Liên as first, the Viet Minh arrive, and then the war escalates.  But peace does not come when war ends because of Communist reprisals and their repression of religion, which culminates in the novel with the martyrdom of Liên’s only friend, also a Buddhist nun.

All alone in the world, Liên is then befriended by a strong, purposeful woman called Binh not averse to paying bribes when it’s needed to protect her activities from the communist cadres:

They had forced our worship behind closed doors, with family altars hiding inside.  When I do mindful breathing, walking and exercises from the monastery, I do it away from prying eyes.  I valued Binh all the more because I could trust her – a rare privilege in those days.

Every day I sat beside Binh in the marketplace and watched people come and go.  They grew familiar but not close to me. Most were displaced fisher people from further down south.  The communists cadres, a pair of them, both men, walked among us briefly for an hour each morning then retreated to their office to drink beer and watch women.

I missed the people of my village, and every day I offered a prayer inside the house: may they be well wherever they may be. (p.53)

Hope surfaces when Vietnam adopts economic openness in the 1990s  (đổi mới) but other freedoms are denied.  In 2009 there was a clampdown on religion again with the destruction of the cherished Prajna Monastery which followed the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the exiled Vietnamese Zen Master based in Plum Village in France.  (Hoa Pham wrote a piece for Crikey about the incongruity of this destruction occurring in the same year that Vietnam took its place on the UN Security Council, but you may find the article paywalled).

Each chapter is prefaced by quotations from Thich Nhat Hanh, and the text is punctuated by Liên’s determined struggle to find consolation in her faith. Although I am not a believer, I found it inspirational that this character representing the ordinary people of Vietnam, could find ways to refuse anger and hatred.  It’s consistent with what I saw in Vietnam as a tourist in 2007, where American veterans seemed to be treated with courtesy and respect, even though their presence must have been painful for many people.

Highly recommended.

*I can’t remember who hosts Novellas in November.  Does anyone know?

Author: Hoa Pham
Title: The Lady of the Realm
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2017, 98 pp
ISBN: 9781925581133
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

Available from Fishpond: Lady of the Realm and direct from Spinifex Press where it is also available as an eBook.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 31, 2017

Soon, by Lois Murphy

As I said in my post last night advertising the giveaway for this debut novel by Lois Murphy, Soon is fascinating reading. What I didn’t know when I wrote that, just before bedtime, was that I wasn’t going to be able to put the book down and turn out the light.  Don’t start reading this book at bedtime if you have to get up and go to work the next day!

As with my recent reading of Claire G Coleman’s Terra Nullius, I’m going to have to be careful of spoilers…

‘Nebulah’ – with its echoes of ‘nebulous’ – is a clever name for the fictional inland town in Western Australia where the action takes place.  It is very remote, three hours drive away from the nearest town of Woodford, which is also small and remote, and itself a good long drive from Mandurah.  The story begins with the suicide of an old man called Rolf who couldn’t go on with the loneliness of eking out a living in a dying town.

Twelve months before, Nebulah had a population of just over 500.  Like many small rural towns its days were numbered, but it was clinging to survival. But this stoic population fled after the arrival of a mysterious mist which arrives each night at dusk to terrorise the inhabitants.  And now the diehards who refused to leave have had a shocking blow though they knew it was inevitable: Liz, a single mother who stayed because she had nowhere else to go, has finally had enough and fled with her children, and her departure was the last straw for Rolf.  From eleven people sticking it out, they are now down to six.

Pete, an ex-policeman who narrates the story, is a fine example of how Murphy has subverted familiar genres. Yes, he’s world-weary, and yes, he specialises in failed relationships, and yes, he smokes and drinks to excess.  But he’s not a detective trying to solve a crime.  As it says in the blurb, inspired in part by the diehards who refuse to leave the tragic town of Wittenoom even though they risk a fatal disease and an horrific death from mesothelioma, the interest in this novel is the characters who remain in the face of an insistent danger.  Pete stays because he has bonded with two women, and they won’t leave.  The widow Milly won’t leave the home she had with Gavin who died in a road smash twelve years ago, and Li is a Cambodian refugee from the Khmer Rouge who has painstakingly rebuilt her life by growing organic produce for the co-op in Woodford.  Although Milly and Li are both staunchly independent women and don’t need his protection, Pete, Milly and Li have formed a kind of protective network – along with a neurotic couple called Gail and Tom and a dubious character nicknamed Stick, who has a different kind of crop well-suited to being grown in an isolated place.

The only horror I’ve ever read is by Edgar Allan Poe and that just made me laugh, so I Googled ‘tropes of horror fiction’ to see if I could identify how Lois Murphy has managed to subvert the horror genre.  I came across a very interesting article at Writers Digest, which was called ‘The Horror Genre: On Writing Horror and Avoiding Clichés’  This was not only helpful in explaining what the clichés were to someone unfamiliar with the genre, but also showed me that Soon does exactly what’s suggested: she has certainly created an atmosphere of terror that makes the reader’s heart gallop, but she has created an evil where characters are confronted not by a monster in a mask but by what’s in a mirror.

The novel is grounded in realism, even though there are fantastic elements.  Murphy plays with reader scepticism too, with her portrayal of a clairvoyant called Alex warning of impending doom on the night of the coming winter solstice, and then there are some witless university students on a jaunt with a white witch called Xandrea.   Her portrayal of the way young people under peer pressure box themselves into a corner from which they can’t escape is brilliant.

I’m not an impressionable reader, but overnight when I took a brief adjournment from the book to make myself some middle-of-the-night hot chocolate and rest my tired eyes, it crossed my mind – just momentarily in that moment from subconscious thought to reality – that there could be something swirling around out there on the other side of our French windows!

Soon was the winner of the Tasmanian Premier’s Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript, and it’s published by Barry Scott from Transit Lounge (who have brought us last year’s Miles Franklin winner Black Rock White City by Alec Patric and From the Wreck by Jane Rawson, and a stack of other beaut titles as well).

I have a spare ARC copy of Soon to give away to readers with an Aussie postcode, so if you are interested, visit here and put your name into the draw (closing in the middle of September 2017).  But if you want to be sure of getting your own copy, you can pre-order the book from Fishpond at this link: Soon

Author: Lois Murphy
Title: Soon
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2017
ISBN: 9780995409804
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 30, 2017

Book Giveaway: Soon, by Lois Murphy

I am reading an absolutely fascinating book called Soon at the moment, and it just so happens that I have a spare ARC of it to give away:

This is the blurb:

An almost deserted town in the middle of nowhere, Nebulah’s days of mining and farming prosperity – if they ever truly existed – are long gone. These days even the name on the road sign into town has been removed. Yet for Pete, an ex-policeman, Milly, Li and a small band of others, it’s the only place they have ever felt at home. One winter solstice, a strange residual and mysterious mist arrives, that makes even birds disappear. It is a real and potent force, yet also strangely emblematic of the complacency and unease that afflicts so many of our small towns, and the country that Murphy knows so well. Partly inspired by the true story of Wittenoom, the ill-fated West Australia asbestos town, Soon is the story of the death of a haunted town, and the plight of the people who either won’t, or simply can’t, abandon all they have ever had. With finely wrought characters and brilliant plotting, it is a taut and original novel, where the people we come to know, and those who are drawn to the town’s intrigue, must ultimately fight for survival.

Soon is Lois Murphy’s first novel,  but she has won awards for her writing, including the Northern Territory Literary Award and the Sisters in Crime Best New Talent Prize.  Soon was the winner of the Tasmanian Premier’s Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript,   This is what the judges said about it:

A dark and powerful novel that takes the reader on a journey through a disturbingly new and hostile world.  Lois’s characters carry their old ways into this new order with grave consequences if they don’t heed the signs.  Her haunting and persuasive tale which nods at the tropes of genre fiction while subverting and elevating them heralds a compelling new talent.

I can already see why they thought so, even though I’m only up to page 80.

Update,  6 o’clock the next morning.  I’ve just finished reading it, my heart is still pounding!

Update, later: here’s my (no spoilers) review.


Be in it to win it!  Anyone with an Australian postal address is eligible.  Please indicate your interest in the Comments box below and I’ll select a winner using a random generator round about the middle of next month.

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

Good luck everybody!
PS If you want to pre-order the book, here’s the link Soon

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 28, 2017

Terra Nullius, by Claire G Coleman

Terra Nullius is the debut novel of Claire G Coleman, an author from WA who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people and a recipient of a Black&Write Fellowship in 2016.

The novel is a retelling of Australia’s colonial history from a disconcerting new perspective.  Chapter One begins with an escape…

Jacky was running. There was no thought in his head, only an intense drive to run. There was no sense he was getting anywhere, no plan, no destination, no future. All he had was a sense of what was behind, what he was running from. Jacky was running. (p.1)

…and an irritable, frustrated nun stuck on a mission in the middle of nowhere:

Sister Bagra paced the oppressively dark, comfortably stuffy halls of her mission is silent, solitary contemplation.  She was dedicated to her duty, to bring faith to these people, if they could be called people; to bring religion, to bring education to these savages.  An almost completely thankless task, a seemingly pointless, useless task.  The recipients of her efforts seemed totally incapable of appreciating what was being done for them, even going so far as resenting her help. (p.2)

So, if the reader knows anything about Australia’s Black History, the story seems familiar: it’s about the settlement of Australia and the colonists’ project to ‘civilise’ the ‘natives’.  Jacky escapes into the bush, and Sister Bagra sends the Troopers out after him.  But by Chapter three, something seems not quite right: a colonial administrator has been told many times it was important to be a people person.  A ‘people person’?  That 21st century expression seems anachronistic for the colonial period, doesn’t it?

Always have faith that an author knows what she’s doing! As the novel progresses there are odd little incongruities here and there, details that seem like mistakes that an editor should have picked up, until about half way through the novel when the penny drops and the reader’s assumptions fall away…

It is very difficult indeed to share with you the sense of excitement in reading this daring, clever novel, without spoiling the surprise and delight of discovery.  All I will reveal is that it tells the story from the perspective of the settlers and the people they dispossess in an utterly unexpected way.

It’s always such a pleasure when an author creates a story like this: a feat of imagination cunningly crafted to make a reader look at things in an entirely different way.  Don’t miss out on this one!


Black&Write Fellowships are an initiative of the State Library of Queensland and the Hachette publishing company, and they’re designed to provide support and encouragement for Indigenous writing by providing prize money of $10,000, manuscript development and a publishing opportunity with Hachette.  I’ve read some  novels by fellowship recipients, and I look forward to reading more.

  • 2013 Jared Thomas for Calypso Summer (see my review) and Tristan Savage for Rift Breaker (see my review)
  • 2014 Adrian Stanley for Could Be Worse (I read an excerpt from this novel in progress in the Griffith Review ‘State of Hope’) and Jane Harrison, Becoming Kirrali Lewis
  • 2015 Jannali Jones for My Father’s Shadow and Alison Whittaker for Lemons in the Chicken Wire
  • 2016 Dylan Coleman for Clear Water White Death and Claire Coleman for Terra Nullius.


Claire G Coleman is a writer from WA who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people.

Author: Claire G Coleman
Title: Terra Nullius
Publisher: Hachette, 2017
ISBN: 9780733638312
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: Terra Nullius

So, we come to Part II Chapter 10!

Small signs of progress: I am more than half way through A Reader’s Guide to “Finnegans Wake” by my trusty guide William York Tindall, and 45% through A Skeleton Key to “Finnegan’s Wake”: James Joyce’s Masterwork Revealed by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson.

