Last night at the 8th IME Nepal Literature Festival, the Hon Pradeep Gyawali Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nepal presented the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature to Amitabha Bagchi for his novel Half the Night is Gone.  The prize is valued at US $25,000.

South Asia for the purposes of the prize is defined as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan.

This is the blurb for the book, via Goodreads:

The celebrated Hindi novelist Vishwanath is heartbroken by the recent loss of his son in an accident. The tragedy spurs him to write a novel set in the household of Lala Motichand. It follows the lives of the wealthy lala and his three sons: Self-confident Dinanath, the true heir to Motichand’s mercantile temperament, lonely Diwanchand, uninterested in business and steeped in poetry; and illegitimate Makhan Lal, a Marx-loving schoolteacher kept to the periphery of his father’s life. In an illuminating act of self-reflection, Vishwanath, the son of a cook for a rich sethji, also tells the story of the lala’s personal servant, Mange Ram and his son, Parsadi. Fatherhood, brotherhood and childhood, love, loyalty and poetry all come to the fore as sons and servants await the lala’s death. By writing about mortality and family, Vishwanath confronts the wreckage of his own life while seeking to make sense of the new India that came into being after independence. Spellbinding and penetrating, Half the Night Is Gone raises questions of religion, literature and society that speak to our fractured times.

Already there is talk of Bagchi as a Nobel Prize Laureate…

This was the longlist, with the shortlist highlighted:

  • Akil Kumarasamy: Half Gods (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, USA) 
  • Amitabha Bagchi: Half the Night is Gone (Juggernaut Books, India)
  • Devi S. Laskar: The Atlas of Reds and Blues (Counterpoint Press, USA) 
  • Fatima Bhutto: The Runaways (Viking, Penguin Random House, India, and Viking, Penguin Random House, UK) 
  • Jamil Jan Kochai: 99 Nights in Logar (Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury, India & UK, and Viking, Penguin Random House, USA)
  • Madhuri Vijay: The Far Field (Grove Press, Grove Atlantic, USA)
  • Manoranjan Byapari: There’s Gunpowder in the Air (Translated by Arunava Sinha, Eka, Amazon Westland, India)
  • Mirza Waheed: Tell Her Everything (Context, Amazon Westland, India) 
  • Nadeem Zaman: In the Time of the Others (Picador, Pan Macmillan, India) 
  • Perumal Murugan: A Lonely Harvest (Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, India) 
  • Rajkamal Jha: The City and the Sea (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, India)
  • Sadia Abbas: The Empty Room (Zubaan Publishers, India)
  • Shubhangi Swarup: Latitudes of Longing (HarperCollins, HarperCollins, India) 
  • T. D. Ramakrishnan: Sugandhi alias Andal Devanayaki (Translated by Priya K. Nair, Harper Perennial, HarperCollins, India)
  • Tova Reich: Mother India (Macmillan, Pan Macmillan, India)

As usual, it’s not easy to source the winner from Australia.  It never ceases to surprise me that Australian booksellers are so slow to realise that (a) there is a huge and growing community from the sub-continent in Australia and (b) they are, as a community, super-keen readers.  So *guilty frown* I have had to buy a copy of Half the Night is Gone from the Big Behemoth that overworks and underpays its staff.

For previous winners of the DSC prize, see my reviews of

2012: Chinaman, the Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka
2013: Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
2015 The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
2017 The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam

The Drover’s Wife, the legend of Molly Johnson by Indigenous author Leah Purcell has an unusual genesis in a prize-winning play.  The Drover’s Wife was first premiered at the Belvoir St Theatre in 2016, and won numerous awards in 2017 including the NSW Premier’s Award for Playwriting and Book of the Year; and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama and the Victorian Prize for Literature.  The feature film based on the play is due for release in 2020.

Though I didn’t know Purcell’s name until she picked up these prestigious literary awards, I did know her work as a scriptwriter. Her credits as a writer, actor and director for the stage, film and TV include film and TV that I’ve seen: Jindabyne, Redfern Now, and Cleverman. She is prolific.

And now there is the novel.  Like the play it emerges from Henry Lawson’s legendary short story, The Drover’s Wife, (1893) a tale of deprivation and loneliness and  courage in the Australian bush.  (You can read the original here).  But as you can see from the ABC interview with Purcell below, her version of the story is transformed to deal with a different history of those pioneering days: domestic violence and rape; the Stolen Generations, frontier violence, and the hidden Black ancestry of many White Australians.

As you might expect, there is a cinematic quality to the writing, but vivid scenes intersect with internal monologues from the main characters: Molly, the drover’s wife who doesn’t know the truth about her own parentage; Yakada, an injured Indigenous man on the run back to his family up north; and Danny, the twelve-year-old boy who sees himself as the ‘man of the house’ during his drunken, violent father’s absence.  Additional complexity comes from the addition of two more characters: Nate Clintoff, emigrating from England to become the police presence in nearby Everton, and his wife Louisa, who’s keen to spread the word about votes for women with a bush newsletter.  (And like her real-life counterparts, her reason for wanting the female suffrage, is to improve the rights of women, with legislation to protect them from domestic violence in particular).

Storytelling is integral to the novel.  Molly is a taciturn woman, who is gradually freed from the prison of silence by the story-telling of Danny, who retells the adventures of their bush life with gusto, and Yakada who gently tells her the story of her identity.  Yakada also tells Danny that part of his responsibility as a man, is to keep his family’s stories alive.  We learn from the prologue that Danny does so: taught to write poetry by Louisa, he has kept an illustrated notebook that tells the story of a great woman, strong, steadfast, reliable and loving, his ma, Molly Johnson, nee Stewart. 

It’s the story of a mother’s love, fierce and true. And of a black man who was noble, wise and gentle, a warrior of ancient proportions — but unfortunately not Danny’s father.  Memories of cautious meetings, bonding and the sharing of stories.  Lessons were learnt and a mutual understanding and respect developed from the man to the boy and from the boy to the man — Yakada and Daniel Johnson. (p.2)

Also central to the story are questions of crime, justice, and punishment.  There is a critical moment in the story when Nate Clintoff is desperate to find Danny as a witness, to counter the drunken testimony of stockmen that Nate knows are lying.  If the reader knows anything about Australia’s Black History, Yakada’s silence is telling.  His testimony would not count, because he is Indigenous, but the testimony of a 12-year-old boy could be brought before the court.   Justice is shown in these years not long before Federation when Australia became a social laboratory admired around the world for its progressive reforms, to be a flimsy edifice, weighted against Indigenous people and female victims of male violence.  For Nate, the unfairness of the system provokes a crisis of conscience which persists in the present-day: how best to preserve law-and-order when law-and-order has failed the vulnerable.

The novel, unfortunately, has its flaws, inaccuracies which should have been remedied by its editor.  Molly muses on page 18 that perhaps her mood is influenced by her hormones.  The scene is set in 1893, and the first hormone was not identified until 1902, and not named as such until 1905. I didn’t know this till I looked it up, but the text jarred: it seemed anachronistic, and it was.  A reference to a Senator George Turner on page 44 puzzled me too.  There were no senators in the Victorian colony because the colonial government consisted of a legislative assembly and a legislative council.  The Australian Senate did not exist until Federation in 1901.  I think the person mentioned as running for election as the premier of Victoria prior to Federation is Sir George Turner who indeed became premier and subsequently Commonwealth Treasurer when, after Federation, he was a member of the House of Representatives (i.e. not the Senate, and therefore still not a Senator).   And though I’m open to correction about this, it also seems to me that Louisa’s use of the term ‘global economic situation’ on page 41 is a 21st century expression.  You might think that I’m nit-picking, but I think a debut author of Purcell’s status deserves more attentive editing than she had.  And I also think that any editor working on Australian historical fiction, to avoid embarrassment, ought to have a rudimentary knowledge of Australian history, at least to the level prescribed by the Australian National Curriculum for primary schools for Years 5 & 6.

Leah Purcell is a Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland.

Author: Leah Purcell
Title: The Drover’s Wife, the legend of Molly Johnson
Cover: photography by Murray Fredericks, design by Louisa Maggio ©Penguin Random House P/L
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, 2019, 281 pages
ISBN: 9780143791478
Source: Bayside Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 21, 2019

The Blue, by Nancy Bilyeau

I enjoyed this historical novel, recommended to me by Emma from Words and Peace when she came across my review of Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours which features a 14th century family of limners who create exquisite illuminated bibles and devotional prayer books. The Blue is likewise an historical novel about art, but it’s about 18th century porcelain, and the quest to create the colour blue.

The story features a lively young woman called Genevieve Planché, born in London after her parents fled the persecution of the Protestant Huguenots in Catholic France. Like many a contemporary heroine in commercial historical novels she is feisty, fearless and ambitious, and she accomplishes remarkable feats despite the constraints of her era.  There have, of course, always been remarkable women, but still, the reader must often suspend disbelief, especially towards the end of the story when Genevieve is impudent towards people who might easily have sent her to the guillotine without a second thought.  (If it had been invented by then.  It wasn’t, until 1789, and this novel takes place in 1759. But you get the idea).


Genevieve’s grandfather was, like many of the Huguenot diaspora, a weaver, but in England he takes up art.  That’s what Genevieve wants to do too, but alas, it is not merely her gender which precludes this but also her foolish behaviour in falling for a local ne’er-do-well.  When he, briefly endearing himself to the reader by undertaking activities vaguely reminiscent of early unionism, oversteps the mark by destroying a local business, Genevieve is thought to be in cahoots with him and promptly loses her apprenticeship drawing floral patterns for Anna Maria Garthwaite (who was a real life textile designer in Spitalfields, London).

Genevieve begins her narration by announcing her dubious status:

Amiability has never been counted more important in a woman’s character than it is today. Which is why I’m twenty-four and unmarried and without friends or employer, only a grandfather for company. (p.1)

So it’s off to Derby for Genevieve, where she is to take up painting porcelain.

Since this work seems a soul-destroying fate worse than death to Genevieve, she is easily tempted by a seductive offer from the suave Sir Gabriel Courtenay.  He knows that the Derby porcelain works are on the brink of discovering the secret of the elusive blue pigment, and he promises her £5000 and passage to Italy where she can learn the art of history painting, if she can find out what he needs to know.  The plot whips along with Genevieve falling in love with the young scientist who she needs to betray, and an assortment of disreputable characters doing thuggish things to make sure that she doesn’t renege on the deal.

For me, the real charm of this book is not so much the mildly implausible but wholly enjoyable plot, but the story of porcelain: how exports from China tantalised Europe until the secret of its manufacture was discovered in Saxony and the Meissen factory began producing highly prized figurines and tableware.  Any excuse to make slideshows of these beautiful artworks is good enough for me:

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Naturally England and France were keen rivals for the prestige of making porcelain too.  In France there was Sèvres, backed by Louis XV and his mistress Madame la Pompadour, no strangers to extravagance.  (The blue you see in these pieces post-dates the years of the novel but I like them too much to leave them out):

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And in England, Wikiedia tells me that production of porcelain in Derby predates the commencement of the works of William Duesbury, started in 1756 when he joined Andrew Planche and John Heath to create the Nottingham Road factory, which later became Royal Crown Derby.  Wikipedia also tells me that the title of oldest manufacturer in England is disputed by Royal Worcester, who claim 1751 as their year of establishment).  

