And now for something completely different this month’s #6Degrees (hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best) starts with a children’s book.  And not just any children’s book, it’s the iconic Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

But it’s not a book I used to read to the children when I was a teacher-librarian.  I figured there was no point in reading books that parents were most likely to read their children anyway, especially if the books were available in cheap editions in supermarkets and chain stores.  So I used to seek out books that I knew my students were less likely to come across.  And of course, I focussed on Australian children’s fiction, which many Australians do not know is highly regarded around the world.

My Preps did an author study of the inimitable Bruce Whatley (details of which you can find on my LisaHillSchoolStuff professional blog), and one of the books they loved most was Diary of a Wombat co-authored by Jackie French They loved the mischievous humour of this tale of a naughty wombat training her humans to know what her favourite foods are.

But my favourite was Whatley’s Wait No Paint! As you can see from my post about it at LisaHillSchoolStuff it’s a playful postmodern retelling of The Three Little Pigs: it features absurdity, playfulness and intertextuality, and the children got the joke straight away.

Grownups are not so good at playfulness and absurdity in fiction, but children love it.  This one’s for you, Sue at Whispering Gums:  My Nanna is a Ninja by Damon Young (whose name might ring a bell because I reviewed one of his philosophy books, On Patience, the Art of Reading).  My Nanna is a Ninja was a beaut book for teaching poetry with my year 4 classes:

Some nannas dress in blue while they bake sweet apple pies.
Some nannas dress in red as they fly about the skies.
Some nannas dress in pink while they jog around the track.
But my nanna is a ninja so she dresses up in black.

Rhyming couplets are always a success with small children, because they love the simple pounding rhythm. The National Library of Australia isn’t as well-known as it should be as a publisher of beautiful children’s books, and Night Monsters by Nina Poulos is a good example. The story confronts the fears that children have about monsters in the night, but the scary creatures are Australian.

Cackle Kookaburra sat in a tree
She was glad it was finally light.
For friends had told this wise old bird
Of monsters in the night.

So Cackle called her friends around,
She thought it would be best
To share their tales and find the truth
And put their fears to rest.

With #IndigLitWeek launching at ANZ LitLovers tomorrow (July 7th) there’s no better time to focus Australian children’s literature on books by Indigenous Australians.  You can find lots of reviews of these on the LHSS blog under the category Indigenous Teaching Resources. One of my favourites is The Spotty Dotty Lady by Josie Boyle and illustrated by Fern Martins published by Indigenous publishing house Magabala Books.  This book celebrates the way that gardens can bring people together, and also encourages young readers to be themselves, and to enjoy odd or eccentric things if they like.  And the paintings, of course, feature the dots that are associated with Aboriginal art works.

Like all the best books by Indigenous authors, this one includes information about the author’s country: Josie Wowolla Boyle is a Wonghi woman who was born in the desert of Western Australia, and Fern Martins is an Ngarabul woman from New South Wales.  (Whenever we read stories by Indigenous authors, we used to locate their country on a poster-sized IATSIS map of Indigenous Australia. A simple quick-and-easy-to-do activity like this teaches children from a very young age that Australia isn’t only a place comprising the six states that they recognise from the usual mapping activities.)

Yes, what about something by an Indigenous author for older readers? Also from Magabala Books comes Deadly D and Justice Jones – Making the Team a title specifically written to engage sports-mad young people.  It features an Indigenous boy who morphs into a Superhero to deal with the bullies, but he has to learn to manage the anger that is the catalyst for his transformation. As you can see from my review at LHSS this book made it into print in an unusual way:

A Kalkadoon man from Mt Isa, Scott Prince co-authored Deadly D and Justice Jones – Making the Team with primary school deputy principal Dave Hartley of the Barunggam people from the Darling Downs/Chinchilla region.  They wrote it over four years and then submitted it for a State Library of Queensland’s 2013  black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship.  They didn’t win, but the judges were so impressed that they created the kuril dhagun prize as a one-off, and the deal included publication of the story by indigenous publishing house, Magabala Books.

So that’s my #6Degrees: from temper tantrums to anger management techniques!

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

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 2, 2019

2019 Miles Franklin Award shortlist

Here they are:


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Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 2, 2019

Book Giveaway winner: Kindred, by Kirli Saunders

Indigenous Literature Week for 2019 starts next week, and one lucky winner of this giveaway will have a copy of Kindred by Kirli Saunders to read.

There has been a problem lately with comments on this and other WordPress blogs not getting through, so I apologise to anyone who wanted to enter and couldn’t.  I suspect that this is the reason why there were only three entries.

However, that made the odds better for those three entries, and I am pleased to announce that Agnes Bonsanquet from The Slow Academic is the winner of this lovely book!

This is the press release:

Kirli Saunders is a proud Gunai woman with ties to the Yuin, Gundungurra, Gadigal and Biripi people. Kirli is the Manager of Poetic Learning and Aboriginal Cultural Liaison at Red Room Poetry and founder of the Poetry in First Languages project. She was awarded ‘Worker of the Year 2017’ at the NAIDOC Awards in the Illawarra/Shoalhaven region and was nominated for a national NAIDOC Award in 2018. Her first children’s picture book, The Incredible Freedom Machines, illustrated by Matt Ottley (Scholastic 2018), was selected for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and is published internationally.

Kirli’s poetry has been published by Cordite and Overland and is embedded in infrastructure at Darling Harbour and the Royal Botanical Gardens, Melbourne. Her poem ‘A dance of hands’ was Runner-up in the 2018 Nakata Brophy Prize. Kirli has been a Writer in Residence at Bundanon Trust, Q Station and The Literature Centre, Fremantle for ‘The Sound of Picture Books’.

And this is the blurb:

Kirli Saunders debut poetry collection is a pleasure to lose yourself in. Kirli has a keen eye for observation, humour and big themes that surround Love/Connection/Loss in an engaging style, complemented by evocative and poignant imagery. It talks to identity, culture, community and the role of Earth as healer. Kindred has the ability to grab hold of the personal in the universal and reflect this back to the reader.

The book is published by Magabala Press, ISBN: 9781925591149

You can read an interview about Kirli at the Centre for Stories and find out more about her at her blog.

You can see from these examples of Kirli Saunders’ poetry at Cordite (‘Grief’ is particularly powerful) that this is a Giveaway worth winning!  But if you want to be sure of a copy, you can buy it direct from Magabala Press.



It is a condition of entry for all giveaways on this blog, that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline.  For this giveaway, the deadline is the end of this week Sunday July 7th 2019.   (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met).  Your postal address will be forwarded to the publisher who will then send you the book. So Agnes, please get in touch:)



As  mentioned in my review of Nora Heysen, Light and Life, by Jane Hylton, I borrowed at the same time Catherine Speck’s Heysen to Heysen: selected letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen and promised to review it… but time got away from me and I had to take it back to the library.  Fortunately the good folk at Wakefield Press had read my review and wondered if I’d like my own copy?  Of course I would, yes please!

This is a lovely book, well worth reading even if there weren’t an exhibition at the NGV (Federation Square) of the art of father and daughter painters Hans Heysen (1877-1968) and Nora Heysen (1911-2003).  The exhibition runs from March 8th to July 28th 2019, so there is still some time to catch it.  The book begins with an excellent introduction by Speck: she covers the [dying] art of letter writing, and includes a profile of not only Hans and Nora, but also Nora’s mother Sallie.

After the Introduction the letters are compiled in sections, as per the ToC:

  • Cosmopolitan London, 1934-1937
  • Sydney and the Archibald Prize, 1938-1943
  • Life as an Official War Artist, 1943-1953
  • To Liverpool, London and Back Again, 1946-1953
  • Touring the Pacific and Settling in Sydney, 1953-1959
  • Success, Anxiety and Change, 1960-1968

There’s also an epilogue, a chronology, a list of illustrations and an index; and the book is illustrated with full colour reproductions of works by father and daughter and photos as well.

One of the things that’s clear from reading these letters is the value of travel for an artist.  Alan McCulloch wrote about it in Trial by Tandem and Amanda Curtin commented on its importance for the subject of her book about the Australian expat artist Kathleen O’Connor of ParisSimilarly, the Kiwi modernist artist Frances Hodgkins (who I discovered on my recent visit to Auckland) also expanded her ideas about art through travel, and both Nora and Hans Heysen acknowledge its crucial influence.  Indeed Hans, with domestic and professional responsibilities in Australia, says in one of this letters that he would love to be in London with his daughter, who was able to stay on there after he had had to go home.

There’s an interesting exchange of London letters on the subject of Everton (Evie) Stokes.  She is the subject of a number of drawings, one in 1935 and this one at the NGA; and paintings (see here & scroll to p 35; and here, scroll down to the painting called ‘Interior’. Having read Janet Butler’s Kitty War, I was reminded of that daughter’s prudent reticence when writing home. I learned from reading Butler’s book that sometimes what’s not in a diary or letters can be just as interesting as what’s in them… and what’s in them, is sometimes not so much about events, but rather about changes in identity.  In Kitty McNaughton’s case, she never writes about the young men she was nursing, only about boys and youths, and whenever she mentions them, she always mentions the presence of some other person, to alleviate any parental worries about her behaviour.  However, Nora was less hesitant about telling her parents that her best friend Evie had become her flatmate in London and this prompted a robust objection in February 1935 from her father whose veiled remarks suggest that he and her mother were worried about a lesbian relationship. There followed, apparently, a hurtful cessation of their regular correspondence.  Nora’s March letter in reply to an eventual one from her mother is revealing: she hadn’t previously felt able to talk about her friendship with Evie, and it seems that her parents would not allow Evie in their home.  Nora’s further airmail response suggests new confidence in asserting her own identity away from her parents:

All this worry seems so useless, we have been very happy together.  Is it not better to be happy, and have companionship, than to be lonely and miserable?