But only 41% through the actual book I am reading, so I shall save the champagne for later.

Just flicking through the pages of chapter X in my copy of FW, I notice some strange things:

  • There are footnotes and marginalia left and right.  Not the editor’s, they are James Joyce commenting on his own chapter.  Some of the footnotes are very long, taking up over half the page.  I know enough about this book by now to know that they are not there to make anything clearer to me.
  • There are slabs of text in what appears to be straightforward French (yay! I can read that) and Latin (well beyond the capacity of my experience in Form 2).
  • There is a diagram like the ones we used to draw in secondary school geometry. I recognise the symbol π (pi).

So.  Consulting Tindall I learn that chapters IX, X and XI are the densest part of the Wake (which is both encouraging, and not) and he helpfully sorts out what Joyce means by the first lines:

As we there are where are we are we there (Finnegans Wake (Penguin Kindle Edition p.260)

À la Tindall, this becomes:

We are there.  Where are we?  Are we there? ( Tindall, p.170)

Hmmm… indeed.

Those who’ve read Ulysses will recognise what Joyce is doing in this chapter: he’s playing with form by mimicking text.  This time he is mimicking the children’s homework – Shem’s, Shaun’s and Isabel’s – and the footnotes and marginalia are a parody of  scholarship.  This chapter was apparently published in 1937 separately as Storiella as She is Syung, the title showing the importance of the footnotes at the bottom: they are the female’s i.e. Isabel’s and the marginalia are Shem’s and Shaun’s.  I use the Kindle Edition to quote FW here because it’s such a pain to copy Joyce’s games with spellings only to have auto-correct fix them – but the eBook has difficulty with the form, messing it up entirely.  This is a screenshot of what it looks like:

You can see Shem’s smart-aleck comments on the left, and Shaun’s pompous professorial ones on the right (in capital letters, which they’re not supposed to be), but (you’ll have to squint to see it), to see Isabel’s footnotes, you have to click that little ‘1’ (which ought by rights to be a ‘4’) after the word voylets (violets) and go out of the text to wherever Kindle has put the footnotes.  Wrong, wrong, wrong, they are footnotes not endnotes and the compositors who have fiddled with this obviously have no idea what they are doing.  It gets worse: later on in the chapter they turn these left and right marginalia into paragraph headings, differentiating between the two with italics and capitals, sticking them in where someone thinks they ought to go, a layout which destroys the whole point of Joyce setting it up like this.  Is it just the Kindle edition which does this, or the Penguin paperback edition too?  (BTW#1 unde et ubi is Latin for how and where, which despite the Latin is more comprehensible than imaginable itinerary through the particular universal, eh?) (BTW#2 Yes, I know they’re not called compositors.  But I don’t know what the digital arrangers of text are called. Feel free to enlighten me).

My indispensable Tindall tells me that, for these three commentators:

Their ostensible concern is with grammar, history and mathematics.  Their real concern is with their parents.  Through history they arrive at H.C.E. [their father a.k.a. Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker  and a zillion other names besides] and through geometry at A.L.P. [their mother Anna Lavinia Plurabelle who is also the River Liffey and a zillion other things besides], who, working at home, created these little homeworkers. (Tindall, p.172)

Tindall also warns me that Shaun and Shem in their role as commentators literally shift sides of the page.  He then goes on to explain a whole lot of stuff which makes no sense until I have read the FW text but I read it anyway.  (My process, so far in reading FW is to read the Tindall, and then the Campbell, and then I remember some of it as I am reading FW, and sometimes I consult them again when I am totally confused. I usually find Tindall more helpful in the detail but Campbell often more illuminating.  Both are indispensable, and ha! if I ever read FW for a second time, I will get more out of these commentaries than now, a naïve newbie floundering through FW for the first time).

Anyway.  Now to Campbell, who is likewise discouraging with his bald assertion that this chapter is perhaps the most difficult in the book.  But he also helpfully says:

… [It] describes the course of events during the study hour of the children.  It amplifies the moment into an image of studenthood in general, and enlarges the little tasks into representations of the great scholarly tasks that have occupied mankind from the beginning.  The principle references are to the medieval studies of the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric) and Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, Astronomy) and to the esoteric doctrines of the Kabbala.

So.  I might be ok with grammar bits, maybe the logic, probably the music, rusty on the geometry and out-of-my-depth on the astronomy because our Australian skies are not the same as Joyce’s northern hemisphere skies.  As for the Kabbala(h), no chance because the Wikipedia page is way too long for me to be bothered reading it..  My cribs will have to suffice.

Campbell differs from Tindall in his assessment of who the commentators are, but is put right by editor Epstein who says the footnotes are by Issy, not Shem.  But there’s a nice summary that tells me where I’m going once I start to read:

[The narrative outline of this chapter is fairly simple, but obscured by the intricacies of the student problems.  The chapter opens with a review, in allegorical terms, of the process of creation; twenty-six pages (260-86) are devoted to the description of the descent of spirit into time and space.  First, the will to creates moves the world-father to beget the universe; then the world becomes possible, takes form, actually appears.  Man comes into being with his primitive lusts and taboos, and becomes localised in the tavern of HCE.  There is the nursery of the children, the entire human comedy presents itself in miniature.

[The last pages of the chapter (286-308) are centred in the nursery.  The boys are at their tasks, and their sister is musing over letters.  The good little boy, named Kev in this chapter, is having trouble with his geometry; bad little Dolph assists him, and in so doing teaches him something which elicits a blow from the indignant hero.  Dolph recovers from the knockout and the two are reconciled.  Then comes supper, and time for bed.  (A Skeleton Key to “Finnegan’s Wake”: James Joyce’s Masterwork Revealed, by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, Collected Works Edition, New World Library, 2005, p.164 )

Reading through the Campbell crib is extremely daunting.  Best to get started and see what I can make of it….


So much for all that!  But I have found some lovely snippets for your delectation.  Page refs are to the Penguin Kindle Edition:

Sweet-some auburn, cometh up as a selfreizing flower, that fragolance of the fraisey beds  (p. 265, fraise is French for strawberry)

Stew of the evening, booksyful stew. (p.268, an allusion to the Turtle Soup in Alice in Wonderland?  Soup of the evening, beautiful soup!

To me or not to me. Satis thy quest on (p.269).

There’s a split in the infinitive from to have to have been to will be (p.271)

This is the glider that gladdened the girl that list to the wind that lifted the leaves that folded the fruit that hung on the tree that grew in the garden Gough gave (p. 271, a twist on This is the House That Jack Built.  Neither Tindall nor Campbell have anything to say about this, so I remain mystified about who Gough might be).

And this, which all those of us who remember parsing will enjoy:

From gramma’s grammar she has it that if there is a third person, mascarine, phelinine or nuder, being spoken abad it moods prosodes from a person speaking to her second which is the direct object that has been spoken to, with and at. Take the dative with his oblative for, even if obsolete, it is always of interest, so spake gramma on the impetus of her imperative, only mind your genderous towards his reflexives such that I was to your grappa… (Finnegans Wake (Penguin Kindle Edition p. 268)

It comes as a relief to read the French segment: I’m intrigued as to why it is just straightforward French without any word games.

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Kindle Edition p. 281). My translation (FWIW)
Aujourd’hui comme aux temps de Pline et de Columelle la jacinthe se plaît dans les Gaules, la pervenche en Illyrie, la marguerite sur les ruines de Numance et pendant qu’autour d’elles les villes ont changé de maîtres et de noms, que plusieurs sont entrées dans le néant, que les civilisations se sont choquées et brisées, leurs paisibles générations ont traverse les âges et sont arrives jusqu’à nous, fraîches et riantes comme aux jours des batailles. Today, as in the times of Pliny and Columella, the hyacinth pleases itself in Gaul, the periwinkle in Illyria, the daisy on the ruins of Numance, while all around them cities have changed masters and names.  Many (of these flowers) entered into oblivion while civilizations were shocked and broken, [but] peaceful generations [of flowers] have traversed the ages, and come [back] to us, fresh and smiling, as in the days of battles.

The section where the boys are doing their maths is often very funny, even if your memories of Fourth Form maths are ab-surd (Sorry, couldn’t resist that!):

Show that the median, hce che ech, interecting at royde angles the parilegs of a given obtuse one biscuts both the arcs that are in curveachord behind. Brickbaths. The family umbroglia. A Tullagrove pole to the Height of County Fearmanagh has a septain inclinaison and the graphplot for all the functions in Lower County Monachan, whereat samething is rivisible by nighttim, may be involted into the zeroic couplet, Nom denombres! The balbearians. palls pell inhis heventh glike noughty times ∞, find, if you are not literally cooefficient, how minney combinaisies and per-mutandies can be played on the international surd! (Penguin Kindle Edition pp. 284-285).

Here’s the Latin bit, (which makes an amusing contrast with using Google translation, but I’ll spare you that.)

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Kindle Edition p. 287). Gilbert Highett’s translation in Tindall, p178
Venite, preteriti, sine mora dumque de entibus nascituris decentius in lingua romana mortuorum parva chartula liviana ostenditur, sedentes in letitiae super ollas carnium, spectantes immo situm lutetiae unde auspiciis secundis tantae consurgent humanae stirpes, antiquissimam flaminum amborium Jordani et Jambapastae mentibus revolvamus sapientiam: totum tute fluvii modo mundo fluere, eadem quae ex aggere fututa fuere iterum inter alveum fore futura, quodlibet sese ipsum per aliudpiam agnoscere contrarium, omnem demun amnem ripis rivalibus amplecti Come past, you people of the past (or you dead), without delay, and while in a little page in the manner of Livy an explanation is given rather gracefully in the Roman language of the dead, about the beings who are still to be born, sitting in joy (letitiae should be letitia) over pots of flesh, or rather looking at the site of Paris (lutetiae, a play on words that may justify letitiae) from which under favourable omens such great races of humanity are to arise, let us turn over in our minds the most ancient wisdom of both (amborium should be amborum) the priests Jordan and Jambaptista: that the whole universe flows safely like a river that the same things were poked (fututa is obscene) [Google translates it using another word beginning with ‘f”] from the heap of rubbish will again be inside the riverbed, that anything recognises itself through some contrary, and finally (demun should be demum) that the whole river is enfolded in the rival banks along its sides.

Well, that makes it clearer, eh?

And the diagram?  According to Tindall it is Shem’s mathematical representation of his mother.  The brothers, now renamed Kev and Dolph quarrel at this point because Dolph is supposed to be helping his brother but Kev has failed to understand any of it.  (Along with the rest of us).  They reconcile, it’s bedtime, there’s a sort of dialogue between all the great names of history from Alcibiades to Xenophon, and then there are ten monosyllables vertically down the page  – Aun Do Tri Cri Cush1 Shay Shockt OCkt Ni Geg – which Campbell explains like this, to my complete mystification:

Now comes a list of ten monosyllables which gear the circling wheels of Finnegans Wake into the Kabbalistic decade of the sephiroth.  This is the powerhouse of the book, with energy currents going to every page.  The syllables, each representing a number, fall into three groups of three, with one remaining.  They represent the descent of the all-highest One (Aun) down the ladder of the decade to union with Zero in order to form the number ten (Geg).  Each rung of the descent is matched by a marginal word corresponding to a phase of cosmic revolution. (Campbell, p 191, and he explains it all in great detail over the next two pages as well).

Uh, ok.

Do not get the impression from this post that I understand anything more than scraps of this chapter: without Tindall and Campbell, I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what this chapter is about, and I’d be giving up if not for their advice that I’ve now ‘read’ two of the three most difficult chapters in the book.