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How much of Bilyeau’s novel is factually based on industrial spying as part of the porcelain story is hard to judge without research, but the novel is at its best when her heroine confronts her qualms about the ethics of her behaviour.  Impulse and self-interest is at war with the terror of stepping beyond her role, and there is realism in the portrayal of Genevieve as a refugee who has very little in the way of possessions except precious memories, and she recoils from ‘befouling’ them with anything sordid.  At the same time, she shares with her beau Thomas, the quest for knowledge for its own sake.  And she really does want to be an artist in Venice…

I suspect that this novel would make a most enjoyable film!

Author: Nancy Bilyeau
Title: The Blue
Publisher: Endeavour Quill, 2018, 437 pages
ISBN: 9781911445623
Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library via inter-library loan, with thanks to Bayside Library

Image credits (all from Wikipedia):

Meissen slideshow:

Sèvres slideshow:

Derby and Royal Crown Derby Slideshow:


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 20, 2019

Other People’s Houses, by Hilary McPhee

Hilary McPhee AO is an important part of Australia’s publishing history.  Together with the late Di Gribble (1942-2011), in 1975 she founded McPhee Gribble Publishing (1975-1989) which became Australia’s route to discovering the most interesting new writers, some of whom you can find on this blog: Tim Winton, Helen Garner, Rod Jones, and Murray Bail amongst others.  I heard about her memoir Other People’s Houses when McPhee was featured on the ABC Radio National Conversations program, (listen here) and even though I never got round to reading her previous memoir Other People’s Words, the story of an accidental publisher (which has been sitting on the TBR *blush* since 2008!) Other People’s Houses sounded so intriguing that I jettisoned my reservations about memoirs and reserved a copy at the library.

The Conversations program is headlined as ‘The Writer and the Prince’, because Other People’s Houses is the story of how McPhee was hired to help a Jordanian prince to write a book, an event which coincided with an abrupt change in her personal life.  It’s about a book project that doesn’t see the light of day, and at the same time, about a life journey about starting again in your sixties.  It’s a cautionary tale, offering a frank insight about how even an enviably smart, savvy woman can delude herself into believing that what you want, is how things are, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.   McPhee is upfront about not seeing the warning signs that all would not be well with the book, because she so badly needed the professional affirmation that the project could bring when the rest of her life was falling apart.

Other People’s Houses is also a salutary tale for women of a certain age, because an abrupt change in our personal lives is what eventually happens to most of us.  It is very common for women to become unpartnered late in life, and after a lifetime of being part of a couple, to have to learn to live alone.  It happened to both my mothers-in-law, who thrived, and my mother, who to her own surprise did not. It has happened to a number of my friends.  I don’t think  And in Hilary McPhee’s case, this unmooring coincided with a frightening crisis in her health. Friends, family, children and neighbours carry her through, reminding me of Charlotte Wood’s celebration of female friendships in The Weekend. 

For me, the story of the book that never was, was the most interesting part of this memoir.  There are insights into life in the Middle East and its fraught history and politics, and she lifts the curtain on life in a royal household too even though there are always constraints on what she sees and where she goes and on her relationship with the prince.  I was fascinated to see how this icon of Australian feminism so readily submitted to covering up in some circumstances, presenting it as being responsive and respectful of the culture in which she found herself.  It just goes to show that hard-and-fast certainties don’t always work in real life.

Hilary McPhee blogs intermittently at her website.

Author: Hilary McPhee
Title: Other People’s Houses
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2019, 226 pages
Cover image My first Phone number and what Freud really said
Cover design: Duncan Blachford
ISBN: 9780522875645
Source: Bayside Library Service

Available from Fishpond: Other People’s Houses



Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 17, 2019

A Christmas present for one of my (Australian) subscribers…

A little while ago, Text Publishing sent me a copy of Helen Garner’s Yellow Notebook.   If their publicist had read my blog, or noticed that I did not review the last Garner title they published and sent to me, they would have known not to do this.  There are legions of fans of Helen Garner, but I am not one of them. (Update, the next day: by brilliant coincidence, for those of you who love Garner, Kim at Reading Matters has reviewed this book.)

What to do?  It is a brand-new, unopened hardback copy.  I could send it to the Op Shop as I did with the previous unwanted one, but I’ve decided, in the spirit of the festive season, to offer it to one of my subscribers.

I’m not promoting this on Twitter, only my regular readers via email or Facebook subscribers will receive this offer.  I’m sorry, it’s only open to readers with an Australian postcode because overseas postage is too horrible to contemplate.

All you need to do is express your interest in comments below, and if you are selected using a random number generator, I will post it to you in time for Christmas (as long as you provide me with your postal address in time, of course).

Good luck!

PS Only comments here will be accepted.  I post to Facebook, but I never look at it anymore.

PPS The offer closes at midnight tonight, so be quick!

Update: 12:01 18/12/19 There were 16 entries, and using a random number generator, I drew No 9 as the winner.  That’s you, Janine from The Resident Judge of Port Phillip, so the book will be on its way to you tomorrow.

Thank you to everyone who entered, I’m sorry I didn’t have more copies to give away…


I wish I had time to finish this book, but it’s due back at the library. (As usual, *shrug* I have borrowed too many books at once).

However, it’s the ideas in the Introduction that interest me most.  Brigid Rooney surveys the literary landscape from the 1940s to the present (i.e. the early 2000s at her time of writing) and so her primary interest is in the activism of Judith Wright, Patrick White, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Les Murray, David Malouf , Helen Garner and Tim Winton.  Of these only the last three are still living: Malouf is in his 80s, and Garner is not far behind; only Winton is younger than I am.  However, I am more interested in the writer-activists that spring to mind from my recent reading: Indigenous writers exposing Australia’s Black history such as Alexis Wright, Marie Munkara, and Anita Heiss; authors tackling the issue of climate change such as Alice Robinson, Jane Rawson and Lucy Treloar; and those such as Meg Mundell and Rohan Wilson inviting readers to think about refugees.  There are others who tackle a wide range of contemporary issues: Rodney Hall, David Ireland, Elliot Perlman, Wayne Macauley, Eleni Hale and John Tesearch, to name but a few.

However, the issues Rooney discusses in the introduction remain valid.  She begins by recounting a 2003 talk by David Marr, in which he noted that in the 1970s political parties anxiously sought the endorsement of the nation’s leading artists. However, speaking in 2003, he said, [and things have only got worse since], artists and writers have become political liabilities, not assets, and politicians are quick to distance themselves from the taint of arts elitism. Marr invoked Patrick White to make his audience mindful of the urgent necessity of sustaining the relevance, value and public authority of an Australian literary culture. 

But who was Marr’s audience? Rooney explains:

— the gathering had been mostly mature in age.  Battle-weary baby boomers had comprised a familiar, earnestly polite crowd.  They, or rather we, were frequenters of writers’ festivals, listeners to ABC Radio National and purveyors of refined cultural goods.  To use one commentator’s phrase, we were an audience of ‘book chatters’.  (p.xi)

While aware that this audience was largely from an inner city demographic and thus vulnerable to charges of elitism, and sympathetic to the changed economic landscape that impacts on young people today, Rooney nails it IMO when she writes:

…for politically engaged youth — and there are some — of what relevance is a literary book culture dear to older generations?  In this age of digital, electronic and visual cultures, books compete and interact with film, television and the internet, all of which offer highly accessible and powerful means of story-telling. (p. xi-xii)

If anything, the prestige of the literary has faded even further since Rooney wrote this book and noted that contemporary Australian writers have been blamed for shying away from political engagement, from the big national issues of the day.  Part of the difficulty is that writers’ public interventions are made in the context of the ongoing struggle for authority and legitimacy within a literary culture that seems too insecure on the one hand, and a political culture too hostile on the other, to host any public intellectuals.  To speak out on any issue risks the prestige of the writer within the field, and the prestige of the field itself.  

I read the chapters about Judith Wright and Patrick White in the 1940s, and the one about Winton and Garner (1995-to the present, i.e. a decade ago).  It is not a criticism of Rooney’s book to say that it is written for an academic audience, but as a general reader I found it heavy-going, and allowed myself to get distracted by other things instead of finishing it before it was due back at the library.

Nevertheless, I remain interested in the concept of the writer-as-activist.  If public intellectuals have vacated the media space for discourse about important issues, how then does an electorate make informed judgements?  We watch what passes for current affairs on what’s left of serious TV and radio, and are no wiser than before. Experts who actually know what they’re talking about have been displaced by vox pops via social media. It’s as if we are now so attentive to inclusivity, that representation matters more than expertise.  Some of the talking heads on TV are blissfully ignorant, you only have to watch Q&A to see people blathering on about topics outside their field of expertise (and I don’t just mean the politicians).

The truth is that I know more about homelessness, for example, from reading recently published books than from the media.  This is a social problem of major importance yet it’s either completely ignored in the media, or covered in such shallow, scanty ways that while the heartstrings may be briefly engaged, the structural reasons behind homelessness remain hidden behind the mournful music, and we don’t hear about any meaningful proposals for change.

For me, it is not that writing about other things is unimportant, it is that the space for writing about the big issues has diminished.  Whatever attention is available for discourse about books is circumscribed by a narrow range of domestic interests.  There are so many narcissistic memoirs featured at writers’ festivals!

However, I’m not so pessimistic that I need to look back at a cohort of writers not read a great deal today. I’d like to see more writers tackle important social issues, but as you can see from the authors I refer to at the beginning of this post, there are indeed contemporary writers engaging with the big picture, and I’m always on the lookout for more.

Author: Brigid Rooney
Title: Literary Activists, Writer-intellectuals and Australian public life,
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press, 2009, 260 pages
ISBN: 9780702236624
Source: Port Phillip Library Service

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 16, 2019

Resistance Women, by Jennifer Chiaverini

I haven’t read many books about the German Resistance under Hitler.  Would it be true to say that when we think of The Resistance, we tend to think of the French Resistance and the brave men and women of the British SOE (Special Operations Group) who worked underground in France?  But there was a German Resistance, and not just the Righteous Among Nations who sheltered Jews and helped them escape.  In a way, everything Hans Fallada wrote in his social realism oeuvre was a form of resistance,  and the Nazis didn’t hesitate to ban it, but his Alone in Berlin (1947) is specifically about the futile resistance campaign of a working-class couple against the Nazis, a couple who believed that once you’ve seen that a cause is right, you’re obliged to fight for it.  (OTOH Fallada’s Nightmare in Berlin (1947) is about a man who never actively supported the Nazis but he never did anything to oppose them either.)  Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us is about German Resistance too, but it’s really more of a 21st century exploration of moral culpability and inter-generational guilt.