We all have to branch out for ourselves at one time or another.  I have chosen Evie for a friend, whether it is just a spell, as you think it is, I don’t know.  It has lasted too long and stood too much to be just that. (p.34-5)

As it happens, Evie married in December 1935, and Nora herself married in 1953, so the Heysen parents’ suspicions seem not to have been justified.  Now of course, it would not matter, but it’s sad to think that an otherwise affectionate parent-child relationship would have been marred if Nora’s sexuality had resulted in a love her parents would not accept.

As it says in Speck’s introduction, the letters are intimate, expansive and fascinating to read, but there are also sobering allusions to the coming war, and to anxiety about Auntie Annie in Germany needing to prove non-Jewish German ancestry.

These personal issues aside, the letters are fascinating discussions of art and art-making.  Hans advises Nora that poppy oil ought not dry too rapidly even in a room with a gas fire; Nora tells Hans about her professional joys and disappointments and mentions seeing an artist called Orovida, (who jettisoned her surname Pissarro so as not to be identified with her famous father).  And although it’s not explicit, Nora’s delight in seeing the gums and sunshine in the paintings in her father’s exhibition at Colnaghi, suggests that she was sometimes homesick for Australia, even in the warmth of an English summer.

In the chapter about Sydney and Nora winning the Archibald Prize in 1938, there’s a lot about moving around to try to find a congenial studio at an affordable price; there’s a surprising reference to Hans not liking the prize winning portrait (see here) which would have been deflating, to say the least, and doubly hurtful because Nora was being assailed from other quarters for being the first woman to win it. There is also Nora’s dismay about the enlistment of her brothers in WW2, and her alarm when Japanese subs made their way into the harbour.  At the same time there’s a lot about painting portraits and visiting exhibitions, which shows that although some places were closing down for want of custom, life for Nora was still going on during the war years in a way that it wouldn’t have if she’d stayed in London under the Blitz.

All that was to change when she was appointed as a war artist, the first woman to take up the position.  Some of this chapter is quite amusing… like the previous one, most of the letters are from Nora and it seems she had some difficulty adjusting to army life, not least being expected to work a nine-to-five day.  She complains bitterly about khaki because it’s hard to paint, and it’s difficult to do a good portrait when a sitter insists on wearing her cap with the status of braid, because there’s not much face left to see and depict in the portrait!

However, it’s a bit disconcerting to see Nora’s frankness expressed in rather unkind letters home from New Guinea. I say unkind, because I myself am a veteran of letters to parents who worry, and I think that it’s unkind to relate stories about dangerous situations to parents who would have already been quite worried enough about their child being in a war zone.

I was also a bit taken aback by Nora’s own admission that she refused to obey orders to return to base because she hadn’t finished her painting of some flowers. I had assumed that the reason the authorities weren’t very pleased with her work was because they didn’t put much value on the service of the women in the armed forces and that therefore they didn’t value her portraits of servicewomen. The idea that military command… in the middle of a dangerous campaign on the Kokoda Track against a formidable foe… should be messed about by a woman painting flowers just gives women war artists a bad name IMO.

Actually, ‘War artist’ does give a slightly misleading impression, because Nora spent a good bit of her army service in Australia.  She begins her appointment in Melbourne in October 1943, is posted to New Guinea only from April to October 1944, is repatriated to The Cedars because she has dermatitis and then goes back to Melbourne in 1945, and is then posted to North Queensland, Morotai (in the Moluccas) and Wewak (the capital of Papua New Guinea).

In a later chapter, while it doesn’t give a very good impression of Nora, it’s quite fascinating to read her catty remarks about the work of other artists.

She snipes about many of Australia’s most prominent artists: Norman Lindsay; Jacqueline Hick, featured in another Wakefield Press bio by Gloria Strezelecki; two-time winner of the Archibald Prize Judy Cassab; John Olsen; Ian Fairweather who illustrated his own translation of The Drunken Buddha which I reviewed here and whose work also features in Murray Bail’s Fairweather (here); and she describes Louis Kahan’s stunning portrait of Patrick White (which won the 1962 Archibald Prize) (see here) as too theatrical and gimmicky and all that corroded looking paint was repellent. In the chapter ‘Success, anxiety and change 1960-1968, Speck attributes some of this waspishness to her belief that her style was not fashionable in the era of abstraction, especially after her entry for the 1965 Archibald was rejected.
…hovering over her work and its reception was the changing fashions of the era. At one stage she enters paintings in the August 1962 Society of Artists exhibition and writes home: ‘Now that I have my brown Mothers and babies [from her travels in Melanesia] ready to meet the world, I’m sure they won’t be accepted. A very ‘modern’ selection committee this year and probably realism will be outed.’ The work was accepted but this sense of being out-of-step with fashion infuses her letters and critical reception. (p.268)

I wondered also if there were some element of Nora pandering to her father’s taste as well.

BTW There’s a further biography about Nora Heysen by Anne-Louise Willoughby.  Also published this year for the 2019 NGV exhibition, it’s called Nora Heysen, A Portrait, and it’s published by Fremantle Press.  The ISBN is 9781925815207 and you can buy it direct from Fremantle Press.

Update 3/7/19, with thanks to Karen from Booker Talk for the prompt, the credits for the portraits on the front cover are Nora Haysen (self-portrait 1936) and Ivor Hele (1912-1993) portrait of Hans Heysen 1959.

Editor: Catherine Speck
Title: Heysen to Heysen: selected letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2019, 351 pages (first published by the NLA (National Library of Australia), 2011
ISBN: 9781743056417
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available direct from Wakefield Press; from Fishpond: Heysen to Heysen: Selected letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen or from good booksellers everywhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2019

The Good Doctor of Warsaw, by Elisabeth Gifford

After reading a book recently which I found thoroughly distasteful, I was in the mood for something a bit more uplifting.  I browsed my shelves and found The Good Doctor of Warsaw, which was the perfect choice because it’s based on the true story of Janusz Korczak, a hero of the Warsaw Ghetto.

This is the blurb:

‘You do not leave a sick child alone to face the dark and you do not leave a child at a time like this.’

Deeply in love and about to marry, students Misha and Sophia flee a Warsaw under Nazi occupation for a chance at freedom. Forced to return to the Warsaw ghetto, they help Misha’s mentor, Dr Korczak, care for the two hundred children in his orphanage. As Korczak struggles to uphold the rights of even the smallest child in the face of unimaginable conditions, he becomes a beacon of hope for the thousands who live behind the walls.

As the noose tightens around the ghetto Misha and Sophia are torn from one another, forcing them to face their worst fears alone. They can only hope to find each other again one day…

Meanwhile, refusing to leave the children unprotected, Korczak must confront a terrible darkness.

Half a million people lived in the Warsaw ghetto. Less than one percent survived to tell their story. This novel is based on the true accounts of Misha and Sophia, and on the life of one of Poland’s greatest men, Dr Janusz Korczak.

That, pretty much, is the story, and because most of us already know what happened to the Warsaw Ghetto, there’s not much narrative tension, and the issues are clear cut.  There are evil people and good people, and the situation in which the Jews find themselves is beyond comprehension.  But the simplicity of this historical fiction does not detract from the value of reading it, and while complex characterisation usually makes for a better novel, in this case there is something very powerful about reading characters who seem to be too good to be true — because they really were, in the face of appalling circumstances, brave and good people.

It’s not great literature, but it is a great story, and the book restored my sense of equilibrium.

PS When I visited Library Thing to enter this book as read, I noticed that there it is being touted as suitable for “fans of The Tattooist of Auschwitz”.   Lest you imagine for a millisecond that I am endorsing that book, I urge you to read my thoughts about it and the ensuing comments, here.

Author: Elisabeth Gifford
Title: The Good Doctor of Warsaw
Publisher: Corvus, (an imprint of Atlantic Books) 2018,350 pages
ISBN: 9781786492463
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $29.99

Available from Fishpond: The Good Doctor of Warsaw


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2019

Fortune, by Lenny Bartulin

According to the press release that came with this book, Lenny Bartulin wanted to show with this novel Fortune that

The historical impact of war, money and technology is seismic, yet the ramifications on the individual are uniquely personal and can have myriad influences on our relationships.

And in broad terms, that is what Fortune is concerned with: the broad tsunami of history vs. the individual, the unpredictable chain of moments that come together to map a life, and with the forces and energies that meet and clash with that competition.

I thought immediately of Louis de Bernieres when I read these ambitions.  He is one of many authors to write about little people caught up in and buffeted by earth-shattering historical events.  He’s not always wholly successful as you can see in Birds without Wings and in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but he does succeed in making his readers care about the individuals caught up in the maelstrom.

Unfortunately, the reader barely gets to know the characters in Fortune, much less care about their fates.  Indeed, because so many characters just slip off the map the hapless reader struggles a bit to identify who the central characters are, and how (if ever) their trajectories intersect.

This is the blurb:

In 1806 Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Prussia. Beginning on the very day he leads his triumphant Grande Armée into Berlin through the Brandenburg Gate, Fortune traces the fates of a handful of souls whose lives briefly touch on that momentous day and then diverge across the globe.

Spanning more than a century, the novel moves from the Napoleonic Wars to South America, and from the early penal settlement of Van Diemen’s Land to the cannons of the First World War, mapping the reverberations of history on ordinary people. Some lives are willed into action and others are merely endured, but all are subject to the unpredictable whims of chance. Fortune is a historical novel like no other, a perfect jewel of epic and intense brilliance.

High profile blurbers on the cover—Georgie Williamson and Chris Womersley—praise the book too, but I don’t share their enthusiasm.  The profusion of characters and the scattergun approach to telling their stories in a multiplicity of settings makes Fortune confusing to read.  People and events flash past, often featuring in brutish cruelty or representations of other cultures which are reminiscent of the way Europeans used to write about the savagery of cultures they were disrupting.  (The ironies in the episode depicting the Ngāti Kuri trade in human skulls didn’t escape me but it was still offensive).  Convicts and gaolers in Tasmania are scripted from The Fatal Shore; nature wreaks havoc; the gods look on indifferently as Napoleon has his rise and fall.

Some people may find the novel witty and entertaining, but it has, IMO a cruel undertone that feels like watching someone pull the wings off a beetle.  Fate can be like that, of course, and history has often been heartless.  Whether or not that makes satisfying reading depends on the author’s intent: if all it achieves is sardonic laughter from the sidelines, or some other failure to care, I don’t think there’s much point to it.