So on to Chapter 11!

*Numbers when quoting from FW refer to line numbers in the text so that readers can find their way whichever edition they are using).


A Reader’s Guide to “Finnegans Wake” by William York Tindall, Syracuse University Press, 1969; and

A Skeleton Key to “Finnegan’s Wake”: James Joyce’s Masterwork Revealed, by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, Collected Works Edition, New World Library, 2005

Finnegans Wake (Modern Classics) read by Jim Norton with Marcella Riordan, Naxos AudioBooks 2009

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics), introduction by Seamus Deane, Penguin, 2015.  (I’m using the Kindle edition ASIN B00XX0H95S, just to make quoting easier because typing the text is such a provocation to AutoCorrect).)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 26, 2017

A Good Life to the End, by Ken Hillman

A Good Life to the End has to be one of the most depressing books I’ve read this year, but it’s an important one that faces up to some unpleasant facts.

Although I think it deserves a wider audience, I think the book will have most resonance for those of us confronting the end of life for aged parents, who are having to make decisions for loved ones no longer able to make those decisions for themselves, and who are realising that the same issues apply to us as we ourselves get older.

Professor Ken Hillman is Professor of Intensive Care at the University of New South Wales (SWS Clinical School), and an actively practising clinician in Intensive Care, at Liverpool Hospital.  He’s also the presenter of the TED talk ‘We’re doing dying all wrong’, though I didn’t see that till I Googled his profile for this review.


After the uplifting optimism of the Edgars’ Peak, Reinventing Middle Age, it is dispiriting to read the list of impending ailments in chapter 2 of A Good Life to the End.  But what Hillman is saying is that old age has been medicalised so much in the course of our lifetime, that when people experience the inevitable ailments of the old age, these ailments tend to be treated as if there were a cure, often in very expensive intensive care units (ICUs).  It’s not the money, though that’s an issue, it’s that although most people would like to die at home, what happens is that most elderly people will die in hospital instead.  The money would be better spent providing support services so that people can be comfortable at home.

Where ICUs used to be for emergency medical treatment of the young (after car accidents and the like) now apparently they are mostly full of very old patients.  He gives some heart-rending examples of very old people with dementia who have been resuscitated from a cardiac event instead of being gently allowed to die of it.

So Hillman is on a mission to encourage more transparency and honesty around death.  In Chapter 8, ‘Denise’s manifesto’ he works his way through the way we should approach the discussion.  We need to have the conversations that sort out Advanced Care Directives so that we have considered what treatment we would like in certain circumstances and what treatment we would like withheld.  We need to have those conversations with our parents, and also with our children, and we need to record our decisions in writing.  It makes it easier for doctors who are often under pressure to diagnose something other than the ultimately untreatable frailty of old age, and who feel that they have to prescribe something even though it cannot cure the inevitable.

Reading this book was personal for me: my parents have very recently died within eighteen months of each other, my mother-in-law is among the frail elderly, and I have memories of my very ill father-in-law being offered tube-feeding when it was entirely inappropriate.  I’m not going to share personal stories except to say that it really does make the situation easier when treatment options have been thought through and decided on, in advance.  Because it’s not easy to think clearly in extremis, not when it’s someone that you love.

As far as the Big Picture is concerned, these are Hillman’s concluding words:

The future is about redesigning our health system in a radical way.  Most of those requiring health care are elderly.  Much of the conventional treatment they currently receive is inappropriate, futile and not consistent with either the patient’s wishes or their carer’s. Moreover, this treatment is the major contributor to the unsustainable cost of our health system.

So let’s ask the elderly what they want, and just as importantly, what they don’t want, then design a caring and supportive system around their needs.  (p.295)

Every family needs to have someone who’s read this book and can get the conversation started…

Author: Ken Hillman
Title: A Good Life to the End
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 017
ISBN: 9781760294816
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 26, 2017

Herzog, by Saul Bellow

Within a page or two of opening Saul Bellow’s masterpiece Herzog, I began to wonder how I might write about it.  It has an authoritative introduction by Phillip Roth, it’s a classic of American literature, it’s by a famous Nobel Laureate (i.e. distinct from the obscure ones we’ve never heard of) and it’s listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  What could I possibly say about it that hasn’t been said before?

So I’ve decided not to write in my usual format.  If you want to know what the book is about, visit Goodreads or Wikipedia.  And here is an excerpt from 1001 Books as well:

The novel that made Saul Bellow’s name as a literary best-seller is a comedy of manners and ideas, loss and partial redemption.  The cuckolded academic Moses Herzog is neurotically restless, a pathological condition that notably manifests itself in his habit of composing unsent letters to the great and good of past and present times.


We follow Herzog’s musings on the events that have brought him to this state, most notably his amatory betrayal at the hands of his former friend Valentine Gersbach, and we follow him physically as he heads into Chicago for an abortive attempt at bloody revenge.  (p.565)

On the back of this centenary edition, there’s a quotation from Dave Eggars, and what he says there is true: there is something to make a reader stop and think on almost every page.  So I’m just going to share my thoughts about pages 102-3, which stopped me in my tracks…

What Bellow is on about on these two pages is the burden of selfhood and self-development. 

Herzog was first published in 1964, and it was not long after Hannah Arendt had published her ground-breaking book The Human Condition (1958) and even more relevant to the preoccupations of this novel, her report called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). The website Brain Pickings summarises her point that while acts of evil can mushroom into monumental tragedies, the individual human perpetrators of those acts are often marked not with the grandiosity of the demonic but with absolute mundanity.  And whether or not Arendt’s thinking is misunderstood, it seems to have triggered a great deal of post-Holocaust soul-searching about the possibilities of evil in all of us.  In Herzog, Herzog the character is constantly reflecting on his own nature and moral qualities – and in this part of the novel the reader finds him not only exhausted by the struggle to interrogate his own being but also resentful of the quest.

He knows himself a failure in need of a cure:

But this was becoming the up-to-date and almost conventional way of looking at any single life.  In this view, the body itself, with its two arms and vertical length, was compared to the Cross, on which you knew the agony of consciousness and separate being.

He interprets what has happened to him (his wife Madeleine’s betrayal) and his lawyer Sandor’s advice as

a collective project, himself participating, to destroy his vanity and his pretensions to a personal life so that he might disintegrate and suffer and hate, like so many others, not on anything so distinguished as a cross, but down in the mire of post-Renaissance, post-humanistic, post-Cartesian dissolution, next door to the Void.

One modern idea that excites his terrible little heart is that

you must sacrifice your poor, squawking, niggardly individuality – which may be nothing anyway (from an analytic viewpoint) but a persistent infantile megalomania, or (from a Marxian point of view) a stinking little bourgeois property – to historical necessity.  And to truth.  And truth is true only as it brings down more disgrace and dreariness upon human beings, so that if it shows anything except evil it is illusion and not truth.

Well, #musing what do I think about this?  If we interrogate ourselves – our moral values, our actions, our beliefs about ourselves and our loved ones and the world – and we don’t come to the conclusion that any and all of us have a capacity for evil, is that illusion?  Is it self-delusion?  Must that be the wrong conclusion to come to?

Herzog goes on to castigate himself:

But of course he, Herzog, predictably bucking such trends, had characteristically, obstinately, defiantly, blindly but without sufficient courage or intelligence tried to be a marvellous Herzog, a Herzog who perhaps clumsily, tried to live out marvellous qualities vaguely comprehended.  Granted he had gone too far, beyond his talents and his powers, but this was the cruel difficulty of a man who had strong impulses, even faith, but lacked clear ideas.  What if he failed? Did that really mean there was no faithfulness, no generosity, no sacred quality? Should he have been a plain, unambitious Herzog? No. And Madeleine would never have married such a type.

Because he’s in such emotional pain, he goes on to say with bitterness that she only wanted an ‘ambitious’ Herzog in order to trip him, bring him low, knock him sprawling and kick out his brains.  But his question lingers.

Did that really mean there was no faithfulness, no generosity, no sacred quality?

Reading this in the 21st century, post 9/11 and when there are people – mostly men so shockingly young – who are perpetrating evil even on innocent children and people of their own faith, it’s easy to lose faith in the fundamental goodness of human beings.  In the middle of the 20th century when Hannah Arendt was writing her books and intellectuals like Bellow were trying to make sense of a world that had changed irrevocably, the world had been shocked by the Holocaust and the crimes of Stalin (denounced by Khrushchev in 1956).  Yet Bellow, a Jew himself, is in Herzog asserting that at the personal level there could be ‘faithfulness’,  ‘generosity’, and a ‘sacred quality’ to human interaction, and that there must be ‘obstinate’, ‘defiant’ people who – with or without ‘sufficient courage or intelligence’ try to be marvellous. 

It’s a fundamentally optimistic view of the world, expressed in an exuberant characterisation and an often amusing plot.

Author: Saul Bellow
Title: Herzog
Introduction by Philip Roth
Publisher: Penguin, 2015
ISBN: 9780143107675
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Herzog: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions)

Chinese Literature (VSI)I finished reading this Very Short Introduction to Chinese Literature in the train on the way home today.

My interest in Chinese literature is primarily contemporary fiction, but I still found this little book very interesting.  As you can see from the table of contents, it traces the foundations of modern literature in an intriguing way:

  1. Foundations: ethics, parables and fish
  2. Poetry and poetics: landscapes, allusions and alcohol
  3. Classical narrative: history, jottings, and tales of the strange
  4. Vernacular drama and fiction: gardens, bandits and dreams
  5. Modern literature: trauma, movements and bus stops

NB Throughout the text, the author uses Chinese characters (logograms) and Romanised Chinese as well as English.  I can’t reproduce the logograms, but have included the Romanised Chinese in excerpts I have quoted.

The fish in chapter one come from an ancient text in which the legendary sage  Zhuangzi (369-286 BCE) has a conversation about the happiness of fish with the logician Huizi. But this is far from the oldest text still extant:

The antiquity of early Chinese texts is astounding by Western standards.  Although modern Chinese differs from early Chinese as much as English differs from Latin, experts today can still read the Chinese inscribed on tortoise shells and sheep scapulae dating from the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE).  Used for divination, these oracle bone inscriptions asked questions composed of individual characters (zi), the answers to which were divined by interpreting cracks when the bones were heated over fire.

These characters became the foundation of Chinese culture.  Although their forms and meanings evolved over time, modern Chinese still uses characters from ancient texts, and the continuity of the writing system has been crucial in helping China’s central traditions to cohere. (p.3)

Knight says that China’s survival over three thousand years may owe more to its literary traditions than to its political history. Its unity derives, she says, from faith in the power of writing (wen) and writing played a crucial role in civil practice, nourishing cultural harmony. 

More than merely a mirror of an already existing world or of ideal forms, literature was understood to be a tangible means by which the world comes to be.  The patterns of writing were thought to be concrete forms of the principle (li) of natural structures, and so writing played a key role in passing on the natural and moral Way (Dao).