Jennifer Chiaverini’s historical novel Resistance Women is based on the true story of Mildred Fish Harnack and her circle of friends in the Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle) resistance group in Berlin.  Mildred was an American woman who fell in love with Arvid Harnack, when he was a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of Wisconsin.  They relocated to Germany when his fellowship ended, which coincided with the rise of Hitler.

Three other women form the main focus of the resistance as depicted in the novel: Greta Kuckoff, another American called Martha Dodd who was the flighty daughter of the US Ambassador to Germany, and a fictional character called Sara Weitz who was inspired by the young Jewish women of the Rote Kapelle. Sara was created rather than modelled on a real historical figure because the author needed her characters to interact with each other and (understandably, since members of resistance groups for security reasons often don’t know many other members of the group) Chiaverini couldn’t find a real historical figure to fulfil this role in her story.

At 594 pages, Resistance Women is a real chunkster, but I think it needs to be.  If the audience for a work of historical fiction doesn’t know much about the relevant history, then an author has to supply it.  So, through the impact on these four women and their relationships, the novel traces the interwar period, the rise of Hitler, and the seduction of the German nation into supporting his malevolent crimes against humanity.  The war doesn’t actually come into focus until Chapter 45, ‘August-September 1939’.  (Each chapter is helpfully prefaced by the month and year in which events take place).

By this time, the women’s activities are becoming more and more risky.  Husbands, lovers and friends work in positions of responsibility in the Nazi administration, and at the risk of their lives, the women translate information and then smuggle it out of Germany in the hope of alerting the isolationist US to the prospect of war.  Visas for Jews are expedited.  In 1940-41 the group sends advance notice of the German attack on the USSR, hoping that Stalin will put defences in place to rout the advance, but he ignores these signals.  They illegally monitor the BBC and distribute pamphlets contradicting propaganda about the progress of the war.  And as their hopes diminish that the German people will rise up and overthrow this evil regime, they make the risky decision to widen their circle to include other resistance groups instead of all working independently of each other.

The female characters are fleshed out to make an engaging narrative.  They fall in love, have problems in their relationships, and are torn between wanting to protect their loved ones from risk and wanting a different and more honorable future for Germany.  Martha’s coming-of-age from a silly young woman who flirts with the appeal of smart Nazi uniforms and rousing patriotic music, to a courageous resistance operative is convincing, as is Mildred’s anguish about her infertility and Sara’s anxiety about her baby Ule.

There are flaws in this book: sloppy editing e.g. on page 202 when a sequence about Martha briefly replaces Martha with Mildred, but more egregiously there’s a sentence that should have been picked up by any astute editor doing her job.  When Mildred briefly visits the US and revels in the weight of oppression being lifted from her shoulders, Chiaverini goes too far when she sanitises the state of race relations in the USA in 1939, i.e. pre-dating the pre-civil rights era.  Even an Australian reader knows that this line about ‘mutual respect’ simply isn’t true:

Mildred delighted anew in all the things she had missed about America.  Overheard conversations and jokes in regional accents.  Newspapers free to present the facts as reporters discovered them, with editorials representing a broad political spectrum. Bookstores full of works that uplifted and questions and instructed and challenged.  Baseball.  Jazz.  City blocks where whites and Jews and Negroes [sic] and immigrants lived side by side, if not always in friendship, then at least in mutual respect. (p. 394)

OTOH the veiled allusions to similarities between Nazi demagoguery and contemporary politics are pertinent.  It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who said that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.  Is it drawing too long a bow to note that here in Australia, the provisions of the revised religious discrimination bill have been released as parliament goes into recess and the electorate is preoccupied by the festive season?  To note that journalists are expressing concern that today’s government ministers simply stonewall by repeating their rehearsed mantras whenever they are asked questions that they don’t like?  (Watch Fran Kelly try in vain to get Mathias Cormann to answer a question on the Insiders episode of 8/12/19, starting at 8:20).  To note that ministerial accountability has been jettisoned entirely in the case of someone like Angus Taylor? But it was not drawing a long bow to raise the alarm when John Howard suspended the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act to introduce the NT Intervention.  Those racist provisions remained in place with a change of government and to our shame they remain in place today.  And look how Australians have been de-sensitised over time to our treatment of refugees…

I wonder are we lapsing into being like the Germans who did not approve of the Nazi Party, but did nothing because they were not affected by their activities, until it was too late? In the novel, the characters repeatedly express disbelief that people failed to be vigilant in defence of their freedoms and did not heed the warning signs.  In modern-day Australia it seems melodramatic to draw comparisons, yet demagoguery is entrenched in the US and UK, both bastions of democracy.

I don’t want to think about these things: it’s a fortnight away from Christmas.  But I wish we had a Greta Thunberg with the charisma to make democracy an issue that young people care about.

Author: Jennifer Chiaverini
Title: Resistance Women
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2019, 594 pages
ISBN: 9780062939654
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $32.99

Available from Fishpond: Resistance Women: A Novel


Last night The Spouse and I went to a most entertaining book launch at the Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV).  The book is called Locating Australian Literary Memory by RMIT historian and scholar Brigid Magner.

This is the blurb, (links are to the authors’ presence on this blog):

Locating Australian Literary Memory explores the cultural meanings suffusing local literary commemorations. It is orientated around eleven authors – Adam Lindsay Gordon, Joseph Furphy, Henry Handel Richardson, Henry Lawson, A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson, Nan Chauncy, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Eleanor Dark, P. L. Travers, Kylie Tennant and David Unaipon – who have all been celebrated through a range of forms including statues, huts, trees, writers’ houses and assorted objects. Brigid Magner illuminates the social memory residing in these monuments and artefacts, which were largely created as bulwarks against forgetting. Acknowledging the value of literary memorials and the voluntary labour that enables them, she traverses the many contradictions, ironies and eccentricities of authorial commemoration in Australia, arguing for an expanded repertoire of practices to recognise those who have been hitherto excluded.

John Arnold, editor of the Latrobe Journal amongst other notable activities, did the honours with a witty speech, which referenced The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia by the late Peter Pierce.   I have a copy of this book, which used to live in the glovebox of the car, so that on our travels we could hunt out any sites of literary pilgrimage.  As John said, all that information is now available at Wikipedia via our phones — but that is not much good in parts of the Hunter Valley and the Gold Coast, and in plenty of other places not so remote as you might think, because there is no phone reception.  (Yes, Australia, 21st century, thank you to the clowns in Canberra and Malcolm Turnbull in particular who replaced Kevin Rudd’s world standard NBN with an unfunny joke).  So a book is still a very good backup plan, and my copy of the Literary Guide goes back in the glovebox whenever we are venturing beyond Melbourne.  In the meantime it lives on the reference shelf by my desk, and was most recently used in conversation with Bill at The Australian Legend about sites for a possible literary trail in the Mallee.

John’s introduction was followed by the author explaining the genesis of her book.  Bridget said there were two catalysts that made her interested in the memorialising of Australian authors: one from Melinda Harvey after a trip to Katharine Susannah Prichard’s house in France; and the other from Barnard Eldershaw’s novel Plaque with Laurel which features commemorative activities for a deceased Australian author.  (You can read a description of this now very rare book, here). Barnard and Eldershaw were cynical about the grandstanding kind of memorialising that politicians do about famous authors, and Bridget pointed out that imported forms of memorialisation (plaques and statues etc) tend to omit women authors, First Nations authors, and our multicultural literary heritage. She thinks that there should be a wider range of memorials, and that they should use different forms and ways of thinking about our literary heroes, that suit a different era. So I look forward to seeing how these ideas are explored in the book.

Then there were readings of poetry, prose and song from David Unaipon, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and Banjo Paterson, and a guest appearance by Henry Lawson himself, complete with his trademark moustache and looking a bit shabby as befits an author down on his luck.  He told us one of his stories, ‘The Loaded Dog’, which had the audience laughing almost from the start.  (Many of us knew this story from our school days, but we’d never seen it presented like this!)

It’s always lovely to be in a room full of readers, but the conversations were especially interesting because there were representatives from various author societies.  Readers of long standing will remember my post about a weekend in Maldon to celebrate Henry Handel Richardson and it was really nice to meet people from the HHR Society and be prompted to check out forthcoming events for HHR’s 150th anniversary birthday.  (Alas, I can’t get to the picnic tea at Chiltern on January 3rd because The Spouse is having An Important Birthday of his own that week and Things Must Be Done in Preparation thereof).  We also met a gentleman from the Adam Lindsay Gordon Society and I was reminded to pay homage at Gordon’s  grave in Brighton before too much longer.  I suspect that there were many years of literary scholarship assembled in the room, united by a love of Australian literature.

Published by Anthem Press in the UK and USA, ISBN 9781785271076, the book is available from Fishpond: Locating Australian Literary Memory (Anthem Studies in Australian Literature and Culture) It is expensive at $149.00 which is not unreasonable for a book which ought to be in all Australian state and university libraries.  Fortunately for me, however, it was selling at the special price of $50 at the launch.  It seems to be selling for less than the Fishpond price at Readings but it has to be ordered in since they don’t have it in stock. My advice is to shop around.


I’ll take this opportunity to plug a workshop at the RHSV called Born-digital Documents on January 24th.  I recently attended the same workshop presented by the RHSV’s digital expert Sophie Shilling at the Glen Eira Library, and it was excellent.  A born-digital document is one that is created from the outset (‘born’) with digital technology, i.e. it was never created in another form and then scanned or uploaded into a digital space like the cloud.  Most of the photos we take these days, for example, are born-digital, and what am I writing now is born-digital because I do not draft using a word-processor, I write directly into the WordPress editor.  As Sophie said, there are multiple ways these documents and images can be lost forever.  All that needs to happen for ANZLitlovers to disappear into cyberspace is for WordPress to close down, or morph into a different digital form which makes the old technology inaccessible, or get sold and then hosted by some other body that deletes my content by accident or design.  The workshop is about protecting and backing up your stuff in effective ways.  So if you’re in Melbourne over the summer holidays, book yourself a place.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 12, 2019

Simpson Returns, by Wayne Macauley

Recently shortlisted for the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Simpson Returns is Wayne Macauley’s sixth novel.  Here on the blog I’ve reviewed Blueprints for a Barbed-wire Canoe (2004); The Cook (2011); Demons (2014); Some Tests (2017); and I have Caravan Story (2007) on the TBR somewhere too.  If I had to pick a favourite it would be a toss-up between The Cook and Some Tests, but all these novels are disconcertingly relevant satires that nail modern pretensions and preoccupations in a refreshingly original way. In this new book Simpson Returns Macauley uses the national myth about Simpson and his Donkey to take aim at our platitudes about egalitarianism…

The iconic Gallipoli stretcher-bearer John Simpson Kirkpatrick was so beloved by former Prime Minister John Howard that his image graced a poster about values to be taught to all children. Presumably Howard did not know that, as Mark Baker reports at the SMH in 2013, this embodiment of mateship and heroism was a knockabout 22-year-old Englishman who enlisted in the First AIF under his middle name to hide the fact that he was a deserter from the merchant navy.  A parliamentary enquiry was set up to deal with persistent calls for Simpson to be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, but it found in 2013, that most of what is said about Simpson is a lie, and although he was brave, he was no braver than the other stretcher-bearers whose deeds have faded into anonymity.