Ultimately Fortune is nihilistic, and it doesn’t live up to its lofty aims.

Melanie Kembrey at the SMH thought better of it than I did.

Author: Lenny Bartulin
Title: Fortune
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2019, 292 pages
ISBN: 9781760529307
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 30, 2019

Bodies of Men, by Nigel Featherstone

Sometimes, publishers seem to do their authors no favours at all.  I’m going to start this review by copying what I wrote in a comment on Sue’s review of this book at Whispering Gums:

Well, well, this review just shows me how deceptive publicity blurbs can be. I’ll copy it to here if you don’t mind, just to show you how I reacted against this book and thought I would never want to read it:
“Egypt, 1941. Only hours after disembarking in Alexandria, William Marsh, an Australian corporal at twenty-one, is face down in the sand, caught in a stoush with the Italian enemy. He is saved by James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney and the last person he expected to see. But where William escapes unharmed, not all are so fortunate.
William is sent to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert, with a private directive to find an AWOL soldier: James Kelly. When the two are reunited, James is recovering from an accident, hidden away in the home of an unusual family – a family with secrets. Together they will risk it all to find answers.
Soon William and James are thrust headlong into territory more dangerous than either could have imagined”.
This screed with its war story scenario and its “secrets”. “risking it all” and “dangerous territory” gives no hint of any of what you’ve written about. I feel as if I ought to apologise to the author for dismissing his book out of hand, but I think it’s really not my fault!

(The cover is a misleading cliché too.  It suggests the devastation of wartime Europe, rather than the middle eastern desert where the action takes place).

Blurbs gushing about ‘secrets’ are usually referring to much more banal matters than the dark side of war: pacifism; same-sex relationships, war crimes by your own side, and desertion.  Based on that deceptive blurb I had made assumptions about Bodies of Men that turned out to be wrong. So I’m grateful to Sue for her review, and I urge you to read it.

So, what is the book about?  First and foremost, it’s the love story of two soldiers, beginning with the tender affection of young people who do not really know what it might mean.  But it’s more than that because the novel explores what masculinity is, in a scenario that begins by testing bravery under fire on the battlefield but moves on to testing courage in different ways.

William Marsh (at least initially) follows the script laid down by his bombastic father.  His family is North Shore Sydney; his father is an MP; and William has been brought up to be part of a military tradition. And James Kelly also follows the script laid down by his socialist, pacifist widowed mother, keeping aloof from the rush to enlist, at least in the beginning.  It is the cowardly behaviour of other people that makes him decide to enlist after all.

These two, who were unlikely childhood friends until William’s father detected an affection of which he disapproved, meet up again by chance in combat in the Egyptian desert in 1941.  There is a reversal of the expected roles when William hesitates to fire his gun with disastrous consequences, and James fires to prevent catastrophe.

For reasons William can only guess at, (because he’s not sure how much his superiors know about what actually happened) this episode results in him being sent away from the action to set up a training camp which guards stores in the desert.  He suspects that his failure has been noticed, and is keen to redeem himself.  He buys into the idea of military leadership and despite being younger than some of the men he commands, he runs a taut operation.  Except that it seems pointless.  It certainly doesn’t offer the kind of heroic opportunity that he craves in order to silence his father’s voice in his head.

But he’s also intrigued by a covert instruction to keep an eye out for a soldier who’s gone AWOL, with the implication, of course, that being AWOL turns into desertion if it goes on too long.  The army can turn a blind eye to its young men having a bit of unauthorised freedom, but only up to a point.  Desertion, in time of war, is subject to capital punishment.

Since the blurb foreshadows it, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that James and William meet up together and their relationship blossoms.  William is recovering from an accident in a home which needs to keep under the radar too; all kinds of people fled Europe at this time, and before the Middle East erupted into warfare as well, Egypt was a refuge of sorts for those who wanted to keep their identities hidden.

All is well and good for a brief idyll (and no one thinks much about the future) but then the tension ramps up.  As you’d expect, James wants to be out and about as his recovery progresses,  William wants to be with him, his CO is suspicious, and the military police are cracking down in their search for soldiers who are AWOL or deserting.  And William also makes a disconcerting discovery about the reasons why he was sidelined to a place of relative safety at the depot.

As with other books that I’ve read about war, Bodies of Men is a reminder that so many of the personnel making up great armies are young people, who should have all their lives ahead of them.

Nigel Featherstone is also the author of Remnants (2005); Fall on Me (2011);  I’m Ready Now (2012); and The Beach Volcano (2014).  I’ll keep an eye out for these at my library!

Noah Riseman also reviewed Bodies of Men at Honest History. There are a couple of plot points which I’ve chosen not to reveal but the review places the work in its historical context, making the point that historical fiction can make up for a lack of first-hand accounts about same-sex relationships in the military.

Author: Nigel Featherstone
Title: Bodies of Men
Publisher: Hachette, 2019, 324 pages
ISBN: 9780733640704
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Bodies of Men


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 28, 2019

A Splendid Sin, by Alana Bolton Cooke

As regular readers of this blog know, I really enjoy books about art so it will come as no surprise that I liked Alana Bolton Cooke’s  A Splendid Sin.  It’s a fictionalised foray into the life of Michelangelo: the sculptor of ‘David’ in Florence and the ‘Pieta’ in Vatican City; the painter of the ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and ‘The Last Judgement’ on its altar wall; and a pioneer in architecture who designed beautiful buildings such as the Laurentian Library and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Seeing Michelangelo’s most famous artworks in Florence and Rome was one of the highlights of my trip to Italy in 2005, and even the monstrous crowds in the Sistine Chapel could not dispel my awe.  (I was so glad someone had suggested that I take my opera glasses!  Binoculars are too heavy in the suitcase, but good opera glasses work nearly as well.)

Part of the pleasure of reading this novel was the stimulus to find the paintings referenced in it, in the books I have at home.  I didn’t delude myself that I could capture these artworks with my own camera—far better to enjoy the work of professional photographers.  So I have Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel (2008) which tells the human story of its creation; and also The Sistine Chapel, The Art, the History and the Restoration (1986) by Carlo Pietrangeli et al, which has large full-colour reproductions and is really good for seeing the details. (But of course for those who don’t have these resources on hand, it is easy enough to find the same images on the internet, one of the luxuries of the digital age we live in).

Much is known about the life of Michelangelo (1475-1564) because of the volume of correspondence and other documentation that has survived.  He was, Wikipedia tells me, the first Western artist to be the subject of biography while he was still alive, and I have one of them, in my three-volume set of Lives of the Artists by Georgio Vasari (1511-1574), translated by George Bull.  However, I don’t need to read that to know that there will be no mention of Michelangelo’s relationships with young men.  As the author says in her Notes at the back of the novel, there are no records of any such relationships being consummated, and nor would we expect them to be, given the religious sensibilities of the 16th century.  Nevertheless,  Cooke has crafted a compelling story from the extant records, focussing on Michelangelo’s devotion to a young man called Tommaso de Cavalieri.  In A Splendid Sin, she—considering the frailty of human nature— has fictionalised the relationship as more than Platonic.

Cooke’s novel reveals their mutual and enduring affection through letters, poetry and sketches.  This was a love that transcended an age difference of over 30 years, and the gulf between social classes.  Michelangelo was an esteemed artist, famous throughout the Renaissance World, but despite his claims to be descended from the nobility, his father was a minor administrator and the family was not wealthy.  Tommaso, on the other hand, was a nobleman from a very rich family.  And despite Michelangelo’s fame, he always remained dependent for his commissions on the system of Renaissance patronage—and given the risk that Michelangelo could fall out of favour for any number of reasons—that patronage was always precarious.  The world was fortunate that the succession from one pope to another didn’t forestall the completion of the Sistine Chapel altogether, because there were always plenty in the religious fraternity who did not like his work.

Michelangelo, however, was not the only one taking risks in a homoerotic relationship that was not just illegal but was also believed to be a mortal sin.  Tomasso was doing the same, though in the novel, it seems that his father did not object to what he was thought was a Platonic friendship.  Indeed, he dispels Tommaso’s doubts and actively encourages the relationship:

‘Perhaps he needs such relationships to enable him to create,’ Giovanni said thoughtfully.  ‘You can respond to him spiritually with your writing, your letters, your words.  He wants to use your beauty as inspiration and he wants your friendship with it. Your beauty to him, is a conduit for his creativity. I doubt he would ever express himself physically to you. If he does, you will tell him that you are not that way inclined, as politely and kindly as possible.’ (p.66)

Michelangelo idealised the young male body, and he painted his religious works with nudes because he thought the body was a sublime manifestation of God’s work.  But it wasn’t just that some thought that nudes in a religious building were obscene, it was also that Michelangelo surrounded himself with handsome young male apprentices who were his models.  So there was plenty of gossip, and as the novel shows, there were also spies hoping to get the evidence that Cardinal Biagio da Cesena wanted in order to sabotage ‘The Last Judgement’.   Of more importance, spiritually speaking, was Michelangelo’s dilemma: his faith was strong but so were his passions, and so we see episodes where Michelangelo is justifying his desires not just to others but also to himself.

(Whoever would have thought that in Australia in the 21st century, a high-profile rugby player would be tormenting people about their sexuality, on the grounds of his religious belief?)

Some characters are fictionalised, and one of these is Michelangelo’s loyal servant Bernadino.  He is characterised as a dwarf, which gives Cooke the opportunity to shed light on the way these people had to endure the cruel mockeries meted out in that era.

Bernardino saw the helpers stopping their work to turn and stare at him.  Smirking grins stretched the paintwork on their faces, making them look like clowns in the marketplace.  Bernardino cringed, despite being used to ridicule throughout his life.  The sharp sting he once felt at rejection was now a dull ache, often exacerbated by an amused, mocking glance, a thoughtless comment, or someone pointing and sniggering.  He would have to endure ridicule until the day he died. (p.31)

There is also an ironic scene where it is Bernardino, living in a household where handsome young men were lionised, who comforts Michelangelo because his face has been disfigured after a fight. No one ever comforts Bernardino because his body isn’t a ‘gift from God’.