For most of China’s history, however, writing was the purview of a privileged elite. Scholars and officials within the bureaucracy that developed during the first unified dynasty became an educated gentry with political influence,

…[forging] a bond between written culture and politics that would last until the late twentieth century.  For most of the thirteen centuries between 605 and 1905, governments reinforced this bond by recruiting officials through an examination system based on classical literary study. (p.6)

[Like many early texts in the Western tradition], Chinese texts are about encouraging morality.  Everyone has heard of Confucius (551-479 BCE) and his teachings in the Analects … he and others like him such as Mencius sought to better their world by cultivating virtues such as filial piety, courtesy, ritual, benevolence, moral courage, and ritual propriety. ‘Feeling’ became vital:

Seen as the source of aesthetic, imaginative and subjective consciousness, the term qing came to encompass not only all the richness of the English word love but also affection, emotions and sentience.  Poetry, fiction, and drama all valorised feeling, and tended to portray emotion rather than rational principle as the driving energy of human affairs.  As many traditionalist thinkers came to view feeling as vital to fostering Confucian virtues, feeling was elevated to a cultural and national ideal.  This expanded interest in feeling stressed both romantic love and loyalty to the state and emperor, an emphasis that encouraged martyrdom among Chinese literati in the face of the Manchu’s conquest and rule.  These shifting notions of qing suggest feeling’s centrality to understandings of how people relate to the world, understandings developed above all in poetry, China’s most revered literary genre. (p.24)

The chapter on poetry is too complex to delve into here (and anyway, you should buy the book if you are really interested), but I was fascinated by the example of translated Chinese poetry (Spring Gazing) on page 46.

Update: I have had to remove the image showing the logograms for copyright reasons…

As you can see there are single words underneath each logogram, so that the first line reads:

Nation break mountains rivers exist

and this is translated as

The nation breaks asunder
while mountains and rivers endure.

It is, when you read the rest of the poem, a perfect way to render the original, but it just shows you what a delicate and sophisticated art translation is, in some languages more than others!

Chapter three explores the development of fiction as distinct from history.  Confucius had decreed that writers transmit without creating (Analects 7.2) and stories not based in history were derided as “little talk”, a term that much later became the modern word for fiction.  Nevertheless, Knight gives examples of narratives involving fictional elements such as ghosts and spirits and other strange things, and

By the fourth century, writers recorded simple short “jottings” they did not present as history or philosophy.  United by their use of the classical language, these jottings were favoured by scholar-gentlemen not only for historical anecdotes, social commentary, musings, travel notes, and contemplation of nature, but also for diaries, jokes and what we would now call fiction. (p.60)

The texts under discussion become more accessible (to readers like me, that is) when we get to the four masterworks of the Mind dynasty: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (ca. 1552, revised 1679, which has been turned into a mini-series watched by 1.2 billion people worldwide); Water Margin a.k.a Outlaws of the Marsh (ca. 1550, with lots of martial arts); Journey to the West (1641) which is a satire with surreal elements; and The Plum in the Golden Vase (1618) which is about a community obsessed with money, status and sensual indulgence.  All of these have to do with lessons in Buddhist and Confucian ethics, and all of them are easily available at online bookstores.   So are texts of 18th century satire like Dream of the Red Chamber (1792) which I have read in a children’s edition for school i.e. with the sexy bits removed. Dream paints the folly and corruption bred by elite privilege, while also depicting love, loss and longing.  One of its sequels Gu’s Shadows of Dream of the Red Chamber is possibly China’s earliest surviving novel by a woman.

Chapter 5 is about modern literature.  There is extensive reference to a play called Bus Stop (1983) by China’s Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian (1940-).  Reminiscent of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), it’s about eight people waiting for a bus which never comes.  One, Silent Person, departs fairly soon, and after ten years the others regret that they maintained their optimism and didn’t follow him.  It’s a work of social criticism:

A political allegory of China’s passage from the countryside to the city, Gao’s play suggests five themes central to the modernisation and globalisation of Chinese literature.  Though many critics interpret the play as signalling the government’s failure to deliver the means of progress, others hear in it ongoing commitments to national pride, humanism, progress, memory and pleasure.  (p.98)

But, Gao is an émigré and any discussion about Chinese literature in the communist era must deal with the issue of censorship and self-censorship.  There had been a concerted push to modernise China after the disastrous political events of the 19th century and reformers ensured that readers had access to translations of Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy and others. There was a period of ‘denunciation novels’ but all that shut down during the Cultural Revolution.

[I am simultaneously reading a new book called On the Burning of Books by Kenneth Baker, which includes a section about the Cultural Revolution, and it says that

All non-Communist ideas, all writings that did not conform to Marxist-Leninist principles were to be destroyed together with the people who dared to express them. (On the Burning of Books: How Flames Fail to Destroy the Written Word by Kenneth Baker, Unicorn, 2016 p.75)]

Some stories from the 17-year period between the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), such as Yang Mo’s Song of Youth (1958), are still popular.  Knight notes that they are marked by a progressive vision and that there were novels modelling Mao’s collectivisation programs which were read as manuals for cadres facing recalcitrant former landlords or apathetic peasants. One of these, which has the dubious distinction of winning the Stalin Prize in 1951, is The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River (1948), notable for its vivid characterisations and ominous depictions of violent vengeance.  

Works promoting socialist progress became dutifully optimistic after Mao launched his “Great Leap Forward” (1958-62), and his vice-minister of culture called for “revolutionary realism” and “revolutionary romanticism”.  (p.109)

Ardent works focussed on the overlapping benefits for the characters’ personal and collective futures. 

The formulaic operas and ballets of “revolutionary model theatre” further glorified self-sacrificing workers, soldiers, and peasants, as did collectivisation novels.  […] Ignoring famines and environmental devastation, legacies of Mao’s programs, these works presented visions of revolutionary history consistent with party policy and Mao’s rising cult status.  (p.109)

Things have changed a bit since Mao’s death.  His successors support the “four modernisations” of agriculture, industry, technology and defence, and “reform literature” addresses the personal costs of modernisation [which I assume would include a novel like Educated Youth by Ye Xin (2016)]. During the thaw, works of so-called Scar Literature testified to long suppressed sorrow and compassion deriving from the sufferings of the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957) and the Cultural Revolution.  [Ai Mi’s Under The Hawthorn Tree is also one of these, but the author’s anonymity means that readers do not know whether it was written from within China].

Knight suggests that writers depicting events before 1949 could exhume traumatic memories of the Cultural Revolution with less risk of censorship or reprisals, and cites Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum (1987) as an example.  But she also notes that Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma (2008) set in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre was written and published abroad after Ma’s exile in 1987.  Yan Lianke writes risky novels such as Dream of Ding Village (2006) and more recently The Explosion Chronicles (2013) and it never ceases to surprise me that he escapes censorship, whereas Liao Yiwu had to seek asylum in Europe.

It is sad to see that the last page of this VSI notes that in the west people tend to buy more books written in English by Chinese-born authors such as Ha Jin than translations from Chinese.  (I am pleased to say that it’s not true of this blog).

Once again, this has been an illuminating VSI, and I recommend it to anyone interested in translated fiction in general and China in particular.

Author: Sabina Knight
Title: Chinese Literature, a Very Short Introduction
Series: Very Short Introductions
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press, 2012
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions).  and on audio Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions (Audio)


From time to time, the State Library of Victoria (SLV) runs a series called Author in Conversation, and today (with the sun shining at last as I walked down to the railway station) I went to a very interesting presentation about an often overlooked aspect of our city’s history.  Made to Order, George Thwaites & Sons, Colonial Cabinetmakers explores the history of the craftsman who was cabinetmaker to all the grandees of colonial Melbourne, so his story is part of the material culture of our city.  And, as was noted during the presentation, the history of things is also the history of people…

This is the blurb for the book:

From majestic carved chairs and handsome cedar desks in Melbourne’s banks to grand bookcases in country mansions and stately furniture still housed in Victoria’s Government House today, Made to Order celebrates the furniture made by George Thwaites and his sons. For three decades following the discovery of gold, Melbourne gave rise to gothic-revival style buildings, and foremost in furnishing these new government and commercial buildings – and the homes of the well-heeled – was the cabinet work of Geo. Thwaites & Son. This book illuminates the lives of not only the owners but the artisans, whose contribution to the fabric of colonial and Victorian society has been largely overlooked. Made to Order provides a fascinating insight into colonial Melbourne and features an extraordinary range of furniture that provides a testament to the quality of the Thwaites’ workmanship.

Author Robert La Nauze is an artist and engineer who worked in research and technology management before he retired. His biography of William Thwaites, Engineer to Marvellous Melbourne (2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Victorian History Publication Awards and Made to Order is his second book.  He was in conversation with Graeme Davison who is Emeritus Sir John Monash Distinguished Professor in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University. Davison is an author too: his books include The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (1978 and 2004), The Unforgiving Minute: How Australia Learned to Tell the Time (1991), The Use and Abuse of Australian history (2000) and Car Wars: How the Car Won our Hearts and Conquered our Cities (2004).  I haven’t read any of these books, but I am pretty sure I’ve read reviews of them in the Melbourne press.


When asked about the influences on his book, La Nauze talked about the issue of family history and how to make it interesting.  Mostly family histories are written for families, but, he says, if you want to make them interesting for other people, then you need a different approach.  (Though the drafts are still lurking in his computer), he abandoned a normal linear story of the Thwaites family and decided to write a history of the furniture instead.

I like antique furniture… not in my house because I don’t have the time or inclination for polishing and I don’t want to feel anxious if someone spills a glass of wine … but I like looking at it in galleries and museums.  George Thwaites made all kinds of gorgeous things including this lovely sewing box and gorgeous (if not very comfortable) chairs and Sir Redmond Barry’s bookcase and other stunning items that we saw in the slide show (and that are reproduced in the book).  What is quite remarkable about Thwaites’ work is that it was made as the industrial revolution was transforming manufacturing but he refused to allow the new machines into his workshop because he said you couldn’t make beautiful furniture except by hand.

Mind you, he had new challenges as a craftsman in Australia.  Early settlers were used to working with European softwoods and they had to use different processes and methods with Australian hardwoods.  Blackwood, for example, has the same hardness as English oak, but has a different composition and it dulls a plane very quickly.  When it came to designs, much of what Thwaites made was commissioned by wealthy people who chose designs from pattern books (mostly from England and France), but negotiated adapted designs with Thwaites.  (For example, featuring Australian flora and fauna).   You can see typical patterns in the greyed-out images on the book cover, but while Thwaites was a product of his market i.e. High Victorian furniture influenced by Gothic Revival, he resisted the excesses of Victorian style furniture and made beautifully proportioned pieces instead.

La Nauze made the point that while Thwaites was an excellent craftsman, his success was also due to the Gold Rush and the vast sums of money that were sloshing around the colony.  It is probable that in his early career Thwaites made quite ordinary furniture and sold it to quite ordinary people.  But once the Gold Rush was in full swing, the commissions came rolling in.  People had money to spend and they liked to spend it on artisan-made status-enhancing furniture.  It was a time of great social change when power and influence was shifting from the aristocracy and the wealthy were not always people with titles!

La Nauze also paid credit to the resources of the SLV where he did the research for the book and as part of the presentation we were invited to a look at some of the items, but *sigh* I had a train to catch so I missed that bit.

These are the details of the book if you are interested: Xmas is a long way off but I think this book would be a perfect gift book for anyone interested in furniture, artisanship or history.

Author: Robert La Nauze
Title: Made to Order, George Thwaites & Sons, Colonial Cabinetmakers
Publisher: New South Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781742235516 (hbk)
Available from Fishpond: Made to Order: George Thwaites and sons, colonial cabinet makers


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2017

Meet an Aussie Author: Rachel Matthews

SirenRachel Matthews first came to my attention with her recent novel Siren (see my review), published by Transit Lounge.  Siren is her second novel: her debut Vinyl Inside was highly commended in the 2003 Vogel and received critical press acclaim when it was published in 2008.

Rachel is also a very busy lecturer and VCE English teacher, but has found time to complete a PhD in creative writing… and to share some insights into her life in Meet an Aussie Author!