Macauley’s Simpson is a nice enough fellow all the same, it’s just that—like his namesake at Gallipoli—he’s a mere band-aid in the great scheme of things.  He is as powerless to alter the course of  events in our heartless modern society as Kirkpatrick was to halt the machinery of that dreadful war.  Resurrected ninety years after he was supposed to have died, Simpson and his donkey Murphy travel through rural Victoria trying to help others, but he makes very little difference.  Macauley draws on another persistent myth about Lasseter’s Reef of gold when Simpson’s ‘miraculous’ healing powers are attributed to a vial of Lasseter’s Water.  Which now needs replenishing, hence the quest across Victoria to find some.

Along the way he meets inept would-be suicides: a homeless mother of three trying end it all with the wrong sized hose attached to her car; and a Vietnam Vet trying to hang himself by standing on the back of an angora goat.  Simpson intervenes and goes on his way, only to find a refugee with a story to break your heart; an abused teenager with addiction issues, a former teacher who’s lost his marbles, and saddest of all, Laura, a broken woman whose sufferings haunt the reader long after the book is finished.  Life has been cruel and unfair to all these people, and the society they live has nothing to offer them to alleviate their misery.

This being a satire, there are droll moments, but Simpson’s Donkey is more grim than its predecessors.

Author: Wayne Macauley
Title: Simpson Returns
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 136 pages
Cover design: Design by Committee
ISBN: 9781925773507
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Simpson Returns


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 9, 2019

A Sister in My House, by Linda Olsson

You can tell by the title that this novel is about estrangement.  A Sister in My House — not My Sister, and emphatically My House.  What sustains interest in the novel is whether there can be genuine reconciliation, or not.

Linda Olsson is a Swedish-born New Zealand author who lives in Auckland. She writes intense explorations of the human heart and I suspect that readers will either love her quiet reflective style or not, though it might depend on a reader’s mood at the time.  I very much admired The Kindness of Your Nature (2011) despite its melancholy tone (see my review) but was less enamoured of Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs (2005) which was a best-seller in New Zealand and published in 25 countries.  I think that might have been because I listened to it as an audio book en route to work back in 2014, and it might perhaps have been a different experience if I had read it as print, and in the peaceful environment of my home, lingered over the prose.

Which is how I read A Sister in My House, and it is a beautiful book.  Maria is a very private person, protecting herself from much in the way of contact with other people after the loss of the love of her life.  She has found refuge in a house she rents in a small Spanish village.  It was where they had the first moments of real happiness in her lonely life, and now, damaged—perhaps irrevocably—by traumatic loss and feeling no hope that she can ever be happy again, she doesn’t want to share the house or her memories with anyone.

It was when Maria was enjoying her brief happiness that a chance meeting with her long-estranged sister Emma led her to issue a casual invitation for her to visit. She regretted it almost immediately, and was relieved when nothing came of it.  But two years later Emma makes contact, and asks if she might come.  Maria is distraught.  She is mired in grief, and can’t cope even with the cleaner’s innocuous question about which bedroom to make up for her sister.

… the words struck me as I had swallowed something hot and heavy.  And once ingested, they came to rest somewhere deep inside me, burning.  The realisation that when evening arrived, my sister would be here.  Would sleep in one of the beds.  Occupy one of the rooms.  Invade the space I considered mine.  And affect the atmosphere.  Not because of some intention on her part.  No, it was me.  I was the problem.  What I consider mine has always felt so very… I am not sure how to describe it.  Fragile perhaps.  So exposed and vulnerable.  In every way.  I am unable to share anything that truly means something to me.  And when circumstances force me to, all I want to do is walk away.   Leave everything behind.  It is forever ruined for me. (p.13-14)

But when Emma arrives, it is clear that all is not well with her either, and these two, estranged for so many years, edge delicately around each other to avoid explaining for as long as possible.  Neither is mean or spiteful, they simply don’t know how to talk to each other, or to reveal their private pain. Alienated as they are, they share the loss of another sister in childhood, and it becomes clear that negotiating their memories of that traumatic day is the key to some kind of tentative resolution.

Mistakes are made, and more misunderstandings accrue, and though it’s all very quiet and civilised, the tension accumulates.  For such a gentle exploration of human dynamics, this book holds out the possibility of redemption beyond each page almost like a psychological thriller.

haven’t read Sonata for Miriam (2009), or The Blackbird Sings at Dusk (2016) but they have (according to Wikipedia) also been international successes, so I’m hoping they also turn up at my library one day.

Author: Linda Olsson
Title: A Sister in My House
Publisher: Penguin Books, Penguin Random House NZ, 2018, 199 pages
ISBN: 9780143770763
Source: Kingston Library
Available from Fishpond: A Sister in My House

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 9, 2019

There Was Still Love, by Favel Parrett

There Was Still Love is Favel Parrett’s third novel, and it shows her maturing style.   Past the Shallows had a grim setting in Tasmania but When the Night Comes ventured further: her characters meet in Hobart, but the novel includes scenes from Denmark and aboard Australia’s Antarctic vessel, the Nella Dan.  There Was Still Love extends this preoccupation with a wider world and its history: the novel tells parallel stories from the 1980s, in Melbourne and in Prague, (then behind the Iron Curtain), and there are flashbacks to the Nazi partition of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the postwar Soviet takeover, and the 1968 Soviet invasion to suppress the Prague Spring.

The novel is told from the limited third person perspective of two children: Malá Liška a.k.a. ‘Little Fox’, living in Melbourne with her grandparents Máňa and Bill; and Luděk, living with his grandmother Eva in Prague.  Both these children have vivid interior lives, but family life is permeated by the silences of questions that are never answered.  Mana and Eva are sisters with a catastrophic past that separated them, and the plot moves slowly towards revealing how a childhood misadventure led one to freedom in Australia while the remains captive to the restraints of life under the Soviet regime.

The children’s perspectives suit Parrett’s vivid impressionistic style.  We meet Little Fox in her fantasy world while her grandpa snoozes in his chair.  Did the tape finish?’ he asks when he wakes:

Side two — the best side.  Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age; Uranus, the Magician; Neptune, The Mystic — my favourite planet, and our favourite piece.  My grandpa thinks that the celesta is a magical instrument and I always listen out for it in each different track.  Holst: The Planets. (p.6)

They are called into the kitchen where they lunch on A Kaiser roll with a slice of cheese and a slice of Parisier and Parrett gracefully conveys the careful rationing of food with one gherkin for me, one for my grandma and one for my grandpa.  They are saving every cent they can for a trip back to Czechoslovakia to see Eva.  And when it is time to go, the money doesn’t stretch to taking Little Fox with them. She has to stay behind with an uncle.

Luděk, running wild in Prague, eavesdrops on conversations that he is not meant to hear.  The two sisters, briefly reunited, share both guilt and resentments, the atmosphere made more enigmatic by the presence of shadowy figures trailing them.  Their phone calls, when they are separated by the vast distance between their lives, are always constrained because they know about the surveillance that has haunted their entire lives.  Together in Eva’s poky flat where she sleeps in the kitchen to make room for her guests, they whisper.

Luděk longs to know where his mother is and if she will return, not knowing that the authorities are holding her to ransom while she travels the world with a theatre group. They know that she will have to return from the West for as long as she wants to see her child.  He is the ransom, and it is his grandmother Eva who has the burden of holding him there.  On her last night in Prague, Máňa tells him a bedtime story which becomes a metaphor for courage and self-sacrifice: Atlas, with the world on his shoulders, briefly abandons his burden, but only to save the life of a child.  Curious to see this statue in which Atlas sits on top of an arched gateway, down a narrow lane, and he watches over a secret garden, I searched for an image of it.  Here it is:

Atlas at the Vrtba Gardens in Prague, at Trip Adviser*

The boy’s search for this statue of Atlas becomes a quest which leads him to Mrs Bláža, a lonely old woman who he thinks might be able to answer his questions.  She is too old and deaf to help him, but he finds himself wanting to help her and to lessen her lonely days with the gift of their old B&W TV.

It is not until he is alone again with his grandmother that he understands the meaning of the story:

Aunty Máňa was free.  She could come and go, not like Babi.  Not like him.  They were stuck here while everyone else in the whole world could move around anywhere they wanted to. (p.139)

It is his grandmother who consoles him: he felt her take it all like always — take the weight, the bad feelings.  They lifted off him and sunk down into her large body.

He looked at her — his babi.  All those years of carrying so much.  All the years of being stuck and having to keep everything going.  And he knew that Babi held it all so that he did not have to. Babi held it all so that he could stay free.

He was not like Atlas — but she was. (p.132)

There Was Still Love is a delicate homage to the self-sacrifice of families everywhere.

My only complaint about this book is that I wished there was a pronunciation guide for the Czech names.  Even though I’m only reading in my head, it feels disrespectful to mispronounce names, and I have no idea how to pronounce the diacritics so painstakingly added in the text.  Perhaps Hachette could include one if they add a reading group guide to their webpage about this book?

*Image credit:

  • Atlas at the Vrtba Gardens in Prague, at Trip Adviser, traveller photo submitted by Peter Kotvan (Jul. 2018)
  • There is a clearer image here by Carole Wood, which labels it Prague – Karmelitská – Jardin Vrtba – Porte  at  but the photo’s copyright status isn’t clear so I haven’t used it.

Author: Favel Parrett
Title: There Was Still Love
Cover design: Christabella Designs, cover illustration by Robert Farkas
Publisher: Hachette, 2019, 214 pages
ISBN: 9780733630682
Source: personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore $29.99

Available from Fishpond: There Was Still Love

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 8, 2019

The Weekend, by Charlotte Wood

The Weekend is a welcome return to form for Charlotte Wood. The unforgiving, hard-edged, bleak anger of The Natural Way of Things is replaced by the subtle explorations of human frailty that I so admired in her previous novels: The Submerged Cathedral, (2004); The Children (2007) and Animal People (2011).  However, in The Weekend, Wood’s focus is not on the claims of family but on the enduring bonds of female friendship, (a theme also explored in exquisite and painful clarity by Margaret Merrilees in Big Rough Stones).

Now in their seventies but all high-achieving women in their former careers, Jude, Wendy and Adele make their separate ways to the (fictional) coastal town of Bittoes, to clear out Sylvie’s house for sale.  They are grieving for Sylvie, who until her recent death, had made them an inseparable foursome of longstanding.  But now despite the three women knowing each other better than their own siblings, Sylvie’s death had opened up strange caverns of distance between them.