You don’t have to have stood dumbstruck in front of the statue of David or the Pieta to know that sculpture is the most unforgiving art. One slip of the chisel and a work of art can be ruined.  There is a beautiful scene in which the life within the marble is discovered.  Use your imagination, Michelangelo tells his tentative apprentice, what can you feel within the marble?

Can you feel skin, clothing? Can you feel the contours of an arm, a leg, a foot, the features of a face, nose, eyes, forehead? The curls of hair? Can you feel the muscles beneath the skin?  The tendons? The fat folds?  Can you imagine?

Marco, feeling the cold stone block with his hands, finds in a moment of triumph that there’s something within it.  Something to be brought forth, like a woman giving birth. (p.73)

This evocation of the sculpting process reminded me of another book from Cloud Ink Press: Beneath Pale Water by Thalia Henry. That features a sculptor too, and depicts the mysterious process by which a lump of rock becomes a work of art like a living, breathing being.  These parts of the book about the artistic process were what I liked best.

However,. I found the novel is a little too long for itself, and some of it is repetitious.  Some judicious pruning of the numerous excerpts from Michelangelo’s passionate letters might have been better: the author IMO is at her best with her own prose rather than quoting his.  Still, overall, it’s enjoyable reading.  Especially if you love art!

Author: Alana Bolton Cooke
Title: A Splendid Sin, Michelangelo: A Renaissance Affair
Publisher: Cloud Ink Press, Auckland, 2019, 335 pages
ISBN: 9780473457761
Review copy courtesy of Cloud Ink Press

Available from Fishpond: A Splendid Sin: MIchelangelo: A Renaissance Affair

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 26, 2019

2019 National Biograpy Award shortlist

The 2019 National Biography Award shortlist has just been announced.  Links are to the State Library of NSW.  I’ve read just one of them, but will add the links to other reviews as I find them.

Do Oysters Get Bored? A curious life by Rozanna Lilley

Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic  see my review

No Friend But The Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani translated by Omid Tofighian see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend.

One Hundred Years Of Dirt by Rick Morton

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein  see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums

The Wasp And The Orchid: The Remarkable Life of Australian Naturalist Edith Coleman by Danielle Clode  see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 24, 2019

Invented Lives, by Andrea Goldsmith

It’s hard to express the intense pleasure of reading Andrea Goldsmith’s new novel, Invented Lives. It’s not just that it’s an absorbing novel that held my interest from start to finish, it’s also a book filled with insights that will stay with me for a long time.

While the central character in Invented Lives is Galina Kagan, a Russian émigré to Melbourne, and the novel focusses on her feelings of loss and not belonging, there are other kinds of exile in the novel.  One of the most interesting is that of Sylvie Morrow.  This older woman, mother to Andrew Morrow who’s fallen in love with Galina, is reminiscent of Philippa Finemore in Goldsmith’s Modern Interiors (1991).  Like Philippa, Sylvie suffered a kind of exile imposed by her gender, because women of her generation were excluded from full participation in society.  She was too young to experience the liberating effects of WW2 on women’s work, but in adulthood was just the right age to be relegated to postwar domesticity.   And just as Philippa finds widowhood liberating, Sylvie in middle age experiences a different kind of widowhood that opens up new worlds for her long-stifled energies too.

Galina’s courage is the catalyst for Sylvie’s metamorphosis.  It is the 1980s, and Gorbachev’s reforms in the USSR have enabled Galina’s emigration from Leningrad in the wake of her mother’s death.  Lidiya had been the sole surviving member of her family, the others having fallen victim to Stalin’s Terror.  But as secular Jews even under perestroika Lidiya and Galina still had few prospects in anti-Semitic Russia, and they were sceptical of Soviet reforms.  So when restrictions on Jewish travel were relaxed, mother and daughter submitted requests to leave, knowing that they were signing over the right to change their minds.  When Lidiya dies, the bereft Galina grasps the opportunity anyway, and comes to Melbourne, chosen as her destination because of her chance encounter with Andrew Morrow.

Andrew was in Leningrad to study mosaics when he helped Galina to her feet after she took a tumble on the icy pavement.  You’ll need to view the slide show on my travel blog to see these stunning mosaics in the Church of Spilled Blood in what is now St Petersburg.  But about half way through the novel, Galina and Andrew have a little tiff about the power of art.  She’s just beginning to forge a career as a children’s book illustrator and he’s an art academic specialising in mosaics. In a throwaway line that he doesn’t really believe, he says that art never saves lives.  She, the child of a survivor of the WW2 Siege of Leningrad, knows better.  She knows from her mother that inspiring broadcasts of Olga Berggolt’s poetry gave hope and that she was a symbol of strength and determination to survive; she knows that Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was written in honour of the besieged city and that its performance by starving musicians gave the city energy instead of despair.  Galina knows that Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’ in the prison lines at the height of Stalin’s Terror told people that the world would know of these terrible times, and she knows that people risked their lives to read samizdat in post-Stalinist times because they knew it would make them stronger. 

Galina wondered what had made Andrew say something to demonstrably wrong.  Given his own frailties and the fact he was an artist himself, she expected that there had been many times when he had turned to art to pull him out of the mire.  Of course he must know about the power of art to fortify and save. (p.230)

Andrew deflects this conversation onto her thoughts about the power of love—and that reveals an interesting divergence of opinion too…

There is also an unexpected thread about letters.  It’s impossible not to think that perhaps this thread derives from Goldsmith’s own bereavement when her life partner died,  because I have not so long ago gathered cherished letters from my father into an album.  Sylvie Morrow collects letters, and as she shares her passion with Galina, she explains that letters—from an era when people set aside time for letters— written without artifice […] with no claims to posterity […] are revealing and intimate.

‘And how much more precious does a letter become—not to me, the collector, but the original recipient—when the writer of the letter has died.  Think of it: for the wife who lives on after her husband, the man whose brother has passed away, the woman who’s lost her best friend, death does not alter their letters. I think that’s profound.  You’re able to sit by yourself reading your beloved’s words, savouring them, responding to them, just as you did when they were alive.  Death, which changes almost everything, leaves letters untouched.’ (p.217)

What, I wonder, will today’s digital generation have as solace, without letters?

Another thread that I could relate to, was the way Andrew takes Galina on excursions round ‘his’ Melbourne, showing her the landmarks of his life:

… they had driven to the Dandenong Ranges for the flashy parrots, to Warburton by the river to search for platypuses, to Phillip Island for the plump koalas wedged in the forks of trees, to famous flower gardens and eucalyptus forests.  They’d seen giant earthworms and fairy penguins, and quaint places like a house clad entirely in shells (p.223.)

[The house clad in shells was a wonderland: it was known as the Fairy House and I took The Offspring to see it in Cheltenham before it was so sadly demolished in the 1990s. Click the link to see photos.]

Well, The Spouse took me on tour too, when we were courting, showing me the landmarks of his life: his family home and play spaces at the neighbours’; his primary and secondary schools; the sea scout hall and the yacht club and the rock pools.  Then the farm and the pony club and his grandfather’s farm as well.  And I felt a similar twist of envy:

—nothing to do with the grandeur of the place, it was its mere presence.  She couldn’t pass a school and say, ‘That’s the school I attended’; she couldn’t identify an apartment building and say ‘That’s where I grew up’.  She couldn’t point to the granite embankments of the Neva where she watched the ships, or the Tauride Palace she went for the children’s concerts.  Without her own landmarks, her Soviet self, still so dominant in her, became impossible to share with others, and what they saw was an amputated version of who she believed herself to be.  There were times when she felt a stranger to herself.

Leningrad landmarks, experiences and friends, explained who she was and how she had come to be this way.  Forced to live detached from all that had formed her, she had tried so many ways of melding her Russian experience of self with the Australian one she was struggling to construct. (p. 123)

But whereas I could eventually visit ‘my’ England and share at least some of my childhood landmarks with the Spouse, for Galina the exile is permanent.  Part of the deal for Jews leaving the USSR was that they could never return.  She tries to shed her Soviet self, but two years later she’s knows it’s futile.  She’s still homesick…

This is an important aspect of migration that people should try to understand.  Even when home is a place from which one has fled, even if there were aspects of it that were abhorrent, and even when the new country is a wonderful place, it can still be hard to feel grateful as people expect you to be when they have always lived in the same place.

I loved this novel.  I was so sorry to come to the end, not because some issues remain unresolved (though they are), but rather because I was so absorbed in the lives of these characters that I wanted more.

Author: Andrea Goldsmith
Title: Invented Lives
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2019, 336 pages
ISBN: 9781925713589
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Available direct from Scribe Publications (where it is also available as an eBook) and from Fishpond: Invented Lives

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 24, 2019

Book Giveaway: Kindred, by Kirli Saunders

In anticipation of Indigenous Literature Week for 2019, I am pleased to be able to offer a giveaway of Kindred by Kirli Saunders, founder of the Poetry in First Languages project.

This is the press release:

Kirli Saunders is a proud Gunai woman with ties to the Yuin, Gundungurra, Gadigal and Biripi people. Kirli is the Manager of Poetic Learning and Aboriginal Cultural Liaison at Red Room Poetry and founder of the Poetry in First Languages project. She was awarded ‘Worker of the Year 2017’ at the NAIDOC Awards in the Illawarra/Shoalhaven region and was nominated for a national NAIDOC Award in 2018. Her first children’s picture book, The Incredible Freedom Machines, illustrated by Matt Ottley (Scholastic 2018), was selected for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and is published internationally.

Kirli’s poetry has been published by Cordite and Overland and is embedded in infrastructure at Darling Harbour and the Royal Botanical Gardens, Melbourne. Her poem ‘A dance of hands’ was Runner-up in the 2018 Nakata Brophy Prize. Kirli has been a Writer in Residence at Bundanon Trust, Q Station and The Literature Centre, Fremantle for ‘The Sound of Picture Books’.