I was born …in Shepparton

When I was a child I wrote…poems and short stories and rewrote Abba songs.

The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write was…Mrs Benson in Year 11 at Shepparton High School. She was stern and wonderful and enjoyed a terrible story I wrote about two people saying goodbye at an airport. I think I’d been watching too much of The Love Boat.

I write in… my bedroom in silence. Or I stay in hotels and lock myself away.

I write when…I can get away from everything.

Research is….something that happens along the way. I don’t like to plan or structure the first draft, it interferes with the creativity.

I keep my published works in …a shelf.

On the day my first book was published, I…took it up to Shepparton to surprise my parents.

At the moment, I’m writing …student assessments and planning my next book.

When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I …don’t worry about it, I just make a mental note to come back to it.

 You can find out more about Rachel at her website.

Thanks for participating, Rachel!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2017

The Last Man in Europe, by Dennis Glover

As I wrote in my previous post about the launch of Dennis Glover’s The Last Man in Europe at The Bookshop at Queenscliff, this novel is a fictionalised account of George Orwell’s life when he was writing 1984, (which was originally going to be called The Last Man in Europe).  It’s an unusual kind of historical fiction, sticking closely to the historical record, exploring influences on Orwell’s writing,  and supplemented with Glover’s imaginative reconstructions.  It’s a book to appeal to Orwell enthusiasts and those familiar with his works especially 1984, but as to how it might work for people who haven’t read Orwell, I can’t say. 

I think, however, that it’s actually quite courageous to write a book like this about such a famous author.  Amongst his other accomplishments (see my previous post) Glover is a scholar of Orwell, but so are countless others, and there will be experts who read this looking for flaws rather than enjoying the ride.  The advantage for the everyday reader like me is that pressure like that means we can assume that the facts are not in contention.

1949 first edition (Wikipedia Commons)

Written in serviceable prose without any authorial flourishes other than frequent flashbacks to illustrate the sources of Orwell’s ideas, Glover’s novel begins in 1937 with Eric Blair’s doubts about his future as a writer.  Like many an author before and since, he was finding that apart from changing his name to Orwell, nothing much had changed since the publication of his first book.  An old Etonian without financial resources to match, he yearned to be successful both from a personal and political point-of-view.  Orwell was an intensely political creature, and like many intellectuals in Britain, he was a socialist because he believed that socialism would redress the inequality that he witnessed and wrote about in his books.

Today, when everything Orwell wrote is devoured by readers all over the world, it is hard to believe that his books were mostly ignored until the success of Animal Farm.  Those books were fueled by his idealism and his disillusionment. In his all too brief life he had worked in the Indian Civil Service under imperialism; he had fought against fascism in in the Spanish Civil War.  He had witnessed two world wars and a depression, and he had seen terrible poverty and shocking violence.  By the time he came to write 1984 he was convinced that communism under Stalin was a terrible distortion of an ideal and he was appalled by what he knew of show trials and oppression.  He also knew from having worked in the propaganda office during WW2 that even in a democracy truth was being warped in order to manipulate behaviour.

The Last Man in Europe uses elements and experiences from Orwell’s own life to build a picture of a man driven to communicate his political philosophy but handicapped by the circumstances of his own life and political events around him.  Being able to marry was contingent on an advance from a publisher, and that meant trying to second-guess the kind of book that publishers wanted as well as the kind of book that would sell enough to give him an adequate income.  We tend, these days, to focus on the structural difficulties that handicap women’s writing and writing from minority groups, but Glover’s book shows that even before the torments of the illness that finally killed him, Orwell wrote under extremely difficult circumstances, clattering away on an old typewriter on a shelf tucked into a corner of a rented room in scraps of time left to him after he’d finished the day job and his role as a firewatcher during the Blitz.  It wasn’t just the time away from writing that made his job a curse, it was the way it impacted on his ability to think. 

In my previous post I noted specific aspects of Orwell’s life that Glover identified in 1984:

There are elements and experiences from Orwell’s own life, such as the naming of Room 101 as the torture room.  This comes from when Orwell had a job in WW2 writing war propaganda, where he had to attend meetings at the Ministry of Information (now London University).  Orwell found these meetings sheer torture (don’t we all?) and they were held in, you guessed it, Room 101.   There’s also the Hate scene in 1984 which comes from when Orwell attended a Mosley fascist rally as a journalist, and Glover thinks that Winston’s relationship with Julia is based on his first wife, the girl from the fiction department.   

Glover frames these scenes in the context of their place in 1984 so that the reader can see how the author’s life builds attitudes, beliefs and preoccupations – so in some ways this novel feels more like a memoir than a novel.  I recall Glover saying that he considered writing non-fiction about Orwell, but decided that he needed fiction to convey his interest in the writing process instead. In places the content reminds me of academic essays about influences on an author except that the writing style is immediately accessible and there is a narrative drive that propels the novel along.

Photo by Ken Craig, CC BY-SA 2.0, (Wikipedia Commons)

Some parts of the novel are emotionally draining.  Glover’s depiction of the miseries of rationing during and after the war is vivid, and the descriptions of the medical treatment that Orwell endured are horrific.  But what is awe-inspiring is the determination of the man to complete his legacy on the remote island of Jura in Scotland.  Orwell was gravely ill with TB, but against the advice of his doctor he made the journey to Barnhill because he needed the isolation in order to be able to write.

Glover’s last chapters clarify Orwell’s purpose in writing 1984.  For many years it was (mis)read as a critique of communism, but Glover depicts Orwell in his last days, making sure that his publisher understood:

‘My novel Nineteen Eight-Four is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labour party,’ Orwell began, ‘but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralised economy is liable, and which have already been realised in communism and fascism.  I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will necessarily arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive.  I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences.  The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasise that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else, and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.


‘The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: don’t let it happen.  It depends on you.’ (p.274)

Just one ‘fact’ intrigues me.  Did the bells of Big Ben chime really thirteen times before the BBC announced the death of George Orwell on 21st January 1950?

Author: Dennis Glover
Title: The Last Man in Europe
Publisher: Black Inc, 2017
ISBN: 9781863959377
Source: personal library, purchased from The Bookshop at Queenscliff, $29.99.

Available from Fishpond: The Last Man in Europe: A Novel

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2017

2017 Readings Prize shortlist

They’ve just announced the 2017 shortlist for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction….

According to the press release, the prize recognises exciting and exceptional new contributions to local literature, with the books are selected by a judging panel made up of Readings booksellers.

The shortlisted books are:

The Windy Season by Sam Carmody, see my review,

Australia Day by Melanie Cheng,

The Good People by Hannah Kent,

The Lost Pages by Marija Peričić, see my review

From the Wreck by Jane Rawson, see my review and

Jean Harley Was Here by Heather Taylor Johnson.

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 20, 2017

Autumn, by Ali Smith

Longlisted for the 2017 Booker, Autumn (2016) is first of what will apparently be a series of four.  (Winter is due for publication in November).  I hesitate to call it a novel because although this Hamish Hamilton edition is 259 pages long, it is printed in such a large font that it feels like reading a Large Print edition. It takes only an hour or two to read and if it were printed in a normal font it would be more of a novella.  I looked up the rules of eligibility for the Booker Prize – and found that entries appear to be limited to novels, but presumably they’ve had that argument and resolved it in Smith’s favour.

Perhaps because of the importance of both the author and the book.  According to Wikipedia, Sebastian Barry says that Ali Smith is Scotland’s Nobel Laureate-in-waiting, and her books have won multiple awards and prize nominations, earning her an honorary doctorate and a CBE.  She hasn’t won the Booker yet, but she was nominated for Hotel World (2001, which I read ages ago); The Accidental (2005); and How to Be Both (2014, which I tried and failed to read).  So maybe Autumn will be the one.  It has a currency that makes it important in its own right.

It’s a melancholy book.  It begins with an allusion to the opening lines of The Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens, an historical novel set in London and Paris about the chaos and violence of the French Revolution.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

In the opening lines of Autumn, these words distort:

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.  Again.  That’s the thing about things.  They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.

Written in the aftermath of Brexit, Autumn documents the dismay that many Britons feel.   There is a three-page lament about the divisions rising up…

All across the country there was misery and rejoicing.

All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic.

All across the country,  people thought it was the wrong thing.  All across the country,  people thought it was the right thing.  All across the country,  people felt they’d really lost. All across the country,  people felt they’d really won.  All across the country,  people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country,  people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country,  people looked up Google: move to Scotland.  All across the country,  people looked up Google: Irish passport applications. 


All across the country, people waved flags in the rain.  All across the country, people drew swastika graffiti.  All across the country, people threatened other people.  All across the country, people told people to leave. All across the country, the media was insane.  All across the country, politicians lied.


All across the country, things got nasty.


All across the country, the country split in pieces.  All across the country, the countries cut adrift.  (p.59-61)

Still, there is the power of love.  Through the main characters of a very old man called Daniel Gluck and the art historian Elisabeth Demand whom he befriended as a child, the book weaves within both the private and the public present and past.  Mr Gluck sleeps through the entire trajectory of the book, which begins with his dream of being young again.  He is very old indeed, frail and dependent in an aged care home where Elisabeth visits and reads to him every day.  Ironically, considering that staff have wrongly identified her as his granddaughter, she has to get a new passport to identify herself as a visitor, allowing for comic scenes in the post office that isn’t a post office any more.

Time shifts back and forth as if flicking backwards and forwards through an old photo album.  In fragmentary very short chapters filled with powerful scraps of words, Mr Gluck  takes the place of Elisabeth’s absent parents.  Her father is literally absent – not dead, but in Leeds – and her mother is emotionally absent throughout her childhood, only late in life becoming the person she wants to be and that Elisabeth can be fond of in an amused and tolerant kind of way.  On long walks Mr Gluck teaches Elisabeth to think, to imagine, to dream and to be playful.  He takes her to a performance of The Tempest.  He describes paintings to her.  He teaches her to make up stories.  He is insistent about the power of reading.

Hello, he said, what are you reading?

Elizabeth showed him her empty hands.

Does it look like I’m reading anything, she said.

Always be reading something, he said.  Even when we’re not physically reading.  How else will we read the world?  Think of it as a constant.

A constant what? Elisabeth said.

A constant constancy. (p. 68)

Is there something autobiographical from Smith’s life in this characterisation?

Mr Gluck, whose sister stood up against fascism in Nazi Europe, is a moral touchstone.  Elisabeth as a child wants him to embroider his past to fool her mother:

Which would you choose, Daniel had said once.  Should I please her and tell her she guessed right, and that I’m a recently retired Rambert? Or should I tell her the more mundane truth?

Definitely tell her the lie, Elisabeth said.

But what will happen if I do? Daniel said.

It’ll be brilliant, Elisabeth said.  It’ll be really funny.

I’ll tell you what will happen, Daniel said.  This.  You and I will know I’ve lied, but your mother won’t.  You and I will know something that your mother doesn’t.  That will make us feel different towards not just your mother, but each other.  A wedge will come between us all.  You will stop trusting me, and quite right, because I’d be a liar.  We’ll all be lessened by the lie.  So.  Do you still choose the ballet?  Or will I tell the sorrier truth?

I want the lie, Elisabeth said.  She knows loads of things I don’t. I want to know some things she doesn’t.

The power of the lie, Daniel said. Always seductive to the powerless.  (p.113-4)

In Autumn, the seduction of the lie at a personal level, also targets the lies in the public sphere.