Each one has reason to resent Sylvie’s lover Gail, who has debunked to Dublin—the Paddington house cleared out, one go, wiped out like a sick bowl—leaving them with the job of cleaning the beach house, and with the impending loss of a place dear in all their hearts.  All of them would be alone, were it not for each other: Jude’s married lover Daniel is as usual spending Christmas with his family; Wendy’s much-loved husband Lance died some years ago; and Adele knows that she has worn out her welcome with her latest lover Liz.

Daughters, BTW, do not come out well in this novel: Liz’s daughter is the bully who forces Adele’s departure; Daniel’s daughter is savagely cruel to Jude; and Wendy’s daughter Claire with her ice-cold perfect manners would shock me too if The Offspring behaved in the same way:

Where did a person learn that smooth, corporate-management way of speaking to her own mother?  Whenever Wendy spoke to Claire on the phone it was like ringing a complaints hotline; the assertiveness training did all the work. Unfortunately I’m unable to offer.  What I propose is.  If Wendy had to write down an emergency contact on a form she put Claire, but sitting here now she thought how mistaken this was, because Claire might not actually come if her mother were, say, found in bloody, fleshy shreds on the road.  She would make some calls and go back to work.  She would send flowers to the funeral.  (p.16)

Jude the martyr, Jude the boss reminded me so much of one of the very few people that I really dislike that I had trouble understanding why the others wanted her in their lives.  A once-famous restaurateur, and insufferable snob, Jude’s default is to sneer contemptuously at other people’s inadequate standards in food, clothing, cars, and home décor.  Adele has the temerity to remonstrate with her about her criticism of Wendy’s driving, and gets only disdain in response:

‘You didn’t need to be so brutal,’ said Adele.

But Jude only sniffed.  ‘It’s time she was told, she might be more careful,’ and returned her gaze to the ocean, vast and blue.

Adele watched Jude standing there, tall and straight-backed, a chic older woman at the beach.  She wore an oversized, very fine straw hat and big black sunglasses, the hems of her black linen pants loosely rolled, and a white muslin short trailing flatteringly past her slim hips.  Even her feet no longer looked sad, but elegant in her black Birkenstocks.  The frailty Adele had seen in the car was gone; Jude was back in command.

Be careful, Adele wanted to say.  It was dangerous business, truth telling. (p.125)

Indeed it is, as we see in the stormy conclusion.

Wendy brings Jude’s contempt down on herself from the moment she sets out in her dented red Honda with Finn, an ageing dog with the kind of unhygienic habits that are hard to love.  As I used to say about my dear old Chifley, I hope someone will love me when I’m old and useless the way we went on loving him.  Finn is too old and frail to be left behind in kennels, but Jude is intransigent.  He has to stay outside.  Of course I was always going to dislike Jude…

Wendy, a public intellectual with an international profile, thinks that everybody hated old people now…

…it was acceptable, encouraged even, because of your paid-off mortgage and your free education and your ruination of the planet. And Wendy agreed.  She loathed nostalgia, the past bored her.  More than anything, she despised self-pity.  And they had been lucky, and wasteful.  They had failed to protect the future.  But, on the other hand, she and Lance had had nothing when they were young.  Nothing! The Claires of the world seemed to forget that, with all their trips to Europe, their coffee machines and air conditioners and three bathrooms in every house.  And anyway, lots of people, lots of women—Wendy felt a satisfying feminist righteousness rising—didn’t have paid-off mortgages, had no super.  Look at Adele, living on air. (p.17)

I think we are all becoming more aware of homelessness among older women as a growing matter of urgency, and my reading of Meg Mundell’s We Are Here, Home, Place and Belonging was a vivid reminder that it can happen to anyone.  In this novel, Wood demonstrates with appalling clarity how Adele, with a stellar career in theatre now behind her, has no money, no home and not even a car as a possible refuge:

[Adele] stared out of the window and she felt the familiar fear crawling towards her through the long grey corridors of the train.  She had seen them on two or three television reports now.  It was an issue, a growing epidemic, the homelessness of older women.  She watched these foolish, acquiescent women, exposing themselves on national television.  Offering their small, ashamed smiles to reporters as they tried to explain—unsatisfactorily, hopelessly—how things had come to this.  […] Women who had once been safe, and loved, but who had not been careful with money, who had not paid attention. Who hoped things would get better somehow. First they stayed with friends, with their children, but then things happened, things got worse. And now they lived in their cars, cast unwanted into the ugly suburbs. (p.56)

Wood also shows — almost as an afterthought that some readers might miss — how homelessness can also happen in less predictable ways.  (And these are all middle-class women).

Wood skewers the unfairness of life in all kinds of ways.  Sylvie’s house is built on a hill so steep it has an inclinator to hoist people and things upstairs.  Adele, near destitute as she is, thinks of herself as an actress [holding] a permanent ticket in a magnificent global lottery with the fantasy possibility of sudden fame, riches raining down upon you.  She ruminates on the silver and green view below:

If you were very rich, nature would be yours to possess.  It surrounded you, it was wilderness owned by nobody, and yet by being rich you could have dominion over the bays and the shores; even the streets below were yours to claim or dismiss, as you wished.  You could look down in a peaceable, generous way over all the dull, ugly details… the unpaid bills, the leaf blowers, the women who lugged sacks of linen to holidaymakers from house to house, who waddled up driveways in their leggings and baseball caps and t-shirts, carrying buckets, hoisting vacuum hoses over their shoulders. (p.69)

For those of us further along the timeline of our lives than we might prefer, The Weekend can be sobering reading, but it’s often disarmingly funny too.

As Kerryn Goldsworthy says in her review at the SMH, this richly textured novel is about so many things that it’s hard to do justice to all of them.  She’s right—and the best solution to that is to get a copy and read it.  Again and again.

Update 9/12/19 Following on from the discussion below about the homelessness of older women I have (thanks to my dear friend Mairi Neil who is active in so many causes) located HAAG, Housing for the Aged Action Group.  You can add your voice to others who are gravely concerned about this by joining for a mere $5, (pensioners for free) and you can do what I did and donate at the same time.  It is important to join even if like me you enjoy secure housing, because politicians take notice of numbers.  They need to know that lots of people care about this social issue and want something done about it.

Author: Charlotte Wood
Title: The Weekend
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2019, 256 pages
Cover design: I’m not sure… Sandy Cull from gogoGinkgko is credited with the internal design, but it doesn’t say who did that pitch-perfect cover.
ISBN: 9781760292010
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin, with thanks to publicist Jane Finemore from Finemore Communications.

Available from Fishpond: The Weekend and bookshops everywhere.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 8, 2019

Cooking with Kindness, compiled by Pam Ahern

I borrowed Cooking with Kindness, over 70 recipes from Australia’s best vegan chefs and restaurants from the library not because I am a vegan.  I borrowed it because, since recent surgery, I have become, inexplicably, lactose intolerant.  This digestive catastrophe may, I’m told, be temporary, or last for months or a year, or maybe forever.  This last is too awful to contemplate because I love French cheeses, hot buttered crumpets, and creamy Paris mash.

So, in what I am determined is only the interim, I am experimenting with culinary denials of this tiresome problem.  I have created a recipe for date muffins made with cashew nut butter (which are quite nice); made a Coles magazine ‘cheesecake’ made with decadent coconut cream (though the nut-based crust fell apart all over the dining-table); made my signature ‘party plate’ spanakopita with goats cheese and dill instead of feta and ricotta (and it disappeared off the plate immediately so that was a success) and substituted lactose-free milk instead of the real thing in home-made Greek yoghurt.  (It tastes ok, but it doesn’t have that distinctive tang without which making your own seems hardly worth the bother.) ‘Paris’ mash made with goats milk tastes like the mash my mother used to make (and that’s not a compliment), but goats cheese on Ryvita is surprisingly good.  (Meredith Dairy make delicious goats cheeses (plain, dill, and (to-die-for) dusted with ash, and I have just discovered Maggie’s General Store in Tucker Rd Bentleigh where she had a version made with Australian native pepperberries, plus also some aged hard goats cheeses which I think hope are going to be ok.)

But I needed some recipes for entertaining that would be just as nice as the dips and nibbles we usually serve.  So I borrowed Cooking with Kindness from the library.  The recipes all come from vegan restaurants so they are commercially successful, not just worthy efforts by amateurs.  I skipped all the well-meaning ‘journey to veganism’ introductions, and (also skipping the breakfast chapter because I’m still ok with eggs) went straight to recipes which looked appealing.  In ‘Snacks’ I found a not-too-fatty recipe for hummus; a ‘Creamy Chipotle Aioli’ that will use limes from the garden; sweet potato chips (supposed to be served with tofu aioli, but I can’t abide tofu so I won’t be using that aioli); Curried vegetable samosas with a coconut yoghurt dipping sauce (coconut yoghurt?  who knew, and can I make it myself?! *See update below);  superfood bars with a million ingredients including cumin (but I shall leave out the quinoa flakes for sure); and ‘Scrumptious raw cacao balls’ made with dates.

There were also good ideas in the ‘Lunch and Dinner’ chapter, but (apart from the fact that I’m ok with fish and meat though I don’t like red meat) I have a good collection of vegetarian cookbooks with Indian curries and Italian meals using legumes etc and  most of them don’t use dairy.  Also, I cannot come at the idea of a vegan chowder made with soy milk.  Noooo.  I would rather just think nostalgically about creamy seafood chowders and do without.  (Hopefully not forever.) But ‘Pumpkin Coconut Soup’ sounds interesting, and so does ‘Lebanese Pearl Couscous, Pumpkin, Saffron and Figs; Eggplant Caponata will be useful at harvest time (if we have any leftover after I make ratatouille.  I love ratatouille.)  ‘Giant pasta with Mushroom Sauce’ looks nice and it uses rice milk to make the creamy sauce.  (I have yet to experiment with rice milk, almond milk etc., because I haven’t had a recipe to do it with.)  The ‘Calzoni Fritti’ made with an almond and cashew ‘ricotta’ and spinach look scrumptious, and so do the ideas for pizza but we’ve already got that sorted. (You just use pesto or a nutty spread instead of the cheese, and then add whatever’s growing in the garden.)  There’s a few good alternatives for burgers which are handy as well for when our vegetarian friends come for a BBQ.

But ‘Spag Bol’ and ‘Lentil Shepherd’s Pie’?  No, no, and no.  Some things are just not meant to be.  If you can’t have it, you can’t have it, and you should just have a nice glass of wine instead…

At the back of the book there’s a very useful collection of savoury and sweet sauces, even a caramel sauce, which actually looks a whole lot less tricky to make than a real one made with butter.