And this is the blurb:

Kirli Saunders debut poetry collection is a pleasure to lose yourself in. Kirli has a keen eye for observation, humour and big themes that surround Love/Connection/Loss in an engaging style, complemented by evocative and poignant imagery. It talks to identity, culture, community and the role of Earth as healer. Kindred has the ability to grab hold of the personal in the universal and reflect this back to the reader.

You can read an interview about Kirli at the Centre for Stories and find out more about her at her blog.

You can see from these examples of Kirli Saunders’ poetry at Cordite (‘Grief’ is particularly powerful) that this is a Giveaway worth winning!  But if you want to be sure of a copy, you can buy it direct from Magabala Press.


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 in time for you to read it for Indigenous Literature Week.

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).  Your postal address will be forwarded to the publisher who will then send you the book.

Good luck everybody!

Author: Kirli Saunders
Title: Kindred
Publisher: Magabala Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781925591149


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 21, 2019

The Grass Library, by David Brooks

The Grass Library is a gorgeous book.  Anyone who loves animals will be enchanted… but it’s a book that will challenge your thinking as well.

David Brooks is the author of some books I’ve really liked.  He’s a very versatile writer, publishing poetry, short fiction, essays, non-fiction and novels, two of which I’ve read and reviewed here: The Umbrella Club (2009) and The Conversation (2012), and before that, The Fern Tattoo (2007).  But The Grass Library despite its fanciful name, is a work of non-fiction, quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before.  This is the blurb:

A philosophical and poetic journey recounting the author’s relationship with his four sheep and other animals in his home in the Blue Mountains. Both memoir and eloquent testament to animal rights.

But that doesn’t really convey the fun and delight in reading this book.

It had never occurred to me that even a word-processor can be ‘speciesist’.  Mulling over whether it was an appropriate use of the word ‘tragedy’ to describe the fate of a cicada trapped to die in its own shell, Brooks considers the Shakespearean sense of tragedy and how we tend to reserve it not only for humans at the top of a human hierarchy—kings, Caesars, generals— [or a beautiful young princess whose power lay in her celebrity status] but we also apply it in the non-human realm for larger, more powerful creatures, such as lions, elephants, and whales.  But the fate of a cicada halfway through its metamorphosis seems to Brooks to be tragic too:

Why then did I have such conversations with myself about the term?  But the cultural discourse is speciesist, the very language is speciesist (the Word program, for example, at just this moment, tells me that the word ‘speciesist’ doesn’t exist: no point in asking it about anti-speciesism, then, or counter-speciesism, trans-speciesism), in ways that contain and constrain one just as a cicada’s shell must contain the larva—except that they, cicadas, seem to have found a way to get out, even if not every one of them succeeds. (p.128)

[Mind you, I’ve heard people talk about sporting defeats as tragedies too, so I think perhaps that ‘tragedy’ is a word that lends itself to pondering about a sense of proportion].

Brooks and his partner T. are vegans, and they’ve transitioned from an inner city life to a small property in the Blue Mountains.  They share the property with four ‘rescued’ sheep—Henry-Lee, Jonathan, Jason and Orpheus Pumpkin—plus a dog called Charlie and other animals not exactly there by invitation, such as (inevitably) possums who eat their tomatoes; a rat that I’m surprised they didn’t name Houdini; foolish ducks who lead their ducklings into a pond that’s too deep, and the occasional snake.  It’s the complexity of this menagerie and its needs that brings all kinds of ethical dilemmas if you believe as they do, that all the members of this ‘postmodern herd’ have an equal right to life.

[I confess that here I part company with Brooks and T.  I’m ok (of course) with the sheep and the dog. I don’t mind the possums (though I think that if they’re going to help themselves to my vegies they ought to help with the labour). Ducks and any other birds are welcome any time; and I can even tolerate the snake because I grew up with them in the back yard so I know that distrust is mutual.  But the rat? Um… no.  No…

[LH: It’s not just that they spread disease.  Tonight on Gardening Australia, there was a report about conservation efforts at Melbourne Zoo to rescue the critically endangered Lord Howe Island Stick Insect. Totally extinct on the island after the introduction of rats.]

But I still enjoyed having my assumptions interrogated by the ideas in this book.

I also liked learning that Henry and Jonathan like to visit the space just outside the Writing Room when Brooks plays music.  These sheep have catholic tastes, but they don’t visit when there’s no music.  They don’t come when it’s just the author in the cabin.  Perhaps, he muses, it’s a substitute for the music of the herd:

… if music it can be called (but how else to call it?): the sound of hooves shifting in the grass or tapping on stone, the occasional bleat of a lamb, response of its mother, grunt or growl or call of a ewe or a ram, the sound of snipping at grass-blades, coughs, throat-clearings, nudgings, strokings, as one sheep passes another, regurgitations, ruminant chewings, fartings, belches, sounds nearer and further off, all in all a constant, rolling concert, approximated—very distantly resembled, in a bizarre, post-something way— by the muted rhythmical under-music of whatever it is that I might be playing on the stereo system in my cabin, an aural equivalent of warmth, the ghost of companionship.

Is it too much to call these herd sounds music?  I don’t know.  The other day as I drove into town I heard a composition by the Californian sound designer Steven Baber made of sounds from different parts of a bicycle.  He could tune the spokes of a bicycle wheel, he was saying, so that every spoke had exactly the same pitch.  And there were mudguard sounds, tyre sounds, handlebar sounds, frame sounds.  I wonder what he’d make from grazing sounds, or Henry and Jonathan’s wanderings through the scrub, their rummagings and settlings in the coop. (p.87)


What’s most interesting about this book is the way it is so sensitive to the perspective of animals, but is witty rather than sentimental.  For example, sheep do not share the human love of books…

Amongst other things, human spaces, non-sheep spaces, can be dangerous.  Henry and Orpheus Pumpkin have each taken a stumble from the veranda stairs, and Jonathan has tumbled down the three stairs from the cabin kitchen into the writing room.  And boring.  All the books in these rooms!  Leaves of Grass doesn’t smell of grass at all! Antic Hay doesn’t smell like hay.  There is no grain in Silo.  A Body of Water is undrinkable.  A Million Wild Acres is barely five centimetres wide. By the same token, one could get annoyed by the way the sheep, when one is carrying something from the house to the cabin, or the car to the house, or one part of the yard to another, will come up and insist on investigating, or one could build the likelihood of such investigation into one’s movements, showing them what one is carrying: a roll of masking tape a can of paint, a box of papers, one’s computer, one’s cup of coffee (which isn’t to say that, unless one’s prepared to share, one should carry bread or fruit or leafy vegetables when the sheep are anywhere near).  Doubtless our own relations with them would be all the smoother—and better informed—if we felt the same kind of curiosity.  (p.146)

My curiosity about animals has certainly been stimulated by reading this book!

Highly recommended.

PS My apologies to the friends whose blogs I usually visit.  This week I’ve been laid low by a shoulder so painful that although I’ve read three books while indisposed, I haven’t been able to sit up at the computer to review them—or to read new reviews by my friends.  I’ve got some catching up to do, and at the moment, 15 minutes in a chair is my limit.

Author: David Brooks
Title: The Grass Library
Publisher: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2019, 221 pages
ISBN: 9780648202646
Review copy courtesy of Brandl & Schlesinger

Available direct from the publisher or from Fishpond: The Grass Library

I have just picked up Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia from the library today, and over lunch, I read Chapter I: It Starts With Stories.  The chapter explains the rationale and the process used for gathering the untold stories of Indigenous Service in our armed forces, and so it was that—reading about why the Indigenous contributors to the book valued it so much—I came across this, and wanted to share it because it’s just so true:

Books can also have a different cultural capital from websites and films (important as they are) and can help meet the expectations of the people who shared their stories.  Books say: ‘this is worth knowing and keeping’. and they make the stories accessible to the reading public to hold, talk about and keep.  A book does not flit past your eyes like a film or website.  It lasts.  It can be passed around family members and community, dog-eared and loved until it eventually disintegrates. A book in your hand does not need high-speed internet connection to access it.  More than anything, a book helps to reinforce the authority of the speakers and encourages others to refer to their words.  It can be picked up in years to come and read by future generations.

Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia, edited by Al;lison Cadzoe and Mary Anne Jebb, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2019, ISBN 9780855750718, p.10

More about the book when I’ve read it…


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 17, 2019

Little Stones, by Elizabeth Kuiper

Little Stones is fiction written so convincingly that it reads like a memoir.

It is the story of Hannah Reynolds, who is growing up in a single-parent family in Zimbabwe just as the country is falling apart.  Her coming-of-age coincides with the collapse of the economy; hyperinflation*; erratic power and water supply; shortages of basics like petrol and wheat; and the ‘confiscation’ of white-owned farms by the ‘Warvets’.  Hannah is only ten, so she doesn’t always understand what’s going on, although she’s skilled at bypassing the adults’ attempts to shelter her from the situation:

During dinner, Nana, Grandpa and Mum started talking about the Warvets again.  The Warvets were a big family who wanted to steal farms from everyone in Zimbabwe, and these days almost every conversation would end up being about them.

It’s when she finally expresses her anxiety that her grandparents might give their farm away to another family, that her mother explains, that the War Vets were not an extended family.  They were a large group of people called the ‘War Veterans’ who mobilised to take back what they saw as their land.

Her mother’s reassurances turn out to be hollow, however, and the day comes when Nana and Grandpa are given 24 hours notice to get out, and they come to live with Hannah and her mother**.  Both of them are at a loose end in an urban environment but have difficulty finding work, Grandpa filling his idle hours getting underfoot with unwanted household repairs, and Nana dismayed that she doesn’t have the IT skills to get any kind of office work.

But Hannah’s family is wealthy by anyone’s standards.  She has a pool, and a trampoline, and she goes to an expensive school where her best friend is Diana Chigumba.  Her father is wealthier still, because he drives a BMW while her mother gets by with an ageing Mazda.  Mum, in this book, is a bit idealised, while Father turns out to be a nasty piece of work, but Hannah still loves him, despite his insistence on access visits being more about maintaining control of his ex-wife. (And that, I think, is authentic.  It’s a dreadful thing for children to have to choose between parents, because children—in my experience as a teacher comforting many of them in separated families— usually do love both parents, no matter how awful one of them might be).