The corruption of politicians is nothing new: through Elisabeth’s interest in the pop artist Pauline Boty, Smith revisits the Christine Keeler scandal, an allusion that seems to say that governments could be brought down in a more innocent age by a sex scandal, but no scandal is big enough to bring down modern governments.  Elisabeth marches to no avail in the Not in My Name protests against the Iraq War, and her mother has had enough:

I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.

I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says. (p.56)

Actually, it’s a brilliant word, isn’t it? Fear that is expressed in animosity.  A word for our times…

Author: Ali Smith
Title: Autumn
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House UK), 2016
ISBN: 9780241207017
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Autumn (Seasonal)

20170817_194003Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Melbourne launch of The Historian’s Daughter, by Rashida Murphy.  I’m not often tempted to attend launches, I would mostly rather stay home and read a book, but this one was linked to celebrations for the 70th anniversary of India’s Independence, and there were scrumptious Indian nibbles on offer as well as the chance to meet an author whose work I really admired.  (See my review of The Historian’s Daughter if you need any convincing).

Alas, it was way across town at the Eltham bookshop, but thanks to a very kind offer from my son’s in-laws, I enjoyed the hospitality of a bed for the night so I didn’t have to drive home afterwards, and thank goodness for that because Melbourne dished out some of the worst weather we’ve had in a while and the traffic was foul, thanks to all the impatient fools who caused accidents and traffic chaos.  A journey that normally takes an hour took two, and a very stressful two at that.  I made it to the event with one minute to spare!

The thing about indie bookshops is that they are just that: they do their own thing, and as owner Meera Govil explained, this bookshop has a focus on Asian titles so they have a distinctive range of books.  I could easily have spent a small fortune there, but (on account of two extravagant #NationalBookshopDay spending sprees at Benn’s Bookshop in Bentleigh) I contented myself with just three books, two by Elif Shafak and Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss – who is of course not Asian at all, but Indigenous, and one of Australia’s most engaging public intellectuals.  She writes serious books, but also what she calls ‘choc-lit’, and this one looks interesting because it features a Japanese POW who escapes from the Cowra POW camp and is given refuge by a local Aboriginal.

Anyway, proceedings were introduced by the Indian Consul in Melbourne, Ms Manika Jainan and then there was a short intro by Meera Govil.  The notable thing about this was that both ladies had read the book they were launching, and as we all know, this is not always the case, so I was impressed.  Then it was over to Iranian-Australian Sanaz Fotouhi, from Asia Pacific Writers and Translators, to ask the questions…

Sanaz (whose field of study at Monash University is the Iranian diaspora) noted that the book is rich in themes: identity, memory, migration, mother-daughter relationships, and truth and lies.  When asked about the inspiration for the book, Rashida said that it was partly autobiographical, and that she was fascinated by the way siblings remember the same events differently.  (And we can all relate to that, eh?)

She said she was also interested in writing about taboos, because silence suppresses the truth about some things which need to be dealt with.  She felt that that there were silenced women in her own family, women who were hidden away or discarded – sometimes just because they were feisty women who didn’t conform to Indian traditions about womenhood.  But her novel is also about loss: about her grief that – although she loves Australia and cherishes its freedoms – in raising her own daughter here in Australia she did not have the support of strong matriarchal women that she would have had in India.

She also spoke about the sense of displacement and alienation that comes with migration.  She said (and I personally know this to be true) that there is an assumption that it’s easy if the migrant speaks English.  It’s still not easy because there is still a sense of isolation, of having no roots, and of missing the elders who would normally be available for advice and support.

Most poignant of all was the revelation that Sobrah, an Iranian character in The Historian’s Daughter who inexplicably goes missing, is based on a real student who lived with Rashida’s family for a decade until the Iranian Revolution, and then disappeared.  Despite efforts to trace him, she still doesn’t know where he is, or even if he is alive.  So in a way the novel is a kind of closure: she doesn’t know what happened to him, so she has ‘made it up’.

I was very pleased to hear that Rashida is already hard at work on a new novel which sounds rather intriguing.  It’s about old churches and Indian bandits called dacoits, who were occasionally a sinister presence in her family’s garden in India.  ‘Don’t worry about them’, her father would say, ‘I’m defending them in court!’

A most enjoyable night, and then a delicious meal at Nongkhai Thai Eltham. Thanks to Lyn for being great company and such a thoughtful host:)

Rashida’s novel is available from Fishpond: The Historian’s Daughter and all good bookstores.

PS Bad weather or no, I am delighted to report a harbinger of Spring: the very first flower has bloomed on the jasmine outside my library window!

In Diamond SquareI owe my discovery of this fine novel to my previous reading of The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda which came my way via Open Letter Books as part of their First 25 discount offer.  I had never heard of Mercè Rodoreda when I opened up the parcel and began cataloguing the 25 translations at Goodreads, and it was not until I read The Selected Stories for Spanish Lit Month at Winston’s Dad and #WITMonth (i.e. Women in Translation) that I realised what treasure I had, because Open Letter Books had also sent me Death in Spring (which I started reading last night).

But Open Letter had not sent me In Diamond Square, otherwise known in the 1986 translation by David H. Rosenthal as The Time of the Doves, and the recommendation from Grant at 1st Reading was all the persuasion I needed to get a copy of that too. It is very powerful writing.

In the history of modern warfare, civilians have suffered terribly.  Civilian deaths of those caught up in the conflict or suffering from malnutrition and disease sometimes outnumber military casualties by the thousands.  In Diamond Square begins by telling a love story but when the Spanish Civil War erupts it becomes a chronicle of the impact of war on ordinary people.

Narrated by a shop girl in Barcelona, the story begins when Natalia falls for the charming Joe, and they build a life together. He is more forceful than a modern woman would find acceptable, but Natalia loves him and she acquiesces in his obsessive hobby of pigeon-breeding, even when the pigeon lofts expand from the apartment roof to inside the house.

Joe is a carpenter, but as civil unrest increases, contracts dry up.

And work was going badly.  Joe said it was playing hard to get but it would come right in the end, people were agitated, and not thinking about restoring furniture or having new items made.  The rich were angry with the Republic.


And there was no work around and we were all very hungry and I saw very little of Joe because he and Ernie were up to something.  (p.72)

To help make ends meet, Natalia cleans the house of a wealthy couple whose decrepit house symbolises the decay of the aristocracy in Spain.  She has no one to care for the children, so little Anthony* and Rita have to be locked up in the dining-room while she is away at work.

(*Antonio, surely?  Why translate it??)

As the war encroaches she does her best to dissuade Joe from joining up, but Joe is not a man who takes much notice of a woman.  In this excerpt the text emphasises Natalia’s repeated attempts to keep him at home, with repetitions of I told him:

Both Ernie and Joe kept talking about the patrols and how they should go back to being soldiers, and do their duty. I told them it was all very well joining up but they’d been soldiers once and I told Ernie to leave Joe in peace and not to tempt him into joining up because we had enough headaches as it was. Ernie didn’t look me in the eye for a week.  And one day he came to see me, so what’s so wrong with joining up?

I told him to let other people do it, the ones who weren’t married like he was, and I wasn’t going to stop him but Joe had too much work on his hands at home and was too old.  And he said Joe would soon be in fine fettle because they were going to the mountains on manoeuvres… and I told him I didn’t want Joe joining up.

I was exhausted.  I was killing myself with work and everything  was piling up.  Joe didn’t see I needed a bit of help, rather than spending my whole life helping others, but nobody took any notice of me and they all wanted more from me as I too wasn’t a person with needs.  (p.102.)

With Joe away at the war, her employers decline to employ her any longer because Joe is fighting for the Republican cause.  Then there is real hardship, vividly portrayed in forceful images…

Things get so bad that Natalia has to send Anthony away to a camp for refugee boys, but it’s a terrible place.

When his time to stay there was over, Julie fetched him.  He was a changed boy.  They had changed him.  He was puffy, with a swollen pot belly, round cheeks, and two sunburnt, bony legs, a scabby, shaved head and a big boil on his neck.  He didn’t even look at me.  He went straight to the corner where his toys were and touched them with his fingertips […] and Rita said she’d not broken any.  […] And for supper, between the three of us, we ate a sardine and a mouldy tomato. And if we’d owned a cat, it would have found a single bone left over.

And we slept together.  Me sandwiched between my two kids.  That’s how we’d die if we died. (p.139)

She is reduced to selling everything, even the imposing chair that no one but Joe could use.

I had no work and nothing on the horizon.  I’d just sold all I had left: the bed I’d had as a young girl, the mattress from the bed with the columns, Joe’s watch that I’d wanted to give his son when he grew up.  Every scrap of clothing.  Wine glasses, hot chocolate cups, sideboard… and when nothing else remained I swallowed my pride and went back to back to the house of my old bosses.  (p. 141)

What small pity they have is swamped by their fear that a person like her could get them into trouble because she is a ‘red’ and in her despair she decides to kill her children rather than see them suffer any more.  But she doesn’t even have the money to buy the acid…

Natalia is a survivor, however, and there is a recovery of sorts, a melancholy accommodation that reflects the compromises that had to be made in Franco’s Spain.

Death in Spring is a very different sort of book. I’ll have to see how I get on with that one…

Author: Mercè Rodoreda
Title: In Diamond Square (La plaça del diamant)
Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush
Publisher: Virago Modern Classics, 2014
ISBN: 9781844087372
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $14.88

Available from Fishpond: In Diamond Square: A Virago Modern Classic

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 16, 2017

The Wish Child, by Catherine Chidgey

Rarely has historical fiction been so well done as in this award-winning novel from New Zealand Author Catherine Chidgey.  The Wish Child won the Ockham New Zealand Award for Fiction this year, and unusually for a work of literary fiction, it has become an international bestseller as well.  When I tell you that the novel employs #MyLeastFavouriteNarrativeDevice – a dead child narrator –  my admiration may seem even more remarkable…

But there is more to this narrator than is immediately obvious, though many will not realise this unless #NotRecommended they sneak a look at the Historical Note at back of the book.  I worked it out about half way through the book but that was only because I had read something very recently that set my antennae on alert.  No, I’m not going to tell you which book that was – suffice to say that the omniscient narrator of The Wish Child tells the story of two children in Germany during WW2.

The device works because there is no attempt to render a childlike voice of innocence.  This narrator knows from the beginning about the evil that lies at the heart of Nazi ambitions, and The Wish Child grapples with the culpability of ordinary Germans under the Nazis by exploring the propaganda that surrounded them. As the narrative traces the years from 1939 to 1945 – from when Germany expects to win the war and to reap the economic benefits of its policies, to when the privations of war affect Berliners and they realise that a crushing defeat is imminent – this narrator, looking back on events, alerts the reader to his stance very early in the novel:

…this is where I’ll start: some weeks later, when the absurd man with the absurd moustache calls off the Peace Rally so he can send his troops into Poland. (p.24)

But that is not the stance of the characters whose lives he observes.  Like the admirers of That Grotesque Man in America, they are captivated by their Führer and the ideas he espouses.  The Berlin housewives queue to hear him…

At the theatre there is standing room only for the Führer’s speech.  The women hand over their furs to the coat-check girl, who cannot, it seems, trouble herself to smile, and may not even be German.  They find their seats, which are ten rows back from the stage and afford an acceptable view of the lectern, until a vast individual with blond braids piled high on her head takes her place in front of them.  It is difficult to see past the bulging hair, which the women agree must be false.  Such persons need to acquaint themselves with mirrors, they remark, but they refuse to let her ruin their evening.  Through their opera glasses they take in the one-man show, the feverish aria tumbling from the stage: swords and blood, blood and earth, betrayal and sacrifice, disguise, salvation: all the traditional and tragic themes.  And how the women applaud!  How they cheer.  (p.41)

(Note the small touches of authorial cunning here: the exclamation mark after ‘applaud’ followed by the deflating full stop after ‘cheer’.)