‘Sweet treats’ are a challenge when dairy is off the menu.  I’ve found ‘peanut butter cookies’ made with rice malt syrup; ‘peanut bars with a chocolate ganache’ made with agave syrup (which I will replace with honey); coconut gelato; and a ‘Red velvet cake with buttercream frosting’ (only, I have grave doubts about frosting made with margarine and soy milk). The ‘Chocolate beetroot cake with raspberries and avocado chocolate icing’ might be a better bet, eh? I have nothing to say about a pavlova whose meringue is made with chickpea water… but the ‘Mango and Lime Cheesecake with a chewy Chocolate Almond Crust’ not only looks very nice, but also as if the crust, made with almonds, dates and cacao, might solve the problem I had with crust that fell apart in the Coles ‘cheesecake’ recipe.  There’s a ‘Raw Creamy Dreamy Fruit Flan’ recipe that has a base of almonds, cashews, dates and tahini, which looks as if it’s holding together too, (though of course we all know by now how clever food photographers are — it could be held in place with hairspray for all we know, eh?)  I might try out the ‘Warm Oreo Brownie with Hot Chocolate Sauce’ on my neighbour whose faint American accent makes her an expert on Brownies, and when she joins us for dinner each week, we could try some of the winter warmers: the ‘Warm Mexican Corn and Blueberry Puddings’ made with polenta and flour; the ‘Pear upside-down pudding’; and the ‘pumpkin pie’ (though whether she will like that as much as my usual recipe remains to be seen. It comes from Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking Vol II Fo-Z (Doubleday, USA. 1947) and this OpShopFind is a treasure trove of old-fashioned American cooking such as chowders, ‘brown Betties’, key lime pie, crumbles and pickles, though everything made with meat is best avoided and not from any vegan scruples!)

See, that’s the thing… it’s not just me suffering this dairy deprivation, it’s my friends and family too.  So I’m investing my time and creativity in finding delicious solutions that will tide us over this phase.  Which it had better be, and not a permanent state of affairs…

Even so, I think I’d better buy the book.

Update 21/12/19 I found some coconut yoghurt at the supermarket.  It is awful.  It is throw-out-the-rest-of-the-tub awful. And that is why I have crossed off the coconut yoghurt dipping sauce.

Title: Cooking with Kindness, over 70 recipes from Australia’s best vegan chefs and restaurants
Compiled by Pam Ahern founder and director of Edgar’s Mission
Photography by Julie Renouf
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2017, 233 pages
ISBN: 9781925584394
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 6, 2019

Troppo, by Madelaine Dickie

The TAG Hungerford award has a good record for recognising talented Australian authors.  Set up by the City of Fremantle in WA to discover authors as yet unpublished, it consists of a cash prize and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press.  Although I haven’t read the prize-winning books, I’ve read other books by these recipients of the award, including:

I’ve reviewed three winners of the award on the blog

and I’ve also read three of the novels shortlisted for the 2014 award picked up and published by other publishers — 2014 must have been a difficult year to choose the winner because these three are very fine novels: Seeing the Elephant, by Portland Jones;  Bloodlines, by Nicole Sinclair and The Sisters’ Song, by Louise Allan

The winner of that hotly contested 2014 award was Troppo, by Madelaine Dickie, published in 2016 by Fremantle Press.

Troppo is going to be on the 2020 reading list for the Indonesian book group I belong to, and it’s a good choice for discussion because it’s the story of a young Australian woman who goes to work in Sumatra, offering the perspective of an Australian who is fluent in Indonesian and knows the country quite well.  Like Simone Lazaroo (who won the award in 1993), Dickie writes as an outsider with some inside experience of Indonesia.  Most of the people in our group have a great deal of inside experience of Indonesia, so I’m looking forward to hearing what they think of the novel.

Penny, the central character and narrator of the story, is her own worst enemy.  The book begins with an alarming incident where she hears first-hand from a young woman who had worked for her future boss, Shane, but she decides to ignore those warning signs.  Penny is a keen surfer, telling herself that she’s in Sumatra to manage a coastal resort for a few months so that she can surf in her time off, but really, she’s running away.  She’s evading the problems she is having in her Australian relationship with a man called Josh.  Some years older than her, he is everything she is not: prudent, sensible, and comfortable with routines.  He’s career-minded, and settled-down contentedly in Perth.  But Penny, perhaps because of her disrupted youth which included time out with her father on Bali for a year, likes to party, to drift, and to have an adventurous lifestyle.  Reckless and naïve, Penny is warned off working for Shane by both expats and the locals with whom she is staying, but she ignores the weight of all this hostility and takes up her job at the resort.  (His offer of a huge bonus if she lasts for six months helps her to make up her mind!)

Troppo shows this young woman experiencing a conflict of values.  The novel is set in November 2004, just after the Bali and Denpasar bombings, and just before the Boxing Day tsunami.  In contrast to her free-and-easy year on Bali, she finds the oppressive influence of strict Islamism has spread to the remote village of Batu Batur, and it makes her feel uneasy.  She wants to respect Indonesian customs and culture, and she disapproves of young women flouting the cultural mores with scanty clothing, but she’s used to Western freedoms, and feels resentful of restrictions placed on women because of their gender.

Penny is not a blithe tourist with a romanticised perspective: she observes the back-breaking labour in the rice paddies and feels uncomfortable about her own privileged position.  At the same time, while she knows that she and Westerners like her are regarded as rich by virtue of their capacity to travel, to holiday, and to spend freely in the Indonesian economy, she has finite resources when it comes to returning to Australia.  At home she is certainly not rich, and her erratic work history in the unqualified hospitality sector makes her financial future rather precarious.  But her feelings of guilt lead to impulsive generosity — which of course reinforces local opinion that she has money to burn…

Considering herself well-acquainted with the domestic politics of commercial development in Indonesia, Penny thinks that the hostility to Shane is because of his impact on village life.  But she is inevitably compromised.  Her job involves working in a resort that supplants the local culture with its lavish facilities.  Still, she can see that not only have the local fisherman had their livelihood disrupted by restrictions imposed by Shane, but also that resort development doesn’t benefit the locals if they’re not employed there.  She is aware that most of the thriving businesses on Bali are owned by Australians, not by the Balinese.  And Shane is a typical example of someone who’d rather employ Westerners, called bules (i.e. bullies) in the novel.  Shane would much rather have a barmaid who drinks herself, to serve booze to his customers.

(This reminds me of an ‘guest speaker’ who addressed my class when I was learning Indonesian at Gadjah Mada University.  He was a (Caucasian) representative of one of the major global hotels in Yogyakarta, and he was there to offer employment to any of us who wanted to work in his hotel.  He explained that he needed bilingual staff who understood diner expectations in a fine dining restaurant, and it was easy to deduce the inference.  I thought this was interesting because we were all there on scholarships paid for by the Victorian government to learn Indonesian so that we could teach it in government schools, and yet he was invited there to poach us! This might have been my one-and-only experience of korupsi…)

Corruption, however, is a given in this novel.  Shane is bribing the local police to ignore the way he flouts the law, and the local Indonesians in their desperation decide to deliver some very rough justice using ‘black magic’.  The escalation from hostility to vengeance is what drives the narrative tension and gives the novel its shocking conclusion.

I liked the sophisticated way that Dickie depicted her bilingual character in this novel.  Sometimes she uses an Indonesian word or phrase, and translates it as part of the same sentence, and at other times the meaning is obvious from context.  But the novel also shows Penny being excluded from conversations because the local Indonesians speak Bahasa Lampung, spoken in Southern Sumatra alongside the official language of Bahasa Indonesia.  This technique is a way of showing that Penny remains an outsider in this community, and is not trusted, even by people who like her.

Sue from Whispering Gums reviewed Troppo too.

PS Dickie has just released a new novel: it’s called red Can Origami and I’ll be reading it soon. For more details, see here.

Author: Madelaine Dickie
Title: Troppo
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2016, 264pp
ISBN: 9781925163803
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

Available from Fishpond: Troppo and direct from Fremantle Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 5, 2019

2019 Deborah Cass Prize winner

The winner of the 2019 Deborah Cass prize has been announced.  The winner receives a cash prize of $3,000 plus a three-month mentorship with an established writer. The winning manuscript is presented to Black Inc. publishers for consideration, with the winning excerpt published in Mascara Literary Review. The award package is designed to help an early-career writer finish their manuscript and get their book published.

The Prize honours the life and work of the late legal academic and occasional writer, Deborah Cass. The granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, Deborah became a prize-winning professor of International Law at the London School of Economics before her death to cancer in 2013.  (Deborah Cass Prize for Writing website).

The following is from the press release, with thanks to Dan Cass  on behalf of the Deborah Cass Prize committee:

The winner of the 2019 Deborah Cass Prize for migrant writing is Janette Chen, for her story, ‘Wall of Men’.

Runners-up are Anna Kortschak for her story, ‘Pieces of Nothing’, and Belinda Paxton for ‘Clinging to Space Hardware’.

Judges Melanie Cheng and Lee Kofman praised Janette for her ‘mastery of the short story form, including her capacity to write a good ending, something that can be hard to do in short stories’. One judge said, ‘There are too many earnest works published in Australia. An effortless sense of humour permeates this story, as well as a complex sense of psychology and of a woman’s sexuality.’

The judges cited Anna Kortschak’s ‘poetic and distinct voice. She has a really rich story to tell, which she approaches from a lot of interesting angles.’ They also praised Belinda Paxton’s rich and poetic prose, innovative structure, avoidance of cliché, and the situating of her story in an arresting historical context.

Congratulations to the winner and the runners-up!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 5, 2019

2020 Indie Book Awards Longlist

The longlist for the Indie Book Awards was announced today:


  • The White Girl by Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press), see my review
  • The Rip by Mark Brandi (Hachette Australia)
  • Silver by Chris Hammer (Allen and Unwin)
  • There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett (Hachette Australia), on my TBR
  • Maybe the Horse Will Talk by Elliot Perlman (Vintage Australia), see my review
  • Bruny by Heather Rose (Allen and Unwin), see my review
  • Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen and Unwin)
  • The Wife and the Widow by Christian White (Affirm Press)
  • The Yield by Tara June Winch (Hamish Hamilton Australia), see my review
  • The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (Allen and Unwin), on my TBR.


  • Thirty Thousand Bottles of Wine and a Pig Called Helga by Todd Alexander (Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch (Allen and Unwin)
  • Against All Odds by Craig Challen & Richard Harris (Viking Australia)
  • Banking Bad by Adele Ferguson (ABC Books, HarperCollins Australia)
  • 488 Rules for Life: The Thankless Art of Being Correct by Kitty Flanagan (Allen and Unwin)
  • Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1 1978–1987 by Helen Garner (Text Publishing)
  • See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill (Black Inc.)
  • Tell Me Why by Archie Roach (Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • Back on Track by Bernie Shakeshaft with James Knight (Hachette Australia)
  • Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta (Text Publishing), (currently reading this).