The tension ramps up as thuggery and violence come to Hannah’s home, and though at her age she doesn’t understand what has happened, the reader does:

…I heard a crash: the sound of glass shattering; then a scream that chilled the blood in my veins. Then silence.

After a while I could hear men’s voices speaking in rushed Shona.  I couldn’t figure out what they were saying.  The only words I understood were coming from my mother.

‘Don’t touch her. Don’t touch her.  Do whatever you want to me, just don’t touch her.  Don’t hurt her, please.’ (p.171)

Hannah has been drilled at school about what to do.  In a home invasion, she has to pretend to be asleep and she cowers under her doona.  Later, she notices that her mother’s eyes were glazed over like a zombie’s, with blood pooled at the end of a cut on her lip.  After the men are gone, Hannah is full of questions, and her mother looks up from the spot on the floor that she’d been staring at.  Her eyes were unfocused, and her voice came out heavy and robotic.  Hannah isn’t told what has happened, but she has never forgotten that night.

The understated allusion to this and other violence, muted by the narration of a child, is all the more powerful in its impact.

In the wake of this event, on top of everything else, the conflict between her parents escalates, compounding the trauma.

Issues of race and privilege are handled with aplomb: Hannah’s mother is a small l-liberal who counts gays and people of colour among her friends and colleagues at the Stock Exchange, but her father is still old-school and Hannah recognises that while Grandpa thinks he’s progressive, he’s still racist in the way that he talks about Africans.  There’s also an insufferable woman called Karen Parker who represents the stereotypical racist attitudes of her class.  Hannah herself has an epiphany about the teacher who’s been so strict about teaching them Shona.

She was tough, but she wasn’t horrible.  And, in retrospect, I understood her frustration.  All she wanted was for us to learn the language of the Shona people.  The people whose land we lived on. And I understood why she was usually angrier with the black students than the white ones.  They were meant to be the best at Shona.  The fact that some of the kids couldn’t speak their own language, the language of their people, demonstrated that the British imperialists were winning.  It did not matter that white people were being removed from their farms, and fleeing in droves to the United States and the United Kingdom and, in our case, Australia: the crushing effects of colonisation were still being felt, over and over. (p.255)

Little Stones is a compelling novel that humanises the contentious headlines that we’ve seen here in Australia. It will be very interesting to see what Kuiper writes next…

According to Wikipedia: Inflation rose from an annual rate of 32% in 1998, to an official estimated high of 11,200,000% in August 2008 according to the country’s Central Statistical Office. This represented a state of hyperinflation, and the central bank introduced a new 100 trillion dollar note.  So when Hannah, her mother and Ruth talk in billions and trillions when shopping, it’s not hyperbole.

**The exodus of white farmers led to severe grain shortages in Zimbabwe, and since the resignation of Robert Mugabe (whose tacit support of the so-called War Veterans enabled the farm invasions) the government is encouraging them to return. (ABC News 2018)

You can find out more about the author at her website.

Author: Elizabeth Kuiper
Title: Little Stones
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2019, 264 pages
ISBN: 9780702262548
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available from UQP or Fishpond: Little Stones


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 16, 2019

Avenue of Eternal Peace, by Nicholas Jose

I am indebted to Wakefield Press for their June 4th Tweet about this book, “as topical and revelatory as when first published”.

I hunted out a copy at the library as, almost contemporaneously, there were mass protests in Hong Kong, against a proposed Extradition Bill which would not only enable extradition from Hong Kong to China, but would also enable the integration of aspects of Hong Kong’s legal system (which is basically British, i.e. innocent till proven guilty) with China’s (which is basically socialist, i.e. guilty as soon as you are charged).  But it is not just the prospect of this change to the protections of Hong Kong’s separate legal system that is a matter of concern.  Those of us who remember the horror of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989 have been watching these protests in Hong Kong with alarm in case the violence escalates.  The situation as I write is that the proposed Bill has been dropped, but protestors are maintaining vigilance despite the violence against them by their own government.  It was the eerie confluence of this protest movement in Hong Kong, with the 30-year anniversary of the democracy protests which ended in the massacre, that made reading Nicholas Jose’s Avenue of Eternal Peace such riveting reading.

Nominated for the 1990 Miles Franklin Prize, Avenue of Eternal Peace was Jose’s third novel, and it was written from an ‘insider’s’ perspective.  In 1986-87, Jose worked in Shanghai and Beijing, teaching at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and the East China Normal University, and after that was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing from 1987-1990.  This is the blurb from Jose’s website:

Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Peace is the boulevard leading to Tiananmen Square. The world witnessed what happened there in May and June 1989, but ultimately came no closer to understanding the riddle of contemporary China than a TV screen montage. Now, in an atmospheric and penetrating novel that takes place a short time before the massacre, Nicholas Jose captures this city of contradictions, its people, and a moment in history much as Christopher Isherwood did for 1930’s Berlin.

Wally Frith, the hero-observer of this remarkable novel, is an Australian doctor and university professor specializing in cancer research. Middle-aged, emotionally bereft, recently widowed, he feels himself burnt-out. Therefore he readily accepts an invitation to come as a visiting professor to Peking Union Medical College, China’s leading teaching and research hospital. The prospect pleases: new scenes, new people, new life… and beyond these vague expectations, he has a particular goal–to meet Professor Hsu Chien Lung who, years before, had written a trail-blazing paper on cancer, and who Wally believes may still be on the faculty there. But Professor Hsu seems to have vanished; perhaps he never existed. The search, which has its macabre as well as comic elements, is stalled, and Wally meanwhile immerses himself in the ordinary (sometimes extraordinary) life of Beijing, newly exposed to Western influences, and in a state of vigorous contradiction.

This extraordinary, kaleidoscopic, multi-leveled novel shows us a China the TV cameras couldn’t photograph—the China inside the hearts of its people. It is a moving and revelatory experience by a writer who was a witness to history and to a people’s dreams.

What drives the novel initially, is Wally Frith’s search for Professor Hsu Chien Lung, and the author (writing in 1989) draws on recent discoveries that cervical cancer is caused by a virus.  Frith’s wife has died of cancer, so his search for cancer treatments is personal: he’s a no-nonsense man (i.e. not interested in quackery) but he has over time witnessed a change in cancer treatments from those that were based on a ‘remove-the-invader’ approach using either surgery or radiotherapy or a combination of the two, to a recognition that the cancer is caused by the body itself in response to poisons or triggers of some kind and that the malformation originated from viruses.  What he needs is clinical data, and he thinks Professor Hsu has it.

Knowing what we do of socialist regimes and the way that people can ‘disappear’, makes the disappearance of Professor Hsu not only mysterious but also potentially dangerous for Frith.  But his ability to speak Chinese wins him friends, and the experiences he has enable the author to paint a fascinating portrait of China in this transitional period of economic reform. But what remains the same despite the reforms is the fear of speaking out, of being non-conformist, of criticising the government, and of being constrained by opaque power structures that can stymie any project or individual’s progress without anyone knowing why.

There are some amusing scenes in the novel:  Frith attends awful boring social events amongst expats, and he has a sexual encounter which turns out to be amusing too.  Amongst the people he meets are a perennially unlucky basketball player, peasants, an opera star, and corrupt businessmen,  but he also meets strong, resilient women and people who have found a way to survive not just the Cultural Revolution but also a pessimism that to Western readers seems more than justifiedHowever it is as the novel moves towards its conclusion and the inevitability of the democracy protests that the tension ramps up… I don’t know how this novel ended before it was revised in 2008, but it’s certainly a sobering ending now.

(PS SBS on Demand is currently screening Chimerica. a series about a photojournalist on a quest to find the ‘Tank Man’ who stopped a column of Red Army tanks in Tiananmen Square.)

Author: Nicholas Jose
Title: Avenue of Eternal Peace
Publisher: Wakefield Press, Revised Edition, 2008, first published 1989. 278 pages
ISBN: 9781862547995
Source: Bayside Library Service, Sandringham Branch

Available from Wakefield Press, where you can also buy it as a eBook.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 14, 2019

Trinity, by Louisa Hall

Trinity by Louisa Hall (b. 1982) was an impulse loan from the New Books stand at the library.  It was nominated for the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize, which was won by Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City (which I reviewed here).

Trinity, set in the US in the 20th century, is narrated by seven (fictional) people who knew Robert Oppenheimer.  Some people call him the Father of the Atom Bomb, but I think that ‘father’ is too benign a word to use (even though, of course, I know that not all fathers are benign).  Oppenheimer was not the sole instigator of the nuclear age, but he was head of the Los Alamos laboratory that developed the first nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project, and he oversaw the first successful detonation in July 1945.  He was essential to the project.

There are plenty of people who interpret Nagasaki and Hiroshima as events which shortened the war against Japan and saved lives.  There are also people who thus judge the motivation for the decision to drop those bombs as humane.  I am not one of them.  Even if I accepted those grounds (which are disputable) and could theoretically acquiesce to the decision to bomb Hiroshima, the decision to bomb Nagasaki shortly afterwards is insupportable.  I think the decision to use those bombs was about demonstrating not only that the US was the supreme military power, but also their capacity to dismiss the cost to human life.  Stalin won his war by ignoring the cost of casualties on his own side, and the US won the peace by demonstrating that they could be equally pragmatic about the cost of human lives in the pursuit of their objectives.  Those bombs were intended to show Stalin that the US would not be squeamish if the Cold War escalated.