This narrative voice is also complemented by other narrative devices such as the scripted dialogues between the two Berlin housewives Frau Miller and Frau Müller, and also a schoolteacher indoctrinating her class.  At first The Wish Child subverts the usual compassion that people would feel for the suffering of children in war because the narrator so often sardonically parrots the propaganda: life mostly goes on very comfortably for the German children and their families.  But although nothing specific is said of it in the narration, we who know our history know that about the suffering of other children.  We know that in the early years of the war children were being bombed in Britain and Poland and that unspeakable things were happening to Jewish children and their parents.  So the reader’s sympathies lie elsewhere while the narrator parrots that the war is far away and will be won because the Germans are inherently superior.  No one seems innocent at all, and where there are chillingly vague references to what is really going on, the perfidy nevertheless seems so obvious that – with the reader’s benefit of hindsight – we wonder how Germans could not have known.  And yet because we cannot understand the unfathomable – how, if they knew, a whole nation could have been complicit in such evil – we try to resist believing that they were.

Over and over again this novel asks the questions the world has asked ever since: did they know?  how much did they know? could/should they have known?  how much did a culture of suppressing doubt or criticism contribute? And for us, today, aghast at the current crop of demagogues and their loathsome supporters, and shamed by the inhumane treatment of refugees on Manus Island, we have to ask ourselves, what do we know and what should we be doing?

It is not a spoiler to tell you that Seiglind survives the war to take a job in 1995 reassembling shredded surveillance documents from East Berlin after reunification, because the first chapter tells us so.  And as you know if you’ve read Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, this project is actually real.  It is an attempt to find out what happened to people who disappeared under the Soviet regime, by reassembling what’s left of the records.

She has developed her own system, as all the puzzlers have.  She lifts the scraps from the bags as gently as possible to preserve the original strata, sorting them according to size, paper colour, texture, weight, as well as type face or handwriting, before fitting ragged edge to ragged edge to restore the destroyed file.  It can take days to complete a single page, and always there are pieces she cannot home, holes she cannot fill.  Sixteen thousand sacks, six million scraps of paper – it will take centuries to finish – but she trains herself to focus only on the snippets in front of her, to find the patterns, the matches.  (p.15)

The story then reverts to 1939, the link to events in 1995 not explained until late in the novel.  Siggi lives in affluence in middle-class Berlin, where her parents absorb all the propaganda and willingly cooperate with everything the Nazis ask them to do.   Siggi’s father works in the censorship office, removing from books and documents words like ‘promise’,. ‘love’ and ‘mercy’ with his scissors.  (Scraps of poetry are woven through the narrative, with increasing numbers of words excised, eventually rendering the poems incomprehensible). Siggi’s mother gets the samovar she has long yearned for when she attends an auction of ‘abandoned’ goods and is proud to be raising good German children to please the Führer.  Her children are perfectly safe, she believes (despite her nerves), so there is no need to evacuate them to the countryside.  She looks forward to a great future when Germany is unified and all the impure people who are unfit to live have been disposed of.

Siggi is pleased to wear the uniform of the Hitler Youth, and her class visits all kinds of factories which support the war effort.  Through the harangues of her teacher, we learn that the factories make:

  • radios that will pick up only German stations, unlike English and American radios […] that do not discriminate and will blurt out all kinds of dangerous and disgusting stories that have no place in a decent home (p.56);
  • fabric in a cheerful yellow, the colour of buttercups with a pattern of stars to be made into items so Germans will be safe and not overrun by poison (p.142); and
  • icons of the Führer for reverential display in the house, along with a warning that those few […] who really do not have the Führer can go home and tell [their] Mutti and Vati that they need to fix this, and the sooner the better (p.86).

As time goes by her teacher enthusiastically praises the chilling inventiveness of the Germans who have found ways to recycle the products of their genocidal policies, such as human hair. The housewives’ enthusiasm becomes muted when one tentatively bemoans the rationing and quality of the  soap.  Her friend’s response is both a warning and a threat: she should not listen to the rumours about the soap and she should take care with her remarks because any criticism is perilous.

Erich, meanwhile, is living in the countryside near Leipzig.  There is something not-quite-right about Erich’s early life, but the narrative moves on, pausing only to note snippets like this one:

I watch Erich with his new book, each page cut into three.  He makes a bear with a lion’s body and the legs of a dog; he joins an elephant’s head to a duck with goat’s hooves.  It seems there are endless combinations, a whole menagerie of the fake, all those turned away from the ark and left to face the flood.  It is troubling to me, all this severing and grafting. I do not blame the boy because he does not understand that the creatures are impossible, and that even if such a specimen were produced it could not survive; it would be too deformed, too far from normal.  The adults, though, watch him turning the pages with his little fingers, and they watch him smiling because they smile, and laughing because they laugh, and nobody finds the book – nor even the idea of the book – in the least bit troublesome.  (p.40)

(I find myself wondering how I would interpret this passage if I didn’t know about Mengele.)

Erich’s father is on the Russian front, and as the foreign workers and the helpful Hitler Youth disappear from the farm there is hunger, but his mother censors his letters for any signs of sadness.  She labours long and hard over a birthday gift for the Führer after the abortive assassination attempt, to show him we love him. 

The reader’s sympathies shift dramatically when Erich – still only a boy – abandons his home to fight in the defence of Berlin as the Russians advance.  The narrator’s dispassionate tone alters:

But this cannot be right.  This cannot be Berlin.  The buildings are crumbling and collapsed, sliced open, insides hanging out, windows missing, chimneys toppled, roofs gone; here and there Erich can see right into abandoned rooms where mirrors and clocks hang crooked on waterstained walls.  S-Bahn cars barricade streets littered with baths and couches and tables and radiators and beds, and boys on bicycles wind their way through the mounds of rubble with Panzerfausts clipped to their handlebars.  Ashes are falling like dead leaves, like dirty snow, catching in Erich’s hair, settling on his shoulders.  In the ruins mothers squat before campfires stoked with books, cooking for their children, and crosses made from chair legs mark hasty graves in front yards.  The trees are charred, the lamp posts bent double, and a great yellow haze hangs over it all, blocking out the sky, stinking of sulphur and gas and things that need burying deep.  No, this cannot be right.  (p.278)

Siggi, aged just twelve, rescues him and they take refuge in a damaged theatre but there is worse to come…

The Wish Child is a remarkable book, tackling one of the darkest issues in human history in a new way that -particularly in its concluding episodes – resists easy judgements.

Author: Catherine Chidgey
Title: The Wish Child
Publisher: Chatto & Windus, 2017
ISBN: 9781784741112
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books $29.99

Available from Fishpond: The Wish Child

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2017

The Black Opal, by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Black Opal, by Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), has been on my radar since I read Haxby’s Circus (see my review), so I was pleased to stumble on it at my local library.  Prichard’s third novel, Black Opal was written shortly after she had spent some time at Lightning Ridge in outback New South Wales, the black opal capital of the world, (or so they say).   The library copy was not the 1921 1946 hardback copy with its striking dustjacket, (see Nathan’s comment below) it was the 2012 A&U (Allen & Unwin) House of Books edition, which apart from having a boring cover and an unnecessary tweak to the title, also had a number of irritating uncorrected typos, but still, all credit to A&U for reissuing it because copies of the first edition are as rare as the black opals that feature in the story.

Bookended by two poignant funerals, Black Opal tells the story of a mining community at ‘Fallen Star Ridge’.  While the novel revolves around Sophie Rouminof and the men who love her, it also celebrates the communal life of the miners and how they support one another through the good times and the bad.  When the novel opens, Sophie’s mother has just died, and – since her father Paul is a wastrel, it is Michael Brady who takes on the care of both of them:

It was natural enough that Michael should have taken charge of Sophie and Rouminof, and that he should have made all the arrangements for Mrs Rouminof’s funeral.  If it had been left to Paul to bury his wife, people agreed, she would not have been buried at all; or, at least, not until the community insisted.  And Michael would have done as much for any shiftless man.  He was next-of-kin to all lonely and helpless men and women on the Ridge, Michael Brady.

Michael is a kind of moral barometer for the town, so he has a crisis of conscience when he takes possession of Paul’s opals from a thief, because he has reason not to return them to their rightful owner straight away.  This action has repercussions when the time comes for Michael to exercise moral authority on behalf of the town.

On Fallen Star Ridge everyone trusts everyone else, and security for these valuable gems is lax.

The unwritten law of the Ridge was that mates pooled all the opal they found and shared equally, so that all Jun held was Rouminof’s, and all that he held was Jun’s.  Ordinarily one man kept the lot; and as Jun was the better dealer and master spirit, it was natural enough that he should hold the stones, or, at any rate, the best of them.

The men of the Ridge, however, feel that it’s necessary to remind Jun about the rules of a fair go because they’re not confident that he’s going to treat Paul fairly.  He’s a newcomer to the community, which is why he’s been fool enough to work with an idler like Paul.  In the bar, the men insist that Paul be given some of the good stones, and with hundreds of pounds worth of opal in his pocket, he goes off home making plans to take Sophie to Sydney where she can start her singing career.

But Michael had promised Sophie’s dying mother that he’d see to it that Sophie stayed at the Ridge under his care, until she was old enough to take care of herself.  Uneasy about proceedings at the bar, he follows Paul home to his hut to remonstrate with him, and arrives in time to see Charley Heathfield steal the opals from a drunken Paul.  Michael knows that without his opals Paul can’t take Sophie anywhere, but he is so outraged by Charley’s breach of trust that he waits until Charley is asleep and then retrieves the stolen opals.  Michael then has to wrestle with his conscience as to when the opals should be returned to their rightful owner.

Sophie, meanwhile, is becoming attracted to one of the young men of the town, and when he treats her badly, she takes advantage of an American opal buyer’s offer to take her overseas to start her career as a singer.  She leaves three broken hearts behind her: Arthur Henty who regrets letting class consciousness rule his heart; ‘Potch’ Heathfield who hasn’t dared declare himself because of his father’s treachery; and Michael, who has failed to protect Sophie from harm.

All this comes to a head when the mines seem to be failing, and the American opal buyer returns with a plan to buy up the mines and employ the previously self-employed miners.  Prichard was a committed communist, so there is some spirited debate about the pros and cons of such a proposal, and the men look to Michael to help them decide.

The novel is captivating reading, rich in authentic detail and dialogue.

A year or two ago, a score or so or bark and bag huts were ranged on either side of the wide, unmade road space overgrown with herbage; and a smithy, a weatherboard hotel with roof of corrugated iron, a billiard parlour, and a couple of stores, comprised the New Town.  A wild cherry tree, gnarled and ancient, which had been left in the middle of the road near the hotel, bore the news of the district and public notices, nailed to it on sheets of paper.  A little below the hotel, on the same side, Chassy Robb’s store served as post-office, and the nearest approach to a medicine store in the township.  Opposite was the Afghan’s emporium.  And behind the stores and the miners’ huts, everywhere, were the dumps thrown up from mines and old rushes. (p.57)

Reading Black Opal now, almost a century after its first publication, brings the reader into a different world where mateship, community, and pride in independence were paramount.