  • A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop (Text Publishing)
  • Wearing Paper Dresses by Anne Brinsden (Macmillan Australia)
  • Allegra in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel (Macmillan Australia)
  • Hitch by Kathryn Hind (Hamish Hamilton Australia)
  • Act of Grace by Anna Krien (Black Inc.), see my review
  • Crossings by Alex Landragin (Picador Australia)
  • Six Minutes by Petronella McGovern (Allen and Unwin)
  • The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean (Fourth Estate Australia)
  • Heart of the Grass Tree by Molly Murn (Vintage Australia)
  • Taking Tom Murray Home by Tim Slee (HarperCollins Australia)


  • The Lost Boys by Paul Byrnes (Affirm Press)
  • The Leaf Supply Guide to Creating Your Indoor Jungle by Lauren Camilleri & Sophia Kaplan (Smith Street Books)
  • Australia Modern by Philip Goad & Hannah Lewi (Thames & Hudson Australia)
  • Finding the Heart of the Nation by Thomas Mayor (Hardie Grant Books)
  • The Whole Fish Cookbook by Josh Niland (Hardie Grant Books)
  • Ben Quilty by Ben Quilty (Lantern Australia)
  • Australian Designers at Home by Jenny Rose-Innes (Thames & Hudson Australia)
  • Sydney Art Deco by Peter Sheridan (Peter Sheridan)
  • Warndu Mai (Good Food) by Rebecca Sullivan & Damien Coulthard (Hachette Australia)
  • In an Australian Light edited by Jo Turner (Thames & Hudson Australia)


  • The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Ugly Animals by Sami Bayly (Lothian Children’s Books)
  • Into the Wild: Wolf Girl, Book 1 by Anh Do, illustrated by Jeremy Ley (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
  • Tilly by Jane Godwin, illustrated by Anna Walker (Scholastic Press)
  • The Tiny Star by Mem Fox & Freya Blackwood (Puffin Australia)
  • How to Make a Movie in 12 Days by Fiona Hardy (Affirm Press)
  • Mr Chicken All Over Australia by Leigh Hobbs (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
  • The Painted Ponies by Alison Lester (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
  • Young Dark Emu: A Truer History by Bruce Pascoe (Magabala Books)
  • A Trip to the Beach by Gwyn Perkins (Affirm Press)
  • The Glimme by Emily Rodda, illustrated by Marc McBride (Omnibus Books)


  • The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
  • How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox (Pan Australia)
  • Aurora Rising: The Aurora Cycle 1 by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
  • It Sounded Better in My Head by Nina Kenwood (Text Publishing)
  • Monuments by Will Kostakis (Lothian Children’s Books)
  • Weapon by Lynette Noni (Pantera Press)
  • Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard (Fremantle Press)
  • Land of Fences by Mark Smith (Text Publishing)
  • This Is How We Change the Ending by Vikki Wakefield (Text Publishing)
  • I Am Change by Suzy Zail (Walker Books Australia)

Making a big claim for the significance of these awards, their website says that they are the most democratic because

it’s the Australian independent booksellers themselves who nominate their best titles for the year; select the Longlist; judge the Shortlist and vote for the Category and Book of the Year winners. […] Announced early in the award calendar year, The Indie Book Awards are now considered the forerunners of all major Australian book awards.

Well, I hope not.  I’m not disputing the merits of the books: those I’ve read are good reading, and I’m pleased to see two Indigenous authors on the Fiction list and two more on the Non Fiction list.  But I also see what’s not included in those lists.  Certainly as far as the Fiction list is concerned, nearly all the books are published by the big publishers, who have the biggest publicity and marketing machines, and the authors are all well-established authors who can guarantee sales.  These titles will be popular, and good luck to them too, I want more Australian authors to be successful like that as well. But, IMHO, most of the best, most innovative, most thought-provoking Australian fiction which will still be read in the years ahead, comes from independent publishing, which is prepared to take risks.  But they are mostly not represented in these lists.  Flick through the 66 Australian books published in 2019 that I’ve reviewed (so far this year), and you can see why I’m not disposed to acquiesce in the Indie longlists as indicative of the 2020 award season.  It has been good to see that the Miles Franklin has broadened its horizons to include more nominations from small and indie publishers. I’d like other awards to do that too.

So, congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers, but I hope that there will also be plenty of other names turning up in the longlists for other awards.

The Poison of Polygamy has to be the most exotic book I’ve read this year. It certainly has the most compelling title…

This is the blurb:

Serialised in 1909–10, The Poison of Polygamy is a rare gem of Australian literature.

The first novel of the Chinese Australian experience, it is a roller-coaster tale of blackmail, murder, betrayal and even thylacine attack, partly based on real people, places and events. Revealing the human face of migration between imperial China and colonial Australia, it recounts the story of a man from southern China who tries his luck on the Victorian goldfields, the wife he leaves behind, and their eventual fraught reunion.

In this bilingual parallel edition, Australia’s and possibly the West’s earliest Chinese-language novel is presented in English translation for the first time. Illuminating introductions explore the work’s historical, cultural and linguistic context, and establish its unique significance in Australia’s literary and social history.

Wong Shee Ping c.1915 (Wikipedia*)

The book begins with a comprehensive Introduction, which, contrary to whatever one’s usual custom, should be read first, because it explains the book’s context and unique characteristics.  It comprises:

  • a profile, written by historian Michael Williams, of the author Wong Shee Ping, and the story of how he came to be identified after years of anonymity; then
  • there is a chapter by Mei-fen Kuo and Michael Williams, entitled ‘Why is polygamy poisonous? An historical context.’ It gives background information about Chinese migration during the Goldrush, and how the themes of the novel mesh with Wong Shee Ping’s political and social preoccupations; followed by
  • the Translator’s introduction, by Ely Finch, which explains the intricacies of Literary Chinese as distinct from translating Mandarin.

The novella follows, in bilingual format, the English translation on the LHS and the Chinese, reproduced from scans of the newspaper The Chinese Times on the RHS.  Extensive footnotes explaining everything from cultural issues to the symbolism of the text can take up a good bit of both pages. This is how it looks:

The Poison of Polygamy, pp. 138-9

So while the book is 446 pages long the actual story is 318 pages and half of those are in Chinese, so the length of the story in English is a mere 159 pages, and with much of that being footnotes, the story can be read in a day.

There are also appendices (probably of more interest to scholars) and maps (which are of great interest to Melburnians who can identify the sites of C19th Chinese businesses where the action takes place.  There are also some photos, including one of a Chinese Nationalist Party convention outside a building designed by Walter Burley Griffin.)

  • Appendix I: Character names and connotations
  • Appendix II: The romanisations used in the translation and the footnotes
  • Appendix III: Business names
  • Appendix IV: The newspaper business and Chinese Australians
  • Appendix V: Place names
  • Maps


This story of the Chinese Diaspora in the Goldrush era has a unique place in our literary history.  It’s thought to be the first Chinese-language fiction in Australia (and perhaps the world) and the novella’s serialisation in Melbourne’s Chinese Times, makes it a very special cultural artefact.

Wong Shee Ping was a Christian preacher, a Chinese revolutionary and a member of a prominent family in Victoria’s Chinese business community. He is reported to have spoken little English, yet he made it his mission to espouse Western-influenced values and ideas. His authorial interventions in the story make it clear that there was a didactic purpose to his writing.  He ascribed the entire problem of Chinese poverty to the prevailing government of the Manchu dynasty, whose exploitative regime made it necessary for families to be separated for many years while the husband worked in destinations far from home.  He is scathing about the position of Chinese women, whose lack of education and subservient position made them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, as well as making them ‘silly’.  But he reserves his most potent condemnation for the practice of concubinage, which was destructive of family values and insulting to the senior wife.

The story begins in China, with the central character Wong Sheung Hong and his hapless wife Ma.  Sheung Hong is an opium addict, and a barely literate man, without any fixed vocation, who, while cruelly greedy by nature, had not a penny to his name. Ma, consistent with the expectations of a Confucian society, cares for his old mother, but remains childless. When they get into serious financial strife and have pawned everything they own, Sheung Hong takes up an offer of assistance from his friend, and together they set off for the Victorian Goldfields, leaving Ma to get by on foraged herbs.

The journey by sailing ship is fraught, eclipsed only by the horrors of the overland trek from South Australia to the Goldfields.  (Due to immigration restrictions imposed on the Chinese by the then colonial government, Chinese migrant workers landed in South Australia and trekked overland to Victoria).  Only thirteen of about 70 men survive hunger and thirst, getting lost, being attacked by a Tasmanian Tiger (!) and by Aborigines.  However, once they arrive at the Goldfields, a combination of hard work and (mostly) good luck enables them to prosper.  In time, they set up successful businesses in Melbourne and form a thriving community there.

Meanwhile, Ma endures loneliness and anxiety, waiting for letters (which she cannot read) and remittances (which are irregular).  Wong Shee Ping writes very movingly about the plight of this woman, and her struggle to come to terms with a state of semi-widowhood.  What she doesn’t realise, however, is that her troubles are only just beginning.  When Sheung Hong eventually comes home after many years away, his money burns a hole in his pocket, and before long he has to return to work, managing his friend’s store in Melbourne.  Where he begins to desire a second wife.

And while the reader has very little sympathy for this wastrel, the author clearly explains how lonely men in the diaspora were torn between the values of the West and their homeland.

‘Who knows how many of our countrymen residing overseas have married Western women,’ replied Kung.  ‘In my humble opinion, though, it is at heart a source of displeasure for them.  Why? Upper-class Western women are constrained by racial boundaries, and would almost never lower themselves to accede to intermarriage.  Harlots from the lower class, one would not wish to marry.  And while those of the middle class do occasionally marry, they are as rare as morning stars.  If men should come by them, though, they show in the end too an exalted sense of feminism, and no sense of frugality, so scarcely any such couples keep by each other into their white-haired years.  As to the daughters of Chinese fathers and Western mothers, in the extravagance to which they are accustomed to aspire, and their unbridled feminism, they do not fall short of Westerners, but tend rather to exceed them.  However, they lack the comprehensive education of the Westerners, and the subservient nature of the Chinese.  And their barbarous liberty is not dissimilar to that of the so-called women of liberty in China today’.  (p. 256)

(A footnote explains that the reference to ‘women of liberty’ refers to Western-influenced women in China who were assertive with men, and insisted on their own choice of husband.)

Well, Sheung Hong gets much, much more than he bargained for when he wangles getting a Chinese concubine to Melbourne.  She humiliates him in the community, and when she accompanies him back home to China, she does much worse.

The style of the translation is charming.  Literary Chinese is apparently completely different to the Chinese used for modern writing, resulting in quaint expressions like this one:

Throughout the day Sheung Hong was in the shop, and unbeknownst to him, his house’s interior was the very semblance of a brothel’s, wild bees and wandering butterflies going unceasingly to and fro.  (p.328.)

(A footnote explains that ‘wild bees and wandering butterflies’ is an allusion to ‘womanisers and philanderers’, bees and butterflies having a fondness for flowers, which in Chinese represent women. The Chinese character for ‘wandering’ also has the meaning of ‘loose’ or ‘dissolute’, which is lost in translation.)