So you can see that I read this book without much sympathy for Oppenheimer.  The ‘Testimonials’ include

  • Sam Casal, a secret service agent who tailed Oppenheimer in 1943;
  • Grace Goodman, a rather star-struck WAC (Women’s Army Corps) among the military at Los Alamos in 1945;
  • Andries Van Den Berg, a former colleague now working on a project in Paris in 1949, a man denied a visa to return to the US (probably due to Oppenheimer’s betrayal);
  • Sally Connelly, a wannabe novelist with an eating disorder, who works for Oppenheimer in 1954 at Princeton;
  • Lía Peón, on the holiday island of St John in 1958, one of a gay couple and has an unhealthy curiosity about Oppenheimer’s court room appearances under McCarthyism;
  • Tim Schmidt, a student in Massachusetts, 1963, reflecting on the ‘rehabilitation’ of Oppenheimer’s reputation in the Kennedy era
  • Helen Childs, Princeton, 1966, a journalist interviewing Oppenheimer just before he dies.

Trinity, however, is about more than Oppenheimer and his contrary behaviour: his affairs; his support and betrayal of his Communist friends; and his on-again/off-again support for nuclear weapons.  The novel also explores the way people believe what they want they want to believe: how they delude themselves and how they can justify unethical behaviour when it suits them.  These characters with their testimonials often tell us more about themselves than they do about Oppenheimer.  They reflect on their own betrayals, their refusals to admit reality, their inability to see the truth, and their folly in acquiescing to what’s expected of them rather than choosing for themselves.  The saddest and most convincing of these characters is Sally, whose sister is devastated by the images she sees of Japanese victims, and who can see no future in a world where these weapons threaten everyone.

There are scenes in the novel that make me wonder if they really happened.  In Grace Goodman’s chapter (p.82) she reports on a meeting where scientist are demurring against the use of the bomb and Oppenheimer manages to swing the mood of the audience in favour of conceiving it as a lifesaver.  In Sally Connolly’s chapter, she hears a radio report where panellists were discussing the war in Korea and how Truman had ordered atomic devices to be assembled at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.

Apparently B-29 bombers were flying practice runs from Okinawa to North Korea, dropping dummy atom bombs.  The panellists on the radio were debating the effectiveness of using nuclear weapons against North Korea, despite the fact that every important building in the country had already been destroyed by our bombers, and despite the fact that the Soviets had nuclear weapons as well, and had already tested two additional bombs since their original 1949 test. ( p.132)

Is this true? I looked it up at Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove unnecessary links):

The U.S. dropped a total of 635,000 tons of bombs, including 32,557 tons of napalm, on Korea, more than during the whole Pacific campaign of World War II.

Almost every substantial building in North Korea was destroyed as a result. The war’s highest-ranking US POW, Major General William F. Dean, reported that the majority of North Korean cities and villages he saw were either rubble or snow-covered wasteland. North Korean factories, schools, hospitals, and government offices were forced to move underground, and air defences were “non-existent.” In November 1950, the North Korean leadership instructed their population to build dugouts and mud huts and to dig underground tunnels, in order to solve the acute housing problem. US Air Force General Curtis LeMay commented: “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too.” Pyongyang, which saw 75 percent of its area destroyed, was so devastated that bombing was halted as there were no longer any worthy targets. On 28 November, Bomber Command reported on the campaign’s progress: 95 percent of Manpojin was destroyed, along with 90 percent of Hoeryong, Namsi and Koindong, 85 percent of Chosan, 75 percent of both Sakchu and Huichon and 20 percent of Uiju. According to USAF damage assessments, “Eighteen of twenty-two major cities in North Korea had been at least half obliterated.” By the end of the campaign, US bombers had difficulty in finding targets and were reduced to bombing footbridges or jettisoning their bombs into the sea.

I find this shocking, and I’m embarrassed that I had to read a novel to learn about it. (No wonder North Korea wants nuclear weapons to defend itself!)

Sally, in her testimonial, says that she feels an affinity with Oppenheimer because they both had no control of the system. He told Truman that he had blood on his hands, and Truman wouldn’t meet with him after that.  His erratic behaviour, she thinks, was because he was trying to retain influence at a time when opposition to the H-bomb was seen as traitorous—as was any suggestion that there should be transparency about nuclear secrets, to eliminate the need for an arms race.  Continually under suspicion because of his connections with communists, he was desperately trying to persuade Truman not to test the first H-bomb. 

And we all know how that worked out.

It’s true, of course, that the Nazis were developing nuclear weapons, so it was only a matter of time before they were available, and it isn’t reasonable to blame just one man for their use, especially not when he seems to have tried to put the genie back in the bottle.  Louisa Hall’s novel doesn’t give Oppenheimer a voice to explain himself, but it does make one thing clear: the thirst for knowledge is not an unambiguous good, and now that so many states are nuclear armed, there is no redemption for any of those who brought these monstrous weapons to fruition.

Author: Louisa Hall
Title: Trinity
Publisher: Corsair, an imprint of Little Brown, London, 2018, 324 pages
ISBN: 9781472154057
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Trinity: Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 13, 2019

La Mare au Diable (The Devil’s Pool), by George Sand

La Mare au Diable (1846) is the fifth book that I’ve read in the original French instead of in translation, and the second I’ve read by George Sand.

The novella is one of a series of four pastoral novels by George Sand (1804-1876): the others are François le Champi (1847–1848), La Petite Fadette (1849), and Les Beaux Messieurs Bois-Doré (1857).  This edition is a student edition published by Nelson, and it still bears the sticker from Hall’s Book Store in Bourke Street, where those of us of a certain age bought all our school text books. The book once belonged to the father of Bill from The Australian Legend and in beautiful copperplate, it bears his name and the date from September 1949.  So the book is a real treasure, with a story of its own, thank you Bill!

As we know from Indiana (which I also read in French, see my review) George Sand was subversive.  Notable for smoking in public and wearing men’s clothes, she was also acerbic about marriage because of her views about equality of the sexes.  However, La Mare au Diable is, at first glance anyway, a story of a happy marriage, a devastated widower, children in need of a mother, and in-laws pressuring their father into marrying again (because they have had to look after the children while he works on the farm.)  And though the fates conspire against true love for most of the novel, it ends up satisfactorily.

However, the novella features two strong women who refuse to be pressured into marriage until they are ready.  I have summarised the plot at Sensational Sand (here, but don’t go there if you want to avoid spoilers), so suffice to say here that the woman that Germain is supposed to marry has been a widow for two years and has been playing off three suitors against each other for all that time because she’s not in any hurry to marry again.  She doesn’t fancy any of them, but their presence signals to other men that she hasn’t settled on widowhood and is open to the right offer. She is wealthy and has no children to support, so she has more choices than other women do.

But despite much more limited choices, the other woman, the one that Germain has fallen for, possibly under the influence of the Devil’s Pool, doesn’t fancy him either, because he’s almost twice his age.  He’s also sulky and pessimistic.  She loves his children and enjoys looking after them, but she’s alert to the dangers of being left a widow by a husband much older than she is.  more importantly, she would rather live in poverty, without work, than make marry someone she doesn’t care for.  (This same young woman has also refused the advances of her #MeToo employer, and subsequently refused a bribe intended to keep her quiet about it. )

So why doesn’t she care for Germain?  He’s handsome, and while not rich, he’s certainly better off than she is.  A poor girl sent off to be a shepherdess in another village because her mother’s farm can’t support the two of them, can’t afford to be too choosy, right? Well, despite her capitulation at the end, Marie is a good judge of character.  She’s strong enough to tell him that he should be making his own choices, not just doing what his in-laws say he should do.  He’s a lugubrious fellow, and he gives up too easily: it’s she who takes the initiative when they are stranded in the woods, and it’s she who has the skills and ability that enable to survive a bitterly cold night after he’s got them lost.

An observant reader will notice other things too.  Germain takes her under his cloak because she’s used hers, not his, to wrap up his child against the cold.  There’s not a lot to eat, and she takes barely a morsel because he’s used to eating four times a day and she’s used to being hungry.  She tears her skin dealing with the kindling for the fire while he watches on, impressed by her skills.  Marie doesn’t judge him for this unmanly selfishness, but I have no doubt that George Sand meant her readers to do so.

A very interesting little book!

PS The book is listed in the 2012 edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, but not in the 2006 edition that I’m tracking.

Author: George Sand, (the nom de plume of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin)
Title: La Mare au Diable (The Devil’s Pool)
Publisher: Nelson, Paris, London, Edinburgh & New York, 1947, first published 1846, 282 pages (A6)
ISBN: none
Source: gift of Bill Holloway from The Australian Legend.

You can read the story for free (in English) at Project Gutenberg, and you can listen to it in French at LibriVox.

Cross-posted at Sensational Sand.

An excellent write-up of an author event I attended recently with author and writing teacher Mairi Neil…

Up the Creek with a pen ...

library plans.jpg

Last night I attended an author event at Sandringham Library with my good friend, Lisa Hill who is a fellow bibliophile, blogger and writer. Well-respected and fiercely independent, please check Lisa’s reviews of any of the books mentioned in this post.

I’m fortunate she keeps me in the loop about local events and on a cold, dark winter night gave me a lift in her comfortable car!

An eminent book reviewer with an award-winning blog, Lisa concentrates on Australian and New Zealand literature but also reviews an impressive range of international writers, including many translations not necessarily widely distributed.

When she heard about this event in Bayside she let me know especially since I taught  Life Stories & Legacies for several years.

alan marshall sculpture.jpg

This event showcased three authors discussing how they used events from life in their novels so how apt to have a bust of Australian writer, Alan Marshall…

View original post 2,611 more words

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 11, 2019

Real Differences, by S.L. Lim

Real Differences is the debut novel of S.L. Lim, who was born in Singapore but came to Australia as an infant, and (as the blurb says) has spent a good part of her life toggling back and forth between the two places.  Perhaps this bi-cultural experience is what enables her to cast a forensic eye on the illusions we have about Australian multiculturalism, social class and ‘the fair go’…

This is the blurb:

This is a story of a friendship so connected that without it one is not whole but lost.
Middle-class, clever and white, Nick is a child of privilege while his best friend Andie is the daughter of Indo-Chinese refugees. Despite their very different backgrounds, they share a conviction they can change the world for the better.
At the outset, Nick is pushing papers in a dead-end job while Andie is embarking on a secular crusade against world poverty. This generates conflict with her white husband Benjamin, who feels that Australians should come first. Meanwhile, Andie’s cousin, the teenage Tony is burdened by his parents’ traumatic past and impossible expectations. To their dismay, he finds solace in radical faith.
S.L. Lim acutely captures the dreams and disaffections of a millennial generation. Real Differences is an emotionally resonant novel about idealism, ethical ambition, and love, filled with unforgettable characters. It ultimately asks us the most important question of all: What is our life for?