There was no police station nearer than fifty miles, and although telegraph now links the New Town with Budda, the railway town, communication with it for a long time was only by coach once or twice a week; and even now, all the fetching and carrying is done by a four or six-horse coach and bullock wagons. The community to all intents and purposes governs itself according to popular custom and opinion: the seat of government being Newton’s big, earthen-floored bar, or the brushwood shelters near the mines where the men sit at midday to eat their lunches and noodle – go over, snip, and examine – the opal they have taken out of the mines during the morning.

They hold their blocks of land by miner’s right, and their houses are their own.  They formally recognise that they are citizens of the Commonwealth and of the State of New South Wales, by voting in elections and by accepting the Federal postal service.  Some few of them, as well as Newton and the storekeepers, pay income tax as compensation for those privileges, but beyond that the Ridge lives its own life, and the enactments of authority are respected, or disregarded, as best pleases it. (p.57-8)

The characterisation of the miners is excellent.  Michael and Sophie are a bit idealised, but the blokes who work in the mines seem real, just like bush blokes are, while the women who gather together to dress Sophie for her first ball – lending her their gloves, jewellery and a fan – are like good-hearted country women everywhere.  As a slice of Australian life at the turn of the century, this novel is very satisfying reading.

Author: Katharine Susannah Prichard
Title: (The) Black Opal
Publisher Allen &b Unwin (A&U House of Books series), 2012
ISBN: 9781743313145
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Black Opal

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2017

2017 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prize longlists

The Tasmanian Book Prize longlists were released today, and I regret to say that I’ve read only two of the nominated titles.

There are two prizes, encompassing literary fiction, writing about politics and society, travel writing, poetry, histories and graphic novels.  It is interesting to see that so many of the nominations are from small publishers (that I’ve never heard of). I’ll hunt around to see if I can find any reviews of the ones I haven’t read, so bear with me while I do it.  There are still a couple for which I can’t find any reviews…

Tasmania Book Prize – 2017 longlist

This is for the best book with Tasmanian content in any genre, and it’s worth $25 000 to the winner.

Margaret Scott Prize – 2017 longlist

This is for the best book by a Tasmanian writer, and it’s worth $5 000 to the winner.

  • The Shape of Water by Anne Blythe-Cooper, published by Forty South Publishing, see Blue Wolf reviews
  • In Brazil by Fran Bryson, published by Scribe Publications, a travel book, see the SMH review
  • Woven Landscape: Connections in the Tasmanian Midlands, written and published by Peter E Davies
  • A History of Port Davey, South West Tasmania, Volume One: Fleeting Hopes by Tony Fenton, published by Forty South Publishing, see the audio interview at Across the Coast
  • The White Room Poems by Anne Kellas, published by Walleah Press, see Rochford Street Reviews
  • South Pole: Nature and Culture by Elizabeth Leane, published by Realktion Books, see the review at the SMH
  • Shadows in Suriname by Margaretta Pos, published by Forty South Publishing
  • The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose, published by Allen & Unwin – I’ve read this one too, see my review.
  • Down the Dirt Roads by Rachael Treasure, published by Penguin Random House, this is rural romance, see the review at The Weekly Times
  • Crocoite by Margaret Woodward, published by A Published Event, see here.

The shortlists will be announced on Thursday, 14 September 2017 as part of the Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival, where there will be two further awards: the $5 000 University of Tasmania Prize for the best new unpublished literary work by an emerging Tasmanian writer and the $5 000 Tasmanian Young Writer’s Fellowship.  The winners will be announced later this year.

Previous winners of these Tassie prizes include books I’ve read and reviewed:

  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, see my review
  • 1835: The Founding of Melbourne & the Conquest of Australia by James Boyce, see my review
  • The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson, see my review
  • Wanting by Richard Flanagan, see my review
  • Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev by Robert Dessaix (on my TBR)


Click here to read more about the prizes and past winners.

PS #Confession Most of the content of this post was pillaged from the Tasmanian Arts Guide, but I’m sure they don’t mind.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2017

2017 Bendigo Writers Festival

Apologies for being offline this last weekend when we were at the Bendigo Writers Festival – but the internet was playing up at the hotel we stayed at.  I read books instead of blogging, of course! (More about that later, reviews are on the way).

We started Saturday with David Marr in conversation with Sian Gard in a session called Mood Swings. It was about That Dreadful Woman who was the subject of the most recent Quarterly Essay called The White Queen. I’m a subscriber to QE, so I have a copy of it but I’m afraid it went to the Op Shop unread, because I find That Woman and the politics she is associated with, so very depressing.  Marr, however, made an entertaining session of this, though I have to say he had an easy target…

After that The Spouse went to something called Make Mind Music, and that made for entertaining reading on his Facebook page because it turned out to be more about meditation than music and #PuttingItMildly he was not best pleased with his choice.  OTOH I went to Steven Amsterdam and a session called Walking the Line, which was about the topical issue of euthanasia and his book The Easy Way Out. (See my review).  It was interesting to learn that he was in favour of euthanasia because I had not got that impression from the novel.

I had a gap after that so I hit the festival bookshop.  And what a disappointment it was.  In previous years there have been shelves and shelves of temptation, but this year, National Bookshop Day notwithstanding, I could not find anything I wanted to buy.    I walked round and round the offerings, which didn’t take long because they’d more than halved the number of shelves, filled up one of them with children’s books and the rest were either books I’d already read or ones I’d decided not to.   I was not the only would-be buyer who was unhappy either.

I was told the next day that they’d split the festival bookshop between two venues… which was even more puzzling because we went, on Sunday morning, to ‘Good from the Start’ at the Ulumbarra Theatre where this second pop-up bookshop allegedly was and I  never saw it.  I should explain: most of the festival venues are clustered together in the arts precinct on View Street, starting with the old Capital Bank building (with the bookshop in the festival hub and the box office), and including the old fire station, the Trades Hall building and the Visual Arts Institute.  The Ulumbarra Theatre is five minutes walk away, in a re-purposed prison which has been jazzed up with stunning architecture to become a theatre, with lots of other spaces including a bar and a café.  We went in through the main entrance, hung around a bit on the ground floor, and then went upstairs to the book launch and never set eyes on any bookshop.  Maybe they set it up later…

‘Good Life Sunday’ is a whole day series of events at the Ulumbarra, devoted to lifestyle.  At ‘Good from the Start’ there were tastings from local producers of cheese. herbs, charcuterie and wine, and then Sonia Anthony from Mason’s of Bendigo restaurant launched her book, A Sense of Place, food wine and recipes in Central Victoria.  And to say that I was surprised by the contrast between the ethos she was espousing and the experience of eating at Masons, is an understatement.

I am not in the habit of critiquing restaurants: they have their good days and bad days, staff let them down, and the market generally takes care of the bad ones because people just don’t go there.   Mason’s, however, is the most popular restaurant in Bendigo and Trip Adviser recommends it.  But I do not understand how a restaurant can be rated with one ‘hat’ when staff want to know what you’d like to drink before you’ve seen the menu, and they react with surprise when you say you like to choose your wines after you’ve decided what to eat.  When we were told that the menu was on the reverse side of the paper place mat (something we were not told when we were seated), we reluctantly  chose the ‘roaming menu’ without having any idea what dishes it comprised other that that it was three entrees, one main, two side dishes and a tasting plate of desserts (so choosing which wine was still pot luck).  I won’t comment on the food at Mason’s except to say that I am an adventurous diner but The Spouse liked some of it better than I did, and that we sent back shared plate after shared plate with much of it uneaten.  (Which brooked no comment from the waitstaff: you’d think they’d want to know why, but as they churn the diners through in a frantic atmosphere more like a large Chinese restaurant, I don’t suppose that staff have time to care).  And I don’t care how fashionable it is, I dislike the concept of a shared meal: when we dine out The Spouse likes to choose dishes that are more complex than the ones he confidently cooks at home, and I like to choose spicy dishes that he doesn’t like.  I also don’t like it when waitstaff consistently interrupt conversation because they are in a hurry.  I am not rude: I always turn to face them as soon as I see they are there, but hey, I don’t want to be rude to my fellow diner either and I would like him or me to get to finish a sentence before the waitstaff barge in. Finally, I find the whole idea of a double shift an insult to good food. We had to be in by six and out by eight which is not my idea of congenial dining out.  We had nostalgic thoughts about Bouchon’s Restaurant where we always used to go, but alas, Chef Travis has moved on elsewhere *sigh*.

Anyway, The Spouse bought A Sense of Place and at his next Good Life Sunday session which was called ‘Ultimate Seafood’, he also bought the Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook: The Ultimate Kitchen Companion which is fabulous if you like seafood and fish which we do.  Every Australian fish you can think of has its own page, with a description and how to cook and store it, and then there are delicious recipes from an amazing team of authors (this blurb is from the Fishpond website, via the link above:

John Susman is Australia’s preeminent providore of seafood, supplying the country’s best restaurants. Anthony Huckstep is a restaurant reviewer, former chef and cookbook author. Stephen Hodges is regarded by many in the food industry as Australia’s best seafood chef. Sarah Swan is a chef and recipe developer who worked for Neil Perry’s Rockpool Group for 14 years.

Meanwhile, I was at a session called The Real May Gibbs and it was the highlight of the festival for me.  Vivien Newton was an excellent interviewer, with just the right blend of asking probing questions and letting the author Robert Hughes speak for himself. They had restocked the festival bookshop (though they still didn’t have copies of Robert Dessaix’s latest book) so I bought a copy: it’s called May Gibbs: More Than a Fairy Tale: An Artistic Life and it is exactly what the title promises.  Lavishly illustrated on quality papers, it traces May Gibbs’ early career including her activities as a supporter of the suffragette movement and as a propagandist for WW1, and it celebrates her place as the first professional full-time children’s book illustrator.  Hughes made the point that the media trivialised her, calling her ‘the mother of the gumnuts’ and labelling her ‘reclusive’ but that she was not like that at all, and this biography sets the record straight.  I have added it to my collection of literary biographies and will read and review it soon.

But while The Spouse had a good time at ‘The Moral Tightrope’ which was about the history of ethics, I was disappointed by Robert Dessaix’s session.  It was called ‘It’s Got to Stop’ and it was billed like this:

An orgy of kissing and hugging has broken out across the Western world. And while the words ‘I love you’ are rarely heard anymore, people you’ve barely met end their emails with ‘Love’.

Why have all the rules gone out the window? How can order be restored?

Can Pushkin or Elizabeth Strout be of any use here?

Acclaimed writer of fiction, autobiography and the occasional essay, Robert Dessaix, takes a stand.

I had always thought that Robert Dessaix could make any topic intellectually stimulating, but I was wrong.  After fifteen minutes,  I was bored brainless by inane examples of contemporary kissing habits and the audience politely tittering.  I wondered where Pushkin was, but wasn’t prepared to stay any longer to find out.  I sat outside in the sunshine instead and read more of Chinese Literature, a Very Short Introduction, and when Tim joined me afterwards, we drove home.

Thanks to Aunty Gloreea for looking after our little scamp, Amber!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 12, 2017

National Bookshop Day

I am just off to Bendigo for the writing festival, so I won’t be visiting my favourite indie bookshops today, but this is National Bookshop Day so I hope that wherever you are, whatever you do, visit a bricks-and-mortar bookshop and buy a book today!

Persons following self-imposed book buying bans because of their bulging TBRs can either consider this a Dispensation for the Day, or buy a book for someone else.

(But lest you think I should practise what I preach – I went to Benns Bookstore in Bentleigh last week and bought a stack of new books – and yes, of course, I will buy books at the festival from the festival bookshop.)

Must go, the traffic will be building and we have a long drive ahead of us!


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