One thing that startled me, and wasn’t explained (unless I missed it) was the Chinese practice of buying unwanted children, if there is a prospect of the family line dying out.  Perhaps it had to do with families being unable to support all their children in an era without birth control, but the author is very matter-of-fact about it, with no thought for the relinquishing mothers.  It seems rather chilling to me.

I really enjoyed reading this book, and I learned a lot about all manner of things Chinese while reading it.  While it has a lively plot and a thrilling denouement and it’s perfectly readable for the everyday reader, I’d recommend it more for people who are curious about Chinese history, culture and language.  And scholars of literary Chinese will find the bilingual layout perfect for their purposes.

The Poison of Polygamy was featured on Radio National’s The History Listen program. 

Image credit:

  • Wong Shee Ping c.1915, Trove, via Wikipedia (Portuguese edition).  This Wikipedia page says the photo is from an ‘unknown photographic studio’, but the book identifies it as the Burlington Studios, 294 Bourke Street Melbourne, and they credit its source as the Kuo Min Tang Society of Melbourne.

Author: Wong Shee Ping
Title: The Poison of Polygamy
Series: China and the West in the Modern World
Publisher: SUP (Sydney University Press), 2019, 446 pages, but see above re the actual length of the story.
First published as a serial in 1909-1910 in the Chinese Times, Melbourne
ISBN: 9781743326022
Review copy courtesy of Sydney University Press

Available from the SUP website and Fishpond:The Poison of Polygamy: A Social Novel (China and the West in the Modern World)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2019

2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlists

The 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists were announced today.

Category winners receive $25,000 and are eligible for the overall Victorian Prize for Literature, worth an additional $100,000, (the most valuable literary award in Australia).

You can vote for the People’s Choice Award(worth $2000) here until 5pm Monday 20 January 2020.

The winners will be announced in 2020.

Fiction, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • Act of Grace by Anna Krien (Black Inc.), see my review
  • Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin)
  • Simpson Returns by Wayne Macauley (Text Publishing), on my TBR, see my review
  • The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassab (Giramondo Publishing), on my TBR, short stories, abandoned at page 64.
  • The Yield by Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House), see my review

Non-fiction, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us about Digital Technology by Lizzie O’Shea (Verso)
  • Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse by Jess Hill (Black Inc.)
  • Songspirals: Sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines by Gay’wu Group of Women (Allen & Unwin)
  • Tell Me Why: The Story of My Life and My Music by Archie Roach (Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • The Girls by Chloe Higgins (Picador Australia)

Drama, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • City of Gold by Meyne Wyatt (Currency Press, in association with Queensland Theatre and Griffin Theatre)
  • Counting and Cracking by S.Shakthidharan and Associate Writer Eamon Flack (Belvoir and Co-Curious)
  • Them by Samah Sabawi (La Mama Theatre, in association with Samah Sabawi and Lara Week)

Poetry, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • Birth Plan by L.K. Holt (Vagabond Press)
  • Nganajungu Yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green (Cordite Books)
  • Yuiquimbiang by Louise Crisp (Cordite Books)

Writing for Young Adults, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox (Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard (Fremantle Press)
  • This is How We Change the Ending by Vikki Wakefield (Text Publishing)

Unpublished Manuscript, worth $15,000 to the winner

  • A Million Things by Emily Spurr
  • Hovering by Rhett Davis
  • In Real Life by Allee Richards

Highly commended

Hmmm, no fiction in the Highly Commended section?


Castaway: The extraordinary survival story of Narcisse Pelletier, a young French cabin boy shipwrecked on Cape York in 1858 by Robert Macklin (Hachette Australia)

The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat: A Rodent History of Australia by Tim Bonyhady (Text Publishing)

The Thinking Woman by Julienne van Loon (NewSouth Publishing)


  • Anthem by Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela (Performing Lines in association with Arts Centre Melbourne)
  • White Pearl by Anchuli Felicia King (Samuel French, in association with Sydney Theatre Company and Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta)


Archival-Poetics by Natalie Harkin (Vagabond Press)

The Future Keepers by Nandi Chinna (Fremantle Press)

Young Adult

  • Highway Bodies by Alison Evans (Echo Publishing)
  • Where the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn (Allen & Unwin)

Unpublished Manuscript

  • I’ll hold you by Jenni Mazaraki

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2019

The Quiet Revolution, Boyer lectures 2012, by Marcia Langton

Every year, ABC Radio invites a public intellectual to give a series of lectures. Inaugurated in 1959 as ABC Lectures, they were renamed as the Boyer Lectures in 1961 as a memorial to Sir Richard Boyer, who as chairman of the ABC had led their introduction.  (You can see past programs and still listen to some of them, here.)

In 2012, Professor Marcia Langton, a descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara people of Queensland, introduced the 53rd series of lectures with a statement that is probably still true today:

The emergence of an Aboriginal middle class in Australia in the last two to three decades has gone largely unnoticed. (p.31)

While she acknowledges that the numbers are small, they portend  an economic future for Aboriginal people unimaginable fifty years ago. Langton herself, she tells us later in the lectures, was born at a time when Indigenous people weren’t even counted in the census and were excluded through institutional forms of racial discrimination, from every opportunity for advancement.  Indeed, she notes that when in 1968 W.E.H. Stanner gave the Boyer Lectures, After the Dreaming, Black and White Australians, an anthropologist’s view —

— he gave credence, perhaps inadvertently, to the widely held assumption that Aboriginal life was incompatible with modern economic life.  Today, the expectation is quite the reverse. (p. 31)

Indeed it is, and Langton is at her most convincing in the case she makes for a remarkable change in northern Australia, where the Mabo case, and the Native Title Act have enabled opportunities in the mining industry on Indigenous land.  This has led to a surge in employment, home ownership, education and training plus the emergence of spin-off enterprises owned by Indigenous people.  She is quite right when she that these are not the images we see in the media where the focus is nearly always on poverty, disadvantage and violence.  Most Australians, she says, have no idea about the transformation of northern Australia…

But Langton has a combative stance, and she accompanies this good news story with a harsh critique of Left politics, claiming that they hang on to the idea of the ‘new noble savage’, with a preference for describing Aboriginal poverty and disadvantage through a romantic lens.  She is a fierce critic of their implicit support for welfare dependency and their campaigns against economic development on Aboriginal land.  Likewise, she has not a good word to say for government activity, which she dismisses as a roundabout of bureaucrats, agencies, websites, application forms and absurd meetings.  Most contentiously, perhaps, she takes on Tim Flannery as an advocate for the conservation of wilderness areas.  The word wilderness is consistently enclosed in inverted commas to indicate her rejection of the term: what is described by Flannery and others as ‘wilderness’ implies pristine land which has never been part of the economy.  Langton argues that it is no such thing: that these lands were an integral part of the Indigenous economy which was displaced by settlement.  Setting these places aside as sacrosanct National Parks, she says, denies their traditional owners the opportunity to make economic use of their land.

The critique of the left, and of Tim Flannery brought a strong response, from Left groups such as Friends of the Earth, the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, the Green Movement, aggrieved academics, and those who attacked her links with mining industries (here).  There is a strong defence of her position here.

All this is old news.  What is still relevant is Langton’s unease about the future, because she was writing as the mining boom began to falter in response to changes in Chinese demand.  Employment in northern Australia consists of three elements: tourism; conservation and land management and mining.  (I think the ADF is a key employer too, but that’s just an impression I have from my reading of Our Mob Served).  It would be more than just interesting to know how Indigenous economic participation has weathered the end of the mining boom; it seems to me that it’s a matter of social justice for Australians to know about this.  Perhaps I’ve missed a Quarterly Essay or a Four Corners report about it, and I’d welcome suggestions for further reading about this.

Author: Marcia Langton
Title: The Quiet Revolution, Indigenous people and the resources boom, (Boyer Lectures 2012)
Publisher: ABC Books, (Harper Collins), 2013, 175 pages
ISBN: 9780733331633
Source: Port Phillip Library

Events like the recent London Bridge stabbing tend to test our tolerance—even when we know that these atrocities are perpetrated by extremists, and there’s ample evidence that extremists aren’t limited to any particular creed or culture, or even to our modern era.  When I sat down yesterday to write a review of a sentimental short story that’s a plea for understanding of the Islamic religion, the timing felt all wrong.  I’m not sure that the timing is any better today—I’m quite sure that if I went looking on Twitter or Facebook there would be all kinds of intemperate trolling going on, and that might be the least of it…


Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran (Monsieur Ibrahim and The Flowers of the Qur’an) by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, is a short story that I read in French for the bookclub organised by A French Journey where I have French classes once a week.  The book is one of a series called The Cycle of the Invisible, each of which tackles a different religion: one of the tasks we tackled at bookgroup was to translate a brief description to guess which religion the various titles explored.

This short story of only 75 pages in a tiny A6 edition was originally a play, based on the life of the author’s friend.  The sole character was Moïse, looking back over his life growing up in Paris.  It was rewritten as a short story in 2001 and adapted for the screen in 2003.

(This trailer is in French, if you need subtitles, try this, but the film quality is terrible).

Set in the 1960s in Paris, Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran tells a story of cross-cultural friendship.  Moïse a.k.a. Momo is a boy of eleven living in the Jewish quarter of Paris, and when the story opens he has raided his piggy-bank to pay for his first visit to a prostitute.   It has taken him four months to save up from the meagre amount his father gives him to do the shopping. He supplements the groceries by shoplifting from the local shopkeeper, Monsieur Ibrahim, with whom eventually he develops a friendship.

Momo is a very lonely boy.  His mother abandoned him when he was a baby, taking his older brother Popol with her, and his father constantly compares him unfavourably to this absent brother. He is a remote and troubled man, not revealed to have lost all his family in the Holocaust until part way through the story.  Momo’s need for a father figure becomes more than emotional after his father dies, and he devises an elaborate system of deception so that no one knows he is living alone.  With words of wisdom from the Qur’an, and advice about smiling more often, Monsieur Ibrahim guides Momo on a coming-of-age journey which takes them to the Golden Crescent where he was born.

It is a sentimental story, and consistent with the rest of the books in the series, it has religious overtones.  But it seems to me that — although written in the wake of 9/11 — it could only have been set in the 1960s, before hostility between Israel and Palestine became entrenched, i.e. before the PLO was founded in 1964 and the onset of militancy in 1965, before Israel’s Six Day War in 1967, and before  the First Palestinian Intifada in 1987. There is an innocence about this friendship that transcends differences in religion, but with half a century of violence and retaliation in the Middle East and the global phenomenon of Islamist terrorism, the barriers are probably harder to surmount now.

Bizarrely, The Book Depository delivered a German edition of this book: the text was in French, but all the footnotes explaining the slang and cultural references were in German.  So where the dictionary and Google Translate failed me, I remained none the wiser!

Author: Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Title: Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran (Monsieur Ibrahim and The Flowers of the Qur’an)
Publisher: Reclam, 2012, first published in 2001
ISBN: 9783150091180
Source: Personal library, purchased from A French Journey


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