Lim’s characters occasionally stray into polemics when they are passionate about issues, but the issues they raise are real.  At the same time, there is a strong focus on the feelings of the characters.  The generation depicted in the novel spends a great deal of time thinking about things and analysing their own motivations, but they can be blind to flaws just like any generation.  The narration shifts between Nick and an omniscient observer, and the intimacy of this technique enables the juxtaposition of all the characters’ internal thoughts with subsequent dialogue.  Towards the end of the novel, for example, we see an image of domestic harmony….

Benjamin cooked breakfast for the two of them: eggs and tomatoes in a pan, buttered toast and coffee.  It looked like breakfast in a cartoon about happy breakfasting. (p.240)

…but this episode is juxtaposed with dialogue that shows a marriage falling apart in rising conflict. The scene goes on to reveal that Ben, married to an Indo-Chinese character, is dismissive about casual racism at social events and can’t understand why Andie arcs up because he doesn’t confront it.  Knowing that Tony’s family had to flee Indonesia in the anti-Chinese riots in 1998, she wonders how loyal her husband and friends would be if they were confronted by guns and flaming torches, when they won’t even stick up for her when someone tells a stupid joke that patronises people who are not White.  And she realises that while there may be no such thing as colour in a mixed-race relationship such as hers, the price of it is her dignity because she is being given the status of an ‘honorary White’ instead of being valued as who she is.

This gulf between them is one of many situations in the novel that show characters interrogating the ethics of their behaviour.

For Nick, empathy is a foreign concept, and it’s not just in matters concerning racism:

I got back from London a lot richer than when I had left.  I had taken a position in a firm which specialised in corporate restructuring, a euphemism for wiping the blood off the floor after a corporate collapse.  This firm had experienced an unexpected boom after Lehman Brothers collapsed.

‘You’re the Grim Reaper,’ my boss explained.  ‘So go forth and reap.’

I did feel sorry for the people who had just been fired.  Still, there was definitely a sick pleasure to it, watching the best and brightest of the City encounter failure for the first time in their lives.  They were ferociously ambitious, educated to the hilt and possessed of intelligence which was limited but acute.  You could see the bewilderment in their eyes as circumstances got the better of them for the very first time.  (p.49)

So, no, Nick’s not a likeable character, but then none of them are.  Andie is insufferable about her work in secular philanthropy, Ben is smug about his social status, and Nick’s girlfriend Linda is so blasé about everything it’s exasperating just to read about it.

In a fundamental way, Linda was more honest than I.  She had her code of adulthood, which meant adhering to one’s interest at all cost.  Whether from her experiences or due to some intrinsic part of her personality, she had become convinced at an early age that other people were fickle, and human relations inherently extractive.  The only rational response was to take what you could get, before your so-called friends vanished in a puff of smoke, or your boyfriend revealed the duplicity she seemed to anticipate from all men.  The strawberry sweetness was both reality and ruse: she had leached her persona of frustration, anger and regret, believing no potential partner would tolerate such unseemly displays of emotion.  She kept strict control over her mind and heart. She could be moved by a work of art, but only temporarily: it was something to be consumed, not to be consumed by.  (p.100)

But the most troubling character is young Tony, who at fourteen abandons the Christian religion of his overbearing parents and becomes a Muslim.  What with the fallout at home and his alienation from his peers, it’s easy to see how he gets sucked into a group preaching radicalism.  There is rather a lot about his zealous embrace of Islamic teachings as he progresses through school and goes on to university, but the ultimate catastrophe still comes as a surprise.

It’s an interesting debut, and it’s refreshing to see an author embrace diversity in the friendships she depicts.

Author: S L Lim
Title: Real Differences
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019 288 pages
ISBN: 9781925760286
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available direct from Transit Lounge and Fishpond: Real Differences


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 9, 2019

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

It was when I was recently reading In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne that I came across the name Sam Selvon: in a nod to the antecedents of his novel, Gunaratne had named one of his characters after the author who was the first to tell the story of Black Caribbean men who came to London in the mass migrations of the postwar period. Sam Selvon’s most famous book The Lonely Londoners (1956) is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and as I have discovered from even a brief Google search, Selvon is the subject of a great deal of critical interest.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an introduction by Susheila Nasta, but it’s not necessary to read it.  My advice is to plunge straight in and enjoy the distinctive voice that Selvon pioneered in this novella. Selvon (1923-1994), who came to London as a young man looking to advance his literary career, was born in Trinidad of Indian parents who had migrated from Madras, and his maternal grandfather was Scottish, but the voice that narrates the story is an invented Trinidad creole, partly like standard English, but also with non-standard grammar and distinctive Caribbean idioms such as ‘liming’ (which means to hang out).  For those not keen on reading ‘dialect’ it’s not difficult to understand at all, as you can see from this excerpt about Bart searching for his girl after her father sent him packing in a torrent of racist abuse:

He must be comb the whole of London, looking in the millions of white faces walking down Oxford Street, peering into buses, taking tube ride on the Inner Circle just in the hope that he might see she.  For weeks the old Bart hunt, until he become haggard and haunted.

Knowing that she like the night lights, at last Bart get a work at a club as a doorman, and night after night he would be standing up there, hoping that one night Beatrice might come to lime by the club and he would see her again. (p.51-2)

In an article called ‘Seeking Sam Selvon’ in the journal Transatlantica, Kathie Birat writes that

It is the narrator who sets the tone and rhythm of the narrative, gradually drawing the reader into his way of presenting the world, seducing him with the use of a dialect that goes almost unnoticed, that presents no obstacle to the reader’s understanding, but that determines his perception of the story being told.

The narrator initiates the reader into the world of Moses and friends, in the same way that Moses, an old hand who’s been in London for ten years and acts as a reluctant mentor to new arrivals, initiates his friends into his version of London life.   In the same article, Birat also explains the impact of a different language on the reader:

The reader “hears” the dialect spoken by Selvon’s characters because it clashes in significant ways with the system of standard English, thus producing a noise, a remainder, to use [the philosopher] Dolar’s term, which draws attention to language itself and to the ways in which it produces meaning. It is the gap, the discrepancy between standard English and dialect, that the reader hears and that leads him to search for the significance of this difference, to account for it in terms of meaning.

In other words, it’s the language that enables the reader to recognise that the London of the book is not the London that everyone is familiar with.

The characters, who are almost exclusively Black Caribbean men, speak a more economical version of the same language.  In this excerpt, Moses,  is amusing himself with the credulous Lewis:

‘Moses’, he say, ‘you think is true that it have fellars does go round by you when you out working and — your wife?

If you tell Lewis that the statue on top of Nelson column in Trafalgar Square is not Nelson at all but a fellar what name Napoleon, he would believe you, and if you tell him that it have lions and tigers in Oxford Circus, he would go to see them.  So Moses giving him basket for so.

‘How you mean,’ Moses say. ‘That is a regular thing in London. The wife leave the key under the milk bottle, and while you working out your tail in the factory, bags of fellars round by your house with the wife.’ (p.53)

Unfortunately for Lewis’s wife, Lewis believes Moses and what happens brings to the fore the way women are talked about and treated in the story.  What Selvon was showing was the dislocating effects of family disruption: huge numbers of single men yearning for female companionship and family life, and equally, the way that the emptiness of the life they created as a substitute failed for those few women who did manage to join their men.

The story structure is episodic: it is based around the everyday experiences of the men, living from day to day in chance encounters rather than in the kind of middle-class daily rituals of English life that they could not access.  The fragmented nature of the novel and its invented language symbolises the way these men have come in search of a fantasy, similar in some ways to the fantasies of Commonwealth citizens around the globe, perhaps like Australians in the 1950s who thought of Britain as ‘home’ although they had never been there and were certainly not treated like family when they turned up expecting to be made welcome.

Although I suspect that this novella is not widely known, I think it’s an important 20th century novel: it offers a world where Blackness is normalised, and the characters—Moses, Sir Galahad, Five Past Twelve, the irrepressible Cap and Aunty Tanty who takes no nonsense from anyone—are not just unforgettable, they represent a new kind of London, one which was changing not just in the colour of its citizens but also (as a consequence of WW2) in terms of class:

It have a kind of communal feeling with the Working Class and the spades [Black Caribbeans], because when you poor things does level out, it don’t have much up and down.  A lot of the men get kill in war and leave widow behind, and it have bags of these old geezers who does be pottering about the Harrow Road like if they lost, a look in their eye as if the war happen unexpected and they still can’t realise what happen to the old Brit’n.  All over London you would see them, going shopping with a basket, or taking the dog for a walk in the park, where they will sit down on the bench in winter and summer.  Or you might meet them hunch-up in a bus-queue, or waiting to get the fish and chips hot.  On Friday or a Saturday night, they go in the pub and buy a big glass of mild and bitter, and sit down by a table near the fire and stay here coasting lime [hanging out] till the pub close. (p.61)

That solidarity with the lonely widows, and the pathos of sad old men singing below the windows of the high and mighty because they don’t want to be seen begging, was a side of London not often recognised in mid-20th century fiction.

Highly recommended.

Update: Emma reviewed it some years ago at Book Around the Corner.

Citation source:

Kathie Birat, « Seeking Sam Selvon: Michel Fabre and the Fiction of the Caribbean », Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2009, mis en ligne le 23 juin 2009, consulté le 08 juin 2019. URL :

Author: Sam Selvon
Introduction by Susheila Nasta
Title: The Lonely Londoners
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 2006, first published 1956, 139 pages
ISBN: 9780141188416
Source: Geelong Library via inter-library loan, with thanks to Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: The Lonely Londoners (Penguin Modern Classics)

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